The Political Column

4th June 2000

Package in House this month

By our Political Correspondent

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The present lull in the fighting in the north suggests that the

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The LTTE has apparently realised that its goal of capturing the whole of the Jaffna peninsula will be an uphill task, especially after the troops were supplied with new weaponry. The de-escalation of violence means a negotiated settlement is in the offing.

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The President, however, was emphatic when she said the talks should be completed within a fixed time-frame three months or six months because the LTTE had on earlier occasions used talks as a cover to prepare for military action.

The President struck a positive note when she met leaders of Tamil parties on Monday to discuss the current political situation and constitutional reforms. She told them the proposed constitutional reforms would be presented in parliament by mid-June.

"I have a good news for you all. The forces are advancing towards Ariyali. They are coming out of their forward defence lines," an apparently overjoyed President said. She, for a moment, forgot that what she said could be sensitive to some of the Tamil leaders. But EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, PLOTE leader D. Siddharthan and CWC's R. Yogarajan who were present there along with SLMC leader and Minister M. H. M. Ashraff took it up well because they are all supporting the government in its endeavour to bring about a peaceful settlement to the problem.

The President then briefed them on the progress she had made with the UNP on the proposed reforms. "Most of those chapters have been finalized. But we are left with several issues, including the judicial review of acts," the President said.

She told the PA and the UNP had still not come to a compromise on the question of land.

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Minister Sarath Amunugama told them they should take up the matter with the UNP.

The President then expressed dissatisfaction at the protracted talks between the PA and the UNP. "These talks are going on and on. I am not at all happy with the progress. The UNP seems to be taking a lot of time over some of these issues. When we wanted to fix a date in April, the opposition leader wanted to go out of the country. Thereafter, I had to go for medical treatment and I do not want to delay this process any further than June 15. Whatever may be the degree of cooperation I would get from political parties, I am hoping to present these reforms in parliament on June 15," the President said.

The President's resolve to present the package this month backs reports which said the government was under pressure from the international community to solve the problem by political means.

In the meantime, with a view to bringing the government and the LTTE to the negotiating table, moves are underway by a conglomerate of countries to urge the government to agree to a cease-fire. Prominent among them are the United States, Norway and India. Both the US and Norway have pushed India, the regional power, to play the main role in this process.

US Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering's recent visit to South Asia was part of this move. Mr. Pickering admitted that there was a cooperative effort by the US, Norway and Indian governments to resolve the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.

It is believed that President Kumaratunga also wanted the US involvement in the peace efforts. A majority of Sinhalese view the US involvement less suspiciously than they see the Norwegian effort. However, Norway is more capable of bringing the LTTE to the negotiating table than any other facilitator because Oslo has some hold on the LTTE-ers and LTTE sympathisers, many of whom enjoy its hospitality.

The call for peace talks by western nations and others also come with their concern over harsh emergency regulations, including a blanket censorship on the media

When Mr. Pickering raised the issue when he met the President, she said she would discuss it with the cabinet this week.

The main opposition UNP also took the matter up with the President when a UNP delegation led by Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met the President for constitutional reforms talks. The UNP delegation also included Karu Jayasuriya, Tyronne Fernando, Mahinda Samarasinghe and K. N. Choksy. The President agreed to review the press censorship. When Mr. Fernando raised the matter, saying newspaper editors were working under a cloud of fear, the President said she would review the situation soon and take a decision.

Mr. Samarasinghe said some editors were even sending sport pages to the Competent Authority for approval. This shows the degree of fear that the newspaper editors entertain due to these draconian laws, he said. Mr. Fernando said in a lighter vein that editors were compelled to send sport pages because sometimes the censor might interpret match-fixing to election fixing.

These quips apart, the UNP was serious in its discussions with the President on the censorship. Mr. Wickremesinghe said the censor was acting unfairly without any consistency. He called for guidelines for the censor to act within a permitted area.

Mr. Wickremesinghe then spoke about the sealing of the Sunday Leader. He said if the six-month ban was intended to cover the period of the general elections, it was an unfair move. He urged the President to consider that aspect of the censorship, too.

Mr. Jayasuriya pointed out that the censor wielded his red pencil on news items that fell outside the regulations.

Defending the government's move, Minister G.L. Peiris explained to the UNP delegation why it was necessary to censor war news. But he qualified his statement saying the censor must be liberal when dealing with other news reports. President Kumaratunga who stood by Minister Peiris said she had also advised the censor to enforce his authority only if it affected the North-east conflict.

