Political Column  

Who's fishing in troubled waters?
Innumerable are the times when individuals and organised groups alike wade into misery, only to exploit a given situation for their personal glory or benefit. The line between bona fide and mala fide is a thin one, often cloudy, and not easy to tell.
History is replete with stories of armies on the rampage for the greater good, and of unarmed armies - of political parties and NGOs, with bleeding hearts and an agenda on their mind, that poet Thomas Gray was moved to pen the famous lines of English poetry;

"Their lot forbad; nor circumscrib'd alone
Their growing virtue, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne;
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind".

To wade through slaughter to a throne is not merely a reference to war, we can say that of today, a reference to helping the thousands of victims of Boxing Day's tsunami disaster.

With the advent of political parties in Sri Lanka, the Marxists were early exponents of this exercise in contemperory Sri Lankan history. In the 1930s, the infant left movement of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) pitched camp under its red hammer and sickle banner, in the malaria-infested areas of the island, especially in the Kegalla and Sabaragamuwa districts where the dreaded mosquito-borne disease was on a killing-spree. The LSSP became immediate beneficiaries of their campaign in the areas, and at the elections to come, their candidates in Yatiyantota, Ruwanwella, Kiriella, Kolonne, Embelipitiya areas romped home to seats in the State Council and to the House of Representatives.

From last week, we have seen the New Left - the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) - following in the footsteps of their illustrious (not to them though) Marxist predecessors. Pitching camp in the tsunami-affected areas of the southern coastal belt, with printed labels saying 'JVP', and white banners saying 'JVP Relief Service Force', its party cadres were on-hand to provide comfort to those who were badly hit by the tidal waves of Dec. 26.

Complaints began to pour in from aid workers and volunteers who motor-dashed to these areas in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Social service groups reported how JVP workers 'offered' to distribute the food and clothing they had brought from Colombo. Private companies complained how JVP Relief Service Force cadres would 'accompany' their staff to refugee centres wearing their badges to give the refugees the impression that the JVP was responsible for the relief. (Please see separate story on page 4).

This is not to say that this hi-jacking exercise was the only thing they were doing. Not so. Undoubtedly they put their might into helping the disaster victims, and in areas like Hambantota, where they are best organised, they scored points with their faithful voters. But score points with their coalition-partners the Peoples Alliance (PA) they did not. Nor with those who felt that the JVP was on yet another routine political exercise taking advantage of nature's wrath.

SLFP general secretary and Minister Maithripala Sirisena issued a statement calling party workers to rally round the relief effort without using the party banner or nameboards while carrying out their work. The second part of this message from the SLFP secretary was aimed directly at their coalition ally, whom they see as the biggest threat to their vote-base, the ones mostly running away with their votes.

The JVP was not bothered with such niceties and carried on regardless, much in the same fashion as the LTTE was doing in the rebel-held areas of the island - also devastated by the tsunami waves.

Thursday night saw JVP MP Premasiri Mannage turning up at a camp housing internally displaced persons at Goda Uda in Matara with a group of his supporters. Eyewitnesses said there were more than 30 toughies among the crowd. He addressed the IDPs and asked them whether they wanted the Army’s presence there. Three soldiers were providing protection after a Government decision to guard all centres housing IDPs. The refugees said in unison that they wanted the soldiers to remain but not the toughies. They shouted in one voice that they should go. The newly appointed Military Co-ordinating Officer for Matara District, Major General Sharman Kulatunga handled the matter very delicately. He first asked the three soldiers to withdraw to a distance. He then got in touch with the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. The latter immediately reached JVP MP and spokesman Wimal Weerawansa to complain about the conduct of MP Mannage. Weerawansa wanted five minutes to resolve the problem. He called back Vice Admiral Sandagiri to say he had sorted out the problem and apologised for embarrassing the Army. Weerawansa was also to later speak to Maj. Gen. Kulatunga to say sorry.

The LTTE too is turning the tsunami to its best benefit. The propaganda pitch is on how best organised it was to carry out the relief work. It was also making the point that the LTTE was more efficient than the Sri Lanka Government in disbursing relief materials to tsunami victims. Tyronne Devotta, a Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times, was in the Wanni this week. His report appears on Page 8.

The major parties were not lily-white either. At the helm, President Chandrika Kumaratuga was seeing the fallout of foreign aid and assistance coming to Sri Lanka in droves. On her return from her cut-short vacation in Old Blighty when disaster hit her native soil, she swiftly moved in to grab the relief measures put into place by her Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.

