6th August 2000
Sleepless nights at Temple Trees
Ask any official at the Presidential Secre tariat or Temple Trees and he or she will tell you that sleep has been a luxury in the last few days. These men and women- who have been used to seeing President Chandrika Kumaratunga being late for many an appointment and not being overly concerned- have suddenly been asked to hurry up.
And so, they have had to burn the midnight oil to prepare what is being called the 'draft constitution'- the constitution presented to Parliament by President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Thursday, the reforms which she hopes will somehow usher in peace and stability to this war-torn nation.
The week that ended was a hectic one for the President. She had hardly any time to recover from jet lag after returning from overseas before attending the funeral of Minister and SLFP General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake. And with the end of the term of office of the present Parliament looming, she had to press on with her constitutional reform package.
The President chaired an emergency cabinet meeting on Monday. Over the previous weekend, strict orders had been issued to ministers not to leave the country. Those who were overseas were asked to return.
Nevertheless, three ministers, all of whom were known as opponents of the reform package were absent: PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne was in China, substituting for Dharmasiri Senanayake in thanking the Chinese government for military aid, Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana was away in India and Minister Amarasiri Dodangoda was also absent.
Few ministers ventured forth with questions but all of a relative innocuous nature. Senior politician Lakshman Jayakody did raise some questions on cultural matters and Fisheries Minister Mahinda Rajapakse also sought clarifications on some issues. Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wikrema-nayake raised a query about the National Anthem as to whether it would also be in Tamil. But overall, the discussion about the draft constitution never reached dizzy intellectual heights.
There was though a discussion about the proposed vice-presidency which allowed two persons from the minority communities to be nominated for that office, a proposal which actually came from the United National Party.
The question was if a Vice-President was to preside over the Constitutional Council, what was the Vice-President's position in the precedence table, vis-à-vis the Prime Minister? When this query was raised, the President telephoned Indian High Commissioner Shiv Shanker Menon to clarify what the position was in India and the High Commissioner returned the call in fifteen minutes with the details.
But what the question did was to highlight the fact that the answer to such a basic question was not known even to Constitutional Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris who had been so painfully mulling over the reforms at one TV talk show after another seminar for six long years. It also focussed attention on the manner in which these constitutional reforms are being rushed through Parliament on the run, so to say, at Olympic speed- which even ministers who support the reforms commented upon after the meeting!
The vice-presidencies in particular have led to dissent from all quarters. Originally intended to redress the grievance of minorities that they can never aspire to the highest political offices in the country, now it is seen by them as small consolation and an easy way out for the majority.
The more nationalist minded Mahanayake theros of the Buddhist clergy in turn query how many Vice- Presidents the majority community with over seventy per cent of the population is entitled to, if fourteen per cent of Tamils and seven per cent of Muslims are each allocated a Vice-President!
But, despite these considerations being contemplated in some detail, ministers came away from the meeting with the impression that the President was impatient to be done with the discussion. In fact, when certain suggestions were made, especially about the working, the drafting ect., ministers were asked to raise those issues at the committee stage of the bill- in its third reading in Parliament- and many ministers found it unacceptable though none dared to say so.
The questions that emerges from all this is why are the reforms so rushed? It would be futile to say after six years in office that the UNP must take the blame because they did not co-operate. Indeed, Ranil Wickremesinghe was at the receiving end of a lot of stick from his own party for attending the discussions in the first instance and many UNPers told him "I told you so" when the government accused him talking to the LTTE in Singapore and he kept away from the discussions during the final stages.
Those close to the President say she is determined to see the reforms through, even at the risk of her political prospects because she genuinely believes that the Tamils deserve a place in the Sun in Sri Lanka, and that these reforms could be the basis for a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict that has plagued the nation. She has also apparently realised that not to attempt that would be violating the trust placed on her by the minorities, especially the Tamils in the north who endorsed her overwhelmingly in 1994.
The president may feel that this entire conflict that has engulfed this once tranquil isle had its roots in her own father's Sinhala Only policy of 1956 which swept him into power on a tidal wave of mass support.
In Ms. Kumaratunga's mind, as in the minds of countless others that policy of Sinhala only in 24 hours "with the stroke of the pen" was probably the beginning of the ethnic conflict which she felt even when her father realised which is why he tried to redress the balance by attempting to introduce the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact. But the inexorable currents of history had already been unleashed The noisy demonstrations outside "Tintakel" her Rosmead Place home where S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was forced to venture out and tear the Pact to send the demonstrators away must have left a lasting impression in the young mind of the then thirteen-year old Ms. Bandaranaike.
