Govt. maintains focus on diplomatic battles against external forces
= Victory likely for UPFA in two provinces, but EPC's fate in balance
For a second week in succession, matters relating to the conduct of the country’s foreign policy preoccupied the Government.
Last Sunday, Sri Lanka’s envoys overseas wrapped up a two-day workshop that helped them learn the new thinking of the UPFA leaders with regard to a multitude of issues related to external relations. Most emphasis was on matters related to economic development. If there were critical issues, like for example, the upcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council where a report from Sri Lanka will be discussed under Universal Periodic Review, there was no detailed discussion on them. Yet, some envoys did raise political issues of lesser significance.
Last Sunday’s revelations in these columns about envoys being called upon to share rooms and pay a minimal Rs 3,000 for accommodation was to draw the attention of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He had addressed them only a day earlier. Rajapaksa remained at the Air Force Commander’s bungalow at the Diyalatawa military cantonment where he had received a briefing of the day’s media coverage.
Unaware of what was to follow, External Affairs Ministry Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama announced that envoys who had to share rooms would have to pay US$ 100 or around Rs. 13,376 and those wanting single rooms US$ 200 or around Rs. 26,752. He said his Ministry would make the payment and it would be individually recovered thereafter.
Thereafter, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence spoke on the theme “Project Sri Lanka – Essence of Reconciliation.”
Just then envoys were surprised to see President Rajapaksa turn up. He walked up to the podium and told envoys that before leaving for Colombo he wanted to thank them for honouring his invitation and coming over to Sri Lanka.
Thereafter, EAM Secretary Amunugama announced that President Rajapaksa had said that the government would meet the accommodation costs of the envoys. However, he said, it was mandatory for the participants to resume the cross country tour when the workshop ends.
Defence Secretary Rajapaksa noted, “It is important that the heads of mission and staff of Sri Lanka’s high commissions and embassies in other nations are fully aware of this, because of the challenges we face in the global arena today. Although the benefit of peace is evident to all Sri Lankans, we have seen that some sections of the international community have been largely critical on issues relating to Sri Lanka in the recent past. Countering this criticism is a key national priority.
“I believe there are several reasons for this criticism. These include the work of the LTTE’s international propaganda machine; the active Tamil vote base in certain countries; undue fear in some capitals about the influence of China in Sri Lanka; the actions of some international human rights organisations; and a certain degree of cynicism about the Government’s genuine efforts to address the issues of the Tamil community. Whilst appreciating the hard work of several ambassadors and high commissioners in countering this criticism, I wish to stress that more needs to be done. The heads of mission and staff of our embassies and high commissions around the world must counter this anti-Sri Lanka propaganda with facts. They must make sure that the true picture about what is happening here dominates the dialogue, instead of the propaganda of those who wish to harm our nation.”
He then went on to highlight the developments that had followed the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas more than three years ago. He said the number of troops deployed and the number of camps that would remain in the North and East had been reduced to a bare minimum. Twenty eight battalions that were in the North had been relocated to the South and the East. The overall number of troops in the North had also been reduced by more than 21,000 since 2009. Troops would remain in strategic locations, but their presence would be “non-intrusive”. The day-to-day maintenance of law and order had already been handed over to the Police. Concurrently, the capabilities of the Police Department to carry out these duties had been significantly improved.
One of the allegations increasingly being made, the Defence Secretary said, was that the military was involved in economic activities in the North, thereby reducing opportunities for private enterprise to flourish. It is true that the military did establish shops and welfare facilities in these areas in the months after the end of the ‘Humanitarian Operation.’ This was because there were thousands of people travelling through the A-9 during this time, and no facilities were available for their use. Thousands of Sri Lankans visited the North they had been cut off from for decades by the LTTE. Many were pilgrims visiting places of religious significance such as Nagadeepa. Many people living in the North also came to the South to attend to their day-to-day work, and to visit the rest of the country they had been cut off from for years. However, with the resumption of ordinary life in these areas, and the civilians returning to their livelihoods, the military has stopped all involvement in these activities. He denied that the military was involved in civil administration. “This is again not true. Even during the period of the conflict, the civil administration was maintained in the conflict areas,” he said.
Two senior intelligence officers of the Government – retired Major General Kapila Hendavithana, Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) and Lt. Col. T. Suresh Sallay, Foreign Intelligence Co-ordinator in the Ministry of Defence – made presentations on post-war developments and the Tiger guerrillas, both locally and abroad. The thrust of their presentations was on what seemed somewhat a contentious issue — to demonstrate that Tiger guerrillas were still active overseas through the Tamil diaspora. There is no question about the fact that the Tamil diaspora is well-funded, and active in many world capitals, through different organisations.
