The Political Column

19th October 1997

Govt. tackles UNP with white paper

By Our Political Correspondent

As the government presented its propos als on constitutional reforms to the Par liamentary Select Committee with a firm determination of devolving power, a lethal terrorist bomb struck the city centre last week leaving behind a trail of destruction.

The target of the LTTE was obviously the newly opened World Trade Centre which houses offices of the Central Bank, Asian Development Bank, Board of Investment, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Public Enterprises Reforms Commission and many other private sector institutions.

The explosion caused immense damage, putting the country in another economic quagmire, nearly 21 months after the Central Bank blast early last year.

Economic and political analysts put Wednesday’s damage well beyond that of the Central Bank explosion, and the implications might be also more severe, they say since two five star hotels - Hilton and Galadari - were damaged extensively, just as tourism was beginning to boom.

On Sunday, October 12, the President declared open the twin towers belonging to Singapore multi-millionaire S.P. Tao’s Overseas Realty (Ceylon) Ltd. It was the biggest single construction project funded by a foreign investor in Sri Lanka.

Speaking on the occasion President Kumaratunga said the World Trade Centre was a timely investment in the context of Sri Lanka’s bid to become the transhipment and financial hub of South Asia.

“Investors are beginning to look at Sri Lanka as the commercial hub of the region. Sri Lanka will play an even more important role in the region when the South Asia Free Trade Area becomes a reality in a few years,” she said.

The President said she was confident that many other business conglomerates would look at Sri Lanka as a potential base for investment.

The ceremony was held at the lobby at level three and the President unveiled the plaque mounted on the facade of the lobby level four. But Wednesday’s bomb destroyed the entire floor reducing everything there, including expensive chandeliers, to rubble.

After Sunday’s opening Mr. Tao had hosted nearly hundred guests to lunch on the 36th floor of the tower. The guests, included BOI Chairman Tilan Wijesinghe, Bank of Ceylon General Manager Savitri Jayasinghe, architect Jeffrey Bawa, Mr. Tao’s representative in Sri Lanka H.L. Cassim and former BOI Chairman Rohitha Bogollagama.

During the lunch Mr. Tao came out with some prophetic sentiments in reply to his Swiss contractor who built the twin towers.

He said that he did not prequalify contractors when he decided to build in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Tao said he telephoned his Swiss friend Turner and fixed up an appointment to meet him in London. There he told him about the project and promised to pay his price.

He said what they did not realize was that the political climate could change so fast and so badly in Sri Lanka posing a security threat.

“These are things he did not bargain for in Sri Lanka,” Mr. Tao said not knowing that the LTTE was planning to strike the tallest building in the country two days after his prophetic words.

Mr. Tao also said he never thought the security situation would become so bad in Sri Lanka. In the circumstances he said he dedicated the building not to himself or to his children but to his grand children who would reap the benefit in the years to come.

But now Mr. Tao is back to square one having to call his friend Turner again to repair the building.

Not only the twin tower, but both Hotel Hilton and Hotel Galadari also suffered heavy losses with most of the rooms littered with glass and other debris.

On Thursday only some 26 rooms were occupied at the Hotel Hilton, while the rest of the occupants were taken to a hotel in the suburb.

Most of the potential investors who were in Sri Lanka for high level business talks left on the next available flight as a direct result of the explosion.

One Pakistani investor was thrown up to the ceiling while he was in the bathroom. He saw his room virtually fall apart and ran to the lobby where worse was to follow. He saw some armed men shooting indiscriminately and was forced to lie down on the floor, until the firing ceased. Finally they were told to go to the Hotel Intercontinental across the road.

There were similar incidents everywhere in the hotel and many foreigners received injuries.

Tourism Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake visited the hospital personally to see the wounded tourists and others.

Following this incident many private sector institutions have decided to vacate busy business centres in the city and find offices elsewhere.

While the ADB will remain in the twin towers, the Central Bank employees are said to be reluctant to stay on at the World Trade Centre since they had become a target for the second time.

Institutions such as the Union Bank, Pan Asia Bank and Lanka Bell are also looking for new offices.

Many jewellery shops in the two hotels are littered with glass and the owners are finding it difficult to trace gems and other valuable jewellery items in the debris. One shop owner was seen trying to trace his precious items with his hands bandaged to prevent cut injuries.

Different interpretations are given to the timing and motive of the LTTE attack last Wednesday.

Some analysts say the LTTE chose a Poya holiday when Fort is virtually deserted so that it could strike heavily at an economic target without causing too many civilian casualties because the rebels are now sensitive to an international backlash.

