The Political Column
13th September 1998
Ranil: talks in third country
By our Political Correspondent
The final part of the UNP's alternative proposals to solve the ethnic crisis was unanimously approved by the decision-making Working Committee on Tuesday. Submitting the final draft which deals mainly with the sensitive subject of land, UNP's constitutional expert K.N. Choksy said the extent of land per' person had diminished with the growth in population. According to him, it has come down to something between half and one third of an acre.
Answering questions, Mr. Choksy said the UNP's policy on state land had been worked out in such a way that it would protect the unitary nature of the state. Thus the UNP is proposing that all state land should come under the purview of the centre.
However, as a concession to minority parties, lands now under Provincial Councils would remain so.
The party is also proposing the setting up of a land and water resources council to settle any disputes between the centre and provinces, with a right of appeal to the Supreme Court.
It has been proposed that the council be set up under the provisions of the constitution.
The UNP also proposes that land alienation be done on a national ethnic ratio rather than a Provincial one.
If this causes serious demographical imbalances, steps could be taken to rectify those through this constitutional council.
With the long-delayed UNP proposals now on the table, the government will have to decide whether it should maintain the unitary nature or go for the quasi-federal state.
While the minority parties are pushing for a federal type union of regions, the UNP has not changed its stance on the unitary character of the constitution.
Some government leaders feel that the UNP is not acting as a responsible opposition party, but is trying to torpedo government efforts to end the conflict. A senior minister told this column the bane of Sri Lanka politics during the past 50 years has been the trend where the two main parties have been trying to undermine each other - one opposes what the other proposes at different times in government and opposition. He said this trend needs to be reviewed and changed if a solution is to be found to the ethnic conflict.
A small step towards this was taken in 1996 through the Liam Fox agreement. But while the UNP accuses President Kumaratunga of undermining the deal, the government said soon after the signing of the agreement the UNP had issued a statement saying the deal was not linked to the parliamentary select committee hearings on the ethnic conflict.
Far from coming together in a bipartisan approach, the two main parties seem to be heading for a showdown on how to resolve the ethnic crisis. In a dramatic turn of events the UNP is calling for unconditional peace talks with the LTTE but government leaders are angrily dismissing the UNP move as a conspiracy with the LTTE to topple the government.
The government is now taking a rigid stand with the President repeating and reiterating that she would not go for unconditional talks even if she were hanged. But later we saw a softening of the stand with state television Rupavahini saying the government had told LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran that it was ready for talks but on conditions.
In positive terms, both main parties thus agree there should be talks with the LTTE.
As Minister Thondaman once pointed out a viable solution could not be brought about without the participation of the LTTE.
Since both main parties agree on that, most observers feel the government should now take the plunge and decide later whether the talks should be with or without conditions.
When the UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe talked about unconditional talks with the LTTE, he did not say that the government should declare a ceasefire or pull back troops.
"My proposal was similar to what was proposed at the Thimpu talks during the former UNP regime," Mr. Wickremesinghe told this column.
He said he was proposing that the talks be held mainly in another country while the war went on so that there would not be any new problem for the military.
Mr. Wickremesinghe feels President Kumaratunga has now confused the issue by her hardline pro-Sinhala speech in Kurunegala on Tuesday.
But government leaders feel Mr. Wickremesinghe is playing to the gallery to win the support of the Tamils. They feel the UNP was trying to tell the Tamil people that the government is back-tracking while the UNP is ready to go towards a reasonable solution. Hence the Government reacted by speaking of a UNP-LTTE conspiracy to overthrow the Government.
After Mr. Wickremesinghe's call for unconditional talks with the LTTE, Minister G.L. Peiris held talks with Tamil parties to clarify issues.
Mr. Peiris also expressed his views at a seminar at the Ocean Villa Hotel in Wadduwa in the presence of British High Commissioner David Tatham, Ulster University Professor Thomas Fraser and UNP's Tyronne Fernando.
The government appears to be keen to follow the Northern Ireland example, but whether it would be possible is another question.
The story behind the story on the talks with the LTTE appears to be a UNP move to bring to light a recent secret mission to the North on behalf of the government.
While the government linked the UNP-LTTE conspiracy to a trip made by UNP National List MP Jayalath Jayawardena to the North, in Parliament on Thursday the UNP raised a question about a letter sent to LTTE Leader Prabhakaran under the signature of the President.
UNP's top rung Member John Amaratunga asked when, how and why it was sent.
