ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40
Columns - Political Column

Samarasinghe's show backfires

  • Angry foreign minister says protocol was not followed in Batticaloa trip with envoys
  • LTTE gets better of Govt. on propaganda war

By Our Political Editor

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. In Sri Lanka, however, the axiom goes even further. Politics is also the art of the impossible too. Those who find it impossible to make it to the top are increasingly finding short cuts to fame and fortune in politics.

Gone are the days when our national heroes mingled and mixed with the common man in the villages and towns. Elder statesman of the past like the late D.S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, to name a few, were from that mould. Then came Ranasinghe Premadasa who had a blend of two worlds.

He had the common touch but aspired for greater heights. Nothing wrong one would say. But some of the methods to reach those dizzying heights were rather through the media than with the mandate of the people.

Mangala Samaraweera drawing the attention of journalists to a news item on the front page of last week’s The Sunday Times at a news conference on Thursday. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

An example was his official visit to the United States. When a very very brief meeting with the US President Ronald Reagan was over, he sought a photo-opportunity with the US leader. US Officials insisted that was not on the programme, and so not possible. Premadasa said "just one minute", but the Reagan's aides were equally adamant. Later, a press release that was to contain more than what was discussed was in the making in Colombo, when Sri Lanka's then Ambassador to Washington, journalist turned diplomat Ernest Corea, got wind of it. He implored on those in authority back at home to call it a halt.

Then, there was this Deputy Foreign Minister who got himself photographed with the then US Vice President George Bush Snr., and when the American politician became the President, our man published the photograph saying "With US President George Bush".

Once in Edinburgh, a Sri Lankan President was seen pushing and shoving the crowd at a reception to be photographed with then South African President Nelson Mandela, an iconic figure. Everyone wanted to be photographed with him, but surely the Sri Lankan President ought to have known that she needn't have joined the melee because according to the alphabetical order, Sri Lanka's seat was right next to South Africa, and she was photographed next to the Great Man for the next two days of the Commonwealth Summit.

Recently, in India there was an issue when President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not be photographed with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This led to wild speculation as to whether the Indian Premier has snubbed his Sri Lankan counterpart, which has some ramifications on Indo-Lanka ties as well; when the official Indian version of what happened was that the Sri Lankan delegation had arrived for the Manmohan Singh meeting without informing his staff of the presence of photographers, and such procedures require an hour's prior notice for security and other logistical factors.

This craving to be photographed with world leaders is somewhat understandable for politicians from a relatively small country, and the new generation of politicians is only doing what their illustrious predecessors did.

For them, pictures in the media are like avtur to a jet engine. It rockets themselves to fame, sometimes fortune, and sets a new image in the minds of the unsuspecting public. There are also the others who occasionally find other shortcuts.

One of them is Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights. Enamoured as he is with international affairs, he would have liked to be the Foreign Minister, but was sidelined for the incumbent Rohitha Bogallagama. But Samarasinghe has maintained his links with the Diplomatic Corps., in Colombo keeping them well informed of what's happening in Government. Instead of averting disasters, this week, he is in the midst of one of them. That is after putting together a team of diplomats, UN and Government officials to visit Batticaloa. (Details of the terrifying ordeal appear on the opposite page).

President Rajapaksa who is due back from an official visit to China this week was horrified when he heard the news that a group of foreign diplomats and UN officials had narrowly escaped death when the LTTE directed mortar fire at the Weber Stadium.

Once he got this information, he asked Bogollagama who was with him in Beijing to return to Sri Lanka immediately so that he can re-assure the Colombo based diplomatic community.

The LTTE had somehow turned things around to its favour. It had the temerity to say that Colombo - and the Diplomats who went to Batticaloa should have got their nod before setting off. It was a typical case of the complainant, the Government, becoming the accused. While the Government's Information Department was struggling to get the message out, Kilinochchi's propaganda machine was scoring points.

Having once taken a group of diplomats to Jaffna, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had decided to repeat it with a visit to Batticaloa. Samarasinghe has explained that the decision was made at a meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Affairs on February 20. Later, the Government Agent, Batticaloa S. Arumainayagam, and the security officials in the districts, he had claimed, were informed of this impending high-powered visit. Aides close to President Rajapaksa said they had advised Samarasinghe against the move since the visit would place a heavy load on the Security Forces who were otherwise busy on counter terrorism tasks. In-fact, one senior security official had advised that the diplomats should not be taken to Batticaloa in the immediate future, because the town was still infiltrated with guerrilla cadres mingling with civilians.

