The Political Column

25th February 1996

Squabbles and Summit Bubbles

By Our Political Correspondent

Though the country was eagerly awaiting the outcome of the meeting between President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on the vital national question, it once again ended in a stalemate situation.

The problems between the two parties are manifold but one would have hoped that these impediments would have been swept away in the face of this all important national issue.

The reluctance of the leaders of the two major parties to arrive at a consensus on a national question places the country at continued risk.

As it appears today, what appears obvious is that the two parties are yet playing politics with the future of the country, its people and its economy at stake.

If the leaders do not agree on a common programme and if they fail to come on a common platform to address this burning problem, it would only push the country deeper into crisis.

Hours before the Chandrika-Ranil meeting an alliance of five Tamil parties met a UNP delegation to discuss the proposed political package.

The five parties which have arrived at a broad consensus to work with some understanding, wished to persuade the UNP to support the merger and drop the UNP's stand on the unitary concept.

They pointed out that the UNP government after the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987 merged the North and the East to be one unit which continued until 1994. They urged the UNP to consider a merger at least for the first term of the regional councils.

Though the UNP temporarily merged the Northern and the Eastern provinces on the premise of holding a referendum to decide on it finally, the referendum was never held due to various reasons. The referendum was postponed from time to time under emergency regulations.

Unitary State

The other sensitive point for the UNP was Article 2 of the Constitution which stipulates that the republic shall be a unitary state. The five Tamil parties which discussed this point came out with a clever idea, that the Mangala Moonesinghe Committee which was appointed with the blessings of the UNP had recommended extensive devolution on the lines of the Indian model.

The Tamil parties pointed out the Indian system did not have what was stipulated in Article 2 of the Sri Lankan Constitution.

If the UNP was prepared to implement the Mangala Moonesinghe Committee proposals, why should it emphasise on Article 2 (unitary nature) now, the Tamil parties ask.

They feel that if the UNP could change its stance on these two matters it wouldn't be difficult for the government to go ahead with the proposed political package.

Amidst these questions posed by the five Tamil party alliance the much expected meeting between the President and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe took place on Wednesday.

The outcome of the meeting amounted to nothing except the voicing of pious good intentions.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, though he agreed that the government should take every possible step to put an end to the present problem, told the government that he would put this matter before the party's Parliamentary group and the Working Committee before taking any decision.

He said The UNP's proposals would be made known to the Select Committee which is scheduled to discuss the devolution package from March 07.

It was Minister G.L. Pieris who did the talking most of the time while Mr. Wickremesinghe gave a fair hearing.

The UNP's position appears to be that the government should arrive at a consensus among its constituent parties before asking for the views of the other parties.

Before the Chandrika-Ranil summit at Temple Trees, the UNP leader had to wait for nearly 30 minutes sipping tea and talking to Minister Pieris.

The two leaders agreed to meet again but nothing positive came out of their meeting.

More than the national problem, party problems keep the UNP leader occupied.

The latest problem appears to be the dispute between the Chairman of the UNP's National Integration Committee, Tyronne Fernando, and former Minister Nanda Mathew.

Mr. Fernando came on TNL's Janahanda programme last Monday and explained the UNP's position on the ethnic issue. Questioned by the interviewer on the internal squabbles in the UNP, Mr. Fernando defended steps taken up by the party leader to remove several working committee members from the UNP's apex body.

He described this as the leader's efforts to clean up the party. Mr. Mathew who watched this programme was angry over the manner Mr. Fernando defended the UNP's action. Immediately, an angry Mr. Mathew telephoned Mr. Fernando to demand what right he had to say what he did about other members.

Mr. Mathew said if the party hierarchy thought anybody was corrupt, there should be specific charges.

Mr. Mathew warned Mr. Fernando he would give an interview to the Rupavahini to reveal what he knew about the latter.

Mr. Fernando tried to explain, but Mr. Mathew went on firing salvos at him and banged the phone.

