18th January 1998


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Package under fire

By Bandula Ariyatillake

The draft constitution of the People's Alliance came under heavy fire at a symposium held at BMICH last Tuesday with nearly all its chief proponents invited failing to turn up in defence.

The President of the National Sangha Sabha and the Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Sri Naga Vahara, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera speaking on the occasion noted that this country was ruled by a single king and according to history, the three regions Ruhunu, Pihiti and Maya were under three rulers who were at the behest of that single king except for brief periods.

The Thera said that the unitary character of the country was preserved not only during British rule but also in the Constitutions of 1972 and 1978.

He added that Federal States such as the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, India and the Soviet Union united on security, political, financial and developmental considerations and he had not heard of a single state being purposely disintegrated expecting subsequent unity and amity.

Ven. Sobhitha Thera referred to a statement made by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in 1949 that the Tamils at the time were destined to create a separate land for themselves and this mentality started taking root way back in the 1930's.

"The adoption of a new Constitution in any country is a decisive step. It should reflect the aspirations of the people of such country and the people should be fully made aware of its contents", he observed.

Prof. Tissa Vitharana who argued for the draft Constitution expressed hope that devolution of power would bring goodwill among the Tamil people which ultimately would cause the downfall of the LTTE. "It is a fact that the people have various sentiments when a new Constitution is in the offing. But we have to look at the country's problems realistically. It is only a realistic approach that helps to find solutions to problems. Though much is said about the preservation of the unitary status, this country is already broken in two.

"Beyond Vavuniya it is a difficult path to tread. The North-East war costs us 25% of the country's revenue. We cannot stop the war without a solution to this problem. Our twin problems are whether we are to allow the separatists to divide the country or whether we are going to save the land," he opined.

Prof. Vitharana added that the political package had already been able to repair the tarnished image of Sri Lanka, further pointing out that some countries had got themselves rid of the cancer of separatism, thanks to regional autonomy. He said although all our problems could not be solved with the new package it would provide solutions to at least some of the existing ones.

Prof. Mendis Rohanadheera expressing his views told the gathering that as the government's political package was a direct result of the Tamil demands it had to be introduced in that manner.

"What the Eelamists want is a government in the North and East for themselves. As our Sinhala political parties need to have recourse to the Tamils for forming governments, we have to give into Tamil demands. The present government's fate hangs on a solitary minister's post. Hence the reason for the government to be dictated by Tamil political parties", Prof. Rohanadheera pointed out.

He charged that the government was attempting to mislead the masses by taking before them two separate issues, namely devolution of power and the abolition of executive presidency. "Those who want to vote against the Executive Presidency and the dividing of the country are faced with a problem", Prof. Rohandheera added.

Attorney-at-Law S.L. Gunasekera observed that under the present Constitution the President could exercise any power even violating existing rules to quell a rebellion or any such breach of the peace. He said the draft Constitution violates the power of the Central Government to extend an emergency period beyond 90 days. In such an event, it is the regional government that will have the last say. Going by what prevails today, this is a dangerous, he said. Champika Ranawaka argued that the ethnic issue in the North and East was that no non-Tamil could live in those areas and that this danger would be aggravated by the proposed package.

"The Tamils requested the Britishers to hand over this country to them after independence saying they too had a claim. When that misfired, they insisted on the 50-50 basis. When that too failed, they asked for Development Councils and Provincial Councils. Now the Tamil leaders want separation, the proposed Constitution only helps them to attain that end. The misconceptions of the Tamils coupled with their politics will destroy this country", he warned.

Historic act of reconciliation

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya
Listening and responding to the voice of the people, the Catholic Church has officially lifted the excommunication order on social justice crusader Fr. Tissa Balasuriya in what will go down in history as an historic act of reconcilliation.

The dramatic move to restore the 74-year-old Fr. Balasuriya to the full priesthood came after six days of intense negotiations that went on till late at night in Colombo.

Playing a vital role in the corporate dialogue for conflict resolution was Fr. Marcello Zago, international Superior General of the missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) who stood by and supported Fr. Balasuriya at the time of grave spiritual crisis.

