Battle for war and peace

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Sunday, May 18th, 2003

Suranimala Logo

2003-05-18
While the government and the LTTE were exploring avenues of bridging their differences and resuming the peace process with the backing of the international community, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was setting the stage for an all-out political confrontation to ensure the peace talks are stalled indefinitely and the Tokyo donor conference derailed.

At first glance, the move by the President to take over the Development Lotteries Board (DLB) may seem insignificant in the overall context of political developments in the country, but it is the manner in which it was done that has had a crippling effect on the peace process and stability in the country.

The LTTE from the very outset of the talks pointed out the unstable political conditions in the south would impact on the peace process sooner than later given the hostility of President Kumaratunga and her chief lieutenant, Lakshman Kadirgamar to the steps undertaken by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's government for the restoration of normalcy through the ceasefire agreement, and that exactly is what seems to be happening.

Uncertain political climate

It was in fact the contention of the Tigers they were not even prepared to consider decommissioning at this stage because the President could at any time dissolve parliament and return to war, in which eventuality they would be forced to fight back and as such decommissioning was out of the question until a final settlement is reached.

And despite questions over LTTE's bona fides in the south following allegations of weapons smuggling through the northern seas, the Tigers while denying the charges have argued that the ceasefire should not work to their detriment especially because of the uncertain political climate in the south.

Having failed to deal with the President at the outset, the government in this situation later sought to restore stability to the peace process through the 19th amendment by showing a two third majority in parliament but that attempt also proved futile with the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Sarath Silva shooting the amendment down.

Furthermore, with each passing day, threats issued by the President to take over the Defence Ministry amongst others and also going back on her written pledge to Speaker Joseph Michael Perera that she will not dissolve parliament as long as the UNF had a majority only helped strengthen the LTTE's hand at the negotiating table and proved their contention the government will not be able to deliver on agreements reached at the negotiating table due to a hostile opposition led by the President.

The dissolution threat issued by the opposition at a press conference on the DLB dispute last week only helped underscore the LTTE's argument.

The final nail in this coffin of course was the President's order to take over the Development Lotteries Board without so much as a cursory message to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

To the LTTE and the country as a whole it confirmed their worst fears - what chance does a government that could not hold on to a lotteries board have in pushing a peace deal through with a hostile president? To that extent, the negotiating process was rendered a meaningless exercise in its current form.

That the President did not so much as inform Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of her decision before sending for printing the gazette notification further reinforced the view she would act on a whim at any given moment and that the Prime Minister in such a situation would be a mere puppet.

For, if the President's directive was to be carried through, the UNF government would become impotent overnight and it would before long crumble like a pack of cards.

Given this situation, the Prime Minister had to fight back not just to save his government but the peace process as well, given the alarm bells it rang in LTTE quarters.

In fact, while this drama was enacted in Colombo, in the Wanni on Saturday, May 10, LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was in consultation with Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham taking stock of the situation.

Prabhakaran told Balasingham that in the given circumstances the government cannot be expected to deliver on a viable alternative to Eelam as long as Kumaratunga remained President and the entire process should be reviewed in the light of ground realities, whilst ensuring there was no return to war.

However, the LTTE was keen to attend the donor conference in Japan to raise funds for the reconstruction of the north east, subject of course to the government having an effective mechanism on the ground ensuring the monies pledged will be channelled effectively for the reconstruction of the north east.

By this time, Balasingham had also convened a meeting of all area leaders both military and political to the Wanni for stocktaking, particularly in the light of the Tokyo donor conference, which the LTTE was under intense diplomatic pressure to attend.

But on Saturday night Balasingham suddenly took ill with kidney related complications and hurried arrangements were made to airlift him and Adele to Colombo and then to London for treatment, leaving Tamilchelvan the task of dealing with the area political leaders.

By this time, another ceremony was also underway in Kilinochchi where former Tamil Congress Leader, Kumar Ponnambalam who was gunned down in Colombo by a Sinhala extremist was being honoured by the LTTE Chief, with a special award for his contribution to the Tamil struggle.

