ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 07
Columns - Political Column  

War on media to defuse Tiger deal

  • Criminal defamation legislation deferred but held back for appropriate time
  • UNP and Mangala to sign agreement as Ranil faces attack on Toppigala comments

By Our Political Editor

Even if the war with Tiger guerrillas is over in the East, for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration there seemed many other wars are still in store. The war on the Media was nearly declared this week. It came about when the agenda for this Wednesday's Cabinet meeting was listed. That was draft legislation that incorporated provisions from the previous Draconian criminal defamation laws and other punitive provisions for those who were supposedly endangering the country's "national security". Ministers were expected to give their approval for it to be moved in Parliament, later.

But early this week, after having listed for discussion, Cabinet Secretary D. Wijesinghe wrote to Ministers informing them that the proposed legislation had been listed in the Cabinet agenda inadvertently. He said President Rajapaksa had decided not to go ahead with the proposed legislation and hence the item was being withdrawn from the agenda. Yet, some Ministers were confused. They wondered whether the listing of the new draft legislation in the Cabinet agenda and later having it withdrawn was a deliberate ploy. The idea was to send a message to the media, through Ministers who leaked Cabinet matters earlier, that legislation was on hand if the Media did not behave. President Rajapaksa is fully conscious that matters before Cabinet and weekly discussions found their way into the media. Thus, on Wednesday, the proposed legislation was not discussed. Ministers were expected to record the fact that the matter was not taken up at the instance of the President.

The reasons for the new move, though withdrawn for the moment, became clear after some ministers made their own inquiries. It was related to the planned campaign by opposition parties, particularly the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-M faction to raise issue over allegations that the Government paid vast amounts of money to Tiger guerrillas to enforce a voter boycott at the November 2005 Presidential elections. This cash reward was the only means, they claim, that led to the victory of Rajapaksa at the Presidential elections over his main rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP.

Earlier, the Government had proposed to introduce amendments to the Penal Code to re-introduce criminal defamation. A Cabinet memorandum under the name of the bed-ridden Minister of Justice and Law Reforms, Amerasiri Dodangoda, said:

"Offence of criminal defamation was recognized in the (sic) Chapter XIX of the Penal Code. The sections primarily sought to protect public figures from unfair character assassinations. The penalty prescribed for criminal defamation was a term of imprisonment which could have been extended to two years and / or fine. This provision of the law was amended in 2002 by an amendment to the Penal Code, with the understanding that there would be responsible reporting and publication by the public and the press. However, it is now observed that this freedom is abused in a vitriolic manner to defame persons indiscriminately. Although a civil remedy is available, the protracted nature of getting redress by such a remedy has to a great extent rendered the victims helpless and hapless. Thus there is a need to introduce a legal regime to protect persons from defamatory attacks. I am therefore of the view that the Penal Code should be amended to re-introduce the repealed provisions to make defamation a criminal offence.

"I seek the approval of the Cabinet to publish the annexed Penal Code (Amendment) Bill in the Gazette and to present it in Parliament thereafter for approval." The above recommendation came up for discussion at the Cabinet meeting on July 4 but was stalled after some Ministers raised objection. Thereafter, President Rajapaksa decided not to go ahead with it, for the moment.

Protagonists of the proposed new legislation argued that the disclosures, part of which is already in the public domain, was highly defamatory of President Rajapaksa and his family members. They also claimed that the allegations impacted directly on national security interests. At a time when troop morale was high and they had driven out Tiger guerrillas from the East, the opposition campaign would have a deleterious effect, it was argued. They noted that the opposition was planning to step up its campaign in the coming weeks through the media and at public rallies. Hence, the laws, though now held in cold storage, could see the light of day if the opposition campaign aggravates.

The other is the propaganda war that the Government has unleashed with troops re-capturing Toppigala (Baron's Cap) on Wednesday. State run media has been full of reports on the victory. The overkill, the Government, believes would negate the adverse image caused by the rising cost of living, widespread corruption allegations of human rights violations and multitude of other charges. On the opposite page, our Defence Correspondent deals with the aftermath of the re-capture of Toppigala and what it portends.

But a noteworthy aspect of the Topppigala victory has now surfaced. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has declared that the focus of the war would now shift to the North. He said this week that the Government wants to weaken the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), still further. Thus, quite clearly, future battles will be in the remaining guerrilla strongholds in the North. A Tiger guerrilla response to this assertion came on Thursday when the leader of the LTTE Political Wing, Suppiah Palani Thamilselvan, told Reuters news agency they had no confidence in President Rajapaksa. Hence, he declared the guerrillas would attack military and economic targets. The idea was to cause damage to the country's economy.

Thus, both the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government and the LTTE have now publicly declared their intention to continue with the war. This only means that both sides have, at least unofficially, declared that the ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV would continue. Reference to the declaration being unofficial is because the Norwegian facilitators have not been told that the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 is now off. For all intents and purposes, it remains on paper, as the battles portend to escalate.

