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12th July 1998

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Lonely at the top

The Presidency

Does the President really believe that she would lose the polls?

Prince Charles, or so the story has it, wrote in his diary after attending Sri Lanka's Independence Day celebrations thus:

"This is a funny country. It has a Police Chief who faints. A Defence Minister who limps. A Prime Minister who is in a wheelchair and a President who is always late...."

We do not intend any disrespect to either Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike or Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, but this story raised a good laugh when it did Colombo's cocktail circuit. And, agreed everyone, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was carrying this habit of being late a bit too far.

And this week on July the fifteenth, Kumaratunga's critics would say the President will be three years late, at least, in fulfilling her promise to abolish the Executive Presidency which she promised to do by July 15, 1995.

This promise, in a sense mirrors the plight of the Kumaratunga Presidency: a resounding mandate; high expectations, grandiose promises made in the first flush of victory; then, inability to cope leading to many a violation of the government's pledges.

It must be remembered that in August the government would be completing four years in office. In many countries, that would be time for the next elections. In Sri Lanka, where the term of office of a regime is a convenient six years, this would be the time for a government to look back at what it had achieved and plan the remainder of its term to ensure its re-election.

If Kumaratunga were to do that now, she would find little cause for celebration. Hardly anything tangible has emerged in the last four years, many, including those within the government feel.

Kumaratunga is bound to contest that and cite the cessation of the reign of terror that prevailed during the UNP regime as a major achievement. We agree. But, that ''beeshanaya'', a word the President loves to use on public platforms - was largely used by the JVP and abused by the UNP for their own political purposes during the Premadasa era. When Kumaratunga took over from Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, 'Dearly Beloved' had already purged the terror apparatus and relative normalcy had been restored.

So, as the years passed by, the government has accumulated liabilities instead of laurels. The most telling indictment is on its handling of the ethnic issue. Its promise of peace has been all but forgotten and the war drags on. No doubt Professor G.L. Peiris would have a convincing explanation for that and General Anuruddha Ratwatte will soon say ninety five per cent of the war is over. But even they will not be able to fool all the people all the time.

For all her apparent sincerity and efforts, Kumaratunga has not been able to get those who really matter - the LTTE, the UNP and the Buddhist Clergy - to agree with her on the core issues of her devolution package. In fact these parties have not even agreed to disagree. The peace process, in effect, is still at square one.

On the other side, the military too has little to be proud of. The liberation of Jaffna is now only a distant memory. The euphoria of that success is fast waning - like that of the World Cup win of our cricketers - and the public psyche is waiting in vain for a similar event. "Jaya Sikurui'' no longer raises the eyebrows of a people benumbed by three bomb blasts in the first six weeks of this year. Clearly, General Anuruddha Ratwatte has not delivered the goods, and must stand accused of dragging his feet.

But for all this, the war directly affects only a minority of the masses. The majority - as in any country, anywhere - will vote for a government that gives them a square meal, a decent job and a comfortable life. So, what has Kumaratunga done with the economy?

Here, her words at the beginning of her regime - "I have been a good socialist, but I can be a better capitalist'' -have been prophetic. Kumaratunga has embraced the free-market economy with a vengeance, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what disturbs many is the steady intrusion of crony capitalism leading to a gradual but inevitable erosion of confidence in the government and eventually, the Presidency.

It cannot surely be coincidence that almost all major privatisation projects handled by this government - AirLanka - Emirates; Telecom - NTT; Steel Corporation - Hanjung; Eppawela - McMoran; Puttalam Cement - Thawakkal, to name a few - have been embroiled in controversy. As one diplomat puts it, "either the government is very corrupt, or very inefficient or a bit of both''. The latter is more likely.

Such concerns are not likely to be redressed by the likes of Mangala Samaraweera. His much publicised Credit Card issue doesn't involve even half a million rupees, (compared to the multi million deals involving others) but the youthful Minister is doing much more damage to the government in trying to defend and justify his actions.

It is in such cases that Chandrika Kumaratunga's inexperience as a politician lets her down. Kumaratunga, so far, has said or done nothing about the Credit Card issue. As far as we know, she has also not instructed Minister Samaraweera about it. So Mr. Samaraweera continues to state his case taking flak from all sides. And so it was with Minister S.B. Dissanayake in the Susanthika Jayasinghe episode. And with Srimani Athulathmudali, for most of her tenure as a Minister. Certainly 'damage control' needs to be added to the Kumaratunga lexicon.

