The Political Column
31st December 2000
By our Political Correspondent
|The year 2000 started on a vigorous
note for the PA after President Chandrika Kumaratunga convincingly won
the December 1999 presidential election marred by an attempt on her life
by the LTTE.
A year later, the LTTE declared a one-month unilateral ceasefire beginning from the Christmas eve. The government doubts the LTTE offer because of bitter experiences in the past. The LTTE had in the past utilised truce periods to regroup and re-equip itself and to launch surprise attacks.
Thus the government was sceptical and was trying to study the motive behind this offer. The British government welcomed the Tiger ceasefire with Junior Foreign Minister Peter Hain issuing a statement, expressing hope that the LTTE would observe the truce.
"I encourage the Sri Lankan government to follow suit and seize the opportunity offered by this initiative," Mr. Hain said adding that he "expected the ceasefire to lead to eventual peace in Sri Lanka."
Mr. Hain was rapped by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar for remarks he made during his Sri Lanka asserting the Tamils' right to self determination.
Mr. Kadirgamar also called on the British government to ban the LTTE which maintains its international headquarters in London. "I wish to make it very clear that it will put considerable strain on the relationship between the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka, if the British government chose for whatever reason, not to proscribe the LTTE when it is so eminently qualified for proscription," Minister Kadirgamar said.
However, the latest LTTE offer had put the government in a dilemma with some ministers welcoming the idea of a ceasefire while others rejectit forthwith.
Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte who held a dinner for some mediamen on December 22, rejected the LTTE's ceasefire offer while Minister D. M. Jayaratne appreciated the move with certain reservations. He said an official response would be issued by President Kumaratunga and it was confirmed by the media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa who said that the LTTE offer had been carefully and fully studied.
Minister Ratwatte was firm in his rejection of the offer. He told our sister newspaper, Daily Mirror, on Friday night that he believed that the LTTE was only buying time to reorganise itself and that fighting would not be stopped to meet the short term plans of the LTTE.
"The LTTE is not interested in a negotiated settlement. It is trying to buy time to reorganise itself now that it has been thrashed by government troops," Gen. Ratwatte, who is also the deputy defence minister said.
Soon after the declaration of ceasefire, heavy fighting broke out in the Chavakachcheri area where 30 rebels and 22 troops were killed.
The UNP, however, was optimistic about the ceasefire and party spokesman Karunasena Kodituwakku said the government should respond positively .
Looking retrospectively, the year 2000 was full of ups and downs for the government as well as the main Opposition UNP. After the defeat at the December 21, 1999, presidential poll, the UNP was in disarray with various factions in the party pulling in different directions.
Soon after the elections, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe addressing a joint working committee and a parliamentary group meeting, took responsibility for the defeat. In other words, it was a mea culpa cry from Mr. Wickremesinghe. However, the working committee members were not harsh in their criticism of the leadership though they occasionally fired a few at the party structure. But the UNP was critical of the manner in which the government conducted the presidential poll.
When the country was limping back to normalcy after the presidential elections and the two bomb explosions in December at Town Hall and in Ja-ela, another terrorist bomb exploded in the heart of Colombo on January 5 near the Prime Minister's office at Flower Road. On the same day ACTC leader Kumar Ponnambalam was gunned down by an unknown assailant. A vociferous critic of the Kumaratunga government. Mr. Ponnambalam spoke his heart out and gave vent to his feelings sometimes with outbursts which most of the Sinhalese living in Colombo did not approve of.
By mid-January, the government decided to introduce a crossover bill in parliament with the help of UNP dissidents Wijeyapala Mendis, Sarath Amunugama and Susil Moonesinghe. Mr. Moonesinghe went to the extent of hosting a dinner to some UNP MPs. One UNP MP who decided to back the crossover bill later met Mr. Wickremesinghe to inform him of the decision. But Mr. Wickremesinghe told him that if the government wanted the UNP's support, it should approach the UNP directly.
By the end of January, Mr. Wickremesinghe in a calculated move made a historic statement in parliament expressing his willingness to cooperate with the government in its attempt to enact a new constitution, if it could be the panacea for the ills of the country.
In a letter written to President Kumaratunga, Mr. Wickremesinghe extended the UNP's support for constitutional reforms though he said the UNP believed that the ethnic problem could not be solved through government's proposals.
However, his pledge to support the government did not come without strings attached. He laid down a condition. He said the PA should support a future UNP government in introducing a new constitution if the PA failed to bring in peace with the proposed constitutional reforms.
