The Political Column

9th January 1999

At cross roads on cross overs

By our Political Correspondent

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A veil of political uncertainty shrouds Colombo after Wednesday's bomb explosion near the Prime Minister's office and the gunning down of All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam which sent shock waves through the political hierarchy in the country.

In the first incident, the explosion in the heart of Colombo left a trail of destruction while in the second incident an unidentified assassin gunned down All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam. If one clearly examines the first explosion which killed 13 people near the Prime Minister's office at Flower Road around 9.10 a.m., it appears that the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran has taken up the challenge thrown by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a week ago.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga during her address to the nation soon after her second presidential election victory threw a challenge to the Tiger supremo when she said she would not allow the LTTE which is stooped toward creating confusion and havoc in the country to go unpunished.

She warned the LTTE that she would be the one political leader against whom the entire LTTE enterprise would fail. She also urged Tamils who mistakenly believed in the benevolence of Prabhakaran to reject the LTTE once and for all and the violence and hatred it stood for.

President Kumaratunga also said: "Let all those who by act or omission support terror be warned and let those who secretly or openly condone the path of violence pursued by the cowards of the LTTE be warned. The days of terror in this land are numbered and that number is small."

It is clear now that Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his LTTE cadres are determined to create chaos and confusion in the south making things difficult for the People's Alliance. The LTTE had meticulously planned the Town Hall bomb blast which injured the President and killed nearly 15 people and another in Ja-Ela to get rid of some prominent people of the UNP. Though the plan had failed by a split second, the LTTE had not abated because of their failures. Within a span of three weeks they wreaked havoc again in the city which was limping back to normalcy. Economic analysts say this kind of violence in Colombo would surely and steadily put the economy on a downward trend, making life more difficult. Financial reports indicate that the twin incidents in Colombo on Wednesday plummeted the stock prices at the Colombo Stock Exchange. Brokers and investors were pondering as to whether they could anymore engage in active business in the Colombo Stock Exchange in the face of the deteriorating security situation in the city. On Thursday, there was a red alert in Colombo with security forces taking up their positions in strategic places. People saw security personnel running about to give adequate cover to their superiors going about in Colombo adding to the confusion already created.

The current security situation in the city poses a serious threat to the government, and the pertinent question that arises is as to whether they have employed efficient, and intelligent people to man their intelligence agencies and to gather information about impending Tiger attacks and to locate their safe houses in the city.

At the time of Wednesday's explosion, President Kumaratunga was engaged in a telephone conversation with Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was hospitalised for a throat ailment. As the bomb went off, the President cried out over the phone saying that there was an explosion and it could be somewhere in Wellawatte. But Jeyaraj Fernandopulle replied: "I did not hear anything madam". Explosion, explosion she said and cut the line abruptly. Thereafter, the President met with the security chiefs to assess the security situation in Colombo. She also called for a full police report on the bomb explosion and the killing of ACTC leader Kumar Ponnambalam.

The killing of Mr. Ponnambalam created a political vaccum in Colombo. Mr. Ponnambalam is known to be an outspoken Tamil politician who fearlessly expressed his views on Tamil rights while mingling with the Sinhalese in the south and maintained cordial relationship with them, too. Mr. Ponnambalam was an outstanding lawyer who inherited his legal skills from his late father G. G. Ponnambalam. After finishing his secondary education in Cambridge and in London, Mr. Ponnambalam took oaths as a barrister in the UK and later as an advocate in Sri Lanka. He had also entered the Bar of Queensland and Tamil Nadu, too. A free-thinker in his own way, Mr. Ponnambalam's name is more familiar to Colombo Tamils as a person who advocated the three principles that emanated from the Thimpu talks to resolve the nation's ethnic crisis. Kumar, as he was known, was committed to his convictions as a crusader who fought for the rights of the Tamils. Although he did not espouse separatism effectively he apparently towed the LTTE line and was a vehement believer of a Tamil nation and a homeland in Sri Lanka. A week before his death, Mr. Ponnambalam wrote an open letter to President Chandrika Kumaratunga in which he severely criticised the president's victory speech.

Mr. Ponnambalam in his open letter to the President said: "You say that you see clearly the enemy that walks so freely in this island, and you identify that enemy as hatred.

"You boasted that the entire LTTE terror enterprise will fail against you, but in the same breadth you contradict yourself pathetically by wanting the Tamils to bring Prabhakaran to the negotiating table. You have played ducks and drakes far too long about whether you want to talk to the LTTE or not. Politics demands that you and your government finally state whether you want to talk to the LTTE unconditionally or not. It is only when this is known definitely will anybody move in this matter. If talking to the LTTE at the negotiating table is your honest position, then your outbursts about cowards of the LTTE and terrorist cowards and your determination to wipe out the LTTE must surely be counter-productive. By all means, clear away the culture of terror and death which have become the way of life in this island.

These are the last of many political sentiments Mr. Ponnambalam expressed. He was vehemently critical of almost all the governments that came to power since 1970 and his reluctance to condemn openly the killing of Dr. Neelam Tiruchelvam by the LTTE showed clearly his leaning towards the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He gave moral support to the LTTE though he did not approve of the violent methods employed by the Tiger supremo.

He was a controversial figure within his own community , some of whose is members looked askance at what could have been construed as provocative statements.

The death of Kumar Ponnambalam silenced an insistent voice. He spoke his heart out and gave vent to his feelings, sometimes with an outburst which most of the Sinhalese living in Colombo did not approve of. But everybody knew the principles Mr. Ponnambalam stood for as an opinion maker of the Tamils living in Colombo. But with Mr. Ponnambalam's death, the danger that lurks the political scene is that the Tamil voice in Colombo would go underground and beyond easy recognition. Whether Mr. Ponnambalam had advocated a different political culture or not is not the question at this stage, since he was part of a vibrant democracy.

