Net closes in on Chandrika

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Sunday, May 12th, 2002

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Suranimala 05-12-2002
While the noose slowly but surely tightened around the high flyers of the People's Alliance on issues relating to corruption, violence and abuse of power, the government last week decided to proceed with its reform agenda, notwithstanding opposition from President Chandrika Kuma-ratunga and the SLFP.

Though it was clear from the outset President Chandrika Kumaratunga will pull the rug under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's feet on the peace process at an opportune moment, the UNF leader worked on the basis the president would eventually see reason and work towards cohabitation, only to realise time was running out with Kumaratunga herself placing more and more road blocks along the long hard road to peace, hence the decision to push his agenda to the exclusion of the president.

For Wickremesinghe, cohabiting with the president in the first instance was no easy task due to pressure from his own ranks, given the startling evidence unearthed by the CID on organised violence by the PSD under the direction of Kumaratunga no less, but the prime minister was moving towards a compromise in the overall national interest to achieve peace. That, however, has now come to naught with Wickremesinghe himself telling his ministers the president was working towards sabotaging his peace efforts using the JVP as the cat's paw.

Green light for investigations

Given this situation, the prime minister has given the green light to expedite investigations on the privatisation of Air Lanka, Shell, the locomotive deal, and the Katunayake-Colombo expressway project, with special emphasis on the Bahamas link of Ronnie Peiris.

This matter the prime minister specifically discussed with Defence, Transport, Highways and Aviation Minister Thilak Marapona, who has already called for the files on the expressway project.

The prime minister earlier received reports from the SLFP that the president's strategy was to involve the UNF in dialogue and play for time, offering conditional support for the constitutional reform agenda as well as the peace process, but opted to believe the president will put behind parochial politics and be a shareholder in his peace journey, only to realise his faith was misplaced.

With the SLFP announcing its position on the peace process as well as opposing moves to amend the constitutional right of the president to unilaterally dissolve parliament after one year, the prime minister realised he had to act fast if he is to checkmate the president on her strategy.

Thus, Wickremesinghe decided to up the tempo the previous week by informing his ministers that in future, all cabinet meetings with be at the cabinet office in Fort and not at President's House.

"We will start the meetings sharp at 6.30 p.m. irrespective of who is present," the prime minister said.

And following this week's cabinet meeting on Wednesday, May 8, the prime minister met with Ministers G.L. Peiris, Bandula Gunawardene, S.B. Dissanayake, Milinda Moragoda, Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, and decided to introduce the constitutional amendment not just permitting a conscience vote, but also to take away the president's power to unilaterally dissolve parliament at the end of one year.

The prime minister told the ministers present that it was clear the PA was only playing for time by trying to engage the UNF in a dialogue on the reforms and that the government should call their bluff by introducing the constitutional amendments.

Having said that, Wickremesinghe asked whether they had the required 22 PA MPs to get the necessary two thirds majority, and it was UNP Chairman Malik Samara-wickrema who pointed out there were 17 confirmed votes with 11 still being spoken to.

At this point, Ministers G.L. Peiris and S.B. Dissanayake both said the numbers won't be a problem and that they should proceed with the amendment as early as possible.

Minister Dissanayake said the moment the government gets the two thirds majority, the PA will plunge into a severe crisis, forcing President Kumaratunga to call it quits.

"That is the only way to do it. There is no point in trying to get their official support for the amendment just to keep them on board for the peace process. It is now clear from their campaigns and the statements issued that the president will never support the process, so why wait in anticipation and have her pull the rug under our feet at the last moment," he said.

Chairman Samarawickrema agreeing with Minister Dissanayake said they have the support of 17 MPs without any effort and  getting the balance five was an easy task.

Having listened to the members, the prime minister told Minister Peiris to finalise the legislation and reconvene for stocktaking on Friday, after lobbying more members in parliament that week.

This fighting mood of the prime minister was also evident at the UNP's working committee on Monday, May 6, where he said the president has committed the country to a suicidal contract on the Air Lanka privatisation and that the matter has to be gone into fully.

