Rajapakse navigates a consensus, UNP girds to fight for CMC

President Mahinda Rajapakse, using his genius for public relations to maximum advantage, successfully navigated a political consensus on the need for a negotiated settlement of the Northeast conflict at an All-Party meeting he summoned to Temple Trees on April 29 after the suicide bomb attempt on Army Commander Sarath Fonseka.

The mood was somber when the various party delegations arrived for the meeting, mindful of the tricky security situation in the wake of the audacious attack on Lt. Gen. Fonseka inside his tightly guarded headquarters. This attack climaxed an ever mounting claymore mine toll of servicemen posted to the northeastern districts claimed as a Tamil homeland by the LTTE and those attending were acutely conscious of the serious challenge facing the country.

On top of that there had been the brutal attacks on unarmed civilians living in border villages with the clear intention of displacing them from their homesteads where they eke out a precarious living in inhospitable surroundings.

Political analysts applauded Rajapakse for shifting both the JVP and the JHU from their hard line stand against the LTTE and persuading them to occupy more liberal centre space within which a settlement might be negotiated.

The president was fortunate that the UNP, the major opposition party, has always stood for a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problems and did not wish to take advantage of the government’s discomfiture over a LTTE- created security crisis. The president himself has been generous in his praise for his political opponents in the UNP for the responsible role it has been playing in this regard.

It was possible to work out without much difficulty a joint declaration to be signed by all parties present at the meeting which ended with the president hosting the various delegations to a hopper dinner at Temple Trees.

Rajapakse had a one-to-one meeting with Karu Jayasuriya after dinner and briefed him on an intelligence report of LTTE plans to disrupt May Day rallies. He asked Jayasuriya to cancel the planned UNP May Day rally in Kandy and the UNP deputy leader agreed to do so if all other parties do likewise.

Jayasuriya, of course, said that he must clear this arrangement with Ranil Wickremesinghe who is away in the US. Incidentally, Wickremesinghe is drawing flak from many critics, some from within his own party, for being out of the country at a critical moment such as this with the CMC election too looming ahead.

The president told Jayasuriya that all other political parties had agreed to cancel their May Day rallies. However, as we reported last Sunday, veteran trade unionist Bala Tampoe was unhappy about the police appeal to him to cancel their May Day rally. Eventually, the CMU and Ceylon Bank Employees Union mustered at CMU headquarters as originally planned, walked up to the Gall Face roundabout from CMU headquarters on the sea side of the Cinnamon Grand Hotel and returned to the party headquarters for their meeting. All this was done with police concurrence.

Given the precarious security situation with the Norwegian facilitator as well as the SLMM working had to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table, observers and analysts have been stressing the old truism that "if you want peace, you must prepare for war.’’

Diplomats noted that Rajapakse’s first official visit abroad as president was to India. With good relations with India necessarily being the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, this was an obvious development. But with the Defence Cooperation Agreement with India remaining at the discussions stage for over two years, questions of whether real military help if needed would be forthcoming from India remained wide open.

Well informed sources said that Rajapakse has been bending over backwards to be of assistance to India having cancelled an already awarded contract to Denmark for building a breakwater in Kanakesanturai as India wanted this job. It has been subsequently given to India.

"India has been given concessions for prospecting for oil in Mannar and the Indian Ambassador has a hotline to the president. Despite all this, will the Indians reciprocate with arms and ammunition in the event of war?’’

This is the big question agitating many minds in the higher echelons of the Rajapakse administration.

The fear is that India might have to deal with Tamil Nadu sentiment and that might be a problem for the New Delhi government. In that context, the results of tomorrow’s election in Tamil Nadu is vital. Who will win – Jayalalitha who is strongly opposed to the LTTE or Karunanidhi who is more sympathetic to the Tigers?

Analysts believe that if India does not come up with the goods, Sri Lanka will have to look for support from Pakistan as the Indian Express newspaper has reported last week. China too is regarded as another good friend in times of need on whom Sri Lanka can depend.


Press freedom and Udayan attack

Last week’s celebration of International Press Freedom Day in Sri Lanka handled by Media and Information Ministry and UNESCO saw an international media spotlight on this country with Rajapakse awarding the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award to May Chidiac, a Lebanese TV presenter and journalist who was disabled by a terrorist car bomb.

Many foreign journalists attended this event from May 1 to 3 with the celebration concluding with a cultural show and a Temple Trees dinner hosted by the president. There was no hard liquor at this event with only wine and fruit drinks served and the visitors were treated to some typical Lankan dishes. An exhibition of handloom weaving was also arranged on this occasion.