History tells us that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party has always been led by a Bandaranaike-even today its President is Sirima Bandaranaike. Its popular image is that of a more Sinhala-friendly party in contrast to the UNP in which the minorities were more at ease. All SLFP led governments prior to 1994 assiduously cultivated that image.
There were few minority ministers in SLFP regimes in contrast to the UNP governments which doled out important portfolios to the minorities. In this respect, Ms. Kumaratunga's politics has always been different from that of the archetypal SLFPer. In the eighties, when Ms. Bandaranaike was mustering support against the devolution of power to minorities by the UNP, and being tear gassed for it, Ms. Kumaratunga had already taken a non-conventional stand on the ethnic issue, along with husband Vijaya who was preaching equality for all communities.
When Vijaya, the film idol turned political idealist went to Jaffna, ostensibly to obtain the safe passage for several captured soldiers, and was invited to take aim at a cut-out of a Sri Lanka Army soldier, Ms. Kumaratunga was unperturbed. That is not to say that she relished the idea- rather, she would have been impressed by the spontaneous outpouring of support generated by the visit and in turn been convinced that something could be- and must be- done for the Tamil community.
The opportunity came in 1994 when Ms. Kumaratunga was elected President. Then, she genuinely felt- like Ranasinghe Premadasa before her- that she could deal with the LTTE. In Jaffna, she was the darling of the Tamil people who called her 'Amma'. Unfortunately Velupillai Prahakaran was more cunning and conniving than the then naïve Ms. Kumaratunga and the talks with the LTTE failed.
Much water and blood has flowed since then and six years, several mediators, a suicide bomb attempt and an election victory later, Ms. Kumaratunga now seemingly attempts to redress the wrongs of her father's unleashing, viz-a-viz the Tamils over and above the LTTE.
Her somewhat burning desire to placate the Tamils came through quite transparently during the talks with the UNP when the President kept on repeating she wants to 'give something to the Tamils' and in her mind that 'something' must be the kind of quasi-federalism that was envisaged in the hastily abrogated Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact.
The problem that Chandrika Kumaratunga now faces however is that this quasi-federation (or federation by another name) is not acceptable to both the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. It is too much too soon for the Sinhalese and too little, too late for the Tamils.
Indeed, the Tamil parties have now gone beyond the demand for federation, envisaged by Thanthai Chelva their revered leader of yesteryear quite apart from the LTTE which unambiguously demands a separate state. Now, even the Tamil political parties of the North and East want a merged Northeastern provincial administration without a binding referendum as their minimum demand, of course within a united Sri Lanka but then the Sinhalese believe that would be the ideal stepping stone to 'Eelam'.
In the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) for instance, the only man left from the Old Guard of the Chelvanayakam vintage is R. Sampanthan. His is a lone voice in the party which has been taken over by a more radical group under intense pressure from the LTTE which is breathing heavily down their collective necks if not holding a gun to their collective heads.
People like Sampanthan believe that they now have in Ms. Kumaratunga a leader who is not a 'racist'. He would admit that the Tamils have always missed the bus by asking for more and more each time and ending with too little but that phase is over now. One cannot at this moment in time consider the LTTE only as a military question.
Their AK 47s influence the politics of 'moderate' Tamil parties now more than at any time and that is why there is a muted response to Ms. Kumaratunga's constitutional reforms from Sampanthan et al. And what of the Sinhalese? Why is President Kumara-tunga rushing this constitutional reform bill in the face of mounting opposition from the Maha Sangha including an un-precedented snub this week by refusing to meet with her and of course the general public, the latter knowing next to nothing about the reforms.
Indeed, in the eyes of the more traditional Sinhala Buddhists, the credential of Ms. Kumaratunga are suspect. Historians such as the well known late Prof. J. T. Ratnam have researched that the origins of the Bandaranaike family may be in South India with a link to 'Neelaperumal'- just as much as J. R. Jayewardene was alleged to have similar origins from South India. Ms. Kumaratunga was married to Vijaya who was a Catholic and the President was never known to be a Buddhist who observes 'sil' for the 'hathara poya'. And, on more than one occasion, she has rubbed the Maha Sangha on the wrong side with her actions as President.
