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The Political Column

15th August 1999

Ranil's PR e-mail bounces

By our Political Correspondent

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The abolition of the executive presidency figured once again when the government delegation led by Minister G. L. Peiris met a UNP delegation to explore the possibility of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict.

The meeting was held at the BMICH under the chairmanship of business community leader Lalith Kotalawela. UNP delegation leader A. C. S. Hameed made his party's position on the executive presidency clear.

He said the UNP would support the abolition of the executive presidency provided it was not linked to the government's devolution package. He also told the government delegation that the UNP was willing to give them the necessary 2/3rd majority in parliament.

Minister Peiris said it was the government's consistent policy that the abolition of the executive presidency should be linked to the package of constitutional reforms.

Replying, Mr. Hameed said these were two different issues and should not be linked. Now it seems there is little or no agreement on the devolution package and that the executive presidency would continue.

As there was a deadlock on the abolition of the executive presidency, Prof. Peiris said they wanted a definite time frame fixed for the talks since the government would want to take other steps if this dialogue did not succeed. Mr. Hameed maintained that after the first meeting what was agreed upon had been thrown off track and expressed surprise why publicity had been given that the package would come before parliament this month. Mr. Hameed said the UNP was not sure of the exact position of the government.

Citing President Kumaratunga, Mr. Hameed said she had told an SLFP Muslim conference recently that the government would implement the package with or without the support of the UNP.

To this, Prof. Peiris said that there was no such decision to bring the package before parliament this month and that the news items were not true.

Former Governor D. Swaminathan, a member of the UNP delegation, inquired about the exact agenda for talks and this led to a detailed discussion. Finally it was agreed that if a consensus was reached before the end of September, Mr. Kotalawela, would take the proposals to the LTTE. It was also agreed that the proposals should be brought before parliament only after Mr. Kotalawela met the LTTE to discuss the devolution package.

Minister Peiris said the business community negotiators should now explore the possibility of reaching a consensus on the unit of devolution. He said the government was not insisting on a definite position and therefore it could agree if a formula could be worked out by the UNP and the Tamil parties.

The two delegations also agreed that the dialogue between UNP's Hameed and SLMC leader M. H. M. Ashraff should continue.

Mr. Kotelawala said a solution to the north-east problem was of great importance and that the two major parties should try to minimize confrontational politics.

UNP delegation member Karunasena Kodituwakku then said that after the bitter experience at the July 15 protest some MPs were insisting at the group meeting that the UNP should not participate in these talks, but he said UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe emphatically told the group that the party should continue to participate in the talks since it was important to find a political solution to the problem.

Going back to the question of executive presidency, it appears as if the UNP is advocating a dual policy. At a working committee meeting, the UNP leader said the party's position regarding the executive presidency was that they were for an executive head of government whether it should be a president or a prime minister could be sorted out later.

Political analysts say the UNP's position appears to be that the executive power should be shifted when the presidency is abolished. Therefore, they are advocating the abolition of the presidency and shifting it to a prime minister directly elected by the people. This would also allow anybody to continue in the office of the prime minister for more than two terms.

As for the unit of devolution, the UNP may now take up the position that the north and the east provinces should remain linked subject to a referendum on the matter in the east. A merger, however, is averse to the PA proposals which is quite different to the PA proposal of setting up regional councils separately for the north-east and the south-east.

But it all depends on the outcome of the discussions that the UNP is to hold with minority parties. It is speculated that the SLMC would oppose a merger of the north and eastern provincial councils since the Muslim population in the east would then become a minority there. The position of the SLMC is that the devolution should also come to them effectively if the government was planning to devolve power. In a merged north-east, the fear of the Muslims is that their rights would be subject to restrictions since the province would be dominated by the Tamil majority.

At Wednesday's meeting, the ministers got an opportunity of getting some highly confidential information on Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe by courtesy of one of the best known international PR firms Sachi and Sachi. The PR firm in London.

The intelligence agent in this case was Science and Technology Minister Batty Weerakoon who had received the copy of the confidential information on his e-mail and it would have come by sheer accident.

As Mr. Weerakoon read out the letter, ministers appeared to be amused and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera gave further details about the undercover PR operation. He said the Sachi and Sachi expert had been brought down by Chartiha Ratwatte, had stayed at TransAsia and it was he who proposed the July 15 demo among other things.

Indicating how much he knew, Mr. Samaraweera said he even had the passport number of the expert. The e-mail read:

"Murray Gough, 08:56 PM 716199, Message for Ranil Wickremesinghe

Dear Ranil,

"Firstly, I hope this note finds you fit, extremely well and enjoying life.

"Following on from our recent telephone conversation, I have as we discussed compiled my report and a summary of conclusions. As is required, this document has been submitted to Abbey Rosemont who will, I am sure, be forwarding her report (and mine) to you in due course. In the meantime, I will be preparing further reference material relating to set designs and technical specifications and thoughts on message development/delivery as promised. I will forward this as soon as possible.

