The Political Column

21st April 1996

Port rides out LTTE storm

By Our Political Correspondent

The LTTE's abortive attack last week on the Colombo Port has undoubtedly sent shock waves through the establishment, since such an attack if it succeeded could have created chaos in the country.

True, that the Indians have assured fullest co-operation to the government of Sri Lanka in such a disaster, but the Colombo Port means the nerve centre for Sri Lanka's economic activity if one considers the Central Bank as the heart.

The recent attack carried out by the LTTE on the Central Bank put the LTTE mind in perspective that it is all out to destroy Sri Lanka's economic structure. The LTTE has realised that economic targets would give it more far reaching benefits than political assassinations which give short-term benefits for its cause.

With all this information now available to the government's intelligence network, the authorities have not been able to take adequate measures to prevent such attacks.

Nobody could rule out that there would not be a second attack on the Port and if not for the two vigilant guards who spotted the two LTTE frogmen in the deep waters inside the Port, things could have been different today.

Though the government had declared the area as a surveillance zone during the tenure of President D. B. Wijetunga and entrusted the security to the Sri Lanka Navy, there are doubts whether the Navy had discharged its duties effectively and efficiently to make it a safer area for the vessels calling over at Colombo.

In November last year, the International War Risk Rating Committee identified Sri Lanka as a war-risk zone which prompted the international insurance agencies to increase their premium on vessels calling over at the Port of Colombo. This resulted in the price increase of every item reaching Colombo, and there is speculation now that they may revise these rates with the international news agencies ticking away with the news of the recent attempt on the Colombo Port. However it was the very prospect of such an attack which prompted the hike in premia, and a further increase may not be sustainable.

The aborted attack on the Port, however, prompted Minister M. H. M. Ashraff to take a series of emergency measures. Mr. Ashraff himself was in Colombo on Friday the 12th when the incident took place.

After a full days work on Thursday, M. M. Junaid, the Secretary to the Ministry of Ports, had gone to Nuwara Eliya the previous night to bring his children back home. But early in the morning the Minister telephoned the Secretary to break the news of the Port attack which prompted Mr. Junaid to rush back to Colombo.

At the time the Chairman of the Port Authority, Sundra Jayawardana, was in India and the Deputy Minister Mahinda Wijesekara was in Kataragama. The Minister immediately moved to summon the Deputy Minister to Colombo and in the evening they had a meeting with the security top brass to evaluate the gravity of the situation.

It was felt that the Sri Lanka Navy which was in-charge of providing security for the vital Colombo Port had not discharged its responsibility adequately.

The Minister along with the Secretary and Commodore Amaraweera of the Sri Lanka Navy took a ride along the South entrance, North entrance up to Palliyawatte to obtain a first hand idea as to how the LTTE had planned the attack.

It was observed that an alert guard on the Northern entrance could not have missed a tug or craft passing through any of the main entrances.

Port security

The country craft (vallam) that entered through the Northern entrance was spotted only after it entered the waters of the Port, they fired RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenades) indiscriminately causing damage to two ships. One RPG hit the Mercs Maho, but above its oil level. The Mercs Maho had just arrived from a voyage to KKS and another vessel of Japanese origin carrying vehicles was hit on the hull.

The LP Gas tanker which was anchored had already unloaded its cargo and so had the vessel carrying three fighter aircraft to Sri Lanka from Israel.

The attack has compelled Port officials to think of alternate places to reduce the congestion in the Port and right now they are contemplating directing some vessels to the Galle Port.

In the meantime, the committee appointed by Minister Ashraff has recommended a series of changes to update the security at the Colombo Port.

The committee has recommended that a special coast guard unit be set up to cover the coast from Bambalapitiya to Palliyawatte in Wattala.

It has also recommended that more security men be deployed to guard the entrance of the Hamilton canal. It has also identified the Fisheries Harbour, Lellama, Modera, Kotahena and Grandpass areas as possible launching pads and recommended that residents should be evicted and the area brought under the control of the Competent Authority.

