United Nations Resident Representative Neil Buhne was in for a rude shock. He shot off an urgent SMS message to Economic Development Minister and Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa to ascertain whether the news was true.
Only minutes earlier on Wednesday, Minister Wimal Weerawansa had told a news conference he was calling for a siege on the United Nations Office in Colombo until UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon disbanded the three-member panel he has appointed to probe accountability issues in Sri Lanka during the final stages of the separatist war last year. The UN chief's move is seen as a precursor to an imminent UN probe into alleged war crimes and other human rights violations by both troops and Tiger guerrillas.
JHU supporters protesting against what they saw as “UN interference in Sri Lanka”. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
Rajapaksa assured Buhne that the views expressed by Minister Weerawansa did not constitute the official position of the Government of Sri Lanka. He said it was the personal view of Mr. Weerawansa, who was the leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF) and a key player in the UPFA. Ahead of that assurance, Rajapaksa had also checked with Weerawansa who had confirmed that he made the remarks.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was on an official visit to Ukraine, was also informed. From his hotel in Kiev, Rajapaksa watched as Foreign Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe, a member of his entourage, telephoned Buhne to re-assure him that Weerawansa's remarks did not constitute the official view of the Government.
Weerawansa told the news conference that "patriotic forces" have so far prevented President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the country's security forces from being hauled before "an international war crimes tribunal." The same forces, he said, should rally round to defeat the motives of the United Nations Secretary General. He said the NFF would launch countrywide protests against the UN. A prolonged Sathyagraha (non-violent) campaign would be held outside the UN compound, he said.
Weerawansa described recent remarks made to BBC by retired General Sarath Fonseka, MP as "degrading and mean action". The man who directed the military campaign to defeat the guerrillas said he was willing to testify before the UN's three-member panel. Of course, the country's still highly decorated soldier maintains no war crimes were committed by Sri Lankan troops. Weerawansa believes Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's remarks only endorsed moves by the "international community to slap down sanctions on Sri Lanka."
Weerawansa's remarks have caused concern at the UN headquarters in New York. Associate UN Spokesperson Farhan Haq told the Sunday Times this week, "The Government of Sri Lanka has assured us this is not its policy."
However, he declared, "At the same time, we are continuing to look into the matter. We take all threats made against UN staff seriously, and are examining any further response."
A Colombo-based UN official who did not wish to be identified added, "We are concerned about the security aspects of both foreign and domestic staff. A continued siege is different from the short duration protests we have seen not only outside our compound but also in front of some diplomatic missions in Colombo."
Even if the main Opposition United National Party (UNP) refrained from any official comment on the appointment of the UN panel, its deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya described Minister Weerawansa's remarks as "irresponsible and deplorable" since he was a senior cabinet minister. He urged the Government to "clarify its position" to ensure Sri Lanka wasnot pushed "further into the global black sheep" category. The last sentence in Jayasuriya's one page statement, if indeed it reflects the UNP's official stance, marks a shift. The statement placed the UNP on even keel with the Government on the broader issue of a UN probe. However, that is still not the official UNP position.
Its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday (the same day the statement was issued) named three party seniors - Lakshman Kiriella, Ravi Karunanayake and Dayasiri Jayasekera - to formulate the UNP's official response. Wickremesinghe and the trio, during their first discussion, focused on Ban's visit to Sri Lanka in May last year. They discussed the joint statement issued by Ban and the Government of Sri Lanka on that occasion. The statement had noted, "The Secretary General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government will take measures to address those grievances."
An official statement from the UNP is due after the Committee completes its task.
Karu Jayasuriya said in his statement, "We re-iterate that the UNP will always oppose any attempt from any source to interfere with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka." In other words, the deputy leader of the UNP reflects the view that UN Chief's appointment of a three-member panel amounts to 'interference' in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. On the other hand, his leader names a three-member team to study and issue an official statement. Quite clearly, contradictions are galore in the country's premier Opposition party in its approach to international issues affecting Sri Lanka.
An example that illustrates the point even further is the remark UNP leader Wickremesinghe made, as revealed in these columns last week. He said the withdrawal of the GSP Plus concessionary tariffs by the European Union was the result of "the gross failure of the conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy." However, Sajith Premadasa (Hambantota District) MP, who is stirring the pot in so far as the UNP leadership is concerned, criticised the EU for its action, a stance that was very much in line with that of the Government.
"They cow down to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and heed to all the conditions they lay down. Now they are complaining about the UN,"
Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times this week. Yet, they (the Government) have not been able to honour their promise of a Rs 2,500 pay increase to state sector workers nor ensure media freedom, he added.
