Political Column
By our Political Correspondent
27th January 2002
The Sunday Times on the Web















Cold war signs emerging

The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is making a relentless effort to bring about a negotiated settlement to the North-East crisis within the frame work of a united Sri Lanka.

His efforts to restore peace in this troubled nation, it is believed, have the backing of a majority of Sri Lankans who are undergoing much hardship due to the 19-year-old separatist conflict.

Many believe that Sri Lankans will be on a better footing if peace is restored in this troubled land. The economy will flourish and there will be solutions to many of its social ills.

However, the path to peace is not a smooth one, as Premier Wickremesinghe has said. There is much spadework to be done before the peace process takes any recognisable shape. The ceasefire is said to be shaky in some areas in the east and at Nagarkovil in Jaffna where security forces and LTTE cadres are eyeball-to-eyeball. Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda was in Nagarkovil last week, trying to resolve a tense situation. 

The LTTE, too, expressed concern over the presence of the security forces at a point dangerously close to its bunker lines. It is learnt, the minister's visit helped to defuse a situation that could have got out of hand.

With Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's policy statement in parliament on Tuesday making clear his government's resolve to solve the ethnic crisis, pro-LTTE sources are floating the so-called Thimpu principles which talk about a two nation theory and a Tamil homeland. Will the government be ready to discuss Thimpu principles which have been rejected by a majority of Sri Lankans, especially the Sinhalese?

Many Sinhalese living outside the North and the East are ready to accept the demand by the Tamils for self governance in the north and east but they are not ready to concede the northeast as an exclusive homeland of Tamils. 

The issue at hand, however, is not Thimpu principles or Tamil homeland. It is about suspending the ban on the LTTE.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's policy statement hinted that the government was moving towards such an event. Many believed the move would come on Tuesday itself, but it was not to be. He is said to be adopting a cautious approach with regard to the deproscription issue because he does not want a major upsurge in the south against the move. He first wants to assure the Maha Sangha that his peace moves would not divide the country. 

The premier asked his loyalists to meet various religious dignitaries. A top-level UNP delegation met the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter while the premier himself met the prelate of the Amarapura Nikaya, the Ven. Madihe Pannasiha Mahanayake Thera. Meetings with a number of other Buddhist prelates and Catholic Bishops were also held. 

UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and Minister Moragoda being in the forefront of these missions are aimed at creating a conducive environment to back up the Prime Minister's policy statement.

The task at home remains difficult, but at an international level, the climate is more favourable to the government. The United States has said that the lifting of the local ban will in no way affect the decision of the State Department. US Ambassador Ashley Wills said that the US ban on the LTTE had no corresponding effect on Sri Lanka since it was not done at a request made by the Sri Lankan government.

Britain and the other western countries have also indicated that the ban imposed on the LTTE in their countries would remain until the LTTE renounces terrorism.

Why is the LTTE so keen on getting the ban lifted? Those who suspect the LTTE's motive says that the rebel group is planning to obtain recognition by the United Nations as freedom fighters. They could achieve this only if the ban is lifted.

But the government is not unaware of these moves. The special peace secretariat coordinated by veteran diplomat Bernard Gunatilleke is studying all aspects of the peace process.

Analysts believe that the government, instead of lifting the ban, may suspend it, pending some substantial progress in the peace process.

The announcement of the suspension of the ban will probably coincide with statements from India and Britain, welcoming it and explaining their position on the ban on LTTE in these countries. This move, which is a result of the diplomacy of the new government, is expected to subdue opposition to the suspension of the ban.

Whatever the government decision with regard to the ban, it should be approved by President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She has fired warning signals to the government, advising the premier to be mindful of LTTE ploys.

She said last week that the government should get more guarantees before sitting down for talks with the LTTE. In her opinion the LTTE would put an endless list of demands. When you agree to one, it will put another and then you agree to that, then it will put a third one," she said.

The President has however, indicated that she would not be a stumbling block on the path to peace.

President Kumaratunga has her doubts about the whole process. She told Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando that though she was willing to help the peace process, the UNP did not cooperate with her during her time to solve the problem once and for all.

As foreign minister, Mr. Fernando has to make frequent visits to the President's House. He is required there every time a new ambassador presents his or her credentials. 

It is said some 30 ambassadors are on the waiting list to present their credentials. Foreign Minister Fernando reminded her of the delay in accepting these credentials when they were in Kathmandu. Some of the ambassadors had waited as long as two years, he told the President. What the President said was if there was a delay it could have been due to elections and related matters.

The President was apparently smarting over the UNP's last minute withdrawal of support to her peace initiative in August 2000. When she met the new Australian envoy recently, she told him that though her party was backing the UNP's initiative, the UNP did not act with a similar spirit with regard to her peace initiative.

Foreign Minister Fernando, who was also present, said the UNP took such a decision because the PA government could not clear the misunderstanding between the two parties.

The Foreign Minister is now busy trying to bridge the communication gap between the President and the Prime Minister.

The President has now agreed to meet the Prime Minister at least once a week to discuss governmental matters. 

It is this communication gap that prevented the local government (special provisions) bill being presented in Parliament, though there were other reasons attributed to it. 

The President also feels that the UNF government is trying to sideline her in government matters though the constitution gives her enormous power as the Executive President.

Answering questions from our sister paper 'Daily Mirror' last week President Kumaratunga elaborated on her role as the President who heads a cabinet from a rival party.

