Media Ministry Secretary issues controversial ‘decree’ to the media, but backtracks after heavy criticism Mystery over how former diplomat came to Udon Thani for surprise meeting with former President, Facebook picture also posted Sirisena under siege, fires 11 party organisers, as May Day battle reaches climax in Galle and Kirulapone today When Captain Kolitha Ekanayake took off [...]


Rajapaksa meets Udayanga in Thailand while FCID hunts for the wanted Sri Lankan in Ukraine

By Our Political Editor now in Bangkok

  • Media Ministry Secretary issues controversial ‘decree’ to the media, but backtracks after heavy criticism
  • Mystery over how former diplomat came to Udon Thani for surprise meeting with former President, Facebook picture also posted
  • Sirisena under siege, fires 11 party organisers, as May Day battle reaches climax in Galle and Kirulapone today

When Captain Kolitha Ekanayake took off on a SriLankan Airlines Airbus A 330-200 the previous Saturday morning to Bangkok, no one realised that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was on board, was flying into a serious controversy.

From a front row seat in the Business Class he watched television and sipped tea throughout the three hour flight. Seated next to him was former External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. He pored over that day’s issue of our sister newspaper, the Lankadeepa, and was soon fast asleep with his head bowed down.

Picture of the week: Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a surprise meeting with his cousin and most wanted former diplomat Udayanga Weeratunga in the Thai town of Udon Thani. This was the picture Weeratunga posted on his Facebook.

The only other politician to accompany Rajapaksa was Western Provincial Councillor Upali Kodikara. Interesting enough, both Peiris and Kodikara had called on President Maithripala Sirisena, soon after the January 2015 presidential election to ascertain whether they could join the United National Front (UNF) Government. They did not succeed. Now they are once again close allies of Rajapaksa.

Clad in a suit that has seen better days, Kodikara was in the Economy Class. When the curtain separating the Business Class from the Economy section was drawn during breakfast service, Kodikara moved it every now and then to keep a watch on Rajapaksa. He then briefed four bodyguards of Rajapaksa including a Gazetted officer, who were seated near him, of the well-being of the former President during the flight.

As the flight began its descent, the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign lit up overhead. The thud of wheels down for landing saw Rajapaksa walk towards the toilet just ahead of the flight deck. Cabin crew were busy lifting up the window covers whilst standing in the aisle. Suddenly, one of the bodyguards rushed in from the Economy Class to stand outside the toilet door. When Rajapaksa emerged, from one of his back pockets he pulled out a bottle of men’s French cologne and handed it over to Rajapaksa. Then, from his other back pocket he took out a brush. Rajapaksa groomed himself and stood there as cabin crew, even those in the Economy Class, ignoring the ‘fasten seats belt’ signs trooped in to take photographs. Some took selfies. Even if he is no longer President, Rajapaksa seems to have not lost his fan club. Even when he came in to board the flight, the same scenes played out.

Alighting from the aircraft at Bangkok aiprort, Rajapaksa walked with his entourage to the VIP lounge. There, he was greeted by Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Thailand, Kshenuka Seneviratne, foreign secretary during the Rajapaksa administration. The Foreign Ministry in Colombo had directed her to provide protocol assistance. This was after Rajapaksa’s office wrote to the President’s Secretary and the Foreign Secretary informing them of his trip to Bangkok. Also present were some Sri Lankan residents though it is not clear how they obtained clearance to enter the high security VIP area. This was to become an issue during the former President’s departure.

Less than an hour later, Rajapaksa and his entourage were on a domestic flight to Udon Thani, a province where some areas are described as the gateway to Laos, (Northern) Vietnam and southern China. It is separated by the Mekong River. The town of Udon Thani with a military airfield was a staging area during the Vietnam War. There, Rajapaksa was invited by Ven. Phraku Vinaipornsarwut Chatamaytee, the Chief Incumbent of a Buddhist temple in the village of Nohnsumran. On hand when he arrived there were a handful of Sri Lankans living in Thailand. Two of them claimed to be the “owners” of Rajapaksa’s visit to Bangkok and Udon Thani. This week, in Bangkok, they were sending a list around saying they could not manage the expenses on their own and seeking financial assistance to balance their budgets.

Rajapaksa ‘s visit took a startling turn in Udon Thani. On hand to meet him were not only Thai dignitaries from that province. There was also another visitor, a most wanted man in Sri Lanka, a man wanted for questioning over the MIG-27 procurement scandal. He is Rajapaksa’s first cousin Udayanga Weeratunga, one-time ambassador to the Russian Federation during the Rajapaksa administration. He was moving around freely and was not identified. He worshipped members of the clergy and mixed with the handful of Sri Lankans present. One of them, who has been boasting that he was a sponsor of the Rajapaksa visit, posted pictures in his Facebook page. It did not take time for Weeratunga to be identified. The news went viral.

