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 Politics

Panic over  provincial election amidst global hostility on the rights front



Basil Rajapakse, Rauf Hakeem,
G.L. Pieris, Hizbullah and Ferror Waldner

Ferrero-Waldner tells GL that govt. must
have attitudinal change to secure GSP plus

Basil offers chief minister post
and SLMC leadership to Hizbullah

Basil and Milinda in secret pow-wow
with Hakeem and Basheer

Basil offers chief ministership to
Pillaiyan in separate deal

Athaullah tells Basil alliance with
TMVP will be suicidal for Muslims

While the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was busy working round the clock last week to put together a broad coalition for the up coming provincial council election in the east, the international community served a red notice on the government which spelt economic disaster for the country at a time the war was also reaching a stalemate scenario.

The government was always vulnerable on the economic front not only due to escalating military costs but poor fiscal management with printing money resorted to as an easy option to fund government extravagance and now the sands of time have virtually run out for the administration with the state scraping the bottom of the barrel to meet even the wages bill.

It is at such a time the government is in dire straits that the European Union was getting set to deliver the Rajapakse regime a sucker punch over its failures on the human rights and good governance fronts having repeatedly called for action, only to be treated with disdain.

For a regime trapped in an extremist mindset, any calls for moderation were frowned upon and looked at as furthering the LTTE agenda and it is this very approach that is now threatening to economically cripple the administration leaving it with no option but go for a snap poll in the hope of making a fresh start with a clean state.

The simple strategy worked out by the President is to win the eastern provincial council by hook or by crook, follow it up with provincial polls in the north central and Wayamba provinces and then go for a snap general election.

That he was fast running out of options to keep the ship of state afloat, President Rajapakse was all too aware of but continued to be defiant before the electorate, claiming he was not prepared to go with a begging bowl overseas while at the same time despatching Minister G.L. Pieris to Europe pleading for assistance.

Human rights

Having unleashed the dogs of war and attacking western nations in intemperate language everytime issues of human rights and a political solution to the ethnic crisis were raised the government possibly believed it can survive in isolation but has now come to realise it can be very lonely out in the big bad world if there are no powerful friends to come to your aid.

In India the government has such a friend, but even she can only do so much given the fact the President has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call not to pursue a military solution to the ethnic conflict, and with the JVP opening another anti-Indian front, big brother too has opted for a more hands off policy.

Moreso now with impending elections in India and several  allies and opponents castigating the Congress Party last week in Parliament for providing the Rajapakse government military assistance at a time the Tamil people were subject to untold harassment.

Thus while breathing fire on the western world, what the Rajapakse regime failed to realise was that Sri Lanka was dependant on them for economic advancement and by the time this reality hit home the game set and match were virtually over as Minister Peiris learnt to his great dismay in Brussels last week when he lobbied for the GSP Plus facility.

The GSP Plus facility which is coming up for review by the EU later in the year is essential for Sri Lanka's economic well-being with over 100,000 garment sector jobs in addition to US$ 2 billion export earnings dependant on it and it is this facility which the country now runs the very real risk of losing due to the Rajapakse style of governance.

This facility which provides for duty free exports to Europe is afforded to a country based on a set of criteria which include good governance, respect for human rights and compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), issues the government has fallen far short of and with the realisation dawning Sri Lanka may well lose the concessional facility, panic was the buzzword at Temple Trees.

Given the seriousness of the situation President Rajapakse despatched international Trade Minister G.L. Peiris last week to lobby the EU, only to see the Professor for a change getting lectured on Sri Lanka's dismal human rights and good governance record by both European Union Commissioner for External Relations, Benito Ferrero-Waldner and External Trade Commissioner, Peter Mandelson.

Act together

Not mincing their words, Ferrero-Waldner and Mandelson in separate meetings with Peiris virtually told him the GSP Plus facility is all but gone unless the government gets its act together and addresses the human rights issues effectively.

Ferrero-Waldner in particular was harsh telling Minister Peiris, unless there is a change of attitude on the part of the government on dealing with the burning issues confronting the country, there will be little prospect of getting the GSP facility renewed.

It is an equally tough message, that was delivered to the government in Colombo by the EU Troika comprising the Director of Asia and Oceania of the Foreign Ministry of Slovenia, Janz Premoze, Director Asia and Oceania, EU (External Relations) James Moran and Deputy Director for South Asia, Foreign Ministry of France, Didler Leroy. At separate meetings with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, the EU troika was to say that the issue of human rights was of serious concern and will be pivotal to getting the GSP facility extended.

The Troika spoke of the slow progress with regard to a political solution and told the ministers the general perception was that what the government has proposed to implement was not adequate to address the issue.

They were to say in particular that the GSP facility was under review and compliance with the ICCPR and economic indicators alone will not suffice and that good governance and human rights issues will also figure prominently in the review process.

Further, the importance of implementing the 17th Amendment to the constitution and giving effect to the Constitutional Council also featured on the issue of good governance, thereby practically putting the government on notice if it wanted the GSP plus facility.

