Political Column  

Govt. stands for talks based on ISGA
By Our Political Editor
ARUMUGAM THONDAMAN had come of age. Having grown under the shadow of an oak tree in the form of his grandfather Saumyamoorthi Thondaman, Arumugam generally had it easy. All he had to do was contest with the UNP and bargain with whoever won an election thereafter.

The spoilt brat of Sri Lankan politics would always have his way. After all, his grandfather showed him the ropes, and even created a probable world parliamentary record by sitting in the cabinet while his party MPs sat in the opposition.

On Monday night, Arumugam was frothing and fuming, hemming and hawing. In-between swigs of Black Label scotche at Subo Nirmalingam's all-party birthday bash down Bagatalle Road in Colombo's bourgeoisie neighbourhood, he was equally busy telephoning and blasting President Chandrika Kumaratunga to all who cared to listen.

The Maha Nayake of Malwatte, Ven. Rambukwelle Sri Vipassi Nayaka Thera, with whom he closely associated, especially in their joint opposition to the Kotmale hydro-power project, had passed away earlier that afternoon. Co-incidentally, his Air Force security men in blue fatigues had just been taken off, three days after negotiations between his CWC and the ruling UPFA had collapsed. It was a cocktail of frothing emotions running through him.

" She wants me killed " he told Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who dropped in to party. Withdrawing of security has been a arch-typical practice of President Kumaratunga to teach these politicians a lesson. In 2001, then Minister Rauff Hakeem awoke one morning to find his security withdrawn. Then came his sacking from the cabinet.

It was a move the PA was to regret, for it set the stage for a string of events that followed. eventually resulting in the PA administration of the time failing to maintain a parliamentary majority, just like now, and then face defeat at the polls in December of that year.

By about 11 that night, just as the Nirmalingam party was hotting up, Thondaman exited, making his way to the ' Asapuwa ' - the headquarters of the Jathika Hela Urumaya at Sulaiman Terrace, a five minute drive in a Merc at that time of night from Bagatalle Road, even if there were no Air Force escorts now to clear the road.

There he met the monk-MPs who were still deliberating on whether the newly appointed MP of theirs, Ven. Akmeemana Dayarathana should take his oath the next morning in the face of a court order that ex-facie seemed to stay him from doing so.

Thondaman was adamant. He argued that the monk should take his oath. The argument was two-fold, one that the stay order had not been served either on the MP-designate or on the Speaker, and secondly that the MP's appointment had been gazetted on May 19 long before the District Court proceedings of June 3.

Once an MP is gazetted, he becomes an MP. He must take oath only to be able to conduct parliamentary business. Some political observers cite an interesting instance when Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was gazetted an MP but fell ill and was unable to take his oath. He was, technically, an MP when he died. So, in the case of the Ven. Akmeemana Dayarathana he was in fact, an MP already, he had only to take his oath of office before the Speaker to take his seat in the House.

The monks however shot back asking Arumugam why he was flirting with the UPFA government. They all laughed. As the time approached the witching hour, Arumugam got through on his mobile to Ranil Wickremesinghe who had left the Nirmalingam party and was still at a private dinner. He was told that Ven. Akmeemana Dayarathana would take his oath.

The events of the following morning are now well known to the country. Minister Mangala Samaraweera had been quoted in a morning English daily confidently forecast on its front page a " dull " day in the House.

Bandula Padma Kumara and his pretty co-host Sithara in their increasingly popular Swarnavahini morning show " Mul Pituwa " ( Front Page ) quoted the quotable quote. Forecasts and fore-warnings from Mr Samaraweera, the swinging southern politico, has often foreshadowed events in the political scene. But this one turned out to be the understatement of the new century as Members of Parliament turned into Members of Pandemonium. The new political culture promised by the UPFA had been unleashed full throttle (no pun) . It was pun alright.

President Kumaratunga is reported to have been unhappy about the turn of events that day. She must be un-happier at the turn of events the day after when the joint opposition - parties ranging from the TNA to the JHU to the CWC to the SLMC and UNF banded together under one banner. At least, even if there is no National Government, there seems to be a National Opposition.

Surprisingly though, the Opposition allowed the Speaker to accede to the Government request to adjourn Parliament till July 20. When the Speaker called a party leaders meeting amidst the mayhem inside the Chamber, S.B. Dissanayake had walked in for the meeting. JVP's Wimal Weerawansa rightly objected to his presence. S.B. Dissanayake then asked, rightly, what Nandana Gunathillake was doing there and started claiming that the match was over for the UPFA - the opposition having a majority in Parliament.

