Columns - Political Column

Victory parade and diplomatic charade

  • FM’s press-release diplomacy seen wanting
  • Should relations with West be a war casualty?
By Our Political Editor

The glamour and glitter of a military parade at the Galle Face Green on Wednesday evoked the sentiments of two different generations in two different ways.

To the old, it was reminiscent of an event on February 4, 1948, when Sri Lanka won Independence from the yoke of colonialism. Then, national leaders hoisted the lion flag at the same venue to mark the birth of a free, independent nation.

To the new, it was witnessing history in the making. They saw the birth of a new era where Sri Lanka had won freedom from the yoke of terrorism. In a replay of the events six decades and a year ago, the one difference was a modernized armed forces and police symbolizing the passage of a dark era – the reign of terror for two and half decades by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In years gone by, the highlights of the Galle Face parade were the four British made Saladin armoured cars that came as the grand finale to the display of the might of the Sri Lanka army, and then the fly-past by the four Jet Provost trainer planes of the air force.

This time around, there were on display anti-personnel buffels made in South Africa, tanks from China, anti-aircraft guns and missile launchers from Israel, multi-barrel guns from Czechoslovakia and MiG fighter planes from Russia displaying how Sri Lanka has progressed – or regressed – depending on how you wish to see it, in the arms race.

“I declare with great pride and dignity that I have hoisted the national flag in a single country unified under a single standard,” declared a proud President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Watched by millions of Sri Lankans on television, he asserted “the great humanitarian operation that unified our motherland under a single national Standard has opened the path to our nation that is eager to step forward to a future of greatness and distinction.”

Digs at opposition

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the President’s speech, however, was his digs at the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) on such a national event. He made a reference to the ceasefire agreement (CFA) signed between the UNP Government and the LTTE in 2002 and said that not only did the LTTE develop into a “dictatorial government” during this period, but “the Government did not give even a gunny bag to the troops to build a bunker”.

Symbolising the beginning of a new era, President Rajapaksa hoists the national flag at Wednesday’s victory celebrations. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

It was both nice, and prudent for UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to have attended this function. Nice because, he is after all, supposedly the ‘Leader of the Alternative Government’ as they would say in a parliamentary democracy, and this was national event. Prudent because he had made a terrible mistake in reading the Government’s military drive against the LTTE and made blunder after blunder in his public pronouncements.Wickremesinghe would have smirked, as he witnessed the special units of the crack Commandos, the elite Special Forces and the indispensable Special Task Force – the frontline men of the Armed Services – all units begun by successive UNP Governments march past – and the irony of it all – for his party to be at the receiving end of barbs that it did not support the ‘war effort’.

The President at the tail-end of his speech referred to delays in development work due to ideological and political differences. “We must emerge from ideological differences and look towards the country. It should not be the struggle that should go forward, but the country”. While what he said is perfectly correct, the occasion on which it was made might have been re-considered. As one political analyst said; “You don’t want to try and unite the country socially and divide the country, politically”.

As he spoke, more history was unfolding. Some senior Tiger guerrilla leaders were baring to security authorities their activities during a phase which is little known. This included how they further developed a shipping fleet, the first ever to be done by any terrorist group in the world, their network of weapons procurements, their international connections and major sources of funding.

In the former battle zones of the Wanni, the results of some of the gains made during the ceasefire were more evident. Troops clearing the area found hundreds of power generators fuel dumps. If there was no electricity in the area, these generators had been smuggled in to provide power supply to the guerrilla camps and to factories that produced all types of improvised explosive devices. The fuel dumps with remaining stocks showed that the guerrillas have been able to beat the restrictions. Army officials believe large quantities of fuel were smuggled in across the Palk Straits from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

It was only on Wednesday evening that the Cabinet decided to implement on a fast-track basis the resumption of power supply to the Wanni. The Ceylon Electricity Board was authorized to set off costs to the ESCROW Account. This is for rehabilitation of power lines, to procure materials required for construction of the medium and low voltage networks in the Northern Province. The Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Energy has been empowered to approve recommendations of the CEB of limited quotations from the short-listed parties for most urgent augmentation works of the Vavuniya grid substation. The normal process of adopting competitive bidding process has been suspended due to the urgency.

Changes in the Army

The re-opening of fuel stations, however, will have to wait. It will follow the re-settlement process. To facilitate this, Army Headquarters has already embarked on re-deploying troops to the Wanni. Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka this week ordered changes in some postings.

