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17 May 1998

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Rain rain don’t go away even though
three big bigmen have only one tiny
ladies umbrella:millions of people who
went through one of the worst and
longest heat waves in Sri Lanka’s history,
have welcomed the monsoon showers.
Pic by Gemunu Wellage


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Pakistan surprised over Lanka’s stand

By Arshad M. Hadjirin

Pakistan last night expressed “surprise” at remarks by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar that Sri Lanka had nothing against India realising its nuclear ambitions.

“Mr. Kadirgamar’s statement is surprising because of two reasons. One is Sri Lanka’s commitment to non-violence. The other is that he does not object to India acquiring nuclear weapons,” Basit Alia Haqqani, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka told The Sunday Times. Addressing the Foreign Correspondent’s Association at a luncheon meeting on Friday, Mr. Kadirgamar said Sri Lanka was “certainly not opposed to India becoming a nuclear power.” He said India’s nuclear tests had not harmed bilateral relations between Colombo and New Delhi.

India last week carried out five nuclear tests at the Pokhran Range in Rajasthan. High Commissioner Haqqani said Foreign Minister Kadirgamar had told a luncheon the diplomatic corps accorded in his honour last Wednesday that Sri Lanka was a signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

India was not a signatory. Mr. Haqqani said that Minister Kadirgamar had asked at this meeting why the nuclear club should be confined to just five members only.

High Commissioner Haqqani, The Sunday Times learns, sought a meeting with Mr. Kadirgamar last week.

But Foreign Ministry officials explained that an appointment could not be given to him since the Foreign Minister had to leave for Cartagena for the Non Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference.

They said Mr. Kadirgamar would meet the Pakistan envoy soon after his return to Colombo.

More confusion over child combatants: age limit 15 or 18?

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Amidst moves by the United Nations to keep children out of war comes the news that the UN Convention on Rights of the Child stipulates a minimum age of 15 years for children in combat. The reason? Many Western nations did not want the age limit to be brought up to 18 years.

Article 38 of the Convention, which was approved by the UN General Assembly in 1989, which deals with armed conflicts says

“State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that children under 15 years of age have no direct part in hostilities. No child below the age of 15 shall be recruited into the armed forces.”

But in marked contrast, in the opening lines of the Convention, a child is defined as “a person under 18 unless national laws recognise the age of majority earlier.”

Arve Ofstad, resident co-ordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka, confirmed to The Sunday Times that there was a disparity in the Convention’s definitions of a child and the minimum age for child fighters.

“But it was only possible to reach an international agreement to the age of 15. There were many countries, even in the North, which objected to raising the age limit,” Mr. Ofstad said.

He pointed out that most countries recruited children under 18 years into military academies. But, there is a strong lobby led by UNICEF and supported by Olara Otunnu to move up the present age limit of 15 to 18. There is a distinct possibility of that happening soon, he added.

Mr. Ofstad guessed that Mr. Otunnu would have used 18 years as a minimum in his discussions with the Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE by taking a leaf from Sri Lanka’s own Children’s Charter.

Sri Lanka which ratified the UN Convention has given it legal effect locally through a National Children’s Charter. It defines clearly that a child is “every human being under the age of 18.”

The Charter’s stipulation for child combatants is much more stringent than the UN Convention. It requires the country to take all feasible measures to ensure that ‘a child’ will not have direct part in combat.

Clarifying the situation, a UNICEF spokesman said that the UN Convention was universal - a guide which the countries that ratified it could follow up to make their own rules about children.

Early this month both the Government and arch rival LTTE pledged to UN special envoy, Olara Otunnu, they would avoid using children in combat roles in the on-going separatist war.

The LTTE’s assurance, even if one doubts its enforcement, is meaningful. They recruited young children and raised what have come to be known as Baby Brigades. They now say they would not enrol children below 17 years or induct those below 18 years into combat.

What of the Government of Sri Lanka ? Its Army has never recruited anyone below the age of 18 in its entire 49 year history barring a handful of exceptions in the recent years. Those recruited and later discovered to be under age were de listed.

Why then did Mr. Otunnu express “satisfaction” that the stipulated age for recruitment was over 18 years and take note of Sri Lanka Government’s assurance there were no plans to recruit children? That too when there has been no such thing since independence or even before?

The simple answer is that the Government panicked and over reacted. As The Sunday Times reported last week, Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, gave a twist to our report on May 3 which specifically said the Army planned to go to schools to recruit school leavers. He charged the story “which was deliberately inserted to create mischief” said the school children were to be recruited - an assertion which was nowhere in The Sunday Times story.

