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The Political Column

19th July 1998

Anu going anti-package?

By our Political Correspondent

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Chndrika,Sunethra and Anura :a family reunion

The main opposition UNP has ap parently accepted the challenge thrown by the government to hold the Presidential election early next year.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, has assured the Working Committee, the party's apex body, that he would lead the party to victory, whatever elections the government may decide to hold first.

Using World Cup parlance, he said the party would prove to be like the French soccer team and beat Brazil (the People's Alliance).

At the start of the Working Committee meeting on Tuesday, the minutes covering the Wijeyapala Mendis issue were presented for adoption. Stanley Kalpage moving an amendment said, his name had been mentioned along with those who declined to vote on the Mendis suspension issue.

Dr. Kalpage said he had voted against the motion and wanted a correction made.

This was done and after the minutes were adopted, Mr. Wickremesinghe said, the Mendis issue was now history and the members should now sink their differences and work together.

He alleged that certain sections of the media had been mischievous and had given what he saw as distorted versions of the issue.

He said that no other person would be removed from any position and that disciplinary action would not be taken against any others, apparently referring to reports of possible action against A.C.S. Hameed, Anura Bandaranaike and others.

Mr. Wickremesinghe emphasised that all members had the right to express their views at Working Committee meetings. Mr. Hameed was a notable absentee at the meeting and Mr. Bandaranaike was in Gampaha to hand over the UNP nomination lists for the provincial council polls.

It seemed the storm in the UNP was over, but on Thursday there was a bolt from the blue when the District Court of Colombo stayed the suspension of Mr. Mendis.

The Court also issued notice on the Working Committee members to appear before it on July 30. The Court decision was seen in some quarters as a setback for the UNP leaders close advisers.

The main topic of discussion by the Working Committee was the provincial council elections.

At Mr. Wickremesinghe's request Mr. Ronnie de Mel who also heads a committee on election strategy, read out the action plan. The Committee has recommended:

(i) agitation in each electorate demanding early and fair and free elections;

(ii) to carry out a countrywide poster campaign on the same issues;

(iii) to appoint a high-powered Committee headed by former Attorney General Tilak Marapona to study all aspects of election laws;

(iv) to hold joint news conferences with like-minded parties to urge early and fair elections and to hold three big rallies in Colombo, Kandy and Galle.

Thereafter John Amaratunge suggested a plan to brief South Asian leaders coming for this month's Summit on what the UNP sees as the suppression of the rights of the opposition.

Initially, it appeared as if this was a constructive suggestion, but Nanda Mathew shot it down. He pointed out that in most South Asian countries, the opposition was suppressed and thus those leaders were not likely to respond favourably to the UNP's allegations.

Another Working Committee member Annamalai Kathiresan raised the question of addressing minority problems.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the minorities had always been with the UNP and he believed they would continue to do so. He said the UNP would devise an effective method to address their problems but not through the devolution package which had run into widespread opposition even from within the PA.

Mr.Wickremesinghe also referred to Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte's sixtieth birthday celebrations, the highlight of which was the offering of alms to the Maha Sangha, including well-known Prelates.

Though pro-package Buddhist monks also were present, the Ven. Madulavawe Sobitha Thera, a leading figure in the anti-package campaign played a prominent role by delivering a sermon.

Mr. Wickremesinghe asked whether Gen. Ratwatte was drifting towards Ven. Sobitha Thera's ideas though not saying anything openly.

For this and other reasons, the UNP is of the view that the political package will die a natural death and thus the party will need not bother too much about it.

Gen. Ratwatte's birthday celebrations and his affinity to Ven. Sobitha Thera have become an issue within the PA.

It's known that Ven. Sobitha Thera and his campaign against the package have created serious problems for President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her government.

The President knows that any close relationship between Gen.Ratwatte and Ven. Sobitha Thera could create further problems for her government.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting several ministers who watched the ITN programme on Gen. Ratwatte wished him well. But others kept quiet, apparently fearing it could lead to further complications.

President Kumaratunga arrived very late and was at the meeting only for a short while but did not talk to Minister Ratwatte. It was clear that neither of them was keen to talk to one another. At the beginning of the Cabinet meeting, ministers discussed various issues and papers before them, until Minister Richard Pathirana who chaired the meeting prior to the arrival of the President referred to a paper submitted by Minister Maithripala Sirisena.

Mr Sirisena has sought approval to extend by six months the term of an officer named Amerasinghe.

Mr.Pathirana said the President had wanted him to defer the matter until she arrived.

In any event, he felt she would not agree as the officer concerned had been a 'UNPer'.

The matter was once again taken up when the President arrived. She said she would not agree.

But Minister Sirisena also stood firm. Reflecting the allegations about this officer he said, there was no point in holding an important portfolio in the Cabinet if he was not in a position even to extend the term of a public officer.

"You have degraded my position as a minister. I know where it has gone wrong. The officials at the Presidential Secretariat are acting like a 'mafia'. If somebody goes through them it would be approved otherwise they would be branded as UNPers and the request turned down,'' he said. ''This is exactly what has happened in this case too. The officer concerned had a 'personal problem' with one of the top officials at the Presidential Secretariat and they are trying to mislead us. If you want I can tell that 'very personal' story publicly."

The President then told Mr. Sirisena to walk up to the head table and tell his story. At this point one minister shouted, ''is it concerning a woman''.