According to the information received by the UNP, the Government has sent out the letter in July to Velupillai Prabhakaran expressing its willingness to talk to the LTTE.
The question that remains unanswered is who carried the message.
Some reports say a Catholic prelate had carried it to the North and handed it over to a key LTTE personality.
As soon as the UNP got wind of the government's move it apparently decided to put the president in an embarrassing position by calling for unconditional talks with the LTTE.
Apart from wooing the Tamil vote, the UNP's other aim appears to be directed at embarrassing the government.
The President apparently misjudged the UNP's move, leading to the Kurunegala outburst about a conspiracy.
It is known that Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena went to Madhu with Defence Ministry approval, but the accusation is that he went further up to meet LTTE political wing chief Thamilchelvam.
Dr. Jayawardena denies it, but minister Anuruddha Ratwatte says the Defence Ministry has information about the meeting. The driver of the vehicle has been arrested for allegedly witholding information.
General Ratwatte told Cabinet colleagues that the driver had LTTE links.
The CID later questioned Dr. Jayawardena for nearly four and a half hours. The sleuths grilled him on the Madhu claim, asking him how long and wide the shrine was and related matters.
But matters may not end there, since the government is considering charges against Dr. Jayawardena, either under Prevention of Terrorism Act or Emergency Regulations.
Besides the broader issues of this dispute, controversy is emerging again over the language used by political leaders - and the person in the dock is none other than the President. Many analysts are perturbed by her tone and words in attacking Dr. Jayawardena. Dr. Jayawardena feels she took cover under the cloak of immunity to attack him.
So a wag commented that a debate should be held to decide on who has a more vitriolic tongue - Kumaratunga or Rajitha Senaratne.
After several days of attacks and counter attacks, the UNP parliamentary group last Monday found Dr. Senaratne not guilty on the charge of using indecent or abusive language. Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe referring to the matter, said the word "Ponnaya" was in the Sinhala dictionary.
He and most of the UNPers feel the use of such a word is not derogatory.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said that in any event what Dr. Senaratne spoke of was nothing new, as the minister concerned had himself spoken about it. Among those who defended were chief whip W.J.M. Lokubandara and Ronnie de Mel. The former said that if Dr. Senaratne had not given the minister tight, the people would have thought the MP was 'Ponnaya' which in colloquial Sinhala meant a coward.
Mr. Wickemesinghe however told the group that it would not be proper for anybody to use abusive language on a UNP platform.
Referring to a statement made by Mervyn Silva that they would have court proceedings in their houses when the UNP came to office, he said he would be thankful to Mr. Silva for giving his residence to be used as a court house but the government would appoint the judges.
It was a hard shot on Mr. Silva.
Some members at the group meeting also spoke of the need to respect and uphold the image of the party leader. Gamini Lokuge had this to tell the group.
"I have heard members talking about his faults and shortcomings at various places. These are bad habits. All should stop this practice forthwith.
"We have no other leader, but Mr. Wickremesinghe. Hence it is our duty to protect him and steer the party to victory.
"We haven't sneaked about those who talk ill of the lunch. But hereafter we would not allow that and anything we hear would be reported," he said. Others agreed.
It was a significant change of attitude in the UNP ranks with most of them apparently hoping there would be a UNP government very soon.
The present trend and political climate appears to be favourable to the UNP.
Most of the UNP top rung members are also happy about the manner in which former Attorney General Shibly Aziz presented the case against the postponement of elections in the court of appeal.
The UNP leader is optimistic but he says the decision may not come this side of January.
The UNP also concedes that there is a practical difficulty now in holding elections.
But government spokesman and PA general secretary D.M. Jayaratne says that if the government loses the case, elections will be held without adequate security.
"We will provide security where it is possible and go ahead if the courts rule in favour of the petitions", he told this column.
But Mr. Wickremesinghe feels if the government loses in the Court of Appeal, it will go to the Supreme Court, thus giving it time to tide over the difficult period in the North which comes with the monsoon rains from October.
On the government part, the weekly Cabinet meeting saw yet another verbal clash between Ministers Kingsley Wickremaratne and D.M. Jayaratne over onions and potatoes.
Mr. Jayaratne accused Mr. Wickremaratne of importing these items without the approval of the Ministerial monitoring committee.
He blamed the whole Cabinet and said the government was exposing the local farmer to danger.
Minister G.L. Peiris intervened to settle the matter and the Cabinet later agreed to impose a tariff to protect the local farmer.
In another development, party leaders met recently to decide on ways of improving the standard of debates in Parliament.
