Political Column  

President facing deadly enemy within
By Our Political Editor
An incident that made clear President Mahinda Rajapaksa's six month old Government has to contend with an unseen but potent enemy within whilst facing a powerful one outside emerged this week.

On Tuesday night word arrived that five armed men carrying Kalashnikovs and T-56 assault rifles had broken into the Uthayan newspaper office in Jaffna, shot dead two employees, damaged computers and other equipment. He was visibly angry. Aides said he felt someone with a different agenda was trying to embarrass him and his Government. He telephoned Police Chief Chandra Fernando and ordered him to find out who was responsible.

That same night Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa was hosting foreign and local journalists for a UNESCO sponsored three-day event to mark World Press Freedom Day. A cultural pageant was under way at a five star hotel. Dinner was to follow. Sunanda Deshapriya, Convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM) climbed the stage, grabbed a microphone and announced the news of the attack on the Uthayan newspaper that night. A group of local journalists walked out in protest.
On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning presidential aides were debating how to resolve a problem that had arisen. There were reports that a group of local journalists would stage a walk out at a ceremony that was the grand finale. It was the Award Ceremony of UNESCO-GUILLERMO CANO WORLD PRESS FREEDOM PRIZE 2006.

It was President Rajapaksa who was to make the award. Should he keep away and ask Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to deputise? That was not possible. The President was to host both local and foreign delegates to a reception at "Temple Trees" on Wednesday evening. How does one avoid any embarrassment or security risks posed by a walk out?

A formula was worked out. It was decided to ban the presence of media photographers at the event. The Information Department would distribute photographs to all media. Government officials explained it was necessitated by security considerations. UNESCO had chosen Colombo as the venue for this world event to mark press freedom. Alas, media cameraman who form an integral part of the media, were denied the freedom to practise their trade on an occasion when the whole world, and the very organisers of the event, was acknowledging the freedom to do so.

When President Rajapaksa arrived on Wednesday evening for the award ceremony at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) things were calm. There were no walk outs. Those who planned such a thing, later decided not to do so. Some local journalists, however, kept away from the evening reception. But nothing was marred.
President Rajapaksa and his administration's popularity in the past six months have been at peak-level.

If some doubted a victory at the November 2005 presidential polls, he proved them wrong, and won to become the fifth executive president of the republic. Proof that his popularity had soared became clear during the local government polls in March this year. And now, Rajapaksa faces many formidable challenges if he is to maintain that high level of confidence and national popularity. Though some of them may seem ordinary issues, they need extraordinary measures. That means hard decisions.

The scourge of corruption has gripped many areas including his Cabinet and the highest levels of the nation's security establishment. Little or nothing has been done amidst growing reports that changes in law or lucrative foreign postings are on the cards to help some get away. What has been dubbed as Asia's biggest swindle, the VAT scam, has largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers or prime time news slots on television and radio. CID detectives or their bosses have become cagey about telling the public how billions of public funds have gone to make billionaires and millionaires of small time crooks. Economic burdens, the result of the recent fuel price hikes, are weighing heavily on a cross section of the Sri Lankan society. Fears of a war looming large may cripple other vital sectors like foreign investment, tourism and the hotel industry.

It is in this grim backdrop that President Rajapaksa faces two formidable fronts. One is the peace process he kick-started, after it had remained deadlocked since April 2003. The intransigence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which built a stronger military machine during the four years of ceasefire, has now brought a war threat. Even if Sri Lankans have not been told of this reality and hopes are being raised weekly on resumption of peace talks, the Government has become alive to the problems it may cause. It is in this backdrop that an unseen and unknown enemy within had struck an unkind blow to the Rajapaksa Administration, and portends to be a serious threat.

On President Rajapaksa's directive, Police Chief Fernando detailed DIG (CID) Asoka Wijetilleke to send a team to Jaffna. Led by ASP Marks CID detectives are now in Jaffna probing the attack on the Uthayan newspaper office. Eye witnesses have said that five persons, two clutching AK-47s, two others with T-56 rifles and the third with a pistol had entered the office premises around 7.15 p.m. Two others had been waiting outside on motor cycles with engines running and the lights switched on.

Since 1998 the Uthayan newspaper is located in a complex of four houses along Kasturiyar road, named after a Brahmin family that had owned the houses. The late Kasturiar was the father of one time Attorney General Shiva Pasupati, who later became a legal adviser to the LTTE, and lives abroad.

Detectives have found several live rounds of ammunition at the scene. They suspect these rounds did not detonate since they were old. Moreover, eye witnesses have said one of the assailants hit his Kalashnikov rifle on the ground a number of times after he found the bullets inside the magazine were not firing. They have also said that the five persons who entered the premises had spoken in Tamil whilst the two others who remained in motor cycles spoke Sinhala. Before departing, one of the attackers had told the security guard they did not kill him only for one reason.

They had wanted him to convey a message to another Tamil newspaper, Eelanadu warning them that they too would face the same fate. The publishers of the Uthayan say they had angered the leader of a Tamil political party after they ran cartoons lampooning him. But high ranking Government and security officials are disturbed that the attack was carried out to coincide with press freedom observances in Colombo. Police guards have now been posted both at Uthayan and Eelanadu newspaper offices in Jaffna.

Though perceived as a pro LTTE newspaper, Uthayan is the most widely read in the Jaffna peninsula. Its columns are often sought out by the Government and the armed forces in Jaffna to reach out to the public in the area. Thus the attack is being viewed by senior Government officials in Colombo as an attempt to sully the image of President Rajapaksa and his Government in the eyes of the public in "controlled" areas of the peninsula.

