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"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent."

-- Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr)

Making Holmes happy while bashing Browne

Sir. John Holmes, Des Browne
 Pranab Mukherjee
and Chandrika Kumaratunga

The government's classification of 'patriots' and 'traitors' is not only confined to the Sri Lankan citizenry but extends beyond its shores and applies to diplomats and politicians alike, when opportune.

While former Scottish Secretary, Des Browne found himself caught in an embarrassing diplomatic row recently over the British government's decision to dispatch him to Colombo on a fact finding mission, a move strongly opposed by the Sri Lankan government and labeled an 'intrusion,' a former so called 'terrorist,' UN Humanitarian Affairs Chief, Sir John Holmes was accorded a grand welcome when he arrived in Colombo last week. There was nothing to remind him of the bitter experience of 2007.

The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry bent backwards to please Holmes this time around while at the same time being actively engaged in a diplomatic spat with 10, Downing Street over the appointment of Des Browne as UK's special envoy to Colombo.

Holmes who met Colombo's political leadership later briefed journalists where he said the UN's chief concern was the safety of civilians amidst intensified war.

He visited the Vavuniya camps for displaced people accompanied by Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse on Friday, to 'personally assess the screening process of civilians who crossed to government controlled areas.'

During his meetings in Colombo, Sir Holmes stressed on the need to respect international conventions and to provide every facility to the fleeing thousands to securely cross to government controlled territory.

Expressing deep concern over the grave humanitarian situation in the north as casualties steadily rose, he urged both the government and the LTTE to ensure civilians were not harmed or killed due to the ongoing confrontations.

Special message

The visiting envoy had a special message for the LTTE - to permit civilians to move into government-controlled areas where facilities were available to shelter them. "We hope the LTTE will listen to our call," he said.

At the briefing, Holmes sounded skeptical over the LTTE allowing civilians to freely leave the area, adding that he would only be certain if and when he saw civilians being freed and coming into government controlled areas. He had similar concerns over the continued recruitment of children by the LTTE, an issue that had now resurfaced following UNICEF's claims that the LTTE was indeed on a child recruitment drive.

Besides, the UN Humanitarian Affairs Chief intended to assist the government in sending food and medicines to the civilians in the north.

Among his significant meetings was Thursday's meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse where he discussed the humanitarian situation in the north and the way forward in preventing civilians from coming to harm which was attended by UNDP Representative in Colombo, Neil Buhne, Resident Humanitarian Coordinator Sri Lanka, Shanya Harris and Special Assistant to Under Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Masaki Watabe.

While Colombo accorded a red carpet welcome to Holmes, one time dubbed a 'terrorist' and an 'interfering presence,' the government maintained a rigid stance with regard to the appointment of Des Browne as the British government's special envoy to assess the Sri Lankan ground situation.

Downing St. unfazed

But Downing Street too was unfazed by Colombo's reaction. On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband telephoned his Sri Lankan counterpart Rohitha Bogollagama to seek an explanation over the government rejecting the appointment of a special envoy to Sri Lanka by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Foreign Ministry sources claimed that Bogollagama offered a lengthy explanation to Miliband explaining the reasons behind the move and specially the Ministry's statement that termed the appointment as a "unilateral appointment."

Just the previous week, the cabinet had a highly emotional reaction to the appointment of Des Browne with some openly charging that there was no prior consultation and no real need for his visit.

"It is tantamount to an intrusion into Sri Lanka's internal affairs and is disrespectful to the country's statehood," Bogollagama was quoted having said with a clear warning of 'severe repercussions' to the island's relations with Britain. Bogollagama went public alleging it was "extremely unhelpful" to have such unilateral decisions being made but did not specify if any measures would be taken in retaliation.

A statement by the British High Commission attempted some damage control wherein Des Browne's possible role was described as 'one that would focus on the immediate humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka.'

London protests

Colombo's heat over the issue quickly spread to London with Downing Street having to deal with hundreds of protesting Sri  Lankans openly castigating the British Prime Minister's decision to dispatch a special envoy to Colombo. 

The protesters included students, professionals and clergy who demanded that they be allowed to hand over a petition to the British Premier's office. The Metropolitan Police had difficulty in managing the stormy gathering as a Sri Lankan Tamil youth threatened to set himself on fire. The police immediately arrested him and are now pressing homicide charges.

Meanwhile, six protesters were allowed to hand over their petition to a special representative of the British Premier.

The worsening humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka is having a ripple effect in neighbouring India to the extent that Congress Leader Sonia Gandhi is torn between her desire to seek the head of the mastermind behind her husband's assassin, Velupillai Pirapaharan and how best to balance the political fortunes in New Delhi.

