The Political Column

22nd September 1996

Chandrika-Ronnie talks: what's cooking?

By Our Political Correspondent

Though the recent Singer Cup has lifted Sri Lanka's cricketing status worldwide, some pavilion charades have left a bitter taste not only among government politicians but others here.

The government Parliamentary Group which met on Monday once again discussed the controversial closing ceremony of the Singer World Series. This time they took to task the Telshan Net-work which had got the sole rights to televise the Singer Series.

TNL has been accused of failing to give prominence to the President's arrival at the Premadasa Stadium during the final match. The MPs described this as an insult to the Head of State who had come there to encourage the Sri Lankan cricketers as they stormed towards another glorious victory.

Matara fire brand Dallas Alahapperuma, spokesman for the Mulberry Group, set off the fireworks. He said the TNL crew had ignored the President's arrival and failed to give adequate coverage. He also charged that the TNL prevented the Rupavahini crew from entering the Premadasa Stadium to cover the President's arrival.

Rupavahini Director-General, W.D. Jayasinghe was threatened and had made a complaint at the Grandpass Police Station.

TNL has denied the charges and taken up the position that any other TV channel is entitled to take any three-minute coverage of the day's proceedings to be shown on their news bulletins without any permission.

TNL has taken up the position that its main contract was to televise the final match and not to show the President's arrival. There was also some confusion as to the circumstances of her arrival and its timing, dictated by security considerations.

The TNL however showed the President briefly.

At the same time some believe that the President had no role in the event and if she wanted TV coverage, she should have agreed to present the Singer Series Cup to the winner.

But at the Group Meeting President Kumaratunga confirmed what Mr. Alahapperuma pointed out and said this was how some people use the media freedom even without extending basic courtesies to the state-run television.

"They may have had the exclusive rights to cover the match, but Rupavahini under the law has the right to cover events of national importance", the President said.

At this stage Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake inquired as to what the Group expected him to do. Mr. Senanayake asked "what do you all expect me to do? Do you expect me to cancel the licence or allow them to continue?"

The President and Mr. Alahapperuma who replied Mr. Senanayake simultaneously said it was not the point that was being made. The President said no one was asking the Minister to control them in that manner.

Rupavahini's rights

"What you must see is that they don't violate the rights of the state-run Rupavahini. They have the right to give news and it is wrong for others to have prevented Rupavahini from covering such national events."

The sponsors had given exclusive rights to the TNL and Rupavahini has no right to telecast the match Mr. Senanayake pointed out.

The President at this stage said "If you will try to understand what the MPs are saying - they are not asking that the Rupavahini should have been allowed to telecast the whole series. All what they are saying is the Rupavahini should have been given the opportunity of telecasting the news and should not have been physically threatened.

Chief Government Whip Richard Pathirana who remained silent when this matter was being discussed seemed to have lost his patience when he inquired as to who was ruling this country.

"I do not know who is ruling the country - If we are ruling the country we should deal with this type of situation without any fear."

Replying, Mr. Alahapperuma said the Rupavahini Director General had made a complaint at the Grandpass Police Station, regarding the threat.

At this stage Minister Pathirana said if something of that nature happened, the Inspector General of Police should have been contacted and the Police could have assisted the Rupavahini to cover the visit of the President. He also said while foreign media had covered this event, the State Media had been prevented.

The President who intervened once again said what she heard was that the TNL crew did not want to show the country that she had come to honour the cricketers until Arumugam Thondaman told them to focus the camera on her.

At the end of the verbal barrage on TNL, Minister S.B. Dissanayake brought out a series of other charges against the Network. One was that TNL failed to carry parts of an interview with Deputy Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle in which he referred to Ranil Wickremesinghe. He said a full probe should be conducted on the matter.

The motion, moved by Mr. Dissanayake prompted by Deputy Media Minister Alavi Moulana, was seconded by Mr. Alahapperuma.

When the UNP heard about the charge that TNL had deleted Mr. Fernandopulle's references to Mr. Wickremesinghe it made inquiries from the TV station and was told, the deletions were made on legal advice that the references may be defamatory.

The UNP is also trying to get more details of the Cup final controversy amidst indications the government is blaming the UNP for it.

The UNP has collected material on how some government politicians and another politician who is said to have supported the government had a sing song party and booze at the VIP lounge and poured liquor on the spectators right below them. The friends of the politician included top businessmen in the city.

But this crowd has now moved to Male for a holiday. The fun had begun at the Kandapola Tea Factory Hotel, then proceeded to Kettarama and from there to Male.

