The Political Column

13th July 1997

CBK wooing the muslims

By Our Political Correspondent

After the recent Cabinet re-shuffle the Presi dent appears to have consolidated her position to face any situation. She seems to have read J.R. Jayewardene extensively, clearly adopting some of his manoeuvres on the political scene.

One way (and adopted by the old Master time and again), to consolidate any party’s position in-office is to create discord and splits in the opposition.

The Sirisena Cooray affair also provided ample opportunity for the PA to create a controversy in the UNP. The government moves disrupted the Cooray-backed Premadasa Centre commemoration meeting while the UNP wittingly or unwittingly aided and abetted the government at the cost of a probable division in the party.

Though it looks normal on the surface, the UNP is smouldering today over several issues, while some political analysts are trying to compare the incarceration of Sirisena Cooray to that of Vijaya Kumaratunga and the Naxalite plot which was invented by the UNP in 1982 soon after the Presidential election.

The alleged plot, reported to have been masterminded by former UNP strongman Cooray, is similar to the Naxalite plot where Vijaya Kumaratunga was put behind bars.

Many believe the Cooray episode also is largely a tale put together by the CID to justify the detention of Mr. Cooray and to please government leaders. Some government circles felt a reconciliation between the UNP and Mr. Cooray would politically affect the PA. It is widely acknowledged that Mr. Cooray is a good political strategist and organizer. So the government did not underestimate him.

If talking to underworld criminals is an offence under Sri Lankan law, many politicians would be culpable.

In the UNP, the Cooray affair has become virtually a dead issue. During the past few days nobody bothered to raise the issue in any forum, including the Parliamentary Group and the UNP’s Working Committee.

One UNP Working Committee member told this column the UNP had closed the Cooray chapter and the party leader had emerged stronger than ever.

But President Kumaratunga knows how to keep the UNP at bay when she reached the important third year milepost of her administration. The new-found interest in the mass grave at Wanawasala is obviously one step towards this to remind the people of a dark era.

But PA politicians are not an exception. They also are responsible for many human rights abuses during the past three years, though at a lesser degree than the UNPers.

Not only the UNP, the government also is apparently trying to keep the minority parties which support the ruling coalition at bay. The absolute power being wielded by the government was seen when the President used executive power inherited from the UNP to sack Minister Srimani Athulathmudali whose party had played a significant role in the PA’s victory in 1994.

The irony of this episode is that Ms. Athulathmudali who joined hands with Chandrika Kumaratunga to introduce sweeping changes to the constitution and abolish the Executive Presidency which they described as a bane for the existence of a free and a fair society became a victim of the same system under Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The President did not stop at that. The main minority ally of the PA, M.H.M. Ashraff, did not go unscathed in her re-shuffle. Mr. Ashraff had helped form the PA government by providing crucial votes to maintain a slim majority, though the UNP had offered him better terms. But the President put Mr. Ashraff in his ‘proper place’, as described by some Ministers, by pruning his portfolios.

Mr. Ashraff’s silence is strange to many political analysts. But they believe that something is brewing and that Mr. Ashraff is waiting for the right moment to show the President how important he was in forming the government.

At the one-to-one meeting Mr. Ashraff had with President Kumaratunga soon after the Cabinet re-shuffle, the President had apparently blamed him for not looking after the interests of other communities and sectors of the Muslim community who are SLFP supporters.

This was clearly indicated when Mr. Ashraff expressed certain sentiments to this effect at Deegawapiya where he participated in the ancient Deegawapiya ceremony.

President Kumaratunga, analysts believe, was apparently wary of the SLMC’s popularity growth in areas outside the North-East.

At the recent local elections, the SLMC fared well in Matale, Puttalam, Beruwala and some places in the South too, causing concern among main political parties such as the SLFP and the UNP for whom the Muslims have voted traditionally over the years. While the SLMC is trying to extend its wings beyond its region, the SLFP/PA has taken steps to stem this growth by appointing an ‘acceptable’ Muslim, Alavi Moulana to the Cabinet.

In short, the President wants to give the impression to the Muslims outside the North and East that they could get a better deal with the SLFP than with the SLMC.

In another move she had personally taken over the functions of the SLFP’s Muslim wing to woo the Muslims in the face of Mr. Ashraff’s bid to make SLMC a more formidable political party.

Minister Ashraff knows about PA strategies as much as others know about the SLMC strategies. But he is a silent politician today. Perhaps he would become volatile just before the Budget which the government is hoping to present with the help of the minority parties.

Though few, if any, major development projects have been undertaken by this government for the past three years, the President has given priority to the war and the political package. If she succeeds with the military operations in the North, she may not need the help of the minority parties to form the next government. But the minorities would in any way stick with the PA if they could get a better deal from the PA than the UNP.

