Mahinda's real chinthana

By Sonali Samarasinghe

The telephone threat made by President Mahinda Rajapakse to the
Editor, The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge and the ensuing
furore last week stunned diplomats and shocked civil society.

The threat issued personally to the Editor by the President of the
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in gutter language was
based on some gossip that had reached the ear of Rajapakse that an

article had been published regarding a disastrous visit made by the
President and First Lady Shiranthi to the famous Guruvayur temple in
Kerala.

It was a visit he feared would tarnish his image as a Sinhala leader and
devout Buddhist and he desperately did not want details of the gaffe to
come out. In fact he was acting on the mistaken belief  that the story
was published in this newspaper, hence his venom.

That aside, let's for a moment reflect on President Rajapakse. He is
out of his depth. Nobody knows this better than the President himself.
If ever there was a man who was out of his league, then that man is
this man and President Mahinda Rajapakse knows it only too well.

Out of his league

Already since his election to high office some 68 service personnel
have been killed and almost as many civilians. The foreign press has
estimated the dead servicemen at well over 100. Only on Thursday
another claymore mine took the lives of a further 10 sailors. As the
body bags keep rolling in and the dead pile up,  Rajapakse knows he
cannot cope. He also understands now why the LTTE desperately
wanted him as President of the south.

But if he kicked off on the wrong foot at home, he did the same
abroad. His first official Presidential state visit across the Palk Strait
was straight out of the pages of a comic strip written perhaps by
Andare or Gothabaya Rajapakse.

And there he was, the President, fresh from a disastrous official state
visit to India where only the cholesterol was present with none of the
protocol. He attempted to meet Jayalalitha in Chennai and was
snubbed. He tried to engage Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee in
New Delhi and was again ignored.

He took a retinue of some 80 nobodies at the expense of the Sri
Lankan public to keep him company. None of them had the good
sense, the panache, or the decorum to give this rough and ready man
from the south a lesson in diplomacy.

Thus it was that a much beleaguered President, ever ready to give ear
to anything and everything, ever willing to act on idle gossip and
unsubstantiated pish tosh and brimming to the eye balls with pent up
emotions grabbed the telephone instrument bearing SLT No. 2392047
sitting quietly beside him somewhere in Temple Trees on the morning
of January 11 (Wednesday) at 11:13 a.m. and agitatedly dialed the
number of the Editor, The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

The President then went off at a tangent in language even the foulest
pirates of the high seas, the worst criminals in Rumy Marzook's
prisons, the most inebriated of winos in Beliatta would blush to utter.

But why he did so even the President did not know. "Thamusai
Shiranthi gena liyala," he charged. When Wickrematunge asked him
repeatedly what the article was the newspaper was supposed to have
published, President Rajapakse could not say. It was obvious he was
acting on either a dead rope or the idle gossip of venomous elements
in his circle.

Grave threat

But Rajapakse not stopping to verify facts, not stopping at the very
least to read the English language newspaper, not even stopping to
think; called the Editor and threatened him with his life. "Thamusava
vinasha karala thamai mang ivara vennai," he said. When the Editor
told him that he is not one to give in to threats and was not afraid,
Rajapakse told him, "You will know fear. You don't know who Mahinda
Rajapakse is." (See box for transcript of conversation. We apologise
on behalf of the President for the language used by him)

Thus, even as our security forces were getting blasted by claymore
mines in Chettikulum, Rajapakse was blasting media personnel in
Colombo on some article he was told may have been written. God
forbid this man handle a delicate situation like the peace process or
even a full-on war.

Be that as it may, a threat to the life of an Editor of the independent
media made personally by the President in the foul language he did
may have been unheard of in the history of the free world but
Wickrematunge was quick to action.

Believing there was a real threat to his life, the Editor who has already
suffered several attempts to snuff him out and silence him by various
politicians, immediately wrote to the Inspector General of Police,
Chandra Fernando and to President Rajapakse himself. The letters
were hand-delivered the same day the Presidential threat was issued
together with a transcript of the conversation that took place and an
English translation for easy reference. (See elsewhere on this page)

Colombo a buzz

The Editor within minutes informed the Free Media Movement (FMM),
and other civil society organisations and on the morning of January 12
sent a copy of his letter to the IGP together with a covering letter to the
diplomatic community and to other relevant international organisations.

But even before he was to do so, by the afternoon of January 11,
Colombo was a buzz. Not only that, shocked diplomats were firing calls
to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Samaraweera blushing
with embarrassment on behalf of the President was trying hard to
engage in some diplomatic damage control but was critical of the
Presidential gaffe to several others.

