Talking Trivia and the Peace Process
By: Suranimala

While the PA and the UNP continued to dialogue on the proposed constitutional reforms behind close doors, side issues and trivia took precedence over substance last week.

The talks itself are progressing at snails speed with hardly any contentious issues discussed or resolved making it a near impossibility for the new constitution to be in place before a September general election.

In practical terms, it is almost impossible for the PA and the UNP to arrive at a consensus on the reforms, negotiate with the LTTE and other Tamil parties, thereafter have the reforms decided on by the supreme court and get the approval of the people at a referendum, all before September.

And given the minority parties' opposition to the piecemeal amendment of the electoral reforms as a first step, that strategy of the government too will come a cropper compelling it at the end of the day to go for a general election under the prevalent proportional representation system.

Without sounding pessimistic, all indications are, even the talks will not see a breakthrough given the inability of the UNP and the PA to work out on even the appointment of the governor to the satisfaction of the Tamil parties.

Three changes
And already, the union of regions concept has undergone three changes and has today once again reverted from a region to a province after the PA-UNP powwow. This change, no doubt, will be once again rejected by the Tamil parties.

Mind you, this is with the PA, UNP and the Tamil parties not having so far touched on the contentions unit of devolution, executive presidency or the electoral reforms.

In that context, if Chandrika Kumaratunga is to survive in politics after her second tenure as president, the constitution will have to be amended after the general election.

But to do that, a 2/3rds majority will be required and if elections are to be held under the prevalent proportional representation system, it will be nothing more than a distant dream.

Furthermore, given the narrow margin of Kumaratunga's victory and the Muslim Congress and the CWC going it alone at a general election, there is a very real possibility of the PA coming out the loser.

In such an eventuality, Kumaratunga may well be facing the prospect of an impeachment in a UNP majority parliament if the current thinking of the UNP prevails.

All these factors materialising are now in the realm of possibility due to Kumaratunga's failure to accept the UNP's offer of support for the October 1997 draft and have it presented to parliament.

That the government will not be in a position to stick to its agenda or time table was further evidenced after last week's discussion where the opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe informed the president he would be out of the country for three weeks in April. The president herself is planning to leave the country for a similar duration of time during that period.

Thus, after the next three rounds of discussions, it will go down to May and if any substantive agreement is to be reached between the parties, it would be thereafter.

The Slow pace
In fact, the talks are moving at such a slow space, Tuesday's meeting saw over one hour spent on amending the minutes and another hour on discussing political disputes between the PA and the UNP with only about 30 minutes for the constitutional reforms.

The PA delegation on Tuesday headed by Kumaratunga comprised Ministers G. L. Peiris, Indika Gunawardena, M. H. M. Ashraff, Batty Weerakoon, D. M. Jayaratne and Dharmasiri Senanayake. The UNP team comprised Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya, Gamini Athukor- ale, Ronnie de Mel, K. N. Choksy, M. H. Mohamed and Mahinda Samarasinghe.

At the outset of Tuesday's meeting itself, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe once again raised the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) issue and inquired whether the president had listened to the tapes as promised with a view to making a clarification.

Not expecting this opening salvo, the president said she was on holiday for three days and did not get an opportunity of listening to the tapes but would do so before the next meeting.

"Anyway, I asked for a week's time at the last meeting and the week ends only on Thursday," the president said.

Coming in on that note was UNP general secretary Gamini Athukorale who asked Kumaratunga as to when she granted the interview to the FEER. Replied the president , "I can't remember, I think it was in December."

By so saying, the president sought to give the impression, the interview was granted before inviting the UNP for the talks.

Shot back Athukorale - "But your Assistant Secretary Mahanama said it was given on the 3rd of March."

Completely flustered, Mahanama who was present at the meeting said, he was now not too sure of the date but would check on it and inform the UNP.

In fact, when this issue was first raised by the UNP delegation during the March 16 meeting, the president sought to explain what was said and pointed out, the FEER journalist had quoted her out of context.

Kumaratunga on that occasion, when she was asked whether the UNP knew of the assassination conspiracy against her, had said - "I am not sure, but anything maybe possible."

Out of context
It appears that this statement has been highlighted out of context and developed by the journalist, the president said.

The journalist for her part has taken the position, the interview is on tape and that she quoted the president accurately.