With nary a Thank You to her Prime Minister, the President set about establishing her own fund and various committees under her direct command. Directives were sent out to Sri Lankan missions overseas to send all collections to her office. She was going to be the main distributor.

This disappointed many who wanted to give aid, in cash and kind directly. By this act, the Tamil diaspora succeeded in their complaint that the Colombo government was discriminatory. The Sinhala and Muslim diaspora were split on whether to send aid to the President for fear of corruption and political partisanship.

The Prime Minister somehow had a better image both within, and outside Sri Lanka as someone able to muster bi-partisan support. The Road Development Authority (RDA) under the only Ministry he has - Highways - did yeoman service, working night and day to clear the mountains of debris from the coastal road leading to Hambantota, enabling relief measures to go by road with the rail track out of service.

To add insult to injury, the government was leaking information about the contacts of an underworld suspect of 15 murders, now in Police custody 'spilling the beans' as it were of his relationships with the murky political world and his patronage with the leading politicians of the land.

The UNP hierarchy meanwhile was, again caught flat-footed. While at least one spokesman of the party was busy sending 'feelers' to international television crews to be interviewed, the party itself was left out in the cold by the government, and sans its own well-oiled party machinery in place, unable to mobilise any worthwhile relief effort.

They were left to having photographs of their front-liners, dressed rather unsuitably for the occasion, touring affected areas, or organizing bodhi poojas. They did not forget to mention their National Organiser's plight at Welikada prison, in the midst of the national disaster.

With the President difficult to meet, several foreign ambassadors found UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe more accessible. They would complain to him that the President's relief measures were disorganised, and that the better known NGOs were complaining that they were kept out of the loop from helping.

The Rumanian Prime Minister's son telephoned Wickremesinghe to get some cargo cleared from the Colombo airport. The Singaporean medical team from Mount Elizabeth Hospital appealed to Wickremesinghe to get some of its anit-cholera, anti-chicken pox medicines (associated with possible secondary epidemics following such disasters) cleared.

At a meeting with the US and UK envoys, Wickremesinghe said that immediate humanitarian measures must go direct to the people affected. An earlier purported call by him to allow the LTTE to receive aid directly had already caused a stir, especially in government circles with the Foreign Ministry taking up issue with the Italian government for permitting some NGOs to send medicines directly to the LTTE by-passing Colombo.

Wickremesinghe also raised the issue of long-term rehabilitation and that the Opposition was being left out of the process. Foreign envoys were discussing the issue of donor aid pledged for the peace process, and were of the view that this principle will not alter - that the purse strings will be opened only when the peace process with the LTTE re-opens.

When Kofi Annan is due to meet Wickremesinghe, LTTE signals have been sent to him requesting that he, i.e. the UNP and Opposition Leader raise the gravity of the problem faced by the people of Mullaitivu. Clearly, the Tigers have given up on the government speaking up for them after they believed the UPFA government scuttled a visit of Kofi Annan to Mullaitivu where they were planning a meeting with their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Contrary to rumours, and speculation gathering momentum like the tsunami with each passing day Prabhakaran kept out of the public eye, the elusive guerrilla is very much alive. Those who keep a close tab on LTTE activities realised that he had not been hit by the tidal waves.

For one thing, Prabhakaran does not live close to the sea for obvious reasons. He does not want to be too close to sea-borne commando assault. Secondly, there would have been heightened activity, at least part of a radio intercept from the LTTE controlled areas if their leader had met his maker. Thirdly, there were reports that Prabhakaran was seen in his uniform visiting tsunami victims wearing two pistols (instead of the usual one) during the rounds ringed by his bodygaurds.

Then, Norwegian Ambassador Hans Bratskaar, one of the first foreign diplomats in the LTTE areas, had received messages from Prabhakaran conveyed to him through rebel political chief S.P. Thamilselvan. And then, this week a wealthy overseas Tamil, who runs a major finance grouping met Prabahkaran himself to discuss relief and reconstruction in the LTTE areas. Wickremesinghe has a point when he says that "someone" must speak about the devastation of Mullaitivu if we consider that district as an integral part of Sri Lanka. But the UNP must not be seen as needlessly straining itself to be the spokesman for the LTTE at every given turn. Wickremesinghe and his party are losing the support of the 'south' as a result, and clear statements from the party leadership must be regularly made especially in the face of so-called party spokesmen making their private and contradictory pitch on every such issue.

