Columns - Political Column

Change of policy after Gota's visit to US

  • Defence Secretary meets Lankan groups; report on alleged war crimes deferred
  • Backstage moves in battle between Muttuhettigama and Anarkali
By Our Political Editor

The triumphalism over the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas four months ago, still aglow, will blaze into full glory again in the next twelve days. This is when the Sri Lanka Army marks its 60th anniversary beginning October 10. Elaborate plans include a parade at Army Headquarters, an exhibition displaying captured enemy weaponry, a military tattoo and a book on how the war was won. Films on how victory in the separatist war came in the different battle zones are ready for screening on TV channels. So are newspaper accounts of the officers and men who played heroic roles.

UPFA candidate Nishantha Muttuhettigama being welcomed by his supporters after he was released on bail this week. Pic by Gamini Mahadura

A sneak preview of some of these achievements was given this week to a visiting delegation from India's National Defence College (NDC). Making two separate presentations were the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Sarath Fonseka and Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya. Sri Lanka is on the itinerary of the NDC where senior military officers and bureaucrats from many countries enrol for an annual course and end up using their acronym after their rank and name.

The October events, no doubt, will bring back the euphoria that prevailed in the days and weeks after May 19. It is after security forces completed the re-capture of all guerrilla-held territory in the Wanni. That event signalled the end of the outlawed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) holding any more territory in Sri Lanka.

The Government will also make its own contribution. A stretch of the Galle Face centre road, just near the statue of the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike stands, will be the site of a major gateway in honour of troops. It is to be modelled on the lines of the India Gate, the national monument in the heart of New Delhi.

Known originally as All India War Memorial, the 42-metre-high monument commemorates the 9,000 soldiers of the erstwhile British India Army who died fighting for the Indian Empire in World War I and the Afghan Wars. Since India's independence, it became their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (or Amar Jawan Jyoti). Under the tall arch lay a shrine with an eternal flame in their memory.

Sri Lanka's own monument, still on the drawing boards, will be a monolith through which traffic heading in and out of the Colombo Fort area will pass. On either side will be two huge hands hugging the earth. It will symbolise the hands of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief. It will reflect a moment in a sunny morning on Sunday, May 17 when he arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) on a SriLankan Airlines flight, alighted from the ramp, knelt down and kissed Lankan soil. His hands touched the ground firmly. He was returning to Colombo after a visit to Jordan where he had announced to participants at the Summit of G11 nations that the Tiger guerrillas were defeated.

As hectic preparations are under way for an unprecedentedly significant 60th anniversary of the Army, highlighting the end of a two and a half decade long separatist insurgency, there were other worries for Government leaders over related issues. President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared on Monday that "some elements are attempting to produce me and war heroes before an international war crimes tribunal, but I will not produce our war heroes, who were committed to create a united country." He made the remarks when he addressed a Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) women's group from Galle at Temple Trees.
The meeting came ahead of the October 10 Southern Provincial Council elections. He charged that certain parties were helping by providing information and added, "no one would be allowed to tarnish the image of the country."

Last Monday, the United States Congress was to receive a report from the Department of State on the 'war' in Sri Lanka. As revealed in these columns last week, Stephen Rapp, President Obama's ambassador-at-large for war crimes said that in addition, his office, together with the Secretary General 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."

The State Department report did not surface at the US Congress on Monday as expected. A Department source told reporters in Washington Monday evening, "The Office of War Crimes at State Department is preparing a report mandated by Congress. The report is to cover alleged war crimes committed by both parties during the final months of the war in Sri Lanka, and to assign responsibility to the extent possible. That, of course, is difficult, but I believe they have still managed to collect a good amount of information from a variety of sources. The report was due to come out today, but it has now been delayed by four weeks. I don't know if this was a political decision, or for other reasons."

Apart from this report to the Congress, the Sunday Times learns that the US Department of Justice is also examining some matters related to the separatist war. It is learnt to have interviewed Sri Lankans and foreign nationals in this regard but no further details were available.

