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Security concerns over SAARC and double standards on defence


Mahinda Rajapakse, Rohitha Bogollagama, Palitha Kohona and Shiranee Tilakawardena

Politics on Sunday 

By Sonali Samarasinghe

Even as security concerns for the SAARC Summit heightened, last Thursday saw the general strike cripple some sectors of the public service. The JVP claimed the trade union action was 70 percent successful and vowed to continue the agitation in the weeks to come using the July 10 islandwide strike as a launching pad while the government described it as a dismal failure.

Meanwhile with India-Pakistan relations on the boil and their respective intelligence agencies - RAW and the ISI - circling each other menacingly following the latest bomb attack of the Indian embassy in Kabul, President Mahinda Rajapakse was to suddenly fly to India also last Thursday at 7 pm for a two day private visit.

President Rajapakse had earlier granted approval for a heavy Indian military presence in Sri Lanka during the SAARC Summit from July 27 to August 3. The formal request to have Indian troops, helicopter gunships, bullet proof vehicles and related security detail including the Indian navy patrolling and carrying out surveillance in Sri Lanka's territorial waters was made by the three member Indian delegation that visited Sri Lanka on June 20.

Indian presence

The Indian delegation which comprised National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Defence Secretary Sri Vijay Singh and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon discussed the arrangements with President Rajapakse last month. The elite Indian security cadre will arrive a week before the summit and take under their control the venue of the summit and the hotel at which the Indian delegation would be housed.

It is in this backdrop that President Rajapakse was to suddenly fly to India on the very evening following the JVP led general strike which led to speculation the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was having second thoughts about his up coming Sri Lankan visit. The reality of course was otherwise.

Golden girl

President Rajapakse was in fact scheduled to visit Thirupathi for a series of poojas and was accompanied on this religious quest by his son Namal and eight other officials.

Prior to his departure Nirupama Rajapakse, Hambantota District MP and Presidential neice was handed over the coveted Presidential seat of Beliatte while some party sources said the Nirupama factor was the reason for the rift between Basil Rajapakse and the President with Basil suddenly leaving the country in a moment of pique two weeks ago.

Nirupama  was in fact trusted by the President over all others to hold the seat for son Namal.  This trust in her was further evident when she was offerred the Deputy Speaker's post which she declined to accept.

President Rajapakse, a staunch follower of the occult is scheduled to leave the country again under soothsayers' advice, in August, after the summit, for a longer period of over two weeks where he will spend some time in China as well.

Sabotage

Ironically, Sri Lanka may have sabotaged its own successful hosting of the summit with official warnings of increased deadly terrorist attacks in and around Colombo aimed at sabotaging the JVP led general strike last Thursday. The government accused the strikers of jeopardising national security and having links with the LTTE making absurd claims that resorting to such trade union action on one day would adversely affect the waging of the war in the north. However such strategic warnings though targeted at local strikers may have misfired as far as the SAARC Summit was concerned.

Some diplomatic sources said they were largely unaware of security arrangements and were kept in the dark by the Foreign Ministry despite the fact that heads of state and government accompanied by top level delegations and media from their respective countries numbering over a thousand were scheduled to arrive.

However the Rajapakse government has been reassuring member countries it could provide adequate security for the SAARC leaders despite increasing deadly bomb attacks in and around Colombo. India however will take no chances on that score.

Feather in cap

Meanwhile even as the parochial President Rajapakse considers the SAARC Summit as merely a superficial adornment for international consumption - a silly feather in his cap - larger issues of security and geo political power play involving Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, China and even Sri Lanka have inadvertently turned the summit into a delicate balancing act.

Internationally isolated and treated by many as a pariah state, Sri Lanka's President Rajapakse desperately wanted validation of his standing in the region. It was Maldives' turn to host the largely burdensome talk show but Male refused, giving Rajapakse the opportunity he needed to jump in and claim ownership of the 15th Summit.

Despite Sri Lanka's flagging economy, the burdens heaped by this government on the people, his massive expenditure on a mammoth cabinet and  inflation now hitting over 30 percent, Rajapakse secured a supplementary estimate of Rs. 2.88 billion for SAARC preparations.

