The government is facing fresh problems following last Monday's special Cabinet meeting to discuss the devolution package.
It appears now that there are differences of views among Ministers on devolution, with some expressing reservations on issues relating to police powers, land settlement, territorial boundaries, ports and airports. Among them were PA General Secretary and Minister D. M. Jayaratne, Ministers Mahinda Rajapakse, Bertie Premalal Dissanayake, Maithripala Sirisena, M. H. M. Ashraff, A. H. M. Fowzie, Anuruddha Ratwatte and S. Thondaman.
The usually outspoken Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Leader of the House was relatively calm throughout the proceedings and it was rumoured he had met the President prior to the full Cabinet session.
It is believed Mr. Wickremanayake had expressed his opposition privately as he had done on an earlier occasion.
Some of his close associates are of the view that Mr. Wickremanayake might go to the extent of quitting if the government goes ahead with the proposals as they are. But most political analysts say such differences of opinion are common in politics. They point out that in the heat of the 1987 negotiations for the Indo-Lanka accord between J. R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi the then Prime Minister R. Premadasa and Minister Lalith Athulathmudali had expressed strong objections while Minister Gamani Jayasuriya went one step further and quit. But Mr. Jayewardene was undeterred. He went ahead and implemented the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Similarly there are Ministers who oppose President Kumaratunga's plans to devolve power. Most prominent among them is PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne, whose appearance at a Sinhala Commission ceremony had already sparked a political row.
Mr. Jayaratne told colleagues he could not agree with the package in its present form. Many issues need to be reviewed and amended, he said.
"We should examine all the provisions closely before approving them", he said agreeing with his colleague Mahinda Rajapakse.
This is like having wedding without the bride. "The bride will be brought in later " Mr. Jayaratne said. Through this package you can please the world community and invite their attention towards a solution which appears to be just and fair. But the reality is something else. We have to weaken the LTTE through force which appears to be a more difficult task, he said.
Minister Maithripala Sirisena said the government should carve out Trincomalee district so as to link Sinhala areas there with the Polonnaruwa district. Expressing similar views, Minister Bertie Premalal Dissanayake said Sinhala areas in the North should come under the North Central Province.
President Kumaratunga who listened carefully said that all those matters could be worked out when the Delimitation Commission resumed sittings.
Minister Mahinda Rajapakse was strongly critical saying a referendum should be held for the entire Eastern Province to determine whether the people there were more willing to join the Northern Province. The President who termed this as a communal line of thinking snapped back at Minister Rajapakse asking whether he had borrowed this from the Divaina newspaper.
She wanted to know whether her uncle Seevali Ratwatte was sponsoring Mr. Rajapakse.
The Minister retorted saying Mr. Ratwatte was her uncle and that he should have sponsored her first.
At that point, the President referred to the leaking of Cabinet secrets to the media. She said journalists were having a close rapport with Minister Rajapakse because he also was a reporter.
"Once you lose your status as a reporter they won't come behind you, you must be careful when you strike a deal with journalists."
The President is apparently of the view that journalists are a breed similar to politicians, usually opportunists.
But most political analysts say, Minister Rajapakse's views should be taken seriously as he represents the deep South whose support is necessary for effective devolution.
While Minister Rajapakse was expressing his views on the unit of devolution, Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte stressed the need to re-demarcate provincial boundaries which he felt were outdated.
Three Ministers - Richard Pathirana, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Hema Ratnayake - were not present at Monday's meeting.
Though Nirupama Rajapakse was present at the meeting acting for Ms. Ratnayake, she went away, leaving many questions among her colleagues as to whether she shared the views of her uncle Mahinda Rajapakse.
At the start of Monday's meeting, President Kumaratunga explained to the Cabinet, options available to solve the ethnic question.
She said a permanent merger of the North and East was one solution available. She outlined another solution - three councils in the North and the East.
Accordingly, the government is planning to hold, three referendums in their region. First a referendum in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts, for the people there to determine whether to join the Northern Council or not.
Depending on that verdict, another referendum will be held in the majority Muslims areas, Pottuvil, Kalmunai and Samanthurai for the people there to decide whether they would prefer to join the North Eastern Council or to form as a separate entity.
If the people in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts decided to remain separately without joining the North this question of a separate entity in the south-east would not arise.
