Daily Archives: September 3, 2006

Catastrophe warning in Sri Lanka

Aid workers have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if the UN and Red Cross pull out of Sri Lanka, where agency staff are facing mounting restrictions and threats to their safety amid a worsening civil conflict.

UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross are the only relief groups with access to some parts of the north and east, where the government is locked in fierce battles with Tamil Tiger rebels. Hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Tamils in those areas are facing food, water and other shortages.

In recent days, the UN and the ICRC have warned that if security does not improve for their staff, they could halt their operations.

The warnings come after independent monitors of Sri Lanka’s all-but-defunct 2002 ceasefire said they were convinced that security forces were behind the killings of 17 local staff for an international aid agency, Action Against Hunger, earlier this month. The government has vehemently rejected the allegation.

"If we felt that our staff were not safe, we would not operate," Reto Meister, ICRC delegate-general for Asia-Pacific, told reporters in Geneva on Friday.

His warning followed a similar word of caution by UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland.

"We cannot continue in this area unless we know that people will be held accountable for the execution of 17 of our colleagues," Egeland said in New York.

Aid workers warned that such a situation would be a catastrophe for the nearly 220,000 people who have been displaced by the last five months of near-daily shelling, air strikes and artillery battles in the north and east, where the Tigers are fighting to establish a separate Tamil homeland.

"At a time when more people are increasingly in need, and aid agencies need more humanitarian space to work, the government is trying to limit our space. If the UN agencies pull out, it would be a catastrophe," said one aid worker who requested anonymity, fearing that speaking publicly on the matter would jeopardise his agency’s work in the country.

As fighting between separatist rebels and the government has escalated, aid workers have been hit with a slew of new travel and work restrictions, mostly in conflict zones where there are sizeable Tamil populations.

Via… Global Order

The ‘Letter’! Would it keep the Blues and the Greens apart or bring them together?

The Green Man was puzzled. He had received a letter from Mahinda maama asking him to join the rulers. The Green Man was not sure what he should do. He decided he would ask his most trusted colleagues. He summoned Karu first.

"What do you think we should do, Karu?" the Green Man wanted to know.

"I am not sure, and what I cannot understand is why the letter was written to me instead of you…" Karu said, but he was hoping the letter was written to him because he would be appointed Prime Minister.

"Shall we ask Seeni Bola?" The Green Man said.

"This is nothing but a conspiracy to destroy the Greens…" Seeni Bola declared, "he has already taken so many of our people and now he wants to officially ruin our party…"

"You should know…" the Green Man said, "you were with them for a long time…"

"I don’t want to say anything publicly because I don’t want to spend another couple of years in jail…" Seeni Bola said, "but believe me, maama appears to be smarter than Satellite ever was…"

"Let’s ask what Professor Gas Labu has to say…" the Green Man proposed.

"I think this is a laudable move to further the exemplary objectives of reuniting our embattled motherland and I believe we should extend our unmitigated and unequivocal support to the democratically elected leader of our sovereign nation…" Professor Gas Labu said.

"What you are saying is you would like to be a minister again…" the Green Man observed.

"If the opportunity presents to serve our beloved country in whatever capacity, I would not hesitate to do so…" Professor Gas Labu said, "but if you are not sure of what I say, why don’t you ask the Dentist…?"

"Ah," shouted the Dentist, "we should not join the war mongers but if we think we can stop the war by joining them, we should give it a try…"

"And you too would relish the idea of being a minister now that your rival from Kalutara is already one…" the Green Man said.

He summoned the Accountant from Kotte, next. "How do you think we should respond to Mahinda maama’s offer?" the Green Man asked, "Do you think it would help the country if we join them?"

"It is difficult to say whether it would help the country or not," the Accountant from Kotte said, "but I am prepared to join if I am given the Trade Ministry and Sathosa again…"

Finally, with still no clear answer, the Green Man summoned Milinda and put the question to him.

