Sirimavo and Felix Dias
Bandaranaike, who between them had ground the country to a halt through their adoption of
Marxist ideology. To sweep that aside and open the doors of Sri Lanka to the world was as
easily said as done, especially given a Ronnie de Mel, a full quarter century younger than
he is today. 2002, however, finds the UNF with an altogether different set of dilemmas on
its hands and it seems no one knows what to do.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken on himself the daunting challenge of
making peace with the LTTE and told his fifty-something ministers to get on with the job
of running the country. Wickremesinghe has also made it clear that he does not see for
himself a role as a Ranasinghe Premadasa-style 'class monitor', wielding the big stick at
errant ministers: all well and good. During the past few weeks however, the UNF's bona
fides have been coming loose at the seams, and no one seems to know quite what to do.
Unlike Chandrika Kumaratunga in her run-up to the general and presidential elections of
1994, Wickremesinghe made hardly any promises (except for vague and general ones, like
good governance) in the run-up to the December 5 election. However, in the seven years
they spent in opposition, the UNF did espouse a variety of noble causes, and espouse them
with passion. Now, six weeks in government, all that seems to be forgotten and swept under
the rug. This, as the party's backbenchers are saying more stridently each day, simply
will not wash with the electorate.
Wickremesinghe has made it clear that he wanted a smooth transition of power, and
pledged there would be no witch-hunts and retrospection. Good. But is that to say the UNF
will stand idly by and let law and order sink back into the abyss merely because it will
offend the sensibilities of the opposition? Hundreds of state-owned vehicles have been
misappropriated by former ministers and deputies. Many of these have been cannibalised or
damaged beyond repair. Yet, no action has been taken either to recover the vehicles or
punish the offenders. After all, the misappropriation of government property is a
non-bailable offence. What is more, Anuruddha Ratwatte's sons, all three of whom are
wanted in connection with a variety of murders, are all on the loose, and the police have
not so much as attempted to find their whereabouts. Worst of all, while the Director of
the Crime Detective Bureau, Bandula Wickramasinghe himself, swore an affidavit almost one
month ago implicating Mahen Ratwatte in the murder of Kumar Ponnambalam, the CID is yet to
take a statement from Wickramasinghe, let alone Ratwatte. And all this in an atmosphere
where Interior Minister John Amaratunga has stated that there are 10,000 illegal weapons
floating about the country!
A plethora of wrongs
It is all very well for the UNF to say it does not wish to interfere with the police.
But if the maintenance of law and order is impossible without interference, Defence
Minister Tilak Marapone had better interfere or watch his party sink into an ocean of
public disgust. The UNF in opposition promised to right a plethora of wrongs: having come
to office, all those appear to have been forgotten. AirLanka, Tawakkal, Galle Port,
Bribery Commission, Locomotives, Dhammika Kitulegoda, Sarath Silva, Ken Balendra, and on
Ironically, former John Keells Chairman Ken Balendra has been re-appointed as chairman
of the Bank of Ceylon. We have nothing against Balendra, who is a businessman of very
special accomplishment. Nevertheless, Gamini Atukorale, just three weeks dead, must be
turning in his grave. On 17 October, 2001, several opposition MPs met Balendra in his
penthouse office at the Bank of Ceylon and handed him a petition protesting the waiver of
interest amounting to some Rs. 15 million in favour of Ronnie Peiris, Chandrika
Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's close friend and associate. This, in part, is what they said:
"We write with concern to protest the shameful abuse of power in which you have
indulged to write off accumulated interest of some Rs. 15 million payable by Mr. Ronnie
Peiris to the Bank of Ceylon. The Sunday Leader of October 7, 2001, gave full and graphic
details of this disgraceful concession by the bank you lead. To our knowledge, neither Mr.
Peiris nor the Bank of Ceylon has to date denied or even commented on the disgraceful
disclosures made in the Leader expose, "Bahamas link of Ronnie bared: Bank of Ceylon
waives off over Rs 15 million interest on loan as CBK's friend makes merry in Sri
Lanka." As you would have concluded, the 'CBK' referred to is Chandrika Bandaranaike
Kumaratunga, president of Sri Lanka, who is also your appointing authority."
"As you are aware, Mr. Balendra," they went on, "The Bank of Ceylon is
the property of the people of Sri Lanka. It is not your private property: neither is it
Mrs. Kumaratunga's. This being so, by waiving off interest due of Rs. 15 million in favour
of a known friend and crony of the president, have you not defrauded the Sri Lankan
people? You, Mr. Balendra, move in the highest business circles in Sri Lanka. You are
widely reputed to be well informed and 'business savvy'. Were you not aware then, as has
been widely publicised, that Mr. Ronnie Peiris is involved in several Sri Lankan business
ventures of giant proportions? These include the Kotte Golf Course project, ABC Radio and
the Katunayake-Colombo Expressway project. These projects, the cumulative worth of which
is in the billions, have received wide publicity in the Sri Lankan media, as has Mr.
