Columns - Political Column

UN cover-up of secret meeting on Lanka

  • Ban spokesman plays hide and seek for spin doctors here, but the truth will be known soon
  • Fickle-and-failure-ridden foreign service thrown open to political stooges and sycophants
By Our Political Editor

The exclusive report in last week's the Sunday Times and related details in the political commentary about a Sri Lanka delegation meeting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's panel probing alleged war crimes issues in Sri Lanka reverberated in the portals of the United Nations in New York.

The Inner City Press' Maththew Lee who usually wants to be first with reports relating to Sri Lanka, raised questions from the UN Secretary General's spokesperson Martin Nesirky at last Monday's noon news briefing. Here is the official text of the Q & A:

"Question: ... And also I want to ask on this Sri Lanka question that I e-mailed you over the weekend. There is a report in Sri Lanka quoting UN sources, saying that after a meeting between the Attorney General of Sri Lanka and Mr. Ban and other officials, there was another meeting with, in fact, the Secretary-General's Panel. That, I just want you to either confirm or deny that, and also that the deadline has been extended for two or three weeks. Is that true and if so, why was it extended and will, in fact, the Panel travel to Sri Lanka or not?

"Spokesperson: Well on the first, as you also saw, the reporting over the weekend suggested that there was a secret meeting with the Secretary-General, and you know as well as I do, because you were there, that that is simply not the case. You were there taking pictures, so the reporting may be a little bit shaky. It is, of course, for the Panel to comment on any meetings that they may or may not have had. And I don't have anything for you on that. With regard to when the Panel will submit its report, it is scheduled to be, as we have already said, this month. It is for the Panel to decide when that will take place.

"Question: Who speaks for the Panel, just in the sense of were they in town? The reporting… I understand… I guess you are denying that, that report from Sri Lanka, but were the three members in New York?

"Spokesperson: Matthew, I said…

"Question: You are saying it's shaky?

"Spokesperson: I said it is for the Panel to comment on whether a meeting may or may not have taken place.

"Question: Isn't it the Secretary-General's Panel?

"Spokesperson: The Panel needs to do its work independently, and then be able to report to the Secretary-General. And that report, as you know, is in the making, and as soon as it is ready to be presented to the Secretary-General, it will be."

Later on the same day, Lee's Inner City Press headlined a story of the news conference which said "On Sri Lanka, UN Denies 'Secret' Meeting, Won’t Say If Report Public."

The report said: "UNITED NATIONS, March 7 -- The UN's evasiveness on the meetings, travel and report of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's panel on Sri Lanka continued on March 7, with Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky telling Inner City Press that it is up to the Panel to speak for itself, even to decide if its report should be public.

"Nesirky called 'shaky' reporting that has suggested a secret February 23 meeting, telling Inner City Press "you know, you were there taking pictures, that was not the case."

"Inner City Press asked, were the members of Ban's panel in town, in New York? Even this Nesirky would not answer, saying it is up to the Panel to say. But where is the Panel? Then Nesirky said that deadline is "this month."

However, by a co-incidence, last Tuesday, Plantation Industries Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is also tasked by the Presidential Secretariat to handle human rights issues, held a news conference. He was asked about the Sunday Times exclusive report on the four-member delegation meeting Ban's panel. As almost all media reported, Samarasinghe refused to comment. He said that the question should be directed at the Attorney General Mohan Peiris. However, there was one exception from a state media outlet, whose headline claimed "No dealings with expert panel." Its report said "…the Minister stressed that the Government has no dealings with the members of this panel."

UN panel members Yasmin Sooka,Marzuki Darusman and Steven Ratner with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. File picture

Though Samarasinghe did not make those remarks, the reportage is understandable since preparations made for the meeting were a secret.

As exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times, the Sri Lanka delegation, which held talks in New York with the UN chief Ban also, met with his three-member panel. The meeting took place in the afternoon of Wednesday February 23 soon after the four-member Sri Lanka delegation arrived there.

The government delegation comprised Attorney General Mohan Peiris and External Affairs Ministry Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe who left Colombo unannounced. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative at the UN and his deputy, Major General Shavendra de Silva, joined them.

The Sunday Times is able to re-iterate today that the four-member delegation's meeting came only after they first met Ban, his Chief of Staff and other officials at the Secretary General's temporary office on the third floor of UN headquarters. Media access in the form of a photo opportunity was granted for this segment. The media were kept out when the Sri Lankan delegation met Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), Yasmin Sooka and Steven Ratner, members of the panel.

