The Political Column

14th May 2000

War or not, political battles will go on in the south

By our Political Correspondent

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In the midst of fluctuating fortunes in the northern warfront, politicians in the south waged a war of words last week. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who proclaimed draconian emergency regulations to keep the south under control, took a swipe at the UNP when she said the regulations were not so harsh as those imposed during the 17-year UNP regime.

What was significant in the UNP-bashing was that the proclamation came soon after a PA-UNP meeting where the main opposition delegation called upon the government to relax censorship on war news. But what came on May 3 midnight was more stringent than what was being imposed at that time

. In this backdrop, the UNP parliamentary group met on May 8 to discuss the situation in the country and the emergency regulations.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe sought the views of the MPs on what action the party should take to oppose the blanket censorship on the media and other harsh emergency regulations which had curtailed civic liberties.

Colombo district MP Premaratne Gunasekera said the UNP should oppose the regulations outright. Badulla district MP Lakshman Seneviratne endorsing his views said the UNP should speak against these laws when Parliament met on Tuesday during the debate on the extension of the emergency.

But there was no unanimity on their proposal. Some UNPers said the party should also take into consideration the present situation in the country and adopt a stand that would not jeopardise national security.

Hambantota MP Mervyn Silva said if the party opposed the regulations outright, people would think that the UNP was not supporting the armed forces in the hour of crisis.

Party stalwart Anura Bandaranaike, analysing the present situation, said the party had little defence when during the Presidential campaign in December last year, the PA accused it of being in truck with the LTTE. Though there was no truth in this allegation, it had its adverse effects on the party, he said.

Mr. Bandaranaike warned that the PA would accuse the UNP of still flirting with the LTTE, if the party voted against the extension of the emergency.

Amidst these two opposing views, no decision was arrived at. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would announce the party's stand on Tuesday morning, before Parliament sat.

In the meantime, UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale met Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte. Mr. Atukorale reportedly told Gen. Ratwatte that the UNP would support the extension of the emergency on condition that clauses 8, 9,12, 14, 25, 26, 33 and 41 of the emergency regulations were rescinded.

The UNP was of the opinion that the government had agreed to this condition. But during the winding up speech in Parliament on Tuesday Minister Ratwatte said the government would rescind only clauses, 8, 9, 33 and 41. When Mr. Wickremesinghe queried about Clauses 12 and 14, Gen. Ratwatte told him that Mr. Atukorale did not mention about them.

Prior to this, the UNP had circulated among its members a three-line whip directing them to vote against the extension of the emergency. The note had also called on members to place their signature and return the note, indicating their willingness to toe the party line. This was an apparent move to put the UNP rebels who are backing the government in a spot.

Besides the rebels, the move had caused some discontent among other MPs as well. When the discontent gathered momentum, senior party members John Amaratunga, Mr. Bandaranaike and Rukman Senanayake decided to meet the UNP members at the members' guest room in the parliamentary complex and explain why the leadership decided to vote against the extension of the emergency.

By tea time, the news reached Mr. Wickremesinghe. He immediately called Mr. Amaratunga to know what it was all about. When Mr. Amaratunga explained matters to Mr. Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader suggested that the meeting be held at a place adjacent to his parliamentary office on the third floor.

The meeting took place with a good number of UNP MPs attending. Former Minister Dharmadasa Banda, a Wickremesinghe confidant, said if the party votes with the government, people would find fault with it for backing the harsh emergency regulations.

But Mr. Bandaranaike alerted him to the implications if the UNP voted against the extension of the emergency. After much debate, Reginald Perera suggested that the party should abstain from voting with Sarath Ranawake and Tissa Attanayake and a few others backing him. But Lakshman Premaratne lobbied against this decision, saying the party had already taken a decision.

However, former Minister P. Dayaratne butted in to say that no decision had been taken. But by this time, the UNP hierarchy was of the firm belief that the government would meet its demand and rescind the clauses.

A good number of members who were unaware of the Ratwatte-Atukorale bargain had decided to abstain.

The decision, by this ad-hoc pressure group within the party, to abstain was conveyed to the UNP leader by Mr. Amaratunga and Mr. Senanayake.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe said the party had taken a firm decision to vote against the extension of the emergency and he had already told the media about this. In the circumstances, the pressure group members decided to abide by the leader's decision with reservations

. But surprisingly, when it came to voting, something unexpected happened. While government members voted for it, UNP backbenchers were waiting with anxiety. They wanted to know how the frontline would vote. In the meantime, TULF members and the sole JVP member opposed the motion while the UNP top rungers, including Mr. Wickremesinghe remained unmoved abstaining from voting and the backbenchers followed suit, still confused as to the sudden change of stand.

Analysts said this was the first time the UNP leader waived one of his decisions or wilted under pressure from party backbenchers.

The UNP also convened a meeting on Wednesday morning to decide on a meeting planned for Friday in Borella in view of the prevailing situation and the government's decision to ban political meetings and processions till May 22.

But at this meeting the UNP leadership's sudden volte face on Tuesday in Parliament set the stage for a turbulent session.

Premaratne Gunasekera who took the floor said there should not be a pressure group within the party. "There is no way that we can run a party like that. It is highly unethical," he said.

An infuriated John Amaratunga came hard on Mr. Gunasekera. He said this party did not belong to anybody and they had to put the country before the party. He said it was not a secret meeting and Mr. Gunasekera knew about it.