Fr. Zago told 'The Sunday Times' the reconcilliation and lifting of the excommunication order on Fr. Balasuriya was a triumph for the new spirit of person to person dialogue and accommodation in the Catholic Church. He said the spirit in which the crisis was resolved through open and sincere dialogue of all parties along with a mediator or facilitator was an example for conflict resolution not only within the Church but in society also. The Church hierarchy was represented at the talks by the Papal Ambassador Bishop Oswaldo Padilla, Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando and Kandy's Bishop Vianney Fernando in his capacity as the current President of the Bishop's Conference of Sri Lanka. Besides Fr. Zago, Fr. Balasuriya was accompanied by several brother Oblates including the local Superior Fr. Bernard Quintus and social justice crusaders Fr. Dalston Forbes and Fr. Oswald Firth.

After a four-year controversy over alleged heresies in his book 'Mary and Human Liberation,' Fr. Balasuriya was excommunicated more than one year ago on a recommendation of the Vatican's Congregation of the Faith headed by the powerful hardliner Cardinal Ratzinger.Fr. Balasuriya pleaded he had not been given a fair and full hearing before the drastic punishment was imposed on him. The Oblate community in Sri Lanka and thousands of individuals and groups here and all over the world stood by and spoke out for Fr. Balasuriya's case to be reviewed.

Bernadine Silva, Assistant Director at the Centre for Society and Religion summed up the drama as a triumph for the Church of the People. The lifting of the excommunication order is significant in that it shows that the Church responds to the voice of the people. This controversy has been going on since 1993 and people all over the world reacted to it. The Church finally listened to the voice of the people while the Oblate community, to which Fr. Balasuriya belongs took up the role of reconciliation.

"The Church has also shown that it has responded to the pain that Fr. Balasuriya suffered. The removing of the excommunication order also signals the triumph of the people. Catholics now know that the Church listens to them.

"Finally it is a triumph for Fr. Balasuriya, for the suffering and pain he has undergone for the last few years has not been in vain - for through his suffering the humanity of the Church and of the people have triumphed,"said Bernardine who has worked closely with Fr. Balasuriya for some 25 years. The formal Church announcement regarding the lifting of the excommunication order along with other details of the dialogue and the agreement will be published in the 'Catholic Messenger' next week.After the reconciliation agreement was signed at the Chapel in the Archbishop's house, Fr. Balasuriya along with Fr. Zago conce-lebrated Holy Mass at the OMI communities De Mezenod House to mark a new chapter of dialogue and accommodation in the Catholic Church.

A happy Father Balasuriya told The Sunday Times yesterday he was glad and thankful that the problem had been settled amicably through a spirit of co-operation and accommodation. He expressed his gratitude to all in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world who had stood by him in his time of crisis.

Matugama Hospital gets Welgama ward

A new building of the Matugama hospital will be declared open by President Kumaratunga today.

The building is named after S. A. Welgama, a pioneering businessman from Matugama who at a time when the scene was dominated by foreigners and neo-colonials, dared to come forward and stand strong in his indigeneous entrepreneurship.

Beginning small as a government contractor, Mr. Welgama then rose to become a champion buisnessmen.

AirLanka's future still hangs in the air

By Frederica Jansz

The stake for AirLanka becomes more convoluted as the Public Enterprises Reform Commission (PERC) grapples with Emirates airline on the future takeover.

The question being asked is what the determining factors are for PERC to conduct negotiations with Emirates. This too after turning down offers from at least three other prospective partners.

Continental Airlines of the US, Asian Airways from Malaysia and American Airways of the US have made overtures to PERC expressing interest in handling a significant proportion of the management structure in AirLanka together with service and engineering.

However, the bottom line is that all these airlines have stated quite clearly to PERC that maintaining a board consisting almost entirely of political appointees will not be part of the deal with a future partner.

In the offers made to PERC it was made clear that unfettered control against 40% equity of AirLanka together with 100% management control was a must. PERC apparently responded in the negative to these overtures acting on government concern that management control of AirLanka must remain with the government.

However, investors say no foreign airline will invest in AirLanka and let a government body of directors call the shots.

The government meanwhile maintains it cannot sell 51% of AirLanka shares to a foreign partner as it needs to retain 42% and lend 9% to AirLanka employees.

