ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 17
Front Page Columns
Political Column

Mahinda’s balancing act in New York

By Our Political Editor

  • If Gayoom spoke in Divehi, President could have spoken in Sinhala
  • US diplomats closely watch Lanka’s moves

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.

President Rajapaksa 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 sentiment.

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 Assembly.

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 earlier.

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 to English.

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 ethnic communities.

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 dismissed.

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 more.

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 poor country.

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 the LTTE.

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 Oragnisation.

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.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.