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The Political Column

22nd November 1998

Tiger, tiger save the forest

By our Political Correspondent

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PA's fifth budget - from which two contro versial proposals were dropped even be fore the debate began - has put the government in an embarrassing position and indicated that policy makers had no clear cut thrust on how to bridge the deficit.

The proposal to increase rail fares by 20% was dropped when Transport Minister A.H.M. Fowzie made a veiled threat to resign if the President went ahead with it.

While presenting the budget in Parliament Minister G.L. Peiris himself admitted that for the first time in the history of budget-making he was withdrawing a proposal on the floor of the House.

A few days later the government withdrew another proposal which would have affected the entire migrant community.

By restoring the duty free baggage allowance for Sri Lankans returning from abroad, government dropped the proposal, which it said was aimed at stemming a massive duty free racket. It is known that this racket takes place regularly under the protection and patronage of some politicians.

If two proposals were not enough, the government is now moving towards withdrawing a third proposal by which the duty levied on luxury motor vehicles had been drastically reduced.

The objective of this proposal was to crack down on another racket where those who held permits for the import of luxury cars at concessionary rates were alleged to be selling them at exorbitant rates.

However government MPs were against the reduction of duties on luxury cars only. They wanted such concessions for diesel vans and other passenger vehicles. As a compromise it is likely that a duty reduction on luxury vehicles may be withdrawn.

On topof all these, Minister and SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashraff has bluntly dismissed the budget as an empty one.

His criticism was a clear message that he was annoyed that Ministers and MPs were not consulted in formulating the budget.

GL hurt

The President's remark that Minister G.L. Peiris was merely a reader of the budget proposals has also set-off heated debate among the government ranks.

President Kumaratunga's Rupavahini interview on the budget was recorded on the first Sunday after the budget when Minister Peiris hosted journalists for a traditional budget dinner.

Some journalists felt that referring to Dr. Peiris as a mere reader was unfair and unwarranted, as democracy worked on the principle of collective responsibility by the Cabinet of Ministers.

The Rupavahini interview however was broadcast one full week after it was recorded.

Though the reason for this delay is not clear, the purpose of the interview appeared to be double-edged.

The President took upon herself full responsibility for every proposal while reducing Dr. Peiris to a mere reader.

The damage caused to him was severe, with opposition MPs teasing and taunting him during the debate in Parliament.

Most analysts feel, the President could have avoided such a situation for the common good of the government, even if Minister Peiris had not contributed much towards the budget.

In this backdrop, Dr. Peiris who was earlier Vice-Chancellor of the Colombo University is known to be exploring the possibility of resuming his career as a visiting University lecturer. But security concerns stand in the way as he is known to be a key target of the LTTE.

Passing the buck

On Tuesday, there was an important meeting at Temple Trees presided over by President Kumaratunga to discuss matters relating to the President's vote - the allocation made in the budget.

Minister S.B. Dissanayake said 36% of the total expenditure in the budget had been allocated to the President and departments coming under her.

He asked whether this was correct, and the President passed on the question to Treasury Secretary Dixon Nilaweera who explained matters. Mr. Dissanayake apparently not convinced said a huge amount had been allocated for Temple Trees.

Again the President put it to Mr. Nilaweera and he in turn put it to his deputy P.B. Jayasundera, known to be one of the architects of the budget.

He said he could not explain off-hand and would do so after checking some files.

Minister Dissanayake said the information was very important as the opposition was likely to raise such matters.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting there was a clash between Ministers Thondaman and Ratnasiri Wickremanayake over the allocation of land to estate workers.

Mr. Thondaman accused Mr. Wickremanayake of distributing land only to Sinhalese in Horana overlooking Tamils who worked in estates there. Replying, Mr. Wickremanayake said Horana was his electorate and he was distributing land to the people according to their needs.

Mr. Thondaman insisted it was against accepted policy but Mr. Wickremanayake said he knew of no such policies.

Mr. Thondaman was apparently shaken and said he had signed an agreement with President Premadasa regarding such a land policy but Mr. Wickremanayake shot back saying those policies were not valid now as a new government was in office.

At this stage Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte intervened to settle the matter. He told Minister Wickremanayake not to take the matter too far, since it would embarrass the government.

General Ratwatte requested both Ministers to have a dialogue and resolve the matter amicably.

But Minister Wickremanayake did not seem to be in a mood to listen to anybody. He pushed his way through in the absence of the President and vowed his decision would stand whatever Mr. Thondaman thought about it.

Mr. Thondaman was equally adamant pledging he would not budge an inch on this issue.

Then Minister Mahinda Rajapakse intervened. This trouble shooter advised both Ministers to call a ceasefire and allow their Ministry Secretaries to discuss the matter further. They agreed.

Forest appeal

On another front while a dispute is continuing over conditional or unconditional talks with the LTTE Environment Minister Nandimithra Ekanayake is calling for a deal of a different kind. The Minister has written to LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran through the Red Cross telling him to stop the assault on the forest cover.

The letter states:

Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran Leader of the Organization of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,

Through the President of the Sri Lanka National Red Cross Society.

19. 11 . 98

Mr. Prabhakaran,

Protection of Forest Resources and Environment

I am writing this letter to you with the intention of drawing your attention to wanton and major scale destruction caused to the environment as a result of the on-going war with the government in the North-Eastern part of this country for the past 15 years.

I have received information from reliable sources to the effect that with your knowledge and connivance people living in these areas as well as the representatives of your movement have been granted permission to destroy the valuable forest cover and wildlife considered to be the most precious environment system in "Wanni District".

People who visited such areas learnt about this from you as well as your representatives. When questioned they admitted they had permission to fell trees, hunt wildlife and make money as much as possible according to their whims and fancies.

