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The Political Column

25th July 1999

It's package politics again

By our Political Correspondent

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The UNP is on the warpath against the government after police and goon squads were used on July 15 to suppress and break up a demonstration against broken promises.

With questions as to whether the UNP should continue its dialogue with the government on the ethnic conflict, party leaders decided on another protest last Thursday and islandwide demos thereafter.

On Thursday, there was a large crowd no doubt, but the protest did not have the steam or the tear gas of the previous one. There were no police or army personnel either, at least in uniform, though plain clothes detectives were obviously among the 2,500 crowd. From the main gathering at the Lipton's Circus a radical group led by Rajitha Senaratne and Mervyn Silva tried to break away and march towards the high security zone around Temple Trees. But General Secretary Gamini Atukorale acted fast to check the break away procession and turn it back.

About 48 hours before the UNP's protest, the government invoking the Public Security Ordinance promulgated emergency laws banning any demonstrations in and around the parameters of the high security zone in Colombo. The area included Temple Trees, Presidential Secretariat and the Army Headquarters.

At the group meeting and in Parliament, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe slammed the government for breaking up a peaceful demonstration. He charged that the police had fired tear-gas canisters even at his official residence and his private office at Cambridge Place. An angry Mr. Wickremesinghe told the Speaker to summon police chief Lucky Kodituwakku for an inquiry on the breach of privilege of MPs.

At the group meeting, Mr. Wickremesinghe drew a line between Minister Mangala Samaraweera's reference to a media mafia and the attack the next day as photo-journalists were covering the UNP procession. He said parliamentarians Mahinda Samarasinghe and Tyronne Fernando would co-ordinate an international protest to the International Parliamentary Union and other world bodies regarding the attack on MPs.

Parliamentarian A.H.M. Azwer said he had taken part in demos since 1970 but the July 15 attack was the worst act of suppression.

Former Minister John Amaratunga said the government was trying to put the blame on the UNP for the attack perpetrated by some members of the Presidential Security Division.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said UNP lawyers were studying the situation to file legal action.

Moving to another current dispute, Mahinda Samarasinghe said the UNP should take up the Channel 9 episode in Parliament and call for a debate on it.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said that after Rajitha Senaratne raised the matter in Parliament, Minister Mangala Samaraweera made a statement defending the Channel 9 agreement. He said the party should force the government to make a full statement on the matter.

Chief Opposition Whip W.J.M. Lokubandara referred to a newspaper report which alleged that he favoured TNL when granting a licence to operate during the UNP regime. He said Lake House Newspapers did not have the courtesy to get his side of the story and he was considering legal action. He said he saw the allegations against him as part of efforts to divert attention from Channel 9.

Dr. Senaratne who is spearheading the anti-government campaign on the Channel 9 dispute said, there were many more things to be exposed. He said that there were more tapes and evidence which should be produced at an opportune time.

Lashing out at the government, he said he thought it was absurd to talk about bipartisanship or National Government when police goons were used to attack peaceful demonstrations.

Mr. Wickremesinghe said the aim of the talks was to bring relief to the people by helping to end the on-going war. He said the UNP had not broken any laws in its July 15 demo but the government had acted undemocratically or brutally. The UNP leader told MPs to be ready now to move against the government and topple it by democratic means.

Ravindra Suraweera speaking at this stage raised questions about the change of name and logo of the national carrier AirLanka which is now Sri Lankan airlines. One member pointed out though the Minister of Tourism had given an assurance in Parliament that the emblem would not be changed, the new management had gone ahead and changed it. He called for a motion of no-confidence against the Minister. But Mr. Wickremesinghe said he preferred an adjournment debate. He charged that the commission from the national carrier's purchases of three new airbuses would probably go to the PA's election campaign.

Amidst UNP's protests and the protests staged by the journalists, the PA's ex ecutive committee met on Thursday night to decide on key issues. The President arrived at the meeting around 9 p.m. and the meeting went on past midnight. It was agreed among all parties that the government would present the constitutional reforms package, including the abolition of the executive presidency in the last week of next month. The President and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera also explained matters relating to the Channel 9 episode, claiming the much-publicised tape was a fake. She said the date given in the tape was 18 months after they issued the licence to the television network.

The PA executive committee also agreed to give a ministry in the southern provincial council to the Communist Party member Danny Hiththetiyage, ending a long row over the matter. Some SLFP ministers had said that Mr. Hiththetiyage was not suitable because he had allegedly abused President Kumaratunga during the southern election campaign. However, the Communist Party insisted that the ministry should go to Danny Hiththetiyage of the CP and nobody else. The President finally agreed and in turn the Communist Party pledged its fullest support to her.

The government's decision to present the package in August is an indication of the President's move to go for national elections probably between January and March next year. The PA's strategy is apparently two-fold. On the one hand it wants the minority support at the next election and on the other hand it wants the UNP to support the package including the abolition of the executive presidency. The President is no doubt aware of the UNP's inner mind and she knows that the UNP would not support the constitutional reforms package in Parliament. Hence, the likelihood of an early presidential election.

But if the UNP supports the package with amendments, there would be no presidential elections but parliamentary elections which the UNP would prefer.

At the PA-UNP meeting held last week, UNP delegation leader A.C.S. Hameed asked Minister G.L. Peiris for a time-frame for the abolition of the presidency if the UNP and the PA reach a broader agreement on the package. Professor Peiris said it could be done in September if the UNP agreed to introduce the new constitution.

It is now up to the UNP to decide whether it should support the package or not even with amendments. It won't be an easy choice for the UNP with some Sinhala hardliners in the forefront.

At Wednesday's meeting of the ministers, it is reported that the President was disturbed by the publicity given to the Channel 9 episode and the involvement of her media advisor Sanath Gunathillake.

She warned the ministers that she would implement the provisions of the Official Secrets Act to the very letter. This Act prohibits the media from publishing classified information about Cabinet proceedings and other official matters of the government.

The President said she would take prompt action against newspapers which were publishing such classified information.

More than anything, it appears that the President was disturbed about the leak of the argument she had with Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.

Mr. Rajapakse at the previous Cabinet meeting told the President that the ministers would defend her in Parliament but they were not prepared to defend others like the person whom he referred to as the actor. This came after the President complained that none of the ministers had defended her when Dr. Senaratne made various allegations in Parliament on the Channel 9 episode.

Mr. Gunathillake has now issued a statement on this controversy (see page 8 for details).

Mr. Gunathillake's statement was issued to newspapers after the UNP made it a public issue at the two protest meetings recently.

It is now learnt that several ministers are preparing a petition to the President to ask for the appointment of an independent commission to probe the matter.

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