The Political Column

9th April 1999

PA,UNP patch up quarrels

By our Political Correspondent

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The latest controversy in the political scene is over the reappointment of UNP parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne who was unseated by a recent court ruling.

Mr. Senaratne was unseated after a two-judge Court of Appeal bench disqualified him for doing business with the state while being an MP.

Justice Hector Yapa and Justice Asoka de Silva had relied on the Soulbury Constitution in the absence of provisions relating to such matters in the present Constitution in deciding on the petition filed by Deputy Minister Dilan Perera.

Dr. Senaratne's counsel, K. N. Choksy, argued that the member concerned is not debarred from sitting and voting since all the laws relating to such matters have lapsed following the enactment of Parliamentary Elections Act (I) of 1999.

However, counsel for the petitioner, Wijedasa Rajapakse, argued that Article 168 of the Constitution dealing with transitional provisions activated all previous relationships in instances where the law was silent. The court upheld Mr. Rajapakse's position.

It is unusual that in this situation provisions of the colonial Constitution are still in force with the legislature having failed to prescribe the law according to the implicit requirements of the country.

Now the question is whether Dr. Senaratne should be reappointed as a national list member. Dr. Senaratne, a dentist-turned politician, is a vociferous critic of this government, especially those members who had worked closely with him when they were all members of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party led by Vijaya Kumaratunga.

His main target of criticism was President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. When the rank and file of the SLMP and his main breakaway party the Bahujana Nidahas Pakshaya joined the PA, Dr. Senaratne allied himself with President D. B. Wijetunga who appointed him as a national list MP. He played a pivotal role in questioning the alleged misdeeds in the Channel 9 episode.

He became a political headache for the government which would have heaved a sigh of relief after the court ruling.

Dr. Senaratne had started his business during his SLMP and BNP days and his former colleagues who are now in the government knew what his dealings were.

The next pertinent question is whether Dr. Senaratne should be reappointed by the UNP. The UNP lawyers are examining the legal implications of the reappointment issue within a moral framework.

The UNP wants to build up an image that it is espousing the cause of justice and fairplay for all citizens. It is in this context, it intensified campaigns calling for the government to uphold the rule of law and the judicial independence, especially after the infamous Wayamba provincial council elections and more recently after Minister S. B. Dissanayake's remarks that courts and parliament would be closed down if necessary to bring in constitutional reforms.

In this backdrop, can the UNP reappoint Dr. Senaratne even if there is no legal barrier? The dilemma of the UNP is if it decides to reappoint Dr. Senaratne, then a big question mark will hang over its moral stand on issues such as rule of law.

It is no novelty for the UNP to resort to such steps since a precedence has been created by the J. R. Jayewardene regime.

When SLFP leader Sirima Bandaranaike challenged the findings of the Special Presidential Commission which found her guilty of abuse of power during 1970-77 period, the Court of Appeal upheld her petition. But the Jayewardene regime amended the Constitution to give legal effect to the SPC despite the Court of Appeal judgment barring the SPC from going into the matter.

Today, though the UNP is not in office, it could capitalise on the loopholes in the law and make the law an ass and invalidate the judicial process by appointing Dr. Senaratne again. In such a situation, what would be the impact of the law on the countrymen.

It will be a different story, if Dr. Senaratne appeals against the Court of Appeal ruling and obtains a reversal of the order from the Supreme Court.

Following the judgment, Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, a lawyer who represented Mr. Perera, wrote to the Elections Commissioner, asking him to impose civic disabilities on Dr. Senaratne. He has proposed that Dr. Senaratne's name should be struck off the register of electors for seven years.

But the commissioner has indicated he would not act according to the advice of outsiders. He would only act on the directions of the court and the secretary general of parliament. The commissioner has sought the advice of the Attorney-General as to what should follow the judgment.

At the UNP group meeting on Wednesday, when the Senaratne matter was taken up Hambantota district MP Mervyn Silva said Dr. Senaratne should be reappointed because he had made immense contributions to the party and he could be useful in political campaigns. He urged party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to reappoint Dr. Senaratne.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said appropriate action would be taken after legal experts of the party studied the judgment.

The matter was also discussed at the party's apex body, the working committee, which also deferred it pending legal advice.

Mr. Wickremesinghe, however, paying a glowing tribute to Dr. Senaratne, acknowledged his contribution towards the progress of the party.

At the UNP group meeting, Upali Amarasiri wanted to know about the ongoing discussions with the PA on constitutional reforms.

Mr. Wickremesinghe told him that as a responsible opposition, the party should participate in the deliberations in a more meaningful way. "We have not reached any finality and we would not certainly allow anything detrimental or harmful to the country. If we do not talk to the government, people will blame us and now when we are talking, some people are looking at us with suspicion. But it is important that we continue the dialogue to achieve a common goal aimed at resolving the crisis," he said.

The members also had extensive discussions on the ongoing war at Elephant Pass.

Newcomer Ravi Karunanayake said that while the UNP should express solidarity with the security forces, it should question the government on the happenings in the warfront.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the party would issue a statement on the war in due course. Summing up the proceedings, the UNP leader said the party should make use of the emergency debate to expose the government's hypocrisy.

