That deafening sound of silence
One of the more important events in the calendar of Sri Lankans, both past and present, living here is the annual festival of cricket. Some find the cricket just an excuse for good day out, to meet, greet and eat and have a jolly good jaw, jaw.

Last Sunday, like several hundreds of Sri Lankans, I joined the motley crowds surging around the dozens of marquees advertising this, that and the other or selling Sri Lankan food from bittara appa to idi appa and mutton rolls, pattis and cutlis as they were called in our distant student days.

Between mouthfuls of bittara appa and lunu miris, gossip was exchanged like in some ancient barter trade and as customary Sri Lanka's politics was bisected, trisected and a few individuals assassinated but fortunately only verbally.

Naturally the gathering of the Bandaranaike clan - President Chandrika Kumaratunga, brother Anura Bandaranaike and elder sister Sunethra (briefly) - was at the centre of it all.

Many of them I met already knew the President and Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike were in London. What concerned them most was what they were doing here, whether it was an official visit or private visit and if so, who was paying the bill and related issues.

Some, of course, had already read on the internet The Sunday Times political editor's comments that day headlined "The Bandaranaike party and the snubs in London."

Political leaders and their minders, at home or in the Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in the countries they visit, never cease to amaze me with their child-like attempts to conceal their visits to foreign lands.
President Kumaratunga's visit to London, particularly the date of arrival was supposed to be all hush-hush.

That is what her spin doctors and security minders think. But her arrival was known here even before she set foot. At the first Sri Lankan Law-Medical dinner-dance held in London on Saturday June 12, some guests already knew of the president's arrival in London that day and that she was here for her daughter Yasodara's graduation.

The President could not have planned this visit on the spur of the moment after hearing her daughter's success. My information - and I don't vouch for its accuracy - is that St George's University which her daughter attended, held its final clinical examinations on Thursday June 10 and the results were released the next day.

So if President Kumaratunga arrived here on Saturday via Dubai, as the Sunday Times Political Editor has stated, the visit would have been planned earlier.

That assumption gains greater credence by the request made earlier for a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Moreover, the Political Editor stated that Anura Bandaranaike had been in Vietnam and Thailand and left for London from Colombo.

The point is that however much efforts are made to make such visits secret, or at least known only to a limited circle, it is not possible to keep such information out of the public domain. The news leaks like a sieve.
One can understand the need for security, particularly after President Kumaratunga's miraculous escape from an assassination attempt. For that reason alone, flight details etc need to be highly restricted.

But in an open-mouthed society such as Sri Lanka where politicians talk even more than the public, information does reach foreign capitals before the political leaders have reached their destination.
All this secrecy creates doubts and suspicions in the minds of Sri Lankans at home and abroad about whether such visits are useful or not, whether they are private or official and who ultimately pays for the suites at luxury hotels and for the retinue at hand.

Such doubts and suspicions are greatly enhanced when our own diplomatic missions try to play coy.
It is unfortunate when diplomats close up tight as oysters. One can understand the oysters doing this as some of them carry valuable pearls.

For instance when the meeting with Prime Minister Blair did not materialise, it was suggested that Blair had snubbed the Sri Lankan President. Her highest-level contact with the British Government was with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, as far as we know.

Although I do not personally think Blair snubbed her. But the fact is that the impression she was snubbed has gained ground. This is because there is no official source to correct this impression.

The only way to counter these rumours and interpretations from gaining currency is to brief the Sri Lankan media at least. After all, the immediate purpose is to nip in the bud such talk circulating in Sri Lanka.

This is where not only President Kumaratunga and her government have come a cropper but also that of the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. Both President Kumaratunga and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe fight shy of meeting journalists from their own country.

They speak to their tame favourites in the media at home who readily bowl full tosses that are then hit to all parts of the political arena, but avoid those who are likely to bowl a couple of doosras.

Some years ago President Kumaratunga hired a PR firm here Bell Pottinger to improve her public image and give her views an international airing. The disastrous interview with the BBC's Tim Sebastian where she was cut to ribbons because she was not properly briefed, is now history. The last I heard was that Bell Pottinger was claiming money from the Sri Lanka Government. Who knows, we might well have to cough up anything like £2 million with legal costs and all.

Why are these leaders avoiding talking to journalists representing the Sri Lanka media, especially if they are Sri Lankan? Are they afraid that close questioning might expose their political faultlines?

President Kumaratunga is said to have met the Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister. This information was guarded as though it was the family heirloom. Was it because it was an embarrassment, a President of a country meeting a lowly deputy foreign minister when so many Norwegians are already in and out of Sri Lanka that it is beginning to look as congested as the Pettah bus stand.

If political leaders who should be explaining their foreign engagements to the Sri Lankan people are, for some inexplicable reason, unable to meet journalists at hand, at least diplomatic missions should be instructed to, or should undertake the task, of officially briefing our newsmen.

Because of the deafening sound of official silence that has pervaded this visit, like others before it, people will believe that President Kumaratunga, on whatever kind of visit she was here, was indeed snubbed by the British prime minister.
They can only blame themselves for this.

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