Be that as it may, with the March 21 meeting continuing to focus on the minutes of March 16 - which the UNP said was only delivered to them the previous evening - the president referred to a statement made by Anton Balasingham, the LTTE theoretician.

"After Ranil said he will hand me over to the LTTE, Balasingham had slated me in London. In rank filth, Balasingham had said what he would do to me. Another reason why I said there was a nexus between the UNP and the LTTE was because, Ranil had said the army should be pulled back," Kumaratunga said.

Retorted Wickremesinghe - "I never said that. I said some of these soldiers have military fatigue and should be given leave on a rotational basis. The state media as usual distorted my statement."

Thereafter, both delegations continued to amend the minutes relating to the Ja-ela bomb blast when UNP chairman Karu Jayasuriya took exception to a paragraph containing a reference to a UNP-LTTE link, once again made by Kumaratunga.

That paragraph read thus: "It was also common knowledge that the UNP was supposed to be having secret talks with the LTTE during the last 1-2 years. Some statements made by the UNP leadership during the election campaign appeared to confirm this belief."

Jayasuriya said if that statement of the president was to remain in the minutes, the UNP assertion that Kumaratunga was supported by the LTTE during the 1994 presidential election should also be included and included it was.

With that out of the way, Kumaratunga regaled the two delegations with her 'expert' knowledge on grenades.

Explaining how grenades explode, the president said she has held grenades in her hand.

"They are green in colour. The pin has to be taken off and it explodes on impact. In Ja-Ela, the explosion was with fire. Therefore, it was a suicide bomber," Kumaratunga said.

But Athukorale was not ready to accept Kumaratunga as an expert on grenades, and pointing out there were grenades which explode with fire too.

Expert on bombs
And added he - "Of course, you are an expert on bombs. You said on television you carried them on your lap."

This reference saw Kumaratunga batting further on the subject, much to the amusement of the other members.

"Once when about 300 UNP thugs came to my father's Samadhi, they brought bombs and grenades. They threw some which did not explode. I was there. On behalf of my father, I would have thrown a bomb on that occasion. Mervyn Silva and Niyat- hapala were there too. They brought a box with a bomb. I told them to throw it to the sea," the president added.

Having listened to the president, Jayasuriya took issue over a smear campaign carried out by a 'newspaper' under the name of Siyadesa edited by one Meegala Mudiyanse, purportedly backed by the PA. Jayasuriya also gave the address from which the scurrilous news sheet was published.

Kumaratunga however, disassociated herself completely from the work of Meegala Mudiyanse stating she does not condone such actions.

"I gave the number to the NIB. This fellow attacked me also when the UNP was in power. I have been slated right through. I don't bother about it," Kumaratunga added.

She then moved on to her pet theme of bashing The Sunday Leader and Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan, using very disparaging terms to describe Ivan's hands quite oblivious to her own physical disability.

Kumaratunga said, the Leader was now questioning her educational qualifications just to throw mud at her.

Best evidence
The best evidence I have is D. B. Wijetunge. When I was appointed prime minister, since my educational qualifications were taken as an issue during the election campaign, D. B. Wijetunge referred to it. He said the UNP had sent two people to check on my qualifications and upon returning, they had said I passed my examination. I got 48 marks. That was the highest any student got. That is the best evidence I have a degree, she said.

None of the members present however, told the president, the best evidence would be the degree certificate itself which she can produce if available and not what D. B. Wijetunge had to say based on third party information.

Added the president, " I don't read those newspapers. Let them say anything they want. I am not bothered."

However, Jayasuriya was not about to let Kumaratunga take the easy way out. Said he, "If you are character assassinated, it should be taken seriously. If the allegations are not true, it must be countered."

Ronnie's suggestion

By this time, realising, the president was batting all round the wicket other than the all important constitutional reforms, Ranil Wickre- mesinghe egged her on further.

"Did you see S. B. Dissanayake's statement about cricket and you? S. B. had denied making the statement but the newspaper says it has the tape. How can he say you don't know any cricket? I can remember the days I used to come to Rosmead Place to play cricket with Anura and I have seen you too playing cricket," Wickremesinghe said.

Quite pleased at Wickrem- esinghe remembering her 'cricketing days,' Kumaratu- nga said she used to play cricket and knew the game well.

I used to even go for the Royal-Thomian big match, she added.

Possibly realising the president was veering from the issue at hand and talking trivia, Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake passed a subtle hint questioning the need to have all details discussed incorporated in the minutes.