"I think it is a good idea to join them without languishing in the opposition for maybe the next twelve years or so," Milinda said, "but when cabinet portfolios are being distributed, I want a chance to go through the list with my Tippex at hand…"

The Green Man knew that he still did not know what he should do. So, he decided on the next best move. He announced that he would be appointing a committee to study the matter and report to him within a couple of months.

"Take your time to decide on Mahinda maama’s offer," the Green Man told his handpicked committee, "the Blues and the Greens have stayed separate for more than fifty years, so a few months more will not do any more harm, just as delaying our party’s reforms does no harm…"

Karu, Seeni Bola, Gas Labu, the Dentist, the Accountant and Milinda looked at each other. They may have no choice but to join Mahinda maama now, they thought…

-The Sunday Times-

New York here we come!

Soldiers are dying in the north. People displaced by the fighting are huddled in refugee camps in many parts of the country. A substantial percentage of Sri Lanka’s population is struggling to make ends meet in the face of an ever rising cost of living. Higher electricity charges, fuel costs and consequently public transport fare hikes stare them in the face. Yet the carnival goes on at public expense with politicians and their cohorts giving themselves a ball without a thought that the money they lavish on their high living is extracted from all the people of this country through a plethora of taxes on any and everything we buy. We focus today on the latest example of this vulgar extravagance our leaders are forever indulging in – the president’s over 50-strong delegation to the forthcoming September meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York.

It is an understatement to say that this is an intolerable disgrace. It is time that President Mahinda Rajapaksa sits up and takes notice of this waste of public funds expended in his name and presumably with his concurrence. We Sri Lankans often poke fun at ourselves with remarks like “clean suit, empty pocket’’ as our leaders indulge their champagne taste on the toddy income of the nation. We have a bloated cabinet with every prospect of new ministers being added to a mind-boggling list. These worthies with their luxurious limousines, security escorts, official bungalows, personal and official staffs and a plethora of other perks unmatched even in some of the richer more developed countries of the world do not come cheap. They get elected to office by sanctimoniously pledging to serve the people they represent and then proceed to lavishly ladle gravy on to their own plates. Each succeeding political establishment improves on the sorry record of its predecessor with no leader strong enough or righteous enough to cry halt.

Can President Mahinda Rajapakse do that? His administration, up to now, has not shown any sign of demanding that public expenditure is strictly controlled and at least fifty cents value obtained for every rupee spent out of the exchequer. It is too much to expect 100 cents value for every rupee spent although that must be the target. Most people will be satisfied if we can at least reach halfway house. We are told that the powers that be are now looking at bestowing pensions on Provincial Councillors on terms similar to those that MPs enjoy. Duty free cars for these worthies, previously granted but apparently no longer on offer, are also under consideration, The Island reported yesterday.

The public perception is that the Provincial Councils are of little or no value. They are a huge white elephant created by the J.R. Jayewardene administration as a response to the demand for devolution in the North and the East. On the basis that “you can’t give Jaffna what you won’t give Hambantota’’ as Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali pithily put it then, the Provincial Councils were created. But the greatest irony is that there are no such councils in the North and East where devolution is most needed while elsewhere the relatively new breed of Provincial Councillors are making hay. There was a short-lived Provincial Council for the “temporarily’’ merged Northern and Eastern Provinces under Chief Minister Varatharajah Perumal. But that ended with an attempt at an Unilateral Declaration of Independence and for the past several years those areas have been administered by a Governor.

