Mixed fare and fortunes for New Year
- JVP lukewarm to President as SLFP finalises political solution
- Samaraweera dissident group to act jointly on government overtures
- UNP delays protest campaign till World Cup and Vesak seasons end
Even if some complained that the usually ubiquitous Koha did not join in some parts of the country to herald the dawn of Avurudhu, it was not shorn of its traditional highlights or the customary events.
The country's first citizen, President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, was at his home turf blending with the common people and those not so common. This was his second Avurudhu since assuming the mantle of the presidency. Betel leaves would surely have been in great demand in the area. The poor, the rich, the powerful in uniform and peers held sheaves of them between their hands. They clasped them together sandwiching the betel leaves in between to offer him traditional greetings, some by going on their knees to worship and others standing erect.
But the more poignant moments came at the ancestral home in Medamulane, his village. Unlike last year, the state television cameras of Rupavahini were not there to relay live to the country the rituals. Instead, a tape recorded version was delivered to the national television network. Viewers saw President Rajapaksa feeding kiribath to his brother, Defence Secretary, retired Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Thereafter, he did the same to his children. The Rupavahini commentator was to preface his commentary to the footage by referring to the events on the screen as "Javanika" or scenes.
Some of those who turned up to greet President Rajapaksa with betel leaves were not so pleased with that reference. They argued that unlike scenes in a film or a play, the footage represented traditional rituals during the Avurudhu. Hence, they contended that it was inappropriate for the commentator to have used that word. Sri Lanka Rupavahini top brass were immediately told to look into the matter but the issue did not go very far.
There were many a military top brass who had trudged their way to Tangalle to mark their presence before President Rajapaksa. Some were with their wives and made sure Presidential aides saw them spending time at 'Carlton', the private residence of Rajapaksa. With the festivities over, the President flew back in an Air Force helicopter to Colombo.
It was back to Presidential duties this week. With just a day to depart to Italy on an official visit (on April 18), President Rajapaksa had an important meeting with Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera. The latter was to sound warnings over the heavy financial commitments that were being incurred to maintain some state concerns, particularly the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). He held the view that expert managerial assistance was necessary to run these institutions as viable commercial ventures. It was agreed that some significant changes would be made among chairmen of key state ventures including Corporations and statutory bodies. President Rajapaksa was to ask Dr. Jayasundera also to suggest some names. These changes are to be examined after the President returns to Sri Lanka today.
President Rajapaksa also made it a point to make a string of telephone calls before boarding a Mihin Air flight to Rome. The new airline that blossomed virtually overnight has only one Airbus A 320 aircraft leased from a Balkan country. Even if it is yet to engage in regular commercial flights, the Presidential charters would pump in substantial amounts of dollars for it to stay afloat. This was the President's second such hire, after he took it for the SAARC summit in New Delhi earlier this month. There are a number of other trips that have been lined up as well. Among them are visits to Nepal, Kuwait and Jordan in the coming weeks. The use of Mihin Air has not been much to the delight of staffers of the national carrier, Srilankan Airlines. At least one of them was chanting slogans against the new budget airline and projecting economic crash landings soon.
The piece de resistance of President Rajapaksa's four day visit to Italy, no doubt, was the audience with Pope Benedict XVI. Vatican's Swiss Guards in their smart attire and assault rifles provided a guard of honour before Rajapaksa and the first lady had an audience with the Pope at the historic rooms of Saints Peter and Paul.
Later, President Rajapaksa adjourned to the Library for a talk with Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarsisco Bertone. A Government Press Release said, "President Rajapaksa explained that the problem in Sri Lanka was not an ethnic or religious conflict, but a terrorist problem. He said the Government was fully committed to a negotiated settlement to the matters regarding the rights of the minorities, and that the Government did not believe in any military solution on the issue. The President said whatever military action being taken by the Government was meant to contain the threat posed by terrorism."
But the scope and content of the talks was encapsulated slightly differently in one paragraph by a news release from the Vatican. It said "In the course of the talks -- and in the light of the current situation in Sri Lanka -- the need was re-iterated to respect human rights and resume the path of dialogue and negotiation as the only way to put an end to the violence that is bloodying the island. The Catholic Church, which offers a significant contribution to the life of the country, will intensify her delicate task of forming consciences with the sole ambition of favouring the common good, reconciliation and peace."