But others say the choice of a Poya day was mainly intended to avoid security problems. On working days lorries are not allowed into the city after 7 a.m. but that rule is not strictly enforced on holidays.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga was cautious in her first official statement on the incident, not directly mentioning the LTTE but saying that forces against peace were behind the bomb attack. Political analysts are of the opinion that she is under pressure from Tamil groups to sell the package to the LTTE and she did not want to jeopardize her chances of talking to the Tigers. But at a news conference on Friday, she quite clearly pointed the finger at the LTTE.

In the aftermath of the explosion, the President addressed a gathering of parliamentarians and SLFP organizers on Wednesday at the BMICH to solicit their support for the package.

Many organizers and MPs expressed their views, while some opposed the setting up of a South-Eastern Council for the Muslims.

Some members expressed the view that Seruwila should be annexed to the North Central Province.

However, President Kumaratunga said they should adopt a flexible policy and they could not stick to the provincial boundaries demarcated by the colonial rulers. She said it would be difficult to please everybody but she sought an accord on important matters.

The President said every community should have its rights protected and have a fall back position, and “this constitution ensures that right.” She thanked Minister G.L. Peiris for all that he was doing in finalizing government’s proposals to devolve power.

President Kumaratunga also had some remarks to make about the explosion at the Tao towers in the Fort. She said nobody could hold a legitimate government to ransom through such threats. She said that at a time the economy was just raising its head after the Central Bank explosion another bomb went off in the heart of the city making things difficult for the government.

There could be many problems as a direct result of this explosion, the President said.

We are investigating into various aspects of this unfortunate incident, including whether there was a serious security lapse.

Minister Peiris explaining the new Regional Council concept, said Trincomalee town and the Trincomalee Port would be under the Central government. He said there would be reasonable representation for the Sinhalese in the Trincomalee district since they are planning to introduce the Executive Committee system to the Regional Councils.

After the members expressed their views Minister Richard Pathirana moved that the participants endorse the government’s proposals to devolve power and it was seconded by Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake.

Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle requested the members to raise their hands if they were in agreement with the government’s proposals.

Finally, there appeared to be unanimity among those who were present. But it was noted that some of the participants had left the meeting before the vote was taken, while some others kept away deliberately.

A vehement critic of the government’s devolution proposals, Minister D.M. Jayaratne, was assigned with the task of delivering the welcome speech while Dilan Perera, a pro-package parliamentarian from Badulla, gave the vote of thanks.

In the morning on Wednesday there was confusion among the participants as to whether the President would attend the seminar. But the President informed the organizers that the seminar should be continued despite the explosion. Since the President and other Ministers had to get involved in various official matters in the aftermath of the terrorist bomb, the seminar could not be started on time.

When the bomb exploded around 7.10 in the morning the President was at Temple Trees having tea. But with the explosion she sprang into action giving orders to the Service Commanders and the IGP, in the absence of her Deputy Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte who was in Jakarta.

She fixed a meeting of the Security Council for 3 p.m. and when the message was received by the Army Commander he was attending a meeting summoned by Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva along with the other Service Commanders.

Defence Secretary de Silva who was on tour abroad arrived that morning around 9.30 a.m and immediately summoned a meeting of the Service Chiefs to discuss the latest developments.

When he went to his office at the Defence Ministry he found that the ceiling of the conference room had caved in and he could not hold the meeting. As he was wondering what to do, Army Commander Rohan Daluwatte offered to hold the meeting in his office at the Army Headquarters. Though his office, too, was damaged he found that his office could still be used for the emergency meeting with the Defence Secretary.

In the afternoon though all the Service Commanders were present on time to meet the President, she did not arrive on time for the meeting. The Headquarters Inspectors of the Colombo Metropolitan Police Stations who gathered there for a briefing by the President prior to the Security Council meeting found it difficult to direct operations in their respective areas since they were stuck at Temple Trees.

At the meeting which began around 5.30 in the evening many suggestions were moved to clamp down a curfew in the city but the President said it could create more confusion in the minds of the public. Thus she decided it would not be necessary. She directed them to maintain law and order in the city without taking drastic measures.

However, it was agreed that certain areas should be sealed off and roads closed for public safety.

At present the government’s immediate problem is as to how it should finalise matters on the Budget which is to be presented in Parliament early next month.

The immediate problem appears that Wednesday’s bomb had caused immense damage to the Treasury, busting many computers and other electronic equipment.

The President told the Cabinet that she had taken steps to repair damages caused to the Treasury as well as the adjoining Presidential Secretariat. At least 150 people have been employed round the clock from Thursday with all facilities provided to them to restore normalcy in the Treasury and the Presidential Secretariat to present the Budget proposals on time.

