The Rajapaksa government's confrontationist approach towards the international community has perplexed observers.B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo
With the undeclared war between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) literally reaching the skies, the belligerence of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime within and outside the island nation has touched a new high. On May 11, Colombo put New Delhi on a 48-hour notice to either retract Defence Minister A.K. Antony's statement in Parliament that the Sri Lanka Navy killed 77 Indian fishermen from 1991 to mid-April 2007 or risk a strong rebuttal. In the face of silence from New Delhi, the Foreign Ministry went public in the name of "setting the record straight".
Earlier, a day after the Air Tigers' first pre-dawn strike on the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Katunayake on March 28 (Frontline, May 18), an agitated Colombo complained to New Delhi that it had been let down by the inferior radar system thrust on it against its desire to go in for three-dimensional radar cover available from China. A section of the defence establishment leaked the news to the media.
Political and diplomatic observers here are perplexed by the government's confrontationist approach towards the international community, particularly when it is engaged in what it calls a "fight to the finish" with the Tigers. On April 20, Sri Lanka Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is the President's brother, "summoned" British High Commissioner Dominick Chilcott after he visited Champika Liyanaarachchi, editor of Daily Mirror, a day after she said she had received a death threat from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Chilcott's gesture came hours after the government accused unnamed diplomats of interfering in the island's internal affairs.
The government also frowned on the recent debate in the British Parliament on the situation in the island nation and did not take kindly to United States Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher's decision to visit the Jaffna office of the Tamil daily Uthayan in the second week of May. Uthayan is an ardent critic of the Rajapaksa government's policies, particularly its approach to the resolution of the ethnic conflict.
If one were to be guided by the report in The Sunday Times, the President met Richard Boucher in the presence of Dayan Jayatillake, Sri Lanka's Ambassador-designate to Geneva. "He [Jayatillake] was to challenge Boucher and began questioning the visiting official over purported US human rights violations while the President looked on," the paper wrote. Incidentally, the government has neither contradicted nor confirmed the report.
The Rajapaksa regime's attitude towards its critics within the country is no different. Ignoring opposition virtually from all quarters, the President's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) unveiled a devolution package envisaging the district as the unit of devolution and the replacement of the executive presidency with executive prime ministership. Although the closest partners of the ruling combine and the whole range of forces opposed to the LTTE denounced the SLFP package as adding "insult to injury", Rajapaksa stuck to his guns.
In his enthusiasm to score political points over the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogologamma briefed the diplomatic community in the first week of May that since the proposals were before the All Parties Representative Conference (APRC), the UNP must follow suit. The truth was that the proposals were modified on May 14, incorporating the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's demand to retain the unitary character of the Constitution and accord a "foremost" place to Buddhism. The UNP gave its set of proposals in December.
The managers of the Rajapaksa government are unfazed. The pique and anger with one and all can be justified, but they must ponder whether going public with it may prove counterproductive.