Columns - Talk at the Cafe Spectator

Cabraal protected like millions of rupees

Holidaymakers in a crowded resort in Trincomalee, one morning this week, found the quietness of the area suddenly being disturbed by the whir of engines in the sky. Soon they saw a Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) helicopter touch down in the open land adjoining the star-class resort.

Alighting from it was Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal. He joined other members of the family, who were staying at the hotel for the buffet breakfast.

The chopper with armed security men on board withdrew though there was a large turnout of Air Force and Navy personnel on the ground.

After a buffet lunch, Cabraal was escorted in a convoy of vehicles by a heavily armed personal security contingent. Like protecting currency notes in millions or billions of rupees, the Governor of the Central Bank also has to be closely protected. Hence, the insertion was by air and the exit by road. No previous Governor of the Central Bank enjoyed such privileges, which nowadays even an ordinary Cabinet Minister finds difficult to obtain.

Wonder how much the day trip by chopper cost the Treasury and the public, three per cent depreciation of the rupee notwithstanding.

If Fonseka is released, top post likely in UNP

Is former Army Commander and one time General Sarath Fonseka hoping for a New Year reprieve or one during the National Day on February 4? The question seems to puzzle him too. He talked about it on Friday during an hour-long meeting with a UNP team comprising Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Sujeeva Senasinghe.

Fonseka told his visitors that if he were to join the UNP, he would want the party to be united. He seemed well briefed on developments within and spoke about ending intra-party rivalry, which seemed more than a subtle message to the visitors.

The meeting came amidst reports that amendments to the UNP Constitution were in the offing. One such amendment was to make provision to allow a Leader to hold office for five years, without elections every year. Another was to create three positions of Deputy Leaders.

Besides one held by Sajith Premadasa at present, another is to be set apart for a senior member who is non-Buddhist. The frontrunner for that post is a long time critic of Premadasa. There was speculation over the other. Some UNPers claim the slot may be reserved for Fonseka, a move that will deny the former General's support for the so-called revisionist faction.

But the question is whether any Presidential pardon in the offing would be conditional to restrict Fonseka from indulging in politics.

JHU reacts to Embilipitiya coup

For a second time, the UPFA-controlled Embilipitiya Urban Council's budget was defeated. Its Chairman, Ven. Wewelduwa Gnanaprabha Thera of the Jathika Hela Urumaya telephoned JHU Minister Champika Ranawaka to complain.

Ranawaka told him not to worry and assured him he would sort out matters. He summoned party seniors Udaya Gammanpila and Nishantha Sri Wanasinghe to his residence to discuss what had to be done. It was decided that they would write letters to super Minister Basil Rajapaksa, and Ministers Maithripala Sirisena as Secretary of the SLFP and Susil Premajayantha as Secretary of the UPFA coalition complaining about the situation.

They also decided to seek a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The JHU is on a tricky wicket with the Rajapaksa administration right now.

Sham official trips for politicos

Some ministers do business even if they are out on holiday whilst others line up their holidays and pretend to do some work. The latter of course is a paying proposition. One such person is External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. Last time, he scheduled a few official engagements in London before breaking out for a holiday.

This time he was in Singapore. During that holiday visit, he called on Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Manpower. For good measure, he was accompanied by Ferial Ashraff, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Singapore.

Lanka's US envoy drops bombshell on war crimes


It quotes Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States, Jaliya Wickremesuriya as saying, "Sri Lanka will hold accountable every person accused of war crimes during its decades-long civil conflict." The report adds: "The suspects' names are disclosed in eyewitness testimony that is posted on the website of the government-appointed commission that issued the report. There are no names [in the report], but there is a process to check accountability," Mr. Wickramasuriya said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

A source at the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) said that neither the Commission nor any other official Sri Lanka government website had the names of any suspects purportedly disclosed by eyewitnesses. To the contrary, the source said, the Commission has held an "entirely different view altogether."

It has expressed the view that it is "satisfied that the military strategy that was adopted to secure the LTTE held areas was one that was carefully conceived, in which the protection of civilian population was given the highest priority."

However, the Commission has also added that "the material" involving certain incidents "nevertheless points towards possible implication of the Security Forces for the resulting death or injury to civilians, even though this may not have been with intent to cause harm." Hence it was the "duty of the State to ascertain more fully the circumstances under which such incidents could have occurred…."

When the LLRC has dismissed claims of alleged war crimes, the question that begs answer is how Sri Lanka's envoy to the United States came to the conclusion that every person accused of war crimes will be held accountable? Was Qorvis, the PR firm that arranged the interview, the External Affairs Ministry or Ambassador Wickremesuriya responsible for the gaffe?

Little wonder, there are no guidelines for Sri Lanka's envoys abroad on what to say over the findings of the LLRC. It seems a free for all. Fortunately, though, The Washington Times is not the most influential newspaper in the US capital. That spot goes to The Washington Post.