In Parliament too the Singer World Series final figured prominently. SLMC's M.M. Zuhair speaking on the matter said:

"Though Singer has all the right to give exclusive rights to TNL, my complaint is that a large number of citizens in this country did not have the opportunity of watching the televised programmes that were shown over the TNL. In fact, even when the Head of State visited the match there was very flimsy coverage, very disgraceful coverage and the TNL totally ignored Her Excellency's presence, but was compelled to show her because the world media was showing her. (Interruption) All I am saying is this. Is this the type of media freedom that we have in this country, where even when the Head of State visits the match it does not care to give any coverage. The Head of State went there purely to encourage the cricketers who were playing and all those who are interested in cricket in this country. The TNL saw the whole thing through a political perspective and did not give coverage to Her Excellency even in a reasonable manner. I am not concerned with that aspect. I am only worried about the majority who couldn't watch the game properly."

TNL however stoutly defend their wide coverage and visibility in many parts of the island.

Apart from the controversy over the TNL coverage the government group also discussed the current economic situation in the country.

SLMC's M.M. Zuhair complained there was a serious cashflow problem and little was moving in the market. He said the trade sector was deeply worried amidst fears of closure and retrenchments. "We are having our third Budget soon, so it is important that we take immediate steps to win the confidence of the business community", he said.

The President replying, said "we are not unmindful of the situation. During last year vast sums that could have been normally used for other activities had to be directed for the purchase of arms and ammunition".

The President gave an undertaking that the government would be able to overcome many of these problems soon after the third Budget is presented in Parliament where the government envisages to remove subsidies on wheat flour and bread.

Mr. Zuhair once again said though the government had been able to contain inflation in the first year it had now gone beyond 13%.

He said the EPF and ETF should be allowed to enter the competitive market and buy shares to stabilise the plunging stock market.

The President said there had been instances where they were in a position to bring inflation down to 4%. The main concern of the government was to keep inflation and the Cost of Living at reasonable levels. She said during the UNP regime, problems were acute, but now there was lot of relief in the country and the media were free.

SAPTA formula

At this stage Minister Srimani Athulathmudali interjected, saying the late Athulathmudali managed his portfolios well while he was a Minister in the UNP and there were few problems.

The President said she took the UNP as a whole and did not want to pinpoint the faults of individuals or give them certificates.

At the same meeting DUN(L)F's Ravi Karunanayake referred to the SAPTA (South Asian Preferential Trade Agreement) and said it could be harmful to the local industries. He said with reduced tariffs, Indian products were coming to the local market at cheaper prices and would affect the local industrialists. He said for example Indian fruit drinks would come here at cheaper prices.

The President said the government had not yet implemented SAPTA and the possibility of local industries being affected or facing closure could not have arisen already.

Mr. Karunanayake reiterated that it has been decided to implement SAPTA and that there is a serious fear among the industrialists. He emphasised the need to protect the local industries. He also urged the government to exploit the Phosphate deposits in Eppawala to produce cheap fertilizer.

The President replying said the government was exercising great care before deciding on matters. In fact the charge is that we are delaying things.

Deputy Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle pointing a finger at Minister C.V. Gooneratne said he was not doing anything about the Phospate deposits.

The President who interrupted Deputy Minister Fernandopulle told him not to talk in that manner to people who were holding high office. Mr. Gooneratne said the Eppawala deposits were of low quality.

However Minister A.H.M. Fowzie also chipped in saying the proposal brought by Mr. Karunanayake was important. He called upon the government to look into the matter.

Amidst all these there is strong speculation that the UNP top-rung member Ronnie de Mel could cross over to the People's Alliance. Of much interest is his recent interview on State television where he significantly avoided criticism of government policy.

The offer

The talk among political circles is whether Mr. de Mel would be offered the Finance Ministry or not. It is likely Mr. de Mel would be offered Plan Implementation if he is willing to cross over and join the People's Alliance as a National List Member.

The UNP and Mr. de Mel however downplayed the speculation. In fact at the UNP group meeting former Minister John Amaratunga raised the issue. The matter was also reported in the Sunday Island of September 15.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said Mr. de Mel sought his permission to see the President and briefed him as to what transpired between them after the meeting.

He also said Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had arranged the Ronnie - Chandrika meeting and discussed rumours that Mr. de Mel was planning to join the government.

But others say Mr. de Mel met the President several times before he left for London.

However the news that appeared in the Sunday Island had apparently provoked Mr. de Mel to write back to its Editor.

He says that his quiet holiday in UK with his children and grandchildren has been unfortunately disturbed by a spurious news item appearing on page 1 of the 'Sunday Island' of 15th September 1996, under the headline "What's up Ronnie's Sleeve?"

I wish to put the record straight at once and trust you will give the following the same publicity on page 1 of your newspaper as the original report.

On the invitation of Her Excellency President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, I met her once on the 5th of September, after obtaining the prior permission of my leader, the Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe and also after discussing my proposed visit with him in some detail.

The President and I discussed inter alia the following:

1. The present position of the Proposals for Reform of the Constitution and how to take this constitutional reform process forward.

