The Political Column

11th August 1996

Ratnasiri to be removed?

By Our Political Correspondent

As the government was recovering from the debacle in Mullaitivu, Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte used the emergency debate to reply Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

According to General Ratwatte's statement in Parliament the government is still not in a position to disclose the exact number of men who died in the battle. He put the figure at around 700, while the UNP said it was 1500.

Ratwatte used the opportunity to take a few digs at Mr. Wickremesinghe. He said, "The Opposition Leader had asked on July 25 why I failed to appear in the House. I was not enjoying an outing at the Tangerine Beach Hotel, Kalutara or planting grass at home. I was with the forces providing leadership for the operation... Can I please ask a simple question? Has he ever visited the battle field and seen for himself? Never. Is he the man who asked why I was not in the House that day?"

Obviously the statement made by Mr. Wickremesinghe on July 25, questioning Gen. Ratwatte's capabilities to give directions to the armed forces had irked the General.

Whatever the claims most people think that the government had acted in an irresponsible manner as far as the Mullaitivu attack was concerned. Parents and relatives of the soldiers who were in Mullaitivu are still in distress without confirmation or communication as to what fate had befallen the troops.

This was raised at the People's Alliance parliamentary group meeting and the SLFP group meeting held simultaneously on Monday at different places. At the SLFP group meeting, Minister Mahinda Rajapakse raised the matter. He said Minister Ratwatte had promised at a news briefing to give a fuller report but the government had failed so far to tell the people what had taken place in Mullaitivu.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, replying said she had been out of the country when both the Orugodawatte and the Mullaitivu incidents took place. When she returned to the country, having heard about the Mullaitivu incident Minister Ratwatte was away in Trincomalee assisting operations there, she said. So they could not have a proper assessment of the situation. It was only recently that they could sit down and discuss the matter and she had directed that he make a fuller statement to the House.

At the People's Alliance group meeting held at the Presidential Secretariat, an MP from the Kurunegala district urged the government to release facts and figures relating to the Mullaitivu debacle. He asked how they could debate the matter in Parliament without having proper information.

House Leader, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake intervened at this stage and said Minister Ratwatte was expected to brief PA MPs before the debate in Parliament on Wednesday.

But by that time he would not have known that at Temple Trees, Dallas Alahapperuma was moving a motion in the SLFP group meeting presided over by President Kumaratunga to oust Mr. Wickremanayake as the Leader of the House.

At the start of the Temple Trees meeting, President Kumaratunga came down hard on Mulberry group activities and told them it was now time to stop "Mulberry Julberry". "I have decided to meet the SLFP group on a monthly basis and I want them to stop it now, since I have heeded their request to meet them every month. The Mulberry group has been pressing me for a long time to meet them at least once a month," she said.

But the President qualified her earlier statement saying she did not mind the existence of the Mulberry group as long as they did not step beyond their limits by issuing press releases and doing things to undermine the administration.

Mulberry objectives

The President also over-ruled the Mulberry group's decision to hold countrywide meetings to educate the public on various issues. She emphatically told the SLFP members of the Mulberry group that the need to hold countrywide meetings did not arise now.

At this stage Upali Gunaratne, the Secretary of the Mulberry group explained the objectives of the group. He said there was no intention to break the government or undermine the President's authority. The sole aim he said was to protect the government by exposing alleged corrupt practices of some people in high places.

President Kumaratunga, replying said some allegations levelled against Ministers were without foundation.

Soon after the President admonished the Mulberry group, Dallas Alahapperuma and Dilan Perera, two active members of the group entered the hall where the meeting was in progress, with the intention of moving a resolution against the Leader of the House Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.

Others thought that it would have been a planned effort by some members of the Mulberry group who are close to the President.

Speaking after a little while, Mr. Alahapperuma said when J.R. Jayewardene was in power Ranasinghe Premadasa gave a strong leadership to the UNP parliamentary group as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. He emphasised the need to have a strong personality as the Leader of the House.

"There should be a good personality to give leadership to the parliamentary group, but today we have an ailing person in that post.

Therefore I propose that Richard Pathirana be appointed as the Leader of the House," he said.

As soon as Mr. Alahapperuma proposed Mr. Pathirana's name an MP from the Badulla district rose to second it. He said that Mr. Pathirana should be made the Leader of the House and another strong person appointed to succeed him as chief government whip. "He should be a person who could counter Anura Bandaranaike in Parliament," he added.

The MP said few, if any of the Cabinet Ministers had raised their voices to defend President Kumaratunga whenever the UNP and its leader attacked her.

"This is a very sad situation and we hope this will not continue in the future," he said.

