ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 38

I was an obstacle to the road map of the Rajapaksa troika

Matara district parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera was Campaign Manager for Mahinda Rajapaksa during the presidential election in November 2005.

He was rewarded for being a principal architect in President Rajapaksa's victory and was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ports and Aviation. In the Cabinet re-shuffle on January 28, he was, however, stripped of the foreign affairs portfolio.

On the night of Friday, February 9 Mr. Samaraweera was sacked from the Cabinet together with ministerial colleague Anura Bandaranaike and non cabinet rank Minister Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi. He learnt of the sacking whilst on a private visit to Singapore. That was from one of his officials.

Since the sacking, Mr. Samaraweera has become the cynosure of political attention. He gave several media interviews this week and addressed a news conference in Parliament on Thursday. Star class hotels declined to accept a booking for the event after his aides alleged a powerful senior official blocked it.

Here is Mr. Samaraweera's own account said in his own words to The Sunday Times.

By Mangala Samaraweera

I was not surprised by the actions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It was an imperious display of executive powers to throw us out of the Cabinet. This was against the very people who worked tirelessly during the last presidential election to bestow such powers on him. That shocked a nation though propaganda and sycophancy, now a new culture, could not bury that reality.

Nor was the expulsion a shock to me. I saw signs of it a month ago. I realized I was becoming an irritant, an obstacle to the powerful inner circle of President Rajapaksa. Today, despite Sri Lanka having the largest cabinet in the world, the actual decisions are made by a powerful troika - President Rajapaksa along with his brothers Basil (Senior Advisor) and Gotabhaya (Secretary to the Ministry of Defence).

The great sense of optimism and hopes of a fresh era free of fear or intimidation loomed large as Mr. Rajapaksa began his Presidency. It began to diminish gradually by the latter part of last year. It became obvious the Presidency was moving away from the centrist path of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and social democratic agenda. It was increasingly clear he was becoming a prisoner of extremist views. Sadly, they were the opposite of what he stood for. More sadly, they were a departure from his own Mahinda Chinthanaya, the pledges on which he came to power.

Mangala speaking at the news conference in Parliament on Thursday. Pic by Lakshman Gunathileke

The fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was conducted with much support from the international community. This was because of the patience and restraint shown by President Rajapaksa in the early stages, despite continuous provocations by Velupillai Prabhakaran and his cadres. As the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, this made my task much easier.

In fact, after a vigorous campaign within the international community we succeeded. The European Community banned the LTTE. They were banned in Canada. Fund raising activity in the United Kingdom and Australia by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation came under serious scrutiny.

After my first meeting with US Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleeza Rice last year, their Government came out strongly in support of our fight against terrorism. Sting operations to curtail fund raising in the US and contact groups to monitor weapons procurements were established.

Relations with India, which my predecessor, the late illustrious Lakshman Kadirgamar described as a 'state of irreversible excellence," was further strengthened. During my tenure, on every visit to New Delhi, Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh and other dignitaries warmly welcomed me. They helped Sri Lanka. They did more than before. For obvious reasons I cannot go into detail. I would only say we are very grateful as a nation for all the help.

Such help was forthcoming and such warmth was extended because of the belief that President Rajapaksa was sincere and genuine in forging a lasting political solution to the ethnic crisis. This is whilst fighting the evils of terrorism. This help was further enhanced because of our records, (both Mr. Rajapaksa's and mine) as human rights activists. Mr. Rajapaksa was well known for championing human rights issues. In the late 1980s, I was convener of the Mother's Front.

However, this support started waning in the middle of last year because of various human rights violations. A group of students were murdered in Trincomalee. There was the massacre of 17 aid workers in Mutur. That was a turning point.

The LTTE who were smarting and furious over their international isolation took maximum advantage of these and other incidents. They used them to their benefit. Together with that, reports of kidnappings, abductions and extra judicial killings started mounting. Media came under constant harassment. There were veiled and insidious threats on those exposing corruption under various guises. At this stage, the international community expressed concern over what they called the culture of impunity. There were serious concerns in various world capitals.

In fact, at several discussions with President Rajapaksa, his brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary and other senior officials of the Government, I raised these issues. I pointed out that if these actions continued, it would badly tarnish the image of the country as well as that of President Rajapaksa. Therefore, I said, we must act urgently to end such activity. Such observations by me, bearing the interests of the nation as the Foreign Minister, were treated with disdain, contempt and as an irritation by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. I tried desperately to show that blatant acts would only benefit the LTTE. They know that their image in the international arena is even more important to them now than the war they wage.

