President Chandrika Kumaratunga's pledge to the government Parliamentary group that she would put the country back on the right track has given a glimpse of hope to the backbenchers who were unhappy with the government's performance over the past few months.
Addressing the MPs on Tuesday the President outlined the government policy and said she would not be able to wage war with the LTTE and bring down the cost of living at the same time.
"We will fight this war to a finish and try to restore normalcy in the country which would help improve the living standards", she said.
Foreign investments would be forthcoming, she said and assured that the government would be able to generate more job opportunities and improve living standards of the people by March next year.
The backbenchers gave a patient hearing to what the President said and are ready to accept their leader's word, since the government is making steady progress in the Northern war front having launched Operation Riviresa II.
But even if the troops re-capture Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu to extend the government's writ over these areas, the pertinent question that arises is as to whether this exercise would put an end to the war against the LTTE.
In the circumstances, no one could expect any government to bring relief to the people in such an atmosphere where the government would not be able to prune down defence spending owing to the ground situation in the North and the East within the next few years.
It will obviously have to deploy troops in large numbers and maintain a very high quality in the armed forces if it is actually interested in holding the North and East.
Though one can understand the President's anxiety in bringing down the cost of living it would be a rather difficult exercise in practical terms.
The backbenchers are naturally a volatile lot who want things done fast. They want the government to maintain high ethical standards in every sphere and this may be the reason they came out strongly against Agriculture Minister D.M. Jayaratne at the group meeting last week in the presence of the President.
The backbenchers led by Hambantota district MP Chamal Rajapakse asked the Minister about a tender to import rice, regarding which an advertisement appeared in the newspapers.
The MPs alleged that the tender advertisement had quoted some prices, a move not regarded as the normal practice.
Minister Jayaratne's reply was not very clear which prompted the President to ask him to give a straightforward answer.
The Minister in turn had to say that he had to clarify matters from the officials concerned.
Minister Jayaratne who is also the General Secretary of the People's Alliance is also engaged in a different exercise these days, that is to keep the quarreling allies together.
He told friends though the President demanded a valid explanation from the LSSP for defying the collective agreement on more than five occasions, he was not interested in calling for explanations.
The Minister told friends that alliances worked in funny ways and it would be difficult for him to practically call for explanations from the LSSP, though the President came out with a verbal barrage at the PA's Executive Committee meeting a week ago.
He said he could explain the matters to the President later when she was in a mood to listen.
His contention was that all verbal attacks which are done at the spur of the moment could not be transformed into action.
Minister Jayaratne knows that such an act would be disastrous for the fragile government which totally depends on its allies.
In this context it is clear now that the President would not make any move which would be detrimental for the existence of the People's Alliance. Nor would she go for an early election though she has threatened to do so on many an occasion.
But now the LSSP is flexing its muscles to demonstrate its strength. After the President's outburst the LSSP has once again defied PA's accord.
When the House moved last Wednesday to take the vote on the extension of the State of Emergency by another month, three LSSP MPs abstained from voting while the LSSP's only Minister Bernard Soysa and Deputy Minister Athauda Seneviratne were not present in the House at the time.
LSSP's Weerasinghe de Silva told the House he wanted it on record that he declined to vote for the extension of Emergency.
Earlier on Wednesday at the party leaders' meeting Speaker K.B. Ratnayake said the LSSP had sought his assistance to have the debating time in Parliament set apart for them.
UNP's A.C.S. Hameed who was present at the meeting said it was a matter for the government since it was a home and home match. However if they couldn't resolve it, Mr. Hameed said, "We are prepared to accommodate them provided they would vote with us." Wijeyapala Mendis quipped "and also sit with us".
The Speaker laughed and remarked, be careful of Mr. Hameed.
Minister Bernard Soysa joined him to say, "Even if you give ten minutes of your time free to me I wouldn't touch it." "Thank you for the compliment," Mr. Hameed replied.
These comments apart, political circles are looking seriously at this development between the President and the LSSP.