The matter came up in the Working Committee too when both ex-Ministers, Mr. Mathew and A.M.S. Adikari raised it.

They went to the extent of asking for permission to play the video tape if the Working Committee wanted to view it.

Their view was that no one other than the party leader or the general secretary should officially speak on party matters.

At this juncture, former Constitutional Affairs Minister K.N. Choksy referred to a circular issued by the party to this effect.

The dispute between Colombo Mayor K. Ganeshalingam (UNP) and Councillor S.A. Yaseen (UNP) is also causing problems.

Mayor Ganeshalingam has apparently directed his officers to earmark the entrance leading to the residence of Mr. Yaseen near the Depot Police at Thimbirigasyaya to put up trade stalls there.

Mr. Yaseen, a soccer chief, did not keep quiet. He contacted former UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray, who tried to get in touch with Mr. Ganeshalingam. Before that could happen Mr. Yaseen telephoned Highways Minister A.H.M. Fowzie and asked him to settle the matter.

Mr. Fowzie gave him an assurance that he would look into the matter.

But when Mr. Fowzie called Mr. Ganeshalingam, the Mayor said he would have to go ahead with the stalls, since the Depot Police wanted the Council to remove some trade stalls put up along the road by the side of the Police for security reasons.

Mr. Fowzie told the Mayor that he would take up the matter with the Police and asked the Mayor not to go ahead with the building plan near Mr. Yaseen's house.

Mr. Fowzie also told the Mayor he would be sending him a copy of the letter the Minister would be sending to the Depot Police in this regard.

Some of Mr. Yaseen's friends asked him as to why he went to a People's Alliance Minister to settle a dispute between two UNPers. Mr. Yaseen did not give a proper response.

Mr. Yaseen recalled that a year ago, the Municipal Councillors had a battle with Mr. Ganeshalingam over his decision to allow the PA to hold its May Day rally at the Town Hall grounds.

When they took up the matter with the UNP hierarchy, it was settled but to the dissatisfaction of the councillors. This may have been the reason for Mr. Yaseen to go to Minister Fowzie rather than a UNP leader.

Not only in the UNP, disputes and squabbles are hitting all parties.

Last Tuesday's meeting of the People's Alliance also took place in a volatile atmosphere. The DUN(L)F delegation headed by Minister Srimani Athulathmudali had a long-drawn argument with Minister S.B. Dissanayake.

A determined Ms. Athulathmudali argued against the new concepts for a "United Sri Lanka" and insisted the government should not in any way drop Article 2 of the Constitution which specifically states that the Republic of Sri Lanka is a Unitary State.

At this juncture, President Kumaratunga made a surprise move by putting forward a document reported to have been signed by late Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake along with the SLFP President, present Prime Minister Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike during the time the opposition brought a motion in Parliament to impeach the late President, R. Premadasa.

The document envisaged most of the proposals included in the devolution package put forward by the government, the President said.

She said the leaders had agreed even to a re-demarcation of provinces to devolve power.

Ms. Athulathmudali was seen on Tuesday arriving at the venue armed with a copy of the Indian Constitution.

Collective Responsibility

However, the President told the DUN(L)F that if they had any grievances or did not agree fully with the package, they could put forward their proposals to the Select Committee.

Minister M.H.M. Ashraff disagreed, saying if that was allowed, "you are not in a position to say these proposals are coming from the People's Alliance or the government."

As Minister Ashraff aired his view about the whole exercise, the vociferous Youth Affairs Minister S.B. Dissanayake rose to his feet. He said, "I am blaming the President for this. Parties in the Alliance could have diverse views. But when we take a common decision after much deliberation it should be the bounden duty of all the parties concerned to defend it."

"Partly it is your fault," Minister Dissanayake told the President and said that there is no discipline in the government Parliamentary group.

He said some members of the constituent parties were all out to embarrass government Ministers, though being in the same alliance. They posed embarrassing questions in parliament.

"They could very well ask these questions personally or in the government Parliamentary group without putting the government into difficulty. This goes on unabated, for them to get some sort of publicity."