So then, why did the Opposition agree to such a long postponement. One would have imagined the first Tuesday in July would have been ideal timing, on the eve of the Provincial elections. A squandered chance for the Opposition that is carefully orchestrating a slow-death of the UPFA.

The Opposition recognises the fact that price hikes are inevitable in the days ahead. This will only compound matters for the UPFA, but the JVP realises this, and is already on a country-wide campaign ( or at least in the 'southern' constituencies ) relying on the mandate they received in April 2, which is already turning into thin ice very fast.

But the reverberations set off by Tuesday's tragi comedy in Parliament had begun to echo, echo resoundingly in the corridors of power. Nowhere was it felt more intesely than at Janadipathi Mandiraya, which like the White House in the United States, formed the epi centre of power, politics and the citadel that shaped the many lives of men and matters. The first signs showed when President Kumaratunga chaired a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) on Wednesday evening.

These sessions have now become an on/off event hinging much on how rigorous her schedule for the week was. Last Tuesday came as a relief to many participants because it began only an hour late. When the topic turned to the peace process and related matters, President Kumaratunga was to alert both Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and her newly sworn in Deputy Minister of Defence Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. She said they would have to make themselves available for the next meeting that evening. It was a strategy session with the JVP partners, particularly after the Tuesday's show in Parliament. This was the first occasion that both Kadirgamar and Wickremanayake were present for a NSC session since the UPFA was voted to powe.

However, a notable absentee was Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, who has still not been an invitee for these meetings. In the past, all serving Prime Ministers have remained members of the National Security Council. Equally perplexing to some of the participants was the studied silence of Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, who was known for his incisive questioning of senior officers during past sessions of the NSC. It was at the weekly Cabinet meeting that Wednesday evening President Kumaratunga openly expressed her disapproval of the way the members of the clergy were treated. She made clear she would address the nation and make her feelings known. That was when she spells out some national issues and the UPFA's own position with regard to them.

But Tuesday's fiasco in Parliament had brought in its wake another pre-occupation for the President. With clear signs emerging that her UPFA was in the minority, the focus turned to her overtly ambitious plans to kick start the peace process. Does one put the peace process in the back burner? Presidential aides relentlessly pursued their efforts to bring about Thursday night's meeting between President Kumaratunga and MPs of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It was the President who had extended the invitation and her aides were telephoning the TNA leadership periodically for confirmation. The LTTE leadership in Wanni had given the nod. So 20 of the 22 TNA parliamentarians turned up at Janadipathi Mandiraya. One parliamentarian was abroad and another had reported sick.

The ambience at Janadipathi Mandiraya resembled an oriental evening. President Kumaratunga was in a long skirt and a top, much the same way young Tamil girls dressed. Shorts eats - Kilangu rotti (potato rotti) Vadai were served all round. Orange and Apple Juice followed. Those who did not wish to have something cool were offered tea. On hand with President Kumaratunga were Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Nimal Siripala De Silva. Joining in an hour later was Susil Premajayantha. TNA leader R. Sampanthan began by introducing his 20 colleagues. This was followed by a brief speech from the President. She said that she would make a policy statement within a few days time. This will include UPFA's economic policies, the position on the ethnic issue the situation in the north and east situation.

Explaining the Peace Process, President said that she is expecting the Norwegians to be informing the dates and formulate the agenda. This is for talks to begin at the end of July or in August.

Sampanthan delivered a narrative of the historical background of what he called the sufferings of the Tamil people. He emphasised that the government should start peace talks on institutionalising ISGA proposals. Tamils don't want the war. They are prepared for a settlement within united Sri Lanka, he had said.President said that she cannot trust the LTTE. "Once they get an interim administration they will try to divide the country," she had pointed out.

Sampanthan said that the late Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam only demanded a Federal System. " Then also you said the same thing. Now also you say the same thing ", he charged. Sampanthan and Suresh Premachandran both declared " we are prepared to have a settlement within a united Sri Lanka". LTTE for the first time in history has given proposals in writing. India or the international community will not support a separate state. It is no point talking about dividing the country. If you don't trust us - much more than that, the Tamils don't trust you all, they pointed out.

The Bandaranaike -Chelvanayakam pact, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, have all been there for over 20 years. We don't trust the Sri Lankan Government. It is only if you implement the ISGA proposals that the Tamil people can be convinced. We know what the JVP and JHU wants, they argued.

