The Seduction of Power: Mahinda Rajapakse in New York

Reproduced below is a report in a government newspaper describing the visit of President Mahinda Rajapakse and entourage to New York, where his primary purpose was an address to the UN Assembly. The title is my imposition and ventures to read between the lines. I have always questioned the Weberian ideal-type’ distinction between “power” and status;” and seen both concepts as intimately entwined. In Lanka it is revealed often in the embodied practices and depictions in still-form of the concept “pirivarāgena” – be it at temple or daily life. But it is not only local dependents who bow and kow-tow. Reflect on life in the corridors of power and display in New York. Michael Roberts.

Manjula Fernando talks to Lalith Weeratunga, Sunday Observer, 3 October 10

“Sri Lanka was on a strong wicket at the UN” — Lalith Weeratunga

The Opposition had a gala time, coming out with numerous allegations and claims regarding President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New York to attend the United Nations’ 65th General Assembly. Among them, the main allegation was about a ‘gigantic’ entourage consisting of 130 members. Their reports also alleged that the Lankan Mission spent lavishly to reserve four storeys of a super-luxury hotel – the Waldorf Astoria-for the delegates.

Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga told the Sunday Observer that these allegations are largely based on fiction and may have been brought up to personally attack and tarnish the image of the president. He said the numbers involving the delegation were outrageously exaggerated as much as the expenditure for the UN visit. “I have accompanied the President on every single UN visit he had made since 2006. This was the most fruitful visit during his entire tenure as Head of State. I can say this with much authority,” Weeratunga said.

Excerpts of the interview:

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first trip to the UN was in September 2006. It was like being in the dock. He was trying to defend the country against an ocean of allegations. The LTTE propaganda was so intense that Sri Lanka was seen as a barbaric nation, the Sinhalese were seen as a barbaric ethnic community which ‘decimated’ the Tamils, if I may use that word. But that was not the real picture.

In 2006 we were at Mavilaru, at the beginning of the humanitarian operation. At the UN, the President had to grapple with the situation and convince the world Community that Sri Lanka was not a barbaric nation and that we were not killing Tamils, that the effort was to free the Tamil people from the clutches of LTTE terrorism. That was probably the first occasion a Sri Lankan president was able to expose the real face of the LTTE.

It was a single-handed onslaught on the LTTE’s shrewd propaganda war. Their network was formidable. It had reached Presidents, Prime Ministers, world bodies and regional bodies like the European Union (EU). We simply could not match their well-oiled propaganda machine. Their propaganda mill was run with millions of dollars.

As a State actor, our media campaign had to abide by international rules and norms; transparency, good governance, accountability and whatnot. On top of all that, the West never looked at us sympathetically. We never got a fair hearing. Then there were some NGOs and individuals who lived on the war, who thrived on situations like ours. They never wanted the country to achieve peace. This is not fiction, but a known fact.

INGOs worried

In fact, some INGOs are now very worried that Sri Lankas model will be emulated by other countries burdened with terrorism. They wished the situation would ‘simmer’ and take root. When there is terrorism in the land, there are all sorts of beneficiaries; arms dealers, corrupt humanitarian bodies and other groups who gain by it. It was a huge feat for the Government – liquefying their propaganda war.

The UN tour last week, the first visit by Sri Lanka’s Head of State after the end of the brutal war with the LTTE, became a landmark visit because this was the first occasion when the President went before the world body to narrate Sri Lanka’s success story: To say that this is what we had done, to clear misconceptions whipped up by LTTE remnants. Our aim was to ensure zero casualties. That was a miracle. Sri Lanka was on a strong wicket at the UN and the President stood there with pride.

There was speculation that the UN was going to investigate war crimes and take the Rajapaksas before a war crimes tribunal. Such a move would have affected the whole country and not just the Rajapaksas. The President was ready to face any eventuality and go before whatever tribunal to redeem the country of any evil.

His speech at the UNGA was prepared after a painstaking process. It was not just written, it was developed after an in-depth review of contemporary issues and our own concerns. There were inputs from various sources, but the main thrust of the speech was made by the President himself. He said, “This is the line that I want to emphasise”.

He wanted to say “let us forget the past and concentrate on our future”.  Even his speech at the Millennium Development Goals Summit, where he quoted from the Maha Parinibbana Sutta (Buddha’s last sermon), was very forceful and carried much impact. He said “If there is any kingdom in which women and children are treated well and being looked after and protected, that is a righteous society”.

