The Political Column
27th December 1998
Hope at beginning and end
By our Political Correspondent
For Sri Lanka, this year nothing was of historical significance in terms of the Golden Jubilee of our independence.
If there was some hope at the beginning of the year for a settlement of the ethnic conflict, then what we saw was to say the least disappointing - with little progress on the military front and less on the political.
The government for its part presented a comprehensive devolution package after two years of deliberations in the parliamentary select committee. The UNP expressed serious reservations and the government challenged it to present credible alternative proposals. But after much delay the UNP came up with proposals which were largely seen as being vague on vital issues and falling short of minority aspirations.
The year began with a bombshell. The government was finalizing plans for the grand golden jubilee celebrations in the hill capital of Kandy when the LTTE carried out its most horrible act of terror. The January 25th bombing of Buddhism's holiest shrine, The Sri Dalada Maligawa left an indelible scar in the hearts of the Buddhists.
As a sequel, Buddhist monks led a massive campaign for a ban on the LTTE. And this was done promptly by President Kumaratunga under an extraordinary gazette notification, though it left some questions in the air. Several controversies arose from it with the Justice Ministry saying it was unaware of the decision, while the UNP accused the government of arbitrary action which violated the Liam Fox agreement for consultation on important issues in the ethnic conflict.
January also saw a brief meeting between the former UNP strongman B.Sirisena Cooray and party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Premadasa residence at Wijerama Mawatha. They shook hands with a round of applause from others.
But during the year, the relationship apparently fell apart again with Mr. Cooray emerging as an alternative candidate for the Presidential election.
In February, the big event was the golden jubilee Independence celebrations at Sri Jayawardenapura with Britain's Prince Charles as a guest of honour.
In a keynote address, where President Kumaratunga made a historic speech where she presented a powerful vision for unity in diversity. But she spoke only in English and that stirred another controversy.
Sources close to her said she spoke in English because the speech was being televised live all over the world and she wanted to make full use of it to project Sri Lanka's case in its fullness.
In early March, the UNP made it clear that it would stand firmly for a united Sri Lanka and would not go beyond the 13th amendment though with some changes regarding the concurrent and reserve lists.
The same month the UNP faced a more serious internal conflict on the Wijeyapala Mendis issue. By the year's end the case was still hanging like a sword over the party though Mr. Mendis has been suspended for alleged abuse of power. The dispute arose after the government moved a resolution in Parliament to strip Mr. Mendis of his civic rights on the basis of recommendations by a Special Presidential Commission. The UNP leaders and others apparently pressed for a tough line on Mr. Mendis. But some sections insisted that the party must stand by its most senior member.
The UNP also pushed hard on the Eppawala deal. The UNP handed over a memorandum to each foreign mission giving details of violence unleashed on Opposition parties by the government after the UNP got a beating at the Eppawala meeting. The UNP also planned to move a resolution in Parliament demanding the appointment of a select committee to go into the Eppawala issue.
The LSSP leader and Minister of Scientific Affairs, Batty Weerakoon opposed the government's proposal to hand over the Eppawala phosphate deposits to a US firm. The minister argued that the agreement should at least be amended. The LSSP also organised a protest rally in Eppawala. The UNP leader decided to boycott Parliament on account of the Eppawala incident. They subsequently held a satyagraha at the Town Hall, but the government made use of the UNP's absence in parliament to have a unilateral debate on Wijeyapala Mendis' civic rights. The UNP's boycott also helped Minister D. M. Jayaratne to present in Parliament a new title registration bill aimed at simplifying the registration of titles. The Bar Association opposed vehemently. Even some of the government MPs opposed the move and made several attempts to stop it, but Mr. Jayaratne was lucky. He pushed it through Parliament without much opposition. The government also pushed several other amendments to the Civil Procedure Code using the absence of the UNP in Parliament.
We also saw in March a dispute between Ronnie de Mel and Anura Bandaranaike. The clash between Anura and Ronnie sparked off when a journalist questioned from Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe about Mr. Bandaranaike's position regarding land deals of the Bandaranaike family.
