The Political Column

16th February 1997

Bullets after bullets hit UNP

By Our Political Correspondent

The local political scenario took a violent turn last week, as a horrible election killing took place in Ratnapura.

Slain in the shocking incident was young Parliamentarian Nalanda Ellawala, a prominent PA MP in the district.

Shortly after this killing, angry mobs, most of them obviously PA supporters, attacked and burnt shops in the Ratnapura town.

As events got out of hand, the government called in the armed forces. But by that time more than forty shops, including a filling station were gutted. Finally, a curfew was clamped.

The government and the opposition were quick to issue statements condemning the killing of young Ellawala, but people knew that it was not an isolated incident but a continuation of the violent political culture that emerged in 1988.

Nowadays in Sri Lanka violence is synonymous with politics and at the 1994 election the people voted the PA to office with the hope of putting an end to the gun culture. But it has flared again from time to time and the slaying of young Ellawala is part of the vicious cycle.

One cannot forget the violent incidents that occurred during the recent past, starting from the slaying of former Ratnapura Parliamentarian Athula Attygalle. Though a private land dispute was given as the cause for the death, there is a widespread belief among the people in Ratnapura that PA elements were behind the killing of Attygalle.

Has the government been able to hold a fair and an impartial inquiry into that murder?

No one will deny that the PA came to office with the solemn pledge of restoring the democratic rights of the people. Now the pertinent question is as to how far the PA has been able to act on that promise.

What is pathetic behind the whole thing is to note that most of the Sri Lankan politicians are trying to gain personal benefits out of these rather than look at them from a national point of view.

Last year's Negombo incidents where five UNP supporters were killed by thugs obviously linked to the PA, provide another example of the government's lethargy in upholding the rule of law, above party politics.

Breakdown of law

The inaction behind all these events has reached a culminating point that there appears to be a breakdown of law and order in the country which would ultimately result in anarchy.

No doubt there are people who get a morbid pleasure through these killings and some believe that the slaying of Mr. Ellawala and the incidents that ensued would boost the lost morale of the UNP.

If that is the case, there may be a lot more to follow making the country once again, a virtual killing field.

However, others think that the immediate sympathy would go to the PA that it could beat the UNP through a sympathy vote. Yet we should not forget that the electorate is more mature than this and the era of casting votes on emotions is over.

It had been a peculiar phenomenon in South Asian politics to give vent to emotions and place faith in dynasties, but in Sri Lanka this is gradually fading away - a good sign of political maturity.

Therefore, the forthcoming local elections would be crucial for both the PA and the UNP to test their strength.

Both parties are engaged in backstage maneuvering in the country's political chessboard trying hard to shift blocks of votes.

The latest in this effort is the PA's success in baiting former Colombo Mayor Hussain Mohamed to join its ranks in the campaign for control of Colombo.

A close examination of what is taking place in the PA shows there is an ongoing battle between the two main Muslim factions headed by SLMC's .M.H.M Ashraff and the SLFP Muslim leader A.H.M. Fowzie.

The defection of UNP's ex-mayor Hussain Mohamed to the PA is an indication of a battle for supremacy between Ministers Ashraff and Fowzie.

When it was published that Mr. Fowzie was behind the defection of UNP's Treasurer and Colombo Mayor K. Ganeshalingam, Mr. Ashraff had a thought-provoking meeting with some of his close associates where they felt that the SLMC also should go for a big catch like Mr. Ganeshalingam.

The SLMC's argument would be though Mr. Fowzie could get Mr. Ganeshalingam he could not attract a sizable Muslim vote for the PA. In short Mr. Fowzie desperately failed in his effort to get former Chairman of the CWE and popular Muslim politician Yaseen better known as football Yaseen to contest under the PA-backed independent list for Colombo.

Behind-the-scene manoeuvring

In the meantime, Mr. Ashraff set his plan in motion and employed one of his close associates to rope in somebody "big" from the Muslim community. Accordingly, behind-the-scene manoeuvring took place which resulted in Hussain Mohamed, son of UNP .stalwart M. H. Mohamed, calling one-time Chairman of the National Apprenticeship Board A.J.M. Muzammil on Monday morning.

However Mr. Muzammil was not surprised by his call since he was a frequent caller, but Hussain made somewhat an unusual request from him. "Could you kindly fix an appointment for me with Minister Ashraff"?

For a moment Mr. Muzammil thought that Mr. Ashraff's plan had worked and he promptly said "OK - I will call him now."

He immediately called Minister Ashraff to tell him as to what had taken place.

"Let him come, we'll see," replied Mr. Ashraff.

