ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 20, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 34
Columns - Political Column  

Govt. faces crisis within crisis

  • Tora-Tora from Japan as international community plans aid cuts and other sanctions
  • JVP flatly rejects any devolution package, as LSSP equates JVP with LTTE
  • Divisions within divisions throw APRC into disarray as deadline draws near

By Our Political Editor

Akashi addressing a news conference on Tuesday before he left the country. Pic. by M.A. Pushpakumara

His chubby cheeks lit up as he exuded a warm smile. It was no photo opportunity. Yet, the pose stood frozen for a few seconds as the man from the land of the rising sun stared in the face of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and United National Party (UNP) leader.

That expression was Yasushi Akashi's only answer to a question raised by Wickremesinghe. He asked whether media reports of Japan wanting to curtail aid to Sri Lanka were true. Seizing the silence that followed was parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake, the shadow Foreign-Minister-hopeful of the UNP. He asked the same question the other way around --whether media reports that Japan had assured continued aid to Sri Lanka were correct. He was alluding to widely publicised state-run media reports that Akashi, Japan's Special Envoy to the peace process, had endorsed President Rajapaksa's recent actions and the flow of aid would continue uninterrupted. "That is not correct," he declared. The face lit up again and he broke into a smile.

Even if Akashi, the one time international diplomat, had not answered explicitly the UNP's questions on the future of aid from Sri Lanka's largest donor, Japan, his responses at a dinner last Monday night bared it all. He went a step further the next day (Tuesday) at a news conference. Though he declined to divulge details of his talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Akashi said he had reiterated his government's concern on the abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement and on the need to improve the deteriorating human rights situation. "We will closely observe the political, military and human rights situation," he declared adding, "we will be taking decisions in the future" on this basis by observing the situation.

On Monday night, Akashi was hosting a dinner for Wickremesinghe. With the latter were Karunanayake and Bradman Weerakoon, international affairs advisor to former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. It was at the residence of Japan's Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Kiyoshi Araki. It was the first official function since the sprawling bungalow at Maitland Crescent, that adjoins the rear of St. Bridget's Convent, was given a new look.

They dined over a choice of home-made Japanese culinary delights that included omelette, prawn soup, chicken, lobster, vegetables, noodles followed by chocolate cake and ice cream for dessert. Akashi spoke with Wickremesinghe and his two party stalwarts. Akashi has been many things at different times to many stakeholders of the peace process. During the early stages of the CFA, he caused more than a mild flutter in the dovecotes of power in India and Norway. His diplomacy had led to fears that Japan was trying to hijack the peace process from Norway and become the facilitator. That was during an apparent policy shift where Japan wanted to go beyond the role of just an aid donor.

An official in New Delhi's South Block where the Indian External Affairs Ministry is located once remarked somewhat pithily, "Akasahi was trying to get Japan to run away with Oslo's trousers." Jokes apart, in an official statement New Delhi was to then make clear that any settlement of the ethnic issue had to be home grown, not imposed by those outside. It seemed a snub to Akashi, though veiled, to remarks he had made then. Tiger guerrillas saw him as the man who spoke with a chequebook in his pocket, ready to draw a few million dollars, if the LTTE would only fall in line. During his talks with LTTE ideologue, the late Anton Balasingham, he even offered to buy them a cargo vessel after the latter complained the Navy had sunk one of theirs. This was, of course, if they stuck to the negotiation table to talk peace. However, the Samurai without the sword failed in his efforts. The guerrillas did not budge.

This time, Akashi's three-and-half-hour discourse with Wickremesinghe reflected a mood of disappointment if not despondency. He could not hide the fact that he was disappointed. He even lamented that some Sri Lankan leaders did not realise the gravity of the situation. They spoke on a variety of issues. It included the worsening human rights situation, curtailment of media freedom including threats and harassment to journalists (Wickremesinghe was to name a few journalists who were affected), the inadequate security for parliamentarians and the recent murders. "You have a bigger role to play," said Wickremesinghe when the dinner ended and he was saying his farewell. Retorted Akashi, "Yes, but the future of that role is in your hands." The dinner meeting was the longest engagement during Akashi's three-day visit.