But if Colombo was buzzing, President Rajapakse had still not got over
his hissy fit. Within five minutes of having called the Editor at 11:13
a.m. on January 11, he was to call the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil
Wickremesinghe at his home. In the most agitated of voices and with
anger spewing forth he told Wickremesinghe, "You are his friend, tell
him to stop writing."

However, when asked what the Editor was supposed to have written,
again Rajapakse could not say except to utter vaguely that it was
about his wife and that he was told about it by Indian High
Commissioner Nirupama Rao. Furthermore when asked by others
close to him what the article in question was the President with much
agitation had said, "Mama danne kehelmalak ne." The Indian High
Commissioner told him, Rajapakse was to tell anyone who cared to ask
him.

Thus it confirmed that President Rajapakse was not even aware of why
he was acting in this manner. He seemed merely to have gone mad.
Completely lost control. A characteristic that is lethal to a President of
such a fractured country as ours and one that is on the brink of  
another bloody war.

Given the venomous tone in Rajapakse's voice and being by nature a
man who thinks before he acts and/or speaks and not wanting to
create dissension, Wickremesinghe did not relay the message of the
President to Editor Wickrematunge until about 1:30 p.m. He was to call
the Editor and tell him, "I am officially delivering the message given to
me by President Rajapakse for your information."

"At a personal level I would ask you to take adequate security
measures given the nature and the tone of the message received and
would advise you not to take the issue any further," Wickreme-singhe
was to also tell the Editor.

However given the seriousness of the threat and the high office from
which it emanated, The Sunday Leader decided to investigate the
cause of Rajapakse's fit of rage. We found out that it had nothing to do
with what we had written but was either more of a preemptive strike by
the President on what we may write or a misunderstanding of a
message received from the Indian High Commissioner.

Wires crossed

The President may have also got conflicting reports that this
newspaper had already published an article relating to the subject
which was a source of agitation for him when in fact it was not so,
hence his inability to draw the attention of the Editor to the article
referred to when repeatedly asked.

What subject you may well ask. And we today will tell you. For indeed
we had not intended to publish any details on the matter but President
Rajapakse's Billingsgate behaviour unbecoming of the high office he
holds and contrary to the Mahinda Chinthana public persona he
purports to project compels us to do so. It all started at the Guruvayur
temple in Kerala but more of that anon. (See opposite page for full
details)

A disaster

One is aware that President Rajapakse though having been in
parliament some 20 years was not a man who really did anything. As
Labour Minister in the 1994 Kumaratunga government, he was a
disaster. Again placing his relatives in high places and in true 'Helping
Hambantota' style creating separate companies of which his flesh and
blood had controlling interest, with ETF monies. A matter already
published in our newspapers over three months ago. As Fisheries
Minister, he fared no better.

Throughout his career he was lifted or pushed along by other more
able bodied men and indeed women. Never had the man been called
upon to engage in true governance. In the run up to the election he
was in his element. All he had to do was utter a few vacuous bombastic
words which meant little to the gullible masses and let Wimal
Weerawansa do the rest.

Today as President and with cannons to the right of him, cannons to
the left of him, cannons in front of him, volleyed and thundered
stormed at with shot and shell (with apologies to Tennyson) the harried
President is submerged. He needs to burst out or he will explode. This
he did last Wednesday.

At one of his many election dinners hosted at Temple Trees he was to
tell some young outstation lawyers, "Mama edath Mahinda Rajapakse,
adath Mahinda Rajapakse, hetath Mahinda Rajapakse." Alas, those
who know him only too well will tell you that this is in fact true and it
bodes ill for the nation.

If he wants to usher in a new era of decency he must lead by example.
If he says the future of this country are its children, he must set an
example in his own home. One only hopes his young children were not
around to hear their father speak in this manner, particularly in relation
to the 83-year-old mother of the Editor.

Untold story that had Mahinda fuming

This newspaper never intended to publish the details of President
Rajapakse and his wife Shiranthi's disastrous visit to the famous and
sacred Guruvayur Temple in Kerala at the tail-end of their failed visit to
India earlier this month. In passing we had mentioned President
Rajapakse had gone there for a special pooja for which he had to
shed his saluwa and don a vetti. However we refrained from giving any
further details. Today we are compelled to do so to point to the motive
for his fit of rage.

Humongous blunder

President Rajapakse who had already made every possible diplomatic
blunder in India politically was, at the tail-end of his visit, to make a
humongous blunder spiritually and socially.