When Mr. Dissanayake said that the Cabinet had approved the package on devolution of power, Ms. Athulathmudali challenged him saying the package had not been approved by the Cabinet.

Mr. Dissanayake snapped back, "I am talking about discipline."

"If somebody fails to defend the government's decision as a Minister, he or she should quit the Cabinet - that's what is called collective responsibility."

"If no action has been taken against such Ministers the fault lies with the leadership."

"I know you all have different proposals. Minister Ashraff has some proposals. Even I do, but when the PA takes a decision you will have to abide by it," he said.

Ms. Athulathmudali who was patiently waiting for her turn, said the People's Alliance had not taken a decision on the package.

With Ms. Athulathmudali's comment, Minister Dissanayake said, "all should take a vote on the matter" and said "if we take a decision you all will have to abide by it or go. We shouldn't allow these delaying tactics." With this the Minister left the floor leaving others to discuss the remaining matters.

Later, they all agreed that the representatives sit as a committee and decide before March 7 on the outstanding issues.

Accordingly, the party representatives agreed to meet as soon as possible in a bid to arrive at a consensus regarding the unresolved issues.

The committee will comprise Minister G.L. Pieris, D.M. Jayaratne, M.H.M. Ashraff, Srimani Athulathmudali and Parliamentarians Ravi Karunanayake, Kesara Lal Gunesekara, Batty Weerakoon and Raja Collure.

At the meeting President Kumaratunga also answered some of the issues raised by Parliamentrian Ravi Karunanayake.

On the issue of retaining more power with the centre, the President said if corrupt people were elected to the provinces, it would be a matter for the people to take a decision on them.

"How can you give an assurance that the next President will be an honest person. You cannot say anything about these. That depends on how the people would react," she said.

As the meeting ended inconclusively with more matters to be resolved, the government is planning to present the set of proposals to end the ethnic problem, to the Parliamentary Select Committee on March 7.

It was common knowledge that the government deliberately bought time to put the matter before the Select Committee until the Zodiac calendar indicated that the Saturn's affliction is over.

With the Saturn's move on February 16 to Pisces most of the top government officials, including Ministers went in search of astrologers to find out what the future holds for them.

Ministers and VVIPs even held "poojas" to invoke blessings on them as the LTTE threat was looming large in Colombo.

This threat has even compelled the President to take a decision whether she should remain at Temple Trees, the official residence meant for the Prime Minister, anymore.

Plans were, however, afoot to renovate the "Bank House", the official bungalow of the Governor Central Bank at Bullers Road for this purpose. This also would facilitate the traffic flow on the Galle Road which is at present diverted to many other roads, causing untold hardship to the people.

With this decision the Prime Minister is likely to move into Temple Trees as she prepares for her 80th birthday on April 17.

There are elaborate plans to celebrate the birthday of the world's first woman Prime Minister on a grand scale with a felicitation rally at Nittambuwa. The government will also launch a project to build a children's hospital in Kandy to mark this occasion. Several other decisions have been taken, including a pleasant surprise for the grand old lady.

With all these events taking place, the Ministers met for their weekly meeting on Thursday at Temple Trees. But the President was not there for a good part of the meeting, making herself only available at the last moment.

At this meeting Ministers discussed an issue relating to NGOs, where the government sought to include a state representative to their governing bodies.

In Parliament, UNP MP Vajira Abeywardene had taken this matter up and canvassed against it.

Minister S.B. Dissanayake also expressed his disapproval over it and ultimately Minister Fowzie who initiated the bill had to withdraw it on the instructions of the President.

After the Thursday's 90-minute Cabinet meeting, the President was seen talking to the Ministers.

In a separate development the President has also expressed her dissatisfaction over certain people holding high public office when she met with some of her Ministers.

One such occasion was the President's discussion with Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake over the affairs of AirLanka Ltd. But some people believe all these moves are intended to clinch the party (SLFP) presidency from Sirima Bandaranaike.