You have repeatedly stated that the main objective in engagement in war is to divide this country and stabilize your state. Your objectives may be achieved. However I doubt whether your people and you can lead a vitreous life by committing such major environmental assaults.

I would like to add that we are in an era where every state in the world and almost all the organizations like yours pay special attention to environment conservation. It is believed that the area of the forest cover at present has dwindled to l8%. According to an overall survey of environment in the world it has been recommended that the forest cover should cover a minimum of 30% of the total land area of a country.

Encouragement of the destruction of the bio-diversity and flora and fauna which are hereditary varieties of the country, through the destruction of the natural resources in the name of the war will be condemned with utter disgust by the eco-friendly people in the whole world.

It is mentioned here that whatever may be their political beliefs, the responsibility of all the political leaders is to take remedial steps for the protection of the environment in which we live and to safeguard the interest of our future generation.

Although both of us follow different political lines, I would emphatically state that we have no mandate to deprive the right of living either to you or us and the future generation in this world.

I am compelled to make this statement in view of the responsibility assigned to me to protect the forest and environment of the entire country as the Minister of Forestry and Environment.

Yours sincerely,

Nandimithra Ekanayake,

Minister of Forestry and Environment.

Copies to: H.E. the President;

Hon. Ministers;

Secretary, UNEP.

Not only to the LTTE leader, Mr. Ekanayake has written a letter to President Kumaratunga too, but on a different subject.

By this letter he has asked the President to initiate an impartial inquiry into the allegations levelled against him by the UNP.

The UNP recently called a media conference where a person from the electorate threw charges implicating the Minister in a political killing and treasure hunting.

Mr. Ekanayake said it would be harmful to the government to ignore these allegations, since he was a member of the Cabinet.

Political analysts point out Mr. Ekanayake is one of the few politicians who has had the courage to request an inquiry on their own conduct.

In another development a Buddhist prelate, Ven. Panwila Ananda Thero from Attanagalla Raja Maha Viharaya is making an effort to bring about a rapproachment between President Kumaratunga and her estranged brother Anura.

Ven. Ananda Thero who is also the chief incumbent of the Los Angeles Buddhist Temple has a close relationship with both President and Anura Bandaranaike.

The prelate had felt the need for a reconciliation between the two after Mr. Bandaranaike was hospitalized recently.

Mr. Bandaranaike was visited in hospital by many Ministers including Minister G.L. Peiris while President Kumaratunga sent him a bouquet of orchids with a get-well card. But Mr. Bandaranaike declined to disclose what was in it.

However he told friends he would write to his sister thanking her for the kind gesture.

Mr. Bandaranaike is now planning to visit the United States for another medical check-up though he was given a clean bill of health by the Sri Lankan doctors who treated him.

He is not likely to take part in the budget debate and his time is allocated to another front runger Susil Moonesinghe.

However Mr. Bandaranaike, even from his hospital bed, did make some remarks saying, "it doesn't offer anything''.

It is learnt that President Kumaratunga had responded positively to the call made by Ven. Panwila Ananda Thero to settle differences between her and the brother.

Another significant event of the week was the President's meeting with the PA's Colombo Municipal Councillors who appeared to be divided into two camps - Vedage group and the Ganeshalingam group.

The Ganeshalingam group accused the Vedage group of working in connivance with the UNP to undermine the PA. Other MMCs accused A.H.M. Fowzie and his son of being arrogant and exhorting pressure on them. The President said they should refrain from publicly criticising Cabinet Ministers, but any alleged misconduct or failure on the part of a Minister could be brought to her notice.

She also told MMCs, they could criticise each other within the group but not in public.

Later, the President met former Provincial Council members. The meeting was organised by former Western Province Chief Minister Susil Prem Jayantha.

Meanwhile, President Kumaratunga is finalising plans to visit India next month to sign the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement.

As a prelude to her trip, her top economic adviser visited New Delhi to do the spade work for the deal.

The President is also scheduled to lay the foundation stone to build a Pilgrims Rest mainly for Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting Dambadiva (India).

Her discussions with Indian leaders will also cover other bilateral and regional matters.

Mendis in trouble again

In the opposition UNP, many are accusing former party Whip Wijeyapala Mendis of trying to undermine the party leadership.

The accusations came after the alms-giving held at Mr. Mendis' residence to mark the second death anniversary of his son Davindra who died under tragic circumstances.

At his commemoration, Mr. Mendis accused the UNP leadership of being indifferent and unfair to him. The alms-giving was attended by several key UNPers including party Chairman Karu Jayasuriya.

But at the UNP Parliamentary Group meeting, Premaratne Gunesekera asked for clarification on the matter. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said Mr. Mendis was entitled to his point of view since he was no more a member of the party. He said UNPers in future should not participate in ceremonies where attempts are made to undermine the party leadership.

Right of reply

We referred in this column last week to the National Alliance for Peace and its inaugural meeting which was disrupted by an unruly mob. The disrupting group left leaflets from the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT). Peace Alliance members accused the NMAT group of behaving in a fascist manner similar to the methods used by Hitler.

The NMAT in a media statement has defended its action.

It says its group went to the Peace Alliance meeting to distribute some leaflets, giving a different point of view. There the group found that some people who attended the meeting and were trying to give a different view were being roughly treated by some organizers. Even the robes of some monks were being pulled. Thus the NMAT group intervened on behalf of the monks and others who were being attacked, the statement said.

The NMAT also charged that the National Alliance for Peace was part of an NGO mafia, spies and traitors who were trying to molly-coddle LTTE terrorists and Tamil racists while betraying the national interest of the country.

The NMAT cited several instances where the LTTE had been invited for peace talks but it was found to be only double-dealing. Proposing a peace initiative, including a dialogue with the LTTE, was a crime against the nation, the NMAT said.

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