Amidst all these, the government moved towards having a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict with Norway acting as a facilitator. A Norwegian delegation headed by state secretary Leiv Lunde visited Sri Lanka in January this year, held discussions with political leaders and explored the possibility of bringing about a consensus between the PA and the UNP. The Norwegians were optimistic that there would be a consensus between the two main parties for a negotiated settlement with the LTTE.
By mid-February, the UNP had an important discussion on whether they should continue with the executive presidency any longer. Most of the UNPers felt that the abolition of the executive presidency is a must if they were to ride back to power within the next 5 or 6 years. Hence the UNP became an aggressive supporter of the abolition of the executive presidency. But, however, there was no concrete decision as to how it should be done. It was later aborted by the UNP when the PA proposed that the President should continue for another 6 years after having won the presidential election in 1999.
Another significant event in February this year was the President's decision to come to parliament to present the millennium's first budget.
The President invoked Article 32 (3) of the Constitution to make this possible. The president's move was welcomed by the opposition and the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe invited her to be present throughout the budget debate.
In March this year, Minister S. B. Dissanayake's remarks about closing down parliament and courts if the government was unable to get the 2/3 majority to pass the proposed constitution created a furore in the Sri Lankan political scene. Most of the political analysts saw this as a slap in the face of the judiciary and several interested parties even moved to file contempt papers in the Supreme Court.
Later, Minister Dissanayake tendered an apology to the Supreme Court and the Court discharged him.
The long awaited talks between President Kumaratunga's PA government and the UNP got underway in mid-March. It was a healthy discussion and moved in the right direction. The talks between the PA and the UNP were centred round the impending elections of the Board of Control for Cricket and the UNP's reference to some controversial remarks made by Minister S. B. Dissanayake that the President did not know anything about cricket.
In April, it was quite clear that the talks between the government and the UNP to reach a consensus on the proposed constitutional reforms was in progress.
Apart from several controversial issues, the two parties reached consensus on many matters and the President hoped that everything should come to an end by 29 May.
With the dawn of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, peace talks aimed at solving the North - East problem entered a new phase. The main opposition UNP which had been dragging its feet for more than five years on the matter without extending a helping hand to the government, came out with a solution to take a positive stand. Both the government and the Opposition reached an agreement on many matters on the nature of the state. The talks also helped the UNP and the PA to patch up their differences to a great extent.
During this period, the LTTE posed a greater threat to the security forces stationed in Elephant Pass. On Good Friday, the LTTE launched a massive assault on Elephant Pass Army camp which forced the Sri Lankan force to withdraw while scores of soldiers died. After the fall of the Elephant Pass camp, the government invoked stringent provisions of the Public Security Ordinance aimed at restricting certain aspects of civil and political life, in an apparent bid to maintain law and order amid a crisis situation. Most of these provisions, though draconian, were not new. The government also imposed a blanket censorship on the war in the North.
Amid all this the government also sealed the Sunday Leader, the English weekly published by the Leader Publications for violating the emergency regulations.
The Editors Guild and other journalists in particular fought against the governmentís authoritarian attitude to impose a blanket censorship on the war. The editors went to the Supreme Court with a fundamental rights application whilst inviting a delegation from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists based in New York to assist them in this situation. The delegation of the CPJ headed by Peter Arnett visited Sri Lanka to impress on the government that a blanket censorship would only be counter-productive to the government. The CPJ's delegation had been very careful to steer clear of any political manipulations while in Sri Lanka.
In July, the ruling PA and the main opposition UNP reached a broad consensus on outstanding issues in the proposed constitution. They also reached agreement to set up an independent elections commission aimed at minimising or eliminating malpractices.
At a meeting held in July between the two parties, the draft Chapter (1) was discussed at length. Mr. K.N. Choksy who was entrusted with the drafting of Chapter 1 proposed a solution to the existing problem by not mentioning whether it is a unitary or federal state.
By June, the government troops trapped in Jaffna consolidated its position with military assistance from various friendly countries and repulsed successfully the attacks launched by the LTTE to recapture Jaffna. During the second week of June, Minister C.V. Gunaratne was assasinated which incidentally happened on the War Heroes day. Minister Gunaratne was killed when he was going in a procession in Ratmalana to mark the day of the War Heroes. The UNP also agreed with the government to present the new Constitution, but was not agreeable to doing it before the end of August. The government's move to bring in a draft constitution in parliament was aborted by the UNP by withholding the required numbers from the government to enact the Constitution. Though Harendra Corea and Mervyn Silva crossed over to the PA in addition to the UNP rebels, they however, failed to give the required numbers to the government to bring in the new Constitution. In the meantime, PA's Colombo district parliamentarian Dixon J. Perera crossed over to the UNP making matters worse for the government.