Interesting enough, the LTTE position appears to have been further collaborated when Norway's outgoing Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Brattskar met with Thamilselvan this week. Associated with Brattskar were Eric Nurnberg and Edgar Laegrid from the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo. Together with Thamilselvan were 'Police Chief' B. Nadesan, Head of LTTE Peace Secretariat S, Puleedevan, Military Spokesman Irasiah Ilantheriyan and N. Selvy, Human Rights spokesperson.

Upon his return from his two-day visit to Kilinochchi, Brattskar briefed the Government on his meeting with the LTTE. At first Brattskar had briefed the LTTE on the outcome of two events - the meeting in Geneva between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Norway's Minister for International Development, Erik Solheim. The other was a de-brief on the proceedings at the meeting of Donor Co-chairs of the peace process in Oslo. During the talks in Geneva, President Rajapaksa had told Solheim that any future peace talks with the LTTE would be only after its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran renounced violence and called for a dialogue.

Thamilselvan was to complain to the Norwegian envoy that Donor Co-chairs had failed to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to address the fundamental issues that were affecting the Tamil people. They included the hardships faced due to the closure of the A-9 highway linking the mainland with the Jaffna peninsula, the denial of what he called basic humanitarian needs, re-settling Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the East, and the creation of new High Security Zones in Trincomalee.

According to official sources, Ambassador Brattskar briefed the Government on the ongoing All Party Conference and its efforts to formulate political proposals. Thamilselvan had expressed scepticism over its outcome. He was of the view that the LTTE had no confidence in the entire peace process. Ambassador Brattskar had raised with the LTTE the case of local employees of INGOs (International Non Governmental Agencies) and urged that no undue pressure be brought to bear on them. This was because such pressure placed the workers in jeopardy.

Thamilselvan had expressed the view that any future peace talks would be strictly on the enforcement of the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002. On the question of the Security Forces claiming Toppigala twice in the East, Thamilselvam had remarked that the LTTE had lost it twice earlier. Hence, he had claimed that it was not a major problem for the LTTE to lose it for the third time. The LTTE had a long term strategy, he had pointed out. Ironically, the Peace Secretariat in Colombo was also asking that the 2002 CFA be implemented in its entirety.

As Brattskar and his entourage drove along the A-9 from the LTTE end of the Omanthai entry-exit point, heavily armed guerrilla cadres had lined up both sides of the road to afford them protection. A day ahead of his visit, a group of guerrilla cadres had been killed in a claymore mine explosion. Whilst Army sources said that eight died, the guerrillas claimed it was five and identified them as medical workers. The LTTE accused the Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) - the 'Long Rangers', of infiltrating the Mankulam area and carrying out the claymore mine attack.

In the aftermath of the Toppigala victory, a major celebration is being planned by the Government for Thursday at Independence Square. This is to be followed by another major event where details of a Master Plan to develop the East are to be formally declared. It will coincide with the first anniversary of the military offensive to re-capture the Mavilaru irrigation system and its environs after the guerrillas had shut it down.

The Master Plan aims to make the East the "Sun Rise Region" with a "sound regional economy, enhanced income levels and a socially harmonious human settlement structure by the year 2030. A preamble to the Master Plan notes that "the eastern province covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometers, which is about 15 per cent of the total land area of the country. The province comprises three districts, the largest being Ampara which is 4400 square kilometers. The other two districts are more or less equal in area with Batticaloa having a larger area of about 2850 square kilometres, while Trincomalee has an area of 2700 square kilometres. The topography of the province is relatively flat in the coastal areas and undulating in the western part of the Province. The landscape of the Province is varied, with paddy fields, forests, scrublands, wetlands and lagoons being predominant."

Whilst the Government planned to celebrate the Toppigala victory with a major event at the Independence Square on Thursday, an event of much significance to the opposition was to take place on the same day at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). The United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (M) will sign a Memorandum of Understanding to forge an alliance whose primary objective would be to restore democracy, but in fact, oust the Rajapaksa administration.

The UNP and the Mangala faction have been engaged in intense discussion over the upcoming MoU. One of the highlights is expected to be an accord for the two sides to contest any election on a common symbol instead of the UNP's Elephant. The BMICH booking for Committee Room 'A' paying a deposit of Rs. 75,000 had been made in the name of a businessman, but this covert exercise was 'discovered' by BMICH, and the booking was cancelled, forcing the two parties to seek recourse to a committee room in Parliament for the signing ceremony next Thursday.

The Government also declared a war of sorts on Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was over his remarks at a public rally in Galle where he tried to play down the regaining of Toppigala. Wickremesinghe asked what the big fuss was over Toppigala, a "forest" which was captured by the Indian Peace Keepers (IPKF) and the Sri Lankan Forces under a UNP administration in the 1990s. He went one step further and said that this was an area larger than the Colombo District and it contained acres and acres of timber worth Rs. 2 billion. He said the 'Rajapaksa Samagama' – Rajapaksa Incorporated – the theme he is adopting to accuse the President and his siblings of making money while in public office – was going to exploit these vast acres for their gain.

