Columns - Political Column

Basil to mend India ties as Bogols blunders

  • Globe-trotting foreign minister under fire
  • Karuna-Pillayan on collision course again
By Our Political Editor

It seemed a case of the tail wagging the head. In Chennai, a smaller crowd of demonstrators burnt an effigy of Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. They decried groups supporting him and called for stronger action against these killers of the late Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi.

A larger crowd led by V. Gopalaswamy better known as Vaiko staged protests. He vowed to take up arms, if the need arose, to support Sri Lankan Tamils. Police arrested him immediately for making inflammatory speeches. Protestors halted trains. A group of students stormed the office of Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner, breaking glass windows and causing minor injuries to a local employee.

In Colombo, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was outraged. He promptly urged India's High Commissioner Alok Prasad, to ensure the country's interests and the safety of Sri Lankan nationals. He also took immediate action by directing security authorities to ensure no one made any retaliatory attempts and thus embarrass his Government.

Without question, security authorities in Tamil Nadu had failed to ensure protection to the office of the Deputy High Commissioner. In the light of the rising tension, one need not have been a soothsayer to predict that Sri Lankan interests will come under threat. Worse enough, the hype in Tamil Nadu is adding heavy pressure on the central government in New Delhi to harden its stance on Sri Lanka.

On Wednesday, the deadline set by DMK Chief Minister, Muthuvel Karunanidhi's Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) for ministers and parliamentarians in his party to quit ends. He urged the centre to take firm action against Sri Lanka before this date.

The latest to reiterate the Indian Government's position was Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee. In a suo moto (Latin legal term means on its own, without external prompting or explicit demand, in other words, made voluntarily), statement he told Lok Sabha:

"The situation in Sri Lanka is of serious concern to the Government, in particular the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the northern part of Sri Lanka. We are concerned about the plight of the civilians caught in the hostilities and the growing number of internally displaced persons. We have emphasised to the Sri Lankan Government that the safety and the security of the civilians must be safeguarded at all costs and that food and essential supplies be allowed to reach them unhindered. We have been assured that the safety and well-being of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka will be taken care of. .....

"Let me reiterate our conviction that there is no military solution to the ethnic conflict. What is required in Sri Lanka is a peacefully negotiated political settlement within the framework of a united Sri Lanka respecting the legitimate rights of the minorities including the Tamil community. The rights and the welfare of the Tamil community of Sri Lanka should not get enmeshed in the on-going hostilities against the LTTE. We encourage the government of Sri Lanka to continue to nurture the democratic process in the Eastern Province as well.

"The government has also taken up with the Sri Lankan Government the need to ensure the safety of our fishermen.... "

The origins of the diplomatic rumblings between Colombo and New Delhi have laid bare some startling if not shocking details. Firstly, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner Romesh Jayasinghe had flown to Gujarat to be on hand for a relatively less important trip by Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda. Ironically no such visit had ever been undertaken by any Sri Lankan Minister to Tamil Nadu. Moragoda's visit, at the end of the day, turned out to be little more than a glorious photo opportunity.

Thus, the onus of meeting India's National Security Advisor R.K. Narayanan fell on Deputy High Commissioner Palitha Ganegoda. In diplomatic postings for Sri Lanka, a time-honoured tradition has been to appoint those among the crème a la crème to New Delhi, the most important among foreign slots. Who is Ganegoda? He is the brother-in-law of Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama.
When Narayanan delivered a demarche (A démarche is a formal diplomatic representation of one government's official position, views, or wishes on a given subject to an appropriate official in another government or international organization), Ganegoda was jolted. Though he conveyed the dialogue verbatim to Colombo, he was unable to either grasp the nuances or the implications it portended. It has also become clear by hindsight that the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi could have bought time on the grounds that the High Commissioner was away. But the brother-in-law to brother-in-law contact was to be otherwise. Moreover, Bogollagama was Australia bound and believed he could, perhaps with the brother-in-law pursue matters thereafter with a possible visit to New Delhi.

It is no secret that President Rajapaksa was much displeased with the many trips his Foreign Minister was making at great cost to Government coffers. During the visit to New York for the UN General Assembly sessions, Bogollagama had flown to Washington twice. Then he had undertaken a trip to Iceland which was a wasteful expenditure of Government funds.

According to Government sources, Bogollagama had won the nod from President Rajapaksa to visit Australia at a busy moment. That is on the grounds that no Minister had gone there for ten years. Moreover, he was to argue that the LTTE was to be banned in that country. When protests erupted in Tamil Nadu, Rajapaksa found Bogollagama was still away. From Australia he was also making a stopover in Singapore. Even Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, from whom he inquired, was unaware.
Against this backdrop, President Rajapaksa was angered when he heared that Bogollagama had through his brother-in-law and the High Commissioner Jayasinghe arranged a trip to New Delhi. He had learnt of the move from Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad.

