Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee arrived here on Saturday afternoon on a 24 hour visit to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture 2009 later in the evening and make use of the opportunity for exchange of views with Sri Lankan leaders on the current developments in the island nation.
Though Mr. Mukherjee's visit was decided some time ago, it has acquired significance after President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday granted permission to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Sarath Fonseka, to retire with immediate effect.
It is immediately not clear if the disquieting disclosure by Gen. Fonseka, who led the Eelam War IV as Army Chief, that Sri Lanka on October 15 asked India to place its troops on alert to counter a possible coup in the island nation would figure in the interaction between Mr. Mukherjee and his interlocutors here.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s prompt approval on the request of the General seeking pre-mature retirement and his order to the Presidential Secretariat to send a detailed reply to the three-page resignation letter, which cites besides the India factor, 15 other reasons that prompted the ‘war hero’ to shed his uniform.
Bilateral ties to figure in breakfast meeting with Rajapaksa
Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama is hosting a dinner in honour of Mr. Mukherjee on Saturday and on Sunday morning the Indian Finance Minister is scheduled to have breakfast with President Rajapaksa. Indications are that the leaders would exchange views on bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India, issues thrown up by conflict and the surcharged political atmosphere in the island nation in view of the impending general election.
India has been closely involved in the relief, rehabilitation and re-settlement of nearly 3 lakh war displaced Tamil civilians and is committed to provide aid to the tune of Rs. 1,000 crore in a bid to expedite the process. Colombo had conveyed to New Delhi sometime in June that it would ensure return of all the internally displaced persons by end of the year. An early political settlement acceptable to all stakeholders in the island nation and equal opportunities to minorities, including Tamils, has been the consistent position of New Delhi.
Mr. Mukherjee is to fly to Kandy on Sunday morning to pay homage at the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The Minister would then go directly to the Bandaranayke International Airport to return to New Delhi.
A lot of political activity could be expected in Sri Lanka in the next few days and weeks as Mr. Rajapaksa is to preside over the convention of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on Sunday to consider dates for the general election and a possible presidential election and an influential section of parties opposed to the President have been openly talking about the possibility of fielding Gen. Fonseka as a common candidate to take on Mr. Rajapaksa in the event of an election to the office of President.
Among the reasons given by Gen. Fonseka for his disillusionment with Mr. Rajapaksa, the possible suspected coup scenario and the India factor has generated enormous excitement among the political and diplomatic circles within and outside Sri Lanka.
On the events of October 15, Gen. Fonseka noted, “With a pain of mind it was noted that the same army which gained victory for the nation was suspected of staging a coup and thereby alerting the government of India once again on the 15th of October 2009, unnecessarily placing the Indian troops on high alert.
“This action did tarnish the image and reputation gained by the Sri Lanka army as a competent and professional organisation which was capable of defeating a terrorist group after the Malayan Emergency, in the eyes of the world. This suspicion would have been due to the loyalty of the Sri Lanka army towards me as its past Commander who led the army to the historic victory.”
Political observers here have also taken note of Gen. Fonseka’s concern, expressed in the resignation letter, over the “plight” and see it as an attempt by him to reach out to Mr. Rajapaksa’s political rivals and to don political robes.
It would be watched with interest how the General convinces the Tamils that he is a better bet than Mr. Rajapaksa in serving their interests. The dilemma before the Tamil parties was best articulated in the response of Mano Ganeshan on the Groundviews web site (http://www.groundviews.org/). Mr. Ganeshan has sent a questionnaire to Gen. Fonseka and is awaiting his response.
Pak. Air Force Chief meets Rajapaksa
Meanwhile, the visiting Commander of the Pakistani Air Force Air Chief Marshal Rao Kamar Suleman met with President Rajapaksa at the President’s House in Kandy. As per an official statement, Mr. Rajapaksa thanked the visitor from Pakistan for the timely action taken by the Pakistani Air Force when the Sri Lankan Cricket team was attacked in Lahore in March 2009.
Keywords: Union Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture 2009, President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chief of Defence Staff, CDS, Sarath Fonseka, retire, Eelam War IV