Talk at the Cafe Spectator

Hudson and his knee-jerk howlers

The state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), or its precursor, Radio Ceylon, is one of Asia's oldest broadcasting stations.

Years ago, it was a highly credible source of information not only in Sri Lanka but also in neighbouring India. Alas, times have changed. In some programmes, the use of vulgar language to describe Government's opponents has become all too common. Some of the words are not even printable.

One of the practitioners of those verbal assaults is the SLBC Chairman, Hudson Samarasinghe. Not so long ago, when the late Ranasinghe Premadasa was President, he styled himself "punchi (or little) Premadasa." He has now become a human machine gun spraying multiple rounds of verbal salvoes on his victims who have no chance to respond. This is at public expense on a national radio station. This week, however, listeners heard Samarasinghe make a vow to the nation on the SLBC airwaves.

During his regular morning programme on Monday, he said if Ranil Wickremesinghe did not contest the upcoming Presidential Elections, "mama danagahala eliyata yanawa" (meaning he would walk away from the SLBC on his knees).

Some listeners did not take it too seriously. However, he repeated the remarks on the next day, (Tuesday) on his morning programme for the second time. They thought he was sure of what he said.

Now, the truth has emerged. Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition, leader of the United National Party (UNP) and the United National Front (UNF), will not contest the Presidential Elections.

Wickremesinghe officially announced this at a news conference on Thursday. He said the UNF would support the opposition's "common candidate", General (retd.) Sarath Fonseka.

Yesterday, during a vituperative attack on Gen. (retd.) Fonseka on his morning programme on the SLBC, Samarasinghe said a shoe should be stuffed in the mouth of the former CDS. This is evidently to shut him up.

Whether Samarasinghe will walk on his knees out of the SLBC remains an important question. Like the vows that politicians make, he may not keep his promise. If he did, he would have found it difficult to walk back to work. It would also hurt, if he, like some of his predecessors, were forced to go on their knees when good times turn bad.

Foreign Ministry plays Commonwealth games

Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to stay home in view of the upcoming Presidential Elections, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, accompanied by six officials from his office, led the Sri Lanka delegation to this week’s biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago.

However, the more intriguing part of the story was the officials accompanying Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. Conspicuously missing from the delegation were our High Commissioner in London (whose beat is the Commonwealth) and our Permanent Representative at the UN (who is concurrently accredited to some of the countries in the Caribbean). Both were unceremoniously kept out of the delegation.

Nevertheless, in a strange twist, the delegation included our envoy in Geneva (who has no responsibility for the Commonwealth). The newly appointed lady ambassador, who left for Geneva only last week, is expected to be back in Sri Lanka next week — at tax payers' expense — to accompany the delegation from Colombo to the Caribbean. As one Foreign Ministry wag says: "Overseas trips in our Ministry, like kisses, go by favour". It is metaphorically and not literally.

Double-crossing politico

A darker side of politics is how some in the opposition secretly maintain lines of communication with those in power.

One such key UNF politician who jockeyed to become a candidate, found it difficult. Therefore, he secretly negotiated a crossover, which he said, was like "returning home."

However, at the last minute, he found there was opposition from the camp he was going to join. It came from none other than one who wielded the most influence.

He quickly met his leader and made amends by expressing his full support to Gen. (retd.) Sarath Fonseka.

Girl bombers don't come so small

Even if it was a security breach, the Presidential Guard did not seem much worried. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the chief guest at the opening of "Rana Jaya Pura," a housing estate for soldiers at Ipolegama in Anuradhapura.

When Rajapaksa was on stage, a three-year-old girl calmly walked past security to mount the stage. Later, she appeared before the President, easily the best practitioner of public relations among Sri Lanka's Presidents. She had the fortune of sitting on his lap for a while.

Perhaps, no alarm was raised because Tiger guerrillas have been militarily defeated.

Why VIP traffic blocks were lifted

President Rajapaksa was meeting proprietors and editors of media outlets at "Temple Trees" last Tuesday when news reached him that security escorts of a VIP had halted traffic to facilitate the movement of his convoy.

He was referring to Gen. Fonseka's security escorts who had temporarily shut a small stretch of the Galle Road opposite Holy Family Convent at Bambalapitiya. He pointed out that retired military officers were not entitled to such privileges.

By Tuesday evening, Police Chief Mahinda Balasuriya, wrote to Senior DIG Nimal Mediwake, who is in charge of the City, asking him to inform all Police Stations that no one's security detail was entitled to halt traffic on road. The only exception was that of the President.

