The Political Column

9th September 2001

UNP counts heads again

By our Political Correspondent
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The political uncertainty that had gripped the country came to an end last week with the PA entering into a memorandum of understanding with the Marxist-Nationalist JVP. Whether this will be a permanent panacea for the ills of the country or a temporary relief is obviously yet to be seen.

The PA-JVP accord dealt a severe blow to the UNP's plans, especially to its no-confidence motion against the government. The motion was tabled in Parliament soon after seven members of the Muslim Congress crossed over to the opposition, heightening the UNP's resolve to defeat the PA in Parliament and stake a claim for government.

Prorogation offered a respite to the government but an undeterred opposition banding themselves as a combined opposition pressed ahead with its campaigns, demanding that Parliament be reopened, and the referendum the President announced the day she prorogued parliament, be cancelled.

Throughout the opposition campaign, the UNP and the JVP played Jekyll and Hyde roles, holding talks with the PA while carrying out anti-PA protests and plans. The PA made use of differences between the UNP and the JVP and held several rounds of discussions, first with the UNP and then with the JVP, for the setting up of a government of consensus.

PA-UNP talks broke down due to shifting of positions by both sides. But PA's talks with the JVP were different. There was no demand for the premiership. It ended up in an MoU that heralded the beginning of a new probationary government of one year during which period the government is obliged to govern according to JVP dictates and its watchful eye.

The PA, however, sees it differently and says that these proposals are nothing new: That they were in fact the very proposals the PA put forward in its 1994 elections manifesto. (But somehow failed to implement).

The MoU signed on Wednesday requires the government, among other things, to write off farmer loans, slash the cabinet to 20 ministers, set up four independent commissions and suspend all privatisation deals and monetary agreements with international financial institutions.

Moreover, as per the understanding reached, the President re-summoned Parliament one day before the scheduled day, September 7, and cancelled the referendum.

Going by JVP statements made after the signing of the MoU, there appears to be a genuine attempt by the leftist party to salvage the country from the quagmire it has fallen into. But whether the JVP's formula is correct is debatable.

Take for instance, its decision to support the government while remaining outside it. This is well and done in terms of principles. But it is not going to help the party to monitor government's deals, tender procedures and defence contracts. The party could have been in a better position to keep if at least one of its MPs had got into the cabinet. But then it has its own agenda.

By signing a deal with the PA, the JVP has tried to cover up its past sins, as well. It is no secret that during the 1987-89 insurrection period it was responsible for the alleged killing of more than 6,000 people, including UNP chairman Harsha Abeywardena, General Secretary Nandalal Fernando, vice chancellor Stanley Wijesundera, UNP MPs Merryl Kariyawasam, G.V.S. de Silva, innocent grama sevakas and even students and ordinary civilians who challenged JVP policy. A principal of a junior school in Embilipitiya was killed in the presence of his two little children. President Kumaratunga called them "JVP fascists" for killing her husband. There are many such terror tales. People who experienced it and witnessed it still talk about them.

It is good if the party comes out openly and says 'sorry' for its past deeds which have made many people destitute, just because they professed a political ideology opposed to the JVP. The JVP terror campaign, forced the then government to meet fire with fire. Of course, the situation went out of control with goon squads, operating with government blessings, eliminating anything and anybody that had a hint of JVP connection. Personal grudges were settled this way.

The hatred and bitterness against the UNP cannot be erased that easily, JVPers say. So in a way the deal with the PA could be interpreted as an act of vengeance, for the JVP outfoxed the UNP and blocked UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's move to form the government after defeating the government through the no-confidence motion.

One of the conditions put forward by the JVP is that there should not be any peace talks with the LTTE during the probationary one year period unless the rebels drop their demand for a separate state. But PA ministers were quick to point out that the agreement did not prevent them from launching any peace initiative. These conflicting positions have created uncertainty on the peace front. Some analysts see this as an open invitation to the LTTE to intensify its military campaign in the south, justifying its actions on the grounds that the government was not interested in peace. This may put the government in an awkward position in the eyes of the international community.

Meanwhile, a few PA top-rung ministers who are being branded as dissidents by President Chandrika Kumaratunga see the deal with the JVP as a mockery. They are of the view that ten JVP MPs are preventing the government from implementing its programmes, including the peace process. This may not augur well for the government in the long run, they say.

