The Political Column

17th October 1999

SLMC walks tall with CBK charm

By our Political Correspondent

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President Kumaratunga used all her diplomatic charm and skills to resolve the protracted conflict between Ministers M.H.M. Ashraff and Richard Pathirana.

The President in the presence of PA leaders at an executive committee meeting on Wednesday acknowledged the role played by the SLMC in forming the government.

However, Mr. Pathirana was not present when the President made the statement to repair the relationship with the SLMC. Those present remarked that Mr. Pathirana's failing health condition appeared at times to push him into outbursts. "This kind of tantrum are quite natural in Mr. Pathirana," one PA leader said.

"If our role is not acknowledged, we have to take the painful decision of leaving this government," Mr. Ashraff said.

At this stage, the President intervened and said the PA fully acknowledged the contribution made by the SLMC in the task of bringing the PA into office.

She said the PA would not allow attempts by anyone to drive a wedge between the PA and the SLMC.

In the same tone, the President found fault with Minister A.H.M. Fowzie alleging he had incited others to create problems within the PA. "Mr. Fowzie is acting irresponsibly at times," she said.

At the meeting, minister Ashraff thought it fit to re-enact the whole episode, which took place in the parliament lobby a few weeks ago.

Mr. Ashraff who rose from his chair dramatized the whole story in front of President Kumaratunga and the others who watched with some amusement.

It all happened when the SLMC's Jaffna district parliamentarian Dr. I.M. Illiyas demonstrated in the well of parliament demanding decentralized budget funds due to him from the Jaffna district co-ordinating committee.

The main grievance of the SLMC member was that EPDP leader Douglas Devananda who is also the president of the Jaffna district development committee is not releasing the funds for the rehabilitation of the Muslim refugees, who were driven away by the LTTE from Jaffna.

Speaker K.B. Rathnayake was forced to adjourn sittings since Dr. Illiyas did not withdraw. He first wanted to make a statement in Parliament, but the Speaker ruled that he had not sought permission in writing.

When the House was adjourned on this account, Mr. Pathirana, apparently agitated by the SLMC's action, came down hard on the SLMC member M.M. Zuhair who was just leaving the House, following the adjournment.

Mr. Pathirana who is the government's chief Whip shouted at him saying "Dr. Illiyas should not have done that."Later Deputy Minister Vishva Warnapala and Minister Ashraff, too got involved in the argument

The exchange between Mr. Pathirana and Mr. Ashraff had been acrimonious. It is said Mr. Ashraff lost his cool had and even threatened to leave the government and join the opposition benches.

Later in the day, Mr.Ashraff told journalists if the Speaker had allowed Dr. Illiyas three minutes to make his statement, the furore could have been avoided.

Since the President was out of the country at the time of this altercation, several ministers had tried to settle the dispute. But Mr. Ashraff asked for a PA leaders' meeting to sort things out.

PA General Secretary D.M. Jayaratne, however could not do so immediately since he had to leave for Singapore for urgent medical treatment. He brought this to the notice of Mr. Ashraff, when they met at the funeral of the wife of minister Alavi Moulana, the same week.

Presidential Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabandi too made several attempts to resolve the matter without success.

What hurt Mr. Ashraff most was the remark made by Mr. Pathirana that the SLMC must not run away with the belief that the government could not survive without it.

At Wednesday's meeting of the PA Executive Committee, Mr. Ashraff, also referred to an article written by Colombo businessman A.J.M. Muzammil in a Sunday newspaper. This referred to how the UNP approached him offering various benefits. He recalled how President D.B. Wijetunga offered him several portfolios.

However analysts think there was much more than what Mr. Muzammil wrote in the papers. One analyst pointed out that Mr. Muzammil had not revealed the full story behind Mr. Ashraff joining the PA, and how it came about.

Eventually Mr. Ashraff would emerge victorious once again since everything went in his favour, when President Kumaratunga made a determined effort to keep the SLMC in her fold.

