The Political Column

22nd June 1997

C- 38: facts buried in fiction

By Our Political Correspondent

The arrest of former UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray hit the head- lines in all the newspapers last week as CID detectives questioning the ex-minister said more arrests were likely on information revealed by him.

The sudden and surprise detention drama that stunned political circles began when CID Officers raided Mr. Cooray’s residence at Lake Drive - Rajagiriya, armed with a detention order signed by Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva. And it came only the day after The Sunday Times published a front page story that the UNP leadership had resolved its differences with Mr. Cooray and decided to participate at the commemoration meeting for the late President Premadasa on June 29

The CID handed over the detention order made under section 17 (1) of the Emergency Regulations and told Mr. Cooray he could come with some clothes, indicating a long detention.

He was brought to C-38, Keppetipola Mawatha Colombo 7, a virtually abandoned house close to the summit flats.

It is said that the house was used by former Attorney General Sunil de Silva and abandoned thereafter. Ironically Sunil de Silva served as AG under President R. Premadasa when Mr. Cooray was a powerful and influential Minister and Party Secretary as well.

On arrival, the Police had to break open the door and clean up the premises which was full of cobwebs. Friends said Mr. Cooray was horrified when he saw the state of the house in which he would have to spend some unknown number of days in detention.

Cooray loyalists say he was disturbed by the sudden turn of events but had the courage to stand up to the situation but he could not help shed a tear at the thought of separation from his wife and family.

As the Police took Mr. Cooray into custody, family members sprang into action. Their priority was to call Mr. Cooray’s close friend and eminent lawyer K.N. Choksy. They also informed his close other friend the former Lake House Chairman, Sunil Rodrigo.

Mr. Choksy and Mr. Rodrigo rushed separately to C-38, Keppetipola Mawatha and spoke to Mr. Cooray for quite some time with others such as Sarath Kongahage MP.

The lawyers first decided to challenge the detention order made by the Defence Secretary and Mr. Rodrigo moved to have papers filed in the Supreme Court under article 126 of the Constitution which deals with fundamental rights of citizens.

The Court fixed the matter for Thursday when Mr. Choksy supported Mr. Cooray’s fundamental rights application.

The Court subsequently issued notice on the Attorney General, returnable tomorrow.

Mr. Choksy said a copy of the petition was delivered to the Attorney General under registered cover and he had acknowledged receipt.

“It is common courtesy that the A.G. should appear in Court in an important matter like this where the petitioner has prayed for interim relief”, Mr. Choksy said.

Considering the urgency of the matter, the court fixed the hearing for tomorrow (Monday).

Though in detention Mr. Cooray is determined to go ahead with his controversial plans to commemorate President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s birth anniversary through the Premadasa Centre of which he is the President.

Mr. Cooray sent a message to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe through lawyer Lakshman Ranasinghe to go ahead with the original plan, since they had reached an accord now on the commemoration ceremony organised by the Premadasa Centre.

But by Wednesday evening UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was awaiting advice from Mr. Choksy to take a final decision on whether to go ahead with the Premadasa Centre Commemoration ceremony. Mr. Choksy’s advice to the UNP leader was that no decision or statement should be made by the UNP until he supported the fundamental rights application in Court.

His view was that any statement or question raised in Parliament in connection with the detention of Mr. Cooray could prejudice the judicial process.

Mr. Wickremesinghe accordingly informed his party men and the Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera when the latter met him separately at the UNP leader’s Cambridge Terrace office around 7.00 p.m. on Wednesday.

The monk who was partly instrumental in the previous week in negotiating an amicable settlement between the UNP leader and Mr. Cooray over the holding of the Premadasa commemorative meeting had sought an appointment with Mr. Wickremesinghe to discuss the Cooray issue.

After a brief meeting the monk was told to wait till Thursday afternoon giving the UNP time to fully discuss the issue after the Court proceedings. Though he felt the UNP was not moving in the manner expected, Rev. Gunawansa agreed to wait but expressed firm support for Mr. Cooray.

