The Political Column

27th October 1996

PA rides out a stormy sea

By Our Political Correspondent

The dispute between President Chandrika B. Kumaratunga and SLMC leader, M. H. M. Ashraff has been resolved.

It had erupted when the President rejected a proposal by Minister Ashraff to set up a circuit bungalow in Oluvil where the Minister wants to build a new Eastern Port.

When this matter was discussed at Cabinet level the President rejected the proposal and Ashraff reacted angrily.

It was followed by a verbal duel in which Mr. Ashraff raised his voice to say that the Oluvil Harbour project was a pledge given to him by the President when he was offered the Port and Shipping portfolio two years ago.

The President's reply was equally tough. She told the Minister she had expected him to develop the entire East and not only Ampara.

But the main reason behind the furore was not Oluvil or the circuit bungalow, but the President's decision to hand over the Queen Elizabeth Quay to the P & O Shipping Corporation of Australia on a BOOT basis.

The Cabinet Paper concerning this matter was prepared by the Board of Investment (BOI) Chief Tilan Wijesinghe.

Minister Ashraff who took objections to the original Cabinet paper prepared by the BOI moved major amendments to it to the dismay of the BOI and the President.

He told officials and friends that neither the President nor Tilan Wijesinghe would come to Parliament to answer the queries and that he would have to face all the problems. He said he had proposed changes to suit the local conditions and protect the workers.

Mr. Ashraff said there should be more talks before the deal was finalised. The President feels the discussions held already are enough and conclusive.

The President is annoyed that Minister Ashraff has amended many clauses in the Cabinet paper which they had decided on earlier. She has told close associates that Mr. Ashraff's amendments were drastic. She also feels it would be a serious impediment to foreign investors if the government lays down more conditions as proposed by Mr. Ashraff.

As the P & O matter was the real cause of the dispute, it was difficult to understand why the President had rejected a proposal to set up a circuit bungalow in Oluvil after the Cabinet had approved a massive sum for the feasibility study to be carried out in Oluvil for the proposed harbour in the East.

Towards the end of the Cabinet meeting held on Thursday October 17, Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne walked up to Mr. Ashraff and told him, he should not have spoken to the President in that manner. Mr. Ashraff replied, "I admit I raised my voice, but what I told the President remains."

But before leaving, Mr. Ashraff made it a point to walk up to the President to apologise. "I am sorry - I had to raise my voice," he said.

The matter didn't end there. By Sunday almost all the newspapers carried a detailed account of what took place at the Cabinet meeting and Mr. Ashraff sprung into action once again.

He telephoned his erstwhile lieutenant M. M. Zuhair who also works as the Secretary to the SLMC Parliamentary Group and informed him of his intention to summon an emergency meeting of the politbureau and the SLMC Parliamentary Group.

Minister Ashraff told Mr. Zuhair that he wanted to summon the General Secretary of the SLMC, Rauff Hakim and Deputy Minister Hisbullah who were at that stage participating in a seminar in Northern Ireland. After obtaining the telephone numbers from Mr. Zuhair, Mr. Ashraff called Mr. Hakim in Northern Ireland, but the telephone call went to the room which UNP member Karunasena Kodituwakku was occupying. Mr. Hakim was woken up by Mr. Kodituwakku to convey the message.

Later Mr. Ashraff got through to Mr. Hakim and told him to return to the country with Mr. Hisbullah on the next available flight.

Mr. Ashraff explained to him the developments that had taken place and said the SLMC politbureau should take a decision whether they should continue in the government as Ministers.

EPDP leader Douglas Devananda who was also in Northern Ireland participating in the same seminar, having learnt about the developments, telephoned Mr. Ashraff in the night and advised him to be patient. But Mr. Ashraff explained the conflict and said he would leave the matter to the politbureau.

By Monday afternoon, most of the SLMC MPs were in Colombo for the crisis meeting where they decided to boycott the government Parliamentary group meeting held that evening.

Later, they decided to boycott and abstain from voting in Parliament when the crucial Public Enterprises Rehabilitation Bill came up on Tuesday.

Mr. Ashraff conveyed the decision of the SLMC group to Chief Whip, Richard Pathirana.

However, Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi who sensed that something was wrong in the relations between the PA and SLMC went into action from Sunday evening.