So, what awaits Ms. Kumaratunga in the coming week? The rebel daughter of the man who ushered in a social revolution for the Sinhalese has vowed to turn her back on those changes. There is no evidence whateoever that the President's wish to clear her desk and attend to this unfinished business has any link with having to pay pooja to the international community and the aid donors. Indeed, Ms. Kumaratunga has already reversed the economic changes wrought by her father by privatising again the institutions nationalised by the elder Bandaranaike- the ports, the oil companies, the airlines. Now, she wants to replace 'Sinhala only in twenty four hours' with a constitution that guarantees Federalism with sweeping powers to regional councils, rushed through Parliament within seventy two hours.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was thwarted by bhikkus lying prostrate at Rosmead Place. The 'Jaathika Sangha Sabhaawa' has threatened to repeat that at Parliament Road tomorrow when MPs are due to debate on the constitutional reform bill and vote on Tuesday or Wednesday. The ugly protests and posturing of UNP MPs when the President came before Parliament on Thursday gave an insight into the kind of incidents that might follow- though the UNP may also simply walk-out in protest.
Yet, Chandrika Kumara-tunga remains defiant. Her father caved into pressure from the Buddhist clergy over forty years ago. The daughter has pledged it would not happen again. Towards that end, she is prepared to try every method in the book- and some which are not- to get the required two-thirds majority for the bill.
The lady who saw first her father and then her husband being gunned down at their doorsteps is now about to take her biggest political gamble yet. Defeat for her would undermine her own status as executive president and also jeopardise her party's chances at the general election. But then Ms. Kumaratunga is never afraid to take chances. What the country can only hope is that in taking that chance, Ms. Kumaratunga, despite the loss of an eye, still has a clear vision of what she hopes to do for this nation.
The President proving her mastery in manipulation
By H. Chanda Dhamma
Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. If that is indeed the case, then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is proving to be a great artiste.
President Kumaratunga has been hitherto credited with many attributes. She has more than the right family credentials, has shown courage in adversity and above all that, a charming smile and a strong, charismatic personality that is the hallmark of her leadership.
But few have credited her with political cunning, that essential ingredient which separates the more successful politician from the mediocre one. In recent times, Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike and J. R. Jayewardene displayed it best. Now, after six years in office and on the eve of a general election, President Kumaratunga is displaying the sort of political cunning that would make both FDB and JRJ blush.
Consider the events of the last week. President Kumara-tunga went to Parliament to introduce a constitutional bill that was opposed by many opposition parties and Sinhalese groups. A day later it was announced that a further amendment would be brought about to change the election system into an amalgamation of the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system.
Hardly had the significance of this announcement sunk in, the state media announced that Superintendent Douglas Peiris, a key player in the Batalanda drama where Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is the virtual accused by association, had returned to the country and had been arrested at the airport.
The SP was named by the Commission investigating the alleged arrests and torture of youth at the Batalanda housing complex located in the Biyagama electorate which Ranil Wickremesinghe frequently used when he was a cabinet minister in the Premadasa government.
With the People's Alliance assuming power Mr. Peiris fled the country to Switzerland to evade the investigations into Batalanda launched by the new regime which was supplemented by some investigative journalism by the 'Raavaya' newspaper. A person named Abeyratne who was employed as a translator for the Swiss police was also arrested and questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department for allegedly aiding and abetting Peiris' exit to Switzerland.
Mr. Abeyratne who once maintained a permanent suite at the Hotel Intercontinental was paid scant respect by the CID during their interrogations and later successfully filed a fundamental rights case against the police.
It does not take a genius to deduce that the arrival of Douglas Peiris after a five-year lapse on the eve of an election and his immediate arrest is not a co-incidence. It obviously has political undertones. Even those with short memories will recall that it was only a few weeks prior to the presidential election in December 1999 that the Batalanda Commission report was released to the media. The present scenario then has a sense of déjà vu.
It is believed that the Sirisena Cooray-led breakaway faction of the UNP, the Purawesi Peramuna was instrumental in the return of the elusive policeman. Apparently a bidding game had gone on for the Superintendent of Police. Some leaders of the Peramuna had even visited India recently - where Peiris was domiciled - and a deal seems to have been struck.
The 'arrest' of Peiris will surely be a prelude to a major onslaught on Ranil Wickremesinghe linking him to the alleged atrocities committed at the so-called torture chamber in Batalanda. What remains to be deduced, however, is whether the Purawesi Peramuna is now working in tow with the People's Alliance in trying to undermine their 'common enemy'- Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Indeed, Ranil Wickreme-singhe appears to be paying for his 'principled politics' in keeping Sirisena Cooray and his cohorts out of the UNP, though there have been so many of his close advisors who had urged him over the past few years to take the Premadasa loyalist and former General Secretary back. For once, Ranil Wickremesinghe was firm in his answer: 'no'.
