The Political Column

31st August 1997

Will Mendis quit before motion?

UNP facing moral dilemma

By Our Political Correspondent

The week began with the launching of the “Thavalama” campaign aimed at propa gating the Government’s political package.

But what does it mean literally? The “Thavalama” is a slow moving caravan where donkeys and bulls were used to transport belongings of the people, during the olden days.

This was a frequent occurrence in the Kandyan districts where the people used bulls while the people from Puttalam mainly used donkeys for the purpose.

The title for the campaign appears to be unfortunate.

The “Thavalama” - political package is seen now to resemble a similar phenomenon. It is a slow moving caravan and nobody knows where it will end up.

Launching the awareness campaign on the peace package on Monday, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said “a constitution which does not fulfil the people’s expectations is just a piece of paper and nothing else”. The President subsequently advocated the idea of abolishing the J.R. Jayewardene constitution.

The daily Observer of Thursday August 28 defended the President’s argument by referring to the proportional representation system as a trap which could not give any government an absolute majority to change the Constitution.

Before tearing the Constitution or abolishing it in-toto through an unacceptable method, shouldn’t we think of the intention of the legislators who drafted this Constitution.

It should be borne in mind that a 2/3 majority would not be impossible, if the government and the opposition make a joint effort to solve outstanding problems.

On a national issue it is the fervent duty of both the government and the opposition to put their effort together without going in for confrontational politics or head-on clashes.

The initiative should come from the government but instead what we see today is a different picture. The government is needling the opposition while the opposition is trying to make headway in the political arena by exploiting the burning issues of the people.

Without making a mockery of the democratic process the government should positively change the provisions of the Constitution which blocks its way. Then we could call it constitutional evolution, and not a piece of paper as the President called it. It is the document that protects the laws and the rights of the people and even the Executive Presidency which the President had failed to abolish up to date. So it is worthwhile rather than changing the Constitution in-toto to change the provision which does not facilitate the proposed political package.

For this government needs to initiate a healthy dialogue with the opposition and the opposition should also respond positively since it involves a major national issue.

In Anuradhapura last week the President had expressed her intention to hold a referendum early next year and implement the new Constitution.

The idea behind this is to form a constituent assembly to promulgate the new Constitution. The UNP had clearly announced its stand on a constituent assembly and the pertinent question that arises is as to how valid the constituent assembly would be when the present Constitution specifically spells out as to how the Constitution could be changed.

It is likely that the government will pose two questions to the people at the referendum.

One will concentrate on the abolition of the Executive Presidency, scrapping of the electoral system and the Constitution.

The next is on the constituent assembly.

However the government intends to continue with the Executive Presidency until the end of this term and the UNP is expected to raise this issue at its sessions in Kandy over the weekend.

But now according to latest reports the government had decided to change the name of the campaign “Sama Thavalama”. The Ministers have discussed this at length, but could not discover who the “god-father” of the Thavalama was.

During the Anuradhapura ceremony to launch the “Sama Thavalama” three flags were hoisted upside down and one flag (the brick and the book) resembled a teddy bear in its form - upside down to the amusement of many spectators.

Whether it comes in the form of a caravan or otherwise or whether it is named as “Thavalama” or “Manawa Sandesaya” (message to people) the government’s sole intention is to push the political package through Parliament.

The government’s efforts were discussed at an important dinner hosted by Carsons Chairman Mano Selvanathan in honour of the out-going Indian High Commissioner, Nareshwar Dayal.

Among the guests were Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Srima Dissanayake, US envoy Richard Smyth, Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam, Dr. Sarath Amunugama, John Amaratunga and Mahinda Samarasinghe.

However, Nareshwar Dayal, Mrs. Dissanayake and Richard Smyith sat separately along with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, where they discussed the current political situation in the country.

It was explained that the Indians were not in any way behind the government’s intention to set up a constituent assembly. It was also explained that the Indian diplomats in Sri Lanka did not in any way influence the government on any of these matters. But the Indian diplomat had said it was the considered view of many that there should be a concerted effort to solve this problem.

The UNP leader also had a point to make at this discussion. His main theme was that the government was not interested in soliciting the assistance of the opposition but was only harassing it. In such a situation it would be difficult for the UNP to help the government.

Finally it looked like there was a compromise on the issue. It is likely that the UNP would not oppose the political package but they will certainly oppose the idea of setting up a constituent assembly to abolish the Gaullist Constitution of President J. R. Jayewardene.

