The Political Column

18th February 2001

Everyone acts in war and politics

By our Political Correspondent

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The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stands exposed. It appears now that the LTTE is craving for peace is a mere ploy to prevent it from being banned by the British government.

That it was a ploy became evident when LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham said in interviews that banning the LTTE in Britain could affect peace talks.

It has now become clear that the LTTE agreed to a Norwegian-facilitated dialogue with the Sri Lankan government solely because it wants to safeguard its operations in the West, especially its international base London. The United States has already banned the LTTE and included it in the list of terrorist organisations. The LTTE has launched a legal challenge to this ban.

The LTTE collects funds from the Tamil Diaspora in the West through its various fronts to run its war machine in Sri Lanka. It now fears that the other western countries could also follow Britain. The British government, under pressure from Sri Lanka and India, is appraising the LTTE case to decide whether it should ban the LTTE under the new anti-terrorism law.

The LTTE's decision to link the peace moves to the British ban has raised questions over its intentions while it has also exposed its lack of commitment to peace.

The LTTE is no doubt one of the deadliest and ruthless guerrilla outfits operating in the guise of liberation fighters. They appear as saviours of the suffering Tamil people and so win the sympathy of the West. But there is no gainsaying the fact that the Tamil people are suffering in the North because of its actions. It intervenes where food and medicine are sent to the people of the north. It keeps suppressed the voice of the moderate Tamil people who call for an end to violence and seek a democratic political solution.

The irony of the situation is the very moderates who suffered horribly under the LTTE are now holding a brief for the LTTE and calling on the British government not to ban the LTTE. They exterminated their leaders including A. Amirthalingam and Neelan Tiruchelvam.

The letter also says that since Independence the minority Tamil people have been agitating to earn a greater degree of political rights and better security in Sri Lanka. Their non-violent struggle against discrimination transformed into an armed struggle in the 1980s.

"In this context, everyone who is genuinely interested in the welfare of Sri Lanka demanded in unison that the government should talk to the LTTE to bring the ethnic conflict to an end. This includes the major opposition parties of India. There is a strong collective voice heard from everywhere that sustained peace in this country can be achieved only by talks and not by war," it said.

In the backdrop of these developments, it is difficult to say the peace talks would begin. The government's foremost condition for talks would be to call upon the LTTE to refrain from carrying out attacks in Colombo, where VIPs move about round the clock. This was included in the Norwegian-sponsored Memorandum of Understanding in return for lifting of the economic embargo on the LTTE-controlled areas.

Norwegian peace facilitator Erik Solheim shuttled between Colombo and London, carrying the MOU. But his efforts were dealt a blow when the LTTE citing the impending ban threatened to abandon the peace process.

Mr. Balasingham states in an interview with the Tamil Guardian that there is a lot of speculation about the peace talks in the Colombo media. Still, there is substantial groundwork to be done for the the peace talks to begin.

The constitutional reforms put forward by the government had been totally rejected by the LTTE as a dead letter and the LTTE states that there is no point in resurrecting a defunct document. This means that the government would have to look for an alternative proposal to meet the aspirations of the LTTE. How it could be done is an important question when the government had to face severe opposition to its first set of proposals to devolve power.

The other hurdle is getting the UNP's nod. The political acrimony between the two major parties has created a big gap and it is difficult to believe that they would come together to find a solution through a bipartisan approach.

The UNP will not extend its support because it feels the government is playing dirty politics. Besides, the UNP does not want to abolish the executive presidency and allow President Kumaratunga to remain in active politics. Under the present constitution, President Kumaratunga cannot run for a third term in office. She has already completed one year in her second term and has five more years to go. Thus the UNP does not want to change the constitution and make President Kumaratunga to become Executive Prime Minister.

However, the UNP says it will not stand in the way of a peacefully, negotiated settlement with the LTTE aimed at devolving power to the Tamils. The UNP is for a more asymmetrical devolution than a symmetrical devolution to all the provinces.

In the meantime, the UNP suffered a blow in the form of a Supreme Court ruling. The Supreme Court applying the Premadasa Vs. Bandaranaike formula, held that Ranil Wickremesinghe would have to prove that he would have got 1.2 million votes if not for general intimidation. Confronted with this herculean task, the UNP lawyers were reluctant to proceed with the case and senior counsel Tilak Marapana withdrew the case.

