The Political Column5th December 1999
Why Prabha doesn't want CBKBy our Political Correspondent
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Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe are said to be resorting
to various strategies to woo the voters as the December 21 D-day nears.
The main issue on the election platform is: how have the two parties resolved to tackle the ethnic crisis. Instead of spelling out their plans, the two parties are finding fault with each other for statements they had made during the past few years.
President Kumaratunga is accusing UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of offering the administration of the north-east to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran for two years while the UNP leader, citing a Time magazine interview, points out that the President had promised to give 10 years of administration to Prabhakaran.
Let us examine these claims and counter-claims by drawing parallels between what is happening today and what happened during the 1994 parliamentary elections.
In 1994, Ms. Kumaratunga vowed that she would talk to the LTTE and resolve the ethnic problem amicably if she was elected as the premier. Her wish was conveyed to the LTTE through the then BBC's Sinhala service chief M. Vasantharajah, a one-time ally of Ms. Kumaratunga.
The UNP used Ms. Kumaratunga's secret offer to the LTTE ,to attack the PA on election platforms. The UNP also had secured of a copy of the Tamil Times, a London-based publication, where SLMC leader M. H. M. Ashraff's letter to the LTTE was published. The UNP claimed that there there was a conspiracy involving Ms Kumaratunga, Mr. Ashraff and Mr. Prabhakaran.
The UNP also harped on a statement made by Vasudeva Nanayakkara on the TNL regarding the north and the east and said that the PA was indulging in divisive politics. It also unsuccessfully tried to project the assassination of the UNP's presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake as part of this conspiracy.
Mr. Ashraff made a statement saying that extracts of his letter to Mr. Prabhakaran published in the Tamil Times urged the Tiger leader to make use of the situation. He said the government had deteriorated enough to believe what was published by a pro-LTTE paper. He charged that the government was trying to take undue advantage through distortion, because it knew the last day it would be in power would be August 16. This was 1994.
In 1999, a similar scene is being re-enacted, the only difference being the reversal of roles. As the UNP did in 1994, the PA today in its UNP-bashing frenzy, deliberately or unwittingly is shedding its image as a minority-friendly party as it criticises Mr. Wickremesinghe's statement which was also published in the Tamil Net. The PA's alleged pro-Sinhala stance is boosted by the presence of two more strong Sinhala hardliners, Susil Moonesinghe and Stanley Kalpage who crossed over from the UNP.
President Kumaratunga apparently sees an erosion of Tamil support which in 1994 helped her to the presidency as the government had done little to resolve the ethnic problem. She knows well that the massive vote she got in the north and east may not turn in her favour on this occasion, specially after Mr. Prabhakaran in his birthday message described her as a tyrant in the guise of goddess of democracy. The underlying message is clear to the Tamils and there may not be a repeat of 1994 this time as far as Tamil votes are concerned.
It is typical of Mr. Prabhakaran to express these sentiments against the party in office. When Ms. Kumaratunga was a fresh candidate who was not involved in any kind of politics with the LTTE, she won its sympathy. Similarly, Mr. Wickremesinghe who was not directly involved in any political dialogue with the LTTE is now gaining ground in the north and the east. It appears therefore, that it is futile for the government to woo the Tamils any more, although they discussed various methods and strategies to retrieve the lost Tamil votes.
The SLMC, too, is worried since Mr. Prabhakaran's message has now reached the Muslims of Batticaloa district. Their main worry is not Mr. Prabhakaran but how to deliver the goods to President Kumaratunga. Several Muslims are taking the LTTE's warning letter seriously and the SLMC is directly in touch with SLMC's Batticaloa leader M. L. M. Hisbulla, the only man who could organise an election campaign for Ms. Kumaratunga.
Besides these problems, the government had little to offer the Tamils. When there were hurdles to its political package, it decided to introduce the Equal Opportunities Bill. But it too fell on the way amidst protests from the hardline Sinhalese.
In these circumstances, the average Tamil may question PA's legitimacy when seeking their support.
