ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 12
Columns - Political Column  

Mariakadey diplomacy to combat the world

  • Jeyaraj's comments draw fire from UN and glorify LTTE
  • Is the Government Spokesman vying with PM?

By Our Political Editor

JVP leaders at their Colombo meeting this week. Pic. by Saman Kariyawasam

Come September and President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa will ascend the podium at the United Nations in New York to address the General Assembly. He will be one of the early speakers and will be in the league of world leaders like United States President George W. Bush, who speak on the opening day.

For Rajapaksa, who wants to tell Presidents, Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and a plethora of dignitaries worldwide the woes of his administration vis-a- vis widespread allegations of human rights violations, abductions, killings, curtailment of media freedom and stifling of fundamental rights, now has other potential problems.

If Rajapaksa's closest political confidants are to be believed, the world-body, or more precisely a trusted international diplomat who is a lieutenant of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is "uncivilised," "a terrorist" and is "in the pay of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)." On the one hand, if they are true that indeed is an unintended compliment to the Tiger guerrillas. They are not only waging a separatist war in Sri Lanka. They have now developed the capability of a 'superpower' to infiltrate the United Nations. Such strong accusations are not coming from naive Naattaameys (men who carry sack loads on their back in their nonsensical prattle in the crowded streets of Pettah). They come from men, who are the leading lights of this administration, holding coveted positions in the Government of Sri Lanka - and aspiring for still greater heights.

All this unwarranted controversy is over remarks made by Sir John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator. Ending a four-day visit to Sri Lanka, Sir John told Reuters news agency in an interview that Sri Lanka is among the most dangerous places on earth for humanitarian workers. Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was disappointed that Sir John did not make those remarks at a news conference held jointly with him at the end of the tour. He felt if that happened, he would have had his right of reply. Instead, Sir John had made the remarks surreptitiously and very un-diplomatically, to say the least.

Government leaders were angry Sir John had placed Sri Lanka high on the ladder of places worldwide where aid workers were at risk. Officials and UN staff in Colombo deliberated over the issue. The result was a news release from the UN in New York to water down the remarks. Not happy with that, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake made a statement in Parliament in which he rejected Sir John's remarks. One would have thought the matter would end there. It did not.

Prime Minister Wickremanayake told a public meeting of the Samurdhi Association of Horana Urban Council last Saturday that Sir John was a "devil, an uncivilised person…." "Ay Yaka", was the Sinhala reference, which sounds much harsher. Following on his footsteps was Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Minister of Highways and Road Development, the official Government Spokesman and Chief Government Whip. He went one-step further declaring Sir John to be a "terrorist in the pay of the LTTE…" He said he would "teach him a lesson. "
It was clear that Fernandopulle wanted to outdo Wickremanayake. What the Prime Minister does, I can do better seemed to be his credo. And of course to score brownie points with the President. In fact, it was almost like saying I can be a better Prime Minister for you.

No sooner the Fernandopulle outburst hit the newsstands, Foreign Ministrer Rohitha Bogollagama enters the fray and says that "he believes" the statement made by the Government Spokesman is his own personal view, and not of the Government. Why? Did he not check whether these were Fernandopulle's personal views or that of the Government. The Bogollagama remarks came after the UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said references by the Sri Lankan Government Spokesman were "unwarranted and unacceptable".

This is not the first time such contradictory stances by Government leaders have surfaced. In July, again Fernandopulle, a close confidant of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, publicly rebuked Premier Wickremanayake. That was for making an official statement in Parliament apologising for the Defence Ministry action of evicting Tamil civilians from lodges in and around Colombo, which caused a stir outside the country. But, this time both Wickremanayake and Fernandopulle were on the same frequency, though the latter was on VHF (Very High Frequency). It was almost like a competition between them to outdo one another in pleasing the Boss.

When the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the official Government Spokesman make utterances they are official. Of course, there are exceptional circumstances under which they would preface their remarks to say it is a personal view. In the case of Mr. Fernandopulle, he is the official Spokesman. He was addressing a news conference for and on behalf of the Government. It does not take even a primary school child to realise that the news conferences are to expound Government thinking and policies. Not personal points of view.
Not even in some of the 'Banana Republics' would the conduct of matters relating to foreign policy assume such crude or even vulgar form. These politicians do not possess the finesse to say what they have to say without resorting to the language of the local Billingsgate - Mariakadey.

