Drama over Bogollagama's
journey to Geneva
The commencement of peace talks after a lapse of three
years was a cause for much joy, especially since it was this
reason alone that made huge changes in the local political
A country affected by a two decade long ethnic conflict
would always accept with open arms a decision by the two
warring factions to enter into a Cease Fire Agreement
(CFA). However, it took a different twist in Sri Lanka.
With the CFA and the peace talks coming under heavy
criticism by the then opposition, the then UNF government
had to face many a hardship in continuing with its process
of finding a peaceful settlement to the ethnic conflict. It was
this very same reason that forced out the UNF government
in just two years, having received a mandate for six years.
The SLFP and the JVP together shouted themselves
hoarse on election platforms saying they would be the ones
to correct the wrongs of the then UNF government in
signing the CFA and continuing with the peace talks. But
the path set by the SLFP and the JVP was not an easy one
to follow and the realisation of it caused cracks within the
two parties that formed the UPFA. This resulted in the JVP
quitting the government in 2005,just one year after coming
into power in 2004.
The JVP and the JHU, which joined hands with President
Mahinda Rajapakse in the run up to the presidential
election last year, went around the country saying they
would chase away the 'white Tigers' and bring the 'black
Tigers' to their knees to bring about a 'peace with dignity' to
The masses who were taken up by the speeches made by
Wimal Weerawansa and the MP monks of the JHU decided
to exercise their franchise to bring about this 'lasting peace
Ironically, three months later, nothing has been changed in
the earlier status quo. The "salmon-eating busy bodies" are
still the facilitators of the peace process, talks are being
held in Switzerland, a pro Tiger country and the CFA signed
by Opposition and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is
being followed to the letter.
There has however been one change and that is the
silence maintained by the JVP. Even the monks of the JHU
are silent. According to a print media institution which
ispro-government, the government delegation was
victorious even before the commencement of talks and the
respective article was given much prominence in the
The victory achieved by the government however, was with
regard to toilets in the building where both delegations
The article says the LTTE delegation was allocated the
common toilets on the upper floor while the government
was allocated rooms with attached bathrooms.
Apart from this victory, the government delegation did not
have anything much to brag about after the Geneva peace
However, the government delegation was faced with many
issues before its departure to Switzerland. The
controversies which began with choosing the delegation
continued even just days before departure.
All attention was focused on the two delegations and the
LTTE delegation made its journeyas in the pastby arriving
in Colombo from the Wanni in a helicopter and then
proceeded from the Bandaranaike International Airport
Although the LTTE was provided with a Sri Lanka Air Force
(SLAF) helicopter to travel to Colombo, the JVP, which
raised objections earlier, remained silent.
A globe-trotting picnic
However, the government delegation was faced with several
issues with the main issue being the inclusion of several
ministerial wives and children in the delegation to Geneva.
Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Rohitha Bogollagama
decided to take their wives and families along with them.
It has been an accepted norm that spouses and families
are not included in any official government business.
Interestingly, it was the present government, which was
then in the opposition together with the JVP that made
much noise claiming the peace talks should not be turned
into a globe trotting picnic by the then UNF government.
This time around, the government had to swallow its own
rhetoric as two ministers decided to take their wives along
with them but Fernandopulle finally changed his mind and
did not take his wife.
Fernandopulle and Bogolla-gama had decided on the
matter about two weeks ago and President Rajapakse
received several complaints on the matter which was
claimed by many to be "unethical." The President was also
asked to intervene and put a stop to it.
Rajapakse, through his officials informed the two Ministers
they should not take their spouses to the Geneva talks,
butBogollagama did not heed the presidential request.
Bogollagama did not pay much notice to the order as he
had by then made necessary arrangements for his family to
The first member of the government delegation to leave the
country was Bogollagama.
Since his daughter was pursuing higher studies in England,
he decided to spend two days with her before proceeding
to Switzerland. However, he could not have the silent
departure he was expecting.
Bogollagama was scheduled to leave the country on a
Qatar Airways flight which was scheduled to leave at 8.10
p.m. The problem was that even five minutes before 8 p.m.,
Bogollagama had not arrived at the airport.
Officials who were aware of his scheduled flight were
worried about the delay and began to inquire as to where
It was then that the officials received a call from
Bogollagama saying he was on his way to the airport and
that the flight would have to be delayed till he arrived.
Earlier it used to be former President Chandrika
Kumaratunga who was late for flights. However, this was the
first time that a minister had requested that a flight be
delayed until he arrived at the airport.
The official who was surprised by Bogollagama's request
said, "Sir Qatar Airways is a different airline. We have no
power to delay their flights."
