The political campaign for the local polls seems to be hotting up with twelve days to go. According to analysts the local polls serve as a political barometer for the People's Alliance, to asses its performance during the past two and a half years, though the results may not have any direct effect on the Government.
It is equally important for the UNP to determine as to how far it has been able to identify the needs of the common man; after its crushing defeat in the 1994 Presidential polls.
Gross violations of human rights, politically motivated killings, abuse of power and corruption brought the UNP down in the 1994 elections, though the situation had improved after D. B. Wijetunga took over from R. Premadasa.
Since then, the UNP fought hard to come out of the political wilderness, with Ranil Wickremesinghe giving a new style of leadership.
Tragically, the Ellawala assassination put the UNP on a bad wicket again. But it is making a bid to recover and address vital issues as outlined in Mr. Wickremesinghe's speech at a well attended meeting in Homagama last Wednesday.
A UNP spokesman said the immediate task before the party today was to neutralize the forces that went against it following the killing of Nalanda Ellawala. He said the UNP was now getting on to the more positive side of the campaign after the leadership started its countrywide meetings with a rally at Wennappuwa last Sunday. "It appears that things are not too bad for the UNP though some said we had lost the race even before it began", he said.
In reality, one has to assess as to how much the Ellawala killing affected the UNP's image. Certainly there will be a set-back for the UNP in the Ratnapura district, but how will other areas respond? This has yet to be seen.
Of course the Kuruwita incident helped the PA to re-kindle itself and remind the people of a dark era when scores of youth were killed by state terror. It also helped the PA to take the people on a different track and focus attention on human rights and democratic norms rather than the booming cost of living, unemployment and related problems.
During the 17-year rule of the UNP, the people saw how the ruling party took political advantage over the opposition harping on the winding queues and era of shortages in the SLFP's term from 1970-77. Though the SLFP repeatedly made pledges to the people that it had reformed itself and would not make the same mistakes, the UNP was powerful enough to keep the SLFP in the political backwoods for 17 years. Now the PA is harping on the UNP's dark era referring to the Premadasa administration where there were human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings. The campaign of the PA on these lines is so powerful that the UNP is not in a position to match it since all these incidents are fresh in the memory of the people.
The President's letter addressed to the people adds more to this.
The letter states:
"We formed a new government two years ago. We will not forget the sufferings we had to face in that task. Some sacrificed their lives, while others lost their limbs. Still others became terminally sick, while yet others lost their houses and properties. Some even lost their kith and kin.
We won despite all these situations.
In that process I lost the SLFP which my father started and mother nurtured. I also lost the SLMP built on the sweat and tears of my husband and myself when I sold whatever belonged to me for the sake of politics. Finally I lost my husband Vijaya too.
I shared all these with you, winning first the Western, Southern and Wayamba Provincial Councils. You know more than me that this victory was won after a war with armed gangs. Later we won the General Elections defeating the powerful, the rich and the armed thugs.
You gave me an unprecedented 63% win yet to be equalled in world history. Our government which won with a single vote majority was able to add about 30 supporters. Since then, powers in the underworld, millionaires and racketeers have not stopped in their attempts to overthrow us. We have to work with officials who are instruments of the previous regime. We stopped the terror that prevailed inspite of them. We brought peace and restored democracy, making sure the liberty of the people. You know more than me the pressures brought about by saboteurs to neutralize this freedom. This was besides the opposition we faced from the UNP-run Provincial Councils , local councils and Municipalities. We marched forward during the last two years. It is no secret that we met opposition from tax evaders, EPF rogues, Bank defaulters, irresponsible elements who refused to pay electricity and water bills who had UNP support. We also had factory bosses closing down factories while others stopped productions and some even scared the foreign investors, all of which we countered.
Now those factories that were closed are reopened while new investments are due. We could give life to new investors both local and foreign. So we are able to see a new dawn on our third year of rule with an awakening economy. We have framed laws to catch the murderers and other anti-social elements by democratic means. We strove during the last two years to stop waste, and corruption and invest in development. The large amount of money that we spent during the two years on health, education, housing, roadways and Irrigation, bear witness.