Recently, Ms. Bandaranaike has expressed her dissatisfaction over the affairs of the party and told several senior Ministers that every step should be taken to protect the SLFP and revive it.

The present problem seems to be the government's decision to run a parallel organisation, the "Sudu Nelum Viyaparaya" to push the thinking of the President and promote peace efforts virtually neglecting the SLFP branch organisations throughout the country.

The President emphasised the need to change Chairmanship of AirLanka Ltd. But the Minister said it was the President who appointed the present Chairman. The President was quick to reply "It was your prerogative but since you did not appoint anybody, I had to do so."

The Minister looked on for a while with amusement but kept quiet since he did not want to get involved in an exchange of words. But he knew exactly as to what took place during that period.

Another important institution where the President wanted a reconstitution of the Board of Directors, is Lake House. Minister Senanayake has already written to the Public Trustee informing of his plan to reconstitute the board since Lake House formally comes under the purview of the Public Trustee.

Not only Minister Senanayake, Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne was also told to do the same. But he said it would be rather difficult to do so since all his appointees were party supporters.

But Minister Wickramaratne had something special to tell the Cabinet some weeks ago that his Ministry's company Milco was to sign an agreement with Amul of India to develop the milk industry in Sri Lanka.

However the Minister's plans came to a grinding halt when a company called Eastmate filed a case in the District Court of Colombo seeking an order restraining Milco from signing the contract.

The company said they owned 51% of the shares of the Milco and sought this order to prevent Milco from doing anything prejudicial to it.

When the Court issued an interim order, the Minister was faced with a difficult problem.

It was true that Milco was earmarked for privatisation during the previous regime. Though it changed hands there were procedural problems and once again it came under the purview of the government.

Minister Wickramaratne's next move was to check as to where the assets of Milco lie and he found that they were still with the Treasury. So he moved fast to put up a Cabinet paper seeking the approval of the Cabinet to sign the agreement with Amul and set up a new joint venture. For this purpose, the Minister formed a new company called Kinya Milk Industries Ltd. which was approved by the Cabinet. The papers were immediately sent to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India, Mangala Moonesinghe, who signed the agreement with Amul of India.

QEQ Development

When several Ministers are faced with problems of how to deal with writs and injunctions, Minister Wickramaratne has avoided such problems to push his plan to develop the milk industries.

The Minister's efforts to get foreign partnership and investments to the country at a time of crisis, are appreciated.

The President herself has also taken a personal interest in getting foreign investments to Sri Lanka.

Her efforts were fruitful when the renowned P & O of UK agreed to invest in the development of Queen Elizabeth Quay.

The government on Tuesday issued a letter of intent to this joint venture consortium headed by Peninsula and Oriental Containers UK and Peninsula and Oriental Navigation Australia Pvt. Ltd. for the development of the Queen Elizabeth Quay at the Colombo Port on a build own and transfer basis.

The whole project will cost around 950 million US dollars and the local partners will be John Keells Holdings and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

At a time of political uncertainty in the country the government has appreciated the magnanimous gesture of the P & O, UK, which would most probably encourage other big investors to come to Sri Lanka.

P & O Corporation Chief Lord Sterling was in Colombo for the occasion, and he was hosted to dinner by President Kumaratunga on Tuesday. The dinner went on till the early hours of Wednesday.

Among the guests were Minister Ashraff, Ports and Shipping Secretary M.M. Junaid, Keells Chairman Ken Balendra, Central Bank Chief A.S. Jayawardene and others from the shipping circles in Colombo.

Lord Sterling, a one time advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, told President Kumaratunga that she was a courageous lady who had the strength and vision to take an unprecedented step to solve the ethnic problem in the country.

He said the other leader who took such an initiative was President J.R. Jayewardene who was forced into such a situation.

Lord Sterling told the President she was much like the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who led Britain on a new course when she held the premiership for13 years.

Lord Sterling said only dedication and commitment could push the country above all the problems to emerge victorious in this crisis.

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