The Political Column

24th December 2000

CBK's Paris formula for 2001

By our Political Correspondent

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President Chandrika Kumaratunga has apparently raised a hornet's nest when she reiterated her commitment to reintroduce the new constitution through an unorthodox formula.

Addressing a gathering of intellectuals at the Sciences Po Institute of the University of Paris, President Kumaratunga said: "We do not have a two thirds majority in parliament due to a bizarre electoral system, but we are trying other ways of bringing the new constitution even without the two thirds majority. We will bring it soon in the new year."

This mechanism may not strictly be in keeping with the present constitution, but it is not illegal. It requires a simple majority in parliament, people's approval at a referendum and then a presidential proclamation. But this process could be contrary to the constitutional provisions on repealing the constitution.

In this light can this process succeed in the face of legal and political challenges to it? Could the President resort to an unorthodox method which is likely to end up in a legal tangle? If the government goes ahead regardless of constitutional provisions, it would set a precedent in the constitutional history of Sri Lanka. Besides, the UNP will not allow such a bizarre process to take place when the law is clear. It may move the Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality of the process if the government adopted the Paris formula.

Some analysts feel that the President's speech cannot be taken too seriously as it was aimed at an intellectual audience not a policy statement.

When it comes to repealing the present constitution, one has to consider the implication of introducing such a constitution with a simple majority in parliament. Would this mean that future amendments to the constitution would also be effected with a simple majority or can a constitution which is passed by a simple majority could demand that a special majority is required to amend it if and when necessary.

Other analysts say the speech contains a veiled threat aimed at the UNP which withheld its support at the last minute when the constitution bill was presented in parliament in August. The attempt made by the government to bring in a new constitution was aborted by the UNP which said that no sufficient time was given to study certain provisions. But the government leaders thought they could get enough numbers from the UNP with the support of the UNP rebels such as Wijeyapala Mendis, Nanda Mathew, Sarath Amunugama and Susil Moonesinghe. But they could get only two more members to cross over Harendra Corea and Mervyn Silva. At the same time, the UNP got Dixon J. Perera, one time MP for Kesbawa.

If the President's speech could be interpreted as a veiled threat on opposition parties that the government does not require their support to introduce the new constitution, the opposition has two options they could either challenge it legally and politically or extend cooperation to the government in the interest of the nation.

Procrastination would only result in further blood-letting and chaos in the country. Even today, the LTTE is running a de facto government in some parts of the North and the East a fact the government is reluctant to admit. So it is important at this juncture to forget partisan politics for the time being in a bid to bring peace to this country.

The President may resort to another method which may be legal but will not be totally in line with the constitutional provisions. She could convene a constituent assembly to promulgate the new constitution a method adopted by the 1970 UF government to introduce the first republican constitution.

Besides this, the Development Forum meeting presided over by President Kumaratunga in Paris also made news with the government claiming that the donor countries or the so-called development partners were satisfied with Sri Lanka's economic progress and its efforts to solve the ethnic crisis.

But other reports said that the Forum while pledging support had also expressed concern over the complexities in the country. World Bank Vice-President Mieko Nishimizu called on the government to act with the utmost sense of urgency now.

A mystery surrounding the Development Forum meeting is that it is yet to be made known how much aid the country received. A rough estimate suggests that Sri Lanka needs at least US dollars 900 million to revive its sluggish economy.

UNP MP Karunasena Kodituwakku in a speech made in parliament on Wednesday called on the government to make a clear announcement about the amount pledged. He claimed that his party had information that the Aid Group had not promised any help to Sri Lanka as it was not happy with the government's performance during the past six years.

But Minister G. L. Peiris, who is also the deputy minister for finance, was optimistic when he said that it was agreed earlier that the amount would not be announced.

Addressing a hi-tech news conference from Paris, he told journalists in Colombo that he was unable to indicate the allocation pledged by the forum, because of certain understanding reached with the World Bank.

Apart from the aid commitment, the government also came under pressure from European donor countries to improve its human rights record. This was evident in a European Union statement that coincided with the Development Forum meeting.

The statement said: "The European Union said it is conscious of Sri Lanka's predicament. Apart from the consequences of the ethnic conflict which has been raging since 1983, shortcomings in government are also hampering the country's development.