Before this case was filed, Senior Counsel K. N. Choksy and Daya Pelpola drew the attention of the party leadership to the legal difficulty of proving general intimidation. Despite this, the party took a decision to file the case in the Supreme Court. At the working committee, several members including Gamini Lokuge and John Amaratunga asked why the party had to withdraw the case. Mr. Marapana said it was because of the difficulty in leading evidence to prove that Mr. Wickremesinghe would have got 1.2 million votes more. Later, Mr. Wickremesinghe wanted Mr. Choksy to explain the legal aspects of the case, including the Premadasa Vs. Bandaranaike formula.

Mr. Lokuge then asked why Mr. Marapana could not lead evidence to the effect that the PA candidate abused TV rights. Mr. Marapana said it was because that particular matter could not be made an issue in an election petition. Thereafter, UNP veteran Paul Perera said that it would be a difficult one for anybody to prove and succeed. He said the matter should be taken up separately and discussed in order to amend the election law.

Thereafter, Mr. Lokuge asked what happened to the motion on the impeachment of Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva. The UNP members felt that the Supreme Court had acted partially in most of the cases, especially the election petition against President Kumaratunga. However, the party lawyers were less critical of the court decision and found there is nothing wrong in the order.

Party Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya said a party committee including Tyronne Fernando was going through the material regarding the case and it would soon be submitted to the party leader. Mr. Wickremesinghe said party lawyers and the working committee would study it before taking a decision. However, the argument of the party rank and file is that the party could have proceeded with the case to keep the government occupied. Mr. Wickremesinghe, however, said the UNP instead of resorting to traditional, conservative methods, should take on the government issue by issue and embark on an agitation campaign.

The working committee also discussed the UNP's Kandy-Colombo march. It was pointed out some young MPs did not attend the march. The reference was apparently aimed at Lakshman Seneviratne. But Mr. Lokuge said it would not be a wise move to go behind people who did not participate. Instead, the party should take the agitation campaign further, capitalising on the success of the march, he said.

Kandy MP Abdul Cader had many grievances. He said he was being sidelined and others are taking the credit for the work he had done. He listed out all what he had done for the party and said he believed there was a move to oust him from the party's top post in Kandy. He urged the party hierarchy not to sideline him.

The UNP's Janabala Meheyuma march continues to have its after-effects. The attack on the house of a woman who imitated the injured President at the UNP march was discussed in several circles. If imitating the President who was a victim of the LTTE was in bad taste, then the attack on Kamalawathie's house at Raddoluwa was worse. Hooligans who came in inter-cooler jeeps had carried out the attack. They threw petrol bombs on the house and smashed the front door. However, the occupants of the house were not present when the attack took place.

On Kamalawathie's act, UNP supporters in their defence say the PA also did something similar by depicting Mr. Wickremesinghe as the comedian Mr. Bean on posters which came up along the Colombo-Kandy road during the UNP's protest march. This is not new in politics and resorting to extra-judicial methods in dealing with people who get involved in these acts should be condemned by peace-loving citizens, they say. The government may order an impartial inquiry into the incident where Kamalwathie's house was burnt down. But the police will definitely draw a blank if PA hooligans were involved in this case.

The attack on the house of Kamalawathie also left room for the UNP to escape criticism for having made fun of the President's injury caused by an attempt on her life by the LTTE. The UNP could now come out of its shell now and would ask the government to hold an inquiry into the attack.

The UNPers also alleged that when President Premadasa was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber, some PA supporters expressed their happiness by lighting firecrackers and playing rabans. If we are accused of joining hands with the LTTE by not feeling sorry for the President's eye injury, then we also can say that the PA was hand in glove with the LTTE because its supporters were elated over the death of Mr. Premadasa, one UNPer said.

If all is fair in love and war, it should apply equally to politics also, because it is a game of love and hate between two major parties.

In another development, Minister Indika Gunawardena who is facing problems with his party's central committee, had to leave a top level meeting in a visibly upset mood accusing the central committee members of plotting to oust him. He left the meeting before the election to the party top posts was held. He told them that he was not aspiring for any post and should the party decide he would even resign from the ministerial portfolio. After he left the meeting, the central committee however appointed him as the leader of the parliamentary group of the party, but removed him from the national organiser post.

