The Political Column

4th February 2001

Wasps warfare and UNP's dual role

By our Political Correspondent

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The Green Night dinner is now over but its hangover still looms large over the UNP.

It was not a successful event, given the organisational capabilities of the party, which is striving to project a new look in the new millennium.

The organisers of the United Net dinner fell short of chief organiser Sudath Chandrasekera's goal.

Mr. Chandrasekera, a personal aide of party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, made every effort to make it a success but the attendance and the collection of the day were not as he expected. Several party seniors were absent. But several new MPs and party men were seen enjoying themselves in high spirits. The question could be asked whether this was politically correct in the situation the country finds itself and in the immediate aftermath of float of the Rupee.

Though the organisers had hoped that they would raise 1.5 million rupees for the party, the final collection was well short of it. When the bash at the CR & FC club house for party well-wishers among professionals and businessmen did not have a go largely due to poor attendance, one organiser had to call in professionals from the Obeysekera Pura, Rajagiriya, to fill the void.

When the controversy arose over the nature of the event whether it was a dinner-dance or dinner only the newly appointed General Secretary of the party Senarath Kapukotuwa said it was strictly a dinner. But it was more a Bajaw (a singsong party), than a dinner.

There is nothing wrong in having a party. What went wrong with this UNP party was that it cast a cloud over the party's image. A party which was initially identified with the capitalist class evolved to be a party of the common man with all its major programmes such as Gam Udawa, Swarnabhoomi and Janasaviya, being aimed at the poor and the deprived. But today, the party could be criticised as building an image of Daval Miguel, Rae Daniel By day it identified itself with the poor and held a mock funeral to protest against what it saw as the government mismanagement of the economy. But by night on the same day, it was wooing the elite and partying with them.

Whether the party raised Rs. 1.5 million or not, some party men continue to raise several questions about it.

At the UNP group meeting, party senior Tyronne Fernando raised the question of accountability over the United Net dinner collection.

Some 850 tickets out of 1000 have been sold. It was pointed out that a premier freight forwarding company had bought at least 200 tickets and there was no financial loss.

Mr. Chandrasekera was determined to see the event was a success from the day the decision was taken.

He personally called several parliamentarians and journalists by Thursday evening just a day before the controversial dinner inviting them to participate in the proceedings. However, heavyweights including Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale, M.H. Mohamed, Tyronne Fernando, Rukman Senanayake and Karunasena Kodituwakku, kept away. Their absence was conspicuous. These party seniors might have felt uncomfortable to participate in this event after participating in a mock funeral in the very day.

Besides, the Green Night is turning out to be a nightmare for Colombo Mayor Omar Kamil. He was accused of playing a dual role with many members of the party's youth front, the Yovun Peramuna, charging that he undermined the party's interest. The party was initially scheduled to be held at the Mayor's official residence. Mr. Kamil was reported to have given permission for this and had effected some repairs at the residence in view of the party. Tickets were printed but Municipal officials pointed that the event might not conform to municipal regulations as the tickets were priced. Thereafter the organisers agreed to delete the mention of Mayor's official residence in the ticket and go ahead with the planned sale of tickets.

But when Assistant Leader Atukorale made inquiries and his concern known, Mr. Kamil distanced himself from the party and issued a media statement. Now he is caught in the crossfire within the party. The youth front leaders who formed the organising committee went ahead regardless as they believed the front came directly under party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was at that time in Singapore, and thus they did not have to seek the permission of the deputy or the assistant leader. This was why, they say that they did not inform Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Atukorale of the proposed Green Night.

But when Mr. Jayasuriya explained matters to some youth front members, saying that had the party hierarchy been informed of the move, it would not have resulted in an unnecessary hullabaloo the youth front members agreed and said they were at fault, but in the same breath, pointed out that the youth front came directly under the party leader who was all for the bash. Mr. Wickremesinghe was angry when some party seniors raised objections to it. At one stage, party insiders say Mr. Kamil's position on the executive committee was precariously poised. But eventually the charged atmosphere cooled.

Party members pointed out that Mr. Kamil had done much for the party and he was an important cog in party's Colombo wheel. Mr. Wickremesinghe was reported saying to some youth front members that action has sometimes to be considered to serve as an example. He has also observed that there could not be two leaders in the party, referring to media reports over a split in the leadership over the bash. He had maintained that as leader of the party he had to conduct its affairs as he thought best.

The Green night and these reported remarks have according to some party members, added a new dimension to the controversy.

In another development, Mr. Atukorale had moved to occupy the Leader's chambers at the party headquarters Sirikotha since he has no office there after Sudath Chandrasekera moved in along with Mr. Kapukotuwa.

Mr. Chandrasekera apparently would like Mr. Atukorale to move into an office at the adjoining building which houses the head office of the party's trade union wing, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya.

Party insiders say Mr. Atukorale's decision to occupy the Leader's chambers may lead to another problem within the party.

Internal squabbles apart, the UNP is determined to go ahead today with its Independence Day march from Kandy to protest against the rising cost of living and other crises engulfing the country. Mr. Wickremesinghe and all members of the party leaders will join the march, reminiscent of the then UNP leader J. R. Jayewardene's march to Kandy to protest against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact.

