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15th August, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 5

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Politics

CBK's counter strike on the ISGA

Chandrika Kumaratunga, Welupillai Pirapaharan, Nirupan Sen
and Yasushi Akashi

Inside Politics 

By Suranimala 

With the peace process hopelessly stalemated and a severe economic crisis looming large, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was last week planning to set in motion a series of political and legal manoeuvres to overcome the crises even on a temporary basis.

Having lost credibility with the LTTE at the outset over the Karuna affair and the inconsistent positions taken over resuming negotiations on the basis of the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) proposals, the President struggled to revive the peace process on assuming full control of government on April 2 and unbelt the desperately needed US$ 4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo by the donor community albeit with little success.

Political ambition

There is no gainsaying the President took over three portfolios in November 2003 and went in for a snap general election at a time the peace talks were about to resume, purely to further her personal political survival by abolishing the executive presidency via the mechanism of a constituent assembly before 2005.

Though the full benefits of the programme for peace and economic revival of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government had not filtered to the rural masses, the economy was showing signs of healthy recovery with growth projected at near seven percent and the LTTE also under pressure due to the international safety net put in place by the UNF government when Kumaratunga decided to strike.

Further, with the scheduled resumption of peace talks following the release of the LTTE's ISGA proposals on October 3, 2003, the US$ 4.5 billion aid pledged would also have not been long in coming, giving the economy an added impetus.

Thus, with time running out fast for Kumaratunga, she with the help of the JVP used the negative aspects of the peace process to foment dissent in the country and capitalised on the failure of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government to pass on a peace dividend to the people within that short period, leading eventually to dissolution of parliament.

It is now self evident from the conduct of the President and the UPFA that they acted purely for selfish political reasons and not in the national interest since the government is continuing with the very approach of the UNF towards the LTTE, which they earlier not only criticised but used as justification for the dissolution of parliament.

Tragically for the country and sadly for Kumaratunga, the UPFA government now finds itself circumscribed by its own pre-April 2004 rhetoric, which has not only stalled the peace process but unleashed radical and extremist forces that have taken the country from hope to the verge of despair.

Today, not only is the country sharply divided on ethnic lines but also on religion, leading to a possible situation where Sinhalese Buddhists will soon be pitted against Sinhala Christians and Tamil Christians against Tamil Hindus.

The legal green light given to the Anti Conversion Bill of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has now set the stage for this future development and it won't be long before the international repercussions of this move will be reverberating through the country.

Roles reversed

Fomenting religious dissent was also part of the well orchestrated campaign of the then opposition, but in government today, it is called upon to bell the cat with the JHU demanding the Anti Conversion Bill be passed into law given the green light of the Supreme Court. To top it all, with prices already skyrocketing, the government last week asked the people to brace themselves for further hikes.

And the irony of it all is that the very reasons adduced by the President and the UPFA for the ouster of the UNF such as the preparation to negotiate the ISGA with the LTTE, allowing the Tigers to set up camps in Trincomalee such as at Manirasakulam, providing duty free facilities to bring vehicles and equipment to the country in addition to helicopter rides and other violations of the ceasefire agreement, are all reenacted today, now with the blessings of the very President and the UPFA.

True, the JVP is publicly protesting by issuing statements at all these developments but only for the purpose of creating public perception they are standing by their principles whilst ensuring the apple cart of government is not upset.

In essence, the JVP by only confining their opposition to words when they have means to prevent such developments by exercising their parliamentary leverage has silently acquiesced, becoming partners with the President in catering to the LTTE - the very grounds they earlier cited for the ouster of the UNF.

It is in this same backdrop the latest developments relating to the President's resignation as the UPFA leader and the move to formulate a response to the LTTE's ISGA proposals are unfolding, thereby catering to the JVP demand not to negotiate only on the LTTE's ISGA proposals whilst also giving Kumaratunga the manoeuverability of striking out on her own.

And with the UNP in deep slumber, whilst all these developments are taking place under its very nose, the opposition to the government is also seen in the public eye as coming only from within government in the form of the JVP.

Accordingly, the President had assigned her legal team comprising, President's Counsels Jayampathy Wickremaratne, M.M. Zuhair, Nihal Jayamanne, Nigel Hatch and Attorney R.K.W. Goonesekera and Dr. Ranjith Amarasinghe to formulate a set of proposals for an interim authority as a counter proposal for submission through the Norwegians to the LTTE.

