Columns - Political Column

Going to deities amidst clouds of gloom

  • President makes sudden visit to Tirupathi temple, no political talks in Delhi
  • Tight security ring for SAARC summit amidst Black July fears
By Our Political Editor

Be it for those in Government or the Opposition, astrologers and deities are as important as votes in Sri Lankan politics. That it has been so for decades is too well known.

Years ago, a Government that craved for enhanced foreign investment invited a high-powered private sector delegation from Japan. Shigeo Nagano, head of the corporate steel giant, led the delegation of leading businessmen. When they arrived in Sri Lanka, the then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, had been advised to rest in bed to avoid a malefic period. She did. Her number two, Maithripala Senanayake, was given the task of meeting the visitors and talking on the all-important subject of Japanese investment. This episode, needless to say, underscores which is priority.

It is no different today. Six weeks ago, Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, was in the southern Indian state of Kerala taking part in religious ceremonies at a leading temple. He is known to consult leading astrologers there. Early this week, the Presidential Secretariat contacted the Indian High Commission in Colombo. It was about logistical arrangements for a visit by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Tirupathi in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Though the visit was an entirely private one, protocol and security arrangements had to be made. By Thursday night when news spread through the grapevine that he was visiting India, the rumour was that he was flying to New Delhi for urgent talks with Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Naturally, officials at the Indian High Commission were embarrassed if not angry. "Those rumours are utter rubbish," declared one official. His anger was perhaps understandable. Premier Singh's Congress Government was beleaguered this week by the exit of a constituent partner, the Communist Party. This was over the Government's decision to go ahead with a nuclear deal with the United States. Thus, not only Manmohan Singh, but other Congress leaders too were busy trying to shore up support for the Government to stay in power. In fact the Indian Premier had met his country's President Pratiba Patel on Thursday and assured her that his Government would win a trust vote in Lok Sabha (Parliament) scheduled for July 21 or 22.

Those who heeded the JVP's strike call on July 10. Pic By Gemunu Wellage

Rajapaksa's visit to India was not for political reasons, but on religious grounds. On Friday morning, he boarded a Sri Lankan Airlines flight to Bangalore, from where he took an Indian Air Force plane to Renigunta airport near Tirupathi.

Accompanying him was his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga and Co-ordinating Secretary Sajin Vaas Gunawardena. The latter has also been appointed Co-ordinator for the Presidential Secretariat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and this appointment now seems to indicate that the President will handle his own visits overseas. The Foreign Ministry was not consulted and was completely in the dark over this Presidential visit overseas.

The President and his entourage arrived in Hyderabad amidst heavy security. From there, they flew to the town of Tirupati to attend religious ceremonies at the temple of Sri Venkateswara, the 'Lord of Seven Hills'. The shrine located atop a hill in a place called Trirumala has a cluster of seven hills known as Seshachalam and is positioned at an elevated height of nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The temple is described as the richest one in the world with lakhs of devotees turning up every day. The Presidential party returned to Colombo yesterday.

Astrological advice or otherwise, the trip to India is not the only one for Rajapaksa. According to sources at the Presidential Secretariat, he is to be away from Sri Lanka for twenty days in August this year. That is to include a nine day visit to China for the opening ceremony and the rest of the Olympic Games.
There was added reason for Rajapaksa to invoke the blessings of Lord Venkateswara or Srinivasa (also known as Balaji), known to have the attributes of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva at Tirupati. He was pleased that the general strike staged by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and backed by the UNP failed to cripple essential services back home last Thursday. Buses and trains operated as usual. Transport Minister Dulles Allahapperuma even made the utterly silly statement that transport services were in fact "better than usual". Electricity and water supply was not interrupted. Though the JVP announced that the CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board) unions were going on strike, the CEB engineers did not strike work. Government offices worked smoothly though there was high absenteeism in some of them. Hospitals functioned, in some instances with Army medical corps personnel helping in.

Nevertheless, the debate whether the general strike was a success or failure persisted. "This was not a strike focused on one particular sector, but aimed at getting all state sector workers involved. According to our estimates 70 per cent took part. We consider this a success," boasted JVP's trade union leader and Parliamentarian K.D. Lalkantha.

"It is true that trains were operating. However, more than 60 per cent of the railway employees including office staff struck work," he told The Sunday Times.

Lalkantha declared that their campaign began with 366 trade unions but the number grew when the strike began. He warned that further strike action was on the cards. However, Minister Dullas Allahapperuma, pooh-poohed Lalkantha's claims. "The strike was a 100 percent failure," he declared. He opined that people believed President Rajapaksa's assurance that salary increases would be effected in the next budget. "This is one of the most unsuccessful strikes. Lalkantha is using statistics to claim it was a success," he told The Sunday Times.

He said despite various attempts to sabotage the transport services by threatening drivers, blocking rail tracks and throwing engine oil at employees, the Government acted "in the most democratic way" to maintain normalcy.

If Allahapperuma accused Lalkantha's unions of thuggery and violence, he can't say that intimidatory tactics was the JVP's monopoly. The Government unleashed several police officers to visit the homes of pro-JVP trade unionists, take their names down and ask them to report to the police stations to drive some fear into them about repercussions to them and their families.

Both Lalkantha and Allahapperuma vowed to resign. The first if the strike was a failure and the latter if it was a success. But in Sri Lankan politics no one resigns despite threats to do so. Thus, the tug o' war over a general strike, which failed to cripple essential services, continues. One side effect, however, was the role of the UNP trade unions. They rode piggy back on the JVP campaign though the latter did not formally rope them in for any dialogue or strategy. Lalkantha was to publicly admit that the strike effort was solely a JVP initiative and they did not rope in others in formulating their campaign. Though their unions took part in the strike, the silence of UNP leaders on matters relating to the strike, either before or after, speaks volumes. Privately, however, they were happy with the fact that this was at least a first attempt in the JVP and the UNP working together.

