The Political Column

7th July 1996

Government is lying says Vasu

By Our Political Correspondent

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's statement that he would not discuss the devolution package with President Chandrika Kumaratunga has disturbed the Tamil parties who are seeking an urgent solution to the ethnic crisis.

It was only recently that TULF's Neelan Thiruchelvam advised the President that she should not go on a confrontational course with Mr. Wickremesinghe if she wished to bring about a solution to the ethnic crisis with the UNP's support.

Dr. Thiruchelvam had suggested that the two leaders should meet to iron out differences. But now Mr. Wickremesinghe has taken a clear stand that he would not discuss the devolution package with the President.

However, he said he would participate in the Select Committee set up for the purpose.

The UNP's position is that any form of devolution should be within the framework of a unitary state. It wishes to develop on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which has been accepted by all Tamil Political groups except for the LTTE.

Mr. Wickremesinghe expressed this view when he met the Tamil Political parties sans the TULF.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said he doubted the President's sincerity and asked the Tamil delegation whether they trusted her.

But there was no ready response from the five Tamil Political parties - the EPDP, the EPRLF, the TELO, the EPRLF and the EROS.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam had called him to say the TULF was not coming as some of its members had to attend a funeral.

Other Tamil leaders see that as an excuse to meet the UNP on its own. They told Mr. Wickremesinghe, "if you become the President tomorrow, they will be present on time".

The talks between the UNP and the Tamil parties lacked direction, according to observers.

The Tamil leaders told Mr. Wickremesinghe that President Kumaratunga was keen on K. N. Choksy's proposal to amend the Article 76 while keeping Article 2 intact, but they said that it was not acceptable to them.

It appeared that the UNP was not agreeable even to the amendment of Article 76.

Mr. Choksy at this stage made it clear that the proposal to amend Article 76 instead of Article 2 was his personal view and not the party position.

One Tamil MP said the issues were fairly clear and it seems the UNP was not going to support the package.

He said the President's confrontational policies had even silenced those in the UNP who would otherwise have supported the package.

The meeting which lasted for nearly two hours was loose and vague, with little that was of special substance.

Besides the meeting with the Tamil parties, the UNP leader also met UNP members of the Colombo Municipal Council after Kanagasabai Ganeshalingam was sworn in as the 21st Mayor of Colombo.

At this meeting, Mr. Wickremesinghe advised Mr. Ganeshalingam about keeping to conventions. He pointed out that Mr. Ganeshalingam had taken his oaths before the Western Province Chief Minister Susil Premjayanth in the presence of Health Minister, A. H. M. Fowzie at the Chief Minister's office.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said it was never done in the past. All other Mayors had taken their oaths in the CMC premises. Even former mayor Ratnasiri Rajapakse had taken his oaths in the Mayor's office, the UNP leader said.

"I checked up with former Chief Minister Susil Moonesinghe and found that the former Mayor Ratnasiri Rajapakse had taken his oaths in the Mayor's Chamber in the presence of Mr. Moonesinghe and late Minister and DUNF leader Lalith Athulathmudali", Mr. Wickremesinghe said.

If ministers like Mr. Fowzie were invited, the Mayor could have also invited senior members of the UNP such as M. H. Mohamed and Tyronne Fernando, he added.

When Mr. Ganeshalingam said that it was suddenly arranged, some Councillors raised question about the presence of some TV crew and asked as to how he informed them.

Mr. Wickremesinghe at this stage said that in future all UNP Mayors should take their oaths in the council itself and views of the UNP group should be sought as to who should be invited for the occasion.

As this was going on, Councillor Gintota queried from the Mayor as to how a piece of land has been given from the Vihara Maha Devi Park for the erection of a statue of late Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike who had nothing to do with the Colombo Municipal Council.

Mr. Ganeshalingam said he allocated this land as per directions from the President's Office.

Mr. Wickremesinghe at this stage said the Mayor had failed to follow the procedure adopted by the council in such instances.

He said the Mayor should have taken it up with the Council before deciding. "Don't get pushed by pressures, you must follow the correct procedure always", Mr. Wickremesinghe informed the Mayor.

