This week saw the Government, which continues to maintain a high level of military preparedness, waging a political war on several fronts, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
It leaders sounded a warning that a foreign-backed conspiracy was afoot to destabilise Sri Lanka. Enemies of the State, Minister Dallas Alahapperuma told a news conference on Wednesday, were building a case for purported war crimes and human rights violations. Spearheading the move, he charged, were two opposition politicians and two former retired Sri Lanka diplomats.
The remarks immediately led to speculation. In the political grapevine Opposition United National Party, leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana Wing) leader Mangala Samaraweera, the story did the rounds, were those under reference. A Wickremesinghe aide declined to comment saying there has been no reference to him.
"Why should I wear their hat? They can say anything in panic to cause scare and mislead the people," responded Samaraweera. One of the diplomats, they say, served during the tenure of the United National Front (UNF) Government whilst another retired recently.
Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera are key players in a proposed Common Front of Opposition political parties. It is to be formed in the coming weeks and hectic preparations are afoot. Though not a constituent partner of the proposed front, a common thread - the abolition of the executive presidency - appeared to be binding the two opposition groups. Just days ago, Wickremesinghe showed his solidarity with the JVP after three journalists of their newspaper, Lanka were arrested by the Police. While touring the South, he had even tried to visit them in Deniyaya when they were in Police custody soon after their arrest, only to learn that they had been whizzed away to Colombo hours before Wickremesinghe turned up. He then not only raised issue in Parliament but spoke out strongly against the Government for branding them as "terrorists." He demanded compensation for them for being held wrongfully.
The JVP also responded to Alahapperuma's remarks. "This Government has been afflicted with the 'conspiracy to topple' phobia that has befallen most others," a statement said. Pointing out that the country is not governed according to the mandate given by the people, the JVP charged the Government was adopting a stubborn path and was "anti-people and anti-democratic."
|Mr. Pascoe after talks with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama
The JVP statement added, If there is an "opposition" involvement in such a conspiracy it is a very serious matter. The minister had referred to the entire opposition and not named the specific parties. It is clear the Government wants to drag the JVP also into it but the party wants to distance itself. The JVP said it was the sacred right of the people to democratically defeat the Government that is acting against the mandate given by the people.
A would-be ally in the proposed alliance, Pakiasothy Saravanamuthu, head of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), is also at the centre of a controversy. On Wednesday, on the eve of a visit by a top UN official, a group of concerned citizens published newspaper advertisements calling upon the Government to investigate a death threat against him. On Friday, CID detectives questioned several of the signatories on how they know of Saravanamuttu, whether there was any meeting of all signatories of the advertised petition, have they in fact seen the threatening letter, and who had sent the threatening letter?
Saravanamuttu was also asked to present himself at the CID headquarters to make a statement. According to CPA officials, he was unable to visit due to illness. Friday in particular, is always a dangerous day to visit the CID. Sections of the media including official outlets in the recent weeks accused Saravanamuttu and National Peace Council chief Jehan Perera of reportedly lobbying during a recent visit to the US for a probe into so-called war crimes. Both denied the allegations.
The latest foreign conspiracy accusations, a periodic phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics whichever party was in power, came in the backdrop of two other impending events. Tomorrow a report on the war in Sri Lanka (now concluded) is to be released before the United States Congress. The fact emerged following an interview the Time magazine published with Stephen Rapp, who is joining the Obama Administration as Ambassador-at-Large for war-crimes. He was chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone where the magazine said, "he witnessed many firsts, including the first ever convictions for the recruitment of child soldiers and the first convictions for sexual slavery and forced marriages as crimes against humanity."
An insight into the shape of things to come is reflected in answers to two of the many questions Rapp answered. They are:
Q: So the U.S. does not want its own citizens to be held accountable for crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq?
A: In my point of view, if there were acts of torture, they violated American law because America ratified the UN Convention Against Torture. If we were part of the ICC, we would be expected to investigate these issues, and if there were a strong case, you would expect prosecution. That's what the US is doing anyway. We respect one of the guiding principles of the ICC that the international court has jurisdiction that is secondary to the national court. Whether we are part of the ICC or not, we will conduct ourselves so that no prosecutor at the international level would ever have cause to take up a case against an American citizen.
