Columns - Political Column

Campaigns lacking vision and direction

  • Govt. Ministers, officials continue with contradictory remarks on all fronts; Opposition still to offer concrete alternatives
By Our Political Editor

Political campaigns for the Presidential Election by the two main contenders - President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gen. (retd.) Sarath Fonseka - appear to have lost their directions just two weeks after nominations.

More glaring among the two is President Rajapaksa's campaign. In the past many days the singular focus has been on the allegation by former Commander of the Army, then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa gave orders to Brigadier (now Major General) Shavendra Silva to kill Tiger guerrilla leaders (Nadesan, Pulidevan and Ramesh) who came to surrender. The remarks were made in an interview to The Sunday Leader newspaper.

Amidst a turbo-charged campaign against Gen. (retd.) Fonseka beginning last week, Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Kshenuka Seneviratne, received a three-page letter from Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. In that, he referred to remarks made by Gen. (retd.) Fonseka. Ms. Seneviratne had faxed the letter to Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. Copies were also sent to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Foreign Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe and Attorney General Mohan Peiris.

Although he did not want to "prejudge the accuracy" of The Sunday Leader report, Alston, said it was his responsibility "under the mandate provided to him by the UN Human Rights Council" to "clarify all cases" brought to his attention. He added, "Since I am expected to report on the deaths of Messrs Nadesan, Pulidevan and Ramesh, as well as of the members of their families, I would be grateful for the co-operation and observations" of the Government in relation to the following questions:

  • Are the allegations (summarised from The Sunday Leader account) accurate? If not so, please share the information and documents proving their accuracy.
  • What information does Your Excellency's Government have on the family members of Messers Nadesan, Pulithevan and Ramesh allegedly killed on May 18, 2009.
  • Please refer to the results of any military, police, judicial or other inquiry or investigation carried out in relation to the alleged summarised account.

Alston pointed out in his letter, "….an authoritative study of customary international humanitarian law finds that attacking and killing persons who are recognised as hors de combat is prohibited. Persons declared as hors de combat include anyone who clearly expresses an intention to surrender, provided he or she abstains from any hostile act and does not attempt to escape (Rule 47 of the Customary Rules of International Humanitarian Law identified in the Study of the International Committee of the Red Cross)."

Balasingham Nadesan, the former 'Police Chief' of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the head of their Political Division. This was with the death of S.P. Thamilselvan. S. Pulithevan was the head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat. Although Ramesh, the LTTE Eastern Commander after Karuna (Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) reneged, the Sunday Times learnt, was not among those who reportedly surrendered. Military sources said he was temporarily in security forces custody but "was killed in a confrontation".

People hoping for an era of milk and honey buying pots for a New Year tradition while the men who could bring about this expectation are seen on the wall. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

As revealed in these columns last week, the UN is conducting an investigation into alleged 'war crimes' during the final phase of operations to militarily defeat the guerrillas. Rapporteur Alston has been clarifying information from various Colombo-based western diplomatic missions, INGOs and other UN agencies in this regard. Now he was verifying the latest account, the alleged remarks of the highest-ranking Army officer during the days of battle. The subject has become the main highlight of UPFA's campaign for the re-election of Rajapaksa as President.

Prof. Wijesinha lost no time in responding to Alston's letter. The Sunday Times learnt that without consulting his own Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Defence, he replied last Tuesday that there was no issue. The reason: Gen. (retd.) Fonseka had, according to Dr. Wijesinha, denied he made any such remarks. His reply was sent through the Foreign Ministry to the Sri Lanka diplomatic mission in Geneva.

Our sister paper the daily Lankadeepa reported exclusively on its front page last Wednesday that Prof. Wijesinha had called upon Alston to withdraw his letter. This was on the grounds that Gen. Fonseka had denied the remarks attributed to him. Wijesinha had told Alston he would be an "unbiased person" if he did not believe in all media reports he read. He had also declared there were a few more media outlets that published similar reports with the day of the polls becoming closer. Groups who expect results favourable to them would resort to such activity without any responsibility, Wijesinha told Alston.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not impressed by Wijesinha's move. Neither were senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Foreign Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe telephoned officials at the Sri Lanka diplomatic mission in Geneva and asked that they withhold the letter sent for onward transmission to Alston. He told the mission that a "studied, consolidated response" from the Government would follow. Minister Samarasinghe hurriedly called a news conference. Even if he was to say Wijesinha's response was not the official view of the Government, he was polite enough to console his Secretary (present at the news conference) by saying this was not a contradiction of his assertions. The ploy was too transparent.

