ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 23, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 17
Columns - Political Column  

CBK-Manmohan lunch upsets Government

  • Air Chief asked to explain MiG-27 purchase; Gotabhaya pushes for military solution
  • Fiery baptism for Basil in parliament; Senior SLFPers not enthusiastic

By Our Political Editor

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda at the felicitation ceremony in Trincomalee. Pic by A.T.M. Gunananda

The all-powerful Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa unambiguously spelt out a vital piece of Government policy last Monday. He declared during a nationally-televised event from the Naval garrison at Trincomalee that there could be permanent peace in Sri Lanka only through defeating terrorism "one hundred per cent" militarily.

The occasion was a return to port by a Navy flotilla that had destroyed three Tiger guerrilla cargo vessels. The Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, described them as "floating warehouses" in the deep seas some 1,400 nautical miles away from the eastern shores of Sri Lanka.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa declared, "we cannot establish permanent peace in the country by winning only half or two third of the war against terrorism." His assertion in the presence of his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, raises issues over Government policy. It came hot on the heels of a statement in Kuala Lumpur a fortnight back, by Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama debunking a previous statement by the country's Defence Secretary, also made at a passing out parade of the Civil Security Force at Galkiriyagama in the Anuradhapura district, in similar vein - that the Government will opt for a military solution to eradicate the LTTE. He said then that the North will be cleared of Tiger guerrilla activity. He said that they did not want to leave it for the next generation, and that the Government has learnt from the mistakes of the past by allowing the Tigers to re-group under some pretext or other after having suffered a heavy defeat on the battlefield.

Foreign Minister Bogollagama told Reuters that the Government had "no plans" for a military offensive in the North, and that the Government wanted the LTTE to return to the negotiating table. Now, in the presence of the President, the Defence Secretary made his point once again.

This view simply means that the near two-decade long insurgency between the Security Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has to end with the enemy being defeated for peace to dawn. That, no doubt, adds a new dimension to the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, which now remains only on paper. It would also be a new dilemma for the Scandinavian ceasefire monitors.

In the East, where the Government contends that the Tiger guerrillas have been "completely driven out," daily situation reports by the military tell a slightly different story. There still are confrontations and killings. This is not only in the Batticaloa district but also in the neighbouring Ampara district. Roads in the City of Colombo are still closed and traffic snarls follow whenever there are heavily escorted VIP movements. Percentages aside, they still underscore the dangers that stalk. On the opposite page our Defence Correspondent deals with this aspect in greater detail.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this time there was no denial of Lt. Col. Gotabhaya's assertions on policy. However, it drew a strong retort, if not a rebuff from Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe. "He (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) is a bureaucrat. The JVP believes that a bureaucrat does not have the right or duty to spell out Government policy," he told The Sunday Times. He said such pronouncements should come not from bureaucrats but from political leaders but added nevertheless that, the JVP endorsed that gung-ho militaristic view.

His remarks appear in a front-page story today. Amerasinghe also sets out JVPs position vis-à-vis recent political developments in a signed article that appears elsewhere in this newspaper. The international response however, came from United States Ambassador Robert Blake. He declared at a public event at Orugodawatte that the US and other members of the Donor Co-chairs did not believe a military solution was the answer.

Significant enough, the Security Forces are gradually stepping up their offensive operations in the North already. It was only on Thursday that Air Force fighter jets bombed suspected guerrilla targets both in Pooneryn and Puthukudiyiruppu. For months now, Pooneryn has become the centre of a major guerrilla build-up. Puthukudiyiruppu is widely regarded as a guerrilla nerve centre where most military leaders are concentrated. These military offensives are in addition to attempts by troops to advance into guerrilla-dominated areas west of Omanthai along the A-9 highway.

Though not directly, there was a response from the head of the LTTE Political Wing S.P. Tamilselvan. He claimed in an interview with the Tamilnet website that the Tiger guerrillas were "maintaining patience" and "restricting themselves to a defensive war." The Government is making no secret of its campaign to focus military pursuits in the midst of an economic crisis and mounting cost of living. Thus, the distraction is a clever strategy to divert attention and shore up its shaky popularity in the face of skyrocketing prices of essential foodstuffs. Soon after taking part in the ceremonies at the Eastern Naval Area Headquarters in Trincomalee last Monday, President Rajapaksa returned by helicopter to Colombo. After touching down at the Army grounds, he drove straight to the Presidential Secretariat where another important event had been planned.