At this ceremony attended by Ponnambalam's widow Yogilakshmi, daughter Mirnalini and son Gajan, who is a member of parliament representing the Jaffna District, Prabhakaran had explained the reasons for suspending LTTE participation in the peace process and the need to implement decisions reached for resuming the dialogue.

PM's problems

The LTTE leader had said he understands Ranil Wickremesinghe was facing a lot of problems at the hands of Kumaratunga, but that the LTTE was not prepared to be a victim of that battle.

Prabhakaran had gone on to say it was always the case in the south where the government of the day was prevented by the opposition from solving this crisis.

"This has always been the case. Knowing Kumaratunga is causing trouble and out to sabotage the process, if we keep talking to a government that cannot deliver, it is then a case of helping to keep the government alive rather than addressing the issues concerning the Tamils. That is not a situation we can get into," Prabhakaran had also said.

He further said if Wickremesinghe moves to implement his election manifesto for which he got a mandate, it would put the President on the defensive and strengthen the peace process and pave the way for resuming talks.

Similar sentiments were expressed when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarians met with LTTE Political Wing Leader Tamilchelvan and other area leaders on Tuesday, March 13, in Kilinochchi where once again the focus was on the resumption of the peace talks and the Tokyo donor conference.

Said Tamilchelvan, "We met Japan's Special Envoy, Akashi. The international community wants us to attend the Tokyo donor conference. Our position is that there is no proper administration to handle money for the reconstruction efforts. The North East Rehabilitation Fund (NERF) could not be made operational due to a legal problem. If a proper administrative structure is put in place to handle the development work, we will consider attending the Tokyo conference," he said.

Added he, "We can also resume peace talks if the resettlement issues are addressed and normalcy restored. The security forces must be moved out of the people's homes and relocated so that resettlement can take place."

Peace process

The bottom line, however, was that there will be no resumption of war but every effort made to address the issues raised through discussion and diplomacy.

In fact at a lunch hosted at the US Ambassador Ashley Will's residence last week to mark the visit of Christina Rocca, the TNA MPs present, R. Sambandan, N. Raviraj, V. Anandasangari and Gajan Ponnambalam were asked whether they believed the peace process was going to fail and their answer was in the negative.

The MPs had said the LTTE was confident the process won't breakdown despite obstacles from the south but that the humanitarian issues raised needed to be addressed speedily.

While these developments were taking place in the Tamil political front, Prime Minister Wickre-mesinghe and Chief Government Negotiator G.L. Peiris together with Finance Minister K.N. Choksy and Defence Minister Tilak Marapone were burning the midnight oil sorting out the legal obstacles to activate NERF.

A breakthrough on this issue to the satisfaction of the Attorney General was achieved on Friday, May 9, and funds pledged in Oslo are soon to be allocated for development work in the north east.

At the same time, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Minister Milinda Moragoda, Secretary to the Prime Minister Bradman Weerakoon and Director General, Peace Secretariat, Bernard Goonetilleke have also prepared a discussion paper for a restructured Subcommittee on Immediate Humanitarian Relief and Needs (SIHRN) which is to be given to the Norwegians and the LTTE for consideration.

And in a bid to kick-start the process again, hectic diplomatic activity was also taking place with visits from Akashi, Rocca and the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jan Peterson who was accompanied by his Deputy, Vidar Helgessen.

Towards this end, the Norwegian Foreign Minister accompanied by Helgessen met with LTTE Leader Prabhakaran who was in the company of negotiators V. Rudrakumaran and Tamilchelvan on Thursday, May 15, in the Wanni where once again, the Tiger supremo complained of the lack of progress on the ground and the need for the government to implement its pledges in the election manifesto.

The thrust of the LTTE argument was that there should be an administrative structure in place to deal with the reconstruction of the north east, which was currently lacking.

After this discussion, the Norwegian duo met with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Ministers Peiris and Moragoda at which meeting Helgessen produced a draft proposal for the establishment of an administrative structure to handle the developmental aspects in the north east to which the government made its own input.

Subsequent to this meeting, Minister Peterson left, leaving behind Helgessen to do his shuttle diplomacy and Friday morning, the Norwegian Deputy fine tuned his draft and was to take wing to the Wanni for further consultations with the LTTE leadership, while Solheim was in London making contact with Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham.