Here were the Government propaganda organs castigating Gen. Fonseka for his remarks. Attorney General Mohan Peiris was examining the issue to frame charges against him under the Official Secrets Act. TV talk shows saw retired military officers condemn the former Army Commander for making such remarks. In an unprecedented move, state-run media gave wide publicity to Alston's letter, Prof. G.L. Peiris told a news conference no military officer could travel abroad in the future even for medical treatment. After Alston's letter, they would all become suspects for human rights violations. Members of the Buddhist clergy supporting Rajapaksa staged protests outside Gen. Fonseka's office.

If Alston's letter was sweet music to the ears of UPFA leaders to whip lash Gen. Fonseka politically, it did not last long. Here was a Ministry Secretary saying that the main opposition's 'common candidate' had denied making such remarks. In doing so, he saved Gen. Fonseka from further embarrassment. Thus, the Government's main campaign issue turned out to be a non-event. UPFA leaders were forced to disassociate themselves from the official stance taken by the Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management. Oxford-educated Wijesinha, who did yeoman service for the Government during the time the Security Forces were being accused of human rights violations during their war with the LTTE by challenging foreign ministers and media organisations by the written and spoken word was now being told to consult others before responding on matters of importance. Yet, the wind was taken off the sails of the UPFA campaign.

As Wijesinha claimed, did Gen. Fonseka deny the accusations attributed to him? No. He has only issued 'a clarification'. He said, "Two days after the war ended I learnt through some journalists who were entrenched at that time with (then) Brigadier Shavendra Silva that an illegal order had been conveyed to Silva by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. This illegal order, however, was not carried out at ground level. I take full responsibility for what happened on the ground."

One of the biggest shortcomings for the Government, whether or not a Presidential Election campaign is ahead, is the many contradictory statements made by many persons of responsibility speaking for and on behalf of the Government. It was in May, this year, then Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona, told the French News Agency AFP that the guerrilla leaders who came to surrender were shot in the back by their own cadres. With these remarks he had in fact confirmed that some guerrilla leaders did come to surrender.
He said, "the ICRC spoke to me and told the two (in contrast to Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's claim of three) cadres wanted to surrender. I asked them to go forward slowly with white flags towards the Army without any show of aggression or threat. However, when they tried to advance forward they were shot by the LTTE from behind."

Now the UN was being told that no such thing occurred.

Not to be outdone, pro-Government National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa was to declare at a news conference earlier that the remarks by Gen. Fonseka were "part of an international conspiracy."

How comical such a situation has become is evident from the recent remarks of Minister Peiris.. He declared last week that the Government would go to the International Court against the European Union for not granting Sri Lanka the GSP Plus concessionary trade facility. The former Professor of Law at the Colombo University and Vice-Chancellor, to boot, opined that the EU action to deny that facility was tantamount to violating the human rights of Sri Lankans. He was a member of a team of four Cabinet Ministers tasked to lobby to get the facility extended.

Months earlier, Peiris was in the news posing for photographs with officials and claiming that his diplomatic efforts had made the EU re-think. He travelled from one EU capital to another lobbying but it all failed. Now, who knows? He may be giving a warning to even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to beware. They too could face court action if they chose to refuse Sri Lanka any loans in the future. Now Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe had to step in to manage another verbal disaster by saying that the Government has taken no such decision to sue the EU.

Yet, there is a paradox in this hilarious drama. On the one hand, the senior Government bureaucrat tasked to deal with human rights issues is saying there is no such thing as an attack on guerrilla leaders when they surrendered. This is on the basis that the former Army Commander had denied it. That was over six months after his colleague, Foreign Secretary, Dr. Kohona, the man empowered to speak on Sri Lanka's foreign policy, declaring there indeed was an incident.

