The behind the scene diplomatic efforts had been
going on two months, both in Colombo and in London, but the good
news arrived only on Tuesday. Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair,
though on vacation, would meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday
at his country residence Chequers in Buckinghamshire.
Presidential aides hurriedly cancelled his engagements
for the week beginning Wednesday. Rajapaksa packed his bags and
was ready to head for London on Tuesday. Joining in a rush were
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Presidential Secretary Lalith
Weeratunga, Additional Secretary Gamini Senarath and Peace Secretariat
Chief Palitha Kohona.
|President Rajapaksa with British Premier Tony
Blair at his holiday bungalow in Buckinghamshire.
Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, now the Presidential Ambassador
at large, playing a pivotal behind-the-scene role, was already in
London. The Sri Lanka High Commission there had been told to allow
him the use of all facilities including transport. Gunawardena's
diplomacy was such a secret even the High Commission staff was mostly
in the dark. If the spade work was done by him, without much help
or hassle by the High Commission staff, there was a great deal forthcoming
from Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness.
He used his widespread contacts in the Labour
Government. Sinn Fein is the political arm of the Irish Republican
Army. McGuinness was returning the high level hospitality he received
during a visit to Sri Lanka. There was a red carpet welcome when
he was in Colombo. He also had an Air Force helicopter at his disposal
to fly to Kilinochchi for talks with LTTE leaders.
Though Rajapaksa's visit was termed private, and
the news spread in Colombo that he was going to see his son Namal
enter a university, the groundwork for talks between the two leaders
was carefully slotted in. The President was keen that Sri Lanka
should forge a closer relationship with Britain for a number of
reasons. Main among them was the fact that Britain and the United
States were spearheading the war on terror. Such a close ally was
most useful to Sri Lanka.
Clad in a light blue bush shirt and white sarong,
Rajapaksa drove out of his hotel to Buckinghamshire. The meeting
with Blair, the very first with a European leader for Rajapaksa,
raised high expectations among those who accompanied him. At first
Rajapaksa and Blair had a one-on-one discussion for 40 minutes.
Thereafter the rest of the entourage joined in.
One member of the Sri Lankan delegation, who spoke
to The Sunday Times on grounds of anonymity said, "I had various
apprehensions before we went. But it turned out to be astoundingly
different. Blair was very well briefed on the Sri Lankan situation.
The discussions were very fruitful." However, the source declined
to divulge details. Asked whether Britain was asked to play the
role of a facilitator, the source said "yes and no." He
added "we made clear we are not planning to edge out Norway
but a whole gamut of related issues was discussed." The focus,
the source said, was undoubtedly on the peace process and related
Rajapaksa had taken the opportunity to explain
to Blair how he was trying to reach out to all political parties
to formulate the basis for a negotiated settlement with the LTTE.
He insisted that the security forces were engaged on a "defensive"
role after the guerrillas launched attacks on them.
At the same time as President Rajapaksa was taking
off for Britain, his brother and senior Advisor Basil Rajapaksa
was headed for New Delhi on a mission that remained a closely guarded
secret. So much so even the Foreign Ministry or the Sri Lanka High
Commission in New Delhi was unaware. When Basil Rajapaksa arrived
in New Delhi and was in the VIP lounge at the Indira Gandhi International
Airport, Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, who was on a visit to India
was leaving. The Sri Lanka High Commission officials in New Delhi
did not identify the Senior Presidential Advisor. It was Minister
Bogollagama who introduced them. The staff readily gave their phone
numbers and offered help to Basil. He thanked them and said he was
on a private visit. He would call them if there was any necessity.
Basil's first meeting was with Indian Foreign
Secretary, Shyam Saran. The latter had just returned after a Scandinavian
tour that included Norway. There he had met Norway's Minister of
International Development, Erik Solheim, Special Envoy Jon Hanssen
Bauer and Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka Hans Brattskar for talks.
Saran had a lengthy discussion with Basil and
was to convey to him that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh considered
President Rajapaksa as India's closest friend in Sri Lanka. They
discussed a variety of issues including the peace process and the
military's "defensive" role in the wake of LTTE attacks.
He later met R.K. Narayanan, National Security
Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister. Several security and related
issues were discussed. Narayanan had explained to Basil the developments
in Tamil Nadu and the concerns for the Central Government with regard
to some issues. Basil assured that prompt action would be taken
in consultation with President Rajapaksa on the issues raised.
Basil's visit to India was the outcome of a suggestion
made by India's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupama Rao. She
had wanted him to meet Indian leaders in New Delhi and explain Government's
position with regard to various issues.
Later Ms. Rao had flown to the United States for
a personal matter. When she was there, news arrived on Monday that
arrangements have been made for Mr. Rajapaksa to visit New Delhi.
In fact en route to Colombo from the United States, Ms. Rao stopped
in New Delhi to arrange meetings and finalise Basil's itinerary.
He also met with senior Indian External Affairs Ministry officials
as well as other key personalities.
One engagement scheduled for Thursday for President
Rajapaksa was a crucial meeting between leaders of the SLFP and
the JVP. A day earlier, the JVP had handed over to SLFP General
Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, its latest response. That followed
the SLFP's own answer to the 20 point programme set out by the JVP
as a precursor to join the Government. The details were bared exclusively
on this commentary last week. The J VP's latest response appears
in a box story on this page.
It is clear from this document that the JVP will
not join the Government. The JVP would sit in the opposition and
support the Government. That support too would be limited to the
principles agreed to in the "Mahinda Chinthanaya."
Rajapaksa who was waiting for the good news from
London, wrote to Karu Jayasuriya, Deputy Leader of the United National
Party (UNP). In retrospect it is now clear Rajapaksa had set in
motion a process that he clearly outlined to Blair.
That included the fact that he had reached out
to the main opposition UNP.
It was on Thursday (August 24) that Rajapaksa
wrote to UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya inviting the party to
join his Government in "facing the challenge of protecting
our motherland." UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was away from
Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa said "It is needless to stress that a
great responsibility devolves upon you and your representatives
at this crucial moment. In facing the challenge under the motto
"country before every other thing," my government and
I need the full co-operation of you all so that I could achieve
the desired objective."
The reply from Jayasuriya came in the letter head
of an MP. He said "we have always emphasized the importance
of a National Consensus with regard to burning issues confronting
the nation. In this instance the modalities of such co-operation
will be conveyed to you by the leader of the Party after consulting
the Parliamentary Group in due course."
"We wish to reiterate that the UNP will act
with patriotism and commitment in safeguarding and protecting the
nation," Jayasuriya added.
On the same day, UNP leader Wickremesinghe, responded. He wrote
to Rajapaksa not on a UNP letter head but one that said 'LEADER
OF THE OPPOSITION - PARLIAMENT, SRI LANKA." Wickremesinghe
said his party was always willing to make an honest contribution
in a spirit of responsibility to solve the issues facing the country.
Some former UNP Ministers like G.L. Peiris and
Rajitha Senaratne were keen on supporting the Government, and Jayasuriya
said if the party said "no", there would be criticism
for not co-operating at a time of national crisis, and if it said
"Yes", there was the possibility of people thinking they
were craving for posts.
It was a dilemma indeed, and on Friday night,
senior members of the country's Grand Old Party spent a moment of
meditation as the Buddhist clergy invoked the blessings of the Triple
gem on the UNP to mark its 60th anniversary, as its leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe left for Chennai yesterday for night-over to attend
to some more religious activities for good measure.