But things calmed down for a moment and once again on Tuesday morning, Mr. Muzammil received a second call from Hussain. "I want to come and see you" and he was immediately asked to come. He arrived at Mr. Muzammil's house with Mohamed Imtiaz who was denied nomination from the UNP for Colombo.

"I want to sever all my connections with the UNP and I want to join the SLMC and support the PA independent group for Colombo. If you could give an introduction to Mr. Ashraff that would be enough for me," he said.

Mr. Muzammil once again called Mr. Ashraff and the reply was to bring Hussain immediately to his house.

When Hussain Mohamed arrived at Minister Ashraff's house he was well received and taken into Minister Ashraff's confidence.

"I would like to advise you sincerely. Don't join any political party now. You have to join to strengthen President Chandrika Kumaratunga's hand in her effort to find a solution to the ethnic crisis."

Hussain Mohamed readily agreed. At this stage Minister Ashraff made it a point to call the leader of the PA-backed independent group K. Ganeshalingam. When Mr. Ganeshalingam was informed of the latest addition, Mr. Ganeshalingam said, "If Hussain is contesting I am prepared to share power with him. I would resign after the first year as the Mayor and pave the way for him."

But Mr. Ashraff said, "My advice to Hussain is not to contest, let him resign from the UNP and field one of his men from the PA-Independent list."

After his conversation with Mr. Ganeshalingam Mr. Ashraff called Minister S. B. Dissanayake also to inform him of the latest moves. Within minutes, S. B. Dissanayake was seen at Minister Ashraff's house chatting with both Mr. Ashraff and Hussain and planning their strategy to win the Colombo Municipal Council.

While Minister Dissanayake was talking to Hussain Mohamed, Minister Ashraff made it a point to call Temple Trees. After having learnt that President Kumaratunga was in Attanagalle, he directed a Personal Assistant of the President to inform her of the latest political moves.

Around 2 p.m. Minister Ashraff invited Hussian Mohamed to have lunch with him. While they were enjoying the food, President Kumaratunga telephoned Minister Ashraff.

The first question posed by the President was as to whether Hussain Mohamed had laid down conditions.

Ashraff said "He is resigning from the UNP and supporting you without any conditions".

Simultaneously Hussain Mohamed received a call from Sirikotha. It was UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya who invited him to come there but Hussain declined politely.

"I am sorry, I have made up my mind. I will stand by my decision." As Hussain finished his conversation with Karu Jayasuriya he observed that Mr. Ashraff was engrossed in a long discussion with the President.

At the end of the conversation the President told Mr. Ashraff, "I will call Mr. Ganeshalingam and Mr. Fowzie and make a request to accommodate Hussain's candidate, Mohamed Imtiaz in the PA- independent list."

The defection of Hussain

On hearing the defection of Hussain Mohamed, Deputy Minister Alavi Moulana also arrived at Mr. Ashraff's house to greet him.

Mr. Ashraff also called Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva who told Mr. Ashraff emphatically "Don't let him go."

Soon after the initial discussion was over, Hussain indicated that he has to draft the letter of resignation to be sent to UNP General Secretary Gamini Athukorale stating his desire to resign from the Western Provincial Council too.

Hussain Mohamed was elected to the Western Provincial Council at the elections held in Mid 1993, when the UNP was under the leadership of President D. B. Wijetunga.

As per Hussain's request, Minister Ashraff assisted him to draft a simple but a straightforward letter to the General Secretary of the UNP. It read :

"I write to inform you that I am resigning forthwith from the membership of the United National Party and the seat in the Western Provincial Council for which I was elected by virtue of my party membership.

I have no other option but to sever all my connections with the party in the light of certain developments within the party which in my opinion are not in conformity with the founding principles and the ideals of the United National Party.

You will no doubt appreciate that this decision had nevertheless been a difficult one to take, given my long association with the party and the various elected offices I have held as its member.

I wish to also take this opportunity to thank most sincerely all members past and present for whatever assistance or encouragement they gave me in my political career as a UNPer".

By 3 p.m. the same day SLMC MP Asitha Perera arrived at Mr. Ashraff's residence and he was entrusted with the task of taking Hussain Mohamed to Mr. Ganeshalingam's residence for a meeting with Mr. Fowzie and others which was scheduled for 5 p.m.

But at 5 p.m. when they contacted Mr. Ganeshalingam's residence they found that Mr. Fowzie had not arrived at Mr. Ganeshalingam's place.

Further inquiries revealed that Minister Fowzie was busy despatching a medical team to Ratnapura to attend to Nalanda Ellawala who was lying in a critical condition at the Ratnapura General Hospital.

