CWC’s Cock won’t fight
- Thondaman and CWC come rolling down the mountain
- President furious as Holmes does a Rock
Like the cockerel, their official symbol, leaders of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) crowed aloud last Sunday about quitting the Government.
As their Vice President, M.S. Sellasamy declared to The Sunday Times, the party's Politburo that met in Kotagala (near Hatton) demanded an apology from President Mahinda Rajapaksa if they were wanted in the Government. These were for alleged insulting remarks the President's brother and Senior Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa reportedly made to CWC frontliners at a face-to-face meeting. The latter, denied he made any such remarks. In fact, Basil was off yesterday to Loolecondera Estate near Kandy where James Taylor first planted tea over a century ago. Together with Government Ministers, he is due to inaugurate a scheme to develop 3800 kilometres of estate roads.
|The section of the large crowd at the Matara Uyanwatte Stadium on Friday.
Sellasamy's remarks were made to The Sunday Times reporter Chris Kamalendran after the CWC Politburo had ended a meeting in Kotagala on Friday (August 3). "We do not want to get insulted. Whichever party comes to power we support them. It would be difficult for a minority party to survive otherwise", he said then.
On Friday, The Sunday Times asked Sellasamy what he had to say now. This was his answer: "I was pulled up by members of my party for disclosing that the CWC wanted an apology from President Rajapaksa. Though the CWC took up the position to demand an apology, the party's stance has now changed. We would now support the Government."
Hardly had The Sunday Times hit the streets last Sunday did it jolt the CWC leadership. News spread that President Rajapaksa was infuriated by Sellasamy's remarks. Unlike the cockerel, CWC leaders crowed in different voices.
"We have no intention to return (to the Government)", thundered CWC spokesman R. Yogarajan last Sunday. He even pleased some sections of the media by declaring that the party Politburo did not take any decision to demand an apology. Even if he tried to disprove Sellasamy, a veteran CWC frontliner of the vintage of their one time revered leader, Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, that failed. There was no question, the CWC Politburo did decide to demand an apology from President Rajapaksa. That is why no one sent a denial to The SundayTimes about its report. However, The Sunday Times accounts last week about the CWC saga, and the President's reaction, have given the jitters to the CWC leadership.
No one was more worried than CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman. Even though he and his Deputy Minister colleagues had handed in their resignations, as pointed out in this commentary last week, it became clear they were not serious about actually leaving. They thought the Government would plead with them to withdraw their letters and heap them with even more concessions. Instead, they were getting another message - you can leave if you wish. That meant the loss of a number of benefits.
Thondaman arranged for Muthu Sivalingam, CWC Finance Secretary, to chair a news conference at Saumya Bhavan, the CWC headquarter at Green Path, Kollupitiya last Monday. Both Sellasamy and Yogarajan were present. It was quite clear from their conduct that they have been told not to make any statement, and just keep their mouths shut. "Will the CWC accept portfolios again," asked a journalist from Sellasamy. He replied that an answer should be sought from Sivalingam. The latter parried the question with a remark that "the Central Committee should decide on such matters. They (meaning the Central Committee) have not taken such a decision so far." There were questions directed at Yogarajan too. He in turn pointed to Sivalingam to give the answers.
The next day (Tuesday), Thondaman and Sivalingam attended a meeting of leaders of constituent parties of the Government summoned by President Rajapaksa. Those who took part in the meeting observed that Rajapaksa almost ignored the CWC team not paying undue attention to them. The CWC leaders remained silent. It was Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem who did most of the talking. He charged that the Government was rushing through development programmes in the East without consultation with MPs in the area. Nevertheless, he was quick to point out that the SLMC in no way objected to the Government's development projects in the East.
Hardly had the meeting at Temple Trees ended did the Presidential Media Unit release photographs. News spread that CWC leaders were back in the Government. The same day, Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, the Chief Govenrment Whip, declared in Parliament that the CWC would not only support the Government but would also take back their portfolios. That certainly was bad news for the National Congress that was trying to woo the CWC to sit in opposition benches.