The Sunday Times is able to reveal today that besides briefing the UN panel on the work carried out by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Sri Lanka delegation made a formal request that a copy of the panel's report be given to them. The reason, they argued, was to initiate any follow up action on issues that may be raised by the panel. The Sunday Times has learnt the delay in the handing over of the panel's report is linked to the Sri Lanka delegation's meeting and the representations made by them. The panel was earlier scheduled to hand in its report to Secretary General Ban on March 4.

A copy was also to be given to Navi Pillai, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Now, the panel is expected to make reference to Sri Lanka's responses in its report. Yet, the report, the Sunday Times learnt, will be handed in before March 31 though it will not become a public document immediately. Among the contents of the report are said to be voluminous affidavits by one-time residents of the north detailing out alleged incidents.

Thus, it is clear that UNSG's spokesperson Martin Nesirky was deftly parrying Lee's probing questions by saying there was no "secret" meeting. He was cleverly alluding to the first segment where the Sri Lanka delegation formally met Secretary General Ban. As for the meeting with the panel, which was a secret kept by both the Sri Lanka delegation and the UN, he dodged it deftly by saying that he would not speak for the panel though the body has been appointed by none other than Ban himself. His remarks that the Sunday Times story is "shaky" is therefore a diversion that only helped a few eager spin-doctors in Colombo-based websites. Sooner than later, the fact that the Sri Lanka delegation met the UN panel, to make representations will become official.

There were also other issues relating to the foreign relations front this week. At last Tuesday night's cabinet meeting, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to raise a query from Susil Premajayantha, Minister of Petroleum Industries. During that occasion, he took the opportunity to tell his ministers about the conversation he had with Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gadhaffi. The ministers met on Tuesday evening, a day ahead of the scheduled weekly event. This was because the previous meeting was on March 2.
He had telephoned the oil rich country's ruler, now under siege from protestors. That was after Gaddafi had telephoned him the previous day and found he was not in Colombo. Rajapaksa was away in the south taking part in campaign rallies for Thursday's local government elections. He said the conversation began by Gaddafi asking him "How are you?" Rajapaksa said in turn he asked Gaddafi, "how are you" and the conversation ensued. The Libyan leader had explained the situation in his country and declared anyone could come and take a look at the correct position.

The Libyan national television network Al Jamahiriyah said in its Arabic news bulletin on March 3 (1930 GMT) that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had a telephone conversation with brother leader of the revolution. It said Rajapaksa sought information about current developments in Libya. The Libyan leader had explained the conspiracy that targets the security, stability and national unity of the Libyan people. The news bulletin added that Rajapaksa expressed his and Sri Lankan people's "full solidarity with the Libyan people in the face of this conspiracy."

Last Tuesday night's cabinet meeting also approved a memorandum from External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, that will make drastic changes in the foreign service. This is at a time when this service is already in rack and ruin.

For the first time in post-independent Sri Lanka, Peiris' memorandum opens the door for political appointees to the foreign service to serve as permanent employees. Earlier, they were hired on contract and had to withdraw when their term of office ends. This again was possible only after Cabinet approval of the person being appointed. The Cabinet granted approval for the appointment of 12 persons from outside the foreign service. The appointees include the daughter of a Cabinet Minister, the son of a serving Ambassador, the son of an actor turned politician among others. None has had any diplomatic experience and shocking enough some have not even travelled abroad.

Until last Tuesday, recruitment to the permanent cadre of the foreign service was through an examination conducted by the Department of Examinations. This has now been done away with and the External Affairs Minister (or in this instance those various persons responsible for running the foreign service) will be in a position to name their own choices.

A senior official there has prepared the Cabinet memorandum, according to insiders at the External Affairs Ministry. That is with the collaboration of another retired senior officer who was recruited on contract. The news that such a move was in the offing angered those within the EAM. So much so, some of them circulated an e-mail. They spell out in their own language the dangers posed. Here are relevant extracts that highlight the seriousness of the situation:

"This new move by the Minister of External Affairs departs radically from the hitherto prevalent trend of short-term political appointments effected through contracts following approval of nominee-specific Cabinet Papers. Those who were "contracted' in this manner -- mostly politicians and henchmen except a few war heroes, who had dedicated their lives to the defence of the country at worst of times, were attached to the Foreign Service and enjoyed all privileges and immunities due to a professional diplomat, including foreign service allowances. With the new set of potential appointees to the permanent cadre of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, a new practice is emerging -- and a new precedent is being set -- for the lateral recruitment of political stooges, circumventing all laid-down procedures governing the recruitment to public service in Sri Lanka -- a key aspect of rule of law and governance.