Meanwhile AirLanka's 40% equity is reported to have been valued at US $30 million. None of the prospective buyers was ready to pay cash for AirLanka's 40% equity. Instead they offered to professionalise the airline, settle the 500 million debt AirLanka is committed to for its Airbuses lease and improve service and engineering.

Others offered to create facilities to use Colombo as a regional service hub. At present AirLanka sends its engines to Germany for service and repair, at times causing a plane to be grounded for about a week.

In the offers made no financial status was agreed, while prospective partners at first insisted the condition should allow the investors' unfettered control of the airline and to run it as a private company. Also that the government should sell its majority shares within a short period of time and in either case the government should not have the right to veto on any matter except if the private owners are in a situation of conflict.

The offer made by Emirate Airlines remains clouded in secrecy, though speculation is rife that the offer cannot be much different to that made by the others. PERC was earlier reported to have been dissatisfied with Emirates bargaining factor, which is rumoured did not satisfy the asking price for AirLanka.

The government had further made suggestions that the future partner of AirLanka should make a long term business plan of five to seven years which the Cabinet of ministers and the government would approve.

According to airline officials, due to the daily operational basis on which an airline is run this is not a viable alternative.

Criticism is being levelled against Emirates taking over AirLanka as it is maintained that it will swallow UL identity in view of the fact that it is a competing carrier in the region. The contending argument is that a US carrier will complement AirLanka flight routes in picking up from UL destinations.

Allegations are also being made that some of the other offers were not considered due to being represented by certain local agents. The government allegedly was unhappy that Asian Airlines is represented by Milinda Moragoda, said to be a close confidante of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and American Airways by the Maharaja Organization.

David Bondeman, majority shareholder for Continental Airlines in the US, made an offer for AirLanka last year. Mr. Bondeman bought control of Continental in 1993, which was going bankrupt at the time and turned it around by changing the management. Continental is now making solid profits and is rated as the third best carrier in the United States.

Emirates officials meanwhile are unfortunately sworn to secrecy and have been told to refrain form comment on ongoing negotiations. PERC too has been anything but transparent refusing to be accountable to the public on the issue of who the future partners of AirLanka will be.

Meanwhile the UNP in a letter to the PERC Chairman has expressed its strong protest about the negotiations of the AirLanka sale.

Party General Secretary Gamini Athukorale says in the letter that a future UNP government will be forced to abrogate any conditions that would be entered with any foreign airline that affect national interests of Sri Lanka.

"The rights of catering, ground-handling and use of international air routes and landing rights are that of the government of Sri Lanka and are key instruments in determining the national policy on aviation," he said.

"The UNP has considered the matter carefully and is of the view that granting the rights in relation to catering, ground-handling and use of international air routes and landing rights is not in the national interest.

"The UNP is also of the view that such a sale could jeopardize the Civil Aviation Policy of Sri Lanka, and in addition would compromise some of the services available at the Bandaranaike International Airport to other international carriers," he added.

Landmark ruling, says 'Ruberoe must go'

A Sri Lankan who was convicted in a California court for sexually assaulting his 10-year-old step daughter is to be extradited to the US on an order of the Supreme Court. Channa Priya Ruberoe had been convicted in 1993 and was on bail pending sentence when he flew back to Sri Lanka.

The US embassy here in consultation with the Foreign Ministry had filed action for the extradition of Mr. Ruberoe.

The High Court ruled that he should be extradited. Mr. Ruberoe went to the Court of Appeal which overturned that ruling. The Attorney General then appealed to the Supreme Court which has now ordered that Mr. Ruberoe be extradited.

I won't say much now, but I will reveal-Cooray

Cooray this week: "I will reveal certain things about Lalith that Srimani herself does not know"

Former UNP strongman Sirisena Cooray, whose return to the country last week has again sparked off wide-ranging speculation, told The Sunday Times he would re-enter national politics, but it would depend on who called him and for what purpose.

Mr. Cooray, clad in green T shirt and blue sarong, was relaxed in his jungle village home out of Colombo when we interviewed him on various issues. The faraway home, away from telephone calls and other disturbances was surrounded by fruit trees, flowers and vegetables, while nearby some workers made cardboard boxes.

