The Political Column

28th July 1996

Mullaitivu ghost haunts Govt.

By Our Political Correspondent

As the military buglers accorded the last post for a war hero, Colonel Fazly Laphir was laid to rest in Kaunatte last week, unfolding a tragic story in Sri Lankan history.

A few days ago the massive military camp at Mulativu was over-run by the LTTE, killing scored of young soldiers form various parts of the country.

the member was lage - but the government tried to lush up many things in the military deback at Mulativu, though the opposition called upon the government are responsible for he worst ever military set-back.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe demanded a debate on the matter, but Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickremanayake said he would have to consult the cabinet on the matter.

The reason for all this is the prevailing press censorship which gave rise to allegations that the aim of the Government is to hide the truth from the people.

People else where in the globe knew what was going on, but the people of Sri Lanka knew a very little about what happened to their sons and daughters in the battlefield.

The main objective of the Press censorship was to prevent sensitive military information goring into the hands of the LTTE though news papers, but now it appears that the government censors are trying to prevent the media from giving information to the people.

We think it is the right time for the censors to understand what is stipulated in the emergency regulations and matters that come under their purview without playing havoc with their red-pencils and massacring the stories submitted to the by newspapers.

Quite often we have seen the censor exceeding his limit and trying to check the veracity of the stories. That is solely the newspaper concerned.

However the censorship had done one thing - that is to allow the rumour wills and gossip lines to operate without hindrance.

With the fate of the Mulativu camp, the commanders of the Army and the Air Force blamed the Navy for not providing adequate sea cover for the reinforcements to reach the affected area, but the commander of the Navy defended his position missing that he had to cover a vast coastal area with a limited number of naval vessels.

The Army Commander also expressed his dissatisfaction over the military of the Air Force to airlift Colonel Fazly Laphhir when the LTTE attached than after the Air Force dropped reinforcements into the area, but the Air Force Commander took up the position that they could not reach the area since there was heavy resistance from the enemy.

News conference

When president Kumaratunga was first briefed on the debacle, she directed that Minister Ratwatte call a news conference. But the Minster wanted to issue a press statement and close the matter. However the minister agreed to call a news conference after the president insisted that he do so to give the correct picture to the people.

But the news conference itself became a top as journalists got little information, if anything to present a clear picture of the situation in Mullativu to the country.

The conference may have been a futile exercise for both the journalists and the minister who was reluctant to hold one in the face of the heavy responsibilities he had to shoulder.

The UNP parliamentary group also discussed the latest developments in Mulativu. Though party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe started the meeting with the weekly agenda, he was interrupted by Kalutara district Parliamentarian Tilak Karunaratne to read out an internet report, he said the biggest issue today in Mulativu and the group should give priority to a discussion on the issue.

Mr. Karunaratne said the media couldn't do much while a press censorship was in force and requested the leadership to ask for a debate on the matter.

At this state, Mr. Wickremasinghe said he also heard about a CNN news telecast where LTTE's Lawrence Thilager had thanked the President and Minister Ratwatte for giving them a big booty of arms and ammunition free and said that most of the Sri Lankans were not aware of these things.

Mr. Wickremasinghe said he spoke to leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickremanayake about the matter and requested a debate. He said Mr. Wickremanayake declined on the ground that the country was tightening a war. Mr. Wickremasinghe told the group that Mr. Wickmanayake was willing to give a debate on a later date.

Mr. Wickremasinghe the UNP leader saw that as an excuse and pressed for a commitment. The House Leader then said he would contact the Cabinet and the make a statement.

Former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel said the could not accept Mr. Wickramanayake's argument. He said "During the second world war a no confidence motion was brought against British Premier Churchill and they debated the ongoing war in parliament. What Mr. Wickremanayake and the government are trying to do is unacceptable since this sort of thing had not happened in any democracy.

"We must remember that scored of youth from the south are in the battlefield. I, as an MP from the south and the other MPs of the South have a responsibility by them to tell the people of the south the truth about the ongoing battle. In the circumstances the only way to client information is to call upon the government to have a debate on the matter," he said.

As Mr. de Mel was reasoning out as to why the UNP should call for a debate on the matter, John Amaratunge and Tilak Karunaratne read out reports issued by various news agencies giving details of the Mulativu debate.

Former Information Secretary and presently Kandy district MP Sarath Amunugama said the Mulativu attack had compelled the government censors to, look at newspaper reports in a more stringent manner, thus keeping sensitive information out of the reach of the people. Since the censor has no power to restrict parliamentary reports it is the responsibility of the UNP to call for a debate on the matter.

Finally the UNP group decided they should insist on a debate on the Mulativu issue in a sid to tell the truth to the country.

But it was observed that the Deputy Minister of Defense Anuruddha Ratwatte was not either in parliament or cabinet to brief his own people on the development. Political circles believe that this may have been because of a misunderstanding between the president and the General.

In the circumstances the opposition moved task to ask for a debate on the matter. But Tuesday, the opposition UNP approached other parties as well to solicit their support.