Cabinet Ministers and Government Parliamentarians were being given briefings by Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Each was detailing out the achievements of their respective service in fighting Tiger guerrillas. Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Roshan Gunathilake went further to explain the procurement of the controversial MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. He made a comparative analysis of the Israeli-built Kfir interceptor jets and the Russian-built MiG-27 ground attack aircraft.

Earlier at a conference at the Ministry of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had told Air Marshal Gunathilake he should defend the procurement of MiG-27 fighter jets from Ukraine. That is by explaining the various benefits accrued to the Air Force by their purchase. Taking part in the conference was Basil Rajapaksa, House Leader and Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Jathika Hela Urumaya's Udaya Gammanpilla.

A group of members of the Buddhist clergy were also present at the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat. A Government source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said the idea behind the meeting was to ensure all Government parliamentarians including Ministers were fully conversant with all matters relating to the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. This is not only to respond to issues in Parliament but also to spread the word around at public meetings as well as when they are on trips abroad.

The Defence Secretary's new pronouncement and action on the ground assume fresh significance in the light of his recent visit as a member of a three-member delegation to India. Others who went to New Delhi then were Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President and Basil Rajapaksa, then senior Advisor to the President and now a Member of Parliament. Upon their return, Indian authorities flatly denied an official statement that both Colombo and New Delhi have formed a Joint Committee on Defence. Officials in New Delhi perceived the move as an attempt to project that India backed Government's military campaign. That is not only over the re-capture of the East but plans to move to the North. To the contrary, India had urged that a political settlement was a sine qua non for the ethnic conflict and made clear New Delhi did not believe a military option was the answer. There was more to this in the recent week.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in India. Her first stop over was in Chennai. She was guest there of the Editor of Hindu, N. Ram, a close friend on whom she conferred Sri Lankan national honours before she relinquished office. Kumaratunga had planned to proceed to New Delhi. Whilst in Chennai she was in for a surprise. It was an official from the Prime Minister's Secretariat inquiring whether she would be available for lunch with Manmohan Singh when she reaches New Delhi. She readily agreed.
The luncheon turned out to be an important event for Kumaratunga who had travelled to India largely for two reasons. She had wanted to invite some friends and VIPs for the wedding reception of her daughter Yasodhara scheduled for September 30 at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Her wedding took place in the UK two months ago. The other was to garner support for the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga Foundation linked to the President Clinton Foundation in the United States.

Ahead of her family function, Kumaratunga will fly on a short visit to New York. It is to address a meeting of the Clinton Foundation. Interesting enough, President Rajapaksa will also be in New York around the same time, though he is not invited to attend the event. Rajapaksa the wags say, could, of course, take part in the Clinton event by becoming a paying member forking out US $ 1,800.

There was an array of VIPs at the Kumaratunga-Manmohan Singh lunch. They included Rahul Gandhi. His mother Sonia was unable to attend. Others were Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and two Cabinet Ministers. If the conversation during the lunch took the form of pleasantries and talk over matters general, a one-on-one meeting followed between Kumaratunga and the Indian Premier.

The Sunday Times has learnt that the subjects included the delay on the part of the Rajapaksa Government to bring forth political proposals to end the ethnic conflict, Indian concerns over the de-merger of the North and East contrary to assurances by the Government and the deteriorating human rights situation. Of course, the talks were informal and unofficial though it clearly underscored the Indian concerns over developments in Sri Lanka.

Yet the Kumaratunga-Manmohan Singh meeting was to have serious concerns entertained by the higher echelons of the Government. President Rajapaksa had telephoned Indian Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar. Government sources said that was to ascertain whether Kumaratunga was on a mission to "destabilise the Government." That was not all. Hindu Editor Ram was in Colombo for an engagement and ended up receiving an invitation from Rajapaksa for dinner. Ram was to tell friends later that during the two and half hour session, the President had many times wanted to find out what Kumaratunga was trying to do during her Indian visit. It seemed Ram could not hide his embarrassment.

