Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (L) speaks to Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. Samaraweera is in India
to brief the Indian leadership on the situation in Sri Lanka.
Going to Parliament was almost next to nature for
Mahinda Rajapaksa until he became Sri Lanka's fifth executive President
of Sri Lanka. From 1970 he did so as a parliamentarian, barring
a break from 1977-89, more lately with the added title of being
Last Wednesday it was different. Though President,
he was going there in his capacity as the Minister of Finance. That
was to chair a meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee
-- a joint body of government and opposition parliamentarians designed
to ensure the efficient working of all ministries. But he found
to his dismay that the Committee he was chairing was the only one
that was operational. None of the others had even met.
There was a full house and business was as usual
until a United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian struck a discordant
note. Neomal Perera from the Puttalam district said he came from
an area where the illicit liquor industry flourished. It had now
become the means of livelihood for a large number of people. He
urged President Rajapaksa, as Minister of Finance, to legalise that
industry. In other words here was an opposition parliamentarian
wanting the kasippu or illicit hooch industry countrywide legalized.
Imagine kasippu dens and drunken people dancing in every street
Making such a proposal was ugly enough. That it
came just a day ahead of Vesak when the nation marked the 2550th
Buddha Jayanthi celebrations made it shameful. Fellow UNP parliamentarians
stood aghast. At least one of them hit his right hand on his forehead.
President Rajapaksa took it in his stride. In his summing up speech
he said he had heard the views expressed by Perera. He made clear
he did not agree with him. It was not his Government's policy to
legalise kasippu, leave alone expanding the network of legal liquor
When he was Prime Minister and went to Parliament,
the meals for him was always in his annexe there. But Rajapaksa
chose to have lunch that Wednesday at the Parliament canteen. He
made sure Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara, the custodian of Parliament,
was told that President would lunch there.
Flanked by government and opposition MPs he sat
down to a rice and curry meal. A former UNP cabinet minister and
parliamentarian from Mahiyangana, Lakshman Seneviratne wanted to
be seated with Rajapaksa. He lamented to a colleague "how can
I go and face the President. Not after that man (Neomal Perera)
wanted the kasippu industry legalized. The UNP is not for kasippu
Lunch over, President Rajapaksa moved from table
to table greeting MPs. His aides reacted with some trepidation when
he moved towards a group of Tamil National Alliance MPs. Beginning
Tuesday; they had staged a walk out in parliament demanding that
the Government stop the wave of so-called killings in the north
and east. Would they snub or jeer at him? There was no such thing.
Instead there was bonhomie as they exchanged pleasantries with Rajapaksa
who continues to retain his common touch or rural charm six months
into the presidency.
Thursday was different. At the Presidential Secretariat
he took part in a ceremony where he declared Vesak Full Moon Poya
day of 2006 to Vesak Day in 2007 as the country's 2550th Sambudda
Jayanthi Year. The event was to have been held elsewhere but security
considerations had prompted it to be held at the Presidential Secretariat.
It was during the ceremony that afternoon that President Rajapaksa
learnt the LTTE had mounted a major attack on a naval convoy in
the high seas of the north east. Our Defence Correspondent gives
a detailed account of the event. He also interviewed President Rajapaksa
on his responses. They appear on the opposite page.
Soon after fighting erupted the Operations Room
at Navy Headquarters became a hive of activity. It was not only
in terms of directing counter measures against the attackers but
also other responses. Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa was
on hand. So was Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Foreign
Minister Mangala Samaraweera. They were discussing, among other
matters, about a response. It was in Sinhala. Should it be "Balu
Niyawa" or "Sinha Niyawa."
In other words, the question was whether to respond
like a dog or a lion. If a stone was hurled at a dog, it would run
in the opposite direction. But if it was done to a lion, it would
run in the direction from which the stone was hurled. They were
unanimous that the reaction should be one like a lion. Air Force
was ordered to carry out air attacks on selected Tiger guerrilla
targets -- for the first time in the four-year-long ceasefire. While
helicopter gunships went to engage the Sea Tiger boats in battle,
Kfir jets bombed the LTTE airstrip near Iranamadu.
