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From cricket to nuclear politics

  • Shocked Lanka takes diplomatic measures to prevent Indo-Pakistan battle over Lahore horror
  • Govt. capitulating to IMF to get biggest ever loan of 200 billion rupees
By Our Political Editor

Having arrived in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad over a month earlier, for Sri Lanka High Commissioner-designate to Pakistan, Air Chief Marshal (retd.) Jayalath Weerakkody, Tuesday March 3, was to be an important day in his new career.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari was to accept his credentials as the new Sri Lankan envoy. So were the new heads of mission from Portugal, Syria, Belgium, Norway, and Tajikistan. That morning, the President's Office in Islamabad had called the Sri Lanka High Commission in Islamabad to say the event, at 10.30 a.m. had been re-scheduled for 1.30 p.m.

Instead of driving from his official residence to take his oaths, the former Sri Lanka Air Force chief went to his office. There he heard the bad news - a group of gunmen had attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team when they were on their way from Pearl Continental Hotel to the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore. Only moments earlier, the team's Deputy Manager Nalin de Alwis had telephoned a High Commission official and passed on the news of the attack.

Within minutes, the Sri Lanka High Commission telephones were deluged with calls. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on a two-day official visit to Nepal, shocked by the news telephoned AVM Weerakkody and asked him to not only ensure the safety of the team but also arrange for their immediate return to Sri Lanka. He also said Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama, who was with him in Kathmandu, was being sent to Islamabad for follow-up action.

The incident was world news. The Sri Lankan team were on the third day of their 2nd test match with Pakistan. A dozen gunmen with assault rifles, hand grenades, rocket launchers attacked the bus in which the team were travelling. Five players and an assistant coach were wounded. Eight persons, six police officers and two civilian passersby were killed. In international satellite tv channels, regional tv stations and media around the world, the attack was the main story for over a day. The coverage even overshadowed the terror attacks on Mumbai on November 26 last year.

Students from the English and Foreign Launguage University (EFLU) hold a banner signed by them in various languages denouncing the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, during a peaceful demonstration in Hyderabad. AFP

From Nepal, President Rajapaksa directed officials in Colombo to arrange for a special aircraft to bring the team members, officials and some of their families back. Officials in the entourage in Kathmandu found there was no immediate way to bring the team back to Colombo. Flights through Qatar or Dubai would have entailed an overnight stay. The Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Karachi to Colombo was on Wednesday, the next day. Hence, the Presidential directive for a special flight to leave Colombo for Lahore. Whilst Sri Lankan Airlines were readying an Airbus A-320 to fly to Lahore, High Commissioner designate Weerakkody urged security officials in Lahore not to move the Sri Lankan team by road to any location. He later arranged for Pakistan Air Force (PAF) helicopters to evacuate them to their air base in Lahore. Like the SLAF base in Katunayake, the PAF base in Lahore is on one side of the civilian international airport.

It is a well-known axiom that the 'old boy' network often helps one get things done. The horror in Lahore saw this at play in Islamabad. AVM (retd.) Weerakkody was busy with his telephone trying to reach out to top officials to hurriedly get to Lahore. Some of them in civilian positions, though ever willing to help, suggested he travels by road. They had no control over aircraft. The High Commissioner designate then decided to telephone the Chief of Air Staff of Pakistan, Air Chief Marshal Tanveer Ahmed. He was away in the North-West Frontier Province capital of Peshawar but a senior officer at PAF headquarters had assured to pass on the Sri Lankan envoy's request. Within minutes, the official was back on the telephone to say the Pakistani Air Chief had directed that all help be given to Sri Lanka.

The credential-presenting ceremony at the President's Office in Islamabad was then cancelled, much to the chagrin of the five other heads of mission. AVM (retd.) Weerakkody was instead airborne from Chaklala airbase in Rawalpindi near Islamabad in a PAF Spanish-built Casa 235 VIP aircraft. At the Lahore Air Force base, PAF officials had further intensified security to protect the Sri Lankan team. Twenty officer billets were given to the players along with lunch and dinner while they waited for the special flight to arrive. Luggage of the players, officials and some families that were in the hotel rooms were collected. They were transported to the base. The injured players and the assistant coach were escorted to the airbase by forenoon.

