Political Column
By a Special Correspondent

President in Polonnaruwa pickle
There were mixed reactions to President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Polonnaruwa speech that has become the centerpiece of a major political controversy.

The President's remarks, which were telecast over the state TV, were unbecoming of a head of state that even her admirers had to ask themselves, "What has happened to this lady?"

But her ardent supporters defended the speech, saying it was an effective way to convey her message to the people. Her target group was the masses, not the elite.

They asked why there was little criticism when Minister Rajitha Senaratne made similar speeches. President Kumaratunga was certainly streets ahead of him, they said.

Rupavahini's decision to telecast the speech could have been aimed at creating a negative image of the President. But if so, such a move could also have people casting doubts about the government's claims about 'clean politics'.

Some people, especially housewives who are still smarting over the economic hardships they faced during the last days of the PA regime, condemned the President's speech as one of the worst speeches she had made.

Her mimicry and dramatic language have put them out. Indeed, the President herself said that she could win the best actress' award for the year because she so aptly portrayed her vengeance towards the UNF. It was deliberate and obvious. Anyway, the 90-minute marathon speech was good entertainment for most of the people on a day when TV channels were full of religious programmes.

The President targeted her enemies, saying nobody can take her to courts because she was speaking under the cover of privilege as the President.

Her attack on Minister Ravi Karunanayake was ferocious. She did not even leave out the minister's ancestors or even others, for that matter. She flayed the minister for accusing her of bringing a bomb to the cabinet meeting to assassinate Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Both the Prime Minister and Mr. Karunanayake have denied that such a remark was made at the cabinet meeting while UNF members say the PA leadership keeps on bringing the bomb issue up, probably in the belief that a lie repeated several times will eventually become a truth.

The feud between Minister Karunanayake and the President was a long-standing one. It runs back to the time of Srimani Athulathmudali when she was a minister in the Kumaratunga cabinet.

The President said, she warned Ms. Athulathmudali not to accommodate him saying that she had reservations about his past record. But Ms. Athulathmudali acted contrary to her advice, thus incurring the wrath of the President.

Others who came under severe Presidential stricture were Ministers G. L. Peiris, S. B. Dissanayake, Rajitha Senaratne, K. N. Choksy and Tilak Marapana.

Many people felt the attack on Mr. Choksy was unwarranted because he was not a minister who would stoop to the level of talking ill about others.

The attack on Prof. Peiris was also directed deliberately to provoke the UNF. It was barely 48 hours before this vituperative outburst that the President met the Prime Minister to stress the need for cohabitation and consensus politics.

Twenty-four hours after the meeting, the President wrote to the Prime Minister asking for his views on her decision to remove him from the cabinet. At the PA group meeting, meanwhile, the President told her party MPs that she would take a decision soon.

On Wednesday, the President's words were brought into action by PA parliamentarians who attempted to lift the mace in parliament, leading to fisticuffs. This is not the first time such a violent and shameful incident has happened in parliament. In December 1990, too, a similar incident happened when parliamentarian Vasudeva Nanayakkara attempted to remove the mace.

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse observed that such violent incidents took place only when the UNP was in power. But House Leader W. J. M. Lokubandara accused the Opposition of provoking government MPs.

However, it boils down to one core issue: indiscipline on the part of both government and opposition parliamentarians.

One would ask a pertinent question as to how these lawmakers could bring order in the country, when they themselves are unruly. When there is lawlessness in Parliament, could one expect the people to follow the law for the greater good of everybody? When everybody breaks the law it leads to a state of anarchy.

The controversy over the President's speech took a new turn when President Kumaratunga summoned Media Minister Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and his ministry secretary to find out how the Rupavahini team gained access to a closed-door meeting.

This was after the President's speech was telecast over the Rupavahini National TV on Tuesday. When the President summoned Minister Bakeer Markar, he was away in Agalawatta.

However, he responded to the President's call. When he arrived on Wednesday in Colombo to meet the President, he received another urgent message from the President indicating that there was trouble.

The letter said: "On the 21st, in the Polonnaruwa District the meeting was held under closed doors. In keeping with our principles, the press was not invited for internal discussions.

"I gave clear instructions to keep the media away from this meeting. However, a Rupavahini cameraman had entered the meeting hall having misled the security guards as well as the organisers of the meeting. The cameraman apparently videoed the full speech I made at this meeting.

"I hope you would agree with me that the publicity given to this speech over the national television was against all ethics and accepted norms in the civilised world. The meeting was meant only for the party activists.

"The state media, in addition to the full publicity given to the speech has contacted several ministers of the cabinet to give distorted interpretations and telecast these also over the state media.