Q: Which countries do you hope to focus on?
A: There are situations that have already been handed to us. There is a report from the Department of State on the war in Sri Lanka due in Congress [on Sept. 21]. Additionally, the office, together with the Secretary for Global Affairs and the Secretary of State, has the responsibility to collect information on ongoing atrocities, and it is then the responsibility of the President to determine what steps might be taken towards justice. Like the canary in the coal mine, we give the signal that something very serious is occurring.
There was an angry reaction from Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa. On Friday, he told the Island newspaper, that Sri Lanka had been informed a report on the conduct of Security Forces during the war against Tiger guerrillas would be submitted to the US Congress. The news, he said, had been conveyed by former US envoy in Sri Lanka and now Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asian Affairs in the Department of State in Washington, Robert Blake.
The Defence Secretary declared that Sri Lanka was targeted by a section of the international community for being successful in the military campaign against the LTTE.
The other impending event is the Southern Provincial Council elections on October 8. It has become the platform for both the ruling party and the opposition politicians to make accusations against each other.
The so-called conspiracy against the Government also figured at the weekly meeting of Ministers on Wednesday. The state run Silumina (Sunday Sinhala weekly) states President Rajapaksa castigated Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.
This is what the report said: "The President asked Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama "Are you aware that there is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka identifying the country as one that has carried out war crimes? The UNP is building up opinion that human rights are being violated, displaced persons are being held in camps, and the people are being suppressed with the assistance of the forces and the police. The Foreign Ministry has not done anything to counter this opinion. My observation is that the Foreign Ministry is not doing its duty.
"You have been trying to work with officers under the Foreign Secretary and get the Foreign Secretary removed. Now the former Secretary has gone to the UN. Work with the Secretary. Do not work with persons under him. Some of the Foreign Ministry officers think that the Presidency and the Prime Minister posts are being held by the Foreign Minister. That is how proud they are. When the Prime Minister went to Japan recently the ambassador had gone for his child's convocation. The Prime Minister wasted his time at the airport.
"He is the Prime Minister, not just Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. If he is treated in that manner, that is an insult to the country. Some are working against the country. Some are working with NGOs. Some of the Foreign Ministry officials’ spouses work with NGOs. They are working against the country. What is the use of such a Foreign Ministry?” Mr. Bogollgama responded "I will give advice to correct the situation".
"There is no use of giving advice now. There is a foreign delegation in the country. They want to visit the north and east. MP Basil Rajapaksa is going with them. Before you visit foreign countries better visit places in our own country. If you cannot go with our people, at least go with the foreigners. See the development activities and thereafter brief the foreign countries on your visits about the actual situation".
The significance of the fact that a state run newspaper carried this account of a President being so critical of his own Foreign Minister cannot be understated. The President has already expressed his displeasure over the ever present possibility of losing the European Union's duty free concessions to Sri Lankan exports commonly referred to as the GSP+ scheme.
He is known to have telephoned some of the country's ambassadors he knows personally and lamented about the conduct of foreign policy and foreign affairs. Often, he has used choice language on what's happening. "Mun loke wate roung gahanawa, maasa ganang safari yanawa, mata methane hena vadila" (These fellows are going round the world, going on safaris for months, I am at the receiving end here).
When the President asked the UN Under Secretary General for Human Rights and Post Conflict Development Lynn Pascoe who is in Sri Lanka this week, especially to look into the issue of IDPs, he asked him to view Sri Lanka's plight sympathetically. It was almost as if he was saying to look at his plight sympathetically given the kind of Ministers he had.
Recently, the President had said, referring to the Ministers who had over the past year kept visiting the EU saying they had the contacts, and the wizardry and clout to swing the GSP+ deal through; "nikan boruwata eda eda innawa, mata araya mehema kiwwa. Balaagena giyama ung (foreign governments) munwa andagena" (these people just keep dragging the issue, they tell me they met so and so and that they said this and that, but when you look at the results, these foreign governments are just stringing them along).
