The Political Column

10th October 1999

Coming together and falling apart

By our Political Correspondent

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Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has once again reiterated the need to talk to the LTTE if the ethnic crisis is to be solved through dialogue.

Addressing Institutional Fund Managers on Tuesday, the UNP leader said lasting peace required a political solution involving all parties including the LTTE.

He did not rule out the possibility of having a third party purely as a facilitator to solve the problem.

The question posed by government circles at this stage is whether it would be meaningful to talk to the LTTE without having consensus among the main political parties on what they could offer to solve the crisis.

"What is there to talk to the LTTE? The government has gone far beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and this is the maximum we could offer," one government Minister told this column.

"What is more important today is to ascertain as to whether the UNP is agreeable to what is offered. Could the UNP offer more?" he queried.

"What we see today is that the UNP has got cold feet over our proposals. The UNP's position should be made known and in this context, it is very important to have some sort of consensus among the main parties, he added.

However, it appears now that the UNP is drifting away from the government position as seen in Mr. Wickremesinghe's statement that the party will not rule out the possibility of third party facilitation to talk with the LTTE.

Whatever it may be, it is important that the PA and the UNP reach some agreement on this important national problem.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's observations at the Fund Managers meeting are likely to create an uproar among the Sinhala hard-liners who are opposing any kind of talk with the LTTE.

It is likely that they might whip up emotions among the Sinhalese, which may create problems for the UNP at a time when the elections are round the corner.

Addressing Fund Managers, Mr. Wickremesinghe also elaborated on economic issues. He said the UNP was objecting to the Air Lanka-Emirates deal purely on the basis of corruption and pledged that they would investigate the matter once they came back to office. Mr. Wickremesinghe said he was not able to go through the P&O agreement but once he went through this agreement, he would seek clarification from investors.

Referring to the AirLanka deal, he said the order for the purchase of airbuses had been placed even before the agreement was signed.

Mr. Wickremesinghe made these observations when Daily News editor Geof Wijesinghe posed a question regarding the privatisation of AirLanka and the port deal with the P&O-led multi national consortium. Mr. Wijesinghe read out the question looking at a piece of paper. The question posed by him was as follows:

"You have gone on record saying that the future UNP government under your leadership would take action to cancel the AirLanka Privatisation deal with Emirates and the Port deal with P&O. As a party committed to the private sector led growth and foreign investment, what type of significance and message will this statement give to international investors in Sri Lanka? And will this type of statement damage Sri Lanka's ability to attract quality international investors like Emirates and P&O?"

As soon as this question was posed, Mr. Wickremesinghe apparently lost his cool and snapped back at the editor telling him not to ask silly questions.

Mr. Wickremesinghe may have thought for a moment that it was an insidious move by the Board of Investment to ask such questions. He told Mr. Wijesinghe that in the future Mr. Wijesinghe would ask similar questions on behalf of the UNP, too. However, Mr. Wickremesinghe told the forum not to misunderstand the UNP. He clarified that the party was objecting to the AirLanka deal purely on the basis of corruption.

Mr. Wickremesinghe's remarks to the Daily News editor were not well received by the forum. By evening most of the participants were critical of Mr. Wickremesinghe's remarks and they thought that the Daily News editor's question was a valid one in the present economic and political climate.

Apart from this, the UNP leader's statement on the economy was well received. He said one of the first acts of a UNP government would be to get the economy moving and to regain competitiveness in global markets. "Our goal is simple; A better life for the people of Sri Lanka, more jobs, increased incomes and higher living standards," he said.

On Monday, the UNP's policy-making working committee met to plan strategy for upcoming future elections. Mr. Wickremesinghe appointed his long-standing friend Charitha Ratwatta as the campaign manager for the next presidential election while Irwin Weerakkody would coordinate media matters. At the meeting, the UNP also discussed allegations regarding the land deal between Tokyo Cement Company and the Ministry of Ports and Shipping. The main speaker on this subject was none other than Anura Bandaranaike, a formidable top-rung member of the UNP.

He urged the UNP to take effective and immediate action against UNP MPs who were allegedly involved in scuttling the UNP attack during the debate on the Ports Authority Bill. He said a top businessman had got around some members of the party and they had attempted to soft-pedal the UNP attack on the alleged land deal.