Even after Mr. Samaraweera’s fictional claim was backed by a State media campaign, both print and electronic media (with programme repeats), facts have remained abundantly clear.

Please see also The Sunday Times Political Correspondent’s Column

Tide going against Mendis

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

The UNP committee considering the action to be taken in the case of party Chief Whip Wijeyapala Mendis is likely to call for his resignation, party sources said.

Mr. Mendis appeared before the three-member committee on Wednesday. It is learnt that the various contradictory statements made by him to the Presidential Commission, statements in public and the subsequent advertisements which were not sanctioned by the party have gone against him and a decision in his favour was unlikely, they said.

Mr. Mendis has sought three weeks time to obtain legal advice and to make further submissions thereafter.

Sources said he would file action against the party in the event of his being removed from party posts.

Mr. Mendis has defiantly refused to resign insisting that a majority of MPs would stand by him if a vote is taken.

Not against anyone joining nuke club-Kadir

Sri Lanka does not support sanctions against India for exploding a series of nuclear devices this week, Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, said.

“We are not great believers in sanctions. Sanctions must be looked at in a broader context. They also imply judgement from a moral high ground, and in the present world context, very few countries can take a moral high ground on such issues,’’ Mr. Kadirgamar told a luncheon meeting of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka at the Galle Face Hotel.

Sri Lanka which on Thursday came out with a delayed expression of concern over the risk an arms race in the region would not question India’s right to be a member of the nuclear club. “We cannot be against any country trying to become a member of the nuclear club. We want that there should be no nuclear club at all. We are for global nuclear disarmament,” Mr. Kadirgamar said.

On being asked if Sri Lanka accepted India’s explanation or justification for the blasts, Mr. Kadirgamar said that one had to understand the security apprehensions of another country. But he described as “regrettable”, the “rhetoric” that certain persons in the Indian government had indulged in, about China being India’s main security threat. “Sri Lanka is close to both India and China, and we hope these two countries would discuss the contentious issues and find a settlement” Mr. Kadirgamar said. He said he was aware that Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself had not gone along with the rhetoric.

Asked if Sri Lanka would take up the issue of the Indian nuclear explosion in the coming Non-Aligned Summit, Mr. Kadirgamar said it would not. The issue would not be taken up formally in the July SAARC summit here in Colombo either. “The issue has a strong bilateral (India-Pakistan) element, and as such, it cannot be listed in the agenda as per the SAARC charter. However, this will not prevent informal discussions taking place,” he said.

He was hopeful that both Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Vajpayee would discuss the matter informally when they meet in Colombo for the SAARC summit. “They are both charming and civilized people,” the Foreign Minister said. There could be much softening on both sides before the SAARC meet. “Two months is a long time in international politics,” he quipped. Mr. Kadirgamar also felt that eventually, India might sign the CTBT. Later, at the luncheon, he recalled that France and China had signed the CTBT after conducting tests.

Asked if Sri Lanka would undertake to bring Pakistan and India together for the greater good of the region, Mr. Kadirgamar said he saw no role for Sri Lanka. “Who are we?” he asked. But if India and Pakistan sought Sri Lanka’s assistance, the needful could be done.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister played down the explosions and said there was nothing “dramatic” in the event for the strategic balance in South Asia to be drastically upset, as India and Pakistan had been in the threshold of nuclear capability.

Asked if SAARC stood in danger of breaking up as a result of the new developments and the accentuation of the Indo-Pakistan conflict Mr. Kadirgamar said it did not, for two reasons: for one thing, the SAARC region had faced such tension before and had survived and, for another, the current concern in the grouping was economic rather than political.

More specifically, the current concern was the way the member countries were affected by globalisation, the WTO regime and so on.

In fact, this would be the theme of the July summit, rather SAPTA or SAFTA, which were concerned with trade and economic ties between SAARC countries, Mr. Kadirgamar said.

Another aspect of SAARC which would enable it to survive was the interest in promoting private sector trade between the member countries. Both Pakistan and India were keen on this, the Foreign Minister said.

Answering questions on domestic issues, Mr. Kadirgamar corrected an impression that the UN might be involved in the monitoring of the undertakings given by the LTTE to the UN Special Representative, Olara Otunnu recently. There is no scope for the involvement of UN as a body. But UN agencies like UNHCR and UNICEF, which have been working in the conflict here for long, could be involved,’’ he said. He said no steps had been taken on evolving a monitoring mechanism since Mr. Otunnu’s departure on May 9. “It’s too early,” he said.

