The Political Column

11th June 2000

UNP warned of another defeat

By our Political Correspondent

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The assassination of Minister C. V. Gooneratne during the War Heroes' Day procession shows how desperate the LTTE was in the face of heavy resistance from the government troops who are thwarting rebel efforts to capture the Jaffna peninsula.

The Tigers who failed in their bid to assassinate President Chandrika Kumaratunga in December have now decided to go for any government target. A suspect who was arrested recently told investigators that directives had come from the leadership that they should now consider any target if they were unable to go for VIP targets.

On Wednesday morning, before joining in the march, Minister Gooneratne had a few words with the President. He told her to take extra care since the Tigers were roaming the city looking for VIP targets. But little did he know then that he was the VIP target.

When the President heard the horrible news, she was shocked. She cancelled her engagements and issued a statement to the media.

On Monday, the President briefed the PA parliamentary group on the war situation. She said the troops were holding on to Jaffna though the situation was dicey at times. Emphasising the government's commitment to a political solution, she regretted that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was pushing the government to a full-scale war.

She asked the ministers to attend the war heroes' day ceremonies at the Presidential Secretariat. In the same breath she added that except for Minister Gooneratne and a few others, most of the ministers did not attend state functions.

Were the Tigers targeting Minister Gooneratne or somebody else? The question is being raised because another top minister was to attend the heroes' day commemorations.

According to reports, Minister G. L. Peiris and Minister Mahinda Rajapakse were to be in the area on Wednesday. Prof. Peiris was scheduled to lay a foundation stone in Ratmalana for a war heroes' memorial while Mr. Rajapakse was scheduled to go there to launch a fisheries project in Moratuwa.

Security officials believe that the LTTE bombers would have been targeting all three ministers who would have been there at the same time. However, the minister's other engagements had delayed their arrival at Ratmalana.

Some say the bomb was meant for Mr. Gooneratne because he strongly advocated the policy of placing the country on war footing, though at the initial stages the government rejected the proposal. But after the LTTE's onslaught on the peninsula, he was proved right. Thus some analysts believe that this was the factor that prompted the LTTE to kill him.

Mr. Gooneratne who recently changed his usual attire of tunic coat to a shirt with two flaps on either side, giving him the look of a military officer, was a politician with the common touch. He was fully behind the armed forces. A recent picture published in the newspaper portrayed Minister Gooneratne comforting a soldier at the Army Hospital while sitting on his bed.

The Ratmalana bomb attack has stressed the need for more VIP security. Ministers are said to have changed their routine itineraries as a safety measure. All these tragedies happen because a political solution has eluded us for decades. But snags do appear every time a solution is likely.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress met the UNP on Wednesday to discuss the proposed constitutional reforms and to determine as to where the Muslims stand in this whole exercise. The SLMC delegation included Minister M.H.M. Ashraff, Deputy Minister M. L. M. Hisbullah and parliamentarian M.M. Zuhair while the UNP delegation comprised opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ronnie de Mel, M.H. Mohamed and Gamini Atukorale.

The SLMC leaders said the Muslims must be given a special recognition in the merged north-east province as they feared that the Muslims would have a raw deal from a Tamil-dominated regional council.

Mr. Ashraff said the Sinhala newspapers had misrepresented the SLMC's position as demanding part of the country.

"We are about 33 per cent in the East. The UNP merged the North and the Eastern provinces under the Indo-Lanka pact of 1987, thus reducing the Muslim minority to 17 per cent. The merger has also affected the Sinhala concentration," Mr. Ashraff said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the UNP was against a permanent merger of the North and the East and vowed to campaign for a demerger of the two provinces.

But the UNP position may not be pleasing to Tamil parties. Many Tamil parties call for a referendum to decide the merger issue.

Mr. Wickremesinghe agreed with the SLMC on the Muslim security concerns and said the amalgamation of the North and the East had to be a temporary one.

At Monday's parliamentary group meeting of the PA, a significant point was made by EPDP member S. Sivadasan. He said civilians in the Jaffna peninsula did not want to live under the fascist regime of the LTTE    censored   the civilian movements were from LTTE areas to the army controlled areas. He urged the government to provide relief censored 130,000 displaced persons now in the army controlled areas.

