The Ides Of March Comes Around To A Rajapaksa Regime
Last week was one that President Mahinda Rajapaksa wished had never come by. The years of telling the West to “go fly a kite” had come home to roost. It is the way of the international community. They do not have a gallery to play to. The powerful and influential “watch lobbies” bide their time, and the time surely comes around. To most Sri Lankans (within the majority community), the pressures used by the West to investigate the alleged war crimes, particularly during the last stages of the war to lead to any meaningful reconciliation, is sheer meddling into the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
To a government that is all powerful and drunk on power due to the “war victory” and the resultant numbers in parliament, municipal councils and the lower chambers , it is an afront to be questioned. Again, due to the massive marketing exercise of propping up the stature of an all powerful Chief Executive, (within the confines of the Nation), the government has begun to believe its own hype. There are plenty of acolytes who propagate this effort both within the government and in the private sector, and for different reasons. Some for making money and others for the victory over the LTTE. That is not to say that all those within the parliament or the lower chambers are “gung ho” on the Chief Executive and his style of governance. Yet, due to the power wielded by the office there is little they can do to buck the system without causing serious harm to their comfort zones. It is not on policy that they differ. It is on the singular trust deposed in the family by the CEO that leaves the senior diehards in the wings only to pick up the crumbs that fall off the high table, that has led to the dissatisfaction. That was the background to what happened last week.
The United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent a letter to Minister G. L. Peiris, giving advance notice of an impending visit by a delegation of US officials for closed door meetings with key officials and Ministers including President Rajapaksa. The letter was terse and to the point. Clinton was to go as far as to sugest that the key Ministers from the Sri Lankan side and those connected with the discussions, even re organise their calanders to be available to meet with the US officials. In fact US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, Steven J. Rapp was asked to reschedule his diary to take on a visit to Sri Lanka together with US Under Secretary Robert Blake and Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Human Rights and Democracy. The job descriptions of the delegation gives an inkling as to the purpose of their visit as ordered by Secretary of State Clinton. Be aware that Blake and Otero did not have Sri Lanka in their sights but were to visit the Maldives and Nepal. Events that took place subsequent to their itinerary made them include a visit to Sri Lanka.
Fonseka a Political Prisoner
The USA has considered Sarath Fonseka a political prisoner and that position remains so up to the present time. That Sarath Fonseka was a candidate who polled 40 percent at the last Presidential elections, gave them added reason to consider such a position. He is also a Green Card holder of the US. It is believed that Anoma Foneska has held back an appeal to ask for a pardon for her husband from President Rajapaksa on the basis that Sarath Fonseka would be given one in the near future under pressure from the USA. They feel that the opposition led by the UNP and JVP are in disarray and a free Sarath Fonseka could galvanise a sleeping opposition.
The US delegation is in favour of an internal investigation by Sri Lanka into the possible crimes against humanity during the last stages of the war. They have had reservations about the entire process of the LLRC but was willing to grant time for President Rajapaksa to set in motion an internal mechanism to show good faith. This was conveyed through Asst. Secretary of State Robert Blake. Now with the LLRC report being tabled, the USA is insistent that follow up action is taken post haste as a first step. Free Fonseka, would be another factor that the Chief Executive would have to handle at the nudging of ‘Uncle Sam’. Investigate disappearences, killing of and attacks on journalists is yet another area the USA has been urging the government of Sri Lanka to pursue.
Hot on the heels of the US delegation leaving our shores President Rajapaksa acted by instructing Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya to appoint a four member Court of Inquiry under Maj. Gen. Chrishantha de Silva, Commander of Security Forces in Kilinochchi, to probe and even go to Court Martial stage if anyone was found guilty of actions that the LLRC highlighted in their report. Whether Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya was the best option for the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, is debated by the public but yet is a significant first step. Time is of the essence and any tardiness shown in this probe would be deemed as delaying tactics which the US and India would not be inclined to buy anymore.
Added to this scenario is the secrecy and cordoning off of the entire area where the last stages of the war against the LTTE was conducted. The rationale behind this is unknown and speculation is rife that personnel from a major power are being used to clean up whatever that needs to be mopped up before the public is given access to this area.
A Census in the Offing
The government is also in the process of charting up numbers in these areas through a census. They would also take into account those who have left the country and others who were taken into camps and then resettled elswhere to prove that there were not many who died during the final stages. This is a long shot but could prove effective nevertheless in the short term. The international bodies and nations watching Sri Lanka’s record during the last stages of the war and the period leading upto it have kept their aces close to their chests. It is not solely the Tamil diaspora that has brought pressure on them but even serving high ranking military officers during that period seem to have made submissions that are very damaging to the government of Sri Lanka. The white flag drama is certain to come up with another twist in the near future and many are going to have egg on their faces.
Quid Pro Quo by US?
However, President Rajapaksa knows that if he delivers on a transparent and credible internal investigation into the LLRC findings and also devolves power according to 13 Plus as promised, the resolutions envisaged by the international community at the UNHRC would be not supported by the USA or India. That is the way the international community works. Some may have laid their lives in vain for expediency in another area. ‘The bigger picture comes into play’ theory.