The President also told the Cabinet that failure on the part of the government to effect repairs to the Central Bank after the explosion last year stood for the disadvantage of the government. She said she had decided to repair the present damage caused to the hotels as early as possible.

For this she said the government should grant soft loans to the respective hotels with minimum conditions.

She emphasized the need to effect repairs immediately to bring normalcy to the devastated financial district of Colombo.

President Kumaratunga also told the Cabinet that the terrorists were successful in their attempt to destroy the country’s major economic targets and emphasized the need to have an effective security system.

In the meantime Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi summoned a meeting of the hoteliers on Thursday and requested them to start re-building as soon as possible.

He pledged fullest co-operation to the hoteliers in their bid to rebuild and bring about normalcy in the financial district of Colombo.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who is on a visit to India immediately telephoned General Secretary Gamini Atukorale in Ratnapura when he heard about the bomb explosion.

He directed Mr. Atukorale to draft a statement on the matter and issue it to the media. He told UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya, Mayor of Colombo, to visit the scene of the explosion and the injured in hospital.

He also told him to give all assistance to the needy people in a bid to bring the situation under control.

Mr. Wickremesinghe told Mr. Atukorale that he watched BBC TV in his hotel room and learnt about the blast.

As soon as the Indian security learnt about the explosion in Colombo, they took immediate steps to move Mr. Wickremesinghe to another hotel fearing some security threat.

However political analysts say that Mr. Wickremesinghe’s Indian visit was badly timed as Queen Elizabeth II also was visiting India and attention was focused on her.

They also said the Indians could exert pressure on Mr. Wickremesinghe to support the package since the government had already finalised its report on constitutional reforms.

TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam too has expressed this view privately and many think that the UNP would fall in line with the government proposals though with some amendments.

Originally Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit to India was to be a private one and bookings were made in Colombo through Hotel Taj. But now the Indians have said that they would take care of the Leader of Opposition, but the other members would have to pay their hotel bills.

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s economic advisor Milinda Moragoda also accompanied him while Dr. Arjuna Mahendran, an economist working closely with the UNP is also in India at the same time, to coincide with Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit.

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar after having learnt about Mr. Wickremesinghe’s visit to India had informed the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Delhi, Mangala Moonesinghe, that all assistance and courtesies should be extended to the visiting Leader of the Opposition, pointing out his office was that of Cabinet rank.

At present the UNP’s dilemma is whether it should support the package or not. The UNP needs the support of the minorities and at the same time it continues to oppose some of the key changes by the government to protect the rights of the Tamils and the Muslims.

On Tuesday a few hours before the meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, a UNP delegation met representatives of minority parties.

At this meeting, former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel queried Neelan Thiruchelvam as to what the government was trying to do.

“You are working with them. I suppose you know what they are going to do,” said Mr. de Mel.

“I don’t know what they are going to do but I can tell you what Minister Peiris told me,” Dr. Thiruchelvam said.

A little while later Dr. Thiruchelvam went out of the committee room in Parliament where the meeting was being held and came back with Minister Peiris.

There Mr. de Mel asked Dr. Peiris about the government’s plans to present the proposals in Parliament.

When Dr. Peiris said they were planning to do so somewhere around October 24, Mr. de Mel asked whether they could delay it until the Opposition Leader returned.

But Minister Peiris rejected this saying that UNP was given ample time to consider the proposals.

Later the UNP group decided to inform Party Leader Wickremesinghe about the government’s decision and on Thursday when Mahinda Samarasinghe telephoned Mr. Wickremesinghe in India he advised the UNP group to prepare an alternative report and submit to him before the next meeting of the Select Committee, scheduled for October 21.

However the draft proposals will come before Parliament as a sessional paper with a rider in which reservations of the other parties are included. Since the proposals go before Parliament as government proposals the government is planning to summon the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs at a later stage to discuss the proposals.

An important stage in the discussions was reached when Dr. Peiris announced that the government has decided to forward to Parliament the draft provisions of the Constitution as proposals of the government. This led to a discussion whether the approval of the Committee was necessary for the government to do so.

Dr. Peiris said it was an authorization because the issues had been discussed in the Committee though now the provisions go purely as government proposals.

Dr. Peiris also said after they were placed before Parliament, the government would initiate a debate so that the proposals could be treated more or less like a White Paper. He also said that it would help the public to debate the proposals too.

He was critical of the response of the UNP and said the Committee could not go on indefinitely. He said, the government wanted to debate the proposals because the UNP’s attitude was neither positive nor negative.