This response did not deter Bogollagama, and he asked
the official to somehow delay the take off. As a result,
airport officials were forced to act accordingly.
The delay in take off had irked the passengers. Even by
8:25 p.m., Bogollagama had not arrived at the airport.
The officials had to call him once again and were informed
that the Minister was still on his way and the flight had to be
held until he arrived. A few minutes later, Bogollagama
arrived at the airport, but the take-off had been delayed by
After arriving late at the airport, Bogollagama did not show
any sign of hurrying towards the flight. He entered the VIP
lounge and even gave short interviews to several electronic
media institutions present.
The flight had to be further delayed, leaving the helpless
airport officials virtually begging Bogollagama to board the
flight as soon as possible.
However, the Minister's wife had to face an unpleasant
experience at the foot of the flight of stairs. She tripped and
almost fell, further upsetting the already worried airport
They had an uneventful flight with no excitement until they
reached London. After reaching London, Bogollagama it
was reportedspent two nights at the most expensive hotel in
The news reached Colombo through the Sri Lankan High
Commission in London. According to information that
reached Colombo, one night at the hotel costs 2,000
pounds, which in Sri Lankan terms is Rs. 360,000.
Bogollagama did not worry about this exorbitant amount as
he never took notice of presidential or prime ministerial
However, while Bogollagama was spending time in London,
another issue was brewing in Colombo. That was with
regard to an accommodation issue during the President's
first official visit to India.
Bogollagama who accompanied Rajapakse on his first
official visit did not stay at the same hotel as the President.
He decided to stay at one of the luxury hotels in New Delhi.
Rajapakse had to finally intervene to pipe down the issue
that arose as a result.
The President had inquired details about Bogollagama's
New Delhi bill from the Ministry secretary who received it
while the Minister was away in London.
It is also learnt that the Ministry secretary had decided not
to pay the exorbitant bill forwarded to the ministry.
However, the million dollar question would be whether the
London bill too would be forwarded to the ministry.
Numbers game in Geneva
The government and the LTTE delegations that made their
way to Geneva to hold peace talks had their first meeting
during breakfast in the dining hall of the Chateau de
The LTTE delegation was having breakfast on February 21
morning when the government delegation made its way to
the room for breakfast.
Seeing the government delegation approaching, the LTTE
delegation got up from their seats and made their way to
greet and exchange pleasantries with the government side.
War or peace
However, another incident took place on the stairway a few
hours before the commencement of talks at Chateau de
Head of the government mission, Minister Nimal Siripala de
Silva was descending the stairway when LTTE Chief
Negotiator, Anton Balasingham was climbing the very same
Seeing Balasingham, de Silva shook hands in a friendly
manner and said there was a lot for them to discuss.
The instant reply from Balasingham was,"I will see you in
What he actually meant was to meet at the negotiating
table. Shocked by the unexpected response, de Silva's
quick response was, "No, no, we will see you in the peace
With these words, the two of them went their own ways.
Support staff issue
However, another issue sprung up minutes before the
commencement of talks. That was on the team assisting the
The governmentteam comprised seven delegates -
Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle,
Rohitha Bogolla-gama, Ferial Ashraff, Palitha Kohona, IGP
Chandra Fernando andPresident's Counsel H.L. De Silva.
In addition the government had an eight member support
The LTTE delegation was not so large.
Their team comprised of six delegates and the assisting
team comprised of two delegates.
As a result, it became an issue and the LTTE wanted the
government delegation reduced to match their numbers.
The government insisted on maintaining its numbers at the
Balasingham did not accept the explanation presented by
Norwegian Special Peace Envoy, Erik Solheim on behalf of
the government delegation.
"We cannot accept it. There should be a balance between
the two teams. Although the government has brought
people without any prior consideration, they cannot be
accommodated at the negotiating table. If we were informed
earlier, we too would have brought members.
The government's assisting team has to be reduced to two
members," Balasingham said.
Solheim conveyed Balasing-ham's message to de Silva and
explained the situation.
De Silva said the extra members were to assist the main
team and informed Solheim they cannot be kept away from
the main talks.
This resulted in Solheim visiting all the members of the
LTTE delegation to explain de Silva's response.
The LTTE however, was not willing to change its stance.
Solheim requested the LTTE delegation to arrive at some
compromise to solve the issue.
Under Solheim's insistence, Balasingham discussed the
matter with the rest of the members of the delegation and
arrived at a decision.
The decision was to increase the number of LTTE
representatives to match the number of government
As a result, five more members were included into the
LTTE's two member assisting team.