They considered this a rehearsal for future events of this nature, though they were extremely concerned that in areas like the Port, even the UNP unions did not come out on strike.

Their leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was in an aggressive mood when he spoke with Colombo-based senior diplomats. Among those taking part were those from the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, France, the European Union and Japan. He spoke on a number of issues including the ongoing military campaign against Tiger guerrillas, the worsening economic situation, violation of human rights, intimidation of UNP parliamentarians and sinister attempts to stifle media freedom. He said media personnel were being harassed and intimidated. The Government was suppressing all dissent.

He spoke on the recent assault on Namal Perera, the Sri Lanka Press Institute staffer and British High Commission's Mahendra Ratnaweera. He said that assaults have now extended from the media to those attached to diplomatic missions. Wickremasinghe appealed to the diplomats to urge their countries to ensure Sri Lanka does not become another Zimbabwe.

Last week's attack on the journalist and the High Commission employee figured in Parliament. Media Minister, Anura Priyadarashana Yapa, reacted angrily to disclosures made by a former Speaker and Negombo district UNP parliamentarian, Joseph Michael Perera. "Without taking cover under Parliamentary privilege, he should disclose the names of those involved in the attack and co-operate with those conducting investigations."

His remarks followed a statement in the House where Perera said: "We have received reports from those serving in the Army that a group of persons working under the Army Commander are responsible for attacks and abductions of journalists who criticize the Government and defence analysts who are critical on defence matters, those who expose corruption in these institutions. We ask the Government to bring these persons before the law and punish them.

"Recently the IGP said at a news briefing that he is not aware of white vans. The Police spokesman also said that it is journalists who get themselves beaten up and abducted so they can get visas to travel to foreign countries.

Then we ask the IGP to give the names of the journalists who have got themselves beaten up and bring them before the law. If this cannot be done, such officials are not fit to hold such high office. We would like to inform the National Police Commission through Parliament that such henchmen be removed from their posts."

Minister Yapa was also to say in his response that "the Government's need to identify the assailants when attacks are carried out is greater than the opposition. Though the incidents are small or minor, the Government takes them seriously. We believe this incident (attack on Namal Perera and Mahendra Ratnaweera) has been done to discredit the Government. Police teams are investigating the case. I will keep this House informed of the progress."

Almost two weeks after the incident, Police teams probing the matter - the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) -- are yet to record a breakthrough. A separate investigation was also carried out by the Narahenpita Police in whose area of authority the incident took place.

Against the backdrop of the forthcoming summit of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), the Colombo based diplomatic community is focusing close attention on the security situation here.

Last week, a foreign government informed Sri Lanka of the infiltration into the City of Colombo by a team of 25 Tiger guerrillas. Their aim, it appeared, was to trigger incidents. The Government has taken the warning seriously and has further enhanced security. This is particularly in the light of the forthcoming SAARC summit. There are fears that any major incident may compel some SAARC members -- or give them the excuse -- to either cancel or seek a postponement of the summit on grounds of security.
Another factor that has led to dark clouds over the forthcoming summit is this week's bomb attack outside the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul. India's Defence Attache and three High Commission employees were among forty persons killed. India has accused Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), the nation's premier spy agency, of masterminding the attack thus forcing bilateral relations to take a nosedive. Islamabad has, however, denied the charge.

The incident has raised issues over bilateral talks by SAARC leaders on the sidelines of the SAARC summit. This is particularly between leaders of Afghanistan and India with their Pakistani counterparts. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been strongly critical of Pakistan blaming it for allowing cross border attacks in his country - a charge that Pakistan again denies.

A relative lull in Tiger guerrilla activity outside the theatre of conflict, the Wanni, was broken on Friday. The guerrillas opened fire at a bus killing four civilians and wounding 25 more near Galge along the Kataragama-Buttala Road. This area has been the scene of many guerrilla attacks earlier. Police said Friday's firing was intended to create a fear psychosis particularly in the wake of the Esala perehera in Kataragama. Besides the upcoming SAARC summit, defence officials say that there were many reasons why the guerrillas wanted to trigger off a major incident in the coming weeks.

The guerrillas were observing 'Black Tiger Week' beginning July 5. It was on this day in 1997, LTTE's 'Captain' Millar rammed an explosive laden truck into the Nelliady Central College in the Jaffna peninsjula where troops deployed on 'Operation Liberation' were billeted. That operation was aimed at regaining control of the peninsula from the guerrillas. They also observe 'Black July,' the 25th anniversary of the anti-Tamil riots that broke out in 1983. Now a possible attempt to mar the SAARC is an addition. "But we are ready to meet any threat," says a senior military official who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons.

His remarks came as both the Security Forces and the Police intensified security precautions particularly in and around the City of Colombo. Yesterday, Police were detailed to identify all abandoned land in the capital and the suburbs where neglect has led to bushy outgrowth. Police are tracing the identities of the owners to urge them to clear such plots of land and thus deny possible hiding places for guerrillas. Some of the other tougher measures cannot be spelt out for reasons of security.

If the Government is heaving a sigh of relief that Thursday's general strike, perhaps quite rightly, was a partial flop, it has new worries now. Highest level of security has to be maintained throughout July and early August to ensure a trouble free SAARC. That is the newest challenge.

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