The Political Column

6th October 1996

Muslim politics agitate Tamil groups

By Our Political Correspondent

The upsurge in Muslim politics in Sri Lanka in recent times, has agitated Tamil groups which are seeking a separate homeland in Sri Lanka's North-East region.

The Muslims are demanding that in the event of a North-East merger, they be given a separate council to administer the majority Muslim areas in the East.

At the same time by this non contiguous council it is envisaged to have a hold on the Muslim pockets elsewhere in the North and the East, which would lead to a clear demarcation between the two ethnic groups in the North and the East, the Tamils and the Muslims.

Though most Tamil parties are disturbed over the SLMC's stand, the main party, the TULF has supported this proposal to have a council with Kalmunai as the base.

But with the setting up of the North-East coordinating committee to handle the affairs of the North-East where the Tamils are in majority, the problems between the Tamil political parties and the SLMC seem to have been aggravated.

In the circumstances the five party alliance comprising the EPDP, the PLOTE, the TELO, the EPRLF and the EROS, which opposed any Muslim council and the Ashraff Committee are exploring ways to counter-balance this.

The Tamil parties, disenchanted by the appointment of Minister Ashraff as the Head of the NE Committee, first decided not to extend their support to the committee.

But the SLMC leader was quick to issue a statement saying the committee had nothing to do with the administration of the North and the East as envisaged by a North-East Interim Council proposed by EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda.

However this did not placate the Tamils. The EPDP and the other Tamil parties opposed and attacked the N-E coordinating committee.

The EDPD alleged that the membership of the N-E coordinating committee was too large and it would be difficult to take any decision. It pointed out that the membership was even larger than the number of council members of the now defunct North-East Provincial Council.

Despite all the criticism, EPDP and the other Tamil parties were not successful in getting the committee dissolved or re-constituted.

In this backdrop the EPDP leader and his members had a meeting with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to discuss the current situation in the North and East and the refugee problem.

At this meeting, the President gave an open invitation to the EPDP and the other Tamil parties in the five party alliance, to join the government.

This invitation is now being seriously considered by the Tamil party alliance. Though some parties rejected the President's call, others thought it would be a good opportunity to counter-balance the Ashraff factor in the North-East coordinating committee.

Hence the Tamil parties are seriously thinking of joining the government making use of the President's invitation provided they are given a responsible Ministerial portfolio to handle North-East affairs.

For this, the Tamil parties hope to start a dialogue with the government through a senior Cabinet Minister close to the President.

It is likely they will meet either Minister S.B. Dissanayake or Minister Mangala Samaraweera for this purpose.

The Tamil parties are of the view that the President's open invitation to join the government means they would be given a responsible Ministry to counteract Minister Ashraff.

The Tamil parties feel that Minister Ashraff's position in the government and the influence he wields as the Minister in charge of Rehabilitation affect the interests of the Tamils in the North-East.

His position as Chairman of the North-East Coordinating Committee further extends his influence in the North-East, more than he had as Minister of Rehabilitation.

The Tamil parties fear that Mr. Ashraff could now have his way and the best counter action is to join hands with the government and obtain a Ministerial portfolio so that they could actively participate in the North-East affairs as the Minister of Rehabilitation does.

But last week Minister Ashraff was busy trying to resolve problems between the Tamils and Muslims in the Kalmunai area which led to the deaths of several people, including Tamil school children. The Minister after having talks with Tamil leaders as to how they should restore peace in the area, left for Germany yesterday.

By the end of last week the Tamil parties had held some intense discussions on the current spate of violence in the East and the alleged threat posed by the Ashraff factor to the interest of the Tamils living in the North and East.

Similarly the UNP also had some serious discussions about the current political trend in the country.

The main topic was the Negombo incident since the government had not taken meaningful steps to arrest political violence in the area.

Though some members of the party called for drastic action, party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who believes in democratic ways of handling such situations had advised his party men to be tolerant until he takes meaningful steps to meet this situation according to accepted democratic principles.

At the UNP Parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday Mr. Wickremesinghe said the members should voice their protest against the Negombo incident during the emergency debate this month.

He also said the party should oppose the Rehabilitation of Enterprises Bill describing it as a draconian piece of legislation aimed at Lanka Loha Kahatagaha mines and the Commercial Company.

He said during UNP time all these businesses were profitable ventures but once the PA came to office they became less viable financially.

But at this stage Gamini Lokuge and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne expressed contrary views saying the Bill had a mass backing from the workers.

They said the party should also think from the point of view of the workers as against investors.