It was just after 9 pm on Tuesday when the special flight arrived at Lahore. On board were three doctors including Sports Ministry’s Medical Unite Chief Dr. Gitanjan Mendis. Also reaching Lahore in the special flight were Duleep Mendis and other Sri Lanka Cricket Board officials. Barely an hour later, the Sri Lankan team was airborne back for Colombo. They arrived before dawn to be greeted by families and friends who were gripped with anxiety.

Within hours of the Sri Lankan team's departure to Colombo, arriving at the Islamabad airport (on Wednesday morning) was Foreign Minister, Rohita Bogollagama. He met his counterpart, Shah Mohamed Quereshi and later called on President Zardari.

During his talks with President Zardari, Bogollagama, The Sunday Times learnt, conveyed Sri Lanka Government's request that a full investigation be carried out into the incident. He said Sri Lanka wished to be kept informed periodically on the findings of the investigation. The Government, he said, was very keen to ascertain the motives behind why the Sri Lanka team was targeted. A Foreign Ministry source said Bogollagama conveyed Sri Lanka's view that the investigations should stretch beyond possible suspects in the region to ascertain any likely international links in the incident. "Though he did not pointedly refer to Tiger guerrillas," the source said, "the Minister was alluding that the investigations should also focus on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which had international links."

Bogollagama, the source told The Sunday Times, had been told by High Commissioner designate Weerakkody of assurances given only a week earlier by Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Ijaz Butt, that security for the Sri Lankan team had been intensified. This was when AVM (retd.) Weerakkody had spoken to him.

Just a week before the Lahore attack, President Zardari named a new Governor for the Punjab Province of which Lahore is the capital. He said Salman Taseer "will follow my directives for rendering his services in Punjab province". President Zardari said due to "unfavorable situation in the province in the context of the Supreme Court verdict, it is impossible for government to run the province as per constitution of Pakistan." The Pakistan Supreme Court had declared days earlier that former Prime Minister, Nawaz Shariff and his brother Shabaz - the Chief Minister of Punjab -- are ineligible to hold public office. Zardari also said the Chief Minister and other provincial ministers have been stopped from carrying out their duties. The situation has got worse in Punjab after Sharif brothers' ineligibility, he added.

The move was a clear indication of a dying coalition for Zardari with former premier Nawaz Sharif. Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has backed a close ally to beleaguered ex-President Pervez Musharraf as governor of Punjab, the powerbase of Pakistan politics and Sharif's stronghold. Now, Zardari appears to have given a clear message. Zardari has backed Taseer, a Musharraf ally, as governor of Punjab, ruled by Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Taseer's task, reports say, is to win over the loyalties of PML-N parliamentarians to topple their government (in Punjab). "I want to make Punjab liberal rather than extremist," said Taseer, who visited the mausoleum of slain premier Benazir Bhutto after taking his own oath, vowing to turn Punjab to a PPP bastion.

The PML-N made big election gains in Punjab, in the February general elections. It won 124 seats in the Punjab's 297-member provincial assembly, while securing 62 of the province's 148-seat share in the 272-member National Assembly. The PPP which runs the country came second in Punjab, which always considered the state as its stronghold and home to more than half of Pakistan's 160 million people. The party suffered a humiliating defeat in the urban areas of Punjab, particularly in Lahore and the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where PML-N candidates defeated rivals from the PPP and the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim league (Q) with huge margins. The PML-N has boycotted Taseer's oath-taking ceremony, attended by PPP and PML (Q) leaders who chanted slogans in favour of the new governor.

This is by no means to suggest that the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team is the by-product of the political turmoil in Pakistan's Punjab province. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to bear in mind that the attack came in the backdrop of political instability in a province where the Police force is under the control of the administration there. The Governor has vowed to turn the state into a liberal state - did that pinch a nerve of the extremist elements?

The Sri Lanka Government has learnt that the road from the Pearl Continental Hotel to the Gadaffi Stadium had not been picketed (or the route checked) ahead of the bus carrying the team travelling either way. There have only been the customary motorcycle outriders and escort vehicles, a scenario reminiscent of an archaic security culture in the Asian sub continent.

Both Sri Lanka and Pakistan are countries battling the scourge of terrorism. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have remained staunch allies. During the Indo-Pak war of 1971 over the creation of Bangladesh, late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike , allowed Pakistan's Air Force to overfly Sri Lankan airspace and even re-fuel in Colombo to and from what was then East Pakistan. In the war against Tiger guerrillas, Pakistan's unflinching support in selling military hardware, and in training, has helped Sri Lanka. Such defence co-operation has increased over the years.

