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The Political Column

16th May 1999

New life for peace moves

By our Political Correspondent

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Cricket and politics are topics that cause most excitement in Sri Lankan society.

If it is not politics, it would be cricket or both at the same time. But with the start of the World Cup, cricket has clearly overtaken politics and all else, including the on-going election campaign for the southern provincial council and new efforts by peace groups and the business community to renew efforts to solve the ethnic crisis.

Away from cricket, the most significant event of the past week was the renewal of the peace efforts, signalled by the call from the Asgiriya Mahanayake for a mediated solution.

The Ven. Palipane Sri Chandananda Mahanayake Thera in an appeal to the government has urged negotiations with the LTTE even with third-party mediation if necessary.

President Kumaratunga, too, during a meeting with some Buddhist and other prelates recently said the government was ready to hold talks with the LTTE if the rebels dropped the demand for a separate state and agreed to a time-frame for the talks. Though the government is ready for talks, it has ruled out third party mediation.

The LTTE called for third-party mediation during the latter part of last year and it also had some response from opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who said that the government should talk to the LTTE without conditions. An initiative by the religious alliance for peace is also gathering momentum with President Kumaratunga agreeing that they could act as a facilitators.

In the meantime, several political parties have welcomed the Asgiriya Mahanayake's call for a negotiated settlement.

Minister Alavi Moulana said he welcomed the call and personally felt that a facilitator would be preferable to a mediator.

Minister S. Thondaman and UNP's Tyronne Fernando also welcomed the call by the Mahanayake, though the UNP is insisting on the Liam Fox agreement for a bipartisanship between the two major parties.

While there was much interest and discussion on the Asgiriya prelate's call, the business leaders headed by Lalith Kotelawala met with the UNP to discuss modalities as to how they could initiate a dialogue with the LTTE. The UNP delegation comprised A.C.S. Hameed, K.N. Choksy and D. Swaminathan. Ronnie de Mel who is also a member of the delegation was not present as he had election work in the south.

At the meeting Mr. Kotelawala said their effort was being delayed due to the series of elections since January.

He said they wished to see more progress in their efforts to bring the PA and the UNP to a common negotiating position. They had studied the devolution package of the PA and the alternative proposals of the UNP and had identified five key areas where the two parties had differences. They are:

1) Nature or character of the state, namely, whether it should be unitary, federal or quasi-federal;

2) The unit of devolution;

3) Police powers to be devolved;

4) Land alienation powers to be devolved, and

5) The obtaining of foreign funding by provincial/regional councils.

Mr. Hameed told the business leaders they could explain the government's proposals to the LTTE because the rebels should understand it fully before getting down to serious talks.

Mr. Kotelawala had a different view. He said the two major parties should agree on a common position before talking to the LTTE. He asked the UNP delegation whether the business leaders could prepare a report on the areas of differences and then hold discussions with both parties on how to narrow the gap.

Mr. Hameed said the UNP could have no objections. The business leaders said they would give this report to both parties and take follow-up steps, including a possible joint meeting with PA and UNP leaders.

The business delegation also met PA leaders on Wednesday and briefed them on the UNP's position.

The PA leaders also agreed on the proposal from the business community to prepare a report and for discussion to take place on that basis with a view to narrowing differences.

The report is expected to be ready next week and the business leaders are hopeful that a common position between the PA and the UNP could be reached and then presented to the LTTE.

They are insisting on a common position because they feel it would be of little purpose if conflicting proposals are given to the LTTE.

Many political observers are complimenting the business community on this initiative because it takes away the widely-held view that businessmen are interested only in making money.

Meanwhile, the government's delay in presenting constitutional reforms in Parliament has apparently affected its relationship with minority parties. That the minorities may be moving closer to the UNP was seen in the recent western provincial council elections with the UNP being far ahead of the PA in the Colombo district which has a large minority population.

Obviously, the government is worried about this trend and the Kumaratunga administration is likely to take some remedial action before it goes for a presidential election, probably as early as August this year. To do this, the PA will need to resuscitate the devolution package which is now in cold storage. By presenting the package of constitutional reforms in Parliament soon, the government could put the UNP in a dilemma because the UNP would have to either support or oppose the package with both options being equally dicey.