"When we consider the distorted interpretations given to my speech it is essential to reply those. Therefore, I earnestly request you to direct the chairman of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation and the Chairman of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation to allocate the time between 9.00 to 9.30 a.m. for the General Secretary of the party and two other MPs to explain these matters to the people.

"During the telephone discussion I had with you, you agreed to advise the secretary to the Ministry of Media but all efforts to contact him over the phone failed. Therefore please direct the necessary authorities to allocate the time for the SLFP activists to reply to those allegations."

Minister Bakeer Markar in his reply said, he had not interfered with the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation on their media policies, even after he had assumed his duties as the minister. He told the President that he inquired from the Rupavahini Chairman about the allegations mentioned in the President's letter.

"The Chairman of Rupavahini Corporation informed me that the other media organisations and the print media also covered this meeting and there was no objections from any quarter. He informed me that the Presidential Secretariat had requested the corporation to telecast the President's speeches and statements without subject to editing.

"This speech too had been telecast without any restrictions. The Rupavahini chairman informs me that if you or the General Secretary of the party wants to make clarifications about this speech that too could be allowed.

"Though I want to get through to you to inform you about this, you were not available in the office and I left a message to which your Director General Janadasa Pieris responded. I informed him to discuss with the Chairman of Rupavahini to allocate airtime to enable clarification."

By Thursday afternoon a statement made by SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena was recorded by the Rupavahini Corporation.

The President's speech in Polonnaruwa and the subsequent protest by PA MPs by holding placards and posters in Parliament were part of the campaign against the UNP, especially directed at Mr. Karunanayake.

The UNP however alleged that the PA was misbehaving in this fashion out of sheer jealousy over the warm welcome the Prime Minister had received in Washington and the economic benefits the country was receiving as a result of the visit. The UNP also charged that the PA wanted to disrupt progressive legislation being introduced by the government. But the PA counterattacked, saying the UNP created the rumpus to push the VAT bill through parliament, thus avoiding stiff criticism from the opposition.

PA parliamentarian Sarath Amunugama later said, that they had no intention of grabbing the mace and they only wanted to stage a peaceful protest against Minister Karunanayake's alleged remarks about President bringing a bomb to the cabinet meetings. But the government wanted to create confusion to stifle the PA's peaceful protest and get the VAT bill passed, he charged.

Earlier this week the PA Parliamentary Group decided to support the President unanimously on whatever decision she took regarding the present situation in the country.

PA parliamentarians Janaka Bandara Tennakoon and Dilan Perera said at the meeting that nobody would challenge the decisions taken by the President and requested the MPs to suggest alternatives if they wished to challenge it. But none did so.

Addressing the meeting, the President welcomed the attitude of the members and said she would take a decision regarding Mr. Karunanayake. The group then took a decision not to support the government until Mr. Karunanayake withdrew his allegations against the President.

Clarifying this position, PA stalwart Mangala Samaraweera said that except for bills of national importance, other bills would not receive his party's support.

Indicating that the PA is taking a tough stand against the government, PA parliamentarian Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told the group meeting that all questions submitted to the government should be answered without delay. Nimal Siripala de Silva said that though he had spoken about it to the Speaker at the party leaders meetings no acceptable answer was provided.

Anura Bandaranaike said the PA would present a motion asking for three days in August for answering these questions.

Janaka Bandara Tennakoon suggested that Mr. Bandaranaike who was a senior member of parliament and a former Speaker should participate at party leaders meetings.

It was also decided to disturb Mr. Karunanayake when he speaks in Parliament.

The MPs hailed the President for her courage in facing allegations made by ministers at the cabinet meetings. M.K.D.S. Gunawardena had a different question to ask. He inquired from the leadership whether the party's agreement with the JVP was still valid. His grouse was that although the PA supported the JVP in its campaigns against the government, the JVP did not show reciprocity.

Youth members of the PA said that they were supporting the JVP on matters of national importance and stressed that if someone did not want to do so they could leave the party.

Meanwhile on the peace front, the UNF government is keen to resume peace efforts after August 2 once it fulfils obligations under the ceasefire agreement.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who returned to the country after a successful visit to the US where President Bush gave him all the backing to restore peace in this troubled land would emerge as a strong leader than ever before.

The continuous support pledged by the leading financial institutions, too, would encourage the government to embark upon economic recovery.

What is more important in all this is the response of the LTTE.

With the world leaders extending their unstinted co-operation to the Prime Minister's peace initiative, the LTTE may not have many options, but to follow the path towards establishing a peaceful united Sri Lanka.

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