And Helgessen was expected to fly back to Colombo last Saturday evening to further discuss the draft with the government and kick-start the stalled peace process, which was once again beginning to look positive Friday evening.

It is in the midst of these initiatives to revive the peace process and bring long term economic stability to the country through substantial pledges from the Tokyo donor conference that Kumaratunga pulled her DLB stunt.

Visibly angry, the Prime Minister summoned his ministers and the Working Committee and stated categorically this was a political and not legal battle that has to be fought and directed the mobilisation of the people to ensure the government's mandate is not thwarted on flimsy grounds.

But the President was equally adamant and stuck to her guns with the likes of Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Amunugama, Anura Bandaranaike and Lakshman Kadirgamar advising her that back tracking now would devalue her Presidency to an extent she would thereon be a lame duck till the end of her tenure in 2005.

Samaraweera in particular told the President he heard that S.B. Dissanayake had said the government was not in a position to bring the people onto the streets and that Dissanayake also saw a tie-up between the SLFP and the JVP disastrous for the government.

Egged on by such statements, Kumaratunga dug her heels in, while the UNP started mobilising the people.

By this time, both Mass Communication Minister Imthiaz Bakeer Markar and Government Printer Neville Nanayakkara wrote to the Attorney General seeking his opinion on the President's directive to print the gazette vesting the DLB under her.

Attorney General K.C. Kamalasabayson for his part on Sunday, May 11, called in his Deputy, Solicitor General C.R. de Silva and State Counsel Uditha Egalahewa to the Department and went through the law and prepared his response.

The response, however, was to be sent not to the Minister or the Government Printer, but the President.

The AG's response

The Attorney General, obviously not wanting in writing to the Minister embarrass Kumaratunga by stating the President's order was not in accordance with the constitution, addressed his letter to the President, raising in the process questions of his impartiality.

For, since an opinion was sought by the Minister, it is to the Minister he should have responded but instead the Attorney General gave a way out for the President to pull back and save face by forwarding his opinion to Kumaratunga.

The Attorney General in writing to the President said he considered it his duty to inform the President of the constitutional position on this matter.

In that opinion, the Attorney General had said in terms of Article 44(3) of the Constitution, the President should have consulted the Prime Minister since the subject when assigned was done in consultation with the Premier.

Therefore, the Attorney General has opined, the same procedure should have been followed when withdrawing the subject.

The President, however, was not prepared to accept the Attorney General's ruling realising it will stymie her political agenda completely with time fast running out for her before the Tokyo donor conference.

The opposition well realises the government will be hard to unsettle after the donor conference where monies in the region of US$ 1 billion for three consecutive years are expected to be pledged and therefore had to make a destabilisation strike before the donor conference.

Thus, ignoring the Attorney General's advice, Kumaratunga reportedly consulted President's Counsels H.L. de Silva, Lakshman Kadirgamar and Attorney R.K.W. Goonesekera and evolved a strategy of confrontation.

The opinion she received from her legal advisors was the President had exercised her rights within the constitution and that she need not consult the Prime Minister prior to withdrawing any subject from a minister.

It was also decided that the President will accordingly reiterate her position in writing to the Prime Minister, holding him personally liable for the events that followed her directive.

The President's strategy is by tomorrow (Monday) to issue instructions to the board of directors and if they refuse to comply, take disciplinary action followed by reconstituting the board.

At the same time, the President is also hoping to get a third party to obtain an  opinion on the issue from the Supreme Court in her favour thereby hoping it will strengthen her hand.

With the strategy thus worked out, Kumaratunga wrote a four page letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, May 13, claiming she disagrees with the Prime Minister's construction of Article 44 of the Constitution. She studiously avoids, however, making any reference to the Attorney General's opinion on the matter.

Accusations

The President goes on in her letter to accuse several ministers of flouting the law and holds out a threat to the Prime Minister as well.