"If this charge is true, it is a very serious charge," Mr. Bandaranaike told the working committee. He said if an immediate inquiry was not held, he would not talk against the corruption of the government in the future.

Mr. Bandaranaike was quite right when he made that statement. It must be his desire to project a clean UNP with his leader Ranil Wickremesinghe if they are to take Sri Lanka to the next millennium. He must be of the view that it is more than appropriate to focus the attention on the beam in their own eyes before magnifying the speck in the others. The UNP leader thereafter moved to appoint a committee comprising UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya, Henry Jayamaha and Harold Herat to probe the matter.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also drew attention to news reports concerning UNP members, including Mayor Omar Kamil. He warned the members about planting stories against their own members. He said it was an unhealthy practice and he knew who was doing it. Even if somebody had done something wrong, it is the duty of the persons concerned to inform him without leaking it to the media and Mr. Wickremesinghe added that he was not aware of this matter until UNP Chairman Karu Jayasuriya brought this to his notice.

He also said the UNP had evidence that the government was tapping telephones of politicians as well as journalists. He cited his journey on the Ruhunu Kumari as an example. He said he never intended to attack the government during his journey. But it was a blessing in disguise when some politicians sent some of their henchmen under the guise of commuters who posed questions on various issues. Although his main intention was to discuss the transport problems with the train commuters, it turned out to be a bitter political debate between him and some commuters who had a political leaning towards Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Mr. Wickremesinghe had apparently enjoyed the debate since he had an opportunity to bash the PA.

At the working committee meeting, the newly appointed Nikeweratiya organiser, Rohitha Bogollagama, also raised some issues relating to the Kurunegala meeting of the UNP. He said three bus operators who transported UNP supporters to the Kurunegala meeting had been victimised and denied the right to operate buses in their routes. Mr. Wickremesinghe said former Attorney General Tilak Marapana would look into the legal side of this matter and take action. But it appeared that the UNP leader was not very happy at the way the Kurunegala meeting was organised.

In another development, former UNP strongman and ex-general secretary Sirisena Cooray has decided to put his plan for a united Sri Lanka on the Internet. Mr. Cooray says anybody will now have access to his document proposing a settlement for the political and economic problems now facing the country. The web site is as follows:

Mr. Cooray's plan on a united Sri Lanka comes in the backdrop of a presidential election and when the major parties are trying to find ways and means to lure the common electorate.

Some politicians who believed that Mr. Cooray is a formidable figure in Sri Lankan politics had in many ways approached him for assistance. Mr. Cooray participated in a dinner hosted by Milinda Moragoda with former Lake House Chairman Sunil Rodrigo, Karu Jayasuriya's campaign manager Bodhi Ranasinghe, former deputy mayor M. Mahroof and UNP publicity chief Irwin Weerakkody also participating. At this meeting, both Mr. Moragoda and Mr. Mahroof had sought Mr. Cooray's support in their respective electorates in the Colombo district.

Mr. Cooray who is known to be a friend Mr. Moragoda had agreed, but said he was unable to make a personal appeal since he did not intend to back the UNP at this stage. Mr. Moragoda has apparently settled the problem between Mr. Cooray and Mr. Mahroof.

Mr. Moragoda had reportedly told Mr. Cooray that Mr. Mahroof treated him (Mr. Cooray) as a father figure and that he should not harbour any grudges. Mr. Cooray has said that as far as he is concerned, he does not harbour any grudges against anybody and that it was not his way of doing things. Mr. Mahroof was apparently pleased with what had transpired at the meeting and had even walked up to the car to see Mr. Cooray off after the dinner.

Now, the most important thing for both Mr. Moragoda and Mr. Mahroof is to arrange a meeting between Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Cooray. But the important question the others posed is whether this would be possible in the present political context.

Another hot topic in political circles is the show-cause notice sent by President Kumaratunga to Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, calling for explanation over his statement in a TV interview where he was highly critical of certain government officials.

