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The Political Column

18th July 1999

CBK, Fowzie trade barbs over bribes

By our Political Correspondent

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With elections very much on the cards, the PA government is being exposed to lots of controversy over the alleged role of Presidential Media Advisor Sanath Gunathilake in the Channel 9 Pay TV deal.

A tape supposed to be containing details of this transaction was played in parliament by the UNP backbencher Rajitha Senaratne causing a furore. Even some government ministers and MPs are now calling for a full probe. Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle asked for a copy of the tape from Dr. Senaratne and now it is known to be available freely among government top brass.

Although the Channel 9 deal did not come up at the cabinet meeting proper, ministers are known to have discussed it on Wednesday soon after they finished the cabinet meeting.

Though many ministers have questioned Mr. Gunathilake's conduct, the President seems to be defending him fully and so is Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Samaraweera said the attacks on Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi and Mr. Gunathilake were coming from those who wanted to cover up their own corrupt practices. He said it was a conspiracy to serve the business and personal interests of some people and the full story would be exposed soon.

Mr. Gunathilake is claiming that Dr. Senaratne's tape is a doctored one with voices dubbed. But he will have to do much more than a simple denial to clear his name.

Soon after the weekly meeting of ministers, President Kumaratunga said wild allegations, including bribe charges, were being thrown at her in parliament by Dr. Senaratne and others but nobody on the government side had defended her.

Minister Mahinda Rajapakse said they were all prepared to come to the defence of the President but not the acting man, a reference to Mr. Gunathilake.

The President, with an obviously sarcastic smile, replied, "Yes, yes, I know." She said that when Lakshman Hulugalle the man who allegedly taped the conversation on the Channel 9 deal after he was sidelined - was going all over slandering her, there were people to protect him. When the CID wanted to arrest Mr. Hulugalle, Mr. Rajapakse had asked the CID why they were taking Mr. Hulugalle in.

Mr. Rajapakse admitted he had spoken to the CID but said it was Mr. Gunathilake who had introduced Mr. Hulugalle to the PA earlier and that was why he had inquired.

The controversy over Channel 9 erupted after Mr. Hulugalle alleged he had given Rs. 7 million to Mr. Gunathilaka for the next election campaign. He also said that the money was given by Ravi Wettasinghe, owner of the controversial Latec bus project.

Mr. Wettasinghe had earlier been targeted for attack by the PA for allegedly shady deals during the UNP regime. He flew away after that but is now back reportedly to promote the Latec business again. Mr. Wettasinghe is on record admitting that he handed over nearly 7 million rupees to Mr. Hulugalle who in turn has claimed that he gave it to Mr. Gunathilake.

The President at the discussion with the ministers said that Mr. Hulugalle had told CID that he had given Rs. 500,000 to Minister Rajapakse and Rs. 1.5 million to Minister Fowzie. "What have you to say about it," she asked Mr. Rajapakse. The minister said he did not know anything about any personal transaction, but they gave some money when he was carrying out the Wayamba campaign.

He said his understanding was that the money came from party funds. He also revealed that what he got was less than Rs. 500,000 and feared that some one might have defrauded money there too.

Minister Fowzie, however, vehemently denied having got Rs. 1.5 million from Mr. Hulugalle.

The President asked whether it could be lakhs but Mr. Fowzie dismissed it all as baseless lies though he knew that businessmen who came to Temple Trees got things done easily.

This allegation apparently provoked the President who angrily asked Mr. Fowzie whether he was suggesting that she took bribes. The Minister was all apologies as far as the President was concerned but he insisted he could not vouch for the integrity of others.

He related one case where on a flight to Colombo, a Muslim businessman from Maligawatte had told him how he came to Temple Trees and got a contract approved.

Thereafter, Minister Rajapakse asked the President whether she was approving the proposal put forward by Mr. Wettasinghe to manufacture buses in Sri Lanka. She said she had not given any approval but it was Mr. Fowzie who put her into this mess.

Mr. Fowzie again denied he brought such a proposal to the President. But she scoffed again asking whether he was suggesting she had only dreamt about it. Mr. Fowzie said that could be so and went on to do some tough talking. He said that as minister of transport he had the authority to work out deals and do what he thought was best for the transport system.

Where cabinet approval was needed, he said he would come and get it. He said he did not have to bring every proposal to the President. If she did not like the way he was working, she could sack him without trying to embarrass him. Mr. Fowzie admitted that the Latec proposal had been made to him but he had not yet briefed the President on it.

