"I have an interesting letter that will make you all laugh," declared President Mahinda Rajapaksa, when the weekly cabinet meeting ended on Wednesday night.
He read out to his ministers the contents in Sinhala without identifying the writer. The recipients were the writer's sister and brother-in-law. He had thanked them as well as their children for helping him during the April 2010 parliamentary elections. Whilst the couple helped in many ways, the children had taken the trouble to write addresses on envelopes mailed to electors. The writer had regretted he had still not been able to find jobs for the children.
"I ask you to wait patiently. Because of my connections with Sajith Premadasa (UNP parliamentarian for Hambantota District), I will soon become a leader," he said. The confidence of becoming "a leader" prompted the writer to tell his sister and brother in law that "when Premadasa becomes Prime Minister, I will be the Minister of Fisheries."
|Members of the Movement for Democracy are peacefully gathered opposite the Welikada Prison imploring the release of former army commander Sarath Fonseka from prison, on Tuesday. Pic by Ranjith Perera
Thereafter, he had added, "when Premadasa becomes President, I will be the Prime Minister. So please wait patiently."
Rajapaksa could not help but remark to his ministers "this is how people build sand castles." There was laughter all round. Soon ministers were asking in whispers from one another if they knew the identity of the letter-writer. It turned out to be another United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian from the south while Premadasa may aspire to be leader himself, throwing his hat into the ring for the UNP's topmost post, there were others, already dreaming of becoming ministers and prime ministers.
Even if Rajapaksa considered some of those aspirations as "building sand castles," he thought it fit enough to tell his ministers what happens in politics, underscoring the significance.
Since becoming Sri Lanka's fifth (and later sixth) President, Rajapaksa seems to have mastered his own style of statecraft. He not only kept his ministers briefed on extraneous issues to reflect his thinking to his cabinet colleagues. Ahead of the weekly meetings, he also took the trouble to pore over a multitude of cabinet memoranda presented for discussion by ministers. That he was sharp to catch nuances and used his own means to keep track of what was going on in ministries was bared during last Wednesday night's meeting.
Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, a one-time follower of actor-turned-politician Vijaya Kumaranatunga and his wife Chandrika Kumaratunga and later a UNP cabinet minister who then crossed over to the UPFA, had put forward a memorandum. In that, he had sharply criticised his predecessor, Felix Perera. The latter is now the Minister of Social Services.
"This is unacceptable. I want this kind of thing stopped," asserted Rajapaksa. He said ministers must know not to level criticism against his or her former colleagues. The fact that such criticism also rebounded on his leadership was not lost on Rajapaksa.
The cabinet memorandum was set aside since Senaratne was not present at the meeting. It is to be taken up when he is present. On an earlier occasion, Rajapaksa has pulled up his ministers for violating the dress code at cabinet meetings. One of them who casually breezed in wearing a short sleeved bush shirt was warned. So was another, who came with a batik shirt that bore colourful, flowery decorations around the neck and in the chest. He was asked to go home, change and return.
Toilet facilities for job seekers
Another topic of discussion was the spurt in job opportunities in West Asian countries, particularly in Qatar. This has led to a flood of Sri Lankans crowding the Consular Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. The oil rich kingdom, in preparation for a bid for the World Cup football tournament in 2022 is building futuristic stadiums and expanding existing ones. One such stadium is to accommodate 60,000 spectators in what will be the world's first underground soccer field. A large number of Sri Lankan skilled and non-skilled workers are finding jobs in these projects.
Sri Lankan job seekers abroad are required to obtain endorsements for their Police clearance certificates from the Consular Division of the External Affairs Ministry. Rajapaksa told his ministers last week that visitors to this office, now located in Colombo Fort, had no toilet facilities. What he did not say were a multitude of other complaints from applicants. They allege that nothing moved for hours if they were not "helpful" to those processing their requests. There was little or no supervision. Rajapaksa urged that the EAM move its Consular Division to another building where facilities would be available to the public. That Rajapaksa raised such a simple issue over the lack of toiler facilities in the Consular Division of the EAM for Sri Lankan overseas job seekers, whose foreign exchange remittances hugely support the country's economy, is a indictment on both the External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and his Deputy, Neomal Perera, now specifically designated to look after the administration part of the Ministry .
