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1st, March 1998

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It's too close to be a joke at all

The story, reportedly told to Prince Charles, goes like this: God is selecting the next President of the country. Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe are the two contenders. He asks Kumaratunga, "how much is two and two?".

Kumaratunga launches into a speech about the seventeen years of UNP rule and says, "the UNP said it is five, so even we can say it is five".

Wickremesinghe is asked the same question. "God," he pleads, "we will study the issue and come back to you in three months time..."

We do not know whether the Prince of Wales enjoyed the joke, but from a Sri Lankan perspective the story is no joke at all, because it is so close to the truth.

As we resume these columns after a lapse of time, President Chandrika Kumaratunga is well into the latter half of her Presidency.

This is a time when a government should be taking stock of what it had achieved and be preparing for the next election.

With the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga this is not possible, simply because it has done so little. The credit of it's survival should go not to the President, but to a lethargic and incompetence Opposition.

The cliche says that a country deserves the government it gets, and Sri Lanka deserved a PA government at it's outset, but, to be fair by President Kumaratunga, perhaps she didn't get the people she deserved to run her government.

But picking the right man for the right job should be a politician's talent. President Premadasa, for all his faults, had a knack for that, so much so that former Secretary General of Parliament Sam Wijesinha recently called him the leader who got the most amount of work done while in office.

President Kumaratunga's problem is precisely that. She might go down in history as the leader who did the least amount of work while in office.

And her reaction to her predicament has been equally unproductive. Time and again, in public utterances the President has only lashed out at bureaucrats accusing them of being stooges of the UNP, out to sabotage her administration.

Bureaucrats, by definition are a lethargic lot and public tongue lashings will not help the President's cause, specially when they target the likes of B.C. Perera, a man of integrity and efficiency.

On the other hand, it is interesting to observe that even the President's hand-picked men (and women) have not lasted long in her regime.

At the highest levels of government excepting the cabinet resignations galore. Rajan Asirwathan, a personal friend of Kumaratunga and a man credited with introducing Lakshman Kadirgamar to the President, has quit as head of the Public Enterprises Reform Commission, a body that held the promise of reshaping the country's economy.

Navin Goneratne, head of the Southern Development Authority that was touted as the panacea for southern unrest, has resigned.

A similar, if not worse fate has befallen Nelum Gamage who was named in the PA election manifesto as being the antidote for bribery and corruption in the country.

On another front, Edmond Jayasinghe, another hand picked man, was forced to quit as Media Ministry Secretary. And there were disasters in this highly sensitive sector with firstly, Kumaratunga's Press Secretary Chulawansa Sri Lal resigning, her hand picked LTTE activist Wasantha Rajah sacked as Rupavahini boss, and then, heads rolling at the head of Lake House with alarming frequency.

The days of present boss, Aloy Ratnayake are also numbered, those close to the President's thinking say.

Even the President's social Secretary, Padma Maharajah has quit, Kumaratunge's critics would point out in glee.

So, as all the President's men and women fall by the wayside, there has been increasing concern that the PA does not know how to govern.

Kumaratunge is known to have said privately, more than once, "give me ten honest efficient men to run this country". Apparently, the search is still on.

Roots of this problem may lie partly in the fact that, President Kumaratunga actually has little experience in governing, in contrast to her predecessors who percolated in the hot cauldron of politics for a long, long time before assuming power, Kumaratunga, without being uncharitable to her, had only the benefit of being the Chief Minister of the Western Province when she was riding the crest of a wave of anti-UNP sentiment.

That, and a brief period as Prime Minister in the first flush of a general election victory - not the best breeding ground for the rough and tumble of the Presidency.

And, while on this issue of political upbringing, it is pertinent to note that this is the tragedy of the Opposition also.

For, if Kumaratunga was not groomed enough for leadership, then Ranil Wickremesinghe has been even less groomed for the mantle of leader of the Opposition.

When, because of all this, the ship of state get's stuck in murky waters, Kumaratunga has reacted by letting off steam and, in the process, hurting the fragile egos of the Opposition with which she must co-operate if she is to push her Constitutional reforms through.

