The Political Column27th May 2001
Moves in survival game
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By Our Political CorrespondentThe LTTE's demand that the proscrip tion on it be removed before any peace talks has put the government in a dilemma.
The LTTE is quite adamant and it conveyed its position to Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim during talks in Wanni recently. Mr. Solheim returned to Colombo and briefed President Kumaratunga on the LTTE's latest demand.
The President, facing one of her biggest political challenges, wonders whether there would be sufficient support within the party to lift the ban on the LTTE.
Already signs are emerging from the party that there would be tough oppositon to any move to placate the LTTE. Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake has already opposed a proposal to declare a ceasefire, another LTTE demand. That Mr. Wickremanayake is supporting a hardline position is quite understandable as he hails from a Sinhala-dominated area. But he is not a fully-fledged hawk, like many of his cabinet colleagues.
Thus if the President were to make a decision unpalatable to hardliners, there is a possibility that a handful of ministers will oppose it, though a majority would back her, largely because as the executive president she wields enormous power.
Besides the three main LTTE demands — lifting of the proscription, a ceasefire and relaxing of the economic embargo on the rebel-held area — the rebels' unwillingness to agree to President Kumaratunga's proposal that talks should be completed within a specific timeframe has also dealt a blow to the peace process. The LTTE has said that it all depends on the ground situation.
Should the government lift the ban on the LTTE, at least temporarily? What is the LTTE's motive behind its demand?
The LTTE claims that a deproscription was necessary precondition for it to join the negotiating table as an equal partner. There is another dimension that should make the government happy. The LTTE's insistence on debanning is an indication that it is taking the law of the land seriously. If the LTTE doesn't bother to respect the Sri Lankan law, one would ask why is it calling for the lifting of the ban. This factor may act as an incentive towards the lifting of the ban, even temporarily.
Some analysts look at the problem differently. They say the ban should be lifted to facilitate talks since such a move would have little bearing internationally. They point out that the United States, Britain and India had imposed a ban on the LTTE under their law for different reasons.
India and the US moved to ban the LTTE even before Sri Lanka made an attempt to do so, they say. Though many have put forward their views on the debanning issue, only a few have attempted to fathom the motive behind the LTTE demand.
One reason could be that the LTTE does not want other countries to follow the British example in including it on a list of terrorist groups. The LTTE suffered a severe setback when its strategy and appeals failed to persuade the British government not to ban it.
This has definitely affected the LTTE and it is a good eye-opener for Sri Lankan Tamils who while living in European safe havens help swell LTTE coffers to create terror and chaos in a country where by and large democratic ideals have been cherished for more than seven decades now.
It is important in this backdrop to find out why the government is debating the lifting of the ban.
It could be attributed to international pressure from donor countries that call for a negotiated settlement to the crisis. If the government lifts the ban on the LTTE, these countries will understand that Sri Lanka was compelled to do it in pursuit of peace. Therefore, the countries that have banned the LTTE are unlikely to relax the proscription.
On the other hand if the President fails to take positive steps to initiate talks with the LTTE, she is running a high risk of the main opposition UNP conniving with the TULF to topple the government through a no-confidence motion.
TULF votes are increasingly important for the UNP to achieve its target, but if the government gets the peace talks off the ground, then it would be a different story. The TULF, suffering for a long time under the clutches of the LTTE, would not dare support the government. Thus it is unlikely to give its support for a move to topple the government when things are moving in a direction favouring the Tamil cause.
The TULF, hemmed between the moderate Tamil opinion and the LTTE, is facing a political dilemma. A TULF stalwart describing this dilemma had said: "All are caught between the devil and the deep sea."
Though the LTTE at one stage was prevailing upon the TULF to help the UNP to oust the government, it is hoped that the scenario would drastically change if the government embarks on the proposed talks which will not only stall the TULF from joining the UNP in the effort, but also prick the conscience of the UNPers as to whether they are doing the right thing at a time when the government is to take a crucial decision.
It is unwise for a government to engage it self as two battlefronts, of battle, militarily in the North and politically in the South. Since it is more important for the government to survive politically, it must choose the most prudent course – talk to the LTTE.
Though there would be protests against this move and attempts would be made to smother such a step, it is the only way by which the government could put the UNP off the track. Probably in keeping with this thinking, the President summoned a meeting of the SLFP high command on Friday to discuss the latest developments.
Eventually, it boils down to a game of survival for President Kumaratunga and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Both of them face the same challenge internally in their respective parties and externally in the political fields.
Mr. Wickremesinghe who survived a recent revolt in the party seems to be uncomfortable in his position at the helm of the party. In short, he is sitting on a time bomb which could explode if he fails to deliver the goods.
He is now being given a task to perform. Firstly, to bring in an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva and secondly to defeat the government by the end of July. As both these tasks are formidable, Mr. Wickremesinghe declared at a recent group meeting that these tasks were the responsibility of all and not of one individual.
Mr. Wickremesinghe, apparently sensing that things are smouldering underneath, moves cautiously and diplomatically in party matters. Earlier perceived arrogance which characterised his nature is slowly diminishing and he is more accessible to party cadres and attentively gives a fair hearing than ever before.
So things are changing for the better in the UNP, but the task before the party is herculean and is difficult to achieve.
At the UNP Parliamentary group meeting on Monday, three important matters were taken up for discussion. They were the no-confidence motion against the government, a motion to remove the Chief Justice and the Mawanella disturbances.
Chief Opposition Whip W.J.M. Lokubandara said the no-confidence motion should not be taken lightly. "Everyone in the party should be united to accomplish this mission," he said.
Parliamentarian Karunasena Kodituwakku outlined issues involved and cited corruption and agreeing to IMF conditions as factors that necessitate the removal of the government.