The trial and triumph of Philippine's Chief Justice

On Saturday, January 20, Hilario Davide woke up at half past three in the morning, as usual. The chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court opened the Bible to a random page and read. It was the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 32: "People of Jerusalem, go out of the city. / And build a road for your returning people! / Prepare the highway; clear it of stones! / Put up a signal so that the nations can know . . . / That the Lord is coming to save you." To Davide the message was clear: he must help rebuild the Philippines.

By 9:30, Davide had assembled in his office 11 of 14 other top justices and got their votes, as well as those of the three absentees, for him to swear in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as the new president, replacing Joseph Estrada. "The chief justice believed he should act to avert bloodshed and a power vacuum," says fellow Supreme Court justice Artemio Panganiban. "The country had no leader. The military and his cabinet had withdrawn their support from Estrada. If Gloria Macapagal Arroyo acted as president, by what authority {would she act}? It would have been an invitation to a coup."

No such thing happened, thanks to Davide's quick thinking. At around noon he administered the oath of office to Arroyo at the People Power shrine on EDSA. With no constitutional provision for the Supreme Court to declare the presidency vacant, Davide invoked a time-honored principle: "The welfare and will of the people is the supreme law." Arthur Lim, president of the Integrated Bar, the nation's organization of 45,000 lawyers, says it was the first time the Supreme Court ruled partly for fear of violence. Former chief justice Enrique Fernando supports the ruling. "It's the law of necessity," he says. "It's a situation only the court could settle."

Thus, the act that culminated People Power 2 also confirmed Chief Justice Davide as the man of that moment, not only for devising a peaceful way out of the nation's leadership crisis, but also for expertly and fairly handling the 23-day Estrada impeachment trial. His integrity, impartiality and intelligence were instrumental in winning the public's trust in the nationally broadcast Senate hearings. When senators pre-empted Davide and voted 11-10 to suppress evidence deemed crucial by the prosecution, millions of Filipinos following the trial on TV and radio felt robbed of a real chance for truth and justice.

Now, as the Philippines seeks to rebuild public trust in national institutions and investor confidence in the rule of law and democracy, decisive and determined reformers like Davide are indispensable. Those familiar with his record would not have been surprised by his recent performance. Chosen by Estrada in late 1998 over a candidate pushed by the president's lawyer-brother, Davide has done much to restore trust in the courts. "Pursuit of excellence is one of the driving forces for the comprehensive and far-reaching judicial reform recently approved by the Supreme Court en banc," he told Asiaweek.

Among the measures Davide has taken: sending judges, court staff and lawyers to the Supreme Court's Philippine Judicial Academy; placing limits on court pleadings and extensions; dismissing more than 30 judges with questionable records; and aiming to clear the backlog of cases before his own high court by June 11, the judiciary's centennial. Lower courts have also been urged to set similar deadlines. In addition, the chief justice has encouraged courts to use new technology, under a World Bank-funded program. The task, however, is gargantuan. Some 825,000 cases are pending nationwide, and 435,000 are filed every year - nearly 150,000 more than the number decided.

Thankfully, Davide has a tremendous capacity for work and dedication to competence and justice. Not a smoker, a drinker or a gambler, the top magistrate is often in the office before 6. a.m. and leaves no earlier than 7 p.m., taking work home. He insists on strict working hours - 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a lunch hour at noon. Senior judges have to work on Saturday mornings until 1 p.m. Economist Bernardo Villegas recounts his time with Davide in the 1986 commission that drafted the Constitution: "He read every piece of paper presented and examined very carefully every issue - up to 2:30 in the morning." Villegas adds: "He is the most honest man I know."

Of Davide's legal mind, justice Panganiban says: "He writes exhaustively, patiently explaining the details of each case, stating all arguments of the parties, and then discussing each question or issue raised. He rules clearly and firmly, leaving no doubt or residue." Panganiban once differed with Davide on the latter's concept of "insufficient law." Also in the 1971 constitutional convention, Davide argued that provisions for popular initiatives to change the Constitution were inadequate, thwarting amendment and re-election plans by then president Fidel Ramos.

This time, however, Davide decided that the people's will and welfare required a judicial way to remove Estrada after the impeachment trial failed. Born and raised in the countryside, walking barefoot to school and putting himself through law college, Davide says he has always been "inspired by a feeling" for the masses. As a lawyer, 60% of his cases were pro bono, and he could barely support his family of six. Hence, when history beckoned, Davide cut through the legal thicket to move the nation forward. And should anyone take issue with his view, he has the moral standing to declare: "Objection overruled."- Asiaweek

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