Political Column  

Presidency: Patchwork and faux pas
By Our Political Editor
Fifty-one days after being propelled to power and fame as Sri Lanka's fifth executive President with the solid backing of the southern votes, Mahinda Rajapakse, appears to have run into the eye of the storm sooner than feared.

That such glamour and glory came also because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) halted civilians in areas they dominate from casting their votes is too well known. But, that LTTE has now turned full circle to militarily challenge Rajapakse and his Government. Though that alone is a gigantic cloud looming over him, there are a multitude of others in every sphere -- discipline, peace talks, political cohabitation, national security and what have you. All these are contributing to his isolation by the day and those near and dear are worried he will find himself beleaguered sooner than later.

There is more than relish among some of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) colleagues. They now whisper that things were not so bad even with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's administration. The hallmark there, they point out, was inconsistency and contradiction. Yet, there were some decisions whether they were right or wrong. With Rajapakse, they claim, there is little or nothing. They say there is no governance or the lack of it and things are free-wheeling. The few issues that are cliff hanging have to be tackled by Rajapakse himself. Some of them are so mundane, that it takes his time away from more pressing national issues.

Let us begin with discipline. Ministers who have got used to former President Kumaratunga's only consistent habit, coming hours late for appointments, seem to have now made it a tradition. Even now, some ministers turn up at all odd hours for the Cabinet meetings chaired by Rajapakse. It goes on with no questions asked and no excuses offered. Advisors of all hues and armed forces chiefs are taking great liberty to offer interviews to print and electronic media.

They not only contradict each other but are beating war drums. This is whilst Rajapakse's Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera declares in Washington D.C. the Government does not want war and appeals to the LTTE to be "flexible".

One defence advisor saw to it that a Chief Inspector and 24 commandos of the Police Special Task Force (STF) were inducted to Trincomalee. They were instructed to come down hard on all terrorist elements. The military hierarchy in this strategically-important town were unaware. Now, some of these commandos are accused of opening fire, killing five students. The result -- the LTTE retaliated after midnight yesterday killing two officers and ten sailors of the Sri Lanka Navy.

Last week, we reported how there were serious morale problems after some armed forces commanders had gone on a binge appointing juniors to senior positions. We said there were no checks and balances in the Ministry of Defence. Who is in control of the nation's security and the well being of its citizens? Are they aware of the words of Sir Winston Churchil that war is too serious a thing to be left in the hands of the Generals?

The Sunday Times Defence Correspondent revealed last week how former Commander of the Navy and Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Daya Sandagiri, ordered 20-year-old guns for the Navy's Fast Attack Craft fleet on the grounds they were "brand new" and made an advance payment running into millions for the weapons that were not in production. That is not all. A front page report in last week's The Sunday Times revealed allegations that Admiral Sandagiri had tampered with his assets declarations over the years.

If a peon or a postman was accused of taking a Rs 50 bribe, he would be hauled before Courts and punished. Admiral Sandagiri is no peon or postman. He is the custodian of the country's national security - the top most military official co-ordinating activity amongst the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police to protect the country's security interests. President Rajapakse wants to appoint a Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

Alas, his only other response is to tell armed forces chiefs not to deal with the media on matters of bribery or corruption but bring it to his notice. He does not want the media to be involved in a battle against bribery and corruption. Even the stoic silence of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the keeper of the Rajapakse government's conscience, is deafening. Our Defence Correspondent deals with this aspect on the opposite page.

Talking of discipline, Deputy Justice Minister Dilan Perera, a Kumaratunga ally till the last moment, told a private TV channel the Government was not bothered about a venue for talks with the LTTE. It angered both the JVP and the JHU. Protests were made to Rajapakse. He asked Dilan. His reply -- Sir, it was not directed at you but the JVP and the JHU. Perera also told the TV station he would oppose the proposed no-confidence motion by the JVP against M. Satchithanandan, Deputy Chairman of Committees. This was for travelling to Wanni to take part in LTTE-sponsored final rites to the Batticaloa district parliamentarian, late Joseph Pararajasingham.

The pledges made to the nation before the presidential elections about peace talks have also taken a full turn. If there was a pledge to keep out the Norway's peace facilitation efforts, the Rajapakse administration tried very hard. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera urged his Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Stoere during talks in Hong Kong not to engage Special Envoy (and Minister for International Development) Erik Solheim in peace facilitation efforts. The answer was a firm "no." And this week, speaking on behalf of the Rajapakse administration, Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva declared the Government welcomed Solheim's visit beginning January 23.

