The Political Column

28th April 1996

PA Govt. up Mulberry tree

By Our Political Correspondent

The government is heading for stormy weather with its own rank and file agitating against the postponement of local elections.

A majority in the 45 member Mulberry Group of the PA feel that by putting off the elections the government has virtually admitted its inability to face the opposition.

Besides the Mulberry Group, it might be the CWC which would cause more problems for the government when it joins hands with the opposition to bring in a motion of no confidence against Plantation Industries Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake.

As for the Mulberry Group members, their anxieties are understandable since they believe the back benchers of the PA are still with the people though some Ministers are not inclined to agree.

In the circumstances, they are charging that the postponement of the polls was in effect solely at the request of the Ministers who are not in a position to face the people.

The MP's categorically state that they are ready to face elections but the Ministers are not for obvious reasons.

In the circumstances they feel that they should take this matter up with the party hierarchy at a group meeting, failing which they would take the matter to the people.

The Mulberry Group members feel left out of what they see as an arbitrary decision of the government regarding elections, taken without consulting them.

The other matter which has irked the group is the extension of the state of emergency to cover the whole country.

Though the group had no alternative but to vote with the government during the last emergency debate, it was very unhappy with the government on the matter.

The government's apparent indifference towards the sentiments expressed by the Mulberry Group had angered them and they are likely to resort to more drastic measures if the government refuses to listen to them in the future.

In this backdrop they have decided to set up a pressure group within the Mulberry Group comprising ten members to mobilise more support for the cause.

They are scheduled to meet on May 7 and 8 to decide on a course of action.

An incident that took place during the celebrations held to felicitate Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike on her 80th birthday at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium a week ago has also annoyed the members of this group.

When the members arrived at the Indoor Stadium to attend the "Vishwa Prasadini" award ceremony they were directed to the VIP enclosure at the balcony.

Members who watched what was happening right down in the hall saw another enclosure allocated for VVIPs and to their dismay they spotted several "Mudalalis", local businessmen seated in the VVIP enclosure. So some decided to walk out.

But others prevented them. Instead the members went round and sat behind the Press enclosure in protest.

Group action

When the security at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium informed the organisers about the decision of the members of the Mulberry Group, Ministers S.B. Dissanayake and Richard Pathirana invited them to take their seats in the VVIP enclosure. At this stage, Janaka Bandara Tennekoon said they would be more comfortable with the ordinary people, while others said when it comes to voting in parliament for bills and related matters the Ministers would have to get the people seated in the VVIP enclosure to vote for them.

The agitation of the Mulberry Group is likely to go a long way specially at a time when the Ceylon Workers Congress prepares to bring in a vote of no confidence against the Minister of Plantation Industries.

Plantations Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake is already facing problems with the Mulberry Group on the role he played in the election of Basnayake Nilame of the Ruhunu Kataragama Devalaya which went to the proprietor of the Yasoda Enterprises, Yasasiri Kasturiarachchi.

Most members of the Mulberry Group refused to speak when the votes of Mr. Wickramanayake's Ministries were taken up during the recent budget debate. The other Ministers who had earned the wrath of the Mulberry Group were Nimal Siripala de Silva and S.B. Dissanayake for the supportive role they played in the same matter.

It will be interesting to see how the Mulberry Group will react to the CWC's move.

The CWC executive committee which met last week at Arumugam Thondaman's bungalow in Hatton made a decision to bring a vote of no-confidence against the Minister.

Soon after they decided on this matter, the younger Thondaman got through to his grandfather who was in Madras. Thondaman senior said he would be returning today to make a final decision on the matter.

The next move of the CWC is to stage a month-long strike to win its demands. However it is likely that the CWC would end its week-long strike today.

Arumugam Thondaman, in his capacity as the general secretary of the CWC wrote a letter to Minister Wickramanayake on Friday describing the Minister's recent statement to the media as a threat to the plantation workers. Mr. Thondaman's letter says:

"By my letter of 18th April '96 I had clearly and unambiguously outlined the reasons why the CWC cannot accept the 300 days wage work offered to the plantation workers by the Companies and articulated by you that there is an assurance to ensure 300 days of wages per annum subject to significant vagaries of nature in all estates where the labour force is at an optimum under this arrangement workers will get 25 days wages per month on the average while minimum of 18 days wages per month will be assured".

"It should be apparent to the meanest intelligence who has a basic knowledge on the situation prevailing on the plantations that the Management Companies have consistently claimed that labour on the estates is in excess of requirement.

"In this context the package that had been offered to you by the Companies is a cleverly concealed trap that you have walked into.

