The Political Column

28th September 1997

D-day for devolution tomorrow

By Our Political Correspondent

The special Cabinet meeting tomorrow to discuss constitutional reforms and the devolution package has become the centre of attention.

The matter came up for discussion at the Executive Committee meeting of the People’s Alliance at the Land Ministry presided over by PA General Secretary D.M. Jayaratne.

He told the Executive Committee that the special Cabinet meeting would only be a discussion and no decisions were likely to be taken.

Mr. Jayaratne was replying a question by Raja Collure and Y.P. de Silva who pointed out the importance of discussing the matter among the constituent parties of the PA before taking a final decision at Cabinet level.

But it appears the Cabinet will decide on several issues pertaining to the devolution package and look into the possibility of presenting it before Parliament mid next month.

In other words, tomorrow’s meeting is going to be crucial for the PA but the coalition parties which are not represented in the Cabinet are perturbed about it.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress had also lined up several proposals to be forwarded at the Cabinet meeting before the final draft is presented in Parliament.

SLMC leader and Minister M.H.M. Ashraff, who was due back yesterday from a London visit was to meet President Kumaratunga before the Cabinet session.

In the meantime SLMC General Secretary Rauff Hakeem was consulting prominent SLMC members to prepare a document outlining the party’s position on the matter.

Mr. Hakeem also spoke to Minister Ashraff in London seeking instructions as to how they should prepare a brief on the devolution package.

The main aim of the SLMC is to insist on a South-Eastern Regional Council in Ampara and Kalmunai areas where the Muslims are a majority.

The main issue that would be discussed at this Cabinet meeting would be the unit of devolution since no party had so far agreed on the matter.

The minority Tamil parties seem disturbed over the government decision to hold a series of referendums in the East, particularly in the Sinhala areas of Ampara and in Batticaloa-Trincomalee area and in the sea belt of Ampara separately and on a staggered basis, to come to a decision on the unit of devolution.

It appears that the government has to do something now before it is too late to retain the confidence of the international community.

India thinks that the Kumaratunga administration is losing its grip over these matters, with many obstacles surfacing on the path to devolution.

Difference of opinion among Cabinet Ministers and the Sinhala hardliners have apparently upset the government’s calculations.

The opposition by the NDUN(L)F has also perturbed the Tamil parties and is contemplating action against NDUN(L)F’s outspoken Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake.

However, the matter did not come up during the meeting of the PA Executive Committee on Wednesday. Mr. Karunanayake who was on a tour of London returned on Tuesday to make sure that his party is represented in the Ex-Co meeting.

Before the meeting started many expected the Ravi Karunanayake matter to surface.

They said many things jokingly for which Mr. Karunanayake too replied saying that many utterances made by people holding important office should also be discussed.

For instance, he said the statements made by important people that the constitution should be burnt, should also be examined in detail.

At the meeting D.M. Jayaratne had a letter sent by Minister Mangala Samaraweera making a severe indictment against fellow Parliamentarian Vasudeva Nanayakkara. But since the LSSP was not represented at the meeting, everybody thought it was not in keeping with accepted norms to take up the issue.

At this juncture, Mr. Karunanayake made a valid point saying that it is up to the LSSP to take appropriate action if Mr. Nanayakkara had violated any rule. In short, he said that PA had no disciplinary power over any member and discipline should be exercised by the party that he or she belongs to.

In this context, Mr. Karunanayake said the most appropriate thing was to send Mr. Samaraweera’s letter to the LSSP.

At the Executive Committee meeting of the PA the SLFP was not represented adequately. There was nobody present other than Minister D.M. Jayaratne himself who is the General Secretary of the PA.

Minister Jayaratne also faces some problems from his party as well as the PA for being present at the ceremony to hand over the Sinhala Commission interim report at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress recently.

Though a key Minister in the PA government which advocates extensive devolution, Mr. Jayaratne has some problems pertaining to land issues which are likely to surface at tomorrow’s crucial Cabinet meeting.

Whatever the obstacles that may surface the government is determined to place it before Parliament.

The left and Tamil parties have urged the UNP to join hands with the government to solve the ethnic crisis, but the UNP, more concerned with its vote bank in the South, is likely to evade the issue.

Firstly, the UNP’s stand would be to take advantage of the difference of opinion among the PA Ministers and its constituent parties.

Secondly, it would call upon the government to have a dialogue with the LTTE so as to determine whether the package is acceptable to the rebels.

In the present context the UNP is not likely to budge from the 13th Amendment and would vehemently oppose the idea of a constituent assembly.