"All of this is not only unconstitutional and illegal, but also high handed and reprehensible and foreshadows the creeping onset of the attempt to create a climate of fear and coercion in our country. It seems to me that your interpretation of Article 44, while ignoring such naked illegalities, is a case of 'straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.' This is the very antithesis of cohabitation and I regret that I would hold you responsible for the illegal acts of these ministers," Kumaratunga wrote.

The Prime Minister, of course, did not take kindly to this threat and told his senior members, under no circumstances will he concede the DLB to the President.

The government also decided to advice the DLB directors not to respond to any summons by the President. It was to be an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.

One senior minister suggested that the President can be checkmated by a simple amendment to the legislation whereby the DLB can be done away with and reintroduced under another subject of a minister, which the Prime Minister said was a very real possibility and directed his legal team to start preparing a possible draft for consideration by the ministers.

In the meantime, the ministers who met were also getting  increasingly aggressive, telling the Prime Minister that his kindness was taken as weakness by the President and it was high time definite action was taken against her.

Interestingly, a lot of the government's anger was also directed at President's Advisor Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was accused together with Mangala Samaraweera and Sarath Amunugama of masterminding the operation to destabilise the government to what they perceived as an attempt to destabilise the peace process and block the massive aid to revive the economy.

At Monday's meeting of ministers, Commerce Minister Ravi Karunanayake in fact accused Kadirgamar of drafting the gazette paper and Kumaratunga's letter stating he is shamelessly using state facilities to undermine the stability of the government.

"We are having a five star cohabitation and they are returning it with minus five. There are ministers without houses but we have given Kadirgamar an official residence and a fleet of vehicles for security purposes in addition to numerous other facilities which even the ministers of the government do not enjoy. It is not that we grudge him those facilities but he should not under the very cover of the facilities given by the government seek to undermine the government in a manner that is prejudicial to the overall national interest," Karunanayake said.

If he is an honourable man, he must do so by giving up the state patronage afforded to him, the Minister said.

Continuing, Minister Karuna-nayake said Kadirgamar is driven by jealousy that the peace process has held for 18 months when all his efforts to bring the LTTE to the table had failed.

"We must not forget what happened to Jayantha Dhanapala or the intellectual gymnastics of Kadirgamar during the Thawakkal scandal," Karunanayake added, which saw practically every minister voicing similar sentiments, the most vociferous of whom were G.L. Peiris, Rajitha Senaratne, Rukman Senanayake, Gamini Lokuge and W.J.M. Lokubandara.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, however, simply said Kadirgamar has his uses and allowed the issue to pass.

But what the Prime Minister did say was that the government should get ready at electoral level to mobilise the people and take the fight to Kumaratunga.

In fact, both Ministers S.B. Dissanayake and Ravi Karunanayake said if the President pushes the issue to an all-out confrontation, and the government brings the masses on to the streets and march towards President's House, there will be no turning back till Kumaratunga is removed from office. There was no disagreement among the ministers on that score.

CBK's position

In the meantime, Kadirgamar called on Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Tuesday, March 13, and explained the President's position, stating she was very angry over the developments.

The underlying message of Kadirgamar was to give Kumaratunga time to cool down.

These developments were also causing tension within the People's Alliance, particularly after there was a threat of dissolution, which most MPs were unhappy with and several of them speaking to UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema pledged to crossover and contest on the UNP ticket in such an eventuality, fearing the JVP of hijacking the party and the President becoming a prisoner to the likes of Kadirgamar, Samaraweera and Amunugama.

Be that as it may, the frustrations the PA members felt over this state of affairs was underscored by Colombo District MP, Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra just minutes before a press conference convened by the opposition after all efforts by Alavi Mowlana to get Samaraweera or Amunugama failed.

Said Premachandra in an agitated state: "Where are the people who were pushing the President to take over various ministries? Have they brought people on to the streets to support her action? Were they present at the government press? The President is being isolated due to the actions of these people."

And now, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will this week reply the President's letter reiterating his position on the unconstitutionality of her directive and stand firm that the DLB vests under Moragoda's ministry.

With the battle thus continuing, it remains to be seen who will blink first and Wickremesinghe knows only too well if he does, his government and the peace process will be history.