UPFA spin doctors bring shame on Sri Lanka
President Mahinda Rajapaksa left little doubt in the minds of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) partners that a presidential election early next year was a certainty. He, however, carefully avoided any references to timing.
He met them after the weekly ministerial meeting, rescheduled for last Tuesday. This was on account of his absence from Sri Lanka in the past week to address the 69th sessions of the UN General Assembly. Rajapaksa, who is also the Minister of Finance, said the 2015 budget presentation, usually due in November, would this time be in the third week of October. Thereafter, the different stages of the budget debates would be held and concluded by the third week of November. The remarks made clear to UPFA leaders that it was time to get ready for polls.
More proof came when Rajapaksa boarded a special flight to Rome on Thursday. His media spokespersons said in one voice ahead of departure that his trip to the Vatican was to extend an invitation for Pope Francis to visit Sri Lanka. In the history of the Vatican, the city state, neither the revered Catholic prelate nor his faithful followers have made arrangements in another country for a visit without first receiving an official invitation. In this instance, such an invitation was not only extended but a team from the Vatican visited Sri Lanka. In Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, announced at a news conference telecast live by local channels that Pope Francis would arrive on January 13 and gave details of his itinerary. He then revealed that an invitation from President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been sent through the External Affairs Ministry. He thanked both President Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the invitation and the assistance extended. Two different websites were also launched with countdown counters which gave the number of days remaining before Pope Francis arrives.
The Pope will celebrate mass at the Galle Face Green in the morning of January 14 and visit the Madhu Church the same evening. It has been a tradition for the Pope not to visit a country where elections are scheduled. Usually such a practice, it has been explained to the UPFA leadership, is a month ahead or a month after an election. Influential sections in the UPFA believe Rajapaksa would issue a proclamation on the presidential poll on November 20 and the election is likely on January 9 next year, as revealed in these columns last week. If this date is confirmed, it would be just three days (a Saturday, Sunday and a Monday) before the arrival of the Pope. The question remains whether the Vatican would be happy with such an arrangement and whether this prompted Rajapaksa’s visit.
Moreover, on July 29, the Vatican News Service reported: “Vatican City, 29 July 2014 (VIS) – The Holy See Press Office today announced that His Holiness Francis, accepting the invitation from the civil authorities and the bishops, will make an Apostolic trip to Sri Lanka from 12 to 15 January and the Philippines from 15 to 19 January 2015. The program for the trip will be published shortly.”
In an audience with the Pope at 10.30 a.m. on Friday (Rome time), UPFA sources say, Rajapaksa was keen to ensure that the Pope’s visit remains on schedule. The Sunday Times has learnt the main opposition United National Party (UNP) has not given its concurrence for this arrangement. It has given permission for John Ameratunga, the Chief Opposition Whip and senior member of the UNP, to be a member of President Rajapaksa’s official entourage to the Vatican. This time, however, official cameramen avoided focusing on the UNP Gampaha District parliamentarian. Ameratunga who is well known for his close ties with President Rajapaksa joined his official delegation for visits to Israel and Palestine in January this year. He also took part in the official level talks held between the two countries. Ameratunga had then explained that he received the approval of his leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Taking Amaratunga was a clever ploy by the President. It would show to the Vatican that he had bi-partisan approval for what he was seeking from the Pope, but the question UNPers were asking this week was whether Amaratunga alone can compromise the party’s position by unilaterally undertaking such foreign trips with President Rajapaksa who is keen to show the outside world the Opposition is also in acquiescence with whatever he does.
A surprise omission from the Sri Lanka delegation that went with the President to Rome but not for the meeting with the Pope was Sajin Vass de Gunawardena, Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs, who figured in an alleged slapping incident involving Sri Lanka’s UK High Commissioner, Chris Nonis. The MP was reportedly left out on the advice of an influential Cardinal very close to the Nonis family.
There has been no official word from the Sri Lankan side after the talks ended with Pope Francis. However, the Vatican Information Service issued a three paragraph statement. It said: “Vatican City, 3 October 2014 (VIS) – Today the Holy Father Francis received in audience the president of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who subsequently met with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.