In view of the situation prevailing in Ratnapura the meeting with the President was also put off for Friday since everybody was busy attending to various functions involving the funeral of young Ellawala.

On hearing that Nalanda was seriously injured, his mother Suranganee Ellawala desperately tried to get through to Minister Fowzie and his Deputy Pavithra Wanniarachchi to ask for urgent help from Colombo.

The government acted promptly and despatched a helicopter to take Nalanda Ellawala down to Colombo for urgent surgery, but when the helicopter arrived, the medical team attending Nalanda informed those who were there that they urgently need the services of a cardiologist since his heart had begun to fail. When arrangements were underway to despatch Dr. Thenabadu from Colombo, Nalanda breathed his last sparking off a wave of violence in Ratnapura.

Minor incident

All this took place over a minor incident somewhere in Eheliyagoda when Nalanda's vehicle allegedly cut into a UNP procession coming towards Eheliyagoda from Ratnapura.

Former Minister M.M. Abusally was also travelling down to Colombo at the same time from Balangoda, when his car came to a halt at Eheliyagoda because of a heavy traffic jam. He alighted from his vehicle to see as to what was going on.

Then he saw the duo wanted by the Police in connection with Nalanda's death, Parliamentarian Susantha Punchinilame and Ex-Mayor Mahinda Ratnatilleke.

They walked up to Mr. Abusally and told him what had happened. They wanted to go back and confront Nalanda Ellawala's crowd. Mr. Abusally pleaded with them not to create trouble which he said would affect the party's image. "All that you should do is to make a complaint at the nearest police station and proceed to your respective destinations."

He held on to them for quite sometime for Nalanda Ellawala to proceed further so that there wouldn't be a problem.

After a conversation which lasted for a few minutes Mr Abusally proceeded to Colombo thinking that nothing untoward would take place.

But the vehicle procession had apparently gone back and confronted their rivals.

Reports say shots were fired from the vehicle in which Nalanda was travelling and provoked the UNPers to retaliate but the UNP headquarters was awaiting independent reports on Wednesday evening to determine whether they would take any kind of disciplinary action against Susantha Punchinilame and Mahinda Ratnatilleke .

Soon after the incident Susantha Punchinilame drove himself to Sirikotha but after that nobody knew his whereabouts.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe first heard about the incident involving Nalanda Ellawala at his office in Sirikotha while perusing the nomination papers.

He tried to get through to Mr. Punchinilame immediately but failed. When he heard that Nalanda had died following the shooting incident he expressed his grief and told others who were there that Nalanda was a young politician with principles and had a good future.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said when the UNP held a rally in Ratnapura some PA supporters tried to unleash violence, but at that time Mr Ellawala was abroad. As soon as he came down, he called me and said he was not a party to what took place in Ratnapura during the UNP rally.

Around 7 p.m. Mr Wickremesinghe saw Susantha Punchinilame at the UNP headquarters. When he inquired as to what happened he said, "there was a clash, they opened fire at my vehicle, I was also shot. Fortunately, I was wearing a bullet proof vest which saved my life."

Subsequently Mr Wickremesinghe directed Mr Punchinilame to go and see his lawyers and take steps accordingly.

After sometime, Susantha Punchinilame's mother came on line to talk to the UNP leader. She said they were being harassed by PA supporters and were unable to stay in Ratnapura.

Around midnight Susantha Punchinilame appeared before Mr Wickremesinghe once again. "Why are you here," Mr. Wickremesinghe asked.

"Sir, my brother is missing and my mother had fled Ratnapura. I do not know anything about their whereabouts."

"I will find out all that for you. You take legal advice and act accordingly," Mr Wickremesinghe replied.

"The party will face problems because of your action. The image we have built for two years has been ruined".

Mr. Punchinilame at this stage said he had to go to hospital because his blood pressure has gone up. "I want to look after my relatives who are being harassed by the PA supporters. With this Mr. Punchinilame left Sirikotha and disappeared into the darkness. Now the government has offered Rs. one million each to anybody who could provide any information about Mr. Punchinilame or Mr. Ratnatilleke.

The UNP Working Committee too met on Friday and the discussion on the Kuruwita incident took priority. After protracted talks the Working Committee decided to suspend the membership of both Susantha Punchinilame and Mahinda Ratnatilleke (an ex-SLFPer) pending inquiry.

Letter of resignation

At this meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe referred to the tragic incident at Ratnapura and the untimely death of Mr. Ellawala.

As the leader of the party, he said he had decided to suspend both Mr. Punchinilame and Mr. Ratnatilleke.

He said the suspension would be in force until the case against them was heard.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also read out a letter sent by Mr. Punchinilame where he states that he would like to refrain from all party matters until this case was fully gone into and his innocence proved.