"It appears that the government has bowed down to the dictates of the IMF. We cannot tolerate this government any more and action must immediately be taken to finalise the no-confidence motion," he said.
Mr. Lokubandara said that even Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake should be linked to the vote of no-confidence in view of his recent utterances.
The timing for the vote of no-confidence was vital and it should be in July, he said.
It is learnt that Mr. Wickremesinghe is taking all possible steps to make the vote of no-confidence a reality. Already parliamentarians have been assigned with the task of getting the required number of votes to move ahead with the plan.
The UNP also decided to bring in a motion of no-confidence against Minister Mahipala Herath on account of the Mawanella incidents. The decision was taken after Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke at length on the Mawanella violence.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said Minister Herath was responsible for bringing about a situation of lawlessness in the area.
Kegalle district Parliamentarian R.A.D. Sirisena stressed the importance of staging a protest rally in Mawanella. He said that this must be done with the cooperation of other opposition parties.
The UNP MPs also noted that two politicos in the Kegalle district were instigating the Sinhalese on communal lines to create problems at UNP meetings.
In the meantime, the important question that goes unanswered is the stance of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress on the vote of no-confidence against Minister Herath.
The UNP has had several rounds of discussions with the SLMC in this regard. No doubt the SLMC is willing to support the UNP on the matter, but how could it break its bonds with the PA to oust a minister?
One prominent SLMCer said, "We can't please both sides. We have to decide on which side we are. Either we have to go along with the government and defend Minister Herath whom the SLMC alleged initially as being involved in the Mawanella disturbances or else we have to go along with the UNP and vote against him as a mark of protest on behalf of the Muslim community and there is no compromise in this issue."
It is obvious that the UNP had moved cleverly in this matter espousing the cause of communal harmony. More than anything, the move had put SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem in an awkward position.
Will Mr. Hakeem accept the report of the Special Presidential Commission on the matter or go along with a report of a UNP probe team headed by former Attorney-General Shibly Aziz? Going along with the UNP means that Mr. Hakeem will have to sever all ties with the PA.
However, Minister Hakeem is maintaining an absolute silence on the issue probably to pull out his trump card at the last minute.
If the SLMC decides even by default to support the UNP, the only way President Kumaratunga could keep the PA intact is by asking Mr. Herath to step down in the greater interest of the alliance.
However, if the SLMC sides with the PA in the Herath no-confidence move, then it would only be betraying the Muslim community.
One way out for the SLMC is to keep off the debate, but then it would be accused of hypocrisy and opportunism. More than anything, Muslims expect Mr. Hakeem to live up to his convictions and now it is not clear as to what he would do in the days to come. The Herath no-confidence motion would precede the vote of no-confidence against the government and this is yet another problem that the government should give priority to.
It is a difficult situation for both the government and the SLMC. Can the People's Alliance hold together?
The SLMC also in recent times had a continuous dialogue with the UNP and is keeping its options open.
In which way the SLMC will swing is yet to be decided since the party has not said a definite "no" to the UNP regarding the UNP's vote of no-confidence against the government.
The UNP also discussed at a recent group meeting the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva.
At this meeting Rajitha Senaratne was unhappy over the delay in presenting a report on the matter. He asked Mr. Wickremesinghe why the report was being delayed.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said the committee comprising W.J.M. Lokubandara, Alick Aluvihare, Joseph Michael Perera and Imitiaz Bakeer Markar was yet to forward its report.
The committee members thereafter agreed to sit immediately and finalise the motion against the Chief Justice.
Dr. Senaratne who wanted to play a key role in the process also agreed to sit with the committee to finalise the draft.
A section, of the UNP wanted the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice presented to the group meeting on Friday, while others thought that there was no concrete evidence to substantiate the charges contained in the motion.
On Wednesday when some of the UNPers met again to discuss the vote of no-confidence against the government, the matter against the Chief Justice also cropped up.
There, it was revealed that the UNP was facing a problem with regard to certain changes included in the petition.
One insider said that if the party takes a decision, "we have to abide by it. But I hope they would not proceed with it looking at the draft itself."
Meanwhile, during the past month or so, a number of Sri Lankan politicians visited the US capital.
While Minister G.L. Peiris, Ronnie de Mel, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Speaker Anura Bandaranaike were in Washington for governmental business, Rohitha Bogollagama and Tyronne Fernando, too, visited the US representing the Opposition UNP.
Mr. Bogollagama had an opportunity of meeting with US Trade and Commerce Department officials who painted a gloomy picture about US textile quotas after the year 2005.
Though the government had canvassed for more trade with US, the Sri Lankan government's decision to ban genetically modified food had also caused some concern among these officials.
Meanwhile, at the cabinet meeting on Thursday President Kumaratunga once again took Minister Rauf Hakeem to task, accusing him of causing embarrassment to the government on several occasions.
The President is reported to have cited the SLMC's decision to oppose moves to bring in local government electoral reforms.
After Minister Richard Pathirana raised the matter the President reportedly hammered out at the SLMC saying she also had information that the LTTE had pumped a large amount of money in a campaign to take a minister out of the government.
A visibly shaken Mr. Hakeem warned that they might not be able to remain in the government if such allegations were thrown at the SLMC.
The President then cooled down and reportedly told Mr. Hakeem he need not put on caps that were going astray. Minister Mahinda Rajapakshe had also intervened to defuse tension.
Mr. Hakeem explained that the decision to oppose the appointment of a parliamentary select committee on local government reforms was taken by the party high command and he could not change it on his own.
Meanwhile, Minister and National Unity Alliance leader Ferial Ashraff said they should all have further talks to resolve these matters amicably.
The President reportedly had the last word by alleging that even the Sihala Urumaya was funded by the LTTE.
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