“During the cordial discussions, the Parties focused on the country’s current situation, with particular reference to signs of social and economic improvement, and conveyed their hope that solutions corresponding to the legitimate expectations of all citizens may be found. ”In this context, the Parties expressed their hope that the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to Sri Lanka may be welcomed as a sign of closeness to the Sri Lankan population and may encourage those who work for the common good, reconciliation, justice and peace.”
As is clear from the statement, there is no reference to an invitation being extended once more by President Rajapaksa. Though the statement has not been categorical by making only a reference to an “upcoming visit,” UPFA leaders were confident the Pope would come as scheduled. However, the question that begs answer is what prompted Rajapaksa and his entourage to visit the Vatican. The spin doctors, who said it was to extend an invitation, as the events played out, have been proved wrong. The absence of an official statement makes it worse.
State Dept hits back
Rajapaksa was in a buoyant mood last Tuesday after his return from New York as he spoke to leaders of UPFA coalition partners. He made special mention of the meeting he had with US Secretary of State John Kerry. He hinted that the US was now appreciative of Sri Lanka’s position and there seemed a softening of its approach. Some ministers were elated at the remarks. But that euphoria was short lived. Here again, Government spin doctors who saw a “softening of the US stance towards Sri Lanka” were proved wrong. At least one senior member of the President’s entourage had interpreted Kerry’s talks with Rajapaksa, underscored by extreme cordiality, to mean a “softening.”
At last Thursday’s news briefing at the State Department in Washington DC by spokesperson Jen (Jennifer) Psaki, the issue was raised. Here is the relevant part of the official text:
“QUESTION: There is a report that I have seen from a Sri Lankan newspaper suggesting that when Secretary Kerry met with the Sri Lankan president, I think it was during UNGA, that he had – that Secretary Kerry had indicated or suggested a softening in the U.S. position on Sri Lanka. The piece I saw didn’t specify what, but I think the inference was that it was a softening on human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. Is there any truth to that? Did he signal that he would take human rights less seriously there?
“MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. I saw the same story. The only thing that was right was that the Secretary did speak with the Sri Lankan president on the margins of the UN General Assembly. He did so with the express purpose of conveying that U.S. policy with regard to Sri Lanka has not changed and it certainly has not softened. We would, of course, like our relationship with Sri Lanka to achieve its full potential, but that will only happen if Sri Lanka builds enduring peace and prosperity for all of its diverse ethnic and religious communities. And that’s why the Secretary, in no uncertain terms, made clear to the president that Sri Lanka needed to take meaningful steps to act like a country that is no longer at war and instead is now building a future that includes all of its citizens. So certainly it had the opposite purpose.”
The meeting with Secretary Kerry was not the only one on the side lines of the UN General Assembly sessions. An even more important one for 25 minutes was with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A key issue Premier Modi raised, according to sources in New Delhi, was the need for the Rajapaksa Government to talk to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Though an official Sri Lankan statement had quoted Indian Premier as saying that the TNA should take part in the Parliamentary Select Committee process, these sources said that was “categorically not” New Delhi’s position. Premier Modi told a TNA delegation that met him in August that the TNA should engage directly with the Government, these sources pointed out.
Premier Modi, the same sources said, also raised what he called serious security concerns for India due to increased military co-operation between Sri Lanka and China. He cited the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army warship 861 and submarine 329 in the Colombo Port from September 7 to 13, as exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of September 21. The vessels were berthed in the Chinese-built Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT). The Indian Premier had opined that the presence of the naval vessels contravened the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Part of the accord was letters exchanged between the then leaders of the two countries. In terms of this “Sri Lanka ports including Trincomalee will not be permitted for military use if it is prejudicial to India’s interests.” Rajapaksa was to explain that the two Chinese naval vessels were on courtesy visits.
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin told reporters in New York development projects India was helping in Sri Lanka were also discussed. That included the coal-fired electricity project in Mutur, a joint venture between the two countries. He said Modi described the Sri Lanka’s detention of 76 Indian fishermen as a “humanitarian issue” that needs to be dealt “with sensitivity.”
Rajapaksa was to tell UPFA partner leaders on Tuesday that he would order the immediate release of all Indian fishermen now in the country’s jails. However, the instructions are yet to filter down to the prison authorities.
