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Sunday, September 2, 2007

Politics in the week - Opposition gathers momentum as

Opposition gathers momentum as
Rajapaksa takes on the media

-"The Nation" by Ravana

The contradictions in the local political arena have gradually and steadily crept into the media too. Unlike in the past, the media is overtly divided and is advocating various political lines.

The situation has been aggravated with the withdrawal of security given to senior journalist Iqbal Athas. Athas, who counts over 40 years in journalism, is essentially a defence writer who had been threatened by some unruly elements in the Sri Lanka Air Force on an earlier occasion. After the exit of Minister Mangala Samaraweera, he was not in the good books of this government either.

Athas’ forte was defence and he has written defence articles for more than two decades now, causing sheer embarrassment to successive governments on countless occasions.

Athas issue
While the defence establishment was not too keen to provide Athas with security since he often saw flaws in the defence administration, successive governments have nevertheless given him security, albeit with reluctance.
The security issue came up after some airmen threatened him with death at his own residence in the presence of his wife and daughter.

Over the years, Athas has cultivated top defence sources and fallen out with them on many occasions as well, due to his writing.
At present, the issue of Athas has been taken up by the opposition, which is making a song and dance around the country stating that the media in Sri Lanka has been threatened.

The fact remains that it is not only Athas, but the freedom of the media as a whole that is being threatened in Sri Lanka – not just by the government, but by the opposition as well.
The usual practice has been that the government in power always tightens screws on the media by way of imposing various regulations. They often use the archaic Criminal Defamation laws and Press Council laws to browbeat the free media.
Over the years, the independent media has always fallen out with the government in power once it is in office for over six months to one year.

Stifling the media
This tradition has continued with successive governments since the media’s role is to expose the wrongdoings and corrupt acts of the government in office, which irritates the powers that be.
Incidentally, the powers that be operate on the flawed thinking that the independent media supports the opposition, especially when the flaws and corruption of the government are pinpointed.

While the media does not expect the government to go the extra mile to protect the scribes, what it requires today is the freedom to expose corruption, misdeeds and malpractices in the government machinery.
That the media has not been given this freedom is apparent. A case in example is the recently concluded MIG deal – the hot subject of debate among media circles – which prompted the government to withdraw the security given to Athas.

If the government’s role is to remove all the fetters that impede free writing and free expression, then the government is at fault for withdrawing the security given to Athas. We condemn such acts as a threat to the existence of the free media in Sri Lanka.
However, all the blame for attempts to muzzle the media cannot be placed at the feet of President Mahinda Rajapaksa alone. It needs to be said that it is not only Rajapaksa who has had problems with Athas and his exposés. Though the UNP is taking up the Athas’ cause right now, even Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was not too comfortable with Athas during the time he, as Prime Minister, signed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE.

Threat to the CFA
Wickremesinghe was of the view that Athas’ writings were a threat to the very existence of the CFA, since Athas regularly exposed the flaws in the CFA as well as what the LTTE was doing under cover of the CFA.
One such allegation that was levelled against the Wickremesinghe administration, which was in power from 2001 to 2004, was that the LTTE had set up camp at Manirasakulum, which was then under the control of the government.

When the media highlighted this, the Wickremesinghe government was not too pleased with the scribes. Wickremesinghe even went to the extent of getting some journalists to write a column to counter Athas’ column.
The theory that has been adopted now is that ‘one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend’ and as a result, the UNP has apparently taken up the Athas issue in a big way.

Politically, Wickremesinghe is doing the right thing, because he has to topple this government by hook or by crook before the end of this year to show his party that he can deliver the goods. Therefore, this issue has presented a good opportunity for Wickremesinghe to thrive on the mistakes of the present government.

First it was Alan Rockwood, subsequently John Holmes, finally Ban ki Moon and now Iqbal Athas. All these issues are being taken up by the UNP for the greater benefit of the UNP and the government is foolishly playing into the hands of the opposition. On the local scene now, the Iqbal Athas case has centre stage for the opposition.

Political game
It must be said that Wickremesinghe’s political acumen is far greater than that of those in the government right now. It is evident that Wickremesinghe is moving the pawns on the political chessboard to checkmate Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is a difficult political game for both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa because both of them are determined people. Undoubtedly, Wickremesinghe will use all the resources at his disposal to oust Rajapaksa at least by the budget.

Last week, Wickremesinghe had consultations with former President Kumaratunga to devise a method to achieve his final goal. He had an extensive discussion at Kumaratunga’s residence on the present political situation and urged her to put her weight behind Mangala Samaraweera in order to pull this government down by the end of the year.

The UNP has mathematically calculated as to how it would defeat the government in Parliament and proceed thereafter to clip the wings of the President. It is apparent that Kumaratunga has no sympathy for her own nominee, Rajapaksa, who is now at the helm

CBK vs. MR
History shows that Kumaratunga hates Rajapaksa with a passion. Rajapaksa organised a paada yathra to walk up to Kataragama when the SLFP was in opposition, and Kumaratunga forcibly joined the paada yathra, only to face a fierce attack from the Rajapaksa camp. This incident, among others, had not been forgotten by Kumaratunga even when she accommodated Rajapaksa in her cabinet.

