The Political Column

15th February 1998

UNP’s about turn under scrutiny

By Our Political Correspondent

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has completed its tenth year with the creditable achievement of making a strong impact on the Sri Lankan political field within a relatively short period.

However some political observes feel the SLMC has lost substantial support outside the North and the East since 1994.

But Minister and SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff still wields considerable influence in the East and has also a fair amount of support among the Muslim refugees who live outside the North-East. Recently when Mr. Ashraff met UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe at Cambridge Place, he felt it was wrong to refer to the proposed South-East Provincial Council as a Muslim Council. He said the proposal was being deliberately given a communal twist, pointing out that the Southern Provincial Council was not identified as a Sinhala one or the North-East Council as Tamil. He regretted that there were attempts in certain quarters to make this a communal issue.

Mr. Wickemesinghe explained the UNP’s proposals but there was little response from Mr. Ashraff or the top-level delegation that accompanied him. UNP’s A.C.S. Hameed asked Mr. Ashraff whether the creation of the South-East Council would not result in the Tamils in the Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Mannar Districts losing their political clout.

Mr. Hameed said earlier there were attempts to provide constitutional guarantees in the merged unit when Muslims lose their political weightage from 33% to 17%.

Mr. Ashraff said all these aspects had been considered and in the alternative it was the view of the Muslim Congress that the South-East Council would strengthen the position of the Muslims in the North and the East.

When Ronnie de Mel spoke about opposition to the proposal from within the government, especially from Minister A.H.M. Fowzie, Mr. Ashraff smilingly said, “I don’t know but he has voted for a South-East Council at the Cabinet meeting”. Mr. Ashraff also told Mr. Wickremesinghe that some of the UNP Muslim MPs were opposing this proposal purely because of personal animosity.

Mr. Hameed assured Mr. Ashraff there was no personal antagonism and the UNP recognised the fact that the Muslim Congress had at the last polls, commanded the confidence of the majority of the Muslims, and that the UNP would certainly respect that mandate.

The UNP’s alternative proposals have been rejected by the Tamil parties. It is still not clear whether these proposals for power sharing at the centre totally dismissed any further devolution to the provinces.

Judging from the communiqué that was issued recently by the party, the position of the UNP seems to be that devolution to the periphery results in choas. The government has still to respond to the UNP proposals with Minister G.L. Peiris who is now in Brazil, yet to return to the country. It is likely that a meeting of the Select Committee will be held when Parliament meets in the third week of this month and then perhaps the country would know more about the UNP’s proposals and the government’s response.

At present the main debate in government circles is whether they should hold the Provincial Council elections before the non-binding referendum.

The referendum is significant for the government since it is an opportunity to gauge the will of the people.

Earlier the UNP had clearly tried to persuade the government to drop the idea of a referendum. But after the Dalada Maligawa explosion, the UNP had significantly changed its stance, challenging the government to hold the referendum with the hope that it would be defeated.

But the government is also acting tactfully and waiting for the UNP proposals to be submitted in full, before deciding on the referendum.

In the circumstances the PC elections are likely to be held before the referendum. Most of the Tamils and other minority parties have taken it seriously and are working towards the Provincial Council elections.

In the North-East merged council, three prominent Tamil parties are likely to field candidates - the TULF, PLOTE and the EPDP.

The fear among the Tamil Parties is, whether a triangular contest in the two provinces (North and the East) would pave the way for an SLMC candidate to be elected as the Chief Minister.

But the SLMC doesn’t want to clinch this important position since it is well aware of the ground reality.

The analysis is that while the Tamil vote in the North is split among three parties, the SLMC would have a solid vote in the East, where 33 percent of the people are Muslims.

In the circumstances it is likely that the SLMC would extend its support to the TULF to form a provincial government for the North-East with a TULF nominee as the Chief Minister.

The SLMC joined hands with the TULF to shoot down the UNP’s alternative proposals and co-operated with TULF’s Neelan Thiruchelvam when he came up with the idea of a joint statement during the emergency debate the previous week.

However, EPDP leader Douglas Devananda opposed the move and refused to sign the statement drafted by Dr. Thiruchelvam.

