The Political Column
26th April 1998
New life for bipartisanship on ethnic conflict
By our Political Correspondent
Commonwealth Chief Emeka Anyaoku and US special envoy Bill Richardson have come and gone amidst lots of speculation that still lingers.
It is clear that Mr. Richardson did not come for any special mission. Nor had he asked to visit Jaffna. He is on a diplomatic swing through South Asian countries and perhaps his most important assignment was to help work out a formula for a ceasefire between the Taleban and other factions in Afghanistan.
Mr. Richardson, it is learnt had a free and full exchange of views with President Kumaratunga and on the whole his visit helped to reduce a few irritants that have emerged in US-Lanka ties.
In recent years the US has shown a keen interest in political developments here and has sent at least four delegations to the country over the past year. So it is a question whether Superpower interests are getting into the local scene in an unprecedented way. This has also made India to adopt a wait-and-see policy while it closely watches the development of US interests in the region and in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Richardson's visit focused on the government's approach to the war effort and the political package to solve the ethnic crisis. Whilst the usual concerns on the human rights issues were expressed, the unstilted backing extended to the devolution package by the US envoy has for the first time anchored the Superpower commitment to the resolution of the ongoing ethnic conflict.
Further it was significant to note the US call to the LTTE to seek a negotiated settlement while emphasizing to the government the need to adopt a bi-partisan approach together with the main opposition party. In this regard there could not have been a more appropriate time than now for such a call, where confrontational politics in the recent past has become the political culture of Sri Lanka.
Already the UNP is on record in calling for a closer dialogue between the government and the opposition towards seeking a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict. But may be due to the slow progress made by the UNP on its own proposals, a good opportunity was lost to it to impress upon the Superpower their seriousness and the commitment in spite of the regular contact the UNP leader is maintaining with the international community.
At the same time Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar made a firm request to the British Government to ban the LTTE and said over BBC the LTTE efforts for a separate state of the Tamil-speaking people would never be a reality. He said the LTTE had only brought about misery and suffering to both the Sinhalese and the Tamils of Sri Lanka in its pursuit of a fruitless and futile exercise.
This is indeed a serious and a bold statement and this must be viewed in the context of the current developments backed by the US. In the light of President Clinton's role in the Irish settlement and Tony Blair's efforts in brokering the peace talks between Israel and the PLO this week on behalf of the US, it is likely that British and US efforts will surpass any traditional influence India had hitherto over Sri Lanka.
India's role has not been significant in the local political scene for some time. Its decline was evident from 1995 when British junior Minister Liam Fox worked out a bi-partisan agreement between the PA and the UNP with Mr. Kadirgamar playing a leading role.
In any event the western powers have viewed the continuing instability in New Delhi as an opportune time to develop an agenda of their own in the region, whilst fostering better economic ties with India.
In this context Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has some significance.
Mr. Wickremesinghe returned to the country last Wednesday while political analysts were trying to interpret what Mr. Vajpayee told him with regard to the ethnic question. His advise was that Sri Lankans should sort it out themselves but the question that is being asked in diplomatic circles is whether Mr. Vajpayee's contention was that India would not be happy about outside mediation. Of course, it is well-known that India has been non-committal on third party mediation and has right along taken the position that India should be kept informed, if there is to be any third party mediation.
As important as Mr. Richardson's talks, was the visit of Chief Anyaoku who met President Kumaratunga, Ministers G.L. Peiris, Lakshman Kadirgamar and former Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed.
Political gossip going round the circuit in Colombo was that he had brought some proposals from the LTTE, though of course, at the news conference he did not answer a question as to whether he had brought a message from the LTTE.
Sources however pointed out that he had definitely not brought any specific proposal but if asked to he would be ready to intervene and assist Sri Lanka. Chief Anyaoku was the Foreign Minister of Nigeria until President Zagari was overthrown by the Army in 1983. So, he is not a novice at negotiations. Whilst being Secretary General he has played a quiet but constructive role in preventing certain conflicts escalating among the Commonwealth countries.
Besides this, Minister Peiris had a very successful tour of Washington where he met top US administrative officials.
Washington appears to be deeply satisfied over Sri Lanka's performance in the political and economic fields.
The head of the US department of counter terrorism, Christopher Ross, expressed his satisfaction over the conduct of local elections in the North and the economic programme there.
He told Minister Peiris that the best antidote for terrorism was to capture the hearts and minds of the people.
Adding the LTTE to the list of banned organisations in the US took some time because it had to be done carefully, he told the Minister.
But now the US officials are confident that they could deal with the situation, though the LTTE had filed action against the US decision in the Federal Court and in a California Court as well.
Mr. Ross had pointed out that the LTTE would not succeed in its efforts to get the ban lifted since the US authorities had prepared for the case and knew precisely what should be done when the matter came up.
In another development, President Clinton's Special Advisor on democracy and human rights, Eric Schwartz has been put in charge of South Asian Affairs, underscoring the importance the Clinton administration is giving to the region.
The US has now promised to do its best to create a conducive atmosphere for some sort of consensus between the opposition UNP and the government.
The Sri Lankan delegation also briefed the US Attorney General on Human Rights issues and the Khrishanthi Kumaraswamy rape-murder case which received international media coverage.
As a sequel to this and a preventive measure to defuse a motion of no-confidence being brought up against the government by the TULF, Minister Peiris made a statement in Parliament that security authorities have been advised to refrain from mass arrests of Tamils during cordon and search operations to detect LTTE suspects.
Minister Peiris who took note of the TULF initiative telephoned Joseph Pararajasingham, head of the TULF parliamentary group, to appeal that they put off the motion so that the government could take meaningful steps. Meanwhile the government is deeply concerned about the prolonged postal go-slow, which is having a crippling effect on the country.
