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The Political Column

6th April 1997

British Fox brings sweet grapes

By Our Political Correspondent

After the March 21 election defeat, the two Thondamans were in a pensive mood pondering their next step to regain their powerbase in the plantations.

The elections proved disastrous for them when the Opposition UNP swept most of the plantation councils, described as CWC (Ceylon Workers Congress) strongholds sending shock- waves through the Congress hierarchy.

The defeat compelled the Thondamans to summon a meeting of the politburo to discuss issues pertaining to their shock defeat.

At this meeting Minister Thondaman's grandson, Arumugam who is also the General Secretary of the CWC offered to step down. But it was prevented by some members of the politburo who said he should not run away when the house was on fire.

The politburo members, most of them Thondaman loyalists, pleaded with the Thondamans to put the house in order rather than step down.

The senior Thondaman handling the crisis with maturity and craftiness that come from half a century in politics, took the letter from the grandson — implying it would be shelved for some time.

Fighting back in characteristic style, Thondaman Senior said it was the CWC which kept thousands of plantation workers away from volatile politics.

In a note of warning to the People's Alliance, Mr. Thondaman said if the government failed to act fast, the plantation workers would have no option, but to turn to the LTTE.

Mr. Thondaman blamed the PA for the defeat, attributing it to the failure to address the grievances of the plantation workers.

Now as a sequel to his stormy politburo meeting, Mr. Thondaman in a written directive to CWC MPs and Provincial Council members has advised them to keep off any trade union activity, but to be with the plantation workers attending to their needs.

Arumugam Thondaman had also opted to be in and around Talawakelle in helping and assisting the CWC membership.

However, some analysts describe the resignation bid by Arumugam Thondaman as a political stunt, where his grandfather stepped in to strengthen his position in the CWC. Even some CWC members are of the view that it was "staged" to secure the grandson's position as the General Secretary.

But now the CWC wants to stage a show of strength and is busy organising a massive May Day rally to be held in Hatton.

Whatever the Thondamans try to do, it is obvious they are slowly losing their grip on the plantation workers. It shows from its membership contributions which have dropped drastically.

However, another argument is that finally the plantation workers would fall back on the CWC since it is the organisation that most powerfully espouses the cause of the plantation workers. But others have different views. They say that corruption and abuse of power within the CWC had brought about this situation and it would be difficult for the Congress to regain its position.

The influential Tamil newspaper "Veerakesari" on many occasions has pinpointed the weaknesses of the CWC and was particularly critical of the leadership.

In the circumstances some think that the workers have responded to the attacks by the Veerakesari on the CWC leadership.

The Thondamans though not happy with the response from the PA however decided to be with it, perhaps being in the opposition at this time would not serve a purpose.

As the CWC struggled to get back to its feet the Opposition UNP which secured the majority of councils in the plantation areas savoured its victory.

The UNP leadership rose above communal politics when appointing heads of the councils where the UNP had won.

Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's move is seen as a clear rebuff to the more communal group within the UNP. He made clear there was no place for communal politics in the UNP.

The move will certainly build confidence among the minorities for them to rally round the UNP in the future.

But is it the same with the government? It is yet to be seen when the President meets the constituent parties today to decide the criteria on which they should appoint council heads.

A statement made by Minister A. H. M. Fowzie had apparently sparked off some rivalry between the Muslim faction in the SLFP and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

Mr. Fowzie's statement was virtually a reply to the SLMC's call to appoint council heads on the number of preferential votes they polled.

If the SLMC's call is accepted it would have succeeded in appointing two chairmen and one Mayor outside its domain of the East.

In a letter to the PA, the SLMC states:

"Our party leader Mr. Ashraff has already apprised the President of these matters when he called on her at Temple Trees to wish her after the results of the elections were announced.

"Nominations of candidates who won to the posts of Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Chairmen and Vice Chairmen to the Municipal Councils and other Local Authorities by the People's Alliance have to be based on a rational and consistent formula acceptable to all parties within the PA.

"It is our considered view that the preferential votes secured by the candidates should be the sole criterion for consideration when these appointments are made.

"Such a decision would not only be an endorsement of the electoral verdict, but also a justifiable and rational basis with which all constituent parties could agree.

"To sustain the unity and cohesiveness within the Alliance it is imperative for all of us to recognise that irrespective of our electoral strength, we are all equal partners who have come together to espouse the noble objective to re-establish rule of law, to strengthen democratic traditions and to eradicate all forms of chauvinism.

"A comparison of the victory margin of the PA in many Local Authority areas with that of the preferential votes polled by candidates of the smaller constituent parties including the SLMC would reveal that the UNP's defeat was made possible through our collective effort.

