By Bandu de Silva –
I was more than amused by reading Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka’s article which is by and large an eulogy on President Premadasa’s foreign policy in relation to Israel. Dayan makes use of my comments on the evolution of Sri Lankan foreign policy towards Israel under successive governments ending with my short addendum published in the Island of 10th July 2017 which he calls “a speculative caricature” as the opening gambit to express his own views on the situation under President Premadasa. He sees my interpretation of reasons for appointment of the Mossad commission as gunning for Minister Gamini Dissanayake as a (mere) local reason which he seems to be inclined to dismiss in preference to a much vaulted interpretation of Premadasa’s understanding of the book “By Way of Deception” by former Mossad operative Victor Ostrovsky. Ostrovsky disclosed that Israel played a double game in Sri Lanka by supporting the government on one hand and the Tigers on the other hand. The situation, true or not, was not unusual with Israel. In the Iran-Iraq war, Israel was reputed to have supported both sides despite Iranian regime’s anti-Israeli posture, the Iranians with intelligence. Obviously, Israel wished to see both their opponents destroyed in a self-consuming war.
I am not inclined to attribute such high profile thinking to President Premadasa such as a deep understanding of Ostrovsky’s book for him to be motivated to pursue his Israeli policy. Nor was there anyone around him who could have translated the book’s significance to him. (My apologies to Secretary K.H.J. Wijeyedasa). There was none in the Foreign Office I knew of. There was, of course, Bradman Weerakoon, Presidential adviser but I doubt if he had any role as he was appointed the Chairman of Air Lanka with its multifarious problems. If one reads Dayan’s article carefully, one would see him according a place to his late father, Mervyn de Silva, outside the bureaucratic circle, in proffering advice to the President. Mervyn was my good friend and we worked closely from the days of Mrs.Bandaranaike on issues like non-alignment. I did not see him getting any close to Mr. Premadasa with whom I had close rapport. (I shall comment later on Premadasa appointing him to the FASG and report on reforms to the Foreign Service).
Dayan has expressed an opinion which I do not see valid enough to reject the idea that Premadasa was motivated by local factors even if the latter was considered another opinion. Holding on to Ostrovsky theory alone can be flowed and incomplete in interpreting Premadasa policy on Israel.
What was the need for Premadasa institute a second report on reforms at the Foreign Office when he had already appointed a Committee with Bradman Weerakoon as Chairman and W.A.P. Menikdiwela, former Secretary to the President and Dr. Ananda Guruge as members. He engaged another Committee presided by Ambassador N. Balasubramanium, myself, and two other senior Foreign Service men to comment on the Bradman Committee report and to implement what was accepted? Was Premadasa and Mervyn de Silva working on another agenda?
In final analysis, I have to reject Dayan’s position that it was the understanding of Ostrovsky’s book which made President Premadasa to appoint the Mossad Commission. Sugeeswara Senadheera, Director General of Media Affairs at the Presidential Secretariat, in contrast to my view, has opined that Premadasa was gunning for Minister Lalith Athulathmudali rather than at Gamini Dissanayake through the appointment of the Mossad Commission. I have pointed out how close Gamini was to President J.R. Jayewardene and he was part of the President’s negotiating team on an arms deal in Paris with Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Premadasa adopting a counter strategy after the disclosure of double dealing by Israel of sending a team headed by Ranjan Wijeratne to Iran, Iraq and Libya to procure arms from these countries is incomplete in detail. Army Commander Wanasinghe did not accompany this mission. It comprised Ranjan Wijeratne, Foreign Trade Minister, A.R. Mansoor (a Muslim!) and myself as the first resident Ambassador in Iran. I arrived a few hours before the arrival of the other two and presented credentials to the Iranian President just in time to join the delegation. We could not proceed to Iraq and Libya because Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait took place at that time. Arms negotiations which followed were carried on by a Brigadier who sought my assistance in negotiating prices. The air craft loads of arms which followed every month which Dayan speaks of, was a later development following the visit of Defence Secretary Cyril Ranatunge. There were no “monthly ” aircraft loads but only a single one which was negotiated by me with the Iranian Defence Minister. The call signs of this single aircraft were conveyed by me in code to General Ranatunge at his residence at Kegalle at midnight.
As for the formation of FASG (Foreign Affairs Study Group) under President Premadasa with Gamini Corea as Chairman and Mervyn de Silva as Deputy Chairman, whose report was handed over after President Premadasa’s (untimely) death. Gamini Corea was a senior adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1985 but I do not recall him in a role as Chairman of FASG. Not while I was in the Foreign Office till 1990 before appointment as Ambassador to Iran. I recall, however, a few people headed by Major General Anton Mutucoomaru, former Army Commander and Ambassador, after his retirement in 1969 forming a study group in foreign relations along with and a few others including Mervyn de Silva. That was during the regime of Mrs.Sirima Bandaranaike in 1970s.
I say this with confidence as I happened to be at every meeting where President Premadasa discussed anything to do with foreign policy. Where does the commissioning of a report on reforms at the foreign office headed by Bradman Weerakoon and the appointment of FASG coincide? There seems to be some confusion. Anyway, these are matters of detail which need not cloud the main issue of what motivated President Premadasa to follow a particular policy on Israel including the appointment of the Mossad Commission.