If that was the scenario in the country's defence and security establishments following Lt. Col. Gotabhaya's public assertions, his brother, Basil was also making news - in Parliament. He has shed his role as Senior Advisor to the President. He took his oaths as a Member of Parliament amidst a not so good welcome from the Opposition benches. Some United National Party front-liners had originally drafted placards to read 'Al Haj 10 per cent' for display when Basil took his oaths. His brother President Rajapaksa was keen that there should be a good turnout at the oaths taking. He telephoned Anura Bandaranaike, a bosom pal of Basil during their fiery salad days, to ensure he was present in Parliament. A tired Anura Bandaranaike had just returned after a visit to Washington and Los Angeles where he spent a week each. The first was work and the second relaxation. The President was keen to show that the SLFP welcomed Basil Rajapaksa to Parliament, even if it was through the back door.

However, others shot down the move to call Basil 'Al Haj 10 per Cent' on the basis that it may offend the Muslims, especially as this was the ongoing holy month of Ramazan. The title 'Al Haj' was to be brought in to suggest that Basil Rajapaksa was in fact taking the seat meant for a member of the Muslim community, Anver Ismail, who had died last month. Thus, the posters were re-done to read 'Mr. 10 per cent' and were held aloft when Basil Rajapaksa took his oaths before Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara. Soon after being sworn in, he left Parliament. However, he was present during proceedings throughout Thursday.

Even if he is yet to make his maiden speech in Parliament, the Hon'ble Basil Rajapaksa has made clear he would be the Government's PR man there. On Thursday, he sat with some Tamil National Alliance parliamentarians at the Parliament restaurant. Some of the MPs raised an issue that has been causing problems. The MPs who represented electorates in the Wanni were not being allowed by the military to carry fuel. Hence, the MPs said they could not perform their role as people's representative. Basil Rajapaksa reached out on his mobile phone and called brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Later, he gave the good news to the MPs. They would be given liberal quotas of diesel and petrol when they travel to Tiger guerrilla dominated Wanni. Whether these measures will translate into TNA support for the Government remains to be seen. Already, a pro-LTTE web site this week identified two TNA parliamentarians as supporters of the Government.

In the meantime, an influential section of the Opposition was busy consulting legal opinion late this week. They want to go to Courts to challenge Basil Rajapaksa's nomination as an MP on the National List. It is on the basis that his name is not on the National List submitted after the parliamentary general elections. They also contend that two placements in the National List meant for members of the Tamil and Muslim communities had been misused. The first was the vacancy rendered by the assassination of former Foreign Minister, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar. The vacancy was filled by Dallas Allahapperuma, Railways Minister. The other is the recent death of Anver Ismail whose position has been filled by Basil Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka Freedom Party sources insist there is nothing "irregular" in these two appointments, and that there is no requirement for his name having to be already on National List, and the appointments are at the discretion of the coalition Government Leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There were mixed reactions to Basil's nomination as a National List parliamentarian. At least two Cabinet Ministers did not hide their feelings. One of them from the hill country was the most vociferous. He told an Opposition colleague somewhat sarcastically that more family members would soon come to Parliament thus lessening their workload. The Minister from Colombo, however, was more suave and declared "they (the Rajapaksa family) don't know the damage they are doing to themselves." After Friday's Jumma prayers, there were protests in some mosques in Samanthurai in the Batticaloa district against M.L.A.M. Athaulla, the breakaway SLMC leader who had agreed to allow Basil Rajapaksa to fill the vacancy created by the demise of Anver Ismail. A public demonstration even suggesting the death of Ismail was on suspicious grounds, and con demning Athaulla was called off at the last minute on Friday because the day coincided with a rally for International Peace Day. However, there were positive comments too in favour of Basil Rajapaksa. One Minister who did not wish to be identified declared, "the so-called young turks will now become active both in Parliament and at Parliamentary Group meetings. Basil is there not only to take note but to tell the President of the proactive role they are playing."

In fact, there was a forerunner to this phenomenon on Thursday when several of them including Mahindananda Alutgamage, Dilan Perera and UNP pole-vaulter Hemakumara Nanayakkara rose to defend the Government. Mervyn Silva in a spot of bother these days was showing his loyalties in no uncertain measure. This was when the House was debating Opposition allegations that Government leaders paid moneys to the LTTE.

