The Political Column

5th May 1996

Stormy battle over tea cup

By Our Political Correspondent

The latest developments in the People's Alliance Government are certainly unprecedented for any country having a Cabinet system.

Intrigues and jealousies among Cabinet Ministers to outdo one another are not uncommon. But seldom has one Minister dared move a motion of no-confidence against another in Parliament.

The decision of the Ceylon Workers Congress to move a no-confidence motion on Plantation Industries Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake came as a shock to the President, the government and the country.

Minister Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, who is well known for his trade union diplomacy has, however, distanced himself from the no-faith move and passed the buck to the CWC members.

The effect of this stance would mean that while his MPs would vote for the motion if it comes up, Mr. Thondaman himself would probably be in South India on the day of the voting.

The UNP which has suffered heavy humiliation from the CWC following 1994 General and Presidential Elections, found it had no alternative but to support the motion since the UNP has the second largest trade union following in the plantation sector.

The previous Friday, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe along with former Minister A.C.S. Hameed met CWC General Secretary Arumugam Thondaman after the CWC sought the support of the UNP for the no-confidence motion against Minister Wickramanayake.

After 30 minute discussion, the CWC delegation left satisfied. However, the UNP insisted that Minister Thondaman himself should canvass support for this move for the UNP to take the matter up for consideration.

But when the matter was discussed at Monday's Working Committee meeting, several UNP members strongly opposed the CWC move.

Prominent among those who spoke against the motion was one-time Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Stanley Kalpage.

He said there was an anti-Thondaman feeling all over the country and that it would be unwise to support Mr. Thondaman at this juncture.

Dr. Kalpage also posed some pointed questions about Mr. Thondaman's proposals and said the Working Committee should take a decision.

When Dr. Kalpage spoke putting questions to the leadership, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said, "You finish first I will speak later."

Susil Moonesinghe also spoke against the Thondaman move, saying the UNP cannot dance to the tune of Mr. Thondaman.

Former Minister Nanda Mathew said he felt this motion would not serve any purpose, since it was against a minister and looked personal. He said the UNP should support only if the CWC was willing to bring a vote of no-confidence against the government.

But former Minister John Amaratunge openly supported Mr. Thondaman's move because he felt that it would shake the government at its foundation.

Many others also spoke in favour of and against the move. It now appears the UNP would support Thondaman's move but with conditions.

Mr. Wickremesinghe who intervened in the debate said some had warned against becoming the pawn of Mr. Thondaman. He agreed. But smilingly he warned the party should not become a pawn of a section which wants to protect the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration. He also told the members of the Working Committee it was he who should make the decision since the Working Committee has delegated powers to him. The UNP's view was that it was not important as to who brings the motion but the political implications of the motion is likely to threaten the very existence of the PA government.

But the most important question that arises from the whole exercise is as to whether anybody could trust Mr. Thondaman judging by his performance in the past.

The no-confidence motion mooted by the CWC was discussed at a party leaders meeting too.

At the outset Deputy Secretary General of Parliament Priyani Wijesekera announced the receipt of a no-confidence motion.

Former Minister A.C.S. Hameed (UNP) inquired whether it was against Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and the Deputy Secretary confirmed it.

It was decided at the meeting that the motion should first go in to the order book. Minister Wickramanayake was quick in his response. He said, "Since it is against me I will give the earliest opportunity," but with regard to Mr. Hameed's request for a three-day debate on the vote of no-confidence against the government, that has already been tabled in Parliament, by the UNP, Mr. Wickramanayake said that he would have to consult the government.

At this stage commenting on the no-confidence motion against the minister, Mr. Hameed said that this was the first time the UNP had the opportunity to support a vote of no-confidence against a Cabinet Minister from the majority community.

He said that the charge had been that we were against ministers from the minority communities.

However, Mr. Hameed said it was a pity since the no-confidence motion happened to be against Minister Wickramanayake.

It was rather surprising to witness that Parliamentarian P.P. Devaraj who normally represents the CWC at the party leaders meeting chose to keep away on this crucial day.

Does this mean that the CWC itself is divided on the resolution or is there a serious difference of opinion in the party ranks, especially the Parliamentary group on this issue.

The party leaders meeting was a short one and not well attended either. Ironically, the government was represented only by Minister Wickramanayake. Even the chief government whip Richard Pathirana was absent.

The SLMC was represented by its Deputy Leader Rauff Hakeem and JVP by its solitary member Nihal Galappaththi. The CWC was represented by Arumugam Thondaman and R. Yogarajan while the UNP was represented by A.C.S. Hameed and Wijeyapala Mendis.

When all these developments are taking place at a rapid pace, the NDUNLF led by Minister Srimani Athulathmudali had mooted another vote of no-confidence against Minister Thondaman, though this was done taking into consideration the economic aspect of the plantation strike. The motion is apparently gathering popular Sinhala support.