President Kumaratunga who spoke at this stage said she has realized this and even Ranil Wickremesinghe mentioned this to Central Bank Governor A.S. Jayawardena when they met at a dinner.

The President quoting A.S. Jayawardena told the SLFP group that Mr. Wickremesinghe had mentioned that he and Minister Mangala Samaraweera, were the only persons who were interested in defending the President.

As the matter concerning President Kumaratunga ended there, Dallas Alahapperuma once again raised queries pertaining to the PA government and its Ministers. This time he took Minister D.M. Jayaratne to task and criticised him for the deteriorating state of affairs in the Ministry of Agriculture.

"The Minister keeps on blaming the World Bank. Could we do that and survive? We are a poor and small nation", Mr. Alahapperuma said.

The Agriculture Ministry is like the "Jayaratne Funeral Parlour". With that Minister Jayaratne lost his patience and entered into a verbal duel with Mr. Alahapperuma. It went on for at least 30 minutes.

Even the President couldn't control the Minister who accused the Mulberry group of intrigue and conspiracy. Mr. Jayaratne warned Mr. Alahapperuma not to talk in an indisciplined manner and pointed out that he had worked for the SLFP and the Bandaranaikes since 1958. He also said he achieved this position through sacrifice and dedication and that he also could talk like Mr. Alahapperuma if he wanted to.

The President was finally able to douse the raging fires between Minister Jayaratne and Mr. Alahapperuma when she told the Minister not to get too excited about what the MP said.

"All that was intended to create a better administration", she told the Minister. However the Minister said, he had pre-monition and information about such a conspiracy by the Mulberry group to which Mr. Alahapperuma said a person who used to "booze" with his friends in the evenings would have told this to them.

MP Vincent Kuruppuarachchi who was disturbed over Mr. Alahapperuma's remarks demanded the latter to disclose the name without casting innuendos.

"We are also people who are enjoying lives but we don't carry tales".

Mr. Alahapperuma swifly moved at this point to defuse the tension saying that the remark he made was not meant for the other MP.

Some members targeted Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne too for allegedly issuing a character certificate for the CWE Chairman who was removed by the President after a Mulberry committee found that there were certain irregularities.

Some SLFPers feel that there is an organised effort to bring disrepute to some Ministers orchestrated by the Sudu Nelum movement. They feel the Mulberry group is on the verge of collapsing.

Soon after, three senior Ministers came under attack by some backbenchers. This was allowed by the chair. The President then got back to government business. She unleashed her anger towards Upali Group Newspapers which she said were attacking her without reason. "There is another weekly paper which could be described as an obscene publication with no respect for people. My uncle's papers are attacking me in a highly offensive manner, while Ranil's uncle's papers do the same thing in a more decent and acceptable manner", she added.

I will be compelled to take stern action against the Upali Newspapers, but I need your help for that. The other problem that concerns me is leaking out information. What we talk here should not go beyond these four walls, but it is sad to note that certain Cabinet Ministers leak out information to the Press soon after meetings.

Turning to Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the President asked about a problem relating to Sri Lankan workers who went to South Korea recently. The President said according to information she had received, a niece of a Minister was involved in the matter.

Minister Rajapakse told the President that he had already passed on the information he had on the matter to the CID and requested her to follow suit, if she had more.

Thereafter Mr. Rajapakse queried about a fuller statement on the Mullaitivu debacle as promised by Mr. Ratwatte. The President said she had directed Mr. Ratwatte to make a statement in Parliament on Wednesday.

However, Deputy Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle said it was good that the government delayed in issuing a statement since the UNP planned to walk to the Army Headquarters with the close relatives of the soldiers attached to the Mullaitivu camp.

Mr. Fernandopulle was happy that the government moved tactically without getting caught to the Opposition ruse.

While the SLFP group had their deliberations at the Temple Trees, the People's Alliance group met at the Presidential Secretariat in the presence of a few Ministers.

At this meeting presided over by Mr. Wickremanayake SLMC leader and Minister M.H.M. Ashraff dropped a bombshell.

The SLMC leader, a powerful ally of the PA delivered a severe indictment on the government saying, "there is something terribly wrong somewhere and immediate remedial measures must be taken".

Mr. Ashraff said he was wondering whether to open his mouth or not. By listening to other MPs who had complaints, he thought it was the appropriate time to speak out.

He said the business community was discontended owing to the government's inaction and there was a sense of hopelessness among the people. "The government has one common enemy. That is the UNP but the important point is that you cannot have opponents on all the fronts", he said.

Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana nodded his head as if to acknowledge Mr. Ashraff's remarks. EPDP leader Douglas Devananda who was also present at the meeting came out with a similar indictment and said it was a futile exercise on their part to participate in the group meeting if the leader was not available. But Mr. Pathirana assured he could arrange for Mr. Devananda to talk to the President in a bid to settle outstanding matters.