On Wednesday, CWC leaders turned up at a reception hosted by Minister Fernandopulle at the Water's Edge in Battaramulla. The occasion was his appointment as the Treasurer of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The post was earlier held by ousted Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera. President Rajapakasa was present. So were Thondaman, Sellasamy and Sivalingam.
All this was too much for CWC leader Thondaman. He took flight to India, where he always takes refuge in such situations, and especially when plans backfire. The weekly Cabinet meeting came and went on Wednesday without him. He told close friends he was taking off since he was getting far too many telephone calls. Sivalingam said Thondaman will return next week and thereafter the CWC would take back their portfolios. Behind the scene consultations were under way between Government leaders and the CWC. One of the highlights of the CWC's return to Government, The Sunday Times has learnt from highly placed sources, is their withdrawal of a decision to demand an apology from President Rajapaksa.
These sources say such an apology would be made by Thondaman. The ones who asked for an apology will now have to make the apology. In the light of this, the Government has not acted on the letters of resignation sent in by Thondaman and his colleagues. A Government source said yesterday "they will remain on hold until Thondaman returns to Sri Lanka." Thus, the storm in the chicken soup will end much the same way similar storms have ended - the CWC creating a huge fuss and later going back. However, this time, as pointed out last week, it is after eating a lot of humble Thosai.
Besides the CWC issue that is almost settled to the Government's liking, there were a number of separate developments in the political arena that were cause for concern. On Friday, almost following an afterthought, President Rajapaksa telephoned Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama to exhort him on the need to commemorate the second death anniversary of Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Foreign Minister who was assassinated by the LTTE two years ago to this date. It had occurred to Government leaders that the contributions made by Kadirgamar, easily Sri Lanka's best Foreign Minister in the post-independent era, had been forgotten.
In a knee-jerk reaction to the President's call, incumbent Bogollagama ran around Colombo looking for a place to erect Kadirgamar's statue. The mess he made in the process is recorded in our news pages. The Defence Ministry web-site had run a news item saying that the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute would also hold an alms-giving in the late Minister's memory today, and that Bogollagama would be funding the event with his "personal money". This was cheap advertising at its worst.
Meanwhile, this week saw the replay of the Alan Rock episode. This time it was the visit of the UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator John Holmes. Weeks ahead of his visit, his office in New York and the Foreign Ministry have been locked in consultations over a programme for Holmes. The Ministry felt that Sri Lanka must not shut itself from such visits because it would send the wrong signals that the country had something to hide, but agreed that his itinerary should be closely monitored and at the end of the visit a joint press conference should be held. That was to be addressed by both, Holmes and Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management, Mahinda Samarasinghe. The press conference did take place and Holmes left. Then came the bombshell.
Before leaving the shores of Sri Lanka, Holmes had given the Reuters news agency an interview. There, he had declared that Sri Lanka is the most dangerous place on earth for humanitarian workers. This was to anger Government leaders including President Rajapaksa. He was to ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of Human Rights to immediately respond. The local UN resident representative as well as relief Co-ordinators were summoned and the Government's displeasure over the remarks was conveyed to them. This saw the UN Office of the Co-ordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issue a statement from New York.
That statement was to speak of Holmes sharing his impressions on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. A meeting with the President was not on the cards. The Foreign Ministry was questioning the protocol involved. After all Rajapaksa was now the President of the Republic, not the MP for Beliatte where he meets all and sundry at the drop of a hat.
But someone had decided to overrule the Foreign Ministry. Gamini Seneviratne of the President's Office said that the appointment stood despite the Foreign Ministry's objections. A powerful political figure had intervened. Some thought it was Basil Rajapaksa, the President's Senior Adviser. Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe and Milinda Moragoda were also present. Having met the President - and despite having met the President - Holmes made those astounding remarks as if he was in some kind of competition at Sri Lanka bashing with Alan Rock.
