International pressure that has placed govt. on shaky ground

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Sunday, May 13th, 2007
  • Boucher tells govt. to keep hands off media
  • Mangala sets down conditions for comeback
  • Boucher told SLFP proposals go back to 1984
  • Govt. cites The Sunday Leader as example of media freedom in country
  • Janaka agreeable to offer his services if invited by government

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While President Mahinda Rajapakse was using the long arm of the law and his executive powers to subdue all detractors, international pressure on the administration peaked last week due to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country with a resultant knock on effect on the economy.

Hardly had the dust settled on the third air raid by the Tigers which prompted the night closure of Sri Lanka’s only international airport, prices of bread, gas and other essential items saw a steep increase even as the government explained it all on the price the public had to pay for waging war.

Behind closed doors of the cabinet room however, there was much soul searching on Wednesday with the government clearly at a loss on how to deal with the galloping inflation.

And while the public fought spiralling inflation in the face of the government’s failures, the President moved to stabilise the ship of state by wooing back to his fold sacked ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi. To the President, given the state of the nation and the results of the latest opinion polls on the government’s overall performance, an election was out of the question, and the only way to ensure stability was by bringing about unity within the SLFP.

No big deal

That allegations of a very serious nature were made against the Rajapakse family by the SLFP duo were no big deal for the President who believed, the government’s stability in the face of a steep down turn in the economy and a war not going according to plan, was the foremost consideration.

To achieve that objective, the President was prepared to eat a little humble pie and accommodate Samaraweera and Sooriyaarachchi back in government without any of the allegations levelled by the duo being withdrawn and it was that task which was entrusted to Governor Alavi Moulana.

It is thereafter that Rajapakse invited Samaraweera for talks during Sri Lanka’s World Cup semi final match with New Zealand and requested Western Province Governor, Alavi Moulana to continue having a dialogue with the ousted Minister.

But for Samaraweera, it was easier said than done given the string of investigations and court actions initiated not just against himself but also Sooriyaarachchi and close aide Tiran Alles and short of the President withdrawing his hound dogs there was to be no deal.

Tactical move

However, Samaraweera also knew tactically, it would be prudent to return to government since that would not only tantamount to the President accepting all the charges levelled against his family but also provide him leverage within the party yet again and establish himself as an indispensable commodity to the SLFP.

At the same time, Samaraweera was also conscious that, once back in the government fold, his own credibility would be seriously compromised given the allegations he had made against the Rajapakse family in writing including a complaint to the Permanent Commission Investigating Allegations of Bribery and Corruption on the MG deal and discussed the same with Sooriyaarachchi and Alles.

It is while the trio were weighing the pros and cons of this situation last weekend that Moulana was to call Samaraweera and invite him for another discussion with the President to finalise his return to cabinet.

Samaraweera who was to leave for Matara in the weekend however played for time and indicated to Moulana, the government’s bona fides needed to be tested and he would wait till the outcome of Maubimapublisher Dushyantha Basnayake’s case scheduled for Thursday was known before taking a decision.

And lo and behold, Basnayake was enlarged on bail on Tuesday with formal charges yet to be framed against him giving rise to the question whether the Terrorism Investigation Division itself had become a political tool at the hands of the government to subdue its political opponents.

This development also indicated there was a sense of desperation in government and Samaraweera was to later tell Moulana, he could only return to the government provided the status quo as at February 9 morning was restored. Simply put, apart from restoring the ministries of Sooriyaarachchi and himself, the cases filed had to be withdrawn and business strangulation of Alles relaxed including the frozen bank accounts.

Such a move would also be a slap in the face of the investigators who were unleashed by the state with their actions liable to be called into question someday in the future.

Political Probes

To the President that maybe a small price to pay to keep a lid on the pre and post election deals with the Tigers coming to light and the coming weeks will see whether he has left it too late.

What the politically motivated investigations have in fact done is to make the President and his own inner circle vulnerable on the issue of the secret deal with the LTTE based on the reports filed in court on the Tiran Alles-Dushyantha Basnayake case and it is this issue that the UNP is all set to seize.

For, the T.I.D. has charged in reports filed in court that one Emil Sri Kantha was an LTTE intelligence operative who had dealings with Alles an if that be so, all that has to be established is either photographic evidence and/or documentary evidence of either Rajapakse, his brothers or members of his inner circles having dealings with the said Emil Kanthan and voila! the secret deal is established.

It is to overcome such a crisis that the President was busy moving heaven and earth to get Samaraweera and Sooriyaarachchi back into the government fold, though how successful he maybe is yet to be seen.

And while the government is engaged in such political games, the LTTE is upping the tempo on the military front with teasing displays of their airpower which has forced the night closure of the country’s only international airport and sent the government into panic mode.

Tiger air fleet

What is shocking however are reports in the Tiger grapevine that they have as many as 17 aircraft, some more powerful than the two put on display, which have been kept on reserve for bigger battles to seize the initiative.