Councillor Gintota once again intervened to say that as long as Mr. Ganeshalingam was Mayor, the UNP would not benefit much as most things appear to be done on PA directives.

Mr. Ganeshalingam defending himself said the Council had to fall in line with the Provincial Council to obtain the funds.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe said the Municipal Council was an autonomous body, which had its own funds and Provincial Councils must support the local bodies and funding local bodies was part of their duties.

"If they refuse, we can go to courts" he said.

Subsequently Mr. Wickremesinghe directed Mayor Ganeshalingam to work with the UNP and ensure a balance.

"It will be the UNP in power in the future also and you would win. They say they are going to hold elections in two months. Let them hold any election, the UNP will win", he said.

When another member, Omar Kamil, pointed out that the Council had failed to pass a resolution as directed by the UNP leadership on the prevailing Milk Food prices, the UNP leader asked why the Mayor failed to do that. He was requested to move the resolution without delay.

The UNP leader also said that there was speculation about the appointment of a Deputy Mayor. The UNP would wait until the Elections Commissioner notified of it of the vacancy before taking a decision.

As this matter was discussed MMC Gunasiri requested the party leader to make his own decision on the matters since there is quite a lot of canvassing and lobbying for the post.

While the UNP was trying to resolve its problems in the CMC, CWC leader Saumyamoorthy Thondaman made another move to win demands for the plantation workers.

His meeting with the President though inconclusive bore some fruit and Mr. Thondaman now seems determined to put more pressure on the government to consider his proposals favourably.

The meeting was held to discuss a Committee report on the plantation sector. It took place soon after the Cabinet meeting. Mr. Thondaman was accompanied by his grandson Arumugam, Harry Chandrasekara and R. Yogarajah.

Mr. Thondaman said the report submitted by the Committee was unreasonable.

The Committee was appointed to see whether the plantation workers are entitled to a Rs.8 daily wage increase.

He told the Press on Wednesday the Committee while recommending a Rs.8 wage increase was of the opinion that they were not entitled to it. This is a contradiction, he said.

When he told the President his views on the report, the President said she was not in a position to say that the report was unreasonable. But she said she would look into what Mr. Thondaman said.

When the CWC asked for a further Rs.10 increase in keeping with the cost of living index payments made to other employees and to review the Committee report, the President said she could not do it single handedly. She requested the CWC to hold talks with the Management Companies and get back to her.

At this stage, Mr. Thondaman explained his difficulties in talking to the plantation management companies and said if they could solve this problem at that stage he need not have come before the President.

The President replying said she could not do it without the proper participation of the plantation management companies and asked Minister Thondaman as to what she could do about the matter.

Ultimately the President directed Mr. Thondaman to discuss it with the plantation management companies and get back to her to which Mr. Thondaman did not agree fully.

Soon after the meeting with the President the CWC leaders met to discuss the latest situation. They decided against the President's request to discuss the outstanding issues with the plantation management companies. Instead they would speak to them only if the Management Companies initiated a dialogue.

However, the President is likely to bring in a compromise between the CWC and the plantation management companies and the Employers' Federation since Thondaman factor is politically important for the existence of the People's Alliance government.

The government's reported moves to oust the LSSP could only be achieved if the CWC agrees to throw its full weight behind the government.

It is obvious that the President is fed up with the LSSP and its stand on various issues. The President knows very well the only way to enhance her majority in Parliament is to woo the CWC to join the PA.

But Minister Thondaman is too shrewd a politician to support the government without strings attached.

He might demand a ministerial portfolio for his grandson plus concessions for plantation workers like the Rs. 10 increase in addition to the Rs. 8 increase which the government is ready to grant.

However even if the government agrees to Mr. Thondaman's demands on wages, it would be an uphill task to find funds since the government is facing a severe financial crisis. Any new burden on the management companies might lead to a breakdown on the estates with severe economic repercussions.

But the President might look for other ways to accommodate the CWC so that she could show the door to the LSSP.

