By Our Political Editor
Bi-lateral issues on the sidelines, more than regional issues within the conference hall, dominated the South Asian leaders' summit that ends today in Colombo.
Yet, the 15th South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) conference that began last Sunday was both a scintillating spectacle and a frightening fallacy. Some of the streets in Colombo and Kotte were spruced up for the event with most buildings there receiving a new coat of paint. Entire palm trees were planted on roundabouts. Green grass and tall plants replaced kerbside plots after unauthorised structures there were bulldozed. They included grocery and vegetable stalls. Flags and cutouts with slogans and photos of visiting leaders stood across the roads.
During nights, roundabouts and most lampposts were illuminated with decorative bulbs, looking like the decorations outside Colombo casinos. This is not withstanding costs of electricity in Sri Lanka being one of the highest in the world. As luxury bulletproof Mercedes Benz cars with the visiting dignitaries sped past the roads, escorted by air-conditioned Land Rover Defender Jeeps packed with personal security men, Police patrol cars and ambulances, all brand new, the scenes were reminiscent of events held in oil-rich countrie.
In Sri Lanka, however, a cash-strapped nation was spending an officially claimed amount of Rs 2.8 billion for the week-long regional meeting. The visiting dignitaries could not be oblivious to the fact that this was all a whitewash job, and that all was not well when they saw an armed policeman every 25 metres along the road.
There is also another side. The frightening fallacies are far too many. Firstly, the staggering Rs 2.8 billion cost officially claimed, economic experts warn, would further burden an already overheated economy. This is at a time when the ongoing war against Tiger guerrillas is sapping up a larger slice of the Government's revenue. Other reasons include the greater hardships placed on the people due to mounting cost of living, rise in fuel prices, electricity, transport costs, mounting unemployment etc.
The SAARC events, though brought live via television and radio to the homes of most Sri Lankans, have been less people-friendly. At the butt end of the stringent security measures, though necessary, have been the people, particularly the working class. Most of them were forced to walk at least one or two kilometres to reach their work places in Colombo. This is due to restrictions on transport services. Some restaurants put up shutters and three-wheeler scooter taxi drivers complained they had few or no hires. City residents who could afford left their homes, checked into hotels, and the young ones fled to Hikkaduwa where the Tourist Board had organised a questionable event ostensibly to attract foreign tourists. Suddenly, the India-Sri Lanka test match in Galle also got an influx of spectators. In essence, life for residents in the City of Colombo and immediate suburbs was made difficult, but then, that was to be expected.
Though the cost for SAARC is claimed by the Government to be Rs 2.8 billion, the opposition United National Party (UNP) charged it was more than double. "The cost of Rs 2.8 billion is the allocated expenditure approved by Parliament in the form of a Supplementary Estimate. They spent a further Rs 2.1 billion on bullet proof and other vehicles. The Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) upped its expenditure for SAARC from Rs 180 million to Rs 340 million," Kotte Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake says. He adds; "we can confirm that the cost of SAARC is Rs 5.6 billion. That is the direct cost."
"All this carnival costing Rs 5.6 billion is to only receive the SAARC Chairmanship which even a small nation like the Maldives declined by expressing its inability to host the summit. This is whilst the Government says it has no money to effect salary increases. Could it not have embarked on housing projects or road development schemes with this enormous amount of money".
The UNP, which earlier denounced the summit and asked what benefit SAARC has brought about, somewhat changed its stance to ask what benefits the holding of the summit has brought about.
There was also lament in Opposition circles over SAARC invitations. On Wednesday night, Indian High Commissioner, Alok Prasad, hosted a dinner at the Taj Samudra for Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon. The fact that the dinner was at the hotel's Chinese restaurant drew some humorous moments among guests, but an Indian diplomat explained it by saying Menon has served in Beijing as an Indian ambassador and likes Chinese cuisine. One of the invitees was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She was heard lamenting to those who attended the dinner that she had not been invited for either the opening or the closing sessions of SAARC.
She had been the longest serving Chairperson in the SAARC community. Another who was left out of the SAARC invitation list was the only surviving Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in the SAARC grouping - Mangala Samaraweera. There was some surprise too among the guest list of Alok Prasad. There were no Cabinet Ministers other than those from the breakaway group of the UNP, G.L. Peiris and Karu Jayasuriya. None from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), or the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), who were both, conspicuous by their absence. Not even Minister Douglas Devananda or Arumugam Thondaman.
When the guests were seated down to dinner, in walked Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee. He had just arrived from the airport and came to the restaurant to say "Namasthe" to the guests. Accompanied by Prasad, he made a bee-line to Mrs. Suganthie Kadirgamar, widow of the late Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, who was present and paid his courtesies. Then, Prasad introduced Mukherjee to G.L. Peiris who was seated nearby and so on. He did not stay for dinner, though.
That same night, close upon midnight, Kumaratunga had a visitor at her official residence at Independence Square. She had a caller, who had brought invitations for the opening and closing ceremonies. She had wondered whether Indian intervention had led to those invitations being delivered.
