ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 06
Columns - Political Column  

Crises, chaos and confusion

  • Govt. leaders tell different stories as nation rumbles and tumbles
  • Skyrocketing cost of living boomerangs; Govt. popularity nose-dives

By Our Political Editor

Reporter-turned editor wields media stick

It was then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who conferred the title 'Reporter' on her then Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

She charged that he was the Cabinet Reporter who gave information to the media.

At last Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, Rajapaksa had a word of advice to his own Ministers. He said they must conduct business at the weekly Cabinet meeting conscious that they would appear in the next day's newspapers. The remarks underscored the presence of more Reporters in the Cabinet now, though none was identified.

He said soon after the previous week's Cabinet meeting, he was walking the stairway at Temple Trees to the upper floor when his phone rang. It was Victor Ivan, Editor of the Ravaya newspaper. He had learnt very soon that Ministers had that evening discussed re-imposing criminal defamation laws. Ivan had recommended against introducing that piece of colonial era legislation again.

Protests prompted the Government from not going ahead with the Criminal Defamation law that was repealed unanimously by Parliament. It was neither listed nor taken up at last Wednesday's Cabinet meeting.

However, official sources told The Sunday Times that a set of new laws incorporating some provisions of the criminal defamation law was being secretively formulated by the Ministry of Justice. Details, however, were not available.

Protagonists for the proposed new laws argue they were necessary since the media were not resorting to self-regulation. This was a time when national security was being threatened. Scurrilous reports about Government leaders, their kith and kin were highly damaging, they argue.

But, there were many who were opposed to it. One view that has prevailed so far is significant. They say such a move would unite all media against the Government. Hence, at a time when national security is threatened, it was not a good idea to have all the media against the Government.

Upon being reminded of his 'Reporter' title after becoming President, Rajapaksa quipped humorously to a friend that he was now an 'Editor'. So, it was now an 'Editor' telling would be 'Reporters' to be mindful of the media.

But this new 'Editor', no doubt, would find it difficult to have the new laws (old wine in new bottles) passed in Parliament. The SLMC has already announced it would oppose the move. This week, the UNP dissident group of 17 MPs said they would oppose it strongly in Parliament. JVP leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe also declared his party would oppose it. Hence, it was not only the media that would gang up against the Government.

The rapidly rising cost of living fuelled further by the previous week's oil price hike, the-on-again-off-again peace process, the exacerbating undeclared Eelam War IV, the aggravating political crisis in the wake of re-alignment of opposition forces are a few of the many crucial issues staring in the face of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

No previous regime perhaps was forced to cope simultaneously with a huge basket of lethal issues. Even if such issues were not too many, there was one thing that was consistent then. Whether one agreed or disagreed, the approach to tackle such issues were singularly focused and unified. Under the present administration, it is a veritable free-for-all. Anything goes.

Cabinet Ministers, Parliamentarians and bureaucrats, among others, express varied views on the same issues. If the clever strategy of the Government is to confuse the public, the media and even the Colombo-based diplomatic community, it is understandable though it is equally arguable. But the barrage of contradictions on critical issues is leaving even Government leaders confused. Naturally, it raises the all important question - where the Government and the nation are heading?

Parliamentarian Bandula Gunawardena, when he was in the opposition United National Party (UNP), was widely regarded as an economic wizard. Like hand grenades, he used statistics with substance that exploded in the face of the Government. That was on practically every issue including how to develop the economy, bring down the prices of consumer goods and thus reduce the cost of living. But today, as minister in charge, he is complaining that they were beyond his control. He could not tame the market forces even if he continued to be at the butt end of heavy criticism.

He told last Wednesday's weekly cabinet meeting that some people were spreading a canard that it was Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had asked him to surreptitiously join the Government together with the other dissident colleagues. That was to sabotage the Rajapaksa administration. Not checking the rising prices was placing the Government at odds with the public and that was why he was being accused of being a UNP agent in the cabinet.

