The Sajin Vas Gunawardene – Chris Nonis encounter which grabbed the headlines last week has done no good to Sri Lanka. Even an allegation of that nature, that a parliamentarian with executive responsibility in the External Affairs Ministry had slapped the country’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, certainly makes us look a banana republic. Worse, Gunawardene was on the President’s entourage to the UN General Assembly and Nonis was also there in that context. The latest news to break on this score is that the Foreign Secretary, Ms. Kshenuka Senewiratne, has made a complaint against High Commissioner Nonis. What exactly this is we do not know although there have been reports of an uncomplimentary reference to Senewiratne allegedly made by him. In fact, The Island quoted Nonis yesterday saying he too does not know what that is all about. Vas Gunawardene was reported to have told a television news channel that there had been an argument but he did not strike Nonis. He had scheduled a news conference to give his side of the story on Thursday but abruptly cancelled it saying he was off to Rome on the President’s delegation that formally invited the Pontiff to visit us next January. The fact that Gunawardene was on the delegation, although he was not in the photograph of those who had an audience with His Holiness, sent contrary signals capable of different interpretations.
Whether anything will come out of any inquiry into the alleged incident is anybody’s guess. Nonis is a medical doctor who is not a career diplomat and was the personal choice of External Affairs Minister G.L. Pieris for the London appointment. He is known to have raised some hackles at the ministry for leaving station without following due procedure. He also seems to have attracted some detractors in the mission and has complained to newspapers in Colombo that he is being targeted by certain journalists fed by these elements. Whether his is still in office is also not clear. After the altercation at a SriLankan Airlines official’s apartment in New York, he says he met the President, lodged a complaint, tendered his resignation and left for London. Handing over a letter of resignation does not mean it has been accepted. There is every possibility that he’d been asked to reconsider; also whether the resignation was effective immediately or not is not known. The website of the Sri Lanka High Commission in London still has him as the high commissioner. The confusion was worse confounded by the contrary versions given by Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella at his weekly press briefing following the cabinet meeting. The External Affairs Ministry, it was stated, knew nothing of any resignation.
Do these monitoring MPs serve any real purpose? Gunawardene certainly wields executive authority at the External Affairs Ministry and is usually included in all the President’s overseas delegations. He has also played a troubleshooting role. MP Duminda Silva who figured in a serious armed affray that left Mr. Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, an SLFP stalwart dead, was also described at one time as a monitoring MP at the Defence Ministry. Whether he held or still holds such office is not clear although his website says he does. Readers may remember that President Premadasa, after the abortive impeachment effort against him, appointed several such `monitors’ drawn from among government MPs who had neither ministerial nor deputy ministerial positions. This was clearly intended to give dissatisfied MPs some perks (paid for by the taxpayer, of course) and authority and keep them in line. Given the size of the cabinet that President Rajapaksa has appointed and the number of ministers and deputies, there does not seem to by any need to add more passengers to an already overloaded administration.
If Nonis had in fact been slapped by Gunawardene, and no action is taken against the alleged assailant, it will be difficult for the victim to remain in office whatever placatory gestures are made by those in authority. We will have to see how this whole business plays out. Although Mervyn Silva has thankfully not made any waves recently, the President may well ask “with friends like these, who needs enemies?’’
The Old Left parties (that one of our regular columnists insists on calling the “Dead Left”) are clearly unhappy about the premature national elections that are widely predicted with some pundits even setting the date. Nobody knows for sure whether a presidential or parliamentary election will come first although the conventional wisdom is that the president, generally considered more popular than his party, will follow the same strategy he adopted last time round, and opt for a presidential poll first. If he emerges the winner as is generally expected, the vaasi paththata hoiya (hurrah for the winning side) syndrome will work to his party’s advantage at the parliamentary election. Senior Minister Dew Gunasekera, in consultation with the LSSP and Mr. Vaudeva Nanayakkara, went public yesterday with the assertion that the UPFA should review its decision about early elections.
Gunasekera, who is the General Secretary of the Communist Party, made clear that whatever their thinking on the subject, the decision was the prerogative of the SLFP that leads the ruling coalition. It is unlikely that the old left parties can make any impact on any election except as an ally of the SLFP. This has been true for many years; hence the references to those parties clinging to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s sari pota from the time of NM, Colvin, Pieter and the other left stalwarts. Conversely, it was also true that under the previous order of first-past-the-post elections, from 1956 onwards, the SLFP needed no-contest agreements with the left to defeat the UNP. What is significant about Gunasekera going public about their concerns is that these parties, whatever their support bases, have long experience fighting elections and a finger on the pulse of the electorate. It is very clear that in their opinion there are many things to be set right by the government before going for elections. That is why they are urging that the balance years left to the administration be used instead of going for premature elections.