The UNP challenged a statement made by the President earlier that the Bandaranaikes had gifted land to the state. Mr. de Mel, answering this question, said it was not so and claimed that such land was surrendered under the LRC Act.
The government also moved to introduce the anti-ragging bill and the UNP supported it with some amendments. A. C. S. Hameed told the UNP group meeting that they should appoint a standing committee to go into the matter.
By the end of April, the Commonwealth Chief Emeka Anoyaoke and the US special Envoy Bill Richardson both arrived in Sri Lanka. They discussed matters pertaining to the ethnic crisis. Mr. Richardson had a free and full exchange of views with President Kumaratunga and on the whole his visit here helped reduce a few irritants in US-Lanka ties.
At the same time, Minister G.L. Peiris had a successful tour of Washington where he met top US officials. Dr. Peiris held talks with the US Department of Counter-Terrorism on matters pertaining to Sri Lanka and officials of the US Legal Department.
The government also tackled the postal strike during April/May. At one stage, several ministers clashed during the Cabinet proceedings as to how they should resolve the matter. While Bill Richardson was in Sri Lanka, a former Indian High Commissioner, Nagendranath N. Jha, too, came here and created a controversy when he said that there could not be a solution to the Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict without the merger of the north and the east. Soon after Jha's controversial statement, Dr. Peiris spoke to the opposition leader on the matter. Both of them were of the view that this statement was inappropriate at a time when the merger had run into opposition.
This took place at the reception hosted by the American Ambassador Shaun Donnelly in Colombo to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka-US diplomatic ties.
During the second week of May, both the government and the Opposition agreed to have the debate on the restructuring of AirLanka. They also discussed at the party meeting the possibilities of televising the AirLanka debate.
In the same month, the then Army Commander Rohan Daluwatte figured in another controversy. He had reportedly told a Sunday newspaper that the proposed political package did not provide any solution to the current problem of the country. The Commander had reportedly told the interviewer that it would aggravate the present problem and that it could give rise to many other problems. This apparently angered many ministers who subsequently complained to the President.
The end of May indicated the government's intention of putting off elections to five provincial councils. But it was wondering as to how it could be done. Later in the year, it had discussion with the UNP to amend the existing laws to put off the elections. But the UNP backed out. After considering the present situation, the government moved to put off the elections under the Emergency Regulations, thus triggering off a controversy.
Several parties including the UNP, challenged the postponement.
End of May also saw the killing of the Jaffna Mayoress Sarojini Yogeswaran a few days after the political secretary of the Indian High Commission met with a political group in the north. At this meeting, the political group requested India to intervene and settle the north- east conflict.
By midyear the government had run into serious trouble over the manner in which the Goods and Sales Tax was being implemented. During the Cabinet meeting in the first week of June, Minister Fowzie clashed with the President over this. He repeatedly canvassed for the removal of the GST on push bicycles. He told the cabinet that the GST has put the prices of bicycles up by another Rs. 500.
From the GST, the government moved onto the Commission on Bribery and Corruption. While the President moved to reconstitute the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the UNP opposed it. Finally, the government moved to set up a select committee to probe the activities of the Commission.
The UNP, too, faced numerous problems during the time of the Wijeyapala Mendis issue. At the disciplinary committee meeting which was held under the chairmanship of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP frontliner A. C. H. Hameed opposed the removal of Mr. Mendis from the working committee.
Among others who opposed the move were Nanda Mathew, Dharmadasa Banda, Stanley Kalpage, Anura Bandaranaike and Tilak Marapana. But the party moved to suspend Mr. Mendis who later challenged it in Court. The UNP though it ran into a major crisis over the Mendis issue, held together as a party. Thereafter, the Court ruled that Mr. Mendis' petition challenging his suspension was not valid any more.
As a sequel to this, both Mr. Hameed and Mr. Bandaranaike did not appear on the UNP nomination board, creating another controversy in the party. But this faded away later when both Mr. Bandaranaike and Mr. Hameed did not take the matter seriously.
