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SAARC summit: Headlines from sidelines

The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) in the Maldives was a nightmare for most participants including heads of delegations. Unlike the previous summits in the capital Male, the venue this time was the southern Addu atoll.

A onetime British airbase which is now used by charter flights bringing in tourists was the landing area for special flights. The heads of state or government stayed in one resort, delegates in another and a third was used as the convention centre.

Some dignitaries in one resort island had to wait for an hour or two before their pick-up, a speed boat, arrived. A bottle of Coca Cola cost $ 18 (or Rs 1,944), perhaps the most expensive price in any part of the world.

However, President Mohamed Nasheed, at his news conference at the closing sessions made amends for all this by extending an apology for the shortcomings including the inconvenience caused to the media contingent. Most of the media were more interested in what happened on the side-lines instead of SAARC. The highlight was the talks between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusef Raza Gilani.

There were worrying moments for the Sri Lanka delegation after some of them watched the closing ceremony on TV Maldives at their hotel rooms. The live commentary was in the Maldivian language Divehi. When it came to visuals showing President Mahinda Rajapaksa, there were several references to former General Sarath Fonseka. They were puzzled.

The Sri Lanka High Commission in Male was asked to obtain a recording of the commentary and clarify what the references were to Fonseka. It soon became clear that the commentator had referred to the fact that Rajapaksa convincingly defeated Fonseka at last year's Presidential elections. Thereafter, he had showered praise on the President.

Yet, some of the External Affairs Ministry officials were somewhat bewildered over Maldivian President Nasheed's address at the SAARC summit. He had called for a mechanism in the SAARC to monitor human rights in the member countries of the regional entity. Of course Nasheed had some praise for Sri Lanka.

Insiders in Male say the remarks over human rights reflected the tussle between soft and hardliners among foreign policy makers. The hardliners wanted to distance their President in the light of criticism over human rights abuses in Sri Lanka by western powers. The message, however, was lost in the melee of other events.

Opposition politicos meet drug war lord in London

Tuesday November 15 was a day of great significance for those faithful believers in astrology.
There was a significant Graha Maruwa or planetary change, good for some and bad for others. Those who feared the malefic influence included some known underworld characters like Tilak of golden fame and the feared one from Dedigama. So they took wing to Old Blighty to prevent the omens of bad luck striking them down. Of course, that did not prevent them from indulging in their popular sport. They frequented the London pubs, both noon and night.

Talking of the underworld, there is another drug king pin who is hiding in London. He also made news.
He is said to have met two leading opposition politicians at a five-star hotel in London. He parked himself at the coffee shop in the plaza and went on chatting with the two opposition leaders for more than an hour. Naturally, the man known by the powdered stuff or kudu made the meeting known to his mentor, the tough politico in the suburb of Colombo.

He let the cat out of the bag at a meeting in Kelaniya this week. The politico asked what the opposition duo was doing with this La La man? He wanted to know whether a conspiracy was being hatched against the opponents of one opposition politico. When politicos meet drug war lords, it is difficult to keep it a secret.

National carrier is not politicos' private fleet

The national carrier is said to be running in the red to the tune of US$ 90 million (about Rs. 1 billion) in the current financial year. Sri Lankans must rue the day that the President got all worked up because his usual jumbo entourage were not given seats on a flight back from London during the days when the national carrier had a partnership with the Dubai-based Emirates and gave standing instructions to terminate the relationship.

While the national carrier runs at a staggering loss, Emirates announced this week that it had made the single largest order in aviation history by purchasing US$18 billion worth of aircraft from the US aircraft manufacturer, Boeing. What a thing if we still had that partnership going.

But then, the carnival will have to end at home. Using the national carrier as your private fleet to take at your whim and fancy and your hangers-on will have to stop.

We have got our priorities right haven't we? A few weeks ago, a London bound UL flight was kept on the tarmac for a cool half an hour after scheduled departure until a VIP and his family turned up. Fuming passengers were awaiting the arrival of a real VIP, but who turned up was an ex-VIP, who would in the days gone by hold up an aircraft because he was supposedly on official business.

This time it was a private trip. Carrying diplomatic passports they had to however wait like all other yakkos in the lengthy queue at Terminal 4 of Heathrow airport on arrival in London because of the severe cut-backs in jobs of front line desk officers of the UK Border Agency.

