The Political Column29th July 2001
JVP sitting on fenceBy our Political Correspondent
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attack on the Air Force base at Katunayake and the nearby international
airport by the LTTE could easily be described as the largest devastation
caused to an economic target in the 18-year separatist war.
It was not the first time, the air base or the airport had come under threat. In May, 1986, a bomb concealed in a vegetable basket ripped through the Male-bound Air Lanka aircraft, breaking it into two and killing at least 21 persons. Tamil separatist groups were blamed for this attack. Even the JVP had launched an attack on the air base in the 1980s. And again in the early 1990s a car bomb was detected in the vicinity of the airport. These incidents show how porous the so-called security ring had been and the weakness of the intelligence setup.
The security lapse had cost the country more than 30 billion rupees in terms of losses caused to the planes alone. No doubt, the people of this country will be asked to bear the burden — they will be asked to pay for the follies of irresponsible political behaviour of narrow-minded politicians. The attack had dealt a severe blow to the tourism industry, identified as a major foreign exchange earner. An industry source said: "The LTTE had destroyed the entire tourist industry without killing a single tourist."
It does not require an intelligence network to know that the country's main air base and the airport are top targets of the LTTE. It requires common sense. Moreover, a country facing terrorist threat should take every security measure to ensure the safety of the gateway to the outer world.
Now the big question is who is going to take responsibility for this security lapse. Some heads should roll in the best interest of the country if our political leaders are genuinely interested in preventing similar catastrophes in the future.
But it appears, no one is willing to take responsibility for the security lapse. Probably, it is part of our political culture. In an apparent bid to dodge the question of responsibility, government leaders tried to project a wrong or misleading picture. They are making a mockery of people's intelligence.
Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa had the audacity to say that the LTTE launched the attack to commemorate the 1983 July riots perpetrated against the Tamils under the UNP regime. His statement was tantamount to an admission that the government was aware of an impending attack.
Ministers should be careful when they make public statements because the general public are no fools to buy their political commodities.
That the government blamed the UNP also shows that it is trying to make political capital out of even a major catastrophe. Had Minister Yapa said that the LTTE launched the attack in retaliation for air raids by the government, it could have gained more currency among the general public.
In hindsight, it is clear that the government's target was not the LTTE, but the UNP, even at the time of a serious setback. This kind of acrimonious politics will not auger well for the country which is already smarting under economic and political stress.
Cabinet ministers such as Sarath Amunugama and Richard Pathirana went to the extent of saying that the LTTE-ers slipped into the city during the UNP's Jana Bala Meheyuma on July 19.
President Kumaratunga was informed of the attack around 4 in the morning. She summoned an urgent meeting of the Security Council.
There, the President ordered service chiefs to put into operation her own "Red Alert" plan to safeguard other important installations in the country.
The President subsequently summoned ministers for an urgent meeting to apprise them of the situation. By this time, Aviation Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle had already visited the trouble spot for a first hand assessment of the situation. Along with him were some senior armed forces officials.
President Kumaratunga told ministers that the situation was now under control and every step had been taken to strengthen security in other areas as well. She told the ministers that she had put into operation a special plan for this purpose after a security council meeting held with the service chiefs.
She said attacks on major installations would not deter the government and assured that steps were being taken to replenish the destroyed fleet within two weeks with purchases from Pakistan, China and Israel on credit basis.
The President told the ministers she would make arrangements for the opposition to have access to information on the attack.
President Kumaratunga also said two teams had already been detailed to investigate the matter and added that every effort was being made to re-open the Bandaranaike International Airport as soon as possible.
During the 90-minute cabinet meeting the ministers raised no questions. It was mainly a briefing by the President as the Minister of Defence, one Minister told this column.
On Wednesday evening President Kumaratunga addressed the nation. While talking about the catastrophe, she made it a point to take swipes at her opponents, especially opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
She reminded Mr. Wickremesinghe that he was a senior member of the cabinet and later the Prime Minister of the government which created the environment leading to this latest catastrophe.
"Mr. Wickremesinghe is trying to put the blame on me but he should know that it was his government which created all these troubles."
But now one would wonder whether the President is talking the truth. One political analyst told this column that not only the UNP, every government which was in power was responsible for what is happening today.
It is no secret that the first major agitation by Tamils came about only after Sinhala was made the official language by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
This move not only gave rise to communal hatred among the Northern Tamils but also built up their resolve to fight for their lawful rights.
Then Mr. Bandaranaike, in a bid to rectify the injustice caused to the Tamils, decided to implement the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, but it also died a natural death with J.R. Jayewardene taking to the streets in protest. Later when Dudley Senanayake tried to reach an agreement with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the SLFP-led opposition buckled it.
With little or no action taken to address Tamil grievances, southern politicians allowed the spread of ethnic cancer. The new constitution introduced in 1972 by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, instead of addressing the Tamil grievances, made things worse when it did away with the Soulbury constitution's Article 29(2) which protected the rights of the minorities.