The TULF initially agreed with the idea. Apparently Dr. Neelam Thiruchelvam told the UNP to contact TULF's Batticaloa district MP Joseph Pararajasingham for confirmation.

But when contacted, Mr. Pararayasingham refused to go along with the UNP. Several UNP, MPs tried to persuade him to support the UNP none bat failed.

Later the UNP presented a motion with the signatures of twenty MPs and asked for a debate after submitting it to the Speaker on Wednesday evening.

When the house met on Wednesday, Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickremanayake made a statement on the issue. Thereafter UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe asked the Speaker whether this could be debated.

The Speaker took up the position that A. C. S. Hameed who raised the Mulativu issue on Tuesday said specifically that they were not asking for a debate.

At this point Mr. Hameed intervened and said it was the position on Tuesday but yesterday (Wednesday) the Speaker himself had agreed that 20 members could ask for a debate provided they follow the correct procedure and the UNP had given notice of a motion on Wednesday.

Finally the government agreed to an adjournment debate on Friday, but by Thursday the position changed and the Leader of the Opposition after a meeting with the speaker and the Leader of the House agreed to make a statement in parliament.

This week in parliament the government was certainly at the receiving and. The Industrial Disputes Amendment Bill was listed for debate on Tuesday and suddenly after question time the Speaker announced the Bill would not be taken up as scheduled.

Mr. Hameed protested and said "this is like saying 'Rain and no cricket match". The government benches were almost empty on Wednesday. The rumor went round that the president had advised Minster Mahinda Rajapakse not to present the Bill. Actually Mr. Rajapakse was not in the House on Tuesday but in the lobby, perhaps smarting over the developments.

The Mulberry group was famous and most of them boycotted parliament on Wednesday when D. M. Jayaratne introduced the land Amendment Bill.

Mullaitivu disaster

The UNP, parliamentarians seized the opportunity to speak of the destruction of jungles quietly to steer their way to the Mulativu jungles and converted the debate into a blast on the government on the Mulativu disaster.

Tilak Karunarante opened the debate with still and Sarath Kongahage did some hard hitting which infuriated the few back benchers in the PA, who tried to put up a defence.

When the ministers met for their weekly deliberations on Wednesday they discussed the prevailing situation in the country.

The president had apparently told the Minister that though the Military has suffered casualties, militarily they had gained some advantage, since most of the LTTE cadres have converged to Mulativu. Therefore the battle that ensue could be a adecisive one for the LTTE.

As one cabinet minister put it, the battle which would rage in the next few days would decide the fate of the LTTE.

But Tamil party leaders say the armed forces are in an extremely difficult position sandwiched between LTTE cadres who have rounded them up.

However the government is certain that they could make headway and clear Mulativu, which they believe would be the final battleground of the LTTE.

The minister who discussed at length the statement the leader of the HOuse hould make in parliament of Thursday and it was carefully worded. Minister Wickremanayake bore the responsibility of preparing the statement whcih was read out in parliament on Thursday. When president Kumaratunga walked into the cabinet meeting room the other minister were discusisng the workers charter whcih was the brain child of Minister Rajapakse. At this stage Minister Richard Pathirana raised the matter where the government suddenly moved to stop a Bill to amend the Industrial Disputes Act.

The president had an explanation she thought that it should be carefully analyzed again and all provisions relating to the Workers' charter put forward as the Bill without amending existing legislation from time to time.

She said she would appoint a committee presided over by her to look into the matter. The other members in the committee are Dharmasiri Senanayake C. V. Gooneratne, Kingsly Wickremaratne and Mahinda Rajapakse.

When Minister Rajapakse expressed fears that it would take a long time, the president said the committee would make its recommendations within one month. Later it was extended to six weeks since the minster felt that the time given was not enough. Minister Rajapakse said the amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act was ratified by the cabinet some time ago and was in the parliamentary order paper for an equally long period when the president moves to stop Bills in the manner she did on Tuesday, the people would think that the cabinet had approval such amendments without studying the implications.

As the discussion continued on the workers charter and the Industrial disputes act the president who was armed with a fairly substantial document, put the blame on the Ministry of Labour for its attitude. The president said because of the attitude of the Ministry of Labour, the government could not attract foreign investors to the country.

Luring investores

She read out the document which was basically prepared by the Board of Investments and said the ministry failed to refer the Blue Diamond dispute to an Arbitrator.

Minister Rajapkse replying said the investors could be lured provided that there were no bomb threats or power cuts.

Not only the cabinet the UNP also discussed the proposed amendments to the Industrial disputes act and the worker chanter.

UNP MP Sarah Gunawardene raised the matter at the UNP group meeting. He said both bill to amend the Industrial disputes act and the workers charter looked like the secure and said it confused one's mind.

Party Leader Mr. Wickremasinghe said they were two separate Bills. Mr. Wickremasinghe said the Industrial disputes amendment Bill brought by Minister Rajapakse was prepared during the UNP time and the workers charter was an invention of the PA Government. He said the UNP should support the amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act and resolved to move two minor amendments to the Bill.