A frantic call went out to Sydney, ordering Bogollagama to return immediately to Colombo. Rajapaksa did not hide his feelings about the way his Foreign Minister was conducting business. Thus he asked his brother and Senior Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa, to attend to the issues. He told Bogollagama to allow Basil to undertake the trip. When the President learnt that Bogollagama was Poland bound, he was ordered to immediately cancel that trip.

When an appointment for Basil with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not forthcoming, it was High Commissioner Prasad, a staunch ally of the Rajapaksa Government, who suggested that he telephone him. Though reluctant at first, Rajapaksa agreed. Some one erred and Rajapaksa was furious that the Press office of the Indian Premier had issued a rather strongly-worded statement on the telephone conversation. He asked Bogollagama to come over to Temple Trees and a statement giving the Sri Lankan side of the story was issued. The next day, when President Rajapaksa saw a state-run newspaper headline on the telephone chat with Premier Singh, he was angry.

During Rajapaksa's conversation with Premier Singh, he did not anticpate a potential visit by Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. When Dr. Singh countered with a polite remark "we would like to send our Foreign Minister to observe and report on the situation," there was some panic. The Sri Lankan side was not ready to handle that. Memories of a similar visit in 1987 were not pleasant. Bogollagama intervened and said Sri Lanka would invite the Indian Foreign Minister. Rajapaksa pressed hard to have Basil's visit confirmed.

The next day, Rajapaksa was disappointed that the Foreign Ministry had not despatched the invitation for Indian Foreign Minister to visit Sri Lanka. He had to remind both Bogollagama and Foreign Secretary Kohona about the disinterest. He remarked "Meygollanta ithin Tamil Nadu kiwwama hithata ganne kisi weda nethi, joliyak nethi thenak hitainey. Sudu hama thiyana ratak num mung penala yanawa, mona magullak hari karaganna. (For them Tamil Nadu is not something to take to heart. If it is a country where there are white skins, they would run to get anything done). Since this impasse, Rajapaksa has begun to rely more on officials at the Foreign Ministry.

After much hemming and hawing between Colombo and New Delhi through diplomatic channels, Basil has arrived in New Delhi for talks. Also in New Delhi is High Commissioner Prasad. Basil is expected to meet National Security Advisor Narayanan and External Affairs Ministry Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon.
Earlier, two emissaries of President Rajapaksa, as revealed in a front page report by Chris Kamalendran in last week's The Sunday Times, were to travel to New Delhi. They were Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Basil Rajapaksa. Besides others, they had sought a meeting with Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh too. The only reason why their mission did not materialise, The Sunday Times has learnt from authoritative sources, is that there was no confirmation of firm dates from New Delhi.

"We were told we will be informed of a suitable date that was going to be only after October 24. In the interim, we learnt through our channels that Premier Manmohan Singh would not be available in New Delhi. He is on visits to Japan and China," an official who spoke on grounds of anonymity said. Thus, the source said, the need for a delegation with an enhanced profile did not arise.

There were several confusing reports last week over various visits by government dignitaries. So much so, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who met newspaper proprietors, editors and senior journalists on Tuesday for breakfast was to remark that some front page reports had sent Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, to Pakistan. However, he declared, his brother, the Defence Secretary, was very much in Sri Lanka. He was in fact present at the meeting. The President was to sound a note of caution to the media to check their facts before publishing them.

Basil Rajapaksa's talks in New Delhi are aimed primarily at putting Indo-Lanka relations back on track. However, Foreign Minister Bogollagama, who had earlier wanted to travel to India, dropped a bombshell on Thursday. The man, who at least officially, is tasked with articulating the country's foreign policy, declared at a news conference in Parliament that "Sri Lanka does not have an ethnic conflict."
Though he is known for making contradictory statements, this was strange indeed.

Bogollagama the Foreign Minister Basil to mend was publicly contradicting his own President. Early this month Rajapaksa told a hurriedly-summoned All Party Conference there would have to be a political solution to a political problem. He was referring to the northern insurgency. He called upon the APRC to speed up its deliberations to come up with a political package to end this conflict. Surely, Foreign Minister Bogollagama should be aware President Rajapaksa has repeatedly assured the Government of India that his Government would come up with political proposals to resolve this conflict. In addition the President has made clear publicly that, the military campaign against the guerrillas would continue until terrorism is wiped out.