The President and his advisors who obviously do not believe in doing
their homework before embarking on an official visit was to visit the
famous Guruvayur temple in Kerala - a place so sacred only Hindus
are allowed in and that too with nothing but a vetti to cover themselves.
Steeped in history and spiritual legend the Krishna temple is the fourth
biggest temple in India in terms of the number of devotees per day.

The temple dedicated to Lord Krishna popularly known as
Guruvayoorappan is famous all over India as a pilgrim centre. The
Sreekrishna idol of this temple is believed to have been worshipped by
Vasudevar and Devaki at Dwaraka. This shrine popularly known as
'Dakshina Dwaraka' (Dwaraka of south) is in the form of a rectangle.

Breaking hallowed traditions

President Rajapakse who had made a large number of vows was also
eager to engage in one of the poojas. For this, barebodied and sans
saluwa he donned a vetti and proceeded forth. Well and good. But
who should accompany him but his charming wife Shiranthi, who being
a Christian and Catholic was not allowed anywhere near the sacred
temple in terms of the hallowed traditions of the temple.

But at the time of the pooja no one in the temple was any the wiser and
the pooja was conducted and temple activities went on apace.
However word gets around and Keralites in general, the Indian media
and more importantly the temple administration were buzzing with the
news that a Catholic had stepped onto sacred soil. The temple
administration was to immediately write to the Indian High Commission
in Colombo and ask for clarification and confirmation as to whether the
Sri Lankan First Lady was indeed a Catholic.

President Rajapakse got wind of this letter from the Indian High
Commission and panicked. The President was told by High
Commissioner Rao, the story about Shiranthi visiting the temple was all
over and if reported in Sri Lanka and gets back to India would cause a
lot of problems.

According to what Rajapakse was to later tell confidants, Rao had also
said the only paper that might carry the story is the "Leader."

Rajapakse who has been riding high politically on the Sinhala Buddhist
ticket was not about to admit that not only was his wife Catholic but that
he did not know the first thing about the sacred customs of one of the
most famous temples in India. Indeed a temple many Sri Lankan
Buddhists frequent. Buddhist are allowed in, as Buddhism is not
considered a religion. So too are Jains allowed into the precincts of the
holy place.

Image at stake

The rule is so strict that the world's most powerful woman in terms of
numbers she controls, Sonia Gandhi has not been able to visit the
temple. Neither has Indian President Abdul Kalam who is a Muslim and
one of his predecessors, Giani Zail Singh.

President Rajapakse's Sinhala Buddhist image was at stake - the only
reason that he was President of Sri Lanka was due to the racism and
intolerance of the majority Buddhists and Rajapakse desperately
wanted to preserve his hardline image. He also did not want a
backlash in India with the likes of Vaiko taking up the issue as
sacrilege. He may have admitted in passing that his wife was Catholic
and that his children were fortunate enough to attend one of the
foremost Anglican schools in the country but he didn't do it too often.

In fact the rule is so strict that now the temple will have to be closed for
three weeks while it is washed and cleansed thoroughly. Not only that
according to belief none of the poojas conducted during the month of
'defilement' by Shiranthi will have effect and that includes the one
conducted by President Rajapakse himself.

This means that all those poojas will have to be conducted again - a
costly affair considering the huge sums of money spent on these
poojas by the devotees. But worse still for the temple, it is probably the
temple that will have to pick up the tab for the poojas considering that
the  repeat performances had nothing to do with the devotees but with
Sri Lanka's President and First Lady.

Spiritual etiquette

If Rajapakse had only done his homework. If only the very efficient Sri
Lankan Foreign Ministry had given him a dos and don'ts list. In fact
they could have got such a list off any old website or tourist brochure.

But President Rajapakse need not have gone far to learn the spiritual
etiquette. All he had to do was to call Indian High Commissioner
Nirupama Rao, a Keralite herself, and ask her advice. She would have
certainly known the spiritual sensitivities surrounding Guruvayur. But
he chose not to do that.  

A President who acts on gossip

President Mahinda Rajapakse while admitting he spoke to Editor
Lasantha Wickrematunge however reportedly denied that he used foul
language to a daily newspaper last week. But in his denial he again
branded himself a liar.

Firstly, in his conversation of January 11, he did not mention his
children but only his wife and he did not mention anything about
"narrow political ends." But more importantly President Rajapakse
alluded to an earlier friendly telephone conversation with
Wickrematunge who had later in the newspaper reportedly interpreted
this telephone call as an attempt to befriend him because he feared
the Editor.