Ronnie's suggestion

Responding to Senanayake was UNP member Ronnie de Mel who said the minutes should reflect only the decisions arrived at, a suggestion both parties accepted.

But Kumaratunga had more to say on matters personal as the discussion veered towards memoirs of political leaders.

"My mother was meticulous in keeping notes. Some guy in London took the diaries and for the last nine years, he has done nothing. He is not returning the diaries either," Kumaratunga said.

Making his own contribution to this subject was Wickremesinghe, who said it was a pity no Sri Lankan leader had written his or her memoirs.

"One person who came close to it was President Jayewardene. He had video taped quite a bit," Wickre- mesinghe said.

Finally, the issue of the governor's appointment was taken up for discussion where two separate drafts prepared by Minister G. L. Peiris and President's Counsel K. N. Choksy were considered.

With both members explaining their respective drafts, after some discussion, it was decided to go along with Choksy's draft.

Two vice PMs
Choksy's draft said the governor will be appointed by the president in consultation with the chief minister and if necessary, refer the appointment to the constitutional council.

It was Ronnie de Mel who first commented on the draft of Minister Peiris which provided for the governor to be appointed by the president with the concurrence of the chief minister. That draft also provided for a committee to consider the appointment, in the event there is no concurrence.

De Mel said it was the first time he heard of an ad hoc body which is extra constitutional having to deal with such an issue.

"I would prefer Mr. Choksy's draft. It is a body incorporated through the constitution itself," he said.

Replied Minister Peiris - "I don't mind a constitutional council. Tamil parties are not comfortable with it. They say the chief minister should have a say in the appointment of the governor."

But de Mel pointed out that the UNP proposal for a constitutional council also provides for two vice presidents of whom one would be the chairman of the constitutional council.

Interjected Choksy - "We can even have both vice presidents in the constitutional council."

Making her own contribution to this aspect was Kumaratunga who recommended the appointment of two vice prime ministers.

This proposal was pooh poohed by Mahinda Sama- rasinghe who said it would complicate the issue of them heading the constitutional council while being in cabinet.

With that, Kumaratunga's suggestion was shot down, but both Ministers M. H. M. Ashraff and Indika Gunawardene said the two vice presidents must not be mere figure heads but have some powers given.

A more significant development was a proposal made by Wickremesinghe on the composition of the cabinet of ministers.

He said the cabinet should reflect, as far as possible, the ethnic composition in the country and provisions made accordingly.

This proposal was unanimously agreed to, after which it was decided the delegation would meet again on March 29, 30 and April 6.

It was also decided that Choksy, G. L. Peiris and Ashraff would meet on Saturday, March 25, (yesterday) to discuss matters pertaining to the judiciary, fundamental rights and the union of regions.

This issue of the Union of Regions was first changed after Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayake opposed it but later it was reintroduced at the instance of the Tamil parties.

However, at the very first meeting between the PA and the UNP on March 9, the Union of Regions issue was taken up, though no finality was reached.

At that meeting, Choksy said the phrase Union of Regions may give the impression the regions have come together to form a single state as in the United States of America.

Unitary state
The UNP delegation said though the party was not insisting on the retention of the word 'Unitary' in the constitution, it may be difficult to sell the phrase Union of Regions to the people in the south.

Taking a different view was Minister Peiris who said the Tamil parties were seeking a federal constitution and that the Union of Regions concept was arrived at as a compromise.

But both Karu Jayasuriya and Choksy said 'province' would be a better word rather than the region, a suggestion, the president readily agreed to.

The president said the words 'comprising of provinces' can be used instead of a 'union of regions.'

The UNP in turn requested more time to consider Article 1 of the draft constitution and revert to the committee.

It is to discuss this unresolved issue that the Choksy-Peiris-Ashraff combine was to meet yesterday (Saturday).

Thus, it is evident, with no agreement possible even on the nature of the state, particularly with the Tamil parties insisting on the Union of Regions it will be a himalayan task to resolve the contentious issues before September.

In this backdrop, only the naive will assume there will be finality reached on the constitution before the general election, considering the outstanding contentions issues such as the executive presidency, electoral reforms and the unit of devolution.

This leads to the question of what options the government and the answer in all probability lies in the controversial words of S. B. Dissanayake on the closure of parliament and the courts.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader - Sunday March 26, 2000