But at present the UNP’s main concern is the Wijeyapala Mendis issue where the government is planning to move a resolution to strip him of his civic rights along with former Treasury Secretary R. Paskaralingam and former Energy Secretary Akiel Mohamed.

Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike has reportedly placed her signature to the resolution which will now go before the party leaders for a decision on when they would debate the matter in Parliament.

The UNP’s line of thinking is that Chief Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis should quit to avoid embarrassment to the party.

Mr. Mendis’ earliar actions on the issue of exchange of land had put the party in a dilemma since it is seen by some as a virtual admission of guilt.

The party has taken up the position that it could no more defend Mr. Mendis.

In the event of the resignation of Mr. Mendis the UNP would not support the resolution before Parliament on the ground that it was a political witch hunt and could not be done under normal circumstances.

That means both Mr. Paskaralingam and Mr. Akiel Mohamed would also be saved as a result of the UNP’s decision.

But one could draw a parallel with Ms. Bandaranaike’s case when Parliament resolved to deprive her of civic rights along with that of former Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike.

If the UNP talks about political witch hunts and the existing laws of the land, the question could well be asked, how about Ms. Bandaranaike’s case?

The UNP went to the extent of amending the constitution to give legal effect to the Commission even after the Supreme Court ruled that the appointment of a Special Presidential Commission was illegal.

However the present government too has resorted to similar action to gain political mileage. The Prime Minister had scotched all rumours that she would not place her signature for the resolution and duly informed her son Anura Bandaranaike of the decision.

In terms of Article 81 of the Constitution the Prime Minister is required to place his or her signature for such resolution depriving a citizen of his civic rights on the findings of a Commission.

Article 81 (2) states:

No such resolution shall be entertained by the Speaker or placed on the Order Paper of Parliament unless introduced by the Prime Minister with the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers.

The man who could be more worried than anyone is Anura Bandaranaike. Being the leader of the UNP in the Gampaha District, the Mendis affair concerns Mr. Bandaranaike very much. Mr. Mendis is a close associate of Mr. Bandaranaike and he conceded his position as the leader of the Gampaha District to him.

In the circumstances Mr. Bandaranaike wants the whole issue soft-pedalled and the resolution defeated in Parliament. But the UNP is in two minds.

Mr. Bandaranaike expressed his views recently when he met party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss the Mendis matter.

But Mr. Bandaranaike could not convince Mr. Wickremesinghe who thinks that Mr. Mendis should quit for the greater good of the party.

If Mr. Mendis quits at the request of the party’s apex body, the Working Committee, it is likely either Tyronne Fernando or Gamini Atukorale would become the Chief Whip. Party sources say appointing Mr. Atukorale as Chief Whip would also enable UNP hierarchy to bring in a new General Secretary who they feel would be more dynamic.

Guess who would be the General Secretary. Will it be Charitha Ratwatte or complete outsider like the Treasurer, Milroy Perera?

The party leaders were expected to take up the Wijeyapala Mendis resolution at their previous meeting but Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake did not show any interest, though the resolution had been placed in the addendum of Parliament.

Instead of talking about the resolution to oust Mr. Mendis from Parliament government representatives spoke about the November Budget. The government has fixed it for November 5, with a debate going on till December 16. However the Emergency debate will take place on November 6.

Deputy Chairman of Committees Rauf Hakeem chaired the meeting in the absence of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

They discussed many other things relating to sittings in Parliament, this year’s budget being the main subject.

The government’s concern on the package and the findings of the Sinhala Commission came up on Wednesday when the Ministers opted to speak on both subjects at their weekly meeting.

Some Ministers said the government should reject the Commission report which would only help Prabhakaran.

At the same time they decided to back fully the devolution proposals aimed at solving the ethnic crisis.

Minister Mangala Samaraweera, an advocate of the proposed devolution package, openly condemned the Sinhala Commission report as a document which would only serve some interested sections in the society.

But if one reads the Commission report carefully, the Commission to the dismay of the Sinhala hardliners, has recognised that there is an ethnic question in the country.

It has also advocated devolution of power on the lines of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution introduced by the UNP.

In other words the Sinhala Commission had accepted the UNP’s position, but others say that it is identical with the sentiments expressed by the NDUN(L)F.

Now it appears that there is a division in the Joint Committee which appointed the Sinhala Commission over the interim report which had not specifically identified the grievances of the Sinhalese.

Several Sinhala hardliners who advocate an anti-package line had expressed concern over the role played by NDUN(L)F leader Srimani Athulathmudali.

Their concern is justified when they think that Ms. Athulathmudali would take the leadership of the anti-package movement.

Most of the Sinhala hardliners are of the opinion that MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena should give leadership to the anti-package movement.