President Kumaratunga had explained her willingness to discuss the ISGA proposals though she had pointed out that all its contents could not be agreed upon. She has said she was vested with powers in the Constitution (Sections 33 and 76) to enforce some - not all - of the matters relating to ISGA.

The President's stand now is that her Government is prepared to talk on the ISGA Proposals, and start to implement those provisions which the UPFA feels are not objectionable. At that time, correspondingly, the LTTE should talk about the final settlement, she has said.

TNA MPs then brought to President Kumaratunga's attention, the security situation in the Eastern Province. They claimed that they have information that sections of the armed forces are collaborating with certain sections of the people in the eastern province- a clear reference to the Karuna breakaway faction of the LTTE, to destablise and assassinate intellectuals and journalists. This has to be stopped. She had agreed to look into this.

They also brought to President Kumaratunga's attention the issue of High Security Zone (HSZ) in Jaffna. They pointed out that civilians cannot go back to their own homes as the army is still occupying them. Two and a half years of cease-fire but still our people cannot enjoy it. Sinhala tourists come and stay in the HSZ but our people cannot go back to their own homes, they argued. Action should be taken to re-settle these people at least stage by stage. Raviraj requested the President to repeal the PTA and said that they will support the Government in Parliament to pass the relevant repealing legislation.

The headaches are not however the exclusive preserve of the UPFA. Last week, the UNP also ran into a storm, or was it just a storm in a tea-cup. For a long time, UNP's beleaguered leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has had his problems with the enfant-terrible, Milinda Moragoda's ambitions. Clearly, Moragoda was the creature of Wickremesinghe, but for the party cadres the relationship has been one where the former could do anything, and get away.

He got away from the abortive 2001 coup to oust Wickremesinghe as party leader by playing "Reformist" when the knives were out. Even if one was to be charitable to say that he may not have been an active plotter, he opted to play the mediator, rather than throw his whatever weight behind the man who introduced him to politics.

Then, when he was not made a cabinet minister, Moragoda was in the forefront of the agitation to have the second-rung ministers upgraded to First Class cabinet-status. And now, he not only leads a team of ' Reformists ' comprising Tissa Attanayake, Sajith Premadasa, Gamini Lokuge etc., to pressure the party leader, which is quite legitimate nevertheless, but has gone to say that he will not support the party at the forthcoming Provincial elections.

Rather cheeky one should think, something for which a lesser mortal in the party could have had to pay dearly. The whole issue blew up over a statement obviously leaked to the state media last Sunday from the Moragoda camp saying that their leader will not be campaigning. The underlying reason being that some of Moragoda's nominees had not been selected as candidates for the elections while nominees of some of his party rivals had.

This position of keeping away drew flak from party seniors, who are seething over what they refer to as ' terrorism ' by the emerging 3Ms faction within the UNP i.e. the Moragoda-Maharoof-Muzzammil. But a fourth M is standing in the way. That is- M.H. Mohamed who has been in the forefront of this criticism of the 3M Group. He has accused them, particularly Maharoof (Colombo Central MP) and Muzzammil ( former Cricket Board VP who heads the newly launched Democratic Unity Alliance or DUA - aptly named so for the term dua for followers of Islam is a payer seeking the blessings of Allah for any wish or thanksgiving) of splitting the Muslim vote in the Western province by putting forward a separate Independent list, though others say that this was aimed primarily at the SLMC and its leader Rauff Hakeem with whom Muzzammil has long fallen out.

In any event it would be a split of the anti-UPFA Government Muslim vote, even though its vote-bank would be marginal even if the list contains some Colombo MMCs and ex-PC members. Adding to the problems were two separate salvos from Rajitha Senaratne (Irida Lankadeepa) and S.B. Dissanayake (Kandy meeting) where they berated the party leader for the UNP's recent defeat, saying he no longer is the un-questionable Leader. Which begged the question - where are the UNPers as such?

Though Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya also raised the issue of the Moragoda Rebellion, only the octogenarian, the ever-green, Mohamed Hanifa Mohamed seems to stand firm under the banner of the Elephant and its Leader, citing the party's Constitution and asking that renegades be sacked and party discipline maintained.

After being eventually pulled up by Ranil Wickremesinghe, Moragoda deigned to look after the Colombo East, Colombo West and Dehiwela constituencies for the Provincial elections. Having agreed, he was due to leave the country yesterday. So much for that.

