ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 2, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 40
Columns - Political Column  

Mahinda-Ranil talks: Bubble and babel

  • President pushes for 13th amendment; UNP pushes for 17th-but little progress
  • JVP creates conflict within conflict by attacking India

By Our Political Editor

United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians, 32 of them to be precise, gathered in a beach resort in the southern town of Ahungalla, on Wednesday and Thursday to ponder over the formulation of a national policy. Seven of them did not attend.

But for those who did, it was a gala event culminating in a 'surprise' birthday party thrown in for the young MP from Matara, Sagala Ratnayaka. It was serious political deliberation by day and karaoke singing by night with young Sajith Premadasa, easily the best vocalist.

Such a national policy though, to be finalised after a series of consultations with organisations and members of the public at provincial and district level, will come out in the form of a public document in May, this year. The workshop, criticised for being held at a luxury hotel, anything but at grass-roots, also discussed other issues like, strategy; the abrogation of the ceasefire agreement; terrorism; media; grass-root organisations; etc., However, the gathering became even more important because of discussions on another vital issue, viz., the Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa two day's earlier.

Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Monday

It was the President who initiated the dialogue when the two met at the unveiling of the portrait of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Rajapaksa had suggested that the two meet. Later, the President's Office had telephoned and asked for some convenient dates. Wickremesinghe had given some dates, but there was no comeback. Then, on the 21st of last month, another call had come and asking for fresh dates. Wickremesinghe had given any date other than the Wednesday when the UNP was having its workshop at Ahungalla.

So on Monday, Wickremesinghe informed the Political Affairs Committee that he was going. His mandate was to discuss the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and ask the President why he was desisting from appointing the Constitutional Council. He took party chairman Rukman Senanayake and constitutional expert Kasi Choksy with him. The President had Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Maithripala Sirisena, Tissa Vitharana and Wiswa Warnapala with him.

The meeting centred on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, matters relating to the All Party Representatives Conference (APRC) and establishing the Constitutional Council in accordance with the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, but it was the President who opened the discussion by saying that the UNP had not made its stand known on the 13th Amendment.

Rajapaksa opened the discussion in Sinhala, but Wickremesinghe replied in English. He said, "We are waiting for the final report of the APRC. As far as the 13th Amendment is concerned, it is the law of the land. The Government must implement the law of the land".

The President then continued; "Okkama ekata inna oney" (Everyone must be together) and explained the need for unity in the face of terrorism."Eka aanduwakwath keruwe naa, mama thamai karanne" (No Government has done it, only I have), he said referring to the decision to squash terrorism, " Api okkama ekathuwela karanna oney" (We must stand together and do this).

Minister Fernandopulle went back to the 13th Amendment and asked the UNP to work within the APRC. Wickremesinghe was to say that Choksy was in touch with APRC chairman Tissa Vitharana, and discussing matters, but that Vitharana could not even get the support of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which supports the Government to support his original report. The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which are part of the Rajapaksa Government also scuttled the Vitharana report, he said.

Wickremesinghe said that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was not supporting even the 13th Amendment. He advised the President to speak to all these parties first and try and get their support. Vitharana admitted that Choksy had been discussing devolution issues with him, and that he had been helpful in these discussions. The President then said he hoped to hold Provincial Council elections in the Eastern Province after the local council elections in Batticaloa later this month. Fernandopulle asked the UNP leader why the party did not contest these elections.

Wickremesinghe was to say that it were the UNP candidates and supporters who had suffered the most due to election violence in the East. He said that as long as armed militant groups were operating in the area, his party would find it difficult to contest elections. "Some of our candidates have been stolen as well", he said.

The discussion revolved around the Pillayan group, the off-shoot of the Karuna faction of the LTTE, and the backing they were getting from the Government. The UNP delegation was told that they were armed to protect themselves from the LTTE. When Rajapaksa insisted on holding Provincial Council elections, Wickremesinghe replied "You can hold elections, but whether we contest under these circumstances is another matter".

