The Political Column

16th September 2001

Problems not over yet for PA

By our Political Correspondent

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Tuesday's attack on the Twin Towers of the New York World Trade Centre is be ing described as the worst terrorist attack in history.

The attack has been universally condemned. Britain, the closest ally of the United States along with other western countries took immediate steps to express their solidarity with the sole super-power in its hour of grief and horror.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also took immediate measures to evacuate people from high-rise buildings in London and to close down the main airport Heathrow and to summon Parliament for emergency sessions. This is how the West reacted when America's main commercial city was hit by a terrorist attack.

Most of the Americans, including President George W. Bush, speechless at the unfolding horror of a single terrorist attack, realised the gravity and the magnitude of the attack.

US President George Bush who later came to the White House following the attack on the Pentagon, the nerve centre of the US Defence System, vowed to hunt down the perpetrators of this heinous crime.

For once, one could question what was the US intelligence network doing or were they complacent that no missile or aircraft could come near the Pentagon? Is the US unable to protect its own defence establishment against international terrorism? It appears intelligence agencies and sophisticated security equipment had been at a loss when this thundering attack on New York and Washington took place.

The immediate reaction was that somebody had declared war on the United States. It could be Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident living under the protection of Afghanistan's Taleban rulers or any other West Asian terrorist group. The Talebans were a byproduct of the US policy on Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

The US policy in West Asia also contributed towards a sense of bitterness and rancour among people of West Asia. Might is not always right. Millions of Iraqi people are suffering due to the US-manipulated UN sanctions. The people are punished because the US and the West want to punish Saddam Hussein.

If the attack on the Twin Towers in New York is interpreted as an attack on humanity as claimed the world over, then the same should be said about the hardship and harm caused to the poor Iraqi people, including children, by the United States and its allies.

One realises the magnitude of the problem only when it comes to his or her doorstep. The terrorists have struck on the doorstep of the US administration. It is time for Americans to rethink and treat all equally if they are to be regarded as the world superpower.

The US and Britain now realise the need to stand firmly against terrorism. This is a welcome move. The whole world should stand jointly against this menace which could ruin the very foundation of civilisation. When developing countries like Sri Lanka were hit by terrorism, the Western and regional powers turned a blind eye.

It's a welcome move that the world is now showing a united resolve to defeat terrorism. But at the same time they also must think of an intelligent response to address the root of terrorism. That should only come if universal principles of human rights and justice are practised.

The world community should ensure justice is done to the Palestinian people and other oppressed people irrespective of any pressure from Jewish or other lobbies in America.

The perpetrators of Tuesday's terror attack will be tracked down and brought to justice. In the meantime countries which are lenient towards terrorists groups should also take a lesson from the Manhattan mayhem. Britain and Canada are two countries which still offer a haven for terrorist groups such as the LTTE in spite of legislation in the former country.

In this backdrop, the LTTE should act wisely and enter into talks with the government because any more terrorism could be harmful to its very existence.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga has on several occasions called on the LTTE to come to the negotiating table. The government's latest offer comes in spite of a PA-JVP deal, which calls for the suspension of peace talks for one year or until the LTTE drops its Eelam demand.

Elaborating the JVP position, Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa told a meeting in Embilipitiya that what they meant was that the government should not bring any constitutional package to sate the thirst of the LTTE. But there was no obstacle for any talks with the LTTE.

It is time for the government and the LTTE to realise the international environment and enter into a dialogue aimed at solving this problem once and for all. The UNP bears equal responsibility in this respect as the largest opposition party.

Sri Lanka has been suffering for the past two decades because successive governments failed to address this problem effectively. President J. R. Jayewardene came very close to doing it when he took the courageous step to devolve power to the provinces through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution amidst widespread opposition from the SLFP, the JVP and a host of Sinhala groups.

Due to political immaturity and lack of preparedness to get used to a new model of governance, the true implementation of the 13th Amendment did not take place, prompting the LTTE and Tamil minorities to reject it totally.

Today, the immediate concern of the government should be to solve the North-East problem. If we do not find a solution to it, the country would not be able to achieve its socio-economic goals.

It is unwise to think that the people are not geared to accept a solution within a united Sri Lanka granting self-autonomy to the Tamils. Such a solution is possible if politicians desist from gaining narrow political objectives in opposing it.

As the situation stands today, the government essentially needs the help of the UNP if it is to resolve this problem effectively. For this the government is now trying to find a conduit to talk to the UNP again. The meeting between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem has paved the way for this.

The government appears to be uncomfortable with the JVP alliance largely because a series of conditions hamper its programmes, including the peace process. The Monday evening meeting between the President and the SLMC leader lasted for about 90 minutes and it took place with the knowledge of opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. A.L. Athaullah, Abdul Cader and Basheer Segudawood were the other members in the SLMC delegation. Incidentally, it was these three SLMC MPs who urged Mr. Hakeem to meet the President.