Richard Pathirana, the chief government whip, said, "We have one government and that is the PA and all parties which are in the PA are part of the government."
One wonders whether the President would move fast to defuse this storm that is brewing or decide to allow the LSSP to go its way.
The LSSP finds that the privatisation programme of the government covers a wider range of ventures than listed even by the previous so-called capitalist UNP government.
Thus the political scene is changing day after day.
Besides the political rumblings of the LSSP, the other critical issue of the week was the strike action taken by the Government Medical Officers Association, over the merit list of the post interns.
The matter came up before the government group in a big way and the Parliamentarians took Minister A.H.M. Fowzie to task over the matter, but Mr. Fowzie came out with some meaningful explanations.
He said that during the previous government 20 Cuban schols were offered to the students who were eligible to follow courses in medicine and ten of the schols were handled by the Higher Education Ministry while the other ten schols were handled by the Foreign Ministry. But he said ultimately all become government schols whether they were selected by the Higher Education Ministry or otherwise.
However, the Minister said he was prepared to accept the verdict of the arbitrator who is looking into the matter.
The President at this stage suggested that they should await the decision of former Supreme Court Judge O.S.M. Seneviratne on the matter.
The members also criticized Trade Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne for the escalating cost of living.
They accused the CWE authorities of having indulged in malpractices which have in turn resulted in the escalation of prices.
With this the MPs entered into head on collision with Minister Wickramaratne, and a heated exchange of words ensued.
The MPs observed that Minister Thondaman was also present at the meeting. At this juncture Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana announced that the plantation crisis was over and that there would not be a strike by the plantation workers in the near future.
President Kumaratunga had a hearty laugh when Minister Pathirana announced this but Plantations Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake who was a key player in the plantation crisis was not present at the meeting.
Analysts believe that Mr. Wickramanayake whose popularity was at a very low ebb following his decision to support Yasasiri Kasturiarachchi in the Basnayake Nilame stakes of the Kataragama Maha Devalaya has regained his position, after the stand taken by him on the Thondaman issue.
The Mulberry group which mainly comprise backbenchers of the PA has had secret meetings to support Minister Wickramanayake on the plantation issue even if the government tries to sideline him, taking Mr. Thondaman into confidence.
Tamil parties in parliament too came to the rescue of Minister Wickramanayake since he was accommodative and maintained good relations with them. This put Mr. Thondaman into an awkward position unable to solicit the support of the Tamil parties. This move by the Tamil parties also negates the argument that all Tamils support each other when it comes to matters directly related to them.
Minister Thondaman was also of the opinion that the Tamil parties would stand by him on any issue involving Tamils. But now it shows that things are different with the Tamil parties and that they go into merits and demerits of a case without blindly supporting each other just because they happen to be Tamils. In short, Mr. Wickramanayake's ability to hold all the other Tamil parties with him, when a powerful figure such as Mr. Thondaman had thrown a challenge at him was commendable.
Some see this as a very healthy situation as far as Sri Lankan politics is concerned and for once Mr. Thondaman felt that he was isolated.
The UNP was also divided on the issue but was seriously considering whether to support Mr. Thondaman when party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had a meeting with Thondaman (jnr.). Mr. Wickremesinghe emphasized that Minister Thondaman should personally take up the matter and solicit the support of the Tamil parties for the UNP to consider it.
Many UNP bigwigs including Dr. Stanley Kalpage and Susil Moonesinghe opposed the move but former Minister John Amaratunge felt that it would benefit the UNP.
Even former Minister Joseph Michael Perera was also supportive of the motion since he was critical of Susil Moonesinghe who came out with a scathing attack on Mr. Thondaman at the UNP May Day rally at Avissawella.
Mr. Perera who was just behind Mr Moonesinghe when the latter made him speak said that Mr. Moonesinghe was speaking against the party policy.
The UNP once again discussed the Thondaman issue at length at the group meeting last week.
Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said he did not want to be a joker by taking up CWC issue.