Besides, the other important matter during the week will be the appearance of Mr. Wickremesinghe before the Batalanda Commission.

He is scheduled to appear before the Commission at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday.

Last week Mr. Wickremesinghe had a long and extensive discussion with a host of UNP lawyers, including Tilak Marapana, former Attorney General on the evidence that has surfaced so far and the references made to Mr. Wickremesinghe during the proceedings of the Commission.

It is now likely that a large number of UNP lawyers would appear on behalf of Mr. Wickremesinghe, while all the UNP MPs are also likely to squat near the BMICH until the proceedings are over.

UNP MP, Anura Bandaranaike also met the UNP leader at his 5th Lane residence before the former left for London on Friday. Mr. Bandaranaike who returned from Tokyo last week had talks lasting for nearly one hour on the current political situation in the country. They probably discussed the Batalanda issue too and on an earlier occasion Mr. Bandaranaike had pledged his fullest support on the matter. He said he would stand by Mr. Wickremesinghe.

The latest move by some UNPers is to take this issue to the international fora. The man behind the move is Mahinda Samarasinghe who appears before the UN Human Rights Sub-Committee quite frequently.

But this time Mr. Samarasinghe has thought it fit for the matter to be taken before the Inter Parliamentary Union Sessions in Cairo.

However Mr. Wickremesinghe did not like the idea very much.

Not only the Batalanda issue, Mr. Samarasinghe is also trying to take the assassination case of the Opposition leader of Beliatta Pradeshiya Sabha before the International Fora.

When the government members heard about this move, several Ministers discussed the issue but no one including the President could make any positive proposal on the issue since he has been nominated to attend the Human Rights Sub Commission until the year 2000.

Meanwhile the Leader of the Opposition is planning to take the matter to the people of the Hambantota district. The UNP has organised a Sathyagraha to be held on September 15 in Beliatta.

When the UNP leader summoned a meeting of all the MPs of the Hambantota district along with Provincial Council and Pradeshiya Sabha members, many told the leader to put off the Sathyagraha until the police made a breakthrough and arrested the suspects.

Mr. Wickremasinghe said, it appeared that some of the UNPers lacked courage.

“If you don’t have the backbone you can go home, I am determined to do this and I will go with the others who want to go”.

He told the members, they could not wait until the suspects were arrested since he was convinced that this government would not arrest them.

“They will be arrested by a UNP government - and I can’t give you the date now, because I only have this year’s diary with me. I may be able to give you the date next year”, he told the members.

The task of organising the Sathyagraha on September 15, was given to H.R. Wimalasiri since the area MP, Ananda Kularatne was believed to have tried to softpedle the Beliatta affair.

Many MPs complained to the Opposition leader that Mr. Kularatne did not take an active role when Parliament debated the killing of the Opposition leader of the Beliatta Pradeshiya Sabha.

Mr. Wickremesinghe who summoned him, assigned the task to H.R. Wimalasiri after inquiring about his attitude towards the whole issue.

The Leader of the Opposition had apparently told Mr. Kularatne to stay out if he was nervous about organising the Sathyagraha which would come under the purview of Ronnie de Mel.

Meanwhile, the latest development within the government is the ongoing battle between Minister G.L. Peiris and the Foreign Ministry over the former’s proposed visit to Malaysia.

Having read these columns last week Minister Peiris’ close associates had a long explanation about the whole affair. They believe that the Foreign Ministry had a hand in the whole episode. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had informed the President that it was not necessary for Minister Peiris to meet the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed since in any case President Kumaratunga was scheduled to meet him during her visit to Malaysia in mid September.

Dr. Peiris’ mission according to sources close to him, was different. It was not intended to talk to anybody on investment, but the sole purpose was to study the Malaysian Constitution and devolution of power within the framework of their Constitution. The Minister apparently had made all necessary arrangements to meet several University dons in Malaysia for this purpose and he believes that Malaysia is a classic example to the critics who say that devolution could make things worse for a country economically.

In his view, Malaysia had progressed well economically and politically over the years after extensive devolution of power and that it could help Sri Lanka too in her desire to devolve power to end the ethnic crisis.

With this in mind he wanted a trip arranged to Malaysia and the Malaysian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka has suggested to the Minister that he meet Prime Minister Mahathir if he was planning to go to Malaysia. The High Commission in Colombo took the responsibility and accordingly informed the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Malaysia Dr. Warnasena Rasaputra who responded negatively.

