The Political Column

27th February 1999

The politics of 'piece' talks

By our Political Correspondent

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The moves for a PA-UNP dialogue which were like a spring of hope two months ago has now turned into a winter of despair with the latest blow being the UNP's decision to call for a postponement of the talks scheducled for last Tuesday.

At a news conference UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe alleged they were not given enough time to study the proposals especially the new ones put forward after recent discussions.

The most controversial of these new provisions is a transitional clause allowing the executive presidency to continue while a new executive premiership is also created. Mr. Wickremesinghe has alleged this is a Hitler-type provision, giving the powers of an executive premiership to an already powerful president. Government ministers have denied such fusion or double powers for one person. But there appears to be some confusion. Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera told Parliament on Thursday that the executive presidency would be abolihsed but Minister G. L. Peiris said on Friday it would continue for a further six years.

While most analsyts feel the UNP's objections are valid, they said the party could have met the President and expressed its views instead of staying away. They said the UNP could have had an initial discussion and asked for more time for a close study a move which would have kept the doors open and given more hope for a peaceful settlement soon.

What these two warring factions should now understand is what the people want is peace and not political rhetoric accusing each other for their failure to cooperate. In the circumstances, it is the need of the hour to discuss and arrive at a consensus on the matter to enable both parties to iron out their differences on the proposed new constitution. Hence, it is incumbent on UNP leader Wickremesinghe to participate in whatever discussion and make his proposals available to the government at the earliest possible date.

True enough, there may be provisions that peace-loving citizens would agree to. There may be provisions that would affect the franchise and the democratic norms upheld by the Sri Lankans since independence. All these have to be thrashed out on the negotiating table and not elsewhere in an isolated corner with the media.

So it is paramount at this stage for both parties to realise the plight of the country and the chaos into which it has plunged over the years due to the ethnic war and divisive politics, and to take meaningful steps towards a positive solution.

While Mr. Wickremesinghe disappointed the whole country by not acceding to the government's request to participate in the talks on Tuesday, the government tried to gain some political mileage through its media. What they did was to interview immediately small political parties and their leaders to bring pressure on the UNP. But it looks futile since the UNP had not taken any serious note of what the government media had tried to say.

On Wednesday February 23, the Daily News carried several interviews by the representatives of the PA constituent parties. In these, SLMC's M.M. Zuhair had said that the amendments were necessary to accommodate the UNP proposals such as the independent police commission, the independent elections commission and the independent public service commission.

Mr. Zuhair also said all these amendments were done at the request of the UNP and it was nothing but right for the UNP to reciprocate the gesture on the part of the government. However, what is important here is to find out what the new amendments were.

Is it only to accommodate the UNP proposals or is it an exercise to safeguard their own interests?

When one looks at the new transitional provisions on the presidency, one would ask whether it was a proposal by the UNP. The proposal to have the powers of the president and the premier arrogated to one person for six years is a new provision by all means which require a careful study. There may be so many other similar provisions which the government had embodied in the process which need careful consideration.

Later on Wednesday Mr. Wickremesinghe told parliament that he would forward the UNP's alternative proposals for constitutional reforms before the end of the week and reminded the government of his suggestion that a mutually convenient date and time be set for discussion. "If the opposition and the government are to start talks, it is only proper to see that the process does not fail."

Mr. Wickremesinghe reiterated that they would support any genuine effort to bring long lasting peace without resorting to the division of the country. He nevertheless questioned the bona fides of President Kumaratunga's latest peace efforts and said the UNP could not support any recently added amendments to the government's original 1997 draft.

"Are you serious?" he asked, directing the question at the government benches. "The President and the government must answer, because instead of building an environment conducive to cooperation, you have continued the victimisation and harassment of the UNP. If you want to continue the conflict with the UNP, can you bring the north-east conflict to an end?"

The same evening, the UNP parliamentary group met with the members of the working committee for a joint session. There, they discussed various issues including the abolition of the executive presidency.

At this meeting, the UNP unanimously approved Ronnie de Mel's proposal to abolish the executive presidency and there was a discussion on the chief executive's role carried out by the prime minister, though some minority members expressed concern on the abolition. Eventually, everybody agreed that it has to be done.

In the meantime, Mr. Wickremesinghe laboured to explain as to why he did not attend the government sponsored talks on the ethnic crisis.

There was a question mark on everyone's face on this issue. They all needed a proper explanation as to why he suddenly dropped off the talks.