Livid with Holmes' remarks to Reuters, the Government was not happy with the New York statement either. President Rajapaksa asked Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to make a statement in Parliament rejecting the remarks made by Holmes. Wickremanayake said the Government was surprised by the unexpected comments attributed to Holmes in an interview with Reuters. He said "the Government of Sri Lanka in no uncertain terms, rejects John Holmes' assertion that Sri Lanka is not safe for humanitarian workers. His Excellency the President has categorically emphasised the government's total commitment to the safety of humanitarian workers during his talks with John Holmes and the latter acknowledged and expressed appreciation for the steps taken by the Government with regard to the security of humanitarian workers engaged in the North and East."
Ministers Bogollagama and Samarasinghe are to receive letters from Holmes tomorrow. Holmes is now in London on holiday. According to aides to Holmes, he is to explain himself and re-assure support. President Rajapaksa's anger over the episode is quite understandable. This is the second embarrassing issue his Government had to face with such international diplomuts.
Last Monday the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on Sri Lanka where damning indictments were made of the Government and the Security Forces. It has turned out that a one time Indian journalist who had served in Sri Lanka and now living in the UK has been responsible for most of the contents of the HRW report. The one time lady journalist now works for the HRW and is based in London where she lives after her marriage to an Englishman.
It has been revealed that she came to Sri Lanka on a tourist visa. It had been given to her after she declared she was coming to Colombo to attend a wedding and travel around. However, she had been in touch with one key person who has been helping her to collect information that is damaging both to the Government and the Security Forces. The Government has already learnt of the identity of the person who helped her. Making things much worse was what an official in Temple Tree did. He had taken her for an hour long meeting with President (not MP for Beliatte) Rajapaksa. Now Rajapaksa had warned that such persons should never have been brought to meet him in the first place.
In the meantime, Public Administration Minister and UNP's erstwhile Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya made a startling revelation in Parliament. Amidst hoots and jeers from his own party MPs, Jayasuriya was to say that a Tamil businessman, Charles Gnanakoon, had offered bribes to some of his breakaway MPs (he didn't name them) to re-join the Opposition.
The statement unfortunately begged more questions than gave answers to such a serious allegation. It so appeared, that this was something that these two MPs had told him. Jayasuriya also spread the word around later to others outside Parliament including to some Buddhist monks. But the absence of details led to speculation that this line was fed to him, and that this was merely a counter to the embarrassment, and the increasing pressure on the Government to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the allegation that monies were given to the LTTE to ensure a boycott of Tamil voters at the 2005 Presidential Elections.
There was no let-up though with the Opposition campaign to highlight the wrongs in the Rajapaksa administration. After a lull since the last Jana Rala in Colombo in mid-July, the UNP-SLFP (M) alliance of the National Congress held yet another successful protest rally in the southern heartland of Matara.
Mangala Samaraweera had a trial run the day before the rally gathering all the three-wheel drivers to protest against the rising fuel prices. On Friday, a huge rally of UNP and SLFP supporters, numbering about 35,000 turned up at the Uyanwatte Stadium after marching the streets of Matara town. Samaraweera's chief lieutenant Sripathi Sooriyarachchi was a conspicuous absentee from the proceedings with reports that he was abroad with his family.
Samaraweera was particularly harsh on the President going to the extent of calling him an "IRC" - technically, to mean Island Re-Convicted Criminal, but in local parlance a reference to a "thug". UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was a little more subdued this time on Rajapaksa, speaking more on a planned loan the Government had negotiated with foreign banks that would keep the future generations tied hand and foot.
The event went on till well past 9.30 at night with UNP Hambantota MP Sajith Premadasa giving the tired audience a discourse on the socio-economic plight of the people of the southern province.
Even the UNP hierarchy was tired of listening to him. It was the second time they had listened to him lecture for the week.
At this week's Working Committee meeting in Colombo, when Wickremesinghe had explained at length the MoU he had signed with Samaraweera, it was the young Premadasa who had made an impassioned speech that the Grand Old Party's trademark symbol, The Elephant, must not be changed at any cost.