According to the latter, their own colleagues killed the guerrillas who went with white flags to surrender. On the one hand, as Peiris' claim clearly implies, Sri Lanka is steadfast in its commitment to reach dizzy heights of stupidity to sue the European Union for denying the GSP Plus. This is for reasons of human rights violations. On the other, over a delicate human rights issue, key players in the Government cannot get their act together and take up one unified position. Worst enough, when such a matter had become their main issue for the January 26 Presidential Elections.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting in Kandy last Wednesday, Ministers unanimously adopted a resolution condemning Gen. Fonseka for the remarks he made. Earlier, arrangements were under way for President Rajapaksa to address the nation on Wednesday night. This was to explain his Government's position on the issue. However, it was later decided that Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake would, instead, make a statement that night. He spoke on the resolution adopted by the Ministers earlier that day.

In this backdrop, there is little doubt the claims made during the ongoing polls campaign will raise questions of credibility. More so since the target during the campaign has so far been Gen. Fonseka, his actions, both as Commander of the Army, later as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), and even his personal life. To any discerning student of politics, it is clear that UPFA leaders have not yet projected a positive aspect - what is in store for voters should Mahinda Rajapaksa be elected to power.

However, it must be said that the updated version of the Mahinda Chinthana (Thoughts of Mahinda) is still not ready for release. Campaign officials say it would be circulated in the first week of January leaving three weeks of time to campaign on the assurances given in the document. In politics, particularly during a closely fought campaign, a long delay and a negative approach can lead to disaster.

Also glaring, if not lacking in substance, is the campaign by the main Opposition parties for their 'common candidate'. Here again, there is an understandable reason though the larger mass of the voters may fail to appreciate. There is no manifesto. The United National Front (UNF) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), with diametrically opposite views have come together to support Gen. (Fonseka on the broader principle of abolishing the Executive Presidency.

Gen. Fonseka has made it repeatedly clear that the Presidency will not be completely abolished. He has declared that he would not wish to remain a ceremonial President like the late William Gopalallawa. He wants to remove the immunity of the office of President and empower Parliament. This naturally means that both the UNF and the JVP are yet to define the parameters of a Presidency under a new Constitution that will be shorn of unlimited powers. Nor has anyone in the UNF or the JVP explained in clear terms how it would be carried out. Other than that, officially the Opposition coalition has only a ten-point programme which it says have bound themselves together.

Either before or after the nominations Gen. Fonseka has not been able to offer voters a concrete package or a plan of action. Nor have his political backers been able to persuade successfully their candidate to publicly spell out his position on important issues. The best example of this situation, reported in these columns last week, was his cocktails cum dinner for the media.

Here, the political parties had unanimously agreed to have their candidate declare his public policy on the media, bribery and corruption.

Though a text collectively prepared, approved by the parties and was made available to him, he chose to ignore it. This may perhaps be due to lack of knowledge or experience in politics, for Gen. Fonseka. Yet it is also an indictment on his backers. Their inability to guide him would leave doubts in the minds of the voters about both his ability and raised fears whether his backers would lose control. As pointed out earlier, this is not the first occasion. There were more glaring examples. Here is one more.

Gen. Fonseka has promised a wage increase of Rs 10,000 a month to state sector employees. This is whilst neither the UNF nor the JVP has agreed on common ground for an economic policy for Gen. Fonseka to follow. Nor have they endorsed their "common candidate's" offer to effect that wage hike if elected President. However, it fell on only the JVP to defend him. Their logic was to say it is possible by cutting down on waste, bribery and corruption.

This clearly highlights the fact that leave alone economic experts, not even students of economics are being consulted. UPFA's Ranjith Siyambalapitiya (Deputy Finance Minister) and Bandula Gunawardena (Minister of Trade, Marketing Development, Co-operative and Consumer Affairs) scoffed at the suggestion. It is not realistic economically, they declared jointly. Gen. Fonseka's reply was that until economic experts existed, there could be no wage increases nor lower food prices.

In this regard, a serious deficiency appears to be the role of the main constituent of the United National Front (UNF), the UNP. Its leaders have continued to maintain to remain mute on most issues so far during Gen. Fonseka's polls campaign. In his first news conference to announce his candidature, he praised the UNP's economic policies. Perhaps the UNF leaders do not want to offend the JVP, which is single-handedly carrying out the grassroots level campaign and is the closest to the 'common candidate'.
However, by remaining silent, the UNP's vote bank (the sizeable majority whose support is a sine quo non necessary to enthrone retired General Fonseka as President) is perplexed. This includes a sizeable section of Sri Lanka's business and industry. They are not sure whether the UNP, which is the largest backer of Gen. Fonseka, is in fact playing an active role in determining any policy issues. Needless to say this vacuum has become the subject of serious concern even though there has been a re-awakening and energising of the rank and file with entry of the retired General with a realistic chance of defeating President Rajapaksa.