The UNHRC vets each country every four years and Sri Lanka will be on their list this year (2012). Though this committee does not have punitive or executive powers to initiate any action on countries that fall short of international standards they could forward such adverse reports to the main body for follow up as deemed fit. The human rights standards are being spearheaded by the US but the modalities for reconciliation have been left largely in the hands of India. That is where the 13th Amendment mooted by India way back during late President J. R. Jayawardene’s term becomes relevent.
Krishna wields the Big Stick
Prior to the visit of the US delegation the Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna visited Sri Lanka, mid January on a four day visit. During his visit, Minister Krishna held discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, representatives of the TNA and several others. He also visited the North and gifted 10,000 bicycles and assured the people that the balance 49,000 houses would be built speedily. Nine Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) were signed between Sri Lanka and India including a housing project for IDPs, restoration of the Northern railway line, financing the Greater Dambulla Water Supply Project, co-operation in the field of agriculture and telecommunication. Yet the emphasis was on the northern peninsula.
Volte Face by Mahinda Rajapaksa
The discussions of the Indian Minister with the President revolved around the devolution package, mainly to the North – East. The Indian External Affairs Minister in his media briefing prior to departure reiterated that President Rajapaksa had assured of a 13 Plus arrangement to the Constitution, being implemented. What annoyed the Indian government was the volte face by President Mahinda Rajapaksa immediately after Krishna’s departure. Rajapaksa was once again speaking of a Parliamentary Select Committee to seek a solution to the northern issue.
The High Commissioner of India Ashok Kantha followed up in the wake of his Minister and was in no mood to tip toe around the contentious issue. The top Indian Diplomat pushed Prof. G. L. Peiris to come to terms with the TNA and draft a memorandum of understanding on the terms to be agreed upon between the government and the TNA which then could be taken before a parliament select committee if needed. Though Prof G. L. Peiris wished to buy time Ashok Kantha was not going to relent. Eventually it fell upon the TNA leader R. Sambandan to allow Prof. Peiris some leeway. A few days grace was agreed upon to come up with an agreement with the TNA.
Port of Call around the Region
In the meantime the Indian Government is yet pursuing the Sethusamudram Project with vigour. Though the BJP objected to the continuance of this project, the Chennai State Government sees the importance of it being completed at the earliest. The project proposal by experts had outlined four possible paths which could be dredged without causing any harm to the “monkey bridge”. The Indian Supreme Court reserved it’s verdict on the Rama Sethu path suggested by experts and the Indian Government is expected to suggest an alternative route in the coming months.
If this project is approved by the Supreme Court of India, the transhipment cargo presently coming into the Colombo Port would be diverted to ports such as Cochin. More than 60 percent of the cargo that is transhipped from Colombo is to Indian Ports. India has cause to worry on one more score. That is the Colombo South Harbour Development project. Originally, the Chinese Company, China Merchant Holdings (Int) Company Ltd ( with 55 percent), Aitken Spence PLC ( with 30 percent), Sri Lanka Ports Authority (with 15 percent) were to develop this harbour through a BOT system. But with the project costs being changed the Aitken Spence PLC withdrew from the joint Public Private Partnership leaving the Chinese Company to carry out the project with The Sri Lanka Ports Authority much to the chagrin of the Indians who were quick to smell that something was rotten in the manner the whole process was being manipulated. It is in this context that the Sethusamudram Project has to be viewed from a Sri Lankan perspective taking into account the geo politics of the region.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa took wing to Singapore with Prof. G. L. Peiris and Lalith Weeratunge, on Thursday February 16. The NUS University’s Lee Kwan Yu College for Public Policy, held a confab for their lecturers where questions were asked from the visiting delegation. Prof. Rohan Gunaratne made the arrangements for this session. Prof. Peiris took most of the questions and the audience raised many a pertinent question.
Q: What have you got to say about the situation in Sri Lanka in relation to media freedom?
A: (Prof Peiris…after a three minute discourse praising the President for bringing peace to the country), if you look at a Sunday Newspaper you will find many articles containing diverse views. Some even criticise the President and the Ministers and are defamatory of them. These are allowed.
A: (President Rajapaksa) They even write about the children
Q: What about Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder?
A: My predecessor (Lakshman Kadirgama) was also killed. His murder is yet not solved. It was during a special period and circumstances (war).
Q: So, are you saying Lasantha Wickrematunge’s killing was part of the war?
A: It happened during special times. Under special circumstances.
Q: (Prof. Razeen Salie)What efforts are being made towards reconciliation?
A: (Prof Peiris) A number of efforts are being made in this direction. 700 Tamil speaking police officers have been recruited and will be posted to the north.
Thereafter Prof. Rohan Guneratne made a speech for about five minutes praising the President for his achevements but laid emphasis on the Sri Lankan government’s inabilty to get this message (concerning the good work done) across to the international community.
This is the same Prof. Rohan Guneratne who is close to the Rajapaksa Brothers and advises them on matters concerning terrorism in a global context and who visited the 15 soldiers detained on suspicion in Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, who made these comments.
Ball in Opposition Court
Whilst all these closed door sessions were going on, the government increased the fuel and electricity prices which brought out mass protests by a public already wilting under the escalating cost of living. The JVP protest was stopped by the use of force. The Chilaw fishermen’s protest saw one being shot dead. The UNP protest was tear gassed. The public are quite open with their crticism. Time is ripe for a combined opposition to ride the tide.