CBK showing she’s no lame duck?

The cohabitation arrangement now in force for running the country was not something of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s choice. It was forced on her as a result of her ill-conceived decision to kick out Mr. Rauf Hakeem from the PA cabinet. She wrongly believed that wheeling and dealing with Mrs. Ferial Ashraff and attracting possible UNP defectors would enable her to sideline Hakeem and continue as the country’s all powerful leader till her present term runs out in 2005.

That proved to be her undoing. Hakeem’s departure set off a train of events that forced Kumaratunga to dissolve parliament on the very first day that the constitution allowed her to do so and forced an election she tried to win at any cost. Despite the sweeteners thrown to the electorate, for which the whole country is now paying, she lost the government and the present arrangement has been forced on her. While she continues to flash her dazzling smile and turn on the charm when necessary, she is also determined to show the country that she does not intend being Ranil Wickremesinghe’s lapdog and perform only a ceremonial function.

Last week the president showed her hand when her spokesman, Harim Peiris, called a news conference and revealed that she had directed Interior Minister John Amaratunga to immediately probe the Athurugiriya fiasco that resulted from a seemingly ham-handed attempt by a middle ranking police officer to pin a nasty rap on the previous PA administration through a highly publicized raid. But it now appears that the cop, who carries the name of Udugampola and is the brother of a retired officer whom the PA loves to hate, had only succeeded in blowing the cover of a top secret military operation.

Presumably Amaratunga was inquiring into what went wrong long before the president got into the act. If not, he should have been. What the public know for sure is that Defence Minister Tilak Marapona had taken what damage control measures that were possible after the event and the matter has gone before the supreme court by way of a fundamental rights action. Assuming that her spokesman had not exceeded his brief and not shot his mouth off on some loose remark his boss may have made, as she is sometimes wont to, the only possible interpretation is that the president is trying to show the country and the world that she is no lame duck.

If this is the case, she should have waited at least until her directive had reached Amaratunga before her spokesman went public on the matter. The minister was quoted in yesterday’s Island that he had no problem keeping the president informed about what the current investigation has revealed or is revealing. But up to Thursday, he had received no communication from Kumaratunga. The better way of handling this matter is for the president to have taken it up with the prime minister instead of issuing directions to ministers whose first loyalty will not be to her. That way the cohabitation could have been kept civilised, the way the country would wish it to be.

Given the current status of the peace process, it is very important that the president and the government act in tandem. This is not a time to send out wrong signals to the LTTE and the wider international community that differences that can lead to instability are simmering below the surface. Except for her problem with Mr. S. B. Dissanayake about which she will enjoy some public sympathy, it seemed to be that Kumaratunga meant what she said when she declared that she was backing the peace process. But after Peiris’ news conference, a question mark has appeared. Some of what he said on Thursday was reassuring, for instance that the president and prime minister consulted each other on the peace process after the meetings of the National Security Council she chaired and that there was a good understanding between them.

In point of fact, the National Security Council would have been the most appropriate forum to canvass the Athurugiriya matter. Everybody concerned would have been there — the president, prime minister, defence minister, interior minister, and the service and police chiefs. If the whole business had not already been thrashed out in that forum, something seems to be seriously wrong. If it was and Kumaratunga wanted to know the present score, that’s where she should have asked her questions and issued her directives.

The president, after all, is not famous for having matters of omission and commission by the PA government and its functionaries properly investigated in the years between 1994 and 2001. Examples of this are legion. The fact that she was overly protective of her own people during the days the PA ruled the roost with both the presidency and the government in its hands does not mean that similar licence should be given to the others now in office. If Wickremesinghe is not doing the job of keeping his ministers and appointees in line, it is the business of the president to step in — but in the proper way. Admittedly, it’ll be hard for her to do that given her past record on that score. But we are sure she will be assisted by other organs, notably the free media.

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