Govt. faces international pressure over HR issues

The government is heading towards a major crisis as far as the human rights situation in the country is concerned. The offensive in the East to capture Vakarai and the Air Force bombing in Mannar have come into focus, where it is alleged that civilians are targeted and the security forces are accused of violating human rights.

Thousands of civilians have fled the Vakarai area where security forces are steadily progressing. There were several accusations that civilians had suffered badly in the confrontations between the security forces and the LTTE. In Mannar, Air Force aerial bombardment of a Sea Tiger base had also caused damage to the nearby fishing village of Padahathurai. These human rights concerns drew strong reactions from the international community and particularly from the United Nations, with UN Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Margareta Wahlstrom issuing a strong statement urging both parties to resume peace negotiations.

The European Union and the World Community is apparently exerting pressure on the government to put the record straight regarding the human rights situation and India too is stealthily supporting the stand of the international community.
Germany taking over the Chairmanship of the European Union would not augur well for Sri Lanka. It was Germany’s Minister for Overseas Development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul who moved to freeze aid to Sri Lanka while urging other European countries to do the same. It is also expected that Germany would make matters worse for the government as they take over the Chairmanship of the European Union.

Economic sanctions against Sri Lanka are on the cards and the European Union is likely to push this measure with the support of India and Norway. It is no doubt India is angry with the Sri Lankan government over its attitude regarding the delay in presenting a document that would enable negations to commence with the LTTE.

What India feels is that Sri Lanka should not engage in actions that would create problems for the central government in New Delhi. When the situation deteriorates in the North and the East of Sri Lanka and refugees start fleeing to South India, it sets off a chain reaction that reaches the upper echelons of power in New Delhi.

US diplomats based in Colombo have told most of their local contacts that if the government continues with its present policy, the co-chairs are seriously considering pulling out of the peace process. Most Western diplomats have expressed concern over the statement by Army Commander Sarath Fonseka that they would clear the Jaffna peninsula, after clearing the entirety of the East.
The India factor

When things go badly for Sri Lankan Tamils, the Tamil Nadu state government raises severe objections and starts exerting pressure on the Central Government to take action and raise concern with the government of Sri Lanka. The Central Government is further pressurised by the fact that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s party, the DMK is an important partner in the present coalition government led by the Congress Party of India.

To keep things quiet in the South and maintain the equilibrium in the centre, the Sri Lanka factor is important for India. Unsettled conditions in the North and East of Sri Lanka would certainly hamper the progress in Tamil Nadu which is competing heavily with Bangalore and Hyderabad to become the Information Technology hub of India. When reports of civilian deaths and casualties due to the conflict in Sri Lanka reach Tamil Nadu, it is strong enough to create ripples within the central government which would react against the Sri Lankan government to maintain its power base.

It appears that what India wants is a federal solution to the North-East problem and they have placed faith in the Oslo Declaration agreed upon during the UNP regime where the LTTE agreed to a federal solution under a united Sri Lanka.
India’s position is that the LTTE will have to respect the Oslo Declaration because it was witnessed by the international community and facilitated by Norway who is accepted by both parties. But now, India feels that the Sri Lankan government is deliberately delaying presenting such a solution, since President Mahinda Rajapaksa is strongly aligned with the Marxist JVP and the chauvinist JHU, who are vehemently opposing a solution to the ethnic crisis based on extensive devolution of power. The two ultra nationalist parties are pushing the government towards a military solution that would create more problems for the Rajapaksa administration, as far as the North-East problem is concerned.

The immediate problem faced by the Rajapaksa administration is whether they would be able to clear the entirety of the East and flush out the remaining LTTE pockets or whether India would intervene stealthily and halt military offensives in the East to appease the Tamil Nadu administration. The suspicion in Colombo is that India might open a line to the LTTE via the TNA, since the Indian leaders met a TNA delegation two weeks ago.

Whither MoU?
The UNP seems to be silent in the face of all these problems after having signed the MoU with the government to co-operate on several crucial areas and especially to bring about a solution to the North-East problem. The UNP-SLFP MoU has failed to take off the ground, even after several one-to-one meetings between UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although there have been many discussions between the two parties, the country has not gained anything so far from the MoU which was signed on October 23.

