9th July 2000
Business| Sports| Sports Plus|
Polls under cover of censorship
by H. Chanda DhammaA lady, they say, is en titled to change her mind. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the lady who heads this government, has done so, several times. And, last week she did so again.
The issue at stake was the censorship imposed under the emergency regulations a few months ago. The blanket censorship had irked many but continued to be enforced despite legal action instituted by the Editors Guild, a group of independent editors who were more than concerned about forthcoming elections being held under these conditions.
The last straw came when a Sunday newspaper was banned. The ban was challenged in court and the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment that earned praise from all quarters, held that the ban was illegal and that the censorship was null and void.
What many did not realise however was that the censorship was declared illegal not on the grounds of upholding the fundamental right for the freedom of information but on a legal technicality that the regulations empowering the censorship was bad in law.
So, while the collective media were gloating over their hard fought victory, President Kumaratunga had other thoughts. She wanted the censorship reimposed. After all, if it was dismissed because the regulations were improperly worded, then the wording could be changed and the status quo would be restored!
So it came to be that an innocuous little statement was issued last Monday saying the emergency regulations had been amended and that Ariya Rubesinghe has been appointed again as the Competent Authority.
Why this innocuous statement is significant is because it sends a loud and clear message to the media that President Kumaratunga intends to conduct the upcoming elections as much as possible under the cover of a censorship. How feasible that would be will have to be again tested, if necessarily in the courts of law.
Even if it were simply a case of bungling by those who drafted the faulty regulations, the prudent course of action for the President would have been to let the censorship lapse, especially in view of the Supreme Court judgment against it.
That she chose the less media-friendly option means that the metamorphosis of Ms. Kumaratunga is complete — from the darling of the independent media in 1994 to a person they now love to criticise. It also means that she considers it the safer option vis-à-vis the elections: that a free, unbridled media could do lethal damage to the Peoples' Alliance.
Perhap's, President Kumaratunga has a short list of priorities for the general elections — the media, the war and the cost of living issue, in no particular order. And if the President believes she has at least partially redressed the media issue by reimposing the censorship — and also appointing a Kumaratunga loyalist to head Lake House — she was moving to tackle the other issues as well.
There are hectic diplomatic moves to inveigle India into some kind of peace negotiation process with regard to the ethnic crisis. Veteran Minister, the affable Lakshman Jayakody, was used as 'postman' also last week to deliver what was called an 'important letter' to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the contents of which have not been divulged yet.
At the same time a junior Indian minister was quoted as saying, 'we are ready with a package' and that India once again hoped to convince the LTTE to return to the negotiating table.'
There is surely a sense of déjà vu in all this. Even J. R. Jayewardene resorted to this type of messenger diplomacy through Gamini Dissanayake before the Indo-Lanka Accord. But the present moves do not envisage an entirely new Indian-made 'solution' to the ethnic question. Instead, it appears to be designed to seek Indian endorsement for the package of constitutional reforms the government hopes to introduce in Parliament before it is dissolved, the latest by August 24.
With Indian endorsement and with the opposition UNP broadly agreeing on the reforms, President Kumaratunga will go ahead with this 'package', come August. Whether it will end the ethnic war is a moot point. But then, when campaigning, the President could at least proclaim that she has at last 'solved' the ethnic riddle. And the UNP, which has already committed itself to some form of consensus, will be hard pressed to differ!
Then, also last week, the President announced what was called a series of 'relief measures' to alleviate the burdens of the rising cost of living, including a 600-rupee wage hike for those earning less than 12,000 rupees a month. There were other concessions such as a reduction in the price of flour, the benefits of which were expected to be transferred to the consumer. Of course, these are mere election gimmicks but then, some gimmicks are better than none!
And that is where we must again complain about the UNP, for the party seems to be having no gimmicks at all. It is a hackneyed task for this columnist to hark back to the days when the UNP was in opposition under the Grand Old Man, J. R. Jayewardene, in the seventies but we must do so, not because we want the UNP back in power but because we would like to see a strong opposition in Parliament at least after the next elections.
