Political Column  

Solheim: Sinner becomes saint

Mahinda Samarasinghe awaits for the auspicious time at Temple Trees to be sworn in as a minister whiel Erik Solheim was already inside talking to the President. Pic by Ishara S. Kodikara

By Our Political Editor
It was Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who sounded a pessimistic note when Government and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leaders met last Tuesday.

That was in the backdrop of Norwegian International Development Minister and Special Envoy Erik Solheim's meeting with President Mahinda Rajapakse. "I don't think anything is going to come out of this," he bemoaned.

But Rajapakse was very upbeat. "Wait and see. They will agree. I have all the hope. During the presidential elections, I became confident during the campaign that I was going to win. Similarly, I feel the LTTE will come for talks," he told those gathered.

From the Government side there was Samaraweera, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dulles Alahaperuma and Basil Rajapakse. The JVP team was led by Somawansa Amerasinghe and comprised Tilvin Silva, Wimal Weerawansa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

Samaraweera took the Rajapakse rejoinder nodding his head and with a smile. Then he went on to say "maybe, even if they do not, we will have to get together and fight." He was not talking of fighting the LTTE this time. It was making a case for the JVP to join the Rajapakse government.
Rajapakse was clearly moved by the remarks. "I am facing a lot of challenges. These are not personal. They are challenges to the nation. If you join in and strengthen me, you are making me strong to face the national challenge," he said in a voice that choked with some emotion. He appealed to the JVP to take this all important decision and assured he would promptly resolve all outstanding issues.

What were the issues that Rajapakse wanted to resolve?
One was a re-composition of the Cabinet. In the event of the JVP choosing to join the Government, he was willing to keep numbers to the limits placed by them. Moreover, he was also willing to address their concerns over some members of the United National Party joining the Government.

That drew a comment from JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake. "We don't have problems with some of the UNPers who want to join. But we do have problems with some others. We are opposed to them."

He made pointed reference to former Cabinet Minister G.L. Peiris whom he felt was seeking opportunities to further his own personal political ambitions. He said that during the presidential election campaign and even before, the JVP had targeted UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Milinda Moragoda and G.L. Peiris. He said the JVP could not protect the Government with people like G.L. Peiris who were political opportunists.
"But I have made a promise to take him to the Government," intoned Rajapakse.

Said Dissanayake, "we cannot agree or be a party to this."
Retorted Rajapakse, "I will not take a single UNPer. That is if you all come and join me. Why not do that."

There was pin-drop silence. As one participant told The Sunday Times "it was so quiet we could hear the grass in the Temple Trees lawn grow."
The names of at least 12 UNP MPs who want to cross over were mentioned. They included G.L. Peiris, Bandula Gunawardena, Susantha Punchinilame, Mano Wijeratne, Earle Gunasekera, Chandrasiri Ariyawansa Sooriyaratchchi, Ranjit Aluvihare, Sarath Ranawaka and Neomal Perera.
The two sides also discussed the forthcoming local government elections. It was pointed out that nominations for these polls will be called between February 9 and 16. There was a likelihood of the polls being held on March 29. The ruling party and the JVP are yet to conclude a no-contest pact and field common candidates. It was pointed out that such joint action would offer the biggest challenge to the UNP.

It is likely the two sides will soon begin discussions to explore the possibility of a joint arrangement. In this regard, attempts by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to block an electoral alliance between the SLFP and the JVP are to be opposed by the Rajapakse supporters.

Kumaratunga, who was in London in the past weeks, is due to return to Colombo today. Early this week, Sri Lankans in the UK saw her visit a Tesco supermarket store near Hartsfordshire. She was seen purchasing bananas, beer and other alcoholic drinks. An elderly male gentleman, who accompanied her, made payment in cash. Kumaratunga was clad in blue denims, an overall and wore tennis shoes.

Moments later telephones of participants to the meeting began to ring almost in unison. Reports were trickling in about bomb explosions in Castle Street, Nugegoda, Mount Lavinia, Kiribathgoda and Wattala. Rajapakse's mobile phone was the busiest. It seemed he was receiving a kind of ball-by-ball commentary from Army and Police top brass about the explosions. They were all saying the bombs were crude. There were explosives packed in polythene or "sirisiri" bags and a detonating device attached. This prompted Army and Police explosive experts to say it could not be the handiwork of the LTTE.

The next day President Rajapakse received intelligence reports. Among other matters, the finger pointed to an arms dealer who had later turned to a small time vernacular publishing business. He was being suspected as the mastermind behind the string of explosions. President Rajapakse ordered the Police to conduct a thorough investigation and bring to book all those responsible. A Police Headquarters source said an arrest was imminent in the next day or two since some important leads were now being followed.

Last Wednesday was an auspicious day. It seemed a happy augury in many ways for Rajapakse. The good news that the LTTE would sit down for talks with a Government delegation in Geneva came that day. Two UNP stalwarts crossed over to the Government and were sworn in. On the same day, JVP's Vijitha Herath surrendered his bachelorhood.