SAARC mess

Inside sources said the amount of funds sought for SAARC was based on estimates prepared a couple of months earlier that did not take into account the stringent security detail now essential such as vehicles, more personnel and equipment, increased accommodation and food costs etcetera.

Neither, sources say, do estimated expenses cover the lavish lunches and dinners hosted by Foreign Minister Bogollagama ostensibly for preparatory work connected to SAARC. These extravagant lunch and dinner meetings catered by leading hotels have been mainly for state officials of various ministries and sections of the security establishment. 

At loggerheads

Inside sources also state that Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona has been kept out of most of the preparatory meetings as both Kohona and Bogollagama are at each others throats. However the SAARC Summit has included in the agenda a separate Standing Committee meeting of Foreign Secretaries at which Kohona would get his day.

While allegations of sidelining of the Foreign Secretary Kohona are being leveled at the Foreign Minister the confusion with regard to SAARC arrangements is more confounded with Foreign Ministry officials irritating Presidential Secretariat officials as well. 

The Foreign Ministry now splintered into various camps, some loyal to Kohona, others loyal to Bogollagama at least for the moment and others playing it both ways, a major conflict has arisen between a coterie of Foreign Ministry officials siding with the Minister and the Presidential Secretariat.

This has led to the Presidential Secretariat virtually taking over all arrangements during the last three days of the SAARC Summit while one of the more influential coordinating secretaries of the Presidential Secretariat was to tell a Foreign Ministry official in charge of the SAARC operation, "You fellows do whatever you want with your minister's things.  We'll take care of HE's things."

Three way split

However in this three way split of the Presidential Secretariat, the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary it is only the masses who will suffer once more. Three fabulous banquets are to be arranged during the summit each one competing to be better than the other. Each arranged by a different set of officers.

The President's banquet arranged by the Presidential Secretariat which would be more official, the Foreign Minister's banquet arranged by Bogollagama loyalists and the Foreign Secretary's banquet arranged by officials hand picked by Kohona. The banquets will be at three different venues lavishly catered for and extravagantly accoutered while the tab will be picked up by the already burdened people of this country who of course are not invited to the festivities.

Furthermore sources said that with the government undertaking to host a large portion of the official delegates, the economic cost will be absolutely mammoth.

Not coming

Top government sources told The Sunday Leader that while a colossal supplementary estimate has already been approved by cabinet, many of the SAARC member countries are yet to confirm participation as most of them are apprehensive of the security arrangements. Diplomatic sources also said many are taking a wait and see attitude towards the summit and will watch how matters pan out in Colombo especially following the official government warning of an imminent LTTE attack in or around Colombo city.

NAM meeting

The summit also coincides with a Non Aligned Movement Meeting in Teheran during the same period. All the foreign ministers of the other seven SAARC nations have confirmed participation in Teheran and as such their arrival in Colombo has yet to be worked out logistically.

Inside sources also said that both Pakistan and Afghanistan have expressed concern over the large Indian military contingent in Colombo during SAARC especially after the Kabul bombing.

Total shut down

Government sources told this newspaper that with security arrangements and country participation so fluid it is very likely that the entire capital city will experience a total shut down for the ordinary people during the eight day summit period.

The 15th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is to be held under the theme "Growing Together." At the last summit held in New Delhi in 2007 the grouping was expanded with the addition of Afghanistan as a full member. At the summit in Colombo, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan and the United States are expected to attend as official observers.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if he attends will hand over the SAARC Chair to President Mahinda Rajapakse as the host head of state later this month. An honour of little value to the international community with SAARC hardly recognised, known or regarded in realistic world politics, but for Rajapakse it remains a validation of his acceptance in the region given his reduced status in international fora and among the international community.

Quiet war by RAW

Meanwhile there are warning signs of a quiet but deadly underlying war between the covert services of Pakistan and India heightened even as a car bomb ripped through the Indian Embassy in Kabul recently.

With India's political influence growing in Kabul, Pakistan obviously sees India as a threat to its own position as the final authority of power in the troubled nation. Indeed Afghanistan's own interior minister has reportedly issued an official statement saying "this attack was carried out in coordination and consultation with an active intelligence service in the region."Given recent statements from Kabul political analysts say there is little doubt the minister was referring to Pakistan's covert agency ISI.   

