Talk at the Cafe Spectator

Any questions? Nyet

The visiting Sinhala speaking Ruski Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was waxing eloquent - in English of course, at a seminar in Colombo on the subject of terrorism. The room was filled with several Members of Parliament.

After his speech, it was question time, but true to form we Sri Lankans are so polite that we don't ask questions. One-time Ambassador and current Tourism Authority head (a shaky head tho') Bernard Gunathillake asked a question - about tourism. After all tourism and terrorism are so inter-linked as the Sri Lankan Tourism Ministry has proven.

But there was a deafening silence thereafter. The local host, Rohitha Bogollagama tried to infuse some life into question time by suggesting that there were "so many parliamentarians here and they might have some questions".

There were no takers. FM Lavrov tried to break the ice by asking "Is the Sri Lankan Parliament always like this"; to which FM Bogollagama mumbled something like "We discuss matters in Parliament……", a very solemn statement that didn't quite befit the moment. Lavrov, having served in Sri Lankan once as ambassador for his country should have known better about our otherwise raucous Parliament.

Had he visited the august assembly only last week, he would have seen what an exciting place it is - with MPs speaking with cardboard placards round their necks, and others coming in with towels round their heads and throwing them towards the Opposition benches and the many other theatrics that take place there - making the Russian Duma (Parliament) look like a convent school.

Nutshell Neroes or zeroes

Years ago, a journalist who interviewed a senior Navy officer at his headquarters asked why he had so many small gift-wrapped packages in his drawer. They were pens, wrist watches, key-holders, tie pins and even thermementoes.

The old sailor laughed and declared, "When in Rome, do as the Romanians do." Despite the gaffe, what he meant to say was to behave like Romans when in Rome.

So, he opened his drawers when a visitor arrived, paused for a while and picked what he thought was the suitable gift. The interviewer received a ballpoint pen.

Last week, it was a different story in Rome. As our picture shows, Wimal Weerawansa was in Rome.

He posed for photographs with Italian policemen and tried to do what Roman warriors of yore did to their enemies - plunge a sword in their chest.

Wimal, who does that with words to his political enemies, was of course posing for the camera.

Peacemaker now putts

Who says Norway, which ceased to play the role of peace facilitator, is no longer interested in Sri Lanka? One of the Norwegians who brokered the Ceasfire Agreement of February 2002, then Ambassador Jon Westborg, is in Sri Lanka again.

On Thursday, he was enjoying a game of golf at the Victoria Golf Course in Digana, Kandy. Even if the peace facilitation efforts failed, the peace makers sure believe that there is enough peace in Sri Lanka now for a good holiday. That includes a good game of golf or a good drink at the Colombo Swimming Club where he is still a member.

Tea and security

It was one of the most embarrassing moments for the Police Department in recent years. Some 500 gazetted officers, most of them in the senior ranks, were invited for tea at the officers’ mess at the Police Training College in Katukurunda, Kalutara. This was with President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was there last Sunday as chief guest at a passing-out parade.

They gathered in their numbers. The President arrived but not the tea and the short-eats. Someone had to hurriedly prepare a cup of plain tea in the Mess kitchen for President Rajapaksa to enjoy whilst all other top brass waited. There was no tea, cake or other short-eats for them.

The reason - the catering van that was bringing the finger food and beverages was held up. nbelievably, it was due to heavy security precautions taken for the President's visit. When the van was cleared, the tea party, a non-event,was over. President Rajapaksa was on an Air Force VIP helicopter en route to Colombo.

Whole edition goes to blazes

Several thousands of copies of a State-run newspaper had to be destroyed just a week ago. It carried pictures of a key politician speaking but showed the teleprompter as well.

The politician does not like being projected as a person who cannot speak without a teleprompter. So the entire first edition went up in smoke.

They were not considered fit to be used even by gram sellers lest they reach the wrong hand, the Opposition.

Rohitha’s Mumble jumble

The current issue of the UN forum newsletter has this to say about Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister, Rohita Bogollagama.

"As the government of Sri Lanka is getting wide international scrutiny for its treatment of a serious humanitarian situation, it would be assumed that when given a chance, by CNN, its main spokesman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, will be lucidly presenting its view point. Alas, it was not to be. Rohitha Bogollagama mumbled along with amazing nonchalance. We could not get one clear sentence. Nor could we figure out what he was talking about.

We all have accents. We are familiar with Sri Lankan / English, which, by the way, is far clearer than many other Asian accents. However, Rohitha was something else. He spoke very quickly, with very heavily swallowed terms, often smiling needlessly when he ought to show some seriousness about a very grim situation. Apparently, he did not think there was anything grave in his neighbourhood. There were no detainees in Sri Lanka and he was working "hand in glove" (a colonially inherited expression) with someone somewhere to take care of pending matters.