President Rajapaksa who chaired the meeting laughed. He then quoted his own experience. A few days earlier, a member of the Buddhist clergy had come to see him at Temple Trees. There, he had cautioned the President to be wary about Minister Bandula Gunawardena since he was a plant of Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was a doubt he had entertained for sometime, the monk had said. There was laughter all-round. Then Rajapaksa turned serious and declared that one minister cannot be allowed to become a victim. It was the collective responsibility of all ministers to defend the Government. That in real terms meant minister Bandula Gunawardena should not be allowed to take the flak alone.

The fact that skyrocketing of prices, among them essential consumer goods, was worrying Bandula Gunawardena, the Minister of Trade, Marketing Development, Co-operatives and Consumer Services, is not surprising. Some of the top rung commercial establishments in the capital City had hired market research groups to assess the popularity of the Government in the countryside. Others had sent their own staff. The survey was focused in the Deep South. The findings were worrying.

Support for the Government was rapidly eroding. Most of those covered by the survey complained of unbearable economic burdens. There were also those who staunchly backed the ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerrillas but now had shifted their views. They claimed they were not being given a correct picture and the war was being used as a tool to cover the mounting hardships imposed on them. Significant enough, some of the state intelligence agencies' findings after their own surveys concurred with the same view.

Some key figures in leading commercial establishments were in fact studying options available in the event of a feared economic meltdown. Several have been attracted to a new investment package, including citizenship, offered by the Malaysian Government. Those establishments that are smaller, retrenchment and curtailment of activity have become priority issues. This is reflected more largely in small tourist concerns now reeling without customers. Their larger counterparts, however, are still cushioning the economic blow caused by a drastic drop in tourist arrivals. However, temporary employees have had their services discontinued.

The-on-again-off-again peace process received a death blow this week. The media including The Sunday Times reported the impending visit of Norway's Special Envoy, Jon Hanssen Bauer. Hardly had the Sunday newspapers hit the news stands, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Parliamentary Group leader Wimal Weerawansa telephoned an important Government personality to verify the reports. Quite clearly, these reports were based on Government sources, or more importantly those considered unimpeachable. Weerawansa was told it was not Bauer who was going to Kilinochchi for a meeting with leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In fact, Bauer, like most Norwegians, was on summer holiday. With a passion for sailing, he was off in his yacht in the seas off Scandinavia.

The Government had granted permission for Norway's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Brattskar to travel to Kilinochchi. The visit is expected to take place in a few days. It will be two fold - Firstly, it would be a final farewell call on the LTTE since Brattskar is ending his tour of duty in Sri Lanka. The second is that he will use the opportunity for talks with the LTTE political wing leaders to ascertain their views on the prevailing situation. This is with a view to determining whether there were prospects of the guerrillas returning to the negotiation table or more war. Brattskar would naturally convey the LTTE responses to his Government. The task will thus fall on his successor, another veteran Norwegian diplomat familiar with Asia, Tore Hattrem, to follow up the process.

For the JVP which has been staunchly backing the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas, the news of efforts to ascertain the revival of peace talks at this juncture was bad news. The Security Forces were on the verge of re-capturing Thoppigala, a guerrilla stronghold west of Batticaloa. They felt the shift in Government stance would come as discouragement to the troops in their campaign against the guerrillas.

Weerawansa summoned a news conference on Sunday itself and declared that Bauer cannot visit Sri Lanka without the Government's concurrence. Hard on the heels of the JVP's declared displeasure followed discomfort in the ranks of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). They were also unhappy at the reported moves. This saw Government leaders going the extra mile to allay the JVP and JHU concerns. Re-assurances came from Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. Each vied with the other to make clear no fresh efforts to revive the peace talks had been made.

In essence, in doing so, the Government has reiterated its original position. There will be no renewed dialogue with the LTTE, through the good offices of Norway, for a fresh initiative to resume the peace process. In other words, the Government has emphasized its previous position that peace talks could start only when LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, renounces violence and calls for peace talks. But the latter is also stepping up his guerrilla campaign. Hence, the bottom line is now even more clearly defined - Government's ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerrillas will not only continue but will be stepped up.