Minister Peiris has been responsible for a string of faux pas as revealed periodically in the Sunday Times. The last was his inability to pursue a campaign by Sri Lanka in the past five years to have the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) Secretariat located in Colombo. He was not present at the ministerial meeting in Myanmar (Burma) where the voting three to two went in favour of Bangladesh. Deputy Minister, Neomal Perera, represented him.
Perera who visited Myanmar, was to announce that Sri Lanka's tourism would increase 300 times in the next three years. If he were right, Sri Lanka would be world's number one tourist destination edging out France. Besides tourist hotels, even if all the hospitals in the country were converted to tourist resorts, it was obvious that the goal was a pipedream. (The Sri Lankan embassy in Myanmar wrote to the Sunday Times this week referring to our story about the deputy minister's claim, and said the statement has been since corrected). It took President Rajapaksa to point out a simple, but important deficiency; that there were no toilet facilities for the citizens coming in search of consular support from the government; and that too at a weekly cabinet meeting.
Flood and food crisis
Early last Wednesday, Rajapaksa cancelled a scheduled meeting of the National Security Council. Instead, he flew to Anuradhapura to take a close look at the damage caused in the district by the heavy flooding for the second time in three weeks. He later chaired a conference of government officials at the Central Bank branch auditorium where he obtained details of the destruction caused. The same night, back in Colombo he presided over the cabinet meeting in what seemed a punishing schedule.
At the cabinet meeting that night, as Minister of Finance, Rajapaksa obtained approval for Rs. 33 billion for relief, repair and rehabilitation work connected with the floods in the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. He was to tell his ministers that in the light of the allocation of this amount, they should desist from bringing supplementary estimates for their ministries before Parliament. He also asked that any unspent funds remaining in their respective ministries be returned to the Treasury.
|Members of the UNP fancifully attired in the garb of prisoners march fromVictoria Park to Welikada Prison vehemently demanding the release of Gen. (Retd) Sarath Fonseka from prison, on Wednesday. Pic by Nilan Maligaspe
The commitment of a colossal amount to rehabilitate the flood-affected areas would no doubt impact heavily on the country's economy. These were funds meant for other development activity and comes weeks ahead of the country experiencing the fuller repercussions of the ravage caused by heavy rains and floods. Fears of shortages of rice and other food crops have heightened amidst prices already shooting to unprecedented levels this week. Exacerbating the situation is the rise in the price of diesel, the result of increases affected by the Lanka India Oil Corporation (LIOC). The company has warned of further increases. A detailed report on the price rises appear on Page 12 in today's Sunday Times.
Worsening the fears are questions relating to the availability and prices of rice and other essential food crops during the National New Year in April. As has been the practice in recent times, senior politicians have been making statements contradicting each other over the availability of food items.
Whilst some warned of shortages, others boasted about buffer stocks that would last months. The latter set was least conscious that changing global weather patterns have taken a toll in many countries. For example, in Australia, vast extents of sugar and wheat cultivation have been affected prompting shortages. Agriculture in Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Russia and parts of Europe has been hit by a severe winter, and its impact is going to be felt especially in sugar and wheat prices, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has already warned. And, the poor in the poorer countries will feel it hardest.
On the other hand, for some politicians the recent devastation was a windfall to enhance their own personal images. They rushed to community kitchens set up in makeshift centres for the displaced thousands to stir ladles where food in large pots was cooked. Photographers taken along with them clicked much faster than relief could reach the victims. Others carried polythene bags with dry rations and handed them to groups of displaced as the cameras clicked. Their PROs (public relations officers) were asked to send the photos to the media. At least two senior military officials in the Eastern and North Central Provinces were compelled to turn down requests from these government politicians for helicopter flights with photographers "to inspect" the damage.
