The Political Column

5th November 2000

Talks at many levels stir hopes

By our Political Correspondent

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An all-party conference to discuss the cur rent political developments and the pro posed constitutional reforms to devolve power to the regions is very much on the cards.

Parallel to this move, the Kumaratunga administration is also toying with the idea of setting up a constituent assembly to introduce the new constitution. The government is resorting to a revolutionary system of constitution-making since it is unable to muster a two thirds majority in parliament. But if the UNP extends its cooperation to the government, the government need not set up a constituent assembly a process dismissed by the UNP in the past as illegitimate.

The UNP advocates a constitution by legitimate means, meaning that it should be introduced through a two-thirds majority in parliament and approved by the people at a referendum.

During the general election campaign, the PA's position on the proposed constitution was confusing. While the President said she would re-introduce the constitutional package if the PA was re-elected to office even by a majority of one vote, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake said there were no constitutional reforms as far as he was concerned and if there were any, the Maha Sangha would be consulted before they were presented in parliament.

The prime minister was right in a technical sense. Once parliament is dissolved, all bills and resolutions on the order book become a nullity. But, of course, these could be re-activated once the new parliament meets.

The all-party conference that the government expects to summon is reminiscent of the round-table conference convened to resolve the ethnic crisis during the early days of the J.R. Jayewardene regime.

The SLFP did not attend the roundtable conference. The irony now is that after nearly 20 years, the same party which is the main component of the PA is now trying to convene a similar conference.

Sources said the aim of the all-party conference was to discuss measures to maintain peace in the plantation areas. The recent incidents which broke out in the aftermath of the Bindunuweva rehabilitation camp attack are not totally unexpected. There had been reports that hills were becoming politically volatile. A similar situation prevailed in the north and the east in the early 1970s and exploded into an ethnic conflict in the 1980s.

It is in this context, one feels that urgent measures should be taken to keep plantations out of terrorists' reach. We should realise that the hills are the heartland of our economy and it is important that it remain calm and quiet and ethnic harmony is fostered there to achieve this target.

The PA's plantations ally, the Ceylon Workers' Congress, has also had a hand in the recent disturbances in the hills which followed the Bindunuweva massacre, it is alleged.

It was reported that a CWC strongman had wanted the police to help him get all the credit for the recent demonstrations organised to protest against the massacre. His aim was to exploit the situation and to prop up his dwindling popularity.

If Bindunuwewa massacre and the disturbances in Nuwara Eliya cast a pall of gloom over ethnic harmony, then the two-hour meeting between LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim in Malawi in the Wanni jungles offered a glimmer of hope.

In what has been regarded as a first concrete step in many years towards a new round of negotiations between the government and the LTTE, Mr. Prabhakaran virtually reiterated conditions such as the de-escalation of the war and restoration of normalcy in the Tamil areas as an essential prerequisite to resume a political dialogue with the government.

The Norwegian delegation, consisting of Ambassador Jon Westborg and Oslo Foreign Office advisor Kajerote Tromsdal visited Wanni with the knowledge of President Kumaratunga and on the invitation of the LTTE. The meeting took place in the evening at an unknown place.

The LTTE's political wing leader Thamil Chelvam and senior LTTE cadre Sanker were also present at the meeting.

At the meeting Mr. Prabhakaran had reportedly blamed the Kumaratunga administration for having unleashed a traumatic war, which had caused untold suffering to the Tamil people. He said the government was not sincere in seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict, but on the contrary it was relentlessly prosecuting a war of aggression against the Tamils.

The LTTE leader told the Norwegian delegation that before any peace talks were started the government should agree to 1) a cessation of armed hostilities, (2) removal of military occupation and aggression, (3) the withdrawal of the economic embargo and (4) the creation of the conditions of normalcy in the Tamil areas. He also insisted that the government should take the initiative to relax the conditions of war if it wanted genuine peace. Mr. Prabhakaran also talked of a Tamil homeland which, the LTTE claimed, had been discussed at the Thimpu talks held during the Jayewardene era. Will the government, which has accommodated Sinhala nationalists such as Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Dinesh Gunawardene agree to the LTTE conditions? The government will also put forward a set of conditions to the LTTE .

The government might make use of the all-party conference to discuss this matter and the consensus emerging from this would be placed before the LTTE. Though the Norwegians thawed the ice for dialogue it is still early to predict there could be direct talks between the government and the LTTE.

Talks between the LTTE and the government should be encouraged by all because peace is an essential commodity in this strife-torn land.

It should not be forgotten that the UNP advocated direct talks between the government and the LTTE. But the government tried to exploit this position during the campaign by saying that the UNP had a link with the LTTE.

In the meantime, the PA is also seriously studying the UNP's proposal for a common programme, following calls from religious leaders, the business community and the public.

It is learnt that the President, in a bid to restore law and order and strengthen democracy, has responded positively to the UNP programme which extends conditional support to the government for two years.

Though the PA was elected to office in 1994 on a platform of good governance and greater democracy, it took no meaningful steps to stop the rot. Now the UNP, which is blamed by the PA for all socio-economic and political ills of the country, has now come up with a panacea the setting up of independent commissions of elections, the Police, the Public Service and Judicial Service, steps to ensure a free media culture and an anti-corruption declaration by all MPs. Will the PA accept the UNP proposals and clean up the mess?

The UNP when in office did not implement any of these proposals, because it thought it would never sit in the opposition under the PR system.

The UNP realised that it was wrong only after it faced consecutive defeats culminating in the 1999 Presidential election and the 2000 general elections.