Another setback came in the form of a military debacle in the Wanni soon after the President declared her intention to have a presidential election. However much the government attempted to sweep the military disaster under the carpet, the matter kept on reminding the people in the south that their near and dear ones have lost their lives because of a senseless war, and military campaigns which are not without political considerations.
In the backdrop of all this, Mr. Prabhakaran's intentions are clear in that he does not want to see Ms Kumaratunga back in the seat of power so that he would do everything possible to see a new face as the President. But how far he would succeed is the main question. He was successful in 1994 when the people gave an overwhelming majority to Ms. Kumaratunga. But could he handicap the PA by withdrawing the support base from the north and the east?
Now, the question is whether Mr. Wickremesinghe would actually offer Mr. Prabhakran to govern the north and east for two years by setting up an interim council?
A similar offer was made when the Indo-Lanka agreement was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and J. R. Jayewardene. Hence, it is difficult to believe that Mr. Prabhakaran wanted anything similar to this unless the government in power recognizes the principles that emanated from the Thimpu talks.
Whatever it may be, the UNP appears to have some sort of a strategy to halt the war and to govern the country in a peaceful manner. The UNP's position would be to allow Mr. Prabhakaran to have a de facto state instead of a de jure separate state. When Mr. Prabhakaran and the LTTE is assigned with the task of ruling a section, maybe the north of the country, they would have to perform the dual role of administrating the area and waging the war at the same time. This would be rather difficult with its depleted forces in the north.
So it would be prudent at this stage to think on those lines, but it is vital that a permanent solution is found to the ethnic problem.
It is obvious that Sri Lanka could not afford a civil war as the economy is not really booming. On the other hand, there are social ills such as spiralling violence and crime, which have become a major problem. In such a scenario, a settlement through dialogue is necessary but it has to be done within a specific timeframe so that the government could consider other available options if talks fail.
The government is apparently worried about the crowds that Mr. Wickremesinghe is attracting to his meetings. PA leaders are reportedly keeping a tab on these meetings and those who attend them. They have at times spotted several PA supporters attending UNP meetings. This has disturbed not only the ministers, but even the president. Most observers are of the opinion that the UNP is closing in, but some PA analysts believe that President Kumaratunga has a slight edge over Mr. Wickremesinghe.
Whatever the position is, the PA is making every effort to keep its vote bank intact. With this in mind, Agriculture Minister D. M. Jayaratne on Wednesday presented a cabinet paper seeking the approval to take 6,000 agricultural animators into the permanent cadre. President Kumaratunga was reportedly not happy with this proposal as she felt that the move could be interpreted as an election gimmick.
Mr. Jayaratne said it was at election time that politicians should act wisely. "If we do not do this now, these animators are threatening to march to Colombo and if this happened it would not be the end and there would be so many others who would be marching to Colombo," he said.
But the President said she was not in a position to do it now. It had to be done through dialogue and requested the minister to put off the proposal. Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne and several others also supported the President in this regard.
But Mr. Jayaratne could not be silenced. He lashed out at everybody who opposed it. Supported by some other ministers, he said it had to be done. Eventually, the cabinet approved the plan.
Minister Jayaratne emerged victorious. At least at the last stages, he got what he wanted. Transport Minister A. H. M. Fowzie also presented a cabinet paper to import 1000 buses. President, though she agreed that there was a dire need for buses, said that it should not be done at this point of time. She forced Minister Fowzie to withdraw his cabinet paper in a bid to save the local bus assembling industry.
The President thereafter had a meeting with a few ministers where she said that many ministers in the cabinet were unable to go to their electorates and it is because of her effort that they could go during the election campaign.
While the President was making every effort to stay in office with a promise to push through the political package and constitutional reforms, the UNP is expressing doubts whether there would be a free and fair election.
The Elections Commissioner has invited observers from the Commonwealth to monitor the election. But UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale insisted at a meeting with the Elections Commissioner last week that the US and European observers should also be invited. But when the Elections Commissioner said he had already taken a decision, Mr. Atukorale said the Elections Commissioner could use his discretion and revise his decision.
Mr. Atukorale raised queries about the north-east elections and how the government proposed to conduct it. He is reported to have questioned the conduct of a senior military official in the north. Claiming that the polling cards issued to estate workers were being collected by activists of a political party, he requested that precautions should be taken to see that the polling cards were properly distributed among voters.