One factor that demonstrably affects the Kumaratunga Presidency in all this is the lack of shrewd and loyal political advisors. Sirima Bandaranaike had Felix Dias Bandaranaike, JRJ didn't need one and R. Premadasa had Sirisena Cooray. In Chandrika Kumaratunga's Cabinet there are none, who have the political savvy to handle messy situations. Probably, Kumaratunga is slowly realising this inherent inadequacy. That is probably why she has begun looking outside the small cotery of a Cabinet for advice.

Last week she told the Cabinet that she had to seek and had obtained the advice of private lawyers on what approach she ought to take with the forthcoming Provincial Council Elections.

It seemed she were no longer willing to rely purely on the constitutional advice given by her ministers and the Attorney General's Department. Some of her political allies who stood by her in her putsch for power in the SLFP may be loyal but are not the type of advisors you would hire in a hurry. When in government running a troubled administration bedevilled by a civil war and an economy in shambles. Ministers Kadirgamar and Peiris are gifted intellectuals but not the best politicians on the planet.

Then there is General Ratwatte, who we all know, has his own agenda and indeed working hard on it. And, Chandrika Kumaratunga must be finding it increasingly insecure and lonely at the top indeed, with only her mother to seek for advice when in need of it.

This lack of political savvy has surfaced time and again in the Kumaratunga Presidency, unfortunately she has learnt very little on the job as well.


From traditional debate to nonsense

Lobby

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby Correspondent

Lack of objectivity was the Parliamen tary theme when an alleged statement by MP Anura Bandaranaike became the focal point of the emergency debate on Wednesday. Why this debate is held at all is debatable, for the questions are most often not answered- making it another "meaningless tradition."

Playing an uncustomary role was Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle substituting Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte- a practice not easily explained in a country embroiled in a war. Minister Fernandopulle quickly defended the ongoing operation, casually adding the Vavuniya helicopter crash to the ever increasing list of aircraft crashes.

Pensions

UNP's John Amaratunga was breathing fire early morning. Baiting the government benches to quick response, the MP referring to a statement by the President regarding government pensions, demanded whether the pensions and allowances of the armed forces would be scrapped.

The PA members promptly jumped up in hot denial, while the MP went on about the disastrous consequences which could emanate from such action. "There is a guerrilla warfare by the LTTE and "garille" (money making) by the government. The President herself indicted her military top brass by publicly admitting procurement-related corruption. Thanks to the PA -(which gifted 32,000 mortars to the LTTE), today mortars pelted down on government troops," he accused.

Countering Major General Sarath Munasinghe's much publicised "war zone map" was UNP's Tilak Karunaratne. Tabling his own map, he called Munasinghe's map "a drawing from an imaginary state," alleging that his singular achievement was white washing the PA's sins.

Riding his hobby horse, Mr. Karunaratne scoffed the absent Minister's infamous deadlines and calculations, adding that the previous year, Ratwatte claimed there were only 2,500 LTTE cadres consisting of mostly young persons. But Sarath Munasinghe last week accounted for about 7,000 cadres, which inferred a tremendous increase in the LTTE cadres within nine months.

The MP drawing attention to the simmering unrest among the Kalutara prisoners pointed out that Douglas Devananda had not visited the prison during regular hours when security was generally strong.

"It is obvious there was a conspiracy to assassinate him because these prisoners possessed a trailer laden with hand made weapons and dangerous tools," he said.

Unleashing verbal assault on Sarath Munasinghe was UNP's fire brand Dr. Rajitha Senaratne who charged that Mr. Munasinghe misappropriated dry ration supplied to the Army.

"What possible patriotism from a man like this? There were no inquiries held, but his promotion was delayed by six months. Today he has been promoted for the faithful services rendered. Here is a man with no professional integrity and should actually be languishing in prison. Quite rightly, the Commander refused to promote him but the President singularly took the initiative," he said.

Quoting from Terrorism and Guerrilla Warfare by Richard Clatterburg, the cheeky MP claimed defence experts believed in restoring government writ in areas which were easy to reassert control in, and then go forward. But General Clatterburg of our times knew better, and made a big hue and cry when he captured barren lands he still could not defend.

Painting President J.R. Jayewardene as the villain of the piece was PA's Kalutara member Kumar Welgama who staunchly defended the Ratwatte strategies.