Opposing the package would mean the UNP might lose much of its minority support and the government could once again strengthen its position before going for a presidential election. This could also thwart UNP moves to defeat the government by a vote in Parliament and force parliamentary elections if the government chooses to go for a presidential election before the year ends.

The package, therefore, will help the PA to play a political chess game with the UNP. However, as it stands today, the PA is likely to have an edge over the UNP if it makes a sincere effort to solve the ethnic crisis.

The Daily News of May 13 carried excerpts of a letter sent to President Kumaratunga jointly by Minister and LSSP leader Batty Weerakoon and Communist party leader Raja Collure.

The letter calling for the constitutional reforms to be presented before August is seen as part of an orchestrated government effort to ward off the possibility of a fresh alliance between the UNP and minority parties. The only way out for the government to win the next presidential election is to get back the lost minority support, and it is likely that the package will come before Parliament soon in a bid to defeat the UNP's moves.

The letter by the LSSP and CP says: "The government's seeming inaction on the question of presenting to Parliament the amendment to the constitution that has been ready for presentation in Parliament since October 1997, has seriously affected the government's credibility among the minorities and the progressive forces in the country. If steps are not taken to have this amendment presented to Parliament by August 1999, there would hardly be any time to honour our commitment on it.

"We cannot be unmindful of the fact that proceedings on the budget to be presented by November this year will take us very close to the next parliamentary election and thus pushes us into that election without our having taken any meaningful steps on the matter. It is very necessary that we urgently set about the task of creating a favourable atmosphere for presenting the constitutional amendments to Parliament before the end of August 1999. We are of the view that failure to do so can have the most damning consequences.

"Questions like unemployment at all levels of the employable population depend for their solution entirely on our ability to divert economic resources from military operations to economic development. We agree that the passage of the constitutional amendments in Parliament will not put an immediate end to the on-going war.

"But it certainly will as a first step lessen the intensity of the war by helping the government to win the confidence of the Tamil community as a whole residing both here and abroad and thus bring the military expenditure within meaningful proportions. It will also help the PA to establish its bona fides on the matter with the international community. We have no reason to think that the UNP can withhold its support for the amendment once introduced in Parliament."

This is a clear indication that the government is now getting ready to present the package in Parliament, to reverse roles by putting the UNP in a difficult position and the PA in a better one.

If the UNP loses out on that score, it could still gain some mileage by hammering the PA on the rising cost of living and other economic problems.

With the immediate focus being the south, the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to have worked out a new strategy for the vital province.

In terms of this, Mr. Wickremesinghe will address a meeting for each UNP candidate meaning he will speak at nearly 60 meetings.

Unlike recent elections, the south seems to be relatively quiet with only a few incidents being reported.

It seems ironic because the south was the base or hotbed of two rebellions in 1971 and 1987/89. The peaceful scenario has also raised further questions as to whether some persons in power orchestrated the violence in Wayamba and elsewhere.

The PA's plan in the south is somewhat different. According to the PA organisers, President Kumaratunga will address only a few meetings. Wherever anybody goes, the result in the south will depend largely on how the JVP fares.

The MEP is also getting active in the south but its chances are uncertain.

Meanwhile, police are more active in the south than in other places and have got down to their job of removing posters and enforcing other election laws. With the atmosphere more peaceful and democratic, the turn-out at the election is expected to be high.

While the PA is trying to prevent the JVP from encroaching too much into its vote bank, the UNP is warding off internal challenges from supporters of M.S. Amarasiri or H.R. Piyasiri.

Mr. Amarasiri, a former cabinet minister and chief minister in the south and H.R. Piyasiri, a former deputy minister, have defected on disagreements with the party hierarchy. Mr. Amarasiri who was on the nomination list of the UNP until the last moment withdrew over a disagreement with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on the criteria adopted to select the chief ministerial candidate.

Though Mr. Amarasiri is not expected to campaign against the UNP, most of his supporters are likely to vote against the UNP. But it is uncertain whether the Amarasiri faithful would go to the PA, JVP or H.R. Piyasiri's group.

Views differ on the Mr. Piyasiri's strength also with supporters predicting three seats for him while others say he would get only one.

