balancing act in New York
- If Gayoom spoke in Divehi, President
could have spoken in Sinhala
- US diplomats closely watch Lanka’s
Last week, this column referred to
President Mahinda Rajapaksa taking a record delegation
to the United Nations General Assembly, and how some
dictators used to take their entire Government --Security
Chiefs and all -- so that they don't indulge in a coup
at home and oust the dictator.
The joke doing the rounds in New York
this week was that this was exactly what the ousted
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should have done
-- taken his Security Chiefs with him to New York, because
they toppled his Government in a bloodless military
coup just as he was preparing to address the General
Assembly.The Thai Constitution now stands suspended,
all political activity in that country is also suspended,
and Shinawatra is suspended. Another irony is that the
new leader of predominantly Buddhist Thailand is the
Army Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a Muslim, but
that does not seem to be a major issue in that country
where the Army is fighting armed Muslim groups, and
Shinawatra himself has turned himself from the darling
of the masses to an unpopular figure.
addressing the UN General Assembly in New York.
Pic by Sudath Silva.
The ripples in Thailand hardly had
any bearing in Sri Lanka, or on its massive delegation
in New York. President Rajapaksa had come from Havana
where he attended the Non-Aligned Summit, and apparently
had been closely watched by the South Asia Division
of the US State Department.
His meeting with Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the warm bear-hug reception
he got from the bete-noire of the US Government -- or
one of them -- was flagged by the US officials. Rajapaksa
also met several other anti-US leaders, but then what
would one expect when in Havana, the citadel of anti-US
On the minus side, of course, Rajapaksa
did not get to meet the ailing Cuban icon, Fidel Castro,
who was still recuperating in hospital after surgery
and unable to attend the Summit. He decided to meet
a few of the leaders, but no one on the Sri Lankan side
was also sure how selection process was made.
From Asia, it was the Indian Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh who was seen.
Sure,India with its influence in the
region needed to be recognised, but India is no longer
the Cuban ally it was during the cold war. India is
now a true friend of the US. So be it; without a chance
to meet Castro, Rajapaksa -- a great defender of Cuba
and its leader during his early student days as an assistant
librarian at the Sri Jayawardhanapura University --
arrived in New York.
Even the US State Department was a
little nonplussed as to why Rajapaksa, given his pro-Cuba;
pro-Castro past was not given that opportunity. Some
of them speculated that it may have been due to some
pre-publicity that Rajapaksa was eagerly looking forward
to his meeting with President George W Bush when in
New York at a luncheon on the sidelines of the UN General
For Rajapaksa, who has very little
experience in international relations, this would have
been testing times and an early lesson in being Non-Aligned.
You can always fall between two stools.
But he maintained his balancing act
when in New York. His references to former US President
Bill Clinton did not go down well with the Bush Administration,
but worse was to come when the outspoken Bush-hater
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had referred to
the US President as the "devil" referred,
in passing to Rajapaksa's address to the UN a few hours
Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka were slotted
for the second day, after the US President traditionally
speaks on the opening day. Sri Lanka used to get the
opening day as well, but for some reason has fallen
to the next day.
Chave referred to the speeches of
"President Mullah" (the Iranian President
Ahmadinejad) - and then Rajapaksa... "Oh, yes,
its good to bring us together once a year, see each
other, make statements and prepare all kinds of long
documents, and listen to good speeches, like Abel's
yesterday, or President Mullahs. Yes, it’s good
for that. And there are a lot of speeches, and we've
heard lots from the President of Sri Lanka, for instance".
Even if US officialdom did not quite
associate Rajapaksa with Chavez, or vice-versa, many
ordinary Americans may have. These were the mine-fields
of international politics that Rajapaksa was witnessing
at the United Nations this week.
Otherwise, Rajapaksa was quite at
home what with his massive delegation. Twenty-three
rooms had been booked at the Grand Plaza hotel for most
of them. Dozens were staying in other hotels, and still
more were shacking up with friends. The Accountant at
the President's Office was also there, obviously, to
make payments -- from the public purse.
Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam held
a dinner at the penthouse in his apartment complex.
A guest said that at every turn she would bump into
a Cabinet Minister of the Government of Sri Lanka. Besides
a Cabinet meeting, the joke at the party was that they
could even hold a parliamentary sitting because even
the Speaker was present.
At the Asia Society meeting held on
the same day Rajapaksa addressed the UN, the President
addressed the gathering in Sinhala to a largely American
audience with his Secretary Lalith Weeratunge translating
off a prepared text into English. The President however
chose to answer questions in English, with brief responses
to the questions raised.
Probably Rajapaksa felt he missed
out in even addressing the UN in Sinhala. Maldivian
President Abdul Gayoom made history by addressing the
General Assembly in Divehi, the official language of
the Maldives -- which has traces from the Sinhala language.
English translations were provided to all delegates
as he spoke.
No Sri Lankan Head of Government or
speaker has addressed the GA entirely in Sinhala. Perhaps,
Rajapaksa regretted he didn't do it, after he listened
to Gayoom. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa did
the opening paras of his speech in Sinhala, then switched
So much so, that when Rajapaksa met
Gayoom shortly thereafter, the Maldivian President told
the Sri Lankan President that the next time, he should
address the Assembly in Sinhala; to which Rajapaksa
responded "Insha Allah " (if Allah wills).
It went down well with the Muslim Gayoom.
On the subject, there was an astonishing
incident at the Asia Society meeting. At question time,
one of the Sri Lankans rose to ask a question from the
President. Then, he burst into verse, and began reciting
a kaviya. The kaviya was praising Rajapaksa, extolling
the virtues of his Government.