In August, the most significant event was the SAARC summit in Colombo. But there was much criticism over the manner in which it was held. Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana was in a huff over the seating arrangements and the seat allotted to him. The blame was cast on the Foreign Ministry saying it did not follow protocol.
In the midst of all these, the UNP moved to hold a protest rally on August 14 at Hyde Park. This was described as the launching pad for a country-wide campaign against the postponement of the provincial council elections. But according to its own estimates, the crowd which attended was less than 7,500. It was a serious embarrassment for the UNP that its initial meeting against the government ended up in a flop.
Another important event was the request made by the Bribery Commission Chairman T.A.de S. Wijesundera and the member Rudra Rajasingham to the Speaker to remove Dr. Peiris and Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle from the select committee probing the matter against them. They said that the request was made since they had begun investigations on Dr. Peiris' private secretary, Kanchana Ratwatte and Justice Minister's additional secretary Nelum Gamage.
In Minister Fernandopulle's case, the commissioners alleged he had criticised them through the media in a way that they felt would preclude a fair and genuine consideration of matters that would be investigated through the select committee.
Again in August, the UNP moved a no-confidence motion against Minister Mangala Samaraweera over the credit card issue.
In September Mr. Wickremesinghe sparked off another controversy by calling for unconditional talks with the LTTE. The government felt that Mr. Wickremesinghe is playing to the gallery to win the support of the minorities. It felt that the UNP was trying to tell the Tamil people that the government was backtracking while the UNP was ready to go towards a reasonable solution. Hence, the government reacted by speaking of an LTTE-UNP conspiracy.
This prompted the government to boycott the UNP sponsored all-party conference, thus widening the gap between the government and the UNP.
In retaliation the UNP decided to boycott Dr. Peiris who it felt was directly behind the move to undermine the UNP's effort. However, later Mr. Peiris and the Mr. Wickremesinghe met in Parliament for a one-to-one talk on the current political situation.
In now appears that there is going to be a close dialogue between the two for a common programme to solve the ethnic crisis.
Among the other significant events was Sirisena Cooray-Hema Premadasa meeting held at Sucharitha amidst large crowds.
Mr. Cooray also has put out a document advocating an independent presidency as a solution to the current problem.
In the meantime, the business leaders initiated talks between the government and the opposition to facilitate a solution to the ethnic crisis. But, however, it appears that the initiative of the business leaders had not been taken seriously by both the government and the UNP. though they have nominated their delegates to deal with the business leaders.
According to business leaders themselves, it would be a slow process and take a long time. But the need of the hour is a speedy solution to the ethnic crisis.
The 1998/99 budget of the PA government also came under heavy fire during the November-December period when the government moved to withdraw several proposals. It was Minister Fowzie who first kicked up a row in the Cabinet, calling for the withdrawal of a proposal to increase rail fares. Later the government moved to withdraw another proposal that curtailed the duty free allowance of Lankan workers returning from abroad.
At present, both the government and the opposition are gearing themselves for the north-western provincial council elections. Political analysts are of the opinion that this election could act as a barometer for both the government and the opposition to gauge their standing among the people.
The campaign is already on and to-date there had been many incidents of violence in the province. The government is trying to win the province at any cost while the UNP thinks that it is strategically important for it to win the elections as a stepping stone to form the next government.
The government's strength today is entirely dependent on its approach towards the resolution of the ethnic crisis. While the UNP advocated unconditional talks with the LTTE, the government for some time was mum over the issue. But now President Chandrika Kumaratunga has come out openly in an interview with the Indian magazine "Frontline" that as a democratic government she was willing to talk to the LTTE, but with the condition that talks should end within a prescribed period.
The government also at the same time is trying to push its political package. As an initial step it is contemplating the presentation of the package in the form of a Bill in Parliament. It is understood that some of the UNP proposals will also be included in this. This appears to be a pledge given by the government to minority political parties which are otherwise threatening to withdraw their support in Parliament. Already the TULF had voted against the budget even after the UNP moved to defeat Minister S. Thondaman when his ministry votes were taken up for debate at the committee stage.
Given this political atmosphere, 1999 is likely to be a very eventful year politically.
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