Although the people had not achieved anything in general through the MoU, the two leaders had benefited to quite an extent from it. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been able to keep the main opposition without allowing them to capitalise on the present situation in the face of the sky rocketing cost of living and negative social conditions that have engulfed the country over the past few months. The downturn in the economy, the rampant spread of disease and the unsettled conditions in the country could have been used by the opposition to go back to the people and arouse them to protest. But it did not happen.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was also able to push his budget through parliament without any opposition from Wickremesinghe’s UNP. The UNP without even knowing the contents of the budget, decided to vote for it in parliament.
At the same time, Ranil Wickremesinghe was able to temporarily stop the erosion in his party ranks by assuring the government his party’s support. Wickremesinghe moved strategically to stop the UNPers from crossing over to the government due to his dwindling popularity among the party rank and file. Although the two leaders have been able to strengthen their positions through the MoU, the country is yet to see the benefits.

Problems regarding the Human Rights condition in the country are likely to give more headaches to the government with international attention being drawn to the report by the Special Advisor to the UN Rappateur on Children and Conflict, Allan Rock that the military was supporting the Karuna faction to recruit children to their cadre. The problems that have arisen with the Allan Rock report were discussed in the high echelons of the government where several legal experts were also present. Apparently one expert had advised the government to initiate an inquiry into the Allan Rock report before the international community takes the initiative. But this advice was opposed by many and there had been an exchange of words as well.

New FM?
In this backdrop, the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration has given serious thought to whether Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera would be able to mitigate the damage caused to the Sri Lankan government based on what is emanating from the Western world. The government believes that it is only through diplomacy that they can douse the fury of the West regarding the Human Rights violations in Sri Lanka.

A UNP heavyweight such as Milinda Moragoda was the government’s first choice to take over the reigns of the Foreign Ministry. But Moragoda would not comply unless the UNP comes to a power sharing arrangement with the government as discussed during the initial stages of the discussions between the two parties. But now the government is not concerned with the SLFP-UNP MoU anymore and indications are that the government would even break away from the MoU to safeguard its own interests.

After having failed to get Moragoda to handle the Foreign Ministry which is crucial in the present context, President Mahinda Rajapaksa offered the job to the head of the Sri Lanka delegation at the Geneva peace talks, Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva.
Minister De Silva had mentioned this to several of his close friends, but had turned down the President’s offer. However he had expressed his willingness to take over the Ministry of Ports and Aviation instead. The President has very few options when it comes to appointing a new Foreign Minister. They had also discussed on a compromise nominee for the post of the now vacant Foreign Ministry Secretary. Although government Peace Secretariat Chief Dr. Palith Kohona and the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to New Delhi, Romesh Jayasinghe were in the running for the hotly contested post, now it might transpire that Sri Lankan envoy in Israel Tissa Wijeratne will appointed as the next secretary to the Foreign Ministry. Former Secretary Siri Palihakkara resigned at the end of December. At the moment, Geetha De Silva is co-coordinating the business between the government and the Foreign Ministry. In the meantime, problems within the UNP too have reached boiling point and it is likely that a considerable number of influential UNPers would walk across the floor of the House and support the government shortly.

The crossover talk got credence after President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressing a function last week, said there was no need to go for an election immediately since there are a large number of baby elephants waiting to join the government. However after the President’s remark, former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema had inquired from Ranil Wickremesinghe who was abroad, whether to respond. Wickremesinghe had asked him to remain quiet over it and hold back whoever was trying to cross over.
The President is most unlikely to go for an election at the moment since a recent survey had indicated that the maximum number of seats an SLFP alliance can secure is 107. The same survey revealed that the JVP would get 18 seats.

The likely crossovers are a result of the crisis simmering within the UNP since its defeat at the last Presidential election. It is pertinent to question at this moment as to who is responsible for this crisis within the single largest political party in the country. Most would answer that the situation has become irreversible due to Party Leader Wickremesinghe failing to implement the crucial reforms needed to rejuvenate the party at grassroots level.

