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The Political Column

22nd August 1999

Channel 9: Hamlets and omelettes

By our Political Correspondent

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Channel 9 needs no publicity. The name Channel 9 has earned it without much pain or effort; all because of the scandalous nature that it was wrapped up in from the very beginning.

The name has now become a household word among Sri Lankans who are awaiting the launch of this controversial television channel.

However, during the past few days, the Channel 9 episode took a dramatic turn as those who stand accused and the prosecutors traded charges on the dealings within the deal.

While the party that stands accused, the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, alleged that it was a shameful attempt on the part of the UNP and its sympathisers to bring the government into disrepute and instigate people against a legally elected government, the prosecutors in this case, mainly Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga and UNP parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne, threatened to reveal all when the time is right.

The Channel 9 episode first surfaced after business magnate Ravi Wettasinghe charged Lakshman Hulugalle had misappropriated more than five million rupees which he had handed over to be given as campaign funds for the SLFP.

Mr. Hulugalle worked as a co-ordinating secretary to former UNP Minister Gamini Dissanayake, and when the PA came to office, he became a consultant to the Samurdhi project handled by Minister S.B. Dissanayake. Mr. Hulugalle was convicted in the early 1990s for an alleged timber fraud involving the Ethkanda Vihare of Kurunegala. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment suspended for ten years by the Colombo High Court after he pleaded guilty.

It is alleged that the Premadasa regime used the indictment against Mr. Hulugalle to force him into making a statement against Mr. Dissanayake, when the UNP split over the impeachment crisis. However, when the government failed in its bid, the indictment was served. Thus, Mr. Hulugalle's credibility is widely questioned.

The indictment alleged that he misused his authority as a high official in Minister Gamini Dissanayake's office to buy timber from the Timber Corporation at a discounted price on the pretext that it was for renovation of a temple and sold it at a higher price.

Despite all this, the PA in 1994 appointed him as a consultant to the Samurdhi project. He had allegedly received a personal endorsement from President Kumaratunga.

It is now alleged that he was the go-between in the Channel 9 affair where the President's media adviser Sanath Gunathillake is involved. Mr. Hulugalle claims that as a commission agent he put the deal through for a price. He alleged that a part of the money that came to him had been given to Mr. Gunathillake. The media adviser has denied all charges, but Mr. Hulugalle says that he has a tape of the conversation supporting his allegation. Mr. Hulugalle goes on to say that a copy of the cassette has been placed in a foreign mission in Colombo for safe custody while the other copy has been sent to London for authentication. The government is reportedly trying to get hold of this tape.

In this backdrop, the government thought it necessary to have a highly-publicised national TV debate on the controversy on Monday. In trying to bring this matter before the 'court of the people' before allowing the law to take its course, the government appears to have made confusion worse confounded.

It is alleged that the main thrust of Monday's TV trial was to accuse and attack the accusers. The organisers had decided to invite all parties, Sanath, Rajah, Hulugalle and a few others. However, two of the key players, Ministers Mangala and Kingsley Wickremaratne were absent. Mr. Wickrematunga raised this at the outset and wanted to know why others like Guruparan and Sivadasan were not present.

According to the plan, it was in the best interest of the government that Mr. Hulugalle did not turn up for the debate. So the government was apparently happy when it found Mr. Hulugalle had excused himself on the basis that the discussion might tread in the area of sub-judice. In his letter of explanation to Rupavahini, Mr. Hulugalle said that since there was a case in regard to these matters, he was unable to appear for the debate. However, the government was prepared to take him to task if the need had arisen. For this, they apparently thought that Minister S.B. Dissanayake and business magnate Ravi Wettasinghe were essential components in their team. The government's view was that Mr. Hulugalle would not have confronted Minister Dissanayake while Mr. Wettasinghe could have been used to demolish Mr. Hulugalle's position and his arguments. On the TV debate, this was done to a certain extent when Mr. Wettasinghe put Mr. Hulugalle's character in perspective.

At the beginning of the debate, Sunday Leader editor Wickrematunga protested against the constitution of the panel. He alleged that the concerned parties were not invited and made a quick exit. If Mr. Wickrematunga's exit could be described as bad, what happened thereafter was worse.

With Mr. Wickrematunga's exit, the tongue-lashing parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne also followed suit. The TV debate virtually became an ex-parte show before an audience of millions. The government made maximum use of what was given to it on a platter by the prosecutors of this allegation. They came out with scathing attacks on Mr. Wickrematunga, Dr. Senaratne and Mr. Hulugalle and made a successful attempt to convince the audience that the allegations made against the government were faked.