His meeting with President Rajapaksa lasted around 45 minutes. The meetings with Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama and All Party Representative Committee (APRC) chairman and cabinet minister, Tissa Vitharana took one and half hours each. Akashi also had a 45-minute meeting with the Editor of a Colombo-based Tamil newspaper, perhaps one that turned out to be somewhat trying for the Japanese Special Envoy. The Editor was to highlight a number of issues confronting the Tamil community and to complain that generous Japanese aid was giving the muscle for President Rajapaksa's administration to "treat the Tamils badly." Ambassador Araki was with Akashi during this meeting, both listening intently but speaking little.

In all of Akashi's meetings, it was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that demonstrated again that it remains ahead of its counterparts when it comes to propaganda. Last Sunday's meeting with JVP leader Somawansa Amerasinghe did not last more than 45 minutes. However, at the end of it, the JVP leader had handed over a document to Akashi setting out its position on a number of issues. With regard to human rights, the document had cited Supreme Court rulings and listed violations in this regard caused by Tiger guerrillas. Assertions in the document were reported by sections of the media as remarks made to Akashi by Amerasinghe.

Akashi's meeting with Amerasinghe that Sunday and the subsequent media reports next day were to cause concern for Government leaders. No sooner, the meeting between Akashi and President Rajapaksa was over, an aide to the latter faxed a note to 'the friendly media.' The note said that the Japanese Special Envoy had endorsed President Rajapaksa's recent initiatives and that Japan had pledged to continue aid. The Presidential aide told the recipients of the fax that the contents of the note should not be attributed to the Presidential Secretariat but to "political sources."

Without doubt, Akashi's visit and his assertions, both in public and in private, have put the Government on notice. That simply means continued Japanese aid would depend on "good behaviour," with a catalogue of dos and don'ts. Main among them is the formulation of political proposals to end the northern insurgency alias the ethnic conflict. During talks with him, President Rajapaksa had assured Akashi that these proposals would be finalised before January 23. Of particular concern to the Tokyo Government are the reported assurances Rajapaksa had given during his official visit there in December, last year. Then came measures to improve the Government's human rights record as well as steps to arrest the worsening case of media freedom including harassment of journalists, both issues the Government finds hard put to correct.

Akashi arrived in Colombo hurriedly after the Donor Co-chairs of the peace process had a conference call on January 9. They were unanimous in expressing disappointment over the abrogation of the CFA. Some even felt that the Co-chairs should go beyond issuing statements. Otherwise, their credibility and even confidence would be at stake, it was pointed out. Thus, it fell on Akashi to make the visit and thereby fire the first salvo as Sri Lanka's largest aid donor.

Diplomatic sources say the European Union is to follow suit shortly by formulating a punitive course of action - one action they are contemplating is to issue a travel ban on the Europeans to Sri Lanka if the security situation continues this way. The United States has already banned military sales to Sri Lanka. The only exception is the sale of surveillance and communications equipment. There again, it is to be on a case-by-case basis.

Britain has followed suit. Its Minister for the West Asia was speaking on Sri Lanka in the House of Commons on Thursday. Barry Gardiner, MP, interrupted him. Here is the relevant part of the proceedings: "Gardiner: Given the threat that my hon. Friend mentioned of the escalation of violence, will he hold discussions with hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence about cutting any military assistance to the Sri Lankan Government to try to ensure that such an escalation cannot happen?

"Dr. Howells: I assure my hon. Friend that we would not supply anyone with arms or dual use material that we perceived to be valuable in any military conflict such as the one that we are considering. There may be instances of humanitarian equipment, for example, de-mining equipment, being needed. Laying mines is an atrocity and an abuse of human rights and we do everything that we can to try to help clear them."

What about the future of the Co-chairs now that the CFA is abrogated and the monitors have ceased to operate? As one witty Foreign Ministry official declared, "the Co-chairs are not a 'child' of the CFA. It was born out of "wedlock" during the Tokyo donor conference. Hence, they could continue with or without the CFA. However, he said that the Co-chairs had no legal status. They did not and do not require Government participation to exist. It was an informal selective group created in Tokyo. The official added: "If we are 'clever' we can use them. However, if we are 'more than clever' we can lose them."