Mr. Devananda said none of the Tamil parties had accepted the government proposals too, but if the government came up with something acceptable, he would reject the UNP proposals.

The statement said thus:

“The SLMC, CWC, TULF and the DPLF are deeply troubled and saddened by recent public statements and pronouncements by representatives of the UNP relating to the devolution exercise. News reports state that the devolution proposals of the government have been rejected by the UNP while no alternative proposals have been submitted by the party, as yet. The UNP has on the other hand advanced certain proposals relating to power-sharing at the centre. We will give careful and anxious consideration to the proposals so far advanced by the UNP. We need to however reiterate that power-sharing at the centre cannot be an alternative to or a substitute for the devolution of power to the regions.

The UNP has made clear in the rider filed in Parliament that it is “for genuine devolution of power within a united and indivisible Sri Lanka”. The UNP has also made previous public pronouncements that the devolution of power must go significantly beyond the 13th amendment and involve the transfer of additional power and resources to the regions.

“We would urge the UNP to formulate its proposals on the devolution of power and the unit of devolution having regard to the above public pronouncements and the magnitude of the crisis affecting the North-East.

“We wish to also refer to the proposals of the UNP relating to the composition of the Constitutional Council.

“The composition as proposed by the UNP will ensure little or no representation of minority parties or communities within Sri Lanka. The Constitutional Council, having regard to its importance in the constitutional scheme, must adequately and effectively reflect the diversity of Sri Lanka. We therefore urge the UNP to also reconsider its views on the composition of the Constitutional Council.

“We appeal to the UNP to submit its proposals on devolution and the unit of devolution as envisaged in the rider filed in Parliament.” The statement was signed by M.H.M. Ashraff (leader, SLMC), S. Thondaman (President, CWC), M. Sivasithamparam (President, TULF) and D. Siddarthan (leader, DPLF)

A question at this juncture is why these parties rejected the UNP proposals even before the UNP submitted all the proposals. On the other hand, PA lawyers argue that if the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is taken as the starting point, the UNP has gone beyond the PA proposals.

While the 13th Amendment to the Constitution envisages sharing power at the periphery, the UNP’s latest proposals have suggested sharing power at the centre, which would not augur well for any government, they argue.

They also point out that the UNP proposal to set up the Executive Committee system at national level will not undermine the principle of collective responsibility by the Cabinet.

They also say that the governmental system proposed by the UNP does not fall into any known system.

The PA lawyers have pointed out that the PA package on the contrary concentrates power being given back to a Cabinet headed by a Prime Minister, who will be a member of Parliament.

The significance in the new Constitution is that it reduces the executive power while the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions expanded it, they point out.

Now it is up to the two parties to discuss and come to an arrangement to bring about a reasonable solution to the ethnic crisis.

But after having proposed power sharing at the centre, some UNPers ask how the party could change its stance so fast after having advocated devolution - to find a just solution to the crisis.

Sections of the diplomatic community monitoring Sri Lanka’s political developments, too have expressed some reservations about the UNP proposals.

Ronnie de Mel was the key political figure behind the UNP’s alternate proposals along with a host of legal luminaries.

Mr. de Mel who went along with devolution proposals as a key member representing the UNP at the Select Committee on Constitutional Reforms had taken a complete turnaround from his position declaring that devolution is all over.

The UNP is yet pondering its latest set of proposals and trying to temper the impression of an extreme stand which may have resulted from its announced proposals.

Some UNPers believe there to be no basis to the alternative proposals.

They point out, that no fundamental principle associated with the proposals is in line with what had been advocated by the UNP during the last three years.

The proposals lack character and definition, they point out.

As the members of the diplomatic community were taking a second look at the UNP’s proposals, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe joined with British High Commissioner, David Tatham and Milinda Moragoda, one of his confidants, for a private breakfast at Oberoi.

Kumar Rupasinghe, Secretary General of the International Alert, who happened to be there spoke to Mr. Wickremesinghe on matters pertaining to the present situation. The UNP also could not get the expected mileage out of the resignation issue of General Anuruddha Ratwatte.

Though they originally contemplated a countrywide campaign, the party subsequently sensed that the timing was not opportune.