President Kumaratunga looked weary and exhausted since she was suffering from a bad cold and fever.
The Minister including the Cabinet sub-committee on the postal crisis discussed three main issues.
While some advocated the removal of Post Master General Soma Kotakadeniya to settle the crisis others said that this could create a bad precedent and employees in other establishments too would agitate for the removal of their heads of departments. Some others were of the view that Ms. Kotakadeniya should be given a promotion and moved out of the Postal Department.
One Minister pointed out that when the Deputy Minister had already settled the matter it was Ms. Kotakadeniya who allegedly shot her mouth off and created a fresh wave of problems in the department.
Most of the Ministers agreed that Ms. Kotakadeniya too had contributed towards the current problem by issuing statements imprudently.
However the President was of the view that this matter should not be dragged on for long. But she emphasised that the government should not let Ms. Kotakadeniya down in the process.
The President said the crisis should be resolved without embarrassing the PMG and the government.
The most likely solution is that the government would ask the workers to return on the undertaking that their demands would be considered and to post Ms. Kotakadeniya to a higher position one week later.
However, the Cabinet had asked the Ministerial Committee to make a final attempt to resolve the matter and the government would consider declaring postal services "essential" if the crisis was prolonged any further.
In another development several members of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises have written to its Chairman requesting him to summon the committee to discuss several matters.
Chairman Reggie Ranatunga is yet to take action on the decisions taken by the COPE at its previous meeting.
The letter written by the members is as follows: We the undersigned MPs and members of COPE request you to convene a special meeting of the committee to discuss the following:
1. At the last COPE meeting it was agreed that the Board of AirLanka would be brought before the committee for clarification of statements made by officials of the PERC.
2. To consider what action should be taken against the PERC officials for breach of privilege of Parliament.
3. To take necessary action on the letter addressed by the Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake to you and the committee referring to the scope of the committee.
4. Many other important matters arising out of the above.
John Amaratunga, Ravi Karunanayake, A.H.M. Azwer, Pradeep Hapangama, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Asitha Perera and Joseph Pararajasingham.
But on Wednesday the gentle and non-controversial Aviation Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake took the House by surprise when he said that he wanted to make a statement on AirLanka. The government, in a well planned strategy, had decided that the Minister should make a full statement on the issues involved. He stood in the House armed with a bundle of documents. This was a well-thought out move by the government to counter the gossip and speculation.
No sooner had he finished than senior parliamentarian A.C.S. Hameed was on his feet saying, he congratulated the Minister on his very useful statement. He then asked, "Can we debate it early?"
Minister Senanayake agreed and this means very soon, the House will witness a hot debate. AirLanka and its activities seem to figure in the House everyday and the opposition seems to pick every opportunity to have a fling at the government.
The Anti-ragging Bill intended to clamp down on excesses in universities was pushed through Parliament on Wednesday without taking a vote.
Though the JVP member Nihal Galappathy opposed the Bill, he did not insist on a vote.
Apparently the JVP member had come under heavy pressure from student unions to oppose the Bill. Not only the JVP, the UNP also came under pressure.
UNP's youthful parliamentarian Dinesh Dodangoda who is still a University student urged his party to oppose the Bill, but others thought that national interests should come first.
However, the UNP referred this Bill to a committee headed by Mr. Hameed to have a closer look at it.
Mr. Hameed's Committee proposed a series of amendments which the government agreed to accommodate at a later stage.
Initially Minister Peiris was not so keen to accommodate most of the amendments proposed by the UNP. Later in the day, after talks with Attorney General Sarath Silva and Legal Draftsman Nalin Abeysekara he appeared to be more amenable and was willing to accommodate almost all the amendments proposed.
But the government rejected the UNP's proposal to refer the matter to a Standing Committee of Parliament for further perusals.
When the original Bill was drafted, the Savitri Gunasekara Committee which made recommendations to the government pointed out, that in some cases these acts had been committed with the connivance of the staff of universities and other higher educational institutions.
This has infuriated University Staff members who brought pressure on the government for viewing them as common criminals. The Bill which specified "students and members of the staff...." had to be changed later to read "students and any other person..." on a suggestion made by Education Minister Richard Pathirana.
Finally, Mr. Pathirana emerged victorious though the Supreme Court ruled that certain clauses were inconsistent with the Constitution.
The government amended the clauses accordingly but still presented a law which the people were demanding for quite some time to stop brutal ragging in higher education institutions.
Mr. Hameed opened the debate for the opposition and outlined the concern of the UNP. He suggested the main area where some of the important amendments the UNP was interested in. Dr. Peiris who followed Mr. Hameed was not only generous to him but also to the UNP and said that the government has decided to accommodate most of the UNP amendments.
The debate witnessed a lot of co-operation and understanding between the government and the opposition, and at one stage Dr. Peiris remarked in response to a comment by Mr. Hameed, "It would be nice if the same support and co-operation was available on other matters too."
Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku picked it up and said that only Deputy Minister Suraweera applauded the comment in the government ranks and questioned whether Dr. Peiris' good wishes had the backing of the PA members in Parliament.
The debate on the ratification of the Investment Agreement between Sri Lanka and Malaysia failed to reach a compromise and the voting on the two agreements between Sri Lanka and Malaysia and Sri Lanka and Thailand had to be postponed. The opposition maintained that it would not be prepared to change the equality of treatment provisions. The government sought to exempt Sri Lanka's participation in the Malaysian Financial and Insurance sectors. Finally, Mr. Hameed made a statement to the effect that the Foreign Minister and he had agreed to take up the two agreements for ratification on another day since they were moving towards a compromise on Malaysia. One does not know when the two agreements would come up. They have been signed three years ago.
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