ONE Year on the Web

The Political Column

2nd March 1997

All-party move to end polls violence

By Our Political Correspondent

The Ratnapura turmoil after assassination of Nalanda Ellawala shook the nation and have prompted new moves to end the re-emerging trend of killer politics with Speaker K. B. Ratnayake taking a major initiative, though his own SLFP does not seem to be happy about his move.

Mr. Ratnayake summoned a meeting of all political parties represented in Parliament to discuss the political violence.

At the meeting on Tuesday attended by all parties except significantly the SLFP which leads the ruling People's Alliance the Speaker outlined his concern and said Parliament must make an effort to bring about a more peaceful political climate in the country. He said leaders of parties must help to conduct Parliament keeping its tradition and decorum.

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe thanked the Speaker for his initiative which he said was timely. He pledged full support for the Speaker's efforts and said his party would support the steps taken by the government to seize all illegal weapons.

Minister Bernard Soysa said the Speaker's initiative was timely and it was the duty of Parliament and right-thinking citizens to eradicate violence from society.

Minister Srimani Athulathmudali said the police must help to fight violence and not promote it. She cited incidents in the South recently. It was clear that the Speaker's initiative was entirely his own and that he had not consulted anyone.

As the constituent parties of the PA including the LSSP, DUNLF, CP and the SLMC walked in, it was clear that no one from the SLFP was coming. There were three Ministers, Bernard Soysa, Srimani Athulathmudali and Indika Gunawardena. At this point A. C. S. Hameed asked whether any effective steps could be taken in the absence of the SLFP.

The Speaker said the Leader of the House, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake had informed him that because of election work he could not come. Many aspects of the use of illegal weapons were discussed, including the need or otherwise of special security for MPs.

Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam said it was not proper to search the residences of MPs for arms and the Speaker said he would convey the protest to the government.

Douglas Devananda of the EPDP said the police had come and told him to surrender his weapons but he refused saying he needed them.

The Speaker's meeting certainly had results. There was consensus that an appeal must go out to the nation calling on everyone to respect law and order and to condemn political violence.

The Speaker appointed Mr. Soysa, Mr. Hameed and Dr. Thiruchelvam to prepare the appeal. At this stage Mr. Hameed pointed out that at the meeting of the Elections Commissioner with the representatives of parties, it had been agreed to make an appeal by leaders of political parties to conduct the elections peacefully. Therefore he said the appeal from Parliament should be more comprehensive.

Whether the Speaker's initiative will succeed or not is yet to be seen. It is only tomorrow when the party leaders meet will one be sure how the government views the Speaker's initiative.

But, when the party leaders were meeting at the Speaker's office, Opposition Leader Mr. Wickremesinghe received a note from an aide in Parliament that a combined police and army team was at his Cambridge Terrace office to search for unauthorized weapons. Mr. Wickremesinghe read out the note to others at the meeting.

At the Cambridge Terrace office Mr. Wickremesinghe's security officers turned away the search party as they did not have a valid warrant. An army officer leading the search party had said they had come there on orders from the top.

A police officer repeatedly asked whether there were any unauthorized weapons but the answer was that all the weapons issued to the Leader of the Opposition had been authorized.

When the team asked for the shotguns issued in 1988, the security officers said those guns had been returned and documents to that effect would be produced.

The search team then asked for the weapons issued by the Ministry of Defence in 1989 and they were then told to come back around 4.30 p.m.

After consultations the Opposition Leader's secretary Naufel Rahuman directed the security officers to return two shotguns issued to the Leader of the Opposition.

Another police team visited the residence of Anura Bandaranaike at Rosmead Place in search of unauthorised weapons.

Mr. Bandaranaike said we received weapons from the UNP government when he was the Leader of the Opposition and he handed over all to Anuruddha Ratwatte to be distributed among the members of the SLFP.

He quipped that General Ratwatte would be the best source of information for those weapons.

In another move, Mr. Bandaranaike complained about a threat to his life. He told police investigators the threat was real but declined to give names.

Last weekend Mr. Bandaranaike had sent an urgent letter to Police Chief W. B. Rajaguru claming he had reliable information of a threat to his life from a powerful source within the government.

