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Mahinda Under Siege In London

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 5 December 2010 08:24 No Comment]

The day following the last Presidential Election 2010, the Cinnamon Lake Hotel where Sarath Fonseka was staying was laid  siege to  by the Army and the Police, and Fonseka was kept confined within it. President Mahinda Rajapaksa too faced a kindred experience when he was at the Dorchester Hotel in London last week.

17 When the pro Tamil Tiger Diaspora surrounded this hotel and staged demonstrations against him, the UK security division advised  the President and his delegation not to leave the hotel. But, as Mahinda wished to go out shopping he was allowed one and a half hours under a heavy security blanket.

The Sri Lanka High Commission in London having come to know of these potential dangers advised Mahinda Rajapaksa repeatedly not to make the tour. Yet, his unofficial foreign minister Sajin Vaas Gunawardena had advised him that there is nothing that the Tamil Diaspora can do there, and therefore he should go ahead. After Sajin Vaas convinced the Secretaries to the President, Lalith Weeratunga and Gamini Senarath, the President decided to go ahead with the visit.

Earlier when Mahinda Rajapaksa toured Britain to address the Oxford Union, he was able to meet the former British Premier Tony Blair. That tour was organised by Vaas. Trusting in Vaas, the President decided to go ahead on the basis of his previous success. Shiranthi, the President’s wife and his son Namal were to accompany him, however at the last minute they withdrew and his delegation comprised 11 members including  Ministers S.B. Dissanayake, Prof. G.L. Peiris, Sajin Vaas as well as Nowzer Fowzie, Lalith Weeratunga and Gamini Senarath. Though Minister Douglas Devananda’s name was on the list, he could not go as his visa application was rejected by the UK High Commission.

In fact Mahinda Rajapaksa was to make this tour on an earlier date. But he cancelled it amidst fears that the pro Tamil Tiger Diaspora may obtain an arrest warrant against him. This column was the first with this news of possible arrest. The Times of India too reported this, but later. This caused immense humiliation and embarrassment to Mahinda. However he was determined to somehow tour the UK, address the Oxford Union and teach a lesson to the Tamil Tiger sympathizers. Vaas who organised this trip was also of the view that Mahinda Rajapaksa should  visit UK.

The High Commission in the UK  as a first step following this tour postponement began probing via the PR firm as to what would be the response of the British government in the event the President is arrested while he is in the UK. When the PR firm responded that the President cannot be arrested because of the diplomatic immunity afforded to him while he is in the UK, sources say that Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to proceed with the tour based on that assurance. When the President made up his mind to go on the tour, our Mission in Britain intimated that the Tamil Diaspora was organising a huge protest campaign against him at Heathrow Airport on his arrival. He then decided to confuse them by changing his time and date of departure.

Finally when Mahinda Rajapaksa flew on  November 29, UL 509 was delayed for two hours at the Katunayake Airport. Since it was possible that the delay would allow time for the protestors to get information on the flight details, the plane was made to land in Male without prior notice in the belief that this change of schedule would confuse the protestors and disrupt the demonstrations planned at Heathrow Airport.

The extreme cold weather in the UK and unexpected changes in flight schedules at Heathrow caused grave difficulties to the organisers  and demonstrators. In any event the Diaspora university students had managed successfully to muster the crowds by mobile telephone messages. About 25 police officers were deployed at the airport to provide security to the President on his arrival. The plane was halted at the tarmac for about 45 minutes and the UK security division was compelled to bring  the car and the back up vehicle to the plane. Mahinda Rajapaksa was then whisked away through the VIP gate while the protest was gathering momentum. The Dorchester Hotel where Rajapaksa was going to stay was also heavily guarded.

When the President and his delegation was being escorted to the Hotel, information was received from the Sri Lanka High Commission that a pro Tiger Lawyer was seeking an arrest warrant against Rajapaksa from Court.  By that time our Mission in Britain had made arrangements with a legal firm to combat any further developments in that direction. They were in receipt of legal advice as to the measures they must take in such a situation.

Mahinda traveled to the UK while being aware that he would not be able to meet British Premier Cameron. Our High Commissioner was instructed to somehow seek and secure appointments with the British Defence Secretary  Liam Fox and Foreign Secretary William Hague.  However only an appointment with Fox materialised. When Fox was in the opposition, he was well known as a friend of Rajapaksa’s government and was criticised by the British media for this. Due to this, Fox was cautious and his meeting with the President was tagged ‘unofficial.’ This resulted in Rajapaksa’s tour being a private visit.  Though Fox met the President at the Dorchester Hotel he could not give him any encouraging messages. He had told Mahinda that the pro Tamil Tiger Diaspora was organising a massive protest demonstration against his Oxford Union address, and the British security division was in a quandary over providing adequate security for the President.

Meanwhile, Tamil student movements of a number of universities including Cambridge University had sent messages to the President of the Oxford Union protesting against the lecture to be delivered by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The police of the area too had declared that they cannot provide adequate security. This resulted in the Oxford Union cancelling the lecture citing security concerns. This message was conveyed to the President when he was at a discussion with Fox. It is reported that he flew into a rage and deemed this cancellation a gross insult to him. After Fox left, it is learnt that Mahinda Rajapaksa had berated Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris and Sajin Vaas who inspired him to take this tour. Rajapaksa had insisted that he needed to deliver a lecture in Britain somehow, somewhere. The Sri Lanka High Commission in Britain was also given instructions to muster the Sinhala families in that country for this purpose.

