The Political Column

30th June 1996

PA-CWC alliance on the cards

By Our Political Correspondent

President Chandrika Kumaratunga's remarks last week that her life is threatened not only by the LTTE, but also by some former ministers and businessmen are seen as a grave indictment on them.

When the President referred to former ministers, it was generally surmised that she must have some reason to believe that her life is threatened by these top politicos, but she failed to elaborate on the matter.

The numerous commissions appointed by the government to probe the alleged misdeeds of the previous regime may have something to do with this perception. But whether there is incriminating evidence to believe such an allegation is a question.

From the UNP politicos, she moves on to the business community. Apparently the President must have been referring to big time Sri Lankan businessmen - who have international links.

It is well known that a business mafia has raised its head in this country with the government policy of privatising most state business concerns, keeping only the policy making power with it.

Though the government is trying to go along with the modern trend of privatisation, it is not difficult to perceive how development projects have been delayed or stalled due to bitter competition among interested parties.

The alleged arbitrary manner in which the government is trying to award tenders to various business concerns outside of the proper procedures is causing concern. So is the manner in which foreign diplomats are lobbying for big contracts for their countries.

In the circumstances, one could assume that the President's remarks bear some significance. It calls for immediate action to ward off these threats coming from big business links and the government should make a careful assessment of the situation.

The President's fear is understandable. Big business could throw money to make or break governments. In this context, it is very important for the President to keep the People's Alliance intact without giving room for petty brickering which would be advantageous to the enemy.

But a close look at the People's Alliance shows that there is disagreement and discontent within the government's ranks. The MPs are unable to meet ministers and many of the top rung members are not seen in Parliament during its sessions as disputes are brewing in many areas of the PA.

The current dispute between the SLFP and the DUNF has received wide publicity in the press, and it does not auger well for the very existence of the PA.

Though the President denies there are disputes among the constituent parties in the PA, Minister Srimani Athulathmudali has openly charged that an SLFP trade union leader is creating most of the problems in her Ministry.

At a recent meeting, the minister said this trade unionist had claimed he was operating with the blessings of Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte. She queried as to whether the SLFP was grooming another Soththi Upali.

The problems between the DUNF and the PA have aggravated following the recent incident where three bus loads of SLFP trade unionists stormed the office of the SLCTB Chairman Ramal Siriwardene.

Though complaints have been lodged there has been little action. So at present an emergency exit is being built at the SLCTB headquarters to be used in case of trouble.

The move by the SLFP to take Kesara Lal Gunasekera to its fold has also treated ripples in the DUNF circles and aggravated matters.

The SLFP's ongoing dispute with the LSSP also has not been resolved, the only consolation for the LSSP leader being that the matter was not raised at any forum either in the Cabinet on the previous Wednesday or at the PA's Executive Committee meeting held on Monday.

But instead the PA Executive Committee discussed the rising cost of living and the milk food prices. The meeting ended inconclusively.

The Ministerial Committee on the cost of living was also to meet on Tuesday but only two ministers were present. Ministers S. Thondaman and Indika Gunawardene spent about half an hour waiting for others and left in dismay.

Commenting on the matter, an opposition MP said this showed the inefficiency of the PA machinery and callous disregard for public matters.

However, at the PA's Ex-co meeting Deputy Minister Athauda Seneviratne asked Trade Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne to explore ways of reducing milk food prices. He said it was like a raw wound and urged the government to move fast on the matter.

But Minister Wickremaratne said they were moving in the right direction and there was no decision to reduce the prices of milk. Instead he stressed the importance of developing the milk industry in the country.

Mr. Wickremaratne explained as to what happened at the Consultative Committee meeting on trade and warned PA members that they should not fall into the traps set up by the UNP.

PA leaders also discussed the cement shortage and urged the government to take meaningful steps.

Among other issues, the PA hierarchy discussed the lack of co-ordination among the PA constituent parties at district levels and underscored the importance of working together in view of the forthcoming local elections.

There were no conclusive decisions taken by the PA other than talking about these problems in the absence of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

But the President made her presence felt at Wednesday's Cabinet meeting.

She said some ministers were not living up to her expectations and because of this the people were thinking that she was corrupt.

The President while accusing some ministers without naming them said that some are completely out of order and insisted that a lot of diligence had to be put in.

"I want all of you to be like me", she said most probably referring to her own unquestioned honesty and integrity.

The ministers also wanted to know about the current security situation in the country. Minister Lakshman Jayakody asked why there were an increasing number of skermishes in the north coupled with surprise attacks. But there was no clear response to the question other than an assurance that everything would be alright in time to come.

Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte told the ministers that the power cuts would be continued since only a little rain had been experienced in the catchment areas.