Mr. Hakeem reportedly declined an invitation to join the government but said he would back the government's peace moves. He is reported to have told the President that he could act as a catalyst in solving the most critical and burning issue of this country, the ethnic problem. But Mr. Hakeem insisted that if his party was to accept the devolution proposals, it was imperative that Muslim aspirations were also addressed.

Mr. Hakeem's assurance to support the government in its efforts to solve the ethnic crisis is a good sign because it would not keep the President tied down by the PA-JVP deal. Mr. Hakeem may well be the conduit for President Kumaratunga to talk to the UNP. This could offer her a way out of the political crisis as well. If she could achieve peace with the support of the UNP and the SLMC, her party can be in a stronger position at the next elections.

Meanwhile, the four dissident ministers S. B. Dissanayake, G. L. Peiris, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Mahinda Wijesekera on Thursday wrote a joint letter to the President, announcing their resignation from the cabinet and their wish not to accept any portfolios in the future.

In defence of their position, the four ministers said that one of the reasons for their decision was that they felt the government was facing difficulties to reduce the number of cabinet ministers to 20 from 44 as per the PA-JVP deal. Secondly, they said that the disputes and arguments with the President over policy matters had caused pain of mind to them. Thirdly, the deal with the JVP hinders a viable solution to the ethnic problem. Fourthly, the PA government has not been able to create conditions conducive for investments and private sector establishments and to create an atmosphere beneficial to the masses.

The ministers were also of the opinion that the government could not accomplish the aspirations of the people during the past seven years. They said that the PA came back to power after languishing for 17 years in the opposition. They also see a serious drawback in the administration and the management of affairs of the PA government. However, they say it is not too late even now if the PA resolves to rectify these shortcomings. The government could do this by indulging in self-criticism and look retrospectively at the work they have accomplished so far. The ministers who resigned said that their aspiration was to see that the government fulfill the aspirations of all communities in the country.

They say they will remain members of the Parliament and support the government through constructive criticism and to encourage the government to take steps which are favourable for the existence of community.

While the ministers had opted to resign from the cabinet, President Kumaratunga had reportedly told her confidants that dissidents would not be reappointed to the 20-member cabinet. However, she has said that they could remain as MPs and support the government and no disciplinary action would be taken against them for alleged misconduct.

On Thursday afternoon, when Mr. Dissanayake was getting ready to sign his letter of resignation at his office, SLMC Colombo district leader A. J. M. Muzammil walked in. Mr. Dissanayake said, "You have arrived at the correct time. I was waiting for the auspicious time to sign the letter of resignation."

After signing the letter, Mr. Dissanayake wanted to take it to Prof. Peiris, Mr. Fernandopulle and Mr. Wijesekeera.

Mr. Muzammil told the minister: "You will achieve greater heights in your life because you are resigning for a cause." He hugged and congratulated him. The dissidents after signing their letters went to their ministries to bid farewell to their staff.

The UNP believes now that these four ministers have resigned, they will definitely support it at the no-confidence motion against the government. The UNP is now counting on dissident PA members to determine whether it has the required number.

While all this was happening, JVP's Nandana Gunatilleke met Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to finalise the draft on the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment envisages the setting up of four independent commissions for the Police, elections, the judiciary and the Public Service.

The UNP also had its contribution to the 17th Amendment through a committee headed by Karu Jayasuriya and including Tyronne Fernando and K.N. Choksy. UNPers claim it was their party which proposed these commissions for the first time at their 1995 annual convention in Kataragama. The UNP will extend its fullest cooperation to the four commissions since, in its opinion, it would be difficult for an opposition party in Sri Lanka to be certain of a free and fair election.

The government at the moment is exploring possibilities of having a broader electoral arrangement with the JVP if it fails in its endeavour to go ahead meaning if it encounters problems such as no-confidence motions and defections.

But it appears that the government will have no immediate problem for the moment at least because some UNPers think that they have missed the golden opportunity to form a government of consensus.

In another development, it is said Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte came under heavy fire from district organisers of two provinces when they met with the President for a briefing last week. Most of the organisers turned their guns on Gen. Ratwatte and later the President had to summon Nimal Siripala de Silva to bring the situation under control and to convince her organisers as to what they should do at this critical juncture. They all pledged their support to the President, but could not come to grips with Minister Ratwatte in a similar incident that took place when D.M. Jayaratne summoned some organisers for another briefing.

Correction

The Sunday Times in its political column on September 2 inadvertently reported that Minister Mangala Samaraweera handed over a list of 12 names (the nominees of the PA cabinet) on the last day of the PA-UNP talks to UNP Chairman Charitha Ratwatte to be handed over to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Minister Mangala Samaraweera was not involved in the said transaction. The error is regretted.

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