"Do not forget we managed to hoist a lion flag in a terrorist dominated area after years, and the execution of the war has never been better," he claimed.

The young parliamentarian said it was President Jayewardene who educated people on election farces with his infamous "kalagedi-lampu sellama" and the desire to fold the electoral map for a decade. His actions violated the peoples' right to elect their representatives, but old politicians who would never have been re-elected got a further term of six years- all without an election," he criticised.

Denouncing the rule under which a trade unionist committed suicide, was nominated UNP member Sarath Kongahage.

"It was a disastrous blow to democracy when Douglas Devananda who strived to create amity among communities was attacked by LTTE fascists," he said appreciating the injured MP's stance on the revival of the Provincial Councils.

IGP remarks

In this backdrop came the despicable comment by the IGP- that MPs didn't require police protection, a remark deserving absolute condemnation.

Adroitly changing topics, the MP moved to heap blame on the government for the LTTE attack on the Dalada Maligawa. To escape public wrath, the president was trying to discover nonexistent misappropriation of Maligawa funds.

"Will you dare probe into church and mosque funds? This is a total cover up and a bid to save face," he accused, adding only the corrupt were being promoted under the PA.

Firing heavy artillery again was UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale. Refusing to go before a hand picked committee probing corruption in military procurements, he gleefully added there could never have been a worse indictment on the military top brass when the President appearing on national television admits of corruption, and her deputy stoically refuses the very charges.

The bespectacled MP having plenty of digs at the government said elections were anathema to the SLFP. Mrs. Bandaranaike's government violated people's rights and was entirely corrupt, something her own coalition partners accused her of.

From gam sabha to general elections, everything was put on hold and the present government was suffering from the "mother's malady," hence the move to engineer postponement of elections.

But Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle quickly chipped in, asking whether the sudden attack on the Bandaranaikes was a sequel to attacking Anura Bandaranaike at the UNP group meeting that morning.

At this point Atukorale promptly accused PA ranks of discrediting and ousting Mr. Bandaranaike from the party founded by his father. "We gave him shelter and protected him from your political coups and provided him a platform to continue in national politics," he threw in.

Not to be outdone, JVP's solitary member Nihal Galappatty demanded to know who paid for the Mahanayakes' new Benz cars. It was treachery of the worst degree. If the war was well executed as the PA claimed, there was no reason to fear elections.

Much to the consternation of Galappatty, PA's Gampaha representative Felix Perera was quick to list JVP's atrocities during the first provincial council elections.

"We have personally supported the elections and contested. Instead, the JVP went on a killing spree. But the UNP prosecuted Vijaya Kumaratunga loyalists under false Naxelite charges and postponed elections scoffing that the SLFP needed time to revamp. At least the PA has a legitimate reason for postponing election today unlike the UNP of yesteryear," he said, to which UNP backbenchers quickly posed the query whether his statement could be accepted as election postponement being official.

He said Vijaya and colleagues were illegally detained and released at mid night violating all procedures. By a quirk of fate it was Sarath Kongahage who filed action against this arbitrary action. The UNP therefore had no right to shed crocodile tears with such a blemished track record, he said.

Challenging Nihal Galappatty to repeat his criticism on the Mahanayakes outside parliament was Environmental Affairs Minister Nandimitra Ekanayake.

The minister added the MP had imputed that the Mahanayakes had received bribes, a comment which could only earn him a public hammering. Similar was Mr. Kongahage's remarks on Ms. Bandaranaike for her physical inability, a lady still mentally strong and duly discharging duties.

UNP's Bulathsinhala member Sarath Ranawake went on the rampage, challenging the government to try and get the Mahanayakes' blessings for the Package if possible. Despite the increasing din, the MP holding sway said the postponement idea was the result of a survey conducted by the President. The report specified the areas favourable to the PA and recommended removal of 50% of PA leaders at all levels.

"46% was in favour of the UNP and 36% for the PA, a disastrous sign for a government intending to seek a fresh mandate. It was hilarious if the PA believed they could hold presidential polls when it had no ability to provide security for a provincial election. Its insecurity was evident as nominations have been given to the wives of those tipped to be Chief ministerial candidates," he said.

Winding up for the government was Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The Minister who is usually full of baloney chose not to reply queries and concentrated on Anura Bandaranaike receiving a battering by UNP backbenchers.