The focus of the Security Forces at present is Thoppigala (or Narakamulla), a rocky terrain surrounded by flat land and jungle that has remained a guerrilla stronghold for years. Contrary to earlier expectations, the guerrillas have begun to offer stiff resistance to Security Forces attempts this week to seize control of the area. This is whilst half their cadres present in the area have made a retreat. The Security Forces advance has been delayed only because of the terrain. They have to overcome obstacles like mortar barrages traversing flat terrain, ambushes and surprise attacks when clearing hills. Despite the delay, field commanders are confident they would soon regain full control of the areas which were once dominated by the guerrillas.

The re-capture of Thoppigala has assumed much more significance now than when the offensive began on June 8. A Master Plan to develop the entire Eastern Province, crafted under the supervision of President's Senior Advisor Basil Rajapaksa is ready. Basil Rajapaksa's return from the US has led to some form of damage control to the Government on several areas. A formal launch by President Rajapaksa of the Master Plan is scheduled for July 26. If the surroundings are conducive, it will not be surprising if such a launch takes place from Thoppigala or its environs. The Government contends that with the impending re-capture of Thoppigala, the entire Eastern Province will come under the domination of the Security Forces. A major media campaign to highlight this upcoming success and the launch of the ambitious development programme, (Negenahira Neguma ) the Rising of the East has already been worked out. Those behind the proposed media blitz believe the outcome of their efforts will wipe out the ill effects of other issues that have generated adverse publicity. This includes criticism over the rising Cost of Living. Said one of the chief promoters, "the people will make more sacrifices to help us to completely defeat the LTTE. They will learn how this Government has done that successfully unlike the others."

Coming in this wake in the East will be local Government elections. Nominations already called for local elections in the east are to be cancelled. A Special Provisions Bill to facilitate this is to be moved in Parliament. It will be followed by elections to the Eastern Provincial Council. Government officials debunked criticism that there would be no money to implement the Master Plan for the development of the East. They claimed that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and some countries were willing to underwrite the projects.

Soon after achieving the Government's objective of full dominance over the East, the Security Forces are poised to concentrate in the North. This is by attacking more guerrilla positions in the Wanni and regaining control of territory. Such a move, in the wake of the proposed media campaign in the East, will be followed in the Northern theatre of operations too.

These developments will no doubt exacerbate the undeclared Eelam War IV. In this scenario, any Government move to resume peace talks will of course be after the conclusion of military offensives in the North. This is unless Mr. Prabhakaran chooses to heed President Rajapaksa's call and declares he would give up violence and is willing to talk peace.

The Government's eagerness to placate the JVP on key issues has assumed significant proportions in the light of new political developments. In the erosion of any more from their ranks to opposition benches, to stay in power (by averting a general election), the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) alliance has to turn to the JVP for support. No doubt, such support would be forthcoming though it may be on JVP's own terms. Here again, it is a choice between the devil and the deep sea. Embrace the JVP and stay in power with all the attendant headaches, or reject it and face a general election that portends defeat, seems the unenviable choice. The JVP mood towards the Government appears hostile; the changing political scenario may not necessarily make it a permanent feature.

On Wednesday, JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe was bitterly critical of President Rajapaksa and his Government. The occasion was a meeting he held at the JVP headquarters in Battaramulla with a three-member delegation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (M). It was led by Mangala Samaraweera and comprised Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi and Tiran Alles. Associated with Amerasinghe were General Secretary Tilvin Silva and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Wimal Weerawansa joined in later.

When Samaraweera and party arrived, there was some confusion over the time. They had been told that the meeting would take place at 10 am though some JVP leaders believed it would be 11 am. Hence the meeting began behind schedule. Amerasinghe was to complain that President Rajapaksa had betrayed the country by not heeding to the assurances he gave the people under the Mahinda Chinthanaya Manifesto. He had also let down the people who had helped him come to power. Hence, he asserted, there was an absolute need to defeat the Government either in Parliament or outside, the latter a possible reference to an election.

He said it was JVP's view that the opposition United National Party had no place in an alliance between his party and the SLFP (M). He said the JVP had been strong critics of the UNP. Any alliance with them, he said, would amount to disenfranchising the people. He said the country needs an integrated alliance between progressive parties to become a strong force. He felt there was a strong public support if there was an alliance between the JVP and the SLFP (M). He added that it was amazing to note that President Rajapaksa had become very unpopular within such a short period of time in office. All one had to do was tour the countryside and people conveyed that message.