India has attempted by various conventional and unconventional means to gain influence over Afghanistan since 1947 and after September 11, India's diplomatic presence in the country has increased considerably with India pouring in funds for huge aid and reconstruction projects comprising airlines, power plants, health, education and a network of roads including the vital Kandahar-Iran highway that will help sever reliance on Pakistan for access. Analysts say India is also protecting the oil pipeline from Iran to India through Afghanistan.

India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan 

India is equally engaged in Sri Lanka's power politics and mindful that a rise in Muslim militancy especially in the Eastern Province will pose a severe security threat to India and the region. A former Pakistan High Commissioner in an interview to a daily paper indicated the existence of a quiet war between India and Pakistan and was later the victim of a bomb attack - an attack he alleged was instigated by RAW.

India has understandably been uncomfortable with Sri Lanka's cozy connection with Pakistan and increasing closeness to China. The giant neighbour is particularly irritated by Pakistan's continuous supply of weaponry and support to wage the war.

That even Pakistan is well aware of the powder keg situation following the blast in Kabul and given the presence of Afghanistan as well in Colombo is evident as it is not President Musharaff but rather Prime Minister Jalani who is scheduled to attend the Colombo Summit.

Confusion over security

It is in this backdrop given the government's own warnings of terror attacks on the one hand targeted at sabotaging the general strike and its accusations the previous week of anti government elements planning to discredit the government with abductions and indiscriminate killing that has caused confusion with regard to security.

It would seem the government itself has no control over the security situation nor has it any explanation despite accusations of a conspiracy to discredit, as to how, many of these abductions took place in high security zones and within close proximity to army check points and police stations.

Fonseka reveals

Adding to President Rajapakse's woes Army Commander Major General Sarath Fonseka told the Foreign Correspondent's Association recently that although the LTTE was largely discredited as a conventional army that it will take at least one more year to blunt them as a formidable force. However he also went on to say that since there was Tamil nationalism prevalent the insurgency will go on forever and the LTTE could endure for more than two decades at least.

Bleak news from a man who once said he would destroy the LTTE by August this year by killing 3000 of their cadre. According to official figures already 9000 have been killed since 2006 and it is not even the end of July. Yet General Fonseka now feels the LTTE though blunted would endure for another two decades or more. 

This is despite the fact that both President Rajapakse and his brother Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse having pledged to end this war at various times within 1-3 years and not leave it to the next generation.

Tamil nationalism

Fonseka by stating "There are people who believe in Tamil nationalism; the LTTE might survive another even two decades with about 1000 cadres; but we will not be fighting in the same manner; it might continue as an insurgency forever," is now knowingly or unknowingly talking about a political settlement.

Indeed, it is what a veteran IRA rebel like Martin McGuinness now part of a negotiated power sharing agreement in Ireland said of the war in Sri Lanka just last week. No side can win the war, he was to say. And in fact the Army Commander himself reiterates this sentiment of McGuinness, when he says, "May be a maximum of one year from now onwards, the LTTE should lose large areas." Significant given that he only says 'may be' and is uncertain of the consequences of the war he is now waging.

Economic woes

It is in this context that the economic situation should also be viewed. Can the country afford another year of intense war, while the international community has put the skids on aid due to gross human rights violations and the abuse of power by this regime?

Even Rajapakse's own appointee, Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal as reported in Bloomberg said last week at a business forum that the International Monetary Fund has said the nation's economic outlook "depends critically" on an end to the civil war.

Cabraal too is no doubt well aware that given the rate of inflation, the burden on the public, and the picture painted by Sarath Fonseka which is of course the best picture he could present under the circumstances, that Sri Lanka will be economically crippled if the war were to go on. With tourism, investment, business and economic expansion plummeting in the backdrop of a global depression as well,Sri Lanka cannot afford the war.

Furthermore with such ruthless elements at the helm the war will continue to erode democratic processes and the abuse of human rights and freedoms will increase thus compelling the international community to further press hard on the economic front by holding back aid.