The following achievements will measure up to what the UNP did over 17 years. Relief on Samurdhi programme, new roads and road maintenance, increase of hospital facilities, renovation of Irrigation complex, rural development projects, water resources projects, professional educational institutions, electricity projects and postal telecom services. These were done amidst colossal expenditure on a war. We have negative the effects of the UNP's 17-year complicity with the LTTE making war a scapegoat to fatten themselves, selling arms to the enemy.
Even today the war does harm to us in no small measure. But we are on the road to recovery everyday and we will win this war. For the first time the LTTE has lost world support as even India is with us. We have brought up a devolution package sans deception, false propaganda and racial and unpatriotic language. Intelligent people who are aware of such proposals which were practical in other countries have agreed with us in our endeavour to fight racial, religious and language differences.
The day our people who are tired of war and who have undergone hardship under the UNP are destined to see redress done, is not too far off, we are sure. This confidence in us is based on the faith you have shown in us.
Though after two years, the problems of employment, housing, cost of living, threat of poverty, other basic requirements and slow progress are still with us. Even the problem of malnutrition is with us yet forcing a threat to little children. The solutions to these is clear. The only way is to speed our financial and economic development.
We need to add modern technology, management and efficiency for our ills. An awakening of technical and agricultural growth is needed to make our country an international exchange centre and a commercial centre. We need to improve on basic needs for these, making a comfortable atmosphere for foreign investors. Note what we have achieved during the last two years. You may be aware of the disturbances and opposition we undergo from our opponents in the elimination of fear and corruption.
We would face up to all this. Today you see large scale schemes and factories, commercial centres and service institutions coming up. This is inspite of false propaganda from our opponents. We ended the war that spoilt our national resources, the age when national resources were sold dirt cheap. If we can end this war and hasten our political solutions, our country will be one of the fastest developing countries in the world. We are no second to any country, in location, climate, intelligence and natural resources - even in beauty, ours is best. We don't need to suffer so much in such a nice country, nor our children and their children. My government will do everything to take the country to that level. All our people are aware of my efforts in this direction. That is why our enemies are nervous and go about insulting me and my children. Nothing will make me go back on this ambition. I will rely on the faith you have kept in me. It is your strength and courage that have made me to field the candidates in this local election.
The strength of the local councils will enhance the strength of the government. It is my wish that you have our own local councils to improve on your civic needs. Some local councils plundered the finances we had allocated during the past two years. Our candidates will enlighten you on the waste and non-use of money allocated for these councils.
I will not leave room for bloodshed or terror or the scaring away of people.
I appeal to you that you lend your support to the PA candidates and the independents backed by us.
We need your support and co-operation in the march to progress and development so that we will commit ourselves to such tasks."
The present political situation was also discussed at the PA's group meeting on Wednesday evening.
Minister C. V. Gooneratne caused a stir when he came out with a scathing attack on Minister and NDUNLF leader Srimani Athulathmudali.
Minister Gooneratne appeared to be quite disturbed over an independent group contesting the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavania Municipal Council allegedly fielded by the Lalith Front of the DUNF.
However, Minister Athulathmudali was not present at the meeting to defend herself.
It sparked off when a member from the South pointed out that the CTB-Transport Manager attached to the Kataragama Peoplised Transport Board was contesting as an independent and attacking the government.
The member implied that the independent was a NDUNLF supporter.
The member said his symbol was the bat. "He is batting while seated on the chair"
With this Minister Gooneratne started his verbal barrage on Ms. Athulathmudali.
The independent group
Referring to the Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia MC elections he said the independent group fielded by the NDUNLF was severely criticising the President and the PA.
"This should not happen - either it should contest under the PA or go on its own" the Minister said.
"They are enjoying all the benefits of the government and hammering at the same time. In my opinion they should either quit or be faithful to the government.
"She thinks that she is fit to be the President and that you are a misfit. She is fair but she doesn't know that she is a misfit."