The President had apparently told her Ministry to give their unstinted co-operation to push the package. They have been told to launch their own programmes in this connection to make the people aware of the devolution package.

It is likely that the President would take stern action against any PA member who does not fall in line with the President’s request.

Meanwhile, the government held talks with UNP MP Anura Bandaranaike regarding the devolution package last week with the mediation of the Japanese Ambassador in Sri Lanka. Minister G.L. Peiris who represented the government had reportedly told the President that the discussion has been successful to a certain extent. The government made this move after the UNP hierarchy dragged its feet on this matter. But it is difficult to fathom as to how Mr. Bandaranaike would be able to influence the UNP to take a favourable stand on the package, since the UNP had already rejected it though it had not made any public statements in this regard.

On the other hand the new Media Minister is going all out to strengthen the President’s hand by using the state media to highlight the problems within the UNP.

The state media have undertaken this task with no hesitation, and at times, they are clearly guilty of “overkill” which is counter productive to what the government seeks to achieve.

At a recent meeting with the editors of national newspapers, Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera expressed his desire to introduce a code of ethics for the state media and said he hoped that even the independent media would adopt those norms. Many editors specially in the state media institutions, welcomed the move but Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan moved a small but meaningful amendment.

He said it could also include as to how Ministers and government politicians should deal with the state media to make it independent in a true sense.

But will the Minister move towards adopting this proposal which would tend to discipline the government politicians when dealing with their own media institutions?

The climax of all this is a snap general election if the government fails to push the package but whether the President is ready for the gamble is yet to be seen.

The merits and de-merits of holding a snap general election have become the subject of discussion among many political circles, including the PA backbenchers.

But it seems that many of the backbenchers have grievances against the administration as far as new jobs are concerned.

Benette Cooray, a vociferous backbencher, called upon the government to devise a scheme to provide jobs for people in a reasonable manner without making it a political affair.

He voiced his concern at the Government Parliamentary Group Meeting held last week, but many opposed his proposal.

Mr. Cooray said since the PA had come to power after 17 long years, it was advisable to devise a scheme to select people for employment without political interference.

He said though he came from an electorate where the oil refinery was located, he could give only a few jobs since powerful Ministers have recruited thousands of people for jobs in the refinery.

One member who opposed this said that only the UNP would benefit by such a move.

Another MP from the Puttalam district said the President herself has revealed that around 70 percent of the Police Department comprised UNP recruits, showing that during UNP time, jobs had been given to no others than the UNPers.

The MP emphasised that the government should not deviate from its present position and criterion of providing employment.

Some other MPs said they were not expecting anything from the government other than providing better irrigation facilities for poor peasants in their areas.

This idea was expressed by Tissa Karalliyadde and Deputy Minister Anura Yapa. Even Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle expressed the view that though the PA was committed to its democratic norms, it was not necessary to deviate from the present criterion of providing employment.

There were diverse views about the proposal made by Benette Cooray and ultimately Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickramanayake moved to put off the proposal without arriving at a decision. He said it should be discussed among all the government MPs before taking a decision and deferred the matter for another day.

NDUNLF Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake spoke of the SAPTA (South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement) and the latest innovation SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Agreement).

Mr. Karunanayake said a depature from the SAPTA would bring in adverse economic implications to Sri Lanka, causing unemployment and the economic problems.

He said allowing in more imports would mean a lesser role for local producers and products.

He said that people would go for imported items rather than local products and even small items produced in Sri Lanka such as bulbs, cycle tyres and chocolates would face severe competition.

Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne replying said that all that would be dealt with in Parliament when the matter comes up.

But Mr. Karunanayake said that speaking here and in Parliament were two different things and wanted the government to take some action to deal with the situation effectively.

At this stage Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana said that many MPs are asking questions favourable to the Opposition.

Mr. Karunanayake said that it was not his position and that he spoke in the interest of the country rather than any individual or political organisation.

Mr. Pathirana then reminded the MPs how President Premadasa dealt with his own MPs to instill discipline in the party.

He told the MPs how Mr. Premadasa dealt with his Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and G. M. Premachandra and hinted that the PA administration should also adopt a similar system to stop MPs deviating from government policy.

President Kumaratunga who intervened at this juncture said many MPs were deaf and dumb and most of the 45 parliamentarians who attended the meeting could not fathom what she was talking about.

A little later she came out more strongly when Mr. Pathirana spoke more vigorously about discipline in the party.

The President at this stage was more clear and said that Srimani tells one thing, Ravi another and Kesara Lal a totally different thing, relating to the NDUNLF. She also put Vasudeva Nanayakkara in a similar situation saying that he offers nothing and added one more word to say that someone was not only deaf and dumb but also blind.

