At a time when the United National Party (UNP) is attempting to get out of the crisis it has long been bogged down with through a novel experiment called the “Leadership Council,” one of its leaders has created a fresh controversy by joining an official Presidential delegation to the Middle East. Chief Opposition Whip John Amaratunge’s tour with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Jordan, Palestine and Israel last week stirred a hornet’s nest despite the UNP leadership grappling to find answers to questions raised by the rank and file, over it.
" If what he told his party leader about the tour was the truth, he has hoodwinked the President as well, in spite of the latter’s magnanimity or political craftiness in inviting a prominent member of the opposition for one of his official state visits "
The tour, according to Amaratunga, was a result of an invitation by the President and he had accepted it after informing the party hierarchy that he would use the opportunity to visit the religious sites in the Middle East. In fact the Presidential entourage visited even the Nativity Church of Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ which would have definitely been considered a blessing for a Catholic like Amaratunga.
Going by his intimation to the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and party General Secretary Tissa Attanayake on his intention to join the delegation, he was not supposed to take part in the official businesses of the President’s delegation. The UNP too, according to reports, was concerned as to whether he had joined the official discussions held with the authorities in those countries. The permission by the UNP hierarchy for Amaratunga to join the delegation and its concern after his alleged participation in official talks during the tour imply that there was nothing wrong in Amaratunga’s ‘pilgrimage’ if he had not taken part in such official business.
In other words the UNP as well as Amaratunga seem to be of the view that it is perfectly alright and ethical for him to perform a pilgrimage at state expense, which is ultimately public money. Not only the UNP and Amaratunga, the entire country is silent over the corrupt and unethical side of the story. The pertinent question that needs to be raised is whether it is proper for him to be involved in the pilgrimage in the guise of being a member of Presidential delegation? It is ironic that Amaratunge, when deciding on the pilgrimage has apparently forgotten that he was a member of a an opposition political party that constantly raised issue over the expenses of the government. If what he told his party leader about the tour was the truth, he has hoodwinked the President as well, in spite of the latter’s magnanimity or political craftiness in inviting a prominent member of the opposition for one of his official state visits.
The ruling party and the opposition in India stand together when it comes to dealings with other countries as Prime Minister Narasimha Rao once sent a delegation led by the then opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpay to Geneva to counter a Pakistan-sponsored resolution on Kashmir presented in the UN Human rights body. Sri Lanka has never seen such diplomatic moves and it is difficult to expect them in the future as well. President Rajapaksa might have invited Amaratunga as a manoeuvre either to win him over to the government’s fold or to create further rumblings within the UNP, or for both. But that does not justify Amaratunga’s pilgrimage at the expense of the tax payer.
Surely, Mr. Amaratunga cannot be so hard-pressed for cash that he could not afford a pilgrimage to Bethlehem on his own!