ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49
Columns - Political Column

President faces battles on several fronts

  • Fourth Tiger air attack leaves government helpless and hopeless
  • Mangala's return still in the balance, Sripathi remains silent
  • Protest campaign against Britain's interference in Lankan affairs

By Our Political Editor

At no time before has any Government prosecuting the separatist war against Tiger guerrillas felt so helpless and hopeless. Not once but four times within a month, the guerrillas demonstrated their air strike capability and got away with impunity. Last Sunday, the fourth time was more striking. They flew all over the skies of Colombo when half the nation was asleep and the other half were glued to their television sets. They were watching the World Cup cricket finals in Barbados where Sri Lanka was pitted against Australia. Just past midnight, two aircraft of the now infamous "Tamil Eelam Air Force" flew sorties that sent a nation into a doosra spin.

The City of Colombo and its immediate suburbs were plunged into a total blackout. Soldiers in uniform went to some high-rise buildings that had switched on auxiliary power after the blackout to order them to shut down. Security Forces and Police operating from several key points in the City and suburbs fired incessantly into the sky. The fire from point five zero guns from the Air Force Base at Ratmalana were so intense. Some of them fell on houses around Nugegoda, Nawinna, Maharagama and such adjoining areas. One Wellawatte resident is still under intensive care. Another, who was in a coma gained consciousness after three hours in hospital. Several who were injured after "blue on blue" or friendly fire were admitted to the National and Colombo South hospitals. The firing into the sky turned out to be a free for all with no control. Even the houses of some top officials were not safe.

At the sprawling grounds opposite the Parliament complex, thousands had gathered to watch the World Cup finals on a large TV screen. With the blackout, and news spreading of LTTE aircraft scouring the skies, there was panic as the crowds fled. At various clubs in the city where people had gathered to watch the game after some heavy rain, lay sprawled on the lawns as the ground firing went on lighting up the night sky. Thousands more, who were watching cricket's biggest event from homes, missed the match due to the blackout at a crucial moment when Sri Lanka were having the Aussies in a bit of a sweat. At the SLAF base in Katunayake, and the international airport on the opposite side, there was a blackout. For a second time within a week, the international airport had to temporarily suspend operations. There was panic again for the passengers that included tourists. On the opposite page Our Defence Correspondent, who was the first to warn since 2005 about the LTTE constructing a runway in Iranamadu and acquiring air capability, gives a detailed account of Sunday's pre-dawn mayhem.

To make matters worse, on Thursday the Government decided to shut down the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) from 10.p.m. till 4 a.m. every day beginning May 10. The move seemed to concede that the Government which failed to take the LTTE air threats seriously was helpless in protecting the nation's air space from the enemy. In fact one defence official who visited a country which supplied a large volume of military hardware to Sri Lanka was to tell his hosts that there was no serious air threat. It came when they offered to sell some anti-aircraft hardware. Those backing the airport closure for five and half hours every day, evidently until better air defence systems are in place, argued that even airports in the United States were shut down after the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks.

The decision for the closure was made by Airport Authority Chairman Chandima Rasaputra, a dual citizen with American and Sri Lankan passports. Qualified in IT, Rasaputra, has been living in Los Angeles and came to Sri Lanka after the Rajapaksa Administration took over. With no experience in airport administration, he is vested with full responsibility for running the international airport. He once figured in a heated exchange with then Minister of Ports and Aviation, Mangala Samaraweera. The latter was to complain to President Rajapaksa about his insubordinate conduct. Though he was expected to be removed, the man who then held the number two slot at the airport was made the head after the sacking of the then Chairman Tiran Alles.

But, the 9/11 attack no doubt was a different case, really. Those attacks came from a potential enemy outside the United States. Hence, the US authorities, who were caught by surprise, had to study the threat perceptions that were posed. But in Sri Lanka, it was clear, as clear as night follows day since March 26 that the LTTE had demonstrated its air strike capability with an aerial bombing of the main base of the Sri Lanka Air Force in Katunayake. If that was not enough a warning, the second attack on an Army Engineers Unit within the High Security Zone in Palaly that encompasses the largest military base in the north, on April 23 would have come surely as an eye-opener. This attack killed six soldiers and injured 13. Then again, a third attempt was made on the SLAF base on April 26. How come all three occasions were blissfully ignored until the fourth occurred shattering public confidence and earning the disdain of foreign governments, international airlines and tour operators?

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and an entourage had flown in a charter flight to Barbados to watch the World Cup finals. The retinue had included even the Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Chandrasiri. Rajapaksa had left the nation's security in the hands of his trusted brother, retired Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapakasa, the Defence Secretary. Several hours after the incident he was instrumental in having the Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, summon a meeting of a group of Ministers to 'Temple Trees'. There, Lt. Col. Rajapaksa first spoke to them. He said the LTTE was resorting to the air raids since it was now very weak on the ground. He told the Ministers to explain to the public this fact and urge them not to place any blame on the Security Forces. He opined they had done their best in those early hours of Sunday.

Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera gave the group of Ministers a full briefing on how the fourth aerial sortie by two Tiger guerrilla aircraft were carried out. He declared that it was clear from the attacks that the pilots of the guerrilla air wing were well trained. That was how they were able to manoeuvre their way into the City. He spoke of measures that were under way to introduce a more effective air defence system.

Air Force Spokesman Wing Commander Ajantha Silva had, immediately after the attack on the SLAF base on March 26, telephoned media organizations. On that occasion he made an appeal to them not to report the fact that the radar at the SLAF base in Katunayake did not work. The UNP had then wanted to raise issue over this in Parliament but later decided to give him a chance. He had another story this time. Taking part in a talk show on TNL network's Janahanda programme, he suggested that the public should go to secure locations in their homes when there is an air attack again. But most of the injured were indeed in secure places, their homes, in their bedrooms and living rooms. Are they not the safest places for the Air Force Spokesman.

He blamed sections of the media too. "Some media and some people analyzing it are over playing the bombing", he said. "It is a threat to national security. Some media want to say their papers have found some information. So they get hold of some of our people in the Force and may give them money and get information from them. By doing that, they are disrupting their plans." The remarks would put even the mild mannered and media shy Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke to shame. If one is to heed Wing Commander Silva's wishes, all the media will have to remain shut and would have no right to comment on matters of national interest. But worse still, he was saying that some people in his own Force, his own colleagues, may be selling classified information for money.

In other words, he admits publicly that there are corrupt men or women in the organization of which he is the official spokesman. What would Air Marshal Goonetilleke do? If Wing Commander Silva is privy to such information, he should tell his boss so they may be tried for treason. If he does not, the Spokesman should be made answerable for shooting his mouth off. Either way, the question is whose interests does he serve? Matters were made worse when Wing Commander Ajantha Silva appeared on another programme on state run Rupavahini the same night. His contribution there was to anger even Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Little wonder even senior officials in the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) are deeply embarrassed. Wing Commander Ajantha de Silva had been advised in writing not once, but twice not to comment on operational matters of the Air Force and leave that responsibility to the Military Spokesman. This caution came from the Ministry of Defence. But his expert opinion only meant the media should remain altogether silent on issues of national importance and public concern, and that the public should ensure their own safety. Such a spokesman do more harm than good for the Air Force, by making a bad situation worse with what they say. Not only is the credibility of the country's Air Force shaky in the air, but on ground as well as a result.

President Rajapaksa's immediate priority after returning to Sri Lanka on Tuesday was to go into the case of the LTTE's pre-dawn attack on Sunday. In the afternoon, he chaired a hurriedly summoned meeting of the National Security Council. There, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera gave an account about what took place. He also detailed out the measures under consideration. Clearly, these measures cannot be revealed.

There were also other concerns, political concerns, that began to worry President Rajapaksa as the week developed. Main among them were the devolution proposals of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) made public on Tuesday. Before his departure to Barbados, the contents had been endorsed by the SLFP Central Committee. On that occasion Rajapaksa had told Ministers Tissa Vitharana, Viswa Warnapala and Nimal Siripala de Silva to be very mindful about the wording in the proposals. He noted that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) would pore over the wording to find fault.

When he returned to Colombo, he was angry it had not been done. He felt that was why the JVP protested against the proposals. The JVP had raised issue over the fact that there were no references in the proposals to the protection of the unitary status of the country. The Republic had been referred to in the Sinhala text of the proposals as Janarajaya and Samooha Aanduwa (Union of States). Rajapaksa had called for a copy of the document and read it himself. He later asked Minister de Silva to correct the discrepancies - and revert to Ekiya Raajya (Unitary State). At a news conference, he did so but spoke largely only about the former and played down the latter.

These proposals also figured at the Politburo meeting of the JVP. A strong critic was their leader Somawansa Amerasinghe. He felt some of the wording had cleverly concealed dangerous provisions which were inimical to national interest. Wimal Weerawansa was to remark that the proposals cannot be simply dismissed as that of the SLFP. That was because the proposals represented the views of the ruling party that was headed by President Rajapaksa. The Politburo decided to await the Government's response to its protests before embarking on a countrywide campaign to educate the public and launch protest campaigns if necessary.

Also causing concern for Rajapaksa was the debate on Sri Lanka in Britain's House of Commons. One of the first to inform him of the development was his son Namal. Sri Lanka had figured in an unprecedented way in the Commons and British Parliamentarians have even formed a caucus to fight for Tamil rights. They have been highly critical of the Government's human rights record, increasing kidnappings, abductions and a breakdown in law and order situation.

