The Political Column

22nd December 1996

You’re hiding behind sari pota, angry Srimani tells Ashraff

By Our Political Correspondent

It was the final session in parliament and Speaker K. B. Ratnayake was about to take the general vote on the Budget after concluding the committee stage.

Almost all members had taken their seats when the Speaker moved for the vote. Minutes before that, Minister Srimani Athulathmudali rushed into the chamber to take her seat next to Minister M.H.M. Ashraff.

Ms Athulathmudali apparently had lost her cool and was in an angry mood. As soon as she sat near Mr. Ashraff she fired a salvo, “You think you are the beginning and end of everything”.

Minister Ashraff knew that it was directed at him. He said “Don’t shout, why are you shouting at me? This is not the place for you to raise these matters.”

The exchange between the two Ministers hardly reached the press gallery above the well of Parliament since the microphones of the members had been switched off as the Speaker moved to take the final count of the vote.

The exchange was centred on the manner in which the Ministry of Ports and Shipping handled shipping policy.

Ms. Athulathmudali did not stop at that, she said “You think you can have your way in all these things”. Some Ministers including Health Minister Fowzie and Fisheries Minister Indika Gunawardena closely watched what was going on.

“Now.... wait...... this is not the place to raise your voice, the President had asked me to expedite the matter,” Mr. Ashraff replied.

“You think.... you know everything you are hiding behind the sari pota,” Ms. Athulathmudali snapped back.

At this stage Indika Gunawardena intervened to ask Ms. Athulathmudali “Madam why are you losing your cool?”

As Ms. Athulathmudali turned towards Mr. Gunawardena, Mr. Ashraff left the chamber. That ended the clash.

It was on the same day, that a Cabinet Sub Committee appointed to formulate a national shipping policy was scheduled to sit. But for reasons unknown to others, Ms Athulathmudali moved for a postponement. That morning she telephoned the other members of the Sub Committee Ñ Ministers C. V. Gooneratne, Bernard Soysa and Indika Gunawardena- seeking a postponement.

Accordingly, Mr. Gunawardena and the others moved for a postponement just before the meeting was due to start. Mr. Ashraff had no option, but to put off the meeting and schedule it for January 2. But he was not happy. Feeling that the formulation of the policy had been delayed unnecessarily. He wondered whether it was a deliberate attempt by some interested parties.

The meeting scheduled for December 13 was to work out the final draft which was formulated after long deliberations and consultations with the National Development Council and the Shipping Industry.

It was only a few days ago that President Chandrika Kumaratunga directed him to expedite the matter and later Mr. Ashraff met the President on December 9 to apprise her of the progress.

The meeting at Temple Trees was fruitful in that the President approved the final draft.

On Friday as soon as the Ministers in the Committee moved for a postponement, Mr. Ashraff telephoned the President to inform her of what happened. That apparently led to the verbal clash in Parliament.

When the President heard about it, she was reportedly unhappy. She told Mr. Ashraff, she would bring up the matter at the next Cabinet meeting on January 02.

This reminded Mr. Ashraff of a similar scenario where he and his Deputy Minister presided over a Committee to expedite the award of the Galle Harbour development project which eventually led the UNP to bring a no-confidence motion against the Minister.

But on this occasion Mr. Ashraff is not so concerned since no finance is involved.

His concern is that even after two years his Ministry has not been able to formulate a national shipping policy.

He still remembers the sentiments expressed by President Kumaratunga when he was put in charge of the Ports and Shipping Ministry. The President told Mr. Ashraff, “I consider you to be an honourable person”.

Initially Mr. Ashraff thought that he couldn’t do anything for his people by taking charge of the Ministry, but the President told him, that he would even have a Port in the East.

Soon after he assumed duties as the Shipping Minister, Mr. Ashraff thought he should formulate a National Policy and spent the past two and a half years devoting time for this purpose.

After having drafted a final document on the shipping policy he sent a copy to the Treasury for observations before submitting to the Cabinet. The document was also circulated among the relevant ministries including the Ministry of Fisheries, Transport and Industries.

After having received the observations of the ministries, a Cabinet paper was drafted and the Treasury had no objection to it.

But at the request of Ms. Athulathmudali the Cabinet paper was referred to a Cabinet Sub Committee for further discussion.