Needless to say, the Tiger air strikes have had a debilitating effect on the country’s economy and further attacks will see the entire economy nose-diving and hyperinflation taking control with the government forced to print more money to fund the war.

Mind you, at a time the government was projecting a rosy picture on the successes in the war front, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse was to say, it would take between two to three years to wipe out the LTTE, calculations which will now have to be revised given the Tigers’ display of their air power. The question then is whether the economy can sustain such a war effort.

That is where the international community comes in and their importance to Sri Lanka’s stability has been completely lost sight off with the President playing to the extremists agenda at the risk of complete international isolation.

And that is exactly where the JVP and JHU want Rajapakse with nowhere to turn but to themselves as Sri Lanka is slowly but surely pushed towards a pariah state.

This fact was amply demonstrated by the developments in the British House of Commons with even an announcement on suspending half the debt relief pledged for Sri Lanka made last week, which saw once again the extremists reacting predictably, almost as if the monies pledged was a divine right earned by them.

It is in this backdrop, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher arrived in Sri Lanka, carrying with him a tough message for President Rajapakse and his government especially on issues relating to human rights, media freedom and the importance of returning to the negotiating table.

Boucher’s visit also came at a time there is growing pressure in the Democrats-controlled U.S. Senate to get tough with Sri Lanka on the human rights front, with several Senators writing to President Rajapakse on the issue, as exclusively reported in The Sunday Leader and The Morning Leader during the last several weeks.

And at his meetings with the President, Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse and other officials, Boucher made it clear the U.S. had serious concerns about the human rights violations in the country , particularly in relation to abductions and disappearances and the climate of intimidation confronting the media.

Government promises

The government for its part promised to address the human rights concerns but defended its media freedom record by adverting to The Sunday Leader and its Editor, claiming articles very critical of the government were published without having to face any consequences.

That goes to show there is media freedom in the country, the President and the Defence Secretary argued.

Boucher for his part having made his point on U.S. concerns on media freedom did not debate the issue with the government, having being fully briefed on the ground realities and the risks faced by the media in expressing its views freely.

That there was an attempt to have the Editor of The Sunday Leader arrested illegally by the Defence Secretary despite a directive to the contrary by the Attorney General C.R. De Silva who was Solicitor General at the time, Boucher was fully aware.

Furthermore, the number of journalists killed and/or threatened during the past several months was not lost on Boucher.

Likewise, that the Inland Revenue Department, Labour Department and other state organs were used to harass media organisations not towing the line, apart from withholding advertising and pressure brought on advertising too were matters which were before Boucher.

It is in this overall context that Boucher impressed upon the President and the Defence Secretary the need to ensure that the media be able to operate in an environment free of fear and intimidation.

Boucher’s concerns were not only confined to the southern media but also that in the north and the east which were coming under threat by para military groups, particularly the Karuna faction and this point too was made forcefully.

That apart, Boucher who made a visit to Jaffna on Wednesday was also given an overview of the situation there by the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Thomas Savundranayagam, who also called for greater engagement of the international community to resolve the ethnic conflict.

Bishop Savundranayagam was to tell Boucher, intervention by foreign governments was urgently needed to resolve the conflict and alleged the Sinhala dominated governments would never offer a justifiable solution.

Stressing the importance of power sharing under a federal structure, the Bishop also referred to the recently submitted SLFP proposals in support of his contention that no government controlled by a ‘Sinhala Majority’ would give Tamils their due rights.

The following day, Thursday, Boucher was to meet Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe where once against the human rights situation, the attack on press freedom and the failure to move the political process forward dominated the dicussion. At these talks associated with Boucher was the U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake. Colombo M.P. Ravi Karunanayake and Bradman Weerakoon were associated with Wickremasinghe.

No direction

It transpired at this discussion there was no clear direction in the government on moving the peace process forward and the UNP Leader was to say his party saw no purpose in participating in the All Party Conference in that backdrop.

Not stopping at that the UNP Leader said the SLFP proposals to resolve the conflict was a step backward and goes back to 1984. Wickremesinghe said the UNP had proposed the District Council system way back in 1984 and proceeded to furnish a copy to Boucher.

He went on to say the only way forward was to improve on the year 2000 draft proposals and added the UNP even lost elections by standing for its principles because that was the only way to resolve the crisis.

And opening out on the media harassment was Karunanayake who detailed specific cases with Wickremesinghe chipping in to say the government was pressurising certain media organisations to sell to chosen parties. "The government’s popularity has gone down after the LTTE air raids in particular and the government is responding to its failures by systematically dismantling the democratic pillars of the state," Wickremesinghe also charged.

Of particular interest to Boucher on the democratic front was the fate of the Constitutional Council and once again Wickremesinghe was to explain how the President had stymied the entire process and said nothing was moving forward.

Interestingly, Wickremesinghe set the pace for the meeting with Boucher by issuing a statement the previous day detailing a set of proposals to overcome the crisis, thereby casting a burden on the President to respond with his views on them but Rajapakse chose to remain mum.

The statement which was a blistering attack on the Rajapakses called for the removal of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse for the military’s failures and the appointment of General Janaka Perera to deal with the situation.