These moves in the US have continued to anger the Sri Lankan Government. If matters relating to a so-called controversy involving two opposition leaders supported by two Sri Lankan ex-envoys were first announced by Minister Dallas Allahaperuma, President Rajapaksa has now joined in. During his address to the SLFP women's group last Monday, he has gone a step further by saying that such a conspiracy was to have a war crimes tribunal investigate him and the military. In the light of this, some opposition leaders and foreign diplomats have come under close watch. A recent 'closed-door meeting' by those in the two groups came under scrutiny.

Whatever the reasons for the delay in the report to the US Congress were, it came as a sigh of relief for Government leaders in Colombo. "This gives us more time to address some of the immediate issues and convince the international community of our bona fides," said one Government source who declined to be identified. The source claimed that a deal to delay it by a month was clinched by Defence Secretary, Col. (Ret.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa during a meeting with Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the Department of State. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is now on a visit to the United States. There is no official confirmation whether such a meeting took place and whether Blake could order a delay of the report.

On Monday, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa met with a group of Sri Lankans heading different organisations representing local interests. They included President of Sri Lanka Association of Washington D.C, Dakshi de Silva, Kenneth Abeywickrama, Friends of Sri Lanka in US (FOSUS), Dayananda Weerakkody, Coalition of Sri Lankans in America (COSLA), Prof. Asoka Bandarage, Georgetown University, Sena Basnayake, former President, Sri Lanka Association (father of Vinod Basnayake, lobbyist for Sri Lanka at the public relations firm Patton Boggs whose client is the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US) and Hilarian Codippily, formerly of the World Bank.

The meeting took place at the residence of Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States at 30th Street, North West Washington. The venue is not far off from the residence of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. During the discussion, Prof. Bandarage suggested that the Sri Lanka Government should engage its adversaries rather than confront them. A case in point was the confrontational posture with former US Ambassador to Colombo and now Assistant Secretary in the Department of State, Robert Blake. Rajapaksa agreed. He was to give those present an overview about the outcome of the arrest of Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP), the head of the LTTE Procurement Wing.

Even President Rajapaksa, a Government source told the Sunday Times, had acknowledged a lapse on the part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in not maintaining an ongoing dialogue when Blake was US Ambassador in Colombo. Though the President held sharply diverse views from that of Blake on some issues, during his encounters, the source said, they had not only had a "healthy interaction" but also respect for each other. On one occasion, whilst articulating the Government's position on a particular issue, partly in lighter vein, Rajapaksa exhorted "the most you can do is to get your CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to kill me." Both laughed loudly but there was a warm handshake as they parted, the source added.

Blake too was in the news in Washington this week. He chaired a news conference. A reporter asked him:
Can I ask you one (question) about Sri Lanka?
Blake: Sure.
Question: Obviously, the story has died down, but I understand that a lot of people are still kind of interned by the government. Is that something you have discussed with them lately?

Blake: Oh, yeah. It's something we discuss with them all the time. There are still - as you say, there are still issues involving freedom of movement, and we've expressed our interest, and I know a number of other countries have expressed their interest in the status of these IDPs. There are almost 300,000 that are in these camps still. They've been in there for more than three months now, and we're particularly concerned now because the monsoons are starting at the end of September. So, there's still quite a severe problem of overcrowding in those camps.

The Secretary General (UN) just sent his head of the Department of Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, out there last week. I think he had a good visit as well, but raised these same issues. So I think there's a lot of consensus within the international community to - again, to urge our friends in the - in Sri Lanka to move forward on these issues and to just underscore that this is an important part of the political reconciliation package as well. I mean, the longer you keep some of these IDPs in these kinds of conditions, it tends to build up - again, problems. So it's important to release them.

And we understand that it's not going to be possible to resettle all of them right away because still, a lot of demining needs to be done in the north. But even if that process can get started and at least the IDPs have the option, and maybe they might choose to go stay with relatives in the south somewhere, or they might just choose to stay in the camps, but we just think that it's important that that principle of freedom of movement be honoured as it is around the world.

Question: The reason that 300,000 are still there is because, logistically, they haven't been able to get them out yet, or they don't want to go back?

Blake: Well, no. It's two reasons. One is that the demining hasn't been completed yet. There's been some demining done. A lot of it - some of it's supported by the United States. But the Sri Lankans are also going through and screening the IDPs who are in the camps to try to see who among them might be still ex-combatants of the LTTE. And that process has been going on, really, ever since they arrived in the camps. And so - and certainly, that's very important to try to figure that out. But our point only is that- it just needs to be accelerated so that people aren't held in these conditions.