SLMC's M.M. Zuhair was the next MP to speak. He pointed out that this was the third consecutive meeting where the President had failed to appear. "It is a very sad state of affairs, because we get very few opportunities to put our ideas, views and grievances across to the head of the state".

He said that he was in total agreement with Mr. Devananda when he said attending such group meetings was futile.

He then spoke about the business crisis. "This is a serious situation which cannot be overlooked by a responsible administration. One of the matters I wanted to raise was the proposal to amend the debt recovery laws to give more powers to lending agencies and banks," he said.

He said by taking such steps just because of few defaulters, the government was trying to put a majority of businessmen in difficulty. "It will jeopardise their prospects. You should not punish others just because of few defaulters. The government is going to give more powers to the lending agencies when the economy is in trying conditions and this will be in addition to the parate execution introduced by the UNP allowing lending agencies to speed up debt recovery and act in an arbitrary manner," he said.

Not only Mr. Zuhair, DUNF's Ravi Kurunanayake also raised questions about the deteriorating economy.

"This is what the Central Bank and the Deputy Minister of Finance are saying and we want to know what is being done," he asked.

Mr. Karunanayake also raised questions about allegations that government intelligence agencies were tapping telephones of Ministers, state officials and journalists. He claimed that Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake had at a recent meeting assured a probe on the matter. He went on to say that one newspaper reported a conversation between the DUN(L)F leader and a Cabinet colleague.

But it appeared that it was far too difficult a question to be answered by Minister Senanayake because it was done at a different level, he said.

Mr. Senanayake also had a few problems recently when his visit to Sweden on a tourist promotional seminar was stopped by the President. He was asked to stay back to organise party work, and a series of meetings countrywide which the President also would attend.

Minister Lakshman Jayakody was asked to go in place of Mr. Senanayake, but Mr. Jayakody is more familiar with cultural affairs.

Amidst all these happenings Minister Senanayake spoke to editors of local newspapers on Thursday regarding censorship.

He listened to the views of the editors and decided to arrange a meeting with Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte to see what his concerns were: When one editor asked as to whether Gen. Ratwatte would agree to meet the Press, Mr. Senanayake said, "why not if he would agree for marriage at his age". Gen. Ratwatte is the Minister who persuaded the government to clamp down a press censorship. Some senior officers of the armed forces also wanted censorship.

When Minister Ratwatte met MPs on Wednesday before the Emergency debate, he brought documents relating to monetary transactions between the then UNP government and the LTTE, the Pooneryn army camp debacle and the statement made by the Ministers of the then UNP regime.

Minister Richard Pathirana emphasised the need to get down four MPs who were out of the country. He said Minister Fowzie, Reginald Cooray, Srimani Althulathmudali and another had gone abroad.

As Mr. Pathirana was talking about Minister Fowzie and the urgent need to get him down to vote for the extension of the Emergency, Mr. Fowzie's Deputy Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi walked into the meeting hall. "When is Mr. Fowzie coming?" Richard Pathirana asked. "Tomorrow night", she replied. "I don't know why he is telling you that he is coming tomorrow night, but could you send him an urgent message that his presence is needed for the Emergency debate?" An embarrassed Pavithra looked down and nodded her head. At the final sessions of the Emergency debate, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in Parliament watching the verbal duel between her brother Anura and uncle Anuruddha. However, the government won after the President convinced EPDP leader Douglas Devananda she would look into their grievances. Mr. Devananda agreed to vote with the government after a telephone conversation with the President.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting, the Ministers were once again taken to task by the President for leaking information to the Press. The President mentioned this in an accusing manner looking at all the Ministers who tried one by one to show their allegiance.

There were rumblings in the Cabinet over the matter and it took nearly one hour to finish their deliberations as to who was leaking information to the newspapers. There was a verbal duel between Ministers C. V. Gooneratne and Mahinda Rajapakse.

Some Ministers who came under heavy fire at the SLFP group meeting kept a very low profile, while the Cabinet went through its agenda. One important proposal was to dispel the fears of the foreign investors who had bought government institutions under the privatisation programme. The proposal was to close all avenues where there could be government interference in the future.

The Cabinet, including the President, also met Dr. Tun Daim, former Finance Minister of Malaysia and discussed various matters relating to development and other matters.

One question posed to Dr. Daim was as to how the state could get the public servants to work. Dr. Daim answered many questions, but he declined to answer some.

While the government was facing a difficult time economically and politically, the UNP was busy looking at ways to market the party with new concepts. But the UNP also had its problems.