Maj. Gen. H.C.P. Goonetilleke has been appointed as Commander of the Security Forces Headquarters in Kilinochchi. He was earlier General Officer Commanding of the 56 Division. Brig. S.D.T. Liyanage will be the new officiating GOC of 52 Division. He was earlier commander of the Task Force 3. Brig. P.M.R. Bandara will be the new officiating GOC of the 56 Division. Earlier he was commander of Task Force 2. Brig. A.W.A.M. Ranawana assumed duties as commander, Task Force 2. He was earlier deputy GOC of 55 Division. Col. D.A.Ranawaka will be the new officiating deputy GOC of 55 Division. Earlier, he was officiating commander of the Area Headquarters in Weli Oya. Col. K.L.A.S. Wijesinghe will be the new officiating commander of Task Force 3. He was earlier attached to the Rear Headquarters. Col. H.J. Seneviratne will be the officiating Commander, Area Headquarters in Weli Oya. He was earlier Commanding Officer of the 661 Brigade.

Maj. Gen. N. Udawatte will be the Commander of Security Force Headquarters in Mullaitivu. He was earlier Overall Operations Commander in Anuradhapura. Among other changes effected are: Col. W.A.K.B. Udalapola, will be the new deputy Overall Security Co-ordinator at Army Headquarters. He was earlier officer commanding the 552 Brigade. Maj. Gen. M.K. Jayawardena will be the new Overall Operations Commander in Anuradhapura. He was earlier GOC 52 Division. Brig. M.A.M. Dias will be the new Military Assistant at Army Headquarters. He was earlier Overall Security Co-ordinator at Army Headquarters.

General Fonseka has already announced that the Army’s strength would be further increased. Similarly, the strengths of both the Navy and the Air Force are also to be increased. Defence Ministry officials say the increase was necessary to bolster security to a number of new police stations to be opened in the Wanni. “The main aim is to ensure there is no room at all for the resurgence of terrorism. For this purpose, not only the troop’s strength but also the intelligence mechanisms will be further strengthened,” the source said.

If internal measures to enhance security countrywide to prevent recurrence of terrorist activity are now under way, the need for measures to improve Sri Lankas relations with other countries was underscored by President Rajapaksa on Wednesday. He told the nation “it is necessary to begin a new era in foreign relations to safeguard my motherland. Having won the freedom of our motherland, we must next establish our freedom and sovereignty internationally.”

He noted: “We have honest, close, and friendly relations with our neighboring countries in Asia. We have also been able to build genuine good relations with several countries. Those honest friends have carried out the greatest responsibility towards our freedom and sovereignty in this era. We value very much the assistance we received from all those countries at this moment. Our people who enjoy the satisfaction of freedom together with them must always have in their hearts the friendship extended by these friends.”
In his original draft, President Rajapaksa’s speech had thanked Arab and African countries along with Asian countries, until an official in the Foreign Ministry pointed out that there were also non Asian, Arab and African countries which supported Sri Lanka – they belonged to the Non-Aligned Movement bloc such as Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, Uruguay – all Latin American countries – so the President’s speech was later corrected to say “all countries” and not just Arab and African in addition to Asian countries.
New era in foreign relations

What President Rajapaksa clearly indicated was that relations with the western world also need to be repaired. This is why he said “it is necessary to begin a new era in foreign relations” to safeguard Sri Lanka. There are both heartening and disheartening aspects to these observations by President Rajapaksa. What is heartening is the fact that he has acknowledged the need to improve relations with some countries, particularly those who are not in Asia, Africa, the Arab world or Latin American.
But the disheartening aspects are much more. This is where the abject failure and ineptness of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs come to play. The Sunday Times has repeatedly revealed such instances including the only hallmark of the Ministry – the plethora of press releases churned out by Minister Rohitha Bogollagama – one of which was contested by, of all people, his own Ministry’s senior staff officers. In retrospect, it is a well-known fact that the hardcore task of conducting Sri Lankas foreign relations has been carried out largely by the Presidential Secretariat and other arms of the Government. Examples are replete. An examination of a few would be of interest.

One of the corner stones of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is neighboring India. More often than not, spearheading the conduct of bilateral relations between Colombo and New Delhi had fallen on the shoulders of Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa. As President’s special envoy, he travelled to New Delhi on many occasions as ‘trouble shooter’ and continues to play that pivotal role.

