The Political Column
15th November 1998
By our Political Correspondent
The initiative by the business lead ers for a bi-partisan approach be tween the PA Government and opposition UNP to solve the ethnic crisis has run into fresh problems.
When the business leaders met last Wednesday for a routine discussion some members echoed the view that Armyne Wirasinha who stepped down as the chairman of the National Chamber of Commerce to pave the way for Hari Selvanathan of Carsons, should continue in the peace delegation.
This is on the basis it was Mr. Wirasinha who initiated the move by the business community to help settle the ethnic conflict.
Mr. Wirasinha did not take part in Wednesday's meeting apparently believing his role in the peace delegation had ended.
The talks on Wednesday centered on Mr.Wirasinghe's position.
Mr. Selvanathan said he had brought someone else in place of Mr. Wirasinha and if the others agreed he wished to bring in Asoka Gunasekera who had worked closely with the Premadasa and Wijetunga administrations of the UNP and had served as Secretary to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.
He is now doing his own business and is a member of the National Chamber of Commerce.
The entry of Mr. Gunasekera was seen by some as a manoeuvre by the business leaders to balance the ethnic composition of their delegation.
The other members are Ken Balendra, Nimal Samarakkody, Partrick Amerasinghe, Nigel Austin and Lyn Fernando with Lalith Kotelawala as co-ordinating Chairman.
Besides that, they hope Mr. Gunasekera would help to liase with the UNP because of his close connections.
But the business leaders have not yet taken a decision on Mr. Gunasekera while some are urging they must first mould unity among themselves before seeking a united approach by the main political parties.
Business circles also say there needs to be more commitment to the mission by the business leaders.
At present the key players Keells chief Ken Balendra and FCCISL boss Patrick Amerasinghe are out of the country on business matters.
It is unlikely the action plan of the group could be implemented till Mr. Balendra returns and he is not due back till the first week of next month.
The idea of a peace initiative by the business community first came about three months ago when the chamber representatives were called by the President for a discussion on the 5th Budget of the Government.
At that meeting Mr. Wirasinha had told the President it would be prudent to cut down the number of public holidays since long weekends virtually make the whole week unproductive.
He also called for a change in labour laws to allow employers to deal more firmly with miscreants or shirkers.
The President said the Government could do all that but she feared the opposition might exploit the situation.
"It is up to you to discuss matters with them and come back to us," the President told the business chief.
Though the discussion ended on that note Mr. Balendra worked on the matter with colleagues including Mr. Selvanathan. They then worked out a plan to seek a bi-partisan agreement between the two main parties.
Mr. Balendra then consulted Mr. Wirasingha on this matter and he agreed.
Mr. Balendra suggested that Mr. Kotelawala be the co-ordinating Chairman and Mr. Wirasinha supported the suggestion.
The business leaders were later invited by the President for talks at the Temple Trees. They met Minister. G. L. Peiris too and told him they wished to call an All-Party Conference.
Mr. Wirasinha said the Government could send any representative and all participants would be treated alike.
He explained procedural details of the proposed meeting saying each speaker would be allowed only 5 to 10 minutes and if anyone wanted to speak he should raise his hand and get permission. Dr. Peiris agreed saying "It is your meeting you could conduct it the way you want".
Different points of view were expressed, arising from Mr. Wirasinha's proposal. Some reportedly even felt that he had been too peremptory in dealing with Dr. Peiris.
But Mr. Wirasinha insisted they should have some set of procedure to deal with the political parties. "We have to be careful when we deal with political parties, lest they accuse us of being partisan. But if you do not want to act as an independent body, I will walk out of this conference room, and you can tell the President why I walked out", Mr. Wirasinha said.
At this point others persuaded Mr. Wirasinha to be patient and consensus was reached on Mr. Wirasinha's proposal, which all now agree worked very well.
Mr. Wirasinha said since all parties were being invited the business community must be strictly impartial and he warned that any attempt to tilt towards the Government would be disastrous.
Thus Mr. Wirasinha's remarks and his point of view sparked off some controversy among the business community at the outset.
However, it was agreed at the discussion that the objective of the initiative was to bring the two main sections on to a common platform.
At one point Mr. Kotelawala said he had a better knowledge of the UNP than other members of the business delegation.
"Being a Kotelawala I know about the UNP better than you," he said. Later the business delegation held a separate meeting with UNP leaders. Mr. Kotelawala had preferred to shun publicity over the initiatives of the group. When the delegation met at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce he reportedly expressed the view that Mr. Wirasinha and Mr. Amerasinghe should not take part in a discussion on TNL on the subject.
But Mr. Wirasinha again disagreed and said he would go for the debate on TNL because he felt they had nothing to hide.
Mr. Wirasinha also invited Mr. Amerasinghe to join him, if he so desired.
Political analysts believe the business leaders venturing into the new area of a political initiative, apparently still lacked experience for such a sensitively complicated task. Others believe that if "nothing is ventured, nothing is gained" and if at least a conduit could be established between parties, this could be a significant step in the right direction.
Mr. Wirasinha has told close associates he has not done anything under pressure or persuasion by anybody, and that he is out of the delegation since he has completed his term as chairman of the National Chamber.
He says he had not been asked to continue as a member of the delegation though he believes it was he who came up with the idea of the peace initiative.
Some business circles are asking why the business leaders are now trying to bring in Mr. Gunasekera to replace Mr. Wirasinha.
They are also raising questions about credibility while political wags are talking about profitability.
Whether the initiative by the business leaders could continue under these circumstances is yet another matter to be seen.
Meanwhile at the Government Parliamentary group meeting on Monday, backbenchers brought pressure on the President to withdraw the budget proposal which withdrew the duty-free allowance of Sri Lankan workers returning from abroad.
