The Political Column

14th January 2001

Ranil plans rosy future

By our Political Correspondent
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Speaker Anura Bandaranaike on Thurs day called on ministers to be present in parliament during question time a sad indictment on the ministers indeed. 

In his cautiously-worded appeal to ministers, Mr. Bandaranaike said: "I need to emphasise the fact that oral question time is a vital part of parliamentary democracy and an appropriate answer by the minister concerned is essential for this extremely important process to continue smoothly.

"Since the sittings of this parliament commenced in October last year I have noted that a large number of oral questions asked by members have been answered not by the minister concerned, but by the Chief Government Whip. Though this is in accordance with the standing orders, I kindly request the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Chief Government Whip to ensure that at the time of oral questions, it is vitally important that the particular minister concerned is personally present in the House to answer the relevant question and the supplementary questions that follow. The questions are given to the relevant ministry well in advance.

"The Chief Government Whip has to carry a heavy burden on behalf of some of his colleagues and is not in a position to give detailed responses to the supplementary questions that will necessarily follow.

"I am aware that there are circumstances in which a minister might have an urgent public commitment and is unable to be personally present in the House. It will be appropriate to note that each minister has one deputy minister and some have two and their absence is unexplainable.

"Parliament comes first before everything else. We meet only eight days in a month. The time for oral questions does not generally exceed 45 minutes, and we are all paid an allowance by parliament to be present on each day of sittings. I kindly request ministerial colleagues, most of them my contemporaries and personal friends, to make every endeavour to be present in the House at oral question time and the adjournment time when numerous matters are raised. This will doubtless strengthen the process of parliamentary democracy a process which all of us are committed to uphold in the name of the people who have elected us to this august assembly. I am confident that the ministers will cooperate with me in making the parliamentary process more meaningful."

Not only Speaker Bandaranaike but his predecessors, too, including K. B. Ratnayake, had on various occasions been critical about the general behaviour of MPs in parliament.

There are about 40 ministers in the cabinet and the subjects have been narrowed down and thus their area of supervision is not so vast as in the past. In addition, it is the ministerial staff, including the secretary, who help the ministers find answers to the questions raised in parliament. Equipped with the answer, the minister has to be only present in parliament to reply the oral questions. 

If they do not do this, they will be only substantiating the allegations that the ministers enjoy all sorts of luxuries but are not bothered about the burning issues, including the skyrocketing cost of living. Some political analysts say that attending parliamentary sessions be made mandatory and a mechanism should be worked out to blacklist or penalise the MPs who do not carry out their duties by the people. 

Besides issues of governance, the most important thing on the Sri Lankan agenda today is the peace talks between the government and the LTTE. Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim arrived on Wednesday in a bid to put the derailed peace process back on the track. Mr. Solheim met President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Thursday night after meeting Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Speaker Anura Bandaranaike. At his talks with the President and Government leaders, he was told that the government could not respond to the LTTE ceasefire offer but it was willing to talk peace, during which process the ceasefire could be discussed. 

On Thursday, Mr. Solheim was in parliament meeting Prime Minister Wickremanayake, Speaker Bandaranaike and UNP Leader Wickremesinghe. 

When he walked into Mr. Wickremesinghe's chambers , Sihala Urumaya MP Tilak Karunaratne was addressing the House during the debate on the extension of the state of emergency. Mr. Karunaratne also touched on the ongoing peace process and came out with a scathing attack on Mr. Solheim, asking questions about the Norwegian envoy's integrity and his personal life. The Norwegian delegation which included Ambassador Westborg, was shocked by the unusual and unexpected welcome the Sihala Urumaya member was according it.. 

As he entered Mr. Wickremesinghe's chambers, Mr. Solheim said, "it was an interesting debate and I have become popular in Sri Lanka."

Mr. Solheim told Mr. Wickremesinghe that he arrived in Sri Lanka after he had talks with LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London. The LTTE is reported to have reiterated its position that it was ready for unconditional talks. But the government sees certain inherent conditions in the LTTE statement., which among other things called for a de-escalation of the war.

But it appears now that the government strengthened by recent military victories in the north is dragging its feet on the peace process probably in the hope that it could win the war militarily. 

Mr. Solheim had indicated that the Prime Minister had responded positively to the Norwegian initiative and that Norway is working hard towards bringing the two warring parties to the negotiating table. Mr. Wickremesinghe told Mr. Solheim that the UNP would not be an obstacle to the peace process and it would even welcome if the government talked to the JVP on the peace process. 

As Mr. Solheim left Mr. Wickremesinghe's office, the UNP leader followed him up to the entrance and told sergeant-at-arms Wijeya Palliyaguru to take Mr. Solheim to the Speaker's chambers. He also asked Mr. Palliyaguru to take the staircase and not to take either the left or right turn to avoid coming in contact with JVP and Sihala Urumaya MPs who are opposed to the Norwegian initiative. Mr. Wickremesinghe jokingly said that Mr. Palliyaguru should not the left turn because Mr. Solheim might face the danger of meeting Tilak Karunaratne at the entrance to the left of the Speaker's floor. Mr. Solheim responded with a smile and walked towards the staircase.

Though the UNP claims it is willing to cooperate with the government on the peace issue, it is poised to challenge the government on other matters such as the President's speech in the Institute of Science-Po in Paris where she told a gathering of intellectuals that the government would introduce the new Constitution by a simple majority since the UNP is standing in its way without giving the required two thirds majority. It involved a simple majority and a referendum, the President said. Though it is not strictly within the ambit of the present Constitution, it is not illegal, she claimed. 