Said the UNP inter alia "The only way to prevent the imminent division of the country is by : (a) preventing further military setbacks and ensuring that we are not militarily weak at the negotiating table. (b) Mobilising the maximum support both national and international to prevent the division of the country."

Added the UNP — "As the minimum this would require the removal of the present Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse and entrusting the defence of our country to a capable and competent official with experience and strategic vision such as General Janaka Perera."

Political debris

Dealing with the military operations, the UNP had this to say — "The 12 month campaign has consisted of ad hoc military operations and reactive responses to LTTE strikes. The so-called success of the war was limited to the media. After each operation the Defence Ministry and the media announced to the country the end of the LTTE’s military might. Today not only is the LTTE’s military capacity intact but they have demonstrated their air power — the first terrorist organisation with an air force. The air attacks by a few propeller-driven aircraft have exposed the lack of our air defence.

"As a result, the Katunayake International Airport is now closed from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. The government and the media are now engaged in building a political air raid shelter to prevent the President and his brother from being hit by the political debris of this attack. This demonstrates the incompetence of the government in regard to military affairs. The prime responsibility of this falls on the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence who is unable to understand the basic principles of using military force to achieve political goals.

"As a result the Rajapakse family has only strengthened the LTTE and weakened the government at the negotiating table" the UNP statement said.

What Wickremesinghe did by this statement was to bait the government, its allies and faithful media to rise to Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s defence, thus making his very appointment and work a subject of debate in the country and this they rose to with not only a poster blitzkrieg but also a media campaign thus drawing Janaka Perera out.

At the same time, the UNP has placed all the failures in the country at the door of the Rajapakse brothers, drawing them out for the fight and forcing the fence-sitters to take a side in the policy direction of the government especially on the war effort.

And not to be left out Janaka Perera himself did the rounds meeting several political parties including the JVP and the Maha Nayakas and indicating his services were available if the country needs him. His offer was met with deafening silence from the Rajapakses.

The government on the other hand was busy defending its human rights record in the face of the UNP onslaught on the Rajapakse brothers and it is after taking into consideration all points of view and the ground realities that Boucher went on public record Thursday evening prior to his departure to Maldives.

Report card

And if Boucher’s assessment was to be discussed in terms of a report card, the government would have got a ‘f’ for human rights, democracy and good governance.

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia not only called on the authorities to rein in the para militaries, improve the human rights situation and ensure media freedom but also to negotiate a political settlement.

"We are watching the situation closely. We have seen reports of government power being used on the media. We will always speak out in defence of the media," Boucher said.

Thus, it is evident, internationally, the government is being not so slowly walked to the dog house with only countries as Japan turning a Nelsonian eye due to their economic interests in Sri Lanka.

Of course the President also has the support of the odd European Union Parliamentarian such as Niranjan Deva Aditiya who has wide business interests in Sri Lanka and was instrumental in getting Rajapakse’s son to a college in Wales.

Deva Aditiya who was once described as a banquet beggar for soliciting invitations to state functions from former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, however is a bad lobbyist for Sri Lanka since it is no secret he uses his political clout to promote his business interests.

Dubious business

During the premiership of Ranil Wickremesinghe he pleaded for a title as "Prime Minister’s Advisor" to the European Union and insisted on one of his close aides Reza to be afforded a table and a chair at Temple Trees. Wickremesinghe gave him the title but refused office space for his assistant who nevertheless went around distributing visiting cards stating he was advisor to the prime minister.

Deva Aditiya subsequently brought in a dubious business project from China which then Trade Minister Ravi Karunanayake and Wickremesinghe vetoed after a huge block of land was demanded in Kotte for a pittance.

Given this reputation, Deva Aditiya is not taken too seriously in the EU and where the President has failed in wresting the international initiative is by not using more influential persons in the form of Ministers Milinda Moragoda and Sarath Amunugama.

Be that as it may, none of these issues were discussed at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting with the micro picture taking centre stage particularly in relation to dealing with the escalating cost of living.

And even on that score the government could not keep its focus, with the meeting descending into a battle over vegetable oil and coconut oil prices. It was Consumer Affairs Minister Bandula Gunawardena who detailed the cost of living problems and the rising prices which saw Plantation and Industries Minister D.M. Jayaratne taking up cudgels over the cooking oil prices.

Jayaratne argued that vegetable oil was used only by the elite and should be priced higher while a reduction in the price of coconut oil be made which was the common man’s choice.

To do that, Jayaratne argued, a higher export duty should be levied on coconut oil, thereby ensuring greater supplies in the market to drive the prices down.

With arguments going to and fro on this issue, no finality was reached with a discussion deferred for a later date, as was the case with the price of flour and action against Prima.

The President however was not too keen on criticising Prima and told the ministers he will study the agreements and revert to the cabinet.

Thus in the overall context, the country is drifting aimlessly with no clear direction, even as the Tigers have once again seized the initiative by forcing the government into a defensive position following the air attacks.