The strongest criticism of the Government came from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Its leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe told the Sunday Times, "It is a monumental blunder by the Government. It is still living in the past." Instead of just playing on "patriotism," he said, the "paradigm" after the end of the separatist war should have shifted. "We have taken pride in defeating terrorism. We should have taken more pride in embarking on reconciliation with international support," he said. Amerasinghe said President Rajapaksa failed to "restore democracy and do everything to unite the people." Instead, the then Foreign Ministry failed miserably in conducting our relations with other countries.
Amerasinghe said that the appointment of the panel, like the withdrawal of the GSP Plus facility, no doubt "is interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs."
However, who brought about that situation, he asked. "Our party has sent several letters to President Rajapaksa giving him suggestions. We told him to enforce the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, stop attacking and intimidating journalists and release from custody persons against whom there are no charges. These were not done," he said.
The SLFP (Mahajana Wing) leader, Mangala Samaraweera, Rajapaksa's Foreign Minister for more than one and half years after he was elected President, and one largely credited with his election at the November 2005 Presidential election, charged that it was Rajapaksa who had wanted the UN and other international agencies invited to Sri Lanka. Speaking on the budget debate on Friday, he quoted from an old Parliament Hansard of December 4, 1989 (Page 942). It referred to a speech made by Mahinda Rajapaksa, then an Opposition MP. Rajapaksa, a human rights campaigner at the time, had said he would thank the Government (of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa) for allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to come to Sri Lanka.
In the same manner, he had said, "the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and the Amnesty International" should be allowed to come to Sri Lanka." Rajapaksa had also urged that the Government allow these two organisations to probe matters within their purview. Samaraweera's remarks drew interruptions from A.H.M. Azwer (SLFP - National List). He said the remarks were made those days and things were now different.
There were more woes for the Government on the international front. On Wednesday the United States Embassy in Colombo announced that the US' own GSP programme for exports from Sri Lanka would come under scrutiny. A statement said: "The US Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), a programme designed to promote economic growth in the developing world, provides preferential duty-free treatment for over 3,400 products from 131 designated beneficiary countries and territories including Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka benefited from GSP treatment on approximately $116 million of goods in 2009."
The statement said that countries eligible for GSP benefits must meet several criteria including the extent to which the country "has taken or is taking steps to afford the workers in the country internationally recognised worker rights including the right of association; the right to organise and bargain collectively; a prohibition on compulsory labour; a minimum age for employment of children; a prohibition on the worst forms of child labour; and acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health."
In 2008, as part of the annual review process, the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), the powerful US trade unions, filed a petition with the US Government requesting a review of worker rights in Sri Lanka. The AFL-CIO re-submitted an updated petition last year. It has now been accepted and that is why a study is now to take place. The GSP concessions will continue whilst the study is under way.
An analysis of the US Government move and its implications appear in the Op-ed page in this newspaper today. It comes hard on the heels of the decision by the European Union to suspend the GSP Plus concessionary tariffs to Sri Lanka from August 15. If the US study does determine that the Government should heed specific conditions, Government officials concede, a dialogue similar to the one with the EU would become necessary. A failure would only add to the blow already dealt by the EU move.
A noteworthy feature this week is the move by a constituent of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), retired General Sarath Fonseka's group, to register a separate political party. It has been named as Democratic Party, perhaps taking a leaf from the ruling party in the United States. "We have applied to the Commissioner of Elections to be recognised as a political party," Tiran Alles, secretary-designate of the DP told the Sunday Times. He added, "We will remain in the new party but will be working together as the Democratic National Alliance which constitutes six political parties." He said the new party as being formed "in consultation with the JVP" and would contest any future election with them, and not separately.
However, a senior JVP leader who did not wish to be identified insisted that his party was told only three days before the application for registration was made to the Commissioner of Elections. "This has been conveyed to Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the DNA parliamentary group leader," the source added pointing out that there were, however, no serious differences of opinion over the issue.
Yet, the fact that retired Gen. Fonseka and his ally Tiran Alles have chosen to register a new political party is significant in many respects. Earlier, Alles held the key to the DNA, a registered political party which he gained control together with his erstwhile political colleague Mangala Samaraweera, years ago. When he parted ways with Samaraweera, soon after the parliamentary elections in April this year, Alles offered the party's name as the umbrella body for a common alliance mainly with the JVP. The fact that the Fonseka-Alles combine have chosen to have their own political party shows that they have opted for not only a new identity but also a set of new policies that may differ from the outdated Marxist doctrine of the JVP, something the JVP itself is not peddling too much nowadays.