Bi-lateral talks on the sidelines of the SAARC summit were undoubtedly the highlight of the week's event. For Sri Lanka, of particular significance was the meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Premier Singh raised with Rajapaksa a string of issues of concern to New Delhi. They included two highlights, India's stated policy that there is no military solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the need to evolve a political solution through the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) process and the attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen allegedly by the Sri Lanka Navy.
An official statement from the President's Office said President Rajapaksa had re-affirmed his commitment to "implement comprehensively the provisions of the 13th amendment to the Constitution in the Eastern Province." He had also re-affirmed that the parallel process, the APRC, is expected to submit recommendations to "forge a further political consensus of solution to the current crisis."
It said President Rajapaksa also asked Indian Premier Singh to urge Indian authorities to continue to discourage Indian fishermen from crossing the International Maritime Boundary line (IMBL) that divide Sri Lanka and India in the Palk Straits.
The Indian Premier also met with Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem where he maintained that stability in Sri Lanka was to India's benefit, but also stood to the country's official position that it was a 'political settlement' that was required to end the northern insurgency on the island.
On Saturday evening, after the formal opening sessions that morning, Premier Singh also engaged his Pakistan counterpart Yousuf Reza Gilani on bi-lateral issues. Tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad have mounted in the wake of a string of bomb attacks in Bangalore and Ahemedabad and the recent exchange of fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir. These came in the wake of the bomb attack on the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul. New Delhi blamed Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) for the incident, a charge Islamabad denies. Indian media reports said Premier Singh had raised with Prime Minister Gilani his Government's concerns over reports that the ISI was behind the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
Last week's report in these columns that Premier Singh would meet Eastern Provincial Council Chief Minister, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan has had its sequel.
Though a meeting was originally included in his programme, for unexplained reasons, it has not been scheduled. That is not to say the Indian Government would sideline the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) or the Tamil People's Liberation Front. Instead, the task of meeting Chandrakanthan has now been placed in the hands of Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon. But reports last night said the TMVP had rejected a meeting with Menon.
Sri Lanka Government leaders are not the only ones busy with bilateral dialogue. Opposition leader Wickremesinghe, will meet Pakistan's Prime Minister Gilani for talks today. He has already met the other SAARC Heads of delegation. He is also scheduled to meet US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher later today. Boucher is in Sri Lanka to attend SAARC as an observer.
Good or bad, the conduct of the weeklong SAARC conference in Colombo highlighted Sri Lanka's external relations at work. It was clear that the Government had established good rapport with the South Asian countries. Whether by design or otherwise, however, foreign relations with the West seem to be taking a nosedive. It began last year with two separate visits by senior United Nations officials - Sir John Holmes and Louise Arbour. The two were branded as sympathisers of Tiger guerrillas no sooner they returned to New York.
Last week was no different. In the wake of a three-member European Union delegation visiting Sri Lanka amidst reports that the concessionary GSP plus facility was to be withdrawn, Government officials worked behind-the-scenes for a team from the European Parliament to come to Sri Lanka. The prime movers in this task to do damage control and give a better break for the Government's image were Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union, Ravinath Aryasinha and Sri Lankan born Niranjan de Silva Deva Adiththya.
In a curtain raiser statement to the Sri Lanka media from Geneva, (containing his address to the delegation) Ambassador Aryasinha "welcomed" the European Parliamentary delegation "to undertake a visit to the Eastern Province to witness the political transformation taking place" and "to meet Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan."
The statement noted, "This would be the first official contact between EU and the new provincial administration, since last month a delegation from the European Commission shied away from doing so. He said it was fitting that it takes place between elected representatives of the European people and the elected representatives of the Eastern province."
Aryasinha asserted that Sri Lanka "welcomed the change of position, as it opened the doors for the EU to become a full partner in the development of the Eastern Province which was tasting democracy, after a lapse of 20 years under LTTE domination."
Alas, the European Parliamentary delegation also shied away from visiting the East. Thus, they were unable to "taste democracy" and dished out some bitter criticism against the Government. They traded allegations with the Government over placing obstacles on a planned visit to Trincomalee, the main purpose for which they came to Sri Lanka. However, the Government denied those charges and blamed the parliamentarians for their lapses. Delegation leader Robert Evans told a news conference the Government should do more to defend human rights and put an end to the frightening number of abductions.
He said that during their meetings in Colombo with the media they learnt of continued harassment and their fear of being critical of the Government. They have heard of intimidation and harassment of media personnel. He said his delegation intended to raise the case of The Sunday Times freelance columnist J. S. Tissainayagam who has been in custody with the Police Department's Terrorism Investigation Department for over 150 days.
Sections of the Government now branded the European parliamentary delegation, who came to Sri Lanka to be "partners in the development of the East", as sympathisers of the Tiger guerrillas. Adding his voice to the charge was the deputy leader of the parliamentary delegation, Deva Aditya. In a statement distributed at the news conference, which was addressed by Evans, Deva Aditya declared, "it is absurd for the parliamentarians to come to Sri Lanka and lecture on democracy."
He added that the delegation should have "made statements encouraging good governance in a friendly way without employing megaphone politics that promote terrorism." Deva's remarks that his colleagues were "promoting terrorism" through their public remarks no doubt angered them. Evans told the news conference that their statements were being made with the full concurrence of Deva Aditya as a delegation member.
