ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15
Columns - Political Column  

Change of course after talks in India

  • New Delhi insists military approach not the answer, denies setting up of joint defence committee
  • UNP (D) saves the day for government in parliament
  • Ranil puts his act together; major new campaign from today

By Our Political Editor

It was a week packed with local, regional and international significance for both the Government and the Opposition.

Main among them was a surprise visit by the front runners of governance in Sri Lanka, led by senior-most official Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President. The other two, intimately engaged in the minute-to-minute running of governmental affairs, at the apex of the corridors of power, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Senior Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, both brothers of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Though a visit to India by senior dignitaries of the Government has been the talking point in diplomatic circles, the actual departure came as a surprise. It was such a well-guarded secret that even India's High Commissioner Alok Prasad had to pack his bags and rush to New Delhi after the news that the triumvirate was headed for New Delhi on Sunday night.

At least to the discerning, one of the main objectives of the mission was quite obvious. To assuage Indian concerns, the Government of Sri Lanka had on two different occasions told New Delhi of its plans to evolve the political proposals early to end the 'ethnic conflict' in the island. This was in view of New Delhi's anxiety expressed during contacts at political level and through diplomatic channels. But at least on two different occasions the time frame had been delayed, first to April and thereafter to August, this year. Came August and the All-Party Representative Conference (APRC) could agree on all but one thing - continue to deliberate until they are able to put together a set of proposals. For months and weeks such a reality has been evading them and it is not clear whether such set of proposals would emerge anytime in the near future. This aspect was further underscored when a statement from the Presidential Secretariat said, "The Sri Lanka side explained the steps taken by the Government to expedite the work of the All-Party Representative Conference so as to find a lasting solution to the conflict".

From the brief statement, it seemed the two sides discussed humanitarian issues, the development of the Eastern Province, combating terrorism and devolving power "as a means of finding a solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka".

However, no sooner this statement was issued by the Sri Lankan side, the Indian Government has issued a rebuttal saying that the part in the statement saying that an 'Indo-Sri Lanka Committee of high officials on defence related matter' was not known to them. The appointment of this Committee was also posted on the Sri Lankan Government web-sites. How on earth the Sri Lanka Presidential Secretariat could have come to that conclusion is the question now.

Despite faithful claims time and again, the possibility of the APRC being able to put together a set of proposals has become more and more distant. Thus, the prospects of political proposals portending an end to the 'ethnic conflict' have become anything but a certainty. In the light of this, the escalation of the military campaign to newer levels brings in a different and greater dimension. Just weeks ago Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa declared during a passing out parade of personnel of the Civil Defence Force in the Anuradhapura District that Security Forces would soon set out to re-capture Tiger guerrilla strongholds in the North.

He was emphatic, as reported earlier, that the problems posed by LTTE guerrillas would not be left to another generation. He said the Government would not make the same mistakes made in the past when Governments let military advantages go waste. He also emphasized that the military hardware needed for such a major thrust was available. Only a few days later, the denial of the statement came from far away Malaysia. Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama told Reuters news agency in an interview that the Government had no plans for a military offensive in the North and appealed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to return to the negotiation table. But the LTTE did not respond in any way to the latter's offer. Not surprising at all. Long before Bogollagama's invitation, President Rajapaksa himself declared publicly that the Government would halt military offensives and return to talks only if LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran said they would come for talks. He had not done so. And Bogollagama's invite, it was clear, was of no consequence - except, maybe, to appease the Indian Government on the eve of the visit by the powerful triumvirate to New Delhi.