Initially, he called Mr. Ashraff seeking an appointment and they decided to meet on Monday at Mr. Ashraff's residence. The Minister explained the circumstances that led to the outburst at the Cabinet meeting. Mr. Balapatabendi indicated that the President would be willing to talk to the Minister over these issues and settle the matter amicably. Accordingly they decided to meet the President on Wednesday before the Cabinet meeting. Simultaneously businessman and controversial political broker A. J. M. Muzammil on hearing of the dispute between the President and Minister Ashraff rushed to Minister S. B. Dissanayake's residence on Sunday and told him to intervene.

He pointed out if the SLMC pulled out of the PA, the President would have to totally depend on the Tamil parties.

Mr. Muzammil said it would be equally important for the SLMC to remain in the government as a party which helped to build the People's Alliance.

On Monday Mr. Dissanayake called Mr. Ashraff and told him the matter could be resolved amicably. Mr. Ashraff said it would be more useful if they could meet and discuss the matter rather than talking over the telephone. Mr. Dissanayake immediately visited Mr. Ashraff for a full discussion.

Mr. Ashraff told Mr. Dissanayake that everybody, including Mr. Dissanayake, President Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike became prominent politicians because of the political foundation the SLFP built for them.

Mr. Ashraff said "You, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike came up in politics because of the SLFP." "There was a ready foundation on which you could build on, but in my case I built the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and that is the difference between you and me."

Mr. Ashraff said he could not destroy the party he built with great effort and sacrifice. At the same time, he said he would not be a party to destroy the People's Alliance he helped to build two years ago. He said he would not leave the People's Alliance (PA) even if he had to sacrifice his Ministry.

At the SLMC Parliamentary group meeting and the politbureau meeting later, Mr. Ashraff explained the circumstances that led to this development.

He said when he accepted the Port and Shipping portfolio the President had told him that she had allocated one of the most important portfolios to him.

I told her that I did not know how it could help in my politics, then she told me that you could develop a port in Oluvil.

Speaking about the Oluvil issue and the Circuit Bungalow he explained that a massive sum had been allocated by the government for a feasibility report to be carried out. The engineers, project planners and investors have to visit Oluvil but there was no proper house in the area for them to stay for their work.

The Minister also mentioned about the P & O issue and how the Port Trade Unions including the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) headed by Bala Tampoe were agitating against the move.

At the end of it, the Parliamentary group and the politbureau decided to stand firmly behind Mr. Ashraff.

However, they decided the Minister should attend Wednesday's Cabinet meeting in a bid to defuse the tension between the government and the SLMC. Mr. Zuhair emphasised the need for a dialogue, while defending their position and then helped to arrive at a decision which is not detrimental to the PA or the SLMC.

On Tuesday morning Deputy Minister Alavi Moulana and Minister Mahinda Rajapakse also visited Mr. Ashraff to pursuade him to go to parliament and vote with the government on the PER Bill.

Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana and PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne too called him urging the SLMC should vote with the government. Mr. Ashraff declined. This forced Minister Pathirana to call everybody possible, thinking that the government would fail to push the bill through parliament.

The government moved even to bring Deputy Minister P. B. G. Kalugalle who is a member of the Srimani Athulathmudali led DUN(L)F to bring him from his sick bed and keep him in a car at the members' entrance to parliament to use his vote if it was required to get the majority.

But when the government felt the Bill could be pushed through comfortably, he was asked to go. There were parliamentary aides available at the premises to carry him upstairs if the necessity had arisen.

Mr. Kalugalle expressed his willingness to come to parliament despite his meeting with Ravi Karunanayake of the DUN(L)F who visited the former to inform him of the decision taken by DUN(L)F politbureau to abstain from voting. Not only Deputy Minister Kalugalle but Deputy Minister Monty Gopallawa also defied the decision taken by the DUN(L)F.

It is likely that the DUN(L)F would now take desciplinary action against Mr. Gopallawa.

When the Tamil parties learnt that the SLMC would not support the government they were present in full strength in parliament to vote with the government except for those who were away in Northern Ireland.

Tamil parties which had differences with the government over the Northern problem were obviously trying to capitalise on the SLMC's rift with the President. Problems have arisen between the SLMC and the small Tamil parties and they are attacking each other. It has taken more or less the face of a cold war between the Muslims and the Tamil political parties especially in the East.