Mr. Wickremesinghe then called on the President to review the ban on political processions and stressed the need to amend the provision in the Emergency Regulations.

UNP legal expert K.N. Choksy who outlined the principles of the Public Security Ordinance said the banning of the Sunday Leader affected the printing of the Irida Peramuna, too. Mr. Choksy pointed out that when the President declared Emergency Regulations by a proclamation, they would only be valid for 14 days unless they were approved by parliament. If parliament approved the proclamation in time, it would be valid for one month. If the government wanted to extend the state of emergency, then the President would have to issue a fresh proclamation on the date of expiry.

Mr. Choksy said that the May 3 Emergency Regulations on press censorship had been approved by parliament on May 9. But on May 10, the government had moved to amend section 14 which dealt with the control of publications which were bad in law. The whole purpose of parliament's validation of this regulation is lost when such amendments were effected, Mr. Choksy said.

Referring to the sealing of the Sunday Leader, he said the Competent Authority had apparently exceeded his authority when he decided to ban the Sunday Leader for six months.

He argued that was not possible to seal a press for a specific period of six months when the regulation itself was valid only for one month.

At the end of this discussion, the President agreed to review and issue fresh instructions to the censor.

At the weekly cabinet meeting, Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte played his now familiar role of explaining the war situation to his colleagues. With the help of maps and other visuals, he put across his point of view and spoke about efforts he had taken to boost the troops' morale.

Thereafter, several ministers raised questions about the gas price hike. The President said she would speak to the Shell Gas company and try to work out an arrangement. The Shell on Thursday said the government had paid the company Rs. 400 million in subsidy to stop a price hike in view of rising world market prices.

In yet another war-related move, about thirty MPs from both the PA and the UNP have formed a group to lobby against the LTTE locally and internationally.

Styling itself Patriotic Parliamentarians Platform, the group met recently to appoint a joint action committee which included Rukman Senanayake, John Amaratunga, Mahinda Wijesekera, Amal Senadilankara, Felix Perera, Sarath Ranawake, Sarath Kongahage, Premaratne Ediriweera, Upali Amarasiri, Mervyn Silva, Bennett Cooray, Reginald Perera and E. Euses Peiris among others.

The group was the outcome of a meeting some 15 MPs had at the residence of John Amaratunga. They worked out the objectives of the group at this meeting and later at the residence of Minister Mahinda Wijesekera.

On May 29, the group drafted its objectives and will present a copy each to President Kumaratunga and the UNP leader to get their approval.. The draft said:

"We have reached a decisive hurdle regarding the territorial integrity and freedom of our motherland. Cruel, fascist and dictatorial Prabhakaran, likes of whom could not be traced even in the international arena, has declared war to divide the country, together with his murderous LTTE organisation.

"Even at this very moment, the armed forces and the police are engaged in an endeavour, sacrificing their lives, safeguarding the motherland with the noble thought that the country of birth is greater than the mother who gave birth. As the representatives of the people we, who feel their pulse could not allow the motherland to be exposed to any danger during the period we represent people in parliament, the august assembly of the country.

"Despite the fact that we are divided into various political parties we consider unity is more important to avoid the enemy taking the upperhand and for the sake of the freedom and territorial integrity.

"Against the above background we can in no way be traitors to the motherland and to the heroic security forces despite the fact that we are confined to different parties and ideologies. We have realized that the reason to be united is much deeper and stronger than the reason for division."

The group has decided;

1. To provide every assistance to the security forces and the police who are the cornerstone in the strategy in defeating LTTE terrorism of the murderous fascist dictator Prabhakaran.

2. To establish peace, prosperity, fairness and freedom among all sections of the society without leaving room for any danger of subjecting the motherland to separatist fascism.

3. To safeguard the ethnic unity, democracy and economic freedom by rallying round as patriots with the motto "Country first, party second" as an encouragement to the security forces and police and to build up a democratic society in the motherland which would represent the popular thinking.

Work plan to achieve objectives

1. Mobilisation of all patriotic members of parliament in order to fulfill the above mentioned threefold objectives for the prosperity of the country.

2. Organising the general public and all their democratic institutions including provincial councils and local bodies in order to mobilise them towards the above objectives.

3. To take steps to safeguard our motherland by consolidating organisational strength and exposing the true nakedness of the fascist and terrorist LTTE regionally and internationally.

"We, the patriotic members of parliament hereby declare and affirm by placing our signatures that hereinafter we would act honestly and with determination to achieve the above objectives."

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