The Political Column
3rd October 1999
Ruhunu Kumari streamlines Ranil
By our Political Correspondent
When UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe boarded the Ruhunu Kumari from Galle on Wednesday, it was a pleasant surprise for the morning rush hour commuters, mostly city workers.
Many people had the opportunity to ask questions from Mr. Wickremesinghe ranging from the Batalanda episode to the present day economic and social crisis facing the country.
The way some people posed questions indicated there was a cross-section of people. Some of them appeared to be supporters of Minister Mangala Samaraweera. However, when people asked embarrassing questions, Mr. Wickremesinghe did not lose his cool. Perhaps, Mr. Wickremesinghe has realized now that patience is the hallmark of democratic politics and good leadership. His charming ways which may have been orchestrated for the occasion had stolen the hearts of many specially of the fairer sex. This was observed by a group of silent onlookers who were there to listen to comments and responses of the people.
So the train journey from Galle was a successful trip for the UNP leader. If he could win the hearts of the fairer sex, it means that he could wield a lot of influence in the middle-class houses in the south and it would be a healthy revival for UNP's otherwise lukewarm political campaign.
Political analysts believe that advisers have after a long time given Mr. Wickremesinghe a bit of good advice and he has emerged with a strong political character through this campaign. The amount of publicity received in the national media should also be taken into account when one analyses his journey from Galle. Though it lasted for a few hours, he had gained a lot of political mileage. Reaching out to the people is significantly important if one wants to lead the country in the next millennium.
No doubt, there had been UNP supporters in many places along the Ruhunu Kumari's route to chant pro-UNP slogans just to stimulate and whip up some kind of support to the UNP from the commuters themselves. Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Vajira Abeywardena, Rajitha Senaratne and several others accompanied Mr. Wickremesinghe. On one occasion when some people tried to get out of hand, the commuters themselves controlled them and took over from them to ask some important questions from the UNP leader. In a way, it was a rare opportunity for the people to have a glimpse of a national leader and talk to him face to face. So most of the people admired Mr. Wickremesinghe's presence on the Ruhunu Kumari as he readies himself to start his race for the hot seat of the presidency from the rattling and swaying journey in the Ruhunu Kumari.
Mr. Wickremesinghe launched his campaign in the Kurunegala district on Friday and thereafter would continue through the country which would encompass almost all the areas except the LTTE infested areas where no polling would be possible. It appears that his public relations efforts are paying him dividends now more than at any stage.
The UNP is busy gaining ground while the President is away in Washington. However, the President would make use of the national television to propagate her vision and publicize her campaign for the next elections. At the moment, Mr.Wickremesinghe appears to be riding high in popularity but he has some problems at hand.
The re-entry of former General Secretary Sirisena Cooray is also on his agenda, but he is trying to avoid it as much as possible. But the reality seems to be that the Cooray factor is important when it comes to the elections. Under the circumstances, Milinda Moragoda and the former Deputy Mayor M. Mahroof would make a steady move to bring in a reconciliation between Mr. Cooray and the party leader. A meeting is very much on the cards between the two once Mr. Moragoda returns to the country this month.
The other problem facing Mr. Wickremesinghe is the involvement of several UNPers to scuttle their own attack on Minister M.H.M. Ashraff in parliament.
The plan by the UNP was to attack Mr. Ashraff based on a land deal between Tokyo Cement and the Ports Ministry. It is alleged that the Ports Authority is in the process of leasing out 2 1/2 acres to Tokyo Cement for silo operations while the port is facing difficulties due to the shortage of land for its own operations.
The attack planned by the UNP on Tokyo Cement was referred to in this column under the headline "UNP Cement wall crumbles." The latest development in this episode is that the UNP's hierarchy has expressed displeasure over the manner Tokyo Cement's main stake holder A. Y. S. Gnanam moved to canvass the UNP MPs. It is the view of the UNP hierarchy that Mr. Gnanam could have addressed his problems to the leadership of the party rather than trying to canvass MPs through dinners and other means.
When the UNP had planned the attack on Mr. Ashraff on the land deal involving Tokyo Cement, some UNP backbenchers tried to soft pedal the whole issue. This was later brought to the notice of the Chief opposition Whip and the general secretary of the party as well. The UNP has now appointed a high-powered committee headed by Chairman Karu Jayasuriya, to probe the matter. It appears that Mr. Wickremesinghe wants to nip corruption in the bud in the UNP. It has raised its ugly head again while being in the opposition, too.