The monk also pledged to take some action by Thursday evening depending on the UNP’s position, but the main problem appeared to be the inability of the Cooray family to get through to him.

One Cooray loyalist told this column the government had clamped down on every possible access route after Mr. Cooray’s detention received wide publicity in the national media. First his cellular phone was confiscated, his lawyers were then denied access. Even Ms. Cooray was prevented from meeting her husband. Mr. Wickremesinghe in the meantime tried on several occasions to get through to Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva to get permission for Ms. Cooray to visit her husband but Mr. de Silva was apparently avoiding calls.

Not only Mr. Wickremesinghe, Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera also called the Defence Secretary whom he had known for several years, (both one-time close associates of Gamini Dissanayake) but there was no response. Finally on Friday the Cooray family was allowed to see him.

By Thursday morning, Cooray loyalists were pinning their hopes on the Court proceedings against the detention, believing that some relief would be granted. They knew that at least the Attorney General would be called into file objections to the petition drafted by Mr. Choksy and filed by Sunil Rodrigo on Mr. Cooray’s behalf.

While all this was taking place many stories were afloat on the detention of Mr. Cooray - Sri Lanka style.

Some said it was a premeditated action by the government to prop up Mr. Cooray’s image and thereby cause a split or division in the UNP as against Mr. Wickremesinghe’s leadership while others talked of a possible connivance between the UNP hierarchy and the government to disrupt the Premadasa Commemoration so that the UNP would not stand in the PA’s way in solving the ethnic problem.

Yet others thought it was a sop to Sirimani Athulathmudali to cushion possible reaction from her over her removal from the Cabinet but Athulathmudali supporters scoffed the thought saying in that event they should have put C.V Gooneratne in detention. Mr. Cooray’s name has often been mentioned before the Commission probing the killing of Mr. Athulathmudali. Other analysts feel that after Mr. Cooray returned on April 29, the government allowed him to act freely, since they believed he would create a rift in the UNP. But when it learnt about a possible accord between Mr. Cooray and the UNP, the government thought of disrupting the event fearing that it would be a show of strength for the UNP.

Whatever the reason may be, some in the UNP hierarchy showed their agreement over the detention while some including Mr. Wickremesinghe condemned it.

Mr. Wickremesinghe told the UNP Parliamentary group on Tuesday that it was not the proper way to arrest any human being. But some of the UNPers complained that Mr. Wickremesinghe had made a very general statement which did not have much impact.

The UNP also at the same time shelved the release of a statement drafted by K.N. Choksy, which was aimed at resolving the current problem between the UNP leadership and Mr. Cooray.

Mr. Wickremesinghe is reported to have said the priority before them is to go through the Court procedure and secure the release of Mr. Cooray before releasing such a statement.

An accord between Mr. Cooray and the UNP was reached after several rounds of discussions K.N. Choksy had with Mr. Cooray.

The final round of talks was to take place at Mr. Cooray’s residence at Lake Drive with the participation of UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya and General Secretary Gamini Atukorale and Mr. Choksy playing the role of the mediator.

But minutes before the discussion, Mr. Choksy invited Mr. Cooray to his residence since the former felt that the General Secretary was reluctant to have any discussion at Mr. Cooray’s place.

Mr. Cooray told Mr. Choksy it was not possible for him to come to Mr. Choksy’s residence for this purpose. Being good friends, Mr. Cooray used to visit Mr. Choksy quite often but for negotiations it was a firm ‘no’ that Mr. Choksy received from Mr. Cooray.

Subsequently they suggested the temple of Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera as the meeting place, but Mr. Cooray said ‘no’ again.

He received a telephone call from the monk and a subsequent visit urging him to come to the temple but Mr. Cooray was adamant saying he would not go anywhere for any talks.

When the other party called, Mr. Cooray said he had already appointed Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera as his representative and told them to discuss the problem with the monk.