Meanwhile, secretaries of the PA's constituent parties had a meeting last week at Minister D.M. Jayaratne's residence. Among those present were SLFP General Secretary Dharmasiri Senanayake, SLMC General Secretary Rauf Hakeem, Communist Party leader Raja Collure and LSSP leader Batty Weerakoon.
They discussed campaign matters which included the discussion on the UNP's strategy of playing up to the emotions of the Tamils.
The PA leaders also discussed ways and means of retrieving the lost Tamil votes.
The UNP's offer to have a dialogue with the LTTE was the main worry of the PA secretaries. They were of the opinion that the president was more prudent when she laid down conditions for talks with the LTTE, but conceded that a party in opposition could offer unconditional talks to solve the problem.
A massive rally to be organized by CWC leader and Minister Arumugam Thondaman took a prominent place in the agenda. According to the CWC's proposal, the meeting would be attended by at least 50,000 estate workers, but it has not decided on the venue due to security concerns.
The other most important topic discussed by the PA leaders is the expulsion of Ravi Karunanayake. They referred the matter to their lawyers for legal advice before proceeding on it any further. They also decided to invite Srimani Athulathmudali to attend their meetings in an unofficial capacity. Ms. Athulathmudali did not participate in any of these meetings since she ceased to be a minister of the PA cabinet.
The latest battle on the political scene appears to be between Ms. Athulathmudali and her erstwhile lieutenant Karunanayake. Ms. Athulathmudali has written to Mr. Karunanayake informing him that he has ceased to be a member of the Lalith faction of the DUNF. Extracts from the letter:
"On 7th July 1994 an Agreement was signed, by the People's Alliance led by Ms. Sirimawo Bandaranaike and the 'Lalith Faction' of the D.U.N.F. led by me, to contest the General Elections on 16th August 1994.
"The 'Lalith Faction' of the D.U.N. F. nominated you for appointment to Parliament through the National List of the People's Alliance.
On 11th November 1999, for reasons personal, you seceded from the 'Lalith Faction' of the D.U.N.F. (a member of the People's Alliance which formed the Government) and crossed over to the Opposition whilst in the House in Parliament. That same day you took Membership of the United National Party. It was announced in the Print and Electronic Media.
"Therefore, it is acknowledged that your have ceased to be member of the 'Lalith Faction' of the D.U.N.F. and in consequence from the People's Alliance.
"Since you were nominated through the National List of the People's Alliance and since you have ceased to be member of the 'Lalith Front' of the D.U.N.F. and thereby from the People's Alliance, the responsibility of any form of disciplinary action against you now lies with the People's Alliance."
Mr. Karunanayake is said to be consulting lawyers including senior counsel K. N. Choksy. Later, his instructing Attorney Arul Pragasam had sent a letter to Ms. Athulathmudali. The letter said:
"1. You are not the Leader of the Lalith Faction of the DUNF, nor of the United Lalith Front.
2. The Lalith Faction of the DUNF is not and has never been a member of the People's Alliance.
3. My client has never been a member of the People's Alliance.
4. The People's Alliance has no right of disciplinary action over my client and my client is in no way or manner nor has at any time been under the disciplinary control of the People's Alliance.
5. In any event, my client has committed no wrongful act warranting disciplinary action."
Besides these, the ever-rising political violence is yet another matter that should receive priority to ensure a free and fair poll. If one recalls the conditions laid down by Minister Ashraff some time ago to the President, holding a free and fair election takes a foremost place. Why Mr. Ashraff insisted on these conditions is not clear. Is it because he feared a repetition of Wayamba or whether he did not have confidence in the PA?
Examining the daily reports on violence, most of these acts have been perpetrated on the UNP allegedly by the PA supporters. These violent acts included the attack on the UNP headquarters Sirikotha in Kotte, several attacks on Mr. Karunanayake's office in Kotte and Rohitha Bogollagama's office at Nikaweratiya.
It is reported that several diplomats also visited the Sirikotha to inspect the damage.
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