Friday, September 25, 2009

Sri Lankan leader skips meeting in US

Feizal Samath - When world leaders met at the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly yesterday, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, was a notable absentee.

The president instead sent his deputy, prime minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, to lead the country’s delegation at the UN’s 2009 session in what is widely see as a reluctance to meet western leaders critical of the government over human rights issues, according to analysts.

The president has attended all three previous sessions since his election in late 2005.

Lakshman Kiriella, a Sri Lankan opposition MP, told reporters on Tuesday that Mr Rajapaksa should have gone to the UN to defend his administration against allegations of human rights violations during the country’s defeat of Tamil separatists last May. He pointed out that the general assembly has traditionally been a platform for developing world leaders to respond to western criticism.

“While serious allegations are being levelled against Sri Lanka, the president has failed in his duty to defend the country,” Mr Kiriella said at a press conference of the main opposition United National Party (UNP).

The UNP parliamentarian said the president speaks of an international conspiracy against the government but has evaded taking the issue up with world leaders at the UN.

Mr Rajapaksa and other government officials, at various public meetings, have spoken of an international Tamil-Tiger-led conspiracy – through media, international bodies and rights groups – against the Sri Lankan government.

Dullus Allahapperuma, the transport minister, told a press conference in Colombo on September 10 that the government had thwarted a plot to assassinate the president and the defence secretary in March.

Mr Allahapperuma said the “huge conspiracy” was the joint work of the Tamil Tigers – based in Sri Lanka and around the world – and both local and international sympathisers, though he did not give further details.

“We will [soon] reveal to the country and to the international community those who are responsible,” he said, the first time the public has been told of a plot to kill the president.

Mr Rajapaksa has resolutely defended allegations by human rights groups and western leaders that the military used brute force against civilians in the last stages of the battle against Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

World leaders have also criticised the government for keeping some 250,000 Tamil residents who fled the fighting in camps whose perimeters are patrolled by the military. The government says the refugees will be allowed home once de-mining of their towns in the war torn north are completed.

“It would have been embarrassing for the president to face up – at the UN – to world leaders like Barack Obama, the US president, or British prime minister Gordon Brown, who, among others, have been concerned about the Sri Lankan situation,” said a former Sri Lankan diplomat in Colombo, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The government last week announced that Mr Wickramanayake would lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the 64th UN General Assembly, where he is also scheduled to meet UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon. A government statement said Mr Wickramanayake will address the assembly on September 26 on the “strengthening of multilateralism and dialogue among civilisations for international peace, security and development”.

There has been no official explanation as to why Mr Rajapaksa is skipping the UN session except for a brief statement from the president’s spokesman, Lucian Rajakarunanayake, earlier this month, to The Sunday Times that reported that Mr Rajapaksa was travelling to New York for the session, saying he would not be attending this year.

However, according to other sources, there were other reasons for the president’s absence, which are related to a problem securing US visas for some members of his delegation.

The Times, which reported that the UN had named Mr Rajapaksa on the list of speakers for the opening day yesterday, also printed a list of the 50-member delegation, which included Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, a former rebel turned minister who is known by one name, Karuna, and MP Wimal Weerawansa, who has been critical of the US and other western nations. According to analysts the pair would have had trouble attaining visas for the assembly. A statement from the president’s office said no such list had been delivered to them by the UN.

Mr Muralitharan, a former Tamil rebel commander, was arrested in the UK in early 2007 and detained for some six months on charges of possessing a forged passport, before being sent back to Colombo. Mr Weerawansa, a former member of the Marxist People’s Liberation Front, heads a small party that backs the president.

Mr Rajapaksa is also busy with local government elections and preparations for parliamentary and presidential polls, which can be called any time after November.

Opposition parties are discussing selecting a common candidate for the presidential election, and former army commander General Sarath Fonseka, who was instrumental in winning the battle against Tamil rebels, has been tipped as a possible choice, according to several reports in local newspapers.

© The National

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