Counter proposals

This legal team of the President had sat down for the task and worked round the clock over the weekend and met again Thursday, August 12, to beat the proposals into shape.

The proposals which were finalised at the Peace Secretariat headquarters at the World Trade Centre by this legal team on Thursday, August 12, were handed over to Director General, Jayantha Dhanapala for presentation to the President.

The government's counter proposal to the LTTE's ISGA provides for an interim authority which will have a majority of LTTE nominees in addition to the representatives of the government as well of the Muslim community.

While the government proposal falls short of the UNP draft presented in 2003, it provides a list of subjects which the interim authority will have control over with the inference that subjects not in the list will not come within the purview of the interim authority.

Thus, the government proposal does not provide for the north east interim authority to have any control over land which is currently under government. This would mean for example, until such time there is a final solution, the LTTE will not have control over any land in which the security forces are camped or government departments are established.

Further, the interim authority will have no powers over defence or finance except in raising taxes in stipulated areas.

The structure envisaged itself is of a federal nature but within a constitutional framework that would have to be implemented via a constitutional amendment. But the authority will have powers for maintenance of law and order, giving the LTTE the right to police the north east.

And with the formalisation of the counter proposal, the President believes, the basis of the negotiations will not only be the LTTE's ISGA proposals but her very own, thereby giving not only the JVP a face saving way out of their opposition but also the government as a whole given its earlier position, the ISGA proposal laid the foundation for separation.

It will be recalled, the former UNF regime submitted its own proposal for an interim authority and the LTTE's ISGA proposal was a response to that, which prompted the President, SLFP and the JVP at the time to claim the Wickremesinghe regime was setting the stage for separation.

Today however the roles are reversed with the UPFA government throwing out the UNF proposal and submitting its own, in response to the LTTE's ISGA proposal, creating the impression thereby it is rejecting the LTTE's proposal and offering far less.

In that context, the ball will then be in the LTTE's court to convince its people the justification for the organisation to negotiate with the government on the strength of both sets of proposals when the UPFA by submitting its new set of proposals has implicitly rejected the LTTE's proposal even before sitting down for talks.

It remains to be seen whether the President's strategic move on this issue reaps dividends but she is not leaving anything to chance, hoping to rope in UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also into the game plan.

This the President hopes to do by inviting Wickremesinghe for a discussion and soliciting his input on the proposals, which the UNP Leader in those circumstances will be hard put to refuse, unless of course he declines to meet with Kumaratunga on a matter of principle given the concerted campaign against his party and senior members by the UPFA government through a specially assigned police squad.

Furthermore, to buttonhole Wickremesinghe, the President also plans to invite the co-chairs Norway, the EU, USA and Japan to formulate an agenda to move the peace process forward and get the international community to persuade the UNP Leader to support it, thereby projecting a broad southern consensus to neutralise any opposition from the JVP.

Referendum

Not stopping at that, the President is also considering seriously the option of a referendum to adopt a new constitution in the event the LTTE refuses to negotiate on the strength of both its proposal and that of the government, pushing through the abolition of the executive presidency and electoral reforms as well in the process.

While the constitution requires a two third majority in parliament plus approval by the people at a referendum to do so, the President is hoping to adopt a reverse strategy on this score by first getting the people's approval at a nonbinding referendum to adopt the new constitution and then going to parliament and urging it to honour the people's verdict.

But getting a referendum through in these conditions is no easy task particularly with the minorities arrayed against such a move and a recipe to soften that impact too has been worked out.

This the government hopes to do by getting parliament to approve as an urgent bill the mandatory requirement of an identity card for purposes of voting at an election or referendum.

Towards this end, the government called for an urgent party leaders' meeting in parliament for Thursday, August 12, notwithstanding the fact, Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Whip Mahinda Samarasinghe and Secretary General of Parliament, Priyani Wijesekera being overseas. The meeting was to be presided by Deputy Speaker Geethanjan Gunawardena who is a UPFA member and the purpose of the meeting was to have the amending bill fixed for debate at the next session on Wednesday, August 18.