What a pity. The reputation of Sri Lanka is at stake. When we joined the U.N. one of the best communicators was a Sri Lankan. There are many outstanding individuals whom we volunteered to praise when warranted. Couldn't the government find anyone other than Rohitha Bogollagama to present its case? Will it be downhill from now on?!

War is over, but costly battles continue

Now that the civil war in Sri Lanka is apparently over, the battle for public opinion is raging between the Sri Lankan government, human rights organizations, ethnic Tamils and other stakeholders. The main subject: the number of civilian casualties during the government's last push to destroy the Tamil Tiger resistance and which side was responsible for those casualties. This is stated in the AM Law Daily blog on American It says:

"We realize we are wading into muddy waters here, but we're wading into those waters because a Washington, D.C., powerhouse of The Am Law 100, Patton Boggs, has been swimming in them for nearly a year, according to lobbying records, Harper's magazine and the firm. Earlier this year, the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington, D.C., retained Patton Boggs to serve as a middleman between the embassy and the executive branch of the U.S. government and Congress, according to Harper's and federal lobbying records. The firm has been receiving $35,000 a month from the embassy.

Harper's has accused the firm of helping the Sri Lankan government "sanitize" the human trauma of its offensive to crush the Tamil resistance earlier this year. The number of casualties itself is in dispute; various estimates of the number of civilians killed in the violence between January and May range from 7,000 to 20,000. A new 68-page report from the State Department's top war crimes official urges an investigation and indicates that both sides were responsible for the violence to some degree, according to Washington Post.

Some ethnic Tamils and human rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan government of escalating the violence and trying to minimize public coverage of it. The government and the embassy, in turn, have questioned the credibility -- and even the existence -- of some of the media's best sources for descriptions of the violence and pointed out that the Tamil Tigers are terrorists.

Patton Boggs declined to comment through a spokeswoman. A spokesman for the Sri Lankan embassy was not immediately available for comment. Lobbying records accessed from the web site of the Department of Justice show that the contract is ongoing.

Beware: VIP in the neighbourhood

A multi-storied house in Colombo's southern suburb, with a well laid out garden and security portals, has become the talking point in the neighbourhood.

Attention was drawn particularly after the contractor, who completed work, visited them. They wanted permission from house owners, living some 50 metres away, to paint their walls too. It has been done. Concrete drains have come up in the area.

Every morning and evening, staff of a company providing environmental services are busy. They are not cleaning the inner precincts of the new bungalow. Instead, they are picking up dirt that gathers along the road daily.

Some say they are happy to have such a good neighbour. Others are not sure. They fear midnight visits if they spoke out. It is all over a case of someone becoming exceedingly prosperous.

Patriots with personal agendas at US meeting

When a group of ultra patriotic Sri Lankan expatriates met Robert Blake, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, at the State Department recently, the primary objectives of the meeting were to help strengthen US-Sri Lankan relations and thwart any US investigation of war crimes charges against the armed forces and the government. At least two members of the delegation had their own hidden agendas which were far removed from the patriotic motives of the others.

One of them was an expat businessman who had extensive contracts with the US government involving American-funded projects in Sri Lanka, and the other was related to a Sri Lankan who was working for a Washington-based public relations (PR) firm which is trying to renew its contract. Both were trying to protect their own personal interests but paying only lip service to the cause.

According to a published report last week, the PR firm (Patton Boggs) is being paid $35,000 a month by the Sri Lankan embassy purely to help establish contacts with US politicians and congressmen, and also plant ''sanitized'' stories about Sri Lanka in Washington newspapers. The results are said to be abysmal. If the high-priced contract is continued, the chances are the Sri Lanka embassy could get bogged down with this PR firm for a long time -- but at the expense of Sri Lankan tax payers.

As a follow-up to the State Department meeting, the only two concrete proposals were for the establishment of a Sri Lankan think tank in Washington DC, primarily as a propaganda tool for the country, and the creation of a Foundation to fund worthy Sri Lanka causes in the US.

But such a proposed Foundation needs plenty of moolah. And so, for starters, there was a suggestion to host a fund raising dinner -- modelled on the lines of such dinners organized on behalf of American politicians -- when President Mahinda Rajapaksa visits New York for the UN General Assembly sessions in 2010. The gala event could be billed as a ''$500-dollar-a-plate dinner''-- American style. At that price, said one wisecracking expatriate, it may be worth stealing the plates.

Khaki nikaya

The high stakes for the post of Police chief after Jayantha Wickremaratne retired have raised some eye brows among the khakied cadres.

It was only last night, the successor, Mahinda Balasuriya, was set to receive his official appointment. This was because President Rajapaksa, who was away in Nepal, returned to Colombo only last evening.

Insiders say that two leading prelates backed another candidate who had served in the Central Province. Hence, Balasuriya was told informally to get them on his side so the appointment would arrive last night.

One wag remarked it could have been solved by appointing one chief each for the two different sects. However, there is no provision in the Constitution for such appointments.

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