Minister of Technology and Research Champika Ranawaka is walking a political tight rope these days. His stance and that of his party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has brought him into conflict with the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in no uncertain terms.
When legislation related to the setting up of development projects mooted by casino operators was brought to Parliament last week and while there were many ministers and parliamentarians who abstained; Ranawaka was the only cabinet minister to vote against it.
Ranawaka has not been shy to articulate his thoughts too. He has publicly denounced the proposed laws, even while the government was reassuring its parliamentarians, the opposition, religious leaders and the general public that the laws catered only to development projects and ‘resorts,’ not casinos.
It was wrong for the government to enact these laws when all four Mahanayake Theros opposed them, Ranawaka said and warned it would lead to the introduction of large scale money laundering, drug peddling and prostitution to the country, especially in Colombo where the ‘resorts’ would be located.
Ranawaka was to take on the government on other issues too. He has criticised the setting up of a special police unit to address matters related to religious complaints. Existing laws in the country were adequate to deal with such issues and the move could be counterproductive, he said.
Ranawaka’s parliamentary colleague from the JHU, Athuraliye Rathana Thero was the only other UPFA parliamentarian who defied the Government Whip and voted against the controversial legislation last week, signalling that the JHU was taking a principled stand on the issue.
The JHU has stopped short of saying it would quit the government on the ‘casino’ issue, but to say that its relationship with the UPFA is strained is an understatement. The JHU holds only three seats in Parliament but if it were to quit the UPFA, it would be a body blow to the unity of the ruling coalition.
That could also mean a radical change in the career of forty-eight-year-old Ranawaka Arachchige Patali Champika Ranawaka who has undertaken a long and arduous political journey since his undergraduate days.
"Despite a controversial career and nationalist views bordering on the radical, Minister Ranawaka is respected for not compromising his principles for personal gain. He is also one of the few politicians in the government not to be tainted with allegations of corruption."
Hailing from Bulathsinghala in the Kalutara district, he was a brilliant student at Thakshila Central College in Horana from where he entered the University of Moratuwa to earn a degree in engineering. However, he made headlines even as an undergraduate, being a leading student activist.
Ranawaka spent eight years as an undergraduate, partly because of the student unrest in the late eighties and also because he was imprisoned for some time in 1989 as the authorities cracked down on all student activists in a bid to neutralise the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led rebellion.
Initially forming the ‘Janatha Mithuro’ organisation with like-minded colleagues, Ranawaka then joined the Sihala Urumaya which was campaigning on a platform of Sinhala nationalism to counter the threats posed by the then dominant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
In 1991, Ranawaka was arrested and detained at a temple in Wadduwa by the police on suspicion of being part of a JVP conspiracy to overthrow the government. He was exonerated and was paid compensation on an order by the Supreme Court in a landmark case.
In 1998, Ranawaka was also a key figure in forming the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT), an organisation which vehemently opposed the LTTE and advocated to militarily defeat the Tamil Tigers at a time when most analysts did not believe this was possible.
The Sihala Urumaya evolved into the JHU and Ranawaka, with his professional credentials and his articulate manner, emerged as a leading figure in the party. In the 2005 presidential poll, the JHU supported Mahinda Rajapaksa and become a partner in the UPFA.
Once elected, President Rajapaksa offered a cabinet portfolio to the JHU. However, as all JHU parliamentarians at the time were Buddhist monks who, it was felt should not be ministers and the JHU’s National List parliamentarian Omalpe Sobhitha Thero resigning in 2007. Ranawaka replaced him.
Even though it was his debut in Parliament, Ranawaka was entrusted with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. Ranawaka used his cabinet portfolio to good effect, maintaining a high profile but also stirring controversy from time to time.
Once he called on terrorism to be crushed by whatever means possible ‘if it is not possible legally’. He raised more eyebrows when he said Muslims were ‘outsiders’ in Sri Lanka. In recent years, Ranawaka has mellowed and is more moderate in his public utterances.
At the 2010 general elections, Ranawaka contested elections for the first time from the Colombo district. He polled a creditable 120,000 preference votes and emerged third in a candidates’ list laden with political heavyweights. He was appointed to the coveted Ministry of Power and Energy.
Being an engineer, Ranawaka was the best man for the job. Moreover, his integrity brought a breath of fresh air to a sector that was reeking with corruption and inefficiency. However his tenure in this Ministry was brief: in a cabinet reshuffle in January 2013, he was handed his current portfolio.
Many believed Ranawaka was assigned the Ministry of Technology, Research and Atomic Energy because he was becoming too assertive and tolerated no nonsense or interference in running the Ministry of Power and Energy.
Despite a controversial career and nationalist views bordering on the radical, Minister Ranawaka is respected for not compromising his principles for personal gain. He is also one of the few politicians in the government not to be tainted with allegations of corruption.
Ranawaka has opposed government policies previously from within the cabinet. Last year, he vehemently objected to conducting elections to the Northern Provincial Council. Last week however signified the first instance where the JHU voted against the government.
It is unlikely that there will be a parting of ways between the JHU and UPFA because the nationalist policies of the JHU align more closely with the ruling coalition than any other political entity. We are nevertheless more likely to hear the strident voice of Champika Ranawaka in the days to come.