This has happened time and again, and the most recent example was her interview with Time, where she said she offered 10 years of rule of the North and East to LTTE leader Prabhakharan. (And, she once asked Ranil Wickremesinghe, 'Kate Pittuda?" and then again, which orifice he was speaking from!)

In the latest escapade, Kumaratunga reacted last week by giving a hurriedly summoned "Press Conference" on the lawn of Temple Trees and said criticism of the 10-year offer was a joke because the offer was valid only if the LTTE became a democratic party.

And, she charged, the UNP regime gave funds to the LTTE, so who were they to talk of 10-year offers?

Almost everyone in the media who watched this outburst of Presidential pique agreed it would have been better if Kumaratunga kept her thoughts to herself.

Certainly, doing what the UNP did is no excuse but that is now becoming a familiar Kumaratunga theme.

And, she is showing her naivete by believing that the man-eating tigers will eat grass simply because they were selling Chandrika bangles in Jaffna And, how "democratic" is an LTTE that wants no elections for ten years, anyway?

Ranil Wickremesinghe, not to take anything away from him, is today the leader of the Opposition and has already been Prime Minister-simply because he had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time.

He is head of the UNP, almost by default, because its top leadership has been wiped out by the bullet and the bomb. R. Premadasa, Ranjan Wijeratne, Gamini Dissanayake.

Even Lalith Athulathmudali, make no mistake, had he lived at the time of Premadasa's death, would have climbed aboard the UNP ship, just like Dissanayake did and would have usurped Wickremesinghe's claims.

But fate has decreed otherwise, and Wickremesinghe, though through no fault of his own making, finds himself in the unenviable position of being the Leader of the Opposition after 17 years in government.

Had it been vice-versa, he would have served the country better, we dare say.

But to revert to Kumaratunga's crisis, her ineptness at the helm is manifest mostly in the manner in which the Northern terrorist war is being prosecuted.

Her uncle, the good General Anuruddha Ratwatte is setting time table after time table to end the war. The equally indefatigable Professor G.L. Peiris is dutifully engaged in the finger-wagging, lip-pouting routine of selling his package but even the PA's coalition partners cannot yet agree to disagree on the proposed reforms.

After this outburst, some in the UNP were wondering aloud whether the 10-year offer was an impeachable offence-just as much as Premadasa giving arms to the LTTE but it may not be so because the offer did not materialise.

Nevertheless, it only shows what crazy suggestions are made in the corridors of power to a President, who, we still have no doubt, is well intentioned but clearly needs saner counsel to prevail upon her numerous advisors.

In this context, we might quote the Washington Post, which says of Bill Clinton: "All President's Operate in a bubble of agents and sides, but the distance that inevitably separates even the most gregarious of Presidents from the rest of humanity has become greater, the sense of isolation more noticeable. The contradiction of the Presidency is feeling alone in the midst of people. And none of those people around the President, or any of the President's close friends, can know the pressures a leader faces and none of them will ever know the deepest fears and insecurities of the Presidency..."

Chandrika Bandaranike Kumaratunga, we are sure, will agree. But in so doing, we hope she finds the courage to make the latter half of the Presidency better than the first.

For, Presidents are there to create history and not let events in history overtake them. Sri Lanka deserves at least that from the leaders.

Oh what an 'honourable' sight it was!

By Paakshikaya

Last week we saw the spectacle of the "Honourable" Ranil Wickremesinghe leading a UNP campaign against "Corruption in Government".

It was indeed a heartwarming sight. There was Ranil looking much like local Bill Clinton, a few grey hairs and all, waving the PA manifesto in the air and taking sentences out of context trying to prove that the PA was nothing but corrupt and that the UNP was nothing but virtue itself.

But Ranil Wickremesinghe is not the "Comeback Kid" that Bill Clinton is. We could even then, give Ranil the benefit of the doubt, except that we don't suffer from the amnesia that the UNP and it's "honourable" members seem to be afflicted with.

