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The Political Column

17th May 1998

Ministers order Army Commander to shut up

By our Political Correspondent

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Army Commander Rohan Daluwatte is in the centre of a controversy after he and another officer confirmed a Sunday Times story. An interview he reportedly gave to a Sunday Sinhala paper has caused further controversy.

The Sunday Times of May 3 in its lead story said the Army had turned to schools in a bid to recruit 15,000 more troops to complete the final phase of the Jaya Sikurui Operation.In its lead story The Sunday Times said, "The Sri Lanka Army will launch a campaign in schools countrywide in a national level recruitment campaign to enlist 15,000 soldiers". The newspaper made clear the campaign was directed at school leavers above the age of 18 and not at school leavers.

But the government interpreted this as an attempt by the media to undermine its image at a time when a UN special envoy was visiting the country to probe allegations that the LTTE was conscripting school children.

Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera denied The Sunday Times lead story at the Cabinet media briefing on May 7.But the Sri Lanka Army acted contrary to what was announced by Minister Samaraweera.It not only finalised its programme on schools but also put it into operation.

The Army Commander had written to almost all the senior officers to join in the effort to enlist 15,000 troops to fight the war.

By his letter Lt. General Daluwatte had encouraged these senior officers to visit schools, where they received their primary and secondary education, in a bid to woo the senior students to join the Army once they reach the age of 18.

The Commander had also said that the officers who join the recruitment drive in schools would receive necessary assistance including transport from Army Headquarters.Though the UN representative Olara Otunnu had specifically said that, his main concern was to see that children under 18 did not get involved in the war, the government thought that The Sunday Times story on the recruitment drive was a calculated attempt to bring it into disrepute.

However barely 24 hours after Minister Samaraweera's strong denial Lt. General Daluwatte called a media conference to talk about the recruitment drive and other matters related to the Jaya Sikurui Operation.

Minutes before the media briefing started, Government Information Director Ariya Rubesinghe arrived at the Army Headquarters to brief the Commander on what he should tell the press regarding the recruitment drive.

He made a request to the Commander to refrain from talking about the Army's programme in schools. But at the media briefing many reporters raised the issue and asked as to whether the Army was planning to go to schools as part of its recruitment drive.

The Commander said "No" but in turn he posed the same question to Adjutant General Vasantha Perera who was seated behind the media corps.

Major General Vasantha Perera admitted there was a programme to go to schools to woo the school leavers. The final result was that both the Army Commander and the Adjutant General confirmed The Sunday Times story.This apparently put the Army Commander in hot water.

At a meeting convened on Wednesday, Mr. Samaraweera referred to the Army Chief's media conference. He said, "The Army is there to fight the war and not to hold media conferences". It was evident that the Army Commander was facing fire from some government politicians over the remarks he made on the recruitment drive.The position taken up by some government ministers is that it is unconventional for the Commander of the Army to talk politics and express his personal views which might go against government policy.

The other matter where the Army Commander has been criticized by some government ministers is the interview, he is purported to have given to The Sunday Sinhala newspaper, the "Lakbima".

In the interview the Army Commander had reportedly told the interviewer Sri Lal Priyantha of the Lanka News Network that the proposed political package did not provide any solution to the current problems in the country.

The Commander had reportedly told the interviewer that it could aggravate the present problem and that it could give rise to many other problems which did not exist now.This has apparently angered many ministers who have complained about the matter to the President.

Though Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte did not take the matter seriously and backed the Army Commander, others were of the opinion that it was not the business of the Commander to talk politics.

Opposition political parties also took serious note of the comments made by the Commander.Some government ministers were concerned that the comments of the Army Chief could aggravate their problem of implementing the political package at a time when there is stiff opposition from Sinhala hardliners.

More than that the comments are somewhat close to the UNP's line of thinking some analysts point out.When the Commander realised the gravity of his observations and came under pressure from the government he thought of issuing a denial to the Lakbima.He contacted the interviewer and explained the position.

