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The Political Column

20th December 1998

Playing politics in the Thottam

By our Political Correspondent

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CWC leader and minister Saumyamoorthy Thondaman is much in the news again after his Livestock Ministry votes were defeated in parliament last week.

Mr. Thondaman blamed the opposition UNP for the defeat accusing it of opposing infrastructural development in the estate sector.

But UNP leaders say it was their party which provided estate infrastructure facilities such as estate roads, schools, hospitals and houses.

The defeat of Mr. Thondaman's votes in parliament is linked to his statements a few weeks ago that it was he who decided which party would win. In addition he had a running battle with the Plantations Industries Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake over allocation of land in Horana area.

Most political analysts believe that some sections of the government colluded with the UNP to humiliate the so-called 'king-maker'. It is alleged that UNP general secretary Gamini Atukorale who is pushing for a UNP regime without minority support had some understanding with Mr. Wickremanayake in pulling off this coup against Mr. Thondaman.

It began when a UNP frontliner Susil Moonesinghe moved a simple amendment when the vote on the Livestock Development and Estate Infrastructure Ministry was taken up at the committee stage of the budget debate. The amendment was to a provision where Mr. Thondaman was given the power to sell loss-making state estates without going through normal tender procedures.

The amendment read:

"I hereby give notice that I shall move that the Appropriation Bill (Bill No. 275) be amended by the addition of the following clause, provided however, that no land or property for the improvement of which any monies voted by Parliament has been spent or is intended to be spent by this Ministry, shall be alienated or disposed of in any manner whatsoever unless a Cabinet Appointed Tender Board has approved such alienation".

Mr. Thondaman rejected the amendment to the surprise of Govt.. members who were less in numbers in the House at that stage.

The amendment was moved obviously with the knowledge of the UNP leader ship. But party sources said they had hoped that the minister would not reject the amendment totally. When the request was turned down by the minister, the UNP had no alternative but call for a division, which resulted in the defeat of Mr. Thondaman's vote, they said.

Mr. Thondaman later accused the UNP of perpetrating a crime against estate workers. The main Tamil Party the TULF also saw a communal twist in the UNP's move and has joined Mr. Thondaman in portraying the UNP as an anti-Tamil party.

Some analysts feel the UNP may lose ground in a sector from which it has got solid support and the turn of events might also provide an opportunity for Mr. Thondaman to make a comeback from the setbacks he faced at recent elections.

On Friday at lunch time in Parliament UNP's Gamini Atukorale, John Amaratunga and Tyronne Fernando discussed this issue. It was Mr. Amaratunga who came up with the idea of manipulating the votes. Thereafter, they kept it a secret and Mr. Fernando requested Chief Opposition Whip W.J.M Lokubandara to make sure that there were sufficient UNP MPs.

One UNP top-rung member told this column that Mr. Thondaman, if he had acted wisely, could have averted defeat. When Mr. Wickremanayake first asked Mr. Thondaman whether he would accept the amendment, he said no. But when Mr. Thondaman realised he was going to lose, he wanted to know what the amendment was. By that time it was too late.

Soon after the UNP's move to defeat Mr. Thondaman, the CWC organized a strike in the estate sector as a mark of protest against the UNP. But the strike was unsuccessful and it provided further proof that Mr. Thondaman's once dominant role in the estates is moving downhill. A recent meeting in the Kotagala area was another example of his sagging position.

A worker challenged Mr. Thondaman, asking him whether the CWC was his property. Although several top-rung members of the CWC were seated on the stage, nobody came to the defence of Mr. Thondaman. It was R.S. Sathasivam, a senior member, known to be having his sympathies with the UNP, who shouted down the unruly member. But Mr. Thondaman apparently saw this as a double game.

Soon after the meeting Mr. Thondaman called Mr. Sathasivam not to compliment him for shouting down the unruly member, but to find fault with him. Mr. Thondaman told him: "You were the only one who could stop him. Therefore you must be the person who set him up to challenge my authority". This was not the only case. At another meeting of the CWC hierarchy in Colombo, a similar incident took place when Mr. Thondaman's grandson and CWC general secretary Arumugam Thondaman ordered a member out. The member kept his cool for sometime but when Mr. Thondaman Jr. repeatedly told him to leave, he challenged his authority. Not only senior Thondaman but junior Thondaman appears to be losing face and strength. It is doubtful that Mr. Thondaman would be a king-maker in Sri Lankan politics since large sections of the estate workers are now defying the Thondamans. The 1997 local government elections in the Uva Province was the clearest indication of the fall of the Thondamans. The estate workers voted the UNP back to office in those local councils despite Mr. Thondaman holding key ministries in the government.