Not only Mr. Ashraff, even Mr. Muzammil is a happy man today, since he had in some way helped Mr. Ashraff to substantiate his position and claim about what happened in the PA.

The President who came for this meeting left briefly to attend another official assignment. But she did not forget to send a personal note to Mr. Ashraff before his matter was taken up for discussion. In the meantime, the note apparently kept the Ashraff's hopes high.

Mr. Asharff shared the personal note sent to him with party General Secretary Rauff Hakeem and Minister Moulana. The note said that she had been trying to reach Mr. Ashraff from the time she returned to the country to resolve the issue.

She mentioned about a Sunday newspaper, which is trying to drive a wedge between the PA and Mr. Ashraff and told him that they had to be wise in handling such issues.

From the time Mr. Ashraff received the note, others saw his eyes gleaming and felt the matter could now be resolved amicably.

The executive committee also discussed the present political climate. President Kumaratunga indicated she intended to hold the presidential elections first.

"Sooner the better," she told the PA leaders but the left parties stressed the importance of pushing the devolution package through parliament.

The view of the left parties is the political package would bring some positive results to the government and would enhance the government's popularity among the moderates.

They also believed it is the only way out of the on-going political crisis.

LSSP leader Batty Weerakoon pushed for the abolition of the executive presidency saying the UNP would take advantage of the broken promise at any election campaign. Though the LSSP and the CP are insisting on the abolition of the executive presidency, the minority parties prefer that it be retained because it gives them a better deal.

After Mr. Weerakoon finished with his submissions, Mr. Ashraff rose to his feet to say, that the abolition of the executive presidency need not be a burden for the government anymore.

Instead, he said amendments could be brought into the parliamentary standing orders to make the president answerable and accountable to parliament. "If we talk about the executive presidency, it would be disadvantageous to the PA and the PA would be playing in to the hands of the UNP. The UNP offered to abolish the executive presidency with an ulterior motive,"Mr. Ashraff said. He said this offer was there from the days of Gamini Dissanayake.

Mr. Ashraff also said parliamentary standing orders could be amended to enable the President to sit in Parliament along with other members. The President could be there to answer the questions by the opposition as well as backbenchers.

"It is possible under the parliamentary standing orders," Mr. Ashraff reiterated.

The President said: "I would be more than keen to come to parliament. I would like even to present the budget in parliament playing the role of the Minister of Finance."

At this stage SLMC's general secretary and deputy chairman of committees in Parliament Rauff Hakeem said that it would help them to bring some discipline into the House.

The President said: "It will make your task much easier." Mr. Hakeem said that it would be of symbolic value if the President could come to parliament to present the devolution package aimed at resolving the ethnic strife.

This matter was once again taken up for discussion soon after Wednesday's meeting of the ministers.

At present the government is exploring the possibilities, while the legal experts are studying the constitution to determine how it could be done.

However, constitutional obstacles, which may bar MPs from referring to the President in their debates might place a permanent disability on the President in attending parliamentary sessions, other than to make a policy statement after the ceremonial opening.

Thereafter the PA executive committee discussed other matters, including bringing in relief to labour disputes and amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act. The LSSP and CP especially pushed for this.

The President said there were areas where they could come to a compromise and appointed Labour Minister John Seneviratne to head a committee to go into the matter.

At the end of the meeting, the SLMC leaders walked off with their heads held high. The PA finally agreed to issue a statement drafted by the SLFP General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake and PA General Secretary D. M. Jayaratne, acknowledging the contribution made by the SLMC.

At the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday most ministers roared with laughter when Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte walked into the cabinet room.

Here comes our General one cabinet colleague said. "He had to be here only 24 hours with our General and he went and captured the Government,"one minister said referring to the Pakistani coup which was led by army Chief Gen. Parvez Musharraf who was in Sri Lanka the day before. The cabinet room went into peals of laughter once again.