"We are indeed proud to be associated in this victory, particularly under the leadership of the President, who is identified as the only national leader opposed to all forms of chauvinism and committed to ensure justice and fair play.

"In this context it is important for the Alliance to disregard any argument that a member of one minority community could not be considered to head a Local Authority which is dominated by some other community.

"Another important factor that should be underlined is the necessity to maintain mutual confidence and trust among the parties and their leaders in the Alliance. Strict adherence to this principle would negate any argument that candidates of minority parties should not be appointed to positions in any Local Authority for they would jeopardize the political interests of any dominant party.

"We would appreciate if you could summon a meeting of the Executive Committee of the PA to discuss the matters urged here, so that we could adopt some clear guidelines for the appointments of elected candidates as heads of councils."

But Mr. Fowzie seems to be opposing the move, stating that preferential votes are not the only criterion.

However the SLMC is determined to fight on this issue and trouble is brewing.

On Thursday, Minister M.H.M. Ashraff had a luncheon meeting with President Kumaratunga at Temple Trees to pre-empt any problem between the government and the SLMC as a result of statements made by Minister Fowzie over the appointments to local bodies.

Mr. Ashraff told the President he had come to re-assure his support to the PA.

He appealed to her not to prevent the SLMC candidates from getting their due positions in the local councils on the basis that they are SLMC candidates or Muslims.

Mr. Ashraff mentioned the three local bodies where the SLMC candidates have polled the highest preferences.

In the evening the same day he addressed the SLMC high command to apprise them of his talks with the President.

General Secretary Rauff Hakeem spoke about a new accord building up between the PA and the UNP referring to Friday's historic agreement reached between the PA and the UNP with British mediation to end the country's ethnic conflict.

Mr. Ashraff said he was glad to hear of the agreement which he said had been his hope since the All-Party Conference.

"It is a great opportunity that we shouldn't miss and I will pray and hope that there should be rapid progress to end the conflict."

As the PA-UNP move was discussed at length at Mr. Ashraff's residence, Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar prepared all relevant papers to announce the historic accord reached between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Indeed it was a dramatic development for the PA and the UNP to get together on a common platform to solve the ethnic crisis.

The decision was in line with the understanding the British Conservative government had with the British Labour Party in dealing with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in the efforts to solve the crisis in Northern Ireland.

The main purpose behind the agreement between the two parties is to refrain from undermining the efforts of the government in office.

It was the 33-year-old British Under Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Liam Fox who proposed third party mediation when he visited Sri Lanka some time ago.

But Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar showed little interest in the matter at that time. Later, on a visit to London, Mr. Kadirgamar told the British Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind he would like to know the latest development with regard to the IRA problem.

Mr. Rifkind who immediately responded to Mr. Kadirgamar's request arranged a meeting with experts who devised modalities to facilitate discussions between the British Government and the IRA.

During this discussion, Mr. Kadirgamar learnt how the Conservatives and the Labour Party got together on a common platform to resolve the IRA issue. This inspired Mr. Kadirgamar to initiate a similar process in Sri Lanka to face the challenges put forward by the LTTE on a better footing. But his problem was as to how he could get the UNP to subscribe to his idea.

In doing this the British Under Secretary Liam Fox played a vital role talking to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

UNP's affiliation with the British Conservative Party helped Mr. Fox to build a rapport between Mr. Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on this matter.

During Minister Kadirgamar's recent visit to Mauritius to attend the Indian Ocean Economic Cooperation Rim conference, Mr. Fox communicated with him and asked whether he could come to London before getting back to Colombo.

Minister Kadirgamar however agreed to be in London only for a day so that Mr. Fox could brief him on the matter.

There, Mr. Fox handed over a draft agreement to be signed by both parties simultaneously and exchanged.

However the original agreement underwent a series of amendments in keeping with the requirements of the two parties concerned. The final agreement signed by President Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe states:

"I believe that we both recognise that the resolution of the ethnic conflict will restore peace in Sri Lanka and lead to the development, progress and prosperity of the country and its people. It is an issue transcending partisan politics. The development of a genuinely bi-partisan approach to the resolution of the ethnic conflict is vital to the achievement of a permanent solution to the conflict.

"Consequently, I would like to suggest the following arrangements between the People's Alliance and the United National Party which I intend to put to the appropriate decision-making body of my party for ratification.

"The incumbent Head of Government will brief and seek the opinion of the Leader of the United National Party on significant developments relating to the ethnic conflict, both in the strictest confidence; if in Government, the Leader of the United National Party will reciprocate; the party in opposition will not undermine any discussions or decisions between the party in Government and any other party, group or person, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, aimed at resolving the ethnic conflict, if these discussions and decisions have taken place with the concurrence of the party in opposition; against the background of such concurrence, on election to Government either party will honour all such decisions in full."