We must then hasten to remind them of how corruption was endemic during the UNP regime, for wasn't it that which brought about its downfall?

For instance how can we forget the yeoman services rendered by a super secretary of that era whom even cabinet ministers called "Sir"!

This super secretary , so the story goes, was the then President's 'Righthand Man' . Minister Sirisena Cooray was the 'lefthand Man'. And the Right hand didn't know what the left hand did and vice-versa too!

While the Left hand Man is now in self imposed exile, the Right hand Man - through whom all major tenders received approval - is now living a life of glorious retirement - rich in experience and other things - in a luxury London flat, probably marking his time waiting for a recall when this "Nawa" UNP returns to power, no doubt on the clarion call of a corruption free administration.

Then, it is an open secret how the rajahs of all companies operated under Premadasa, a man they had in their pocket (Gamini Dissanayake was also among their patrons).

When, however good old dearly beloved Wijetunga (the best UNP President, in our opinion) snubbed them, they sponsored the PA hoping they could cash in once in power.

Now they speak ill of the PA administration because they realise that in this government, the Technical Evaluation Committees and Cabinet sub committees don't have a price tag!

And, what about Mr. "Clean" Wickremesinghe himself? well, that's what they called Rajiv Gandhi until the Bofors Scandal broke out.!

Some of my UNP friends are fond of telling me how "Siri Kotha" even issues receipts for contributions. But I'm not too sure about the transparency of it all, judging by some of the people we see around Mr. Clean , smacking their chops waiting for big kill, if and when (a big 'if' at that) Mr. Clean comes to power.

Some - like Mr. Clean's Economic Advisor, for example - couldn't even wait, probably because they realised the wait would be a long one. They tried to deal with the Malaysians befriending some of our own Ministers and failed mainly because the Midas Touch turned out to be something else - the entire Malaysian financial edifice crumbled no sooner they struck a deal ! ( And that's how the UNP's advisors are watching the financial markets!) Now, we are sure that Mr. Clean - or one of his many advisors - will read this, turn red in the face and say, by way of explanation that young Ranil had nothing to do with what happened during the regimes of JRJ and Premadasa, for he was still younger then and virtually had no say in what the Lords and Masters of the day did.

That is very convincing explanation indeed and we will accept that, but only if Mr. Clean makes his position clear on one of his senior colleagues - the "honourable" Wijepala Mendis, who has now been found guilty of corruption by a Presidential Commission.

My UNP friends - 'Viruddha Paakshikaya' not included - tell me a majority of the Party's Parliamentary group would like to see Mr. Mendis out, not because they like him less but because they love the party more, but the old guard would have none of it.

I am not sure whether Mr. Clean, the undisputed Leader of the UNP or is it? considers himself one of the Old Guard or among the Young Turks - he is, we suspect, somewhere in between - but he has shown remarkable consistency in indecision - and that includes vacillating on the Wijepala Mendis issue as well.

The likes of 'Viruddha Paakshikaya' are likely to protest at these remarks and claim that Commissions are only a political witch hunt, but we dare the UNP to say, that because that trend was started by none other than the 'Old Fox' ! (which Viruddha Paakshikaya called a term of affection!) - That was when a Presidential Commission found our leader Ms Bandaranaike, Her Man Friday, Felix Dias B and the even then irrepressible A.H.M. Fowzie guilty of abuse of power and stripped them of their civic rights.

For those of us in the SLFP, the only regret is that the PA government lacks someone of the calibre of Felix today. Had he been amongst us, he would have used the Wijepala Mendis issue to divide and decimate the UNP as JRJ used Ms.B's civic rights issue to divide the then united SLFP.

Now, don't tell me that we have another FDB in GLP. We don't. Can you ever picture GLP in a blue T-shirt walking the streets shouting slogans on 'May Day'? For the life of me I can't!.

So, the bottom line is that the UNP can least afford to talk about corruption, not only because of what they did when they were in power, but also because of what they are not doing - getting rid of the corrupt - while they are in the Opposition.