But the events of last Tuesday would surely have some bearing on the party, as the 'Reformists' might now see a shift in the balance of power, a weak UPFA Government wobbling at the knees. The way three other 'Reformists' viz., Navin Dissanayake, Ravi Karunanayake and Keheliya Rambukwella were in the thick of things in the House that day, stoutly defending the JHU's new monk-MP might be an indicator that the UPFA's doings not only joined the Opposition together, but provided the glue to the cracking UNP as well.

In these circumstances, there seems to be a strange paradox in the country's political firmament. If the UPFA Government is in trouble, the main Opposition is much deeper in trouble. So, only the Gods, it seems could save mother Lanka. For it is they who have given the people the Government (and even the Opposition) they deserve !!

Ugly scenes: Is it dirty politics or political strategy
By Harinda Ranura Vidanage
As the ugly scenes in Parliament began to be interpreted as reflections of degrading political culture, and erosion of the ethics of the politician the assault on the holiest embodiment in the Buddhist community has come as a thunderbolt. Some may want to interpret it as a grand political plan devised by certain elements in the UPFA

The JVP policy of attacking the JHU on any forum looks to be a strategy adopted to force the monks out of a political space which is contested heavily by both parties. Both parties share the concepts of sovereignty and unity for Lanka and anti - LTTE sentiments two prerequisites necessary to keep intact the voter base to stay in power.

The JVP with the help of some less knowledgeable elements of the SLFP keep on hitting at the monks, thus creating a situation where the UPFA is deprived of the opportunities to interact with the monk parliamentarian. The efforts of the UPFA mainstream representing the SLFP old guard and the moderate ideologues in the calibre of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse are frustrated in this move to open a channel of communication with the saffron group. If the yellow robes group were to help the UPFA it would tend to reduce the importance of the JVP as a main stakeholder in the alliance

With these verbal attacks the JVP has now successfully pushed the monks - a self-confessed independent group - to being an ally of the opposition led by the UNP. This will make the monks sitting ducks for the JVP onslaught as they will immediately be branded as stakeholders of a UNP LTTE TNA JHU alliance.

Labelled a "Ali, Koti, Mahana " alliance there is bound to be a vociferous campaign launch to corner the monks. If the JHU were to grasp the gravity of the situation they would not go for an all out war against the UPFA allying with the UNP. Instead the monks could show maithrii to the JVP and work with the alliance.

In case the saffron - robed parliamentarians were to align themselves with either of the two main parties the voters who opted for the monks after being disillusioned with the two main parties will feel let down. The JHU should remember that it's not just the white clad old ladies "Upasaka Ammas" that voted for them but also the Southern intelligentsia. Hence they should not be forgotten. If so it will be the first and the last Dharma Rajya project they will undertake.

The Prime Minister who has forged some strategic links to the JHU is also prevented from pursuing internal matters by the top party hierarchy itself. The president should realize that there is a shadow movement behind the Ops 113. This shadow movement spearheaded by the JVP is part of the master plan of the red faction. Backed by some SLFP elements close to President Kumaratunga this operation seeks never to gain a 113 majority in parliament.

This will make them a more powerful component of the UPFA all the while helping its long term strategy for the JVP to emerge as a single powerful political party. The JVP trying to achieve this strategic advantage will not go for 113 in parliament but pretend all along that they are hell bent on reaching the target for survival.

As these events unfold in the political scene it appears the UPFA has to continue as a minority government since the opposition doesn't want to topple it. Toppling the Freedom Alliance government can only pave the way to the creation of a yet another alliance government with UNP, TNA as major parties.

The state will experience multiple dysfunctions in most of its apparatuses, especially the economy and related spheres will be affected most. The exit of the BOI chairman recently was also related to the whole issue of crisis in governance. If President Kumaratunga had anticipated the repercussions of appointing Mr. De Mel earlier it would have prevented such difficult situations. The BOI chairman was nicknamed the 'Two week chairman' as he was in Sri Lanka only for two weeks of each month before taking wing to UK for his consultancy services. This led to some important meetings with prospective foreign investors being cancelled as well.

The UPFA leadership must be reminded of the President's letter on the code of ethics sent to each and every minister just after their appointment. It seems that such political ethics are just used to contribute to media hype at a certain point and not meant to be sustained as policy. The text clearly limited the number of foreign trips of ministers and the appointment of kith and kin to ministries and departments.

The writer proposes that if the minister's actions are monitored for an assessment of the progress of this code of ethics it could locate the trajectory of where the UPFA is flying to. Thus indulging in self-criticism for the UPFA is more critical at this moment than trying to intervene in matters of other political parties.

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