A firm request is to be made to the government intelligence network to gather intelligence and report to the relevant authorities in time to prevent inordinate delays in implementing contingency plans.

Meanwhile the Navy has asked for six additional craft since the existing fleet is inadequate for rapid reaction.

The Navy will also get highly sophisticated equipment which will detect any suspicious objects moving underwater.

It also hopes to construct obstacles similar to those used during the world war to prevent entry to the Port. Additional methods such as obstacles for divers and underwater saboteurs will also be introduced shortly.

As a method of detecting plastic explosives, the committee has considered sniffer dogs but as a sniffer dog is only effective or will work accurately only up to an hour a day and for a 24 hour operation the committee states that the Port will need 24 dogs per gate which is impracticable. Other alternatives including the normal X-ray machines have been recommended.

As far as export cargo is concerned, the committee is of the view that the containers should be packed in the presence of a police officer not below the rank of a Sub-Inspector detailed by the Officer-In-Charge of the Police Station of the area, and a sealed certificate should be carried by the exporter in addition to the customs certificate.

The Ports Authority will request the Inspector General of Police for a vetting report on all the exporters. A list of names of these exporters will be provided by the Ports Authority for this purpose and this will enable various police stations throughout the country to act on the directives of the IGP. Another important recommendation made by the committee is the procedure to be followed when sensitive military cargo is imported.

The committee is of the view that the importer should ensure that the cargo be received through a shipping line of his choice and not the choice of the shipper. Such shipping lines should consider these shipments to be highly confidential.

Bills of Lading and any other information should only be furnished to the importer who in turn will communicate with the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the Military only.

In respect of discharging of Liquid Petroleum gas, the committee recommends that this operation should be carried out well outside the Port.

The gas company will shortly be informed to make suitable arrangements for this purpose.

It was also pointed out that secrecy should be maintained when importing military cargo and that adequate precautionary measures be taken when dealing with such matters.

Besides, the Port of Colombo, attention these days is also focused on the commission probing the assassination of the DUNF leader, Lalith Athulathmudali.

The unnamed witness who gave evidence before the commission made some sensational disclosures incriminating UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray early last week. There were rumours in Colombo that Mr. Cooray might be arrested on the strength of the evidence given by the unnamed witness.

Mr. Cooray acted fast. He wrote to the commission saying he wanted to clear his name.

In a letter Mr. Cooray said news reports based on the evidence given by the unnamed witness, gave the impression that he was supportive of the alleged criminal activities of Soththi Upali who is now in custody. Mr. Cooray vehemently denied this, saying that it was a total fabrication while expressing his willingness to give evidence to clear the air.

Some observers however, see the evidence of the unnamed witness as a political manoeuvre of some interested parties to prevent Mr. Cooray from taking to politics after reports appeared in newspapers that Mr. Cooray would lead the UNP, Colombo Municipal Council team at the local government elections. They also think that it is a move by the government to prevent a possible link up between the UNP and the NDUNLF led by Minister Srimani Athulathmudali, a move that is likely to isolate her.

Ms. Athulathmudali would obviously not want to have anything to do with the UNP if convinced that the UNP was responsible for the death of her husband.

At the same time this would create problems for the UNP which at this juncture needs the support of both Mr. Cooray and Ms. Athulathmudali.

When reports of the sensational evidence given by the unnamed witness appeared in the newspapers, Mr. Cooray's house was enundated with calls. But Mr. Cooray was away for a week. Among the visitors were President's Press Secretary Sanath Gunatilleke who had a long association with Mr. Cooray since the former's UNP days. Even "Soththi Upali" was known to Mr. Gunatilleke as a person who supported his campaign when he contested the Provincial Council Elections under the UNP ticket.

Mr. Gunatilleke having failed to meet Mr. Cooray left a message asking him to contact him.

