The Political Column

14th December 1997

So many men, so many opinions

By Our Political Correspondent

The opposition UNP after a long silence has woken up and is poised to re-organise the party to face the challenges posed by the government.

The UNP feels that it should go to the masses once again through major public rallies at least once a month in a bid to re-generate its real image.

At present the UNP organisations, especially in once strong UNP areas such as the coastal belt, have become weak and are in disarray due to lack of proper co-ordination and leadership.

In this situation UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told the members of the policy making Working Committee to come up with proposals for a countrywide campaign against the government.

According to Mr. Wickremesinghe’s own assessment, corruption is rampant and the government had failed in its duty to arrest this deteriorating condition.

In short Mr. Wickremesinghe said the government had opened the floodgates of corruption though it promised to bring in new measures to minimise waste and graft.

The members came up with various suggestions including a people’s petition to ‘impeach’ the President, since she is at the helm of the governmental structure.

The B.C. Perera issue, on the locomotives tender also figured prominently. Mr. Wickremesinghe told the Working Committee he had the highest regard for Mr. Perera as a public servant.

“His integrity is unquestionable and is one of the topmost public servants” Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

He said attempts were being made to cast aspersions on public servants, to cover up the sins of leading politicians.

The deal where the government is planning to hand over the modernisation of the Queen Elizabeth Quay of the Colombo Port to the P&O Corporation of Australia is another issue the UNP intends to stir up.

The government has already admitted its wrongdoing in this matter. It confirms the government’s dual policy in terms of transparency, and privatisation programmes are tainted with corruption, Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

All these issues will be taken to the country and wide public awareness programmes will be launched to show the extent of corruption, the UNP leader said.

John Amaratunga, Nanda Mathew, Joseph Michael Perera, Gamini Lokuge and several others also spoke on the need to spotlight corruption.

Mr. Mathew said there were talks that people went to see a particular VIP with bags full but returned empty handed.

Mr. Mathew was obviously referring to something that came up in the Parliament lobby last week when members were talking about current trends in the government.

With all these allegations the UNP Working Committee noted that it would be appropriate to move a motion of no-confidence against the government based on all these issues and the recent controversy involving the Permanent Commission on Bribery and Corruption.

Anura Bandaranaike who was also present spoke out strongly against corruption and said, “It’s time to strike”.

Mr. Bandaranaike at the same time was brimming with confidence after the speech he made in Parliament on the votes of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Though he was rather critical of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar during the debate, he attended a tea party hosted by Mr. Kadirgamar along with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

During the party Mr. Bandaranaike walked up to Mr. Kadirgamar and said “Lakshman that was a lovely debate”.

“Yes it was,” Mr. Kadirgamar said and added, “Anura, we must meet for a drink and some dinner”.

“Of course we must,” Mr. Bandaranaike replied.

But Mr. Kadirgamar had some thing more to tell him.

“Anura I fear some Sunday Newspaper might write what we ate and drank”.

“Don’t worry, only one paper will do that and I can stop it,” Mr. Bandaranaike said.

In any event, the UNP is not aiming at the Foreign Minister but at the plantation workers in view of the coming Provincial Council elections.

A discussion on current issues in the plantations was on the agenda of the UNP Working Committee meeting last Tuesday.

Though a full discussion will come up only at the next meeting, Mr. Wickremesinghe said a substantial salary hike to the plantation workers would be justifiable.

He said the daily wages should be raised to a minimum of Rs. 100 from the present Rs. 83.

The plantation workers, however are demanding Rs. 125 a day, while the Employers’ Federation had agreed to pay them Rs. 90.

The Working Committee discussed many other subjects as well. However it did not discuss the key subject which concerns everybody today, the ethnic issue.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said that at the party’s annual convention this month they would not be able to announce the party’s stand on the ethnic problem.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the Committees appointed to study this issue had not worked out their reports.

Thus it would not be correct to announce the party’s stand at the annual sessions.

In any case the UNP is trying to buy time to present alternative proposals on devolution.

The UNP is likely to propose asymmetrical devolution in view of the government’s package.

Minister G.L. Peiris quick to study the UNP mind, said recently he would not reject the UNP proposals.

Under the UNP’s latest proposals the Northern and Eastern regions should exercise authority over a set of subjects and functions that would be different from those exercised by other regions.

In Parliament recently Minister Peiris made a critical statement on the UNP’s approach to the ethnic issue.

Dr. Peiris said:

“We have approached suggestions made by the UNP. When Mr. K.N. Choksy made a suggestion about the unitary state and its implications, we took that on board and we formulated a legal provision giving effect to the views that were expressed on that occasion by a very distinguished constitutional lawyer in this country. Unfortunately, we were not able to proceed because the UNP said that was not the official view of the UNP.

“Now, the problem I have is this. There are so many different views. A leading member of the UNP told me - I will not mention his name - that the UNP would like to start with the 13th Amendment but the UNP is prepared to leave out the Concurrent List. He told me that, that was a clear party decision. That is directly in contrast with what was stated on the Floor of this House by W.J.M. Lokubandara.