That night armed forces top brass and senior defence
officials met President Rajapaksa at Temple Trees. They were unanimous
in their view that there should be a limited attack on Friday to
send a message to the LTTE. That was to make them know they cannot
get away by staging violent attacks on the armed forces. The answer
was a firm "no" from President Rajapaksa. He said on Vesak
day there should be no such offensive action. However, he said if
any attacks were carried out by Tiger guerrillas, the armed forces
were free to defend and even hit back.
Later Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera briefed President Rajapaksa
on his official visit to India. Most of the discussions in India
had centred on the ongoing peace process and the need to continue
it. Samaraweera accused the UNP of having carried out a propaganda
campaign in India by apprising their leaders that the JVP was the
stumbling block to the peace process. He said he was able to clear
such misunderstandings successfully.
He said that he briefed Indian leaders that in
the past the JVP had insisted on the LTTE laying down arms before
entering the peace process. This time, however, they had fully supported
the peace process though they had reservations on some aspects of
its implementation. Samaraweera explained he told Indian leaders
that the LTTE had not changed its stance of being committed to a
separate state. He said India had offered its fullest support to
the Government of Sri Lanka.
It was during a meeting with the National Patriotic
Movement that President Rajapaksa acknowledged a war situation was
building up. An NPM delegation that included Dr. Gunadasa Amerasekera,
Ven. Damara Amila Thera and JVP's Wimal Weerawansa met President
Rajapaksa for a meeting on Tuesday.
President Rajapaksa said he needed the Movement's
co-operation much more than the way the JVP co-operated. There were
eyebrows raised. Whilst Weerawansa remained puzzled, it was Amerasekera
who asked Rajapaksa what he meant by that? For a moment the NPM
delegation felt frictions had developed between President Rajapaksa
and the JVP.
A smiling Rajapaksa offered an explanation. He
said at present the JVP was extending support to him from outside
the Government. He had felt that the JVP's support would be much
more meaningful and of greater use if they joined the Government
and extended their support. That was how important the JVP support
was. The issue of security for some 300 Sinhala villages bordering
areas dominated by the LTTE was raised by the delegation. Rajapaksa
directed his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to co-ordinate with the
NPM and take measures to protect these villagers.
Since the peace process began, the arrival of
dignitaries has often become a media event even if what those concerned
do end up as non events. Once more Japan's Special Envoy for the
peace process, Yasushi Akashi, arrived in Colombo, as always with
a broad smile and a cheque book in his pocket. Japan is Sri Lanka's
largest aid donor.
He met Foreign Minister Samaraweera upon his return
from India. He expressed the view that he did not think the LTTE
could be brought to the negotiating table at this point of time.
There was also a meeting in Parliament with Minister Nimal Siripala
de Silva. But the hottest was the one on one he had with JVP leader
Amerasinghe was infuriated at remarks Akashi had
reportedly made in a television interview that UN peace keeping
troops should be sent to Sri Lanka. If that happens, he warned,
the JV P would take to the streets. He said there was no need for
any foreign troops in Sri Lankan soil. Akashi wavered. He tried
to explain what he meant without offending Amerasinghe. The JVP
leader also raised issue over a federal solution to the ethnic conflict.
He said the JVP did not believe that was the answer.
While the LTTE had unleashed an un-declared war on the State of
Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa was striving for national unity. The UNP had
pledged its support to the Rajapaksa Administration at the All Party
Conference in the event civil war breaks out.
And as this national unity was being brokered,
it happened to come at an awkward time for Rajapaksa -- in the midst
of a battle for supremacy for control of the Colombo Municipal Council
- and all the divisive factors of parochial politics coming into