However, the Tamil Co-ordination Committees (TCC), the front organisations of the Tiger guerrillas in, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe have fast turned into a spent force unable to muster larger crowds like their different counterparts who have emerged relatively later. Nor is fund-raising easy for them. Besides the ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in those countries, the military defeat of the guerrillas in the north has literally weakened, if not stalled, their ‘command and control’ mechanism. Among the counterpart bodies replacing them is the British Tamil Forum, the US Tamil Political Action Committee, the Australian Tamil Congress, the Canadian Tamil Congress, the Swedish Tamil Forum and the Tamil Forum Malaysia. They are all members of the Global Tamil Forum which has been busy filing action in the US and British courts against various persons or over events related to Sri Lanka during the military defeat of the guerrillas.
It was the British Tamil Forum that staged protests when President Rajapaksa attended Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in June. The vast majority of members of these organisations, it is noteworthy, are not even citizens of Sri Lanka. They are nationals of the countries where these organisations function but have been prompted by the need to espouse the cause of their relations of an earlier generation. Thus, they have been making regular financial contributions. In essence, they have taken over from where the TCC left behind focusing now-on post war controversies. There is little evidence, at least publicly, that they will resort to arms or will be advocating separation. This is not to say that there are no organisations bent on militant activity. There are a handful of smaller bodies, backed by websites that still campaign for the utopian ideal of a separate state. Other than the nuisance value, they do not pose any significant threat. Their activities are confined mostly to propaganda.
Kalyananda Godage, Sri Lanka’ High Commissioner in Malaysia, was bold enough to point out what most envoys say was an inherent weakness in the External Affairs Ministry (EAM). He noted that there were some questions from the Tamil Diaspora over Northern Provincial Council elections, lack of progress at all party meetings and similar matters. He found it difficult to provide answers sometimes since the EAM had not provided clear guidelines. Godage’s dilemma is understandable. He did not wish to say anything that would run counter to the thinking of the Government. An embarrassed External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris was quick to parry the issue. “This is not what I expect an envoy to say,” he interjected and added “you should be able to defend the Government. You should know what to say.” If indeed that answer is correct, the question is whether there is a need for an External Affairs Ministry. The point that the EAM was not doing its job by providing Sri Lanka’s envoys overseas with clear guidelines seemed lost on Peiris or he refused to acknowledge it. One of the envoy’s jocularly cracked that Peiris wants envoys to merely say “Yes, Minister” and not to articulate their problems at these discourses for which they have been brought down. That Peiris was miffed about the issue became clear when he made reference to the issue during three different occasions.
A notable absentee at the Diyatalawa workshop was Dayan Jayatilleke, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France. He told the Sunday Times in an e-mail, “I had already informed H.E President Rajapaksa and Prof GL Peiris, Minister of External Affairs when I met them in Lisbon on their way to Latin America, that I had sought and been granted appointments with the Diplomatic Advisor to the new President of France, President Hollande, as well as the Senator who heads the ruling Socialist Party caucus in the French Senate, and that it would not be in our national interest for me to seek a rescheduling of those appointments given the delay that would inevitably entail in the context of every Ambassador in Paris seeking appointments with top level officials of the new, Socialist administration of this important Permanent member state of the Security Council. President Rajapaksa concurred. I subsequently informed Secretary to the EAM, Mr Amunugama of this in writing, with copies to the Hon Minister and Mr Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President.”
In the corridors of ‘Temple Trees’ however there was rumbling that the envoy in Paris had got around the Minister to get himself excused.
Also absent was Tamara Kunanayakam who has moved from Geneva to Havana as envoy.
It was only a week earlier; Peiris obtained cabinet approval for Sri Lanka to establish diplomatic relations with 15 African countries. Details of his cabinet memorandum in this regard were published exclusively in these columns last week. Peirs told the workshop that there was a need to reduce the strength of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions. What has influenced him was the recent visit to Cuba as a member of President Rajapaksa’s official entourage. Though there were some 120 diplomatic missions in that country, Peiris noted that most missions were manned by husband and wife combinations. Thus, he said, the need to have a larger strength was not required. Peiris also gave a brief on how the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s (LLRC) recommendations were being implemented by an official committee headed by Lalith Weeratunga.
When the envoys arrived in Colombo, they were planning for a four-day programme, as indicated by Karunatilleke Amunugama, Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs. The programme expanded at regular intervals with the final one lasting eight full days. This led to a scramble at SriLankan Airlines travel counter as virtually all of them had to look for new departure schedules.