It is likely that the reformists who are crossing over would join as a group from the UNP and would support the government as members of the UNP. The reformists are of the view that there is no point in joining as individuals and if they decide to support the government, it would be as an alternate group of the UNP parliamentary group. However, what many feel is that Karu Jayasuriya should not go if he is not offered the Premiership, since a recent survey conducted by the government had indicated that Karu Jayasuriya is the alternate leader to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Therefore, taking Jayasuriya into its ranks is advantageous to the government, since in any case, the government wants Wickremesinghe to remain as Opposition Leader. If Jayasuriya joins the government, the threat of an alternate leader gets diminished and by nature, Jayasuriya is not arrogant or bashful. He is also not an aggressive campaigner and would not go against anyone in a harsh manner.

If Jaysuriya accepts the premiership what should his role be? The main objective should be to instill discipline and some sanity into government quarters which are currently in disarray. Also he should give priority to improving the government’s Human Rights record and the law and order situation, instilling confidence in the people that they are living in a reasonable country where law and order is maintained and not in an autocracy.

Kirivehera meeting
An informal meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Karu Jayasuriya took place at Kataragama with the dawn of the New Year. As a practice, Jayasuriya spends New Year’s eve at the grounds of the Kataragama holy site. On January 1, he offered a pooja to the Kirivehara Dagoba. President Mahinda Rajapaksa also visited Kataragama accompanied by wife Shiranthi. The chief incumbent of the Kirivehara Temple, Venerable Aluthwewa Soratha Thera had organised a New Year table with kiribath and sweet meats at the temple for the President and invited Jayasuriya also to join in. It is here that the duo met and had an informal chat that had also led to much speculation in UNP circles.

All this depends on the seriousness of the thought given by the reformists to join the government. However nothing has been finalised yet and the Wickremesinghe loyalists in the party are doing their utmost to get rid of the reformers and drive them towards joining the government. It is said that the UNP leadership does not mind 10-12 people crossing over, but the number could even be more. The government too is keen on forming a government of national consensus which might materialise in the near future.

With the UNP crossovers on the cards, President Mahinda Rajapksa is also contemplating a cabinet reshuffle within the next two weeks. The most likely changes that could happen are in the portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Tourism. Both Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Anura Bandaranaike, who had not been in the good books of the President of late, would probably get reassigned.

New nexus?
While undercurrents are moving from the UNP towards the government for key reformers to join government ranks, new political alliances are also emerging of a different nature. Political circles are buzzing on a nexus emerging between UNP Leader Wickremesinghe, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Several events that took place recently indicate such an alliance and the relationship between President Rajapaksa and Minister Samaraweera is also at an all time low, with the latter complaining to the President on the interference by the President’s brother and Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in the affairs of the Foreign Ministry.

Also Minister Samaraweera, Deputy Minister Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi and Minister Samaraweera’s close confidante and Chairman of the Airport and Aviation Authority Tiran Alles paid a visit to the Dalada Maligawa with the dawn of the New Year, and paid call to the Mahanayaka Theras of the Malwatte and the Asgiriya Chapters. Most people who know Minister Samaraweera are of the view that this sort of visit is rather unusual for him to undertake. At the same time, an unusual appointment had been made to a media venture financed by Tiran Alles. A close confidante of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Chairman of Lake House during the UNP regime, Attorney-at-Law, Nalin Ladduwahetty has been appointed as the Managing Director of Standard Newspapers, the publishers of the Sunday Standard and Maubima newspapers, which is partly owned by Tiran Alles. It was no secret that the Standard Newspapers were launched just before the Presidential election to prop up the image of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the new appointment, with the shifting of the editorial policy of the newspapers published by the company, has raised many an eyebrow. Soon after the appointment of Ladduwahetty, Editor of the Sunday Standard Rohan Abeywardane submitted his resignation over differences of opinion with the new Managing Director.