Despite the Delhi administration's single-mindedness in seeing an end to the LTTE's terror and to capture Pirapaharan alive to be tried for the murder of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the domestic political compulsions do not make this an easy path to take.

Commotion

While the plight of the northern Tamil civilians is causing a commotion in India, there are parties such as the Bharatiya Janatha Party and the Communist Party who never saw eye to eye, sharing a platform to urge New Delhi to intervene in the Sri Lankan conflict.

As pressure mounted, coalition partners of the ruling Congress made representations to External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to call for immediate intervention before the ruling coalition lost the trust and support of Tamil Nadu and compromised the interests of the agitating state. The centre naturally fears that Tamil Nadu political parties currently in coalition with the Congress administration may pull out causing instability with elections just a few months ahead.

They also pointed out that Congress was appearing more like a party driven by personal desire to avenge the killing of the party leader's spouse and openly risking Tamil Nadu's wrath which was now directed towards New Delhi.

As criticisms mounted against Delhi's political manoeuvering and strategies as tactics that alienated Tamil Nadu, it was Mukherjee who later took up these concerns with Sonia Gandhi to explain the enormity of the issue and the level of political pressure that was being built.

It was on Sonia Gandhi's advice that Mukherjee made a statement in the Lok Sabha that backfired.

Uproar

The External Affairs Minister's statement caused a severe uproar and the sessions had to be suspended amidst tremendous catcalls and shouting by the MDMK and PMK. When the House resumed and the statement was finally made, agitating members in black shirts stormed the well of the House demanding that Mukherjee's statement be withdrawn.

Mukherjee told Lok Sabha that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would "best serve the interest of the Tamils by immediately releasing all civilians (under its control) and laying down arms."

Pointing out that the LTTE was an outlawed group in India, the Minister added that it "has done much damage to the Tamil community" that caused the House to respond with thumps and shouts, despite his explanation of the central government's readiness to 'Facilitate the evacuation of civilians trapped in the area of conflict, working with the government of Sri Lanka and the ICRC.'

Raising the issue after Question Hour, PMK's M. Ramdoss said that Mukherjee's statement contradicted the views in the Presidential address that spoke of the need for the Sri Lanka government to stop military operations and safeguard the interests of innocent Tamils.

Dubbing Mukherjee's statement as "irresponsible," he said that the Minister should have consulted partners from Tamil Nadu before making it.

Manhandled

It is in this backdrop of a deep Delhi-Chennai divide that President, Indian Janata Party, Dr. Subramaniam Swamy arrived in Chennai to appear at the Chennai High Court where he was unceremoniously manhandled and abused by a group of lawyers inside the courtroom last Tuesday.

A group of advocates entered the court hall of Justice P.K. Mishra and K. Chandru, while they were hearing a petition in connection with the 'Chidambaram temple case', in which Swamy was present to plead himself.

The Tamil Nadu lawyers shouted pro-LTTE slogans and hurled eggs and manhandled Swamy, a friend of the Gandhi family and a fierce critic of the Liberation Tigers who has consistently asked for Pirapaharan's head. 

The angry lawyers turned on Swamy and pushed the police officers present in court out, bolted the door prior to attacking Dr. Swamy. They also prevented any security personnel from entering the courtroom, Indian news reports stated.

The legal practitioners in the lower courts in Tamil Nadu have been regularly boycotting court proceedings on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue in recent weeks to show solidarity with the Tamils trapped in the north.

Manoeuvering

In the meantime, Sri Lankan political leaders too were dabbling in political manoeuvering in the Indian capital.  Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was in New Delhi last week to participate in a panel discussion on Union Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar's book titled Rajiv Gandhi: A Time Of Transition had expressed her concern over the worsening plight of the civilians as the war intensified.

Kumaratunga also forecasted that the war would not bring a solution to the ethnic conflict which can only be resolved through a negotiated political settlement.

Kumaratunga was quoted as having said that Rajiv Gandhi headed the Indian administration at a time when things were very gloomy in Sri Lanka and 'warranted' Indian intervention.

As the subtle workings of the Indian government in the present context remains a not so well guarded secret, as the "final war" commenced in the north, diplomats and Indian and Sri Lankan top officials have held discussions on several sensitive issues that would have a significant impact on both the countries.