It was SLFP (M) leader Mangala Samaraweera who led the onslaught against the Rajapaksa administration this week in Parliament during the debate calling for a Select Committee to probe whether there was a secret deal between the Government and the LTTE to force a boycott in the North and East at the 2005 Presidential Elections. Samaraweera, then Campaign Manager for Rajapaksa said that had there not been a boycott, his new political partner Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP would have become the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka.

Samaraweera said they had initiated a dialogue with LTTE representatives to ensure a free and fair Presidential Election, but that it later turned in a different direction. Basil Rajapaksa was named as a key figure in those discussions with Samaraweera saying that a Select Committee can probe the number of visits the new MP made to Singapore to clinch a deal with the LTTE on this score. It was a baptism of fire if ever there was one for a new MP, but Basil opted to only raise objections twice to his name being mentioned, and merely denying involvement, instead of responding more fully on the occasion.

The decision to appoint a Select Committee came after much deliberation from the Government, which the JVP watching from the sidelines said "raised suspicion". The Government, in the last minute forced an amendment to the motion in the name of breakaway SLFPer Sripathy Sooriyaratchchi calling for this Select Committee by inserting a demand that all agreements between Presidents and Prime Ministers and the LTTE since January 1st, 1989, and all funds and equipment given in support of the LTTE be investigated. This was clearly aimed at the likes of UNP President Ranasinghe Premadasa and SLFP President Chandrika Kumaratunga, but more so of the controversial 2002 Ceasefire Agreement signed by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE, and subsequent material the LTTE is reported to have obtained under the cover of a truce.

Analysts say that there is a significant difference in the Premadasa, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe agreements with the LTTE, because they were made public, and the so-called 'secret deal' referred to in this case, though what the Government may be trying to do is to stall the Select Committee by bringing in evidence to show that Wickremesinghe also had some secret dealings with the LTTE, and thereby delay any adverse findings on themselves, if any.

While the Government amendment contained no specifics against anyone of the previous Presidents or Prime Ministers, according to the Sripathy Sooriyaratchchi motion, the present Government even paid out sums of money from the Government's Consolidated Fund to the LTTE soon after the Presidential Elections as part of this 'secret deal'. If the Samaraweera-Sooriyaratchchi combine with their support for the mainstream UNP, was now the bugbear of the Rajapaksa administration, Rajapaksa was determined to give it back to the UNP with the same coin.

This Thursday, he met with a group of UNP (D) Ministers, and their close loyalists. The meeting was held in the guise of meeting businessmen in small groups, a tactic Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda initiated with his erstwhile Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as a ploy mainly to sit in at the meetings, and play go-between. This was the second such meeting Moragoda had arranged for businessmen with the President. Of around 20 persons who met the President were some of whom who may not wish to be called businessmen - for instance, advertising don Irvin Weerackody, one-time Forbes & Walkers Chairman Chrisantha Perera and banker Eran Wickramaratne.

Rajapaksa had told them that Ranil Wickremesinghe was attacking him personally, but he was not going to return the compliments. "Hari ho varadi - mama dan Janadipathi" (Right or wrong, I am now the President"), he said. He explained that though the Wickremesinghe-led UNP had signed an MoU with him, he had no choice but to enrol the UNP MPs who wanted to join his Government and become Ministers, or he would have "become a hostage of the JVP", he added.

It was significant that during the UNP barrage in Parliament against the new MP Basil Rajapaksa throwing parliamentary tradition to the wind in the process, no heavyweight SLFPer rose to the defence of the President's brother. The knights in shining armour were the juniors who wanted to show their colours, and not the seniors, except for maybe Jeyeraj Fernandopulle, the Chief Government Whip, who is also interested in showing his colours for higher stakes.

The fact that the day after Basil Rajapaksa took his oath, the Speaker no less invited him to the head table at his Iftar party would not have been lost on them. Here is the junior-most MP seated with the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, while they were given seats elsewhere. The breakaway UNP (D) members were also there big time to lend their collective support to the beleaguered Basil Rajapaksa on that first day of his in his new environment. At Thursday's meeting with the 'businessmen' at Temple Trees, it was Karu Jayasuriya, G.L. Peiris and Moragoda who were there. Rajapaksa said that he had 41 UNP MPs with him. Clearly his sights are on leaning more heavily now on the breakaway UNPers to check the inroads being made by the breakaway SLFPers into his own Government.

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