Senior DIG Lucky Kodituwakku acting on the orders of the IGP met Mr. Bandaranaike at his Rosmead Place residence to discuss the threat.

Mr. Bandaranaike reiterated the threat came from a powerful person within the government, but declined to give more details as to how he received this information.

The police decided to increase the security for Mr. Bandaranaike in view of the threat.

In a related development the 'Coalition against political violence' has written to all political parties to avoid political violence and acts of intimidation.

A letter sent by the organisations' secretary, Charles Abeysekera states:

"The increasing incidence of political violence in the context of local government elections was discussed at the last meeting of the consultation called by the Commissioner of Elections on Thursday, the 20th.

"I was present at this meeting with other representatives of the election monitoring organisations - the Movement for Free and Fair Elections and the People's Alliance for Fair Elections. I spoke about the prime responsibility of the political parties in eliminating political violence and, since individual appeals seem to have had no effect I suggested that all political parties contesting the elections issue a joint declaration rejecting violence and taking action to practice that rejection.

"The meeting kindly suggested that we draft such a declaration and circulate it among the parties.

"We are herewith annexing a draft of a declaration containing what we think should be the minimum requirements. We would request that you consider joining in this declaration, giving us a chance of meeting you to amplify our concerns, if necessary.

"We are also pleased to note that political parties have generally come to an agreement on some of these matters at a meeting summoned by the Speaker, K. B. Ratnayake. We hope that our concerns will also be reflected in that statement."

The draft declaration prepared by the group states:

"To deplore the current wave of political violence and are deeply concerned about the grave threat it poses to democracy in Sri Lanka. Political violence vitiates the democratic process and can pave the way for authoritarianism.

"Acutely conscious of these dangers and of the continuing political violence in the local government authority elections despite individual appeals by party leaders, we as political parties committed to democracy join together in making the following declaration.

1. We categorically reject the use of politically motivated violence.

2. We call upon all party activists and supporters to refrain from acts of political violence.

3. We call upon all voters not to vote for candidates who have committed or continue to commit acts of political violence.

4. As a clear demonstration of our rejection of political violence, we pledge to remove from the current political campaign.

(a). all those who have been convicted of committing acts of political violence,

(b) those who have been brought within the ambit of the judicial process for doing so and,

(c) those who are known to have committed such acts.

We pledge that persons implicated in any of the above will not receive any assistance or support from us.

We are also firmly convinced that as a matter of the utmost priority, necessary arrangements should be made to remove all fire-arms issued to politicians. The security of politicians is the proper function of the security forces of the state and should be entrusted to them."

While the Speaker and all political parties except the SLFP were making an attempt to eschew political violence and the gun culture UNP MP, A. H. M. Azwer has written to the President alleging that nearly 2000 guns had been distributed among PA supporters countrywide.

Mr. Azwer's letter also contained allegations of threat and intimidation by a PA member in the Puttalam District on some Muslim residents in the Anamaduwa electorate.

The letter states:

"I wish to bring to Your Excellency's immediate attention of a serious incident regarding damage caused to the Madawakkulama Mosque in Puttalam District by the above Member of Parliament belonging to the Government Party. People of the village have complained to me of his forcible entry into this Mosque with a gang of men carrying T-56 guns and other weapons. They have smashed up all lights Green in colour illuminating the Mosque. They have abused the people in utter filth and had threatened them not to go to the poll and vote for the UNP. They have even threatened the UNP candidate contesting the election for the Anamaduwa Pradeshiya Sabha to kill him if he does not resign and inform so to the public.

"Your Excellency would agree that this is a dastardly act on the part of the MP concerned. This will bring disrepute to the government itself. The MP also carries about a dozen weapons in his vehicles. Is the police instructed not to check him? A dangerous situation has been created in the Puttalam District due to these acts of violence, hooliganism and threats.

"Your Excellency has ordered the surrender of arms by politicians. Is this rule an exception to this MP? the people ask us. We definitely cannot have a peaceful election with this kind of hoodlums in the Puttalam District.

"Also, it is alleged that about 2,000 guns were distributed among the PA supporters during the last two weeks. While disarming UNPers, is this an attempt to 're-arm' PA supporters?