Their objective today is to portray Sri Lanka as a country which continuously violates the rights of its own citizens. It also instigates a United Nations fact finding mission to come to our country against our wishes. They want to portray us as countries like Sudan and Somalia.

If we are to stop such unwarranted intervention in our internal affairs, we should be capable of conducting our own inquiries into such allegations without fear or favour. In fact, the proposal made by us to conduct an independent inquiry into the killing of 17 aid workers in Mutur met with much resistance at the early stages. However, I am glad that our insistence made President Rajapaksa to agree to such a probe. Today, a group of prominent persons have started work.

As the defence establishment continued to refuse to heed my warnings, at one point I requested an urgent one to one meeting with President Rajapaksa. This was to warn him of the impending international outrage. The meeting took place on a Saturday morning in October, last year.

I told him during this meeting that the popularity and respect he has earned in the first few months of his presidency was rapidly deteriorating. I said the general impression in the international community was that President Rajapaksa was unable to control sections of his own Government. In the alternative, they felt, he too was endorsing what was going on. Either way, I pointed out, it was a very bad situation.

President Rajapaksa told me that some sections of the security establishment, perceived to be in the know, had been warned not to condone such acts. He promised to discuss it with his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya. However, despite this meeting there was no change. Kidnappings, abductions and killings continued. As a result, Sri Lanka's image in the international community hit a new low.

I put this fact down in writing in a confidential letter I wrote to President Rajapaksa. There was no response. I don't know whether he discussed this with the Defence Secretary. There was no change in the situation. I strongly believed this was also the turning point in my career as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The decision to remove me was taken in this backdrop.

There have been many occasions when I have been made to feel I am an obstacle. In 2005, when President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the President, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the People's Republic of China. This was during the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister to establish bunkering facilities in the port of Hambantota.

President Rajapaksa wanted this MoU amended to include the construction of a breakwater. This was during the first phase of construction. Two close members of his family sent me two competing proposals for the same project. My Ministry that studied them expressed the wish that the two proposals be merged together. This was not to the liking of the parties concerned. In fact, one of them insisted that the other's proposal be ignored.

As Minister in charge of the subject of aviation, I had to deal with an all powerful Co-ordinating Secretary to the President, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena. He was obsessed with the forming of a so called budget airline. Although I accepted, in principle, the need for a budget airline, what was planned was not to my liking as the Minister in charge of the subject. There were several shortcomings. I explained this to President Rajapaksa as well as to Mr. Gunawardena.

I told both that launching an airline is not like operating a bus on a highway. There are safety requirements of the International Civil Aviation Authority - ICAO - to be met. We cannot take short cuts, not even to satisfy the President. The issue became an irritant to President Rajapaksa.

At a Cabinet meeting, he accused me of destroying promotional billboards of the proposed airline placed on the road to the Bandaranaike International Airport. I learnt Police inquiries later revealed that no such billboards had been placed. These are some of the reasons that triggered off the conspiracy to remove me. My frank and forthright approach was an obstacle to the road map of the Rajapaksa troika.

Because of many of these incidents, I too was wondering how much longer I could remain a part of this administration. My conscience would not allow me to continue much longer in this environment of tyranny.

Although I considered resigning several times during the last three months, I chose to bear all the humiliation. I felt it was not the time to put the Government into a crisis considering the present situation of the country. I had to remain silent without precipitating a crisis for the sake of the country, government and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

However, now the President has spoken. For the sake of the country, he must rectify his ways. He should come back to Mahinda Chinthanaya. That is why I hope there will be a positive response to my ten point proposal sent to him on Thursday.

Although I do not propose to hold Cabinet position again in this Government, if he reverts to the correct path, I will continue to fight with greater enthusiasm whilst being a back bencher.

Portfolios have been taken away from me. I am no more a Cabinet Minister. Despite threats to my life, confirmed by state intelligence agencies, my security has been pruned down to just two police officers. This has exposed me as a prize target to the LTTE. The provision of security is being used as a coercive tool by the puerile to infuse fear and silence me. That cannot force me to bow down. This gross abuse of power and authority has failed to muzzle me. My right to speak the truth for the sake of my country, the well being of our people and in the interests of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party cannot be taken away.

Sooner than later, more and more Sri Lankans will begin to realize the grave dangers they face. I appeal to President Rajapaksa to uphold the trust and confidence placed in his hands by those who elected him. The longer he delays, the larger the damage the troika would cause.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.