The issue came into focus when the working committee discussed the impending privatisation programme of the government with a view to restructuring the economy with Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Ravi Karunanayake leading the way.

Minister Karunanayake said that while the CID has unearthed damning evidence against the PSD with the finger pointing directly at the president on the large-scale violence perpetrated in the country, the government had done little to investigate the allegations of corruption the UNP levelled while in opposition.

"One such issue is the privatisation of Air Lanka. The prime minister as then opposition leader wrote to MIGA stating a future UNP government will not be bound by the terms of the agreement which was riddled with allegations of corruption. We even printed a booklet on it. Now nothing is happening," the minister said.

Continuing, Karunanayake said the government is yet to fulfill the pledges it made before the elections and accordingly the agreement with Emirates should be abrogated or renegotiated for the benefit of Sri Lanka.

Speaking further, Karunanayake said, "In addition, it is time we take action against the president notwithstanding the immunity she enjoys. Let us bring a constitutional amendment to make the president answerable to parliament and the judiciary. Look at the crimes committed in the name of the PSD. It is a disgrace to the nation, irrespective of party politics. She is nothing more than a bandit queen. We must also move against the chief justice speedily."

Supporting Karunanayake was Cooperatives Minister, Abdul Cader, who also urged the importance of taking action on the Air Lanka deal and other issues raised by the UNP while in opposition.

A second airline

Having listened to the ministers, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said with regard to the Air Lanka deal, two main areas have to be looked at first, one of which was the bilateral aspect in the context of having a second airline. "There are already expressions of interest and we will go into it," the prime minister said.

"The other important aspect is the control Emirates has over the cargo charges. They are charging high prices and using it to subsidise the running of the airline. As a result our exporters and businessmen get hit and is contributing to our uncompetitiveness in the world market," he added.

The prime minister went on to say that both Emirates and SriLankan Airlines has one person to thank today for being liquid, that person being Mr. Velupillai Prabhakaran.

"It is because of the insurance money received following the attack on Katunayake and the aircraft, that SriLankan Airlines has been able to stay liquid. A committee is looking into the entire agreement and will come up with the necessary amendments," the prime minister added.

The prime minister further said he had appointed a very efficient team to the board, two of whom, Chairman Daya Pelpola and Chanaka de Silva, are in the working committee and that they were keeping him briefed of the goings-on at the airline.

Interjecting at this point, Aviation Minister, Tilak Marapona said the committee has met several times and will present its report shortly.

Added Labour Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe: "We have to also look at the party manifesto and start delivering on all the promises made."

Replied the prime minister: "A system to do that is already in place to take all the proposals in the manifesto separately. My objective is to deliver on the manifesto. It is very much underway and in June the process will start."

It is after this working committee meeting that the prime minister gave the green light to speed up the reform process with a view to taking the PA head-on.

The president on the other hand is increasingly under pressure with former PSD Chief Nihal Karunaratne too taking umbrage at Kumaratunga's attempts to distance herself from the activities of the PSD and has started spilling the beans.

It was only last week Karunaratne confessed to the CID, he was present at the violent Cricket Board elections of 1999, on the instructions of the president. More gems are to come from Karunaratne.

What had irked Karunaratne was the president's visit to see him in hospital while under arrest and the message she had for him.

Great expectations

While Karunaratne had expected the president to move heaven and earth to get him out having only carried out her orders, Kumaratunga had told her security chief that he should go to Bogambara prison without making a fuss. "I will give immediate orders to build two separate toilets for you," the president had said.

The president's strategy, according to what Karunaratne had later told confidantes was to keep him in custody, thereby preventing him from gravitating towards the government and being a state witness.

Karunaratne also believes, when that strategy did not work, the president sought to distance herself from him by criticising him at the central committee by linking him to smuggling weapons to the LTTE.

"No more will I have anything to do with the president. She has let me down," Karunaratne had last week told confidantes after his passport too was impounded.

Thus, with the net closing in, President Kumaratunga is bound to do everything in her power to oust the UNF in a game of survival, with the prime minister now set to call her bluff.