Simultaneously, a powerful minister has sent a message to Mr. Cooray that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has nothing to do with this exercise and that it was Minister Athulathmudali who had wanted it. But Mr. Cooray, unshaken by all these cross currents is actively involved in organising the R. Premadasa commemoration day which falls on May 1.

Apparently burying the hatchet with the widow of the former President, Mr. Cooray has written to Ms. Premadasa inviting her to participate in the commemoration ceremony to be held under the auspicious of Premadasa Centre.

He has also written to all the residents of the Colombo Central to participate in this ceremony expecting a large turnout.

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is scheduled to deliver a speech along with the Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera. The former President of the Bar Association, Desmond Fernando, will deliver the welcome speech.

It is likely that Ms. Premadasa would actively participate in organising the commemoration ceremony which is intended to pay a fitting tribute to her late husband. Such a move might help end confrontational politics in the UNP. The latest effort among the UNPers in the circumstances is to bring Srimani Athulathmudali back to fold to form a formidable opposition to the government.

But the possibility of Ms. Athulathmudali's entry to the UNP would take some time and will totally depend on the PA's approach towards solving the ethnic crisis and its attitude towards her party. It was no secret that President Kumaratunga has recently clashed with Minister Athulathmudali over certain clauses in the political package.

At a meeting on Monday, February 12, on the devolution package, President Kumaratunga virtually told Ms. Athulathmudali toe the government's line or go.

The confrontation came at a crisis meeting between the President and the leaders of the PAs constituent parties following charges by Ms. Athulathmudali and others that they were not properly consulted on the legal draft of the devolution package.

The Tamil United Liberation Front is also facing difficulties on account of the devolution package.

The LTTE is apparently pressurising TULF MPs from Batticaloa to resign their seats as a protest against the government's inability to solve the ethnic crisis. Though this, the LTTE hopes to draw the attention of the international community and would make use of the opportunity to solicit some sympathy for it.

At present, there are three TULF members representing Batticaloa - Mr. Joseph Pararajasingham, Mr. Thurairajasingham and Mr. Selvarajah.

Mr. Pararajasingham has apparently received a letter from the LTTE.

Following this, the other two MPs had sought a meeting with LTTE's Batticaloa leader Karikalan and the meeting was scheduled to take place on Wednesday. But to the dismay of these two MP's, the LTTE representatives had not turned up for the meeting.

This would really worry the Batticaloa MPs as to what stand the LTTE would take on their matter.

Of the three MPs, Mr. Pararajasingham appears to be more sensitive to the LTTE attitude towards them than the others in the TULF.

On every occasion the emergency is extended, Mr. Pararajasingham has wanted to oppose the move by calling for a division, while the others were not over keen on this. However, Mr. Pararajasingham's move was later ratified by the TULF and at present the party has resolved to oppose the extension of emergency by calling for a division in the House. This has caused problems for TULF's key people such as Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam who authorised the devolution package along with Constitutional Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris.

It is not only to the TULF The LTTE has also caused problems for the Congress (I) Jayalalitha alliance in Tamil Nadu. The Indians fear that an offensive at this juncture in the Northern peninsula would be counter productive to the Congress (I) Jayalalitha alliance.

In the circumstances the Indian government had reportedly requested Sri Lanka to put off battle plans to capture Vadamarachchi and Thenmarachchi till the Indian elections were over. The government here considered this request but on astrological advice, a new operation condemned Riviresa II was launched on Friday April 19, the first anniversary of the day on which the LTTE shattered the 1995 ceasefire. Along with the operation the government also re-imposed censorship on military news as it did during Riviresa I.

The order to impose the censorship came from the Defence Ministry. Media Ministry Secretary Edmond Jayasinghe was called to the Defence Ministry and briefed by Deputy Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte on what he should do. He was directed to take necessary steps to see that the media censorship was implemented.

They decided to appoint Information Director Ariya Rubasinghe as the Competent Authority. Mr. Rubasinghe had in the meanwhile left for China as a part of an advance media team to report on President Kumaratunga's visit there, but he has been asked to return immediately.