Rajapakse must first read an English newspaper before he attempts to
make any allegations or base his actions on articles purportedly
written. While we admit that President Rajapakse telephoned the Editor
of this newspaper and engaged in a friendly conversation shortly after
the election, we categorically deny we wrote anything in any section of
the newspaper regarding the same.

In fact it was Rajapakse who requested the Editor not to write anything
on their conversation and we did not. A perusal of our newspapers will
bear proof to this fact. And we challenge Rajapakse to submit any
proof of this absolute lie. In fact his second lie only confirms the
version of the events of January 11 as related by this newspaper. And
having a chat with the President is no big deal to report on. We report
the news and not how we got it.

And in the true spirit of decency we still refrain from publishing the
details of that first friendly conversation, the contents of which
President Rajapakse requested Editor Wickrematunge not to divulge.

However, it is obvious that the President is a man who given enough
rope will hang himself. If the highest in the land is now to act on the
basis of mindless gossip and Chinese whispers, what is to become of
this nation? Surely, the Commander in Chief may order a war without
verification on a baseless rumour of an incident in the north? He is
also a man capable of issuing threats to the media while talking about
democracy and human rights. He has proved himself a man who will
sooner make this country a banana republic than a democratic one as
envisaged by his own Chinthana.

Editor's letter to the President

11 January 2006
President Mahinda Rajapakse,
Temple Trees
Colombo 03.  

My dear President,

I was shocked and surprised by the tone and content of your
telephone call to me at 11:13 this morning. I cannot imagine that the
occupant of the highest office in our land could utter such foul, lewd
and disgusting words: indeed the language of the gutter. It is
unbecoming and disgraceful of you to have uttered threats against me,
and I want to repeat the assertion made by me during your hysterical
ranting that I will not be bowed by them. You more than any other
politician have paid lip service to human rights and the building of a
decent society in Sri Lanka. It is all the more shocking then, that you
should conduct yourself in such a low manner.

Given the office you hold, I have no doubt it is well within your power to
do me harm, whether or not through the abuse of the state machinery
that lies at your disposal. I have therefore no choice but to give your
threats the widest possible publicity in the hope that this will persuade
you to desist from the course of action you are clearly contemplating,
to eliminate me or do me harm.

No doubt you will deny the content of the conversation that took place
this morning as you would a request made to me prior to the
presidential election inviting me to run your election campaign with
your brother, Basil Rajapakse which I politely declined. You have no
choice but to deny the threat made, given the lip service your public
persona pays to the upholding of decent values.

You know better than anyone that The Sunday Leader was infinitely
more critical of your predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, than it has
been of you. Yet, she never stooped to the level you have, even
though she was reported to have given ear to a plot to "kill an editor or
two."

Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe informed me that you
had  spoken  with him at around 1 p.m. on the same subject which was
within a matter of two hours of threatening me, and asked him to
request me to desist from publishing in future any story you consider
provocative.You have specifically mentioned the publication of a story
relating to your wife, Shiranthi. I have no idea what story you are
referring to: you failed to tell me, and you evidently failed also to tell
him. Yet, I wish to remind you that should you have anything to convey
to me, your purposes would be best served by informing me directly
rather than threatening me in vile language.

Given our long acquaintance, you should know better than anyone
that I am not one to be swayed by third parties. I take this opportunity
to also remind you in that context your request to me as Prime Minister
to refrain from publishing details of the 'Helping Hambantota' account
in July 2005 and my refusal to oblige you. Indeed, when there is news
that it is in the national interest to publish, be assured that nothing will
prevent The Sunday Leader from publishing it.

I urge you even now to respect the great office to which you have been
elected, and to conduct yourself with the dignity and decorum the
people and Sri Lanka have a right to expect of you. It does not become
the presidency that you should threaten journalists or indeed, plot
violence against them.

With best wishes for the new year,

Yours sincerely,
Lasantha Wickrematunge
Attorney-at-Law,
Editor, The Sunday Leader



Editor's letter to the IGP

11 January 2006.
Mr, Chandra Fernando,
Inspector General of Police
Police Headquarters
Colombo 1.  

Dear Sir,

At 11:13 a.m. today I received a call on my mobile phone from
telephone number 2392047. Speaking in Sinhala, the operator told me
that she had a call for me from His Excellency, the President. The
number is registered on my mobile phone, a certified copy of which
can be furnished if necessary. A man then spoke to me in English, and
asked me to hold the line as His Excellency the President wished to
speak to me.

