The Sri Lankan Scene: Peace Talks on Hold

by T. Sabaratnam; originally published December 15, 2003

Weekly Review

The Sri Lankan Scene

Peace Talks on Hold

Hit Wicket

I will begin this column, as I did last week, with cricket, not with Muttiah Muraleetharan capturing eight wickets in the second test with England, but with the phenomenal ‘hit wicket’ performance of Sri Lanka Cricket Board president Thilanka Sumathipala. I wrote last week that he was in hiding when England was playing here.

Sumathipala appeared before the Acting Colombo Magistrate Ananda Gamlatharachchi on Monday, a public holiday, in the company of two eminent President Counsels, Renzie Arasakularatne and Ananda Wijesekera. They submitted to the acting magistrate that, as the Attorney General’s Department had failed to produce sufficient evidence, Sumathipala be discharged from the complaint made against him that he had committed an offence in obtaining a forged passport and arranging for an underworld criminal, Dhamikka Amarasinghe, to leave the country.

The acting magistrate, without studying the case record which was locked up in the safe of the Chief Magistrate and without hearing the arguments of the Attorney General’s Department, ordered the discharge of Sumathipala on the ground there was not sufficient evidence that he had committed the offence. Sumathipala summoned a press conference in the evening and announced that the sinister campaign conducted to discredit him had failed. He portrayed himself as an innocent victim of a smear campaign.

The Colombo Magistrate Court Lawyers Association, which got wind of the underhand dealings that had taken place, complained to the Chief Justice against the acting magistrate for violating the accepted practice that he had power only to remand or discharge suspects produced by the police. He had no power to hear cases or discharge an accused. Chief Justice Sarath de Silva acted swiftly and interdicted the acting magistrate on Tuesday.

The Chief Magistrate, meanwhile, heard the fresh plaint filed by the Attorney General’s Department on Tuesday and ordered that Sumathipala was only released and not discharged and summoned him to appear before the court on January 8, as the court is now on vacation.

The Colombo Magistrate Court Lawyers Association also lodged a complaint at the Bribery Commission. The acting magistrate, an inveterate gambler, had taken a bribe to discharge Sumathipala, the Bribery Commission was told.

Sumathipala, Sri Lanka’s leading bookie had, a few months ago, announced his intention to contest for the post of president of the International Cricket Board (ICC) and ICC officials are watching intently the developments in Colombo. Apart from this, the Colombo grapevine is discussing the glee with which President Chandrika Kumaratunga received the news of Sugathapala’s arrest order. The order was given by the Colombo Chief Magistrate and police conveyed that information to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Thumping the table she shouted “Jayawewa” which means “Victory.” Two years ago, Sumathipala defeated her uncle Cliford Ratwatte who contested the Sri Lanka Cricket Board presidential election. Last year Sumathipala defeated Arjuna Ranatunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s supporter. When she was told on Tuesday about the filing of a fresh plaint Chandrika Kumaratunga exclaimed: “Now he can’t escape.”

Chandrika Stumped?

While Sri Lanka’s cricket chief hit his own wicket Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, political analysts say, had been clean stumped by Ranil Wickremesinghe. When she took over the ministries of defence, interior and media on November 4 Chandrika Kumaratunga did not bargain for the mess she is in now. She planned to dismiss Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government and form hers. She based her calculation on crossovers from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the United National Front (UNF). That did not happen.

Now she is trying her best to shed the “disruptor of peace talks” image she had earned for herself. She is trying to show she is accommodative while Ranil is adamant. Addressing a representative section of the business community at President’s House on Friday she said that the United National Front leadership had so far failed to respond clearly to her request to work in collaboration with her to build the nation. She said her sole aim is to arrive at a consensus on several matters of national importance with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the betterment of the country.

“All Muslim and Tamil political parties representing parliament have expressed their support to my suggestion of a national government. However, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe does not seem to be very eager to my suggestion, maybe due to personal reasons,” she said.

She added that she had informed the Prime Minister during the recent meetings that, in the event of collaboration between their parties, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could also be drawn in.

“I feel Ranil Wickremesinghe is unwilling because his wings would be clipped if a national government is formed. Then he won’t be able to take decisions by himself, but will have to consult me and my party,” she said.