With changes taking place every now and then, meetings were not possible by President Mahinda Rajapaksa with envoys on a regional basis. He met only two groups. The panellists listed in the official programme did not take the floor. They merely sat and looked on (glancing at their watches and phones frequently though). Although seven ministers were listed as panellists for the last session, only two turned up. They were Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Dilan Perera.
Bharathi Wijeratne, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Turkey, started the ball rolling by waxing eloquently about how she has appeared in 70 Turkish newspapers while showing a newspaper cutting to everyone at the workshop. Then she thanked President Rajapaksa, the Ministry of External Affairs, particularly Secretary Amunugama for her appointment. External Affairs Minister Peiris interjected to say “we cannot entertain comments at this stage because of time constraints, so let’s move on!’
Chris Nonis, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Britain, kept asking for information during briefings by MOD officials. The response from them was “You can find that information on our defence.lk website”. One envoy already retired from the Foreign Service tried his best to impress the head of state and others by elaborating on his cost-cutting measures. Many, showed great enthusiasm when this envoy used the magic phrase “cost cutting”. However, it turned out that the envoy is using his own staff to clean their respective office rooms, including the toilets. He said he too is cleaning his own room cum toilet by foregoing the cleaning service from Mondays to Thursdays and doing it all on Fridays. Rajapaksa in his speech, diverting from the prepared text, said that “I tell you ambassadors not to start work at 6 pm and work late creating all sorts of unnecessary problems. Please stick to the proper office hours.”
Both President Rajapaksa and Monitoring MP of the EAM, Sajin de Vass Gunawardena referred to an envoy who had publicly declared that he is in that capital not to deal with Sri Lankans. They told others not to follow that example. A few of the envoys did not take part in the cross country tour after the two day workshop ended. They withdrew from Diyatalawa.
It was not all work and no leisure for the envoys. On Sunday, soldiers clad in sarongs and banians sang as they served a Lotus leaf (Nelun Kola) lunch by the side of a pond within the Diyatalawa military cantonment. It was traditional rice and curry meal prepared and served the way it is done at a village event. Though scheduled to end on Thursday, the extended programme concluded for the envoys only on Friday. In Jaffna, besides scheduled events, the envoys also visited the Delft Island. They drove by road to Kilinochchi and thereafter to Vavuniya. At least two envoys were, however, reported to have got special treatment. They were excused from the gruelling journey by bus and afforded Land Cruiser jeeps for the trip. Muttering envoys echoed the famous Orwellian theme from the book Animal Farm; “all are equal but some are more equal”.
After the road trip, the envoys were given some respite when they were flown from Vavuniya to the Sri Lanka Air Force base at Katunayake, but the cross country journey continued by road as they were driven to nearby Gampaha. There they visited a fair (Pola) and a newly built maternity ward in a hospital. That ended their eight-day workshop intended to give the participants a new orientation on the UPFA’s foreign policy with a domestic perspective. Needless to say, not all the critical issue facing Sri Lanka in the world, were discussed.
Even whilst Sri Lanka’s envoys abroad were learning how to project various issues that the government wants, elsewhere another event, the formulation of Sri Lanka’s response to the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) was taking shape. Mahinda Samarasinghe, the President’s envoy on human rights issues, chaired a meeting with Colombo based civil society organisations on July 9 (Monday). The UPR is a process by which the UN through its Human Rights Council reviews the human rights record of its member countries at regular intervals. Samarasinghe’s meeting was to obtain their views on their responses to issues that will come up for discussion during the UN Human Rights Council meeting on November 1 in Geneva. The groups were told to give their written submissions by last Friday to be considered for incorporation in Sri Lanka’s response. Some have already sent in their responses before the deadline. Others are expected today.
After consultation with a number of ministries and government agencies, Minister Samarasinghe has formulated a 10,700-word report on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. This document is based on recommendations made by UN officials and the government’s own pledges over some 65 issues that have come up before the UNHRC. Some of the issues raised in the US-backed resolution adopted by the UNHRC in March this year too have been dealt with. That includes the implementation of the LLRC. A critical area, the Sunday Times learns, are matters relating to the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. UN officials, according to EAM sources, had wanted responses to the “full implementation” of the 13th amendment. However, Sri Lankan officials had pointed out that Sri Lanka never made any such commitment and referred to the joint communique issued after the visit to Sri Lanka by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on May 23, 2009. The visit came in the aftermath of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. The relevant part of the joint statement said: “President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.”
Yet, the issue has assumed greater significance for an altogether different reason. The implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution has turned out to be a thorny issue between Colombo and New Delhi. This is particularly after the visit to Colombo by Indian External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna in January this year. He announced at a news conference after talks with President Rajapaksa that the latter had agreed to the fuller implementation of the 13th Amendment. However, Rajapaksa told national newspaper editors thereafter he had indeed given such an assurance, but that it was the duty of Parliament to tell him what the ‘plus’ factor was to be. He said a political package to resolve Tamil grievances would have to be determined by the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee. However, the main player in such an exercise, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has refused to take part until the Government resumes its bilateral dialogue with it. The stalemate continues.