Then, when Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike sealed the 'Davasa' group of newspapers, it was the UNP which took up the gauntlet. It asked people to boycott Lake House newspapers, burnt those newspapers at public rallies and printed anti-government posters with a masthead which said "Divesa" in letters similar to the "Davasa" masthead and led an innovative protest campaign.
A two dozen years later, when that Prime Minister's daughter decides to ban another critical newspaper, that opposition leader's nephew is silent and it is left to the Editors Guild and the affected newspaper to take the government to courts.
That is well and good and the censorship and the ban was lifted — at least for a few days — but the average voter does not read through Supreme Court judgments to find out what wrong the government committed — and the UNP gained nothing from the government's blunder.
That is not to mention the UNP infighting which is simmering and now threatening to explode. Such infighting naturally tends to increase when a party is in the opposition but it is also a fact that though such differences can easily be swept under the carpet in a Presidential election — as was done when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake "supported" Ranasinghe Premadasa or when Anura Bandaranaike "supported" Hector Kobbekaduwe — they come out in the open at a general election.
The district basis on which the general elections will be held will only worsen these conflicts and at present, the UNP is significantly hit by these internal battles for regional power. "Naayaka-thuma" has to douse these fires early or that too could be a crippling handicap for the UNP — which is up against the state machinery anyway — if no settlements are reached soon in various electoral districts, too numerous to mention here.
The latest defector — or so it seems at the time of writing — is Ronald Joseph Godfrey de Mel, Sri Lanka's longest serving finance minister who on Thursday supported the government on the vote for the extension of the emergency and gave an unsolicited endorsement to President Kumaratunga.
These antics of Mr. de Mel are nothing new, especially when elections are around the corner. He switched from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to the UNP in the seventies and was anointed finance minister by JRJ. In the late eighties, he campaigned for the then SLFP led Democratic Peoples' Alliance (DPA) against Ranasinghe Premadasa hoping to retain his portfolio in a DPA regime, but the DPA lost the poll. He then returned to the UNP in the nineties but now in the new millennium has signalled his intentions to stage a political somersault yet again.
Of course, the PA could do without the services of a man such as Mr. De Mel but from his point of view, he must be viewing this as his last election and he wouldn't want to leave the political arena from the opposition and be a forgotten man. Hence the calculated gamble.
The UNP will surely say 'good riddance of bad rubbish' to his impending departure but then the question is, does the impression of rats deserting a sinking ship do any good to the party.
Parliament must be dissolved 45 days from now and slowly but surely the major parties are readying to do battle at the polls. There is still no 'election fever' as such among the public at large who must be more pre-occupied with the struggle to make ends meet. Yet, the coming weeks will be crucial and from initial indications, the usually late Chandrika Kumaratunga has made an early start to her campaign.
But we must not forget the least discussed but perhaps most important factor in the polls — the attitude of Velupillai Prabhakaran towards the upcoming election. Many disregarded him in 1999 December until he forcefully reminded us of his presence at Town Hall.
Therefore, the other question both the PA and the UNP must answer before the campaign gets underway in earnest in the weeks to come will be — which way will Velupillai Prabhakaran vote?
Ronnie revolt rents asunder UNP's first-round victory
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby CorrespondentPolitical about-turns and somersaults be fore elections are not unknown acts in Sri Lankan political circus. Ranking high among performers who switch sides with absolute finesse and the ease of a swinging pendulum is Ronald Godfrey de Mel, who is described by many as the stuntsman in the arena.
But PA's Wijitha Wijemuni Soyza must have been blissfully unaware of the 'scenes scheduled to unfold' in the eve when he inadvertently advised the UNP to be rid of all 'old Appuhamys' and infuse new blood. But if people attached no importance to 'conscience politics' , Mr. de Mel's forte is now becoming infectious and fashionable, particularly among the UNP ranks.
Thursday's emergency debate was plagued by UNP protests, suspensions, pandemonium and melodrama. But just before adjournment, it was Mr. de Mel who stole the show like a bolt striking the House with ferocity and rocking the UNP to its very foundations.