Mr. Wickremesinghe explained how business concerns in socialist countries became bankrupt owing to state interference and state ownership and told the group it would be much wiser to go according to the world trend.

He then described the state of the party organisations and emphasised the need to revamp them. He said during his recent visits outstations he saw the pathetic state of UNP branches and youth organisations and it would be difficult to run a party in that manner.

"I bear the responsibility to take the party towards victory and I would be compelled to take a decision about these organisations if they are not properly organised," he said.

At this, Matara district Parliamentarian Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene said though the General Secretary, Gamini Atukorale promised to appoint party organisers in 72 hours the party had still failed to do so.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said he intended to revamp the party organisations but it would not be possible overnight, since he had to give some sort of assurance to the old party organisers that their services to the party were recognised.

He said they all were people who sacrificed in many ways for the party. In the circumstances he said he needed a few months to complete the re-organisation of the party.

Anura Bandaranaike stressed the need to appoint a committee to look into the political violence perpetrated by the government.

The UNP group after having reached consensus on the matter, appointed a committee comprising former Speaker M. H. Mohamed, former Minister P. Dayaratne, Karunasena Kodituwakku, Sarath Amunugama, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene and Mano Wijeratne for the purpose.

The discussion became more lively and aggressive when chief opposition whip Wijeyapala Mendis once again raised the Negombo issue where PA hooligans gunned down five supporters of the UNP recently.

Mr. Mendis said the party should take a firm stand on the matter to compel the government to bring the culprits to book.

He said unless a drastic decision such as boycotting the Parliamentary Select Committee on constitutional affairs or Parliament itself was taken they could never expect the government to take meaningful steps in this respect.

As soon as Mr. Mendis finished his hard-hitting speech he was given a round of applause by those who were present and the opposition leader of the Western Provincial Council Almon Peiris rose to his feet to make his contribution.

When Mr. Peiris started his speech supporting the views of the chief opposition whip, the party leader asked him to sit down.

"You have no right to speak on this matter after having gone abroad with the Chief Minister of the Western Provincial Council."

"With whose permission did you go on this trip? - You haven't informed anybody that you were going with the Chief Minister," he said.

Mr. Peiris explained that he went to China to link a local town with a Chinese city and that it was he who had originally proposed this. But he failed to convince the leader. There was pin drop silence in the audience when UNP leader Mr. Wickremesinghe reprimanded Mr. Peiris, in no uncertain terms.

Mr. Wickremesinghe closing the day's discussion said the UNP was determined to meet the violence unleashed by the government democratically.

"We should be aware that violence cannot be met with violence. We have chosen the democratic path - if we also go on unleashing violence there wouldn't be an end to this."

'We have to admit that such things had happened during our time too - if somebody is not agreeable to this they can leave the party. I am hoping to discuss this matter during the Conservative Party convention for which I would be leaving for London shortly and devise some democratic means to meet this kind of threat," he added.

The Negombo incident and related matters were also discussed at this week's Cabinet meeting held on Wednesday.

It all began when Minister C. V. Gooneratne raised an issue involving TNL, saying LSSP General Secretary Batty Weerakoon had violated a decision taken by the PA parliamentary group that PA members should boycott the TNL.

But Minister S. B. Dissanayake said they could not blame Mr. Weerakoon or anybody else for the matter since nobody has been informed officially about the decision taken by the group.

With this, Minister Richard Pathirana sought to extend the decision taken by the parliamentary group to the Cabinet of Ministers too.

He said at the previous meeting of the government parliamentary group a decision was taken by the MPs to boycott the TNL and not participate in the interviews

conducted by the network. The Minister said this decision should be extended to the Cabinet of Ministers too.

But when Minister Pathirana spelt out the decisions taken by the government group, DUN(L)F leader and Minister Srimani Athulathmudali opposed the move.

She said such a decision would amount to deprivation of the fundamental rights of an individual.

Taking Minister Athulathmudali to task at this stage the President said, "I am sorry to say this - there are things that you know and don't know - if we take a decision collectively you have to abide by it."

Minister Mahinda Rajapakse expressing his views said by such a decision the government would close the door on the viewers of TNL and the government members would not be able to put their views across to the people.

In short, Minister Rajapakse said, "We will be isolated."

At this stage, the President turned her guns towards the UNP referring to the Negombo incident.

She said they were not talking about the earlier incident where a supporter of the People's Alliance became a victim of UNP violence.

"We know what they have done in the past, but they are trying to give as much publicity to the Negombo incident. What they are trying now is to make it an international issue," she said.

Anura has briefed the diplomatic community to make it international.