List of issues

Among the issues discussed were an evacuation policy and the granting of amnesty to LTTE cadres, a no-fire period, the possible granting of safe passage to 50 senior leaders of the LTTE and their families to any country that would accept them, a blanket amnesty to all combatants with all existing charges withdrawn and this agreement to be guaranteed by India, Norway, Switzerland, and two other countries chosenby both parties and the evacuation of the senior LTTE personnel to be supervised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The above steps were broached, given the necessity of the listed requirements to prevent the humanitarian crisis from ending in an absolute bloodbath as in Gaza.

How far the discussions progressed is little known though it is learned through highly placed diplomatic sources that the topics were discussed by top government officials of both the countries.

With troops advancing in the north towards the final goal, as of Friday, the Army's 58 Division had brought the entire Ampalavanpokkanai area under government control.

In Puthukkudiyiruppu, it is learned that heavy clashes ensued on both north and south of the A-35 (Paranthan- Mullaitivu) roadas troops of the 2nd Commando Regiment, 11th Sri Lanka Light Infantry, 10th Sri Lanka Light Infantry, 7th Sinha Regiment 12th Gemunu Watch, and 8th Gemunu Watch entered the Puthukkudiyiruppu West area.

The area is located about 18 miles from Paranthan along the A-35 road. It is also the last township in the remaining LTTE enclave which is located about three miles from the Puthukkudiyiruppu West built up area.

Charges

As troops intensified battle and prepare for the final thrust, the LTTE has come under severe criticism from UNICEF for conscripting children.

Though the LTTE has swiftly refuted the charge, the UNICEF Representative in Colombo, Philippe Duamelle insisted that there were clear indications that the LTTE has intensified forcible recruitment of civilians and children as young as 14 years old.

From 2003 to the end of 2008, UNICEF has recorded more than 6,000 cases of child recruiting by the LTTE. "Child soldiers suffer physical abuse, traumatic events and face death. Instead of hope, fear defines their childhood," said Duamelle.

UNICEF also said it was extremely alarmed at the high number of children being injured in the fighting in the Wanni.

"Scores of injured children have been evacuated in the past week. Children are victims of this conflict by being killed, injured, recruited, displaced, separated and denied their every day needs due to the fighting."

With the armed forces preparing for the final days of battle, there are fresh reports that despite military setbacks, LTTE Leader Pirapaharan is living among the civilians in pockets dominated by the LTTE possibly with the intention of mounting attacks on the advancing troops.

Drawing board

Though the theatre of war in Sri Lanka continues to grip the nation's attention, in the south, political parties quickly went back to their drawing boards to strategise for the forthcoming Western Provincial Council polls.

The recently concluded PC polls, now viewed as an assessment of the ground situation by the President to prepare for a snap poll, either a parliamentary or presidential, also committed the UPFA coalition partners to the test besides being a test of popularity based on the recent military victories.

According to the government assessments, over a million voters have not cast their ballot this time. There was general apathy largely among the middle class.

Meanwhile, National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wimal Weerawansa who has the support of 10 legislators tested his own party's prowess by fielding 10 candidates at the recently concluded provincial elections. The NFF managed only a single member from Nuwara Eliya.

The Western Provincial Council just like the Colombo Municipal Council is more a matter of prestige for the two main contenders. Hence it is a hard fought battle.

When the UNP parliamentary group met on Monday, party senior Sarathchandra Rajakaruna wanted to know who the party's chief ministerial candidate would be. Responding, Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said all organisers from the Western Province should contest which was well received. MP Ravi Karunanayake suggested pocket meetings to be more meaningful while General Secretary Tissa Attanayake proposed house to house campaigning.

Postal vote

The legislators also pointed out that the postal vote was largely pro UPFA to which Wickremesinghe responded that it was largely due to the fact postal votes were mostly cast by army or police personnel.

Jayawickrema Perera stressed on the need to attract the Sinhala Buddhist votes while Edward Gunasekera suggested popular people like S.B. Dissanayake should be put in charge of district campaigns.

The party's decision making apex body, the working committee, appointed several new electoral organisers including former Senior DIG Sirisena Herath. Another significant step was former media minister Imtiaz Bakeer Marker being inducted as the party's vice president.

The party appointed a nomination board for the Western Provincial Council election headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe and conferred with powers to select the chief ministerial candidate to the said board.

While the UPFA is expected to announce its chief ministerial candidate next week after its coalition partners submit their nomination lists, the Jathika Hela Urumaya has nominated the party's legal consultant Udaya Gammanpila as the chief ministerial candidate. Gammanpila last week stepped down from his position as Chairman, Central Environmental Authority (CEA).

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna too has nominated its former Western Provincial Council member Waruna Rajapaksa as the party's chief ministerial candidate at the forthcoming WPC.

 


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