2. The possibility of bringing about a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka and an end to the present ethnic war and ethnic strife.

3. How to ensure quick economic development and growth with a view to solving the pressing problems of the people.

4. How to put an end to political violence and the criminalization of politics in Sri Lanka.

I have always felt very strongly and at all times that there should be a national consensus and a bipartisan approach to these vital problems and I will always strive with all my strength to try to bring about a solution to these problems without which Sri Lanka can never hope to go forward.

Any question of my leaving the UNP and joining the PA Government, far from being discussed, was not even broached at this meeting and does not therefore arise.

Immediately after this meeting with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, I reported the full content of my discussion with her in complete detail to Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe. As leader of the UNP, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe has therefore been kept fully informed by me at all times.

It was indeed through Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar that Ronnie de Mel met the President.

For quite some time female activists who only this week demonstrated "for peace" outside Colombo's Lipton's Circus have been lobbying influential figures whom they call are pro-package, pro-peace, moderate elements. That they thought of Mr. de Mel as one such person is understandable given the fact that the one-time UNP Finance Minister was a great supporter of the controversial 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.

But possibly what they did not know was that it was the same Mr. Ronnie de Mel who came to a Parliamentary Select Committee deliberating on the PA's proposed devolution package only a few months ago and tore it to shreads - verbally, of course.

With UNP's front-runner A.C.S. Hameed himself presiding at that very Select Committee meeting, Mr. de Mel very authoritatively condemned the proposals and went as far as saying that he was speaking "on behalf of the UNP". Neither did Mr. Hameed correct him on that occasion, nor did UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe do so after the speech was reported in the local dailies. Nor was there any contradiction of such reportage by Mr. de Mel.

Yet, Mr. de Mel himself appeared willing and able to discuss matters, especially on the devolution package with the President, "but how do I get to see her?" he asked.

The self-styled pro-peace activists got in touch with Mr. Kadirgamar who broached the subject with the President well over a month ago. The President said she had no objections to meeting Mr. Ronnie de Mel. She referred to him taking her out for dinner while she was in London in virtual exile during the JVP terror months. Ronnie de Mel himself had quit the UNP (or was asked to quit) after he had made a critical speech in Parliament soon after UNP Chairman Harsha Abeywardene had been gunned down by the JVP.

It was only after yet another reminder to the President (who had promised to contact Mr. de Mel, but forgotten) that she called for Mr. de Mel to have what had turned out to be a fairly controversial meeting between giving rise to speculation that the MEP turned SLFP turned UNP turned SLFP turned UNP member, might turn again.

Cupid's arrow

Though some see it as a possible crossover, some UNPers think that the President is trying to open a new channel to discuss the political package with the UNP, since its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to talk to the President on the package. At the same time they think that the President is not happy with the link maintained by Minister G.L. Peiris with the UNP and that she was trying to re-establish a new link through Foreign Minister Kadirgamar.

Mr. Kadirgamar took time off this week from the druggery of politics and his otherwise busy schedule to re-enter wedded bliss after a brief stint as the debonair globe-trotting bachelor he was.

It was only a few months ago that he told Parliament during a debate that he has been reduced to a prisoner in his own home due to security considerations. Everyone knows he is high on the LTTE's hit list, the loneliness of high office coupled with his self-imposed house arrest finally got the better of him, it seems.

Last week, quite suddenly, he decided to take the plunge and marry a lawyer lady with whom he had worked closely in the field of intellectual property. There were to be no ceremonies except for the registration and a lunch for 12 - to fill his usual dining table.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga was informed only the day before (Wednesday) with a request to attest the marriage. Not even the Government Agent was told what the occasion was when the Foreign Minister requested him to kindly call over on Thursday morning on a "personal matter".

At the auspicious time of 10.06 a.m. the signing ceremony took place with former UNCTAD Secretary General Dr. Gamani Corea signing on behalf of the bride. Apart from immediate family members and the witnesses, only the three most senior partners of the law firm of F.J. & G. de Saram were present.

But by noon Hulftsdorp, that reservoir of city news was agog at the marriage of two of their tribe. The news quickly wended its way to the newspaper offices but yet that evening when the Minister telephoned his Seccretary Rodney Vandergert to break the news he was unaware that his Minister had changed his civil status that morning.

In the early hours of Friday morning before the newspapers could hit the streets with the news, the couple left for New York. He on state business and account, she with private funds.

