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Questions galore over MR’s sudden visit to US

  • No army officers in security contingent; but AI reacts fast by calling for investigation
  • Vital Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday may make or break DNA and decide Fonseka's future
By Our Political Editor

Top-secret plans got under way hurriedly on Tuesday night. The travel itinerary was finalised and the security personnel handpicked. Within hours, before dawn Wednesday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and an entourage of 18 others flew in a SriLankan Airlines flight to Dubai.

To most, including those in the top echelons of the government and the Colombo-based diplomatic community, perhaps with one or two exceptions, they were caught by complete surprise. Hours later, telephone lines buzzed with the question - where was President Rajapaksa headed? In a country where rumour takes over when reality is obscure, there were many theories.

Normally, when a head of state or government embarks on an overseas visit, i.e. leaves the shores of his country, the citizenry are kept informed of his whereabouts and the purpose of his visit. They are told if he is on a state visit, a private visit or a semi-official visit as the case may be. Of late, especially during the tenure of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga these niceties were not observed. They were often put frivolously on 'security grounds', but what excuse is there now.

Adding to the guessing game was the fact that Rajapaksa had no plans for overseas travel this week. He had just cut short a visit to the Jaffna peninsula on Monday where he attended some public ceremonies including a visit to the Nallur Hindu kovil and Nagadeepa to attend the funeral of Ranjit Senanayake, father of UPFA MP Vasantha in Colombo. On Wednesday evening, at 5 p.m. he was scheduled to meet one of Pakistan's most powerful men, Army Commander General Ashfaq Kayani. The Islamic nation's 14th Army Commander, he succeeded General Pervaiz Musharaff. He rose to the highest office after joining the Army as a soldier and hails from Jhelum in Punjab - known for its only product, soldiers. The reputed General has been responsible many a time for personally expediting military requirements to Sri Lanka when security forces fought Tiger (LTTE) guerrillas.

Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne had to stand in for President Rajapaksa during a courtesy call. On the last occasion, when the President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari was on an official visit to Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa took off to Britain before the Pakistani leader had departed from Colombo. This was for the now infamous non-address to the Oxford Union, which was scuttled by pro-LTTE protestors.

It was hours later on Thursday that it became known that Rajapaksa and his entourage were headed for the United States. Accompanying him were External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge and the official photographer. The security contingent to accompany him were made up of only Police personnel assigned to the Presidential Security Division (PSD) and headed by Deputy Inspector General (DIG) S.M. Wickremesinghe. The absence of Army officers, it appeared, was to avoid any controversy this time amidst allegations of 'war crimes' by western nations. Presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera told media, after Rajapaksa had left and upon inquiry by the media, that the visit was "private" but did not elaborate.

President Rajapaksa inaugurated the Sangupiddy Bridge in Jaffna with all pomp and ceremony on Sunday, January 16, and thereafter left for the US. Pic by Sudath Silva

Even the customary debate in Parliament to extend the ongoing State of Emergency was advanced. This is to enable Rajapaksa to sign the proclamation before he left for the US. Usually the subject is taken up for discussion in the first week of every month. The opposition parties agreed at a meeting with the Speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, to pass the Regulations and have a debate later.

Yet, many remained curious. If indeed the visit was 'private,' some argued why the Minister of External Affairs should accompany Rajapaksa. It is customary for a head of state, even on private visits, to have his minister responsible for the conduct of foreign policy beside him. More so, since the Sunday Times learnt that Rajapaksa has plans to interact with the Sri Lankan Diaspora during the eight-day visit. Other versions spoke of Rajapaksa having back-channel talks with intermediaries and were headed for US as a result - a claim that was hotly denied in diplomatic circles. There were also claims, unconfirmed of course, that a close relative in Houston was ill. One local web site claimed Rajapaksa had travelled to the US for astrological reasons.

From Dubai, Rajapaksa arrived in Houston, Texas, on Thursday morning. Among those present to greet him was his brother, Dudley, who lives there. In the afternoon, he is learnt to have paid a visit to a leading medical institution. Sources in the United States say once these engagements are over, Rajapaksa plans to speak to the Sri Lankan Diaspora about both international and local issues. The main international issue that concerns the government is the upcoming report of the three-member UN panel investigating alleged 'war crimes' in Sri Lanka. As revealed in these columns last week, their report is to come before the UN Commission on Human Rights when it meets in Geneva later next month.