The move is not so surprising if one looks at how the JVP has continued under the alliance since it was formed. Though the JVP has accepted retired Gen. Fonseka as the alliance leader, its grassroots level activities have remained the same as before. JVP branch offices display only the portrait of the late Rohana Wijeweera, their founder leader and their cadres have been repeatedly told that the party's ideologies have not changed. They have been asked to promote the ideals of the JVP at the grassroots level and prepare for campaigns against the Government on their own.
A main Opposition grand alliance was born when they chose to support Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's candidature at the presidential elections in January this year. However, the UNP distanced itself thereafter allowing the Fonseka-Alles combine to form an alliance with the JVP and lesser-known political parties. Though leaders of both the UNP and the JVP formally deny it, informal efforts are being made by both sides to unite in a campaign against the Government over the proposed constitutional amendments. Parliamentarians of both sides have been talking to each other in the Parliament lobby for such a get-together. Some UNP parliamentarians have also spoken with members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) about this common objective.
This week, JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake delivered a talk at the Colombo Public Library on the impending constitutional amendments. He was speaking on whether these changes were for the benefit of the country or for the benefit of the Rajapaksa family. Present at the event wearing a green shirt was UNP's Ravi Karunanayake (MP from Colombo North).
For Alles, a political novice and promoter of the new party, the advantages are many. Personally, he would be an eligible heir apparent when the leader of the party is unable to perform his duties for any reason. That is a bonus for the millionaire businessman who was thrust to the national list on the votes won by the JVP at the parliamentary elections. However, some keen political observers within both the UNP and the JVP believe there are other critical questions. In fact, reports that the Fonseka- Alles combine were wooing UNPers at the grassroots level prompted UNP leader Wickremesinghe to ask a group of new MPs to strengthen branch organisations and youth leagues. They have been told to get down to the task immediately.
One question is whether a crisis within the UNP would see the party divided into two factions. In such an event, they ask, whether moves were afoot for one section to join with the Democratic Party. Some political groups have been busy in the past months working towards an alliance between a group opposed to UNP leader Wickremesinghe and the Fonseka-Alles combine.
That is notwithstanding a paradoxical combination. Fonseka led troops to defeat militarily the guerrillas. Alles, on the other hand, turned millionaire, selling mobile phones in the north on the exclusivity provided by the guerrillas. Now the duo seem to be veering towards forming a new political party that wants to run parallel to both the JVP and the UNP in the fast changing political landscape of the country.
It comes at a time when the Government is proposing a string of constitutional amendments. Contrary to earlier thinking of introducing changes in three different stages, President Rajapaksa now wants to present all of them in Parliament together. Hence, the Legal Draftsman is busy formulating one comprehensive package of constitutional amendments.
Even if Opposition parties fail to see eye to eye on their courses of action against these amendments, each is making its own strategy. Opposition UNP Leader Wickremesinghe chaired a meeting in Parliament premises on Friday to arrange protest campaigns. The first part of what is termed as an 'action plan' was put into practice when Acting Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama, presented the budget on Tuesday. UNP parliamentarians rose from their seats holding large posters highlighting the hardships of the people. They referred to the prices of sugar, bread and other items. Dayasiri Jayasekera (Kurunegala District) later raised an issue of privilege over the media's failure to report this event. He alleged that a "powerful figure," an official, had spoken to all media outlets not to broadcast or report what happened. The official had claimed these were "orders to him from the top."
The focus of the UNP action plan is three-pronged. They are (1) to protest against the Government rushing through "totalitarian" amendments to the Constitution. (2) provide economic relief to the people and, (3) arrest and file charges against Kumaran Pathmanathan, the Tiger guerrilla procurement chief and release Gen. (retd.) Fonseka from military custody. A poster and pamphlet campaign at the grassroots level and small group meetings are among the measures planned.
JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe said, "When we were with the Government and when we were out, we have always said that the executive presidency should be abolished. President Rajapaksa promised this to the country. He is not upholding the promises he gave." He has failed both internationally and domestically. We will go to the grassroots level to educate the people that the constitutional changes are not for them but for the Rajapaksas.
The UNP plans to go into high gear at a time when it faces a serious internal crisis. The six-member Reforms Committee is set to hand over its report to Wickremesinghe tomorrow. Despite denials, the Fonseka-Alles combine forming their own Democratic Party, no doubt, shows that they have agreed to disagree with the JVP at least on some policy issues. Thus, a divided Opposition is hoping to form a united front once again to take on a powerful President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. No doubt, it has the shades of a political obstacle race.