"The CWC has clearly and unambiguously stated the justification for the loading of the balance Budgetary Cost of Living Adjustment to their wages due from 1993 and the latest Budgetary allowance granted through the budget of 1995 not only to the Management Companies but also to Her Excellency the President and to yourself as the Minister responsible for the plantation industry.

It is within the knowledge of the Government that the CWC would be embarking on a token strike from 22nd to 27th April '96 in order to focus attention on the justification for Trade Union action and the resolve of the plantation workers to obtain two demands that are fundamental to the work and life of the plantation workers and to remove the discrimination practiced against them.

"In this background the statement that you as the Minister responsible for the Plantation Industry had made to the Virakesari Tamil Newspaper on 24th April '96 that if the workers resort to Trade Union action there is a possibility of the withdrawal of the package, which in any case had been rejected by the workers who are exercising their fundamental rights to resort to trade union demonstration and to you being a spokesman for the employers.

"We feel that your threat is an affront not only to the plantation workers but also to the trade union movement as a whole and has succeeded in projecting an image that you are totally insensitive to the hopes, aspirations and the needs of the largest labour force in the country who at the same time continue to sustain Sri Lanka's economy.

"Therefore, please take note that as a logical conclusion of your threat held out against the plantation workers, you have demonstrated your anti-union attitude, hostility to union pressures and has consequently lost the confidence of plantation workers to approach their problems with understanding and equanimity and you are not a respecter of the fundamental rights of trade union action enjoyed by the workers of this country and therefore the plantation workers have no confidence in you to function as the Minister responsible for the industry."

Meanwhile, a delegation of the CWC led by Arumugam Thondaman met UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday to discuss the proposed no-confidence motion and to canvass UNP's support for the purpose.

The Lanka Samasamaja Party which is part of the government alliance is also likely to support the CWC motion. The CWC will also try to canvass the support of the Tamil parties also to put the government in an awkward position.

But it is very unlikely that the other Tamil parties would support such a motion in Parliament against a government. The UNP would try to seize this opportunity to make its presence felt to the country.

However, they would insist that Minister Thondaman should back this motion while being in the government.

Besides this, the UNP is making effort to enter into a collision with the government.

The announcement made by the Chief Minister of the North Western Province, Nimal Bandara that he intends to take over police powers stipulated in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution will no doubt lead to a direct clash between the government and the Provincial Council.

Mr. Bandara on two occasions last year wrote to President Chandrika Kumaratunga requesting her to issue a gazette notification in her capacity as the Minister of Defence enabling the Chief Minister to appoint a Police Commissioner for the North Western Province. The Chief Minister once again wrote to the President making the same request after the Provincial Council adopted a resolution calling upon the President to issue a gazette notification enabling the council to appoint a police commissioner.

To this, the President replied indicating that the matter is now being studied and a decision would be taken along with the proposed constitutional reforms.

The President in her reply also said this act was passed in 1990 and that there could have been a reason for the previous government to withhold the delegation of police powers to the provinces.

But now the NWP Chief Minister says he would make necessary arrangements to assume police powers as stipulated in the 13th Amendment which could lead to a conflict of interest between the centre and the province.

In the meantime, the Chief Ministers of UNP-held PCs will meet this week in Colombo with the party hierarchy to decide as to what action they should take in this regard.

Not only the government, the UNP itself is facing problems in the provinces.

One such problem is the disciplinary inquiry directed against the Mayor of Nuwara Eliya, Nalin Thilaka Herath, by the UNP.

An inquiry was initiated to probe the incidents that took place in the Nuwara Eliya Assistant Government Agent division on the formation of UNP sponsored Jathika Yovun Peramuna in Nuwara Eliya.

The Mayor in a letter addressed to the Chairman of the UNP's disciplinary committee, Paul Perera, has refused to appear before the committee giving reasons to justify her claim. Apart from these, the other most important matter as far as the UNP is concerned is the million signature petition calling upon the government to step up security provided to the citizens of Colombo.

The UNP's petition was handed over to the President at Temple Trees a week ago after a long debate among the delegates as to who should constitute the delegation.

Finally it was agreed that former Speaker M.H. Mohamed and Susil Moonesinghe should go in and hand over the petition to the President and the others should remain at one of the waiting rooms at Temple Trees.

In a 40 minute meeting, the President briefed the two UNPers on the various steps taken by the government to improve security in the city and told them in no uncertain terms that the security situation now was better than what it was under the UNP regime.

The two UNP leaders were obviously not impressed.

Meanwhile many of the signatories to the petition are wanting to know, as to what happened to the petition. Has the President by an astute handling of the situation nailed any more petitions in the future?