He has been as dismissive of the envoys; "me minusunta ehe aandu ekka kisima contact ekak nahane. Mang kathakalama wena daywal kiya kiya innawa" (these people have no contact with Governments there. When I ask them questions, they keep telling me other things).
While the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are pushing overseas missions to battle on, the Ministry has this week gone and effected the cuts on salaries and allowances of Sri Lankan diplomats abroad. A circular issued on Wednesday revising salaries and allowances, for instance, see chauffeurs getting more take-home than mid-level diplomatic staff. Carefully worked out formulas over the past 15 years or so to ensure that mission staff are somewhat compensated (with two revisions since 1994) have been thrown overboard, and Sri Lankan diplomats are now, on average around 30 percent below par with how other South Asian countries pay their diplomatic staff - the benchmark for Sri Lankan diplomats over the years.
Another burning issue the Government has been forced to contend with is the international pressure over Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in camps.
According to plans now under way, the Government wants to move one time residents of north and east, now living in Vavuniya to new camps in the two provinces. The idea, officials say, is to prune down the number of IDPs in Vavuniya, from the current level of 280,000 to 100,000. This is further necessitated by the impending north-east monsoon. They will remain in temporary camps in the north and the east until a speedy resettlement plan gets under way. Officials say such a plan linked to an expedited mine clearing programme was under way. However, Tamil politicians are sceptical whether it could be completed within a short time.
On Friday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured UN Under Secretary Lynn Pascoe, that re-settlement of most IDPs would be completed by end of January, next year. The remarks came during wide ranging talks he held with Pascoe at "Temple Trees."
Pascoe handed over to Rajapaksa a letter from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A UN official said the letter dealt with three significant matters which the Secretary General had discussed with the Sri Lankan President during his visit in May. The first was the issue of providing necessary humanitarian assistance to IDPs and to allow unimpeded access by international humanitarian workers, including the UN agencies.
The second was to help displaced persons and the Sri Lanka Government in their efforts to re-settle IDPs in their home provinces. The third, to help the Sri Lanka Government to reach out to the minorities including Tamils and Muslims.
UN officials said the Secretary General had expressed concern that the assurances have not been altogether fulfilled. Talks centred on these subjects as well as on human rights issues where Rajapaksa said a domestic mechanism was being formulated.
Pascoe had raised issue over journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, now serving a twenty-year jail sentence. "What can I do," asked President Rajapaksa. "I cannot interfere with courts. He has not only written articles inciting racial tension but also admitted he has taken money from the LTTE. Now, he has recourse to the appeal process".
Rajapaksa also responded to Pascoe's questions on two local staffers of the UN now in custody. He said they do not enjoy diplomatic immunity like overseas staff. "If Sri Lankans are found involved in terrorist activity, the law has to take its course. The Attorney General will file action against the two in the next few days," said Rajapaksa. Pascoe was to observe that there has been some good progress in general, but added that some issues had to move faster.
Rajapaksa told Pascoe that beginning next week, a new pass system was being introduced in IDP camps. Those who have been 'security cleared' will be able to obtain these day passes to move out of the camp for employment and return at night.
After the talks, the fact that the two sides released their own versions of what transpired underscored a significant fact - both the President's Office and the UN officials staff wanted to emphasise their own positions.
Govt. sees global
A story posted on news.lk, the Government's official website headlined "You have a better story than is getting out today - Pascoe to President," gave their version. Some highlights:
"……President Rajapaksa said that it's necessary to understand that both Sri Lanka and the UN were eager to get things done. 'I understand the pressure and constraints on the Secretary General. However, you must also understand the problems we face,' he said.
"……Responding to Mr. Pascoe's observation that International Community has concerns when it hears that resettlement will be done after de-mining is completed, President said resettlement did not depend on the de-mining process. He mentioned that sixteen years after its war, Croatia had still not finished de-mining. 'We do not intend taking so much time. I have laid down an initial target of 180 days to resettle at least 70 per cent of the IDPs…….