With this seeming impasse, Wickremesinghe went from the 13th Amendment to the 17th Amendment and asked the President what he was doing about that. The President began by fending the issue saying that he was waiting for the Parliamentary Select Committee report before deciding what to do.

The UNP delegation took up the position that the Select Committee had not met for six months, and was packed by MPs who were appointed in July 2006 when they were in the Opposition, and have now defected to the Government.

At which point, the President spoke forcefully saying "Mage balathala gaththe eya" (My powers were taken by her), a reference to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga permitting the 17th Amendment. Then he said, "Kavuru kivvath mama path karanne naa" (Whoever says it, I will not appoint), a reference to not appointing the designated members to the Constitutional Council. That seems to put paid to all the speculation whether the President was going to permit the Constitutional Council ever get started - despite all the howling by the UNP, the JVP and civil society organisations.

Despite the fact that no firm outcome resulted from the summit talks, with Wickremesinghe being stubborn on supporting the President on the APRC proposals and contesting elections in the East, and Rajapaksa returning the compliment by his stubbornness on the 17th Amendment, the meeting ended in a cordial note.

On the way out, the President asked a Deputy Inspector General of Police present, and Wickremesinghe's own personal security officer, his namesake, SSP Wickremesinghe why he (the President) was not informed of the Opposition Leader's official vehicle being in need of repairs. The matter had transpired earlier in Parliament, when the Opposition leader had to travel in his private car because of the frequent breakdowns of his official car, and the Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake had promised to look into the matter.

Wickremesinghe told the President that he will need to be kept informed every other day, because of the regularity with which the car had to be sent to the garage for repairs. Rajapaksa laughed and said to tell him anyway.

What was possibly more worrisome though, was the breakdown in the political rapport between the Government and the Opposition. On Wednesday, Wickremesinghe told UNP MPs at Ahungalla, that he felt that President Rajapaksa had wanted to hear from him that the party was opposed to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution being implemented.

"To the contrary, we told him it was a UNP Government that was responsible for this Constitutional Amendment. We are in favour of the 13th Amendment being implemented in full," he said. However, Wickremesinghe said, they declined Rajapaksa's appeal for UNP to re-enter the APRC process. In turn, Rajapaksa rejected Wickremesinghe's appeal not to delay any further the appointment of the Constitutional Council, he said.

Wickremesinghe said the President had felt this was a grand design by the international community and he was not willing to pay heed to it. Thus, pleas for a Constitutional Council, at least for the time being, would be out of the question. Wickremesinghe also said that some party stalwarts were not in favour of his going for the meeting with Rajapaksa.

By taking part in the meeting, without doubt, Wickremesinghe had averted accusations both in Sri Lanka and abroad that he was reluctant to discuss national issues with the President. To that extent, he seemed right. However, since the meeting, he had left behind a trail of lapses that have not only confused a larger segment of his party but also the public. It was just weeks ago, that he joined party seniors to plaster walls in the City of Colombo with posters in what seemed the beginning of an aggressive campaign against the Government. On top of that, the party hierarchy had also decided that by May, this year, they would launch a major campaign against the Government over spiralling cost of living, curtailment of media freedom and mounting corruption.

Both Sri Lankan (print, radio and TV) and the foreign media were full of accounts on the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa meeting. Interesting enough almost every account was attributed to a leading member of the Government, like for example, Ministers Maithripala Sirisena and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. They gave it a positive spin that the UNP had agreed to back the Government on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The implication was that the main opposition party was in accord with Government policy to militarily defeat the LTTE whilst offering the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as the political solution to the ethnic issue.

In reality, the outcome was negative even by Wickremesinghe's own admission that Rajapaksa thought UNP would oppose the move. The former had pointed out it was a UNP Government that was responsible for the 13th Amendment in the Constitution. Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) opposition then had opposed it. Rather tongue in cheek Rajapaksa had responded that he was still opposed to it. However, the APRC had recommended it. It was therefore incumbent on him to ensure that was acted upon, he had said.