How did Weeratunga enter Thailand? Authoritative official sources here told me there was no record at the Thai Immigration over his visit. Though the Department of Immigration in Colombo cancelled his Diplomatic Passport, it is known in Police circles in Colombo that he was still using it. Evidently, officials say the Sri Lanka Government’s communication of the cancellation had not reached many foreign Governments. However, according to the source, Thai Immigration had already placed him on its watch list. Hence, the possibility of Weeratunga arriving in Laos or Vietnam on a different passport, and entering Thailand illegally by crossing the Mekong River separating the two countries is not being ruled out. In the alternative, these source say, he could have even used the diplomatic passport.

It is a common practice for tourists who visit the Golden Triangle area (where the borders of Burma and Laos are separated by the Mekong River), to travel to the Laos side. The trip costs around Thai Baht 150 (about Rs. 600). The most common commodity for sale are bottles of ‘wine’ with a dead cobra with its hood wide open inside. There is also a variety of liquor smuggled from China and handicrafts.

Weeratunga originally ran Club Lanka, a small Sri Lankan restaurant in Kiev, the Ukranian capital. Thereafter, then President Rajapaksa appointed him Sri Lanka’s envoy to Moscow taking over from ambassador Neville Ranasuriya, the former Brooke Bond’s chairman. Weeratunga was forced to give up a record nine-year tenure after President Sirisena was voted into power. He did not return to Sri Lanka since the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) began investigations into his role in the Sri Lanka Air Force purchase of MiG-27 from Ukraine.

Interesting enough, Weeratunga surfaced in Udon Thani when an FCID team led by Senior DIG Ravi Waidyalankara was this week in Kiev probing the MiG-27 deal – and looking for Weeratunga. Earlier, the Ukranian authorities showed hesitance over a probe team from Sri Lanka visiting that country. Since then, a series of diplomatic activity has been under way. Some initiatives were pursued with the help of the United States. This resulted in a Sri Lankan delegation, which visited Kiev two months ago, signing a close co-operation agreement on matters relating to crime and extradition. The FCID team’s visit comes in that backdrop. Also under investigation is a charge that Weeratunga sold or helped transfer weapons to Ukrainian rebels using his diplomatic identity as a cover.

Last year, Weeratunga surfaced in the Iranian capital of Teheran. He walked into the Sri Lanka Embassy there and wanted officials to endorse an affidavit. It was to claim his personal effects, which he said, were arriving in Colombo in a container. The Embassy officials said they would assist him in the task only if he returned the Diplomatic Passport. He did not do so. Weeratunga infuriated UNF leaders recently when he gave a newspaper interview where he said if he were to be arrested, Russian President Vladimir Putin would intervene on his behalf and released a photograph of him taken with Putin and some others. President Sirisena was livid by the remarks and urged the Police not to be deterred by such remarks.

There is little doubt that former President Rajapaksa has to explain the circumstances under which Weeratunga came to Udon Thani. More so since he is aware that his first cousin was being sought by the FCID for alleged fraudulent and corrupt activity. Otherwise he would be accused of meeting Weeratunga in a pre-arranged exercise that appeared suspicious. Already a Government MP has raised the issue in Parliament and asked that both, Rajapaksa and Peiris be questioned on the appearance of Weeratunga in the Thai city of Udon Thani to meet them.

In a statement on his Facebook page, Weeratunga says that he knows he’s wanted in Sri Lanka for questioning, but given the victimisation of Rajapaksa Government officials by the so-called Yahapalana Government, he will not be setting foot on Sri Lanka. However, all that the Yahapalana Government says about him is putta-pul boru (concocted lies), he says.

He asks how he could continue to do his studies in Ukraine if he supplied weapons to anti-Ukraine (pro-Russian) forces, a charge levelled against him. He says the other accusation against him, that if complicity in the murder of a Sri Lankan driver in Russia is also false and that in the criminal court case into that incident, he has been exonerated. He says that he has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka on the decision by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry to destroy his personal belongings (which he has refused to come and claim).

Meanwhile, the internal battle in the SLFP has intensified in the runup to the May Day.
Sirisena this week stripped 11 party frontliners from their electoral organiserships in another wave of purging recalcitrant members who are continuing their loyalty to Rajapaksa.

With May Day coming, he was clearly getting reports that these 11 party organisers were mustering crowds for the Kirulapone rally of the Joint Opposition. Among those sacked from their posts were Geetha Kumarasinghe (Bentara-Elpitiya) and Salinda Dissanayake (Hiriyala), both MPs.

