Political Column  

Three political bombs shake UPFA
By our Political Editor
Three improvised political bombs were exploded over the week by three equally colourful political figures. The collatarel damage caused was not insignificant.

The first bomb was at Ratnapura by JVP spokesman Wimal Weerawansa; the second in Colombo by UPFA cabinet spokesman Mangala Samaraweera, and the third in London by LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham.

First, a mention about Mr. Weerawansa's speech. It was vintage stuff, hitting round the wicket by the former Holy Cross opening batsman. It was vintage JVP rhetoric. He slammed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga in equal measure, but while his criticism of the former is understandable, his lashing at the President was, well, understable too.

To hell with the niceties of 'collective responsibility', and all that British parliamentary rubbish, this is what he said referring to the President: "The SLFP once it falls into the opposition, takes a long time to get back on its feet, and has not been in a position to mobilise and speak up against the UNP. For seven years in power it has been harping about the peace process (saama baila), and it was the National Patriotic Movement (spearheaded by the JVP) that was able to awaken the people and bring down the UNP government. "The President had been subjected to all kinds of 'ragging' every time she attended a cabinet meeting when the UNP was in power questioning her about her handbag or her vehicles. There were dark circles around the President's eyes those days. She was under a lot of pressure. She was seeing Ravi's ragging (ex Minister Ravi Karunanayake) when she closed her eyes. She stayed awake at night, and slept during the day."

He went on to refer to the lame-duck President, Chandrika Kumaratunga was from 2002-2004, how it was not worth "50 cents", and how the Presidency was like a "pensioned Raalahamy (police constable) and that the executive President became all-powerful again, thanks to the support of the NPM (JVP).

Never has even a UNPer used such words on the President, prompting the newly formed UPFA Deputy Ministers Forum head Dilan Perera to issue a statement regretting the remarks made by Mr. Weerawansa. What Dilan Perera may not know is that the Forum's own actions, to call upon the President to begin negotiations with the LTTE on the ISGA proposals would probably have been the provocation for the provocative remarks by the JVP propaganda chief. That, more than gentle reminder given to the powers-that-be, Mr. Weerawansa went into mute mode at his next meeting at Polonnaruwa. So much so, the ex-schoolboy cricketer used cricketing parlance to tell the crew from a private tv channel present that if they had come to take another 'catch' off him, he was not giving one.

Mr. Weerawansa then went on to take heavy toll on the ISGA (self-rule) proposals of the LTTE, something that President Kumaratunga has now said she was prepared to discuss, notwithstanding the JVP.

Coinciding with the Weeerawansa explosion at Ratnapura, was an incendiary bomb set off by the party's godfather, Somawansa Amarasinghe. He said that the JVP sees the UPFA government under the dominance of the President's PA, side-lining the JVP in the decision-making process, and as an early warning signal, a cannon salvo above the bow, so to say, they would consider withdrawing their support for the PA in the six provincial councils which the two control.

These are the twists and turns of contemporary Sri Lankan politics. When the provincial councils were introduced in 1987, the PA (then the SLFP) and the JVP opposed the concept. While the SLFP leadership faced tear-gas attacks at the Pettah bo-tree junction, the JVP went about burning state transport, state electricity pylons, state telephone lines etc. Subsequently, they both turned volte-face, and contested for seats and drew the perks of office. Now, they are using this very same utterly useless administrative, and thoroughly politicised, provincial council system to black-mail one another.

The Samaraweera explosion was quite another. That was directed at the opposition UNP. For quite some time now, the issue of whether the President's second six-year term begins in 1999 when she was re-elected (and therefore should end next year), or whether her second term starts in 2000 (when her first six year term that started in 1994 was to have ended ) lay dormant. Neither side made an issue of it, waiting for the other's move.

The whole episode began when The Sunday Times and its sister newspaper Lankadeepa ran an exclusive report saying that Chief Justice Sarath Silva had administered an oath of office on the President sometime in August 2000 in what was a secret ceremony at the President's office. The story was subsequently confirmed by the Chief Justice himself in an unusual move in the Daily Mirror. The first time this news broke out was at the end of 2003! Strange things do happen in Sri Lanka, and this was stranger than fiction.

Now comes the first noise emanating from the government camp, from its spokesman Mangala Samaraweera, though technically, the first squeek on the subject really came from the UNP's spokesman G.L. Peiris last week when he said that the UNP was preparing for the next Presidential elections in November 2005.