Meanwhile another attack on the government has been launched by the LSSP's Ratnapura fire brand, Vasudeva Nanayakkara. This time the issue was the statement by the Presidential Secretariat on the closure of the Bartleet Microdevices Lanka (Pvt) Ltd. The Secretariat had said:

"A strike and go-slow action organised by a trade union led by Rajitha Senaratne, a UNP National List MP, at Bartleet Microdevices Lanka (Pvt.) Limited at Weluwana Place, Dematagoda, has resulted in the closure of its production plant and business activities. Bartleet Microdevices Lanka (Pvt.) Limited is one of the few large-scale hightech industries in Sri Lanka which specialises in the production of electronic hardware.

"On the 20th of January 1996 the senior members of the management of the company were physically assaulted, seriously injured and the property of the company was damaged allegedly at the instigation of the union president Rajitha Senaratne and his union leaders.

"On the intervention of the chairman, BOI, Thilan Wijesinghe, a negotiated settlement was brought about as the majority of the workers were against violent action resorted to by the trade union leaders. But a small group of workers belonging to the Freedom Employees' Union continued disruptive action which finally led to the closure of the plant. After several months of dispute, the Ministry of Labour agreed to a compulsory arbitration.

"The majority of the workforce expressed their opposition to the disruptive actions of the trade union and agreed to the conditions offered by the management and returned to work. This process, however had taken so long that the company lost its regular orders from a leading Japanese company. This has resulted in the closure of the company causing loss of employment to about 1,100 employees. The employees alleged that the action of the Freedom Employees' Union led by Rajitha Senaratne was politically motivated and the workers' interests were not the main issue of the trade union's violent action.

"This same union and its president were also responsible for the closure of another foreign investment project - Prima Ceylon Limited, Bakery Complex and Head Office at Sri Jayawardenapura Mawatha, Rajagiriya. There too violence was used against the general manager of the company. The President ordered an investigation within one day and the culprits were apprehended. The matter is now before the Courts.

"The government is seriously viewing with concern, these incidents and the attempts by the Freedom Employees' Union which is affiliated to the UNP to disrupt investment activity and discredit the government's successful efforts for economic development and generating employment for youth.

"The President has ordered a full-scale police inquiry into this incident and that immediate action be instituted."

Mr. Nanayakkara, in a hard-hitting reply virtually accused the Secretariat of lying.

"We have to protest against the secretly produced document on the Bartleet dispute. The Freedom Employees' Union led by Dr. Rajitha Senaratne M.P., and the Democratic United Employees' Union led by us, jointly conducted the strike at Bartleets. The strike was based on the legitimate demands of the workers and not on any disruptive or revengeful motives.

"The immediate cause for the strike was that the legitimate demands made by the workers, to which the management had agreed to implement earlier, but had not been implemented, up to date. But after the dispute was referred to an arbitrator by the Labour Department the employees went back to work, as was the usual labour practice. But as stated in the Presidential leaflet, the arbitrator, Thilan Wijesinghe, never appeared or took part in settling this issue.

"Further Dr. Rajitha Senaratne did not at any stage plan or take part in any assault on the management. We thus vehemently protest against this blatant pack of utter falsehoods contained in this defamatory leaflet.

"The workers of the unions have informed the Labour Department the untold hardships and humilitations they had to undergo at the hands of the management after they resumed duties. But we learn that the closure of the factory was due to conflicts within the management itself and not due to the workers' strike. We are thus sorry that not only did the management try to use the workers' strike as an instrument to close the factory, but the undue publicity given by this Presidential leaflet to this same effect to undermine the workers is a telling blow to the workers.

"It also threatens the workers by falsely stating that a Police Inquiry is being conducted into the 'crippling blow on the economy' and thereby sending police officers behind the leaders of the two unions. We believe that this leaflet indicates the police pressure that is used to threaten the workers.

"We believe that other trade unions would join us to defeat this monstrous allegations made against us. We have already shown that the Essential Services Act is being used to curb both the workers and the Public. The PA has guaranteed that the Emergency would not be used to crush the workers.

"Using the Essential Services Act is to use the Army to replace the workers. It also enables them to take in workers or their families into custody. Putting fear into workers and conducting police investigations into workers unions and their legitimate rights should therefore be decried by one and all."