Mr. Thondaman will now have to go before the Cabinet to get a supplementary estimate to maintain his ministry in 1999.

With the Thondaman issue on the side lines, the government and UNP are throwing everything into the campaign for the Wayamba elections with fears of violence growing. The UNP has set up three centres - Kurunegala, Nikaweratiya and Kuliyapitiya - to monitor the campaign. A Colombo desk will collect information from these centres to be passed onto the authorities and the international community. Meanwhile, the two chief ministerial candidates, S.B Nawinna and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera have now agreed to sign a no-violence pact and to have a peaceful election in the north western province. However, Mr. Nawinna came under heavy fire from his own quarters for having agreed to sign a no-violence pact with the UNP. Many MPs from the area have expressed displeasure over this to PA general secretary D.M. Jayaratne.

It is also learnt that Wickrema Weerasooria a powerful and controversial official in the UNP era could make a comeback and join the UNP campaign in Wayamba.

But Mr. Perera has not yet received the greenlight from the party leadership to bring Dr. Weerasooria in.

Mr. Perera, while taking some direction from the UNP headquarters, is said to be running his own campaign in the province.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe before leaving on a tour to a far-eastern destination a week ago met most of the candidates and told them that all measures should be taken to prevent violence. He warned that UNP members should not get involved in any violence.

Some candidates complained that although the UNP leadership had promised legal assistance for the campaign it was not forthcoming. They pointed out that when they were arrested for going in a procession, there were no lawyers to defend them.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said it was because what they did was something contrary to his directives. He said that if they did not act according to instructions issued by the headquarters, he could do nothing even if all the members were remanded. Some of the candidates were apparently annoyed by these remarks but said nothing.

In the meantime the UNP has appointed a three-member committee to oversee the campaign. The committee comprises Karu Jayasuriya, Gamini Atukorale and Daham Wimalasena. Subsequently the leader of the UNP had drawn in former BOI chairman Rohitha Bogollagama.

For the PA, the positive development was the United Lalith Front leader, Srimani Athulathmudali's, move to support the government campaign. This came after she had a one-to-one talk with Minister G. L. Peiris at the Colombo Club in the Oberoi.

Mrs. Athulathmudali addressed a meeting at Situmedura in Kurunegala in support of the PA, but some ULF stalwarts are opposing her move. A rival ULF group led by Ravi Karunanayake addressed meetings in support of their candidates contesting under the UNP list.

Amid all this, it appears that the UNP is facing a severe financial crisis, being unable to raise sufficient funds for the campaign.

At a meeting attended by the Party Leader, Treasurer Milroy Perera, Milinda Moragoda and others it was decided to take immediate action to raise funds for the party and allocate at least Rs. 200,000 for each candidate at the NWP campaign.

The ministers, too, discussed the elections at the weekly meeting on Thursday morning.

One minister said the people of Puttalam district, specially the Catholics were concerned that Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was campaigning only at Kuliyapitiya in Kurunegala District and not in Puttalam which includes Catholic majority areas such as Chilaw. The President said she felt Mr. Fernandopulle might be avoiding Chilaw and the Puttalam districts because his brother-in-law had been given nomination there.

"This is a problem for any party. It is difficult when your kith and kin enter the political fray. This is the problem with most of our ministers. You can take me as an example. In my family, my brother, myself and my mother all are doing politics. Because of that, we cannot do politics and at the same time keep the family bonds in a meaningful manner. I hope others would take my case as an example and avoid bringing their close relatives into the political arena", the President said.

The President was also disturbed over the ever increasing traffic jams in the city and the suburbs, though many motorists blame it largely on the severe restrictions imposed on the roads around her own residence. She charged that the traffic jams where hundreds of working hours lost daily are caused by some interested parties in connivance with the police.

"Closing down roads is rampant in the city. Police are doing this on the pretext of providing security for me. They are doing so for deputy ministers and others also. Police are doing it deliberately and I myself investigated this matter and I have caught several fellows red-handed. During the season, it is going to be worse and my office is inundated with telephone calls from known parties who are complaining about severe traffic jams".