That Bogollagama's remarks were mere diplomatic balderdash was shown-up in next to no time. Just days later, Security Forces launched an offensive in the Silavathurai area, on the North-West coastline. The sparsely populated area is wedged between the Wilpattu National Park on the southern end and on the northern side by the defended localities of the Security Forces. The absence of contiguity in the guerrilla held areas of the Wanni prevented the deployment of larger strengths by Tiger cadres and the setting up of guerrilla camps in the area. However, there was still a guerrilla presence there. Groups were present regularly for a different reason. In the past several months, the LTTE had opened up safe houses in Tamil Nadu across the Palk Straits. There they were storing large quantities of medical supplies and ammunition among other items like fuel. They were smuggling in small stocks across the Gulf of Mannar, boat by boat, where the shallow draught prevented Navy vessels from conducting regular patrols. The Navy could use only small inshore patrol craft in this area. The material smuggled in by the guerrillas was later moved by boats hugging the coast to their locations elsewhere. The Security Forces offensive has now denied the guerrillas this facility.

Against this backdrop, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's visit to New Delhi assumed greater significance. Diplomatic sources say he briefed the Indian Prime Minister's National Security Advisor, R.K. Narayanan, on the military situation. Besides the accomplishments of the Security Forces in the East, and now at Silavathurai, according to these sources, the Defence Secretary spoke of counter-terrorist measures on the cards. That naturally centered on the North where the LTTE was now getting corralled into. The Government's official position is that the LTTE has been evicted completely from the East, and now from Silavathurai. What remains is only the North - and the Wanni.

The same sources said Indian authorities reiterated New Delhi's stance that a military approach is not the answer to the 'ethnic conflict'. They urged that a political settlement be found. Even the statement on this week's talks referred to India's "hope" that a solution would soon be found to the "just grievances" of the Sri Lankan Tamils through devolution of power. Indian concerns of a possible refugee exodus to that country in the event of a major military push in the North was also underscored, these sources said. It was pointed out that such developments would exacerbate feelings in Tamil Nadu and anger the LTTE sympathetic administration there, the sources added.

The trio had met Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and other top Indian officials. Their meeting comes weeks ahead of another planned visit to India by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though no date has been set, the visit is to take place before the end of this year.

New York extravagance

Whether the lack of any concurrence by New Delhi would make the Government change plans about its 'war on terror' in the North remains an important question. Quite apart from this factor, the launch of a major campaign in the coming weeks entails several minuses. Later this week, President Rajapaksa leaves for New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. He cannot be seen to be visiting foreign lands at a time when a military campaign is under way. On the other hand, the North-East monsoon is due to break in October when conditions in the battlefield will become difficult for troops. This is with the soil becoming soggy and thus battle tanks and troops carriers getting bogged down.

The Rajapaksa entourage to the UN General Assembly scheduled for September 25 will be more than 65 according to current estimates with the figure expected to rise. In a repetition of last year's tamasha in New York, most of the 60 Sri Lankan VIPs will be booked into the ritzy Ritz-Carlton hotel, where a Presidential or ministerial suite goes for US $ 2,500 (Rs. 275,000) per night, at the tax-payers' expense.

Locally, a significant event was the passage in Parliament of five (5) Money Bills. In reality, it seemed that the annual budget was this week with some of the financial proposals coming in first. These Bills were aimed at increasing direct and indirect taxes on items ranging from motor vehicles, to alcohol to mobile telephones in a bid to rake in billions of much needed revenue to a cash-strapped Government, also looking towards yet another major military offensive against the LTTE.

But the flip side of the event was another factor. The opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who love to hate each other, seemed very much like political love-birds last Thursday. Both voted against the Bills. It was reminiscent of the days when the Old Left, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the UNP got together to give then Prime Minister Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike's Government a work-out in Parliament, which eventually led to her resounding defeat in the 1977 elections. That is not all. After the electronic voting system was put into place for the first time in Sri Lanka's Parliamentary history, and Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, declared that the bills had been passed, the JVP joined the UNP in expressing its vehement protest. In short, they were furious.

Pandemonium was the order of the day as Standing Orders came into question, and Parliament was once again reduced to a sorry sight. The UNP especially was of high hopes that, together with the JVP, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), they could defeat the Government on these five controversial bills. They know, that the voters outside Parliament would also have appreciated them opposing these new taxes heaped upon them.