The President hosted the members for lunch before the meeting and had a pleasant day talking to them.
She sat with Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.
By this time Minister Fernandopulle had with him all statistics relating to the production of local electrical appliances including refrigerators.
the President asked him what the MPs were wanting to take up and he said it was mainly about the baggage allowance.
"You may have organised this," the President said.
"What we should do is to reduce the taxes levied from the local electrical appliance manufacturers to make the prices competitive," Mr. Fernandopulle replied.
"I am also thinking of this," President said.
As the discussion started it was Minister S. B. Dissanayake who launched a protest over the withdrawal of the allowance given to migrant workers.
Later Labour Minister John Seneviratne and Parliamentarian Felix Perera too spoke on the same subject citing examples.
President Kumaratunga finally agreed to withdraw the proposal. And when she announced it there was applause from the MPs.
The President also came under heavy fire from Tamil political parties and prominent Tamil politicians for her alleged remarks on the original settlers of Sri Lanka in a TV interview during her recent visit to South Africa.
Many Tamil political parties have found fault with her remarks where she had allegedly said the Tamils were not originally from Sri Lanka.
Angry TULF politicians who listened to the tape at ACTC leader Kumar Ponnambalam's residence, later decided to vote against the budget. They described it as a war budget by a Government pursuing mainly the military option.
The UNP also took it up at a working committee meeting last Monday when A. H. M. Azwer raised the matter.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said this was not the first time the President had spoken in this vein.
He recalled how PERC and Bank of Ceylon Chairman Rajan Asirwathan had to resign over a similar matter.
the UNP's policy making working committee also discussed an action plan to bring down the Government democratically.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said he was now ready to take up the challenge thrown by the Government.
"The time is ripe now. I will embark on the campaign against the Government and I will take the message of the UNP to every household in the country.
There was a time that a lot of people wanted me to run fast against the Government.
I did not want to do that and tire myself.
I am telling them that the time has now come," he said.
Thereafter the working committee discussed matters pertaining to discipline. Mr. Wickremesinghe reiterated he would maintain discipline at any cost.
Announcing a decision by a disciplinary committee against a member of the North Central Province he said though the party may suffer temporary setbacks because of the decisions taken by the disciplinary committee he would not hesitate to implement them for the long term good of the party.
At the Cabinet meeting Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne suggested that 100,000 metric tonnes of rice be imported to meet a possible shortfall.
He said the duty levied on rice should be removed to supply rice at a lower price during the festive season.
The Ministers agreed, but the President was away in Kataragama to mark her 4th year in office.
On Thursday the UNP failed in an effort to put up some placards in Parliament attacking the Government on the 4th anniversary of the Kumaratunga Presidency.
The PA members just warned the UNP not to indulge in such tactics, and then stormed the opposition benches crossing the floor of the house to grab the placards.
The government MP's outnumbered the UNPers and were successful in their operation under the guidance of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.
Some ministers apparently did not like the idea of storming the opposition benches but they couldn't do anything about it.
Besides these, it appears that another "ethnic war" of equally dangerous proportions is emerging in Colombo- the clearest evidence of it being the crude attempt to disrupt last Wednesday's inaugural meeting of the National Alliance for Peace.
The Alliance comprises more than 200 groups, including the Sarvodaya Movement, the Suriyamal Foundation, Social Justice and Spiritual Groups representing Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. The National Committee of the Alliance comprises five Nayaka Theras, three Bishops, Hindu and Muslim dignitaries and other prominent National figures like Iranganee Serasinghe and W.D. Amaradeva.
The Nayake Theras include the Ven. Kumburugamuve Vajira Thera who is the Chancellor of the Buddhist and Pali University and the famous Artist Monk the Ven. Mapalagama Vipulasara Nayake Thera.
Ratnapura's Bishop Malcom Ranjith, Badulla's Bishop Winston Fernando and Colombo's Anglican Bishop Kenneth Fernando represent the Christians, the eminent Yogendra Doraiswamy represents the Hindus, and Human Rights Commissioner Javid Yusuf and Jezima Ismail the Muslims. The convenor of the National Alliance for peace is Prof. Tissa Vitharana well known pathologist, Politbureau member of the LSSP and Human Rights activist.
When Prof Vitharana was addressing the inaugural meeting attended by more than 500 people at the Public Library Auditorium, a young person in monk's robe started shouting out angrily against the peace movement. The group of about 40 saboteurs had come in quietly and one or two had stationed themselves in different parts of the hall. When the monk started shouting they all screamed in support making it appear as if the whole audience was in uproar. The saboteurs then stormed the stage, argued and then clashed with the organisers and eminent personalites on stage. Eye witnesses said the saboteurs were obviously trying to break up the peace meeting in typical facist style and methods which smacked of Hitler.
Organisers and others in the Peace Movement said what was most disturbing was the intolerence or bigotry of the sabotage group. They said the saboteurs had the right to their point of view, that war is the only solution. But they had no right to sabotage the freedom of expression of others who felt the need for a just political solution.
The disrupting group before being forced to leave the hall by police and others, distributed leaflets issued by the National Movement against terrorism. The leaflets accused the National Peace Council and several others including journalists of being propagandists for the LTTE. They called for the arrest of these alleged propagandists under emergency laws banning the LTTE.
While there is an on-going debate as to what should be the government's approach towards the LTTE, UNP's top rung member A.C.S Hameed has suggested a new approach.
He said in Parliament that there need not be a ceasefire or talks. He suggested that the Devolution Proposals be shown to the LTTE. Minister Lakshman Jayakody then asked Mr. Hameed to act as a broker and to show the proposals to the LTTE. But Mr. Hameed in return asked whether the Government would mandate him officially. The Government Ministers dodged and asked whether the UNP would approve such a move and Mr. Ronnie De Mel replied there was no problem with the UNP.
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