Mr. Gunathillake who looked bewildered at the beginning came up positively and was riding high in the debate after the exit of the prosecutors. But what was worse was Deputy Justice Minister Dilan Perera's remarks on the challengers who left in a huff. He even used some dubious language. It was necessary for Mr. Perera to show his loyalty to the President, but it could well be asked whether a politician who is holding the high office of Deputy Minister of Justice stoops to this level?

One could observe that he made all these remarks at Mr. Wickrematunga with a malicious intention. But what is more interesting is to find out how he came into possession of statements made by Mr. Hulugalle to the police to be used as material in the debate. In deference to Mr. Perera, it should also be mentioned that he presented his case well with the help of these documents. Minister Dissanayake also played a useful role for the government. He summed up well for the government, but he evaded the issue when it came to Mr. Gunathillake.

He was more gentlemanly though he fired some salvos at Dr. Senaratne and Mr. Wickrematunga. He described Dr. Senaratne as a suicide bomber used by the UNP to achieve its own ends. The insinuation is that though Dr. Senaratne is even prepared to make sacrifices the UNP would drop him like a bomb once it is in office.

After the TV debate, and the about-turn of Jayatissa Tennekoon, the key witness in the Channel 9 episode made allegations involving Mr. Wickrematunga and Dr. Senaratne. The government is now considering charges against this duo for causing disaffection to the state.

Discussions were held on this point at the highest level and moves were under way to arrest Mr. Wickrematunga.

Attorney-General Sarath N. Silva who participated in this discussion, however, advised against such a move, saying that a proper investigation should be carried out to find more evidence before taking anyone into custody. Mr. Silva had told them that they were only in possession of evidence of a person who turned out to be a witness for the government and insisted that the evidence was insufficient. He, however, had said that these charges could be considered if proper evidence was available irrespective of the Channel 9 affair.

Another interesting story in this debate is that Mr. Wickrematunga and Dr. Senaratne were not at first prepared to participate in the debate. It was Ravaya editor Victor Ivan who persuaded them to appear on the national TV. He agreed to the extent of accompanying them to the Rupavahini, but Rupavahini chairman Dew Gunasekera turned down the request. At this stage, Mr. Ivan insisted that they should at least appear and make a statement. When Mr. Wickrematunga made his exit from Rupavahini, many people called him on his cellphone to ask as to why he did not stay back and defend his cause.

His exit may have proved costly both to the UNP and to himself as analysts also felt that he should have defended his case despite Rupavahini's failure to invite all parties. This of course may have been easier said than done.

With all this hullabaloo, the fundamental question goes unanswered. Is there some truth in this whole allegation? The government maintains that there is no cassette in the possession of Mr. Wickrematunga, but they were purely going on the statement given by Mr. Hulugalle to the police.

The first round of the debate was apparently a victory for the government. At the end of the day, Mr. Gunathillake was riding high as if there was nothing against him. But on Friday night Mr. Wickrematunga apparently rattled Mr. Gunathillake again saying he would play the cassette on the TNL's Janahanda programme tomorrow. The TNL audience however would not be as large as the Rupavahini.

TNL is a habitat that is used mostly by anti-government politicians. But it was a rare opportunity afforded by the Rupavahini for them to put their point of view across. Now the most important matter is to determine who is right and who is wrong and to push the government to investigate the original question in the Channel 9 deal.

At this stage, it should be recalled that both Mr. Wickrematunga and Dr. Senaratne are no strangers to the PA too. They were prosecutors of their own political agenda at different stages.

Mr. Wickrematunga was a close associate of Anura Bandaranaike from the time when the SLFP was in the opposition while Dr. Senaratne was an associate of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party and subsequently the Bahujana Nidahas Party. In short, President Kumaratunga has a definite idea of what Dr. Senaratne is capable of and the calibre of Mr. Wickrematunga. If both these can do some service to the country by revealing a scandalous affair, should the government stand in their way and try to muzzle them by framing charges against them?

People will watch the unfolding events of this episode with much interest now since the government had given wide publicity through its own media.

It was on Monday the plan was devised at Temple Trees to make an onslaught on the two prosecutors of this case. President Kumaratunga who attended Minister S.B. Dissanayake's father's funeral in Hanguranketa wanted him to be present at Temple Trees on Monday morning for an important mission. The President by attending the funeral at a distant place became the centre of attraction.

