The Political Column

19th January 1997

Minorities call for joint package

By Our Political Correspondent

At last, UNP frontliner Ronnie de Mel has echoed the reality behind the UNP's reluctance to support the government's devolution package to solve the country's burning ethnic issue.

The reasons are political and purely political.

The truth is, "how can the UNP support any package and allow the government to take all the credit and continue in office".

As Mr. Ronnie de Mel puts it, the UNP is waiting in the wings to form the next government.

All this was discussed at a dinner meeting hosted by Minister G.L. Peiris at the official guest house 'Visumpaya' on Friday, January 10.

At this meeting the UNP's representatives Mr. De Mel and Tyronne Fernando developed on the statement made a few days ago by their General Secretary Gamini Atukorale in Angunakolapellessa. They said it would be a futile effort to bring in a solution without the main party involved in the conflict.

Hence the UNP pushed the government to initiate a dialogue with the LTTE while the majority of the Sinhalese don't want to do at this stage.

Most of those who advocate a peaceful solution to the ethnic crisis however hold the view that talks would only be possible after militarily weakening the LTTE.

But now it is doubtful as to how long the government would take to accomplish that objective..

There is some logic in what the UNP says when one looks at the 13th Amendment to the Constitution aimed at resolving the ethnic crisis.

Almost all the parties to the conflict agreed on this solution. The LTTE after sometime backed out, without attributing a clear reason for rejecting the 13th Amendment.

In the circumstances what was done through the JR-Gandhi pact failed. The UNP's position must be that giving time and energy for such an exercise without talking to the main party involved in the conflict would not bear any fruit.

But if all the parties, including the UNP and PA get together on one platform, there could be chances of marginalising the LTTE as Minister M.H.M. Ashraff argued at the same meeting.

Mr. de Mel raised eye-brows when he said, "if the package is placed before the UNP, it is likely to be rejected".

He also said, "look at this package which you have presented to the masses as the government's proposals to solve the ethnic crisis. You are going on vigorously campaigning for the package as a set of proposals put forward by the government. As a party waiting to form the next government, how do you expect us to support it. You are trying to take all the kudos and expect a party in the opposition to support the government to continue in power?

At this, someone said the UNP was not participating actively and vigorously to put its views across to the Parliamentary Select Committee examining the devolution proposals.

However Mr. de Mel's views irked TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam to make an impassioned plea to the UNP that it should support the government's devolution package.

"In case you are not willing to do that, we have no option but to tell the Tamil people not to depend on the main political parties for a solution".

He said they would be compelled to tell the Tamils, "Don't wait for us to find a solution".

Mr. Sivasithamparam's warning could be that if the mainstream political parties fail to find a just solution to the crisis there would be no alternative for the Tamils but to turn to the LTTE.

As the meeting took a different turn with Mr. Sivasithamparam's plea, SLMC's M.M. Zuhair said all small parties should jointly urge the leaders of the major parties to rise above party politics and resolve the conflict.

Mr. Sivasithamparam interjected to say that Tamil people had become victims of power struggles between the PA and the UNP.

"We have to overcome this. You have a duty by the people as the United National Party to participate actively in this process".

The TULF leader said this was the key national issue that should be given top priority by all political parties.

Tyronne Fernando voicing his opinion said there had to be a greater role for the UNP in this process if the UNP is to support the government's package.

But Mr. Fernando said it has been used by the government to discredit the UNP.

Minister S. Thondaman, leader of the CWC felt it was the right time for the UNP to take a firm stand and support the package in the highest national interest.

SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff made a valuable contribution when he said the government must be willing to examine how effectively the UNP could participate in the whole process and share in the responsibility for the devolution proposals.

He requested Minister G.L. Peiris to explore ways and means to implement this in a more practical manner.

The Minister suggested that appointing a co-chairman for the meetings and present the devolution proposals as joint proposals should be considered.

He also emphasised the importance of drawing up a strategy to carry out a vigorous campaign to convince the masses and solicit their support.

"We should make it clear to the LTTE that we would be going ahead with the proposals with or without its participation".

The whole purpose of the campaign is to marginalise the LTTE.

CWC member P.P. Devaraj also supported the UNP view and said the UNP's claim was reasonable.

He subsequently called for a meeting of political representatives to rectify this and bring about a broader participation of political parties.

Most of the Tamil parties too agreed that the government should initiate a dialogue with the LTTE.

However EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda said, apart from talking to the LTTE, they had to play a role in the matter.

"We play our part first", he said.

Talking to the LTTE received a greater consensus when SLMC General Secretary, Rauff Hakim pressed the issue of a facilitator to conduct talks with the LTTE.

Mr. De Mel pointed out that a number of countries, such as Canada and organisations like the Commonwealth Secretariat had expressed willingness to facilitate talks with the LTTE.

"We should make use of this opportunity", Mr. De Mel stressed.

Finally all small parties resolved to form into a committee to initiate a dialogue with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga to carry forward the proposals. Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam of the TULF will act as the co-ordinator.

The committee is scheduled to meet Mr. Wickremesinghe tomorrow and Dr. Thiruchelvam will also seek an appointment with the President.

The purpose of this is to form a high powered committee with heads of all national parties and small parties represented in Parliament to examine and explore as to how best they could implement these proposals to end the ethnic crisis.

Tomorrow it is expected that some of the crucial issues would be discussed with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Meanwhile the meetings of the Select Committee fixed for Thursday and Friday to discuss the question of Regions have been put off, pending the meeting of Tamil parties with Mr. Wickremesinghe.