"In the interest of a fair and peaceful election in the district, I shall appreciate if Your Excellency would order an immediate inquiry into the above complaints, and take necessary actions against law-breakers."

Political violence was also the subject of discussion between Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe when he visited Rosmead Place to inquire about her health.

The Prime Minister was just recovering from a stomach problem for which she received treatment at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital.

The discussion between the two lasted for about 25 minutes and when Mr. Wickremesinghe was about to leave Ms Bandaranaike referred to the death of Nalanda Ellawala and said it was sad to lose a young politician with a bright future.

Ms. Bandaranaike also said it was time to get together and put an end to political violence.

She told Mr. Wickremesinghe that she discussed this matter with the Speaker, K. B. Ratnayake when he visited the Jayewardenepura Hospital while she was warded.

Ms. Bandaranaike said she told the Speaker to take an initiative and summon an all party conference to discuss this serious issue.

Mr. Wickremesinghe who readily agreed to Ms. Bandaranaike's suggestion said it would be even better if Ms. Bandaranaike took the leadership in that endeavour.

Accordingly at the party leaders' meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe extended his fullest co-operation to the Speaker but the most vital party to this effort, the SLFP failed to turn up.

However it is likely that political parties would arrive at a consensus on this serious issue soon.

As these steps were being taken we heard the disturbing news of an alleged attempt on the life of UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale at Doloswalakande in Ratnapura.

Mr. Atukorale reportedly escaped unhurt and lodged a complaint at the Nivithigala Police Station while another PA candidate made a counter complaint against Mr. Atukorale. The police are probing both.

Mr. Atukorale has also written to the Police Chief requesting more security in view of this incident.

Though the Prime Minister and the Speaker have said all should give top priority to the curbing of political violence, the ministers at their weekly meeting paid more attention towards bringing down the prices of essential commodities.

Minister S. B. Dissanayake brought the proposal and everybody agreed that the government should work towards this.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was unusually early for the meeting said this should be done immediately without making excuses and ministers clashing or putting the blame on each other.

"People are not interested in hearing these arguments for and against - they want something practical."

At this stage Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte said he carried out an independent survey on the forthcoming elections. This is not a survey done to satisfy anybody but an actual one. We assured that the People's Alliance could win the election but stressed the need to enhance the majority.

The Nalanda Ellawala assassination certainly put the People's Alliance in an advantageous position, especially in the Ratnapura district, but the cycle of violence that ensued has done lot of damage to the PA too. The trend is now turning away from the PA and many people appeared to be losing confidence in both the major parties. In the circumstances there would be a low voter turnout or trend towards other political parties such as the MEP or the JVP, bringing about a change in the political fabric.

As the country's political climate reached chaotic proportions infected with violence, some UNP lawyers have viewed the sentiments expressed by Minister G. L. Peiris on the conduct of Fort Acting Magistrate Jayantha Dias Nanayakkara as a direct interference with the judicial process in the country.

Dr. Peiris called upon the Chief Justice G. P. S. de Silva to have a Code of Conduct for judicial officers saying he thought the manner of the surrender of fugitive MP, Susantha Punchinilame was highly questionable.

UNP lawyers feel the comments Dr. Peiris amounted to a direct violation of Constitutional status granted to the judiciary under separation of powers.

The lawyers argue that when you bring dispute to the judiciary openly, it is rather difficult to restore it.

According to them the acting Magistrate who had appeared for some surrendees in the Ellawala assassination case has acted according to the law by remanding Susantha Punchinilame and directing him to be produced before the Ratnapura Chief Magistrate.

It is lawful for any person to go to any court for surrender.

After all the magistrate acted according to the law when he remanded the suspect.

But Attorney General Sarath N. Silva makes a valid point, he asks as to whether a wanted ordinary criminal could move into a Magistrate's house in the middle of the night and surrender himself?

Under normal circumstances the man will be charged with another offence for visiting the Magistrate in the middle of the night, he said.

Mr. Silva feels that this has to be examined fully.

It is now likely that the Judicial Service Commission will issue a circular shortly setting out the procedure to be followed by all Magistrates in such cases in the future.

Go to the Situation Report
Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Political Column Archive