At the beginning of the decade, corruption was the bane of the UNP which brought its downfall and, here, Mr. Wickremesinghe has a great opportunity to show the country that he does not tolerate corruption and that his party is devoid of any type of corruption. It could be a difficult task for the UNP at present. But projecting a clean image would be more productive for Mr. Wickremesinghe in the long run.
In the meantime, the UNP also would look forward to topple this government in parliament. In its endeavour to have a parliamentary general election before a presidential election, the UNP would explore the possibility of canvassing the support of the minority parties including the SLMC.
In that context, the recent clash between Minister Ashraff and Minister Richard Pathirana in the lobby of parliament is food for thought for the UNP. But Mr. Ashraff has clearly told the UNP MP from the south not to fish in troubled waters and that he was not a fish in troubled waters. However, a disgruntled government member who has close links with the UNP leadership has had extensive talks with the UNP. This means some of the ruling party MPs are not too sure of their positions in the next general election. They think the UNP has the edge over them if a parliamentary election is held before a presidential election. Both these parties are now engaged in a guessing game.
The PA is pondering on the right time for the elections while the UNP is guessing as to when it would come. However, the UNP leadership is now convinced that the presidential election would come first if something drastic does not happen within the next couple of months.
The clash between Mr. Ashraff and Mr. Pathirana has caused ripples in government circles. This was seen at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Minister Ashraff was late for the meeting, but his main purpose of going for the meeting was to distribute his anthology of poems to his cabinet colleagues. There, many cabinet ministers were appreciative of his role. Minister C.V. Gooneratne told Mr. Ashraff it was great of him not to make a big fuss of small matters. Minister Mangala Samaraweera told him that he could solve this problem once and for all once the President returned to the country from the United States. But Mr. Ashraff told the Ministers that the main constituent party of the PA, the SLFP, had to languish in the opposition for 17 years just because they ignored these important issues as simple matters.
Minister Ashraff is now likely to summon his politburo to discuss this matter in detail and take it up with the president when she returns.
The whole Ashraff-Pathirana clash stems from a meeting of the consultative committee on education a few weeks ago.
Mr. Ashraff, parliamentarian M.M. Zuhair and U.L.M. Mohideen participated in this consultative committee to bring a problem that had cropped up in a Tamil school in Badulla to the notice of the Minister of Education. It was alleged that a Muslim teacher in this predominantly Tamil school in Badulla had been asked to remove her traditional head-dress causing a furor among the Muslim community. Minister Ashraff wanted this long-standing problem solved in one go, because it has been brought to his notice that the Muslim community is subjected to harassment by the Tamils in Tamil dominated areas.
Though Mr. Ashraff expected Minister Pathirana straight away to implement the government circular on cultural dresses, to his surprise, the Education minister put it off for another date under the alleged pretext that the chief Minister of the province is out of the country. In Mr. Ashraff's view, the cultural dress of any community is accepted by the Constitution and it has been recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A disappointed Mr. Ashraff came home empty handed when Mr. Pathirana refused to take the matter up in the absence of the chief minister. When Mr. Ashraff raised the issue, a CWC member representing the Nuwara Eliya district, R. Sathasivam, opposed saying that the school in question was a predominantly Tamil school where the students are leaned more towards Hindu culture.
When Mr. Ashraff arrived home after his unsuccessful mission, he received a call from the SLMC Jaffna district parliamentarian, Dr. M.M. Iliyas, complaining to him about the decentralised budget allocated to him by the government. Dr. Iliyas's grievance was that EPDP leader Douglas Devananda had refused to release the DCB funds due to him.
This has been a long-standing problem that the SLMC faced at the hands of the EPDP since the EPDP was entrusted with the task of distributing the funds allocated for the Jaffna district. After listening to Dr. Iliyas carefully, Mr. Ashraff said the matter would be raised in parliament the day after and wanted all SLMC MPs to be present.
Dr. Iliyas made it a point to stage his protests in the well of the House nearly a hour and a half after sittings began. At the outset of the proceedings, Dr. Iliyas said he wanted to bring to the notice of the House a breach of his parliamentary privilege. However, the Speaker making a statement contrary to Dr. Iliyas's request, said he had to make a written request on the matter. At this stage Mr. Ashraff interjected and said Dr. Iliyas should be allowed to speak since it concerned a breach of privilege which had stemmed from non-allocation of DCB funds. He said there was nothing in the standing orders that breach of privilege matters should be given in writing.
When the Speaker disallowed Dr. Iliyas, the disappointed member marched to the well of the house, held up his placard which read: "Douglas Devananda, hand over the decentralised funds due to me."