On the immediate problem regarding the findings of the Lalith Athulathmudali assassination, Mr Cooray said he would go to the Supreme Court and reveal things that Srimani Athulathmudali herself did not know.

Excerpts from the interview:

By Roshan Peiris

Q: What do you propose to do about the findings in the Lalith Athulathmudali Assassination Commission?

A:I think the idea was to blame Mr. Premadasa. I will go to the Supreme Court to challenge the findings of the Commission. I have still not read the report but saw Srimani Athlathmudali's statements. She feels the report implicating me and Premadasa is valid.

I am awaiting the return of my lawyer K. N. Choksy from India to work out the legal modalities.

I won't say much now, but I will reveal certain things about Lalith that Srimani herself does not know.

She does not know that it was I who tried to bring both Lalith and Gamini Dissanayake back into the UNP when their coup to get rid of Mr Premadasa failed. My last meeting with them was at former Minister M. L. M. Aboosally's house. Lalith and I were friends even after the impeachment motion failed. I will reveal all in Court.

Q: Very few believe you when you say you will keep out of politics, not with your political abilities and organisational skills?

A: I do have a great deal of political experience, but I am not the type who will be at the beck and call of politicians. The UNP leaders seem to have taken me for granted expecting me to come when I am called and go when they feel threatened.

Q: How is your relationship with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. You met him at Sajith's birthday party last Monday, but the two of you have not had proper dialogue since the controversy over the Premadasa Centre last year?

A: I have no ill feelings towards him. But what I think is that some people influenced him to keep away from the Premadasa birthday celebrations last year because they knew large crowds would come. They felt I was making the Premadasa Centre a political base for me to come to office. It's nonsense.

Q: Will you help the UNP to win office and form a new Government?

A: I will if I am asked to help to win elections but not in moves to oust the Government as they say. There is a difference.

Q: There are many in the UNP who don't want you back in the Party.

A: Who cares for them? What really matters is that the leadership must concern with national issues like the high cost of living and unemployment.

Internal jealousies and petty-minded contentions should not count with a party leader. Such things only weaken the Party and make it politically ineffective.

I also believe that a leader must not vacillate in making decisions. In this I must pay a tribute to President Kumaratunga because she makes a decision be it good or bad and makes it firmly, be it even to keep me under house arrest for two months no matter the reason.

I have done nothing wrong and the worst mistake I have made in my life now in retrospect I think was to join politics and work for the U.N.P. I don't understand why the media made such a song and dance when Ranil and I shook hands. After all we were Cabinet colleagues for a long time.

Q: But were you not on unfriendly terms with Hema Premadasa who feels you tried to oust her from Colombo Central, which is thought to be her pocket borough.

A: Nonsense. When I left politics I gave over the organisation of Colombo Central to Ranil, the acknowledged leader of the U. N. P.

Anyway don't overestimate my political abilities. There are many good people within the Party, but there should not be petty squabbling and back-biting.

Q: There is speculation you may contest the Western Provincial Council elections on the U. N. P. ticket, hoping to be the Chief Minister?

A: What an insult! Why should I contest provincial elections when I have held key posts at national level? I wonder who thinks up these weird political gimmicks.

Q: So you will eventually re-enter UNP politics?

A: It all depends on who asks me and for what purpose. At present I am happy to sit still, away from it all.

Q: What are your views on the ethnic issue and the devolution package?

A: I was hoping you will ask that because I have a solution to the ethnic issue.

One thing you must learn in politics is not to disclose your views unless it is to the right people. If responsible people ask me I will tell them my solution. I did once have a discussion with Mr. Premadasa.

There is the LTTE which wants nothing less than Eelam and the Sinhala people who won't accept this, though most have come round to accepting some kind of devolution of power.

I must say quite clearly that the Package in the present form won't solve the problem. Eelam, we certainly won't accept. Then where do we stand? I have a good solution. I don't know, may be I am wrong. I won't propose it publicly as you ask me. I must talk to more responsible people. One need not talk to the whole country.

Also it is my nature to accept a challenge, I love to meet challenges and solving the ethnic issue is a challenge to me with my political experience.

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