From morning, the UNP has been zealously protesting that there was no basis for emergency discussion as the relevant gazettes were not tabled, hence members had no knowledge of their contents. But if the UNP felt that it had brought the government to its heels, it had another thing coming.
Adding credence to the 'more-UNP-crossovers-to-follow' theory amidst pandemonium in the House where the feline and the bovine kinds were liberally insulted, Mr. de Mel declared: "If this means the parting of ways, so be it." A stunned UNP, baffled by the turn of events suffered yet another blow, floored at the speed with which its members seemed to decamp.
But the morning round was won by the UNP with members exhaustively and extensively quoting Erskine May to prove that this was a clear case of bad governance. Quite unusually, the UNP fielded scholastic Karunasena Kodituwakku to open fire from opposition ranks. Standing his ground by protesting over the nonavailability of the gazettes which contained emergency regulations, he asked how a debate could be held when the subject of discussion was unseen.
A hapless Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickremanayake explained that the gazettes were still with the Government Printer.
Opposition rumblings continued with an exasperated Speaker K. B. Ratnayake brushing aside all requests for an adjournment.
But UNP's Mano Wijeratne then wished to know how an unpresented document could be discussed — an argument ably fortified by UNP's human rights champion Mahinda Samarasinghe who demanded to see the gazette notification on the appointment of the Competent Authority.
No amount of assurances by Minister Ratwatte that the gazettes would be made available could quell the UNP members, demanding to see what was obviously not there.
It is then that the UNP sought a suspension of the House. The request was rejected with equal fervour by the Speaker. Urging the point, an unusually composed Vasudeva Nanayakkara appealed that when what the House should debate, defeat or approve was not before the House there was a fundamental flaw.
"Assurances couldn't cure this irremediable flaw," he argued. The UNP's zealous campaign paid off with the Speaker admitting to a lapse though Mr. Wickremanayake counter-attacked that the UNP had committed worse procedural blunders with no respect for Erskine May and the like (they now chose to quote).
But it was Minister D. M. Jayaratne who couldn't contain his anger and liberally lambasted the UNP in a vituperative outburst. He charged that the UNP protests were a ploy to sabotage and undermine security forces.
This drew an angry response from Mr. Kodituwakku.
"We have always been supportive of the forces. It is only this government which at one time went on 'Thawalamas' ridiculing military efforts. We can't act like Ariya Rubesinghe whose appointment itself was nullified and who was ordered to compensate the aggrieved parties. The same plight could befall the security forces if we simply vote without adequate consideration," he said.
"Go away and support the LTTE," thundered Mr. Jayaratne, thumping on his desk — and not sparing the innocent 'ballas' and 'booruwas' that take severe battering by legislators on occasion.
With the Secretary General running hither and thither distributing a few gazette notices, UNP's Mr. Samarasinghe and A. H. M. Azwer were determined and equivocal in their demand for a suspension to decide how to proceed when the relevant amendments to the Part 3 of the Public Security Ordinance had not been 'physically presented'.
"In the interest of good governance and adherence to parliamentary procedure, suspend sittings now," urged Mr. Samarasinghe while Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana and Minister Ratwatte argued with equal zeal that tabling of regulations was not essential.
But the vociferous UNP chorusing 'manamli nethi magul ge wage' (a wedding without the bride) won the first round with an exasperated Speaker suspending sittings in sheer desperation.
Trooping in after the stormy break, it was Mr. Kodituwakku's turn to speak. He claimed that the entire saga devalued parliament itself.
"More than 60 percent of Rs. 80 billion was spent on arms purchases, a subject not permitted for discussion though a windfall for a few politicians and their offspring. The war was waged for the benefit of some at the expense of all," he charged.
TULF's Joseph Pararajasingham who spoke after Mr. Kodituwakku, however, was destined to be disturbed throughout. For him, the new regulations were further fortification of the armed forces to go berserk, search, arrest and bully minorities — an opportunity to violate and misuse the very rule of law they were expected to uphold. But he was soon interrupted by Mr. Samarasinghe who dashed into the chamber to unleash fresh protests over the non availability of the third and final gazette.