The drama began very early that day, not in Batticaloa but in Colombo itself even before the journey had begun. Samarasinghe was at the former Race Course around 7 a.m. and a UN official had been late to arrive. While waiting for the UN official, the European Union Ambassador Julian Wilson arrived at the scene. He told Samarasinghe he had just returned from India and wanted to be excused since he was not feeling well. The British High Commissioner Dominick John Chilcott had already bailed out on the basis that he had a prior engagement. Then, when the Air Force Mi-17 helicopter was airborne, Minister Samarasinghe was to ask the pilot to touch down again. The Canadian High Commissioner, Ms. Angela Bogdan complained she was not comfortable traveling that way and wanted to be dropped. It was not a case of butterflies in the stomach. The pilot veered round and touched down. The doors were opened to let her get off. The Foreign Minister was away in Beijing, and the man who wanted to be Foreign Minister was acting the role, un-officially. Here was the opportunity to take the diplomatic community and show them the re-settlement of internally displaced persons, the human rights situation, the re-captured Vakarai area etc. He sure was taking them for a jolly good ride.

Returning to Colombo, Bogollagama hit out, He said the correct protocol was not followed in taking the diplomats. The Foreign Ministry insisted that foreign diplomats serving in Colombo inform the Foreign Ministry before they undertake such visits, and particularly so to operational areas in the North and East. Samarasinghe, who was planning his media strategy in the past few days spelling out his own story line (besides his own version of how the attacks occurred) hit back by saying that acting Foreign Secretary T.B. Madduwegedera and Foreign Ministry official Ravinath Ariyasinghe, were present at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee meeting. These Foreign Ministry officials had also travelled on the heli-tour. But the question that is being raised by the Foreign Minister, and quite correctly so, is why no official authority was obtained. Whilst there was no barrier to their taking part in the conference in Batticaloa, taking the diplomats to that city could not have been carried out by a Minister who was not in charge of foreign affairs. The Foreign Minister's consent should thus have been obtained.

And so, we have this ironical situation where both, Colombo and Kilinochchi for once are in agreement - though of course, for different reasons, that the proper procedures were not adhered to by the diplomats and the Government.

Some of the diplomats have also complained to Presidential aides that authorities at Weber Stadium did not pay any attention to them. Most of them had only focused on Minister Samarasinghe, leaving them to fend for themselves. This is attributed as one of the reasons why there was so much panic among the otherwise staid diplomats. Presidential Aides said that local politicians were also not happy with the visit specifically naming Amir Ali, Non Cabinet rank minister for Disaster Relief Services as not being in favour of the Group visiting Batticaloa.

Samarasinghe expressed disappointment that President Rajapaksa had not telephoned him or sent any message over the incident from China. Some of his aides even charged that Bogollagama was being set up at the highest levels to make accusations against Samarasinghe. Others were saying that it was probably the other way round, that Bogollagama was setting up the President saying that Samarasinghe was trying to wear his pants while he was away from the country, and doing the wrong things in the process, even endangering the lives of the diplomats. However, Samarasinghe's own account makes him come out the hero, smelling of roses.

The President returns today after signing eight agreements with China, one of which is where two Chinese companies will jointly develop the Hambantota Port. This is where sacked Minister of Ports and Aviation Mangala Samaraweera made an allegation claiming that the President's brother and one another close relative of his family, were involved in canvassing. He has also asked that a Select Committee go into his other allegation that Rajapaksa's Camp entered into a secret deal with the LTTE prior to the 2005 Presidential elections to win their support for Rajapaksa.

In a tv appearance, the President tried to pooh-pooh this theory, but clearly fell short of convincing the public that the allegations lacked any basis. The Opposition United National Party is still discussing internally how to react to this glaring split within the Government camp; their inability to get a move on, and strike when the iron is hot, leaving the Government with not too much to worry about.

Instead, the Government is concentrating on neutralizing the Samaraweera factor, which is becoming a little more than a thorn in the flesh. Samaraweera's political side-kick, Sripathy Sooriyarachchi is also being targeted along with Samaraweera's personal buddy, millionaire businessman Tiran Alles.

CID detectives are probing both these men, Sooriyarachchi and Alles. While investigations have begun into a house owned in London, and a Land Rover that was issued to Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi going missing, the probe on Alles revolves around his mobile phone business deals with the LTTE. Sooriyarachchi is reported to have claimed that the vehicle is still in the garage undergoing repairs, but the inquiries relate to whether the house gifted to him in London was properly declared to relevant authorities, and how genuine his claim is.

The Alles inquiry has now proceeded to Court, but political moves are still afoot among certain quarters close to the President to strike a deal with the Samaraweera faction, and sweep all the allegations under the carpet.

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