Political Column

Mahinda-Chinthanaya London giya

By Our Political Editor

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 matters.

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.

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