Both major parties have now come to an understanding that a common programme is necessary to check the deteriorating law and order situation and to take steps for the making of a new society reflecting values and civic consciousness.

In response to the UNP's call, the President has reportedly said she wanted to know what sort of cooperation the UNP would extend to the government to maintain parliamentary stability.

In answering her query, UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya told a news conference that the government should come out with a formula on how it would implement the UNP's proposals before the UNP set conditions for extending support.

The UNP, in the meantime, is studying areas where it could extend its support to the government in parliament. The UNP is also following the government's attitude towards it, especially criticisms. In this regard, the UNP is awaiting the President's policy statement at the ceremonial opening of parliament on November 9. Significantly, the President's address to the nation in the aftermath of the hill country disturbances, had no attacks on the UNP.

The President's decision to agree on the UNP's common programme has now been conveyed to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe by Prime Minister Wickremanayake through UNP interlocutor Tyronne Fernando.

The continuing dialogue between the UNP and PA will also encompass a solution to the ethnic crisis on the basis of the 13th Amendment which is being suggested as a possible alternative to the proposed constitutional reforms.

The Prime Minister feels that the Tamil problem could be solved with improvements being introduced to the 13th Amendment without going back to the aborted October constitution which was opposed by Buddhist monks, Sinhala groups and Tamil parties.

The proposal to improve the 13th Amendment has been made by Minister and EPDP leader Douglas Devananda and the government is now giving serious thought to this. But it is unlikely Minister G. L. Peiris, the architect of the draft constitution, would agree to this as he believes the draft constitution was much broader and acceptable to all communities.

Prof. Peiris is now holding the powerful and important portfolio of Industrial Development. He handles the key areas such as Board of Investment, Export Development Board, Textile Quota Board, Sri Lanka Credit Insurance Corporation and other important areas.

At the same time, Rauf Hakeem, Minister of International Trade, Internal Trade and Commerce and Shipping Development and Muslim Affairs, has lost his importance since President Kumaratunga had removed three key institutions from him and attached them to two other ministers

Accordingly Minister Hakeem had lost the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE), Lanka Salu Sala Ltd. and the Export Development Board which were under the Trade Minister earlier.

While the Export Development Board has been attached to the Ministry of Industrial Development Board, the Lanka Salu Sala and The CWE would come under the purview of the Food Minister.

Mr. Hakeem who is the general secretary of the National Unity Alliance and co-leader of the SLMC is also facing challenges within the party.

At a recent NUA politburo meeting, he came under heavy fire from several members for his attitude towards them. At the beginning of the meeting, Minister Hakeem briefed the members on the developments of his continuing dialogue with the President and the PA. He admitted that the memorandum of understanding which was drafted by the NUA was yet to be signed by the President. He also indicated that though the PA had agreed to grant five deputy ministerial slots to the NUA, it had now come down to three.

Minister Hakeem said that when he told the President that the memorandum of understanding should be signed by both parties, he was directed to Prime Minister Wickremanayake.

"The Prime Minister has taken a tough attitude. He was very communal," Mr. Hakeem told the Politburo.

He quoted the Prime Minister as saying that the government would not give in to the LTTE and it would crush the Tigers. Mr. Hakeem said the Prime Minister had taken a similar tough stand on minority communities as well.

Thereafter Mr. Hakeem added that he went to the President once again and told her that the Prime Minister was taking a hard and communal line. The President nodded but did not sign the MOU saying "We'll see later."

Mr. Hakeem told the politburo that he would distribute the three deputy minister posts on the basis of seniority. Some members then realized that Mr. Hakeem had lined up three of his close supporters for the posts.

"It must be distributed on an area basis, one member said.

M. Mashood who was elected from Wanni said it should go to the province adding that the late leader M.H.M. Ashraff had promised him a deputy ministership and that he contested under that condition.

An angry Mr. Mashood was seen later shouting outside the NUA headquarters.

There were also problems over the distribution of funds obtained under the decentralised budget. When the squabbling did not stop, M. Sadique called for order pointing out that their former leader had set up the party not to seek political positions for individuals but to meet the aspirations of the suffering Muslim community. He charged that the present leadership had deviated from this and sold out the rights of the Muslims to the PA for ministerial posts.

"This is why the majority of Sinhalese are looking at us as cheap bargainers and a self-serving party. Mr. Ashraff maintained an excellent relationship with the Sinhalese and got the best for Muslims. His motto was peace," he said.

Mr. Hakeem in response said the party would quit the government if it failed to carve out a new coastal administrative district in the East encompassing Kalmunai, Pottuvil and Samanthurai.

He also said the delay in appointing the deputy ministers was not due to a dispute between the PA and the NUA but because of other serious problems the government was facing.

Former Deputy Minister M. L. A. M. Hisbullah at this stage produced a letter of appointment from Minister Mangala Samaraweera appointing him as the chairman of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board. At the same time, it is reported that I.M.I.M. Rafeek who held the vice-chairmanship of the Ports Authority is likely to be appointed as the head of the REPIA which comes under the purview of Minister Ferial Ashraff. Former SLMC national list parliamentarian Asitha Perera, has been appointed as head the National Housing and Development Authority.

The disputes in the NUA indicate that the party is heading for a sharp division, one camp headed by Minister Hakeem while the other by Ms. Ashraff.

Insiders say the PA was able to take the NUA for a ride because of this. Thus it won't be any surprise if the PA leans more towards Ms. Ashraff in a bid to weaken Mr. Hakeem as indicated by the participation of Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi in the opening of Ms. Ashraff's ministry. Ms. Ashraff has now appointed her sister as the coordinating secretary and lawyer Yassim as her private secretary.

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