The Political Column

23rd November 1997

Foul start in political race over Susanthika

Mangala on that black issue

By Our Political Correspondent

A page from the unedited copy of Hansard where Minister Samaraweera's controversial remarks appear
Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Sports Minister S.B. Dissanayake — known to be confidantes of President Kumaratunga and key figures in the Cabinet — have made no secret of the rivalry between them perhaps as part of a race for top spots. But crisis makes strange parliamentary fellows.

When the opposition pushed for and obtained an adjournment debate on sprint queen Susanthika Jayasinghe's allegation of a sex scandal involving "an authority" in the Sports Ministry, Minister Dissanayake came down in the batting line while Minister Samaraweera bowled the maiden over with some bouncers.

Mr. Samaraweera said he felt a debate should not have been allowed on what he described or damned as the "hallucination of a deranged woman." He accused the UNP of trying to use Susanthika as a dancing monkey in a political circus.

Heaping scorn on Susanthika's allegations that she was subjected to sexual harassment and pressure by an authority in the Sports Ministry, Mr. Samaraweera questioned the sex appeal of a person he saw more like a black American . With the regular din in Parliament many in the House and the media gallery may well have not heard the reference properly. After all American and African especially in Sinhala sound similar.

Even the Hansard reporter appears to have got it confused because there is evidently some deletion and over-writing in the original unedited copy of that day's proceedings.According to the Un-edited Hansard the wording goes in Sinhala as "for me she looks a black black American man."

The newspapers are not permitted to tape proceedings and we have no access to them but we are told by Parliamentary Staff that Mr. Samaraweera was correct when he said "Black American."

There appears to be something odd in the Hansard.Whether he said Black American man or South African man to compare Susanthika might for many remain a sexist or racist comment anyway. To others it may not.Perhaps, at best-or worst, the reference was unfortunate.

And to say that it was deliberately done to bring the South African govt. into hatred with the Sri Lanka probably stretching it. We can assure Mr. Samaraweera that there was no deliberate scheming of the sort.

We need to view all this in the backdrop of a complaint made by Anura Bandaranaike recently that a very highly placed person — the reference was obvious — had been instrumental in deleting from the Hansard parts of a speech he made regarding a dispute with an American company. The Speaker is inquiring into this complaint.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, showing a rare streak of anger, also referred to the doubts and confusion over what Mr. Samaraweera had said. He accused the Media Minister of acting like a bully.

"I would like the Minister to clarify his position. Over half the women in this country voted for this government. Your economy runs on garments, tea and earnings from West Asia, lots of it from women. You come here and make statements and when it is contradicted, you behave like an overgrown bully," Mr. Wickremesinghe thundered, telling Mr. Samaraweera to apologise to Susanthika and all women.

During that debate another minister made what he presumed was a passing or casual remark about another prominent woman. But the remark was so horribly damaging to her character and to her family, especially her children, that we do not wish to even repeat it here. The tragedy is that the lady whose character was defamed does not have an opportunity to come and defend herself.

If Mr. Samaraweera's scathing attack on sections of the media was acceptable as an expression of his point of view,can the same be said about the motives he attributed for what appears to have been an attempted distortion aimed at marring the relationship between Sri Lanka and South Africa. He alleged that someone had faxed copies of this allegedly distorted report to South African missions abroad with the aim of creating problems between the two countries.

It seems someone has done that. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had been on the receiving end of queries from South African diplomatic missions and the Govt. had reason to be very concerned.

Outlining his claim that Susanthika was being used by the UNP for political mileage, Mr. Samaraweera alleged that Susanthika and her husband had spent a few days at the residence of a former UNP provincial minister in Balangoda. During those secret meetings several leading UNPers of the area gave money to her husband to character assassinate Minister S. B. Dissanayake, he alleged

The UNP has still not replied or refuted this charge. Party backbenchers want the matter cleared soon.

As the Susanthika affair ran into mysterious paths and crooked shadows, the final day of the budget debate also saw the Harry Jayawardena controversy surfacing again.

Leading the attack again on this issue was UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale. He alleged that the politically powerful business tycoon who runs things as diverse as arrack and airlines,milk and banks was being given protection at the highest levels.

Mr. Atukorale demanded to know from Minister G. L. Peiris what happened to the report on the investigation into alleged large scale under-invoicing by Mr. Jayewardena's Stassen's company. He said that as usual the government was trying to divert attention by pointing out that lots of business firms were involved in under-invoicing. Are they trying to say a hundred wrongs make a right.

In conclusion Mr. Atukorale warned as he did before that the racketeers would not get away. If this government failed to take action the UNP would when it came to office. But most of us in parliament were painfully reminded of the fact that most parties proclaim such lofty principles when they are in opposition but high places bring them to low levels.

Mr. Atukorale took some hard shots at the government and Mr. Jayawardena on the arrack issue. He said a top excise officer had raided one of Mr. Jayawardena's distilleries in Kalutara and found arrack that was excessively diluted. Instead of taking action against Mr. Jayewardena's company, the Finance Ministry issued a diabolical order, removing the excise officer who led the raid. Fortunately the Supreme court intervened to do justice.

A newspaper report recently claimed that Mr. Jayawardena who often appears to be unaffected if not unconcerned about the storm around him, had met Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in a bid to prevent UNP MPs talking about him in Parliament. Mr. Wickremesinghe had dismissed this saying he cannot do that.

Mr. Atukorale appeared to skirt this issue, saying Mr. Jayewardena was free to meet anyone but promised that the UNP would not support any wrongdoing.