After the President spoke out, the ministers were wondering whether she was moving to reshuffle the Cabinet to suit her requirements. But the celestial bodies have warned her against such a major move until the stars fall in line with her horoscope.

However, it is likely that she would make some changes which would not affect her plans.

According to insiders, it is likely that firebrand deputy minister from Katana, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle will be elevated to the rank of a Cabinet Minister along with two others. The names mentioned are Lakshman Kiriella and Pavithra Wanniarachchi.

Apart from taking on the ministers, the President is trying to find a way out of the present dispute with the LSSP over its stand on voting at the extension on the State of Emergency.

'The President came out harshly on the LSSP during an Ex-co meeting of the PA over the LSSP's decision to abstain from voting on the motion to extend the emergency. But the LSSP stood by its decision to the great annoyance of the President.

Minister Bernard Soysa had even prepared his letter of resignation from the Cabinet but nobody called for such a move. Nor was he asked for an explanation. But now the government is slowly moving towards the CWC as a plausible solution to counter the LSSP threat.

If the discussions between the government and the CWC are fruitful, the CWC will be rewarded with some important positions in the government. This could lead to the ousting of the LSSP from the People's Alliance.

The latest controversy in the PA government is Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike's decision to send two letters to the former and present Prime Ministers of Bangladesh through her son, Anura Bandaranaike.

The print media reported it as an unprecedented move since Prime Minister's son is a national list MP of the Opposition UNP.

On the day the newspapers reported that Mr. Bandaranaike was carrying two letters from his mother, the Prime Minister, an annoyed President telephoned Mrs. Bandaranaike to ascertain the truth about the matter.

When Prime Minister Bandaranaike acknowledged that she sent those lettters through Anura, the President told the mother, that Minister Kadirgamar was not happy over the matter. She told the mother that a number of Parliamentarians telephoned her to inquire about it and that they are likely to raise this matter at the government parliamentary group meeting.

An angry Prime Minister retorted: "Is that the only problem they have at present, let them ask any question. I know how to reply."

While the Prime Minister and the President had a brief discussion on the matter, Anura Bandaranaike played his role as a sort of peacemaker in Bangladesh.

He spoke to both the former and the Present Prime Ministers urging them to settle the matter in a more democratic manner.

During his meeting with Begum Khaleda Zia, Mr. Bandaranaike recalled how relations between the two countries improved during the time of Begum Zia and President Premadasa.

Mr. Bandaranaike urged Begum Khaleda to resolve matters amicably and democratically and protect a domocratically elected government.

However most observers believe that in terms of protocol, what the Prime Minister may not have been entirely compatible with the normal procedure.

They point out that this could cause embarrassment to the Foreign Ministry since Anura Bandaranaike is a UNP MP. The fact that Anura is the son of the Prime Minister doesn't arise at this stage with his involvement with the Opposition UNP.

Some UNPers view this as a feather in their cap. This could have angered the President.

Others see this as part of an ongoing misunderstanding between the Prime Minister and the President.

Yet there are others who say that this would be perfectly alright since the Prime Minister has done this on very personal level.

In fact, the Bangladeshi leaders were known to the Prime Minister on a very personal level and Ms Bandaranaike is highly respected by them.

It was in this backdrop, the Prime Minister met a delegation of the Government Medical Officers' Association in a bid to defuse the tension building up between the GMOA and the Minister of Health.

The meeting was cordial and the Prime Minister was accompanied by her brother, Dr. Mackie Ratwatte and her Additional Secretary Lalith Weeratunge.

At the outset, the Prime Minister insisted the GMOA delegation to explain their problem in detail. The premier gave a patient hearing to what the delegation had to say.

The GMOA said if the government failed to resolve the private practice issue amicably the doctors would have to take effective counter-action.

The Prime Minister told them not to take hasty decisions. She said that when Health Minister A.H.M. Fowzie brought this matter up before the National Health Advisory Council which was chaired by her there were only four members present at the meeting. "Neither did we approve it, nor was much attention paid to it". She gave an assurance the matter would be studied closely before a decision is taken.

The Prime Minister's assurance let the doctors to decide to drop plans for direct trade union action.

The GMOA also met the Mulberry group to brief the government's backbenchers on the private practice issue.

They met at the parliamentary complex between 12.30 p.m. and 2.00 p.m on the previous Friday.

Though the doctors attempted to bring in a bottle of saline into the parliamentary complex, security guards prevented them saying that on an earlier occasion Dr. Rajitha Senaratne had created a problem.

But later after some members of the Mulberry group gave an undertaking to the security guards that they would take full responsibility and it would remain in their custody, they allowed the MPs to take in the bottle of saline.