Among other matters Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike's pilgrimage to Putrapati to see Sathya Sri Sai Baba, has caused some speculation since she was accompanied by her son Anura Bandaranaike.

This came barely one week after Mr. Bandaranaike on his visit to Dhaka as an election observer, took with him letters from his mother to Bangladeshi leaders.

Just as the Foreign Ministry was recovering from what was seen as the Prime Minister's by-pass operation, she has now caused another surprise.

While Anura supporters are jubilant about this Indian visit, government MPs are upset. One Mulberry group member said: "There is some thing cooking". Others have also raised questions about the PM's way of doing things. The Prime Minister however is said to be least concerned about all the speculation she has aroused.

Ms. Bandaranaike's visit to Sai Baba is reported to be quite successful with the Mother and Son having a 45 minute private audience with the popular spiritual leader.

Glenda Dunuwille and Ms. Bandaranaike's brothers, Mackie and Sivali, also joined her, with their wives on the pilgrimage.

However, the story doing Colombo's political rounds indicates, that the President having learnt that Anura was joining the mother had second thoughts about her plans to sent her son, Vimukthi, with the grandmother and wanted him to stay back.

One Minister referred to Ms. Bandaranaike's visit to Putrapati at the weekly meeting. The President brushed it off, saying they went on a pilgrimage.

On Tuesday around 10.00 p.m., the President made an unannounced visit to see her mother, prior to the PM's departure to India but by that time Ms. Bandaranaike had already retired to rest upstairs.

The President was received by Ms. Dunuwille and asked whether she wanted to speak to the mother but the President who did not want to disturb her mother spoke with Ms. Dunuwille for about 20 minutes about Sai Baba.

The Cabinet discussion last week focused on the cost of living crisis. The Ministers decided to allow the import of potatoes and other items, despite objections by Agriculture Minister, D.M. Jayaratne.

Trade Minister, Kingsley Wickramaratne had come to the Cabinet with the same proposal the previous week but he had to withdraw them in the face of severe opposition by Minister Jayaratne. But last week, Mr. Wickramaratne convinced the Cabinet of the need to import essential items as part of plans to bring down prices.

For this, the Trade Minister proposed the import of 5000 tons of potatoes. Efforts by Mr. Jayaratne to get the proposed imports reduced by half could not make any headway when President Kumaratunga nodded her head to Minister Wickramaratne's proposal.

The Ministers collectively gave serious thought to the rising cost of living and were of the opinion that immediate measures should be taken to reduce the prices.

They also discussed a plan to bolster the economy by promoting the tourist industry which has a great potential.

The Ministers agreed that there should be a continuous publicity drive to lure tourists to Sri Lanka and the Cabinet agreed to set aside a large sum for this purpose.

The Cabinet was also appraised of the security situation and told that Jaffna and the rest of the country were relatively safe.

But by Thursday noon the President and the government were shaken when they learnt about the suicide bomb attack at Stanley Road, Jaffna minutes after Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva declared open a branch of the Building Materials Corporation.

The explosion killed among others, Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda, Lanka Cement Chairman, Ranjith Godamuna and retired Police Superintendent Carlyle Dias.

Minutes after the explosion, Army Commander Rohan Daluwatte telephoned the Minister's wife to inform her that Mr. de Silva was out of danger with minor injuries.

By evening the same day, the Minister was brought to Colombo and on Friday he met newsmen at the Merchants Ward of the National Hospital.

The bomb explosion in Jaffna came after a statement issued by the LTTE London office calling upon the government to withdraw troops from the Jaffna peninsula.

It was issued in response to a Conference Statement issued by the Australian Human Rights Foundation in collaboration with the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations.

As things stand today, its seems we are still a long way from finding a lasting solution to the ethnic crisis.

This depressing political scene has one advantage for the government in that the circumstances allow for a continuance of the Executive Presidency, which the PA promised to abolish on a priority basis.

With the UNP insisting on a unitary constitution and the Tamil parties pressing for a federal set up, the process is deadlocked.

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