Anura

"Why are you unleashing a vituperative attack on the Bandaranaikes suddenly? Anura has never amassed wealth illegally, and has no action filed against him for criminal breach of trust. Those who went in parade to Horagolla Walawwa to eat his crumbs are trying to destroy him today," he said his face creased with smiles.

If you have any self respect, reply our queries challenged UNP backbenchers but the Minister continued regardless- having digs with gay abandon.

Forgetting his earlier predicament, the Minister also claimed the controversial UNP members habitually dined with judges. But whatever political differences there may be, the UNP should not try to scuttle the holding of SAARC here he said- concluding a speech which never addressed the issues raised, making the traditional debate hollow and meaningless.


and now the top ten are !

From the Green Corner

By Viruddha Paakshikaya

Former President: D.B. WijetungaChairman Air Lanka: Harry jayawardena



My good friend, Paakshikaya last week launched on a voyage of his (or her?) own claiming that he has the names of our leader Ranil Wickremasinghe's "Top Ten" - ten 'top' business friends, that is.

Paakshikaya, I just wonder from which dust bin this rubbish was picked up, and how authentic it is for as far as I know there is no such "Top Ten". There are, of course, businessmen who try to get close to him, sometimes blatantly, sometimes vulgarly, knowing only too well that he is going to lead our country very soon.

What might surprise Paakshikaya, though, is that of this so-called 'Top Ten' he might find some who also figure in the 'Top Ten' of his own Party Leader's rankings!

The Business of Business being Business, that is how these Business Wallahs ingratiate themselves to the bosoms (metaphorically, of course) of our leaders. Now, if you want examples I can provide them, Paakshikaya.

The Rajahs are a classic case. They were once in our favour, yes, through a particular party leader we had. They then got themselves firmly enmeshed with your leaders. Now, however, they have got the boot but that is understandable because it is too difficult to be too close to your leader for too long, or so Rajitha tells us!

Despite that, they must still be one of your 'Top Ten' surely?

Paakshikaya, I can tell you a story of how a bouquet of flowers was sent to our leader when he became the leader of the House. And, when visitors to our leader's home remarked, "Lovely flowers; from whom?" pat came his reply: "new positions, new friends..."

So, Paakshikaya, don't you think that our leader is a green horn in politics. In his quarter century in politics - much more than your leader - he has indeed acquired much wisdom on these matters.

Maybe, another in your 'Top Ten' is the 'Komis Kaakka' that your leader referred to recently. Don't worry, he is actually your man though he's trying to gain access to the Green Corner. I think your leader is more worried about him and his connections to the Blue Corner than his efforts to get close to us!

But, Paakshikaya, I will not go guessing names in your list of "Top Ten" cronies though I could tell you there was a mild flutter both at Cambridge Terrace and at Siri Kotha about this so called "Top Ten."

My own guess, Paakshikaya, is that you are bluffing. You have no 'Top Ten' with which you could implicate our leader and I'm sure you might even be doing us a favour by publishing their names - if you have them, that is!

But we could always talk of the 'Top Ten' on your side, Paakshikaya. I'll recall them randomly, because, in this business the order changes so rapidly, just like it does in the pop charts - one week you are a hit the next week you are down in the dumps.

So, Top of the Pops must be the man who was hand-picked to head the national airline - Harry Stassen Jayewardena, the local Richard Branson who also heads some food import companies and has been named as a "suspect" to the customs for allegedly making false declarations and under invoicing food imports.

Surely, any person in his shoes should have resigned from the public institutions where he holds office or at least, the President should have sacked him. Better still, he could have gone through the scenario familiar with this government - resigning, the President not accepting his resignation and maybe AirLanka air hostesses staging a demonstration at Lipton Circus demanding his re-instatement!

One of your own Cabinet Ministers accuses him on the floor of the House of leaking confidential information about AirLanka to us in the Opposition and where lesser mortals would have been hung at Galle Face Green for less, this man continues flying high, albeit now at the beck and call of the Emirs. So surely, he must be Top of the Pops.

Number Two in your 'Top Ten' must be the man in London. The one who gets invited to state banquets for Prince Charles ahead of Cabinet Ministers, simply because your leadership owes so much to him, having given a warm flat to stay in during those horrible days of cold-blooded JVP terror.