Having tried to privatise everything they could lay their hands on when in office, now they are screaming their heads off at our privatisation programme

Mr. Clean, therefore, cannot be complacent nor can he take moral high ground. He too has his share of hangers-on, who wine and dine with him and print books about him. He better watch out - simply because we , and the people of this country are watching him. And, we haven't been impressed at all by what we have seen so far!

Sorry about that!

Burning politics of dissent

By Abu Ahmad

Minister Ashraff's tirade against the state-controlled Tamil daily 'The Thinakaran" brought in to focus the SLMC leader and his party's attitude to any form of dissent or deviation from the SLMC's point of view.

Although Ashraff himself later tried to play it down by stating that it was only a symbolic burning that he was talking about, the fact that his expressed intention was to take to the streets to burn the very paper that his party had upto then used (misused?) to propagate his views, gave an entirely different complexion to his statements.

A few months back enraged SLMC supporters burnt copies of the 'Virakesari' newspaper which had dared to be critical of their leader. In 1988 during the Presidential election campaign SLMC supporters stoned a helicopter carrying Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the late Badiuddin Mahmud and Alavi Moulana. Today SLFP supporters in the Eastern Province are harassed by the SLMC and not allowed to carry out any legitimate political activity.

Since the PA government was installed in power, the SLMC has made full use of the Thinakaran to provide itself more than its share of publicity. During the last three years the 'Thinakaran' has been reduced to a virtual propaganda sheet of the SLMC.

Anyone who regularly read the 'Thinakaran' during the past three years would have thought that the SLMC was the main party in government. So much so that the paper used to give publicity to press statements on a variety of subjects made by insignificant party officials having grandiose titles like "Mootha Thalaivar".

If at all it was Minister Fowzie who should have complained regarding the 'Thinakaran's' attitudes during the past three years, but he has held his peace. Neither Fowzie nor his party received the coverage that was due to them as the predominant party in government.

While reports of meetings or functions graced by SLMC officials were given grand displays and even repeated several times, the SLFP in general, was given scant attention.

In several subtle ways mainstream Muslim politics advocated by the SLFP was undermined and the communal politics of the SLMC promoted.

What has probably provoked Mr. Ashraff to threaten the 'Thinakaran' is that after the recent changes for the better at the 'Thinakaran' reporting is more balanced. Fairer reporting is evident resulting in the SLMC getting less publicity.

Even the two journalists who have been employed on the recommendation of the SLMC and whose sole contribution to the 'Thinakaran' seems to be to dish out SLMC propaganda, find that there is now no place for their form of cheap journalism. One of these journalists even brazenly writes for a pro-SLMC Tamil weekly which is a competitor to the 'Thinakaran'.

The recent changes particularly in the editorial department of the 'Thinakaran' have increased the quality of the paper giving its better image.

Meanwhile, the trouble in the Puttalam VC where the SLMC's chairman K.A. Faiz finds himself isolated and totally without support continues. Although Minister D.M. Jayaratne made several attempts to settle the dispute between the SLFP councillors and Faiz, his efforts proved futile.

In the meantime, consequent to allocation of funds to the Puttalam UC by Provincial Councils Minister Alavi Moulana, Faiz organised a meeting with Ashraff as the chief guest. The decision of the Council was that Minister Moulana should be the chief guest but in his characteristic unilateral style which has got him into trouble, Faiz chose instead to invite the SLMC leader.

Ashraff took the opportunity to launch a blistering attack on the SLFP organiser for Puttalam M.H.M. Navavi who has been valiantly standing up for his party in the district. The SLMC leader warned that he would never permit Navavi to become an MP.

SLMCer S.Z.M. Mashoor Moulana who still holds office as a Vice President of the All Ceylon Muslim League (which is the Muslim wing of the UNP) also criticised Minister Fowzie at this meeting stating that Fowzie should be thankful to the SLMC for his Cabinet portfolio.

Only a few days earlier Mashoor Moulana was seen in the Transport Ministry trying to obtain Minister Fowzie's assistance for some personal matter.