It is the same case with the United Nations in New York. The community of nations gathered there offers the greatest opportunity for Sri Lanka to interact. Even here, it is Basil Rajapaksa who went as President’s special envoy for a crucial meeting with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The most recent instance is the outcome of the special sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva. With the European Union ganging-up and giving Sri Lanka a rough time, UNHRC sessions have been virtually sub-contracted to the Ministry of Human Rights where Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe is doing a fairly decent job of defending the country.

The question that begs answer therefore is what contribution the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made in the conduct of Sri Lankas foreign policy in these troubled times. It is pertinent to ask in the public interest whether all the public funds spent on travel worldwide by the Foreign Minister have brought any commensurate or lesser return. If the answer is a sad “No,” it becomes incumbent on Government leaders to take a hard look at the situation. Such a move would be imperative in the light of post-war economic and social development.

It was only this week Foreign Minister Bogollagama was in Singapore. He was speaking there at the Institute of Strategic Studies in that city-state, while the Institute of Strategic Studies in Colombo which one of his predecessors, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, created (after a study of the Singapore Institute) lies in shambles unable to provide any worthwhile contribution to Sri Lankan foreign policy or strategic studies. Bogollagama is currently in Britain and has been unable to get an appointment with a single Cabinet minister, not even his counterpart, the controversial Davil Miliband. He has had to do with meeting opposition MPs.Speech-making and press-release diplomacy is one thing, real diplomacy is another.

War on world stage

The thrust against Sri Lanka by western countries and INGOs (International Non-Government rganisatinos) as well as human rights watchdogs in the world stage is by no means over. Neither has it abated despite the end of the war against the LTTE.

This week, Amnesty International kept the fires stoked by referring to a London Times report which claimed that 20,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the fighting with the LTTE. It repeated its call for an impartial investigation into what it called were war crimes committed – by both sides – except that there is only one side now.

The human rights groups were clearly sulking their (European Union) defeat at the UNHRC sessions last week, and saying how disappointed they were that no effective resolution was moved against Sri Lanka. They said that there was a resolution against Israel to investigate civilian casualties in the Gaza, so why not Sri Lanka, they asked complaining of double-standards.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Navaneetham Pillay also went on a limb continuing to harangue Sri Lanka despite the 29-12 vote in Geneva in favour of Sri Lanka. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe complained that the discussion on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC was totally unwarranted. Then, on Friday, in a surprise move, the Indian Ambassador to Geneva, A. Gopinathan slammed High Commissioner Pillay, an enthic Tamil from South Africa, for exceeding her mandate and basically, tried to restrain her going on a voyage of her own against Sri Lanka.

He said – clearly with the blessings of the new Congress Government in New Delhi: “It would be extremely unfortunate if inter-governmental decisions adopted by the Human Rights Council were to be ignored or set aside, and the High Commissioner and/or her office were to misinterpret them or willingly neglect them or supersede them.

“We would like to remind all concerned that the independence of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Pillay) cannot be presumed to exceed that of the UN Secretary General,” he said. The fact that India backed Sri Lanka during last week’s vote raised a few eye brows, because not only was India the prime instigator in the original days of Sri Lanka bashing, but during the Indian elections, it took a reserved and detached stand on the ‘war’ in Sri Lanka.

Now, not only did it vote with Sri Lanka thereby rejecting all calls for an investigation on Sri Lanka, but she is also slamming the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for exceeding her mandate, and obliquely, sending a message to the European Union and others who are still on Sri Lanka’s back, to back-off because a vote has been taken and an inter-governmental decision adopted.

This is a major shot in the arm for Sri Lanka, but it seems the same lobbyists were at it on Friday when the same matter was raised at the basement floor of the UN Security Council for what UN sources said was a briefing by Ban. The sessions were presided over by Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. The debate initially seemed to have fizzled out with envoy after envoy who walked into the basement room, showing not much enthusiasm on the Sri Lankan issue. In fact, one envoy came there but went into an adjacent room to watch a movie.

The US representative Rosemary DiCarlo apparently did not know why she was coming to the basement. She asked the media, “Is this about North Korea?”

However, at the end of the Security Council briefing, Ban told the media that any credible accusation of human rights violations committed during the final phase of the war should be investigated.

“I'd like to ask the Sri Lankan government to recognize the international call for accountability and full transparency. Whenever and wherever there are credible allegations for the violations of international humanitarian law there should be a proper investigation,” he told the reporters.

The ‘war’ against the LTTE maybe over, but the residue remains especially in the western capitals. It is best that the Government meet this challenge with finesse and diplomacy, because whether we like it or not, much of the country’s trade, aid and loans – basically her economic well-being is still linked to those countries.

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