Chandrika Kumaratunga is also trying to show that she is willing to hand over the subjects that come under the defence ministry to Ranil Wickremesinghe so that he could carry forward the peace process, but he is not willing to be accommodative. During Wednesday’s fourth round of talks Chandrika Kumaratunga told Ranil Wickremesinghe to continue the peace talks.

“You can keep the defence ministry if you want to have it. I don’t need it. But you will have to take over the peace talks,” Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

Chandrika Kumaratunga replied, “You continue the talks. I will assign the defence ministry subjects needed to carry forward the peace talks.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe asked for clarifications. She said she would assign him control over the police and the armed forces in the northeast. Ranil Wickremesinghe said that would not be practical.

“I will give an order to the Northern Commander. You will give an order opposed to mine to the army commander. The army commander will pass that to the northern commander. Whom will the northern commander obey? You are not giving a solution, but trying to create confusion,” Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

The Prime Minister then gave an alternative proposal. It allows the President to keep the defence ministry. All defence-related matters would be decided by the National Security Council which will be presided by the President. The armed forces and the intelligence services would be gazetted under the Prime Minister. The President rejected it.

That ended Wednesday’s meeting and the Samarawickreme- Tittawala Committee, which met on Wednesday night, failed to find a breakthrough. It decided to meet on Friday, but postponed that meeting to Monday.

Ranil Wickremesinghe told the UNP Working Committee on Friday that it is difficult to work with Chandrika Kumaratunga. She keeps changing her position, he said.

The JVP delegation that met Chandrika Kumaratunga on Friday told her the same thing to her face. She told Tilvin Silva, the general secretary, and Wimal Weerawansa, the parliamentary group leader, that she is not prepared to dissolve parliament and hold the parliamentary election after the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between their parties. “Let us first test it in the provincial council election,” she said.

Tilvin Silva replied firmly, “Madam! We are joining hands to overthrow the government. We cannot do that through a provincial council election. You keep on changing your mind.”

Chandrika Kumaratunga knows that her party members are not prepared to face an election. They are getting ready to resist the JVP’s demand for a parliamentary election. The President cannot ignore that threat.

Political analysts say Ranil Wickremesinghe’s call for an election on Saturday at the 49th National Convention of the United National Party, was intended to promote this revolt.

The power struggle between the President and the Prime Minister has gone on for one and a half months. It looks like it will go on. And the LTTE had decided to put on hold the peace talks till a Sinhala leader who has power over the army emerges. LTTE political wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan told this to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentary group that met him on Thursday.

Tigers Woo India

Thamilselvan told the TNA that the LTTE is keen on improving its relations with India and asked its assistance to do so. He pointed out to them the assurance Baslasingham gave India in his London Maweerar Day speech and asked TNA leaders to follow that up.

Balasingham said: “We will not act in any way prejudicial to India’s geo-political, strategic and economic interests. We want to establish friendly relations with the Government of India. As such we are seeking a radical change in India’s attitude.”

Balasingham indicated the basis on which the new friendly relationship could be forged. He said: Both sides have made mistakes in the past. Let us put the past behind us and look forward. We urge India to adopt a new, creative approach and initiate friendly relations with our organization.”

TULF Secretary General R. Sampanthan said: “We feel it is necessary that we maintain good relations with India. We have to counter the attempts now being made by Sinhala chauvinism to instigate India against the Tamils. As a first step we are going to meet the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Nirupan Sen.”

Sinhala chauvinistic groups are currently engaged in creating a conflict between the Tamils and India. The National Patriotic Movement, a radical Sinhala movement, organized by the JVP, met the Indian High Commissioner on Thursday and handed to him a memorandum which said the northeastern province under the LTTE would be a threat to India’s interests. It sought India’s help to de-merge the northeast.

Tamils worldwide should work to defeat the Sinhala chauvinistic design to get India to crush the Tamils. The International Students’ Association of Thamileelam (ISAT) in a press release issued Monday appealed to the Indian government to adopt a positive stance that would help the Tamils of the country to arrive at a fair and just political solution meeting their legitimate aspirations.

The ISAT statement has brought to the notice of the Indian government that “at no time have the Tamils posed a threat to India’s interest, its economic and political stability or even its sovereignty.”

The Federation for Advancement of Tamils’ Education (FATE), in a letter to the Indian Prime Minister, has said: “Tamil people want India to take a stance that would help solve the ethnic conflict and restore peace with dignity and normal life.”

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