TamilWeek Feb 19, 2006
What will the next week bring us?

Little does Rajapaksa realise that the media are more than
capable of ferreting out inside information even if all doors are
sealed shut at the conference centre while the talks are
underway. Furthermore, the President has seriously overlooked
the LTTE's own propaganda machine which will no doubt spew
details of what went on behind closed doors in Geneva as long
as it is advantageous to them, via their established media
channels. Ergo, Rajapaksa's short-sighted move to keep the
scribes out will not only prove futile but also bode ill for the
popularity of the administration.

By Darisha Bastian

The countdown to Geneva has officially begun, with the LTTE
already having dispatched its negotiating team to the Swiss capital
where the first round of talks between the two parties since April
2003 will be held at the Château de Bossey or the conference centre
owned by the World Council of Churches.

President Rajapaksa is believed to have opted for this venue as part
of an effort to shut the media out of the talks to maintain
confidentiality.

It was reported in this column last week that President Rajapaksa had
told confidants that it was the UNF's policy to take large contingents
of media personnel for every round of talks that had been that
regime's undoing. Despite Chinthanaya promises to the contrary, the
new President plans to shut the public out of decisions reached in
Geneva, by blacking out the Fourth Estate.

Little does Rajapaksa realise that the media is more than capable of
ferreting out inside information even if all doors are sealed shut at
the conference centre while the talks are underway. Furthermore, the
President has seriously overlooked the LTTE's own propaganda
machine which will no doubt spew details of what went on behind
closed doors in Geneva as long as it is advantageous to them, via
their established media channels. Ergo, Rajapaksa's short-sighted
move to keep the scribes out will not only prove futile but also bode ill
for the popularity of the administration.

Meanwhile comments made by Rajapaksa during an interview with
Reuters on Monday (13), has also caused a furore in Kilinochchi
where Prabhakran and his inner circle have already met to discuss
the developments.

Kilinochchi-Colombo battles rage
Rajapaksa in the interview ruled out Tiger demands for a separate
homeland in the north and east, but also conceded that he would
rein in armed groups - a central demand of the LTTE ahead of the
Geneva talks.

"There's only one country, we can share power. Not a separate state.
That idea must be taken off … It is completely out," Rajapaksa told
Reuters.

Reacting with customary LTTE immediacy, the rebels' Peace
Secretariat published a statement on its website criticising the
President's latest position.

"The Tamil people are shocked over President Mahinda Rajapaksa's
rejection of their basic political aspirations in an interview with
Reuters," it said. "(The) LTTE strongly condemns these sentiments
expressed by the President that tend to belittle the political rights of
the Tamil people ... Hastily going to town without knowing correctly
the contradictions and complexities of the Tamil-Sinhala racial
conflict, would seriously impact the current efforts for talks," the
website warned further.

But the ongoing battles between Colombo and Kilinochchi
notwithstanding, the Tiger delegation, led by Political Wing Chief S.P.
Thamilselvan and four other members of the team left the rebels' de
facto capital Kilinochchi for the Bandaranaike International Airport on
board a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter yesterday. The LTTE is also
scheduled to hold a series of meetings and discussions in
Switzerland after the talks on February 22 and 23, to brief several
organisations and individuals about its "freedom struggle." Cagey
about their dates of return to Colombo all along, the Tiger delegation
will also fly from Switzerland to the Norwegian capital Oslo on
February 27.

By all appearances, the LTTE at least is fully geared to make
maximum use of the Geneva tour to further their cause and gain
international sympathy, notwithstanding the European Union imposed
travel ban.

The government team
The government negotiating team meanwhile, also have their bags
packed and ready to go, with the President having appointed Leader
of the National Unity Alliance Mrs. Ferial Ashraff to represent the
Muslim community at the Geneva talks. The Muslim parliamentarians
on the government side nominated both Ashraff and Minister A.H.M.
Fowzie to represent Muslim aspirations at the talks aimed at
strengthening the ceasefire, and left the final decision to Rajapaksa.
The President appointed Minister Ashraff since she represented the
Eastern Muslims who are directly affected by lapses in the truce
between the government and the LTTE. Minister Ashraff replaces
legal luminary Faizer Mustapha who quit the negotiating team last
week. While Mustapha's drop out was a major blow for an already
inexperienced team of government negotiators, it is also pertinent to
remember that while the NUA Leader maybe a minister of the
government by virtue of her party's support of President Rajapaksa's
candidacy at the last presidential poll, she did not receive the
mandate of the Eastern Muslims at that election. This could seriously
undermine her clout at the negotiating table in Geneva next week.