Shortly thereafter, President Mahinda Rajapakse came on the line. I
recognised his voice because he has on several occasions spoken
with me by telephone, including after his election as President. I have
known President Rajapakse and associated with him for more than 20
years prior to that and am well acquainted with his voice.

I made a contemporaneous note of the conversation, in Sinhala, which
I attach hereto, together with a translation in English.

As you will see from this note, President Rajapakse used foul, abusive
and threatening language unbecoming of the high office he holds. He
told me repeatedly, "What have you written about Shiranthi in the
Leader?" However, when I asked him, "What is it you are referring to?
Have you read whatever it is you are referring to?" he replied with the
words, "I know what to do to you." He continued to mouth vile and
defamatory references to my mother and threatened to destroy me,
"wait and see what I am going to do to you." As the President
continued, apparently in a state of hysteria, I told him not to threaten
me and that I will not give into such threats. I have no choice but to
interpret the President's words, however, as a threat to my life.

Further, one of the most prominent businessmen in our country (I shall
disclose the name to you if it is necessary to aid your inquiries)
recently informed me that the President had told him that he intends to
"destroy" me. He interpreted this as a threat to my life. So seriously did
he take the threat that he spoke also to my brother, Lal
Wickrematunge and another mutual friend, and requested them to
convey this message to me and urge me to take care.

I am therefore bringing this matter to your urgent attention and
requesting you to take immediate steps to ensure my security given
the serious nature of the threats made by the President of the country
who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the security forces and
Defence Minister. I also request you to investigate this matter fully and
I am willing to furnish you with such information as may be necessary
to facilitate such an inquiry.

I wish to remind you that I consider this a grave threat to my life
especially given that several journalists have been assassinated in
recent years, including Mr. Rohana Kumara, Mr. Mariyadasan
Nimalaranjan and Mr. Dharmaratnam Sivaram. In some of these cases,
the murders were preceded by threats made by leading politicians.
The threat made against me by President Rajapakse was, however,
more serious and immediate than any of those directed at the above
late journalists. You will also undoubtedly be aware that there have
been two previous attempts on my life, one involving firearms: and in
the latter case, despite complaints to the police, no action has been
taken.

In the run up to the presidential election of November 17, 2005, The
Sunday Leader press at Ratmalana was torched. Shortly after his
election, the President was also reported as having told Mr. S.B.
Dissanayake that he will use the judiciary to jail some journalists. I
have grave apprehensions, therefore, that President Rajapakse will
use the machinery of the state to harass and intimidate me, and
possibly even take my life.

The President had also within two hours of the threatening call to me
spoken with the Hon. Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Ranil
Wickremesinghe and requested him to speak with me as well and urge
me to refrain from writing articles he considers provocative claiming his
(the President's) patience was running thin. Mr. Wickremesinghe
communicated to me the President's message. The telephone
conversation initiated by the President to the Leader of the Opposition
subsequent to the threat issued to me is further proof that the
President did speak with me in the morning.   

I would be grateful if you would kindly arrange therefore, without delay,
to provide me with adequate security against this threat.

In the hope that it will result in additional pressure on President
Rajapakse to desist from the criminal course of action he appears to
be contemplating, I am copying this letter to the heads of foreign
missions in Colombo, the Leader of the Opposition and the presidents
of the Free Media Movement, Transparency International and Bar
Association of Sri Lanka.

Yours faithfully,

Lasantha Wickrematunge,
Attorney-at-Law,
Editor, The Sunday Leader

The President's telephone call

Telephone call made by the President of the Democratic Socialist
Republic of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse to the Editor-in-Chief, The
Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge on January 11, 2006 at
11.13 a.m.

(English translation)

Mahinda: What have you written about Shiranthi in the Leader?

Lasantha: What has been written?

Mahinda: You should know what has been written

Lasantha: Did you read it? What are you talking about?

Mahinda: About what? F. your mother (am.. Hu..a), son of a bloody
wh. (k.ri ve.e putha) I will finish you. You have hit me, now you are
hitting my woman as well.

Lasantha: What has the article said?

Mahinda: I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You
don't know who Mahinda Rajapakse is. You watch what I will do to you.
You hit me even during the election. Pariah.You are hitting even now...
I will destroy you.

Lasantha: Just because you are President, do not talk in that
threatening way. We don't get intimidated by threats. Tell us what it is
we are supposed to have written.

Mahinda: Pariah.You are not scared!.... I will show you what it is to
be scared. I will rest only when I destroy you. You wait and see.You
don't know who Mahinda Rajapakse is.
[Courtesy:Sunday Leader]