Justifying his stand, Mr. Wickremesinghe said there were new grounds emerging from the talks with the PA.

He said he consulted his party seniors and they were of the opinion that he should not attend talks at short notice. He also said that two of his seniors advised him not to attend at all.

In a bid to emphasise his stand as to why he did not attend the talks with the government, Mr. Wickremesinghe went to the extent of distributing files to each of the members which contained correspondence between him and the government and the offensive cartoon published in the Dinamina on Saturday February 19.

However, most of the members thought that Mr. Wickremesinghe had already missed the bus. In parliament on Wednesday, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the "Dinamina on Saturday 19 carried a cartoon which showed the president seated at the roundtable with and Prabhakaran and I are shown kicking each other's leg. Obviously, the intention is to show that we are going to sabotage the talks. I have not even met Mr. Prabhakaran. I do not even know what he looks like."

To make it worse, on Monday morning two members of the government, a minister and a deputy minister held a demonstration at the Lipton Circus saying: "Ranil-Prabhakaran join Chandrika's peace talks."

"As far as I am concerned, the government is going to have talks with the LTTE, it has to be between the government and the LTTE. My talks with the president was to see whether there is a bipartisan approach possible for the government and the opposition.

"I have nothing to do of going and sitting there. As far as Prabhakaran is concerned, I think the demonstration at the Lipton Circus will have no impact on him. Is this not a deliberate act to link Prabhakaran and myself again and play politics."

This was the explanation given by Mr. Wickremesinghe in parliament.

But at the working committee, chief opposition Whip W.J.M. Lokubandara said Mr. Wickremesinghe should attend any meeting sponsored by the government if it bore a national importance and said the working committee should only be notified before taking any decision, following such talks.

John Ameratunga expressed similar views that the working committee could have helped Mr. Wickremesinghe to take a decision and that this decision could have been better.

Generally, there was a dismal picture painted about the future of the UNP. Some say that in 1997, the UNP opposed the package and submitted a set of counter-proposals and now it supports the 1997 package. When the government is countering them and the UNP is opposing the counter proposals put forward by the government which they say is absolute hypocrisy.

The cricket controversy was yet another problem, the whole country was watching with concern. The sudden decision by Interim Committee chairman Rienzie Wijetilleke to resign has given rise to speculation in the cricketing world as to what would be the future of cricket in Sri Lanka.

The dispute between Sports Minister S. B. Dissanayake and Mr. Wijetilleke arose over a cocktail party the interim committee has organised following the Youth World Cup cricket matches hosted by the Sri Lanka.

An argument ensued between the Minister and the cricket board chairman when the Minister wanted the cocktail party cancelled. According to reports, the minister has allegedly abused Mr. Wijetilleke over the phone which eventually led to the resignation of Mr. Wijetilleke. The issue is more complicated than what is seen on the surface. Some attribute the postponement of the board elections as the main reason for this dispute. The interim board submitted the audit report of the previous regime of the cricket board when the nominations were about to be received from the candidates which prompted President Kumaratunga to direct Minister Dissanayake to cancel the elections. By that time, the Minister had already approved the nominations of one-time board president Thilanga Sumathipala. It is also said Minister Dissanayake is backing the candidature of Thilanga Sumathipala against his rival Jayantha Dharmadasa, the deputy chairman of the Nawaloka Hospital.

Mr. Sumathipala, a turf accountant and a newspaper magnate, had on an earlier occasion won the presidency of the cricket board defeating Upali Dharmadasa of the Nawaloka Group. However, later the government intervened and dissolved the cricket board on charges of mismanagement and appointed an interim cricket committee headed by Mr. Wijetilleke who had so far performed his duties effectively and efficiently.

The interim committee had apparently put cricket in Sri Lanka back on the right track and the cricketing skills of the youth have been developed.

The interim committee also resolved to engage Dave Whatmore once again who lifted Sri Lankan cricket after he found it difficult to survive in the environment that prevailed at that time. He later joined the Lancashire county in England and rejoined the Sri Lanka Board willingly after he was offered the new position under the new management.

The accusation levelled by the Thilanga Sumathipala camp at Rienzie Wijetilleke was that he purposely submitted the audit report to the authorities expecting an extension of his term as the chairman of the interim board. They point out that there were certain queries which have to be answered and if it was satisfactorily answered by the previous board, the matter would end there. What Sumathipala's camp sees is a sinister plot by the interim board to prevent Sumathipala from being elected as the president of the cricket board. But others say whatever it may be, the minister should not have behaved in the way he did accusing and abusing Mr. Wijetilleke who has performed an honorary duty to uplift cricket in Sri Lanka.