As our front page reports says, the entourage to New York is almost double the extravagant delegations that President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe took with them when they represented this country at the United Nations General Assembly. Matching those numbers is bad enough. But nearly doubling them? By all accounts the list that we carry on who’s going to New York, mind you at our expense, might still not be complete. There may be more catchers in the wings waiting to jump on to the bandwagon. Ex-President CBK perhaps had the questionable excuse that her last jaunt to New York was going to be her last hurrah and therefore she paid off some favours she owed by giving a joy ride to some blue eyed boys and girls. All politicians, whether here or abroad, acquire supporters who must be rewarded one way or another. But there must be a limit to the patronage granted at public expense. Time was when press exposes of shady dealings of politicians and others drew some kind of even limited response. Today most of these are ignored and allowed to go into the limbo of forgotten things. The potent instruments of parliamentary questions are today seldom used to keep those freely misusing public funds in line. It must be said to the credit of the JVP that they at least are doing the job which is in reality the UNPs in bringing some of these matters under the spotlight. A recent question on the cost of defector Bogollagama’s foreign jaunts was one such. A JVP MP asked that question. The opposition, and the UNP is supposed to be that, must understand that they are paid to do the job of ensuring probity within the ranks of the government. But their concerns are anything but that, with too many beady green eyes focused on the possibility of crossing sides and sharing the spoils.

CBK was stopped from building that palace at Battaramulla. After that, despite a cabinet decision to bestow on her that valuable site on which millions of rupees of public funds had already been splurged, the likelihood of an adverse verdict in a public interest suit saw the land being returned. Public opinion on the subject had little to do with the reversal of the original decision. It is high time that the public takes notice of that fact and ensure that those privileged to take office on the strength of their votes pay due regard to their opinion. We do not say that the President of our Republic be not permitted attendance of the UN General Assembly. He must certainly go. But his entourage must be kept within acceptable limits. Presidential visits abroad must not and cannot be allowed to be made the excuse for massive junkets this country can ill afford.

-The Sunday Island Editorial

Irish connection in Mahinda’s London dash

President Mahinda Rajapakse’s London dash last week caught journalists and diplomats, and for that matter the foreign ministry totally unaware. There was no prior announcement of his plans and by all accounts the foreign office was largely sidelined in the preliminary arrangements. The “soundings’’ that precede such visits had not occurred through diplomatic channels this time and the panjandrums across the road from what used to be Gordon Gardens, but is now part of the Janadhipathi Mandiriya grounds, had no clue about what was happening until Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera flew off to London the day before the president’s departure.

Theories of course abounded. “It’s something to do with his son,’’ said a presidential secretariat staffer. “We also didn’t know till the last minute.’’ The president has a son studying at Cardiff University and that was the basis for that conclusion. Those with more savvy of politics and politicians in this once serendipitous island wondered aloud whether the stargazers and malefics had something to do with it. But the word was soon out that a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was on the cards and that was what took Rajapakse to London at a time a fierce war was being fought on home turf. The appointment had not been secured through normal diplomatic channels. Informed sources said that presidential confidante, Sachin Vas Gunawardene, with a line to the IRA’s Martin McGuiness, was responsible for pulling that rabbit out of the top hat with, according to some sources, assistance from Kumar Rupesinghe.

In addition to Samaraweera, Gunawardene (titled Co-coordinating Secretary to the President), Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge and Peace Secretariat boss, Palitha Kohona, accompanied Rajapakse who was expected back home over the weekend. Obviously the ethnic crisis here had to be the subject of discussion, and if McGuiness who was here earlier this year was the conduit for the appointment, the British-IRA negotiating experience would have figured somewhere in the talks, diplomats said. But there was very little information available on what had actually been accomplished. Diplomatic sources made the point that Rajapakse would clearly like Britain to play a bigger role in helping a settlement. Up to now, both the US as well as the European powers has publicly expressed confidence in the Norwegian facilitation always given a plug in Co-chair statements. Whether a change in this equation is a possibility remains an open question.

TamilNet first and local newspapers later, ran stories last week quoting Jon Hanssen-Bauer, handling the day-to-day routine of the Sri Lanka peace process in Oslo and reporting to Erik Solheim, venturing the opinion that Rajapakse’s talks with Blair was “presumably’’ aimed at winning British support for securing a greater Indian role in resolving our problem. The Norwegian trouble-shooter saw a yawning gap between Oslo’s approach and Sri Lanka’s with Norway using a conflict-resolution stance while Colombo sought to internationally isolate the LTTE as a terrorist organization.