Little elections at home
But while all eyes are on Geneva for the moment, political matters
back home are also heating up, with both the UNP and the SLFP
managing to lose an election even before it is contested by bungling
up their nomination lists in key electorates. The main opposition,
which of late appears to badly need to go back to political pre-school,
had their Colombo list rejected, the one local council at which the
greens are assured a massive majority. The SLFP led People's
Alliance Coalition meanwhile had their Gampaha nomination list
rejected, the electorate which has traditionally voted blue because of
the Bandaranaike heritage.

In a strong reaction to the Elections Commissioner's rejection of its
list, UNP General Secretary N.V.K.N. Weheragoda lodged a protest
with the department threatening to take legal action. But if the UNP's
colossal mess up of the petition to stay the nominations for local
government elections before the Court of Appeal last week is any
indication, the Commissioner of Elections will be more than happy to
take on the green lawyers.

The JVP meanwhile, far from making childish mistakes in submitting
their nomination papers on Thursday (16), appears to be the only
political party truly in the local government election fray. Having put
up posters island wide urging that the control of the villages be given
to the JVP, the Marxists appear to be more than ready to face the
March 30 poll, even though they are going it alone. It is the first time
in three years that the JVP has faced an election on its own, and the
upcoming poll is set to be the true indicator of the JVP's grassroots
support. While the JVP has snubbed the SLFP this time around, it
may well be that the overwhelming southern support for the reds at
the past two elections were a result of its alliance with a more
moderate mainstream political party. Complicating matters, the JVP
also bears the curse of incumbency to some degree, since it is their
coalition that is currently in government, even if the party sits in the
opposition benches in parliament. To the south, President Mahinda
Rajapaksa and his administration are not just their choice, but the
choice the JVP advocated as well. Under the circumstances, the sins
of the administration may tell on the Marxist party to some extent.
That is however not to undermine the strength of the reds at
grassroots level, where their campaigns in the villages cannot be
rivalled by any other political group. The JVP's grassroots cadres
work closely with the people in remote villages of the Southern
Province in particular, reducing the impact on its vote base by
decisions made at the party's politburo level.

That said the local government election looks to be evenly poised
with the UNP expected to take 10% dip in support overall, excluding
the Central Hills where the CWC's support of the UPFA is bound to
make a massive dent in the green scorecard.

The UNP's mayoral crisis was finally resolved with the party deciding
on Wednesday at Sirikotha to name veteran Sirisena Cooray the
party's candidate and Mr. Azath Sally his running mate. UNP Deputy
Leader Karu Jayasuriya who was all along backing the candidature of
Omar Kamil for mayor, decided to hold his peace with regard to the
issue at Wednesday's meeting.

As for the UPFA, after much coercing, New Left Front Leader
Vasudeva Nanayakkara, also a long standing friend of the President,
has finally agreed to accept the candidature for Mayor of Colombo.
Mr. Nanayakkara is said to have been disinclined to accept the
position at first, but after supporters and confidants told him that
even if the UPFA loses, he will retain a position as Leader of the
Opposition in the most powerful local council of all, the Left leader
finally agreed.

Freedom for SB
Also shaking things up in the political arena, jailed UNP National
Organiser S.B. Dissanayake was finally released yesterday (17) after
President Mahinda Rajapaksa remitted his sentence one month
before he was due to be sent on parole for good behaviour.

However, the jailed politician will not see his civic rights restored
since it was not a Presidential pardon that Rajapaksa offered his
former ministerial colleague. On Wednesday, Rajapaksa summoned
Dissanayake's wife Tamara to Temple Trees, seemingly to explain
himself. She was received warmly and when she made her appeal,
Rajapaksa was genuinely distressed.

Mrs. Dissanayake begged the President to restore her husband's
civic rights if he was releasing him, but Rajapaksa regretfully
explained why he could not do so.

"Nangi, try and understand,' said the President. "I am being
pressured from all sides. It's a huge problem for me. Accept this for
now, we will try to do the rest later."

And so it is that the controversially incarcerated politician secured his
freedom after spending over a year at the Welikada prison. Will the
return of S.B. to the fold breathe much needed fire back into the
beleaguered United National Party and help the party make some
gains at the March poll? Or will Rajapaksa's generosity, however late
in the day it may have come, restore Dissanayake's faith in the
SLFP? Will the Geneva talks bring the country back from the brink of
war?

Which ever way the political winds blow, the week ahead is bound to
be an interesting one.
[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]
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