According to JVP sources, Samaraweera hinted that a no-confidence motion against the Government was likely to be moved shortly. Perhaps that was a test of strength for the Government in the backdrop of reports that some MPs would seek to cross over. He had also declared that he told UNP leader Wickremesinghe that under a joint alliance, SLFP (M) members will not be willing to contest under UNP's Elephant symbol. The two sides may, therefore, choose a new symbol, an aspect which is likely to be incorporated in the proposed MoU between SLFP (M) and the UNP. Earlier, Samaraweera began the discussion with a brief on his party's plans. He said it was his intention to form a broad based alliance. The JVP is a significant force in Sri Lanka and hence, Samaraweera said, had an important role to play to curb the dictatorial tendencies of this Government. He said the JVP was a very strong entity.

Samaraweera said in the past he and his colleagues had been strong and vociferous critics of the UNP as well as its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He said, "we cannot and should not get away from the fact that the UNP is the main opposition in the country. Better or for worse, it has played a role since independence. Even at the last Presidential elections, Wickremesinghe polled 48 per cent of the votes."

Samaraweera said that in terms of practical policies, the JVP was undoubtedly the third force in the country. The country needs a broad based alliance which will integrate forces against the dictatorial Government, he said.

Amerasinghe handed over to Samaraweera a letter, by then already posted on the JVP website, giving his party's reasons for not wanting to be in an alliance with the UNP. The letter had been addressed to Samaraweera. The latter offered to send a formal reply setting out their position. It was also decided to continue their dialogue. The two-hour meeting ended and Samaraweera was the first to walk out of the room. Anura Kumara Dissanayake was heard to tell Sripathi Sooriyarachchi that the JVP was not keen on taking the leadership of the grand political alliance they have proposed. He said even Samaraweera was welcome to head it if he left out the UNP and joined them.

On Thursday, Samaraweera and his team had a lengthy meeting with a delegation of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) led by Arumugam Thondaman. However, a meeting planned with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress did not materialize. The latter had wanted the party's Central Committee to take a decision on the matter. Thereafter the SLMC is to write to Samaraweera.

On Wednesday, German Ambassador Juergen Weerth met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa to debrief him on the deliberations of the Donor Co-chair meeting in Oslo on July 2 and 3. On hand with the President during the two-hour session was his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, joined in later.

Ambassador Weerth had conveyed to President Rajapaksa the view of the Donor Co-chairs that there could be no military solution to the ethnic conflict. He had also dealt with the human rights situation, humanitarian aid, Norwegian facilitators being allowed to visit the LTTE (if Sri Lanka accepts Norway as facilitator), need for a credible political package and other related issues. Details of the Donor Co-chair agenda for the Government were revealed exclusively in the Situation Report in The Sunday Times last week. Ambassador Weerth told President Rajapaksa he proposed to brief Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe too on the outcome of the Oslo meeting.

Ambassador Weerth met President Rajapaksa to convey the Donor Co-chairs decisions since Germany is the outgoing President of the European Union. On July 1 Portugal took on the role as President of the European Union for six months. Since there is no Portuguese diplomatic mission in Colombo, the "Local Presidency" is being performed by the British High Commission. However, there was no British Government representatives at the Oslo meeting since EU officials represented them. A debriefing of Donor Co-hairs meeting in Oslo for the LTTE will now be carried out by Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar. This is when he travels to Kilinochchi next week. It is in this backdrop that the Government is redoubling its efforts for another major event. With the media blitz after the re-capture of Thoppigala, in August, the Government plans to put out the political proposals formulated by the All Party Representative Committee to end the ethnic conflict.

Yet, such a move will not see a return by the LTTE to the negotiation table. This is in view of the Government's insistence that their leader, Mr. Prabhakaran should renounce violence and call for talks. Hence, the bottom line here again would be for the Government to go for another "victory" in the North after seizing control of the East. That again will hinge on what the LTTE will do in response. So more challenges are thus in store for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.