Sri Lanka has a very positive attitude towards women and children. In fact, we produced the world’s first woman prime minister. The US is yet to produce its first woman president.

If you look at the President’s General Assembly statement, there are a good number of instances where he emphasised, “let us forget the past and tread the path towards reconciliation”. He had to cast away the smoke blanket of misconstructions and convince the world body that the nation has been put on a development footing and the reconciliation process has in fact begun. He said, “There would neither be development without peace nor would there be peace without development.”

Investment potential

Despite the difficult conditions, Sri Lanka’s economy has been growing. During the last quarter, the country had shown an outstanding 8.5 percent growth. It is paramount to our survival, to bring in top level investments. With the elimination of terrorism, there is so much potential in this country. That message had to be delivered. We are looking at Sri Lanka as a top class tourism destination. The New York Times featured Sri Lanka as its number one tourism destination out of 30 countries. We must capitalise on these opportunities.

The UN General Assembly, in that context, offered us with a multitude of opportunities. A world leader must go before the world community and convince them to take an interest in Sri Lanka. You cannot lure investors by being here and writing letters.

I have accompanied the President on all his previous visits to the UN. In my view, the 2010 visit was the most fruitful and forceful. I was associated with almost all bilateral meetings he had with the world leaders. The President arrived in New York on September 20 and was there for seven days. There were intense behind-the-scenes operations to make his stay productive. There was a big team behind its success. We had to make the maximum use of our influence to make important meetings happen. The backstage team played an important role in making them happen. A fairly large supporting staff from the External Affairs Ministry as well as others accompanied the President on his visit to the US, but to say the entourage consisted of 130 members was outrageous.

Large security contingent

I have to admit that the President’s local security contingent was fairly large. It consisted of 25 PSD security personnel. The security of our President is paramount. I don’t think anyone will question that. They were allowed to carry weapons in the US. This was in addition to the Secret Service personnel provided by the US Government.

The President was earger to introduce young MPs to the world leaders and get them (young leaders) accustomed to the happenings at the UN. The reason for young MPs to accompany the President this year was because this was the Year of Youth in the UN calendar. There were a number of activities lined up for young delegates in parallel to the UNGA. Therefore, it was improper to describe it as a pleasure trip.

A medical response team and a group of media personnel also travelled with the delegation. They were an important part of the UN contingent.

The Sri Lankan delegation also comprised 15 top business community leaders, all of whom contributed immensely in the discussions with the US business and trade community. They were the heads of John Keells, Brandix, Senok, Carsons Cumberbatch and Laughfs and business magnate Dhammika Perera.

Their presence and interaction helped build confidence among US investors. Sri Lanka’s ambassador in the US Jaliya Wickremasuriya organised a luncheon meeting for US business leaders at New York City’s Helmsley Hotel. Top trade moghuls were among the packed gathering. Sri Lanka could not attract even five guests to such events before. The outcome of these meetings will be seen in the near future.

Best destination for investment

External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L.Peiris, delivering the keynote address at the event, said Sri Lanka boasts an economy with strong fundamentals – a market poised for continued growth and international investment. Noting the nation’s promising economic future, Prof. Peiris said, “Sri Lanka is today, without any exaggeration, one of the world’s best destinations for investment…. We are on the threshold of an economic renaissance in Sri Lanka.’’

Executives from the Coca Cola Co., Boeing Co., Google, Hilton Hotels and Resorts and Starwood Hotels and Resorts were among the 100 business leaders, analysts and representatives of chambers of commerce and industry present on the occasion.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. said, “This forum has the potential to grow into a US-Sri Lanka business council, to bring together companies and governments. Companies like Pfizer want to invest in emerging markets such as Sri Lanka.”

President met investors

President Rajapaksa made it a point to walk round the tables and extend personal invitations to each and every business personality there to travel to Sri Lanka and explore the vast potential created after the end of LTTE terror. It was a welcome gesture.

Thirty top level tour operators will be here tomorrow to explore possibilities of expanding their businesses here. Their interests will guarantee a continued flow of tourists from the US and Europe. The team of operators will tour Sri Lanka for five days to study and evaluate the conditions before starting their promotional work. A major US hotelier who owns 1,000 hotels worldwide has already shown interest in setting up business in the island.

Don’t forget the fact that Sri lanka is targeting 2.5 million tourist arrivals by 2015. This year, we will probably reach one million arrivals. The highest recorded by Sri Lanka so far is half a million. Malaysia brings in 20 million tourists a year. We have a long way to go.

