Columns - Talk at the Cafe Spectator

Pottinger: The bell tolls for Lanka

Kevin Murray, Chairman of the Bell Pottinger Group, hired by the Government of Sri Lanka to do public relations and diplomacy in Britain, just side by side with the High Commission in London, has this to say to his 600-odd clients:

"Our clients come to us when they need to build great reputations, win more customers, increase sales and build brands. We have helped them to be talked about positively in the print and broadcast media and on the web, and created active brand advocates in social media…."

There is little doubt that the Government of Sri Lanka believed in Murray's dictum when it hired Bell Pottinger to do exactly that for an annual fee of more than a million Sterling Pounds. This is on top of our own diplomatic mission duplicating the work though perhaps less efficiently.

However, Pottinger's performance when President Mahinda Rajapaksa and entourage of some 40 were in Britain has brought forth some interesting revelations. The President was to address the Oxford Union, but the event was cancelled purportedly due to security factors.

And the task of winning friends, influencing people and building "a great reputation" naturally went to Bell Pottinger. As part of its efforts, it lined up an interview with the reputed Times of London. Its Editor James Harding and journalist Ben Macintyre visited President Rajapaksa at his suite at the Dorchester Hotel.

Their story was far different from what either Bell Pottinger or the Government of Sri Lanka had expected. Worse enough, the editorial ridiculed the President for a "derisory publicity campaign that, even through his own willful self-delusion, he must realize defies credibility worldwide."

A Sri Lankan living in Britain described it pithily in Sinhala - Sallee deela guti kanawa wage (or like paying money to get assaulted).

Another assignment for Bell Pottinger or its subsidiary, Pmplegacy, is to go on a "reputation laundering wheeze" for Sri Lanka to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The new firm has been named "lead adviser and project manager" for the Sri Lankan bid. Pmplegacy's selling line says it has a "long and distinguished 25-year track record of working with leading cities around the world on the evaluation, bidding, planning and delivery of major sporting events."

Just imagine!! All these were matters handled in the past decades by Sri Lanka diplomatic missions abroad. They even helped host a Non Aligned Summit Conference in Colombo. But these are days when even diplomacy and inter governmental relations are being outsourced.

Love thy predecessor as thyself

The state function to felicitate the newly-appointed Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith took place at the BMICH on Monday. The chief guest was President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His predecessor Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was also among the invitees. She was also given a seat on the front row.

At the end of the function, a Catholic priest was handing over copies of a felicitation volume. The first copy was handed over to the Cardinal and the next to President Rajapaksa. When the priest came up to Ms. Kumaratunga, seated about eight seats away from the President, he had no more books that were wrapped with red ribbons.

Rajapaksa soon intervened and indicated he wanted to speak to the priest distributing the books. He offered his book with the red ribbon to be given to Ms. Kumaratunga. Bless him.

Sajith sings: Master sir, give my place

Internecine tussles did not prevent UNP parliamentarians from having a drink, sing song and dinner last Monday. The occasion was a party organized by Chief Opposition Whip, John Ameratunga at the 'Fortune Chinese Restaurant' at Olympic House in Colombo.

Many UNP MPs were present besides their leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. They included Tissa Attanayake, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Sujeeva Senasinghe, Eran Wickremeratne, Jayalath Jayawardena, Harsha de Silva, Wasantha Aluvihare, Thalatha Gunasekera, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, and D.M. Swaminathan.

Only four non MPs were invited. They were Dinesh Weerakkody (Ameratunga's son in law), Ronald Perera, attorney at law, and Mihira de Alwis. Ravi Karunanayake MP stayed only a few minutes and left before dinner.

Dayasiri Jayasekera, Sajith Premadasa and Sujeewa Senasinghe sang till about midnight. Sajith sang his theme song in recent times 'Master Sir mata himi thana denna …" (Master Sir, give me my due place) and another where he paraphrased the words of a popular baila asking for the leadership.

The leader had of course left the party by then leaving the young Turks to sing for their supper. But it was a convivial evening and one could hardly imagine this to be the political party that is called the dis-United National Party.

Basil absent on vital day

President Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Parliament on Friday to wind up the debate on the Budget in his capacity as the Minister of Finance and Planning. While son Namal was the conspicuous absentee on the day he presented the Budget, this time around it was the President's brother, Basil Rajapaksa, the powerful Economic Development Minister who was absent. He is abroad, said an aide.

President hits air pockets

The heavy rains and strong winds this week had its impact on President Mahinda Rajapaksa as well.
Having gone to his native Tangalla last Sunday to attend a family funeral, the President was due to return to Colombo that night when he received a message that Royal College (Colombo) Principal Upali Gunasekera's mother had passed away and the funeral was due to be held at Baddegama.

The President had to change his travel plans and on Monday when he was on his way to Baddegama, the Presidential chopper hit two air pockets and the pilot had to make a hurried landing at Koggala air base. Unable to proceed, he was held up for several hours and an Air Force Y12 fixed wing aircraft had to be sent from Colombo to pick the President and Shiranthi Rajapaksa and transport them to the Ratmalana Air base.

Quick promotion for Opposition MP

With so many opposition members crossing over to the government side, senior ruling party members have had to move to the back rows to make room.

However it is having a reverse effect on the shrinking opposition side. UNP National List MP Anoma Gamage, a first time entrant to Parliament was allocated a seat in the second row on the opposition benches along with UNP Kurunegela district MP Akila Kariyawasam who has been in Parliament since 2004.

She was telling her male colleague recently, "You had to wait six years to get a second row seat and I have got one in less than a year." At the rate the UNP is losing its members, she may soon move to a front row seat, cracked a wag.

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