Handing over Letters of Appointment to the new party organisers in the districts of Galle, Kalutara, Kegalle, Kurunegala and Kandy such as Provincial Councillor Kamal Indika (Hiriyala) and joint organisers for Bentara-Elpitiya Gayan Krishan Sirimanne and Amila Kariyawasam, Sirisena said they must dedicate themselves to clean politics. By the way, Kamal Indika was arrested for physically assaulting a group of singers who had come in support of Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy in the Kurunegala district, and later remanded. He was then supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidacy. While this case is pending, Sirisena now takes him and makes him his SLFP organiser in Hiriyala in the Kurunegala district.

Corruption of the Rajapaksa Government was also a theme of Sirisena’s homily to the new recruits as the new appointees stood for a group photograph with the President and party secretary Duminda Dissanayake, Agriculture Minister.

The latest purge comes as confusion continued to reign high in Government circles. The new Media Ministry Secretary Nimal Bopage fired off a “decree” that the media should not identify parliamentarians opposed to the Government as the ‘Joint Opposition’. The reason – the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) were not members in the Joint Opposition. He claims that the nomenclature of ‘Joint Opposition’ is both, “unethical and illegal”, though he did not specify what provision of the law he was citing.

The ‘Bopage Decree’ comes embarrassingly for the Government on the eve of World Press Freedom Day marked the world over by the United Nations, and when the President had only the previous day proudly told the media conference he held that there was media freedom in the country unlike during the Rajapaksa regime.

Media Minister Gayantha Karunathillake was quick to distance himself from the ‘Bopage Decree’ saying he got a copy of the letter of his Secretary only after it was sent out to the media and that indeed, it is the secretary’s personal view and not that of the Government. At least the Media Minister was spared the blushes of having to say; “I saw it in the newspapers”.

From where Bopage came to be Ministry secretary remains shrouded in mystery. All that is known is the previous secretary was given marching orders overnight to some obscure posting — these are the secretaries who try to be ‘more loyal than the King’.
Firstly, it is up to the media, in a country that claims to have a free media to decide what is ethical to print or air and such values are not dictated by Kremlin-like bureaucrats. Secondly, how Bopage came to the conclusion that it is “Illegal” to refer to the ‘Joint Opposition’ as the ‘Joint Opposition’ should raise concerns.

Though the TNA remains the formally recognised Opposition, the number of MPs in the ‘Joint Opposition’ is more than both the JVP and the TNA combined. They also ask how the rulers can refer to a National Government without the TNA and the JVP.
Similarly, the ‘Joint Opposition’ can call themselves what they like and if the media adopts their title, so be it. It is no secret that they are playing the role of an effective Opposition whilst the TNA, which was ensconced into that position because of its “goodwill” with the Government remains muted on matters outside the North. Even those in the East are complaining about the TNA. Its leadership is mute on matters outside the North and the Leader of the Opposition is in the eye of a storm right now for walking into an army camp sans ‘permission’.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has not taken kindly to the new Media Secretary’s lessons in nomenclature to the media and is reported to have sent for Bopage to seek clarification on what he has said. At a hurriedly summoned media conference after having shot his letter off, Bopage conceded that there was “probably” no law against the reference to the use of the word ‘Joint Opposition’ by the media.

As the two SLFP factions up the ante for today’s separate rallies, the Rajapaksa faction is confident that they will send a powerful message to the party indicating who has the wider support of party members. Basil Rajapaksa’s involvement on behalf of his brother is being welcomed by even his detractors in the faction. Take the case of the Southern Provincial Council. Chief Minister Shan Wijelal and ministers Chandima Rasaputra and U.G.B. Ariyatilake are with the Sirisena faction, but the other two ministers, D.V. Upul and Weerasumana Weerasinghe are with the Rajapaksa faction, not least because provincial council members were given most of the contracts during the Rajapaksa administration by Basil Rajapaksa.

Former cabinet minister Kumara Welgama who is one of the organisers for the Kirulapone meeting said they are targeting the support of the local council members in view of the forthcoming (postponed) local council elections and praised Basil Rajapaksa as a grassroots organiser. “If one says that Basil Rajapaksa was not a good organiser and it led to the defeat of the party, what about Sajin Vaas Gunawardene who was also an organiser and now with the President”, he said. He dismissed the possibility of the SLFP taking any disciplinary action against those who would attend the Kirulapone meeting saying that if such dismissals took place it would mean the break-up of the party even faster.

While Sirisena spends an anxius time leading up to today’s May Day, his coalition partner, the United National Party (UNP), must surely be entertaining a wry smile knowing the anguish a party undergoes when there is in-fighting. Lack of a clear political strategy to meet challenges appears to have caught the SLFP on the wrong foot. It is also allowing some of what went on during the previous administration to continue. This has prompted the electorate to question the different promises made. The dividends are being reaped by the ‘Joint Opposition’ though they themselves sowed nothing tangible so far.

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