In a separate development, Deputy Education Minister Nirmala Kotalawala had written to President Mahinda Rajapksa requesting him to appoint a special Presidential committee of inquiry into the allegations levelled against former President Chandrika Kumaratunga by various parties on what had happened during her tenure in office. Deputy Minister Kotalawala had handed over the letter to the President on January 2. He had also mentioned the allegations levelled against Kumaratunga in the book published by Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan. Kotalawala had requested the President to clear former President Kumaratunga’s name by appointing this commission of inquiry, since he says that the country’s reputation too had suffered after the UNESCO suspended her posting with them.

However many suspect whether this letter is a ploy to further humiliate former President Kumaratunga by appointing a committee of inquiry. The theory being floated is that the letter would have originated from the Rajapaksa camp itself, and is not a spontaneous action on the part of Kotalawala. Deputy Minister Kotalawala on a previous occasion during the last Presidential Election, fired a letter to Minister Anura Bandaranaike questioning him as to why he was not actively supporting the candidature of Mahinda Rajapaksa.



Saddam’s execution and ‘geographical realities’

Perhaps more revealing is the fact that it took Saddam Hussein’s death to unite our fractioned parliamentarians. Sri Lanka and its politicians did not speak in one voice when Lakshman Kadiragamar was murdered. Nor did they protest in unison when Nadarajah Raviraj was gunned down. But when a dictator is executed in another country, they holler with a holier-than-thou attitude.

Last week saw a rare moment of political unity in this country. Ironically though, the issue at stake had little relevance to Sri Lanka: the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A joint news conference saw unlikely political allies such as stalwarts from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the United National Party (UNP) speaking in a single voice, condemning the execution. Even Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera was present representing the Communist Party and it could be readily assumed the government was of the same view, as Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera had earlier issued a statement expressing his “dismay” at “this unfortunate turn of events.”

Diplomatic niceties were thrown to the winds as JVP firebrand Wimal Weerawansa questioned as to who will execute United States President George Bush for “executing 2.5 per cent of the Iraqi population.” The joint protest from the major political parties must have touched a nerve because a day later, the United States envoy in Colombo was vehemently denying the charges against his country, saying it never ventured into Iraq for its oil.

This discussion will not attempt to delve into the merits and de-merits of the Saddam execution. Already, there is a furore about how the former President was mocked at his execution and how its gory proceedings were filmed and broadcast. Much has been said and much more will inevitably be said about this issue.

What is more pertinent is the conduct of western powers when it deals with human rights issues, with gold standards being set, for example for Sri Lanka, to follow. When it suits these countries, however, they waive the rules because they rule the waves.
Consider, for instance, the recent request from Britain when President Mahinda Rajapaksa appealed for assistance from Scotland Yard to probe the killing of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian Nadarajah Raviraj. The assistance would be forthcoming, the President was told, but if anyone was found guilty as a result of such an exercise, they should not be accorded the death penalty!

It does not take a Supreme Court judge to discern that this was most unreasonable. Surely, the remit of Scotland Yard was to assist in apprehending the murderers. They were invited not because they are best sleuths in the world but because the investigation needed a degree of transparency and credibility. But for Britain, or Scotland Yard, to dictate terms about penalties would amount to interference with the judicial process of a sovereign nation.

And what did Britain have to say about the death penalty being meted out to Saddam Hussein? At a media conference, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was pressed for condemnation of the execution but he stalled and stopped short of that saying, “We are against the death penalty, whether it is Saddam or anybody else,” and adding for good measure that “Saddam’s trial had given a very clear reminder of the total and barbaric brutality of that regime.”

Someone once coined the phrase ‘geopolitical realities’ to describe such inconsistencies in policies and principles in statecraft. There are ample examples of this in recent history itself. When the US attempts to take moral high ground on Iraq, saying Saddam was a tyrant who deprived and oppressed his people, it chooses to forget that it has supported rulers against whom similar charges have been made: the Shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines are ready examples in recent times. The difference of course was that while both the Shah and Marcos were staunch allies of the US, Saddam was not!

There are lessons for Sri Lanka in this. Countries such as ours have near-zero value as far as superpowers are concerned. Does that mean we should be subservient to them at all cost? Most certainly not, even if protests in Colombo will hardly be heard amidst the cacophony emanating from the Arab world in this instance.