When all this was taking place the President was out of Colombo on a holiday. Many people speculated as to where she was. Some said she was in Kandy, but the presidential party was seen enjoying the scenic beauty of Kandalama on Tuesday. She apparently took a stroll around the plush Kandalama Hotel to see the beautiful surroundings. She spent almost the whole day in Kandalama and may have remembered as to how the PA made a big fuss over the hotel project when President Premadasa was keen to see the project getting under way. Leaving apart, one of the broken promises, she did not forget to call Minister S. B. Dissanayake on Tuesday.

The two discussed the problems concerning SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff.

The President told Mr. Dissanayake she had the highest regard for Mr. Ashraff. "I don't know why he should get upset. There is no reason for this sort of controversy, you go and speak to him," she said.

On Tuesday evening Minister Ashraff was seen at a reception hosted by the Libyan Ambassador in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike also participated.

As Minister Ashraff entered the reception hall, Ms. Bandaranaike asked him whether he forgot to come to parliament that morning.

Mr. Ashraff who looked more relaxed than on Monday, smilingly replied "Madam I had a hiccup and had to take plenty of water to get over it". Everybody there laughed and had a good time in a relaxed atmosphere until Health Minister Fowzie came out with a strong statement at the dinner table in the presence of Ms. Bandaranaike.

Mr. Fowzie said if he failed in his bid to get all government doctors to sign the attendance register at least by the beginning of November, he would quit as the Health Minister.

Others at the table wondered what would happen. But Mr. Fowzie seems to be determined and confident that he could implement his proposal.

However the discussion over the doctors did not take a prominent place in the face of SLMC - PA controversy, and a very few people knew that Mr. Ashraff was to celebrate his 48th birthday the following day.

On Wednesday before the SLMC politbureau meeting, Mr. Ashraff cut the birthday cake amidst greetings and best wishes from his politbureau members who expressed solidarity with him.

But by noon the Minister had a pleasant surprise when he received a bouquet of roses and carnations with greetings from none other than President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Apparently the President had chosen to express her sentiments. She acted swiftly and timed it well, which helped her to defuse a situation.

Mr. Ashraff, happy with the President's magnanimous gesture reciprocated it by attending Wednesday's Cabinet meeting.

However Mr. Ashraff was half an hour late for the meeting. The President arrived soon after him.

The President made it a point to greet him brushing aside what took place the previous week, but did not refer to any matter in question.

At the end of the meeting when Mr. Ashraff was about to leave the President asked as to whether he could wait for another few minutes since she wanted to talk to him.

Along with Mr. Ashraff, Ministers Lakshman Kadirgamar and G. L. Peiris also stayed back to talk to the President.

During this brief meeting Mr. Ashraff's main complaint to the President was that he could not get an appointment with her before the Cabinet meeting on the 16th instant.

She explained that she had not got his message requesting a meeting and that she had been in Kandy and the only message she received was from Minister S. B. Dissanayake who wanted to meet her on a personal matter.

Mr. Ashraff's contention appeared to be that some officials had sent a petition to the President on the Port of Colombo and that the President was acting on that. The President however denied this and both decided to meet over the weekend to iron out the differences.

Besides this Mr. Ashraff was invited for dinner on Friday night at Temple Trees where the President was to meet some World Bank officials. In the meantime Minister Richard Pathirana inquired as to whether Mr. Ashraff could send his members for the parliamentary sessions. But Mr. Ashraff said they would attend parliament only after consulting the politbureau.

The extended sessions of the SLMC politbureau on Thursday decided that the SLMC parliamentary group should take part in parliamentary proceedings.

They also arrived at a decision after SLMC leader Ashraff had initial talks with the President on Wednesday that differences do exist in a democracy, but they feel that disclosures of Cabinet, proceedings is illegal and immoral.

The SLMC is of the view that it was an attempt to bring discredit to both the President and Mr. Ashraff and this forced the Minister to summon the politbureau and take action accordingly.

At the same time Mr. Ashraff has moved to withdraw the controversial Cabinet paper relating to the development of Queen Elizabeth Quay.

President Kumaratunga who planned to award this project to the P & O of Australia drafted a Cabinet paper based on her discussion.

The Cabinet paper which was prepared originally by the BOI was amended by Mr. Ashraff which would be termed as the root cause for the problem between the President and Minister Ashraff.