Peiris's involvement in them. Given this background of opulence, Mr. Peiris is hardly an
object of charity. Why then offer him this largesse by way of a Rs. 15 million
Whose words were these? None other than those of Ravi Karunanayake, Rajitha Senaratne
and Bandula Gunawardana, all three of who are now ministers of the UNF Government. This is
what they had to say on October 17, barely three months ago. Now, not only does the UNF
wish to retain Balendra as chairman of the Bank of Ceylon, but it in effect is covering up
the exposure of Ronnie Peiris, against whose numerous nefarious deals they screamed their
heads off when in opposition. Worst of all, as deputy minister of finance, his appointment
comes under the direct purview of Bandula Gunawardana. Yet, there has been not a word of
explanation from Gunawardana. Not only that, the UNP's own Assistant Leader, the late
Gamini Atukorale himself, personally petitioned the Bribery Commission to investigate the
Bank of Ceylon's interest waiver and Balendra's role in it.
Ken Balendra may or may not have known about the Ronnie Peiris deal ahead of the
newspaper expos. If he was unaware of it, he is certainly not directly responsible
for it, though as chairman of the bank, he is nevertheless accountable to the public. If
the matter did come up to the bank's board however, or if Balendra was otherwise aware of
it, unless he has a very convincing explanation, he is unsuited to hold the office he
does. Balendra's reappointment by the minister of finance with no explanation whatever to
the public on the resolution of the scandal, smacks of outright arrogance and disregard
for public sensibility. What is more, Deputy Minister Bandula Gunawardana's silent
acquiescence is baffling given the strident tone of his earlier criticism of Balendra. In
their letter of October 17, the UNP MPs did not pull their punches. They made their stance
abundantly clear. Let us quote once more from that letter:
"That is why", they wrote Balendra, "It is tragic that you have betrayed
the trust the people of this country placed in you. You have become just one of the
multitude of evils that have to be rooted out when finally a just and honest government
starts picking up the pieces among the economic wreckage which is the legacy of Chandrika
Kumaratunga." Bravo, three cheers and hip-hip hooray! During his visit to the
National Savings Bank last Tuesday Gunawardana claimed, "I have stated the truth and
we will always place the true picture of things before the country." It would be
interesting to hear then, what the honourable minister has to say now.
So far, things have worked well for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on the peace front.
The Norwegian initiative is now well under way, with the fundamentals for the talks to
come being accepted by both sides. Wickremesinghe in no hurry however, prefers to give
time for the opening up of communications, trade and industry in the North, relieving the
besieged public of the restrictions they have suffered during the war. Both the government
and the LTTE have agreed privately that there will be no fixed time frame and no
preconditions, with it being understood that the ban on the LTTE too, will be lifted
before the ceasefire commence. The current cessation of hostilities, which began on
Christmas Eve too, will be extended a month at a time, until the first milestone of the
Norwegian initiative, a formal ceasefire, is brokered. Neither side has been enthusiastic
about the ceasefire being monitored by an international force, a positive sign for the
growing rapprochement between the UNF government and the Tigers.
Wickremesinghe did not rush to the aid of the LTTE when the state government of Tamil
Nadu last week firmly rejected the possibility that Anton Balasingham would base himself
in Chennai for the duration of the talks. In addition to the availability of medical
services for the LTTE theoretician, the intention is that Balasingham could helicopter to
and fro between India and the Vanni in order to parley with Prabhakaran. Given that
Prabhakaran will not engage in face-to-face negotiations with the government at least in
the early stages, Tamil Nadu's rebuff is something of a blow to the Tigers. Prime Minister
Vajpayee however, is expected to bring pressure to bear on the state government and it is
likely that Balasingham will be afforded minimum facilities to operate from India,
especially given that there is no other practical venue.
With the peace process on track, Wickremesinghe last week devoted his energies to
getting the constitutional council appointed by independence day on February 4. Whether
President Kumaratunga will permit this is another matter, for she thereby loses a
significant portion of the power she yet has left.
The UNF's dilemma is that they must bring an impeachment against Kumaratunga if they
are to prevent her dissolving parliament come December 5, 2002. In order for a successful
prosecution at the Supreme Court however, the government knows also that it has to rid
itself of Chief Justice Sarath Silva. While that is relatively easy, Silva's replacement
will, as things stand, be decided by Kumaratunga, who is most unlikely to opt for Mark
Fernando, the next most senior judge on the bench, known to be the government's choice.
The government is in a similar dilemma over the replacement of IGP Lucky Kodituwakku and
the service chiefs, over all of which Kumaratunga has a last word.
Wickremesinghe has made it known that he is anxious to avoid confrontation with the
president, or at least, if confrontation must come, that it come another day. If and when
that imbroglio erupts, the government will be distracted and its agenda derailed, as the
country is committed once more into a spasm of endless political bickering. With the death
of Gamini Atukorale, the only activist in the top rung of the UNF, the government is more
likely to let events run their course rather than precipitating a confrontation with the
opposition now. But with the looming March 15 local government elections, such a
confrontation is inevitable as it is most unlikely that Kumaratunga will stay silent.
That, if not sooner, will be when the fat is in the fire.