The five members that were included into the team were
five LTTEers who were brought to Geneva from the Wanni
to help the official LTTE delegates in their chores - e.g.
carrying bags, files andphotographers.
This turn of events was taken as a joke by the foreign
journalists present at the venue. They felt the LTTE
decision slighted the government's assisting team which
comprised the navy commander, lawyers and ministry
The agenda for talks that caused a stir
The controversies did not see an easy end.
The next problem arose at the unofficial talks held to decide
on the agenda for the talks.
It was decided at the inception that the opening address
would be made by the Swiss representative followed by
Norwegian Special Peace Envoy, Erik Solheim's speech.
The issue was to decide on who would make the next
speech - the government or the LTTE.
LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham was firm in his
stance that his organisation should get the chance of
addressing the gathering first since he was the most senior
member at the peace talkswhile the head of the
government delegation, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva said
the government should be given the chanceto make its
opening statementbefore the LTTE.
Argument over first speech
The argument that ensued continued for some time as
neither party was willing to bow down.
With the talks scheduled to begin on the 22nd, the issue of
who should make the first speech of the two parties was still
undecided even onFebruary 21.
The LTTE warned that if they were not given the chance to
address the gathering after Solheim's speech, they would
not participate at the talks the following day.
It was difficult for even Solheim to solve the issue.
Under such circumstances, the government delegation was
left with two options - to allow the LTTE to have its way or to
return to Sri Lanka on February 22 without giving in to the
This left Silva calling Temple Trees every minute to seek
advice. Finally, Colombo informed de Silva to allow the
LTTE to make the speech after Solheim without letting the
issue get out of hand.
De Silva said that Balasingham could make the speech
However, de Silva informed Solheim that the speech should
be made in a way that would not create an undue impact on
Solheim who then discussed the matter with Balasingham
finally came to an agreement.
It was agreed that after the speeches made by the Swiss
representative and Solheim concluded, de Silva would
make a brief two minute introduction and then invite
Balasingham to make the first speech.
Balasingham agreed as he wanted to be the one to first
explain the position of his organisation.
Solheim informed de Silva of the decision and de Silva in
turn was happy to hear the news.
"It has already been reported that there was an issue with
regard to this matter. Sometimes the media might highlight
it as a defeat for the government delegation, especially
when Balasingham makes his statement. It is better not to
open Balasingham's speech to the media," de Silva
It was de Silva's opinion that shutting Balasingham's
statement from the media would help cover the dilemma
faced by the government.
Solheim then discussed the matter with Balasingham.
Solheim proposed to Balasingham that the media be
allowed to cover the speeches made by the Swiss
representative and him and the traditional handshake of
the heads of the two delegations.
Balasingham agreed and even cracked a joke.
"The LTTE never wanted to be heroes in front of the media,
it is the government that always wanted to play a heroic role
and have now fallen in trouble. We only wanted the
inaugural speech at the commencement of talks and we got
it. We don't care if the media is allowed to cover it or not,"
Unlike their colleague, Minister Rohitha Bogollagama,
Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Nimal Siripala de Silva
were right on time at the airport.
Although punctual, the Ministers were a hot topic among
the Sri Lankans in Geneva. That was because of their attire.
The Ministers who are seen in national attire in Sri Lanka
were dressed in full European attire in Geneva. The
Sinhala population in Geneva did not agree with the
sudden change of dress code of two Ministers representing
a 'patriotic' government.
Like the government delegation, the LTTE delegation too
had arrived in Geneva on time.
Amidst many restrictions, hordes of local and international
journalists were also present at the venue. As a result, the
government and the LTTE delegation were constantly
under the watchful eyes of the media.
The first controversy was a statement made by
Bogollagama at the pre-talks press briefing.
At the press conference, Bogollagama said the
government's agenda for the talks was to amend the
existing Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).
News of the press conference reached the LTTE delegation
minutes after its conclusion.
The LTTE delegation, which seeked an immediate meeting
with Norwegian Peace Envoy Erik Solheim informed him that
there could be no change in the agenda for the talks.
"We first agreed to hold discussions on strengthening the
CFA. Nowhere have we said the talks were to amend the
CFA. So please ask the government delegation to stick to
the agenda that was agreed upon and not to create
unnecessary issues by laying down anew agenda on the
table tomorrow," they said.
LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham officially
requested a meeting with Solheim to discuss the matter
further. He said they were not going to change the agenda
following Bogolla-gama's remark.
Solheim promised Balasingham that the talks would be
based on strengthening the CFA and not on amending it.
Balasingham lost no time in informing the rest of the
delegation and the leadership in Wanni of the latest
developments in Geneva. [Sunday Leader]