Accusing the government of covering up for Mr. Jayawardena in the face of widespread corruption allegation, Mr. Atukorale also referred to the milk crisis where business cowboys had manipulated the market for their benefit at the expense of the local dairy industry. The UNP was demanding an explanation from Dr. Peiris and the minister promised to reply but when it will come is another matter.

In the run up to the 1994 elections, the PA, especially Chandrika Kumaratunga had been the darling of the free media. Now the independent media are exposing corruption in high places and among highly placed people connected to the government but most of it is being swept under the carpet of some committee or commission, Mr. Atukorale said — scoffing at the PA's manifesto which promised openness and transparency in public life and dealings.

Apparently embarrassed government MPs raised the similar issues when the PA Parliamentary Group met on Wednesday. They asked the party leaders what they should do when the UNP lambasted them on various allegations swirling around Harry Jayawardena and others.

The MPs were assured that some material to counter the arguments would be made available next week.

Another controversisal event in parliament was the surprising arrival of Ratnapura District member Susantha Punchinilame, now on bail, in the Nalanda Ellawela assassination case.

Mr. Punchinilame who has been suspended by his own party, the UNP, was making a comeback to parliament after about six months.

The MP's presence angered several PA members who were still smarting in the aftermath of Ellawela's assassination.

There was speculation about the grounds upon which he was attending Parliamentary sessions. Mr. Punchinilame though suspended by his own party, was able to attend sessions under the normal privileges of an MP.

Several government MPs were querying whether it was morally correct for the UNP to allow him. But UNP sources said the party had no power to prevent him from coming. Mr. Punchinilame was not received well by other MPs.

Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was seen speaking to him, apparently inquiring about why he had lost so much weight.

As if to make up for that remark Mr. Punchinilame was later seen having breakfast with his wife, sister and mother-in-law at the MPs' guest dining room on Thursday when he got a rude shock. The slain MP's sister, who had also been there at the moment had walked upto Mr. Punchinilame and shouted that he had allegedly killed her brother.

She said he had no moral right to be in parliament but Mr. Punchinilame calmly insisted he was not guilty.

As the Susanthika omelette got more sauce here with different allegation at different times, the local Hamlet in this episode maintained the low profile and last Wednesday flew away. At the previous week's cabinet news briefing, Minister Samaraweera had said that while the Susanthika affair was largely a hallucination, Minister Dissanayake would come to the next news conference to answer questions relating to the alleged bribery scandal in the Cricket Board. But a day before the news conference, Mr. Dissanayake pole-vaulted to Japan. Yet another diversion.

Diversions indeed were aplenty. In an apparent response to a UNP's call for a debate on Susanthika, a PA MP also sought a debate on a love affair allegedly involving a UNP MP's wife. The wife is said to have got death threats. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle said if the UNP was getting personal and throwing mud, the PA could go to the same level. But Speaker K. B. Ratnayake put his foot down and disallowed the debate.

When the Committee stage of the budget debate began on Wednesday, the charming Aviation and Tourism Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake also had some nice personal imagery. He described the budget as being like a spinster admired for her wisdom but unwed for her lack of beauty.

Opening the debate for the opposition former finance minister Ronnie de Mel said it was a budget of the highest class elite and people were losing faith not only in the budget but in democracy itself. He and several MPs questioned the massive increase in the allocation for the President from Rs. 450 million to Rs. 3088 million. But Mr. Senanayake strongly came to the defence of the president, pointing out that an extra allocation was needed because lots of extra work had been brought under her. He pointed out that no allocation had been made for the building of a controversial presidential residence in Kotte. That means the plan had been dropped. So for the time being the people must be thankful for such small mercies.

Mangala on that black issue

Statement made by Mangala Samarawera, Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and the Media in Parliament on 19.11,1997.

“My speech in Parliament on the adjournment debate on 14.11.1997 has been grossly and deliberately distorted and misreported in some newspapers.

The Sunday Times of 16.11.1997 in an article written by an anonymous author under the title “Debating or debasing?” writes ‘Minister Samaraweera injudiciously dismissed Susanthika’s allegation of sexual harassment by stating that no one would have sex with Susanthika because she looks like a South African man’. The motive of this ghost writer is made very clear when he later writes “Minister Samaraweera has displayed poor diplomatic skills by openly disparaging the coloured people of an entire friendly nation, which upto now has had excellent relations with Sri Lanka” and Mr. Speaker I have reliable information that this false and misleading article has been faxed to several South African Embassies around the world on Monday, in a calculated and sinister attempt to tarnish the excellent international image Sri Lanka has gained in the last three years.

Another ghost writer by the name of “Suranimala” has also written in the “Sunday Leader” on similar lines. They have also made other unfair critical comments about me on the basis of these wrong reports. The record of Hansard gives exactly what I said on that occasion and as you may be aware no mention of South Africans was made anywhere in my speech and this is clearly a deliberate and diabolical attempt to mislead the public. Following these distorted reports, some organizations have even accused me of being sexist and racist neither of which I am.

In view of this I would request you Mr. Speaker as the custodian of the rights of members of the House, to take appropriate action against the sections of the media, both print and electronic which misreported what I said, and made comments based on such deliberate misreporting. I stand for media freedom and will always respect media freedom. However, no member of this House or the public would agree that misreporting of the proceedings of Parliament is an aspect of media freedom. This is not a comment about all sections of the media, but only those sections that resorted to this misreporting an adverse and insulting distortions. I therefore, call upon you Mr. Speaker to take necessary action against the persons and organizations responsible for this, without in anyway affecting my right to take suitable legal action against them in my private capacity.

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