Political Column  

CBK faces her biggest test
By Our Political Editor
The United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) faces the grim prospect of a collapse earlier than expected. Its junior partner, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) gave an ultimatum to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on Friday to publicly declare she would not go ahead with the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) with the Tiger guerrillas. That is before midnight Wednesday June 15.

A letter sent on Friday to her by JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva made clear they would be out of the UPFA on Thursday, June 16 if this is not done. The JVP took this decision after it became clear that President Kumaratunga would not bare details or discuss the P-TOMS with them as promised earlier. This is a tougher stand than their earlier warning to quit the UPFA if the deal with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was signed.

Kumaratunga's stubborn insistence to go ahead with a mechanism, the fuller details of which the Sri Lankan public are unaware, met with stiff opposition from another formidable front - the Maha Sangha. The venerable prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters threatened to issue an edict (Sangha Agna) if she did not heed their call not to go ahead with the P-TOMS. They charged that Kumaratunga had not told the people of Sri Lanka, the Parliament or the Cabinet of the fuller contents of the proposed mechanism. Latest developments in this regard appear elsewhere in The Sunday Times today.

Kumaratunga seemed beleaguered by the mounting opposition. It has been made worse by the inability of her media Czars to successfully project a public campaign to market P-TOMS. Last Wednesday she directed the Government Information Department to issue a Press Release to say Information and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera "had requested the President to release him from the portfolio…..due to busy schedule." It added: "The Government wishes to announce that the President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga (that is the Information Department's way of spelling her name) has accepted his request."

In reality, Samarweera's two-page letter had asked Kumaratunga to relieve him of the Information and Media portfolio due to "personal reasons." He had made no reference to a "busy schedule." In his moving personal letter to Kumaratunga, which he showed her brother Anura Bandaranaike before sending, Samaraweera referred to the appointment of Harim Peiris and Eric Fernando to brief the State-run media daily on the new mechanism. Peiris, a former Presidential Spokesman is Director General of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction whilst Fernando is head of the Presidential Media Unit.

As revealed in these columns and in the front page of The Sunday Times last week, Kumaratunga did not inform Samaraweera of this action. She only told Media Ministry Secretary W.B. Ganegala. The appointments, for the first time, sidelined and undermined Samaraweera. In his letter, the former Media Minister said such appointments could be the result of his inability to fulfil her wishes and hence wanted him relieved of this portfolio for "personal reasons." Peiris and Fernando are flooding the State media with a propaganda hype which suggested that the entire nation knew its contents and backed the mechanism.

Samaraweera met Kumaratunga for a one-on-one meeting on Thursday night. What they talked during a lengthy discussion is not known. But one thing was clear. She had accepted Samaraweera's resignation after saying he had a "busy schedule" and was in no mind to ask him to stay back. Peiris and Fernando, also knew very little about the mechanism. They are now being dubbed the local Saatchi and Saatchi (the well known UK public relations wizards) or main national propaganda duo for the joint mechanism. There was one in the private sector too who joined in this national propaganda drive - Neela Marikkar of Sri Lanka First fame. She gave the finishing touches to a half page Government advertisement in the media which said the proposed mechanism did not contravene either the Constitution or the laws of the land.

That was not all. It was being given to Tiger guerrillas only for a period of just one year, the advertisement boasted. Even if the LTTE would not like it, the ads carried the Sri Lanka's national logo too to suggest they the guerrillas were endorsing Sri Lanka's sovereignty. "If what they want to give the Tigers is as innocent as a lamb, why did they not tell the Sri Lankan public the contents," asked JVP Parliamentary Group leader when he addressed a marathon session of the Central Committee last Sunday. He said barring a handful of selected officials; even the Cabinet Ministers were unaware.

But more harsher criticism against Kumaratunga came from the JVP leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe. All 35 members of the Committee were present at the meeting which commenced at 9 a.m. and went on till 11 p.m.

Amerasinghe charged that the JVP entered into a common programme and joined the UPFA Government. Kumaratunga continued to take decisions on her own without any consultation or consensus from the constituent partners. The crunch for the party came when she chose to do that on a very important national question that affected every Sri Lankan. He said there were no signs she wanted to talk to the JVP even now. He said Kumaratunga was only good at increasing her number of enemies and not making friends. The question the JVP faced was one of how to work with her in the future.