Where Wickremesinghe lost out was in not getting his party to issue an official statement setting out his, and his party's point of view or position on the talks with Rajapaksa. Such a move would have helped not only the UNPers but also a larger mass of the public to learn the party's position. Instead, by allowing the Government's spin to prevail, Wickremesinghe only succeeded in further eroding his public perception. They were left with the feeling that he was taking his party along to support the Government. That lapse, at a time when the party could seize the momentum arising from public anger amongst other matters against cost of living and corruption, to say the least, is to allow another major opportunity to slip.

Yet, the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is a task that the Government could carry out on its own since it does not require any Parliamentary approval. It was an administrative matter. Why then did Rajapaksa choose to invite Wickremesinghe? The reason came from an unusual quarter, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Their parliamentary group leader and propaganda secretary told a discussion at JVP headquarters in Battaramulla it was India's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad, who was the architect of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa meeting. He charged that the Indian High Commissioner was having grand designs once more in Sri Lanka and High Commissioner Prasad was busy spearheading it.

Having launched a tirade against India, the JVP's concerns are understandable. At one time it was the JVP which gave life to the Rajapaksa administration by voting in favour of them at the final voting of the budget. The fact that the Government survived only for that reason is well known. Now, having done the government that favour, the JVP finds itself isolated amidst moves by India to ensure a rapport between the Government and the UNP. That fact that India wanted to ensure a dialogue is admitted by some UNPers too. They say the Indian move had also won endorsement from the United States of America.

Days ahead of the Wickremesinghe - Rajapaksa dialogue, the JVP's anti-India tirade was the subject of discussion at a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group. A decision was taken to strongly defend the role of India both inside and outside parliament.

This was whilst the JVP continued to step up its attacks on India. Their leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe, turned up for a meeting of the Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) on Wednesday. He was armed with books and tea from Bogawantalawa which he distributed to FCA members. During his speech, Amerasinghe accused India of "engaging in cross border terrorism" and charged that New Delhi was trying to return to the path of intervention like in the 1980s.

In Bush-tone, Somawansa Amarasinghe said "India is leading the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) evil axis in Sri Lanka. The administrations in New Delhi, Brussels, Oslo, Washington and Tokyo are the key partners in this campaign. We are very concerned about this evil design." The R2P concept to intervene in failed states where a Government cannot protect its citizens first surfaced during the UN sponsored World Leaders Summit in 2005. It was advocated by the International Crisis Group (ICG) whose head visited Sri Lanka last year.

Pointing out that R2P meant "Right to Plunder," Amerasinghe said the Provincial Councils system in Sri Lanka was introduced when India held the then Government at gun point. He said his party would "vehemently reject" the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution because it was illegal and emanated from the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987. He said his party "completely rejected" the proposals of the APRC. He said the 39 MPs of the JVP held the balance of power in Parliament. Under no circumstances would they allow the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Amerasinghe, however, added that his party was fully supportive of the ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. "We must ensure national security and defeat terrorism at any cost. The troops will capture Wanni very soon," he declared. He likened the LTTE to that of a "fully blown Pappadam. It was cracking," he said. Amerasinghe was also to say that the Indian bureaucracy was misleading Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. India had supported cross-border terrorism in the 1980s, then they intervened militarily. He said the present Indian Government should not pursue that path.

Students of politics will recall the origin of the JVP, and Somawansa Amarasinghe is one of the original leaders of that party, when they indoctrinated young men and women with the doctrine of Indian Expansionism and the evils thereof. If that was in the 1971 insurgency, then used the Indo-Lanka Agreement to unleash a boycott of Indian goods.

The 13th Amendment is meant to take the country forward. And so too, the 17th Amendment. It seems, both are poised for doing anything but that.

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