The new Ambassador for Saudi Arabia will be Naufel Jabir, the well known businessman from Beruwala who also currently functions as Chairman of the Board of Governors of Zahira College, Colombo. The appointment of Jabir, who is the nominee of Transport Minister Fowzie comes as a further blow to SLMC leader Ashraff who had proposed former Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs S.H.M. Jameel who hails from Ashraff's village of Sainthamaruthu for this post.

It is well known that the government is wary of the SLMC's close links with Iran and Libya and is unlikely to jeopardise Sri Lanka's foreign policy by appointing SLMC nominees to an important mission.

The only exception to this is the appointment of SLMC General Secretary Rauf Hakeem's father-in-law and owner of the popular ice-cream outlet "Carnival" as the Ambassador to Lebanon.

A few months ago President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar even refused to attend a Libyan sponsored conference in Colombo organised by Ashraff.

Meanwhile the position of S.H.M. Jameel in the Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs continues to puzzle most persons. Jameel, who was originally appointed by the UNP's A.H.M. Azwer was last year appointed as Adviser on Meelad Affairs to the Ministry on a suggestion of Minister Ashraff despite opposition from Minister Fowzie.

Although Meelad is over, Jameel remains at his post purporting to write books. Jameel has formed a publishing society and is seeking assistance from philanthropists in order to publish books.

Dixit messed it - Gen. Ranatunga

Warned Premadasa against arms deal with LTTE but he said 'I don't want advice'

Startling revelations from the retired General

By Roshan Peiris

General Cyril Ranatunga, head of the Joint Operations Command and Secretary to the Defence Ministry during a traumatic and tumultuous period in Sri Lanka's history, challenges some of the claims by India's controversial High Commissioner J.N. Dixit in his widely publicised book 'Assignment Colombo.'

His neatly trimmed tooth brush moustache trembles with anger as General Ranatunga-now growing fruit and vegetables at his eco-friendly home in Mawanella, recalls some of the events that shaped the history of Sri Lanka.

Leafing slowly through Mr. Dixit's book, Gen. Ranatunga, who was the key player in the events, told The Sunday Times how the infamous 'Parippu Drop' had blocked the Vadamaarachchi Operation when it was on the verge of success and how he warned President Premadasa against giving arms to the LTTE, but was told "I did not ask for your advice."

General Ranatunga was not a man who sat in a posh air conditioned office with expensive drapes and wall to wall carpeting to direct operations from Colombo, paying only a sort of courtesy call to Jaffna.

"I stayed in Jaffna and the North with my men after one of the Vadamaarachchi operations, I personally carried nine of my injured men to the helicopter, one of whom I kept on my lap while we made our way to our base," the General said recalling a time when the LTTE was terrorising the North and the JVP the South, while the IPKF was also throwing its weight around.

The quiet Gen. Ranatunga gets angry when he thinks about Mr. Dixit's role and the effect of the food drop in Jaffna.

"Mr. Dixit was the man behind the food drop. He poked his nose everywhere and has the gall to say in his book that it was done to safeguard Tamil interests and the unity and territorial integrity of the country. How touching! He thought we were fools who could not see through his diplomatic ploys. He did it for India's own defence reasons.

"If not for the air drop, our troops would have ended the war," the General said with regret. As the main strategist behind military operations at that time, he knew what he was talking about. President Jayewardene had told the IPKF to help us in anyway they could after the Peace Accord was signed. It was forced down J.R.'s throat in July 1987.

"To his credit I must say he never liked it. And we in the military also did not like it," Gen. Ranatunga revealed. What were his impressions of the IPKF? "They were a confident lot and Commander Kalkat Singh considered it his mission to force the LTTE to hand over arms as promised if not he said quite nonchalantly that he would finish the LTTE in three weeks.

"The LTTE true to form went back on its agreement but we kept away and did not get involved in operations after the IPKF came.

"Why should we? After all, the people of Jaffna, welcomed the IPKF with red kum kum and sweets. They were thrilled. So why interfere?

"Let me sketch out the military position before the IPKF came in. It shows how irrelevant their coming was. We had already cleared Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar and brought them under army control.