A third referendum is being planned to determine the wish of the Sinhala people in Ampara as to whether they would join the Uva or remain with the East or alternatively with the South Eastern Council mooted by SLMC leader and Minister M. H. M. Ashraff.
The President who spoke on this issue at length received a fair support from the Cabinet though it was not unanimous. Most Ministers seemed to be happy with this option but they wanted specific details about the unit of devolution and other vital aspects of it.
The President said the main opposition UNP was not taking a clear stand on the issue but pledged she was totally committed to solving the problem as soon as possible.
When Minister S. Thondaman said it was imperative at this stage to bring in the LTTE for talks, the President responded by saying the Tamils did not want talks with the LTTE. She added there was no spokesman for the Tamils and the parties that claimed to be representatives of Tamils had not received a proper mandate.
But Mr. Thondaman said a solution to the crisis lay within a merged North and East. He said he had worked out a formula with Minister Ashraff for a just settlement which would protect the rights of the Muslims in the region too.
The Thondaman-Ashraff agreement provides for a permanent North-Eastern council with a territorial council for the Muslisms in the South-East.
A letter sent by Minister Thondaman to Minister Ashraff to mark the annual convention of the SLMC in 1996 is self explanatory. It states:
"My dear Bro. Ashraff,
"I trust the 14th Annual Convention of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress would have demonstrated once again the resurgence of the Muslims, particularly in the North-East Province. Perceptions would also have been clear that the Tamil speaking minorities would focus their attention together in shaping a common destiny. Both Tamils and Muslims have a compulsive need to march together and strike in unison. Lessons of history project this course for the future. This challenge needs to be managed adroitly by the leadership of both communities.
"As you would recall the above reasoning formed the bedrock on which the Thondaman-Ashraff proposals of June 1994 were constructed. What brought us together were the apprehensions of the two communities, their concerns and shared aspirations. The Tamils and Muslims are drawn together by ties of language, common literary heritage and affinities of culture. The pattern of geographical intermingling stresses the imperatives of social integration and economic co-operation. In this constellation of circumstances, we reached agreement on a single Regional Council encompassing the North-East region. There was also consensus that to enable the Muslim community of the region to share power with the Tamil majority, there shall be a territorial council, as part and parcel of the Regional Council.
A news item in 'The Island' of 29 August, 1996 refers to the call of the SLMC for a separate Muslim Unit within the North-East Province. As you would fully appreciate the indivisibility of the North-East Province continues to be the sheet anchor of our political thinking I was happy that with your sense of political realism we involved an arrangement, preserving the territorial integrity of the North-East Province, while reconciling Tamil and Muslim aspirations. A Tamil-Muslim axis forged on the anvil of shared ideas is a potent force to secure a political settlement. Any idea detracting from this central concern is sure to shatter Tamil-Muslim Unity.
The destiny of the Muslim and Tamil communities rests very much on the capacity of the leadership to chalk out a clear course and to move together with answering faith. Such considerations induced me to express the solidarity of the CWC by participating at the Convention of the SLMC in 1994. Let us foster this Unity.
With warm regards.
(S. Thondaman, MP)
Minister Ashraff later changed his position to a Non-contigual Muslim Council in the South-East and is now ready to compromise.
He told the Cabinet that all have to come down from their original position and get down to reality.
He spoke for nearly one hour explaining the position of the Muslims and the 1988 manifesto of the Democratic People's Alliance (DPA).
Mr. Ashraff said according to the DPA manifesto of 1988 the People's Alliance was more committed to devolution than the UNP.
However Mr. Ashraff's call for a separate South-Eastern Council was challenged by Cabinet colleague A. H. M. Fowzie who has been on a collision course with Mr. Ashraff for some time.
Mr. Fowzie said it was not necessary to have a South-Eastern Council encompassing Muslim majority areas.
He reasoned out his argument with some statistics though the SLMC claimed Mr. Fowzie had not backed up his claim with facts and figures.
Mr. Fowzie said in the entire Eastern Province the Muslim population was around 30 per cent, but only 12 per cent of them lived in the area where Minister Ashraff was asking for a separate council.
Mr. Fowzie warned that if only 12 per cent would be within the council's jurisdiction the other 18 per cent would be scattered among wolves.