The latest is digging up roads, the President said, and added she was not sure whether these were for genuine repairs. Soon after handing down the indictment on the Police, the Highways Department and maybe the Colombo Municipality, the President directed Minister Indika Gunawardena to impose a ban on works till the festive season ends on January 2. She also called for a report from him. The President was of the opinion that there was a sinister motive behind the closure of roads and the resultant traffic jams which were sparking anger against the government.

The ministers also discussed the US-British attack on Iraq after SLMC leader and Minister M.H.M Ashraff brought it to their notice. The attack has begun at dawn on Thursday but the President was unaware of the full extent of the attack till Mr. Ashraff told her. She asked for details.

Mr. Ashraff wanted Sri Lanka to condemn the attack immediately and he was backed by Minister Alavi Moulana. But the President calmed down the excited minister. She said that she would also like to join him in condemning this act. But she had to be careful in expressing her opinion on international issues. "We cannot say all what we feel," she said and cautioned the minister not to make statements arbitrarily. She promised the foreign ministry would make an appropriate statement. This was done on Thursday night. By this time several ministers had already spoken to private radio channels condemning the attack.

The attack has among other things strengthened the new alliance between Ministers Ashraff and Moulana. They were seen having one-to-one chat holding hands in one corner of the meeting place and some ministers remarked it was not just an anti- US coalition but also an anti-Fowzie coalition in the making .

The President also took several swipes at Mr Fowzie over a statement made by him on regulations relating to the operations of three wheelers. Minister Fowzie has said all three wheeler operators would soon have to be registered compelling them to instal meters. He has also said the import of three wheelers would be restricted as part of plans to ease traffic congestion.

President Kumaratunga told Mr. Fowzie that he has raised a hornet's nest over what he had told a newspaper.

"You cannot keep your mouth shut," the President snapped at him. Mr. Fowzie defended himself saying the President had not been properly briefed on the matter.

"What I am trying to do is to regulate the operation of three wheelers. I am trying to do some good," he said. But the President was not impressed. " The people are critical of me and not you and I learn that people are saying so many things over private radio channels". "You have become a hero by reducing railway fares, but when something goes wrong, it comes on me and not you. This is enough to lose votes. Earlier also several ministers had said things detrimental to the government. These things could cause immense harm to the government. This is a weak point of our ministers. They talk before they act," an annoyed President hit back.

Before the Cabinet proceedings got underway Minister D. M. Jayaratne, told ministers about what took place at the hearings of a parliamentary committee screening those appointed to high posts. The officers being screened were PERC Chairman, P. B. Jayasundera. Minister Jayaratne told the ministers that he asked several questions from Dr. Jayasundera, regarding IMF policies and directions. From the answers he got Mr. Jayaratne said he felt some officers were trying to mislead the government.

Mr. Jayaratne pointedly said that he asked Dr. Jayasundera about the economic crisis in South East Asia and whether the crisis was a direct result of following IMF directives. Dr. Jayasundera agreed, the minister said.

Dr. Jayasundera had reportedly admitted there was some truth on what the minister said. When the minister asked as to whether the Sri Lankan government was also doing the same thing, he said no. The minister then asked whether the government would fall on account of the IMF directives, Dr. Jayasundera said, "you have to be conscious of that.

The minister then asked whether they were giving advice which would make the government fall. But Dr. Jayasundera said the President knew it better.

Meanwhile the Maligawatte controversy has taken a new turn with President Kumaratunga herself sending a message of condolence to the bereaved family of the slain Municipal Councillor Mohammed Imitiaz.

Mr. Imitiaz was shot dead by an unknown gang in Maradana a week ago and the killing has sparked a political controversy where PA and UNP politicians are trading charges over the alleged politicisation of crime.

The President in her message paid tribute to the contribution made by Mr. Imitiaz to the PA and described him as a man who worked for the unity of Sri Lanka.

She said that though Mr. Imitiaz could not achieve his goal of unity, the govt. would work towards it.

An official of the Presidential Secretariat carried this message of condolence to be read out at the burial. Islam does not permit funeral orations. It was delivered to the family and then to the media. Some political observers question the validity of the President paying tribute to a person who was a suspect in many cases.

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