Since the kaviya was in Sinhala, the President of the
Asia Society who was presiding at the meeting asked
him for a translation because there were several Americans
in the audience. The kaviya was then, loosely translated
by the exponent who happened to be the President of
the local (New York) branch of the SLFP.
Whatever he did in New York, Rajapaksa
had an eye on the news coverage of his visit back home.
For instance, he made sure that the limited seats available
to each delegation inside the Assembly hall -- six in
number -- were equitably distributed among the different
That's why we saw the three main communities
represented by a Tamil (Minister Douglas Devananda)
and a Muslim (Advisor A.H.M. Azwer, who was earlier
billed to translate the President's speech to the Asia
Society, but was later dropped).
Minister Devananda found New York
a refreshing break from the security cocoon he is forced
to live in back home. He was able to walk the streets
of New York and breathe the fresh air, or not so fresh
air, without having to look over his shoulder as to
whether some LTTE suicide-bomber was lurking. He had
dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant called Sigiri as rumour
circulated that the one-time guerrilla was planning
to seek political asylum in the US, a rumour his faithfuls
There was other business at hand as
well. The suicidal mission to have Sri Lanka's ex-Ambassador
to Washington, Jayantha Dhanapala elected as the UN's
next Secretary General. Hardly had he visited Moscow
with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to get the
backing of the Russian Federation for his candidature,
Dhanapala came a cropper for the second time in the
straw-poll -- the unofficial polling that takes place
within the UN before the real election.
Readers will recall that at the end
of the first straw-poll in the 15-member Security Council,
Dhanapala came last with 5 nations encouraging him to
proceed, 6 discouraging him, and 4 having no opinion.
This time, Dhanapala came last again
in a wider selection of candidates -- countries encouraging
him dropped to 3, discouraging also dropped to 5, but
no opinions rose to 7.
The voting is never publicly known,
but Sri Lankan UN-watchers guessed the 3 nations that
encouraged him were China, Ghana and Tanzania -- discouraged
him were Denmark, France, Slovekia, Britain, either
Argentina or Greece (more likely Argentina as Greece
holds the current presidency of the Security Council
and wished not to oppose candidates so that they could
play an important role in the selection process), while
No opinions included Japan, Peru, the US, Russia, Congo,
Qatar and Greece or Argentina.
More and more human and financial
resources are being put into the virtually doomed Dhanapala
candidature, in the hope that he may, who knows end
up as a compromise candidate when the UN cannot find
a Secretary General at the end of the day.
When Rajapaksa was told that Dhanapala
wishes to remain in the race for the UN's top job, not
one overtly concerned about wasteful public expenditure,
the President shrugged and said "ehenam thawa tikkak
balamu" - Then, let’s wait and see a little
The Presidential caravan is now on
its way back. By Friday, Rajapaksa and his Government-in-exile
were on its way back stopping over in London en-route.
No doubt, the international exposure
for Rajapaksa would have stood him good, and his one-to-one
meetings with several leaders where he was able to tell
them a thing or two about Sri Lanka's northern insurgency,
and fund-raising in the West would have stood the country
in good stead, but it was numbers that accompanied him
that was the downside of the trip.
When the final bills are totaled,
it should be a considerable amount of money for a relatively
President Rajapaksa will be returning
to the burning issues he left behind when he went to
Havana and New York.
While his initiative to get the main
Opposition UNP to support his Government has had some
momentum, with a second meeting between the two sides
this week. The UNP was still fighting indiscipline within
the party, while a section is wanting to moor itself
into the role of a strictly opposition party, another
is pushing for cooperation with the Rajapaksa Administration.
The fact that MP Milinda Moragoda
went to see President Rajapaksa as part of the UNP delegation,
but refused to see party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe
to de-brief him on the outcome of the talks is a classic
example of the difficulty the party is in.
The JVP on the other hand, unhappy
with the UNP-SLFP tête-à-tête has
decided it will launch its own public propaganda campaigns
against the CFA (Ceasefire Agreement) and the role of
the Norwegian facilitators in the peace process with
They are awaiting the return of President
Rajapaksa to discuss the future of the JVP-SLFP relationship,
while at the same time launching a new front known as
the Deshaya Surakeeme Ekabedde Peramuna (Joint Front
to Protect the Nation). They are fashioning it in the
lines of the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's 'Pancha Maha
Balavegaya' -- the five pronged movement that engaged
grassroots support from amongst the Buddhist monks,
ayurvedic practioners, teachers, workers and farmers.They
have picked September 27, a day after the commemoration
of the late Prime Minister Bandaranaike's 47th death
anniversary, to launch the new front from Colombo followed
by a news conference the next day.
Already ten powerful trade unions
have been tasked with the organisational work -- the
All Ceylon Trade Union Federation; the Inter-Company
Employees Union; the All-Island Farmers Federation;
All Island Estate Workers Union; National Bhikku Front;
Inter-University Students Federation; Inter-University
Bhiku Front; National University Lecturers Association;
Socialist Students Organisation; and the Socialist Women’s
As Norway's Ambassador Hans Brattskar
visited the LTTE headquarters at Kilinochchi yet another
time, pushing for the resumption of peace talks, all
he has got is a demand to have the A-9 highway linking
the Jaffna pnenisula with the mainland re-opened.
LTTE political wing leader S.P. Thamilselvan
has sent a letter to the Government through the envoy,
but the Government is sitting tight demanding that any
future communications must come from the LTTE leader,
and none other.
It is to this political scenario that
President Rajapaksa returns today.