The JVP's views on the ethnic conflict are in contrast to those of the PA and the UNP. The self-exiled JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe says there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, but he admits there are inequalities in society. Once true democracy and equality are established, inequalities in our society will disappear," he said in a recent interview and strains to point out that Marxism has long abandoned the right to self-determination as propounded by the LTTE.

Talking about a future JVP government, he states: "Once the JVP comes to power, we will give priority to establish democracy and equality in Sri Lanka for the first time. In Sri Lanka if the Sinhala, Tamils and Muslims and other people have equal rights and true democracy, will there be any justification to fight a war for a separate state? A JVP government will not tolerate racism, communalism, separatism or any other form of divisive reactionary ideology that creates division and animosity among the people. We will not allow any Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim citizen to isolate each other. Once true democracy and equality are established in Sri Lanka, I do not think the LTTE or any other communal organisation will exist. There will not be a cause left for the LTTE or any other organisation to continue their violent campaign."

But the question that remained unanswered is whether the LTTE and the majority of the Tamil minority who are demanding self-determination in the North and the East would come to terms with the JVP ideology.

On Tuesday when the Speaker met party leaders, House Leader Richard Pathirana challenged the UNP to take up the no-confidence motion on the 7th. He said the JVP had extended conditional support to the PA government and hence the PA is in a majority in parliament.

Therefore, it should be the government's agenda that should come into operation when Parliament is reconvened.

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe did not want to take up the no-confidence motion on September 7 though he had earlier insisted on numerous occasions that it should be taken up on the 7th and the opposition's agenda should be given priority since the joint opposition was in majority.

UNP leaders said they wanted to see the 17th amendment to the Constitution the setting up of independent commissions coming into operation first. Hence, they decided to put off the no-confidence motion.

But Mr. Pathirana said that in any case, he was moving to suspend the standing orders on the 7th to enable the opposition to take up the motion of no-confidence.

The ACTC representative Vinayagamoorthy at this stage said that if the government was so keen they could have a vote of confidence instead of the UNP's vote of no-confidence to check their popularity. Mr. Pathirana did not accept the challenge.

UNP insiders say the setback for the party was temporary and strategic. The UNP is waiting till the 20-member new cabinet is appointed with the hope that the move will create more dissension in the PA. Of the 24 ministers who will lose their portfolios, at least some will back the UNP, party insiders believe.

Some UNPers think that the UNP should have taken up the no-confidence motion immediately if they had sufficient numbers. But others say it was delayed on the instructions of the PA's main dissident, Minister S. B. Dissanayake, who some UNPers believe is marking time to walk out of the government with several others.

Some PA ministers who are close both to the President and Mr. Dissanayake tried to settle the dispute amicably. A meeting between the President and the two dissident ministers Mr. Dissanayake and Prof. G. L. Peiris was arranged but it only took place on Thursday night after three postponements. After much persuasion, the two dissident ministers went to the President's House on Thursday evening, but not before they apprised the UNP of the meeting. The President asked Prof. Peiris to wait outside and called in Mr. Dissanayake.

The Samurdhi Minister told the President that he was having talks with UNP leaders such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Gamini Atukorale on the current political developments. He is reported to have mentioned the role played by former cricket board president Thilanga Sumathipala in his talks with the UNP. Mr. Dissanayake is also reported to have said that he met two anti-government journalists who have encouraged him by saying that he stood for what is right.

While the CBK-SB talks were in progress, in came Premier Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. His arrival made Mr. Dissanayake to rush out and bring in Prof. Peiris. With the presence of the professor, the atmosphere became more hostile. The two-to-two discussions proceeded for 30 minutes and ended inconclusively.

The two ministers, political sources said, did not discuss about any portfolios for them in the new cabinet.

An official statement from Minister Dissanayake says no demands were made, nor discussions on the new probationary government held.

Later the two ministers, accompanied by another dissident minister Mahinda Wijesekera, met Mr. Wickremesinghe and discussed the evening's meeting with the President.

UNPers say Mr. Dissanayake has given a list of ten members who he believes are 'sure' to walk out of the government when the need arises. The list reportedly includes the names of Mahinda Wijesekera, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, G. L. Peiris, Dalas Alahapperuma, Ananda Moonesinghe, Janaka Tennekoon and a few others.

The list, if there be one, on the other has created some ripples in the UNP.