Gen. Ratwatte then started explaining what happened in Pakistan. Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne stepped into say in lighter vein that the Pakistani Commander could topple the government after having taken advice from our General but our General could not even capture Mullaitivu. Again the ministers roared with laughter with General Ratwatte also enjoying the joke.

More than anything else, what bothers the government today is the unexpected wave of protests against the Equal Opportunities Bill.

Minister G.L Peiris is on record saying that the Government would not take steps to bring any law against the will of the people. Though the Minister's intentions were clear the government is ostensibly worried over the matter since it has nothing to offer to minorities before the elections.

The government's thinking on this matter was amply reflected at the Wednesday's post-cabinet news briefing where Minister Mangala Samaraweera attacked opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for the Government's failure to introduce the Equal Opportunities Bill. Minister Samaraweera linked the National Movement Against Terrorism with the UNP in his verbal barrage.

He said Mr. Wickremesinghe, while trying to be a spokesperson for the LTTE, was pushing the idea that the government should talk to the LTTE. But at the same time he was scuttling a possible solution by not co-operating to push government's devolution package.

Besides these, the other important political event of the week was the meeting between the PA and the UNP to find a lasting solution for the ethnic crisis.

The two delegations met under the chairmanship of business community leader Lalith Kotelawala to initiate a dialogue between the two main parties on the matter.

At the outset, Mr. Kotelawala said that he was informed that the LTTE had responded in London to a statement made by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at New York that foreign mediation was not acceptable.

Mr. Kotelawala said the LTTE was taking a position contrary to that of the Foreign Minister.

He said the LTTE had advocated mediation but was not clear as to whether they were talking about foreign mediation or local mediation.

Since it was not too clear, Mr. Kotelawala said he assumed that LTTE was agreeable to either foreign or local mediation.

If they are not averse to local mediation, Mr. Kotelawala said he was prepared to do that in the national interest.

However, he said his decision would be subjected to the approval of the President and the Leader of the Opposition.

At this point the UNP delegation said the UNP had not objected to mediation by a third party. "It is for that reason the UNP leader had signed the Liam Fox agreement."

Minister Peiris who interjected said he did not see any objection, but would like to consult the President and inform Mr. Kotelawala of the government's position.

Thereafter the UNP delegation informed Mr. Kotelawala that the Leader of the Opposition had on Thursday received a letter from the President requesting UNP's co-operation in the settlement of this issue subject to five guarantees the President wanted the leader of the opposition to give her.

They also said that since the letter was received only today, it would have to be considered after a careful study.

Minister Ashraff who is a member of the government delegation said he did not think that it should be an obstacle to Mr. Kotelawala responding to the LTTE.

Though the meeting came to an end with Mr. Ashraff's remarks, no fresh date was fixed for further discussions.

The UNP delegation comprised, former ministers Ronnie de Mel, K.N. Choksy, and former Governor of the Western Province D. Swaminathan, while the government delegation comprised Ministers Peiris, Ashraff and Western Province Governor K. Viknarajah.

In the meantime the government and the private sector are planning a major skill development programme to improve the efficiency and productivity of the working population.

For this purpose the government's in collaboration with the private sector had floated a new company called the Skills Development Fund Ltd.

SDFL has an authorised share capital of Rs. 2 billion. The Secretary to the Treasury has been allocated 10 million ordinary shares of the Company covering the Government's investment of Rs. 100 million in it.

The Company has already allocated ordinary shares worth Rs. 2 million to the private sector. SDFL is designed to function as a self sustaining viable enterprise which could attract the interest of and investment from its main beneficiaries, the employers of the private sector. Further contributions of around Rs. 123 m are expected from the private sector through a private placement of shares.

SDFL is also expected to receive investment and technical support from International Organizations.

The Board of Directors of the SDFL consists of six senior top ranking officials representing the government, five of whom are Secretaries of Ministries and six members from the private sector representing Employers Federation and Chambers of Commerce & Industry.

Armyne Wirasinha representing the private sector has been unanimously elected to head the company.

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