MPs who listened her were perturbed and discussed among themselves that she should have been more specific on issues.

Ja-Ela’s Felix Perera also had to clarify a matter with Minister Mangala Samaraweera over an issue of land alienation in the area. Minister Samaraweera said the land in question was earmarked for future development projects.

Mr. Perera asked as to how the government was doing that without the area MP being informed about such development project so that he could have passed on the information to the people concerned. Mr. Samaraweera said it had been done by the Presidential Secretariat. An apparently annoyed Mr. Perera replied that they should not be left in the lurch on matters such as this.

The UNP also had somewhat similar problems when it discussed the proposed local power plant in Nurachcholai, Kalpitiya.

Member A. H. M. Azwer raised the issue which he said affected many people in the area including Muslim settlements.

Former Minister P. Dayaratne however had a different view. He said even the UNP would need this kind of project in the future to meet power demands.

But many opposed Mr. Dayaratne and said they should take up people’s issues rather than facilitating the government by not offering any resistance.

Parliamentarian R. A. D. Sirisena came out with a valid argument and emphasised the need to take up issues concerning people rather than talking as if the UNP had formed a government.

It is left to the government to find a place suitable for the project. Our concern should be the problems faced by the people and give enough backing. Many MPs seemed to have agreed with this suggestion and UNP is likely to take this matter up in a more aggressive manner in the future.

It would even be a part of the party’s agitational compaign scheduled to get off the ground by the end of this month when the government is planning to celebrate its third year in office.

According to the UNP hierarchy, the party has organised 150 meetings countrywide to coincide with the government’s third anniversary to make the people aware of the issues facing them and the precarious economic situation the country is facing owing to the government’s comparative inaction in this field.

Minister C. V. Gooneratne sounded a warning bell in this connection when he told the government group that the business community, the livewire of the country’s economy, is reluctant to co-operate with the government. In short, he said they reaped the benefits and happily joined hands with the UNP which would not augur well for the government in its future endeavours.

The President was of the view that it could happen in a democratic set-up but also expressed concern over the matter, stating that it was necessary to take some effective action towards achieving this target. In the future, the government may attach strings to the Private Sector on many benefits they are entitled to receive to improve the economy.

Another move that came as a bolt from the blue is the government’s decision to shift the customs procedure handled by the Board of Investment upto now to the Customs Department to streamline documentation.

Many investors have expressed their concern over the matter and many people think that it would bring investor confidence down.

The grave situation of the country’s economy would be the UNP’s theme when it launches its campaign later this month. This was discussed at length at the UNP’s working committee meeting last week.

UNP’s Beruwala Parliamentarian Imitiaz Bakeer Markar was told to explain their plan to the Working Committee, but Mr. Markar already burdened with many responsibilities could not elaborate properly and leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had to chip in from time to time to clarify matters.

The Working Committee also discussed budgetary plans of the party too while agreeing to lay emphasis on youth and women’s issue in the country.

The more significant affair was the verbal clash between former Minister A.M.S. Adikari and UNP’s top-ranking Co-ordinating Secretary Charitha Ratwatte.

Mr. Adikari accused Mr. Ratwatte of trying to inquire into his activities from the DUNF sources in the Anuradhapura district.

He had come to certain conclusions about the UNP’s local set-up in Anuradhapura after talking to some DUNFers, Mr. Ad9uikari alleged.

He said Mr. Ratwatte along with two others, including Anura Fernando, an ex-DUNFer, had visited Dr. Johnpulle in Anuradhapura to inquire about his activities. This, Mr. Adikari said was unbecoming of a person who is aspiring either to be the General Secretary or Party Chairman.

“Do they know where the UNP stands in the Anuradhapura district?”

Mr. Adikari said: “He was my secretary when I was the Minister in-charge of rehabilitation and said that he knew about Mr. Ratwatte and how he worked.

“If you wanted to know what I am doing you should have asked me”.

When Mr. Ratwatte was given an opportunity to reply he denied all the charges but he said that he did not want to call the former Minister a liar. Mr. Ratwatte also said he could not stop the people if they wanted to give a wrong impression to the former Minister, but many UNP Working Committe members expressed their views privately on the affairs of the party.

They said the former Minister’s allegation shows that the UNP machinery still finds it difficult to get about the matters concerned and to pick their sources of information.

The UNP in the meantime, is planning to bring in a proposal to abolish the penal laws connected to criminal defamation.

Though the proposal to abolish the criminal defamation laws goes before a Select Committee of Parliament it is up to the government to take a final decision as to whether it should abolish this penal laws which many believe are a deterrent to fundamental freedoms.

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