The Political Column

25th January 1998

UNP takes Sinhala line

By Our Political Correspondent

Kandy and Colombo have been placed under a tight security net as the government finalises plans to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Independence on a grand scale in the historic hill capital with Britain's Prince Charles as the chief guest.

As a part of the security arrangements, heavy vehicles are not being allowed to enter both Kandy and Colombo for a specific period, to counter LTTE bomb threats.

Additional troops have been deployed both in Colombo and Kandy for round-the-clock security checks to abort any attempts at sabotage.

The authorities are primarily concerned about the security of the visiting Prince.

Last week Colombo's Mayor and UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya met President Kumaratunga to discuss plans for the civic reception organised by the Colombo Municipal Council for Prince Charles.

The President invited the Mayor to Temple Trees for a meeting at 5 pm.

But the Mayor wanted to make sure the President would be there on time. So he telephoned the Private Secretary to the President to say that he would have to attend another meeting at 7.15 pm.

After the Private Secretary assured the Mayor that the President would be there on time the Mayor went to Temple Trees at 5.00 pm. along with Deputy Mayor Omar Kamil.

Though not present at 5 pm. the President was only eight minutes behind schedule and the amiable Mr. Jayasuirya did not mind that relatively short delay.

"Did I keep you waiting? I heard that you have another meeting at 7.15" the President said.

"It's alright", replied a smiling Mayor. The topic was the civic reception to the prince.

Ms. Kumaratunga wanted to know details about security at the reception.

Mr. Jayasuriya said he was coordinating with the British High Commission in Colombo, which had arranged for Palace guards and Scotland Yard detectives in addition to the security worked out by the Defence Ministry here.

The President also wanted to know whether there could be an adjustment in the time so that Charles could spend more time at state functions.

However there was no finality. The meeting between the President and the Mayor was held in a cordial atmosphere with both of them exchanging lots of pleasantries.

The President asked the Mayor whether he would take part in the Kandy celebrations. When the Mayor said "No", the President asked, "Is the UNP trying to boycott?"

"No," the Mayor said and added that party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would be there.

The President did not stop at that. She wanted to know whether the Mayor would be attending the banquet for Prince Charles.

When the Mayor said that he had not been invited, the President said he would get an invitation soon and she hoped he would come.

When the Mayor invited her for a municipal function, the President said she had too many engagements during that time.

She said it would not be possible for her to attend so many functions wearing the same dress.

"We as ladies must change our dress according to the function", she quipped.

Though the Mayor is playing a key role in the civic reception for Charles, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had earlier expressed reservations about Charles' being invited as the chief guest for the main jubilee event.

The UNP appears to be seen by some to be tilting towards the Sinhala hard-liners of late, perhaps with the idea of mobilizing the support of the Buddhist clergy and others to oppose the proposed constitutional reforms.

The UNP's main objective is to stop the non-binding referendum planned for March.

One possibility is that of the UNP precipitating a dissolution of provincial councils controlled by the party, thereby creating an administrative hiatus and thereby thwarting plans for the referendum.

The North Western Provincial Council's chief minister, Nimal Bandara, posed this question to Mr. Wickremesinghe after a Working Committee meeting recently.

The UNP is also canvassing the support of Srimanie Athulathmudali's NDUN(L)F to defeat the ruling party in the Western Provincial Council and for an election there too, further complicating the government plan for the referendum. If PC is dissolved, elections will have to be held within six weeks - thus a dissolution in February would mean elections in March and the government would obviously not be able to have two polls at the same time.

Mr. Wickremesinghe had talks with Ms. Athulathmudali recently and political observers believe one of the matters discussed was the possibility of some PCs being dissolved.

The UNP also plans, in the meantime, to present some of its alternative devolution proposals by January 31 to conform to an image of a responsible political party.

The UNP proposals were delayed mainly because of the absence of Constitutional lawyer K.N. Choksy who was in India for his son's wedding.

Though the UNP has brushed aside January 31 deadline set by the government, Mr. Wickremesinghe had extensive talks with former Minister A.C.S. Hameed on the alternative proposals.

Mr. Hameed who advocates devolution is not likely to change his position on the package but may call on the government to summon the Parliamentary Select Committee again.

Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris says it was not the prerogative of the government to impose deadlines on other parties but government had to work within a time frame.

He feels the UNP had enough time to study all issues and come up with alternative proposals, and the government would not delay the process purely to accommodate the UNP.

As it stands to-day it seems the government is determined to go ahead with the non-binding referendum scheduled for March despite the UNP's political manoeuvres.

The UNP though putting forward alternative proposals, has mapped out a strategy on how to oppose the entire structure of the government's devolution proposal.

Various Committees of the UNP had extensive discussion on the matter, carefully studying the statements of the government and Minister G.L. Peiris in particular.

A campaign headed by Karu Jayasuriya has also been launched. The others in the fund-raising committee are Milroy Perera and Milinda Moragoda.

So it appears that while the UNP is cooperating to an extent with the government's devolution plan it is doing everything to stop the non-binding referendum which it feels would be against its own interests.

The UNP is not over keen to change the 1978 Jayawardene Constitution or its most controversial feature, the executive presidency. Some sections of the party would prefer a modified presidency with greater accountability.