"Next we concentrated on the Jaffna Peninsula. We planned Operation Liberation, not sitting in Colombo but in Jaffna itself.

"We started 'Operation Liberation' from Vadamaarachchi. The progress was excellent, Vadamaarachchi includes Valvettithurai (Prabhakaran's birth place), Thondamannaru and Point Pedro areas. We got back all and were in Point Pedro with KKS also in our hands then came Mr. Dixit's diabolical idea. He did not want us to conquer Vadamaarachchi. He thought it might weaken India's defence positions. We are small, but of great strategic value to India. If India was so concerned about our unity and was concerned about Sri Lanka then, why did they have some 35 training camps for the LTTE with the approval of none other than Indira Gandhi?

"With the air drop we had to stop phase two of 'Operation Liberation'. It became a matter for the Foreign Office. I will never to my dying day forget those times. There was I attending JOC and Security Council meetings while Mr. Dixit with his head in the air and saying he wanted to save Sri Lanka and made us stop our military actions. Believe me we would have succeeded. Lalith Athulathmudali, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Minister of National Security was angry. So was President Jayewardene whom I met on my return from Jaffna.

We are professionals with uncompromising interest in our country, and wanted to leave it safe for our children and grand children. But here was this man Dixit poking his finger. "Just think of the effect on our army which had fought valiantly. Our troops and I were thoroughly demoralised by the food dropping gimmick. We had nearly reached targets. And then someone suddenly chops it off. Just imagine what we at the front felt.

"We were not armchair critics but fighting men. We had to stop. We did not want confrontation till the politicians settled the issue. Discussions went on anyway. It was not my business. The 1987 Accord was rammed down JR's throat though there was the outward stance of agreeing. I frankly did not even keep track of the talks until my wife and I were invited to the signing ceremony.

I was in the room when the Accord was signed at the President's Office. But there was no joy. My head was in a trauma when I saw the burning going on outside by JVPers and others who thought the Accord betrayed the country," Gen. Ranatunga said.

He then recalled another stage in the saga - the Premadasa era from 1989.

"In the election campaign Mr. Premadasa pledged he would send the IPKF away. In 1991 they were thankfully sent away in batches." Giving the inside story of an explosive episode - the supply of arms to the LTTE by the Government - Gen. Ranatunga said, "President Premadasa called the LTTE for discussions while IPKF was here. I wonder whether many know that."

The President said it was an internal matter and so he called the LTTE to Colombo, led by that fake Dr. Anton Balasingham and his Out Back Australian wife. They lived it up in the Hilton and ran up enormous telephone bills phoning their cadres abroad.

"At that time we were having trouble with the Tamil National Army which had been started with the help of the IPKF. Mr. Premadasa was angry saying we could not have two armies in Sri Lanka. Once Gen. Kalkat had the cheek to ask me to give arms to the Tamil National Army. I refused even a discussion and just said I won't give a single weapon.

"This Tamil National Army business hurt Mr. Premadasa a lot. I believe that might have been the reason why he decided to give arms to the LTTE. He thought he was right, but I didn't agree at all. I knew nothing until just thirty six hours before it was done.

"I was truly horrified when I heard of the arms deal with LTTE and asked at see President Premadasa immediately, but he gave me an appointment only the next day.

"I told him you can't arm a terrorist group. After all remember they are terrorists. So I advise you not to give them arms."

"I am sorry to say how President Premadasa reacted. Then how are we to fight the Tamil National Army?" he asked.

"I told him we must think out some other strategy than arming the LTTE and that it was my duty to advise him against the move or I would never be able to sleep at night.

"You are the President and so you have the prerogative to decide,"I said. But he was angry and said alright alright, I did not ask for your advice".

"I was really depressed. I thought of resigning. But when I saw the state of the country with deaths and burning of buildings, I felt I must think of my country and help control the chaos," Gen. Ranatunga said.

The General and his wife, now far away from the maddening events, live and work at their ancestral home in Mawanella. They promote social causes, including environmental protection, but insist that politicians will be kept out of these. He concludes while frowning over the pages of J.N. Dixit's book.

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