After the briefing at the Defence Ministry, Mr. Jayasinghe summoned a meeting of the heads of the government controlled media institutions.

At the commencement of the meeting Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake said the Secretary would brief them.

Mr. Senanayake was apparently unhappy over the manner in which the government decided to clamp down a media censorship on news relating to the war. He was unaware of this decision until the Secretary was so informed by the Defence Ministry.

Meanwhile political events in Tamil Nadu are watched with great concern here. In Tamil Nadu the Congress (I) is on a bad wicket after its strongman there, E. K. Moopanar left the party to form the Tamil Nadu Makkal Congress.

This came soon after Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced an alliance between the Congress (I) and the AIADMK led by chief minister Jayalalitha.

Be it India, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the ruling parties are facing problems as far as the elections are concerned.

In our country, the government has decided under emergency laws to extend the life of all local bodies till December but the Minister in-charge of the subject has been given the power to hold elections to the local bodies on staggered basis. The opposition UNP is opposing this vehemently.

The UNP top brass who learnt about the latest gazette notification on Thursday were discussing how they should oppose this move.

They went through the UNP's 17-years regime to ascertain whether the UNP at any stage staggered the local elections.

It was evident that in 1987 the UNP government held the elections for the Provincial Councils on a staggered basis but it was under a very special circumstances where the JVP was holding out a threat against the government. The JVP opposed the setting up of Provincial Councils.

The UNP issued a statement opposing the move by the government after a careful study.

While the government was making use of emergency regulations to extend the life of local authorities, the Constitutional Reforms Committee which met last week discussed ways and means of giving more freedom to MPs to vote in Parliament according to their conscience and to cross the floor in line with democratic principles.

MPs freedom

At the last meeting Minister G. L. Peiris said the present conditions that limited an MP's freedom in taking important decisions, even if he does not agree with his party stand, is something that needs correction.

Before the 1978 constitution a member of Parliament enjoyed the right to vote against the party's directive and to cross the floor. The '78 constitution put a halt to this freedom and according to the present provision he could be sacked and expelled from Parliament if he does not toe the party lime.

Minister Peiris did not suggest a return to the former position but he inquired whether some provision could be made where a member of Parliament is allowed to vote against his party's decision and should be allowed to contest a by-election where he could vindicate his position and return to Parliament.

For this purpose, Minister Peiris said, the district from which the MP had been returned would be considered as the electorate for the by-election.

UNP MP, A. C. S. Hameed, said if the district was to be the constituency then no minority MP could hope to exercise this right outside the North and the East. Minister Indika Gunawardene suggested that every candidate be requested to declare in his nomination paper a seat (a polling division) he would prefer to contest in the event of a by-election being held.

Deputy Minister Vishwa Warnapala pointed out that Minister Gunawardene's proposal would meet with certain difficulties in implementation since every political party submits for every district more names than required by the district.

Mr. Hameed interjected to say that after a General Election political parties can be asked to assign their MPs in each district to particular constituencies for the purpose of by-elections.

The Select Committee did not arrive at any conclusions. The discussions would be continued when the Select Committee meets again on May 10.

Besides these, the other important event of the week was the 80th birthday celebrations of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Her achievements in the political field during the past 36 years were vividly portrayed in a photographic exhibition at the BMICH.

Special receptions were also held at her old school, St. Bridget's Convent and at the Captain's Garden Kovil under the auspicious of the CWC. In the absence of the CWC Leader S. Thondaman, his grandson Arumugam Thondaman took the burden of organising this ceremony, an opportunity for him to make an appearance as one of the leaders of the CWC.

Mr. Thondaman is in India for a few days and is expected to be back soon in view of the impending strike by the estate workers.

All the efforts for a negotiated settlement of the proposed strike have failed up to now, and most of the key government people were not available over the weekend for more talks. The President's depature to China this week closed all the doors for a negotiated settlement over the weekend, and now it is obvious that the estate strike would go on as planned, crippling the tea production and thereby causing serious problems to the country's economy.

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