Here was a Government trying to take on the whole world. It was Alan Rock first though some argue he erred by making some controversial statements. Now, it's Sir John. True they erred by making controversial statements to please the gallery of world opinon. But what was the response? Anyone expressing a point of view, be it fact or fiction, that is not in tune with the Government open themselves out for bitter personal attacks. Visitors from abroad are not the only ones subjected to this brand new culture. Even those who speak out locally are painted black with the same tar brush. They do no good for the Rajapaksa Government or its already sullied image abroad. They will have to watch out that they are not thrown into the same basket of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his ilk who are portrayed as crazy anti-Western despots, whose people only want to run away from the country.

With all the hemming and hawing, the Government was back to square one on the Sir John's issue. In a letter he wrote to Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe early this week, Sir John was unrepentant over what he told Reuters. He declared "It is …… all the more regrettable that one phrase I used in an interview with Reuters, in response to a question, has attracted quite disproportionate attention in some part of the media and threatens to distort or overshadow the rest of the visit and the discussions, and my absolutely sincere desire to have the most constructive relationship possible with the Government."

"The Under-Secretary is factually correct," former IPS (Inter Press Service) staffer and now Spokesman in the UN Secretary General's Office,Farhan Haq told BBC's Sandeshaya Sinhala Language service on Wednesday. He said that in 2006 Sri Lanka was placed as the second worst country in the world for humanitarian work. This is mainly because seventeen humanitarian workers were killed in a single incident in Mutur, he said.

This Friday, Sir John wrote to President Rajapaksa. The UN Under-Secretary General said, "Over the past week or so, I have been increasingly concerned that one comment of mine in response to a question raised by Reuters attracted such disproportionate attention from the Sri Lankan media, and also from some official institutions and cabinet ministers. I have explained the context in my letter to Minister Samarasinghe earlier this week, and I hope we can now move on. That is why I have not resorted to the wild allegations against me by parts of the Sri Lankan media and some members of your Government, though the allegations that I am a terrorist and the implied threat about teaching me a lesson are matters that I hope displease you as much as they do me."

Undoubtably, Sir John ought to have been more circumspect in the remarks he made to Reuters, especially because he was on a confidence-building mission between the UN and the Government that was suspicious of foreign hands trying to orchestrate events in this small country. And by saying one thing to the local press and another to a foreign news agency lent him to double-speak that western diplomats are famous for. Two wrongs don't make a right, and the Government's response was, to put it mildly, pedestrian.
There was more to come on the Sir John saga as the week progressed. The UN Chief du Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar, 'summoned' Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Prasad Kariyawasam. On behalf of the UN Secretary General, Nambiar asked Kariyawasam whether Fernandopulle's remarks were the official view of the Sri Lanka Government. He had also referred to a Tamil website, which had attributed remarks to Fernandopulle that Sir John would be arrested if he visits Sri Lanka again.

Kariyawasam was to explain that the remarks were personal views of Fernandopulle and did not represent the Government. He was echoing the views of his Minister Bogollagama, who was rushed in to say what he said, as some kind of 'damage-control' to soften the UN. In Colombo, the state run media also raised the bogey that there were elements who were trying to bring the UN and other western powers to the country in a bigger way, and subjugate the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

The latest foreign policy disaster clearly showed that the Government hardly needed any enemies to sully its image. There were enough leaders and officials who could make careless and even callous remarks that reflected badly on the country and its people. Worse enough, they were also deifying the worst enemy the Security Forces were battling by crediting them with tasks like bribing UN officials. The tragedy is that they keep recurring and no one seems conscious of the finer nuances of diplomacy. In Sri Lanka, diplomacy now is loudspeaker rhetoric and vicious name-calling. This has left the Foreign Ministry virtually redundant with the incumbent Minister becoming a celebrated tourist surrendering the voice of the country abroad to all comers.

These developments come at a time when the Government's majority in Parliament remains threatened. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), a coalition partner, has been going, not going and now seems to be going again. The letters of resignation sent in by Arumugam Thondaman and his colleagues from Ministerial and Deputy Ministerial positions remain with the Government. There has been no formal acceptance or rejection of them. Hence, there appears to be a stalemate.

The CWC, which decided to leave the Government and later retracted that position appears stranded, fallen between two stools. Their leader, Thondaman flew in this week, and flew back on Friday to the safe sanctuary of Mother India as the Rajapaksa Government displayed no extra concern whether Thondaman was in the Cabinet, or not. This was after the CWC Politburo decided to demand an apology from President Rajapaksa if they were to return to the Government. When their leaders saw no such apology forthcoming, they declared they would continue to support the Government. They made clear they would not join the National Congress, the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) breakaway faction combine. Nor did they want to see the Government defeated, they said, but it seems their credibility is so low that everyone knows that they will join either side even for a mess of pottage.