"Eya hithanawa eya janadhipathi dhoorayata sudusui kiyala, oba thumiya ekata nusudusui kiyala. Eya sudu patai eth sudusu ne kiyala danne ne"
There was amusement when the Minister made these remarks, and the President could not help but smile.
No Madam, they have fielded an Independent group for Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia. This should not be allowed since they are a constituent party of the PA.
The President who did not take the matter very seriously however said she would look into it.
Mr. Gooneratne's outburst was understandable since any Independent group fielded by the NDUNLF would eat into the PA's vote bank thus giving the UNP an edge over the PA.
In any case the UNP's campaign in Dehiwala-Mt. Lavinia is gaining ground and the UNP is hopeful of winning the council without much difficulty.
Besides this the main topic of the PA group meeting was the Paddy Marketing Board.
The members of the PA Parliamentary group drew the attention of the President to an announcement carried over the SLBC. It said the PMB was unable to purchase paddy from the farmers since the People's Bank has refused financial assistance to the PMB.
The members expressed their dissatisfaction over this since it could spoil their chances of winning the local elections.
The President at this juncture said it was she who directed the People's Bank to stop all facilities to the PMB since it was saddled with corruption and mismanagement.
"PMB eka hora guhavak, mamai kive navathvanne kiyala"
I have an alternative, I am going to grant loans to individuals who could buy paddy and store.
At this point, Minister Richard Pathirana asked Media Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake as to why the SLBC carried such an announcement.
Mr. Senanayake infuriated by Mr. Pathirana's query retorted "why are you asking me? The PMB Chairman had issued a statement and it was carried over the SLBC".
The point Minister Senanayake made was that Mr. Pathirana should have asked the question from the Chairman of the PMB and not from him.
Others also agreed that Mr. Senanayake was not responsible for the PMB's announcement.
At the end of the discussions the President who expressed her dissatisfaction over the affairs of the PMB, summoned the Chairman of the People's Bank for an urgent meeting that day itself to decide as to what steps should be taken to minimize corruption and mismanagement there.
The President also addressed the members of the PA-backed independents who are vying for elections to the Colombo Municipal Council.
She said she would appoint Mr. Ganeshalingam as the Mayor, if the PA group won. She said member preferences were irrelevant and she was determined to appoint Mr. Ganeshalingam as the Mayor in the event of a PA victory.
It is also reported that Ananda Vasantha Nanayakkara was told not to declare himself as the Mayoral candidate for the PA.
"Even Mr. Ganeshalingam gets only 1000 preferences I am going to make him the Mayor of Colombo" the President had reportedly told the PA-backed Independent Group.
However, the UNP's Omar Kamil has taken him to task at the UNP propaganda meeting. He has told a gathering that his first act as the Deputy Mayor of a UNP council would be to appoint Mr. Ganeshalingam as the official clock keeper of the city.
As the campaign for the local election was hotting up, All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam also has come out with an attack on both the main political parties and called upon the Tamils in Colombo to reject both.
Mr. Ponnambalam was also in the middle of a controversy involving the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka when the Colombo Cricket Club challenged the eligibility of persons seeking election to the BCCSL.
After a longdrawn battle at the Annual General Meeting on March 2, the Chairman of the CCC Surath Wickramasinghe has now written to Sports Minister, S. B. Dissanayake that the entire proceedings of the AGM were conducted in a manner that went against the provisions and spirit of the Constitution of the Board or in total ignorance of these provisions and in an arbitrary manner.
The CCC also has charged that all this was done purposely and therefore the AGM was non est.
Vandals have destroyed the Ganapathi Shrine in front of his house throwing away the Holy ashes, Mr. Ponnambalam immediately made a complaint to the police but said he did not suspect anyone.
Meanwhile, at the UNP working committee meeting on Thursday evening the party's apex body once again discussed the latest political trends and gun culture which was causing enormous problems to the peace loving citizens.
Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said they should set an example to the whole country by surrendering arms if they had any.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said the main allegation by the government was that the UNPers were issued arms during the 1988 - 89 insurrection.