Before he took wings, Rajapaksa telephoned Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe to tell him that he was heading for Rome. He wanted to meet a JVP delegation after his return. The move came amidst reports that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) proposals to end the ethnic conflict would be announced on May 1. Lawyer Gomin Dayasiri is reported to be now putting finishing touches to these proposals which will ensure that the Republic of Sri Lanka retains its unitary character. Some elements of the grass-root level Indian Panchayat system are also to be incorporated. Despite the Rajapaksa invitation for a meeting, there was apprehension in the JVP. One of its key members quipped to another, "he calls only when he needs us. Otherwise we are looked upon like litter nowadays".
These apprehensions were also underscored at a meeting this week of the JVP Politburo. Questions were raised as to why President Rajapaksa was now rushing to Italy. That too, before the SLFP's proposals to end the ethnic conflict were to be made public. Some Government Ministers have told JVP leaders that the visit was largely because Pope Benedict had expressed the wish that he wanted to meet President Rajapaksa. There has been pressure from the Catholic Church to slow down or altogether halt the ongoing military offensives and focus on peace talks. Some members of the JVP Politburo declared this could well be the reason why Rajapaksa was in Italy. They opined that he was setting the stage for a de-escalation of military activity thus paving the way for the SLFP proposals.
Also causing concern for the JVP was what they believed was the deteriorating economy. Questions were raised on whether President Rajapaksa was in a position to cope with such a situation. Some members agreed there should be a fuller study of this aspect after which party members will have to launch a campaign to educate the public - wither the economy.
Earlier this week, the Marxist-Nationalist Party's chief propaganda spokesman Wimal Weerawansa addressed the local Chamber of Commerce on the subject of peace. Several foreign diplomats and representatives of international aid agencies and NGOs were also present to hear him expound his party's viewpoint on the economy. Our Business section reports the speech, but at question time when a lady journalist identified herself and the newspaper to which she writes, Weerawansa curtly declined to answer the question saying "I don't respond to questions from Kelepaththara (Jungle telegraph newspapers)". When a cameraman positioned himself to take a 'shot' of the anti-Norwegian firebrand about to be introduced to a Norwegian embassy official, he told the photo-journalist, "sorry, sorry", and walked away.
As revealed exclusively in the front page of The Sunday Times last week, growing interest continued in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to thaw their relations with ousted former Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. First such indications came when top-rungers at the Presidential Secretariat conveyed to Samaraweera some good news - he could continue to stay at his official residence at Stanmore Crescent although the three month deadline for quitting ends of May 9. This residence is located between the official residence of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the official residence of the Commander of the Air Force. Commenting on the overture, Samaraweera was to remark to a confidant "when I was sacked, they took away even the ramshackle lawn mower that was in my house. Now, they say I can continue to stay."
Samaraweera has already found himself a house on rent in the Colombo 5 area. However, he has written to the Ministry of Public Administration seeking permission to remain at his official Stanmore Crescent House for a further month, i.e. till June 9. This is in order to obtain sufficient time to shift his belongings and for the newly obtained house to be prepared for him to move in.
There have also been several other overtures towards Samaraweera. Some SLFPers telephoned him in Singapore, where he was for nearly three weeks. He had taken his mother for her annual medical checkup. However, unlike in previous years, he had delayed his return until the Avurudhu days closed in. Among those who visited him was UNP pole vaulter, Mano Wijeratne and his wife Bharati, Consul General in Sri Lanka for Turkey, a close Samaraweera friend. Mano was to tell him that President Rajapaksa was willing to sit down for a one-on-one chat with Samaraweera. In fact, he had not assigned some of the portfolios (Ports and Aviation) held by Samaraweera to any other Minister so far. Samaraweera was to reply that he had not created any problems, and it was President Rajapaksa who had precipitated action against him and his close confidants.
One of his first tasks upon his return to Colombo was to visit his colleague Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, MP languishing in Remand Prison. Samaraweera is learnt to have discussed the overtures with both Sooriyarachchi and his confidant Ruwan Ferdinands. The question was whether the invitation to return to the Government fold was only for Samaraweera or all of them. Since, such a decision would have to be made by all concerned, he had sought their views, he thought. The Sooriyarachchi-Ferdinands duo were to tell Samaraweera that no impression should be created to show that they were desperate to return to the ranks of the Government. It should be made clear, they said, that if such a situation was to materialize, that they were simply responding to a Government appeal. It was decided to wait and see how things would develop.