The Government was quick to take an extract of Wickremesinghe's speech which referred to him down-playing the military victory at Toppigala, and use that video clip to show that the UNP pooh-poohed the sacrifices made by the Security Forces, which had lost several men in the fierce fight for the area. At the same time, Mangala Samarweera held a news conference and was a little more circumspect than Wickremesinghe was. He praised the Security Forces for their efforts, but slammed the Rajapaksa administration for trying to make political capital of the victory.

Facing some criticism for his ill-advised remarks that the Toppigala victory was not a major issue to crow about, Wickremesinghe had his new party spokesman Lakshman Kiriella set the record straight on Friday where he, basically echoed the Mangala Samaraweera line - praising the soldiers but blaming the Government for covering up on their sins. Coinciding with all this was the reply Wickremesinghe's lawyers, Samararatna Associates sent to President Rajapaksa's lawyers in response to a Letter of Demand claiming Rs. 2 billion for allegedly defamatory remarks made by the UNP Leader at a rally in Kegalle recently.

Wickremesinghe's reply was to stand by the remarks he had made, saying that he was entitled to say what he did as UNP Leader and Leader of the Opposition - in the public interest. The hard-hitting letter went on to accuse a "Mr. Ten Percent" who existed in the Government close to the President. The letter went on to refer to the "huge fraud" that was committed on the country by getting the LTTE to boycott the 2005 Presidential elections.

On Friday, Wickremesinghe told Muslim Ambassadors based in Colombo that the Government has no military or political strategy to end the Northern insurgency, and that they have no plans to introduce a Sri Lankan identity. He said all the decisions were ad-hoc and with tactics for the day. He said that the Opposition was concerned about a secret deal that had been entered into for the LTTE to boycott the 2005 Presidential elections, and confirmed the alliance with the Mangala Samaraweera faction of the SLFP.

Wickremesinghe then referred to a letter his party had written to Minister Tissa Vitharana giving notice that if the Government was unable to finalise its own proposals for a negotiated settlement with the LTTE through the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) by the end of August, that the UNP would be withdrawing from the process because by then, with both the Government and the LTTE wowing to keep fighting, there will be no purpose in trying to work out a political settlement.

On Thursday, the UNP's chief representative at the APRC, Kassie Choksy wrote to Minister Vitharana saying that the Party was for the Province to be the unit of devolution, and the question of the North-East merger was left for the Peace talks with the LTTE to decide.
In his letter Choksy says the differences within the Government's coalition partners on such issues should be decided outside the APRC.
He says the UNP's proposals were placed before the APRC as far back as in January 2007, and the SLFP proposals submitted in May have only complicated and delayed matters.

"Nevertheless, the Party (UNP) considers it impractical and unproductive to continue to wait for what is an obvious need, namely, the Government's proposal as one unit. Time is fast running out", Choksy says and adds that the UNP Working Committee has decided to wait for another six weeks from July 15 for the Government's proposals. Should such be the case, the UNP will continue its participation in the APRC deliberations, Choksy says, implying that if it does not, the UNP will stay out of the process.

The UNP was, however, not without its own internal squabbles. While trying to take on the Government on the one side they were fire-fighting 'at home'. A crowd of some fifty or so men and women marched outside 'Siri Kotha', their headquarters at Pita-Kotte demanding that Shaul Mohamed, son of veteran politician Mohamed Hanifa Mohamed be appointed as the father's successor to the Borella seat as organizer - not Jayantha Silva.

It was ironic that the father was claiming to be the UNP MP for the area, and the son's supporters saying the son should be appointed as chief organizer. Party leader Wickremesinghe had to call Shaul Hameed and sort things out, while Jayantha Silva was made the organizer. This was a sequel to the previous week, when Wickremesinghe had to send a special representative to meet Party joint chief national organizer S.B. Dissanayake to talk him out of doing anything rash because of his objections to the UNP entering into an alliance with Mangala Samaraweera and compnay.

Then, last Wednesday, the Party's Colombo organizers were summoned for a meeting with Wickremesinghe, but the meeting was called off at the last minute because chief Colombo district organizer Ravi Karunanayake absented himself. The next day Wickremesinghe met Karunanayake where the latter had objected to the names of several new organizers appointed by the party leader to the Colombo District.

Wickremesinghe insisted that his nominees stand, among them Rosie Senanayake (Colombo West), Bodhi Ranasinghe (Colombo East), Sagara Senaratne (Avissawella), Hashan Tillekerate (Avissawella), Niroshan Padukka (Kesbewa), and Jayantha Silva (Borella). It was then decided to confirm all of them on Friday. The only exceptions being Duminda de Silva (Colombo North), and someone for Maharagama. Ravi Karunayake did not turn up for this meeting.

But it would now seem that with the battle for Toppigala between the Security Forces and the LTTE now over, the battle for Colombo will now take over between the Rajapaksa administration and the Opposition in the coming days. The first salvo might be fired from the Opposition Leader in Parliament tomorrow.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.