When the Government decided to send the cricket team, it accepted the security guarantees given by the Government of Pakistan. Rejecting such a guarantee would have been not only an unfriendly act but one that could have constituted an expression of no-confidence on the Pakistani security establishment. On the other hand, despite the guarantee, a security lapse enabled a group of gunmen to attack the Sri Lankan cricketers. By no stretch of imagination could one say there was any form of Pakistani Government collusion or concurrence. In fact, it has, more than anything else, embarrassed the Government of Pakistan in the eyes of the cricketing world.

However, unlike other incidents, the one in Lahore is fraught with enormous danger. It comes just three months after the Mumbai horror of November 26, last year, which left more than 170 dead. That the armed group responsible came to Mumbai from Pakistan has spawned considerable anti-Pakistan sentiments in India. That includes the Indian media. Now, the Lahore attack seems to be working in the reverse. However, little Sri Lanka seems caught up in the middle.

A Sinhala proverb, which says when elephants fight, the ants get crushed. That is perhaps an apt way of describing how the growing cold war between two nuclear giants, India and Pakistan, is playing out. The 'nuclear fall out' appears to be on Sri Lanka. Many observers, commentators and even ordinary people seem to view the Lahore horror either through the prism of Islamabad or New Delhi. Even the official US statement tilted towards adopting the Pakistan Foreign Office line that the attack was aimed at disrupting Pak-Lanka relations - a direct hit at India. Thus, the plethora of views and opinions on who or what is behind, some thought-provoking and others simply ridiculous rubbish.

Quite clearly, the Rajapaksa administration appears to be conscious of this reality. In forging ahead with the call for a full probe into the Lahore horror, the Sri Lanka Government wants to scrupulously steer clear from the New Delhi-Islamabad sabre-rattling. After-all, India, like Pakistan, has also extended strong support to the Government in the ongoing military campaign against the Tiger guerrillas. That support has been more covert than overt as in the case of Pakistan.

A high-ranking Foreign Ministry source said this was the reason why Foreign Minister Bogollagama told President Zardari that investigations into the Lahore attack should look beyond the region for any international involvement. "We (the Government) want to make it clear we take no sides. We want to find out who was responsible for the attack and the motive behind it," the source who spoke on grounds of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media said.

State media made it plain that, the government was aware of attempts to precipitate a diplomatic row. There was also the concern whether the group involved aimed to take the cricketers hostage in a bid to use them as a major bargaining lever - which is why Colombo is wondering if there is some element of LTTE involvement in trying to twist the government to a ceasefire in the Wanni.

The Lahore episode was a diversion from the internal politics of Sri Lanka. It is the Western provincial election campaign which is underway, but voter fatigue apart, even the candidates are spacing out their long-spread-out campaigns. Most of them are complaining about the costs involved, and having to feed, and in many cases, quench the thirst of their supporters night and day.

Rajapaksa cut short his visit to Nepal and returned immediately after hearing of the attack on the players. He was not even able to visit Lumbini, the birth-place of the Buddha, though reports reaching here stated that security concerns also played a part in the President's visit to the holy site.

In Colombo, Rajapaksa met a delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Only last month, on the eve of elections to the Central and North Western province, the Central Bank was at pains to contradict a story in this newspaper that the government had two options; devaluation of the rupee or an IMF bail-out.
This week, the government announced that it was going in for a massive US dollar 1.9 billion (Rs. 200 Billion) loan from the IMF. This is the biggest known loan by any Sri Lankan government from the IMF. Finally, the government has acknowledged that the country's foreign exchange reserves are in a precarious position. The IMF stated this week that Sri Lanka had seen the spread of its international borrowing rise to essentially "prohibitive levels".

In these columns, we pointed out to a Rajapaksa warning that the world economic meltdown was reaching South Asian nations when the SAARC Foreign Ministers met only last week. Crunch time will come when the IMF team goes back to Washington DC and reports. Should they agree to the loan, the usual IMF conditions will apply.

IMF formulas for developing countries have been the subject of worldwide discussion and debate, and controversy. However, the fact that this government which has been making loud public pronouncements against the IMF for a long time, and now has to capitulate to it - and that too after going in for large scale commercial bank borrowings just months before -- means that the government has realised the writing is on the wall. What it will want to do is to keep the bad news away from the public this election year.

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