Amerasinghe said the JVP has to take these disturbing factors into consideration. If the current issue is not resolved, it would be difficult to work. Important enough, like the JVP leader, all others who made speeches focused almost entirely on Kumaratunga and her actions. After a 14 hour discussion at the party's headquarters in Pagoda Road, Nugegoda, it was decided to give Kumaratunga an ultimatum - she should make an official announcement not to go ahead with the P-TOMS. If she did not do so by Wednesday June 15, the JVP would quit the Government. It was decided to hold a news conference on Friday and make the decision known.

On Monday, just a day after the JVP's Central Committee meeting, Kumaratunga had summoned a meeting of the Government Parliamentary Group. It was to be held at the Janadipathi Mandiraya.

That would have meant the JVP MPs also would have come to the meeting and expressed views. Their opposition, as well as those of others, had been reflected in the Sunday newspapers. Kumaratunga ordered the cancellation of this meeting.

Instead on Monday morning, she asked her aides to immediately contact Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse and ask him to meet her at 12 noon or 1 p.m. He was tracked down in Hambantota where he was to be chief guest at ceremonies connected with the Lunugamvehera development projects. Premier Rajapakse cancelled them and boarded an Air Force helicopter to Colombo.

At the Janadipathi Mandiraya Kumaratunga and Rajapakse talked at length. Also on hand were Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Premier's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. It was Kumaratunga who opened the conversation by telling Rajapakse how she made him Leader of the Opposition and then Prime Minister. She said she would similarly make him the Presidential candidate at the upcoming elections. That was the first clear indication to Rajapakse that Kumaratunga was volunteering to step down and offering him the top most slot in the country. Of course that was in the hope that Rajapakse would back her efforts to conclude the P-TOMS with the Tiger guerrillas.

Kumaratunga warned Rajapakse that the JVP was also trying to drive a wedge between the two of them. This was why Wimal Weerawansa had told a public meeting that Kumaratunga wanted to make Premier Rajapakse the Presidential candidate only after running the Government down. In other words creating a situation where he would find himself in greater difficulty contesting for the office of President. She warned Rajapakse not to be misled by JVP propaganda.

Rajapakse was to remind Kumaratunga that the Government may fall if she went ahead to sign the mechanism with the LTTE. He suggested that Kumaratunga bring the proposals before Parliament. Kumaratunga replied that even UNP's Milinda Moragoda had suggested this when the latter met her to appeal for a pardon for jailed former Minister, S.B. Dissanayake. Even the JVP had said the same thing. "Now you are listening to the JVP," Kumaratunga shot back at her Prime Minister.

Rajapakse was quick to remind that it was her confidant and Western Provincial Councillor Lasantha Alagiyawanna who had first mooted the idea during a discussion with the JVP. Kumaratunga pointed out "we cannot do the way the JVP wants" only to be reminded by Rajapakse that they "are a major political party now."

Then Kumaratunga dropped a bombshell. "If we cannot do this, let us go for a general election," she said. Warned Rajapakse "don't even think of that. We have not organised our party organisations or branches. I did not want to embark on this for you would not have liked it. If there is an election, the Hambantota district will go to the JVP and the Matara district to the UNP. If we have to face a general election, we will be in trouble."

Kumaratunga had an answer to that. She told Rajapakse "then we will have a Presidential election." In other words, she wanted to advance the impending Presidential elections, slated for next year. Rajapakse told her this cannot be done in terms of the Constitution. He said such a poll was possible only during a President's first tenure and not during her last where the holder of the office is required to serve the full term. In the alternative, if he or she were to step down, it was the Prime Minister who had to assume the office of President for the remaining period.

When a debate ensued on this Constitutional issue, Kumaratunga wanted a telephone operator to connect her to constitutional lawyer R.K.W. Gunasekera. She sought his opinion. Gunasekera asked for ten minutes to respond. When he called back, he only confirmed what Rajapakse had said - Kumaratunga could not call for an early Presidential poll. She had to ensure that the Prime Minister was her successor for the rest of the tenure of office.

With that over, Rajapakse told Kumaratunga to consult the JVP. That drew a sharp rebuke. She said "I do not have the time to waste." She then spoke of her ten year long contribution to the country as President and her commitment to concede the new mechanism to the LTTE.

It was an hour to midnight when the meeting ended. Then Kumartunga went on to speak about the JVP to President's Secretary W.S. Karunaratne, Premier's Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga and Cabinet Secretary S. Wijesinghe.

It was almost midnight when some 20 Sri Lanka Freedom Party seniors met Kumaratunga. That included Anura Bandaranaike, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Sarath Amunugama. Deputy Minister Dilan Perera said the Government would not fall when the joint mechanism is signed with the LTTE. He said there were the United National Party and the Tamil National Alliance to offer support. Ayurveda Minister Tissa Karaliyadda said people in his electorate were not in favour. If the Government falls, he said, we cannot return to our villages.