Finally now Minister Ashraff has decided to withdraw this paper giving way to the President's proposal and the President is likely to allow Minister Ashraff's Oluvil project.

At the government group meeting held on Monday, many people spoke about the weaknesses of the government. They said the government machinery was still being run by the UNPers.

MPs Mahalekam and Benette Cooray spoke on these lines.

Mr. Cooray said nearly 3000 people in Kandy had secured employment in the Petroleum Corporation while no opportunity had been given to the youth in his electorate though the oil refinery and other main petroleum installations are located there.

Ratnapura firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakkara said though it was the practice to hold a government group meeting at least one month prior to the Budget to discuss issues involved, this time they were going to hold it just two days prior to the Budget. In the circumstances, Mr. Nanayakkara said it would be better to hold it after the Budget. As Mr. Nanayakkara made these observations the MPs roared with laughter, but there was poor attendance at the government parliamentary group with only about 30-40 members present.

DUN(L)F member Ravi Karunanayake spelt out dangers facing Sri Lanka's economy with the introduction of the Public Enterprises Rehabilitation Bill. Though its scope has been limited only for six months, it was earmarked to re-structure 43 public enterprises privatised by the previous regime.

He said the most dangerous feature in the bill was the move to entrust all powers with the President, though the People's Alliance had come to office with the solemn pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency.

Mr. Karunanayake also spoke about the phospate deposits in Eppawala and said that an American company was to acquire it soon. He said if this phospate was marketed locally the local farmer would be benefited. Though foreign firms and investments are welcome the phospate deposits at Eppawala could have been diverted to subsidise the local farmer, he said.

At this stage Minister Indika Gunawardena asked Mr. Karunanayake as to who was sponsoring him and Minister C. V. Gooneratne also posed a similar question. But Mr. Karunanayake said he would not do business in politics and was only concerned about the poor farmer. It will only benefit the government and not me and we should look after the farmer in the national interests he said.

Minister Srimani Athulathmudali also spoke and said the cycle of violence unleashed by political thugs was most disturbing. She said they supported the PA and the PA came to office in a bid to restore normalcy and not to allow this disturbing trend to continue.

However Minister Athulathmudali was absent from the Wednesdays Cabinet meeting while some ministers tried to dub her as one of the moles in the Cabinet.

The UNP parliamentary group and the Working Committee met as usual during the week.

At the parliamentary group meeting of the UNP held at the Parliamentary Complex on Monday, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe briefed the MPs about his visit to Germany, Switzerland and Britain. He said he had briefed the representatives of the three governments about the UNP's stand on the Devolution Package. He had told them that with regard to outside mediation it would not be practical. Any third party mediation would not succeed. India had tried earlier and that too was not a success.

He also said he had spoken to the representatives of the three governments about the growing violence in the country and said that the government had not taken any positive steps to stop the violence that is being promoted at UNP meetings. He said the government, unable to fulfil its promises was now reluctant to face criticism from the Opposition. He also told the group there was concern about the Rehabilitation of Privatised Enterprises Bill.

At the Working Committee, Mr. Wickremesinghe advised the MPs and members not to get involved in some of the recent attempts to promote casteism. He said certain castes were now trying to organise themselves as powerful blocs. The discussion arose as a result of the latest meeting of members of a powerful caste at Narammala headed by a Deputy Minister. The discussion at this meeting seems to have been that in view of the numerical strength of this caste which is spread all over the country. If united it would be able to dictate terms to the SLFP and the UNP. It would be remembered earlier too there was another group which met in Colombo with some of the Ministers in the present government and MPs from the UNP.

The Working Committee also discussed the position with regard to the growing violence at UNP meetings and how these destructive tactics should be combatted.

A statement on this issue was also issued by the DUNLF. It said:

"The New Democratic United National Lalith Front is deeply perturbed over the high incidents of political thuggery and violence which seems to be the current trend prevailing in various parts of the country.

Our party has been victimized by much violence and political terrorism in the past. Therefore, at the last general elections, we joined the People's Alliance platform to eradicate this culture of blood and violence from our society. This was one of our prime objectives.

Today, we reiterate our commitment to ensure that all citizens have the right to democratically engage themselves in their political activities devoid of any forms of violence. We earnestly urge the authorities to act firmly without favour against those who indulge in and promote political terrorism, irrespective of their political affiliations."

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