New York slapping incident
There was heavy embarrassment for President Rajapaksa over a New York incident. It only remained a secret for a few hours. One local television channel still broke the story followed extensively by the social media. The moral in the story about the attempted blackouts is the fact that such cloaks of secrecy or giving spins to gain temporary advantage is no longer possible. They have a way of getting into the social media and reaching a wider audience. Such reportage is not always accurate and tends to cause even more damage to the Government’s credibility.
The incident was at the New Jersey residence of Dilan Ariyawansa who now represents Sri Lankan Airlines in New York. Guests who arrived on the night of September 23 (Tuesday) were Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs (EAM), Kshenuka Senewiratne, EAM Secretary, Thanuja Geethendra Usliyanage, Minister (Political) at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC, Chamithri Rambukwella (daughter of Media Minister Keheliya) and an official of the Ministry of External Affairs.
Guests saw Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to United Kingdom, Chris Nonis, and Ambassador to the United States, Prasad Kariyawasam, arriving together. Golden Chimes, a Sri Lankan musical group was playing local music and the tempo increased as hours went by. In the process, dinner was delayed and another day (Wednesday) had dawned.
High Commissioner Nonis, who had walked in, sat at the bar table and was speaking with Ms. Ariyawansa. He was thrilled with the music and told her that it was very entertaining. Guests heard Vass Gunawardena making what were described as “highly inflammatory” barbs at Nonis. One of them said that every sentence began with “the f…. word.” Thereafter the Monitoring MP walked towards Nonis.
More inflammatory words flowed with the “f….” word. Vass Gunawardena then asked Nonis why he had called Senewiratne “a half baked b****h?”
Nonis replied that he had never made such remarks. “Don’t put words in my mouth,” he said. Then Vaas Gunawardena said something like; “What are you looking at me like that”, and landed the hapless High Commissioner with a weighty slap on his left cheek.
Another weighty slap on the left cheek followed from Vass Gunawardena. Thereafter, he dealt a blow on Nonis’ right ear. Witnesses heard the Monitoring MP exclaimed “Don’t think you can come in and out of Sri Lanka every week. You think you have the President’s support. You are only a f*****g High Commissioner. I am a street fighter. I will have you f*****g thrashed.”
Months ago, External Affairs Secretary Senewiratne had complained to colleagues and friends about High Commissioner Nonis insulting her. However, she had not formally raised issue over the matter by making an official complaint or calling for Nonis’ explanation.
It was nearly 2 a.m. now and Nonis did not wait for dinner but hurriedly withdrew to his hotel. Later in the morning, he proceeded to a New York hospital to get himself examined. He was having difficulty in hearing. Later in the day (September 24) he met President Mahinda Rajapaksa and gave him an account about what had taken place. Rajapaksa was busy that day readying his speech which he delivered at the 69th sessions of the UN General Assembly, but assured the High Commissioner that he would attend to the complaint. Nonis was also to have a second meeting with the President on the same day before boarding a night flight from New York to London.
One source familiar with the goings on said that trouble between Vass Gunawardena and Nonis had been brewing for some months. It was not just over alleged remarks against Ms. Senewiratne. It began boiling over the night before, i.e. the night of September 22 (Monday). This was when several members of the Sri Lanka delegation had attended a dinner party at a New York restaurant. Among those who took part were Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Palitha Kohona. The source said Vass Gunawardena was making “taunting” and “inflammatory remarks” at Nonis. “He was riling the High Commissioner and trying to embarrass him, the source added.
Nonis, as our front page report confirms, said yesterday that his resignation has been accepted from October 3, It meant the decision to accept has been made by President Rajapaksa whilst in Rome. This is the first time in post-independent history of Sri Lanka that a Government MP has assaulted a High Commissioner or Ambassador representing the country. That too by a parliamentarian who was officially designated to monitor work in the External Affairs Ministry (EAM). It is no secret that Vass Gunawardena virtually runs the EAM overseeing postings and transferring personnel he is displeased with. No questions are asked about his actions or transactions. The External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris does not have any control over such matters, nor does he seem too worried.