The decision was taken on May 23, 1996 and a committee comprising Ministers M.H.M. Ashraff, Srimani Athulathmudali, C. V. Gooneratne, Indika Gunawardena and Bernard Soysa was appointed.

At its first meeting on June 24, Ms Athulathmudali raised the following points:

(1) The Shipping Ministry should initiate a dialogue with the Shipping Industry before formulating a national policy.

(II) Sufficient discussion had not been held with the officials of the Transport Ministry on the matter.

(III) The policy document had not focused sufficiently on the subject of ship repairs.

(IV) The policy document be referred to the National Development Council.

Mr. Ashraff at this stage clarified the position and stated that the document was prepared after fulfilling these requirements and after due consultation with the relevant sections.

However, after accepting Ms Athulathmudali’s request the document was once again referred to the National Development Council chaired by Presidential Economic Advisor Lal Jayawardena.

Meanwhile, the Ministry also took steps to consult the other relevant parties as requested by Ms Athulathmudali.

Since the National Development Council delayed sending its observations to the Ministry, the Minister directed Secretary M. M. Junaid to write to the NDC.

Accordingly, a meeting was summoned to discuss the outstanding issues and finally the observations of the NDC were received in August.

A series of meetings were held thereafter to expedite the matter and to put the final touches to the draft policy paper.

The last meeting of this was scheduled to be held in the morning of December 13, but put off once again at the request of Ms Athulathmudali.

During the Ashraff-Athulathmudali clash in Parliament Minister Mangala Samaraweera was in his room. When he learnt about it later, Minister Mahinda Rajapakse was also with him when he commented, “She thinks that she is going to be the next President of Sri Lanka. This is the problem with her”.

But sources close to Ms Athulathmudali say she has no intention of supporting the national shipping policy. A DUNLF spokesman said she would not stand in the way, but need some clarification.

“The problem with Mr. Ashraff is that he is trying to push his way through,” he added.

But it appears that Mr. Ashraff had not taken it lightly. He feels that somebody wanted his project sabotaged. So, soon after he went home on Friday, he dictated a letter expressing his sentiments and despatched it to the President with copies to the members of the Cabinet appointed Sub Committee.

In that letter Mr. Ashraff gave a detailed report of what took place since he decided to draw up a National Shipping policy.

Though it looks that the clash between Ms. Athulathmudali and Mr. Ashraff would come to an end soon, there are other problems brewing within the People’s Alliance.

The Democratic United National Front (Lalith) faction headed by Ms. Athulathmudali has written to the General Secretary of the People’s Alliance that in deciding on candidates for the forthcoming local elections, the Alliance should consider the number of votes polled by the DUN(L)F in the 1994 Provincial Council elections.

The DUN(L)F has pointed out that it polled nearly 750,000 votes and the number of candidates from its party should be determined accordingly.

It also has expressed the view that it wants to go it alone in certain Pradeshiya Sabha areas, but everything is open for discussion.

Similarly other parties such as the Ceylon Workers Congress and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress also will arrive at an agreement with the government as to how they should contest the local elections.

The CWC is likely to ask the PA to contest under its symbol in certain areas such as Badulla district, while in other areas CWC will contest under the PA symbol.

In the East it is likely the SLMC will play a dominant role.

But the recent Deeghavapi issue has created problems for the SLMC.

In the latest development, the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) Chairman Devapura has challenged Minister Ashraff to a debate on the matter.

In a fax to Mr. Ashraff Mr. Devapura said an ACBC team and Minister Ashraff’s party could take part in the open debate to clarify matters on the Deeghavapi land distribution controversy.

At the time the fax was received at his home Mr. Ashraff was out and his wife telephoned him to convey the message.

Mr. Ashraff told his wife to telephone the ACBC office and tell them to send the original letter stating he would not act on faxes. He said he was not interested in any debate on the matter but would like to have a dialogue.

Accordingly, Mrs. Ashraff informed the ACBC office of Minister’s response, but it is not clear whether they would hope a further dialogue on the matter.

On Tuesday December 10, the ACBC held a demonstration outside its Bauddhaloka Mawatha headquarters accusing the Minister of taking land from the sacred Buddhist Deeghavapi area and giving it to settlers.

But Mr. Ashraff hit back in a television and radio statement that night accusing the UNP of trying to fan communal tension over the Deeghavapi issue alleging that there were three or more UNP members at the demonstration held by the ACBC.

