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
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
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
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
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
"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.