However UNP’s K.N. Choksy differed and said whilst the Committee was sitting, Parliament should not debate the proposals.

No decision was taken on this issue and it would be discussed next week when the Committee meets again.

Ronnie de Mel said the UNP would propose some small riders to a number of issues including police powers, land and elections commission.

Minister Peiris said it was not fair for the UNP to say that it wanted time to make amendments with regard to police and land powers because the proposals had been before the Committee for more than eight months. He said that some of the provisions regarding transition, interpretation, promulgation and repeal have not been included in the draft provisions and would be made available.

JVP’s Nihal Galapatthy asked whether the government has decided to give the Muslims in the Eastern Province a unit. He said Minister A.H.M. Fowzie was opposed to this move and also questioned as to the future of the rest of the Muslims in the country. Dr. Peiris however said these were matters that would be debated in Parliament.

The NDUNLF representative, Ravi Karunanayake, inquired whether the proposals would go before the people for a referendum. Dr. Peiris said replying that the Constitution would lay down the procedure.

Dr. Peiris said there had been no consensus with regard to electoral reforms but discussions would continue and this does not mean that the proposal had been abandoned. He stressed that there would be no change with regard to the National Anthem and the National Flag.

Dr. Peiris said the decision of the government to place the proposals before Parliament was also because Ronnie de Mel in his recent speeches asked for clarity and finality of the proposals. He said the preamble to the proposed Constitution was drafted largely on the lines Mr. Choksy had suggested. He also said that it was Tyronne Fernando’s suggestion that the definition of sovereignty be formulated on the lines of the South African Constitution.

Dr. Peiris paid a tribute to the Attorney-General, Sarath N. Silva, the Legal Draftsman N.J. Abeysekera and Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne for their contribution in drafting the proposals.

The draft proposals have many salient points. They envisage citizenship to all who have been resident in Sri Lanka since 1964 resolving a long standing problem of the plantations workers and also propose to do away with the Executive Presidency.

They propose a ceremonial President elected by Parliament and Regional High Courts with Regional Judicial Service Commission comprising of the three most senior high court judges of the region who would be given the power to make judicial appointments.

They also propose language rights to everybody and all three languages, Sinhala, English and Tamil, would be treated as national languages.

Under the new proposals, Parliament will exercise exclusive jurisdiction on list one and exclusive power to amend the Constitution.

Chapter 3, proposes to broaden the scope of fundamental rights now enjoyed by the people while the draft Constitution also proposes judicial review on any existing legislation.

Another important point envisaged by the new Constitution is the continuity of the Speaker even after Parliament is dissolved. This will help the government to reconvene a dissolved Parliament during times of emergency.

Under the provisions of state land, the state land in the region would be vested with the region but the central government could allocate land for projects coming under the central administration in consultation with the regional Chief Minister.

This was the subject of stiff criticism levelled by Minister D.M. Jayaratne against the government. He said that the concept of state derives from the ownership of land.

In the olden days land belonged to the King and later it was vested with the central government, a tradition running into some 2500 years. Mr. Jayaratne argued during a special Cabinet meeting on October 11 to discuss devolution of power.

Referring to devolved police powers, Minister Mahinda Rajapakse said he hoped that at least they could get some assistance from the police once the powers are devolved.

He said as it is, they are finding it difficult to get any work done through the police.

Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne, however appealed to the Minister to endorse the package since such matters could be resolved later.

But Mr. Jayaratne insisted they should express their opinion freely since this meeting was meant for such observations.

Besides all these, it appears that President Kumaratunga and her estranged brother, Anura Bandaranaike, are clashing again. This time the dispute is centered on a speech Mr. Bandaranaike made during the emergency debate on October 9 attacking his sister.

Later Mr. Bandaranaike charged that a stranger in Parliament had tried to expunge what was included in Hansard raising a serious privilege issue.

Mr. Bandaranaike along with UNP’s former Minister K.N. Choksy met the Speaker on what they saw as a serious breach of privilege.

On the Thursday in question, President Chandrika Kumaratunga had gone to the Rosmead Place residence of her mother and was playing the piano in the afternoon.

Mr. Bandaranaike who came to his residence next door after his speech for a siesta was however disturbed by the tinkling of a piano in close proximity. But he was puzzled when the sound of music came to an abrupt halt. He had later been informed that the President had rushed to Parliament to get a first hand idea of what Mr. Bandaranaike had told Parliament.

Now the question is who altered the unedited version of Hansard.

It appears now there are so many problems to be resolved by the government during this week - the Fort explosion, the package on devolution and the privilege issue aired by Mr. Bandaranaike.

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