‘Temple Trees’ in a previous column had made reference to the humiliation and embarrassment faced by the Israeli Defence Minister and the Foreign Minister (tainted by war crime charges) when on a visit to Britain sometime ago. ‘Temple Trees’ also published some time ago about the arrest threat faced by the Indonesian President on his European tour because of the war crimes allegations against him. The two Israeli ministers who got wind of the impending perils when they reached Heathrow Airport immediately took the next flight out in the same plane they arrived on.

Similarly, the Indonesian President too learning of his precarious position and the ominous threats cancelled his UK tour at the eleventh hour even after checking in his baggage at the airport. In the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa, he chose to ignore the repeated warnings issued by the Sri Lankan High Commission. Rajapaksa had also planned to visit Germany after concluding  his British tour and wished to do so secretively in fear that the Tamil Tiger Diaspora in Germany might also organise protests. The visit to Germany was to get a health check sources say. But this was cancelled after the UK fiasco.

Rajapaksa’s UK tour has triggered widespread speculation with some saying that by not heading repeated warnings, he has met his political waterloo. Others say that British intelligence after giving assurances through the British PR firm, had taught him a lesson once he arrived in the UK. The underlying reason for this is the unfair treatment meted out to British Foreign Secretary Miliband when he was in Sri Lanka during the period of the war, as well as the rotten eggs and tomato attack on the UK High Commission in Sri Lanka earlier on with alleged government patronage.

It is also the view of some that Prof. Peiris and Vaas led the President up the garden path. Each by trying to win personal kudos has compromised Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political image, they claim. According to informed sources in Britain, the President’s tour of Britain unmindful of the  security concerns and warnings has unnecessarily embarrassed the British government. The latter charges that at a time when Britain is scrutinising its laws which permit the arrest of state leaders tainted by war crime charges on a court order, with a view to amending them, Rajapaksa’s untimely visit ignoring warnings is deserving of blame.

Amnesty International and human rights organisations making this an issue have  accused the British government of seeking to wash its hands off its commitments pertaining to war crimes by amending its laws. Amnesty International speaking to Channel 4 which had the video footage of the alleged human rights violations during the period of the Sri Lankan war had stated that Mahinda should be arrested while he was there. Consequently, the British government has also come in for heavy flak from human rights organisations for trying to divest itself of its commitments regarding war crimes.

Be that as it may, the crucial question now is, in this context and climate, how is Mahinda Rajapaksa going to make Sri Lanka the ‘Wonder of Asia?’

While the British tour has proved to be Rajapaksa’s political waterloo, the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s  political waterloo is going to be the UNP Convention which is to be held on  December 12. All signs however point towards a plan that has been formulated to silence the voices of the Sajith Premadasa faction. At the Parliament lobby, a heated argument had erupted between Sujeewa Senasinghe who was bitterly critical of Ranil at the previous UNP Parliamentary Group meeting and Badulla MP Harin Fernando. Later on Harin had made it up  by apologising to Sujeewa. Yet Ranil has inserted a news item in a pro-Ranil newspaper that a disciplinary inquiry is going to be conducted over this dispute. That news item was targeting Sujeewa.

The latter who had read this had phoned the party Secretary Tissa Attanayake and questioned the veracity of it. Attanayake had replied that there is no truth in it and  attempts were being made to sow discord among the MPs, adding that he is also being unnecessarily dragged into it. He had also advised  Sujeewa to make an announcement that the Party Secretary had given a solemn assurance that no such action is going to be taken. It is learnt that Sujeewa is now going in for litigation against this newspaper.

It has become abundantly clear that though Ranil is trying via the media to intimidate and control the MPs advocating party reforms, his measures had only provided further stimulus to them to get stronger and more determined. On the budget debate, after Sajith’s speech Ranil had expressed his pleasure on it. When Ranil expressed his delight, Sajith too had given Ranil a delightful  piece of information, saying that in the Beliatta electorate represented by the President and his family, three SLFP members of the Beliatta Pradeshiya Sabha had voted with the UNP against the budget to defeat it. Sajith had added that it was his plan and discussions with them that had obtained this result.

Ranil had not asked for details though it was of immense political significance. When Ranil went away without inviting Sajith to attend the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) meeting, the Party Secretary had stepped in and extended an invitation to Sajith.   The latter participated in the meeting with Ranil and the senior MPs. It is noteworthy that while Ranil’s speech was not received with much enthusiasm, when Sajith stood up to speak he was greeted with loud applause and the crowd shouting ‘our new leader’. Ranil looked disappointed. Ranil is aware that Sajith has already captured power within the JSS and the youth  front.

Likewise, those whom Ranil thought were with him are also in the process of joining the Sajith faction. Joseph Michael Perera whom Ranil thought was his closest advisor, has openly stated that Sajith ought to be the leader at a meeting which was attended by Sajith.

When Ranil ‘planted’ a report in the newspaper that the party MPs had consented to hold the convention at Sri Kotha, among those who signed the statement rejecting this proposal was Lakshman Kiriella, an MP who is very close to Ranil. The latter who knows in which direction the wind is blowing like a weather wane decided to hold the convention at Sri Kotha because he was frightened that if it is held outside where large crowds can congregate, the large crowds will certainly be representatives of Premadasa due to his popularity .

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