They agreed to appoint a committee to look into the increasing use of unparliamentary language and how to check the trend.
It will take steps to maintain the dignity of the House by encouraging the members to uphold age old traditions that come with the parliamentary system of government.
When the party leaders took up matters relating to the National Education Commission Bill, Minister Richard Pathirana told the opposition leader.
"You can attack Dr. (Mrs.) Tara de Mel if you wish to".
Mr. Wickremesinghe was baffled as to why he said it but replied, "Things would be better for us if she remains there".
Dr. (Mrs.) Tara de Mel has been appointed as a member of the national education committee in addition to being a consultant to President Kumaratunga.
It is apparent that Mr. Pathirana for some reason is not happy about Dr. Tara de Mel being on a commission which functions under the education ministry. But he appears to be helpless since she is a presidential appointee.
In another significant development the chairman of the select committee probing the activities of Bribery Commissioners gave a ruling that copies of verbatim proceedings of the committee should not be taken out by any member.
The ruling came after a Sunday newspaper published the proceedings of the select committee.
When the committee met Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle raising a point of order he said that in terms of the Standing Order No. 78A (8), proceedings connected with the investigation by the Select Committee should not be divulged unless and until a finding of guilty on any of the charges against such Judge is reported to Parliament by the select committee.
It would be a breach of privilege if the proceedings of the select committee were published in any manner. He suggested the Editor of the newspaper be brought before the committee on a matter of breach of privilege.
However John E. Amaratunga, supported by Tyronne Fernando said if the written record on proceedings of the Committee was not provided to the members that also would constitute a breach of privilege.
This issue was discussed at length. The Chairman said he would go to the Speaker, for advice and until such time the present procedure, should continue.
Nelum Gamage, former controversial Director-General of the Permanent Commission on Bribery or Corruption was called in by the committee to continue the evidence. Examined by a State Counsel, she said that in terms of Section 17 of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption Act, No. 19 of 1994, she could not disclose confidential material.
However the Chairman said those secrecy provisions would not be violated when evidence was given before the committee.
Committee Chairman Dharmasiri Senanayake also ruled that the participation of the Attorney-General in the proceedings was permissible and the select committee needed his assistance so that it could give its fullest consideration to the matters before it.
His ruling came after UNP member John Amaratunga objected to the Attorney General appearing for the select committee since he defended the Commission in the fundamental rights application filed by Nelum Gamage.
In addition, other select committees are also facing various disputes.
Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle has sought permission from Speaker K.B. Ratnayake to participate as an observer in the committee on Public Enterprises where dealings of state institutions such as AirLanka are questioned by the opposition.
The Speaker has reportedly referred it to the COPE Chairman for a ruling.
Another talked about event in the political scene was the dinner hosted by Minister G. L. Peiris for heads of smaller political parties.
All of them were present including Ministers S. Thondaman, and Batty Weerakoon at the Thursday dinner.
The aim was apparently for Dr. Peiris to clarify matters arising from the UNP's move to have an all-party conference.
Dr. Peiris said he felt the aim of the UNP was to delay the constitutional reforms proposed by the Government to solve the ethnic conflict.
He told the smaller parties that he felt they would be wasting time by taking part in that conference.
But Mr. Thondaman said that the Government had not done anything significant during the past four months and hence the UNP had come out with the new proposal.
Dr. Peiris then said it was up to the smaller parties to decide what was best for them but he had expressed his views.
LSSP leader and Minister Batty Weerakoon said the government should now move into the practical area of implementing the proposals. He called for the draft proposals to be presented in Parliament as a Bill.
If the UNP did not give the 10 votes to pass the proposals with the two-thirds majority, then the Tamil people would know who was sincere and who was not.
That would expose the UNP, he said.
But TULF's Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam expressed his reservations about Mr. Weerakoon's suggestion. He said if the proposals were presented in the form of a bill, the UNP could go to the Supreme Court for a ruling that the bill should be put to a referendum in addition to the 2/3 majority in Parliament. However, Dr. Thiruchelvam agreed that something needed to be done to expedite matters.
Dr. Peiris and the party leaders also discussed the final part of UNP proposals on devolution.
Dr. Peiris said the government was proposing the vesting of state lands in the regions while the UNP proposed that state land be vested in the centre.
When Mr. Thondaman said that even the government proposals on state lands were not up to the aspirations of the Tamil people, Dr. Peiris said that UNP proposals were much worse.
"You would have to decide what is best for you", he said.
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