By Rajiva Wijesinha –
The last couple of weeks have seen momentous changes. Basil Rajapaksa has been to Delhi and Shivshankar Menon to Colombo, reminding one of the very successful manner in which relations between the two countries were conducted during the conflict. Even before the visits, the President announced the long delayed elections to the Northern Provincial Council, a move that Basil Rajapaksa is reported to have described as ‘a big victory in democratization’.
Given that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had come out swinging as it were against the 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils, this would suggest that the new situation represents a defeat for him, and a resurgence of moderation. But it would be a mistake to think that the viewpoint represented by Gotabhaya is either negative, or that it has been negatived. After all, it should be remembered that he was part of the troika (along with Basil and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge) who were responsible for relations with India during the conflict period, and he was at that stage perhaps the Sri Lankan in whom the Indians had the greatest confidence.
That was understandable, for he represented at that stage what I would call the pluralistic perspective in the Sri Lankan Defence establishment. In those days he made no bones about the fact that, while he was determined to achieve a military victory, he knew this was not enough, and it was up to the politicians to ensure a political solution.
Tragically, the TNA was not in a position to work towards this while the LTTE still survived, and sadly they did not immediately take advantage of the destruction of the LTTE to talk to government. I believe they were grossly misled at this stage by those elements in the international community that began to persecute Sri Lanka immediately with regard to war crimes, and unfortunately we did not use the good offices of India to engage in dialogue with them swiftly. Even though immediately after the conflict concluded India and Sri Lanka issued a joint communiqué that was eminently balanced and civilized – and not just Basil Rajapaksa but the President himself categorically made very clear commitments about the political solution envisaged – the TNA was sulking, and they were encouraged to sulk by some of the internationals who also bitterly resented our victory over terrorism.
This set the stage for what I find profoundly ironic, namely that the more extremist mindset represented by Sarath Fonseka now seems the preserve of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. This is ridiculous, for the latter, as all those who had dealings with him during the conflict testify, was eminently civilized, and committed to policies that are a far cry from those now attributed to the military. This does not mean to say that Sarath Fonseka took a different course, but those who dealt with him found a mindset that was perhaps less careful.
That may have made him the more effective warrior, but we must always be thankful, as Sri Lankans, that the dominant mindset in the army, as represented most forcefully by the Secretary of Defence, and so effectively put into practice by Commanders such as Jagath Jayasuriya and Daya Ratnayake, was that civilian casualties were to be avoided. Indeed the manner in which the East was cleared, in a strategy devised by Ratnayake, meant that there were no allegations even of civilian casualties, except in one case where the army had deployed mortar locating radar when the LTTE had brought weapons into a refugee camp and fired from there. This incidentally was when Human Rights Watch began its vicious campaign of denigration, alleging indiscriminate attacks on civilians, even though its own detailed report mentioned just this one incident.
What happened then to make the Defence Secretary seem now hardline in a manner that recalls the pronouncements of Sarath Fonseka during and indeed after the conflict, when he wanted to expand the army, and when he did not want the displaced people of the North resettled quickly? He complained in his letter of resignation about the President over-riding his views in these areas, and indeed I have vivid memories of the first phase of Resettlement that Basil Rajapaksa had authorized being delayed because Fonseka insisted on those who had been sent from Manik Farm being checked again (fortunately his juniors in the field, who understood better the need for restoring normality soon, while not able to ignore him altogether, followed his instructions cursorily and sent the displaced home swiftly).
Gotabhaya Rajapakse gave full support in all this to his brothers, and not to Sarath Fonseka. But, very sensibly, he also advised the President (as he told me dismissively, in saying that only Gota and I had recommended this) against having the Presidential election first. And with that election, Pandora’s Box was opened. A few elements in the international community – to the horror of others, as a couple of European ambassadors indicated to me – decided to back Sarath Fonseka. The more enlightened amongst them, such as Robert Blake, may have thought this was a way of applying pressure on the President, but others I believe were just unremittingly negative about Mahinda Rajapaksa. And sadly the TNA followed suit, making it very difficult for the President to trust their bona fides, or indeed their commitment to the welfare of the Tamil people, as opposed to their determination to get him out of the way.
Even more worryingly perhaps, contrary to the assumption of the less knowledgeable Westerners that the chauvinist vote would split, the politically more astute hardliners backed President Rajapaksa to the hilt. This has meant that he owes them a debt of gratitude and, while some of us may worry about the perspectives they advance, we cannot deny the importance of their support in the campaign against Sarath Fonseka. Even worse, we can understand why the President would not want to alienate them, when he knows that there are some elements in the international community who would have no qualms whatsoever about stitching together yet another coalition of disparate forces, with the shared aim only of defeating him.
My own view is that, as an experienced politician, he could do better than them at stitching up a coalition of moderate forces that would be, in Menon’s words, ‘successful in building a Sri Lanka in which every community feels at home, feels master of their own destiny and feels that they have strong stake in the success of society and country as a whole’. But unfortunately for the last three years the running has been left to those forces determined to do us down, principally through allegations of war crimes and targeting, not of Sarath Fonseka, but of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and for this reason, on the other hand, those who have opposed this. Given the total disfunctionality of our Ministry of External Affairs, which has not as yet issued a clear refutation of the Darusman Report (or the Weiss book or the Harrison book), this latter task has been left to extremist forces which of course then also advance their own political agendas.
Fortunately the effort to get rid of the 13th Amendment has meant that moderate forces have begun to speak more forcefully. My own view is that the SLFP is a moderate party, and though some of its leaders feel diffidence (understandably so, given the campaigns conducted against them, as I have illustrated before, by those who have no love for this government or this country), they will I think affirm their commitment to devolution and pluralism. At the same time they, and I think moderate elements in the TNA too, should keep in mind the concerns of those they now label as extremists – just as moderates in government should look at the concerns even of extremists in the Tamil body politic.
I can understand the fears of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa that the hard won achievements of his forces may be undermined by the encouragement of separatism by those in the international community who dislike the President. It is no secret that his views hardened after what I see as the turning point in our international standing, namely the President having to leave Britain hurriedly in 2010 when he had gone, against the advice of our High Commission in London, to address the Oxford Union. It is no coincidence, I think, that those who guided him them were precisely those who tried to create trouble with India, as well as with the senior leadership of the SLFP, following the first resolution in Geneva, when we foolishly squandered the support that India had initially been willing to offer us.
I believe then that all moderate forces, including India, should use the opportunity presented by this ‘victory in democratization’ to assuage the fears of those who feel threatened, whether Sinhalese or Tamil. India can do much to reassure us that the international community will not be allowed to make Sri Lanka a playground – but for that purpose we need to restore and enhance the trust between our two countries that stood us in such good stead during the conflict.