Kandy district parliamentarian Mahindananda Aluthgamage countered him by saying "we will do the right thing and sit in the opposition." Minister Anura Bandaranaike said "we did not form a Government by saying a joint mechanism is good. There is a difference of eight lakhs of votes between the Sandhanaya and the UNP. We do not have a mandate from the people to sit in the opposition."

At the end of the meeting, Bandaranaike walked up to Aluthgamage. He told him "they'll think you are a UNP stooge the way you spoke…" He replied "No Sir, I did not mean that…" Kumaratunga did not attend last Wednesday's Cabinet meeting. Later, that day she was to again meet some Government stalwarts including Premier Rajapakse, Anura Bandaranaike, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, D.E.W. Gunasekera, Dinesh Gunawardena, Susil Premajayantha. Ahead of this meeting, Anura Bandaranaike had taken the unprecedented step of paying a visit to Temple Trees for a meeting with Premier Rajapakse. They discussed strategy for the event.

During the meeting with Kumaratunga, Rajapakse repeated his plea to Kumaratunga to talk to the JVP. Pleadings by Anura Bandaranaike saw a friendly retort from his sister. Said Kumaratunga "If you worked with the same enthusiasm during the last parliamentary elections, you would have got another 100,000 votes."

Kumaratunga took the opportunity to explain that she chose to go ahead with the joint mechanism only after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party's Central Committee had given her approval. She said it was now becoming a different story.

She said it was not possible for her to change her mind. Kumaratunga had told her new confidant Deputy Minister Dilan Perera to hold a news conference to rebut the statements made by Weerawansa in Kurunegala. This he did. Perera said Kumaratunga would go ahead with the joint mechanism. He berated Wimal Weerawansa for his remarks in Kurunegala and had a few pot shots at Premier Rajapakse too.

Though Kumaratunga had sought auspicious times from astrologers for June 12 or 15, she has now chosen to delay the signing further. This week SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena asked her whether he should cancel a London bound trip in view of the proposed signing. She asked him to travel since it will not take place until June 22. Thereafter, The Sunday Times learnt Kumaratunga decided the signing will not take place until a date in July. This has again become uncertain in view of her meeting with the Asgiriya and Malwatte prelates on Friday. Making a reference to Premier Rajapakse, Perera told the news conference it was Kumaratunga who made Rajapakse the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. At the appropriate time, she would make him the Presidential candidate.

The remarks were to anger Rajapakse. He told friends he would tell Kumaratunga and respond to Perera. His remarks had created the impression that Kumaratunga had given away those high offices like making donations to a charity."I did not get them as a beggar. I had to sweat and toil hard for these positions. Dilan should know that," he added.

On Thursday night, Premier Rajapakse spoke again with a JVP delegation that visited Temple Trees. The team comprised Tilvin Silva, Wimal Weerawansa and Nandana Gunatilleke. Associated with the Premier were Ministers Ferial Ashraff, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and John Seneviratne. The discussions that began at 10 p.m. went on till 1.30 am Friday but covered the same ground they had talked earlier. But Kumartunga was annoyed at the meeting.

She telephoned Rajapakse on Friday morning to admonish him on breaching protocol to hold such a discussion. She said it was not proper to do so without informing the President. Rajapakse explained somewhat apologetically that he meant to brief her on the matter later on Friday but Kumaratunga was not clearly happy about the explanation.

The coming week, without doubt, is a test of strength for Kumaratunga. Easily that is the most strenuous one in her ten-year career as President. The question is whether she would concede P-TOMS to Tiger guerrillas and see her UPFA Government in tatters or remains in power.

On the other hand, she had something altogether different to say. JVP's Minister Anura Kumara Dissanayake was saying his customary farewell to President Kumaratunga who hosted a dinner in honour of visiting Indian External Affairs Kanwar Natwar Singh at President's House.

The venue and its surroundings had been a hive of activity earlier in the day with Buddhist monks being tear-gassed for opposing the Joint Mechanism, so much so, that the adventurous Muslim MP from the CWC Faizer Mustapha who eventually was made a Deputy Minister had to wait from 10.30 am., the appointed time for taking his oaths until 6 pm for the swearing-in.

After calm had returned, and the banquet over, the President told the JVP Minister " I am not sure whether I will go before you all leave ". She was referring to the JVP threat earlier that day to leave the UPFA. Will the President create history with an early exit, then. Or, was it, like most things, just a joke.

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