Political Column

SLFP may change hands on June 29

* Norway calls meeting of monitors to decide on future of SLMM

By Our Political Editor

For more than one reason, Thursday June 29 appears to be a day of some significance for Sri Lanka.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera speaks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a meeting in New Delhi on Thursday. AFP

In the domestic front, the Central Committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is due to meet on this day. High on the agenda is an amendment to the party constitution. That is to make provision for a President of Sri Lanka, if he is from the SLFP to remain as president of the party too.

That is expected to enthrone President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the leader of the SLFP and thus end a protracted controversy with his predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The latter had held on steadfastly to the post and even written a strongly-worded letter to General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena. In that she said the issue could be taken up when she returns to Sri Lanka in May. But May has come and gone and she is still in the United Kingdom. Whether she would consent to part with the leadership at a time when some parliamentarians are regularly in touch with her remains the billion dollar question. But come what may, the Central Committee is poised to take a decision. And that will see Rajapaksa taking over the reins of the grand old party.

At no time before is the party leadership more significant for him than it is today. He has just concluded a round of consultations with party parliamentarians over a crucial political issue - whether or not to have a snap general election. The majority view was that they should go ahead. Some even went the extra mile to tell the President that they could win even without the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Of course, there were a few exceptions. A few felt that the rising cost of living, spiked by the recent fuel price increase and to be further exacerbated by the impending hike in electricity tariffs, was telling on the people. They also felt that rising corruption that had prompted non state actors to play the role of preliminary investigators had also become an issue with the people. Yet, like Rajapaksa, the majority still feel he can romp home with a considerable victory since the main opposition United National Party (UNP) was in disarray. But in Sri Lankan politics, as one Government MP who is not in favour of polls says, there is a negative factor. "When people are tired of the Government, they vote for the rival party, not because they love them but because they hate the other," he said.

But for President Rajapaksa a majority in Parliament has become a sine qua non. Heightening such a need was the Ceylon Electricity Board reforms bill that was to be presented this week. The issue over reforms is long drawn out. Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera said the reforms were necessary if the Government was to qualify for Asian Development Bank assistance. He said the CEB was finding it difficult to function from month to month.

The controversy had lingered from the tenure of then President Kumaratunga. The JVP raised objections then. Last Tuesday a team led by JVP's Lal Kantha was locked in a debate with Rajapaksa. They said the draft bill was no different to the one that was to be passed by the then United National Front Government. There were several controversial provisions which the JVP could not agree to, said Lal Kantha. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed to introduce a new draft bill in Parliament on July 4.

Then President Rajapaksa reached out to the telephone and spoke to Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who is Leader of the House. He told him not to take up the CEB reforms bill. But Rajapaksa was visibly angry. He said "we cannot go on doing this." De Silva also expressed similar sentiments. He said every time the JVP raised objections, legislation had to be put on hold or Government decisions had to be kept in abeyance.

There was J VP opposition to another issue - the move to raise the salaries of parliamentarians. JVP Parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa told a party leaders meeting on Wednesday chaired by Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara that the party would oppose the pay increase to parliamentarians. He said it was the view of the JVP that it could not be justified when burdens were being placed on the people by rising costs. The response came when Nimal Siripala de Silva told the JVP that the CEB reforms bill would not be moved and sought their support to pass three other items. One was the pay increase for parliamentarians.

Former Speaker Joseph Michael Perera pointed out that in the strictest sense it was not a pay increase but a corrective measure in keeping with parliamentary protocol. He was alluding to disparities in salaries. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle said whoever was not in favour of the increase could hand over letters to the Speaker expressing their wish. He said thereafter, such dissent could be placed on record and a decision taken to increase salaries. Speaker Lokubandara wanted to know whether to go ahead. Weerawansa was to again say JVP would oppose it tooth and nail.
By Wednesday evening there were other developments. At the weekly cabinet meeting Energy Minister John Seneviratne moved for an increase in electricity tariffs. President Rajapaksa intervened. He noted that the Cabinet had taken a decision to increase salaries of parliamentarians. He said he was for changing that decision if cabinet approval was to be granted to increase power tariffs. It was agreed.