In the circumstances he called Milinda Moragoda to get an appointment with the Prime Minister through Mahathir’s son who is a close friend of Mr. Moragoda.

In fact, Mr. Moragoda had introduced the young Mahathir to Minister Peiris some time back at the Narita Airport Tokyo when all of them met accidentally at the VIP lounge.

There the young Mahathir told Minister Peiris that if he was visiting Malaysia he should meet his father, the Prime Minister, if he is planning to do so.

He also told the Minister that he could remind Milinda if he was planning to do so, who would in turn contact him.

In the circumstances Minister Peiris telephoned Milinda Moragoda to inform of his visit to Malaysia, but it was not immediately clear as to whether he would meet the Prime Minister since the earlier indication was that the Malaysian Foreign Ministry had been asked by the young Mahathir to get an appointment for Minister Peiris.

Minister Peiris left for Malaysia last week after he received the greenlight from the President for his visit.

Another interesting development within the People’s Alliance government is Minister Ashraff’s decision to go back to his Ministry office after several months.

Though the officials attribute another reason for this and say that the Minister was compelled to keep away from office due to repairs effected to the Ministry Office, others know that he kept away from office from the day of the recent Cabinet re-shuffle.

In fact, Minister Ashraff shifted to his private flat at Manning Town when he felt that the President had deliberately pruned his portfolios. From that day onwards Mr. Ashraff performed his Ministerial duties from home until last week when he once again decided to go back to his renovated office. His move coincided with a strike launched by the CMU in protest against alleged suppression during the dispute over plans to hand over the Queen Elizabeth Quay to the P & O company.

But the most interesting feature is that while Minister Ashraff operates from one building (Ports Authority), his Secretary M.M. Junaid operates from another, the Bristol Building which the Posts Ministry had given out for a monthly rent of Rs. 1.1 million.

The ownership of this building is in dispute and the matter has now come up before the District Court of Colombo.

Apart from these political developments, the government appears to be harping on the Wijeyapala Mendis issue, where it proposes to impose Civic Disabilities on Mr. Mendis, on the recommendations of a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

The Commission which inquired into malpractices and irregularities of the previous regime had recommended civic disabilities on prominent personalities such as former Treasury Secretary R. Paskaralingam, and Power and Energy Secretary Akiel Mohamed, besides Mr. Mendis and former Power and Energy Minister the late Chandra Bandara.

The government needs a 2/3 majority to go ahead with its resolution on civic disabilities, which is likely to be presented by the Prime Minister, who herself had been a victim of such an act.

The UNP is yet to take a decision whether it should support the government proposal to expel its Chief Whip.

The UNP at the very outset opposed these Commissions, on the ground that they were being set up for political witch-hunts. They urged that the government should not make use of such commissions to victimise opponents.

Since the UNP’s stand was clear on the commissions, could it take a different stand now and support the resolution against Mr. Mendis.

The only flaw is that Mr. Mendis, at one stage of the inquiry offered to exchange the land that he allegedly acquired in lieu of some bare land in Anuradhapura.

In the circumstances a section of the UNP wants Mr. Mendis to quit Parliament before the resolution is brought in, so that the UNP could avoid a moral dilemma, but before taking a final decision the Working Committee and the UNP Parliamentary group are likely to discuss this at length.

The other pertinent question that arises is why the government had selectively chosen Mr. Mendis when there are other former Ministers and MPs who had exchanged land similarly. The Commission had finished its inquiry and what follows thereafter is purely political. Hence the decision of the government has some flavour of political vengeance since Mr. Mendis is a formidable force in Negombo.

Soon after the Cabinet decided on the matter the leader of the opposition had a chat with Mr. Mendis over the current situation. If the UNP votes with the government to expel Mr. Mendis from Parliament it would create a precedent and will have to fall in line with the government in the future too.

One school of thought in the UNP is that the members should be given the right to vote according to their conscience in this issue while others think that they should oppose the government move totally.

The idea of the free vote is being advocated by prominent people like Tyronne Fernando who is now called upon to perform certain duties linked to the Opposition Whip’s office.

What is emerging is that the UNP Executive Committee scheduled to meet this weekend in Kandy is likely to move a resolution requesting Wijeyapala Mendis to resign from Parliament.

Go to the Situation Report

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Political Column Archive