He said a separate council for Muslims should be opposed since he felt it would be detrimental to the interests of the community. He said Muslims in the country enjoyed equal rights with other citizens and did not need a separate council.
Will the Muslim unit be a reality? It could be since the population ratio in Pottuvil, Samanthurai and Kalmunai is Muslims 59%, Tamils 27% and Sinhalese 14%.
To make this Muslim unit a reality the government would need to carefully choose the words at the referendum to be held in the Ampara district, so that the people would not be given the option to join the South- Eastern Council.
If the Ampara people (the Sinhala electorates) are given the option to join the South-Eastern Council and if they say 'yes', the whole equation will go off balance.
Tamil parties which want dominance in the East don't want to see a separate Muslim Council in the East and are trying to solicit the support of the UNP for their move.
This arrangement might upset the plans of Mr. Ashraff to build for himself and his party in the South-East.
The TULF appears to be happy with the referendum options though party leaders are not making any comments.
They feel it would be easier for them to win a referendum in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts and annex them to the North, thus creating a larger unit.
Though the TULF's earlier position was that the North-East should be permanently merged and the question was not negotiable it has agreed with the new arrangement since it would give it some opportunity to create a merged North and East. But everything depends on the mood of the LTTE which has a strong foothold in the East.
If the LTTE prevents people from voting and if the government sets up cluster booths in Army camps in the East it would be difficult for the TULF to realize its goals.
At the same time other Tamil parties think that the whole affair would turn out to be a "Trojan horse" with the government pushing through the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord in a different garb.
Now the pertinent question is as to whether all this would be a reality with sections of the Buddhist clergy campaigning vehemently against the package, especially after Minister Mangala Samaraweera's allegedly provocative statement.
It is now common knowledge that Minister Samaraweera had been directed by President Kumaratunga to settle matters with the Maha Sangha in an amicable way.
Though Minister Samaraweera had expressed his regrets, the Maha Sangha is insisting that he should express his unqualified apologies to the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and the Asgiriya Chapters.
Mr. Samaraweera, a confidante of the President is understood to have been shaken by the vehemence and extent of criticism levelled against him by the Maha Sangha and some have expressed fears of how it could effect his political future.
While all this is unfolding in the political theatre the President is planning a new strategy to give more publicity to the government's military effort in the North.
Accordingly, she summoned a meeting of the heads of state media institutions and directed them to carry comprehensive war-related programmes with visuals on Rupavahini and ITN to give a clear perspective of the country's war effort in the North.
Some media heads had been asked to visit Puliyankulam and submit individual reports to the President spelling out their plan of action.
At one such meeting one 'interested' person asked whether they should carry a news item to discredit the UNP by saying that it had brought some people with their heads shaved and garbed in saffron robes for last Monday's sathyagraha. But the President dismissed the idea.
Besides this, the UNP too is to call for explanation from its members who took part in the sathyagraha. But insiders say this action had been taken merely to please the Tamil minority parties who are pressing both the government and the opposition to come up with an acceptable solution to the ethnic conflict.
The main problem now is that the UNP's inability to take a clear stand on vital issues concerning the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
The TULF has reportedly told the UNP to make up its mind before the weekend meeting with TULF leaders saying this would be the last chance for all.
Amidst all these confusion and political uncertainty the Tamil political parties have told the government that they would not support the resolution to strip former Minister Wijeyapala Mendis of his civic rights saying they don't believe in Parliament exercising such powers.
In the circumstances the resolution against Mr. Mendis might die. However the UNP leadership wants him removed from Parliament, though the old guard is standing by him. The young turks of the UNP feel that Mr. Mendis should quit Parliament honourably. A feeler was put to young UNP members during a three day seminar held in Bentota recently and the outcome was clear - that Mr. Mendis should resign. At the same time some UNP Parliamentarians had refused to go in a bus provided by Mr. Mendis to transport UNP members to a hotel in Waikkal to participate in a function to felicitate former Minister Harold Herat who had completed 20 years in politics.
Now the government's main problem is not Wijeyapala Mendis, but getting all its constituent parties on a common platform to support the package. Some feel the government would not be able to do it since it could not persuade Tamil parties to support the government on a less important issue such as the civic rights of Mr. Mendis.
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