So it appears there is no unanimity in the government or in the movements which oppose the package.

Minister Samaraweera raised some matters at the Ministers’ meeting on Wednesday on the package and the Sinhala Commission report.

He had some exchanges with D.M. Jayaratne who was present at the handing over ceremony of the Sinhala Commission report. While some Ministers maintained the position that they were not aware what is in the proposed political package, others got involved in the debate but most of them reserved their observations for tomorrow’s special meeting.

Besides this, President Kumaratunga is trying to settle the dispute between her able lieutenants Mangala Samaraweera and S.B. Dissanayake. But it seems Mr. Dissanayake is taking a hard line. But the matter is shut within the writ of the President and everybody could expect an early settlement for this problem, probably after a lunch or dinner at Temple Trees.

At a time when the government is engaged in a relentless exercise to hit hard at the Sinhala hardliners and the Sinhala Commission report, the main opposition UNP is jubilant over its recent campaign and the Sinhala Commission report which virtually backed the UNP’s stand and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The UNP has now come up with a novel idea of organising seminars on political strategy for its members.

Accordingly, a seminar on political strategy was held at Siri Kotha the previous week to educate UNPers and its young turks on strategies to be developed in politics.

The first day of the seminar was graced by NDUN(L)F leader Srimani Athulathmudali and fellow Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake. On the second day, there were some others including Karunasena Kodituwakku, Dr. Stanley Kalpage, P. Dayaratne, Daya Pelpola, Sajith Premadasa, Navin Dissanayake and Sharmila Perera of the NDUN(L)F.

The seminar was organised by he Fredrich Nueman Siftung and a political strategist from the German Liberal Party addressed it.

When the political strategist Professor Shoroeder opened the floor for questions having discussed about a model for formulating successful political strategy one participant said that the two main parties are assured of a 35 percent of the block vote for each and the UNP’s goal should be to obtain as much as possible from the 30 percent floating vote.

Daya Pelpola replying said that the UNP should make sure that its 35% block vote was intact and emphasised the need to strengthen it. Thereafter, the party should go for the floating vote.

Sajith Premadasa said the model provided by the German Professor was an excellent guideline for politicians but it did not consider the behavioural aspect - the human relationship, power, political struggle etc.

“Unlike the developed world this country doesn’t have an institution to conduct scientific surveys,” he added.

Therefore Mr. Premadasa said a proper target group cannot be identified and a proper strategy could not be implemented.

Dr. Stanley Kalpage, who was former High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in India, said it was not necessary to have scientific surveys for these matters.

For example, he said when Indian elections were being held President Premadasa wanted to know who was going to war, and got the answer from a taxi driver, he added.

“At last he proved to be correct,” Dr. Kalpage said.

Sajith Premadasa responded and said that Dr. Kalpage’s statement was misguided.

“The heartbeat of the people in the rural areas cannot be obtained from a taxi driver in the metropolis,” he said.

The success depends on proper information, but today most of the politicians provide the party with incorrect information to curry favour with the hierarchy resulting in total breakdown, he added.

Professor Shroeder said they had to focus on their own weaknesses and called upon the audience to identify them.

The audience identified the weaknesses in the UNP - the lack of funds, inadequate media coverage, the lack of competent organisers, poor grassroots organisations and non-identification of short-term and long-term goals.

P. Dayaratne added one more and said that inability to learn lessons from the past too was a major flaw.

However the young turks who attended the seminar raised some important matters. They asked how there could be a shortage of funds, when the UNP happens to be one of the oldest parties in Sri Lanka, and it was ruling for seventeen long years before PA took over.

Navin Dissanayake said the party was not getting adequate media coverage, since right people have not been assigned with the task.

There should be a professional body to handle these matters and recruitments should be effected discretely, he said.

When the young UNPers said there is no vision for the party, Karunasena Kodituwakku said they had announced the party’s vision for the coming years at the Executive Committee meeting in Kalutara.

However, Dr. Kodituwakku took more than 45 minutes to locate the document issued by the UNP at its Kalutara parley.

At the end of the seminar, the German sponsors had a pleasant evening with Mayor Karu Jayasuriya who hosted them for dinner. Srimani Athulathmudali and Ravi Karunanayake also attended it.

UNP Treasurer Milroy Perera was also present and the proposed Presidential Palace at Kotte was the main subject of discussion.

Since Mr. Perera, an architect, is involved in the project, he answered many questions raised by the guests and it turned out to be a pleasant evening for all.

But political circles are now speculating as to whether the NDUN(L)F and UNP are trying to forge an alliance for the next Provincial Council Elections scheduled for March.

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