Now the UNP challenging the President's statement says it amounted to a violation of the constitution. 

The UNP has appointed a committee comprising President's Counsel K. N. Choksy, Tilak Marapana, Shibly Aziz and Paul Perera to go into the matter in detail. The UNP is also planning to present a motion in parliament to impeach the President. The UNP also has requested Speaker Bandaranaike to pave the way for the House to debate the alleged statement by the President. Mr. Bandaranaike, however, would present this at the party leaders meeting where at decision would be taken on the matter.

Meanwhile, the UNP parliamentary group which met on Wednesday at the Parliamentary complex appointed a special committee to pass counter-measures against the government's plan to demolish unauthorized buildings and a reported move to introduce a water tax. The committee headed by UNP's assistant leader Gamini Atukorale includes parliamentarians W. J. M. Lokubandara, M. H. Mohamed, John Amaratunga, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Karunasena Kodituwakku, Gamini Lokuge, Lakshman Seneviratne, Rajitha Senaratne and Srinal de Mel. 

The UNP's attitude has irked the government especially Urban Development Minister Mangala Samaraweera who earlier received the cooperation of the Colombo Municipal Council to carry out the demolition operations, but now the UNP-controlled council is dragging its feet. The UNP alleged that most of these buildings that have been demolished belonged to its supporters.

At the government parliamentary group meeting, members discussed the aid commitment to Sri Lanka by the Development Forum. Since there were conflicting reports on the matter, the MPs requested the President to make a statement in parliament giving the exact position. Members pointed out that they were confused as different statements were issued by different ministers. 

As a sequence to this request, Minister G. L. Peiris made a statement in parliament saying that the Annual Paris Aid Conference had now assumed the form of a pledging meeting since Sri Lanka had become a middle-level income earning country. So there is no exact amount pledged to Sri Lanka other than assistance given for projects. Prof.. Peiris' statement was contrary to the views expressed by Minister S. B. Dissanayake on an earlier occasion.

Parliament last week was full of events, with the JVP on Wednesday holding placards protesting against the behaviour of the police in dispersing the crowd at a JVP march in the Fort. 

Another ugly incident figured in parliament when UNP MPs challenged the validity of the appointment of Anuruddha Ratwatte as deputy defence minister. Quoting state-run newspaper Dinamina of September 30, UNP MP A. H. M. Azwer said the President had openly denounced election violence and vowed not to give important portfolios to any PA members who had indulged in election malpractices. Mr. Azwer questioned as to how Minister Ratwatte had been appointed to hold the important post as Deputy Minister of Defence when he was alleged to have been involved in large-scale rigging at the general election. The UNP will not accept his appointment, Mr. Azwer said, inviting heckles and jeers from the government benchers. 

The infuriated government members later threw empty tumblers and earphones at Mr. Azwer, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera and Gamini Atukorale, prompting the UNP member to leave the well without waiting to listen to the reply of Gen. Ratwatte. The UNP members stormed the Speaker's chambers with the broken earphone and tumblers and demanded an inquiry. On Friday, the UNP raised the matter of such behaviour in parliament and the Speaker promised that action would be taken against those members in accordance with the Standing Orders..

The incidents in parliament will further deteriorate the relationship between the UNP and the PA and it would be difficult to expect that these two parties would ever come together to solve the ethnic crisis.

While the government was battling with the UNP politically and the LTTE on the war front in the North, the UNP's working committee met to discuss the current affairs. The most significant event at this meeting was the appointment of several new faces to the working committee. Among the new appointees were one time Mrs. World Rosy Senanayake, entrepreneur Beulah Munasinghe and activist Indrani Iriyagolla. The move was to strengthen the UNP's women cadres and to take the message to the housewives. 

In addition Johnstone Fernando, Earle Gunasekera, Ravi Karunanayake and Sajith Premadasa have been appointed to the working committee along with the former Attorney General Shibly Aziz. 

Ms. Senanayake's appointment came in for heavy criticism by the seniors who claimed that they had been by-passed by the leadership. But others jokingly said that the appointment was made to ensure full participation at the working committee meetings. Meanwhile, UNP members who were asked to go for a medical examination for their benefit are dragging their feet now because they believe the confidential medical reports would be made use of by their political opponents. 

Be that as it may, the meeting between the Ven. Rambukwella Sri Vipassi Thera, the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter and US Ambassador Ashley Wills in Kandy took a sour turn when the prelate rejected a request by the ambassador to have a closed door meeting without the media personnel.

The prelate specifically said that he did not have anything to hide from the people of Sri Lanka. 

The Mahanayake attributed the present problems in the country to external forces that were interfering with the internal matters of the country. He told Mr. Wills that both the Sinhala and Tamil communities had lived together in harmony but it was the opportunistic politicians who created this kind of dissension among the communities for short term benefits.

When Ambassador Wills said the ethnic problem could not be solved by war, but that it could be solved by way of negotiations and discussions and the US could not do anything regarding internal problems of Sri Lanka, the Mahanayake said: "We would also like to end this war and restore peace. But the war has to be ended with victory and there is no other way that the war could end. I am not a person who goes to fight wars or take part in politics. " 

The Mahanayake also said he did not want to send a message to anybody through an ambassador and if anyone wanted to hear his view they should come to him. 

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