After Minister Sirisena clarified the matter the President not only agreed to grant the extension but also initiated an immediate inquiry against the officials who allegedly misled her. In another significant development, the President has discussed with some ministers the possibility of a re-entry to the PA by her estranged brother Anura. This came at a meeting at Temple Trees, attended by Anuruddha Ratwatte, Mangala Samaraweera and Jeyraj Fernandopulle among others.

Most of the ministers were not in favour of a come-back by Mr. Bandaranaike. One minister said they could have sent him as an Ambassador as requested by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, but they pointed out that at the 1994 Presidential campaign, Mr. Bandaranaike had appeared on the same platform with UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake.

However the President appeared to be somewhat sympathetic towards her brother and reportedly told the minister that as things stood today it would be difficult for her brother to come up in the UNP.

She also said, her elder sister Sunethra had spoken to her about her brother several times and that she sympathised with him.

However, it is unlikely that the ministers would agree to take Mr. Bandaranaike back to their fold.

Mr. Bandaranaike meanwhile is planning a holiday abroad after which he would decide on his political future. At a meeting held recently in Mirigama, Mr. Bandaranaike said, he had no intention of leaving the UNP and was prepared to work under UNP leader Mr. Wickremesinghe.

In the meantime, Mr. Bandaranaike had met Minister Mahinda Rajapakse at the Jawatte residence of the late Maithripala Senanayake when they went to pay their last respects.

On seeing Minister Rajapakse, Mr. Bandaranaike greeted him. But Minister Rajapakse told him that there was no point since he had classified him (Minister Rajapakse) too as a corrupt minister in the People's Alliance.

Mr. Bandaranaike smiled and went into the hall where the body of Maithripala Senanayake was lying-in-state and after paying his respects called Mr. Rajapakse once again to an inner corridor where they sat at a small table for a chat.

Mr. Rajapakse asked about the recent rumours that Mr. Bandaranaike was trying to join the PA, but there was no proper reply and they talked about other matters.

MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardene too joined them and asked Mr. Bandaranaike the same question that many are asking.

Mr.Gunawardene told Mr. Bandaranaike that if he were planning to cross over, he should at least spearhead a campaign against the postponement of elections.

Mr. Gunawardene said he saw no keenness on the part of the UNP to campaign against the postponement.

Mr. Bandaranaike suggested, they should talk to Mr. Wickremesinghe on the matter, gently recalling that all three were classmates at Royal.

But Minister Rajapakse intervened to say that the Bandaranaikes could not be separated. "You know Dinesh that blood is thicker than water" Mr. Rajapakse then cited former SLFP General Secretary, J.R.P. Sooriyapperuma who he said has had good experience about the Bandaranaikes. Anura had a hearty laugh.

He also said, senior UNPers were perturbed over the speech made by Sarath Kongahage, in Parliament criticising his mother. Only those who thrived under Ms. Bandaranaike and later joined the UNP were condoning that speech, Mr. Bandaranaike said.

Not only he, several PA ministers too had expressed their concern over the matter.

Minister Jeyraj Fernandopulle has called for the tape to listen to the exact words uttered by Mr.Kongahage with the intention of bringing in a no-confidence motion against the UNP member.

However, in Mr. Fernandopulle's words he had run into difficulties since the Speaker had chosen to expunge those alleged offensive utterances from the Hansard.

Mr. Kongahage too went to the Hansard office and called for the tape and the official versions, but he said he found nothing offensive and he was satisfied that he had not uttered anything bad about the Prime Minister.

On an earlier occasion the UNP brought a motion of no- confidence against former MP for Panadura Dr. Neville Fernando on a similar matter during the J.R. Jayewardene regime. Dr. Fernando opted to resign.

The Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla, was the subject of discussion in political circles last week

The occasion was to celebrate the Green Globe award won by the Hotel for the fourth consecutive year for protecting the environment and maintaining the ecological balance.

Ministers Dharmasiri Senanayake, Nandimitra Ekanayake and Deputy Minister H. B. Semasinghe represented the government while British High Commissioner David Tatham was present along with the chief guest Geoffrey Lipman, and other high-ups including Aitken Spence Chairman M. Sivaratnam.

The guests enjoyed themselves fully and were in high spirits. By midnight they settled for dinner at the Eco park with a cultural pageant portraying the Kasyapa episode. The ministers were seated at the head table when Minister Ekanayake was taken ill with an attack of gastritis.

Later the high-ups of the Tourist board turned the celebration into a baila dance singing many popular Sinhala hits with a few politicians joining in.

As this was in progress one quipped that these were the very people who carried out an agitational campaign against the Kandalama Hotel project along with some Buddhist and Christian groups.

Meanwhile Lake House journalists are puzzled about a new policy line from one of the directors.

Director Janadasa Pereis, who is also SLBC boss summoned the editorial staff of the Dinamina and told them to be critical of the government and the ministers in their news coverage

He told the journalists they should write the truth to improve the standing of the newspaper and stressed this was the thinking of the Media Minister too.

But journalists wondered who would protect them if some ministers were to pour their wrath on them.

One journalist cited instances where they were harassed or intimidated by ministers.

Some journalists fear this may be a ploy of the government with elections around the corner.

Now that nominations for the Provincial Councils have been received, candidates are wondering what to do next. The Elections Commissioner has fixed the poll for August 28, but most people feel the elections will be postponed. The question is the modus operandi to put off elections. Will it be by Gazette Notification invoking Emergency Regulations, or through special legislation. It looks as if the candidates would have to wait before they start their campaign. There is in any event little enthusiasm anywhere in the country about the Provincial Council elections.

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