The impact of the other members of the UNP who crossed over to the PA is also not certain though Ranjan Wijewardena is known to have some clout in the Matara district. His father Justin Wijewardena was elected on the UNP ticket in March 1960 elections. The other defector, Tissa Kuttiarachchi, was also a prominent UNPer in the south.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wickremesinghe has picked a special team to spearhead the UNP's campaign in the south. They are Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Tissa Attanayake, R.M. Ratnayake, Lakshman Seneviratne and Rajitha Senaratne. Significantly nobody from the south is in this group. This group's task is to carry out a vigorous campaign in the south on the Premadasa policies and how it helped the poor.

Sajith Premadasa, the only son of the late President R. Premadasa, has been asked to address meetings in all three districts in the south. Mr. Premadasa is likely to accompany Mr. Wickremesinghe in the campaign.

In another development, UNP's Ronnie de Mel had a dispute with general secretary Gamini Atukorale at a recent discussion held in a hotel in the Koggala area to devise new strategies for the southern campaign. The main speaker at this event was Mr. de Mel who cited statistics of past elections and compared them with the 1994 general elections.

Mr. Atukorale suggested that they should also take into consideration the election results of the 1994 presidential elections. At this, Mr. de Mel lost his cool and said that nobody would want to compare any election with the 1994 presidential election since it was held soon after the parliamentary general election where the PA managed to scrape through.

What Mr. de Mel said was that in such a scenario, it would be obvious that the party that won the general election was going to make it by a huge margin at an election which followed immediately after it. According to PA sources, their battle in the south is more with the JVP than with the UNP.

The unemployment problem is known to be an area where the JVP is making heavy inroads into the PA vote bank. The Galle port development project is a non-starter and the Southern Development Authority which promised much has produced little.

In the circumstances, the PA is trying to counter attack the JVP by highlighting what happened during the reign of terror. It is reported that an intelligence report on important people allegedly killed by the JVP is being prepared and it is to get wide publicity.

Within the UNP there are squabbles over various matters pertaining to party work. UNP's advisors came under heavy fire by several backbenchers at a recent meeting presided over by Mr. Wickremesinghe. The aim of the meeting was to plan a strategy for the south.

Both Lakshman Seneviratne and Rajitha Senaratne came down hard on the UNP advisors. Speaking on charismatic leaders, Mr. Senaratne said that all were talking about Mr. Wickremesinghe as a leader who lacked charisma. But he felt this was false and pointed to the non-charismatic leaders who took the stewardship of this country. "Compare Premadasa with Ms. Bandaranaike. She was more charismatic, but Mr. Premadasa won the election." Likewise, he pointed out that Mr. Wickremesinghe would be able to lead the country to economic prosperity soon. In his long analysis on charismatic leaders, Mr. Senaratne also had a critical remark on the advisors of Mr. Wickremesinghe.

He said that the leader should be careful of the so-called advisors who were trying to mislead him. But it appeared that Mr. Wickremesinghe did not take the matter seriously. The following Thursday, he was dining with one of his advisors Rohitha Bogollagama at the latter's residence. It was an enjoyable occasion for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, his wife Maithri and the Bogollagama family. Karu Jayasuriya, Anura Bandaranaike, US Ambassador Shaun Donnelhy and the Korean Ambassador Myongbai Kim were present along with some business leaders. They reportedly had an interesting discussion on the current political trends in Sri Lanka and in South Asia.

It appears that Mr. Wickremesinghe has his own ideas and plans whatever others say about his advisors.

In a related development one of Mr. Wickremesinghe's close advisors Milinda Moragoda left the country on a three week tour. Political analysts say it is very strange that Mr. Moragoda who plans election strategies and who was actively involved in the western provincial council and Wayamba elections left the country on the eve of the southern elections. Mr. Moragoda hails from the south and has his roots in Matara. However, his absence will not be a big loss for the UNP since many others have come forward to help the leader to embark on his campaign.

Some UNPers are now talking about steps already taken by the UNP hierarchy to push Karu Jayasuriya to a back seat. Insiders who support this view say that Mr. Jayasuriya was not allowed to speak at the UNP May Day meeting in Galle and the UNP hierarchy appears to be promoting Anura Bandaranaike in a bid to push Mr. Jayasuriya down the line. This, they say, have caused a lot of dissatisfaction among the rank and file of the UNP. On this issue others offer a simpler explanation, that Anura had requested to speak early so that he could visit his mother in Colombo.

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