Now the significance of the timing is that in the event of a hurried referendum, with the identity card being a pre requisite for voting, large numbers of the minority communities will be disenfranchised, particularly in the LTTE controlled areas and the hill country, since they do not possess valid identity cards.

Thus in such a situation, the government hopes it can ride the crest of a wave in the southern electorates and move for the abolition of the executive presidency and a change in the electoral system for starters.

With that in mind, at Thursday's party leaders' meeting, Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle pushed for the bill to be taken up on Wednesday, August 18, but was resisted by UNP Deputy Leader, Karu Jayasuriya who asked for time to study the bill especially since the CWC and the TNA were also not represented at the meeting.

Jayasuriya also pointed out there was no urgency in the bill since no elections were scheduled in the foreseeable future and accordingly, in the interest of all concerned, a little more time should be given for study. He said the UNP was in principle supportive of introducing the use of identity cards but that it had to be done in a systematic manner without rushing it.

But with Fernandopulle insisting, the UNP duo of Karu Jayasuriya and Joseph Michael Perera staged a walk out of the meeting.

JVP strategy

In the meantime, the JVP too took stock of the overall situation after the President's resignation as UPFA leader on Monday, August 2, and decided on a strategy of their own to hold the upper hand.

The JVP game plan is to stay in the UPFA and ride the storm until such time it is in a position to marginalise the SLFP and emerge as the alternate government.

But to achieve this objective the Marxists have to be within the UPFA fold at least in the short term and this they are well on the road to achieving given their showing both at the parliamentary elections as well as the provincial polls.

The JVP also realises only too well, they were able to secure the large numbers in representation by riding on the SLFP vote bank and it was far too early to part ways and attract the same numbers on their own steam. It is also equally important for the JVP to stay the course and have the executive presidency abolished so that they can be the deciding factor in government or for that matter opposition within an exclusively parliamentary system

Thus while staying in government and eroding the SLFP base, the JVP is also providing opposition from within to capture the imagination of the people by seeing to be fighting their cause especially in the face of total impotency on the part of the UNP which has reduced itself to issuing the occasional statement.

Hence, on the one hand the JVP caters to Sinhala hardline opinion by opposing negotiations based on the ISGA whilst on the other taking up the issue of rising prices with the government and Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama, thus distancing themselves from the hardships imposed on the people by the government of which they are an integral part.

Given these factors, it is following the Presidential pique over the JVP's public opposition to resuming negotiations on the basis of the ISGA proposals and resigning as UPFA leader the previous week that the politburo of the Marxists met Wednesday, August 4, to take stock of the situation.

And the clear signal which emerged was that the party should not rock the government boat at this point and force the President to look for a deal with the UNP.

In fact the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Tilvin Silva went to the extent of reasoning out the President's actions by stating it was due to a second level team of the party being represented at the UPFA executive committee meeting. The JVP was represented at the controversial meeting by Nandana Gunatilleke, Vijitha Herath, K.D. Lalkantha and Bimal Ratnayake.

Weerawansa spoke with authority on the issue having already been told by Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, the JVP representation was low key at the executive committee considering the Presidential presence.

Accordingly, it was decided for future meetings, the JVP top quartet, Somawansa Amarasinghe, Tilvin Silva, Wimal Weerawansa and Nandana Gunatilleke will be in attendance.

At the same time, the politburo also focused on the ISGA controversy and once again Weerawansa explained that Samaraweera informed him, the government had found a way out by deciding to submit a separate set of proposals for LTTE's consideration and that negotiations will be based on both sets of proposals and not only LTTE's ISGA proposal.

Thus, the politburo decided they should ask the government to incorporate some of their own proposals to the draft, giving the party an opportunity of justifying before the people the decision to agree for negotiations based on both sets of proposals.

The thinking of the JVP was that once the decision is taken to negotiate on the strength of both sets of proposals, it will give them much needed time to consolidate and come out smelling of roses by opposing any far reaching concessions to the LTTE down the road.

Playing along

President Kumaratunga for her part is not oblivious to the JVP strategy and knows only too well a long term relationship with the JVP is not viable but at the same time realises she needs the reds to fulfil her objective of abolishing the executive presidency first and has decided to play along whilst also asserting her authority where necessary.