Behind the scenes, those said to speak on behalf of the government were also sounding out the LTTE leadership in Wanni over several matters. Concerned about the developments in the Jaffna peninsula and prompted by fears of a guerrilla siege, one emissary offered to LTTE Political Wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan a direct link between Colombo and Kilinochchi. They wanted to not only open a direct dialogue but assured that troops in the peninsula have been told to be restrained. There were offers to hold the next round of talks in Switzerland. The LTTE's answers were all "no." It still insists it should be the Norwegian capital of Oslo. What will happen between now and Solheim's visit is anybody's guess.

Political cohabitation for Rajapakse takes many forms. Big business is not on his side. Nor is a section of his own party. Efforts to woo sections of the United National Party into the fold of his Government have come a cropper. This is not because they do not want to come but for the clumsy manner in which it had been handled. He had a dialogue with some UNP parliamentarians and has now placed that responsibility in the hands of his close ally Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.

A deal was clinched for a UNP Kandy district MP to cross over and assume office as a Minister of State. He was to be given some subjects that came under the Ministry of Finance. Even before the swearing-in, a Sinhala state run daily had broken the news. Another hopeful was to be UNP Kandy district MP A.R.M. Abdul Cader. But the same newspaper had run a story which said "Cader Karanamak Gahai" (or Cader to somersault). The reportage, funny enough, seemed to be against the Rajapakse move. It seemed he had no control even of formidable sections of State run Lake House. The cat was out of the bag. UNPers who got wind of the move prevented the crossover.

Another issue which Rajapakse confidants have realised by hindsight is the inability to make provision for at least some vacancies when the Cabinet was formed. They say it has deprived them from offering such positions to UNPers who were willing and ready to leave their party. An expansion of the Cabinet, on the other hand, was not a possibility. The JVP, now becoming disillusioned with Rajapakse, would have frowned on it. At least two UNP stalwarts have told Rajapakse to wait and not recruit UNPers piecemeal. The message is "we will come as a team. Wait till then."

Every other issue seems to fall on Rajapakse's shoulders. There were reports about the wrong marking of GCE advance level answer papers at the Department of Examinations. It was not the Minister of Education who had to sort the problem out. It was President Rajapakse. The killing of five students in Trincomalee also drew his personal attention. (See Situation Report on opposite page for details).

Some Rajapakse confidants say these things are happening not because he is unaware of them. He is well aware of them, they say. But, he had to single-handedly attend to these matters for he lacks expert advisors. "Many had been appointed as advisors in various fields. They are novices and are working at cross purposes. This is causing bigger embarrassment to Rajapakse," points out one confidant. Says another "Governance has never been his strong point. Therefore he is forced to carry on from day to day doing patch-up work and not taking hard decisions. He is friendly and lenient. This is what is threatening to isolate him."

The latter cited a joke doing the rounds about the efficacy of advisors. It goes like this. Once there was a top General who wanted to cross a river. He was unsure of the depth of the river, and whether his horse could make it across the river. He looked around for help and saw a little boy nearby. He asked the boy for advice.

The boy looked at the size of the General's horse and paused for a moment. He then confidently told the General that it is safe for him and his horse to cross the river. The General proceeded to cross the river on his horse. As he approached the middle of the river, he suddenly realised that the river was, in fact, very deep, and he almost drowned. After he recovered from his shock he shouted at the boy and threatened to punish him.

The boy was stunned and innocently replied, "But General, I see my ducks crossing the river every day without any problem, and my ducks have shorter legs than your horse."

The moral of the story - If you need advice, get it from people who know what they are talking about. It was Napoleon Hill, America's motivational author in the 1880 who declared "Opinion is the cheapest commodity on earth."

Rajapakse has already made some faux pas. For instance, his ill-advised (if anyone advised him at all) visit to 'India House' to meet the Indian High Commissioner for dinner over which he was to appease plantation workers' leader Arumugam Thondaman. However, well-meaning envoy Nirupama Rao was, Rajapakse ought to have known better.

Worse still, his mad dash to New Delhi, and his botched visit to Chennai. There are ways of doing things. His first state visit was thoroughly under-prepared by Sri Lanka's bureaucracy which should have done the leg-work in preparation for both, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera's visit and then the Presidential visit.

Likewise, in matters domestic. Especially because of Rajapakse's - and his team's - lack of experience and knowledge on the main issues facing the country - the northern insurgency and the economy - coupled with his detachment from foreign affairs - there's an urgent, if not desperate need, for some think-tank mechanism that will feed the highest levels of government with some prudent strategies.

There are people still around, and the Rajapakse regime, given its disadvantage in governing, must reach out to them, and seek their advise, rather than expect unsolicited advise.

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