The protest march will take at least seven days to reach Colombo. The government, apparently jittery over the march, is making announcements to the effect that the UNP is collaborating with the JVP and trying to overthrow the government.

During the week, there were rumours that the notorious PA organisers in Kandy are planning to unleash wasps on the UNP marchers. But the UNP has taken counter-measures armed with cans of insecticide to attack the insects.

Meanwhile two deputy inspectors General from the Central Province and Colombo sought the Attorney-General's advice on the march. The chief legal officer of the state ruled that there was nothing illegal in the UNP marching against the rising cost of living.

Soon after this, President Chandrika Kumaratunga also issued a directive to all PA members, asking them to avoid any confrontation with the UNP marchers.

The President's directive to PA MPs and organisers states: As instructed on January 26 at the Presidential Secretariat I emphasize that nobody should obstruct the protest march in any way. This I clearly stated at the meeting held on January 26.

At a time when the UNP is facing difficulties to solicit the support of the people, its attempt is to be heroes through various antics. Therefore, it is imperative that you refrain from indulging in any act to obstruct this protest march. It is important to protect the rights of other political parties to air their opposition in a democratic manner.

It is appropriate that on these two dates February 3 and 4 for you all to summon your branch organisations and educate the people about the present conditions in the country. It could also be used to commemorate the national heroes and to appreciate the services rendered by the brave soldiers in the battlefield.

I hope specially that the members representing constituencies along the Colombo-Kandy road would adhere to my call. These organisers and MPs of my party could organise their meetings away from the main Colombo-Kandy road. It is my fervent belief that you all would not bring in any disrepute to my party by acting contrary to those directives.î

The President's thinking is that the UNP is desperate to get back to power by hook or by crook and is resorting to this type of antics to overthrow the government. The UNP on the other hand believes that time is ripe for it to get the support of the people to bring down this government democratically. Will the protest march gather momentum and help the UNP achieve its goal? Can it grow into a people's power revolution as we saw in the Philippines last month and in Yugoslavia a few months before that? But given the unpredictable nature of our people, any thing is possible. Some say Sri Lankan people are not fiery enough to create such a sensation and the UNP protest march could be just another event which will be forgotten in a week's time. They claim that the party has more to do in preparing the ground in order to carry a really successful campaign, especially at provincial level.

While organising the protest march against the alleged economic mismanagement, the UNP has also intensified efforts to introduce Constitutional amendments to bring about a Constitutional Council and independent commissions for police, elections, public service and judiciary.

The UNP in a letter to the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government has said that it would support the first-past-the-post system to be reintroduced at the local government level provided these commissions are set up.

The UNP letter outlining its views on how future elections should be held states: Upon the making of a Proclamation or Order requiring the holding or conduct of an election or referendum, as the case may be, or where any election is required by law to be held, the Elections Commission shall notify the Inspector General of Police of the facilities and the number of police officers required by the Commission for the holding or conduct of such election or referendum.

The Inspector General of Police shall make available to the Commission the facilities and police officers specified in any notification made under paragraph (1) of this Article.

The Commission may deploy the police officers made available to the Commission in such manner as is calculated to promote the conduct of a free and fair election or referendum.

Every police officer made available to the Commission under this Article shall, notwithstanding anything in the Constitution or other law, be responsible to and act under the direction and control of the Commission during the period of an election.

No suit or prosecution or other proceeding, civil or criminal, shall lie against any police officer made available to the Commission under this Article for any act or thing in good faith done by such police officer in pursuance, or purported pursuance, of a direction of the Commission or his functioning under the Commission.

It shall be lawful for the Commission to make recommendation to the President during the period of an election, regarding the deployment of the armed forces of the Republic for the prevention or control of any actions or incidents which may be prejudicial to the holding or conduct of a free and fair election or referendum.

The Commission shall have power to issue such general or special directions the Commission may in its opinion consider fit in regard to the use of State property or property of any public corporation or public body by any candidate or political party or independent group contesting at such election during the period of an election, and shall have the power to requisition during the period of an election any property used in contravention of such directions.

The Commission shall have the power during the period of an election or Referendum to issue such directions as in its opinion it may consider necessary to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation in relation to the broadcasts of such Corporations and it shall be the duty of the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation to comply with and give effect to such directions during the period of an election or Referendum.î

The UNP letter was yet another conditional offer of support to the government. The party had offered the government help for one year to run the administration smoothly if the government agreed to set up the proposed Commissions. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and the UNP's Tyronne Fernando had extensive discussions on those lines. But there was no conclusion on the talks.

The government appears to have got cold feet over the UNP's proposal thinking that an Election Commission would not do any good for any party in power. According to the UNP's proposal, the commission would be vested with enhanced powers, but has only limited power in deploying the armed forces. The Commission can only make recommendations to the President if the need arises for the deployment of the armed forces to ensure a free and fair election. Analysts think that it would not give full independence to the Elections Commissioner to act.

The other significant development in the Sri Lankan political arena is the formal entry of SLMC co-leader Ferial Ashraff into the political scene after the four-month mourning period.

Ms. Ashraff, widow of SLMC founder M. H. M. Ashraff, is yet to take oath as a member of parliament. Her interviews to the media point to her eloquence and political wit and observers believe she could be a formidable challenge to party co-leader Rauf Hakeem.

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