She said if a UNP government comes back to office except for the Ministers who are having secret pacts with the UNP others would have to face death at the hands of UNP hooligans.

Referring to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe she said she had known him from his very childhood and that she had a number of files which could go against Mr. Wickremesinghe.

Minister Rajapakse interrupted once again and said if the President was in possession of these files, she should go ahead and file action against Mr. Wickremesinghe in a court of law. He said, "if the government goes on saying that it had so many files against Mr. Wickremesinghe without taking legal action, the people are not going to believe the government." Mr. Rajapakse also queried as to why action was not being contemplated against Mr. Wickremesinghe.

"You have to ask Minister G. L. Peiris," the President said. "Some ministers don't want this to happen."

Coming back to the TNL issue, SLMC leader and Minister M. H. M. Ashraff also supported the view of Minister Rajapakse as far as TNL was concerned.

He said it was not a good idea to boycott any media. It would ultimately leave only the Rupavahini for the government.

Towards the end of the Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike said she had an important proposal to make. When the Prime Minister expressed her desire to talk, Minister S. B. Dissanayake immediately walked towards Ms. Bandaranaike's chair to switch on her microphone.

Ms. Bandaranaike said, in view of the rising cost of living and other commodity prices it would be appropriate to remove all facilities granted to the former Presidents, inclusive of their allowances and security.

There was a pause for some time before some ministers, including Ministers Pathirana and Dissanayake said it would not be advisable at this stage.

Since a majority of the Ministers opted not to talk on the issue the proposal slowly faded away without being approved or rejected by the ministers.

Many more things were discussed soon after by the Cabinet. One topic that attracted much attention of the ministers was the government's devolution package.

The President who joined the discussion expressed her doubts that the UNP would ever support the package.

Minister Rajapakse confirmed this view by saying the UNP would never support the government's present set of proposals.

But the President said they supported the Indo-Lanka pact in July 1987 when former President J. R. Jayewardene tried to bring in a peaceful settlement to the ethnic crisis.

She recalled how her late husband Vijaya Kuamaratunga after being released from government custody, supported the Indo-Lanka pact along with her.

Minister Rajapakse who got involved in the dialogue with the President, at this point said, "We (the SLFP) opposed it" and the Prime Minister who remained silent for a long time quipped that they even had a satyagraha to oppose the pact.

The ministers also had some informal discussion about the proposed Rehabilitation of Enterprises Bill.

The President explaining matters said the purpose of the Bill was limited and she would make a special statement.

It was explained that the Bill would be used only to acquire business concerns such as powerlooms which had been closed down after going into the hands of private individuals.

The government does not envisage by this Bill to take over any other business concern or any foreign investment in Sri Lanka, but the fear of the business community could also be justified since they take up the position that the members could create such situations to compel the government to take over private businesses.

In this backdrop it is learnt that even the Board of Investment Chairman, Tilan Wijesinghe, too had opposed the Bill, which is likely to come up in Parliament shortly.

In a separate development Tilan Wijesinghe's name figured prominently before the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises when it met under the chairmanship of Deputy Minister D. P. Wickremasinghe last week to go into the annual report of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

At the meeting it was decided to send a notice of show cause to Mr. Wijesinghe for having failed to appear before COPE.

The COPE observed that Mr. Wijesinghe had to play a vital role as a member of the SLEDB representing the BOI.

Since Mr. Wijesinghe had failed to reply to the summons of the Parliamentary Committee they decided to serve a show cause notice on him.

The SLEDB meeting was attended by more than thirty members representing various business organisations in the country.

The following letter has been sent by ACTC leader Kumar Ponnambalam referring to our last week's political column:

"I write with reference to the article in The Sunday Times on 29th September 1996 by your political correspondent.

At the top of the final column, your political correspondent has done violence to me by writing that:-

(1) I have "shifted from his (my) earlier policies and had advocated the LTTE line."

(2) I had asked "the Tamils in Australia that they should give a mandate to the LTTE to achieve the goal of a traditional homeland."

As regards (1) above, I wish to state that I have never shifted my political policies at any stage. What I advocated is my own line. If my line coincides with the LTTE line, so be it. Let me tell you that the line I advocated is the position taken by all Tamil political parties, including the LTTE, up in Thimpu in 1985. I challenge any Tamil party to say that they have resited from the Thimpu position.

As regards (2) I did not ask the Tamils to give a mandate to the LTTE to achieve the goal of a traditional homeland. If you have the resolution, the least you could do to play fair by me is to publish the resolution. Then we can see whether the resolution you have in your hand, is the correct copy. "

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