The UNP itself seems to be in two minds with regard to its attitude towards General Ratwatte.

It was interesting to note that while General Secretary Gamini Atukorale and some other party activists had called for his resignation, W.J.M. Lokubandara has said that Mr. Ratwatte should not resign. It is difficult to say whether the “Kandyan doctrine” is now being promoted in the party.

In any case it does not look likely that the UNP would continue with the “Ratwatte resign” demonstrations. At the same time the legal aspect of General Ratwatte’s resignation also seems to be fading away.

But it will be foolish for the government to think that everything is over.

One former UNP Minister said that these were only the early showers, and the deluge was yet to come.

In another development former UNP strongman and General Secretary Sirisena Cooray met Hema Premadasa at her residence at Wijerama Mawatha.

Mr. Cooray went with a real power group who were President Premadasa’s organisers at one stage.

Mr. Cooray suggested that they should carry forward the name of the late President since he felt that there is a considerable grassroots support for him throughout the country.

Sajith Premadasa pointed out that he would give his fullest co-operation but within permissable limits, since he is a member of the UNP.

In other words, he said he would support anything non-political as far as his father is concerned.

In fact Mr. Premadasa had rendered a yeoman service to the poor villagers in Sri Lanka through his village re-awakening programme and the Premadasa Centre headed by Mr. Cooray and the Sucharitha Organisation headed by Hema Premadasa would join hands to commemorate President Premadasa on May 1.

President Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993, while he was attending a May Day procession organised by the UNP.

Mr. Cooray’s visit to the Wijerama Mawatha residence of the Premadasa family was sequel to a visit made by Sajith Premadasa to Mr. Cooray’s residence at Lake Drive, Rajagiriya.

At this meeting which was described by political observers as a prelude to the meeting between Ms. Premadasa and Mr. Cooray, Sajith thanked Mr. Cooray for attending his birthday party recently.

At the birthday dinner Mr. Cooray shook hands with Mr. Wickremesinghe, ending a long-standing stalemate.

Other guests who attended the dinner responded with an applause while political observers gave varying interpretations to the meeting.

But it was not politically significant for Mr. Wickremesinghe as he indicated to some of his friends at a latter stage.

However, both Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Cooray had another opportunity to meet last week at a wedding reception in a leading hotel in Colombo.

The occasion was the wedding ceremony of the daughter of a one time deputy Minister Galappaththi.

Mr. Wickremesinghe was the attesting witness to the bride. When Mr. Cooray walked in he was seated with Mayor Karu Jayasuriya. Mr Cooray also took a seat in the same table and said: “Don’t give your hand this time”, meaning that they should not leave room for any political speculation or rumour.

But these days the main pre-occupation of Mr. Cooray is to commemorate his late leader Premadasa on a grand scale.

For this he has chosen Kataragama where President Premadasa held his Gam Udawa celebrations on a grand scale.

According to organisers, a statue of President Premadasa will be taken in a motorcade to Kataragama where the 5th anniversary commemoration will be held. At the weekly meeting of the ministers on Wednesday, Minister D.M. Jayaratne came with a giant papaw and placed it on the President’s table. Ministers were puzzled,

Mr. Jayaratne made his point. This giant papaw was produced as a result of the agricultural research carried out by his Ministry, he said.

Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike said that big papaws were not sweet.

But Mr. Jayaratne refuted Ms. Bandaranaike’s claim and said, “Madam, this is very sweet”.

“I brought this to get more money for my research work”, he added.

Though he brought a Cabinet paper on an earlier occasion too the Cabinet refused to give money for his research work, but this time it seems they were more considerate of Mr. Jayaratne’s appeal. However, the matter was put off for further discussion next week.

The Cabinet also deferred a proposal by Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera to appoint a new Director General to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. Several ministers pointed out that they did not know much about the person nominated for the post. In another development the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation had opposed a suggestion made by the PERC to privatise AirLanka.

The intended buyer is none other than Emirates Airlines.

The minister said it would be better to run the country’s national carrier on its present status, since it is running with profits. At the same time the Minister has pointed out that once privatised AirLanka will surrender all its rights and what it had achieved over the years as a prominent airline in South Asia.

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