Phone drama in High Court room

All persons, including lawyers and media personnel, entering High Court Number One at Hulftsdorp on Friday were frisked before entering the room while neither bags nor mobile phones were allowed into the room. After the first session of the court ended with some of the other cases listed for hearing that day being taken up and the presiding judge had left the room, a police officer asked everyone to vacate the room for another round for security checks.

However what he got in return was an earful from attorney-at-law Gunaratna Wanninayaka who shouted out for all to hear if he thought those present in the court room were a gang of thieves. The embarrassed policeman beat a hasty retreat and did not sight the place again. Later the cop told a scribe that he was only following orders from senior officers.

While the police were involved in enforcing the "strictly no mobile phones inside the court room" policy to one and all, not all of the uniformed men were following the rules. Soon after the court proceeding began, a phone was heard ringing and soon DIG Colombo Anura Senanayaka was seen scrambling to switch it off. Looks like the cops did not follow the "no phones" rule.

Red flag for UNP's white flags

United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians who went to the High Court for the verdict on the "White Flag" case on Friday were in for a rude shock yesterday. Most of them had wanted to be opening speakers during the budget debate. However, others have been lined up in the speaking order forcing them to follow much later. More trouble in the grand old party.

Sporty politico tosses conditions

Will a sporty type in the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) join the ranks of the UPFA? There is widespread speculation after reports that he had given five conditions to do so. One such condition, to release a person now serving a jail sentence, seems a bone of contention. Otherwise, insiders say, the man had been told he could bat his way to becoming a Minister.

Why takeover bill ploughed into tractor company

Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa told Parliament during the debate on the controversial bill to take over supposedly underperforming business enterprises that it was not politically motivated, and that even those close to the government were targeted by the proposed law.

That indeed is true. One of the victims was a lawyer who had been a colleague of the President in the same law chambers of a one-time senior practitioner. This lawyer turned businessman headed the privatised Tractor Corporation whose lands had been taken over previously by the government which had been ordered by court to pay compensation to the tune of nearly Rs. one billion to the private owners. The courts had made the final order more than one year ago rejecting an appeal by the Attorney General's Department, but the Treasury has been slow in dipping its hands into the State purse and making the payment despite the court order.

When the aggrieved parties met with the High & Mighty of the land and asked why their enterprise had been taken over under this draconian piece of legislation, they were told that those in the AG's Department at the time, smarting over what happened to their appeal, were instrumental in the decision. And so, we have a glimpse into how things happen at the highest levels of government.

Mystery owner of super-luxury Aston Martin

The BBC's Sinhala programme Sandeshaya this week had an offbeat story about a Sri Lankan sports car enthusiast who spent Rs 55 million to buy an Aston Martin. That is not all. He chartered a special aircraft to bring it to Colombo.

Here is what Sandeshaya report said: "A brand new Aston Martin car has been hurriedly imported to Colombo by a wealthy businessman, BBC Sandeshaya reliably learns. "The new SLR 55 million sports car has been brought using a specially chartered aeroplane from the UK.

"Former Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) chairman Upali Dharmadasa neither confirmed nor denied that he brought the new luxury vehicle, thought to be only the second Aston Martin in the country. "Please don't ask me about personal things of mine," Mr. Dharmadasa who admitted he was in the airport's air cargo division at Colombo's airport told BBC Sandeshaya.

"Currently Sri Lanka does not have any suitable tracks for a luxury racing car such as an Aston Martin.
"Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage who dissolved the SLC interim committee on Tuesday has appointed the ministry secretary as the competent authority until the elections are held."

"Ask me any question related to cricket," an irritated Mr. Dharmadasa added when asked about the Aston Martin.

"While Mr Dharmadasa has already expressed his willingness to contest for the presidency in the cash-strapped SLC no other contender had so far expressed interest."

1000-rupee newspaper for EAM official

Though it may be, like some cases, foreign to the big bureaucrat in the Ministry of External Affairs. For some time now, an official EAM vehicle leaves every Sunday morning from its Colombo Fort office to deliver newspapers to a bureaucrat living in Moratuwa. The SLAS officer is only attached temporarily to the EAM.

An insider at the Ministry worked out the cost to the taxpayer. Petrol cost Rs. 800 for the 30 kilometre journey. Added to that is the overtime payment to the driver. All put together, the cost of over Rs.1,000 for the newspaper, perhaps is the most expensive copy in Sri Lanka.

This new record comes at a time when other ministries have asked their staff who live in outstations to buy their newspapers from the closest news agent and seek re-imbursement. Who says that there is cost cutting at the EAM?

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