With these, the House suspended sittings for 15 minutes and when the Speaker returned, he said that he had studied the matter and insisted on a written request.
He adjourned the House amidst protests from the UNP which maintained that he should have suspended the sittings instead of adjourning. Soon after parliament adjourned, Minister Pathirana told SLMC member U.L.M. Mohideen that what Dr. Iliyas did was wrong. He expressed his dismay in no uncerain manner. Minister Pathirana did the same thing when he came across SLMC parliamentarian M.M. Zuhair in the lobby.
Mr. Zuhair who was also agitated retorted. Thereafter, he elaborated on the problem. He said that Mr. Devananda released only Rs. 1.5 million from a total of Rs. 4 million that was due to him. He said Mr. Devananda even did not want to listen to Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who tried to persuade him to release the full amount.
Then, he spoke about the Eastern university problems and as to why the CWC is prohibiting the Muslims from wearing the traditional head-dress in a school in Badulla. He said that the Muslims have been victimised in areas where the Tamils are in a majority.
Mr. Ashraff tried to cool him down and later walked up to Deputy Education Minister Wiswa Warnapala and tapped him in a friendly manner and asked why he looked so dull.
"I am worried about the dignity of parliament," Dr. Warnapala said raising his voice. "We are equally worried about the dignity of parliament but we are more worried about the 75,000 Muslims who have been driven away by the LTTE," Mr. Ashraff said. He said they had been denied of their DCB funds. Prof. Warnapala disagreed. "This is not the way to present this problem. This problem is against the standing orders."
"This is perfectly in keeping with standing orders and parliament is the proper forum to air grievances," Minister Ashraff told him.
At this juncture Minister Pathirana had interjected. He said if the SLMC thinks that the government today is there because of them they should immediately withdraw that idea from their minds. Minister Ashraff also raised his voice.
"If you are taking up this position we are ready to go and sit in the opposition. If we want we can do it now," he said.
He also reminded Mr. Pathirana of how they formed the government.
Mr. Ashraff related a long story. He asked Mr. Pathirana whether he remembered how President D.B. Wijetunga sent an aircraft to Ampara to pick him up and offered him more than three portfolios.
He also mentioned what happened when SLFP General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake met President Wijetunga to inform him they could form the government and how he was told that he needed to get a letter from the SLMC leader to substantiate their support.
The verbal confrontation between the two ministers was hotting up and several ministers and MPs tried to take them away. Finally, it was Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne who managed to calm them down.
When Mr. Ashraff went out and was about to get into the lift a UNP MP asked him as to what they could do about the matter. Mr. Ashraff's reply was "don't try to fish in troubled waters and I am not a fish in troubled water."
However, it is unlikely that the SLMC will withdraw its support for the government. If the SLMC decides to withdraw it would bring drastic political implications to both the PA and the SLMC.
It would be political suicide for the PA which is banking on the SLMC vote at the next Presidential election.
On the other hand the SLMC will be idling in the opposition if it decides to leave the PA in a hurry. The UNP is at the moment not keen to welcome the SLMC since it thinks it has its own vote bank in the East.
In that scenario, the SLMC should strive to be the deciding factor to both the main parties. Otherwise in time to come if it fails to convince its position, the people will dump it into political oblivion. It is therefore important for the SLMC to look beyond before plunging into a decision.
In an interview with our sister paper, Minister Ashraff says he smells something fishy in the whole episode. He also suspects there could be a conspiracy in the PA to push him out. But according to Mr. Ashraff, what matters is President Kumaratunga's stand than anyone else's.
"Our agreement is with President Kumaratunga. It is her duty to clear the path for us. We would make a request in time to come for the President to make a statement withdrawing the allegations made by Minister Pathirana," he said.
In another development, a request made by Chitrangani Wijeweera, widow of the slain JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera, to meet Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has been turned down by the government. The request has been made by Ms. Wijeweera through the base commander of the Navy camp in Trincomalee. The defence secretary has apparently turned it down. But during the southern provincial council elections, Ms. Wjeweera was allowed to meet Minister Rajapakse to air her grievances. She also met President's secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi. At that stage, the government wanted to make use of Ms. Wijeweera to win the southern provincial elections.
In the meantime, the government also has turned down a request made by Minister Rajapakse to visit India to participate in a human rights parley. The Minister who made a request by letter to the Presidential Secretariat has found, to his dismay, that his request had been turned down. But now the Minister has left for India since he has undertaken to participate in the parley and since all the expenses are borne by him.
Such is the situation of the PA when elections are round the corner and it is a guessing game for everybody whether the PA could make it at the next elections with all these differences and bickering in the party.
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