“I do not want to get into a debate or a controversy about this. The only point that I am making is this. With regard to the UNP today one can say quot homines, tot sententiae, so many men, so many opinions. There is a diversity of views. There are members of the UNP, very important people in the party, who feel that the 13th Amendment is not adequate, that we need a fresh point of departure. There is another school of thought, that we do not need to depart to that extent from the 13th Amendment, we can start with the 13th Amendment but we must modify it in certain fundamental respects.”

A.H.M. Aswer: “It is better for you to refrain from such references regarding UNP in this House, simply because you are the protagonist of the whole exercise.”

Prof. G.L. Peiris: “No, not at all.”

A.H.M. Aswer: “No, no. You are trying to drive a wedge into our camp. That will not pay off, Mr. Minister.”

Another matter in the spotlight was speculation over the Prime Minister. Now it appears that Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike will not step down in the near future. But close friends of Ms. Bandaranaike are of the opinion that she is waiting until a person she considers capable of holding this office is found.

Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte is not one of her favourites, in view of various incidents that have taken place in the Ratwatte/Bandaranaike family circles.

In the circumstances the most acceptable successor would be Lakshman Jayakody.

He was the compromise nominee for Attanagalla, when Ms. Bandaranaike lost her seat in Parliament after the UNP passed a resolution to strip her civic rights in 1980.

On the other hand Mr. Jayakody was a close confidant of Ms. Bandaranaike and held the very important post of Deputy Minister of Defence and External Affairs when she was the Prime Minister of United Front government in 1970-77.

Most SLFPers know about Mr. Jayakody’s credentials and political circles are buzzing with rumours that he recently met Ms. Bandaranaike, and discussed this issue too.

Some Senior Ministers are also of the opinion that the Premiership should go to a party senior and not anybody who joined recently.

At the same time insiders say it won’t go out of the family and looking at all these, one could predict that Lakshman Jayakody would be the candidate for Premiership. But it all depends on the President. She has the power to appoint the Prime Minister, who she thinks would enjoy the support of the majority in Parliament.

Besides all these, the government is also tackling the crisis in the Permanent Commission on Bribery and Corruption.

Director General Nelum Gamage on Thursday withdrew her writ application in the Supreme Court after the Attorney General gave an undertaking that the investigation against her would be dropped.

The government felt that it would not be in a position to conduct investigations against the Director General and now it is likely that Ms. Gamage would resort to her substantive position in the Ministry of Justice, paving the way for the President to make a fresh appointment.

Simultaneously it is likely that the government would not take any drastic action against the two Commissioners since a good part of the problem has now been resolved with the mediation of the Attorney General’s Department.

The AG’s Department is also looking into problems - a long-standing dispute in the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka.

The AG is studying whether Cricket Board President Mr. Upali Dharmadasa was eligible to hold the post in terms of a sports law which requires that a person holding that post should have the experience in playing at least two matches in a tournament recognized by the Cricket Board.

Mr. Dharmadasa has submitted a letter from Bloomfield that he played for the Club but it is not clear whether he did so in a recognized tournament.

Thus the AG is seeking more particulars while department officials also held discussions at the Sports Ministry in this regard.

The other important matter concerning the Sports Ministry and the Minister is the return of sprint queen Susanthika Jayasinghe to the track after a month-long battle.

It appears that Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake is not happy about certain steps taken by the Amateur Athletics Association to resolve the Susanthika issue.

Rumours doing Colombo’s political rounds on Friday predicted a possible clash between Minister Dissanayake and AAA President Minister Mahinda Rajapakse over the issue. But Mr. Rajapakse has apparently taken steps to sort out the matter amicably though rumours persisted that he might quit his post in the AAA.

But guess who is in the hottest water now because of Susanthika? It is the controversial UNP back bencher Sarath Kongahage who only recently sorted out a dispute with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe over the Sirisena Cooray issue.

Mr. Kongahage is in trouble again because he did not inform UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale about the mediation efforts by his wife Shanthini with Minister Rajapakse to bring Susanthika back on to the track.

Another topic of the week was the plight of tens of thousands of displaced people in the Wanni and opposition moves to focus more attention on their desperate situation.

As a sequel to their appeal, Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte called a meeting of all party leaders and government officials to discuss ways of expediting relief work for Wanni refugees.

At the meeting the government assured urgent relief to the people of the Wanni and requested all the other political parties to make arrangements to send relief supplies through NGOs to make sure that these supplies are received by genuine refugees.

TULF Leader M. Sivasithamparam who explained the situation in the Wanni said they were facing various problems due to the shortage of food, medicine and condoms.

Minister Ratwatte snapped back asking, “Why are you interested in this....”

“No I am not,” replied Mr. Sivasithamparam, but Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva who was also there said he could supply any number of condoms if necessary.

UNP MP A.H.M. Azwer interjected asking, “Wouldn’t they like to produce more?”

The end result was all the other Tamil parties and several members of the TULF showed their contempt and anger towards Mr. Sivasithamparam for having raised an inappropriate matter amidst a serious discussion.

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