3 Mar 2002
• President wavers under world pressure and political compulsions
• LSSP, CP push for peace, Dinesh goes for probationary link with JVP
By a special correspondent
In 1994 and even as recently as August 2000, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was seen as an angel of peace, holding out a hand of reconciliation, not only to the Tamils and the LTTE but also to the UNP.
Regularly, she pleaded with the then opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to join her in a bipartisan spirit to push forward the peace initiative. But now President Kumaratunga appears to be cutting a sorry figure with her hands folded and the image changing from an angel of peace to a commander of war.
After issuing a tough statement a day after the ceasefire agreement was signed, she reportedly told a Tudella meeting of PA organisers that she could cancel the whole agreement with one command to the Army chief. But apparently, and according to some, under international pressure from several countries, including India and the United States, she denied the remarks.
Now the mantle of peace is in the hands of Prime Minister Mr. Wickremesinghe. The opposition to the ceasefire agreement is being led by the Sihala Urumaya which took premier Wickremesinghe to courts on Friday on the basis he had no business to sign deals with a banned organisation.
The SU planned its strategy at an emergency meeting of its central committee on the night before the premier signed the agreement. SU propaganda chief Champika Ranawaka had managed to get a copy of the agreement and he tore it apart clause by clause. As this went on, party leader Tilak Karunaratne reportedly got an urgent telephone call. He listened intently to the caller who told him the agreement posed grave dangers to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and that it should be challenged in courts.
According to insiders, the caller was a top UNP lawyer who told Mr. Karunaratne that since their hands were tied, the SU should haul the premier before courts. As part of the protest campaign, the SU was hoping to meet President Kumaratunga yesterday evening along with Buddhist prelates to hand over a petition.
Whatever comes out of that meeting, the President's position is far from clear. Kumaratunga appears to be wavering in a maze of contradictions. The day after the agreement was signed, she fired out a statement through the Presidential Secretariat, complaining she had been kept in the dark and that the procedure was both improper, undemocratic and unconstitutional. She, however, said she would give a detailed response after her advisory committee headed by former Foreign Minister Laskhman Kadirgamar studied the agreement line by line.
But even before the committee report was given, the President played around with doves and guns. On Sunday in Anuradhapura, she spoke in conciliatory tones, reassuring her commitment to the peace process. But a day later, the picture changed. Speaking to party organisers at Tudella, she reportedly dropped a bombshell of being able to cancel the whole agreement with a single command to the armed forces.
On Wednesday, the Presidential Secretariat issued a statement, denying or diluting the Tudella outburst. Then on Thursday, the President sent a 11-page letter to the Prime Minister, outlining her response to the agreement based on advice given to her by the committee. That report also showed evidence of confusion or uncertainty with compliments and criticism.
Ms. Kumaratunga reportedly told the Tudella meeting that Mr. Wickremesinghe who had burnt the 2000 draft for a political solution was now seeking a ceasefire with her on his ceasefire deal. The President complained that when she went for UNP cabinet meetings, she felt like she was going to the butcher.
If the President's multi-barrel fire from Tudella caused concern in Sri Lanka, it set off international shockwaves. According to informed sources, the US State Department and the Indian Prime Minister's Office made immediate inquiries to find out whether the President had really said what she had reportedly said.
Locally, the SU and the JVP were elated, thinking they had the President on their bandwagon. But they were deflated when the Presidential Secretariat issued a statement saying the President was committed to the peace process. The PA committee that studied the Ceasefire Agreement was headed by Mr. Kadirgamar (who eventually drafted the response) and included Mangala Samaraweera, H.L.de Silva, Javed Yusuf etc.
A significant feature of the President's response was an indirect attack on Norway. She said her government had initially invited Oslo as a facilitator, but today the facilitators appeared to have grown into decision-making mediators to the extent that it posed a threat to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. While the oblique reprimand to Norway may cause more international ripples, the President precipitated further confusion by stressing her commitment to the peace process though she raised sharp questions on several clauses in the ceasefire agreement.
Adding complications to the confusion in the position of the President and the PA is the strong stand being taken by the PA partners — the LSSP and the CP — in support of the UNF government's peace process. At a joint meeting of the two socialist parties attended by Batty Weerakoon, K. P. Silva, Dew Gunasekera and others, three important decisions were taken.
The first was on reported plans by the government to sell national resources to transitional corporations under pressure from the IMF. The second decision was on alleged attempts to restrict the rights of workers in preference to the rights of big business.
The third and the most important decision was on the ethnic conflict. The LSSP and the CP decided that they would throw their weight behind the ceasefire agreement and other aspects of the peace initiative. They decided to call for a meeting of the PA executive committee and ask for clear-cut principles on the political solution to the ethnic conflict. As the pieces or the pawns were moved on the political chess board, another twist was the behind the scene manoeuvre by MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardene to work out what was dubbed as a 'probationary opposition.' In recent days, Mr. Gunawardene is known to have held discussions with the JVP on the possibility of working out a common position with the PA, especially in opposition to the Wickremesinghe peace initiative.
According to inside sources, Mr. Gunawardene had proposed that JVP representatives be invited to attend Thursday's special meeting at President's House to discuss the ceasefire deal and subsequent meetings to plan out counter strategy in parliament. But Mr. Gunawardene's proposal for another 'probationary' link with the JVP was reportedly shot down by the new opposition leader Mahinda Rajapakse.
Asserting his authority, Mr. Rajapakse said there were major policy differences between the PA and the JVP on the ethnic issue. He said JVP leaders could hold talks with the President if they wished to. But he was opposed to them being invited for PA meetings.
Other members of the PA said the probationary government with the JVP from September to October last year, had cost the PA loads of votes at the December general election and they believed that the mistake must not be repeated. Adding another note of confusion or curiostiy, was the role of the once-powerful Mangala Samaraweera, at one time the main Thawalama peace activist and then the chief broker in the PA-JVP probationary deal last year.
PA analysts believe he is likely to go along with the Dinesh Gunawardene manoeuvre. The Dinesh-JVP link and their conflict with Mr. Rajapakse emerged again on matters relating to the agenda for parliament this week. On a directive from the Prime Minister, Government chief whip Mahinda Samarasinghe had negotiated with Mr. Rajapakse and worked out the agenda. They agreed that a special debate on the ceasefire agreement would be held on Monday and Tuesday, some regulations relating to the 17th Amendment taken up on Wednesday and Gamini Atukorale's vote of condolence on Thursday with two financial regulations being passed without debate.
The UNP had earlier wanted the special debate on the ceasefire to be taken up on Monday only. but Mr. Rajapakse had reportedly insisted on two days and the government chief whip agreed. But at an opposition party leader's meeting on Thursday, the JVP threw another grenade by insisting that two days were not adequate. It wanted three. Significantly, Mr. Gunawardene backed the JVP demand but Mr. Rajapakse was not ready to take it lying down. He said he had diplomatically negotiated for a two-day debate and he was not ready to go back and ask for three now.
As the argument continued, Mr. Rajapakse insisted he was satisfied with two days and if the JVP wanted to, it could bring up the matter at the party leaders' meeting tomorrow. There on it stands. - Courtesy Lankadeepa