Sri Lankan sports authorities were forced this week to go to the Foreign Ministry to get clearance for the national cricket team to go to Pakistan next month following a nose-dive in Indo-Pak relations in recent weeks that was impacting on diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.
The matter had been discussed at the highest levels in Colombo, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa being briefed by Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge on the tour that was suddenly arranged by the now dismissed Interim Committee of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) chairman, Arjuna Ranatunga, MP.
Mr. Ranatunga had agreed to the Sri Lanka team (now touring Bangladesh) to tour Pakistan after India cancelled its scheduled tour following the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November, and tension heightened between the two countries with India accusing Pakistan of allowing terrorists to use its soil to attack India. This week, the Indian Government advised its citizens against visiting Pakistan at all.
According to SLC sources, the Sri Lankan decision had irked Indian authorities, who went public criticising Mr. Ranatunga with whom they had already been having bad relations over the IPL (Indian Premier League) contracting Sri Lankan national players when Mr. Ranatunga wanted them to tour England instead.
These sources said that SLC also received clear signals that Indian authorities were unhappy with the move to tour Pakistan when they were having political problems with that country. They said they treated the Sri Lankan move as a snub on the Indians mainly as a fallout from the IPL issue.
Following this, Sports Minister Lokuge dissolved the Interim Committee of SLC and appointed his Ministry Secretary as Competent Authority of SLC, a first time since the Board was in existence. Minister Lokuge then consulted President Rajapaksa saying that the Pakistan tour had become a diplomatic issue. President Rajapaksa referred the matter to Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.
Minister Bogollagama told The Sunday Times yesterday that he viewed the tour as a "sporting issue", and that Sri Lanka promoted 'people-to-people visits' among South Asian member states (SAARC), and that was why he gave the green light for the tour to go ahead. If indeed there were security concerns, he said, the matter has to be determined by the ICC.
He said there was no diplomatic pressure applied on Sri Lanka by either India or Pakistan. But, a Foreign Ministry statement on Friday conceded that Pakistan's Acting High Commissioner in Colombo, Dr. Fazal-ul-Rahman had spoken to the Minister on Christmas eve and discussed this matter. Both India and Pakistan are important factors in Sri Lanka's military and diplomatic efforts to defeat the LTTE.
Meanwhile, sacked Interim Committee chairman Arjuna Ranatunga's meeting with President Rajapaksa this week yieleded no results, and the President made no change to the Sports Minister's decision to dissolve the Committee. Mr. Ranatunga has now asked President Rajapaksa for another meeting, which has been scheduled for tomorrow (Monday).
The Sunday Times learns that Mr. Ranatunga will make a second and final effort to have the Interim Committee re-instated. It is also learnt that he would make a bid for Sports Minister Lokuge's job itself in the event the President refuses to re-instate the Interim Committee, and him as its chairman. The alternate demands would be an ultimatum, it is learnt.
Last night, Mr. Ranatunga, who is an MP from the ruling party, told The Sunday Times that he would have a press conference on Tuesday, after his meeting with President on Monday and tell the press the position "whatever the outcome".