If these were the domestic development, on the international front an important decision concerning the burning issue in the country, the ethnic conflict, is to be made. Norway, the peace facilitator has summoned representatives of Nordic countries for a meeting in Oslo on Thursday June 29. The main purpose is to discuss the future role of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM).

Whilst the Government is objecting, the LTTE is demanding that SLMM monitors from European Union countries - Denmark, Finland and Sweden - be replaced. It wants the change over to take place within a month. It is not in favour of a Norwegian request for a six-month period which it calls a "transition phase."

Norway's Minister for International Development, Erik Solheim, who has played the lead role in Norway's peace facilitation efforts has said that the LTTE's demand to replace monitors from EU countries as "deeply regrettable" and warned it "will weaken the SLMM in a critical period." SLMM monitors have suspended boarding Navy vessels on patrol. With the exclusion of monitors from EU countries, the strength of the SLMM will be reduced to 20. With that number they are expected to monitor the ceasefire.

Perhaps for the first time, a Sri Lanka Government cabinet minister had told Norwegian parliamentarians some of the ground realities in Sri Lanka. That was Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He was on an official visit to Norway. It was whilst he was in Oslo that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) carried out the ghastly attack on civilians at Kebitigollewa. He raised issue with Norwegian leaders of this.

Samaraweera was given an opportunity of addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of Norway. He used the occasion to prove wrong the remarks of the former SLMM head of mission, the haughty Hagrup Haukland. He had told Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa when he made his farewell call that the LTTE were freedom fighters.

Said Samaraweera, "Those who genuinely wish to find a peaceful solution to this conflict must also understand that the LTTE are not freedom fighters fighting on behalf of an oppressed community. They are a ruthless terrorist organization that rules the Tamil people through fear and intimidation."

Samaraweera repeated the reference for a second time in his prepared speech. He added, "The LTTE are not freedom fighters and Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, is certainly no Nelson Mandela. He is a brutal guerrilla leader who has crushed all democratic voices of dissent within the Tamil community…"

During question time, members of the FAC raised issue over alleged human rights violations. Minister Ferial Ashraff who accompanied Samaraweera ventured to answer some of them. When one of the questioners raised issue over internally-displaced persons, Ashraff said thousands and thousands of Muslims were forced out of the Jaffna peninsula within 24 hours. That was done by the LTTE. She said they had no right to talk of human rights. She pointed to a parliamentary colleague, Rishard Badurdeen who was a member of the delegation. She said he represented a Tamil district and was in a position to catalogue the atrocities and human rights violations of the LTTE.

Samaraweera flew to London from Oslo to join his ministerial colleagues to take part in Refreshingly Sri Lanka - a promotion drive to boost trade and tourism. At the main event, Shiranthi Rajapaksa, wife of the President, was the chief guest. At a social gathering she even met former President Chandrika Bandaranaiike Kumaratunga. There was a great deal of warmth and camaraderie as the two went on chatting. The first lady was most pleased. Kumaratunga saw former Education Minister, Susil Premajayantha and remarked "Susil, I hear in some schools, there are over 60 to 70 students in a classroom. Do you know that?" Premajayantha said he was unaware. She told him to check it out.

Samaraweera was to leave for France from London but received a telephone call from President Rajapaksa. He was asked to travel to New Delhi and brief Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh on the latest developments in Sri Lanka. The move was prompted by events in Tamil Nadu where political leaders had pressured the centre in New Delhi to call a halt to rise in violence.

There were also concerns at the highest levels of the Government over a reported move by an Asian diplomat who had advised the leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Arumugam Thondaman not to join the Cabinet. This is on the grounds of current developments in the north and east. The diplomat concerned is reported to have said there were mounting human rights violations and therefore Thondaman should not be seen as siding with the Government. The CWC leader, however, is said to have not taken the advice seriously.

All in all, the events next week will point the direction in which the political destinies of Sri Lanka are headed. But the fears of an all out war looming large, the course can change.


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