The other important issue of the week is the removal of the Justice and Constitutional Affairs Ministry Secretary Dharani Wijetilleke.

Ms. Wijetilleka had on another occasions earned a name for her abilities as a good administrator but had fallen from grace since she has had some problems with Minister G.L. Peiris.

When one Cabinet colleague asked Dr. Peiris about her removal his reply was short “She was stubborn”.

The misunderstanding between the Minister and the Secretary had taken place after some Law graduates of the Colombo University had been recruited to the Ministry for various jobs.

They apparently formed a iron curtain between the Minister and the Secretary making things difficult for Ms Dharani Wijetilleka.

However, one reason for the removal would be that Ms Wijetilleka referring a matter to the Treasury seeking money to repair two Ministry vehicles which had met with accidents.

The controversy that ensued could have probably led to the removal of Ms Wijetilleka, but it appears she is unaware of the actual reason, as to why she was removed.

In a separate development former Janavegaya leader Kumar Rupasinghe, now working for International Alert, had met President Kumaratunga to facilitate talks between the government and the LTTE.

Mr. Rupasinghe has apparently put forward a suggestion similar to the Sierra Leone model when the International Alert had been successful in getting the feuding parties there to the negotiating table.

Apparently Ms Kumaratunga has not expressed any objections to the move by Mr. Rupasinghe to facilitate such talks.

Mr. Rupasinghe is likely to go to the north first, to initiate a dialogue with the LTTE and hopefully work out modalities.

It is reported that one of Mr. Rupasinghe’s brothers who is a committed Marxist had established close links with the LTTE and that Mr. Rupasinghe will use these links to get to the LTTE hierarchy.

Mr. Rupasinghe also met UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on the same issue.

The UNP leader apparently had no objection but told Mr. Rupasinghe laying down conditions for the talks was left to the government.

Meanwhile the UNP had moved to fill the vacancy created in the Western Provincial Council by the death of Davindra Vijeya Mendis the son of Chief Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis.

The UNP has decided that the next man in line should be appointed and Deva Wanawasa is likely to be nominated.

Originally when the matter was discussed, Wijeyapala Mendis insisted that a person who could face the political challenges in Negombo should be appointed to fill the vacancy, and proposed the name of Lalindra de Silva an attorney at law and a relative of Mr. Mendis. But John Amaratunga opposed the move and supported Deva Wanawasa.

Subsequently a committee was appointed to determine as to who should be appointed. Gampaha district leader Anura Bandaranaike was invited on several occasions to serve on the committee, but he kept away apparently to avoid any dispute with either party. Finally Deva Wanawasa was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Davindra Mendis.

The UNP also had its annual convention in Kalutara and believes it is gaining ground in rural areas.

The current cost of living and problems in generating employment had paved the way for the UNP to carry out an effective campaign, thus making the youth population to rally round the UNP once again, party officials say.

Amidst all these political moves the government is making an attempt to arrest the cost of living. But the attempt has proved futile without proper organisation and lack of coordination.

The Ministerial Cost of Living Committee which met recently presided over by Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickramanayake organised a meeting with Pettah traders. The purpose of the meeting was to explore ways to bring down the Cost of Living and especially to reduce the price of rice.

The Ministers were there for the meeting by 7.00 o’clock, but till around 7.30 p.m. they did not observe many traders turning up for the meeting. Finally the Ministers decided to talk to the traders who were already there, but to their dismay they found only two traders were present out of the 30 odd supposed to have been invited.

Though the meeting was put off by another half an hour or so nobody turned up. The Ministerial Committee comprising Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Kingsley T. Wickramaratne, D.M. Jayaratne and Deputy Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle finally got down to their work with the two traders who were present. But within five minutes of the meeting Minister Jayaratne excused himself, saying he had to go for some urgent work.

They spoke about everything from Basmathi rice to par-boiled and white raw rice, but could not find a solution.

The traders and the Ministers also spoke about the CWE franchise shop, while Minister Wickramaratne invited the traders to join the super dealer system introduced by the CWE.

However the Ministers wondered as to why the other traders did not turn up for the meeting. On inquiries it was found that most of the traders had not been informed properly of the C-O-L Committee meeting.

A similar meeting was held with the representatives of the Multi-Purpose Co-operative Societies but little came out of it.

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