President Kumaratunga directed Northern Rehabilitation Minister Sarath Amunugama to look into the problems.

The President later had a meeting with an EPDP delegation and told Dr. Amunugama to resume the ferry services from Trincomalee to Jaffna. But, Dr. Amunugama said it would be done once the weather conditions improved.

The UNP parliamentary group also met as usual on Monday. After tackling the free trade and other issues, the group discussed the political situation in the country. Colombo district MP Premaratne Gunasekera raised a question about the newly formed Patriotic Parliamentarians' Platform (PPP), an all-party MPs' forum that seeks to counter the LTTE propaganda.

Mr. Gunasekera expected a member to answer. He was taken aback when Mr. Wickremesinghe wanted to explain matters.

"Rukman Senanayake and John Amaratunga informed me about the formation of the group. I gave them the greenlight and advised them to take a few people from the UNP without taking a full complement. The group has prepared a draft policy statement. There can be good things and bad things. We have to consider it carefully and take necessary steps. I have been told that their aim is not to put off elections or form a national government.

"This morning a PPP member complained to me over a story that Mervyn Silva was circulating. Mr. Silva has apparently said I was trying to attack the PPP at today's meeting through some of the speakers," Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

Mr. Mervyn Silva rose to his feet and objected. He said if the UNP leader was making such a statement, he should name the MP who told him about this. An angry Mr. Silva then kicked a chair and walked out.

Some of his colleagues later spoke to him and brought him back to the meeting. To settle the matter, Mr. Wickremesinghe said he would withdraw his word.

But the matter did not end there. Mr. Gunasekera asked more questions about the PPP. But this time Rukman Senanayake came forward to explain matters.

He said the PPP had no hidden agenda. Its only aim was to expose the LTTE canards through a concerted effort.

Mr. Senanayake however said Sarath Kongahage had a suggestion that the PPP could be mobilised to campaign for free and fair elections. Mr. Senanayake said the PPP had no such ideas or schemes to put off elections or to form a national government as some newspapers had alleged.

Mr. Senanayake said he suspected a conspiracy by some UNP members to buckle their programme. He alleged that the conspiracy against the PPP was hatched in the house of a UNP Parliamentarian and some newspapers were helping the conspirators.

"We have parliamentarians who misinterpret the facts and provide wrong information to newspapers," he said.

Rajitha Senaratne intervened and wanted to know who these parliamentarians were. Then there erupted a heated session Mr. Kongahage shouted at Rajitha Senaratne asking him not to interrupt Mr. Senanayake. "Who are you to stop Mr. Senanayake. He is a senior member of the party," Mr. Kongahage told Dr. Senaratne.

Sensing that the situation could go out of control with fisticuffs several members rushed towards Mr. Kongahage. But the matter came to a close when Mr. Wickremesinghe moved to adjourn the meeting.

On the following day, Sarath Ranawake had a heated argument with Mr. Gunasekera just outside the well of parliament. Later Reginald Perera and Dr. Senaratne also joined the argument. While Mr. Ranawake and Mr. Perera defended the PPP, Mr. Gunasekera and Dr. Senaratne continued to attack it. The argument could again have ended in fisticuffs if not for other MPs who separated the two groups.

At this verbal melee, Dr. Senaratne apparently asked Mr. Perera what he had done for the UNP during the past five years. Mr. Perera had asked Dr. Senaratne who he thought he was to teach him politics.

Political observers say these infights need to be checked if the UNP has any desire to form the next administration.

At 'Sirikotha', the almost extinct volcano that is the UNP's headquarters, Working Committee members who are not MPs were kicking their heels waiting for the party leader to turn up for a meeting scheduled at Monday 4 p.m.

The stormy parliamentary group meeting had taken longer than expected, and the Working Committee sat down to business only at 5.40 p.m.

Mr. Wickremesinghe announced that the party must now gear itself for the general election, to be held before September.

Paul Perera is a familiar name to old times in the UNP since 1960. He's been a resident at Ward Place. Just across the road lived the grand old man of the grand old party Junius Richard Jayewardene.

For many years, Mr. Perera, a lawyer, had been a kind of general factotum of Mr. Jayewardene. A lot of good and bad of Mr. Jayewardene's tenure in office had been fathered on him.