Even in the field of media relations, officials tasked by the UNP to Gen. Fonseka's team have been outsourcing their role to others, mostly those not in the party. Little wonder the UNP has not been able to seize the political opportunities that come its way and is regularly riddled with one crisis after another. Its leaders do not seem to be profiting from the lessons learnt. This has been one of the primary causes for opportunities lost and erosions in their ranks.

Notwithstanding these developments, there were also glad tidings for Gen. Fonseka's candidature this week. It is now certain that the majority faction of the divided Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will support his candidature. However, the matter is being kept a secret and a formal announcement is not likely immediately. A deal was wrapped up on Friday when a TNA delegation held talks with Gen. Fonseka and representatives of the main Opposition parties backing him. One source said TNA leaders Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and Suresh Premachandran will mount the political stage with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem to express support for the 'common candidate'.

Though M.K. Sivajilingam of the TNA is a candidate for the January 26 elections, the Alliance has disowned him. The larger segment of the membership is backing Sampanthan, who is the leader. The move prompted UPFA leaders yesterday to call upon a leading Tamil businessman connected with the Rajapaksa family to once again lobby the Tamil groups. He has also been assigned the task of 'winning over' those in the Tamil media.

It transpired during Friday's talks that the TNA was displeased with the outcome the talks their delegation had with President Rajapaksa. The latter had offered to consider some of TNA's demands only after the conclusion of the elections. However, Gen. (Fonseka had readily agreed to address some of their demands soon after he is elected President. These demands relate to resolving difficulties faced by Tamil civilians in the North.

UNF leaders have reacted unfavourably to a move by a one time Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte, to join Gen. Fonseka's campaign. The overtures to support have come from Ratwatte himself. The Sunday Times has learnt that another sensational cross over in the central hills cannot be ruled out.
In an interview with the Sunday Times (see Op-ed page of this issue), one of Gen. Fonseka's co-spokespersons, Mangala Samaraweera, said, "Gen. Fonseka's mission statement along with a clear, concise and credible Common Minimum Programme will be released in the New Year." Samaraweera added, "We have a clear theme, a clear vision and the experience to implement a professional campaign. The Rajapaksa's Mugabe style campaign with its Kim Il Jong type cut-outs may be very visible but it is very hollow and superficial despite the staggering amounts of money spent on the campaign."

Samaraweera said the campaign of the main opposition parties "will be at the grassroots level." He said there would be 25,000 pocket meetings and 75 large rallies during the election period. Yet, the news conferences, television appearances and public speeches have been focused largely on defending accusations against Gen. Fonseka or directing accusations against UPFA personalities.

A two-hour television appearance recorded two weeks ago and aired on Thursday night was almost entirely devoted to bitter criticism against Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He complained that he was sidelined after the military defeat of the guerrillas. However, he was a senior officer, Lt. Col. (retd.) Rajapaksa, who was not in Sri Lanka for 15 years, he claimed, was trying to teach him military discipline. CDs containing the interview are now being distributed at public meetings. Of course, the latter had also levelled a string of allegations against his one time Army Commander and CDS. Hence, Gen. Fonseka's right to respond to those allegations cannot be challenged.

However, the fact that so much of time and effort is being poured into such an interview whilst ignoring altogether the need to address voters on issues concerning them is counterproductive. His political backers do not appear to appreciate or have altogether ignored the need to bolster Gen. Fonseka's credibility if elected President. He is marketed as an Army officer who militarily defeated Tiger guerrillas and not as a viable future political leader with promises for a better future for Sri Lankans.

Perhaps the only reason why the directionless campaigns by both sides have not reflected so strongly on the electorate is due to the ongoing holiday season. With the dawn of a New Year, voters no doubt will take a closer look and discern what is best for them. That would naturally see the dawn of a new era, for better or for worse.

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