On Sunday March 30, the British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka informed President Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe about the arrival of Dr. Fox on Tuesday.

As a prelude, Mr. Wickremesinghe met Mr. Kadirgamar on Monday to discuss the draft. The meeting took place at the British High Commissioner's residence in Colombo.

Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Kadirgamar both agreed on the proposal and emphasised the need to rise above party politics to solve the ethnic crisis.

On Monday, Mr. Wickremesinghe had a meeting with party top brass including Ronnie de Mel, A. C. S. Hameed, Anura Bandaranaike, Tyronne Fernando and Karunasena Kodithuwakku. After explaining matters and obtaining their endorsement Mr. Wickremesinghe entrusted the task of informing the Maha Sangha and other UNP affiliated organisations about the move, to Mr. Kodituwakku.

On Tuesday, Dr. Fox met Mr. Wickremesinghe where they discussed the draft. Later, on Wednesday Dr. Fox met President Kumaratunga and took off to London after finishing the discussion the same evening. From Temple Trees he once again called Mr. Wickremesinghe to inform him that everything had been finalised and the only thing that was left was to put their respective signatures.

Dr. Fox leaving Temple Trees, told Minister Kadirgamar that he would not be seeing him for some time possibly in view of the British elections next month where the Labour Party is strongly tipped to win.

He called Mr. Wickremesinghe once again from the airport and said "It will work out".

On Thursday morning, when Mr. Wickremesinghe was about to go to Minister Kadirgamar's house to sign the agreement he received a call from the British High Commissioner's residence requesting him to come there to hand over the draft agreement, to facilitate his signature, but Mr. Wickremesinghe gently declined the offer. He, on an earlier occasion also declined an offer made by the mediators that both the President and himself should sign the same document after a brief meeting. Instead, he agreed to exchange letters between the two and finally he made a special visit to Minister Kadirgamar's house to sign the agreement between the UNP and the PA. This will no doubt be a major issue during the Conservative campaign in the run-up to the May 1 elections, that they initiated moves to re-establish peace in South Asia. But one of the most important factors discussed among political circles was the inability of the government to keep India informed of the latest development.

India was groping in the dark as far as this matter was concerned and they were definitely not happy over the developments that took place without their knowledge.

The next most important question that arises from this agreement is, as to why this agreement was signed in the absence of Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, who is in South Africa studying the second chamber and its political implications.

As it appears, the agreement will virtually put a halt to the draft constitution published by Minister Peiris as well as the package until they receive UNP's concurrence on both.

This move will also put off the referendum which the government was planning to hold to determine the people's will on the proposed devolution package.

In short, the agreement arrived at, will do lot of good for the UNP but what will happen to the government's war effort? Every time they plan some offensive the government will be compelled to get the concurrence of the UNP and the UNP will be compelled to vote with the government to extend the state of emergency in the North and East without any opposition.

However the extremist elements on both sides would oppose the move criticising what they describe as British interference in local affairs. The Leader of the Opposition has already summoned his MPs in batches to explain the ongoing process and the government will also apprise its rank and file on this development to give them a better understanding of the accord between the UNP and the PA.

It is now learnt that the British government will communicate with the LTTE and particularly with Lawrence Thilakar who is supposed to be in London with Prabhakaran's approval to seek third party mediation to set the peace moves in motion.

During the Avurudu Season the country would be able to see some progress in this area, since both the UNP and PA had reached an historic accord to solve the crisis.

The agreement will certainly have its impact in various quarters. The main question is what will happen to the devolution package. Would it now be two fronts for discussions, one in Parliamentary select committee chaired by Dr. Peiris and the other with the LTTE. The Tamil parties which are with the government and which have no place in the LTTE's agenda now face a dilemma.

President Kumaratunga will have to do a balancing act between the LTTE and these groups. The TULF, of course, has maintained that the government should talk with the LTTE, but the other Tamil groups in Parliament are not in favour of that.

This agreement which gives the greenlight to the government to start talks with the LTTE has to be endorsed by the policy making bodies of the PA and the UNP. As far as the latter is concerned there is no problem. The UNP's 52-man working committee is expected to meet shortly to ratify the agreement, though after a lively debate. The PA, of course, is a coalition and how an endorsement would be given still remains to be seen - whether it would be a PA endorsement or whether each of the parties will take it before their respective apex bodies which determine policy and principles.

Diplomatic circles are wondering whether there has been a major change in the government's policy on the north-east war. Earlier the government had spoken of total military success by the end of this year, but now it may be considering some other course.

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