The attack on the Udayan newspaper office in Jaffna and the killing of an employee there by an armed gang that stormed the building cast a shadow over the press freedom celebration in Colombo with the government, Free Media Movement and other interested parties condemning the atrocity.

Karu Jayasuriya who spoke to the president on the phone told him it was a shame that this had happened soon after an all-party consensus on the need for peace had been achieved and press freedom was being celebrated here in the presence of many foreign journalists.

Rajapakse told Jayasuriya that the attackers had left some guns and that he had ordered a comprehensive inquiry. He was hopeful that the attackers would be brought to book. The president had also been in touch with TNA MP Gajan Ponnampalam about the attack on the Udayan.

Ranil Wickremesinghe has been in close contact with Karu Jayasuriya and Tissa Attanayake on the telephone. When Jayasuriya requested clearance for the agreed All-Party statement on the need for a negotiated settlement, Wickremesinghe who flashed the green light for co-operating, had however commented that although the UNP was supporting the government on national issues, the government continued to attack his party accusing it of betraying the intelligence services.

"What have they done to vitalize these services?’’ Wickremesinghe had asked and directed Jayasuriya to ensure that this issue is taken up when the Emergency is next debated in parliament.

Cooray gets ready for the fray

Premadasa-loyalist Sirisena Cooray who returned to Sri Lanka from Australia to run for Mayor of Colombo on the UNP ticket is girding for a battle that will demand all his reputed organizational genius following the failure of his party’s attempt to successfully mount a legal challenge against the rejection of its nomination list by the Elections Commissioner. Cooray who managed Premadasa’s presidential election campaign has now been called upon to manage one of the most difficult tasks in his political career – get his team elected without their names being on the ballot papers!

President Mahinda Rajapakse pulled off masterly a coup by fielding firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakkara to be the UPFA’s candidate for Mayor of Colombo. Nanayakkara is a very visible candidate known islandwide as a people’s politician with no skeletons in his cupboard. His commitment to the left movement and the working class as well as his outspokenness is too well known for elaboration. He, however, has never held executive office and has sat in the opposition during most of his parliamentary career. The one occasion he was on the government side of the House was in 1970 when his party, the LSSP, was a member of the United Front coalition led by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. On that occasion, he was among those arrested in connection with the JVP’s 1971 insurgency and the LSSP, as a constituent of the government, had a difficult task handling a very hot potato.

The word is that the UNP has worked out a 50 – 9 arrangement (the CMC lists comprise 59 candidates) with an independent group which it will strive to get elected using its considerable political muscle in the city it has long held. Given the proportional representation system of elections and preference voting, the arrangement including legal paperwork is complicate to say the least. We are told the documentation is complete and the various UNP candidates, or non-candidates in this case, have been allotted numbers on the independent list to canvass for. Given the limited time span with polling due on May 20 and the Vesak holiday intervening, the going will not be easy for Cooray and his team. But the old warhorse exudes confidence telling intimates that he is determined to fight the battle to conclusion given the challenges.

Although there have been anti-UNP Mayors of Colombo, Dr. N.M. Perera and Mr. T. Rudra among them, and current Minister A.H.M. Fowzie who served as both UNP and SLFP Mayor, the UNP had held the city for many decades without a break. Cooray who has held the job for the green party had long wanted it again but the chemistry between him and Ranil Wickremesinghe was not right although Cooray, known as the foremost Premadasa loyalist, could have the prime ministry that Wickremesinghe got from President D.B. Wijetunge, for the asking. The fences between the two were mended some months ago and Cooray returned from Australia to run as the UNP candidate for Mayor. He probably didn’t bargain for the infighting within the party and probably didn’t even imagine that the machine he once ran at Siri Kotha, as party secretary, was capable of getting a nomination list rejected.

There have been efforts to entice Cooray to the government side with some carrots dangled before him. But he has a history of not changing sides and will be taking on adversaries including Omar Kamil, a former UNP Mayor of Colombo now the city’s Special Commissioner, who has considerable Town Hall experience and can help Nanayakkara’s campaign. Ironically, Kamil too was an aspirant for the UNP’s mayoral slot against Cooray and Deputy Mayor Azad Sally.

Former Minister A.H.M. Azwer who recently switched allegiance to President Rajapakse, is widely reputed for engineering Kamil’s new role. There was no word on his future role if Nanayakkara gets elected. A diplomatic assignment is one possibility, knowledgeable sources said noting that when the UNP wanted to make Prasanna Gunawardene the Mayor of Colombo, Omar Kamil was sent off to Iran as ambassador. He continued to serve into the UPFA administration after the defeat of the Ranil Wickremsinghe government and was ambassador in Teheran when President Kumaratunga paid an official visit there in the fag end of her tenure.


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