He pointed out that the LTTE’s organs available on the Internet, seemed to have completely ignored Mr. Otunnu’s visit.

Whether the LTTE was serious about the “commitments’’ made to Mr. Otunnu, remained to be seen, he said.

Mr. Kadirgamar denied that the Commonwealth Secretary General had either brought a proposal to settle the ethnic issue or a letter from the LTTE to the President.

Top LTTEr nabbed

A guerrilla leader who once headed LTTE’s microlight and glider training programme to carry out suicide attacks on political, economic and military targets, has been arrested in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. The man identified only as Segar is believed to have been returning from an European trip to Colombo via Bangkok and Kathmandu.

Intelligence sources in Colombo told The Sunday Times Segar was now being questioned by the Police in Nepal. These sources also said the man had also been interviewed by India’s intelligence agency RAW, which is keeping close tabs on LTTE activity. Segar is known to have taken the same route the former head of the LTTE office in Paris, Lawrence Thilakar, took to return to Sri Lanka in late 1996. Intelligence sources described Segar as a close confidante of late Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias Kittu, the one time LTTE “Jaffna Commander” who was killed when an Indian coast guard vessel opened fire on the LTTE ship MV Yahat. When Kittu headed the LTTE’s so called International Secretariat in London, Segar had been his close associate. These sources also said that Segar was an arch rival of A. Shanthan, currently the head of the LTTE office in London which styles itself as the International Secretariat.

After Kittu’s death, Segar had been placed in charge of training Tiger cadres to fly microlight and gliders. He is said to have succeeded in obtaining membership for an unknown number of LTTE cadres to join an amateur Microlight flying school in France in 1994. Intelligence sources are now trying to establish what Segar’s mission has been and what role he played during his current visit. They do not rule out the possibility that he was engaged as a courier on a procurement mission to obtain anti aircraft weaponry or missiles.

‘Credit card draw normal’ -Minister

By. Frederica Jansz

Minister Mangala Samaraweera insists it is “completely normal” for Sri Lanka Telecom to pick up the tab from his personal credit card, even though it amounts to lakhs.

He was reacting to a news report last Sunday, which showed that the Japanese managed company had paid Rs. 277,852.41/- on behalf of the Minister.

The Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Media confirmed a story in a Sunday newspaper that Hedeaki Kamitsuma, CEO, of SLT had paid that money in settlement of an outstanding amount on the Ministers Gold Visa Credit card. This card issued by the Bank of Ceylon had a credit limit of about Rs. 250,000. Mr. Samaraweera however said that when he travels abroad his credit card limit is US$ 5000. The card was given to the Minister in April this year. The Minister refuted allegations that his private debts are being paid by cheques issued by SLT’s Chief Executive Officer.

He told The Sunday Times that he saw no impropriety in this, and complained that budgetary allocations for Ministers when travelling overseas was insufficient.

Pressed as to what his expenses were that amounted to almost half a million rupees, Mr. Samaraweera said, they were all official entertainment expenses he was forced to incur when abroad on business. He said he cannot go abroad and be entertained without returning the gesture.

He countered charges that Sri Lanka Telecom, currently under Japanese management, is a private company whereby the Ministry remains a mere shareholder. “This is not correct,” Mr. Samaraweera said, adding that the government retains a 65% share equity in SLT.

Budgetary allocations from ministries would depend on the country a Minister was visiting. A nett rate is usually lent for accommodation and expenses. For example, if the Minister was visiting Britain he would be allowed US$ 125 for a room and in the case of India, US$ 75. Expense allowances would vary from between US$ 50 and 150$ per day. In most instances such allowances are insufficient, Mr. Samaraweera said, to pay for official entertaining abroad.

He asserted that he had done nothing wrong, but declined to give a breakdown of these expenses. He said it was completely normal for SLT to pick up the bill.

Minister Samaraweera however conceded that for a department within the Ministry to pay for official expenses of the Minister, would depend on an understanding between the Minister and the head of the department concerned.

When The Sunday Times tried to contact Mr. Kamitsuma, we were told by his secretary, he would not speak to the press, and that there was no need to do so as “We are on the same side as the Minister.”

Sri Lanka Telecom was privatised last July and its full management rights were given to Nippon Telephone & Telegraph. The Sri Lanka Government has a 65% stake in the company while NTT of Japan has bought a 35% equity and full management rights.

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