Their requests to the Ministry of Defence had been re-directed to these senior officers. They said their priority was to ensure relief work was carried out. One of them told a government politician if he was in a hurry, he could hire a boat and travel. The same senior officer was seen pulling out his purse and paying from his personal money to some helpless victims. His only request to the other ranks present was not to mention that act to anyone. It is a contrast indeed between the publicity-seeking politician to parade before human misery to project themselves and a military officer conscious of secrecy over a meritorious act.
Borrowings and more borrowings
It is against this backdrop that Rajapaksa, in his capacity as Minister of Finance, placed for the information of his ministers the issue of US $ 600 million (Rs. 66 billion) in bonds. At least US $500 million (Rs. 55 billion) from this amount, the Sunday Times learnt, is to service previous commitments. As a high-ranking source declared, "it is a case of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. It would have to continue." Details appear in a front-page story today. His remarks underscored the serious economic dilemmas the government would face in the coming months. Compounding the situation is the hike in world oil prices consequent to the internal turmoil in Egypt.
All these come at a time when the UPFA is stepping up its campaign to win the March 17 local council elections. This week, the alliance filed action in the Court of Appeal to challenge the rejection of nominations to 33 local bodies. The UPFA will not contest the ruling of Returning Officers in respect of three other local bodies where nominations were rejected. Some of the cases filed are:
NAWAGATHTHEGAMA PRADESHIYA SABHA: Attorney at law Athula de Silva has said that the determination of the returning officer to reject the UPFA nominations was void in law. Among the reasons he has adduced: The decision or determination has been made arbitrarily and mala fide for collateral purposes.
RAJANGANAYA PRADESHIYA SABHA: Susil Premajayantha, Secretary General of the UPFA, has declared that nomination papers of the alliance were duly completed in accordance with polls laws. The Returning Officer had, however, rejected them depriving the alliance of its right to contest the polls. He has said if they were accepted, the alliance would have had a "fair chance of securing several seats." Among other matters, he has pointed out that the order of the Returning Officer does not identify which of the 12 candidates had submitted the defective oath/affirmation in the 7th schedule to the Constitution.
POONAGARI (POONERYN) PRADESHIYA SABHA: Mary Theresa Dickman, Attorney at Law, appearing for the UPFA, has said the determination made by the Returning Officer to reject their nomination is void, and of no effect or avail in law. The petition says that the Commissioner of Elections has translated the term United National Alliance as Iykkiya Thesiya Kootamaipppu and thereby acknowledged that this represents a correct translation of the term "alliance." Moreover, he has translated the term "Front" as "Munnani" in referring to Sri Lanka Progressive Front. The said references in Tamil namely Iykkiya Makkal Sudandira Munnani or Iykkiya Makkal Sudandira Koottamaippu refer to one and the same party, namely: the Eksath Janatha Nidahas Sandhanaya known in English as United People's Freedom Alliance.
VALVETTITURAI URBAN COUNCIL: Mary Theresa Dickman, Attorney at Law, who is appearing for the UPFA in this case has adduced the same arguments as adduced in respect of the Poonagiri Pradeshiya Sabha.
AKMEEMANA PRADESHIYA SABHA: Athula de Silva, Attorney at Law for the UPFA, states that they "verily believe" that the purported rejection of the nominations had been prompted by a mistaken understanding by the Returning Officer that counter signing by a Justice of the Peace is an essential prerequisite of a valid oath/affirmation. Hence, he has argued that the rejection is "completely illegal, arbitrary and capricious."
Political solution: new laws soon
Though it missed the focus of the media, Prime Minister, D.M. Jayaratne, declared in Parliament last Tuesday that the government would introduce new laws with the intention of providing a "political settlement" to the people in the North and East. Initial talks in this regard had begun, he said speaking on the debate to extend the state of emergency. He was alluding to the ongoing dialogue between the UPFA and the Tamil National Alliance. In what seems to be a change of political tactics, the TNA is to send a high-powered delegation of its parliamentarians to meet the Maha Nayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters. A TNA parliamentarian who did not wish to be identified said, "We want to start building new bridges," a move which reflects the party's eagerness now to interact with the Sinhala polity.