Ban Ki-moon

The President’s interaction with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki- moon was one of the most fruitful meetings.

The Secretary General had 20 minute slots for each UN delegate, but his meeting with President Rajapaksa lasted for about 40 minutes.

At this meeting which was very cordial, the Secretary General said you are now a South Asian leader. You must look beyond Sri Lanka. He congratulated the President on his election victories. His words were “what can’t you do with such political victories.”

He was extremely pleased with the IDP’s situation.

I feel Sri lanka could look forward to a good working relationship with the UN in future. Ki-moon may send an emissary shortly to discuss continuing relations with Sri Lanka.

The Secretary General clarified that the panel appointed by him had no mandate from the Security Council or the General Assembly to investigate. It was there to advise him on a personal capacity. Therefore, he said, “try and work with them so it will help him to help Sri Lanka”.

The President briefed him on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He said he had appointed eight people of eminence and stature and anyone can come before this Commission to testify including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Following Ki-moon’s assurances that the panel had no investigative mandate, the President said the members could attend the LLRC sessions and testify before the Commission. He said the Commission will enable them to have a discussion.

This was in stark contrast to what certain people hoped. They wanted Sri Lanka to be put on the mat, to be taken before the Security Council and imposed with embargoes. That was how they planned to defeat the Government and not by a people’s mandate.

President visits Wall Street Journal

Another highlight of the President’s visit during the UN Assembly was the invitation he received from the Wall Street Journal. This news paper is regarded as a strong opinion maker which can make or break governments. President Rajapaksa was invited by the Editor-in-Chief and the Editorial Board. The Sri Lankan business leaders also took part in this visit.

Relations with the West

Normally, during the UNGA, we do not ask for meetings with the US President due to his hectic schedule. The Deputy Premier of the UK attended the sessions. There was no representation from France as well.

The German Chancellor had a banquet to which President Rajapaksa was invited.

There was no particular effort on our part to engage the main players of the West. But all the meetings that took place on the sidelines of the UNGA were well-planned and well thought out. We wanted to meet people whom we rarely meet and hold meetings that would be beneficial to the country.

The meetings with the Thai and Malaysian Premiers were very important in that sense. Their cooperation will help Sri Lanka to counter the LTTE’s international operations.

The President had bilateral meetings with the Emir of Qatar, Presidents of Iran, Hungary and Turkey which currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Security Council and Prime Ministers of Jamaica, Thailand, Norway, Malaysia and Portugal.

Portugal, Hungary and Turkey are members of the EU. The Portugal PM during the bilateral meeting called on the President to treat them as partners in our foreign policy, implying that they are prepared to speak on behalf of Sri Lanka. Meetings with these important EU countries who could better understand our situation were significant because their assistance will help clear EU’s misgivings on Lanka.

Meeting with Norway

Meeting Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was one of the important events. Associated with him was Minister Eric Solheim, a one time peace envoy to Sri Lanka. The President said Norway has to play a different role now. They were earlier facilitating a so-called peace process which could have ultimately doled out one third of the country to the ruthless LTTE.

The President very clearly said that if Norway wanted to be involved in Sri Lanka, their help will be welcomed for infrastructure development than in any other area. He said Norway was one of the early development partners of Sri Lanka before their interest shifted elsewhere under manipulation. Their first project was started in the mid-1970s from Hambantota under NORAD.

IMF loan

There were also many hidden dividends which followed the Presidnet’s UN visit. The announcement of the delayed third tranche of the US $ 2.6 billion IMF loan being released came on the heels of his landmark speech.

Exaggerated reports

There are allegations about reserving the Waldorf Astoria, an expensive luxury hotel for the UN delegation. The hotel was reserved after an indepth security assessment and taking into consideration the travelling and other constraints, by our Permanent Representative to the UN Dr. Palitha Kohona. There are hotels in New York, such as the Ritz Carlton and Hilton, which are much more expensive than this hotel. During the sessions, the delegates have to walk to the UN Headquarters. Only the Head of State will be taken in a motorcade. The President’s motorcade consisted of six cars. This is as per the recommendation of the organisersA bullet-proof car is provided by the US Government for the President and the Mission will have to hire the other cars. It is outrageous to say that Sri Lanka’s UN Mission hired 80 cars.Several cars and a few other vehicles had to be hired to facilitate the delegates and the media personnel, but there was no need to hire 80 cars. All these reports and allegations have been exaggerated and inflated to give a different twist.

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