ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 7, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 19
Columns - Political Column  

Wedding bells and warning bells

  • Presidential Secretariat enforces SC ruling on ex-presidents' facilities
  • Speculation over who did not come for the dinner of dinners
  • Bankrupt government faces battle in parliament as JVP also hits out

By Our Political Editor

The shocks, one after another, could not have come at a worst time for former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She had returned from a meeting of the Bill Clinton Foundation in New York hurriedly last week. Last Sunday (September 30) was an important family event - the wedding reception for her daughter Yasodhara. She married an Englishman, a surgeon in London in August. They had come to Colombo for the social where together with Mama Kumaratunga they could meet friends and relatives to share in the joy of the nuptials in London.

Two days before the great family event, whilst she was still away in New York, a letter had been hand delivered to her official residence at Independence (formerly Torrington) Avenue. The building, just a stone's throw away from the Independence Square, was once the office of the Ranaviru Seva Authority. Whilst in office she had asked that office to move out, had the walls of the building raised and some repairs carried out. That was to be her residence, an entitlement to ex-Presidents in terms of the Constitution, or so she thought.

Whilst busying herself over next day's reception, Kumaratunga opened the hand-delivered letter to her under official cover. It was from the Presidential Secretariat and one addressed both to ex-President D.B. Wijetunga and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It was dated September 20 and also copied to the Secretaries of the Ministries of Finance and Plan Implementation, Public Administration and Home Affairs. This is what the letter said:

"Providing facilities to former Presidents

According to the Supreme Court order of 03.05.2007 in relation to application bearing No: 503/2005 (FR) to the Supreme Court under the President's Endowment Act No: 4 of 1986 former Presidents will be entitled to the following facilities and allowances.
a. A suitable house for residential purposes (without the payment of rent). In the event a house is not provided an allowance equivalent to one third of the salary entitled to a former President.
b. A monthly secretarial allowance equivalent to the payment made to a President's Private Secretary.
c. Official transportation and transportation facilities equivalent to a cabinet minister;
1. Official vehicles 02
2. Security backup vehicles 01
3. Drivers 03 (Inclusive of the Driver provided for the for the security backup vehicle)
4. Monthly Fuel allowance;
I. For the two official vehicles if the two vehicles are Diesel vehicles ----- Rs. 20,000 . If the two vehicles are petrol vehicles Rs. 50,000
II Diesel for security backup Rs. 20,000
(02) According to the above Supreme Court order a former President will not be entitled to retain staff and the office provided in addition to the above mentioned facilities.
(03) Accordingly
a. As the staff cannot be maintained at government expenses;
1. Release all permanent government servants attached to you office to the ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs.
2. Terminate the services of non-public servants who are employed on a temporary or contract basis.
b. Without a delay please hand over all equipment and vehicles to the Presidential Secretariat which are in addition to those mentioned above.
(04) Also I wish to inform you that telephone and fax machines maintained at your office at government expenditure could not be continued to be maintained at government expenditure. "

Then came another letter to Kumaratunga's official household at Independence Avenue on Sunday, the very day of the family reception. That letter, also from Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, called upon her to vacate the official residence. She told a confidant later that the actions against her were the result of President Mahinda Rajapaksa not being invited to the family event at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.

However, four days after the Kumaratunga family event the Presidential Secretariat reacted to what it called "certain media reports that seek to impute motives to the decision to withdraw some of the facilities given to Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in her present capacity as former President, and to criticism of similar action regarding former President D. B. Wijetunga." The statement claimed "withdrawal of these facilities is being done wholly in keeping with the Supreme Court's determination on the related Fundamental Rights petition - vide S.C. (F.R) Application No: 503/2005)."

But Kumaratunga was still livid about the move by the Presidential Secretariat. Despite, the Supreme Court ruling was months earlier, she told friends. So, why this timing? Moreover, she declared that her security detail was in fact increased at one point despite the ruling. Now, after the two letters, she is in a bigger dilemma. Even if her security detail still remains, she is being allowed just one back up vehicle. That in effect means not more than five to six men tasked for the former President's personal protection could travel with her.

Despite the denial by the Presidential Secretariat statement, Kumaratunga repeated her belief that President Rajapaksa was peeved he was not invited. She had learnt from former United National Party (UNP) Chairman, Malik Samarawickrema that Rajapaksa was expecting an invitation. This was when Samarawickrema, who is a key operator of the Sri Lanka Rugby Football Union met Rajapaksa at a rugger tournament in Kandy a fortnight back. Samarawickrema had reportedly quoted Rajapaksa telling him that "even at a late stage she will invite me." Further heightening of her suspicions, her friends say, was a reported remark by Rajapaksa confidant and Railways Minister, Dallas Allahapperuma.

On Sunday night when the Kumaratunga social event was under way, Allahapperuma was speaking to Sirasa Tv. Asked what he thought of Rajapaksa not being invited, he had remarked that the invitations were to a certain strata of society. He cited the example of Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, he said, was in the same social class as Kumaratunga. On the other hand Rajapaksa was a "man of the people".

Whether Allahapperuma, once a southern politician who left the shores of Sri Lanka to study in an American University but only to return after Rajapaksa was voted to power in November 2005, was right in his assertions remains a big questions. This social theme ala Ranasinghe Premadasa when he was fighting the Lalith Athulathmudali-Gamini Dissanayake caucus seems to be something the Rajapaksa administration has cottoned on to win public support.