The Samaraweera statement has caused some disquiet in the UNP camp. Some say that Prof. Peiris ought not to have belled the cat without the party being ready with a counter-plan. Its political affairs committee is to meet on Monday to analyse the fall-out of this statement. For the moment they are only saying they will challenge the contention that the President is entitled to carry on till 2006, arguing that President J.R. Jayewardene also called for early elections at the end of his first term, and therefore had to forego an year in office from the maximum 12 year period permitted under the constitution.

The UNP sees the UPFA leadership as having a three-pronged strategy to keep President Kumaratunga in office beyond 2005. Firstly, to abolish the executive Presidency and permit Ms. Kumaratunga to be Head of Government through a Constituent Assembly. Secondly, i.e. if option 1 fails, to extend the period through the oaths argument till 2006. Thirdly, to obtain minority support through negotiations with MPs and form a two thirds majority in Parliament to effect constitutional changes.

Speaking on Friday, immediately after the Samaraweera statement, UNP leader Wickremesinghe reacted in a veiled way to these developments while addressing the Asia-Pacific Democratic Union participants. He said that plans by the UPFA government to bring about constitutional changes through a Constituent Assembly based on the April 2 mandate would trigger two reactions, a) that bi-partisan consensus to the LTTE issue will break down, and b) the LTTE will form its own Constituent Assembly using the same April 2 argument to secede. The seeds for this secession are still bearing fruit. This is the third explosion for the week, Anton Balasingham's latest book 'War and Peace, ala Leo Tolstoy, to be released in London, extracts of which were this week released by Tamilnet, the virtual LTTE website.

Mr. Balasingham has re-introduced the theory that the LTTE has not, repeat not, given up its demand for a separate state. This must be a terrible blow for the peaceniks who were in a make-believe world that the LTTE has given up its call for a separate state and were now comfortably settling down for some kind of federal set-up.

Not so, says Mr. Balasingham. He says, that the LTTE's decision to consider ISGA (Interim Self-Governing Authority) for the north and east is 'internal self-determination', and that by agreeing to consider ISGA they are not abandoning a separate state (external self-determination). In other simple words, Mr. Balasingham says the LTTE wants to eat the cake, and have it as well. It may be that Mr. Balasingham finished writing his manuscripts just about now, but the timing of the release of extracts from the book is rather relevant.

It is Mr. Balasingham who has been, once again been given the task of writing the "Maveerar Day" (Grand Heroes Day) speech or "policy statement" by Velupillai Prabhakan. This time when he turns 50 years. This time, when Political Wing leader Suppiah Palani Tamilselvan met him in Geneva, he told Mr. Balasingham that the leader wanted a punchy speech with a strong message for the twin event - the address on the eve of his 50th birthday, at least two decades of them as a revolutionary leader.

Mr. Balasingham seems to be setting the stage in style. First is the timing of his book. Then the undoing of what has turned out to be his blunder in agreeing to the Oslo statement for the LTTE to consider a federal solution with internal self-determination. In one chapter, Mr. Balasingham now juggles with words, a sport he had mastered throughout to say, the LTTE had not given up its right to secede if it wants. But soon after the Oslo declaration, the whole world concluded that the LTTE had at long last shed its demand for a separate state and agreed on federalism with internal self determination. Even the New York Times determined that story was fit enough to be printed. No one denied it then.

And now Mr. Balasingham's about turn through a chapter in the book has received billing in the avowedly LTTE Tamilnet website. First the book, then the reference being played up in the website. The third one, no doubt would be references in Prabhakaran's speech on November 26. After all Balasingham is drafting it. It is no secret that soon after the Oslo statement, Mr. Prabhakaran lost his cool over what Mr. Balasingham agreed to. So much so, relations were strained Bala Anna was not seen with his verti in the arid lands of Wanni.

Now he has cunningly engineered a set of words to create the feeling that he and leader Prabha are, after all, on the same wavelength - both have not given up the ideal of secession. So the United National Front Government and the Norwegian facilitators who drafted the Oslo statement were taken for a ride.

When Mr. Prabhakaran finishes his act on November 26, the process of insulting the intelligence of all those who sat at the peace table in Oslo except the LTTE would have been roundly completed. Is this not re-writing history again, a fine art of the LTTE?