The Aluvihares from Matale are reportedly protesting against any accommodation of Janaka Tennekoon. They have reportedly threatened that they would have to rethink their alliance with the UNP if this happens.

The standoff between the President and the 'SB' group has made the PA insecure notwithstanding the support the government gets from the JVP. Minister Mahinda Rajapakse laboured hard to bring about a settlement to the dispute which was aggravated by President's attack on Ministers Dissanayake and Peiris at a meeting held at the Presidential Secretariat. President Kumaratunga came out harshly on Prof. Peiris, saying he crawled from the campus to beg for a national list seat in parliament.

A close associate of Prof. Peiris told this column that this adverse remark had prompted public criticism and an outcry against the President. Professionals, lawyers, judges and various others had called on Minister Peiris in a mark of solidarity, he said.

A series of meetings were held at Minister Peiris' private residence at Kirula Road after he decided to vacate the official bungalow "Visumpaya" at Staple Road. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle had already vacated his official residence in Colombo while Minister Mahinda Wijesekera is reportedly preparing to relinquish his duties as Minister.

The main problem faced by the Dissanayake- Peiris group is whether they should contest under the Elephant symbol and the UNP or as an independent group. There is one proposal that the Elephant symbol be changed and a new alliance be formed to oppose the Kumaratunga government.

The UNP wants the PA dissident group to contest under the Elephant symbol and is seriously considering a proposal to set up an alliance, converting the "Eksath Jathika Pakshaya" name into "Eksath Janatha Peramuna" only for the elections.

If this is agreeable to all, a shaded elephant will be the symbol of the new EJP for elections but the UNP will retain the elephant symbol after the elections.

But there is opposition to this from the UNP seniors, especially those who oppose the politics of Assistant leader Gamini Atukorale and his group.

They believe that Mr. Wickremesinghe has missed a golden opportunity to show his capabilities to the country.

The most important thing was to get in and make his way up and implement his programme which could have saved the country and brought credit to the UNP.

On Wednesday when the deal between the PA and JVP was struck one UNP MP told this column that they were all confused, but the UNP would explore new avenues to talk to the government.

They may approach Sihala Urumaya leader Tilak Karunaratne to initiate the process.

The Tyronne Fernando-Mahinda Samarasinghe-Rohitha Bogollagama team which was involved in talks with the government is once again active in finding a way out of the present impasse.

The abortive talks between the PA and the UNP were initiated by the government after US Ambassador Ashley Wills met Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at the instance of the UNP, but an official statement from the minister said these talks were planned before the ambassador's visit.

First it was UNP's national list Parliaments Milinda Moragoda who had one to one talks with Ambassador Wills and Indian High Commissioner Gopal Krishna Gandhi.

The American Ambassador with the concurrence of the State Department in Washington embarked upon the mission to woo the government to talk to the UNP, after he had met Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Mr. Wickremesinghe denied having made any request to the US ambassador to talk to the government, saying he had spoken to several foreign envoys indicating the UNP was willing to talk to the PA.

The embassy officials obviously burnt their fingers in trying to be do-gooders and an agency report published in the Washington Post said that the US embassy had intervened in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

Ambassador Wills is left thoroughly embarrassed and the Americans appear to be unhappy over the matter but had absorbed the shock because they knew the nature of Sri Lankan politicians.

The general feeling among the UNPers now is that they had missed the bus and one school of thought is that the UNP could have struck a JVP-style deal with the PA with a date fixed for elections and not demanding any portfolios.

Minister Mangala Samaraweera remarked sardonically that they gave a piece of cake to the UNP hand, but they did not know how to eat it. UNPers retorted the best way they could, grumbling that you could hardly call the crumbling administration a piece of cake.

But all that is now history and the UNPers are counting the days till September 12 when the President appoints a new cabinet of 20 to see whether they could exploit the situation.

In other words the UNP is waiting till the dropouts fall on their lap to go ahead with the no-confidence motion, simply because they are not too sure of the members who may cross the floor with Minister Dissanayake.

Minister Dissanayake had reportedly given a firm assurance to the UNP that at least 10 members are waiting in the wings to cross the floor of the House or so, the UNPers say. Minister Peiris had, it is believed, given a different head count to UNP's K. N. Choksy and Milinda Moragoda.

According to Minister Peiris, there are only six MPs who are sure to back them but UNPers expressed optimism saying the number was rapidly increasing.

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