There were no J. R. Jayewardenes Ranisinghe Premadasas or their deputy Ministers in charge of the subject of Defence, Lalith Atulathmudali or Ranjan Wijeratne to check as to how these weapons came to the UNP. In the circumstances we should call upon the UNPers to set an example to surrender arms if there are any arms in their possession.
Anura Bandaranaike said that in 1988 during the hight of JVP insurrection the then President gave arms to the SLFPers for their protection.
Mr. Bandaranaike said he was the leader of the Opposition at that stage and said that they should call upon the SLFP to surrender the arms in the possession of the SLFPers.
Mr. Wickremesinghe smilingly said they did not have authority over the SLFPers to do so.
Mr. Bandaranaike at this stage said the government should first set the example by surrendering arms.
The UNP also discussed campaign strategies and the fact that the nominations were restored in the councils, where the nominations were refused by the Elections Commissioner earlier.
It also noted that there was a positive trend in the UNP campaign starting from a zero position.
The UNP hierarchy also had a meeting with the Colombo-based foreign diplomats to brief them on the current political situation.
"Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke to them on the urgency and necessity of conducting a free and fair election. Associated with Mr. Wickremesinghe were A. C. S. Hameed, Anura Bandaranaike and UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale. Mr. Wickremesinghe told the envoys it would be helpful if the International Observers from the National Democratic Institute in Washington were present and that he had gathered it was unlikely that they would be issued Visas. He alleged that the government was misusing its power to win the elections. He complained to the envoys that UNP candidates were being treated in the most harsh manner and cited some instances. Mr. Hameed told them it was in the interest of the government to have a fair and free election, because after 2 1/2 years this was the first opportunity for the government to take stock of its performance and be informed of the reaction of the people towards its programs and policies. Anura Bandaranaike said the President was in charge of the campaign in the Gampaha District and as such all government resources were being used to win the election in this particular District.
There was a general discussion for over an hour and the envoys sought information on many issues. They were particularly interested in the Appeal that would be coming out from Parliament. The US envoy said he had already spoken to the government about the Visas for the International Observers.
The UNP presented a well prepared background note titled "Placing Democracy Under Siege" which refers to the "scorched earth" strategy of the government which included appointment of Commissions to investigate so called abuses and offences of the UNP regime, the programme of intimidation of UNP members through violence, repression and coercion. It also made reference to the President's efforts to vilify and slander the UNP leadership, and of politicization of the War and the Ethnic crisis. The document in conclusion called upon the International community to:
I. Demand that the PA Government ensure that the forthcoming elections and preceding campaign be held in a climate in which all Sri Lankans can express their views and choices without fear. This should include an immediate end to the climate of terror and repression in the country and to the use of the police and armed forces to undemocratically further parochial political objects.
II. Demand that independent international observers be invited to comprehensively monitor the election and the preceding campaign."
Amidst all these, the committee appointed by the Speaker to draft a common appeal against violence and gun culture had a successful meeting on Wednesday where they finally agreed to make a common appeal against election violence.
The Speaker took the initiative some time back to summon all parties in Parliament to draft a common appeal against violence. However his efforts met with some set-backs at the beginning, but finally he succeeded in getting all political parties in Parliament to make a concerted effort to put an end to the continuing cycle of election violence.
It was clear that the Speaker had not consulted the government before he started his move to get all parties present in Parliament to sign a common Appeal. The first meeting was without representation from the SLFP. At the second meeting two Ministers turned up - Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Dharmasiri Senanayake and were also included in the Drafting Committee. The SLFP joined on one condition that there would be a reference to the unauthorised unlicensed weapons.
When the Drafting Committee met, A. C. S. Hameed took up the position that a reference to the insurgency should be made because, according to him it was the insurgency which led to the issue of guns to various political parties. The Ministers were not happy to accommodate Mr. Hameed's request, but finally a reference to the insurgency was included.
The Appeal was signed on Wednesday evening and was read out by the Speaker in Parliament on Thursday morning. It called upon all political parties, every public organisation, all religious leaders and all involved in public life to join the common effort to end violence.
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