But the tables turned, and the Rajapaksa administration survived the scare. Despite the odds, and Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi voting against them, Ministers Bogollagama, Anura Bandaranaike, G.L. Peiris and Mahinda Samarasinghe out of the country, MPs Arjuna Ranatunga and Wijedasa Rajapaksa not being present to vote, the Government won by 106 to 81, a comfortable 25 vote majority.

Of the 22 TNA MPs, as many as 12 were absent. Of the JVP, four were in China on an official tour, one MP (Premawansa's) father had passed away and he was absent, the difficult Nandana Gunathillake was absent as well, totalling 18 absentees from the Opposition benches. Four UNP MPs, like former Finance Minister Kassi Choksy were indisposed and absent.

But the bottom-line seemed to be that it was the 17 UNP Defectors, now Ministers and Deputies in the Rajapaksa administration that really made the difference between victory and defeat for the Government. Simple arithmetic would show that had they remained in the UNP fold, the Government would have lost the vote.

So, it is safe to say that had the 17 UNP MPs remained in the Opposition, the Rajapaksa Government would have lost the vote on the 'mini-budget'. Sixteen of them (with the exclusion of Peiris) voted for the Government.

Last week, the UNP rebels went to court to prevent the party which they say they still belong to, from throwing them out. They asked for enjoining orders to stop the disciplinary action against them, and to hold that the appointment of Tissa Attanayake as UNP's General Secretary, was null and void.

Their argument on the second point is that the last annual convention of the UNP where Attanayake's appointment was ratified was illegal. Remember, the 17 UNPers were invited to, but did not attend the convention. Their argument is that the convention was not properly attended, in so far as the right number of delegates (numbering 55 each from 110 electorates), were not present at the convention. There seemed to be some truth in this argument that the convention was not representative of the country, as is required by the party constitution. It was one mad rush to hold the convention in the midst of internal problems with the UNP (D). D is for Democrats, they say - not Dissidents or Defectors.

Pre-emptive strike

This week, therefore, the UNP Leader pulled a rabbit out of his hat by getting Attanayake, together with UNP Chairman Rukman Senanayake to submit their resignations. Nobody other than them, and the Party lawyers seemed to know what was coming. The Party's Treasurer Tilak Karunaratne had already resigned on his own volition. When the Working Committee met on Tuesday, Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that Attanayake, Senanayake and Karunaratne had resigned from their posts already when the UNP (D) went to court, and according to the party constitution, the Leader was vested with the powers to appoint an interim Secretary, Chairman and Treasurer until the next Convention.

And so, Attanayake, Senanayake - and M. Swaminathan were appointed Secretary, Chairman and Treasurer in that order. By this move, the Party moved to pre-empt the UNP (D) from getting any advantage from any enjoining order against the UNP.

Not only was the UNP (D) determined to save their skin by preventing the UNP from functioning, they also wanted to publicise the fact. The same afternoon as they got a temporary reprieve from court, a complaint was lodged at the Kirullapone Police Station to the effect that some 100,000 printed posters titled "A Ja Pa ta vaaranayak" (Injunction on UNP) had been stored in the house of one of the leading 'Democrats'.

The complainant asked the question; how come the 'Democrats' knew of the court beforehand to print posters. Of course, in politics, these advance measures are taken in the hope of court victories etc., but the complaint had a definite deterrent effect on the victors. They desisted from defacing the city walls with those posters.

This time round, UNP headquarters has sent strict instructions to all party organisers to ensure that each electorate send a minimum of 55 representatives, with badges given to them, 10 of whom should be youth, 10 women etc., for the special convention fixed for today at Gatembe in Kandy. No more silly mistakes this time.

Not satiated, the UNP (D) went to court once again this Friday, with Ampara MP and Minister P. Dayaratne asking for a court order that his party, the UNP stick to the agenda at their Special Convention today.

UNP lawyers say that Article 10.4 of the party vonstitution prohibits the party from doing anything other than what is in the agenda anyway. The court exercise by Dayaratne being superfluous, they say that Dayaratne has now committed himself, and the rest of the UNP breakaway group to what is on the agenda, one of the items being that the Party will agitate with other parties and groups calling for an immediate General Election.