On Tuesday, however, Bogollagama carefully dodged questions on whether India had exerted pressure on Sri Lanka. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a media release on a statement he made. This is in reply to queries raised by JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath. Herath asked "What are the pressures exerted by the Indian Government on the Sri Lankan Government to stop the military operation against terrorism?" Replied Bogollagama, "there has been no such pressure."

Surprisingly the main opposition UNP concurred with Bogollagama's response. Yet, sources in India were categoric that India had asked for a halt to hostilities and the formulation of political proposals. The move drew a negative response from Sri Lanka, which said that the war would continue. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa repeatedly asserted the position.

At President Rajapaksa's meeting with the media on Tuesday taking a strong swipe at India was Karuna alias Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, the renegade Tiger guerrilla eastern commander and now leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). Karuna said India was the root cause for the current political problems in Sri Lanka. They trained and armed the guerrillas first and now they were demanding a political solution. Today, a demonstration to protest against India's interference in Sri Lanka's internal affairs will be held in Batticaloa under Karuna's leadership.

However, Karuna is now on a collision course with his own party's Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan. The Chief Minister has demanded that police powers be granted to Provincial Councils, a provision spelt out by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. However, Karuna is of the view such demands were not a priority requirement. He insists that development needs of the East be addressed first. This week Pillayan made clear Karuna may face disciplinary action and possible expulsion if he continued to defy the party. Pillayan has insisted that assigning police powers was one of the important demands.

Ranil listens at non-meeting with Mahinda

President Mahinda Rajapakasa invited Opposition UNP Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe for a 40-minute meeting at the Presidential Secretariat on Friday. The two key issues he talked were on the recent statements by Indian leaders and the ongoing military campaign to re-capture Kilinochchi.

Wickremesinghe was asked by Rajapaksa if he wished to bring anyone along. The President was told that Wickremesinghe would come alone. That Friday morning, Wickremesinghe got a telephone call while he was in Parliament to say that Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and MEP Leader and Urban Development Minister Dinesh Gunawardene would join in the talks.

Wickremesinghe arrived around 12.30 in the afternoon, and had to wait about 10 minutes for the President to turn up. Cameras flashed as they greeted each other, the Press Corps asked to be in attendance. As they sat down to a one-on-one chat, Rajapaksa was to brief the Opposition Leader on the military offensive in Kilinochchi. The President was confident about the imminent fall of the LTTE-held town to the Security Forces.

He went on to refer to the developing situation in Tamil Nadu, and how he had spoken to the Indian Prime Minister. He said that he was sending his brother, Basil to India as a special envoy.

The President said that he had told the Indian premier that he was equally concerned about civilian casualties due to the military operations in the Wanni area, and that he was seeking a political solution to what was perceived to be the ethnic conflict.

Wickremesinghe said little, and asked no questions about the on-going military operations. He only said that, eventually, the Government will have to go in for a political solution, a point the President agreed with.
In trooped Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and Dinesh Gunawardene to join the two leaders at this stage. The cameramen present got activated again, and there was another session of picture taking.
That done, the President went over what he had told Wickremesinghe. Then, the two Ministers briefed the President about the discussions earlier in the day about cutting down on the time allocations for some 20 smaller Ministries during the forthcoming Budget debate. With so many Ministries, Parliament now doesn't seem to have the time to debate all of them at any length of time.

Rajapaksa then said that he intended to continue such a dialogue with other party leaders as well, and would be inviting JVP, SLMC and TNA leaders very soon. By 1.30 p.m. Wickremesinghe had reached home for lunch.

Earlier, Rajapaksa had a much longer chat with former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrama, who seemed to have brokered the meeting. During that discussion, Rajapaksa had discussed the war - and the GSP+ issue that was affecting the garment trade in particular. Samarawickrama is a major garment exporter.

Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe meeting seemed nothing more than a superficial meeting, with a general briefing from the Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces (Rajapaksa) to what is happening in the battle against the LTTE, and the political fallout in Tamil Nadu. There was nothing about the economy, and the GSP+ issue that is going to impact on the economy big-time.

Clearly, there is some souring of relations between the two leaders, who were once fairly close political colleagues despite being in opposite camps. Rajapaksa had complained to Samarawickrama saying that Wickremesinghe doesn't talk. And he was right. Wickremesinghe asked no questions, probably expecting him to be asked first. Or for some details to be provided, Or some proposals discussed. On the other hand, Rajapaksa being the host, might have asked Wickremesinghe to come to Temple Trees, and stay for lunch when it could have been a little more informal. As it happened, it was a strained meeting, in fact, a non-meeeting.

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