“We (Norway) are getting assailed, almost on a daily basis in the Sri Lanka press as if we were favouring the Tigers,’’ he told the radio. “(But) we ought to treat the two parties as equals. These are the two parties to the Ceasefire Agreement. We have to treat them as equal parties as far as we can. But the Sri Lanka government’s policy, which seeks to brand the Tigers as terrorists and isolate them globally, is different from our approach.’’

There is no doubt that Colombo, with good reason, always presented the LTTE to the world as a terrorist organization. That really did not take much doing as the numerous terrorist acts of the LTTE over a long period of time spoke for themselves. The EU ban was a major reverse for the Tigers and consequently a feather in Sri Lanka’s cap. But the execution-style killing of 17 aid workers of ACF, a French charity at Muttur around August 4, was a major reverse which the LTTE is trying to capitalize on. Ulf Henricsson’s premature verdict has been dismissed in London as “outrageous’’ by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera but there is little doubt that considerable damage has been done.

“The need of the moment is to convince the world that a fair investigation is being done,’’ a senior analyst said. “Even IF and that is a big IF, the security forces were responsible for the killings for which there is no evidence up to now, it is essential that Colombo does not attempt any cover up. That is the best approach when you are confronted with such situations. The guilty must be punished, whoever they are.’’

Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe acted decisively and efficiently the moment the first news of the killing broke. A group of Australian experts were here for a Disaster Victim Identification workshop and he seized the opportunity to get Australian forensic expertise for purposes of the investigation. Unfortunately, the families of only two of the 17 victims were willing to agree to suppor

t an exhumation application in the courts which will hopefully get off the ground later this week. The French government is watching developments very closely and ACF plans to review progress of the investigation on the sixth day of every month. When the review meeting is held on Sept. 6, it is important that Sri Lanka’s bona fides of ensuring a fair investigation is presented.

Samarasinghe said yesterday that the Australian forensic experts are quite willing to come back the moment they are required. The Anuradhapura Magistrate has been appointed Acting Muttur Magistrate and can now rule on the two exhumation applications to be made this week. Thereafter some forward movement will be possible. The need for a thorough and clean investigation cannot be understated. “Whoever did this must be made to pay,’’ Samarasinghe said. “It’s a disgrace on the country.’’

-TSIO – Politics-

Sri Lanka to field 53-strong team UN meeting opens doors for unprecedented joy ride

by Namini Wijedasa

President Mahinda Rajapakse is set to lead a record-breaking 53-member delegation to New York for the United Nations General Assembly later this month, costing the country millions in precious taxpayers’ money.

Rajapakse — who had pledged in his election manifesto to continuously review government expenditure and direct it towards "essential priority areas" — has surpassed his predecessors Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Kumaratunga had 27 in her 2004 delegation while Wickremesinghe had 24 in 2003. Authoritative UN sources said that these were "the only other big numbers" in recent times.

Rajapakse’s gargantuan delegation includes nine ministers. Also in the list is First Lady Shiranthini Rajapakse’s personal beautician, Amali Jayawardana.

According to informed sources, the giant squad has already applied for US visas. Among those heading for New York are: President Mahinda Rajapakse and Mrs Rajapakse, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Trade Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, Social Services Minister Douglas Devananda, Education Minister Susil Premajayantha, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Viswa Warnapala, Resettlement Minister Rishard Badiuddin and Regional Development Minister Gunaratne Weerakoon.

Also travelling are Deputy Skills Development Minister Sripathy Sooriyaratchchi and Deputy Education Minister Nirmala Kotelawala. They will be joined by Parliamentarian Dallas Alahapperuma, Sabaragamuwa Province Chief Minister Mahipala Herath, Deputy Speaker Geetanjana Gunewardena, Western Provincial Council Member Renuka Perera and Central Provincial Council Member P Digambaram.