What is more important at this stage is to bring to book the assassin who silenced this critic and to stop further deterioration of the democratic norms of this land. Any person who cherishes democratic values would , no doubt, condemn the killing of Kumar Ponnambalam as a heinous crime of the first order, as we in the south condemned the killing of Dr. Neelam Tiruchelvam by the LTTE.

With this series of incidents the current political trends in the country have become the hot subject of discussion among the PA politicians too. Some of the PA ministers in the meantime had urged the President to replace Defence Secretary Chandananda De Silva with somebody else who they believe to be more competent to hold that position. Some ministers were agreeable to this proposal since they are facing problems with the Defence Secretary at present. But it is difficult at this juncture to come to any conclusion whether the President would give in to the call by the ministers. Later on Wednesday when the President came in most of the ministers appreciated the President's address to the nation on Monday night. Prominent among them were Dr. Sarath Amunugama who crossed over from the UNP. He said that it was one of the best interviews which caught the hearts and minds of the grassroots. The President was very happy. Thereafter she turned to Minister Ashraff expecting some remark but Mr. Ashraff was silent. He smiled at the President without murmuring a word. Soon after, Ashraff was to leave Temple Trees where they were meeting but the President said there was a threat on his life and told him to get into one of her cars and was driven away with Presidential escorts.

What is more important at this juncture is the President's address to the nation with two journalist friends by her side who nodded their heads at everything the President said.

The address to the nation has in fact reduced the Presidents stature because nobody expected her to refer to people using nick names. At times she referred to the physical appearance of people whom she was attacking with a verbal barrage. The President accused some of the journalists as blackmailers.

This leaves some people wondering whether the President was talking with adequate and ample proof. She of spoke of a journalist who asked for a large sum money to run a press after she won the election. The president said she gave a lesser amount. In fact the other question that arises is from where the President has given this money to the journalist in question. Was it on record that this money has been given? Has this money been given from party funds or from her private funds are the main questions that arise.

On the other hand this interview clearly shows that the President has little consistency of purpose in calling the UNP to join together on national issues. She has apparently closed the door to consensual politics when she attacked the UNP without any discrimination. The UNPers who wanted to support the bill enabling members from the opposition to cross over to the government are now in two minds as to what would happen to them after supporting the Bill. Most of the members wanted to know the political agenda of the president if they were to support the crossover Bill. It is now understood that many of the UNPers and many in the PA wanted a referendum to extend the life of parliament in lieu of a vote for the crossover bill. To extend the life of parliament means the present set of parliamentarians will continue for another six years without new faces coming into the legislature. Most of the opposition members prefer this due to personal reasons, while the government members opt for a referendum due to their inability to face the electorate since their popularity has flagged although the President had won the election.

The President has to decide now whether she should continue with the present parliament or to go in for fresh elections. Going in for fresh elections means further problems for the President, since the LTTE is ready to plant their people in various election lists in the north, in the east and in the upcountry. If these people are elected the President has no option, but to go along with a new parliament which would create immense problems for her administration. The UNP too would field new faces which could make things difficult for her in the next six years. Although other analysts believe that the UNP vote would go down further, some believe that there could be an increase in the UNP vote since it is held on a district basis and that the PA politicians in the provinces are facing a credibility problem.

But what is more important at this juncture is to give a clear picture as to what the President was aiming to do if the crossover bill was passed in parliament.

It is very likely that the President would dissolve parliament and go for fresh elections if she is defeated in the crossover bill. Hence the rebel group of the UNP is trying to canvass more and more UNP votes to the government, but the attitude of Dr. Amunugama had pushed some of them back. One of the UNPers who wanted to support this move told this column that the aggression shown by Dr. Amunugama on some of the UNPers in parliament on Thursday made them to think twice, whether they should support the bill or not.

Meanwhile fresh moves are now underway to work out a working arrangement between the ruling PA and the opposition UNP for consensus politics. Most of the UNPers think they should get-together to solve crucial, national issues such as the ethnic strife.

This was discussed at various political circles in Colombo, but the first move towards this was made at a dinner hosted by UNP's Charlie Mahendran.

At this dinner John Amaratunga asked a close friend of Dr. Amunugama as to whether he could initiate some sort of dialogue with Dr. Sarath Amunugama on the matter.

This mutual friend of Mr. Amaratunga and Dr. Amunugama is not new to Sri Lankan politics but he always operated behind the scenes like other businessmen who opted to remain anonymous.

Hilmy Mohomed the Managing Director of East Mates Ltd., however agreed with Mr. Amaratunga to have a one to one discussion with Dr. Amunugama on the subject.

While this was being done, the rebel UNPer met with President Kumaratunga on Wednesday for crucial talks. There the rebels discussed with the President, ways and means of getting more UNPers to support the cross over bill.

According to calculations by the rebels the number has now moved up to 15, and the government at the same time hopes that Minister M. H. M. Ashraff too would support it, though he opposed the bill initially.

In fact Minister Ashraff would be compelled to support the government's move since much pressure is building up from within the government to get the required 2/3 majority in parliament to push the Constitutional reforms as planned earlier by the President.

It is also likely that if the government succeeds in pushing the cross over bill through parliament, the next Parliamentary General Election would held under the new system which would incorporate both the first past-the post system and the proportional representation.

The proposed cross over bill is similar to the now defunct second amendment to the Constitution introduced by President J. R. Jayewardene enabling the opposition members to cross over to the government.

Be that as it may, the latest from the government quarters is the inquiry initiated by the authorities to determine as to how an un-edited portion of the President's address to the nation was telecast on the National TV.

The President who thought that the telecast had been stopped made some remarks about her injury following the Town-Hall bomb explosion.

An inquiry is now underway and several heads could roll.

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