Not so long ago, Vaas Gunawardena hired a string of public relations companies in the United States, notwithstanding the existence of a permanent diplomatic mission in Washington DC, to undertake measures reportedly to ward off human rights violation allegations against Sri Lanka. Millions of rupees were paid to these firms without the approval of the Cabinet of ministers. He even fronted a private address linked to him for these official transactions. Last year, a group of thugs hurled stones at Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, when he was in the Ambalangoda electorate. They surrounded his official car and made an attempt to harm him. It turned out that Vass Gunawardena had been responsible for arranging that “reception.” President Rajapaksa instructed him to apologise to Wickremesinghe. He did so on the telephone. All these factors notwithstanding, Vass Gunawardena is conspicuous by his presence when President Rajapaksa has meetings with heads of states, governments and other high ranking dignitaries.
On Thursday, Vass Gunawardena joined President Rajapaksa’s official entourage to fly to Rome for the meeting with Pope Francis. Government sources said High Commissioner Nonis was asked to travel to Rome for a meeting with Rajapaksa to sort out issues related to the slapping incident. This was particularly with the presence of Vass Gunawardena. However, there was no official confirmation and the High Commissioner was not present. Nonis is learnt to have sought a written apology from Vass Gunawardena.
Upon his arrival in London, instead of going to his office, Nonis drove in his official vehicle to the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham. President Rajapaksa is learnt to have telephoned Nonis in London on Friday from Rome and asked why he had raised issue with a leading Catholic prelate in Sri Lanka over the slapping incident. He had charged that this was a move to discredit him with the Catholic community. He had then terminated the call. Nonis is a staunch Catholic and has the backing of the clergy. His family is well known to Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. One source said they took exception to Vass Gunawardena being in the Sri Lanka delegation that met Pope Francis.
It was External Affairs Minister Peiris who picked on Nonis to be Sri Lanka’s envoy in the Court of St James’. All Ambassadors and High Commissioners to the United Kingdom are received at this royal court for the sovereign. Just this week, however, he told friends and colleagues that he has not been happy with his own choice. Peiris complained that despite many a warning, Nonis had continued to focus more time promoting his family business. In fact, he had left station (London) without informing the Ministry of External Affairs and had to be warned by Secretary Senewiratne. Peiris’ remarks are an indictment on himself. Here is an External Affairs Minister complaining about his own High Commissioner.
During last November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Nonis succeeded in having Prince Charles land in a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter at the Mackwoods Tea Estate in Nuwara Eliya. All members of the Prince’s entourage were given gifts of high grown tea.
No end to UNP crisis
Reports of an impending presidential election or the historic saga of a Sri Lankan envoy to the UK being slapped in the face by an MP who enjoys much more immunity than others did not obscure another development. The UPFA Government took time to declare that the Government would construct “an additional building for the office of the Leader of the Opposition in the same premises that presently houses his office.” Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne noted that the Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers has informed that funds have been approved……..for the construction of an additional building …..in premises No. 30, Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, Colombo 7, presently used as his Colombo office.” Wickremesinghe has already moved into a completed part of the building.
Premier Jayaratne has said that the 4,500 square feet (at Rs 5000 per square feet), professional fees for architect (4 per cent), project management fees, equipment and fittings were estimated to cost Rs. 28.4 million. However, he noted that “construction had to be delayed by some one-and-a-half years owing to difficulties in finding a suitable construction firm to put up this building to the required standard from the estimated amount. Consequently, the Civil Security Department, which is a public body, was entrusted with the task based on its quotations, since it was considered competent in handling work of this nature and accordingly the construction got under way.”
Premier Jayaratne points out that although Rs 28.4 million has been allocated for construction of the building as per ministerial approval, the estimate of the construction has been increased as follows: Rs. 56,280,036.49 (including 12 per cent VAT), due to the one-and-a-half year delay in construction leading to increase in goods and services charges. An addition of a further 576 square feet to the building area has been made. The cost of more than Rs. 56.2 million includes payment for the Department of Civil Security (Rs. 49.3 million), Architect’s fees (4 per cent or Rs. 1,918,803.30), furniture and carpets (Rs. 5 million). Ministers have given approval to obtain the additional funding from the Treasury.
Yet, for Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, the issues within his United National Party (UNP) do not appear to be over. On two different occasions, before he went to London to attend the annual conference of the Conservative Party, he sought meetings with Sajith Premadasa, just named Deputy Leader. On both occasions he did not turn up confirming reports of his disappointment that none of the demands he wanted had been fulfilled. They have been placed through UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, via political broker and wannabe, Tiran Alles. Ahead of Wickremesinghe’s departure to London, Alles called Attanayake on his mobile phone at least four times whilst he was in the South Indian state of Kerala for a Pooja, to plead whether something could be done to help Premadasa get his demands. Attanayake was accompanied by four others, all staunch UNPers, for the visit to Cochin, the commercial capital of the state.