The other three items on the agenda are to map out a Non-violent; Direct Action strategy towards this agitation programme, and two other issues revolving around the party's Executive Committee and Working Committee modalities.

The Special Convention, is therefore, aimed at being a launching pad for the UNP's mass mobilisation programme towards calling for a Parliamentary General Election, an event which will be followed by a dhane (alms-giving) to 100 Buddhist monks and the lighting of 85,000 oil lamps at the Temple of the Tooth.

Meanwhile, the Working Committee also gave the authority to former Speaker Joseph Michael-Perera to go before the Bribery Commission and ask for an inquiry into the allegations made by the leader of the UNP (D), Karu Jayasuriya in no less a place than in Parliament that a pro-LTTE Tamil businessman, Charles Gnanakone had tried to bribe some of those in his group to cross-over back to the main UNP fold.

The mainstream UNP has taken the view that this Jayasuriya allegation is only a smokescreen to cover up the Opposition's allegations that it is the Government that gave a bribe to the LTTE to have the Tamil citizenry in the North and East boycott the 2005 Presidential Elections - and that Jayasuriya merely did a hatchet job for the Rajapaksa administration.
Different roads
While the once dilapidated UNP vehicle seems to have got some kind of overhaul, and turbo-boost from the advent of the National Congress with the breakaway SLFP (M), the two parties have, for the moment, decided to take different roads.

Last week, these columns reported how Ranil Wickremesinghe met former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the latter then met Mangala Samaraweera. During these discussions Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe had agreed that the SLFP identity must remain intact, and Samaraweera had indicated to the ex-President that they were concerned that the UNP might swallow up their fledgling faction in due course, and that it was imperative that the breakaway group charter its waters to keep its own identity in tact.

So, while Samaraweera opted to take his message to SLFPers in the countryside from this week, President Rajapaksa held his third major public meeting to rally round the faithful in Galle.

Inside the UNP though, the problems are far from over. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera seemingly has thrown a spanner in the works for its co-National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake.
Dissanayake has made his discontent plainly clear. It was after some cajoling that he decided to come on stage at the first public rally of the National Congress at Hyde Park in Colombo. And with guns blazing did he come that night.

Since then, a despondent feeling has sunk in. To make matters worse, upon his return from the USA on the eve of the Congress' Nittambuwa rally, Dissanayake had been told that he was not listed to speak.

Rumour had it that Kumaratunga was going to make an appearance, in one way or the other. Dissanayake was not happy with the thought. Others felt, should Kumaratunga appear, or not, Dissanayake on stage might make some disparaging remarks about his one-time idol and now pet-hate, in her own backyard.

Chairman Rukman Senanayake had told the party that the man was abroad. In this situation, S.B. Dissanayake was not listed to speak. And on his return, when Dissanayake made inquiries as to whether he was slotted to speak, UNP MP for the Gampaha district, Sarathchandra Rajakaruna is supposed to have told him "Uddin awa mehema karanna kiyala" There was an order from the top to do it like this.

With that, Dissanayake ducked attending the Nittambuwa meeting. He told the media that he was unable to attend because he had just returned from abroad, such a lame excuse that some newspapers did not think it fit to print it. To drive his hard-to-get point home, he then kept away from next week's National Congress rally at Ratnapura as well. Saying he would meet UNP Leader Wickremesinghe soon, he trotted another lame excuse saying he was in Badulla that day organising some protests in the Uva Province.

SB-Ranil meeting
It was this Monday that S.B. Dissanayake eventually met his party Leader. Both were in equal hyped-up moods when they met. Wickremesinghe let fly first by saying "You are our National Organiser. Where have you been?" To which, Dissanayake responded by asking questions about the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the UNP and the SLFP (M) to form the National Congress.

At one point Dissanayake asked if former President Kumaratunga would mount a common stage. Wickremesinghe replied saying that some UNPers would not like it, and pointed out that the ex-President had told him that she wanted to remain an SLFPer though she supports the National Congress.