After doctors briefed the Mulberry group on the current problem, Dallas Alahapperuma, the vociferous Southern MP, told the GMOA delegation which comprised the current and the past Presidents, Dr. Ananda Samarasekera and Charith Fonseka that they were surprised to hear about the problems with Minister Fowzie as he was considered to be the most popular minister in the Cabinet as far as they are concerned.

The GMOA delegation at this juncture clearly said they had no personal problem with Minister Fowzie but portrayed him as an arrogant politician. They categorically said that the GMOA had no idea of lobbying for the removal of the minister.

The GMOA officials also told Mr. Alahapperuma that they were surprised to hear that Minister Fowzie was so popular and requested the members to examine how he had dealt with the GMOA.

They also said that the GMOA extended its unstinted co-operation to the Minister when the nurses struck work. But when the saline problem came up it was a too hot an issue and as professionals they couldn't back the minister.

Upali Gunaratne interjecting at this point asked as to whether they could give a proper explanation on the allegation that the GMOA had injected some germs into the saline after it arrived here.

The GMOA officials who denied the charge called upon the Mulberry group members to find out the truth, using any expert in the world. In the first instance, though the makers say it contains 500 mililiters, it doesn't contain even 200ml, they pointed out. "We have even passed it on to Presidential Secretary K. Balapatabendi but there was no response" they said. They also sought an appointment to meet the minister several times but he did not want to talk. The GMOA accused some ministry officials of giving wrong advice to the minister.

At this stage Mulberry activist Chamal Rajapakse intervened to ask whether there were doctors who were giving wrong advice to the Minister. Your brother-in-law is one of them, he was told.

At the end of the discussion, the Mulberry group told the GMOA delegation, that all what it could do was to act like a bridge between the Health Minister and the GMOA to resolve problems and said they might be able to clear the misunderstanding.

Upali Gunaratne told the doctors at the conclusion that he hoped the matter could be treated as confidential since they had to face numerous problems while trying to resolve the electricity crisis.

Meanwhile, the Mulberry group is disturbed over a move by a certain section of the government to break the group by appointing some of the volatile members as deputy ministers. If this happens, Dallas Alahapperuma, Upali Gooneratne, Janaka Bandara Tennekoon and Chamal Rajapakse are likely to be appointed deputy ministers very soon.

However as far as the Mulberry group members are concerned such appointments would not deter them from probing the ministers involved in alleged misdeeds, they claim.

At present they are much disturbed about a telephone tapping story doing the rounds in government circles. So their latest target is to track down the person behind the scandal whether big or small.

The telephone tapping story has gone as far as to the Prime Minister who expressed fears when she met Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake, as to whether her telephone was also bugged.

However the Ministers are more careful these days in talking over the telephone. Most of the time they use code words and pass on some misleading hints to whoever who taps phones.

Besides these, the President has also moved to appoint a new Chairman for Lake House. Independent Television Network Chairman P.B. Rajapakse was appointed to this top post after much persuation. There were several others who declined the offer but Mr. Rajapakse could not resist the President's offer. With this appointment, Mr. Rajapakse becomes the fifth Chairman of Lake House within two years.

After having a 30-minute discussion with the President, Mr. Rajapakse agreed to accept the post but later when he met Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake he made a request that he be appointed as an additional secretary to the Ministry.

The minister was baffled initially but later realized what he meant - That it was a risk to accept the top post at the Lake House when one looks backs at the recent past.

Meanwhile, officials in the Media Ministry are puzzled over an application passed on to the Ministry from the Presidential Secretariat to obtain a licence for a Cable Television Network. There are several applications pending before the Board of Investment awaiting the initial approval to go before the Broadcasting Authority.

The Media Ministry had temporarily stalled evaluating these applications until the authority is set up. But this particular application by an advertising firm has reached the Ministry and is now lying on the table of the Ministry with a request to approve the application.

It is too early to predict what the Minister would do with the application. Most probably he would refer this also to the Broadcasting Authority which is yet to be set up.

In a separate development, the President has also met six Tamil parties namely the TULF, EPDP, PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and the EROS.

In this meeting the President urged the Tamil parties to accept the K.N. Choksy proposals to keep Article 2 of the Constitution intact while amending the Article 76.

Article 2 deals with the unitary nature of the country while Article 76 prohibits delegation of legislative powers to any authority.

The President said that this was the only way that she could get the UNP to support it and thereby obtain the required 2/3 majority.

But the Tamil parties opposed the move and insisted that both Article 2 and 76 be amended.

The President at this stage told the Tamil parties to talk to the UNP and persuade it to agree to the proposal of the Tamil parties.

Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam who was there said that it was her duty too to talk to the UNP and said by criticising and condemning the UNP the President has created a major gulf between the government and the UNP and they were in a rather difficult situation to talk to Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The President replying said she had not condemned the UNP, and that it was Mr. Wickremesinghe who had created a gulf.

"I know lots of things about him, but I have revealed only a little", she said.

When the delegation pointed out that the President was critical of Mr. Wickremesinghe even at that stage, she said that the package would be implemented since she was sure that the masses would support it.

In that case, the Tamil parties asked the President, to dissolve parliament and go for elections to obtain the 2/3 majority and assured their support in such an exercise. But the President said it would be too much of a risk, probably thinking that her party could lose.

She also warned the delegation that nothing of this discussion should appear in the newspapers.

Though the government has shown a keen interest in devolving power, the Southern Development Authority Bill had done just the opposite of it by taking over the powers of the Provincial Council.

The UNP opposed and moved amendments to it and the opposition of the Southern Provincial Council criticised the Bill and called upon the government to appoint the Chief Minister of the South as its chairman.

The UNP opposed it on the basis that the Bill has taken away the legal requirement that the Southern Development Authority be responsible to Parliament.

In the meantime, the UNP committee on boycotting Lake House newspapers met last week under the chairmanship of Mr. Wickremesinghe. It decided to launch the compaign from July11, beginning from Maharagama.

This campaign is likely to go on until the Lake House newspapers balance their views, a spokesman of the committee said. The committee comprised Ranil Wickremesinghe, Gamini Athukorala, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, Karunasena Kodituwakku, Jayawickrema Perera, Suranimala Rajapakse and A.H.M. Azwer.

The week's political events show as to how President Kumaratunga is playing her card to strengthen her position in the PA while trying to maintain its image as a political party with much honesty and integrity as compared to the UNP.

Meanwhile, the main Opposition UNP has activated itself to go to the people and educate them on the present economic situation and the turmoil the country is facing today under the PA government.


The Tangerine Beach Hotel has written to UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya regarding a query made by him on a report published in this column of June 23 on the behaviour of some UNP members at a workshop held at the hotel.

The letter sent to Mr. Jayasuriya reads:

"We write with reference to your fax of 25th June, 1996. We have made inquiries regarding the incidents referred to in The Sunday Times on the 23rd instant and the General Manager of the hotel has informed us that no such incidents occurred during your training programme held at Tangerine Beach Hotel, Kalutara from the 20th to 22nd May, 1996.

"We would be grateful, if you could use this information to correct the report that appeared in The Sunday Times of 23rd June 1996."

"I regret that I did not dissolve parliament earlier. Benefits of my programme will at least take two years to reach the people", she said.

Cross talk between Dr. Thiruchelvam and President Kumaratunga at least took half an hour where Dr. Thiruchelvam said the President shouldn't have attacked the UNP leader in the manner she did.

Dr. Thiruchelvam recalled how the President referred to Mr. Wickremesinghe as the village lass with "Kate Pittu".

However, the President justified her position and said, "Ranil had a very good opportunity to discuss these issues when we met but he kept quiet".

Refering to the power crisis she said the UNP had sat on the proposed power generation projects for three years and now it was blaming, the PA Govt., she said.

The Thawwakal issue, and the on-going commissions and many other matters also figured in this conversation and the President said she was following the democratic ways.

Finally, Dr. Thiruchelvam requested the President to meet Mr. Wickremesinghe and discuss all these issues, including the devolution package.

Others who listened to the conversation said it looked like as though Neelan was arguing for a national government.

Referring to the TV debate with Mr. Wickremesinghe, the President said she would not accept the challenge of Mr. Wickremesinghe. She said "It is because I will get the better of it."

When MPs told her about the soaring rice prices in Jaffna, the President said she had a plan of allowing them to import red rice from South India.

Talking about re-construction of houses, the President said she would talk to the donor countries since there are no budgetary allocations this year.

Then the question of displaced persons came up and the Tamil Parties pointed out that at least 80,000 people had been displaced owing to Operation Riviresa III. Though the President said that it was not the case, since the area was cordoned off before the operation, the Tamil Parties argued back and said that there were refugees as a result of Riviresa III. They wanted food aid for the refugees and the President agreed.

While they were talking of the issue of the displaced persons, the President said that there was nobody in Mullaitivu since Prabhakaran and his men had taken over the area. "I know that Prabhakaran is there" she said. But Wanni MP, Siddharthan said "No Madam, Prabhakaran has taken over the jungles and given the houses to the people. "

Go to the Situation Report

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Political Column Archive