In the circumstances, political analysts point out that there appears to be a strong link being forged between Minister Wickramanayake and Ms. Athulathmudali which has all the potential for the formation of a right wing Sinhala group in the government.

With all these developments one could assume that the NDUNLF is determined to push a more pro Sinhala line in Sri Lankan politics and present itself with an image of its own.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, fresh from a successful state visit to China, will now have to mediate between the two ministers when she meets both Ministers Wickramanayake and Thondaman tomorrow in a bid to defuse the plantation crisis.

Ms. Kumaratunga is politically shrewd enough to handle the two ministers but may not be quite happy about Minister Srimani Athulathmudali's moves which have brought her support from some Sinhala quarters.

It is likely that a new formula to be put forward on Monday, may be to the annoyance of Mr. Wickramanayake. According to the formula the government will agree to increase the daily wages of the plantation workers by Rs. 4. Mr. Thondaman is likely to agree. Other demands will also be negotiated.

The plantation workers' problem was discussed at length at the SLFP's Central Committee meeting last week. President Kumaratunga was also present at the meeting when youthful Minister S.B. Dissanayake came out with a scathing attack on Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake. Not only Mr. Dissanayake but Minister Richard Pathirana as well, criticised the role played by Mr. Wickramanayake as the Plantations Minister.

Mr. Dissanayake said the government apparently had three discussions with the CWC to settle the demands of the plantation workers but nothing was done to defuse the crisis.

He said Mr. Thondaman had agreed to give a percentage of the plantation land for Sinhalese settlements along with plantation workers. "But we have not been able to get that land from the plantation companies up to now."

Mr. Dissanayake also said the PA government failed to stop felling of trees in the tea land and pointed out that no plantation company had ever thought of a replantation project.

Citing the current tea prices, Mr. Dissanayake said Sri Lankan tea was fetching a record price in the World Market and this was the most appropriate time for the government to think of a wage increase for the plantation workers.

He also pointed out that Minister Thondaman did not want to take Trade Union action. "He always asked appointments from the Plantation Minister to discuss those matters with him but there was no ready response from the minister.

"The Minister virtually doesn't know what is happening. Even the housing projects in the estates have not received the patronage of Minister Wickramanayake," Mr. Dissanayake charged.

Mr. Dissanayake who represents an electorate in the plantations and who is quite close to the Thondaman's, by his onslaught on Minister Wickramanayake, had been able to convince the SLFP Central Committee that Thondaman's fight for the rights of the workers was just.

It appeared that the Central Committee endorsed Minister Dissanayake's view and now it seems the government is more interested in a negotiated settlement rather than clashing with Mr. Thondaman.

At a previous Central Committee meeting of the SLFP, Mr. Dissanayake went to the extent of asking the leadership to relieve Minister Wickramanayake of his duties as far as the plantations are concerned.

Minister Dissanayake feels that Mr. Wickramanayake simply cannot handle it due to his health condition.

But what Minister Wickramanayake says is quite different. He said he was late for the Central Committee meeting and explained his position on the matter.

At that stage, nobody spoke against it, Minister Wickramanayake said.

"May be some may have said something when I wasn't there. But everybody seemed to be agreeing with me at the Central Committee meeting," Mr. Wickramanayake said.

Mr. Wickramanayake's position appears to be that he has no power to intervene in the plantations matter since he believes that it is a matter purely for the plantation management companies and the CWC.

"I intervened only at a request made by the President," Minister Wickramanayake said. If the two parties cannot resolve the matter they should go before the Labour Tribunal.

At the same time he emphasised that he would not take part in any discussion where Mr. Thondaman is a party to it.

"I would not participate in any discussion even if the President wants me to do so," he said.

At this juncture the government can do two things, according to the minister.

"Either to call for explanation from Mr. Thondaman who is a member of the Cabinet or sack him. Otherwise the same problem will re-emerge in a greater magnitude," he said.

Mr. Wickramanayake who has given the highest priority to the no-confidence motion against him in his capacity as the Leader of the House is quite confident that he would face it successfully.

"No minority party would support this move. They gave me a personal assurance," he said.

The EPDP and the PLOTE in any case would not support the CWC motion since Minister Wickramanayake is more accommodative and concerned about their problems.

In Mr. Wickramanayake's words not only the EPDP and the PLOTE but also some UNP backbenchers have also expressed solidarity with him along with the PA backbenchers.

Mr. Wickramanayake however said he had still not discussed this matter with his Cabinet colleagues.

This is ridiculous and if this goes on anybody would take this government very lightly and he thinks that this would be Mr. Thondaman's last fight.

In this backdrop the meeting scheduled for Monday between President Kumaratunga and Minister Thondaman would be crucial for both the government and the CWC. If they arrive at an accord, the CWC is once again letting down the UNP, which wanted to gain political mileage on this issue.