"The European Union sent an observer mission to Sri Lanka to demonstrate its support for the democratic process at the last General Elections on 10 October 2000. The European Union regrets and condemns the anomalies observed during the campaign and the violence that took place during the voting, which threaten to weaken democracy. It requests that the perpetrators of that violence and those irregularities be found and brought to justice. The European Union is satisfied, however, that the election results are a relatively reasonable reflection of the wishes of Sri Lanka citizens.

"The European Union would remind the Sri Lankan government of its hope that the 16 post-election recommendations made by the observer mission will be implemented to guarantee greater transparency in future elections. It is prepared to help in that undertaking.

"The European Union likewise confirms its readiness to provide constructive support to the Sri Lankan government in its endeavours to restore peace in the country. It supports the dialogue and 'facilitator' mission assumed by Norway since February 2000. It has also stressed the importance of the first meeting with Erik Solheim and the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, on November 1.

"The European Union recognises the efforts of President Kumaratunga in her efforts to remedy the repeated violations of human rights perpetrated by members of the army, the police and paramilitary organisations in government controlled territory. It welcomes the recent creation of the high level inter-ministerial standing committee assisted by an inter-ministerial working group but it draws the Sri Lankan government's attention to the urgent need to provide the Human Rights Commission with the requisite human and material resources for it to do its job.

"The European Union was shocked by the murder of young Tamil detainees in the rehabilitation camp of Bindunuwewa on 25 October 2000 while they were under the Sri Lankan authorities' protection. The Union asks the Sri Lankan government to do its utmost to see that the murderers are arrested and brought to justice. In general, the European Union calls upon the Sri Lankan government to identify and bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations in the country. It is also worried about the plan to bring back the death penalty.

"As for the national security decree, the European Union remains worried by the excesses which greater police powers and the censorship of the media might provoke."

If the PA government is responsible enough, it should take serious note of the European Union statement which has severely criticised the government for the manner in which the elections were held and for its human rights record.

In another major development, the LTTE on Thursday announced that it was declaring a unilateral one-month truce starting December 24. Whether this is a ploy or path to peace is the question many Sri Lankans ask. But one must not forget that the ongoing war had dragged the country into an economic quagmire with six percent of the GDP being spent on war, as President Kumaratunga told the Development Forum meeting.

The government which is canvassing the support of the Western world to isolate the LTTE as a terrorist organisation would now be compelled to respect the ceasefire as a prerequisite to the proposed talks, since President Kumaratunga has openly declared that her government is sagging under the ever escalating war expenditure. If the government tends to ignore the LTTE ceasefire, the international community will express concern over the missed opportunity.

In the circumstances, there is no other alternative but to go for a negotiated settlement. The government should obtain the cooperation of the UNP which is advocating unconditional talks with the LTTE. It is wise at this stage if the government could also rope in the UNP in these talks which are likely to begin somewhere next year. The delegation should comprise politicians with a sound knowledge of the ethnic composition of Sri Lanka and the demographic and geographic aspects of the problem. It should also include legal luminaries with the talent to present the government case lucidly.

A joint government-opposition delegation could produce better results than a delegation that comprises only government nominees. Such a delegation will have greater acceptance with the LTTE. This is one way of surmounting the hurdles the government is facing in parliament in introducing the new constitution. This exercise should come only after talks with the LTTE.

Minister G. L. Peiris earlier pointed out that the government was not in a hurry to push the constitution through parliament as there were other priorities.

On the UNP front, the issue of duty-free vehicle permits is bugging new parliamentarians. On Monday when the UNP group met, leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said re-elected MPs should refrain from taking luxury vehicles offered by the government. Citing the present economic crisis in the country, Mr. Wickremesinghe said it would heap further burdens on the people if the MPs accept the duty-free permits. He criticised those MPs who had met Parliamentary Affairs Minister S.B. Dissanayake to get their permits. Claiming that he had the name list of these MPs, he warned that disciplinary action would be taken against them.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also said that a reasonable scheme for the MPs to obtain vehicles for official purposes will be formulated and presented to the government. Accordingly, the re-elected MPs decided to refrain from obtaining new duty free vehicle permits while new MPs will go for them.

But UNP sources said some MPs were not too happy over Mr. Wickremesinghe's suggestion which has been hailed by many observers as a step in the right direction, given the country's situation.