Diplomatic blunder rectified

Last week's reference in this column about posting Sri Lanka's one time ambassador in Japan as Charge d' Affaires to the same country has opened the eyes of the Foreign Ministry hierarchy.

I said last week that Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama is sending Ranjith Uyangoda, who served in Tokyo from June 30, 2005 to January 10, 2009. Suddenly, they have realised that it was bad protocol to post a one-time head of mission as deputy to the same country.

Therefore, on Friday, Esala Weerakoon, one time Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Norway, took wing to Tokyo. He will serve as Charge d' Affaires.

Esala is the son of Bradman Weerakoon, leading state official who served as Secretary to several Prime Ministers.

No, not that

Presidential polls campaign staff of President Mahinda Rajapaksa will operate from a four-storied building just outside the "Temple Trees" complex.

This week, they were discussing a slogan for the campaign. Like Obama's 'Yes, we can' polls slogan, a prominent player suggested a one-liner - WE ARE NOT UNGRATEFUL. However, others shot it down.
Some wondered whether this was a reference to Gen. Fonseka.

No mission is an island

If long stay were a qualification for Sri Lankan citizenship, Indian journalist P.K. Balachandran, would qualify for one. A doyen of the Indian media community in Sri Lanka, he has remained in the country for well over two decades and played the role of an "ambassador of goodwill."

The latest media outlet he reports to is the New Indian Express. A piece he wrote last week headlined "COLOMBO MISSION AN ISLAND OF SECRECY" is an eye opener for any Sri Lankan who believes in good relations with India. First to what he says:

“In a foreign country, your own mission is an island of familiarity. In Colombo, the Indian High Commission is an island all right. It's just that no one, not even the Indian media, is welcome.
“It was reasonably transparent in its dealings with resident Indian correspondents till the advent of Gopal Gandhi, more so under Nirupama Rao. Under Shivshankar Menon, there was hardly any restriction, though often anonymity was requested.

“Though Gopal Gandhi was hospitable he gave little hard information. “But no visit from New Delhi was kept secret. With Nirupama Rao, the rot set in. Her craze for sunshine stories and her extreme sensitivity to criticism or adverse reporting, however factual, affected her relations with the Indian and local media. She expected the Indian media to be an unofficial voice of officialdom.

“Things became truly unbearable when Alok Prasad took over. Prasad not only did not interact with the media but was openly hostile to them. “The mission kept the visits of Indian officials to discuss projects of importance in the context of China's build-up in Sri Lanka shrouded in secrecy. Two Indian demining teams are working in the north, but their work is kept under wraps for reasons best known to the mission. Indian doctors did great work in two India-built hospitals in the north and east during the war, but no Indian correspondent was allowed to visit them and write about them.

“The recent visit of 10 Tamil Nadu MPs was kept under the wraps right through. From the way the MPs behaved (cutting off the line when an unfamiliar Colombo number showed up on their mobiles). It was apparent that the South Block mandarins had told them not to talk to the press. Even more embarrassingly, the visit of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee would have come as a total surprise but for a chance meeting with new High Commissioner Ashok Kanth.

“While other foreign missions always arrange a press conference when their Ministers and high officials visit Colombo, the Indian Mission rarely or never does so. Sri Lankans attribute this to a Big Brotherly arrogance or a hidden agenda.”

However, Balachandran did not say something. The treatment meted out to most Sri Lankan media, like the Indian media contingent in Colombo, was no different. Before one could even say Lal Mahal, then High Commissioner Alok Prasad had departed from a time-honoured tradition followed by his predecessors. He not only shut the local media out but also often poured scorn on them.

Understandably, most of the conscientious staff at the Indian High Commission in Colombo was appalled and even deeply embarrassed. They were worried about the damage caused to their country's image by little less than a handful of their colleagues practising "ventriloquist diplomacy," a new legacy left behind by Prasad.

The "big brotherly arrogance," as Balachandran points out, was made worse by the conduct of a moron who was dinkering, sorry, tinkering around with all and sundry in the media.

High Commissioner Kanth has declared that one of his priorities is to forge good relations with the Sri Lankan media. It is a noble mission. India, Sri Lanka's friendly neighbour, has given the world greats like Lord Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi among others. Therefore, he has realised the importance of maintaining the good image of a great country and not let petty officials muddy it or blame it on others

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