The Political Column

1st September 1996

Of PA squabbles; private lives

By Our Political Correspondent

The dispute between President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Minister Srimani Athulathmudali entered a new phase when the PA General Secretary wrote to the DUN(L)F leader saying her reply to an earlier letter was irrelevant.

The dispute began with a speech in Parliament by DUN(L)F's Ravi Karunanayake during the emergency debate in which he called upon the government to lift the ban on war news from the North terming it as a 'senseless censorship'.

Mr. Karunanayake also hit out on a number of other matters, including telephone tapping and the deteriorating economic situation. This sparked off a controversy between PA hardliners and the DUN(L)F.

However, when the PA General Secretary, D.M. Jayaratne wrote to Ms. Athulathmudali regarding Mr. Karunanayake's speech, the reply was tough.

Ms. Athulathmudali said she was of the view that certain comments made by Mr. Karunanayake were constructive and should be taken in the spirit in which they were made. "I have been assured that no malice was intended in his speech", she added.

Ms. Athulathmudali's defence of Mr. Karunanayake has sent the relationship between the DUN(L)F and President Kumaratunga plunging to crisis levels.

An annoyed President dismissed the reply given by Ms. Athulathmudali as 'irrelevant' and took up the matter paragraph by paragraph at the PA's Executive Committee meeting on Monday.

Though a friendly atmosphere prevailed the meeting was full of forceful arguments with Mr. Karunanayake taking a firm stand and replying the questions posed by the President.

When questioned about the allegation where Mr. Karunanayake said, "We believe the PA is a government which is a human one except for the few telephone tappings........" Mr. Karunanayake said a telephone conversation between Ms. Athulathmudali and a Minister was published verbatim in a newspaper.

The President replied that even the former regime used to employ such tactics and Lalith Athulathmudali was a powerful figure in that regime.

Mr. Karunanayake said Lalith Athulathmudali had fought against such despicable acts and what he was saying was that it was wrong to listen to telephone conversations.

The President then moved on to Mr. Karunanayake's remarks on the deteriorating economy. Mr. Karunanayake had said, "Coming to this nonsensical Workers' Charter has put the economy in reverse gear".

Mr. Karunanayake explained he had only quoted statements made by officials of the Central Bank and the Treasury. The President hit back saying Mr. Karunanayake had spoken only about the bad side and not the good side of the economy. The President told Mr. Karunanayake she could teach him how to read a Central Bank report and the MP welcomed it.

PA hardliners told Mr. Karunanayake he should not speak out as he did in Parliament. Mr. Karunanayake then asked where he, as a people's representative could air his views.

They told him to raise the matters in the Govt. Group meeting. Mr. Karunanayake hit back saying he had done so, but nothing had happened.

The President also told the PA Exco that the move to present the Workers' Charter was not a government decision, but the decision of an individual, though such a charter had been mentioned in the PA's election manifesto.

It was evident that Minister Rajapakse's charter with far reaching measures intended to protect worker exploitation may not now see the light of day.

The President also questioned Mr. Karunanayake as to why he was talking against the censorship on war news as the media were free to report on anything else.

Mr. Karunanayake said he felt it was not necessary to impose a censorship and that the DUN(L)F was committed to protect the freedom of the Press.

He asked the President why the government was trying to extract one or two sentences from his speech to hound him, instead of looking at his speech as a whole.

Thereafter the President directed Mr. Jayaratne to write back to Ms. Athulathmudali requesting her to advise her members that similar things should not take place in Parliament in future.

Accordingly Mr. Jayaratne wrote to Ms. Athulathmudali thus:

"I thank you for your letter of 21st August 1996, in response to my letter regarding the speech made in Parliament by the Hon. Ravi Karunanayake M.P. on the 8th of August 1996.

The contents of your letter do not adequately respond to the issues raised by me in my letter under reference. Highlighting the issue of telephone tapping and comments made by two members of the SLFP in the media, are not relevant to the main issues that I have raised.

Furthermore I should point out the following:

1. Regarding the issue of telephone tapping the Hon. Mangala Samaraweera M.P., Minister of Posts and Telecommunications has adequately responded to his concerns.

2. Regarding the issue of the Peace Proposals, this has been discussed in detail at the People's Alliance Executive Committee meetings.

3. Regarding the press censorship, this too has been discussed and the position of the government agreed to at the Cabinet.

Under the circumstances raising these issues in Parliament is not in keeping with the spirit of collective responsibility of the constituent parties in the People's Alliance Government.