"With a view to providing a contrived rationale for this hasty recruitment while the Local Government elections are due, the Cabinet Paper maintains that those named therein are being taken into the permanent cadre of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service since recruiting suitable officers following the regular procedures would take a long time when currently there is an urgent need for Foreign Service personnel in Sri Lanka's Missions abroad. The Cabinet Paper, drafted by a retired Foreign Service Officer, who has been 'contracted' into overseeing the Overseas Administration of the Ministry, an appointment which helps expedite the unhindered implementation of political directives on staffing of missions, states further that with their 'expertise and experience', the potential appointees will strengthen the functioning of the Ministry of External Affairs and its Missions abroad.

"It is feared that once the Cabinet approves the names, the waiting period of the appointees in the Ministry will only be weeks before they are rushed to their prior-identified, preferred destinations, for 'continuation' of their studies abroad, or for 'special political assignments'. It is speculated that another Cabinet Paper would follow thereafter, seeking approval for exempting them from other compulsory provisions of the Establishments Code such as Efficiency Bar requirements.

"Aside from its long term impact on the credibility and impartiality of the public service, the implications of this trend of recruitment for the effective conduct of foreign relations and for the protection and promotion of national interest would itself be far reaching for the country. Several Missions of Sri Lanka will be content with in-fighting and undermining at a time when the West will be tightening the noose around us on the so-called war crimes charges. A question arises therefore whether Sri Lanka itself is volunteering to the agenda of the West by continuing to destroy the professional core of the Foreign Service in this manner."

The tragicomedy or the conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy, if there is one, will no doubt be further hampered. One more establishment which was the preserve of trained professionals protecting Sri Lanka's image abroad and defending the country's interests is now gone. Instead, postings have now become a reward for the "boys and girls" of top politicos and a few bureaucratic sycophants. This is at a time when the government has embarked on an ambitious development programme after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas.

Ranil-Sajith leadership battle on polls trail

Different parties make different offers to people but low poll likely

On the campaign trail for the local polls, a staunch grassroots-level supporter of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) asked deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya, why the party's leadership is pulling in different directions.

The man who claims to be a supporter for over 42 years noted, "Leader Wickremesinghe is going one way. Sajith Premadasa, who is opposing him, is going another way. Ravi Karunanayake is going in yet another way," A somewhat bemused Jayasuriya responded, "they are going in different directions to save time. However, they are all campaigning for the same UNP candidates."

What Jayasuriya said was true. The local polls have spawned a fragile unity among those feuding. However, that is only part of the truth. The other part remains unsaid. Behind the veneer of this seeming togetherness, lay another campaign. Thursday's local polls notwithstanding, the battle for leadership of the UNP has also gathered speed. Prompting the covert campaign whilst overt efforts are made to win local polls is the April 12 deadline for the party to elect a new leader. This is in terms of its new constitution.

President Rajapaksa greets the crowd at the UPFA rally in Kalutara in view of the forthcoming LG polls. Pic by Chandana Perera

A week ago, a group of some 25 Bhikkus from a newly formed "Sangha Front for the Protection of UNP" marched to the office of Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, at Cambridge Terrace. Ven. Ambanwela Gnanaloka Thera, who functions as the co-ordinator, led it. He is the chief incumbent of the Weheragoda Purana Maha Viharaya, Sedawatte, Kolonnawa.

In a three-page statement, the new Front said, "the upcoming (local) elections provide an ideal opportunity. But the party's present tug-o'-war, infighting and factions issuing irresponsible statements are a pointer that the party is in crisis." Showering praise on the late D.S. Senanayake, his son Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala for their contribution, the Front commended UNP leader Wickremesinghe for the "service rendered to restore a fallen economy."

This was when he was Prime Minister in the UNF government. Since being formed on September 6, 1946, the UNP, the Front said, was the main political party dedicated to achieve economic development. The Front also praised the late D.B. Wijetunga, who during his tenure as President, "did his best to quell LTTE terrorism in the East."