Minister Dissanayake would have been moved by her words at the funeral. She wanted the Minister to defend the government. The spade work for this was done by Mr. Gunathillake with the help of none other than Sajith Premadasa and Harsha Kumara Navaratne, a week ago.

On Monday, Dilan Perera, Mahinda Wijesekera, Mangala Samaraweera, Kusumsiri Balapatabendi and Gamini Rajanayake of Channel 9 were present at Temple Trees along with Minister Dissanayake for a discussion with the President on the debate planned for Monday night.

Minister Samaraweera circulated the letter written by Mr. Wickrematunga to the Rupavahini chairman stating that the relevant parties have not been invited to this debate and told the panellists of the government to justify their presence at the beginning of the debate. They were told to make an introductory statement saying that they were present there to represent the government as well as the party.

The legal side was entrusted to Dilan Perera and Mahinda Wijesekera. They were also told to mention that they came forward to a debate at a time when the government was completing five years in office. Justifying their presence, the Ministers were asked to say that their presence was necessary since the attitude of the Sunday Leader editor and some members of the UNP had been directed at the government and their party, and they were there to report the matter back to the President.

At the same time, the panellists were given copies of the statement made by Mr. Hulugalle to the police. At the end of a long discussion where the modalities of presenting their case were discussed, Mr. Gunathillake said a final discussion would be held around 8 p.m. at Minister Dissanayake's Wijerama Mawatha residence.

At that meeting, there was an addition to the government panel, Ravi Wettasinghe, a business magnate who owned the LATEC buses assembly plant at Werahera.

Mr. Dissanayake directed as to who should say what. Once they arrived at the Rupavahini office, they were told to go to the make-up room and when Mr. Gunathillake was there along with Mr. Wettasinghe, Mr. Wickrematunga also entered.

Mr. Wettasinghe told Mr. Wickrematunga he should do a good make up and appear on TV like a film star. But Mr. Wickrematunga retorted in the same spirit saying that these days were bad for film stars and their reputation was waning. Mr. Gunathillake said nothing as he was known to be under strict instructions not to confront anybody.

After the programme, Mr. Dissanayake invited the panellists for a small get-together at his residence. When they arrived at the Wijerama Mawatha residence of Minister Dissanayake, Kusumsiri Balapatabendi and Mangala Samaraweera were there discussing how the TV programme went. They were happy as all the panellists were engrossed in discussing the programme when a special guest arrived at Mr. Dissanayake's house.

It was none other than Jayatissa Tennekoon who turned out to be a government witness who betrayed Mr. Hulugalle.

When Mr. Wettasinghe sighted this strange man, he was startled. Mr. Wettasinghe lost his temper and alleged: "You are the man who took my money. You did a dirty thing to me." Mr. Dissanayake had to intervene to settle the row.

Mr. Dissanayake later told Mr. Balapatabendi and Mr. Samaraweera that the people who helped us to overcome this problem should not be dropped like a hot potato. In short he endorsed the UNP policy that the government should reciprocate suitably by helping those who helped them.

At the UNP group meeting on Monday, the party expressed its concern over The Sunday Times expose on the tapping of the opposition leader's e-mail line. Many MPs spoke out saying some action had to be taken to check this trend of e-mail tapping. Others said legal action should be contemplated on such matters. The dispute arose after Minister Batty Weerakoon received an e-mail addressed to the opposition leader by a Conservative Party consultant Murray Gough. Mr. Weerakoon read out to the Cabinet the e-mail document which had details about the UNP's political strategies and the public relations drive. The UNP raised objections to what had taken place and compelled the government to make a statement to Parliament.

Minister Weerakoon said he was ready to face a no-confidence motion if the UNP was not willing to accept his explanation.

UNP MPs at the group meeting again threw charges at the Queen Elizabeth Quay deal and demanded a full explanation in Parliament, with all documents being tabled.

Another interesting story from Parliament was the chance meeting between UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister C.V. Gooneratne. When Mr. Wickremesinghe got into the lift, he saw Mr. Gooneratne also there and quipped, "You are preparing a big tamasha for the 5th anniversary''.

"You are also welcome", Mr. Gooneratne replied.

"I need not come, all my agents are there," Mr. Wickremesinghe said. "In the first year, we planted them there and in the final year, we are activating them", he said.

Mr. Gooneratne replying said, "You have not attacked Sanath anywhere. There must be something".

"You must ask Sanath," Mr. Wickremesinghe said wearing a broad smile.

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