Heightened by these concerns, last week, Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and Attorney General Mohan Peiris flew to Geneva. Samarasinghe, who has now been assigned the subject of human rights, and Peiris, the government's point man on all matters legal, spoke with delegations of some countries and other officials on the issues that would evolve over Sri Lanka. Locally, the government's main concern is to seek the support of the Sri Lankan Diaspora for rehabilitation and reconstruction of areas affected by the devastating floods last week. A detailed report of the aftermath, including the colossal damage it caused, appears elsewhere in this newspaper.

Although the trail of devastation left by last week's floods in the central, north central and eastern provinces was equal to the one caused by the tsunami in December 2004, the response of the Sri Lankan Diaspora abroad has been lukewarm. In contrast, barring India (which gave almost the same amount of money as allocated by the government), others who rushed to assist were government's perceived adversaries. They included the United States, the European Union, Canada, the United Nations and several International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs). It was only on Friday, the UN made a worldwide appeal for $ 51 million dollars in aid. This was after the visit of UN Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, Catherine Bragg.

Though the Rajapaksa visit caught the anti-government Diaspora in the US by complete surprise, it was to draw the attention of Amnesty International. In a statement, issued hurriedly, AI said:
"The United States should investigate Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on a surprise visit to the US this week, for his alleged role in perpetrating torture and war crimes.

"The US has an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute people who perpetrated war crimes and grave human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director. Mahinda Rajapaksa is commander in chief of Sri Lanka's armed forces, which face numerous allegations of war crimes, enforced disappearances, and torture.

"Under international law, military commanders may face criminal responsibility if they knew, or should have known, of such crimes being committed by their subordinates. The President's visit comes as a Panel of Experts appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon works on a report advising him on accountability issues in Sri Lanka.

"Both Sri Lankan government forces and members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are accused of having committed war crimes in the final phase of the decades-long conflict. Amnesty International has called for the UN to initiate an international investigation. Thousands of victims in Sri Lanka demand accountability for the abuses they've suffered from the Sri Lankan security forces as well as armed groups such as the LTTE," Sam Zarifi said.

"In December WikiLeaks exposed a secret US Embassy cable sent by Ambassador Patricia Butenis from Colombo in which she noted the difficulty of bringing perpetrators of alleged crimes to justice when "responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers ...."

"Amnesty International said the US should further investigate these allegations and support calls for an international investigation into Sri Lanka's role in war crimes."

The government's only response came from presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera. He told the Sunday Times the AI statement was both "mischievous and frivolous" but declined to elaborate.
Last Wednesday's Washington Times published a news report based on the AI news release headlined "Sri Lankan president under scrutiny for war crimes." Comical enough, the External Affairs Ministry, lost no time in circulating it to all of Sri Lanka's diplomatic missions overseas. Though the ministry cannot be faulted for distributing a 'negative' report, what puzzled many seniors in the EAM was why no guidance was given to overseas missions on how to counter such reports or to brief their host governments. The exercise seemed a mere dissemination of what a newspaper had printed.

Tomorrow, the Human Rights Watch in New York will release its World Report. An HRW statement said, "The report's introduction highlights shortcomings in the "quiet diplomacy" approach often favoured by the United Nations and many of its member states, which replace pressure with private dialogue and "cooperation." Human Rights Watch cites as recent examples the United Nations' deferential attitude toward the Sri Lankan government in the face of atrocities, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's failure to speak out on human rights in China, and Ban's efforts to portray Burma's deeply flawed elections in a positive light."

By a co-incidence, with Rajapaksa just about to set foot on Texan soil, Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary in the US Department of State, was speaking on President Obama's priorities in South and Central Asia. It was at the James A Baker III Institute for Foreign Policy at the Rice University in Texas. He declared, "While Sri Lanka's economy has thrived since the end of its brutal civil war, during the end of which I served as ambassador, its reconciliation has proceeded more slowly. I hope that the government will act on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission it set up, as part of wider efforts that will be needed to help establish a lasting peace." Blake is now in charge of Central and South Asia, which includes Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa's visit also figured at Friday's briefing at the State Department in Washington D.C. Questions were posed to Philip J. Crowley, the spokesperson. Here are the relevant extracts:

QUESTION: What's your understanding of the visit of the - or what do you know about the visit to the United States of the president of Sri Lanka?
MR. CROWLEY: He is visiting the United States and it is a private visit.
QUESTION: Is he - does he have any - he has no plans to meet with any U.S. officials?
QUESTION: I understand he might be in Texas and that Assistant Secretary Blake was there. There was some speculation that the two might meet.
MR. CROWLEY: There is no meeting that I'm aware of with the president during his visit. So I - yes, you're right. I think Assistant Secretary Blake gave a speech at Rice University, but we specifically asked, and there's no meeting between a U.S. Government official and President Rajapaksa.
QUESTION: Is the Sri Lankan foreign minister with him? And maybe you will meet him or the Secretary will.
MR. CROWLEY: Again, if I'm wrong, we'll correct the record, but I'm not aware of any meetings associated with his visit.
QUESTION: There have been some calls for him to be investigated or to be looked into or even prosecuted. Is this something that you're willing to look at?
MR. CROWLEY: Well - and in fact, we have made strong public statements and are supporting what Sri Lanka is doing. It's a process that is still ongoing. We clearly believe that those who have violated international humanitarian law must be held accountable, and we believe that accountability for alleged crimes is an essential component of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka. There is a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that has been receiving testimony from hundreds of people. I think its mandate has been extended to June of this year, at which time it will make a report to President Rajapaksa. We would hope that Sri Lanka would continue this effort and take advantage of expertise that exists, for example, within the United Nations and the Secretary General's Panel ofExperts that has volunteered to provide assistance to Sri Lanka as it continues this effort.

QUESTION: Right, but the president and his government have refused the UN any (inaudible) as I understand it, correct?
MR. CROWLEY: I understand that. So we -
QUESTION: Well, so why wouldn't this be an opportunity, if he's in the United States, to meet with him -
MR. CROWLEY: We will - this is a process that is ongoing. We will continue to encourage Sri Lanka to have a full accounting of what happened at the end of the - during and at the end of this conflict. We think it's very, very important to Sri Lanka's future, and we will not hesitate to speak out as this process continues.
QUESTION: Right, well, if it is very, very important to Sri Lanka's future and you support the UN role in this, why not take the opportunity of a visit of the president to meet with him and to reinforce that position, tell him face to face?
MR. CROWLEY: We've had no trouble communicating our views to the Government of Sri Lanka.
QUESTION: Well, how about this then? Have you -
QUESTION: Have you sought - have you asked to meet with him?
MR. CROWLEY: We did not; nor did he ask to meet with us.
QUESTION: Well, okay, then can I ask why not ask to meet with him if you feel so strongly that his government should drop its opposition to UN involvement in this panel?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're going to wait and see how this process unfolds, and if it falls short, we will not hesitate to say so.

Whilst the President's unscheduled visit to the US drew considerable international attention, and a buzz in Sri Lanka, the focal point at home remained the upcoming local government elections. On Thursday, opposition United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe berated Premier D.M. Jayaratne, for announcing at a public rally that the polls would be held on March 12. He charged that Jayaratne had usurped the role of the Commissioner of Elections, and no doubt gave an unfortunate hint that the Commissioner was in communication with the government on such matters. However, this is the official date to be announced once the nominations end on January 27.

One of the biggest casualties during nominations is the now politically ineffective Democratic National Alliance (DNA) led by former General Sarath Fonseka. With the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's (JVP) decision to contest the polls under its own symbol, the DNA has been paralysed. It cannot field any candidates since the JVP's Vijitha Herath is the Secretary of the DNA. In that scenario, the DNA, a motley group of smaller political parties sans the JVP, has been examining several ways and means of contesting the local polls. One of its prime movers, Tiran Alles, as reported earlier, held talks with Sajith Premadasa to join the UNP if he assumed the leadership. Another faction led by Arjuna Ranatunga MP spoke with UNP leader Wickremesinghe.

With the UNP deciding to put on hold its tussle over leadership at least until the local polls are over, DNA stalwarts are caught in a dilemma. Their Democratic Party (DP) was one of 86 that had sought official recognition from the Commissioner General of Elections. This week, all such applications were rejected. Moves to 'buy' a registered political party or contest as a group of independents is still under consideration. This comes at a time when DNA leader Fonseka's own future will be determined by a Supreme Court ruling to be made known on Tuesday. He has challenged the validity of the first General Courts Martial (GCM) that has stripped him of his rank, decorations and denied his pension. It is on the grounds that the General Court Martial (the first among two such GCMs) is not a judicial body.

In the event of a ruling that the GCM is a legally constituted entity, the need by Fonseka to challenge the verdict of the second GCM will not arise. It is the second GCM that sentenced him to 30 months rigorous imprisonment thus depriving him from being a member of parliament. However, if the Court does not recognise the GCM as a legal entity, Fonseka would naturally return to Parliament. In this backdrop, the direction of Fonseka's political future will be determined this coming week. Having angered the JVP after Tiran Alles began back channel talks with Premadasa and Ranatunga with Wickremesinghe, how Fonseka would find a base for future political activity either in jail or outside it, becomes a critical question.
Besides frictions over secret talks, JVP members were also livid at criticism Fonseka levelled against some of their leaders. This was after their leaders Vijitha Herath and Anura Kumara Dissanayake shook hands with President Rajapaksa at the tea party which followed the presentation of the budget in November, last year. Front-page newspaper photographs and television coverage of the event angered Fonseka. He protested that the JVP leaders should not have "consorted" with Rajapaksa. However, Dissanayake told his party colleagues that it was an elementary courtesy extended to the President of Sri Lanka and did not reflect a change in party policy. He argued that even if Fonseka was there, as an "officer and a gentleman" he would have done the same thing.