Subsequently the Working Committee discussed the letter of resignation of former Colombo Mayor K. Ganeshalingam from the UNP.

At this stage A. C. S. Hameed said the matter should be referred to a committee since the party had to find out as to whether he had fulfilled his obligations as the Treasurer of the UNP.

Mr. Hameed said Mr. Ganeshalingam's letter of resignation could not be accepted until these things and other matters mentioned in his letter were fully gone into.

The Working Committee accepted Mr. Hameed's suggestion and decided to refer the matter to a committee.

A committee headed by Paul Perera has also been appointed by the Working Committee to go into the negligence committed by the UNP in filing nomination papers.

They also discussed the mishandling of the law and order situation in the country by the government including the Negombo incident where several supporters of the UNP were gunned down allegedly by PA thugs.

Wijeyapala Mendis said John Amaratunga, former Minister has neglected his obligations towards the party. "He was not even in the country when the nominations were handed over and we have lost the Wattala Pradeshiya Sabha even before the race has started."

"We can't take such people seriously," he said.

Meanwhile, the special police team deployed to look for Mr. Punchinilame and Mr. Ratnatilleke raided the house of Anura Bandaranaike around 2 a.m. on Wednesday provoking angry reactions from him.

When the police knocked at the door, Mr. Bandaranaike's security officers opened it and refused to let them in since they couldn't disturb Mr. Bandaranaike at that hour. But the police officers pushed the security officers and entered the house and sat on chairs. When they were about to go upstairs to search the house declaring that they were from the CID, Mr. Bandaranaike's aides agreed to call him downstairs.

Subsequently, when Mr. Bandaranaike was informed of the CID presence in his house, he came up to the balcony and said one of them could come upstairs and search the rooms.

When DIG Sumanasekera went upstairs, Mr. Bandaranaike asked for a search warrant, but the DIG said he came on the orders of the IGP. Mr. Bandaranaike said it was not the orders of the Inspector General but his sister Chandrika.

"You can search," Mr. Bandaranaike told them "look in the toilet too and you can proceed to Ms. Bandaranaike's house through the corridor and search that too."

Around 100 policemen surrounded Mr. Bandaranaike's house but they found nothing.

Mr. Bandaranaike thinks it was done with malice. He told friends during the 17-year rule of the UNP and when he functioned as the Leader of the Opposition and a member of the opposition nothing like this took place, though he was considered a bitter critic of the then UNP government.

Later, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike got to know about what was going on at her son's residence. She was informed by none other than business magnate Harry Jayawardena who heard about the incident through another.

Police raid

Ms. Bandaranaike immediately called Sunethra (the elder daughter) who was there and telephoned Anura to find out as to what was going on. When Anura told her about the police raiding his house, Ms. Bandaranaike immediately contacted the President to ask her as to whether she knew about the raid. The reply was in the negative. "I will check and let you know in the morning," the President replied.

Some political analysts see this as a slur on the Bandaranaikes and worst kind of insult that anyone could cast on Anura Bandaranaike, a politician with high integrity and the only brother of the President. But others think the President had acted in a lawful manner even to raid her brother's house to find the miscreants. Yet some others think that this was the first time that the Bandaranaike bastion at Rosmead Place underwent such humiliation at the hands of another Bandaranaike.

However, one thing is clear that the President is determined to bring the culprits to book, but if the President could act in the same frequency of enthusiasm in other political murders too, she will most probably go down in history as a unique personality who was committed to uphold the rule of law.

As the police continued their search for Mr. Punchinilame and Mr. Ratnatilleke, others were busy with the funeral arrangements of Nalanda Ellawala and filing nomination papers on Wednesday.

President's Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi who got through to the Acting Speaker inquired the possibility of bringing Nalanda Ellawala's body to Parliament, the first ordinary MP to lie in state at Parliament.

The matter was referred to Parliamentary Secretary General Bertram Tittawela who in turn said that it was OK., but it would create a precedent.

Apparently this decision was deferred and the funeral took place at the Ratnapura Esplanade.

When the news about Nalanda Ellawala shooting was reported, the President was addressing a PA rally in Dambulla. When Deputy Minister Nandimithra Ekanakaye informed her of the incident, the President was saddened and expressed her horror. By Wednesday evening she visited the Jayaratne funeral parlour along with Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar to pay their respects after participating in a credentials presentation ceremony. Soon after the President and the Foreign Minister paid their respects, the coffin carrying Nalanda Ellawala's body was flown to Ratnapura by chopper on Wednesday evening.