At Temple Trees, President Rajapaksa was somewhat exasperated with the flat aspect of the lobbying of the Co-Chairs, and much of the blame was attributed to the incompetence of the Foreign Ministry. While the country witnessed a barrage of negative international reaction in the aftermath of the abrogation of the CFA and the feet-dragging manner in which the Foreign Ministry went about lobbying foreign governments, the President decided to eventually bring down his trouble-shooter brother, Basil into the fray.

He was heard saying to a few of his trusted lieutenants; Api jaatyantharaya tackle karanawa madi. Rohitha karanawa madhi. Eh ministry ekey loku thun denaama loku niwadu yanawa…Rohitha London wala; Bhaila Amerikaawe..Kohonna Australiayawe.. Api tourism promote karala minissu nivaaduwalata mehaata genna ganna hadaddi ehgolla wena ratawal wala ravum gahanawa..Eh giya ratawalwalin thamai apita wediyenma bannine" (We are not tackling the international community sufficiently. (Foreign Minister) Rohitha (Bogollagama) is not doing enough. The three senior-most in that Ministry are on holiday. Rohitha is in London. (Deputy Foreign Minister) Bhaila is in America and (Foreign Secretary) Kohona is in Australia. When we are trying to promote tourism and get people to have their holidays here, these people are touring other countries. It is from those countries that we get the most blame).

Someone at the gathering suggested, "Sir, eeta meeta wediya hondai apey Basiltama may wede baara dena eka" (Sir, it is better than all this to give this task to Basil). The President nodded in agreement. Basil Rajapaksa began by meeting the Colombo-based DPL community and by telephoning key persons in selected foreign capitals. Just prior to Akashi's visit, when response after response from the international community critiqued the unilateral action of the Government of Sri Lanka.

Either by political design, convenience or simply due to blissful ignorance, the Government appears, however, to be insensitive to the need for a set of political proposals that could defuse its war-monger outlook. Firstly, the APRC that was to formulate the proposals is now bereft of all opposition political parties. Secondly, the Committee has delayed on numerous occasions the formulation of political proposals through its own deliberations.

Last week, President Rajapaksa met them at Temple Trees and urged them to forward proposals based on the 13th amendment that is already enshrined in the Constitution. Even if some media leaks, by some members who were irked at the Presidential request, made it known that the chief executive was trying to foist his own thinking on them, the Committee is now busy working on a set of proposals. Insiders say it would incorporate provisions of the 13th amendment that were enshrined in the Constitution over twenty years ago.

Whatever proposals would emerge next Wednesday, it is becoming increasingly clear, will see the birth of newer problems. Last week, Amerasinghe told The Sunday Times (front-page lead story) that his party would oppose proposals based on the 13th amendment to the Constitution. In a Q & A yesterday, he went beyond even that. He said any proposal brought about by the APRC will be vehemently opposed by the JVP. He called the APRC "an anachronism." The JVP's strong stance means the Government would find it difficult to seek passage of any devolution proposal emanating from the APRC without the consent of the JVP. First to the Q & A:

1. The Government proposes to devolve power by enforcing completely the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. What is your party's view on this? A: "First we must understand how the 13th Amendment came about. It was not an amendment which the "democratically elected parliament" of Sri Lanka, and I mean here the UNP regime of J.R. Jayewardene, wanted. We must remember that the lifetime of parliament then was prolonged by a further five years by a fraudulent referendum held on 22nd December 1982. We are not his admirers as we are painfully aware of his misdeeds. However, the 13th Amendment was thrust upon him by the Indians with Indian gunboats outside Colombo Harbour. Indians had started the ethnic war by training, and arming all the separatist groups in a classic case of cross border terrorism.

"And when the army was about to capture Vadamarachchi India threatened us and is said to have whisked away Prabhakaran in a helicopter. The 13th Amendment was a projection of the will of India, not of the will of the people of Sri Lanka. Only when the whole of Sri Lanka is united and all the people can freely exercise their democratic rights, can we think of any changes from the present situation. We should not do any changes at the behest of any foreign powers including India.

"Government must give top priority to restore democracy, particularly, in the North and the East. An environment must be created in which people could come out with their grievances. Every citizen must participate in the process of going for a new constitution, which will strengthen democracy. Japan took nearly five years after the end of World War II. We do not believe that the present Constitution or amendment to this Constitution will strengthen us. We have already raised our concerns regarding the Executive Presidency and the 13th amendment to the constitution.