But others are calling the party hierarchy to support the abolition of the executive presidency, by giving sufficient votes for a two-thirds majority.

The idea is to make the government shaky and defeat it in Parliament.

With the executive presidency intact, the UNP knows that it would be difficult to bring the government down.

While backstage move took place with other ends in view, the UNP committee on alternative proposals met during the week.

Chief Ministers Percy Samaraweera, Jayasumana Dissanayake and W.M.P.B. Dissanayake who were present said they should not go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution while Susil Moonesinghe proposed that the concurrent list be scrapped.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the Sinhala Commission had only recognized the 13th Amendment and nothing more in terms of devolution.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's comment could have been a signal to say that he too could lean towards the hard-liners, or forge a link with the Sinhala Commission if need be.

But the most important point came from former Minister Ronnie de Mel when he asked former Attorney General Tilak Marapone as to what he thinks about the present devolution proposals.

Mr. Marapone's idea was that if the package does not restore peace in the country, there is little purpose in implementing it.

Mr. de Mel agreed but also pointed out that intensive government propaganda could lead people into believing that the package could restore peace.

These top UNPers then decided to issue a statement stating the government's devolution proposals would not restore peace.

But Mr. Wickremesinghe said it was important to put forward alternative proposals and therefore the committee should go ahead with its discussions.

It was also decided to issue a statement on the agreement the PA and the UNP had signed last year on British mediation, to seek bipartisan ship in solving the ethnic conflict. The UNP is to say that the government has fouled to implement that agreement and therefore the deal is off.

The UNP is scheduled to discuss this matter at a special meeting of the Working Committee before submitting some of its proposals to the government.

It is likely that the UNP would how propose a second chamber with representatives from regional level at the centre.

As this is being envisaged by the UNP, Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris is scheduled to leave for London to explain the position of the bipartisan agreement signed between the President and Mr. Wickremesinghe. Minister Peiris is likely to take this matter up with Liam Fox, the former British Minister, and the present Minister holding the same portfolio.

The government's position is that the agreement could not be implemented for no fault of either the government or the opposition but because the LTTE.

Dr. Peiris had discussions with Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on the package after she told Buddhist Monks that all points of view would be taken into account before finalising the political package.

The monks who came in a procession to Kataragama when Mrs. Bandaranaike was there, handed over a petition opposing the devolution package. This prompted Mrs. Bandaranaike to talk to Dr. Peiris on the matter.

Mrs. Bandaranaike advised Minister Peiris to accommodate the UNP's new parts as much as possible and said some agreements must be reached with the UNP before the package is presented in Parliament.

Dr. Peiris explaining the government's position said there was no intention of leaving the UNP out of the process.

Meanwhile the UNP is mustering support from other groups to set up an umbrella organisation to lead a campaign against the government's devolution package. This organisation would include all the political groups opposing the package. Though they have sharp political differences most of these groups are likely to work under the same umbrella to oppose the package.

The hawks in the organisation are likely to target individuals like minister Peiris rather than attacking the government.

A part of the strategy would be to tell the people as to how Dr. Peiris had brought this government to a difficult situation by his so called political package.

Not to be outdone, the government also has its strategy to push the package through Parliament and to crush the opposition in the process.

Top priority is being given to the reports by various Presidential Commissions which probed the malpractices during the UNP regime.

President Kumaratunga recently met Attorney General Sarath Silva on this matter, where he expressed the view that commission reports could not be taken as evidence to institute legal proceedings.

The AG said the CID would have to record fresh statements on the reports of the Commissions and determine whether there are prima-facie cases against individuals, Commissions had proceeded against.

At present the AG's department is studying these reports before making a final decision.

However the government appears to be anxious on bringing charges against top UNpers, possibly to undermine the opposition moves.

The government is also taking all steps to ensure that the northern poll takes place on Thursday despite controversy and confusion. But the LTTE attack on EPDP members on Friday the first direct threat to the elections by the Tigers has now thrown a question mark over the whole exercise. The attack in Punkuduthivu was like a bolt from the blues at a time when most residents and parties were thinking that the LTTE was not opposing the elections exercise.

If elections are held despite Friday's setback, with the TULF now in the fray, it is likely that this main Tamil party could win the Jaffna Municipal Council.

With the EPDP and the PLOTE on a smear campaign against each other, the TULF is likely to exploit the situation to win the Jaffna council.

Realising this, the two warring parties are now using other strategies to attract the voters.

Amidst all this excitement, an analytical report carried in the Jaffna based "Uthayam" newspaper has reported the EPDP and its leader Douglas Devananda.

The Uthayam said that many people of Jaffna might refrain from voting because they feared that if Western countries perceived some normalcy in the north, they might not entertain application for refugee status.

A perturbed Mr. Devananda has complained to the authorities that the article in the "Uthayam" was aimed at disrupting the local elections.

He later telephoned Mr Vithyatharan a well known Journalist at Uthayam who is also a director of the newspaper to express his displeasure.

Ultimately, there is likely to be a keen political contest in Jaffna but the fear among the small parties is that the government would pull towards the TULF which is working closely with it to push the political package.

On the other hand the government is keen to make 1998 an eventful year in every sphere.

Be it political or otherwise, the PA is determined to make jubilee changes but the question is whether they will be good for the country or better for the party.

Go to the Situation Report

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to the Political Column Archive