At the Executive Committee meeting of the People's Alliance held on the 26th August 1996, an understanding was reached that the remarks made by Hon. Ravi Karunanayake M.P. in his speech of 8th August 1996 are not relevant and also embarrass the People's Alliance and the government.

Accordingly, it is the considered view of the Executive Committee of the People's Alliance that you be requested as the leader of the DUN(L)F, which is a constituent party of the PA, to advise Mr. Karunanayake to refrain from making such statements in the future."

While the President was questioning Mr. Karunanayake LSSP General Secretary Batty Weerakoon told the Executive Committee the original letter sent by Mr. Jayaratne should have been first discussed by the Executive Committee. Mr. Jayaratne replied saying the letter was only a cautionary note.

The President also took LSSP's fire brand Vasudeva Nanayakkara to task. She accused him of talking out of turn in Parliament and using vituperative language.

The PA Exco also discussed matters pertaining to the government's devolution proposals.

Once again the DUN(L)F was questioned about its stand on the package and asked why it was opposing when others were doing everything possible to push the package through.

Mr. Karunanayake said they had to abide by the policy decision taken by their party, however small they were. He said his leader Ms. Athulathmudali had expressed her views and disagreements on the package at Cabinet level.

However, other parties at the meeting expressed full support for the President in her efforts to push the package through Parliament.

At this stage the President said she was no longer expecting the UNP to support package since she could not trust that party now.

The President disclosed details of a discussion Minister G.L. Peiris had with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. She said Mr. Wickremesinghe appeared to be putting the party before the nation when he expressed fears that UNP might be left out of possible negotiations with the LTTE and the government would go on its own.

When the President made these remarks, against the UNP, LSSP's Batty Weerakoon emphasised the need to put more pressure on the UNP to get its support to push the package through Parliament, but the President appeared to have made-up her mind on the matter.

Among the other subjects discussed was the government's poverty alleviation Samurdhi Scheme.

Minister S.B. Dissanayake who outlined the Samurdhi programme, said he was unable to allocate the number of Samurdhi appointments promised to the smaller parties earlier, but he would try to give at least part of the quota.

Minister Dissanayake played a prominent role at the meeting putting across the government point of view. He cautioned Vasudeva Nanayakkara, saying any questions the constituent parties wanted to ask the Ministers, should come before the group meeting. He said the present practice of submitting questions directly to the Secretary General of Parliament should be stopped. Others disagreed saying it would be impracticable.

However, they agreed to withdraw questions from the Order Paper if the Minister answer their questions at the group meeting beforehand.

LSSP chief Batty Weerakoon raising a similar point said when allocating Parliamentary time the People's Alliance should allocate time to the respective parties and not members. The parties in turn could decide on who should speak and there would be accountability. Minister Jayaratne disagreed. But the President seemed to be in favour, apparently seeing it as a way of controlling Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

The Executive Committee also discussed the impending Local Government Elections and the President wanted the constituent parties to submit the lists of their nominees before Sept. 15.

When the PA Exco took up the DUN(L)F once again and some members sought an explanation from the DUN(L)F, Mr. Kurunanayake snapped back. He said "if Minister Thondaman could bring a no- confidence motion against Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and if another party could abstain from voting on the extension of the state of emergency, why are you pointing an accusing finger only at the DUN(L)F?"

On another front, the feud in the ruling family intensified with Prime Minister, Sirima Bandaranaike directly entering the battle between her son Anura Bandaranaike and powerful cousin, Anuruddha Ratwatte.

The battle which began with Gen. Ratwatte's reference to a possible mix-up of babies in the Bandaranaike family, took a serious turn when Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike wrote to Minister Ratwatte.

Her letter said:

"I am compelled to write to you in view of the churlish public statement made by you concerning my family which has distressed me greatly and caused me pain of mind.

"Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura are the three children of my late husband and myself and were born not in any hospital as you have claimed, but in our own house at Guildford Crescent and Rosmead Place and were attended to by Dr. Nicholas Attygalle.

"You should dispel any confusion existing in your mind of a mix-up in a hospital.

"You should in future try to speak with a sense of responsibility without defaming members of my family and myself. Since your speech has received wide coverage I will be releasing this letter to the press".

"Ms. Bandaranaike may have received legal advice that she should not be the first to go before the courts, even as a witness, hence she wrote this letter which would enable Anura Bandaranaike to cite this letter in evidence.

Ms. Bandaranaike's letter was delivered to General Ratwatte through the Prime Minister's Secretary last Sunday, but at that time the General was in Kandy.