Businessmen who oppose enhanced rights to workers particularly the workers charter which they believe is an impediment on the rights of the employer met with Trade Minister Kingly Wickreamaratne recently.

Though the meeting was held to co-ordinate matters relating to the World Trade center, the ongoing power crisis also figured prominently.

Leading businessmen Patrick Amersinghe raised the issue relating to the power crisis and the Minister in general told the business community to take Mackie Stores as an example. "Even with the present power situation they had been able to fulfill an order to Russia worth Rs. 300 million. This includes garments, design clothes, umbrellas and other items" the Minister said.

The meeting was held just prior to the 3 day seminar organized by the UNP for the leading business personalities in the country.

In another more Minister Wickremaratne persuaded the cabinet to approve proposal to remove obstacles faced by unprters of essential food items, thereby canceling the prevailing licensing system. As a result the traders are free to unport Chillies, Potatoes and Onions without any license.

When the Minsiter put this cabinet paper for the approval of the other Minister, Minsiter Rajapakse asked Minister Wickremaratnne as to whether he was planning to import sardine

Simultaneously the government is planning to import 100,000 metric tons of wheat flour from India on a government to basis. Knowing that the Sri Lankan government had entered with an agreement with a Singapore-based company "Prima" that flour should only be bought from them the Minister Consulted Attorney General Sarath Silva for his advice.

The Attorney General's department had however advised the government that a company could not insist on protectionism on a matter which comes under the purview of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and hence the government could go ahead with the flour deal with India which the government plans to buy at a rate less than the current price.

The consignment of flour would probably arrive in bulk sons any containers on which the government is getting a reduction.

However the government is prepared is prepared to allow the Prima-Singapore to supply the 65,000 m/tons annually as stipulated in the agreement if the binding clause is removed. There would however be problems for the government if Prima decides to file legal action. But the agreement says that the firm in question should invest a massive sum in Sri Lanka on the phase II of the project if the this chase, is to have, a binding effect.

Out of all these one thing is clear that the government will remove the flour subsidy and as a result the price of bread will go up again, may be beyond the reach of poor people.

Among other matted the Select Committee presided over by Minister G.L. Peiris last week witnessed the financial advisor of the DUNF, Ravi Karunanayake voicing disatisfaction over his financial proposals not being studied by the Treasury officials and others in the government who are connected into various aspects of finance. The Chairman however agreed that the proposals submitted by the DUNF on the devolution of financial functions would be considered along with the other recommendation that would be coordinated and sent to the Select Committee by Attorney General Sarath Silva.

Mr. Karunanayake also inquired whether the Select Committee members could take personal positions when they participate in the deliberations of the Select Committee.

He cited Mr. Chocksy's position on some of the proposals he had made. Mr. Hameed explained that UNP was a democratic party and that the Select Committee members were free to put forward their posit of view and would stand by the decision taken by the party.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Tamil United Liberation Front also meet with Minister G.L. Peiris recently to discuss devolution issues.

Dr. Peiris who hosted delegations of both parties for dinner told them to sort out the outstanding problems in the East before the put forward a trial proposal before the Select Committee on Constitutional reforms.

Thereafter the discussion centered on an administrate unit for the Muslim Community in the Ampara district.

The TULF's position was that they would not object to a Muslim amit in the Ampara district the Ampara electorate. Byut the SLMC expressed its dissatisfaction over the matter and put forward their original proposal of a non contiguous council with Akkaraipathu as its base. The council will also administer other Mulsim pockets in the North and the East too.

Two councils

Based on the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayakam pat, the SLMC proposed two councils for the Tamils, one in the North and one covering Trincomalee and Batticaloa district in the East which would technically de-merge the two provinces.

At this stage the TULF delegation pointed out that they could not agree with this, since the merger of North and East was a sentimental issue for the Tamils.

In the circumstances both parties fried hard to arrive at a compromise with an arrangement for the Muslims in the entire North-Eastern region.

The parties are likely to meet again to discuss this issue.

Tamil - speaking parties also met with the UNP last week and they were told that the UNP was ready for greater devolution under the 13th Amendment to the constitution.

However it appears that the Tamil parties would not agree with these proposals at the moment At present, the Tamil parties, especially the EPDP had by Douglas Devananda are pushing for an interain administration in the North and East.

he asks when the government has appointed an authority for the entire North - East for its development, as to why they coundn't appoint an Interim Administration.

Mr. Devananda who had discussions with the government recently told the President that President Premadasa said "n,uq" "we will do" but nothing happened.

The position taken up by the government was that the people in the North do not want the EPDP and they don't want their presence with arms.

As a matter of honoring the opinion of the people the government did not want the EPDP to be in the Jaffna peninsula with arms.

Mr. Devananda posed a question at this stage "If the people of Jaffna do want the army's presence their with weapons, would they withdraw.

He told President Kumaratunga the EPDP's impopularity in the Jaffna peninsula was they were going along with the government and if they start opposing the government with in there months they could win the hearts of the people of Jaffna.

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