According to Mr. Fernandopulle himself, he had received the letter calling for explanation on August 31, but had been kept under wraps for obvious reasons. He feels that a reply is not necessary since he believes what he said was correct. It is clear that there is a lot of pressure on Mr. Fernandopulle to send a reply to the President's show-cause notice. However, it is not immediately clear whether the President would take further action against the minister. Mr. Fernandopulle who had been considered one of the closest aides of President Kumaratunga during the early days of the PA regime has of late become critical of issues directly affecting the popularity of the government.

The President's wrath has come on him for criticising her media adviser Sanath Gunathillake, Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva and Dayani de Silva, the chairperson of the Bank of Ceylon.

In Sri Lankan politics, people holding high office such as the Prime Minister or the President shielding or defending top level bureaucrats or their staff is nothing new. It happened during the regimes of J. R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa regime and it is happening today, too.

During President Jayewardene's era, he had often come to the rescue of his secretary W. M. P. B. Manikdivela when ministers levelled criticism against him. President Premadasa also had similar problems with his ministers over the affairs of powerful Treasury Secretary R. Paskaralingam. Similarly, President Kumaratunga defended and shielded Treasury Secretary A.S. Jayawardena against criticism by Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. The only exception was when she bowed to a strong figure like G.L. Peiris when he had a problem with Mr. Jayawardena. But in the end she saw to it that Mr. Jayawardena was elevated to a much comfortable post as the governor of the Central Bank.

This shows that the immediate staff and the top bureaucrats who are in and out of the President's office wielded more power than ministers did and eventually they emerge victorious.

It appears now that the President is highly disturbed over the tough line taken by Minister Fernandopulle by not submitting to authority. The President is also facing a serious problem as far as the authority is concerned. The seriousness in Minister Fernandopulle's remarks is the criticism levelled against defence secretary Chandrananda de Silva.

If the President does not take action, she would lose face among other members of the Cabinet as well as the parliamentary group. This may develop into a crisis within the PA. The President has apparently had a long discussion with Minister Alavi Moulana on the matter soon after the cabinet meeting.

Minister Moulana has explained that Minister Fernandopulle has pushed the President into a difficult position over this problem and has urged Mr. Fernandopulle to relent.

But Mr. Fernandopulle is taking a tough line. Although he was billed to speak in the debate on the extension of the emergency, he said he was not in a proper frame of mind and backed out.

Mr. Fernandopulle had reportedly told journalists he would not withdraw his remarks because they were against some state officials and not against the President.

He said that after newspapers carried that he would not reply to the President's show-cause notice, there had been a number of calls exerting pressure on him to withdraw his statements. But he said the most that could happen was to lose his cabinet portfolio.

Minister Fernandopulle, however, said he would not leave the party because he would be out of parliament if he resigned.

Since Mr. Fernandopulle is under a cloud, the initiative taken by him to resolve the problem between the SLMC and EPDP leader Douglas Devananda has been protracted. However, it is learnt that Mr. Devananda would be persuaded by the President to resolve the problem amicably. At the same time Mr. Fernandopulle too would call a meeting between the two parties to resolve this matter.

Beside all these, a wave of protests is forming in the country over Minister G. L. Peiris' brainchild, the Equal Opportunities Bill. On Thursday students of both Ananda and Nalanda, two premier Buddhist schools, protested against the bill. Although the bill was to be debated in parliament on Thursday, the leader of the House, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, moved for the debate to be put off for a further date presumably because the guru of the Bill Minister Peiris was out of the country.

One other reason maybe the request made by Minister M. H. M. Ashraff from the Acting Justice Minister Dilan Perera to delay the bill until he made his own observations on it.

With all this, one could see serious problems brewing in the government quarters and the President is placed in an awkward position because her ministers are pulling her political cart in different directions.

The SLMC is adamant that it wins its rights as a formidable component to the PA. Hours before the SLMC's apex body went into deliberations on the current political situation in the country, Minister Richard Pathirana, the other protagonist in the Ashraff-Pathirana clash, made up with SLMC's M. M. Zuhair in the parliamentary lobby. Both Minister Pathirana and Mr. Zuhair appeared to be apologetic over the remarks they fired at each other a week ago.

"I hope you have forgotten all that," Mr. Pathirana told him. Mr. Zuhair, too, reciprocated in a similar manner and said that the SLMC and he held Mr. Pathirana in high esteem for the yeoman services he had rendered to education.

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