Last week's references in these columns to Sajith Premadasa drew an angry response from him. He was to give television, radio and print media interviews to re-iterate that he would become the leader of the UNP. Though not making a pointed reference to the Sunday Times, he charged that some leaders had planted accounts in a Sunday newspaper column that he had "chickened out" from contesting the post of leader when the party's Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group met. The Sunday Times political commentary noted that he was aware that local polls were ahead when he spoke of halting his claim for leadership on grounds of party unity. He declared that he was still in the race for UNP leadership and would become its leader. Taking criticism in its stride is not one of Premadasa's strong points. "Ranil has an enormous appetite to eat humble pie. However, Sajith cannot even take a slice of it," said a political observer commenting over Premadasa's hostile reactions to any criticism or unfavourable points of view.

This week, Premadasa earned the wrath of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Ven Hedigalle Wimalasara, Central Committee member of the JHU, strongly criticized Premadasa at a news conference on Tuesday. Also speaking at the news conference was Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera. Ven. Wimalasara said:
"We wish to bring to your attention another issue. The Asst. Secretary of the UNP, the UNP organizer of the Tissmaharamaya and Sajith Premadasa recently questioned what was the JHU doing to mark the 2600 years of the Sambuddha Jayanthiya.

"During UNP's period between the 2001 and 2004 evangelic movements were able to spread their authority in the country. The JHU was formed under this context. Mr. Premadasa is questioning us, but what is he doing? He is distributing Rs. 50,000 each under the Sasunata Aruna. He thinks money will help. He will need Rs. 45 million. Our question is from where did he get this money.

"During the UNP period the Commission report about unethical conversion was not publicized, we called for the publication of this report. At this point Mr. Premadasa should have come out and said that he would help to bring this report out. He could have challenged his leader to publish this report. We have doubts about his sudden love towards Buddhism.

"Our party is not working only for the Buddha Jayanthiya, but we have been working to improve Buddhism throughout the years. Evangelical movements are working,some former beauty queens are among them. Some have given up Buddhism. Our aim is to get them back to Buddhism.

"Mr Premadasa did not speak a word when the JHU brought a bill in parliament about unethical conversions.
"Q: You said that casino money is being given, but your party has agreed on the Casino Bill in Parliament recently.
"A: We do not accept casinos. As a party we do not support, the legal framework is different. Ven. Omalpe Sobitha presented a bill to control the consumption of liquor. As a Buddhist party we are against consumption of liquor. We want to go step by step. As the JHU we should stop casinos. But it has to be done step-by-step.

"Q: If you had continued your campaign there would have been people supporting you. But instead you have said your party is against casinos, but in support of controlling them.
"A: Yes we are against Casinos, and supporting the control of it as it is good to have a control.
"Q: So there is no problem in giving that money to a temple.
"A: No we are against that. For instance, if you slaughter cattle and give that money to promote Buddhism that cannot be accepted.
"Q: Similar to some of the monks like your party supporting President Mahinda Rajapaksa, other monks too can support any party they like.
"A: We are not against that. They can support any party. But we say that by giving Rs. 50,000 each to temples, they cannot convert the Buddhist monks. What we say that Mr. Premadasa's aim is not a charitable act. You can do a charitable act, but not accuse others. In this case it is not a charitable act, but there is an agenda about it."

Not to be outdone, the Premadasa faction arranged a new conference to counter the JHU accusations. Ven. Ukgoda Damminda, Chief incumbent of the Welithuduwa temple, Piliyandala was the main speaker at a news conference at the Bodhi Ranasinghe Foundation in Polhengoda on Thursday. He said:
"The Sasusanta Aruna programme is a service to the temples. Even without having state support. Sajith Premadasa is carrying out this programme. He has identified the needs of the people. The government is trying to ensure that no new leader comes up in the UNP. The JHU has made allegations against Premadasa. They do not have any evidence. They are obviously using government money to carry out this campaign. I am challenging them to prove that this money has come from illegal sources.