Major General Hulangamuwa who acts as Minister Ratwatte's Co-ordinator accepted the letter and telephoned his boss. He read out the letter to Gen. Ratwatte, then faxed it to him and in turn, the General faxed it to the President.

In the meantime, Lake House Editors who received copies of Ms. Bandaranaike's letter contacted Chairman, G.B. Rajapakse about it. He reportedly told them to hold it back until he got clearance from the President. Since he could not contact the President on Sunday the Lake House papers did not publish the letter on Monday. Apparently, after clearance the letter was published on Tuesday.

As counter moves, Gen. Ratwatte has deployed investigators, to keep tabs on what Mr. Bandaranaike is saying at public meetings. He has also written to the Prime Minister saying:

"I am in receipt of your letter dated 25th August, 1996.

"It is quite evident from the contents of this letter, that someone has, churlishly, for self-serving reasons misconstrued to you, some of the statements made by me.

"I regret, that this act of calculated misinterpretation, which has certainly not been the work of someone bearing your interest or that of our Party at heart, has distressed you and caused you pain of mind.

"I would point out that the statement I made dealt with the political conduct of an individual in a political party opposed to you.

"Let me assure you categorically that I have consistently had and will continue at all times to have the highest respect and affection for two great leaders of our country, the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and you.

"With regard to your caution that I should speak with a sense of responsibility, I would like to assert that I have at all times done so, for the purpose of advancing the policies and principles of our Party and especially in the interest of our country.

"Since your letter to me has received wide coverage, I will be releasing this letter to the media.

"May the Blessings of the Triple Gem be with you."

All in all it appears that things are not so rosy for the leaders of the People's Alliance and their latest endeavor is to keep the Alliance intact amidst gathering storm clouds which threaten to rip up the two year old coalition.

Simultaneously it appears that the President's popularity is also taking a beating as her government takes tough economic measures pruning down subsidies. The President must therefore find herself walking a narrow line with perils lurking around her.

In addition the cover page story in the latest 'Asia Week' magazine may have caused some heartburn to the President.

The author has had the opportunity to go about with the President and familiarise himself with the day to day activities attached to this high post and comment on our work.

He says "I got a glimpse of how much the regime's appeal was slipping at the President's own home. Kumaratunga hosted a party for 150 of Sri Lanka's most influential lawyers and one visiting reporter. The lawyers were among her biggest supporters in elections two years ago.

Yet I was soon surrounded by a hissing mob. "The lady has lost her grip says one visitor, adds his friend 'The President is ineffective. She has become our biggest problem'. Surely this was not what the President had in mind earlier in the day when she told me:

'These are my most loyal supporters. It will be good for you to hear what they say.' "

There were moves to have the Asia Week magazine banned in Sri Lanka but other prevailed and the public relations that had back-fired on the President was released to the public here.

Now it appears that an effort by the President to build her image internationally may not have been entirely successful. Though the writer has treated his subject with sympathy, he has been alive to the realities of the 'ground situation'.

Some of the President's senior Ministers are of the view that the Asia Week article has a downside which is adverse to her image.

The President however is more worried about something else - the inaction of government agencies which have failed to follow up her good work to attract more foreign investments to the country.

Though the President's recent visits to China, Japan and South Korea had produced many positive results, the Bureau of Investment had not sprung into action as expected.

On her way to South Korea in Bangkok, she learnt that the BOI had failed to follow up many offers on foreign investments. On her return she called for a report from the officials who made foreign trips to get an idea of how the BOI had worked over the years to attract investors.

But now there are more questions raised about the President's visit to South Korea to lure investments and find job opportunities for Sri Lankans.

Though the government said there were nearly 30,000 job opportunities for Sri Lankans in South Korea, it is now clear that only about 1,500 jobs will be given to Sri Lankans.

The other question raised in this connection is whether Nanda Godage of our Foreign Ministry, knew about the President's plan to take an Emirates flight due to security reasons. He was the one who was handling her travel arrangements.

There is speculation in the Foreign Ministry that Mr. Godage who is nearing his retirement age, is likely to replace President's International Affairs Advisor, Jayanath Rajapakse or possibly be given another job outside the Foreign Ministry.

On the other side of the political fence, the main Opposition UNP is planning to celebrate its golden jubilee at the Colombo Town Hall with the participation of former Executive Presidents, J.R. Jayewardene and D.B. Wijetunga. The Party Leader is likely to make a declaration spelling out UNP's objectives, while General Secretary, Gamini Athukorale will highlight significant achievements of the UNP in its 50-year history.

The UNP will also make use of this opportunity to felicitate founder members who had singularly contributed to the well-being of the party.

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