It is against this backdrop that India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon arrived in Colombo for meetings with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. New Delhi believes that it is these three key players in the Government who could deliver. He completely by-passed Minister Peiris who was only invited for the informal breakfast President Rajapaksa hosted for Menon after the one-on-one official talks between Rajapaksa and Menon earlier. Though Menon did deal with the process of reconciliation during his talks, thus referring to the 13th Amendment, his main thrust this time was to urge the government to hold Northern Provincial Council elections early. He sought a formal official announcement by the government. It was during talks with Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the Sunday Times learnt that Menon received a detailed answer on why the government could not hold early elections to the North. However, the TNA leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, whom Menon briefed thereafter, was to counter the response. He said the government had held presidential, parliamentary and local elections in the north.
Interesting enough, President Rajapaksa’s public response on the matter came this week. This is when he met Kanchan Prasad, the outgoing All India Radio correspondent in Colombo who is concluding her tenure when she made a farewell call on him. She was accompanied by R.K. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu newspaper’s correspondent in Colombo. In what turned out to be an hour-long interview, the President declared that Northern Provincial Council elections would be held in September 2013. That sparked widespread speculation that Rajapaksa is planning a presidential election ahead of the NPC polls. He told a confidant recently that the vast majority of the votes he received were from Sinhala voters whilst those in the minority community had voted against him. Others speculated, though not quite logically, that by September next year, Rajapaksa’s government would have got over most of the international issues he is facing. Hence, there would be a ‘clean slate’ climate to facilitate the polls.
Yet, the Sri Lanka report to the UPR, which Rajapaksa will receive from Minister Samarasinghe, is fraught with some problems. Once it comes up for discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in November this year, it will be a three-nation committee headed by India that will formulate a response to the Council together with Benin and Spain. There are concerns already in government circles over how India would react to references made to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, or in more general terms on how the Government is responding to the process of reconciliation. Since both Benin and Spain have no diplomatic representation in Colombo, the two countries will, without doubt, go along with India’s conclusions on the matter. How would the UNHRC react to this during UPR remains a moot question. Sri Lanka is required to hand over its report to the UNHRC Secretariat on or before July 23. It will thereafter be translated into the official languages recognised by the UN and later posted in their website. The Government is permitted to forward its own addendum to the report as and when it wishes but before the UNHRC sessions begin. The likelihood of the troika – Minister Basil Rajapaksa, President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa – visiting New Delhi is not being ruled out.
The next hurdle on the human rights front will come when the Human Rights Council meets next March. In terms of the US-backed resolution, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is required to report on the progress made. The Government has not yet responded to an offer by Navaneetham Pillay, the Human Rights High Commissioner, in keeping with the resolution, sending a team of experts to assist the Government. The resolution said, it “encourages the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance and requests the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to present a report to the Council on the provision of such assistance at its 22nd session.” Pillay’s letter offering assistance has not yet been replied, a government source said.
As President Rajapaksa sits down this week to assess his government’s human rights record before submission to the UN Human Rights Council, there are a number of domestic priorities of equal importance.
This week, he ensured price reductions in essential consumer items including cooking gas. More are to follow. There is little doubt that it would be salutary in the light of elections to the North Western, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Councils. Rajapaksa has cancelled his District Development Committee meetings in these three provinces in view of the polls. However, he took part in the DDC meeting for Kalutara District on Thursday and Colombo District on Friday.
A hitherto unknown feature that precedes these meetings is a visit to the district by a team of officials assigned by Rajapaksa. Among their tasks is to identify foundation stones laid for different projects, take photographs and report to him on why they have not been executed. The issues are later raised at the DDC meetings. The move is reminiscent of what the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa did when he was Minister of Local Government. There, he urged heads of local bodies to inform him of priorities and tasks not carried out.
With the opposition parties still in disarray, sections of the man opposition United National Party (UNP) beating the worn out drum calling for a new leader, and with no signs of party unity being forged, the edge appears to be again for the UPFA in at least two of the PCs, Sabaragamuwa and North Central. How the Eastern Provincial Council will poll remains an important question and will no doubt be a test of strength for the UPFA. That is why the UPFA is keen on an alliance with the Muslim Congress for the Eastern Provincial Council. The results in the three PCs will not only be a pointer to the political direction the country is headed but how the Rajapaksa administration will meet the challenges it faces thereafter.