"Further to our discussions in Sri Lanka, I have some very good ideas on creating exciting photo opportunities (for press/tv/posters) as well as developing a strategy for creating and delivering the very serious perception that right now (or whenever), the UNP is literally, 'A Government in Waiting'. A Government who is very ready and who will hit the ground running when elected.

This includes a very simple but powerful pocket sized plastic pledge card (a successful ploy/device used by the UK Labour Party), a manifesto package and its launch and the basis for a 'drip feed' poster/radio campaign that clearly positions each and every pledge/commitment. It also includes some ideas on a negative campaign to highlight the Government's most basic broken promises (please view Australian Liberals reference tape that I gave Sudath in London)."

UNP sources now allege the government has tapped the e-mail line connected to the Opposition Leader's personal computer. When asked about this, Minister Weerakoon just quipped that he was in charge of science and technology.

If Mr. Weerakoon's disclosure was the showpiece of the meeting, the showdown was to come later over matters concerning the police department appointments, transfers and such.

Minister Mahinda Rajapakse set the stage for the explosion when he identified and attacked Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva as the official responsible for lots of the drawbacks and deficiencies in the Police Department. The Defence Secretary has in recent months been identified with a so-called Rahula Mafia, including big names such as Kusumsiri Balapatabendi, Dixon Nilaweera and Ariya Rubesinghe. Mr. Rajapakse hailing from a different section of the south apparently does not get on well with the Matara brigade. When he accused Mr. de Silva of running a one-man show, President Kumaratunga erupted and accused him of carrying out a smear campaign against top officials. She also accused him of committing the grave offence of bringing caste matters into the scene.

This reference to caste set off a counter explosion from Mr. Rajapakse. He accused the President of condemning him at every turn, including the latest allegations of bribery and caste bias.

He shouted that the aim of Cabinet meetings was to discuss complaints and problems but any time he raised some matter, the President used it to sling mud at him. As stunned ministers watched the confrontation, Minister Rajapakse became aggressive. Two ministers Dharmasiri Senanayake and Kingsley Wickremaratne tried to calm him down. But he went on blaring about the need for dialogue and collective responsibility. The President was equally tough. She told the ministers not to try to stop Mr. Rajapakse and allow him to go on.

"He is like that. Let him continue. He will now go and tell everything to Irida Peramuna," she hit back. Finally Mr. Rajapakse calmed down but whether the storm had ended is another matter.

Another major talking point among ministers and elsewhere was the possible resignation of the controversial Media Advisor Sanath Gunathillake, now involved in the latest drama over Channel 9.

In apparent desperation, Mr. Gunathillake is known to be seeking support from various quarters, including Sajith Premadasa. It was through the former President's son that Mr. Gunathillake got in touch with Harsha Kumara Navaratne who is known to be close to Sports Minister S. B. Dissanayake.

After a meeting at Mr. Premadasa's Wijerama Mawatha residence, they arranged a meeting between Mr. Gunathillake and Mr. Dissanayake who were known to be having backstage battles over various matters, the latest being the cricket board crisis where they backed rival camps.

After much persuasion by Mr. Navaratne, Minister Dissanayake agreed to meet Mr. Gunathillake.

The meeting between the two reportedly started off on an aggressive tone but they later settled down and discussed the matter.

Mr. Dissanayake indicated that he understood the situation better but said he still felt Mr. Gunathillake should resign to save the government from further embarrassment. Mr. Gunathillake reportedly agreed and said he would meet Minister Mangala Samaraweera to brief him on his decision.

Thereafter, the media advisor reportedly went to the nearby residence of Minister Samaraweera and told him of his decision to quit. But Mr. Samaraweera is said to have opposed it, pledging that he would throw everything he had in support of Mr. Gunathillake .

So now the actor appears to have gone from omelette to hamlet uncertain whether to resign or not to resign.

In another development DUNF Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake questions the legality in presenting the political package in Parliament in mid-August.

In a letter to Minister Peiris, Mr. Karu-nanayaka says standing order 96 precludes the Select Committee from presenting a final document since it has not concluded its deliberations. The letter states: "You are aware that the above referred Select Committee has not met since October 1997.

Furthermore, there was a surreptitious and unsuccessful attempt to place a report as if it was a report from the Select Committee to Parliament on the 24th October, 1997. This was queried by me and finally only a Sessional Paper was presented. "I learnt through the media that there is once again an attempt to place the new Constitution in Parliament in mid-August.

"With a Select Committee that is sitting appointed under Standing Order 94, has still not concluded its deliberations.

Therefore under Standing Orders 96, precludes the Select Committee to present a final document to Parliament. Therefore it is desirable and also appropriate to reconvene the Select Committee and discuss matters openly and transparently rather than let such an important Select Committee be dormant where some selected committee members discuss matters behind closed doors.

"In conclusion, may I as a Member, recommend the reconvene of the Select Committee to pursue and deliberate matters of national importance to a finality.

I am sure you too will agree that this is what the general public are expecting of us."

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