He said though Mr. Thondaman was expected to meet him to discuss the matter, the meeting did not take place as scheduled.
At the UNP Working Committee, John Amaratunge said he was misquoted by the newspapers and portrayed as a supporter of Mr. Thondaman, much to his dismay.
In the circumstances, he suggested that a spokesman be appointed to give the newspapers a correct version, but leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said newspapers were free to make their own observations as long as the free press existed. He said that appointing a spokesman would be counter productive.
Now it appears that the UNP is no longer interested in the Thondman affair.
Meanwhile Mr. Thondaman is trying to get at least a Rs. 5 wage increase per day for a plantation worker instead of the Rs. 8.
The government will however agree for an amount of Rs. 4 or slightly more than that, which the plantation companies would agree to give.
The plantation companies had allegedly resisted the payment of this amount earlier. The most important aspect of the matter is that Mr. Thondaman wants to get more than what his rival Mr. Chandrasekaran got for the plantation workers and most important of them all for Mr. Thondaman is that the government should not hold talks with any other trade union other than the CWC.
Meanwhile P. Chandrasekeran, a Deputy Minister of the PA government and who is also a leading Trade Unionist in the estate sector met Minister Wickramanayake to discuss matters relating to the latest developments. Though Mr. Chandrasekaran wanted to meet the President he had not been able to do so and some think that this was because Mr. Thondaman did not want the government to discuss the issue with any other trade union.
The overall effect of the plantation dispute is that it had isolated Mr. Thondaman from the rest of the Tamil political parties.
It helped Minister Wickramanayake to emerge as a strong man of the People's Alliance and a friend of the Tamil parties representing the North and East. The opposition UNP lost an opportunity to put the government in a difficult situation and gain political mileage out of the issue. But it had an opportunity to learn more about the Thondamans who first solicited the UNP's support and dropped the idea of the no- confidence motion when his position in the government was threatened. But some others think that Mr. Thondaman had his way when he met President Kumaratunga recently.
According to them, the assurance given by the President that the matter would be resolved and her commitment to have a continuous dialogue seem to have buried the hopes of Deputy Minister P. Chandrasekaran of becoming the leader of the plantation areas for quite a long time.
They also feel that Mr. Chandrasekaran's stock has dwindled and S. Sellasamy, the former General Secretary of the CWC who was expelled, also seems to have lost his steam making the Thondaman the undisputed king of the plantations.
The pertinent question that arises from this argument is whether the Tamil parties who refused to help Mr. Thondaman have misjudged Mr. Thondaman's strength and capabilities. If this is true, political observers point out that Minister Thondaman would never forgive the political parties from the North and East for having declared support for the government against him.
Meanwhile Mr. S. Thondaman says he has no personal problem with Minister Wickramanayake. "We have maintained our friendship at a personal level," he said. Asked whether he had any political problem with Mr. Wickramanayake, Mr. Thondaman said it could be, but he was not aware of such a thing.
Minister Thondaman categorically denied he sought the help of the UNP to bring the no-confidence motion. "Even if the UNP did not support, we could have brought the no-confidence against the government. "We don't need anybody's help," he told one of our correspondents.
"Eight of our members are sitting in the opposition and they could do what they want. But I am with the government. The no-confidence motion is under some others name and I have not signed this document," he added.
Mr. Thondaman said that it would not be necessary at this juncture to bring in a no-confidence motion against the government. But if the need arises, he said he would not hesitate to do whatever was appropriate in the interests of the plantation workers.
Having solved Mr. Thondaman's problems, the President is looking forward to another military victory in the North but what apparently bothers her is the proposed devolution package. The President reportedly feels that even her Cabinet Ministers are dodging this issue without making public statements that they fully endorse the devolution package.
However, she has thought that all Cabinet Ministers should be available to sell the package to the country and for this she has secured the services of her trusted lieutenant, Mangala Samaraweera.