Mr. Cooray, giving a possible solution over the telephone, told Mr. Choksy the UNP could issue a statement based on the statement issued by the Premadasa Centre on the issue, to say that there was no dispute between the two institutions and that the UNP too would participate in the commemoration meeting. Accordingly, Mr. Choksy drafted a short statement which is to be put forward for the approval of Mr. Wickremesinghe on his return from London.

Mr. Wickremesinghe who studied the draft, put off the decision till Thursday afternoon until he meets Mr. Choksy and others after the first hearing challenging the detention of Mr. Cooray.

Soon after the Supreme Court fixed Mr. Cooray’s matter for tomorrow, Mr. Choksy rushed back to Parliament to meet Mr. Wickremesinghe.

There Mr. Choksy told Mr. Wickremesinghe the UNP could now issue a statement on the arrest of Mr. Cooray.

Finally, the leader along with Mr. Choksy drafted a short statement and got down General Secretary Gamini Atukorale who was elsewhere to sign it.

It states:

“The UNP views with serious concern the misuse by the government of Emergency Regulations to detain persons involved in legitimate political activities.

“The sudden arrest of Sirisena Cooray, former UNP Cabinet Minister on unspecified charges is a gross abuse of Emergency Regulations.

“The monthly renewal of the Emergency is primarily for the purpose of dealing with the war in the North & East. The UNP condemns this action of the Government. If any person is suspected of the commission of any offence, the normal legal procedure of investigation and prosecution before the courts of law is always available to the government.

“The Press statement made by General Anuruddha Ratwatte, Deputy Defence Minister, that Mr. Cooray has been detained for Mr. Cooray’s own protection is amusing.

“It is unprecedented and can find no justification under any law. It clearly demonstrates the lack of any valid reason for Mr. Cooray’s detention.

“The party does not wish to comment further in view of the pending legal challenge to the detention in the Supreme Court”.

But the UNP’s decision to shelve the statement drafted to resolve the dispute between the Premadasa Centre and the party perturbed Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera more than anyone since he was instrumental in getting the two parties together on a common platform.

The Monk expressed his dissatisfaction when he met close associates of Mr. Wickremesinghe on Thursday night at his temple.

The UNP hierarchy, in addition to a media statement on Mr. Cooray, decided to participate in the Premadasa Commemoration organized by the Premadasa Centre, ending weeks of speculation, whether the party leadership would participate in the celebrations fixed for June 29.

Incidentally, President Chandrika Kumaratunga also celebrates her 52nd birthday on June 29, provoking various comments on the strange coincidence.

Meanwhile, the UNP group meeting held on Tuesday in the parliamentary complex took a stormy turn when Mr. Wickremesinghe invited suggestions from his party men as to how they could increase its vote base from 35% to 50% in three years to face the next election.

Mr. Wickremesinghe showed a graph which indicated the UNP’s vote base since 1947 and told his partymen to come up with positive proposals.

It was former Minister A.C.S Hameed who opened the discussion. He said there could be an election at any time and the party should be prepared to face it.

He said the next election would be based on the 1995 electoral register which would have one million more votes.

Former Minister Nanda Mathew said if the party continued as it was, Mr. Wickremesinghe would be the leader of the opposition for the next twenty years.

He said the Sirikotha resembled a government department with loads and loads of letters and circulars issued to party organisers everyday.

He told Mr. Wickremesinghe to listen to him patiently without losing his temper because the party wanted to make him the President of this country.

While criticising the UNP’s present stand, party men fired salvos some of which were at General Secretary, Gamini Atukorale.

Gamini Lokuge said the SLFP’s disunity kept it for 17 years in the Opposition and the UNP too would face the same fate if steps were not taken to unite various forces within the party.

Mr. Wickremesinghe listened patiently to all the criticism levelled at the party hierarchy and fixed the next meeting for Tuesday.

Mr. Wickremesinghe had invited private sector professionals to talk on the present political trends in the country, but there was no time for such presentation in the midst of a barrage of criticism.