This is how the - Tamil problem got worsened over the years and reached its climax in 1983 when an LTTE landmine killed 13 soldiers in Tinnavali in the heart of the Jaffna city.
This infuriated the normally calm Sinhalese who spearheaded an anti Tamil campaign in the South leaving a trail of destruction.
The then President J.R. Jayewardene failed to arrest the situation forthwith because he was under heavy pressure from the Sinhala hardliners in his cabinet.
On top of this, he introduced the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution which required all pubic officials including Parliamentarians to disavow separatism.
This kept Tamil representatives away from Parliament for a long period since they, too, came under pressure from extremist Tamil groups such as the LTTE.
So in the final analysis, one could see that not only one, but all governments and politicians are to be blamed for the present precarious situation prevailing in the country.
The President while having swipes at the opposition leaders in her address to the nation, also called upon all parties to lend her a hand to tackle the ethnic issue.
She singled out the UNP and said she hoped it would not shirk its responsibility at this crucial juncture. She said the UNP would have to prove to the people on which side it was — meaning whether it is with the people or extending a helping hand to the LTTE.
What is important at this juncture is to have a concerted effort to salvage the country from the political and economic quagmire it has fallen into without blaming each other as to who is right or who is wrong.
At the same time, the joint opposition feels it is important to re-open Parliament to discuss urgent issues in the aftermath of the attack on the BIA and the Katunayake Air Force base.
But the PA, suffering from a parliament phobia, would prefer extra-parliamentary methods to get over the problem. In any case, the government is facing a Herculean task in convincing the people that the actions it is taking are in the national interest. But many people are beginning to realise that the motive behind every action of a politician is to remain in power or come to power.
Meanwhile, the joint opposition met on Wednesday at the Mayor's House in the aftermath of the attack. They discussed the need for the resummoning of parliament. A UNP proposal in this regard was shot down by the JVP, which said it believed the prorogation of Parliament was not contrary to the Constitution. However, it said it was opposed to the August 21 referendum and urged all opposition parties to make a joint effort to defeat it.
The JVP's Nandana Gunatilleke suggested that their discussions should be based on an agreed-upon agenda and spoke about the need to challenge the validity of the referendum as it was a clear attempt to by-pass the Parliamentary process in constitution making.
Obviously, a change in the electoral system is not palatable to the JVP. It knows well that it has a sizable representation in parliament because of the PR system with a 5 percent cut off point.
The JVP's opposition to the referendum is quite understandable, but what one cannot fathom is its opposition to the UNP proposal to re-convene Parliament.
In response to the JVP's stand that the prorogation was not unconstitutional, UNP's W. J. M. Lokubandara said the President had allegedly violated Article 42 of the Constitution when she prorogued Parliament at a time a motion of no-confidence against the government had been tabled.
"We have the majority and there is no impediment in convening Parliament," Mr. Lokubandara argued.
Mr. Gunatilleke said: "Can the opposition convince the people that it is not violating the Constitution in going against the prorogation."
The JVP's argument is if the opposition resorts to extra-constitutional methods, it will prompt a similar response from the government side, and eventually, there will be constitutional anarchy.
"All in all, it is a bad precedent that we are going to create if we are to summon Parliament on these lines," Mr. Gunatilleke said.
And that ended the UNP's attempt to force a parliamentary sitting regardless of the prorogation.
When one analyses the stance of the JVP, it appears that it is gradually transforming itself from a law breaking political outfit to a law-abiding political group.
The JVP's passive approach with regard to the resummoning of parliament gives rise to speculation that it had not rejected a possibility of a deal with the government.
At the opposition leaders' meeting, the Sihala Urumaya defended the JVP's stand, saying there was substance in what it said.
Champika Ranawaka who represented the Sihala Urumaya posed the question, whether the opposition could convince the people and get people's support.
As far as the impeachment motion against the President is concerned, all the opposition parties agreed to be signatories except JVP and the SU. These two parties said they would take a decision after going through the draft motion.
The JVP in a tongue in cheek remark said they would see to it after others had signed the motion. It was a discreet shot at the UNP as some of its members deliberately avoided placing their signatures on the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva.
However, the UNP was successful in getting the support of the JVP and the SU for a petition to the President, urging her to resummon Parliament.
A letter to this effect was drafted and circulated among all the opposition party leaders by UNP Whip Tyronne Fernando.
The party leaders who placed their signatures were Nandana Gunatilleke from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Rauf Hakeem from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, V. Anandasangari from the Tamil United Liberation Front, Champika Ranawaka from the Sihala Urumaya, Selvam Adaikkalanadan from the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation and A. Vinayagamoorthy from All Ceylon Tamil Congress.
The letter urged the President to resummon Parliament so as to enable it to exercise its supreme and constitutional power at a time of a national crisis and had alleged that the prorogation aimed at defeating a no-confidence motion against the government is totally undemocratic and an abuse of power by the President.
In the circumstances, it is prudent for the President to resummon Parliament and face the political reality rather than getting into a shell under cover of Constitutional provisions.
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