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The Political Column

8th August 1999

Who's playing with package?

By our Political Correspondent

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The disillusionment of the Tamils grew into a separatist movement in the latter part of the 1970s with the brutal murder of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah in 1975.

Mr. Duraiappah became the first Tamil politician to be killed by the Tamil youth who chose the path of violence to achieve their goals though he appealed to the government authorities to release 42 youths taken in for alleged terrorist activities. The present LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran gave leadership to these youth even at that stage.

But the man who was instrumental in getting Prabhakaran and the others released was felled by a gunshot. The then TULF leaders expressed no anger or grief at the killing apparently because it put an end to SLFP politics in Jaffna. Several TULF lawyers defended the alleged killers of Mr. Duraiappah and got them released. The party which was then drifting towards hardline politics accorded a rousing welcome to these men at the Saraswathie Hall at Bambalapitiya with Murugesu Tiruchelvam, father of the slain TULF moderate Neelan Tiruchelvam being the chief organizer of the event.

The carnage of 1983, the Indo-Lanka accord and the attendant issues such as the introduction of the provincial council system, are history. But for more than a decade, the LTTE was able to survive on the sympathy generated by the 1983 riots.

But the sympathy the Tigers gained began to diminish with President Chandrika Kumaratunga's efforts to bring about political reforms to grant a fair amount of autonomy to the minority Tamils. The United States and several western nations are firmly behind the government on this account and putting pressure on moderate Tamils to accept a reasonable solution devised by the government.

The killing of Neelan Tiruchelvam in this backdrop has turned out to be a major blunder the LTTE has done in its blood-splattered history and it has further eroded its standing in the western world.

On the surface, it appears that Dr. Tiruchelvam was killed because he was a firm believer in peace and whole-heartedly backed the government's devolution proposals. But there is another theory , according to which Dr. Tiruchelvam was killed because he was perceived as a threat to LTTE's international propaganda network among the western intelligentsia, especially in universities.

The LTTE feared that if Dr. Tiruchelvam took up lecturing in Harvard in Massachusetts where the LTTE sympathisers were active, it would deal a serious blow to its propaganda campaign in western intellectual circles, especially the universities. Thus it decided to eliminate Dr. Tiruchelvam.

The death of Dr. Tiruchelvam is a serious blow to the government's effort to bring about a solution to the ethnic crisis through constitutional reforms.

At a PA executive committee meeting recently, though it was decided to present the constitutional reforms package in Parliament, a date was not set for it. It was the Lake House papers that gave the date as August 19, prompting the President to contradict it in a letter to the state-run newspaper group. Political sources say that before the package comes to parliament, it will be discussed by the SLFP central committee.

In the meantime, the co-author of the package, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris is on a marketing drive to sell the package to Tamil leaders who say some provisions of it fall short of Tamil aspirations.

Prof. Peiris met TULF leader R. Sambanthan, CWC strongman and Minister S. Thondaman and PLOTE chief Dharmalingam Siddharthan and told them that sending the package through parliament was part of an integrated strategy aimed at positive results.

The Tamil parties were of the view that the government should not table the package in Parliament unless it is positive of the UNP support. Some of the Tamil leaders have begun to entertain doubts about the package exercise in parliament. They wonder whether the move was a bait to woo the minority support in view of coming national elections. If the UNP does not support the package, the PA could project the main opposition party as anti-Tamil. In such circumstances, some Tamil leaders suggest the package be approved on a piece-meal basis. This means proposals with which the two parties have no disagreement, be passed in parliament first.

If Prof. Peiris' meeting with Tamil leaders was an attempt to allay their fears and convince them the benefits to the minorities from the constitutional reforms, it was not so with the UNP which is taking objections to several proposals in the reforms package chief among them being the unit of devolution and powers of the executive.

Prof. Peiris will meet the UNP delegation on Wednesday August 11 for crucial talks. At the last meeting A. C. S. Hameed, who headed the UNP delegation, asked the minister whether the PA would abolish the executive presidency. Minister Peiris after telephoning the President, gave an undertaking to Mr. Hameed that the abolition of the presidency would not be a problem provided that the two major parties agreed on other provisions. The government would insist on a clear-cut UNP stand on this point at Wednesday's meeting, political sources say.

They also say whether the UNP explains its stand or not on disputed provisions, the government would not delay any further the presenting of the constitutional reforms package in parliament soon after the SLFP central committee approves it.

The constitutional reforms were also discussed by the UNP working committee. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said that despite the new enthusiasm shown in some PA circles, he believed the package would not be presented in Parliament. He said even some ministers did not know when it would come before parliament.

The UNP's position is that it would stick to the stand the party took at the parliamentary select committee on the constitutional reforms if the government presents the package before Parliament without getting the UNP consent.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the UNP would stand for a united Sri Lankan identity, a position it has been insisting on even at the Mangala Moonesinghe committee of the last parliament.

Stanley Kalpage said there should not be any place for the concept of a separate homeland for the Sinhalese and Tamils. There should be one Sri Lankan homeland. Mr. Wickremesinghe endorsing Dr. Kalpage's views said that was why he was insisting on a Sri Lankan identity. The party leader thereafter explained his views on the executive presidency, over which there is some confusion in the political circles after the UNP held a demonstration to mark the anniversary of the PA's broken promise to abolish the executive presidency.

"The UNP is for an executive head of state elected by the people. Whether it is a prime minister or president is immaterial. It's a pity that our own people have not understood the party's position. We can work out the modalities whether it is going to be a prime minister or president, " the UNP leader said.