The task of Minister Samaraweera is to get the ministers to give TV interviews on the issue. For this they got hold of a university don and it was seen that this don is visiting ministers rooms fixing dates for TV interviews.
Minister Samaraweera in Parliament sent messages to ministers saying that they would be interviewed by this university don. Deputy Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle assisted Minister Samaraweera to perform his task. But it is learnt that some ministers have said it is better to talk about points that everybody agrees on, rather than talk about matters the people would not agree.
Now it is clear that the government will face a difficult time trying to sell the package since the rank and file of their own party is divided on the issue.
Amidst all these developments, the parliamentary privileges committee also met last week to go into the matter where certain remarks made by a member of the judiciary in reference to MPs were a breach of privilege.
A breach of privilege issue was raised by former Minister John Amaratunge in Parliament and the matter was referred to a Privileges Committee of Parliament.
This issue sparked off when Justice Nimian Jayasuriya, a member of the Commission probing alleged malpractices on public bodies said on February 29, "We strongly denounce and vehemently deprecate any attempts to dictate to this Commission. Whether it takes the form of juvenile chirpings emanating from parliamentarians hiding behind the cloak of parliamentary privilege or intimidation or dictation from any other more powerful source or quarter. Whatever, we will proceed to discharge our duties and judicial power undeterred and undaunted."
Justice Jayasuriya made these observations when he was referring to certain statements contained in President's counsel K. N. Choksy's written submission to the Commission. Mr. Choksy appears before the Commission in connection with the Hilton case.
The Privileges Committee after having considered the matter raised by Mr. Amaratunge decided to call for the records of the Commission before going into the matter any further.
An exercise similar to this is being performed by a special committee of the government's Mulberry group.
They are going into several charges levelled against Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva in his capacity as a member of the Cabinet.
After a long discussion, they met once again at the PA member Upali Gunaratne's house to discuss this matter in detail.
At this meeting the group focused their attention on Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva's role as a minister in the Cabinet.
Members expressed their views on the minister and discussed the alleged connection between the minister and a UNP Provincial Councillor U. L. Seneviratne who is now in custody.
Some members said they should bring a vote of no-confidence against the minister but others argued that it would put President Kumaratunga into an awkward position. The members who ultimately decided to drop the no-confidence move against the minister, decided to send a petition setting out charges against the minister. They also decided that the President should move to remove him from the Cabinet on the strengh of those charges.
Some members of the Mulberry group allege that they have documentary evidence with them and they are now in the process of collecting signatures of other members to the petition prepared by them.
In another dramatic turn of events, Ports and Shipping Minister M. H. M. Ashraff dropped a bombshell in Parliament on Thursday with regard to the controversial Galle Port tender.
Minister Ashraff during his speech said that most of the important pages in the proposal forwarded by G. L. International, the unsuccessful bidder were now found to have been fabricated in the United States and Colombo. He tabled an affidavit by Susantha Susil Chandra of Battaramulla who worked as Personal Assistant in the G. L. International's Colombo office.
The G. L. International after it failed to win the tender, took the matter to the Supreme Court but later dropped in favour of a UNP sponsored no-confidence motion against Minister Ashraff.
G. L. International's local representative, Jeff Gunawardene is known to Anura Bandaranaike who played a prominent role in bringing the no-confidence motion against Minister Ashraff.
In the meantime, a function was held at the Hotel Lanka Oberoi on Friday where the Letter of Intent was handed over to the successful bidder in the Galle Port Development Project, Mott McDonald/UK China consortium and the jubilant man behind the scenes was businessman M. J. M. Muzamil who worked tirelessly to defeat the no-confidence motion against Minister Ashraff.
But the UNP was not happy with Mr. Ashraff's statement and raised a point of order saying that such a statement would be unfair by the opposition. However, the Speaker allowed the minister to continue the statement and said if the UNP wanted a debate on the matter it could be discussed at the party leaders' meeting. But as it stands today it would be difficult to predict whether the party leaders would agree for another debate on Minister Ashraff's statement.Go to the Situation Report