The Front said it would place what it called guidelines for strengthening the party. That included steps to restore discipline in the party, curb members from making "irresponsible statements," limit criticism to official forums of the party and spell out policy statements only at news conferences. It noted that like other political parties, the UNP had its faults too. Some often sowed "seeds of discord" expecting leadership. This happened every time the party was in the opposition.

The "Sangha Front for the Protection of the UNP," it is clear, is the Wickremesinghe faction's latest answer to Sajith Premadasa. Party insiders say the Front not only wants to ensure Wickremesinghe continue as leader of the UNP, but was also preparing to take on Premadasa for what they claim is disrupting party unity. They say an action programme is now under way. The Front will also canvass the electoral college -- members of the UNP Working Group as well as the Parliamentary Group -- to elect Wickremesinghe as leader.

Premadasa launched the Sasunata Aruna (Dawn of a Buddhist Order) programme last year. He has travelled the countryside donating Rs 50,000 each for temples in different electorates. The programme, which is to win over the Sangha, together with Jana Suvaya, another humanitarian project, has been put on hold in the wake of the local polls. Premadasa has won considerable support among the Buddhist clergy. He draws large crowds at rallies for the polls. He has embarked on his own campaign trail. His visits for meetings are preceded by a local advertising campaign through posters and hand bills.

Even more important, like Wickremesinghe, Premadasa appears exceedingly confident he would become leader of the UNP. So much so, this became his campaign theme at rallies he addressed. At a meeting in Medawelana Community Hall in Tissamaharama, he said, "At the upcoming elections the UNP will receive a strong victory. I will spend the next Sinhala New Year with you as the UNP as well as the opposition leader. As the current President was from Hambantota, the next UNP President will also be from Hambantota".

During a string of rallies, Premadasa also took a few broadsides at Wickremesinghe. He said, "The new year has created new hopes to the UNP members. The responsibility of the leadership should not be to protect the position and run away from responsibilities. The duty should be to face challenges and protect the members". In most of the speeches he made, the emphasis was on "Mama pakshey nayaka venawa, venawa mai (I will most certainly become the leader of the party).

Media Spokesman Lal Perera said Premadasa has already addressed 250 public meetings. Other than Colombo and in North and East, he has addressed meetings in all other districts, he added. According to him, Premadasa spoke at 15 meetings a day whilst in Hambantota. In the outstations, his schedule covered an average of 20 meetings a day with some lasting well into midnight.

There were a number of other diversions amidst the covert campaign by both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa loyalists. UNP Provincial Councillor Shiral Laktilleke held a news conference on Thursday to declare that Karu Jayasuriya should be made the interim leader. Just hours ahead of this event, both Wickremesinghe and Jayasuriya were locked in a discussion over this matter at the former's office. The subject was Laktilleke's impending news conference. The party leader had asked whether Jayasuriya was aware that such an event was being held. He had replied that he did not know.

Bringing the issue into even sharper focus were remarks by UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake. In an interview with Lanka newspaper, an organ of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Attanayake was quoted as saying that Jayasuriya had "every right" to become the leader. He can even aspire to be President or Prime Minister than "others who had emerged recently," he had added. Though the interview appeared in an inside page, the remarks relating to Jayasuriya were front paged in the weekly newspaper.

Amidst the ongoing covert campaign by the two formidable rival factions in the UNP, allegations are also being traded against each other. Wickremesinghe faction accused Premadasa of going it alone during the polls campaign and of criticising the leadership. Premadasa loyalists in turn are accusing sections in the Wickremesinghe faction of preparing for a poster campaign against the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa in a bid to target his son, Sajith. Such a campaign is to include stories about transfer of weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during late Premadasa's tenure of office and the attacks carried out on members of the JVP during that era.

These loyalists also claim that some influential sections in the UPFA government were backing this campaign. In the wake of most print media desisting from such campaigns, new websites are mushrooming for the sole purpose of carrying out personal attacks. E-puvath, said to be launched by supporters of the JVP, carried out a scathing attack on Premadasa this week. Two other websites, one by a former MP in the South and another by an aide in the office of the Leader of the Opposition, have also joined the fray.