In the wake of continued foreign pressure, the Government is now considering further steps for the speedy re-settlement of IDPs in camps. This is in the form of increasing the number of IDPs who will be allowed to join 'host families' and allow others 'greater freedom of movement'. A formal announcement of these measures by President Rajapaksa is likely anytime now.

The move comes as an All-Party delegation from India is set to travel to Sri Lanka to visit the IDP camps. It is the outcome of a meeting this week by a delegation from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. The Indian Government, which has agreed to the DMK request, has conveyed it to Sri Lanka. The move now awaits the return to Colombo of Defence Secretary Rajapaksa since logistical arrangements will have to be worked out by his Ministry.
He is due in Colombo in the coming week. Expediting the re-settlement of IDPs, the Government believes, will also send a strong signal to the European Union, which decides next month on whether or not to continue the GSP Plus scheme.

The GSP Plus is an European Union special incentive that suspends Common Customs Tariff and ad valorem duties on certain products which originate from Sri Lanka applying a scheme of generalised tariff preferences. The criteria used for extending such concessionary facility are guided by the broad principles of sustainable development and good governance.

As reported exclusively in the Sunday Times of September 13, President Rajapaksa appointed a four-member ministerial team to make a strong plea to the EU to persuade it to continue to extend the GSP Plus trade concession. The four ministers are G.L. Peiris, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Milinda Moragoda and Rohitha Bogollagama.

The ministerial team, this newspaper has learnt, will not respond to all the strictures in the 121-page report commissioned by the EU from an expert panel. Instead, the ministers who have been meeting periodically, have been addressing what are regarded as major issues and passing on instructions to the Sri Lanka diplomatic mission in Brussels to pursue further action.

Among them are steps now being taken to allow trade unions in the public sector in Sri Lanka to federate, allow them more freedom of association and to reduce the collective bargaining strength of TUs from 40 per cent to 30 per cent. Such moves, though paving the way for the birth of monolith trade union organisations similar to the AFL-CIO in the US, the ministers believe would help in another way. These trade unions could also be made use of as a powerful tool to lobby the EU, like the recipients of goods under the GSP Plus scheme abroad.

That the proverbial left hand does not know what the right does was at play again in the all so controversial Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, who is in the habit of working out his own news releases to the media on any event was very busy as the 64th sessions of the United Nations General Assembly got under way in New York.

One of his news releases, widely circulated in Colombo this week, spoke about his engagement with Javier Solana, Secretary General of the Council of the European Union on the EU-GSP Plus review process. One is not sure whether to laugh or cry at some of the highlights. Bogollagama said, "he underscored the need for the European Commission to have greater understanding on the ground realities and seek engagement on a wider agenda in order to have vibrant engagement (sic) with Sri Lanka."

He opined that the Commissioners should be advised to engage with countries rather than embark on an investigative process on issues of co-opertion. For this purpose, the news release said, "The Minister observed that the Commissioners should seek to visit Sri Lanka as has been done by the EU political leadership."

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister is perhaps unaware that his own Ministry turned down the request of the EU that sought a visit to Sri Lanka. The 121 page report by the three-man panel said, "By a Note Verbale the Commission requested permission for the Panel and representatives of the Commission to conduct an on-site visit in Sri Lanka. However, the request was rejected."

When the EU wants to come, the answer is a firm "no." Now, unaware of this, Foreign Minister Bogollagama says they should come and engage. How much of damage has been done in the interim. Little wonder, the conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy has become a joke the world over. It was only last week; Bogollagama earned the ire of President Rajapaksa at a Cabinet meeting over serious shortcomings in his Ministry.

That is not all. One of the four ministers tasked to ensure the continuance of the GSP Plus, Professor Peiris told Parliament on Wednesday Sri Lanka would never "give into conditions on any investigations by any foreign country or institution to obtain the GSP Plus tax relief." The remarks, after a three-member panel of experts had concluded their investigation, not only embarrassed members of the team tasked by the President but also his other Cabinet collegues. It was only on September 11 that President Rajapaksa told the four ministers to work as a team and give him results.