Commenting on the Wanni debacle which preceded the presidential election, Mr. Wickremesinghe questioned the government's earlier remarks that blamed the UNP for the debacle. He said a high-level probe had not found anything to substantiate the government's claim and the government should exonerate the UNP. He told the MPs they should raise this matter during the emergency debate.

The parliamentary group was also told that the European Union had urged the government and the UNP to launch tripartite talks with the LTTE. The EU letter among other things said:

"The EU is deeply concerned at the continuing violent confrontation between the Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE, which continues to destabilise the country, to inflict great loss of life and suffering to the civilian population, and to slow down the urgently needed social and economic development of Sri Lanka. The many development efforts financed by the community and its member states can only have a lasting impact on the ground if they can be pursued in a secure and constructive environment.

"The EU hopes that the re-elected president in her talks with the leader of the UNP will find common ground for a political solution to the conflict, giving fresh impetus to the peace process and eventually leading to internal peace and reconciliation.

The EU, furthermore, urges the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to end the military confrontation and, together with the opposition and the civil society, to work seriously for a just and peaceful solution. A tripartite commitment to discuss proposals for constitutional reform and devolution of power could be an important first step. In this context, the union appreciates the UNP's offer to co-operate as an essential precondition for progress.

"The EU stands ready to support the peace process in the framework of the EU co-operation partnership. The good services of a facilitator might be helpful. The EU appreciates and supports the activities of the Norwegian government in this respect."

At the UNP working committee meeting, the members had a useful dialogue on the ongoing bipartisan talks with the party leadership briefing the members on the progress so far. The members seemed to be satisfied with the UNP's strategy on the matter.

In the meantime, it is now revealed that the newly appointed Norwegian special adviser, Eric Solheim, made several unpublicised visits to Sri Lanka last year in connection with the Norwegian peace initiative. Mr. Solheim had even made a follow up visit to Sri Lanka after former Norwegian foreign minister Vollebaek held talks in February this year. Mr. Solheim was appointed last week as special adviser in Oslo's effort to broker a peace deal in Sri Lanka and he is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka again.

It is in this backdrop that thousands of Buddhist clergy and members of Sinhala groups held a rally at Borella to protest against the Norwegian initiative which they described as harmful to Sri Lanka.

At the bi-partisan talks between the UNP and the PA, once again the President's interview with the Far-Eastern Economic review surfaced when UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale sought clarification.

The President denied that she ever said that the UNP conspired with the LTTE to kill her. What I said was, "The UNP was counting on the LTTE killing me," Mr. Atukorale said that in such a situation, the election would have been put off.

Batty Weerakoon who chipped in at that stage said it was not the correct position. Mr. Atukorale said it was the law operative in Sri Lanka. The President also agreed with Mr. Atukorale. But she said if that had happened, there would have been a military coup.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said that in such a scenario, a military coup would have taken place from the government side and not from the opposition.

Thereafter President Kumaratunga explained as to why she accused the UNP of being hand in glove with the LTTE. She told Mr. Wickremesinghe that he had apparently told "his" newspaper, meaning Lankadeepa, that the soldiers would be recalled from Jaffna once he won the election. "That is what the LTTE wants," she said and added that Mr. Wickremesinghe had remarked that he would even hand over her (President Kumaratunga) to the LTTE.

The president said the discussions UNP MP Jayalath Jayawardena had in the Wanni had also contributed towards this. The President also said all this came after an opinion poll showed she would get 53 percent of the votes.

Mr. Wickremesinghe explaining his position said his proposal to set up an interim council in the north and the east was based on the government gazette notification where they opted to appoint an interim administration. He told the president that he never said the soldiers would be pulled out from the north. What he actually meant was that he would relieve the battle-weary soldiers from the north, but this was not a total pullout of troops from north.

Explaining his remarks about handing over the president to the LTTE, Mr. Wickremesinghe said that what actually took place was something else. He said when he was talking at Panduwasnuwara, somebody asked "Why don't you hand over her to the LTTE." Then he replied: "She could either go there or could wait here as she pleased."

Thereafter, Mr. Wickremesinghe queried about allegations the President made against the UNP, especially those that linked the UNP with the Wanni debacle. "We take strong objection to such allegations. If there is anything, you could take us to court," he said and asked why she did not do that if she found evidence to that effect.

Healthy dialogues such as this on the sidelines of the bipartisan talks augur well for consensual politics.

Minutes before the latest round of talks began, the UNP delegation had cordial discussions with Minister G.L. Peiris. UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya said the party's Nikeweratiya organiser, Rohitha Bogollagama was facing arrest on a fabricated charge of carrying arms. Describing it as political persecution, he said the government should not harass UNPers on fabricated charges. Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Samarasinghe also joined the conversation and defended Mr. Bogollagama.

Prof. Peiris told the UNP delegation he could comment only after going through the facts of the case. Last week Mr. Bogollagama filed a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court as a pre-emptive measure to debar the police from arresting him. Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva who examined the application advised Mr. Bogollagama's counsel to meet the Attorney-General on this matter.

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