Soon after the clash between the President and Mr. Fowzie, Minister Samaraweera stepped in to say that there appeared to be some confusion between Channel 9 and election funds. He said the allegations and the confusion were being caused by a media mafia, including some editors who had become the mouthpieces for the UNP.

Barely 12 hours after, Mr. Samaraweera's media statement, hooligans allegedly sponsored by the government attacked journalists who were covering the UNP demonstration against the government on Thursday. The media men, mainly cameramen, were hammered allegedly by members of an elite security division who came in civvies and were armed with iron rods. They smashed up cameras of photographers, giving the impression that they were part of the UNP's underworld. Independent eyewitnesses say they saw these men leaving in a blue bus probably belonging to the police department.

It was also clear that the thugs were under some police protection when they attacked the cameramen, because the police did not attempt to arrest them. Thus it was a sick joke for the state media on Friday to suggest that the journalists were attacked by UNP mobs. The UNP members alleged that those who attacked the journalists and the demonstrators belonged to the Presidential Security Division or the Ministerial Security Division.

When peaceful protesters and journalists were attacked by the police during the UNP regime, the PA repeatedly vowed that such things would never happen after it came to office. But it appears to be another one of the many broken promises. Thursday's attack on journalists was one of the worst since the incident where Kehelwatte thugs were unleashed on journalists covering the protest demo by the DUNF in 1992 opposite the Fort Railway Station. As the dust and din were settling down, UNP members were wondering what to do with some suggesting that the talks with the PA to find a joint solution to the ethnic conflict should be called off. General Secretary Gamini Atukorale noted that A. C. S. Hameed was a notable absentee at the protest march but Mr. Hameed at that time was in parliament for vital talks with the PA on a possible peace initiative. At the meeting in the parliamentary complex, Mr. Hameed asked Minister G. L. Peiris what the government would do if the two major parties reached broad agreement on the issue. He asked whether the government would bring in necessary legislation to implement the proposals, including the abolition of the executive presidency.

Prof. Peiris gave an assurance that it could be done by September. Mr. Hameed said such an assurance should come from the President. The minister then went to the next room and called the president. She said she could give such an assurance after consulting the PA parliamentary groups and minority parties.

Minister and SLMC leader M. H. M. Ashraff who was present at the meeting said it would be difficult for minority parties to support the abolition of the executive presidency unless the present cut off point and the provision for bonus seats were removed. Mr. Hameed said the UNP would agree to those conditions.

When the two parties took up the key issue of the unit of devolution, Prof. Peiris said the government could not agree to a proposal for the merged north-east province to continue like that for another five years. He said the government had doubts about devolving powers to areas that were too large.

Minister Ashraff told the meeting that the south-east council would have a Muslim population of 59 per cent and there would not be total Muslim domination as claimed by some. .

Mr. Hameed asked what would happen to the Muslims in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts if the Muslim dominated south-eastern province was created. It was then agreed that Mr. Ashraff and Mr. Hameed would meet soon to work out an accommodation

The PA and UNP delegations have agreed to meet on August 11 but the question is whether there would be another meeting with increasing calls within the UNP for a boycott of talks with the government because of the attack on Thursday. The delegations also agreed to meet at the BMICH since it is not possible for business community leader Lalith Kotelawala to preside over the meetings in the parliamentary complex.

Meanwhile there were some developments in the longstanding feud between two Muslim ministers Mr. Ashraff and Mr. Fowzie.

At a dinner hosted by Dr. M. I. M. Moosen, Ambassador designate to Tripoli, Mr. Ashraff was seen talking to SLFP stalwart and Minister Alavi Moulana. The discussion centered on the dispute between Mr. Ashraff and Mr. Fowzie.

Mr. Moulana told Mr. Ashraff that it was essential to heal the rift between the two ministers lest it made further dents in the SLFP's Muslim vote bank. Minister Ashraff said he had been fair and had never criticised Mr. Fowzie but the response was negative.

Minister Fowzie also attended the dinner, but left before Mr. Ashraff arrived.

The guests also took up a topic of much speculation these days the timing of presidential or parliamentary elections

Minister Ashraff said that he believed the UNP was holding or planning to hold secret talks with the LTTE. In that event, the LTTE was likely to support the UNP and even prevail upon the Tamils in north and east to vote for the UNP candidate at the next presidential elections.

In addition he also feared that minority parties would find it difficult to give their support for the PA because they felt the PA had not acted decisively to find a political solution. However, Minister Ashraff was optimistic that the PA would have the edge over the UNP.

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