The drama continued even after five out of the six European parliamentarians ended their visit and returned. State run media reports said Deva Aditya was now taking part as an "observer" of the SAARC summit on behalf of the European Union. This was factually incorrect since there were two others representing the EU according to the Foreign Ministry.
Here is their official list: Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State, USA,
Manoucher Mottaki, Foreign Minister, Iran,
Masahiro Kohara, Deputy Director General of South East and South West Asia Affairs Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan,
Cho Jung-pyo, Minister, Prime Minister's office, South Korea,
James Moran, Director (Asia) European Union, Didier Leroy, Deputy Director for Asia Pacific Division, European Commission Presidency,
Wu Dawei, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, China and
Dr. Arvin Dolell, Minister of Agro Industries and Fisheries (Mauritius).
It also drew a response from the European Parliament in Brussels. Helenie Cuisinier, European Parliament spokesperson told The Sunday Times, "According to our information, the European Parliament has not nominated observers to the SAARC summit. Furthermore, according to EP rules, only the president of the delegation (in this case Mr Robert Evans, MEP, socialist group) is entitled to speak on behalf of the delegation."
Nor did he represent the European Union according to Sandali Wijayatilake, Trade, Press and Information Officer at the office of the European Commission delegation in Sri Lanka. She said, "Dr. Niranjan de Silva Aditya is not a representative of the European Union for the SAARC as an observer. He was a member of the European parliamentary delegation which concluded its visit last week."
Meanwhile, the Norwegian Government, according to high ranking sources at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo, expressed its concern over an incident arising from a Norwegian organisation being officially accused of complicity with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), a Norwegian based international non-governmental organisation, is engaged in development work in the Wanni.
The Norwegian concern, expressed to Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Oslo, Esala Weerakoon, is over allegations in the website of the Ministry of Defence that the NPA had been colluding with the LTTE. It is also alleged in the same website that Norway trained Tiger guerrilla frogmen.
The MoD accusations followed the guerrilla seizure of NPA's assets. Reports said Petter Eide, Secretary General of the NPA is due in Colombo this weekend and will seek a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has told Norwegian media that the assets were forcibly seized by the LTTE and that his organisation had condemned the incident. He had also said the NPA would pull out from Sri Lanka if conditions became "difficult."
Without identifying the NPA, a report quoting unnamed sources in the official Ministry of Defence website said "the vehicles, which the INGO claims were taken over by the terrorist outfit, included few heavy earth moving vehicles, four trucks, a tractor, several Land Cruiser Jeeps and a number of motor cycles,"
It added: "According to these sources, the INGO had taken this fleet of heavy vehicles to the areas under terrorist control stating they would be used for Humanitarian aid work in the area. The vehicles are now being used by the terrorists, to build bunkers, trenches, terror camps, and to transport terror leaders as well."
However, in another report on the same web site the Norwegian People's Aid was identified. Walter Jayawardnana, a staffer at the Sri Lanka High Commission in London said in a despatch in the same website that "Norwegian People's Aid - one of Norway's biggest non government organisations - which is alleged (sic) used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for its terrorist activities is also learnt was accused of secretly smuggling in weapons for at least another insurgency in Sudan in the past, according to Ministry of Defence."
The lengthy report adds,: "Several political parties in Sri Lanka, in the past, have accused the Norwegian government of using its aid outlets like Red Barna, to aid the LTTE. The Norway government has been accused of training covertly the LTTE frogmen in underwater warfare at secret locations in Thailand in the past. This is in addition to powerful broadcasting and military communication station the Norwegians more overtly granted the LTTE, through the clearance of the 2002-2004 government. The Norwegians working in the ceasefire-monitoring mission were alleged (sic) openly engaged in pro-LTTE activity."
The report gives details about alleged NPA involvement in Sudan and accuses the NPA of "cold bloodedly supplying land mines to war zones in Sudan."
In a separate statement, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team (IASC), a body of UN agencies in Sri Lanka said, "whilst strongly condemning the forced removal of the Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) assets and intimidations caused for the staff members by the LTTE, we also urge the terrorist organisation to immediately return all the INGO assets stolen with no further delay."
A statement said, "At a time when there is an increased need for humanitarian assistance in the Wanni, the role of humanitarian agencies is vital to assist the most vulnerable who are recipients of relief assistance."
For many months now, the role of NGOs and INGOs, particularly those operating in the North and the East, has been the subject of controversy. Whilst the conduct of some has become questionable, there is no gainsaying there are others providing yeoman service.
As the 15th SAARC conference ends today, there are clear signs that new trends are emerging in Sri Lanka. In what may constitute a foreign policy shift portending serious proportions, the Rajapaksa administration is moving away from the West for closer ties with regional players.
This is at a time when some of the regional players themselves are striving to forge closer ties with the West, particularly the United States.
Domestically it seems there is a policy shift too. The role of the Foreign Ministry is getting increasingly outsourced to others like the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Export Development and International Trade, Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights and what have you?
In both international relations and domestic governance, Sri Lanka seems to be assuming a new face.