Saturday before last, the UNP General Secretary was taking time off to engage in some shopping in Cochin. He had almost purchased some sarees and other items when plainclothesmen bundled him and the others together and escorted them to their hotel. They sought time to collect the goods and complained that payment had already been made. However, their requests were not heeded. It was only at their hotel that they learnt that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyalalithaa Jeyaram has been convicted on corruption charges. The plainclothesmen explained that in the light of the court ruling, it was their responsibility to protect them. However, they made sure that the items purchased were delivered to their hotel.
Attanayake’s efforts so far to persuade Wickremesinghe to heed at least a few of the demands placed by Premadasa to him through deal maker Alles have been strongly resisted by the UNP leader. His call to discuss what work he will oversee has also not been possible since Premadasa has not heeded calls on two different occasions to meet his leader. In the light of this, questions are being raised whether Premadasa would put his best foot forward during the presidential election campaign due in less than three months if the Government’s plans are on schedule. On the other hand, some Premadasa loyalists argue that giving him a title and no responsibility was not fair by the Deputy Leader of the party.
A Wickremesinghe loyalist defended his leader’s position though he did not wish to be identified. “At first the complaint was that there was no title. It has now been given. Now, his promoters are seeking powers. Where is this going to end?” he asked. He cited the Saturday (September 22) meeting of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (EBP) with Wickremesinghe, just a day ahead of the Working Committee meeting where Premadasa was elected Deputy Leader. Venerable Girambe Ananda Thera, the leader of the Peramuna and Anunayake of the Ramanya Nikaya had asked the UNP leader whether Premadasa, as Deputy Leader, would be required to attend the Leadership Council meetings. Wickremesinghe had replied that he was expected to attend but had added that he (the leader) could not compel him to do so. The Chairman of the Leadership Council is Karu Jayasuriya, an arch rival of Premadasa. The Wickremesinghe loyalist added, “Premadasa should adhere to the established mechanisms in the party. How can all changes in the party be brought about because one important member or a broker makes demands?” he asked.
Wickremesinghe who is in Britain to attend the Conservative Party annual sessions was in for some disappointment from Tamil Diaspora groups. Efforts by the UNP branch Britain as well as well-wishers of the party to arrange “informal, private meetings” for Wickremesinghe with Tamil Diaspora groups did not materialise. One such group held an event in Birmingham on the side lines of the Conservative Party annual conference. Another group that backed out was the London-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF). Their spokesperson Suren Surendiran told the Sunday Times “we politely declined an invitation to meet the UNP leader. We did not want to meet him in private. It is due to his recent appointment of Sajith Premadasa as Deputy Leader. He is a racist. This appointment has raised questions about the judgement and sincerity of Wickremesinghe. We wanted to meet him openly and tell the people what was discussed.” Yet, some groups did meet Wickremesinghe on Friday.
For the UPFA Government, there is no gainsaying that it should get its communications strategies correctly worked out in this modern technological era. Claims that the United States had “softened” its stance towards Sri Lanka only lasted for a few hours. Washington rebutted the claim and made clear its stance to the contrary hardened. Claims that President Rajapaksa went to the Vatican to invite Pope Francis to Sri Lanka have misfired. The blackout of the news of the slapping of High commissions Nonis too has boomeranged. So have the claims that Premier Modi had told Rajapaksa to ask the TNA to go before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Who has been shamed as a result of all this? With a presidential election pending, disinformation can become the Government’s worst enemy.
For the main opposition UNP, the internecine issues do not seem to be ending. It has issues not only within but even from an operator outside who wants to remote control the party. There is a lot on his plate, when leader Ranil Wickremesinghe returns from Britain. That is before he gears the party for the presidential poll campaign. There are moves by them to boycott this poll. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) expects to respond when the presidential election is formally declared. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna is to launch a campaign that the President cannot contest a third term. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is meetings its grassroots level organisations to seek their views. Though low in temperature, political fever has gripped most parties.