However, Premier Jayaratne did not explain what the new laws would be. President Rajapaksa has gone on record as saying that his government was willing to enforce provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution together with what he called "plus." He has not elaborated so far on what this "plus" meant. Jayaratne's assertions mean that additional measures that would constitute the "plus" could come in the form of new laws.
This week, both the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the United National Party (UNP) held different events for the same purpose - to seek the release of former General Sarath Fonseka. The protest meeting by the JVP saw an estimated 3,000 participants gathering at Campbell Park in Borella. They later marched to the highway opposite the Prisons Headquarters and held a sit-down protest. JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe said, "We have continued our protest campaigns for one year after Mr. Fonseka was arrested. We will rally a larger crowd next time to protest against the illegal detention of Mr. Fonseka".
He announced that his party would soon launch a signature campaign urging the government to protect the independence of the judiciary.
Fonseka's wife, Anoma was to sound a note of caution to the government to see what was happening in other parts of the world where public protests were held against the rulers. She said it was a year since her husband was in prison and declared the country's image will be tarnished if her husband was not released.
The JVP also held its annual convention on Thursday at the Sugathadasa Stadium. A noteworthy feature was the presence of a representative of the Communist Party of China, a move that showed that like its erstwhile partners in the government, the JVP continued to share a close relationship with Beijing's ruling party, and vice-versa. Earlier, a former JVP stalwart, Wimal Weerawansa also maintained close links with China and even visited that country on invitation. However, his National Freedom Front (NFF) has since been strongly aligned to Russia.
When Weerawansa went on an abortive fast unto death demanding that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon call off the UN panel investigating Sri Lanka, NFF members marched to the Russian embassy in Colombo with a memorandum. Meanwhile, two new faces - Deepal Jayakody and Dimuthu Attygalle - were brought in this week to the JVP politburo. A surprise omission was former Fisheries Minister, Chandrasena Wijesinghe.
UNP march in disarray
The UNP's candidates contesting the local government elections were summoned by the party high command to gather at the open air stadium at Vihara Maha Devi Park on Wednesday. Only some 3,000 of more than 7500 party candidates had turned up. Party leaders had excused the others from the North as well as those in the flood affected North Central and Eastern Provinces. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who wanted to speak first asked his undeclared challenger Sajith Premadasa to follow suit. However, Premadasa politely declined the offer and said he would speak after the deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya.
Premadasa was to receive a noticeably enthusiastic ovation when he rose to speak.
When the meeting ended, in a rare show of unity Ranil Wickremesinghe walked together with Sajith Premadasa, heading a procession from Lipton Circus. There was a difference of opinion among the organisers as to whether they should proceed to Welikada Prison where Mr. Fonseka is incarcerated, or stay put around Lipton Circus which would have created some traffic problems in the city and thereby had a greater impact. Those who wanted to march to Welikada jail prevailed, but this broke up the crowd, and the march itself petered out as a result, with one half remaining at Lipton Circus and the other half marching away to Borella. Both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa withdrew at the Punchi Borella Junction en-route to Borella reportedly on security grounds. Others proceeded towards the Prisons Headquarters where Police had placed a tight security cordon. On the way they were hurling abuse at some UPFA parliamentarians who they accused of breaking up a candle light vigil they had on Independence Day in support of Fonseka.
The UNP said the purpose of its protest on Wednesday was manifold. Besides demanding the release of former General Fonseka, it was also to protest against the government's suppression of media freedom and the mounting cost of living.
On Friday evening, Wickremesinghe went to see Fonseka in Welikada jail. He was accompanied by his deputy Karu Jayasuriya, party secretary Tissa Attanayake, and MPs Jayalath Jayawardene and Mangala Samaraweera. Fonseka greeted them and asked them to sit down, but there were only three chairs. The rest had to sit on his bed alongwith himself. South African icon Nelson Mandela's famous book, Long Walk to Freedom, was on a table by his bed-side. A once confiscated kettle has been returned, but no tea was served.