Subsequently the duo met for a long chat where the journalist Mr. Sri Lal said that a denial would bring disrepute both to him and the Lakbima.

But after talking for some 90 minutes the journalist felt there was no option but to carry a verification. Hence they arrived at a compromise.

Subsequently Sri Lal agreed to carry a clarification. He first drafted it the way he wanted it and faxed the text to the Army Commander. Thereafter the Commander made several amendments and faxed it back to Mr. Sri Lal. Finally both agreed on a draft.

The Editor in Chief of the Sumathi Publications Bandula Padmakumara when contacted by their correspondent said the matter was under consideration.

It is likely that the Lakbima would carry the Army Commander's version today (Sunday May 17) which might take the heat off the whole issue.

Lt. General Daluwatte had later written to Defence Secretary Chandananda de Silva explaining his position.

He also contacted Minister G.L. Peiris over the phone and told him that he did not make any adverse remarks on the proposed political package.

Initially, rumours doing Colombo's political rounds had it that Minister Peiris had taken the matter with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. But when contacted by this column he denied that he spoke to the President on the matter.

On the whole it seems that the matter has now been settled and the Army Commander would continue until the end of this year. Since both these matters are connected to the media, the Commander is likely to be extra cautious when he speaks to the media in the future.

Not only the government but the opposition UNP also had something to say about the Army Commander's interview to the "Lakbima" while the moderate Tamil groups too expressed concern over the matter.

The UNP referring to the Army Commander's comments queried to whether it was the position of the government and if not it should clarify matters.

The UNP said that under such circumstances it would not be prudent for it to come out with alternative proposals to the government's political package, and invited the government to improve on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to make devolution of power more meaningful.

Meanwhile, the cabinet meeting last Wednesday was put off apparently for security reasons in fear of any attack to mark the first anniversary of the Jaya Sikuru operation that day.

Bouquet from IMF

While the Army Commander's recent comments on the package became a hot topic in political circles, the government was given an excellent certificate of performance by the International Monetary Fund for efficient money management.

The IMF has praised Sri Lanka for its economic performance, especially the government's ability to reduce the overall budget deficit from 10% GDP to 6.5% GDP in four years.

Sri Lanka's economic growth rate of 6.4% inspite of the ethnic strife, stability of the Sri Lankan currency and the fact that the country's exchange rate is flexibly managed came in for praise by World Bank officials recently in Washington.

In Geneva the Asian Development Bank agreed to increase the aid package from US $165 million to US $185 million, after having studied Sri Lanka's economic performance over the past few years.

Minister G.L. Peiris who was in Geneva attending the ADB sessions will lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the Paris aid group meeting on May 26 and 27.

However it is likely there would be a reduction in the quantum of aid Sri Lanka would get for reasons beyond Sri Lanka's control.According to economic experts there are reasons involving economic environmental issues.

Japan, the largest donor for Sri Lanka is likely to cut back on all aid by 10% because of the internal economic situation there.

Besides that the Japanese Yen has fallen against the US dollar to an extent of 30 percent.The third reason for aid reduction could be the East Asian crisis which has affected Western investments and aid to Asia.

For these reasons, the general aid climate appears to be unfavourable for Sri Lanka but the government is trying to make the best use of the aid group meeting in Paris. As an overall aid package the government expects about 700 million US dollars compared to 850 million last year.

Cricket - not so lovely

Besides political and economic issues many people are also concerned about what is happening in the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka these days.

In the BCCSL there appears to be a crisis involving one of its senior Vice Presidents Abu Fuard.

The Board had apparently expressed its wish to set up a Cricket Academy in Sri Lanka in keeping with international standards and had decided to send Mr. Fuard on a study tour to several countries including England, Australia, South Africa and India. This would have cost the BCCSL upto 3 million rupees.

Before the BCCSL could take a final decision Mr. Fuard had apparently issued a media statement to the dismay of the Board President Thilanga Sumathipala.