Along with Mr. Wijetilleke the other members of the board also decided to step down in protest against the minister's attitude saying, that the committee had taken a collective decision. Mr. Wijetilleke's resignation was sent to the President though she is not the appointing authority to the board of control for cricket in Sri Lanka.

Eventually, the matter was amicably resolved after the minister wrote to the chairman of the interim board requesting him to continue. Reports said that President Chandrika Kumaratunga also had intervened in the matter to bring about a settlement as fast as possible.

But now some cricket enthusiasts playing first class cricket in the country are perturbed by the decision of the board to postpone the annual general meeting and the annual elections. They are of the view that they had been deprived of their right to elect a new body. "It is not the property of the government or the sports minister", one cricket enthusiast told this column. He said they would explore the possibility of filing legal action against the interim board for having postponed the elections. "If they are having a query in the audit report, that does not mean they could put off the elections. The inquiry should go on separately and independent of the elections, he added.

Meanwhile, a group of officials of the cricket club under the leadership of the former chairman of the Moors Sports Club, A. J. M. Muzamil is planning to meet to explore the possibility of taking legal actions against the board.

Mr. Muzamil told this column, "We have a good chance since there is a court order to the effect that the holding of the elections is mandatory and we are in the process of looking into the matter very seriously.

It looks like that the controversy has not ended eight months after appointing the interim board. Cricket enthusiasts also accuse the interim board for dragging the audit query for eight long months saying several questions have arisen on the accounts of the last five months of the administration of the former board.

When the board submitted its audit report to the president and the minister the previous week, trouble started brewing in cricket circles and Minister S.B. Dissanayake was moved to accept Mr. Jayantha Dharmadasa's nominations for the candidature of the presidency. Later, a crucial meeting was held at Temple Trees to discuss the audit report. It was attended by key officials of the interim board and they discussed the implications if an election is held at that stage. They considered all aspects of it and the future of the cricket team as well as cricket coach Dave Whatmore and the physiotherapist Kontouri. It was decided that the matter has to be settled through dialogue with Minister S.B. Dissanayake who helped president Kumaratunga in a big way at the presidential elections. But, however, Minister S.B. Dissanayake thought that the cocktail party organised by the cricket board in honour of the Sri Lanka under 19 team playing in the Youth World Cup was to muster support for Jayantha Dharmadasa's campaign. Minister Dissanayake accordingly directed his secretary Dr. K.M. Ratnayake to cancel the cocktail party. Dr. Ratnayake in turn consulted Rienzie Wijetilleke the interim board chairman who said that it was an event organised to felicitate the Sri Lankan team who became runners up. Cancellation at that stage was unreasonable. Thereafter, Mr. Dissanayake checked up from other sources whether Mr. Wijetilleke was going ahead with the party as scheduled. When he learnt that the board was determined to go ahead with the cocktail party he got through to Mr. Wijetilleke and abused him in foul language. Mr. Wijetilleke immediately decided to resign his post in protest against the abusive language used by the Minister. When Mr. Wijetilleke took the decision on Tuesday, Minister Dissanayake held his ground avoiding all telephone calls from Temple Trees and other important people. By evening, he summoned the secretary and asked him to take over the board's presidency. Secretary Dr. Ratnayake said that he was unable to do so while holding the post of secretary of the ministry. If he is to do so, he has to resign from his post as secretary. By evening it appeared that Minister Dissanayake had calmed down and wanted to meet the interim board. Round about 11 in the night, Sidat Wettamuny was the go-between. Sidat Wettamuny however refused to attend the meeting. But later on Wednesday both the Minister and Mr. Wijetilleke came to terms after talking over the phone. The Minister regretted that he lost his patience on Tuesday, but Mr. Wijetilleke said that if he is to withdraw his letter, he wanted everything in writing. Later, Mr. Dissanayake sent a letter to Mr. Wijetilleke admiring and appreciating his services as the chairman of the interim board to help to develop the game of cricket which was fast deteriorating.

On Wednesday, cricket board's chief executive Dhammika Ranatunga had summoned a press conference thinking that the Minister would accept the resignation of the committee members. But when the matters were amicably settled, the Sports Ministry directed him to cancel the Press briefing hesitated and later cancelled the press briefing on the directive issued by the Minister of Sport.

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