Arms dealers

The UNP parliamentary group, after having discussed the debate on the Emergency and other items on the Order Paper, took time to consider a proposal by Gamini Lokuge, that the party should not have any truck with arms dealers. His proposal provoked a lively debate. M. H. Mohammed opposed the suggestion and said it was not necessary at this time. A. H. M. Azwer supported Mr. Mohammed and asked why it should only be confined to arms dealers, and why it did not include drug dealers. Mr. Lokuge said arms deals were under the government, but drug deals were outside. "What about other unholy forces like smugglers and other underworld personalities, asked Ananda Kularatne. Does this mean that we have been close in the past to arms dealers?" inquired Sarath Amunugama.

Finally, the long debate was brought to a halt by Party Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe by appointing a committee to report on the subject. Strangely, the committee does not include the proposer of the resolution.

At the UNP working committee meeting on Wednesday at Siri Kotha, Mayor K. Ganeshalingam's recent statement supporting the devolution package came up for inquiry with Susil Moonesinghe asking for a clarification. "I have to stand by my people," replied Mr. Ganeshalingam. A number of others rose to support Mr. Moonesinghe. Further argument was stopped by the Leader of the Party.

The issue of forming a national government also came up at the meeting. Former Minister Nanda Mathew raised the matter and asked the party to clearly state its position on the matter. Mr. Mathew was supported by others who wanted to know the party's stand.

The idea of forming a national government had been in the air for sometime. But when the matter was raised, Party Leader Wickremesinghe laid all speculation to rest when he categorically told the working committee that the UNP was not for a national government. He said there was no reason why the UNP should prop up a sinking government. No one still seemed to know who was advocating a national government in the UNP, because some of the speakers had demanded that an explanation be sought from those who had advocated such a move.

Meanwhile, as the UNP is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary, a serious feud between two parties lodging their claims to the Maligawatte Municipal Ward has resulted in Azad Salley, the Editor of "The Nation" and the prospective candidate being seriously assaulted and warded. He has had a narrow escape according to medical sources.

The trouble started at Cambridge Place when a meeting summoned by UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya to sort out the differences, ended inconclusive. M. H. Mohammed is alleged to have told Azad Salley that Maligawatte was his ward and that they had represented it for the past 45 years and they would not allow anybody else to take it over. An agitated Azad Salley is supposed to have replied, "even D. S. Senanayake could not pass down his constituency to his kith and kin." The same night a group of thugs armed with clubs and swords attacked Azad Salley at Maligawatte.

Journalists are perturbed by this brutal attack on Azad Salley and are contemplating some collective action. It is understood that they are waiting until the Police complete their inquiry. 'These are the UNP Goondas whom the UNP nurtured and now that they can't attack us, they are attacking their own men", remarked an SLFP Colombo Municipal Councillor.

Among the other important events, the meeting of the Constitutional Reforms Committee takes a significant place. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has started a debate on the advisability and suitability of a Second Chamber for Sri Lanka. Minister G. L. Peiris, opening the discussion said a Second Chamber was in the original devolution package proposed by the government. Subsequently the proposal was dropped since there was opinion that such a move would cost government substantial funds. He said there had been suggestions from various parties that this proposal should be re-considered since it would also give the minorities more representation.

A. C. S. Hameed said he saw the Second Chamber in the present context as a national integration force. He said with the devolution process, the Provinces would be going further away from the Centre, and the Second Chamber would be a binding factor and it could also provide representation for the Provincial Councils and keep them to the mainstream. While Minister Indika Gunawardena said that in his opinion Provincial Councils had failed to perform effectively their responsibilities and wondered whether any useful purpose would be served in perpetuating this system and providing representation for them in the Second Chamber. Ronnie De Mel supported this view saying he too was of the view that the Provincial Councils and the Pradeshiya Sabhas had failed to deliver the goods. They have only sent the ordinary man from pillar to post. He was of the view that minorities could be given greater representation at the Parliamentary level and also at the Cabinet level by bringing in specific safeguards.

Former Constitutional Affairs Minister K. N. Choksy said a re-introduction of the Executive Committee system which was a main feature of the State Council and netted in all of the MPs in power sharing, may be a better solution. Ravi Karunanayake said that in a Second Chamber what was required was representation at District level so that people who were not in Parliament or not even at Provincial level would be given an opportunity in the Senate. The TULF's Neelam Thiruchelvam said a Second Chamber would certainly help minorities and also would promote greater understanding and harmony.

Answering a question as to what the powers of the Second Chamber would be, Minister Peiris said what the Committee has to decide at first was whether a proposal of this nature was acceptable in principle. The members of the Select Committee agreed to consult their respective parties and report at the next meeting.

But the Tamil parties make an important point that before going into these matters the government should tell them whether it was genuine in its efforts.

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