The Board President and other officials warned Mr. Fuard against making such statements.

Thereafter Mr. Fuard came up with a proposal to remove Dulip Mendis as the Manager of the Sri Lankan team. But the Board vetoed it initially. At this juncture Mr. Fuard tendered his resignation but with the intervention of another Vice President Anuruddha Polonowita, he decided to stay on. The Board later appointed Ranjith Fernando, an experienced national cricketer and current commentator as Sri Lanka's Manager for the upcoming New Zealand tour since Dulip Mendis had asked for two months leave saying he needs a rest after the tour of South Africa. But some sources in cricketing circles claim Mr. Mendis has been given a decent exit as Manager of the Sri Lankan team. However he will remain as the Chairman of the Selection Committee.

National coach Bruce Yardley has also been relieved of most of his duties and the Board has appointed Roy Dias, a former Sri Lankan Vice Captain as the head coach.

Mr. Yardley has been given a lesser responsibility to train spinners since he has some more time to complete his contract with the Board.

Meanwhile the Cricket Board has also decided to prune down the number of selctors from seven to five.

In the process the Board has axed former Sri Lankan allrounder D.S. de Silva who has taken up an assignment with Bloomfield as cricket coach.

Roy Dias and Saliya Ahangama are also out of the Selection Committee since they have been entrusted with different responsibilities as coach and Board Secretary.

At the moment there are four selectors - Dulip Mendis, Asantha de Mel, K.M. Nelson and T.B. Kehelgamuwa and one more member will be appointed to represent the district cricket associations.

As the new Board President was taking what is described in cricketing circles as "bold decisions" senior Vice President Fuard fired another letter saying he wished to quit.

This may be because the Board has now decided to send him only to India on a study tour instead of trotting the globe. But insiders say the near resignation threat has something to do with the insurance cover taken for the team and its players. Mr. Fuard also works for a reputed Insurance Company as an Agent.

However the BCCSL is yet to take a decision on the second letter of resignation sent by Mr. Fuard.

Red alliance in the making

Getting back to politics, a significant development is taking place among left parties.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna which defied the traditional left for so many years is now forging closer to other left parties to set up an alliance.

As an initial step the JVP has had several rounds of talks with a left party and left oriented trade unions. The talks are reported to be successful.The idea behind this alliance is to exploit the current political situation in the country.

The JVP feels the government is on the decline and the people have no faith in the UNP. So the JVP believes a united left front could win the confidence of the people.

For the UNP its immediate concern is the AirLanka debate scheduled for Tuesday.

The UNP's main speakers Gamini Atukorale, Karunasena Kodituwakku, Henry Jayamaha, Ali Moulana, Sarath Kongahage, Sarath Ranawake, Mahinda Samarasinghe and several others met party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss strategy.

Milinda Moragoda along with Daya Pelpola were also present to give advice.

At the outset Mr. Wickremesinghe inquired from Mahinda Samarasinghe as to whether he received the 30 odd documents the opposition had asked from Aviation Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake.

Mr. Samarasinghe said he had communicated with Mr. Senanayake but had yet not received the documents.

He told that Mr. Senanayake had promised to send several documents but not the entire set requested by the UNP.

Subsequently the UNP decided to make a statement in Parliament if the government failed to send the required documents.

Not only the opposition, the government too is getting its act ready for what will probably be a heated debate with the additional spotlight of live TV coverage.

The UNP's threat to abrogate the AirLanka-Emirates deal is being discussed in many circles and some are of the view that the threat posed by the UNP helped the Emirates to get a huge insurance cover for which the premium is paid by the government.

They also point out that although there were fundamental plans in many other privatisation agreements the government had entered into with Multinationals the UNP had not raised strong objections as it did in the AirLanka deal.

However it is clear the UNP has acquired many documents through which it will try to convince the country the government had blundered in the AirLanka-Emirates deal.

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