Some leading electronic state media outlets accused the LTTE of carrying out the attack although the preliminary findings of the CID team, now in Jaffna, have ruled out this possibility. It has already drawn a retaliatory response from the LTTE. Using the name of a front organisation, the LTTE has called upon Tamil journalists and news casters in state TV organisations to quit their jobs. This is on the basis that they should not "be part of any Government propaganda activity." There have also been intelligence warnings of a possible guerrilla attack on a media office in Colombo as a tit for tat measure.

Fears of an outbreak of hostilities with the Tiger guerrillas have prompted the Government to take a number of measures. This is to prevent the disruption of normal life of the community. Ministry Secretaries, Heads of Government Departments, Statutory bodies, top officials of state banks were among those summoned for special conferences at the Presidential Secretariat.

This week leaders of trade unions were at the Presidential Secretariat to be briefed by Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Daya Sandagiri, who is also facing an inquiry into allegations of corruption by a Presidential Commission. Others who spoke were Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera. Venerable Muruthetuwe Ananda who heads a leading trade union in the health sector said his members were conscious of the ongoing developments and were ready to help. Another trade union leader spoke of the need for greater security consciousness. He said he was body searched when he arrived at the Presidential Secretariat. However, no one wanted him to remove his shoes and conduct a thorough examination.

The Government is also taking steps to strengthen civil defence organisations. A top level conference in this regard was held on Friday at the Ministry of Defence. It is likely that this aspect of security precautions may be placed in the hands of the former Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte. He is now national organiser of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and is tasked with the responsibility of building grass roots level organisations for the party. The idea in strengthening civil defence organisations is to ensure greater public preparedness.

Meanwhile, the reference in this column last week to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw making a telephone call to his Sri Lankan counterpart, Mangala Samaraweera has drawn a response from John Culley, High Commission Spokesperson. He said there was "no conversation" between Mr. Straw and Mr. Samaraweera. "There was a conversation between our Deputy High Commissioner Ms. Lesley Craig, and Mr. Samaraweera on 25 April. In this conversation, Ms. Craig passed on the condolences of the British government, including the personal condolences of Mr. Straw, over the attack on the army commander".

The British government seemed to have been embarrassed over local media reports that seemed to say that the Air Force bombings over Sampur on April 25 and 26 immediately after the assassination attempt on the army commander were stopped after the British Foreign Secretary had urged his Sri Lankan counterpart to stop bombing civilians. The High Commission statement was at pains to make it clear that the "main purpose " of the communication to Minister Samaraweera was to pass on the British government's official condolences at the attack on the army commander.

Samaraweera left yesterday for India to brief leaders in New Delhi about developments related to the peace process. He is also scheduled to visit Japan and Norway. Oslo is already making elaborate preparations for a high profile welcome to him since he will be the first Government minister in the Rajapaksa Administration to go there. More so since talks with the LTTE resumed in Geneva in February.

There was also some history created by the SLMM, the group of Scandanivan nationals tasked to monitor the ceasefire. Once its former head, Hagrup Haukland told Foreign Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa the LTTE were "freedom fighters" and the Army cannot win this war. He later denied the statement in a purported letter to The Sunday Times that never arrived at the newspaper office. This time the SLMM has been forced to swallow their words officially, in the full glare of the Sri Lankan public and the international community.

On April 29 the SLMM issued a statement which declared that the Government's air strikes in the Trincomalee district violated the Ceasefire Agreement. In that statement the SLMM said "We also fear that Government security forces have, in the North and East, been involved in extrajudicial killings of civilians. This conviction is based on our observation and inquiries on the ground. This violence must stop immediately if the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE are to make any progress in returning to the negotiating table."

The Government was incensed by the remarks. They accuse the SLMM of a cunning ruse. That SLMM "judgement" would not only help the LTTE to raise issue at a War Crimes tribunal against President Rajapaksa and other leaders for using the security forces to carry out "extrajudicial killings."

The Foreign Ministry to which the SLMM was summoned were read the riot act. The result, for the first time, was another SLMM statement. They said "It was not the SLMM's intention to generalise or pass judgements on the Sri Lankan armed forces and police. The Sri Lankan Government has conveyed to us that they are not aware of any such activities within their ranks. We believe that the Sri Lankan Government is sincere in this respect and are committed to prevent any such clandestine activities from taking place."

That SLMM statement also drew a response from the LTTE. Posted on the LTTE Peace Secretariat was a letter, little publicised, dated May 2 which Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan had sent Major General (retd.) Ulf Henricsson. He said the LTTE was disturbed by SLMM's "willingness to issue statements after pressure applied from the Government of Sri Lanka, giving way to the interpretations by media, affecting the confidence of Tamils on the SLMM."

In the eyes of both the Government and the LTTE, the two parties to the Ceasefire Agreement, the credibility of the SLMM has now officially come into question. Whilst they are yet to declare that the LTTE carried out the April 25 attack on Army headquarters, they had taken it upon themselves to say the armed forces were responsible for extra judicial killings. Now they retract what they have said. So much for double-speak.

As for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, almost all the formidable issues he faces are not his creation but ones inherited by him. But then, he wanted the job. This is why he should act, and act tough where necessary, if he is to remain a credible and popular president in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, the honeymoon will be over and the very people who hold him in esteem, and garlanded him, will be the first to throw stones at him.

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