The fact that the Government's relations with the CWC were still at a low ebb emerged again when the President's Senior Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, travelled to Loolecondera Estate last week to launch a programme to develop estate roads. CWC leaders were conspicuous by their absence.

Probably because Rajapaksa was in the company of P. Chandrasekeran, leader of the Upcountry People's Front and Minister of Community Development and Social Inequity Eradication. State media gave wide coverage to the latter's participation and the critical remarks he made of Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe at the ceremony. Clearly, Chandrasekeran was taking full advantage of Thondaman's temporary absence from the Cabinet.

It is against this backdrop, that the remarks of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe become relevant. He told a public rally in Colombo on Tuesday his party would no longer support the Government without conditions. The protest rally was a warning to the Government to heed the sufferings of the people, he said.

Judging by the JVP's own capability of generating crowds, the turnout at Lipton Circus in Colombo was relatively less. There were around 6,000 people, not much more. The procession, which was to begin at 2 p.m., did not leave until 3.30 pm. Like the procession that preceded the National Congress rally at Hyde Park on July 26, they took the same route - from Campbell Park, via Borella, Punchi Borella and Symonds Road to Lipton Circus. Senior JVPers explained that they had deliberately kept the turnout low in the light of heavy burdens living costs had cast on the people. But there seemed something of the JVP magic in mass mobilisation, missing.

The protest rally focused on the rising cost of living and the need to combat mounting corruption. Amerasinghe said if the Government failed to bring down the cost of living, they would double up efforts to form a national front. Such a front is intended to drive away the Government. He charged that Government leaders were acting as if they were deaf and blind to the sufferings of the people. The fact that the JVP will not support the UNP forming a Government is not a secret. But then, by driving away the incumbent Government, who were they trying to install in office?

The National Congress was meanwhile spreading its organisational tentacles everywhere. It was Colombo on July 26, Matara last Friday and Anuradhapura this Friday. UNP Leader Wickremesinghe had made a scathing and rather uncharacteristically personal attack on the President and his siblings in Matara last week, likening them to the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and his coterie. Wickremesinghe said the last King came from South India, and changed his name from Kandasamy. His family lived down Malabar Street in Kandy and they took over all the businesses of the hill country Kingdom. He pointed out that even today people change their name and cited as an example a Mahendra who has now become a Mahinda.

The UNP Leader was so pleased with his speech, and so displeased that the national press had left out portions of it, that he, while on a brief undisclosed visit to South India, ordered his Party to print his speech "in full" and have it distributed at the Fort Railway station under the title of Kunchanada - special edition.

In Anuradhapura on Friday, Wickremesinghe carried on from where he left at Matara. Citing from history, he said that while travelling to the ancient capital he was reminded of the time of King Walagambahu, and the under world character Choranada who broke into 18 Buddhist temples and stole the jewellery belonging to the people.

He said today the Government had broken into the Central Bank, ETF, EPF funds, the Bank of Ceylon and the People's Bank which held the public's monies, and were obtaining commercial loans from foreign banks at huge interest rates pawning the future generations. Not satiated, he went on to speak of John de Silva's musical Anuradha Nagaraya, the role of Siri Sangabo, the three brothers Nandatissa, Sanghabodi and Gotabhaya and made some disparaging references to their role in history.

As the National Congress was gaining political ground, a less publicised feature is the number of local and provincial councillors in the district who are joining their ranks. In Matara five provincial councillors are openly backing the Congress. Similar support has also come from Kandy, Ratnapura and Polonnaruwa. Mangala Samaraweera, joint leader told The Sunday Times "the SLFP-M which is a constituent of the National Congress will hold its first seminar in Kandy on September 8. Similar seminars will follow in Nuwara Eliya, Polonnaruwa and Kurunegala."

An interesting feature in appointing electoral organisers, The Sunday Times learnt, was the naming of some persons who are "stand-ins." They will hold the post only until such time potential cross-overs from the Government side occur. National Congress leaders dismissed reports that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga would mount the stage at their rally in Attanagalla next Friday.

She is said to be too busy with the Kumaratunga Foundation that is based in London. This Foundation has tied up with the Bill Clinton Foundation in the US and its work programmes are now being formulated. But Kumaratunga had made no secret about the fact that she is a strong backer of the National Congress. It is known that she has been talking to several of her confidants in the Government. She is also known to have had a lengthy conversation with CWC leader Thondaman.

Even if there is a lull in the battlefields of the North and East, in Sri Lanka's political firmament the canvas seems to be slowly but surely changing. The National Congress has succeeded in drawing crowds in Colombo, Matara and Anuradhapura showing signs that they are emerging as a formidable political force. The Government is following suit by planning meetings of its own in the district. So is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.