But it appears that the package has become secondary importance to the UNP. The party's main campaign nowadays is toppling of the government on a platform of bribery and corruption.

The UNPers say the 48-hour Satyagraha outside the Bribery Commissioner's office at Bauddhaloka Mawatha last week was successfully held as planned by the party leader.

As a counter-move, President Kumaratunga on Thursday issued a statement, appointing herself as the virtual bribery commissioner and inviting the people to send bribery and corruption complaints directly to her.

But UNP members are questioning the legality of the presidential move.

The UNP's position is that the President has no legal right to inquire into allegations against ministers and public officers when there is a permanent commission on bribery and corruption.

The commission had become a dead letter no sooner it was set up with much fanfare and promises.

The two Commissioners are now appearing before a parliamentary select committee defending allegations against them.

The government is now planning to appoint new members to the Commission once the term of the present commissioners ends in November. Until then the select committee proceedings could be dragged on as a face saving exercise.

Meanwhile, at the UNP group meeting recently, Karunasena Kodituwakku raised the Millennium Park housing project handled by the Ceylinco Group.

He charged that the government had sold 18 acres to Lalith Kotelawala's company at Rs. 9,000 a perch whereas the market price in the Homagama-Athurugirya area was around Rs. 25,000.

Dr. Kodituwakku said even Prime Minister John Kotelawala would not have given such a big concession to his nephew. He charged that awarding of the project to Ceylinco was discriminatory as other property developers were not given similar privileges.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said corruption had crept into various areas of government. Dealings involving ports and aircraft brought big commissions for agents, he said. Mr. Kodituwakku quipped that President Jayewardene gave the chair to the daughter and the bed to the mother, a reference to the recent Jayawardenapura hospital stories.

This prompted a few disclosures on what happened in August 1994.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said when the PA government was elected by a slim majority, the then President D.B. Wijetunga was uncertain whether to call Ms. Bandaranaike or Chandrika Kumaratunga to form the government. This was because Ms. Bandaranaike was still leader of the party though Ms. Kumaratunga had led the campaign. Mr. Jayewardene had told him that if Ms. Kumaratunga was not given the opportunity to form a government, there would a big problem.

Mr. Wickrememsinghe said that he advised Mr. Jayewardene to tell President Wijetunga to invite Ms. Kumaratunga to form the government.

Parliamentarian Sarath Kongahage said that it was Thirikumar Nadesan who took President Kumaratunga to the Ward Place residence of the late President J.R. Jayewardene. That was the second time that she went to Ward Place. She visited the President earlier to secure the release of her late husband Vijaya Kumaratunga who was imprisoned on a Naxalite charge.

Mr. Wickremesinghe then said that Ronnie de Mel also brought a proposal to Mr. Wijetunga and urged him to invite Ms. Bandaranaike to form the government on the condition that she abolished the executive. presidency.

The idea was probably to do away with an upcoming presidential election so that Mr. Wijetunga could continue as a ceremonial president . But Mr. Wijetunga did not go along with the idea.

At this stage, Rajitha Senaratne said that Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan had revealed all this in a recent article.

Thereafter, Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke about the slaying of Neelan Tiruchelvam and paid a glowing tribute to him, pointing out that he had even wanted to give up his parliamentary career as he felt he could not do practical and sincere service to the people though the system.

He said there appeared to be a security lapse in a high security zone where the prime minister lives and if not for that Dr. Tiruchelvam may not have died.

Kalutara district MP Sarath Ranawaka who specializes in revealing port scandals said four to five families had turned the port into a goldmine for themselves.

He charged that Filipino workers are to be brought as cheap labour to work in the Queen Elizabeth Quay development project and called for a no-faith motion against the government and the ports minister. While the UNP was concentrating on moves to undermine and defeat the government, the President was collecting statistics and views on her popular standing in the country today.

At a private meeting with some ministers, she reportedly asked S.B. Dissanayake as to the percentage of votes she would get if a presidential election was held soon. He said he felt it would be around 54 percent but the President appeared to be unpleasantly surprised, remarking that she felt her standing would be closed to the record 64 percent she got in 1994.

Such are the tales of wishful thinking of people in ivory towers. The stories may be true or pocryphal.

In response, Mr. Dissanayake reduced his figure to 51 percent and is known to be privately saying it could be even less. But the heights of optimism were seen when Minister C. V. Gooneratne pacified the president by predicting she would soar as high as her 1994 record. Most political observers feel the ministers are either unwilling or afraid or even unaware of the ground realities where broken promises, a breakdown of trust, corruption and a high cost of living and a host of other problems have driven the floating vote into a frustrating nowhere.

Another significant move on the electoral chess board is the shifting of Minister G.L. Peiris from Colombo East to Moratuwa.

Prof.. Peiris held some successful meetings and is vowing to foster a clean political culture no corruption, no interference in law and order, work of the police and similar principles. He pledged that whatever mistakes he made, he would never make money out of politics.

Indeed whatever his failings may be, Prof. Peiris is widely respected as one of the few honest politicians.

The government also discussed the continuing problems and persisting demands from doctors who appeared to be threatening a strike whenever somebody sneezes. Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva making proposals on salary revisions suggested a minimum basic starting salary of Rs. 12,500 for doctors but other ministers suggested a higher figure. The President expressed concern over the attitude and approach of the doctors but finally agreed to a basic starting salary of Rs. 17,500.

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