The UNP MPs started by discussing the political environment and the strategies the party was following both in Parliament and internationally to secure his release. Jayawardene spoke of his efforts to galvanize support from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). They discussed the media campaign and the legal campaign as well.
They then discussed the upcoming Local council elections after which Fonseka lamented the way the prison authorities were holding up a geyser that the court had ordered be provided to him so that he could have some hot water because of the spondylosis he was suffering from. He compared the way he was being treated to the way the government was treating 'KP' or Kumaran Pathmanathan, the LTTE's international wing supremo who was the master-mind in organising weapons and ammunition purchases for the terrorist organization that helped kill so many Sri Lankan soldiers and civilians.
Fonseka went on to complain about the toilet facilities at Welikada Jail and told the UNP MPs that there were seven toilets for some 1,000 inmates, which gave each about seven minutes at most to use these facilities. He said he considered himself a duly elected MP from the Colombo District, and that the people of Colombo had voted for him. "Whatever is done to me", he said, "the final judgment will come from the Court of the People", he added. The MPs left after an hour around 6 pm.
In what seems a new development, some leading UNP figures known to back Ranil Wickremesinghe in the party's leadership struggle were playing host to Premadasa in their electorates. Last week, John Ameratunga made arrangements for meetings in Wattala. This week, it was the turn of Joseph Michael Perera who similarly laid out a red carpet for Premadasa in the Ja-ela electorate. This is at a stage when the leadership issue in the party appears forgotten, at least for the time being, in view of the local polls. However, after the polls on March 17 and before April 12, as stipulated by the UNP's new Constitution, a leader has to be elected. Thus, the question of who would be the leader of the UNP during the upcoming National New Year remains a critical question.
Yesterday, deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya and General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake, began the party's local elections campaigns in Kegalle and Kandy Districts. Another group led by Ravi Karunanayake addressed meetings in Matugama. The party's steering committee working out strategies for the local polls aims to obtain a vote of over 50 percent at the polls, indeed a formidable task for the party. Other party seniors say they would be content if the party could maintain its own base by securing at least 33 percent. This is based on fears that there would be a poor voter turnout with voter apathy at a high. Elections Department officials say that even applications for postal votes has recorded a new low compared with what they received during the Presidential and Parliamentary polls last year.
Egypt vs. Sri Lanka
Jayasuriya set the campaign theme for the UNP on a different note last week when he drew parallels in a statement to the political turmoil in Egypt. He warned it could happen in Sri Lanka, if government leaders did not watch out. In Egypt, without an organised opposition, people's power ousted President Hosni Mubarak from a thirty-year rule that turned sour and authoritarian.
In Sri Lanka, however, the opposition is in tatters. It is unable to raise issue with the government over any burning issue. They include unbridled corruption, which is on the rise, mounting living costs and a multitude of other problems. Instead of drawing parallels with Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, it is imperative for the country's main opposition UNP to first put its own house in order, say political analysts. It is never or seldom that their leaders even raise corruption or related issues in Parliament.
In neighbouring India, the opposition boycotted Parliament insisting on its demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe what has come to be known as the 2G scam, the biggest corruption scandal in that country's political history. It was over the allocation of 2G frequencies to mobile phone operators. Unable to hold their winter budget sessions, the Congress Government had to summon party leaders for a meeting. They eventually relented to the Opposition's demand as parliamentary business was brought to a standstill in both House of the Indian Parliament.
The UNP's internal feud over the past several months has been showing too much. This is why a party that declared a million people would turn up for its protests on Wednesday ended up with less than 10,000. No amount of statements or media manipulation will work if the grand old party loses, or is unable to garner further public support. That is the predicament of the UNP. Its actions, covert and overt, seem to strengthen further the UPFA, crises, disasters, foreign borrowings or rising living costs notwithstanding.