Analysts point out that the UNP could very well score on economic issues rather than the war and it could easily oust the government at the next general elections if it cooperates with the government to end the war.

It may sometimes be possible for Mr. Wickremesinghe with his new set of officials, including his close friend and new chairman Charitha Ratwatte and general secretary Senarath Kapukotuwa.

In another development, a controversy looms in the Western Provincial Council over the election of chairman. The UNP nominee Dixon J. Perera won the second round of voting with a majority of three votes after the first round ended up in a tie.

But secretary A.H. Gamage refused to declare him as the duly-elected chairman on the basis he has not received more than 50 percent of the total vote a position supported by Chief Minister Reginald Cooray of the PA.

The UNP referred the matter to Governor P. Ramanathan who reportedly ruled that the election of Mr. Perera as chairman was in accordance with the law. With the matter still remaining unresolved, the UNP is planning to go to courts.

According to UNP sources, UNP's Assistant Leader Gamini Atukorale spoke to Prime Minister Ratnaisiri Wickremanayake and asked him to support the candidacy of Dixon J. Perera. He also spoke to Chief Minister Cooray who said that he had to get back after consulting the party. Later on Monday, Mr. Wickremanayake contacted Mr. Atukorale and told him the PA would support any other candidate but not Mr. Perera.

By this time the names of three UNP councillors were being mentioned in the UNP circles. They were Gamini Gunaratne, Lawrence Madiwela and Nalin Dissanayake. But when Mr. Atukorale insisted that their candidate would be Mr. Perera, the Prime Minister also took up the position that they could not agree with the UNP candidate.

When the first vote was taken, it was 42 and when the house went for a second vote, Dixon Perera polled 43 while PA's John Fernando polled 40. Mr. Atukorale also asked the JVP to support the UNP candidate but the left party decided to abstain at the voting.

Kapukotuwa's plans for UNP

Senarath Kapukotuwa, General Secretary-designate of the UNP, says he will introduce several fundamental changes to the party structure to make it more effective.

He says he feels discipline and decorum are imperative in building up the party to meet the challenges of the future and the party should be run like a private firm if it intends to reap better results.

Being an experienced marketing man who held a top post as a group director of the Maharaja Organisation, he believes that it would not be a difficult goal to achieve if the party is well organized at grassroots level.

The new general secretary is of the view that the party functions should be brought under one central office and he hopes to convert the party headquarters Siri Kotha as the central office of the party.

"A small outfit here and there would not be able to achieve the desired target," he says while admititng that his main task is to market party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe throughout the country.

Though used to a sophisticated lifestyle as a top executive of a conglomerate, Mr. Kapukotuwa says he has not lost his common touch.

He says he always keeps in touch with his childhood friends in Udispattuwa where he schooled during his tender years.

"A non-politician and an administrator would be the ideal person to run the party machinery," Mr. Kapukotuwa reiterates because he believes that the general secretary wields a lot of power in the Sri Lankan political set-up.

He says that with the appointment of a non-politician as general secretary, the party has corrected a major flaw.

The coveted post imposes a lot of responsibility on Mr. Kapukotuwa.

It is certainly a greater trust that had been placed in him. But the most pertinent question that is yet to be answered is as to whether he could market his commodity effectively in the years to come as the UNP as a political party had lost almost all the elections since 1994.

Mr. Kapukotuwa will certainly have to be innovative if he intends to bring the party back to power.

Meanwhile, the Maharaja Organisation has issued a media release on the appointment of Mr. Kapukotuwa.

"With the appointment of Mr. Kapukotuwa as General Secretary of the UNP, he will be leaving us at the end of this month. He has been an outstanding example of a young man who was willing to give of his best in terms of hard work, loyalty and dedication to rise to the position of Group Director having joined the Group as a Lapidarist. We will find it extremely difficult to replace the vacuum left by him, and it is actually a sad day to see him leave us.

"We also take the opportunity to announce the appointment of Kapila Wijegunawardena to the Main Board of The Maharaja Organisation Limited as a Group Director with effect from 14th December 2000. He joined our Group as a tea Executive in August 1985 and in July 1996 he was promoted as Manager Tea Department and finally as Director Tea Department in November 1997. In April 1997 Mr. Wijegunawardena won the most coveted 'Executive of the Year' Award at the Group's Annual Convention."

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