Well at least it is not the role the UNP played when they were in the opposition. They opposed every bit of every step we took to bring in peace. And now they tell me they are gong to use word to word of the constitutional draft I presented to Parliament in October 2000, when they hooted me, abused me, in the filthiest language I have never heard in my life, she said. The President also said that constitutionally she has to be there during the peace talks whether or not she insisted on it.

But the way the government is gong on I don't think they would want me anywhere there.

However she said that she would have to decide later whether she has to inpose herself at the point of time they are having talks with the LTTE.

While the President was pondering her role in the coming years and during the peace talks ¢ she has at least four more years to finish her second term of office. 

Some government members are giving serious thought to the abolition of the executive presidency. Ministers Karu Jayasuriya, W.J.M. Lokubandara, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Rajitha Senaratne and Ravi Karunanayake are said to be in the forefront of this battle against executive presidency.

Mr. Karunanayake is now playing a pivotal role in the UNF government as the minister in charge of consumer affairs.

He is making a relentless effort to arrest the spiralling cost of living but sometimes he has to face stiff resistance from his ministerial colleagues who are more concerned about the plight of the farmer.

The main reason for the present rice price hike is because the Ministers have not taken sufficient notice of the plight of the poor people. It is true that the farmer interests should be protected but it is equally important to maintain buffer stocks to meet any shortfall. Minister Karunanayake made every effort to convince his ministerial colleagues to import sufficient stocks of rice to meet the consumer requirement but in the end the cabinet approved only a consignment of 12,500 tons to be imported by some 170 odd Pettah merchants.

Mr. Karunanayake is now planning a new concept in popularising the CWE among the people. It will soon compete with all modern supermarkets with Tesco styled outlets everywhere in the city and suburbs.

At the UNP group meeting held on Friday, plans were afoot to raise questions about the decision by the government to allow Ken Balendra to continue as chairman of the Bank of Ceylon. But the prime minister, probably aware of this move, gave a long speech, not leaving any room for others to talk.

Several UNF ministers led a march to the Bank of Ceylon just before the general election to hand over a petition, protesting against reported moves by the bank to write off the debts of a London businessman close to the PA leadership.

Some in influential UNP members feel that allowing Mr. Balendra to continue as the BoC Chairman would be a contradiction of their earlier stand.

Similarly they don't want President Kumaratunga around though she has about four years left in her term. Some UNPers think that it would be much easier to move the president out through the abolition of the executive presidency rather than through an impeachment motion which is an arduous process.

The abolition of executive presidency is also not an easy task. It not only requires a two thirds majority in parliament but also requires people's consent at a referendum as it involves their franchise.

Will the UNP move towards abolishing its own creation? Surely the PA which came to power with a solemn pledge to abolish the executive presidency may not take it so kindly since it is the only foothold it has now to control the UNF government. 

In the circumstances, the concept of cohabitation and cooperation may not work effectively if the UNF moves towards impeaching or abolishing the executive presidency.

However, it appears now that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is trying to mend fences with President Kumaratunga simply because such a policy is absolutely necessary to find a lasting solution to the ethnic crisis.

President Kumaratunga addressed the PA parliamentary group meeting last week where she stressed the importance of working together for success.

We must show our courage and strength in defeat, the President told her parliamentarians. She said she hoped her party members would not be lured by huge sums of money and positions offered by the UNP. "The UNP had always been doing this. Conspiracy is part of their political game. Some of our own people fell into this trap and betrayed the party," she said.

Sarath Amunugama raised queries about press reports that Mahinda Rajapakse had been appointed as the leader of the opposition with the resignation of Ratnasiri Wickremanayake from that post.

Mr. Rajapakse dismissed these reports as erroneous and said the party had not taken any decision to this effect.

President Kumaratunga took this opportunity to reminisce services rendered by Mr. Wickremanayake. She said that in 1977 after the defeat of the SLFP government, Mr. Wickremanayake did a great service to the SLFP in keeping it together as a political force.

He made so many sacrifices when people dared to see the colour of the SLFP headquarters, she said.

During the infamous referendum in 1982, Mr. Wickremanayake was jailed and nearly 3000 of our party activists languished in jail and that's how they remained in power, the President reminded her party people.

The UNP's desire to impeach the President or abolish the executive presidency, and the President's speech at the PA group meeting clearly show that both these parties may once again follow a path of confrontational politics. This would not augur well for the country at the time the government is trying to resolve the ethnic crisis.

CBK's evasive action

President Chandrika Kumaratunga appears to have taken evasive action without making a policy statement in Parliament preceded by a formal opening.

The tradition demands the President to formally open Parliament after the first sitting which is meant for the election of Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman of Committees.

But in this instance, the President had conveniently evaded the issue and the burden of making a policy statement fell on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Of course, it would be difficult for the President to say that the country is on the brink of bankruptcy financially.

The present constitution stipulates that the President is the head of the Cabinet and now she is facing the difficulty of criticising the government policy.

If she does so, she has to resign from the Cabinet. But when the constitution demands, the President, as the head of the Cabinet, has no alternative, but to resign as the President, if she criticises the cabinet.

It also could be a ground for impeachment. As the head of the Cabinet, the President is bound by the concept of collective responsibility.

Another school of thought, however, states that the government should have invited President Kumaratunga to make the policy statement of the new UNF government, which she would be compelled to do.

Situation Report
Return to Editorial/Opinion Contents
Political Column Archives


Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to
The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.