This week, Hudson Samarasinghe, a one-time Premadasa acolyte now turned Rajapaksa fan was slamming the Colombo elite as being fed on powdered milk. In a racy speech over state run ITN he graphically described how Colombo people mixed powdered milk with hot water while they in the village were used to mother's milk little realising that its not only the Colombo elite that drink powdered milk nowadays. Every tea boutique gives a cuppa tea with powdered milk.

Allahapperuma's assertion was also flawed. There were many of his ministerial colleagues at the Kumaratunga reception. They included Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Ministers A.H.M. Fowzie, D.M. Jayaratne, John Seneviratne, Dilan Perera and Milroy Fernando. In fact, Fernando was having a ball out there, dancing by himself for a good 20 minutes until he was joined by some spirited others. There were many other ruling party MPs and frontliners too, including Tissa Karaliyadde, Bertie Premalal Dissanayake, Alavi Mowlana and Reggie Ranatunga. So, Allahapperuma was not on target, unless he has elevated these politicians also to the decadent bourgeoisie class.

Several heads of Colombo-based diplomatic missions were also present. They included US Ambassador Robert Blake, Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad and Norwegian Ambassador Tore Hatrem. Equally, there were some notable absentees too. They included one time close associates like Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena and Nimal Siripala de Silva. There were also some, like Suganthie Kadirgamar, widow of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, Kumaratunga's Foreign Minister, who declined the invitation and did not attend the function.

Some of those who felt left out from the family event are said to have also made overtures to Kumaratunga through various means to canvass for invitations. She, however, did not give in. "My criterion was to invite those who bothered to look me up or even phoned me. So why should I invite those who have completely forgotten me," she told a close confidant who discussed the issue with her.
Out of office and now busy with her own Kumaratunga Foundation, the former President seemed to have had more than her plateful. Just the day after her family event came a bombshell revelation that showed that ghosts of her eleven-year controversial rule were now coming to haunt her.

Two retired public spirited public servants have now gone before the Supreme Court on a Fundamental Rights case showing that Kumaratunga gave more than 100 acres of state land near the Parliament Complex for the construction of a private golf club, and that one of her very close friends, Ronnie Peiris made millions of rupees in the transaction.

In their petition, the retired public servants have provided past records where Kumaratunga has helped Peiris obtain bank loans in the UK, where he resides and where she used to stay when she used to go there on private visits. Their petition is a long one, but in short, what they are saying is that Kumaratunga abused her office as President not only to help a close family friend make millions of rupees involving state lands, but that this would invariably have helped her too in the process.

The petitioners have given details of Ronnie Peiris accepting a tax liability on the 'commissions' he received for a project launched by Kumaratunga in which his name does not seem to transpire anywhere. His involvement in the Kumaratunga project has been neatly tucked away, until the Income Tax Department caught up with him while they were probing the tax aspect of the project, and those used as front-men apparently spilt the beans to the revenue sleuths.

In another development, President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday made an appeal to all political parties to help the Government in developing the country. At a Wap Magul agricultural ceremony, he called for a moratorium on political differences and bickering during this period. Rajapaksa was clad in a sarong and banian for the event on the muddy paddy-fields of Nikaweratiya which was very heavily secured. His personal protection group, were also in sarong and banians but ensured a close security ring around him, and the buffaloes.

Even while he was making that appeal, one JVP strongman was lashing out at the Government. Speaking at the 10th annual convention of the JVP teachers unions, the party's trade union leader K.D. Lalkantha slammed the Government as incompetent, and made specifically negative remarks about the President.

"President Mahinda Rajapaksa is good at every exercise except governing the country", he said. "He is extremely busy attending funerals, weddings, and opening ceremonies but he is not solving key problems affecting the people. The Government has failed to ensure economic growth", he added.

Whilst Lalkantha was saying this, the JVP parliamentary group leader, Wimal Weerawansa, hit out at the United States and others for not doing enough to defeat the Tiger rebels. This came during a meeting with United States Ambassador Robert Blake this week.
Blake was doing his rounds consulting political parties in an obvious move to assess the political trends in the country. He had earlier met UNP and Opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe together with Ravi Karunanayake to discuss a broad spectrum of issues relating to the political situation vis-à-vis the UNP.

During his meeting with Weerawansa, the JVP frontliner had been asked what he thought of the current economic situation. He had replied that the JVP was raising strong objections over the issue but the newspapers were not reflecting that position. He said his party had issued a statement on the matter but no newspaper had published it.

There was, however, a divergence of views on the question of the ethnic conflict. Blake said his Government believed a military solution was not the answer to the conflict. It had to be found through political means, he said. Weerawansa was to point out that the United States too had declared a war on terror in Iraq. Locally, LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is also a terrorist, he said. They had even murdered an illustrious Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. He argued that a political settlement cannot be worked out with Prabhakaran. He is now weakened and should be defeated. Blake made clear he was not speaking for the LTTE, but was pointing out the ground realities. They seem to have agreed to disagree as they parted company.

This coming week will see the Government, desperately short of funds, trying once more to push through with the money bills, the passage of which were disrupted during the commotion in Parliament last month. The JVP's Lalkantha is on record saying that the Government is pawning the future of this country by going in for overseas private commercial bank loans.

Next week's Parliament should be interesting, to say the least. But once again, at a crucial point of time, the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has let the side down by going overseas and leaving the troops under his command to do battle without their commander.

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