Colombo has, in the past, demonstrated that it can stand up for what it believes is right. The incident where then British High Commissioner David Gladstone was declared persona-non-grata is a case in point. However, in the recent past, such diplomatic stand-offs have been rare, with Colombo agreeing to whatever the western and regional powers demand.

Perhaps more revealing is the fact that it took Saddam Hussein’s death to unite our fractioned parliamentarians. Sri Lanka and its politicians did not speak in one voice when Lakshman Kadiragamar was murdered. Nor did they protest in unison when Nadarajah Raviraj was gunned down. But when a dictator is executed in another country, they holler with a holier- than-thou attitude.

Protesting the Saddam killing is perhaps to be commended for it takes courage to even voice dismay against the world’s solitary superpower and its allied regimes. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t mask the fact that Sri Lanka should look at its own executions-judicial or otherwise-and learn to condemn them first with a single refrain.


All parties unite to protest Saddam’s execution

The execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which was a sensational issue that rocked the world, echoed and reechoed in Sri Lanka’s political arena and created history, with all political parties in the country reaching a consensus to stage protests to condemn the execution.

They first invited General Secretary of the SLFP, Minister Maitripala Sirisena, whose choice was Minister Hussein Baila, to represent the party. UNP Parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne, JVP Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa, New Left Front Leader Wickremabahu Karunaratne and Sirithunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party, were among other invitees. They decided to call a media conference in this regard. However, Champika Ranawaka of the JHU did not join them.
The media conference was held at Municipal Council Member Azad Sally’s office. The representatives of all political parties condemned the assassination.

“We should have invited Tamilselvan as well,” Wickremabahu quipped.
“You could have done it, couldn’t you?” retorted Weerawansa.
Then looking at Sirithunga Jayasuriya, Weerawansa said, “there, you see the people with underhand dealings, don’t you”
Later, all of them got down to discuss on the main issue.
As the media conference was going on, Rajitha, whispered in Wimal’s ear and said - “the LTTE has jammed the telephones in Kilinochchi. They may have done so to avoid any problem for them.”
The media conference was held in a cordial atmosphere with Rajitha even inviting Wimal to commence the conference. Media personnel were pleased to see the arch enemies in the political arena, join hands in this manner. The JVP politburo met at the party headquarters in Pelawatte on last Tuesday (2) and the possibility of the government going for a snap election was among the main issues discussed.

“At the last meeting, we discussed this issue and decided to prepare for a general election. The government has taken it so seriously, that the President even mentioned about it at the ceremony to hand over appointment letters to RDA labourers. They need not take things seriously if we are wrong. They try to insult us because they know that we are right,” said General Secretary Tilvin Silva.

“Yes, the President’s tight schedule is a clear indication that he is preparing for a general election. So let’s go ahead with our plans to organise the party. After meetings of electoral level organisations, a general meeting of party representatives should be held somewhere in March,” said JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe. The politburo agreed to his plan.

The JVP’s Red Star Relief Worker Brigade left for Valachchainai to provide relief to the displaced families from Vakarai. They distributed more than Rs.1 million worth of essential consumer goods, drugs and school requisites among the displaced families.
The team was led by Anuradhapura District JVP parliamentarians K.D. Lalkantha. The JVP representatives requested the displaced persons to return to their villages as soon as the security forces provided protection to the area.

When the JVP representatives including Deputy Chairman of Committees, Ramalaingam Chandrasekaran, Parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti, Laxman Nipunarachchi were making arrangements to load the relief supplies into lorries parked in front of the party headquarters, a Pajero jeep came and stopped outside. A person who alighted from the Jeep wanted to make a contribution. However, when the JVP representatives explained to him that they were not in a position to accept any contribution in kind as they had already packed them for dispatch, the good Samaritan pocketed out Rs. 16,000 and handed it over to the JVP representatives. Later he introduced himself to the JVP parliamentarians, who knew him by name as a leading businessman in the garment industry.