For Number Three, I would have put another man in London except that I'm not so sure now, because he has been dropped from the restructured. Board of AirLanka, as he did not quite agree with the controversial deal with Emirates and all that followed. He certainly was riding high, but maybe he's dropped a couple of notches - or I wonder whether he is out of the 'Top Ten' entirely!

At Number Four I would slot the Rajahs and their side-kicks, the numerous free-lancers who work for them. Again, it is not clear where they stand now. They have indeed lost a lot of contracts due to intervention from the very top. They had it going for a while but things are not too rosy now. But, take my word, Paakshikaya their sidekicks - the cooks and the sons of this world - are not easy to sideline. So I will still rank them at No. 4.

At Number Five or thereabouts are those with Access to all - or so they think. They are certainly not close to your leader, I daresay. But they are still close to your leadership. They have minted money but lost their self respect. One of their senior managers was invited to be an adjudicator for an international match and then publicly humiliated saying the "company he kept" was bad, and asked to go home. Recently, I was told parents at one of Colombo's leading schools had protested when they tried to get involved in a school project. But then, Paakshikaya, don't underestimate them; money talks in Sri Lanka, and talks loud.

The Number Six slot might go to the Eels. I know, Paakshikaya it's a little unfair to refer to them as such because they are not that slimy or slippery; it is just that it rhymes well with their actual name. Now here is a company that is pragmatic. They believe in the free market and they know they must do business with those in government, and there is no harm in that either. They were well disposed towards us and continue their good relations. So, let us give them Number Six, Shall we?

At the lucky position of Seven I would probably put other private sector firms which are regularly invited for dialogues to bail the government out of their eternal predicament. They are too numerous to name but they can be classed as a group as the "friends of the government" though, in truth, they are the government's friends".

At Number Eight, I would vote for the young man from Emirates who has been a long-standing friend of your leader. He does seem to have had sufficient influence with the powers that be. The way the government handled the Emirates deal leaves no doubt that he played a major role in it.

For Number Nine, I would nominate the one-time Brother-in-Law who runs his own travel agency. He has certainly carried himself well while maintaining - for mutual benefit - excellent relations with No. 2 on the list.

The last - but certainly not least - slot I would reserve for the local agents of many overseas companies that have profited from the benevolence of Paakshikaya's government. So at Number Ten would be the local front men for the likes of.... Nippon Telegraph and Telecommunication (NTT), P&O (in port development), Hanjung (steel) etc. The list is an assorted array of PA acolytes and I would be erring if the many agents of Thermal power plants too numerous to mention here - are excluded - the General might even be offended!

So, Paakshikaya, I've beaten you again! Before you could give the UNP's 'Top Ten', I've given you the PA's 'Top Ten'. Or really, the new SLFP's 'Top Ten'. Or, is it really the leadership's 'Top Ten'!

I say so because there are quite a many others close to individual ministers - infact, doing business with them. There are the casino kings, the Muzammils and a host of others. But they are not in the "mega-bucks" category as Paakshikaya called it. I daresay they are "mini-bucks" in comparison but in millions nevertheless.

There are scandals even for lesser amounts in your government, Paakshikaya.

This week, we filed papers with Mr. Speaker about your fashionable Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera's use of the credit card. We have seen Mangala shifting his position ever since the scandal broke out.

First it was "So, what? I like to eat and drink and dress well as a Minister, when I'm abroad doing official business......"

Then it was "Well, so what if I spent the money in Sri Lanka, I re-imbursed it...."

Then it is "somebody else is using my credit card...." Now I am told Mangala Samaraweera wants to have an early debate in Parliament about his credit card scandal. Of couse, he knows only too well that a Parliamentary debate will only be a lot of hot air and nothing more.

This government has, I say "deliberately" sabotaged the Bribery and Corruption Commission that could have gone into this issue and even imposed penal punishment against Mangala Samaraweera through an indictment in court.

I'm at least happy that Paakshikaya agrees with me that the government has made a total mess of the Bribery and Corruption Commission. But what good would Paakshikaya's "mea culpa" do?

While we all know that rampant bribery and corruption is taking place in Sri Lanka, there is no mechanism in place - other than the media and possibly a debate in Parliament - to air these matters.

Those indulging in this great national sport are getting away with impunity and possibly laughing all the way to the banks. You may rest assured, Paakshikaya, that a UNP government will bring all these rascals to book - whether they are in the 'Top Ten' or not!

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