The party must not be seen as being obstructionist either to foreign aid. While they have a point, again, that they have been side-lined from the reconstruction activities, a stance of sour-grapes will not help their cause in the face of a national disaster of such magnitude. Wickremesinghe was quick to quash stories that he was against the Powell visit and that he had telephoned Sri Lanka's Ambassador to Washington Devinda Subasinghe and asked him why he pushed for the visit.

The on-off Powell visit materialised mainly due to the efforts of Sri Lanka's mission in Washington which saw the US President George W Bush, his ex-President father and former President Bill Clinton visit the mission and sign a condolence book. A telephone call between Powell and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar clinched the deal, virtually last Saturday.

Wickremesinghe says that he too pressed for the Powell visit, but opted for Powell to come to Sri Lanka on his way to the Jakarta summit rather than on his way back. During their brief meeting, Wickremesinghe joked with Powell asking him if it was Subasinghe's wish that the US undertake to build the broken bridges on the Galle Road as our man in Washington is from Galle. As Powell laughed, Wickremesinghe said he had no objections, as he too has connections with Galle.

Powell was a hit among the Sri Lankan politicians, ever grateful for resurgent US assistance, especially in its fight against the LTTE, and in trade matters, much of the latter thanks to the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UPFA government placed Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera at his disposal for the 90 minute air-tour and press-the-flesh visit to the St. Aloysious refugee camp in Galle. The deputy minister of Foreign Affairs Wiswa Warnapala was also sent for good measure.

Back in Colombo for a late working soup and sandwich lunch at 3 pm at the President's House, Powell had finished his meal, and what he had to talk with the President, when he said "Now, I must go and see the banyan tree". Startled others looked at Powell as he stood up and asked Kadirgamar where the banyan tree was.

Kadirgamar knew. When he (Kadirgamar) had visited Washington and met Powell, the US Secretary of State had referred to an earlier visit, his only one, to Colombo as a US Army Colonel where he had visited the President's House with some other top brass for a meeting with the then President J.R. Jayewardene. This was almost 20 years ago. He vividly remembered a huge tree in the garden where they sat for that meeting.

On his return, Kadirgamar had sent Powell a set of photographs of the huge over 200 year old Dutch period Banyan tree with a mass of trunks, spreading branches and winding creepers. Powell had thanked Kadirgamar and said he must visit Sri Lanka - at least to see this fascinating tree once again.

They say, that when you are in public life, and rushed, you must have the time to smell the flowers on the way. At least the respected US soldier turned politician had the time to enjoy the beauty of a tree. If the local political debris from the post-tsunami politics of Sri Lanka was such, the international chess-games played was no less murky.

The US role in the post-tsunami affairs was what caused tidal waves of a different nature in this part of the world. Last Saturday, as exclusively reported in this newspaper, a telephone call from Secretary Powell to Foreign Minister Kadirgamar as he boarded a flight to go and see UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York saw approval for a maximum 1,500 US marines arrive in Sri Lanka.

A hurriedly organised news conference by US envoy Jeffry Lunstead that same afternoon announced the fact, and by evening the Indian envoy Nirupama Rao was expressing New Delhi's concerns to Sri Lankan leaders over the fact that the US was trying to upstage India - the first to arrive in Sri Lanka with its medical units and field-hospitals.

US bull-dozing her way into the scene was also causing ripples in Europe. A four-nation core group was being set up to launch a tsunami early-warning system for the nations of South and South-East Asia. The four nations were the US, India, Australia and Japan. There was no Europe in this. In Washington DC, a caustic remark by a senior UN official Jan Egeland had also caused a minor tsunami in the corridors of power. He had called western powers "stingy" when it came to giving funds for such disasters.

The US increased the aid by ten-fold, though now we hear this is just new maths, and not so in real terms. But there was no further complaint from India. It was apparent that Nirupama Rao's colleague in Washington DC Ronald Sen had telephoned the PM's Office in New Delhi and 'gotten clearance' for the US marines to arrive in Sri Lanka. This left the Indians to take up the position that this was a humanitarian issue, and a matter for the Sri Lankan government.

In Jakarta this week, there was also a check on US ramboism with the UN chief Annan, who recently faced a viscous onslaught on his character by the US, sarcastically referring to how western powers pledge aid, only to ignore these pledges as time goes by.

While Sri Lanka might be excused for (due to years of inefficiency) having to rely on foreign assistance, including man-power assistance which comes in the form of marines and the like, and while the presence of these marines might act as a deterrent to adventurist rebels waging war, there is no gainsaying that the continued, and open-ended presence of military personnel on Sri Lankan soil is only going to attract new problems for Sri Lanka. The government is no doubt aware as to what these new problems would be.

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