The government also moved to bring in the 17th Amendment to the Constitution which sought to change the electoral system. The 17th Amendment proposed that the number of seats in parliament be increased to 298 from 168. Just before the government presented the Constitution Bill, we witnessed the death of Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake who held the coveted post of general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Minister Senanayake died of a heart ailment.
By mid-August, the government moved to dissolve parliament abandoning its efforts to introduce a new electoral system and the crossover bill where they proposed that members of any party could cross the floor of the House according to their whims and fancies. It was a significant matter for Minister S.B. Dissanayake who was recovering from a contempt matter in the supreme Court where he was charged for making remarks about the Judiciary and parliament. At a central committee meeting of the SLFP, Minister Dissanayake emerged as the new general secretary of the SLFP after the death of Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake.
Soon after the dissolution of parliament, the country plunged into a whirlpool of political violence with two political activists being killed in the process. There were rumblings in the SLMC, too, during this time where party leader A.H.M. Ashraff suspended the national list parliamentarian M.M. Zuhair. There was a crisis between the SLMC and the PA, too. When Minister Fowzie challenged Minister Ashraff to win more than 5 seats without the help of the ruling PA. However, the differences were matters was resolved after the President tendered an apology to Minister Ashraff on behalf of the Peopleís Alliance. The Elections Commissioner, too, created a controversy during this time when he ordered the printing of stickers to be placed on poll cards to stop rigging.
In another move, President Kumaratunga re-summoned parliament on the 14th of September to extend a state of emergency. This was the first time that the President resorted to such action when there was provision for its passage in the new parliament after the elections. However, the President's move kept the parliament alive and authorities were compelled to pay members their allowance and other perks, too.
During this period, we witnessed the advent of two new parties Sihala Urumaya and Puravesi Peramuna. Sihala Urumaya was led by one-time UNP parliamentarian Tilak Karunaratne who joined the UNP six years ago after being with the then opposition SLFP. The Puravesi Peramuna was led by one time UNP strong man and general secretary Sirisena Cooray.
The death of Minister A.H.M. Ashraff in an air crash in September created a void in minority politics. At the time of his death, Minister Ashraff was facing problems in the party especially with his deputy M.M. Hisbullah and M.M. Zuhair. Soon after Minister Ashraff's death, the SLMC had showed signs of patching up with the People's Alliance and contesting the Digamadulle seat under the PA symbol while contesting other areas under their own symbol. During the election time, two government ministers in Kandy complained against the conduct of Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte in Kandy where they alleged that Minister Ratwatte was planning mass scale rigging in the area.
After the demise of Minister M.H.M. Ashraff, the SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslims Congress) and the National Unity Alliance moved to sort out their problems after having appointed both Mrs. Ferial Ashraff and Rauf Hakeem as their co-leaders.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga will go down in the history of Sri Lanka politics as the first President to appoint a 44-member cabinet to govern a small country with an area of 25,332 square miles. Soon after the elections the government moved at a rapid pace towards achieving peace through the Norwegian facilitator. But the government was not interested in a ceasefire or a cessation of hostilities with the LTTE.
As the year 2000 ends today the country finds itself engulfed in the same doubts and uncertanties that obstructed its progress throughout the past few decades. There appears to be no prospect of a solution to the ethnic problem and an end to the senseless war in the foreseeable future. People's hopes for peace and progress are constantly raised and dashed as different political parties play games with the vital political issues of the country.
However, let us not begin the new year that dawns tomorrow inauspiciously filling our hearts with pessimism. Let us grab the bits and pieces that give us at least a semblance of hope for us to step on to the new year with confidence.
The ceasefire the LTTE's Velupillai Prabhakaran proposed and executed unilaterally, though viewed differently by congenital pessimists and cynics on the one hand and over cautious politicians and political analysts on the other, yet presents a glimmer of hope for ending the present hostilities and brutalities. The suspicions that Prabhakaran is once again upto his old game of taking the ruling regime for a ride and the fear that he will utilise the respite of a ceasefire to revive and resuscitate the flagging spirit of his cadres to mount more fierce attacks, is understandable.
Yet, no nation or a people that is not ready to take risks and challenges in the effort to solve problems, could hope to make much headway. This columnist, therefore, hopes that our leaders will be endowed with the necessary courage to face the multifarious challenges of the year 2001.
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