He is credited to have been one of those who argued, privately with Mr. Jayewardene, not to join the SLFP in the early 1970s when he felt Dudley Senanayake, the then UNP leader gave him no place in the party.

Mr. Perera had told Mr. Jayewardene that the man who was revered by UNP supporters would find SLFPers washing their fingers on his head (it sounds better in the vernacular) and Mr. Jayewardene conceded that his arguments had entered his dreams that night and ended his dreams the following morning of joining the SLFP.

Mr. Perera has also been a very close associate of Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Jayewardene's nephew. Struck by a stroke in Japan, Mr. Perera took leave from active politics, did not enter parliament but improving health made him accept the Working committee appointment.

There was pin drop silence when he, with some difficulties, rose to speak. In English and Sinhala he told the party leader that the time of reckoning had come.

He said that for any project and in this case, victory at the general elections, one must look at the 'infrastructure' available. He drew an analogy with having a new car which had to travel on a bad road.

He wanted the party leader and the party to take a long hard look at the 'infrastructure' available in the run-up to the polls.

Firstly, he said to have a look at the Election Commissioner. He referred to what happened at the presidential elections. The incumbent commissioner entered hospital just before the election. A replacement was brought from outside the Department and the rest was recent history. He predicted a replay of this scenario come September.

Secondly, he said the party had to look at the police. He referred to  censored  

Then he said that when the UNP was in the Opposition under Mr. Jayewardene from 1973-77 they took advantage of the then Administration of Justice Law which provided for complaints to be made to the Magistrate whenever they feared a breach of the peace would occur by the use of thuggery on their supporters by ruling party MPs.

He said the same provisions apply in the Criminal Procedure Code, but the party organisers were not exercising the provisions of the law.  censored

The overall picture of the 'infrastructure' for a free and fair election, he said was bleak. Under these circumstances, he said the party had to face the stark reality that it was going to lose, again unless the party leadership and the party itself wake up now, to these realities. He wanted the party leadership meeting the President for talks on constitutional reforms to insist on an independent elections commission, Police Commission and Judicial Commission as a pre-requisite for UNP's support for reforms.

On the other hand he said the party must fight back and not take things lying down as it had done all these recent years.

The emotional speech from an old war horse went down well, as he frequently interspersed his remarks with "don't get angry if I hurt your feelings," etc.

On Thursday, Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke in parliament. Either his old friend's arguments had entered his own dreams, or he had woken up, or both.

In a rare speech in parliament he slammed the government for its inefficiency in war management.

"The war at Elephant pass was not lost around the salterns at Iyakatchchi, but around the Beira Lake in Colombo which housed the Treasury and the Defence Ministry," he said.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the callousness of government officials was to blame for the defeats in Jaffna, not the Army.

Mr. Wickremasinghe, like the famed Ryp Van Winkle had at last awoken.

The previous week when the UNP delegation headed by Mr. Wickremesinghe met President Kumaratunga to discuss constitutional reforms, the UNP leader spoke about the need to uphold democracy and press freedom. He insisted that the ban on processions and meetings should be lifted immediately as a step towards this. The President agreed and said: "You can criticise us now. You can go ahead and say anything against us. But there should be a basis for these things. If you talk the truth, that is enough."

Tyronne Fernando who was listening patiently to the President's remarks said: "it should be the same from your side, too."

Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake who is usually known for his witty humour quipped, "Well said."

The President told the UNP delegation that it was futile to talk to the LTTE because it was pursuing a military option. But she said it was important to involve the LTTE, too, and indicated that the government was prepared to make concessions to the LTTE provided it got something in return. For instance in 1987, the government offered provincial councils but in return it got a pledge from India under the Indo-Lanka Accord that the militants would be disarmed.

The President spoke in similar manner when she met members of the Presidential Task Force on Ethnic Affairs a fortnight ago. She said there was no point in talking to the LTTE. Rupavahini chairman Dew Gunasekera asked then why she got the Norwegians involved in peace talks. The President said it was to explore whether there was at least one per cent possibility of talking to them. "I do not want to stand in the way if there is one per cent chance of convincing them to settle the matter through negotiations.

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