Meanwhile back in the political front the UNP Group meeting in Parliament last Monday was full of excitement. Though the attendance was poor, the atmosphere was certainly not dull. Party leader Wickremesinghe said the Rehabilitation of Public Enterprises Bill would be a death-knell to privatisation programmes in this country. He said this Bill would scare away foreign investors from Sri Lanka and said finding jobs through foreign investment would become difficult. He said this Bill must be opposed by the UNP and that he would be appointing a Special Committee to study the details, A.C.S. Hameed said the Bill was a contradiction in a country committed to de-regulation and privatisation. Mr. Hameed said Sri Lanka would be the first country to introduce legislation of this nature. Governments help in many ways companies that are not performing well, but they certainly do not take over the companies, he said. Susil Moonesinghe said the Daily News had given prominence to a middle-page article which said the government should follow Leftist policies. Jayawickrema Perera inquired whether it was proper for Mr. Moonesinghe to read the Daily News in view of the UNP's boycott of Lake House papers. Mr. Moonesinghe said "If we do not read these papers we will not know what is happening."

When Ronnie de Mel issue was raised by John Amaratunga Mr. Moonesinghe was not prepared to let Mr. de Mel go unscathed and inquired whether it was proper for Ronnie to give an interview to Rupavahini. Mr. Hameed, asked whether there was any great difference in giving an interview to the Rupavahini and reading the Daily News, and added that they should be fair in their assessment. Mr. Moonesinghe replied that there was certainly a difference. Jayawickrema Perera explained that Mr. Moonesinghe, had gone to the Public Library to read the Daily News."

Besides this the UNP discussed many more things including human rights abuses by the present government.

Mr. Wickremesinghe briefed the group on what transpired between the UNP and a delegation from the NGO's.

The UNP Leader said he had alerted the Human Rights Groups on the growing violence promoted by government at UNP meetings and warned that if the trend goes unchecked, Sri Lanka could witness violence in greater proportions.

At this stage the NGO pointed out that the UNP too was responsible for rights abuses.

They had apparently inquired the UNP whether they could give an undertaking that such incidents wouldn't take place under a future UNP regime.

Mr. Wickremesinghe while assuming that full protection would be granted to the people under the law said the United Front Government was also accused of violating these rights during the 1971 insurgency.

After appraising the group as to what took place during the discussion between the UNP and the NGO's Mr. Wickremesinghe said the UNP believed in non-violence and pointed out that they were in the process of taking action under the law of the country, with regard to the incidents in Kesbewa, Matugama and Negombo.

At this stage Chief Opposition Whip Wijeyapala Mendis said they had lost the freedom they achieved 50 years ago under this regime and if the UNP remained silent when its supporters were beaten up in this manner then the people would begin to lose faith in the UNP.

Referring to the President's statement where she allegedly attempted to condone what happened in Negombo, Mr. Mendis said the top politicians were encouraging that type of conduct. He alleged that Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was convicted of violating fundamental rights continued to be an MP.

Mr. Mendis also referred to newspaper reports which said Mervyn Silva and Susantha Punchinilame had wanted to immediately leave for Negombo with Jeyaraj Fernandopulle from Kandapola when they heard about the Negombo shooting incident. "But the duo had not sighted Negombo to see what had happened to their fellow UNP supporters in Negombo. "

Both Mr. Silva and Mr. Punchinilame were at Minister Saumyamoorthy Thondaman's birthday party held at the Kandapola Tea Factory Hotel that night along with Deputy Minister Fernandopulle and many others when they heard about the Katana shooting.

But when Mr. Fernandopulle wanted to leave immediately after hearing about the shooting, both Mervyn Silva and Susantha Punchinilame (UNP ) insisted that they should accompany him and would not allow Jeyaraj to go alone at that hour of the night.

Much attention is also being drawn towards a battle in open court between Justice F.N.D. Jayasuriya of the Court of Appeal and President's Counsel Faiz Musthapa

After this usual duel in a court room in Hulftsdorp, the subject of judicial immunity has been the subject of some discussion.

Should it be confined to observations on subjects before the Courts or can they make references to issues which are not connected to the immediate issues that are before the Court? This question is gathering momentum day by day in view of recent developments with which some members of the Judiciary themselves seem to be unhappy. Members of Parliament and Judges enjoy immunity with regard to their pronouncements - the former in Parliament and the latter in Court. The privilege is strictly limited to Parliament and to the Courts. The question that has come up now is the relevance with regard to their utterances. MPs in Parliament, of course, violate the relevance rule often, but traditionally this has been followed over the years. With regard to Courts, references by Judges are strictly limited to the matter before Court. Only last week at Hulftsdorp people witnessed an exchange of words between a Judge and a President's Counsel, which was a result of a reference made by Justice Jayasuriya while Mr. Withanarachchi, a junior of Musthapa's chambers was presenting a case. When the Judge made this reference, Mr. Vithanarachchi had claimed that the reference was unfair since the President's Counsel had no connection with the case which was before the Court. The drama reached its peak when the involved President's Counsel arrived in Court and inquired whether there had been any reference to him. An exchange of words followed thereafter.

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