The contradictory utterances by ministers, now a common feature, are without doubt, damaging to Sri Lanka. Yet, neither ministers nor do other Government leaders need worry. They should be both happy and relieved that Sri Lanka's main opposition would neither see any conspiracy in the recurring contradictions nor bother to highlight the damage done. They are otherwise very busy, building Common Alliances and finding non-issues to win back the support of the electorate.

In the on-going campaign for the Southern Provincial Council, the opposition is running a lukewarm campaign with the only hope that it would "fare better than did it did last time round in Uva", as one of its stalwarts said.

It is the ruling party that is making the news in the Southern Province, even though for the wrong reasons.
While election watch-dog NGOs have gone to the Supreme Court citing a string of election offences being committed from illegal cut-outs to banners and urging the Court to ensure the Provincial Council Act is strictly adhered to, the ruling party has got entangled in a home and home battle between the 22-year-old actress Anarkali Akarsha and 37-year-old Nishantha Muttuhettigama.

The battle has engrossed the attention of no less than President Rajapaksa himself and the First Family. On the left corner of the boxing ring is Anarkali who is closely backed by the second generation of the Rajapaksa family, even given state security for her campaigning, while on the right corner is Muttuhettigama, the son-in-law of K.M.A. Godawatta, a co-ordinating secretary of the President, Chairman of the Employees Trust Fund (ETF) and a long-standing trusted friend of the Rajapaksa elders.

Muttuhettigama was elected to the Nagoda Praadeshiya Sabha in 1991, becoming the youngest member of that council, and in 2004 was elected to the Southern Provincial Council coming third in the preference vote. He is currently the SLFP organiser for the Akmeemana seat in the Galle District.

The threat to his vote base comes not only from Anakarli, but also from Sajin Vaas Gunawardene, both of whom he considers as 'upstarts' who are throwing money for their election. But while many other seasoned SLFP candidates have to grin and bear the advent of new-comers with unlimited money and fame - and the President's backing, Muttuhettigama can at least match the latter - the President's support.
His father-in-law was one-time Secretary to Anura Bandaranaike then Leader of the Opposition and it was known then that his name was recommended to Bandaranaike by the Rajapaksa family, especially Basil Rajapaksa who was very close at the time to Bandaranaike.

Muttuhettigama first targeted Vaas Gunawardene's political office in Udugama. He was produced before the Udugama Magistrate and granted bail. Then, he allegedly threatened Anarkali and when she complained to the higher authorities about the harassment, he surrendered himself to the Galle Magistrate, and was granted bail. He came out and then attacked Anarkali's political office in Magalla.
Showing off his prowess, he held a news conference and said he would remove the Inspector General of Police when he got elected not appreciating the fact that the Police were bending their backs to be nice to him, not objecting to bail every time he was produced before a Magistrate. He went on to say "mama hodin ho narakin maha amathi ge putuwe wadiwenawa" (by hook or by crook, I will sit in the Chief Minister's chair).

Amidst pressure from the Anarkali-Sajin faction in the SLFP hierarchy - and the Rajapaksa family, a special CID team was assigned to question Muttuhettigama. It grilled him for three hours at the Galle Police Station, before producing him in the Magistrate's court. He was charged with attacking Anarkali's office, being a member of an unlawful gathering and using loud speakers illegally, but again released as the Police did not object to bail. This time, he was asked not to make controversial comments.
But just yesterday, he said that the party (SLFP) was packed with misfits and he would expose the whole lot after the October 10 election because, "I have the backing of the President".

He said it was likely that Sajin Vaas Gunawardene would win, but that Anarkali would end in the doldrums. "I feel sorry for her", he said with a tinge of sympathy, boasting that he himself would end in the Guinness Book of Records for obtaining the highest number of votes.

While the seniors in the SLFP were trying to cool down the skirmishes among the young pups in the run-up to voting day, 15 candidates from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) went to the Human Rights Commission's regional office in Matara to lodge a complaint about their arrest in Tangalla for defacing the public highway on a complaint lodged by the Road Development Authority - what might seem a relatively minor offence in the context of the Muttuhettigama-Sajin-Anarkali in-fighting and the offences committed.
They complained that the Government was singling them (JVP) out for breaking the law. They must rue the fact that they no longer are the darlings of the powers-that-be.

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