The House of Commons debate on the situation in Sri Lanka was like the debates in that same Parliament a century ago when they were discussing the situation in their colonies. Words of wisdom from some honourable Members, others talking through their hats.
Clearly though, the pro-LTTE lobby has exerted sufficient pressure on their local MPs, mainly in a bid to have the ban on the rebel organization lifted. The Labour Party MPs, especially, whose ratings at the opinion polls are dropping day by day after a decade in office, were keen that their Asian vote-base that helps them to get elected was left intact. A reading of the Commons Hansard shows that their speeches, the statistics they quoted were fed to them, and their approach was carefully one-sided.

It was left to the Conservative Party MPs to strike the balance between asking the Sri Lanka Government to adhere to human rights and the LTTE be kept as a banned organization in the UK. None of the top shot foreign affairs Ministers participated in the debate, and it was left to the Minister for the Middle East (have they shifted us to near Iraq?) and the Minister for International development were tasked with giving the Labour Government's official position on its one-time 'jewel in the crown - the finest possession of the British Empire'.
President Rajapaksa turned to his mentor of sort, Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, the Buddhist monk who is in the forefront of nationalist organizations back home. During a telephone conversation Rajapaksa lamented that the British had forgotten that they have ceded independence to Sri Lanka long years ago. They seem to think Sri Lanka was still a colony of their and were discussing the internal situation in a now sovereign country. Ven. Gunawansa Thera assured to do something. He held a news conference of his own organization, Sri Lanka Deshabhimani Peramuna. He criticized the British parliament for adopting a series of resolutions relating to the present political situation in Sri Lanka which is tantamount to the violation of the country's sovereignty. A publicity campaign is also to be launched against the British Parliament over this issue, particularly in the state media.

The matter also figured at the JVP Politburo meeting. General Secretary Tilvin Silva said the party should carry out a countrywide campaign against the United Kingdom for interfering in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. Amidst this rumpus, Rajapaksa received reports that three more United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians were poised to return to the party fold after having joined his Government, while his associates were keen in persuading ousted Minister Mangala Samaraweera to return to their own fold. Western Province Governor Alavi Mowlana who brokered the first Rajapaksa-Samaraweera meeting before the President left for Barbados was at it again. Mowlana told confidants he rang Samaraweera only to be told that he would be away for the weekend in Matara. Hence the meeting is not likely till next week. By that time expected to join in are the two real negotiators in the patch-up exercise, President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and President's Senior Advisor and trouble shooter, Basil Rajapaksa. Both are now out of the country.

There were indications that the differences between Rajapaksa and Samaraweera were healing. The former is said to be willing to restore Samaraweera to his former status as a Minister and make him the chief Matara district organizer once again. Facilitating this move, insiders say, is the stony silence of former non-Cabinet Minister Sripathi Sooriarachchi since he was released from remand custody this week. He had been advised not to make any remarks critical of the Government or its leaders. When issued a charge-sheet by the SLFP, Sooriarachchi has said that he would reply it only after he was released from custody. Now that he has been released, whether he will simply eat his own words, or respond to the charge-sheet is left to be seen.

The choice on whether to go back has become a critical issue for Samaraweera. His immediate family and close associates are in favour of mending fences, but some confidants are not. They want him to back the opposition UNP. Samaraweera associates say that some pro-UNP media sections have already begun lampooning him in cartoons, and other accounts to keep him away from a return to the Government fold. But a decision is not far off and could come within months if not weeks. A Government source said Rajapaksa needed Samaraweera at a time when he was battling several fronts, both locally and internationally.

This week also saw Rajapaksa's predecessor, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, coming under some unprecedented strictures from the Supreme Court. On Friday, when a friend telephoned her to give the bad news of the judgment, she was at a class. She is back in school learning the fine art of painting. She is back with oils and canvass after having attended art classes at the Gate Mudliyar Amarasekera School as a teenager many years ago. She probably is following in the footsteps of the great British prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill who spent his retirement after his illustrious tenure painting, but the picture the Supreme Court drew of her and what she did on the eve of her own retirement in 2005 was not a pretty one at all.

If President Rajapaksa was riding the high waves of political popularity with his ratings rising high after the military offensives against the LTTE, when he told his Ministers that he was in his "peak", the recent events locally have begun to bring him a peg or two down from that summit. They have not come from the vibrancy of a volatile Opposition either. Instead, it is from the LTTE air strikes on the one hand, and a 'counter terror' campaign launched by his government. Its repercussions have been felt locally and world wide. It has prompted international concerns and threatens an already deteriorating economy. The cost of living is on the rise. These and other issues, no doubt, are formidable challenges to President Rajapaksa at a time when Sri Lanka is again at the crossroads. And, in a sense, it is to worrying levels that were never experienced before.

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