It is difficult to say at this stage as to what the possible developments would be in the next two months, but judging from all what has happened so far, it is unlikely that a consensus between the government and the UNP could be reached. A substantial part of the UNP back-benchers led by Susil Moonesinghe are determined not to deviate from the Unitary Constitution. The supporters of the devolution package within the UNP have not spoken up so far and are not likely to speak up in the future. The UNP's proposal to boycott the meetings of the Consultative Committee on Buddhism has been welcomed by the Sangha, though a part of the Sangha who are opposed to the package want to definitely distance themselves from the UNP.

At the same time the Tamil parties have welcomed the position taken by Mr. Ronnie De Mel and Mr. Tyronne Fernando that their support for the package is directly connected with the political profits of the whole issue.

However some UNP MPs did not seem to endorse this point of view. They maintain that it has nothing to do with the political profits and that their opposition to the package is entirely because of the extent of devolution which even undermines the unitary character of Sri Lanka.

The government is determined, with or without UNP support to bring the package before Parliament so that the minorities would see for themselves the position taken up by the various parties. If the package does not go through, President Chandrika Kumaratunga would not lose in any manner since her commitment to a political solution would be demonstrated to the minorities and to the international community.

While minority parties discussed as to how they should persuade the UNP to support the package, the PA ministers discussed as to how best they could award government contracts and tenders to minimise corruption and malpractices in state institutions.

Initiating the discussion President Kumaratunga warned ministers against corruption and malpractices.

She said ministers needed to be more vigilant on these matters to prevent possible malpractices.

Inviting the ministers' attention she said, "I am keeping an eye on these matters".

Since the President made these remarks when Minister Fowzie presented a Cabinet paper, he asked the President, "Are you accusing us".

"No, No. I am not accusing anybody, but we should adhere to the procedure", the President said.

Then Minister Fowzie said we can adhere to all these procedures. Then we won't be able to get the work done".

The President was insisting that most of the government tenders were awarded by the officials over the telephone to registered contractors, where malpractices could occur.

Though registering of contractors and suppliers was an old practice, President seems to be not satisfied with the system.

Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte also said too many procedures would only delay the work.

But the President insisted that procedures should be followed.

She also addressed ministers, secretaries and senior officials at the Presidential Secretariat on Thursday regarding administrative reforms but the attendance of the ministers for this meeting was poor. It was observed that only seven ministers were present - Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Mahinda Rajapakse, Indika Gonawardene, Kingsley Wickremaratne, Srimani Athulathmudali, Bernard Soysa and C.V. Gooneratne.

At the government group meeting held on Friday, more than 70 MPs requested the President to grant them an appointment to discuss the behaviour of police chief, W.B. Rajaguru.

It was Minister Mangala Samaraweera who presented the case of the number and they gave him a round of applause for the submissions he made. But the President seemed unmoved and defended the IGP saying that he did not have to talk to each and every member with a heavy work load and while attending to the work in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Nalanda Ellawela who tried to launch an attack on the IGP was snapped at by the President and the government MPs felt that it would be a rather difficult task to oust the incumbent IGP who is due to complete his term shortly.

In a recent development, the government has once again decided to allow all MPs to import new cars or jeeps of their choice, but subject to a ceiling of US $26,500.

As soon as this was initiated all motor vehicle agents in Colombo were busy contacting MPs and even, having demonstrations to convince MPs as to how efficient their vehicles were.

The motor car dealers even visited the parliamentary premises, but when they failed to get the green-light to enter the complex they even went to the extent of soliciting the support of an opposition MP to drive in a brand new vehicle to the parliamentary compound which enabled others, both government and opposition, to examine the vehicle.

Parliamentary security authorities were baffled over the incident, but they could do nothing since the MPs themselves had been involved in bringing the vehicle inside.

Almost all the MPs would benefit from the government's decision, since they are in a position to purchase a new vehicle in less than five years.

The car permits issued to the MPs fetch Rs. 1.1 million in the market and several big businessmen have shown interest to buy these permits from the MPs who were willing to sell them.

Be that as it may, the more severe problem that the people would have to face in the near future is likely to be the recurring power crisis in the country. But as a precautionary step the authorities have decided to regulate the discharge of water from hydro reservoirs to the country's rice producing areas in view of declining water levels of the reservoirs.

However, statements made by Power and Energy Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte and government advertisements claim there would be no power crisis in the near future as new power plants were being installed. CEB officials had said 1997 would see no big power crisis as the weather conditions would be favourable.

Some officials, however, have pointed out that it would be important to conserve water to avert any kind of power crisis which would occur somewhere in May, if sufficient rains are not received by March this year. They had pointed out we can import rice but not power.

At the same time a 30 percent increase in the electrical tariffs also could not be avoided as the government plans to buy privately generated power from various sources to meet a crisis situation.

Several private firms are in the process of installing diesel generators for this purpose and an increase in electricity tariffs is inevitable since the government is paying more for the privately generated electricity.

With all these, Sri Lankans would expect another dark period with power cuts during peak hours and at night.

The other significant feature was the protest campaign launched by the independent media against harassment of journalists by the government.

The campaign was quite successful with journalists ranging from reporter to senior editors joining the protest. The government however tried its level best to counter this campaign with propaganda getting some pro-government media men to criticise the protest campaign.

Though harassment to media is not prevalent under this government to the intensity that prevailed under the UNP regime from 1988 to 1993, the government appears to be making lots of blunders when dealing with the media.

Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte in an interview with our sister paper 'Lankadipa' states that the main subject of controversy, the Prevention of Terrorism Act introduced by the UNP in 1979 would not be repealed and the government would continue to act under this draconian law if the situation demanded.

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