Included in the group are two members of an advance security team, four other security personnel and medical staff. There are also seven people listed as "media". Together, it adds up to 53 delegates.

Incidentally, the widely-travelled Enterprise Development Minister Rohitha Bogollagama is not part of the current excursion. Neither are any of his family members. "Well, I’m glad to see the government’s cracking down," joked a Western diplomat, tongue firmly in cheek.

The foreign ministry remained tight-lipped when asked about the composition of Rajapakse’s delegation but other official sources expressed apprehension that the final tally may be even higher. It is confidentially learnt that making travel and accommodation arrangements for the contingent has posed "a logistical nightmare".

"It is a very legitimate concern that such a massive delegation will cost the country dearly at a bad time," one of these sources said. "We hear that the foreign ministry had advised relevant authorities that they (foreign ministry) do not recommend a large delegation because of the expenditure outlay."

"As far as I can see, this is unprecedented," another source said. "It is obviously a huge junket paid for by tax payers. I am wondering whether we can afford it at this time of political and economic crises."

Authoritative sources in New York said that, unlike Chandrika Kumaratunga, President Rajapakse is firmly avoiding the UN press corps — no press briefings are scheduled.

It is also understood that around 35 members of his delegation — including President Rajapakse — will first travel to the Cuban capital, Havana, for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. The 116 non-aligned countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean will be meeting in Havana from September 11 to 16. The Sri Lankans will then head to New York and join the rest of the delegation.

While in New York, the main delegates, including Rajapakse, are tipped to bunk at the expensive UN Plaza Hotel. Sources in New York said that average prices at this exclusive venue are between US$300 and $350 per night (or even higher, depending on the suites). Other members of the delegation are likely to stay at less expensive hotels, including the Helmsley Hotel, which averages about US$200 per night.

Cost of hotel accommodation aside, each delegate will receive a daily allowance, the rate of which was not immediately available.

Meanwhile, ministers and other top ranking delegates are likely to fly business class. According to inquiries, the usual International Air Transport Association return fare for a business class seat to New York (Colombo-Dubai-New York and vice versa) is Rs 503,300 (including tax). The return economy class fare on the same route costs Rs 270,100 (including tax).

The usual IATA economy fare to Havana (via Paris) is Rs 232,056. It was not immediately known whether charter flights would be used for any of the trips.

Incidentally, Rajapakse is not alone in raising eyebrows New York-side. Another president shocked the UN in 2005 when he brought with him an entourage of 50 people, including his butler, personal photographer and wife’s hairdresser. President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou-Nguesso’s group occupied 25 rooms at the Crowne Plaza hotel while the president stayed in the prestigious Palace hotel.

The other members of the delegation are Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Foreign Secretary H M G S Palihakkara, Head of the Peace Secretariat Palitha Kohona, Presidential Adviser Jayantha Dhanapala, Consultant to the President Gamini Gunaratne, Additional Secretary to the President Gamini Senerath, Coordinating Secretary to the President Vas Gunewardena and Public Relations Officer to the President S Rajapakse.

Also going are five officials from the foreign ministry, accompanied by Sajad Mowzoon, director of the Ports and Aviation Authority, and two coordinating secretaries from the ministry of aviation and shipping.

The six members listed as media are ITN Chairman Anura Siriwardene, Media Coordinator Chandrapala Liyanage, Director of Information Anusha Pelpita, Presidential Photographer Sudath Silva, Rupavahini Journalist P K Don Godage, Rupavahini Cameraman G D Ajith and Channel Head MTV Sri Ranga Jeyaratnam.

Apart from beautician Amali Jayawardene, Mrs Kamphi Rambukwella is also listed as personal staff.

[Today’s Front Page News Head Lines From The Sunday Island]

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