Kumaratunga had even reprimanded Rajapaksa once for intimidating former Central Bank Governor A.S. Jayewardene, who had attended a meeting of the government group.
Mutual hostility appears to have coloured their relations over the years though many are of the perception that the Bandaranaikes were close to the Rajapaksas. Recent history however shows that they were at logger heads all along.

Meanwhile, the discussion between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe centered round the modus operandi to be adopted in order to topple the incumbent government, the numbers game and how much support they could solicit from the government benches. All these issues were discussed at length and Wickremesinghe is of the opinion that Kumaratunga has something up her sleeve to expose the Rajapaksa administration.
Now everything is set for the final showdown, which will probably come in November during the budget time or even before.

No confidence
At the UNP’s Political Affairs Committee meeting held on Wednesday, the matter was discussed at length and it was decided to bring in a vote of no confidence on the government on various issues, including the MIG deal, the non-implementation of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) report, bribery, corruption, and various other misdeeds of the government.

This thinking was first mooted by Ravi Karunanayake at the Political Affairs Committee meeting and in the discussion that ensued, it was pointed out that it was necessary to rope in the JVP as well to support the UNP’s vote of no confidence.
The JVP was vociferous in demanding that the government punishes those who were found guilty on the report submitted by COPE.

The UNP is apparently using the JVP argument against the government to its advantage and to solicit the support of the JVP. The thinking of the UNP is that the JVP would not be able to back out if corruption charges are levelled against the government since the JVP claims to stand for a corrupt free administration. Therefore, the UNP appears to be laying a trap for the JVP by moving this resolution in Parliament.

With the UNP’s intention to bring in a vote of no confidence, the government will further slide into a political quagmire and would try to keep its numbers intact by using various methods to incite the members from the opposition to support the government by promising them various perks.

On the other hand, the UNP would, along with Samaraweera, try to use the clout Kumaratunga has with the SLFPers to their advantage.

President bothered and bewildered
Against this backdrop, President Rajapaksa is naturally perturbed, given the goings on in the political field. He is apparently baffled as to why Kumaratunga has been toeing a hard line against him since he assumed office as President.
He had told some close friends that after Kumaratunga assumed duties as the Party Leader, he did not attempt to subvert her office or her administration by supporting the opposition while being in the government ranks.

The President’s thinking is that he has not acted against Kumaratunga in any manner since she left office and that it was her close associates who went against her instead. He had also said that he had no hand in getting an election one year before her term ended and it was a court decision which was taken based on an application made by the JHU. Even Wickremesinghe wanted an election in 2005.

Rajapaksa had also said that it was Kumaratunga’s own friends who at one stage had gone to court demanding the withdrawal of her security and the perks that she was enjoying following a cabinet decision made after her retirement.
He had said that he had had no hand in any of these matters and the people who went against Kumaratunga were her own friends and not his, then or now. The President had apparently cited ‘Chaura Rajina’ as one good example of her own friends who have become her foes.

President Rajapaksa had also said that he had not changed the SLFP General Secretary or the Leader of the House after he became President and that all of them were Kumaratunga nominees.
He claimed, however, that he was compelled to take over the leadership of the party since Kumaratunga’s prolonged absence from the country had resulted in a collapse of the decision making process of the party.

Kumaratunga’s position
As a result of all this, Rajapaksa is wondering why Kumaratunga is planning to go on a rampage against him, supporting the opposition cause.
However, we are yet to see whether Kumaratunga will take on the cause of the UNP and turn her back on her own party by addressing opposition meetings and supporting the opposition openly.

Senior SLFPers are of the opinion that it is not the right time for Kumaratunga to come out openly against the government even if she has a grudge against it. What is obvious to those watching the political developments closely, is that something is going on in a very discreet manner. However, as to whether Kumaratunga would move against the SLFP which was founded by her parents is a question that begs an answer.

The perception of the SLFPers appears to be that she is in touch with most of the people who have a bone to pick with the Rajapaksa administration.
Be that as it may, it now appears that Kumaratunga has confessed to her close friends that she is under tremendous pressure from the government and that the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration is making every effort to keep a check on her, even going to the extent of monitoring those who are visiting or telephoning her.

She had apparently said that the barrier that has been setup near her residence was erected on the pretext of giving her additional security, but that it was actually put in place to monitor her movements and those who are in contact with her.

Ground situation
All these events are likely to culminate very soon with the Samaraweera-Wickremesinghe attack on the government gathering momentum. More and more people are rallying around them as the ground situation worsens day by day, with the rupee plunging to an all time low against the dollar and the cost of living rising to exorbitant heights.

Though some people believe that the government has executed the war in a commendable manner in the east, the economic situation is fast dwindling and living standards are deteriorating rapidly.

The general thinking is that the UNP has a lot of experience in economic management and would put the economy back on track while it would not give priority to the war, which consumes a large amount of public money that could be channelled for other development work.

If the UNP is in power, peace initiatives would take shape and it would compel the LTTE to come to the negotiating table to start from where they left off.

However, the most pertinent question that would arise in such a scenario is whether the UNP would be able to implement the same Ceasefire Agreement in the present geo political context or whether it would be compelled to negotiate a fresh deal with the LTTE, using Norwegian facilitators once again.


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