The Balasingham argument is another spanner in the peace process works. President Kumaratunga cannot be in a more unenviable position. On the one hand, her restless ally, the JVP is warning her - "talk of ISGA and we may walk out", and the LTTE is saying on the hand - "You don't give ISGA and we may go to war ".

As if saddled with these two extreme positions is not enough, the electorate she can truly claim to represent, the middle and lower middle Sri Lankans in the 'south' are just about fed up - with little to eat. Last week, the President promised to bring down the prices of food within three weeks, which means she has just a fortnight left to do so. Otherwise, she may have to eat her own words.

But if words could be eaten, Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle might take the cake. His first bout of vitriol was aimed at Prima, then Shell Gas, then Laughfs, then the milk powder importers, the rice farmers, rice millers, now the rice importers and the list goes on. If the cost of living should tumble upon the decibels emitted by the Minister, perhaps then Sri Lanka would have stable prices than in any other country.

The previous free-marketeer Minister Ravi Karunanayake was equally vociferous and his conduct let the side down for his party when in office, but at least he allowed that market forces to determine prices.

Minister Fernandopulle who was earlier this week touring the US attending the 4th Joint Council Meeting under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) is at loggerheads at home with the CWE Chairman all because of a sugar deal gone bad.

A Colombo-based trading company is reported to have offered the CWE a cargo of Brazilian sugar at US$ 197/MT C&F Colombo. This was an unsolicited offer. At this price, the offered sugar is about US$ 90/MT below the current world market price.

Anyone with any knowledge of the sugar trade might tell you that prices move in tandem with the futures markets for sugar (New York, Paris, London) on a day to day basis. Further, all major International Commodity Trading Houses, trading in sugar are members of the RSA (Refined Sugar Association of London) and to trade this kind of tonnage, only these traders have the capacity, the expertise and the financial muscle. It is well known in the trade, that when offers are made well below market levels, it is done with the intention to defraud the buyer by negotiating his Letter of Credit with fraudulent documents! The Chairman CWE therefore, has to be commended for resisting this purchase.

Rice is another hot topic in this Ministry. The UPFA government in his yearning for a lower 'cost of living', is riding roughshod over officials giving orders to purchase rice from India and Pakistan at random without going through the usual tender procedures.

No tenders are called for rice purchases by this Ministry. The modus-operandi it is alleged is business for the 'boys'. The trade is agog with stories that Indian and Pakistani sellers call on the Ministry with a local contact, usually a 'political catcher', or a Pettah businessman and orders are given by the Ministry to either Co-op Fed, Markfed or STC (General), all of which organisations come under it, to establish Letters of Credit in favour of the seller for these purchases.

Some of these organisations do not have LC facilities and run from Bank to Bank looking for facilities to establish Letters of Credit for the business done in their name. Business we are told is brisk under this innovative and novel method of purchase. There are no specifications for the rice purchased either, as is the custom of the trade. Most sales have been made in the region of US$ 265 to 285 per MT C&F Colombo for Ponni Rice and US$ 255 to 265 per MT C&F Colombo for White Raw Rice.

The current price for Ponni Rice (a par-boiled variety from Andra Pradesh, India) is around US$ 305 MT C&F Colombo. Nobody in the buying organisation are aware what Ponni Rice looks like, and a Pettah trader said that "the Ponni Rice that will be shipped against these contracts would be old-crop, with high brokens percentages and mixed with other Par-boiled varieties, which is not strictly Ponni, but are cheaper in the market".

He alleged that the "system used to purchase the rice is unique" and asked "why the JVP talk-show heroes such as Wimal Weerawansa, Susil Handunetti, Anura Dissanayake, Nandana Goonetilleke and Vijitha Herath are not reporting these shoddy purchases to the Bribery Commission".

The JVP quite rightly raised hell when the former Minister purchased rice for the CWE. The public heard in them the voices of clean government. Today, these voices are muted. Probably though Wimal Weerawansa doesn't bother about the niceties of British parliamentary government, and the principle of collective government, the JVP is generally abiding such values at the expense of clean government.

The Treasury having sensed what was happening moved in quickly to allow imports of rice by the private sector on October 6. Accordingly, better quality rice is now entering the market at lower prices. A cynic remarked "Kauda Mevata Waga Kiyanne" and added that "Haal Horu Dang Katen Daney".

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