On Wednesday morning, Mahinda Samarasinghe, a one time UNP Cabinet Minister called on his leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. He gave him the shocking news, or the not-so-shocking news, that he was leaving his fold to join the Government. He said he was doing so for personal reasons. "I came to tell you," he declared. Wickremesinghe was caught by surprise. He said he did not wish to interfere into personal matters but asked Samarasinghe to re-consider his decision. He said he should think again.
The next day, Wickremesinghe had been at the receiving end of a verbal barrage by some of his partymen for giving young bucks like Samarasinghe a place in the sun in the party. He was chief party whip, after all - the man supposed to be in charge of party discipline, and in a sense, to ensure nobody crossed over to the other side!

Leading the attack was parliametarian T. Maheswaran who said that Samarasinghe was the one who prevented awkward questions being asked from the Government in Parliament, and that was with Wickremesinghe's blessings. He then directly blamed Wickremesinghe for stopping them from attacking former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the dividends of which did not pay off. He asked him what he had to say about all this.

Wickremesinghe, just kept tapping the table with his ball-point pen. Probably he had no answer. Those whom he gave special places to -- Samarasinghe, once upon a time Ronnie de Mel, Rohitha Bogollagama -- had all decamped for better prospects leaving him in the lurch. G.L. Peiris, his voice once, was waiting for a government pick-up.

The first UNPer to be sworn in as Minister of Plan Implementation was UNP's Kandy district MP, Keheliya Rambukwella. It was at the auspicious time of 12.15 p.m. The appointment was to create heartburn in sections of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarians, especially those in the Kandy district.

They were upset that Rambukwella has been given an important portfolio. It was the Ministry of Plan Implementation that was responsible for implementing Mahinda Chinthanaya. Why could not an SLFPer be tasked with this responsibility? Why give such a responsibility to a UNPer who has just joined in, they asked. But like in most instances, there was no one among the disgruntled group to bell the cat or, in other words, complain to those who mattered.

Mahinda Samarasinghe's auspicious time for swearing in -- 3.02 p.m. -- was nearing. He was chatting with President Rajapakse. The President received a telephone call from the Peace Secretariat in Colombo. He was told there was a satellite phone call from the Wanni. Erik Solheim had clinched a deal and the LTTE was willing to sit down for talks in Geneva, Switzerland. "Didn't I say so," he quipped to MP Dulles Alahaperuma who was standing close. "How were you so sure, Sir," asked Dulles.
Said Rajapakse, "I was so sure. I felt the same way during the presidential elections."

That same evening Solheim called on Rajapakse to give the good news. He said the first round of talks would focus on some issues relating to the Ceasefire Agreement. Yet, that was a significant breakthrough, said Solheim. They spoke to each other over a number of matters including media reportage of recent developments. That evening, Solheim rushed to the Paget Road residence of Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera for a reception. For Samaraweera, it was a case of the Sinhala proverb Kapanna Beri Atha Imbinna Wenava (or kiss the hand that you cannot cut off). Samaraweera had steadfastly wanted Solheim out of the peace process. He wrote to his Norwegian counterpart and later spoke to him personally in Hong Kong last month. All that proved futile. Now, Samaraweera was hosting a reception to greet Solheim and, no doubt, bathe in the glory of his success.

A host of guests were present. Among them Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera, MP Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi, Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda, diplomats and well-wishers. There was a highly discomforting moment when Solheim who was walking around greeting the guests shook hands with the EPDP leader Douglas Devananda.

Asked Devananda, "have they (the LTTE) agreed to stop assassinations?"
Solheim replied "yes, they have. Now you all had better stop that too."
Devananda was cheesed off. "I have entered democratic politics years ago. I am for talks," he thundered.
Coming to Devananda's aid was Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi. He declared, "I endorse what my friend said."
Solheim, the peace maker made a hasty retreat to shake hands with others present.

Otherwise, Solheim had become a Viking in shining armour, just by getting the LTTE to the negotiating table. Even before he heli-hopped to the Wanni, he was greeted almost like a conquering hero. The country was on the brink of war, and the government was at the receiving end of criticism for its inability to stop LTTE killings - 90 servicemen in 60 days.
So, when Norwegian envoy Hans Bratskaar threw a welcome reception for Solheim on Monday, his hall was bursting at the seams with people.

Government Ministers led by Nimal Siripala de Silva, a possible head of the Government delegation for the Geneva talks, Constitutional Affairs Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera, LSSP Minister Tissa Vitharana, EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda, the service chiefs led by Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, the IGP Chandra Fernando, UNP cross-over aspirant Mahinda Samarasinghe and double-crosser aspirant G.L. Peiris, TNA MPs, NGO wallahs, especially those Norwegian-funded, journos and 'civil society' overwhelmed Bratskaar's Gregory's Road residence.

After his triumphant return from the Wanni, and in the blaze of the media publicity, Solheim and Bratskaar toured the south, and especially Buddhist Viharas in a damage control; building temples (actually, bridges) exercise to woo the southern Sinhalese electorate.

This time, Buddhist monks were not burning his effigy, but bestowing merit on him. He was now Solheim, the Saviour. The sinner had become, a saint.

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.