For his part, Minister Samarasinghe told the Troika, as much as they were delivering a demarche on the government, he too has a demarche to deliver them.

Positive developments

Said Samarasinghe, "When you air these concerns on human rights, which are also our concerns, it is also important to acknowledge some positive developments that have taken place. The Human Rights Council statement on behalf of the EU and individual countries in the EU do not do that. You only put forward issues, concerns and condemnations. You do not acknowledge positive developments."

Added Minister Samarasinghe - "Look at the Eastern Province. From 140,000 IDPs, we have brought it down to 25,000. The UNHCR has acknowledged it has been done in keeping with international standards. Elections have also been held in the east and the provincial elections will be held in May."

Having listened to the Minister, the EU troika said they will take the government's message back to Brussels but continued to draw attention to the ground situation with particular concerns expressed on the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) terminating their work.

In a statement issued after their visit, the EU troika had this to say, inter alia on the issue - "The EU underlines the seriousness of calls by the IIGEP and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for the government to deliver concrete results through taking cases to court considering their recommendations seriously and ensuring effective and independent human rights monitoring."

And giving an indication the government would also have to start moving on the political front with Norwegian facilitators, the statement went on to say, "the EU remains committed to its present role as one of the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo process. As such, it continues to believe in the importance of guaranteeing access to Killinochchci for the Norwegian facilitator and other Co-Chairs, as well as the UN and other concerned organisations. This is needed to allow the delivery of key messages to the LTTE about returning to the peace process, observing humanitarian access and human rights."

Mind you, this EU statement comes in the backdrop of the LTTE signalling it stands ready to revive talks, thus painting the government as the aggressor, a strategy that seems to be working for them given the Rajapakse regime's intransigence.

Stinging comments

Making matters worse for the government was the blotched attempt by the Foreign Ministry to take on the US over its human rights report on Sri Lanka where there were stinging comments on extra judicial killings, abductions and disappearances. The government thought it fit to summon US Ambassador Robert Blake to the Foreign Ministry and express displease at the report charging in the process, there were inaccuracies.

To do so, the Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona in a statement cited, albeit inaccurately, a confidential ICRC report on the issue of disappearances and extra judicial killings, thereby making a bad case worse.

The ICRC prepares a confidential document every quarter on disappearances, abductions and extra judicial killings and circulates it to the Human Rights Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Presidential Secretariat, Defence Ministry and the LTTE for responses, on the understanding that parts  of the report are not made public on a select basis to give a distorted image of the full content.

The Foreign Ministry however broke this cardinal rule in its eagerness to counter the US State Department report claiming in a statement that according to the ICC, abductions, disappearances and extra judicial killings in Jaffna saw a decline in the third quarter.

Strong protest

The reality was otherwise with the third quarter recording an increase in the number of incidents and a furious ICRC head of delegation, Toon Vandenhove was to lodge a strong protest with Kohona over the distortion.

Vandenhove was to follow the call with a strongly worded statement from the ICRC which put the government further in the dog house over human rights violations.

"Extra judicial killings and disappearances are part of a terrible pattern of abuse in Sri Lanka, which must be stopped," ICRC's South Asian Head of Operations, Jacques De Malo was quoted as saying.

Thus it is evident, the human rights noose is now strangulating the life out of this government and given the red light shown by the EU on the GSP plus facility, it is a matter of time before the UN comes knocking on Sri Lanka's door with a field presence in tow, unless the Rajapakse brothers look sharp.

But that they seem not to comprehend and in a bid to secure the Eastern Provincial Council and show the world  that democracy is being restored, an alliance is once again in the making with the armed TMVP.

Towards this end, President Rajapakse has tasked Senior Presidential Advisor and brother Basil Rajapakse to build a broad coalition to win the election which he set out to do, planning in the process to break up the Muslim Congress.

Target

To achieve the target given, Basil Rajapakse started negotiating with TMVP's Pillaiyan, telling him not to insist on the chief ministership at the outset, so that he can bring the Muslim parties too aboard the UPFA. Pillaiyan however insisted the chief minister must be a Tamil especially in the backdrop of the east being demerged and finally Rajapakse agreed.

Rajapakse was to tell Pillaiyan however that once the election is over and TMVP returns the largest number of members to the 37 member Provincial Council, he can stake a claim for the chief ministership, whereas if such an announcement is made at the outset, it could be difficult to bring the Muslim parties aboard.

Province

The three districts comprising the province, Ampara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa are to elect 14, 10 and 11 members respectively with the party polling the highest number of votes entitled to two bonus seats.

The problem for the government of course was bringing the SLMC breakaway Muslim groups headed by Ferial Ashraff, Segu Izzadeen, Ameer Ali and A.L.M. Athaullah to contest on the same ticket as the TMVP to secure the council given their history in the district.

It is the likes of Karuna and Pillaiyan who were accused by the Muslim leaders of massacring worshippers in a mosque, in addition to a spate of abductions, disappearances and underage recruitment, and to now contest in alliance with the same group would, they knew, be sacrilege as far as the Muslim voters in the province were concerned.