The de-listing as a speaker at the Nittambuwa rally and the circumstances that led to it also came in for discussion.

Rukman Senanayake explained that they thought he was abroad, but Dissanayake muttered saying that Sarathchandra (Rajakaruna) does not have to tell lies to him (about orders from the top to drop him as a speaker).

Then, Dissanayake broached a moot point. He pointed out to the National Congress MoU and said that there was a provision in it that disqualified a person who has been convicted by a court of contesting elections. He said that this was Mangala Samaraweera's idea to keep him out of politics.

Ranil Wickremesinghe countered by saying that this provision was aimed at keeping out frauds and common criminals and not 'political prisoners', to which category he belonged. "The UNP" said its leader, "named him as a political prisoner during the period he was in jail".

Dissnayake was not convinced. He kept on saying this was a Samaraweera conspiracy. And Wickremesinghe kept trying to re-assure him. "I'm there, noh, why worry about the future", he said.

Gampaha district MP John Amaratunge and a Sinhala newspaper journalist were also present at the Wickremesinghe-Dissanayake meeting. Amaratunge said "SB, we will support you".

"Ova assan karata mata Mangala minihek newe" (Though you signed these agreements, Mangala is not of consequence to me), said Dissanayake dismissively. But he was concerned. This was borne by his remark when Wickremesinghe asked Dissanayake why he kept out of even the Ratnapura rally, he said "mage hitha hondatama upset wela thibune' My mind was in a confused state.

He then proceeded to complain that though he was Joint National Organiser, he did not even have a room for himself at the Party headquarters, which sounded a legitimate matter to shout about. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the other Joint National Orgnaiser Sarath Ranawake had a room for himself - not him.

Rukman Senanayake undertook to rectify that situation and provide S.B. Dissanayake with a room forthwith. This triggered a Battle for Rooms at 'Siri Kotha', the Party headquarters. At the moment the Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer have separate rooms upstairs with a fourth room shared by Dissanayake and the Deputy Secretary General and Secretary of the Trade Unions.
Downstairs, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, who is in charge of the Farmers Union, Ranawake and Vajira Abeywardene, who is are charge of Provincial Councils have separate rooms.

This has led to others, including some Assistant Secretaries demanding their own separate rooms, and Siri Kotha might be soon following in the footsteps of Parliament where the introduction of a jumbo Cabinet leads to partitioning of rooms for Ministers, and making them smaller and smaller - but separate no doubt.

For the moment, the restless soul of S.B. Dissanayake has been calmed for all intents and purposes. He has agreed to visit all the electorates and re-organise the party branches, a major fundamental shortcoming in the Colombo-centric UNP machinery. Reports have reached the party hierarchy that Government Ministers are also reaching out to Dissanayake with the obvious aim of neutralising a politician who has the ability to reach out to the masses.

It seems to be his unfortunate situation, that both sides would like to have him, but at arms-length. As the Americans would say of such a politician, it’s better him peeing out from inside, than in from outside.

Non-violent campaign

The furore in Parliament on Thursday, spilled over to Friday, and now the Opposition is taking up the position that the Tax Bills were not properly approved by Parliament. Both the UNP and the JVP took up the position that the e-voting system in Parliament was defective, and that they had asked for a division - which means a count by name of each MP. The Speaker, they allege, had not done so and announced a 106-81 victory to the Government on the first of the five Bills. There was no dispute in the second Bill before the House, so the Speaker seems to have announced its passage as well without a properly going through the motion of having the Bill properly, and procedurally approved. Then, in the midst of the commotion, the Speaker had rushed through all the other Bills without putting them each to vote, the Opposition alleges.

There is now talk that, like Mahatma Gandhi's campaign to oppose the Salt Tax in Colonial India, the Opposition will launch a satyagraha campaign of civil disobedience to oppose these taxes. Today's Special Convention of the UNP has an item for non-violent direct-action against the Government. This may be the catalyst for such action.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.