"……On the question of IDPs moving to live with relatives outside, the President explained that the government had already published advertisements in the media, calling for applications from persons seeking such resettlement. However, only 2,000 applications had been received. These notices would be published again and displayed prominently at the welfare villages.
"….. Considering the understanding that existed between the UN and Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa said he did not expect the UN to pacify any members, big or small, about the situation in Sri Lanka. 'Whether it is the US, China, Britain or any country we are all members of the UN. When the UN says anything about us we take it seriously. Similarly if big countries, try to bully us we will come to the UN about such matters."
However, on Friday evening, UN staff had arranged their own media briefing. There, Pascoe said the United Nations did not see any progress as expected in the agreement reached in May between the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Rajapaksa over the re-settlement of IDPS and other related issues. It would appear that Pasoce said one thing to the President, that they were generally happy with the progress of the re-settlement of IDPs, and then changed his mind by Friday. Readers will note that the contradictions and concurrences were aplenty.
Pascoe said that he had raised several issues including the early release of the IDPS and the freedom of movement inside the camps. "It is frustrating to live in such conditions and therefore the people should be allowed to return to their original homes at the earliest. The security concerns of the government are understandable but at the same time the people must also be taken into serious consideration, he said.
He also expressed UN's concern over the expulsion of James Elder, Communications Chief of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Funds (UNICEF). The Sunday Times learnt that his colleague, local UN spokesman Gordon Weiss will also not have his visa renewed when it expires in November, this year.
The UN, Pascoe said, fully understood the heavy responsibility faced by the Government in sustaining such a large number of people, therefore he suggested that the early re-settlement is a way out. However, during his tour of the camps he saw utter resentment among the people. Many with whom he spoke to were just eager to return to the former villages and homes.
Pascoe also had a meeting with Ranil Wickremesinghe at his office at Cambridge Place. Associated with him were deputy UNP leader Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake. Wickremesinghe told Pascoe that he had made an appeal in Parliament that the IDPs be released since they were "interned illegally." He said even opposition parliamentarians were being denied access to the IDP camps and were therefore denied the right to tend to the welfare of the displaced. "The Government shows one thing to the world but does a different thing here," he had said.
The IDP issue is also causing concerns in India. This week it prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to remark that he had told the Government of Sri Lanka in "no uncertain terms" to resolve the matter. This week, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi sent one of his party men, Union Textiles Minister, Dayanidhi Maran to tell Dr. Singh to "exert diplomatic pressure at appropriate levels" on the Sri Lankan Government to end the "untold sufferings" of the displaced Tamils living in relief camps. Maran said in a statement after the meeting that "the prime minister has assured of all possible immediate assistance by the Indian Government."
Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga also caused some ripples during a recent visit to India. The former first lady, known for saying things she does not do and for doing things she does not say, was at it again. This time, after a meeting with the Chief Minister of Kerala, she complained there was no media freedom in Sri Lanka and people were living in fear. The truth or otherwise of her statement is not the issue. She appears to have forgotten that that the lofty media freedom she preaches, she never practised. First to the Press Trust of India report:
"There is an atmosphere of fear and lack of freedom in Sri Lanka even after the end of LTTE, the country's former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who survived an assassination attempt by the group, said.
"Even I care for my life. It is a government of my party (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) that is in power. Still even I don't feel safe," Kumaratunga, who was on a personal visit to Kerala, told reporters in India.
"Overall there is lack of freedom and an atmosphere of fear is prevailing in the country. Basic rights of the people and media freedom are restricted in Sri Lanka," she said.
"Asked about human rights violations, she said it was not appropriate for her to comment on it. "Let the Government say," she said.
"She was interacting with reporters before making a courtesy call on Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan."
The Rajapaksa administration was quick to rebut her allegations pointing out to the number of security officers detailed to her - some 70 odd policemen, among other measures. Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, her own Deputy Media Minister was given the task of demolishing her allegations, which he seemed to do with an element of relish.
Knowing the former President Kumaratunga, she is now quite capable of saying that she never said, what she said.