On Thursday, nearly 10 million voters will go to 7362 polling booths to elect 3049 councillors to 235 local authorities. They consist of three Municipal Councils, 30 Urban Councils and 202 Pradeshiya Sabhas. Originally, nominations were called for 301 local authorities. Elections to 66 local authorities have been put off by the Department of Elections. Two of the postponements are due to local authority areas in the north not being cleared of landmines. The remaining 64 are the result of petitions filed in the Court of Appeal contesting the decisions of the Returning Officers during nominations. These petitions are both from the UPFA and the UNP. They include a Municipal Council, nine Urban Councils and 54 Pradeshiya Sabhas.

Postal voting for Thursday's polls was held this week. Elections Department officials say there has been a marked drop in postal votes. If 415,432 applications were received during the April 2010 parliamentary elections, it dwindled to 321,595. Some political analysts attributed this lack of interest to disenchantment by state sector employees. This is particularly in the light of a promised Rs 5,000 pay increase not being granted to them. Conscious of this development, several key players of the UPFA appealed through state media for the support of these employees. They reminded them that they should not forget what the government had done for their welfare.

UPFA General Secretary, Susil Premajayantha told the Sunday Times that the UPFA's final rally, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa taking the chair, would be held in Hambantota tomorrow. "With the end of the war and the rapid development process under way, we are confident of victory. We will win more councils than we did at the local polls in 2006." He said that both the UNP and the JVP were making wild allegations that there were violence and polls irregularities. "We do not see that happening. The Police are in control of that situation ," he added. However, Pramajayantha conceded that "the rule of putting up posters and cut outs has been violated by all candidates displaying numbers."

JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times "Our campaign theme has been 'Revatillata Nimawak- Aluth Magaka Arambumak' ( End of lies - dawn of a new path). The rising cost of living has been one of the major issues. The public feel that the government has totally ignored this issue. We decided to contest under the JVP as it is a local election and the party is known better in the rural areas. This does not mean that we have dropped the campaign to free former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka. We have been campaigning in the northern and eastern province and the response to our call has been good.

In the south, Dissanayake alleged, the government had unleashed violence against the JVP supporters. He added, "The violence against our party has been high. In Tissamaharamaya where the JVP won last time, the violence is very high. A large number of politicians with a background for violence have come from other areas and stationed themselves in these areas to create violence. We know that the state funds and resources are being misused. Money is being spent in various ways to buy over votes from the public. Compared to the last elections we hope to win with a bigger majority. Many of the people to whom we have been speaking have endorsed the theme. We have the support of the youth and new voters in the villagers."

In the North and East, the issues were different. One of them was the comment made by former Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) parliamentarian, V. Anandasangaree to a Tamil website. He said, "If I had been with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Prabhakaran would have been still alive. After I left, the TNA I had sent several personal letters to Prabhakaran stating that the armed struggle would not bring any solution to Tamil issues. I told him that we have to enter into a dialogue and reach a compromise. I told him that it could save thousands of lives of Tamil youth. If I was in the TNA I was confident in bringing Prabhakaran to the democratic path."

The remarks drew an angry retort from one of Prabhakaran's erstwhile comrade in arms and now Deputy Minister, Vinagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna. He told an election rally in Batticaloa that Sangari was trying to 'give Oxygen' to the pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora groups. "Today he is freely moving in the north and east because the LTTE was wiped out. He said after Sangari left the TNA, he was criticizing LTTE's actions under the tight security blanket provided by the government. He said he never uttered a word about the possibility of bringing Prabhakaran to the democratic path."

Issues at different political platforms by various political parties have been different. The UPFA spoke of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. It said an ambitious development programme is now under way. President Rajapaksa encapsulated these in a nationally-televised programme on Friday night. It was a simulcast on all leading television channels.

For the country's main opposition UNP, there were less than a handful of issues. A primary focus was the defamatory remarks by a TV commentator on a national television network on Sri Lankan cricketers. Speakers avoided such critical issues as mounting corruption, rising violence and other issues that affected the people.

On Thursday, at least a substantial section of voters will deliver their verdict. It will change neither governments nor leaders. However, it will be a likely indicator on the popularity and standing of the UPFA and the opposition parties. One factor that seems certain is a low poll.

  From : Chandra
 I don't know why you keep publishing Inner City Press
reports in Sri Lankan papers. Here in the US we know
 who they are and what their agenda has been for the
past  couple of years . It would be better to publish
accurate, unbiased, objective  information from good


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