This dilemma of the pro-government ministers came to be reflected on Tuesday at a meeting in Parliament where a no-holds-barred discussion took place in the presence of Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse, Ministers Susil Premjayanth, Maithripala Sirisena and Champika Ranawaka.

It was Minister Athaullah who belled the cat, telling the government under no circumstances can the Muslim parties agree to Pillaiyan becoming  chief minister, adding it would have to be a Muslim in the form of SLMC member Hizbullah.

Athaullah went on to say that he supported the demerger of the north-east and if a Tamil was to be now made a chief minister under a ticket where the Muslim parties too would be contesting, it will be disastrous for them.

Having said that Athaullah pitched into Ranwaka stating the Minister was espousing anti-Muslim sentiments on television to such an extent that he felt like taking an iron bar and smashing the television set.

But for all the rhetoric, Athaullah wanted to stay put in government with Basil Rajapakse having a stranglehold on the man over a building leased to the People's Bank in the east and he knew it only too well.

Faced with this dilemma, Minister Athaullah proposed that all the Muslim parties including the Muslim Congress should contest under one banner separately, allowing the UPFA to run with the TMVP and then unite after the elections.

Panic mode

This proposal saw the government going into panic mode and Basil Rajapakse immediately made approaches to SLMC politburo member, M. Hizbullah and threw a carrot at him.

Rajapakse told Hizbullah that he must push the Muslim Congress to contest with the UPFA since that would give him a very real opportunity of becoming the chief minister.

Meeting with Hizbullah in the company of Ministers Ameer Ali  and Rishard Baduhudeen at Temple Trees, Rajapakse was to tell the  member that the SLMC will be able to return the largest number of members from the three districts if they contested on the UPFA ticket, thus qualifying him for the chief minister's post.

And as a further incentive, Hizbullah was told that if he becomes chief minister of the Eastern Provincial Council, it was only a matter of time before he would become SLMC leader.

A beaming Hizbullah nodded his assent and with fellow member M. Harees, pushed the case for the SLMC to contest on the UPFA ticket with party leader Rauf Hakeem.

Hizbullah told Hakeem, it was of paramount importance to secure the chief ministership for the SLMC and that they should not hesitate to piggy back on the UPFA and TMVP to secure that objective.

"Once we are elected, we can decide what to do and whom to govern with. Even at a general election, we will have the council under our control," Hizbullah said.

Allegations

For Hakeem however it was easier said than done given the reasons he adduced for quitting the government and the allegations that were levelled against the TMVP and told Hizbullah he would need time to consider Rajapakse's invitation. Hakeem knew only too well his credibility would be in tatters if the SLMC was to rejoin the government at this stage and contest on the UPFA ticket, and credibility was an all important consideration for the SLMC leader.

Thus, learning of Hakeem's hesitation, the government once again moved into top gear, this time approaching Hakeem's chief lieutenant, MP Basheer Segu Dawood through Minister Milinda Moragoda and wanted  a secret meeting arranged with the SLMC leader.

And this meeting took place at Moragoda's office, Tuesday evening with Hakeem, Segu Dawood and Basil Rajapakse in attendance, where an invitation was extended to the SLMC to contest with the UPFA.

Moragoda though still claiming to be a member of the UNP, which party is also contesting the election, told Hakeem he should contest with the UPFA and not miss the opportunity of serving the Muslim people.

The Tourism Minister was to tell Hakeem not to allow polarisation  to  take place by contesting  separately when there is a chance for a SLMC member to be chief minister.

"You will otherwise be accused of letting go of this opportunity?" Moragoda was to say.

Ethnic proportions

At the sametime, Rajapakse said, candidates will be nominated on the basis of ethnic proportions in each district and that based on which party in the coalition won the largest number of seats, the chief ministership would be offered.

"If you pull the highest number of votes for your candidates and get more seats, then the chief ministership is yours," Rajapakse also said.

However, other front runners in the SLMC like Nizam Karippar who represents the party at the APRC and hails from Ampara and General Secretary Hasan Ali were vehemently opposed to contesting with the UPFA/TMVP alliance and told as much to Hakeem

Kariappar who is related to former leader M.H.N. Ashraff was to tell Hakeem that the SLMC would be destroyed if it was to contest in alliance with the TMVP, the leaders of which party, Karuna and Pillaiyan were responsible for the massacre of Muslims inside a mosque.

Given these conflicting points of view within the SLMC, the party has moved for time, with Hakeem who also met Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Wednesday, March 19 indicating a final decision will be made on the issue, early this week.

And the race becomes all the more tense for the government with the JVP also throwing the hat into the ring and calling for the TMVP to be disarmed before the election, while civil society is to call for a EU monitoring team in view of the GSP plus facility leverage.

For the government, the JVP factor becomes significant because the Marxists will eat into the UPFA's Sinhala base vote in Trincomalee and Ampara making the Rajapakses  even more dependent on the Muslim and Tamil votes for victory.

But if the SLMC decides not to go with the UPFA and given TNA's decision to boycott the poll as well, the government may well be skating on thin ice, especially if the UNP succeeds in pulling the anti-TMVP vote.


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