Mr. Amaratunga said a party should be able to change decisions depending on the situation.

Many members, however, felt that Wednesday's meeting was organized to attack the members who organised the meeting of the group of forty, paving the way for dissension in the party.

Mr. Gunasekera stood his ground. He said Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva had apparently told Mr. Bandaranaike that he (Anura) had won the match on Tuesday meaning the group of forty had its say. Heated exchanges followed with Rukman Senanayake coming hard on Mr. Gunasekera.

Bringing some order into the proceedings, Sarath Kongahage asked the members whether anybody criticised the LTTE leader Prabhakaran. He said that on the contrary there was a deliberate attack on the late President Premadasa for sending away the Indian Peace Keeping Force.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said one reason for sending away the IPKF by the Premadasa government was that it armed the Tamil National Army of Varatharaja Perumal. At this stage, Rajitha Senaratne tried to defend the critics of Mr. Premadasa, saying members had the freedom to express their views. He said even Mr. Premadasa's son had admitted that the Premadasa government had given arms to the LTTE.

Mr. Kongahage butted in once again to say the record says that it was Denzil Kobbekaduwa. The meeting went on for nearly one and half hours without much direction.

Meanwhile the dispute between the Colombo Central Chief organiser M. Maharoof and Colombo Mayor Omar Kamil is smouldering. Mr. Maharoof has told the party the remarks he made about a Gampaha politician and travellers cheques were not aimed at party chairman Karu Jayasuriya. It was not intended for him, Mr. Maharoof had told the party in a letter. But, Mr. Maharoof had not mentioned at whom the remarks were aimed at.

Mr. Jayasuriya was perturbed over certain remarks made by Mr. Maharoof in an interview with a Sinhala newspaper when he was asked to comment on the dispute with Mr. Kamil.

Party seniors who describe Mr. Kamil as an honourable and forthright man say they cannot understand why Mr. Maharoof was gunning for him.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jayasuriya met the UNP leadership and insisted that an impartial inquiry be held to ascertain the allegations against him.

But the party leadership has not taken any step in this regard or any measure to sort out the Maharoof-Kamil dispute, though some 24 members of the Colombo Municipal Council had petitioned the party leadership backing the Mayor.

Beside these political rows, the re-establishing of diplomatic relations with Israel has created a few problems for the government as far as the Muslims in this country are concerned.

The SLMC, however, has specifically mentioned that it will not stand in the way of the government if relations with Israel were restored to safeguard the national interest of the country. Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored.

To explain its delicate position, the SLMC leadership met top religious leaders and diplomats from Muslim countries.

SLMC insiders said the party was unlikely to put up a strong opposition to the government as it understood the present political situation. Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored.

In 1996, too, some 70 MPs signed a memorandum to President Kumaratunga, opposing a move to reopen the Israeli interestcensored section set up during the regime of President J. R. Jayewardene. They pointed out that though President Jayewardene in June 1984 restored partial links with Israel to get Israeli help to fight the Eelam war after other countries declined to help,Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored Censored, they said.

"It must be obvious to any patriotic Sri Lankan that the national priority of a country such as Israel is exporting arms. Israel is the cause of this curse and its priorities are obviously in conflict with the national priorities of Sri Lanka," the memorandum said.

Though the government is giving more weight to the Israeli factor, the UNP is welcoming India's mediation to find a way out of the grave situation the country is in.

A UNP delegation led by Tyronne Fernando met Indian High Commissioner Shiv Shanker Menon to brief him on the party's position. At this meeting, Mr. Fernando welcomed India's announcement that it would mediate in the Sri Lankan conflict if both the government and the LTTE invited it to do so.

Analysts said India is closely watching the developments here, especially the type of military assistance from Israel.

In another political development, a crisis is brewing in the Ceylon Workers' Congress.

The new party leader, Arumugam Thondaman, the grandson of Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, is holding the Livestock Development portfolio in the Chandrika Kumaratunga Cabinet following his grandfather's death. He was shot up to the top post though there was latent discontent among some of the members against his leadership.

It appears that the discontent has now come to the surface with R. Sathasivam, a youth leader from upcountry, giving leadership to a group within the party.

Five members of the Sathasivam group have sent a letter to President Kumaratunga, urging her to remove Mr. Thondaman from the Cabinet.

The infuriated Thondaman group had not taken this development kindly. With alleged intimidation and threats, it now appears that the feud in the CWC is going beyond mere verbal abuse and attacks.

It is also reported that with alleged police support, Mr. Sathasivam's office in Nuwara Eliya were handed over to Mr. Thondaman's supporters. Mr. Sathasivam has complained to the President over the alleged harassment he had to face within the CWC.

Mr. Sathasivam apparently met the President last week to brief her on the position of his party. President Kumaratunga is said to have assured him that she would settle the matter after hearing both sides of the story. However the Sathasivam group wants P. P. Devaraj, another senior CWC member, to be the leader of the party.

In another interesting development, officials of trade chambers met recently with the idea of floating a website which would provide information about Sri Lankan businesses. The move follows disagreements with Treasury Secretary P. B. Jayasundera. Mr. Jayasundera had been critical of Keells chairman Ken Balendra and another reputed businessman, Lyn Fernando at a recent meeting in the presence of Asian Development Bank and World Bank representatives.

The decision of the business community to float a website appears to be prudent. The website, among other things, will place before the world, the many constraints the business community is facing here. The government will have to take serious note of this and change this situation, analysts say.

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