Wednesday was apparently a busy day for many. It was because of the final day for nominations, but it appeared that many had blundered. As a result the UNP lost the opportunity to contest Badulla Minicipality, Soranatota Pradeshiya Sabha, Uva Paranagama, Wattala, Lunugamvehera, Kundasale, Kesbawa and Ganga-Ihala Pradeshiya Sabhas, while the SLFP lost Kotte Municipality, Angunakolapelassa, Hambantota and Patha Hewaheta Sabhas.

Administrative lapse

According to reports, UNP's nomination for one municipality and seven Pradeshiya Sabhas had been rejected and this is the first time in the UNP's 50 year history that such a serious administrative lapse had taken place.

There had been several instances in the past including the general elections in 1970, where the nomination papers of Welimada UNP nominee were rejected paving the way for B.H. Bandara to win to Parliament uncontested.

It is unbelievable in a party like the UNP which boasts about professionalism and streamlined administration, such a serious administrative lapse had taken place. As we know, the UNP has a separate wing of lawyers to scrutinise these papers before sending them to the final destination. But with all that the UNP has failed.

The thinking of the party hierarchy is that it was a serious omission on their part. They are virtually starting the race minus eight electorates and preventing the voters of electing representatives of their choice.

At the election, the UNP will at least lose 200,000 votes and reaching their target of securing more them 43 percent of the total would be a difficult task. The target of 43 percent was worked out on the basis of the 1994 general elections where the UNP polled nearly 43%.

During the first few days of last week the UNP headquarters looked so chaotic that one member of Parliament compared it to a fish market. People were coming and going. Nobody knew who they were.

It took many hours for them to finalise the Colombo Municipal Council list and the they finally completed it by 3.30 a.m. on Wednesday.

The party leader also met many candidates and many who aspired to be candidates. Mr. Wickremesinghe also met Shahul Hameed, another son of M. H. Mohamed and a brother of Hussain over the nomination of Mohamed Imtiaz.

Mr. Wickremasinghe said it would be difficult for him to give nominations to a person whose case is called before courts frequently.

But Shahul Hameed said Imtiaz stood for his father and asked what his father's position would be if he is not given nomination. He also pointed out that contrary to all this Azad Sally was given nominations.

Mr. Wickremesinghe at this stage emphatically told Shahul Hameed (Mr. Mohamed's son) that he had not given special preference for Azad.

The Mohameds were quite perturbed that Azad was fielded as a candidate to look after the Maligawatte ward which is the voter base of the Mohamed family for years.

It is now quite clear that this was one of the reasons for Hussain Mohamed to quit the UNP and join hands with the PA. But it would be difficult to predict at this stage as to whether the defection of Hussain Mohamed would create a dent in the UNP vote bank in Colombo.

However, the UNP has a formidable Muslim candidate for Colombo in Omar Kamil whom the UNP brought in after much persuasion. Mr Kamil will most probably be offered the no 2 slot in the UNP if the UNP would secure the CMC again.

After having a long chat with Mr. Kamil, party leader Wickremesinghe assured that the Muslim interest in the UNP would be looked after.

Mr. Kamil also met former minister and UNP front liner A. C. S. Hameed on the same day.

On the day of the nominations UNPers had to face many problems and prominent among them was Anura Bandaranaike who went to the Gampaha Government Agent's Office to hand over nominations.

Mr. Bandaranaike went in a procession of about 500 vehicles from Horagolla which was stopped at the Miriswatte junction by the police. They allowed only a few vehicles to proceed including that of Mr. Bandaranaike, Wijeyapala Mendis, Pradeep Hapangama, Joseph Michael Perera and Sarath Chandra Rajakaruna. But when they proceeded towards Gampaha they saw that the police had acted quite contrary to what they told the UNPers.

There were scores of PA supporters alongside the road who heckled and mocked at Anura Bandaranaike.

At the GA's office when they finished handing over nominations, one police officer told Mr. Bandaranaike that the situation outside was not conducive for the UNPers to get back. Mr. Bandaranaike immediately called his mother and told her that the situation in Gampaha was bad. Ms. Bandaranaike called IGP W. B. Rajaguru who was directed to act fast to provide security to her son Anura and others. She also contacted Deputy Minister Reggie Ranatunga at the Gampaha GA's office and said she doesn't want any incident to take place in Gampaha.

Mr. Ranatunga finally walked up to Mr. Bandaranaike and told him of Ms. Bandaranaike's call and assured that no incident would take place and that they could return safely.

Soon after this, the PA supporters were calmed down and sent back while several MPs came and spoke to Mr. Bandaranaike.

But it is clear that violence would be rampant as the election draws closer since it is very important from the PA's point of view to win the elections, if they are to push the political package.

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