Though some UNP backbenchers expected that the Cooray issue too would be discussed at this meeting, nobody raised it. But many discussed the matter in the corridors of Parliament on Wednesday, including prominent members of the government.

More than anything, what has perturbed political circles is the letter sent by EPDP leader Douglas Devananda to President Kumaratunga asking for reasons for the arrest of Mr. Cooray.

Many daily papers reported the matter but nobody could attribute a valid reason for EPDP’s reaction to the issue.

Meanwhile, some analysts feel Mr. Cooray had important discussions with Mr. Devananada which could upset the Kumaratunga administration.

The thinking of the EPDP has been that they had a better deal when the UNP was in office, though they were not parliamentarians, and even today the rank and file of the EPDP have some sympathy towards Mr. Cooray as the link-man who kept the relations between the government and the EPDP alive during the tenure of President Premadasa.

If one could think on those times, Mr. Devananda’s query was nothing other than expressing concern over the arrest of his good friend, Mr. Cooray.

But others think that there could be something more to this.

In fact the detectives questioned him on those lines and asked if Mr. Devananda came to see him, Mr. Cooray said ‘yes’. When asked as to whether the two persons who defected from the EPDP came to see him, he again said ‘yes’.

Mr. Devananda’s mission to see Mr. Cooray was to lobby his support for the party against the two rebel members.

Mr. Devananda’s fear was that the two members would find refuge in the UNP camp which would jeopardise his party’s position in the government.

All in all, Mr. Cooray’s arrest had raised many questions and people are waiting for some concrete answers to these queries - Cooray why and what?

In the government too, things are still unsettled after the sweeping Cabinet re-shuffle of June 9.

Though the President had been able to sort out matters with Minister A.H.M Fowzie, she had still not been able to resolve matters with SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff who is disturbed over the trimming of his reconstruction portfolio and confining him to the rehabilitation work only in the east, among other things.

Minister Ashraff told the President then and there about the omission to which the President said it could be rectified.

But things did not look satisfactory for Mr. Ashraff after the one-to-one meeting he had with the President on Tuesday and he decided to keep away from his official functions and duties as a mark of protest.

By last Saturday he moved from his official bungalow at Stanmore Crescent to his private flat at Manning Town, Narahenpita giving a clear indication to the government that he would not hesitate to sacrifice his portfolio if the President did not fully restore his functions.

The SLMC took serious note of the current development and a hand-picked few from the politbureau who met at Mr. Ashraff’s residence stood firmly behind their leader in his fight.

On Tuesday when Mr. Ashraff met the President, he asked as to how he could carry out rehabilitation work without reconstruction.

He also pointed out that his reconstruction work could not be confined only to the East since his work involved other areas as well, other than the North.

The SLMC also felt that they were given two insignificant ministries when assigning subjects to the two Deputy Ministers and also felt that they should have been given at least one more deputy ministership in an enhanced Cabinet of thirty.

In a bid to show his displeasure, Minister Ashraff decided to boycott last week’s Cabinet meeting, but prior to this he received a telephone call from President’s Secretary, K. Balapatabendi requesting him to meet the President after Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Minister Ashraff who was not present at the Cabinet meeting was however seen at Temple Trees that evening expecting a lengthy discussion with the President on the matters that concerned him the most.

The discussion went on for hours in the presence of a few ministers including General Ratwatte, D.M. Jayaratne and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake.

The President was however not moved by the case presented by the Minister. She looked determined not to budge an inch from her earlier position to confine Mr. Ashraff to the East as far as the rehabilitation portfolio was concerned.

However, after a four hour discussion they reached some compromise but not to the full satisfaction of Mr. Ashraff. The President it is said, agreed to re-designate his ministry but they will have a further discussion on the allocation of subjects.

But in the process, Minister Ashraff is likely to lose his Shipping portfolio while he retains Rehabilitation and Reconstruction and Port Development sans the important Colombo Port.

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