Talk at the Cafe Spectator

Navy Chief caught in stormy seas with US

Navy Commander Tissara Samarasinghe, was one of more than 100 senior navy officers invited to the 19th biennial International Seapower Symposium (ISS) at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, USA.
The invitation came from the Department of Defence (Pentagon) and his visa from the Department of State through the US Embassy in Colombo.

There were tense moments last week. Just as Vice Admiral Samarasinghe was packing his bags to leave, an official of the US Defence Attaché Lt. Col. Larry Smith was to telephone Vice Admiral Samarasinghe to say the visit was on hold. The reason - there had been a debate on whether the visa, already issued, should be withdrawn. This is in the light of the ongoing tensions between Colombo and Washington.

The move naturally angered the Government. He had, after all, prepared to travel based on an official invitation. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa asked Sri Lanka's Ambassador in the US, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, to raise the issue in Washgington.

He spoke with top brass of the Pentagon. Their position was that the invitation by them stands, and they are waiting to receive the Sri Lankan Naval Chief. So, Ambassador Wickremasuriya contacted Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary in the Department of State, and asked him what the issue was if the Pentagon invitation stood. A review process got under way.

The issue was soon sorted out. Vice Admiral Samarasinghe not only attended the opening event but also had a detailed telephone conversation with Mr. Blake.

The two-day symposium began on October 7. US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead thanked the invitees for coming together to discuss challenges and opportunities that will "further enhance mutual co-operation and common bonds of maritime partnership."

This year's theme, "Connecting Navies, Building Partnership," seeks to advance maritime cooperation at regional and global levels by bringing together the world's foremost naval and maritime services "to openly exchange ideas for discussion that will strengthen the safety, the security and the prosperity of the world's oceans."

If not in the Department of State, it seems the Government still has good friends in the Pentagon.

No way to treat China

It was no doubt a snub on the People's Republic of China, one of the world's leading powers that enjoys close and cordial relations with Sri Lanka. It came, shocking enough, from none other than Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama, last month.

China's Foreign Ministry delivered a note to the Foreign Office in Colombo dated August 30 through its Embassy. It was an invitation for an official of the 'Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka in charge of treaty affairs to participate in a workshop'. The subject: Treaty and Practice and the Domestic Implementation of Treaty Obligations. The event is being held in Beijing from October 13 to 17 in collaboration with the United Nations. The Chinese Government offered to cover all costs including travel and accommodation for the Foreign Ministry official in charge of treaty affairs.

The invitation came at a time when the Foreign Ministry is engaged in preparing a Treaty Index dating from the pre-independence period till early 2010. The Legal Division in the Ministry, which deals with treaties, is also the archives for all treaties entered into by Sri Lanka.

When the Chinese note went before Mr. Bogollagama, he simply wrote the name of a diplomat serving in West Asia (the Middle East) and placed his initials. There were no other comments of any sort. Then the acting Foreign Secretary Chitrangani Wagiswara added her own comments on September 21. She wrote: "Please see MFA's minute at (1). FNA please." The figure one was the front page of the Chinese note.

Now, the diplomat in West Asia, who has little to do with treaties, is on his way to Beijing. Naturally, the hosts have no reason to be happy. Firstly, China, as the note explained, wanted to provide "participants with a better opportunity of furthering their understanding of international law, especially Law of Treaties, so as to strengthen the capacity of the States concerned in conclusion and implementation of treaties and conventions."

Secondly, the Foreign Minister has ignored China's explicit request for "One official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka in charge of treaty affairs". So much for improving relations with countries that are close friends of Sri Lanka. No amount of self-authored statements by the Bogollagama Ministry could undo such damage. Who cares?

Gota entering politics

It is now almost certain that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will enter politics though a successor to his official post which is not known.

Insiders say he will be one of UPFA candidates for the Kurunegala district. A retired Lieutenant Colonel has already been tasked to prepare plans for his launch.

Another official under the Ministry of Defence who will enter the fray, they say, is Lakshman Hulugalle, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security. He wants to emerge from the Nikaweratiya electorate.

A senior retired Army officer, insiders added, has also been invited to contest from the Anuradhapura district.

He is former Chief of Staff, Nanda Mallawarachchi, who is currently Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Indonesia, However, he is yet to say "yes" to the offer.

Top Army man Down Under

Another senior serving Army officer is tipped to join Sri Lanka's foreign service for a posting abroad.
He is Major General Shavindra Silva, Director General of Operations at Army Headquarters. Reports say he is likely to be Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner in Australia.

It was only weeks earlier, Major General Jagath Dias, assumed office as Sri Lanka's Deputy Ambassador in Germany. One of his first assignments has been to track down activities of a group of journos operating in Germany.

Green card army VIP sees red light

The impending visit of a top rung military officer to the US has come under review at the highest levels in Washington.

This is after he expressed interest in making a visit to the Pacific Command in Hawaii where a command change ceremony is due to take place. He has also sought meetings with some key military figures there.

The officer, who holds a green card, also plans a holiday in the US where he has other links.

Campaigning in lap of luxury

Some candidates at yesterday's Southern Provincial Council election campaign were more fortunate than the others.

There was one over whom the Colombo's business community crooned. Among the goodies he received were 25 rooms on full board basis from a resort hotel. The supporters, some of them strong-armed, wined, dined and spent campaign nights in the lap of luxury.

Vile on the wild

Provincial reporters of the national television network Rupavahini were in a quandary. Nothing of the footage they sent about Sri Lanka's wild elephants was aired.

One angry cameraman raised issue. He learnt that instructions had been sent out not to use any footage of elephants, particularly in view of the Southern Provincial Council election campaign. The orders had come from the top, he was told.

The fear was that such footage would be advantageous to the main opposition United National Party (UNP), whose symbol is the elephant.

However, the reports were about the pachyderms being shot at or driven out from their habitat.

Not very Nobel

A group of UNP stalwarts retired to a resort hotel in the south as the polls campaign for yesterday's Southern Provincial Council elections ended. On Friday night, they were having a chat when someone remarked that US President Barrack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A witty one among them remarked, "now you know that they (the Government) will say. It's a conspiracy between the Tamil diaspora and Norway."

Not good news for the much maligned Norwegian Ambassador Tore Hattrem.

Sideshows at Army exhibition

There were several technical glitches at the military exhibition, of all things, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was there to declare it open.

At one point, President Rajapaksa pressed the switch to illuminate a console but found it did not work. Many other things also went awry.

When he cut the ribbon to declare the exhibition open, a notable absentee there was Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

He inquired what had happened. When it was time to depart, though not in a good mood, President Rajapaksa found his car was not lined up. He had to order that it be brought immediately.

In the rush, the vehicle arrived and he drove off. The driver had swerved at one point to avoid Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Sarath Fonseka. A PSD staffer was heard to remark, of course jokingly, that the man who escaped the Tiger guerrillas had a near miss from the presidential vehicle.

Jamis Banda

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