"When the Casino Bill was passed, the JHU remained silent. That is something they had done against Buddhism. They are puppets representing the governemnt's view. We will continue to support the Sasusanta Aruna programme. Some of the temples which have received money from the Sassunata Aruna programme were in remote areas and unable to maintain the monks in the temples. "

There was criticism within the UNP too. Ven. Meetiyagoda Gunaratana Thera addressing a meeting for the launch of the Eksath Bikkshu Peramuna at the Sirikotha on Thursday said, "The people who are campaigning for leadership in the UNP should take an example from Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party in India. He does not go around asking for the leadership in the party.

Despite a 'truce' over the tussle for UNP leadership, the matter is still the subject of discussion in many quarters. This week, at the marriage ceremony of the grand-daughter of onetime UNP MP for Horana and Minister of Coconut Industries, Indradasa Hettiaratchchi, and son of Jayantha Sirisena of Mount Lavinia Hotel at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga spoke out. She told Bodhi Ranasinghe, the virtual Chief of Staff for Premadasa, that the only one who could bring about unity in the UNP was deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya.

She noted that if either Wickremesinghe or Premadasa becomes the leader of the UNP there would be a split in the party and that Jayasuriya would act as a catalyst for the rival factions. That certainly may not be good news for Wickremesinghe with whom she has now cultivated a strong personal friendship through the 'good offices' of Mangala Samaraweera. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga was also 'parked' at the same table as Kumaratunga but opted to sit at another table. Kumaratunga told UNP National List MP Harsha de Silva who was also at the same table that if the UNP is strong it can bring down the government. Her thinking was that the government is vulnerable and suspicious, and very worried.

Kumaratunga was in a buoyant mood that night and even danced the baila with Harsha de Silva who was in good form that night himself, after Ranasinghe who was also dragged onto the floor by her, quietly slithered back to his seat after a short shake of the leg on the dance floor. Kumaratunga, now missing the limelight on the political canvass was the main attraction on the baila floor.

The UNP has set up various committees to deal with matters arising from the local polls. Its leader Wickremesinghe heads the National Advisory Committee. Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya heads a Steering Committee. An offer for Premadasa to head the UNP local polls campaign had been turned down. The offer from Wickremesinghe was conveyed when party stalwarts John Ameratunga, Joseph Michael Perera and Jayalath Jayawardena met Premadasa for talks. The UNP propaganda campaign is to be spearheaded by Mangala Samaraweera, the former UPFA Foreign Minister and chief campaign manager for Rajapaksa during his 2005 Presidential race.

This week, most UNP leaders remain pre-occupied with the upcoming local polls. Barring their internecine battles which have been ostensibly put on hold, the party has had no time to react on other important issues. One such case is the party's inability to make a statement on Rajapaksa's US visit, which has left most Sri Lankans puzzled. Barring a few speeches in Parliament on the flood situation by a handful of their MPs, the UNP's inability to get its act together despite decisions reached for a 'truce' within the walls of Siri Kotha reiterates the fact that the party is continuing to fail on issues of public importance.


From : kaushalya pathirage
Sri Lankan people have suffered under the tyranny of Piripaharan (LTTE) for almost three decades. The last three decades have driven us to no mans land. In this period China became a global power, if the situation was rife in this period Sri Lanka would have been a regional power, but this was denied due to our ineffective political leaders.
The time has come for all the people and the political parties to unite and develop this country and achieve what this mother land has been denied for decades. In this backdrop the UNP as the largest and the weakest opposition party should bear in mind the lessons learnt from the past and reform its party to face the future.
The monk quoted in the article says Sajith should not go around and be vociferous of the leadership of UNP. I must clearly say these monks do not know what Sri Lanka wants. If the monk is opposing a young energetic and a politically proven leader like Sajith to become the opposition leader i think this is a bad start for post-war Sri Lanka.
Let me enlighten you how MR got the leadership. It was only when the LTTE threatened the Tamil voters and issued a boycott call. Nobody, not even Piripaharan, thought that this was the end of the road for him. I think MR did an exceptional job as commander-in-chief of this country and he continues to shine. His nationalist sentiment towards the west paved way for the annihilation of the LTTE. We cannot judge a person's capacity until the person reach the leadership pinnacle.
 As per the ammended Sri Lanka constitution the president is almighty so the no 1 citizen has enough weaponry at his disposal. In my point of view Sajith should take the leadership of the UNP. What Sajith has done in the past 15 years is what Rahul Ghandi is doing now. Hence in the best case scenario the UNP should embrace the Congress Party (India) position by elevating RW as the leader of the party and let Sajith be the mouthpiece of the UNP. If RW really wants to see this country rid of the dictatorship attitude he should be the first person to step down. People should understand life is a learning curve until death


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