It is now clear that it will be an uphill task for the UNP to undertake another signature campaign in the future.

Interesting remarks have been made. PA supporters are making fun of the petition. A common remark is "have you seen a huge bill floating in the Beira Lake?", the obvious reference is the petition.

The UNP needs to tell the country as to exactly what happened if it is to retain its credibility in matters of this nature. Presentation of mammoth petitions on crucial issues, is a recognised representative method to the powers that be.

The country has witnessed many such instances. This term of presentation of public opinion in a collective manner should remain as a recognised political weapon in our society. Therefore, the signatories to the million signature document have every right to know the outcome of this initiative.

The country today has only the government's reaction and a statement issued by Mr. Mohamed which has not satisfied the hopes of the signatories.

Mr. Mohamed's statement reads thus:

"A delegation of the Colombo District Organization of the United National Party called on Her Excellency the President on 18 April 1996 under the leadership of Mr. M.H. Mohamed and Mr. Susil Moonesinghe, Members of Parliament for the Colombo District, to hand over a petition signed by the citizens of the Colombo District, demanding enhanced all-round security for the Capital City and the District.

The delegation expressed its grave concern over the deteriorating security situation in Colombo and its suburbs which have now become the principal targets of frequent terrorist forays, resulting in loss of human lives, large-scale damage to and destruction of property, etc.

The delegation also expressed its deep concern over serious security lapses, despite enhanced security alert, which have resulted in dislocation of normal life and services and injection of a sense of overall panic among all sections of the population, particularly since the resumption of hostilities between the Government forces and the LTTE last year.

Security risk

They pointed out that it is the prime duty of the government to ensure full security to its citizens. While agreeing that terrorism is not thing that could be tackled in a conventional manner, the delegation stressed that, if the broad people's support to combat terrorism is to be enlisted, the popular participation in a non-partisan manner is vital. The composition of the vigilance committees as at present is unsatisfactory and does not correspond to the actual national needs which require a non-sectarian approach beyond party politics.

Although the UNP delegation did not agree with certain observations made by the President as regards the earlier security situations and arrangements and held the view that the security problems at present are of a far more serious nature, the talks were conducted in a cordial atmosphere.

As regards cooperation of the UNP rank-and-file, the delegation said that the question of national security is a matter of paramount national importance and has to be approached from a position beyond party politics. The delegation stated that it was prepared to extend fullest cooperation to protect the lives and the property of the people in the overall national interest."

In a separate development the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has expressed dismay over the decision of the five Tamil parties to submit their proposals regarding the proposed constitutional reforms to the constitutional reforms committee.

The SLMC hierarchy has discussed the matter and expressed its dissatisfaction over the five parties ignoring the Muslim factor as far as the Northern and the Eastern Provinces are concerned.

At present, the SLMC is seriously considering as to whether it should make representations to the government over the matters.

The SLMC is purturbed since it feels it has been let down by the Tamil parties when it is ready to accommodate them.

SLMC leader M. H. M. Ashraff is likely to discuss this matter probably with the Tamil parties concerned and the President.

Minister Ashraff was last week seen at the Jayewardene Cultural Centre at an exhibition organised by the Libyan Embassy to mark the American bombing of Libya in 1986.

The response from the general public for this exhibition was poor and many blamed the embassy officials for the manner in which it was organised. The anti American lobby in Colombo was purturbed over the matter, after it gathered momentum in the wake of recent Israeli bombing in Lebanon.

With all these things taking place in the political front, the cost of living is sky rocketing in the domestic economic front. It is likely the bread prices will go up from Rs. 5.50 to Rs. 8 on the directions of the World Bank. The LP gas prices have already gone up while the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation has burnt 300 M/tons of LP gas due to lack of storage facilities. Even if they had they wouldn't be able to effectively market it. The monopoly on gas is with the recently privatised Gas Company of Sri Lanka.

At the same time it is understood that the CPC has no facility to market its product to the recently privatised Gas Company since this was not stipulated in the sales agreement.

In another development the government under its privatisation programme is seriously considering the sale of the Independent Television Network amidst growing opposition by its Trade Unions.

It was revealed that the Public Enterprises Reform Commission (PERC) has been directed to effect the privatisation of the ITN as soon as possible, since liberalising the control over the media, is one of the policies spelt out by the government during its election campaign.

Meanwhile entrepreneur and President's former brother in-law Udaya Nanayakkara has applied to set up a private television station in collaboration with an Australian party. This project is likely to be approved by the government.

Many other applications for setting up new TV channels are awaiting the setting up of the Broadcasting Authority.

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