From hero to zero

Ironically now that retired Major General Janaka Perera is standing for election at the North Central Provincial Council poll under the UNP ticket, the one time darling of the Sinhala extremists and pin up boy of the hawks, is now being questioned on his commitment to the war. This is irony at best coming from government elements since Janaka Perera not only successfully led several military onslaughts against the Tigers but was the superior commanding officer of none other than the present Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Fonseka worked directly under Perera's leadership. Furthermore even Gotabaya himself though a little known peripheral lieutenant colonel, despite his frequent fantasies of grandeur since taking over as Defence Secretary would have had the privilege of Janaka Perera's strategies and tactics as a serving officer.

Perera in a series of interviews to this newspaper has made it clear that while he is of the view that the LTTE's military capacity should be systematically shrunk a political solution must be pursued vigorously and with sincerity.  Indeed Perera in his own views is in line with the thinking of the UNP.

It is therefore insufficient for the government to question Janaka Perera, a retired Major General on his commitment to the war effort; it is more appropriate to ask Lt. Gen. Fonseka and the Defence Secretary Gotabaya and indeed President Rajapakse as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces to clarify the progress of the war to the people of this country in view of the Army Commander's comments that the LTTE will survive for at least another 20 years and the insurgency will continue forever.

Shifting deadlines

It was President Rajapakse and his brother who set various deadlines at different times for the armed forces stating the war will be over in one, two and then three years. While questioning the patriotism of media personnel who put forward alternative opinions to a military solution and labeling journalists who questioned media strategies, military transfers and weapons procurements as traitors, it is ironic that now the Army Commander himself states the insurgency will go on forever - a treacherous statement by Defence Ministry standards. 

In fact the importance of democratic values and transparency especially during war time was stressed by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in his speech at last week's launch of the book My Belly Is White by former Defence Secretary Austin Fernando.

He recalled that under Winston Churchill although he provided strong leadership for the war, Britain was to suffer a series of military defeats and Churchill had to face a motion of no confidence.  But even he was insistent it be debated in parliament for the sake of democracy and transparency. In the end Churchill was able within a strong democratic framework to maintain the support of most members of the House of Commons winning by 475 to 25 votes.

Lesson

The lesson to be learnt is that it is particularly vital that democratic values, the rule of law and human rights issues are safeguarded like newborn chicks during war time especially when the war is waged by the ruling regime against a section of its own citizens.

However even as the government takes a defensive, secretive, suspicious stand on the war, that all is not well is evident when the very commanding officer Major Gen. Parakrama Pannipitiya who led the successful Thoppigala operation last year was to take his own Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to court alleging harassment and a violation of fundamental rights.

The Fundamental Rights application S.C. (F/R) No.71/2008 filed by Pannipitiya citing as the first respondent Lt Gen. Sarath Fonseka and six others came up before the Supreme Court last Tuesday (8) where Pannipitiya appearing by his lawyer Manohara de Silva PC alleged that certain orders over his security detail made by the Supreme Court had not been complied with.

Ministry mum

The court comprising Justice Shiranee Tilakawardena, Justice Raja Fernando and Justice Ratnayake then contemplated possible contempt charges against the respondents including the Army Commander. The certified copy of the court record read thus

"It is noted that the order for the allocation of eight officers and the inclusion of two of the same to be the choice of the petitioner appears not to have been complied with. Mr. Pulle, S.S.C., to look into this matter and bring all relevant documents before court and the court will consider whether contempt of court charges should be instituted if it has not complied with. He further submits that the petitioner has been allocated eight officers including two officers of his choice, Rifleman S/365491 Ranasinghe of the 8th SLSR and Pilot N.D. Priyantha of the 10th SLNG were allocated and that this allocation was on the choice of the petitioner and in any event, after he was noticed that they were allocated, he has made no complaint about these two persons nor has he made any request to replace them with two officers of his choice."

The Defence Ministry website continues to label those who question the Defence Ministry as traitors to the nation. One is perhaps entitled to wonder what labels of wisdom the Defence Ministry will have for the apex court of the land as it goes into the possibility of contempt of court by the Army Commander.


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