Minister's New Year gift: Toilet Tax

Beginning today, Water Supply and Drainage Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has decreed that a new sewerage tax be paid by consumers who use water. This is in addition to their water bills. A gazette notification issued by him stipulates the domestic, commercial and industrial tariffs for what seems a new Toilet Tax. It sets out different rates.

The amounts for domestic water usage for consumers connected to all sewerage systems/networks operated and owned by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board will vary from one rupee for up to ten cubic metres of water to ten rupees for 50 cubic metres of water. This is besides a service charge of Rs. 200 in all cases.

The commercial tariff will be Rs. 40 per cubic metre of water whilst the industrial tariff would be Rs. 65 per cubic metre.

Messy political bath

Naa-gannawa or bathing is a Sinhala phrase that goes beyond the use of water to cleanse oneself. It is also used as slang for messing up.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) frontliner Anura Kumara Dissanayake told a Central Committee meeting last week that Aanduwe Amethiwaru Naa-gannawa or government Ministers were messing up.
At first, it was Internal Trade Minister Johnston Fernando, he said.

It was over his decree that vegetables should be transported only in crates. Then, he said, came Minister S.B. Dissanayake who was criticised over the colossal mess in the release of GCE (Advanced Level) results.

Yapa's parable of dog eats dog

Economic Development Deputy Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and an MP from the southern district of Matara had an interesting tale to recount to journalists on what happened to a dog which tried to visit Colombo when he briefed the media on what action the Government is taking in the aftermath of the killing of a British tourist in the southern town of Tangalle.

The dog had returned all bruised after trying to make its way to Colombo and when asked what happened, it explained that it was safe from the humans but it was its own kind which attacked and bruised it.

In the same manner, the Minister, a one-time UNP MP, said the government faced no obstruction from either the UNP or the JVP but 'it is fellows on our own side who are obstructing our path to progress.' A UPFA leader was prompted to remark "well said."

Chief of Defence Staff as ministry secretary

A shake-up of secretaries and heads of State corporations and statutory bodies is expected to take place this month.

Insiders say some secretaries to ministries are among those listed to be moved out. A hot favourite as secretary to a ministry is Air Chief Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke, currently Chief of Defence Staff. The move may see a new successor being named to this position.

Wimal eats his words on expressway

"What are you doing Wimal?" asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa from Minister Weerawansa when he made a telephone call this week.

"I am on the southern expressway heading to Elpitiya. I have a school textbook distribution ceremony there," the minister replied. Rajapaksa who could not help laughing asked, "so you are going on the southern highway after all."

When the southern highway was declared open, Weerawansa was one of its strongest critics. He said farmers who owned land found their property divided in two.

They had to take circuitous routes to get from one side to the other, he had complained. Weerawansa said it would have been better if they were concrete highways with pillars.

Meanwhile, the government which earlier said that no buses would be permitted on the highway is to open a bus service soon for commuters who wish to use public transport. Three-wheelers might be next, who knows.

Military joins war on dengue

Some 2,500 tri-services personnel helped in the anti-dengue drive in the Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia Municipal Council area this week.

They helped the council officials to go from house-to-house to locate if mosquito breeding areas exist.

Powerful Lankans at wedding of Nirupama's son

It was well known that whatever ups and downs Indo-Lanka bi-lateral relations were, India's onetime Foreign Secretary and current Ambassador to Washington Nirupama Rao had a soft spot for Sri Lanka where she once served as a junior diplomat and then as High Commissioner.

She acquired some good friends in the process as well, both official and private. This week, at her son's wedding at one of the Taj Hotels, an hour's drive from Bangalore, there was a strong Sri Lankan presence. On hand were Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and wife, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge and wife, Deputy Minister Nirupama Rajapaksa and her businessman husband Tirukumar Nadesan, Mrs. Suganthie Kadirgamar, businessman Tilak Soyza and wife and the Indian diplomat's music teacher Saundarie David and her mother.

The wedding was in true Indian style; a gala event with a religious ceremony, a musical evening and the wedding reception. The guests, however, had to make a hurried exit from the southern Indian city as flight schedules were sent askew with Cyclone Thane hitting the neighbouring Tamil Nadu state with some fury. The Sri Lankan delegation managed to make it home safely.

Error after error in A/L results

Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena has been unable to enjoy the year-end break like most other Parliamentarians after the month-long Budget debate ended on December 21.

The Minister did take wing to Buddha Gaya for religious observances but had to cut short his visit as the fiasco surrounding the GCE Advanced Level results unfolded. Once in Colombo, he had to face a hostile media which questioned him on how the mess up took place. One scribe suggested he should have taken the example of politicians in other countries when faced with similar situations, and stepped down. "When I was the Trade Minister, I was ruthlessly attacked by the media which were trying to get me to resign. But I did not do it then and I will not do it now," were his brave words.

And while he was defending the manner in which the marking system was carried out and attributed the blunders to a computer error, journalists who were attending the media briefing the Minister was holding were given printouts of the students who scored top marks at the last A/L exams. Soon one of the scribes noticed an error in that list as well. So much for the competence of the Department of Examinations and the Ministry of Education.

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