"On 18th September 2005, the then Prime Minister agreed to abolish the Executive Presidential system. Even the creators of this "Ugly Creature", the UNP, is now proposing reforms to the Constitution including reducing the powers of the Executive President. We must not be in a haste to draft constitutions now. The President will have to abide by the Mahinda Chintanaya. "

2. You have declared publicly that the APRC should be abolished. In the light of this demand, how do you see the APRC formulating proposals to enforce the 13th amendment?

"We consider the APRC as an anachronism, not representative of the free will of Sri Lankan people, very different from how constitutional changes were made in countries like the US or India. We reject by definition any recommendations made by such a body. Most of all it is not an all-party representative committee. It is not represented by the JVP and the majority faction of the UNP. It is only a committee of representatives of the parties of the coalition that 'governs' the country. Therefore, we urge the government not to mislead the people by calling it an all-party representative committee. It has no mandate to draft proposals to amend the constitution."

3. If the JVP is not in favour of the devolution of power through the 13th Amendment, what will the party do if the Government goes ahead with it? "The 13th Amendment has to be rethought because it was not democratic. Studies done by the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) have shown that the Provincial Councils were a waste of money. Even a UNP document mentions that. Application of the 13th Amendment to fields like health and education has been a disaster. Decentralization of administration even upto village level and also with enough funds will certainly solve the problem. We must not even think of drafting or implementing any proposal that will finally aggravate inequalities. No changes for a few more dollars please.

"As a beginning, first all the Muslims, Sinhalese and non-LTTE Tamils chased away by the LTTE should be resettled with compensation for what they lost and denied by the LTTE in the North and the East before we can even think of any changes. Changes in the mode of government should be brought about only in peaceful times. If it is rushed through now we will resist it. If it gives police and defence powers to PCs when LTTE coercion is there, it should be resisted at all costs. Tamil and Muslim and also Sinhala (according to the requirements) police officers should look after police powers. The average federal state in India is roughly the size of Sri Lanka and has the same proportion of minorities. If a state in India can run without internal ethnic divisions, so can we.

"The most important thing is we must have at least five years of peace to freely reflect on any changes in the form of government. We will resist any changes brought about in a non-peaceful atmosphere under pressure of the so-called International Community or local lackeys of imperialism." That clearly sums up the official position of the JVP. It is the JVP that saved the Rajapaksa administration from defeat during the final vote of the budget debate. It is the JVP that is now taking up an even more hard line position than the Government. That, no doubt gives the Government a way out of the present imbroglio. It could always say that due to JVP's stance, it cannot go ahead with the political proposals.

Already, one of the constituent partners of the Government, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), has taken a direct swipe at their more modern Marxist 'comrades' of the JVP. In a statement issued this week they have gone to the extent of equating the JVP with the LTTE, probably the ultimate insult that can be thrown at the nationalist JVP.

The LSSP statement says: " Unfortunately there are so-called patriots who through exaggerated nationalism act like frogs in a well…..the course of action mapped out by these forces envisage banning the LTTE for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and thereby strengthen the hand of those intent on discrediting the Government by claiming it is only intent on a war….".

The statement is critical of the JVP's attempts at scuttling the work of the APRC, and no doubt the fact that the Chairman of the APRC is an LSSP Minister has not been lost on the LSSP. One of the country's oldest political parties, the LSSP goes on to say that the CFA brought positive results to the peace process (a huge compliment to the UNP) and that its abrogation will give the LTTE no other option than waging war.

They have said that "the strongest supporter of the LTTE in this respect is the JVP. The two extremist groups are two sides of the same coin and they complement each other". It is in such a background, with such sharp divergence within the pro-Government ranks, which now also include the JVP, that UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is somewhat justified in what he told foreign based diplomats throughout last week and this week, that they would await the final recommendations of the APRC and the Government before making their own decision.

Almost certain that no unanimity could be reached within the Government, unless the President makes a final decision, which will certainly displease at least one party, Wickremesinghe very confidently told these foreign envoys, "We will support these recommendations if we can, in the interest of the country". The moot question is, with Japanese hints at aid cuts, and mounting pressure from the international community, and sharp differences within his own Government, how much longer President Rajapaksa can ride on the horns of such a dilemma.

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