By next week we may well expect to see statements and confessions from Mr. Peiris being aired in the state media and who knows, in the gung-ho mood the government is in at present, even an arrest or two!
Of course, it could be argued that attacking your political opponent by trying to implicate him in some offence, criminal or otherwise, is not a stroke of genius in this part of the world. It happens ever so regularly in Pakistan with the Sharifs accusing the Bhuttos of corruption and the Musharrafs accusing the Sharifs of kidnapping. Even in relatively more developed Malaysia, Mahathir accuses Anwar Ibrahim of sexual misconduct!
But President Chandrika Kumaratunga must have learnt her lessons locally. After all, she was witness to JRJ stripping her mother of her civic rights over some alleged land transaction and then saw the same JRJ accuse her husband of being a "Naxalite" and then having him imprisoned. Now it appears that President Kumaratunga learnt the moral of the story well: 'all is fair in not only love and war but in politics as well.'
So, while the return of SP Douglas Peiris must be a worrying factor for Opposition Leader Ranil Wickreme-singhe, of more concern to the collective opposition will be the government's attempts to convert the electoral process into an 'achcharu' of the first-past-the-post, proportional representation and national list systems.
The 1978 Jayewardene constitution with its proportional representation system ensured adequate representation for the smaller parties, though it carried with it the disadvantages of the 'manaapa' (preference) votes. This system provided a forum for the likes of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to air their grievances, instead of taking to arms and going underground. Now, with the proposed changes, they are bound to be swept away - and that may well lead to another southern insurrection.
The UNP, to some extent is at fault because this is the result of their laid-back approach while in opposition. A confident opposition would have preferred the first-past-the post-system but now it is the PA which is confident about reverting to the Westminster method which may even give them more than an outside chance of getting a two-thirds majority in a future Parliament with 298 seats - which no party would have obtained under the PR system.
However, it will be the constitutional reforms package that will take centre-stage this week in the midst of rising opposition, if not outright anger from many sections of the majority Sinhalese. And foremost among them were the Mahanayakes who are furious. It is the first time in memory - if not recorded history - and certainly since independence that the Mahanayakes refused to see a head of state and this is tantamount to a major insult on the President.
When Sihala Urumaya leaders S. L. Gunasekera and Tilak Karunaratne met the Mahanayakes on Thursday, the Malwatte prelate said they understood the gravity of the issue at hand and warned that the war will soon come to Nuwara Eliya and then to Kandy. The reforms will only aggravate the present crisis ("prashna vedikarana vedak"), the Mahanayake had said.
This concern was over the decision to grant citizenship to another 300,000 estate Tamils of Indian origin apparently to win over the Ceylon Workers' Congress. Already, there are rumours that a CWC MP has been offered a deputy ministership and another lucrative incentive in return for supporting the reforms. And with the two major parties bound to fight it out in a future Central Regional Council, Arumugam Thondaman may well decide who controls the security of the Dalada Maligawa!
Of course it is not only the CWC that is being wooed - UNP backbenchers are a much sought after commodity these days and stories abound of financial and other rewards being on offer. Everyone likes to make hay while the sun shines and a leading businessman with cricketing and minority political connections is being used as an intermediary to raise money to finance the cross-overs, insiders say. As one party man observed wryly, "bookies must be knowing best this business of match-fixing!"
The stage then is set for an overdose of politics of an agitational nature next week. The Sinhalese majority is undoubtedly unhappy with the recent turn of events but whether this sense of disapproval will translate into a negative vote for the PA at the elections is yet another issue - and that must be an indictment on the UNP too.
And then, there are those who doubt whether the elections will be held at all. Some in the government are said to be toying with the idea that the government, if it wins a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the proposed constitutional reforms this week may well go for a referendum to extend the life of the present parliament as well as to endorse the reforms. And it is such a simple way to avoid all the hassle of campaigning for a fresh election - and it would seal the fate of the UNP for another half a dozen years too!
So, as we said at the outset, politics is the art of the possible and in the coming week just anything seems to be possible. Surely, somewhere in the celestial regions J. R. Jayewardene must be chuckling to himself, envious of what is going on in the land he once ruled and reigned!
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