This she did the previous week as well by pulling out of an elaborate ceremony organised for August 19 by the JVP's Agriculture Minister, Anura Dissanayake in the Kurunegala District to launch what the party has termed the biggest development project of the government - the 1,000 irrigation tank project.

It was for 10 a.m. Thursday, August 5, that Minister Dissanayake had summoned a meeting of his officials and the President's Security Division Director to discuss arrangements for the function at which Kumaratunga was to be the chief guest.

The event was to herald not only the revival of the 1,000 tanks but also the cultural values of the country and a huge tamasha including a parade of 25,000 dancers and 500 drummers was planned for the occasion.

However just minutes before the meeting was to commence, the PSD sent word to the Ministry the director will not be attending it, prompting Minister Dissanayake to instruct his secretary to ascertain from the President's secretary whether she will be attending the ceremony.

On speaking to the President's Secretary, W.J.S. Karunaratne, it was indicated that the President's response will be made known by 10 p.m. Friday, August 6.

And by 7 p.m. Friday, Dissanayake's secretary was informed the President will not attend the ceremony since she had a prior engagement and the Minister was visibly upset when Kumaratunga's decision was communicated to him.

However, putting up a brave front Minister Dissanayake directed all government ministers including the Prime Minister be invited for the ceremony but that there will be no chief guest.

Snubbed

Having snubbed the JVP on the launch of its water project, the President cut the grass under their feet by opening the Greater Kandy drinking water supply project at Kandadeniya in Katugastota on Monday, August 9 and stating at the ceremony the government was working towards formulating a wide and integrated national plan to fulfill the water needs of the country.

Thus, when the JVP Minister does launch his project on August 19, it will be seen only as a follow up to the President's initiative and not one by the Marxists.

"If we can restore and maintain thousands of tanks inherited from our past, we do not have to construct new tanks," Kumaratunga had also said in her speech in a pre-emptive strike.

That apart, the previous week, the President also had a dinner meeting with Indian High Commissioner, Nirupan Sen and his Political Affairs Officer, Taranjith Singh Sandhu at the Rosmead Place residence of host Anura Bandaranaike with Mangala Samarawera also in attendance.

The occasion was ostensibly a farewell dinner for the outgoing High Commissioner who played a pivotal role in lulling UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe into a false sense of complacency during his premiership not to act against Kumaratunga on the assurance there will be no dissolution of parliament.

The President in fact even had it officially communicated to Wickremesinghe through Japan's Special Envoy, Yasushi Akashi she will not dissolve parliament, an assurance which the then Premier acted on to hold at bay his members who were calling for the impeachment of Kumaratunga.

The downside of all this lying through diplomatic channels of course is the loss of credibility, for now what credence can the LTTE place on assurances given by the President through the international community when it is established nothing is sacred to the President? Can Akashi for example ever communicate any message from the President to the LTTE knowing she lied to him and lost credibility with Wickremesinghe?

Then again given India's reservations about the involvement of Japan in the Sri Lankan peace process, Kumaratunga could well have been Machiavellian to dent Japan's credibility in the process.

Be that as it may, over dinner at Bandaranaike's residence, the idea was floated to the Indian High Commissioner that the government would be grateful for an extended credit facility to tide over the coming year in view of the US$ 4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo not forthcoming due to the stalemate in the peace process.

Indian concern

That Sen and Sandhu have been dabbling in the internal politics of Sri Lanka is now well known and their response to the request made was encouraging with the Treasury now expected to do the follow up.

But the failure of the government to get the show back on the road has been of concern to the Indians who are now once again promoting the concept of the two major parties working together, a factor impressed upon Muslim Congress Leader, Rauf Hakeem as well during his recent visit to India.

However, given the volatility of the UPFA-UNP relationship, it is unlikely to bear fruit, especially with Wickremesinghe being clearly told by party seniors, any move by the President for discussions for a national government should be viewed purely as a tactical ploy to keep the JVP in line. To make matters worse, the LTTE has decided it will not agree to resume talks if the government insists on its proposals also being taken up for discussion.

The bottom line is, the government has no clear strategy to take the country out of the social, economic, and political mess it has reduced it to with only tactics at play for surviving in government and politics at any cost.

And thanks to an opposition that is a resounding success when it comes to lacklustre performance, the President might still just about pull it off.

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