Meanwhile, the role of a European Ambassador in Sri Lanka has also been the subject of discussion at the highest levels of the Government. These developments were reported in these very columns last week as well. This was based both on intelligence reports of instances where the envoy in question, said to be contemptuous of the Government and its leaders as well as other accounts. Several options on how to deal with him were under consideration. One was to urge his Government to recall him on the grounds that he had not respected the time-honoured diplomatic traditions of respecting the host country and following accepted diplomatic protocol. The envoy in question is now on leave. In his capital, the Sri Lankan envoy had been summoned and asked whether there were any plans to send their envoy back home. The Sri Lankan envoy, perhaps unaware, had declared there was no such move. According to a highly placed source, the leak of the story about the action had been premature. "It was never intended to take such a course of action when President Rajapaksa was out of Sri Lanka, especially in Europe itself. The matter will be gone into upon his return," the source added.
These developments have also led to a change in the thinking of the Rajapaksa Administration over posting of career officers to important capitals. Moves are afoot to appoint Government's own nominees to replace some of these senior career diplomats. One such name under consideration is the Press Officer of an international organization which has offices in Sri Lanka. Another controversial appointee has already been Dayan Jayatilleke, a Government publicist and one time Minister in the North-East Provincial Council headed by a campaigner for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka, Vardarajah Perumal.
In the meantime, visitors to Sooriyarachchi at the Remand Prison included members from the opposition political parties as well. Some JVP members visited him last week. On Friday a group of UNP parliamentarians including Party Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Johnston Fernando and Vajira Abeywardena paid visits.
This, political observers saw as a concerted move by the UNP to keep the SLFP dissidents from going back to the Rajapaksa fold.
The UNP has mapped out a plan to take their protests to the streets starting next month. They have so timed the exercise saying that the people are too engrossed in the World Cup matches, and point out that the Government took the opportunity to hike the prices of fuel, including diesel at such a time because of the pre-occupation of the people with the World Cup.
While that may be just an excuse to procrastinate, and with their Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe away attending a wedding in Goa, and their National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake away in Australia, the party will also wait for Vesak to conclude as well before they get on the streets.
In Goa, Wickremesinghe ran into double-crosser G.L. Peiris, the Minister of Export Development and International Trade. The wedding was between two famously rich families - the Chouwdries, whose origins are from Nepal, and who own a string of star-class hotels around the world, and the Mittals, the steel merchants of the world. The event beat the Aishwarya Rai-Abishek Bachan nuptials in Mumbai last Friday in terms of opulence, but came second in public interest.
The country's main Opposition Party has been faulted for some time now in finding some excuse to delay its constitutional role in providing the country with a decent Opposition to the Government, and permitting the Government to get away with almost anything.
During the past several months, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been fire-fighting inter-party squabbles, and labouring to bring forth a set of new faces to the Grand Old Party.
One 'big fish', so to say, that he seems to have convinced to join the UNP, is Major General (retd.) Janaka Perera, the one-time Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army whom then President Chandrika Kumaratunga overlooked to be the Commander of the Army despite his credentials as a frontline General. Instead, he was despatched as our High Commissioner to far away Canberra where he was twidling his thumbs, a bit of a misfit in diplomatic cirlces, while an insurgency was raging at home.
After weeks of teleconversations, Wickremesinghe and Perera ultimately clinched a deal when they met recently in Singapore.
Perera does have some followers, especially in some quarters of the military establishment and in nationalistic circles, but given Wickremesinghe's otherwise seemingly pacifist line towards the LTTE, whether Perera will need whatever diplomatic skills he may have acquired as a two-stint envoy is to be seen.
Next Tuesday, the UNP's Political Affairs Committee will meet, and still more electoral organisers are to be appointed. But, the party has miles to go before convincing the masses that it is the better alternative to govern this country.
Had Wickremesinghe been here during the Avurudhu season, and witnessed some of the traditional New Year games, he would have noticed that climbing the greasy pole right to the top, is not as easy as it may seem.