However the UNP circles were quite confident that Mr. Thondaman would not agree to anything less than a Rs. 8 wage increase for the plantation workers and are eagerly awaiting for the outcome of tomorrow's meeting.

Among other things, the UNP hierarchy met the members of the diplomatic community last week to brief them on the party activities and the current developments.

The discussion lasted for nearly two hours. A high-tech. computerised presentation, the first of its kind for a political party in Sri Lanka was made to the Ambassadors ranging from USA and Canada, to India and the Maldives. The objective of the presentation dubbed by party officials as a Weerackody Production, was to portray the UNP as a new party under the leadership for the first time of post- Independence born leaders.

Former Ambassador at large Milinda Moragoda presented the component on the new vision for the UNP. Former Janasaviya Trust Chairman and Youth Ministry Secretary Charitha Ratwatte presented the component on special programmes research and opinion polling while former Presidential Advisor on International Affairs, Bradman Weerakoon and Party Chairman Karu Jayasuriya spoke on governance and on UNP's structure and 20 months in opposition.

There were several digs at the PA's 20months in office - the broken promises; the Anamaduwa doctrine and the like.

The diplomats who attended the meeting were of the view that the discussion was a well structured one.

Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe summed up the discussion and spoke on general issues. At the outset of the meeting he told diplomats, "We of course are punctual and start on time." The hint was obvious though the food ordered from Trans Asia Hotel for the reception that followed got late to arrive.

UNP top rung member Anura Bandaranaike was also present at the meeting to answer the questions raised by the diplomats. He and the party leader answered most of the questions in a well-versed manner.

However a question by the Dutch Ambassador Bastian R. Korner as to how the UNP could contribute to the early conclusion of the devolution package did not seem to have brought forth a convincing reply from the UNP.

Most of the other party frontliners, including General Secretary Gamini Athukorale, Tyronne Fernando, Karunasena Kodituwakku, Jayawickrema Perera, Renuka Herath and Ananda Kularatne were present at the meeting.

Another important event of the week was the Executive Committee meeting of the People's Alliance.

Though the meeting started as scheduled at 9.00 a.m., the President arrived around 11.15.

As observers say she was not in a good mood and came out strongly against the LSSP members who were not present at this meeting.

There was no time for a discussion since President Kumaratunga chose to deliver a lecture instead, one PA member said.

The President pointed out the instances where the LSSP blatently violated the collective agreement as a constituent party of the PA.

For instance, she cited the PERC bill and extension of the Emergency countrywide, where the LSSP did not support the government, and the LSSP's decision to defy the ban on May Day processions.

The President said the SLFP Central Committee was quite frequently asking her as to why the PA was not taking any action against the constituent parties violating the collective agreement.

"Some people think that this is a weak government." (QUOTE IN SINHALA) Samaharu hithanawa athi meka...aanduwakk kiyala"

The President insisted the government was far from that and she would take firm action against those parties which willfully violated the agreement.

Then and there she asked PA General Secretary D.M. Jayaratne to call for explanation from the LSSP on the matters she mentioned.

She said her mother, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, had often advised her to be careful when forging alliances with leftists such as the Communist Party and the LSSP. "She knew the difficulties in going together with them, but I went ahead forming an alliance with these two parties and I am suffering now as a result."

The President also had few digs at the NDUNLF led by Srimani Athulathmudali for its stance on the devolution package.

However, none of the participants raised any questions regarding the plantation crisis.

Some are of the view that the President's onslaught on the LSSP was not a pre-determined one. She would have come out with the attack at the spur of the moment, one senior PA member said.

However, the President's main concern today is to keep the alliance intact to enable her to make her journey easy. But the inaction of the PA has caused many problems for her. Investments were not forthcoming as she expected a year ago and this was a prominent feature during her state visit to China.

At an investment forum the President invited Chinese entrepreneurs to invest on a Cement factory since there would be massive reconstruction projects in the near future. One Chinese entrepreneur said that a proposal had been submitted for a cement factory but it was blocked at the highest level. He disclosed his local counterpart was Lal Wijeratne of Greyline. Similarly two other entrepreneurs said joint ventures with Greyline for a table salt export industry and reconstruction of the Fort on a Chinese soft loan had been blocked by the government.

The President brought both these proposals home for reconsideration and is expecting more Chinese investments in the near future.

At present, the President has pinned her hopes on the Riviresa II Operation where the Armed Forces are making a steady progress. The President hopes to wind-up all the operations in a victory note when troops capture the whole of the North within the next six months as stipulated by her.

With this she hopes to throw a challenge to the UNP to contest her at a Presidential Election. She is also likely to ask for UNP support to hold the Presidential Election at an early date than the 4 year period stipulated by the Constitution. But everything will depend on the ongoing Riviresa II Operation which the government is confident would keep the LTTE at bay.

Go to the Situation Report

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Political Column Archive