"Where's the gazette on the appointment of the Competent Authority?" he asked. A baffled Speaker said all could not be rectified at the same time.
"Will the gazette be brought to the House before voting? The Competent Authority's appointment is illegal. Yet he holds news conferences to explain his powers and urge media to practice self censorship," he said with the Opposition Chief Whip W.J. M. Lokubandara gleefully aiding him by scoffing at government members for expecting the 'emergency vote be passed on a foundation of friendship".
"But no amount of persuasion and aggression by the UNP could drag a commitment from government benches.
Mr. Azwer, unable to resist a moment to poke fun, with a volte face declared that this was the hallmark of a crumbling government — and quoted Erskine May anew much to the annoyance of the Chair who suspended the House in exasperation.
The seething anger of the ruling PA by being ridiculed by the UNP was evident in the speeches made by government benchers thereafter. When Wijitha Wijemuni Soyza spoke, he scornfully added that a defunct UNP had to cling to straws such as 'insignificant procedural matters' sacrificing national interest.
"It is obligatory on your part to sustain this debate because it is the duty of the opposition to use all opportunities to thrash out issues. Instead you derive sadistic pleasure by embarrassing the government at a crucial moment. You also create a feeling of insecurity among soldiers," he charged.
"The best thing the UNP could now do is to get rid of all the 'old Appuhamys' and usher in a fresh team with a new approach," he said.
"Like who?" asked UNP backbenchers. Answering their own question, they said "Mathew and Amunugama?" — and laughter from both sides followed.
But UNP's Badulla member R. M. Ratnayake was unhappy over the government media. Plaintively he told the House that news items were being carried to the effect that a large group of UNPers were contemplating to join the PA, including himself.
"We have no such desire. I have spoken to all these members individually and they say there is no foundation to these calculated rumours. Only Walpitagama left and that's his lookout. Such stories are plugs to boost the government morale," he said, reading out a list of names and stoically defending all of them.
Mr. Ratnayake obviously put his foot in the mouth unwittingly as amused government rankers allowed the moment of glory until the explosion came in the House in the form of Ronnie de Mel — ready to perform his next political somersault.
Quietly he said this was the greatest emergency faced by the country.
The military had suffered reversals but it had fought back valiantly.
"So many have gone to their graves prematurely. There would be thousands of CV and Shyami Goonaratnes if this trend continues. Before their ashes are interred, there are more divisions. It is not a question of rising cost of living, electricity or bus fares. We are facing the gravest threat to our land which is a far greater crisis than anything else," he said.
In a stinging indictment, he questioned the UNP's decision to vote against the extension of emergency. " Please desist from committing political hara-kiri. These protests are at the wrong time, wrong place and for wrong reasons" he said, pausing dramatically for emphasis.
Mr. .de Mel said it was wrong to vote against the extension of emergency, obviously having suppressed his patriotic zeal at the UNP group meeting where he could have canvassed for support for the extension of emergency.
Instead, in an obvious indication of an imminent crossover to the PA, Mr. de Mel amidst applause from government rankers and stunned expressions among UNPers said he put the country before the party. Rubbing salt, he noted that political parties were only instruments to keep democracy alive and announced his decision to vote with the government.
With three more months before elections and disciplinary inquiries possibly being long and exhaustive, the Devinuwara member boldly added that he was aware of the consequences of defying the party whip.
"I shall not give the party what is meant for the country," he said, adding that it was a crisis of conscience which led to this decision.
The senior parliamentarian noted that if this meant the parting of ways for good, he had no regrets, amidst UNP uproar and roaring applause by government rankers.
All hell broke loose when UNP members militantly marched up to the Speaker, defying his order to remain in their seats — strewing their documents and reports on the isle — and demanding how Mr. de Mel was recognised as UNP's last speaker when Rajitha Senaratne was the listed one. Heated exchanges followed with unparliamentary words being liberally used - much to the shock of those in the gallery.
Just before it developed into an exchange of physical blows with some members drawing closer to that level, the Speaker put the motion to vote.
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