By Rajiva Wijesinha –
In 2011 I had personal experience of how diffident Lalith could be. After the Darusman Report came out, with its excessive attack on the manner in which Sri Lanka had dealt with LTTE terrorism, I thought it necessary to warn the President about what was going on. I saw him in his office and said we had done nothing to fulfil our own commitments. When he asked me what I meant, I cited two clear examples.
The first was the negotiations with the TNA, which had shown no progress. He understood immediately what I meant, and acquiesced straight away with the suggestion that I be put on the negotiating team. Ordinarily I would have been wary of putting myself forward, but there seemed to be no alternative, and the President seemed to agree.
The second point I made was that there had been no progress whatsoever on implementing the interim recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He evinced surprise when I said this, and declared that he had appointed a Committee which was doing its job. But I told him I thought that Committee had never met, and that he should put me on it.
He agreed again, and immediately rang Lalith and told him to appoint me to both positions. He also told the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, who he thought knew about the work of the Committee, to send me all relevant papers, since I told him that I should see the minutes of meetings and find out what had been going on, if I were to contribute.
Lalith rang me in the car as I was leaving. He told me that the letter putting me on the negotiating team would be sent straight away, and added that he had spoken to Mohan Pieris, who chaired the Committee to implement the LLRC interim recommendations, and he had no objection to my appointment.
I only understood the implications of this after I had put down the phone. I realized that, when the President made a decision, there was no reason for Lalith to consult anyone else. Keeping Mohan informed as a courtesy that there would be a new member of his Committee was one thing, seeking his acquiescence was quite another.
I had every reason to worry. Lalith told me a few days later that it was felt inappropriate for me to be on the Committee since I was a Parliamentarian, and the other members of the Committee were officials. I called the President about this, but he told me he had been told it would not be proper. By then I had been told by the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs that there were no minutes of meetings. The only papers he had were those prepared when the Committee was first appointed, and a report was made to Geneva. Like me, he too suspected that the Committee had not done very much.
I told this to the President, who thereupon agreed that amongst my duties as his adviser on Reconciliation would be monitoring the work of the Committee and reporting to him on what was happening. Fortunately Lalith had failed for six months to send me my terms of reference (having it seems lost the original draft I had sent him, and then delayed further when I sent him a copy). So now he made no objection when I told him the President had agreed that this should be added.
I therefore duly got a fairly comprehensive list of duties. But I then found, as noted previously, that Mohan, having first admitted that the Committee had never met, but claimed he was waiting for a date from the Secretary of Defence, finally confessed six months later that the Secretary did not want there to be any meetings. There had certainly been some progress in matters pertaining to the work of the Ministry of Defence, but no measures had been taken to expedite action on other matters of urgency, such as restoration of lands, which the LLRC had highlighted.
Was Lalith aware of what was going on? I was not sure, but in any case, even if he was busy, he was certainly culpable in not making sure that the Committee he had appointed on the instructions of the President met and did the work prescribed for it. Initially my view was that Lalith had simply lost track of basic administrative requirements, and was no longer capable of systematic follow up. But further conversations with Dayan Jayatilleka on his return from Paris suggested that there was another view.
In 2007 Dayan had been very positive about the Secretary of Defence, and had indeed helped him in arms procurement. During our visits to Geneva for the Human Rights Council, he would set up meetings for Mohan Pieris with various ambassadors, and I came to understand that this was about arms deals. Mohan at that time, though still in the private bar, was the head of the procurement agency that Gotabaya had set up which helped to clean up the corruption that had reigned before in the Ministry about such matters.
Gradually however Dayan began to feel that Gotabaya was becoming intransigent about a political settlement, and he felt that this was because he was getting too close to Israel, and assuming that he could adopt an Israeli approach both to international relations and also to containment of future Tamil political aspirations, once the LTTE was overcome. He told me that he had once warned Gotabaya of possible consequences of such an approach, and met with the flat response, ‘So what?’
I was reminded of this in March 2014 when Dayan told me the President had declared that both Cuba and Israel had told him that he did not need to worry about UN resolutions. Dayan noted that the President did not seem to understand what Cuba meant, which was that such resolutions could be defeated if a strategy similar to that of Cuba was followed with regard to relations with the bulk of countries that had votes. Cuba, through skilful diplomacy, had ensured that no resolution against it was carried, and they certainly did not mean that a country that did not engage in similar activities could be complacent in the face of hostile moves led by the United States.
Israel’s contempt for UN mechanisms, on the contrary, was not based on strategies to avoid majority votes against them. But that approach was not available to other countries. The reason Israel had no reason to worry was that the United States was opposed to any resolution against Israel and would ensure that any such would not be implemented. Sri Lanka obviously could not behave like Israel, when it was the United States that was in the forefront of moves against us.
It was the Israeli model though that the Secretary of Defence thought could be followed. I had previously thought that the plans Sarath Fonseka had had, to expand the army, were in accordance with this model, with settlements to be imposed in the Northern Province which was to be treated rather like the West Bank. I had assumed that the Secretary of Defence had no part in this initiative, but later I realized that he must have initially gone along with the plan even though in the end he stood by the President at the time of confrontation with Fonseka. And later it turned out that, though perhaps not in the original form, the plans to settle Sinhalese in the North who had not been there previously were revived. Unfortunately they were implemented in a way that made the President clearly complicit, with one new settlement even being called Namalgama, after his son.
And the protests even of government politicians in the area, for instance the Muslim Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, were ignored. Indeed the latter was nervous about bringing the matter up, and it was only after I raised the issue at the Ministry of Resettlement Consultative Committee meeting in Parliament that he too complained, forcefully. Significantly, he added that he only did this because there were no Opposition members of Parliament at the Committee that day, which indicated the way in which government could proceed with irregular actions, claiming that internal criticism amounted to letting down government. But Rishard on that occasion was scathing in his critique, expressing his disappointment at what he claimed was a new policy of government, to introduce Sinhalese villages in between Tamil and Muslim ones on the grounds that this would promote ethnic harmony. He made it clear that such a policy was unacceptable unless widely discussed and approved, but as it was, the impression was that it was both secretive and totally impractical, if the rationale was the one that had been given him.
Dayan’s view was that Lalith too was part of this particular coterie, that thought the victory against the terrorists should be used to promote a chauvinist agenda. He used to describe it as the Brotherhood, a term he used for what he saw as an aggressively Sinhala Buddhist mindset. And though clearly the Jathika Hela Urumaya, which had a large number of Buddhist monks as representatives in Parliament between 2004 and 2010, and the more extreme wing of the JVP (as represented by Wimal Weerawansa, who in fact split from the JVP during this period), shared such a mindset, Dayan used the term Brotherhood for what he saw as a comparatively sophisticated group.
Chief amongst these was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, along with Palitha Kohona, who had been my predecessor as Head of the Peace Secretariat, and was then Secretary to the Foreign Ministry until 2009. Later Dayan thought Palitha had become more moderate, as was understandable in someone who had worked for several years for the Australian Foreign Ministry and then the United Nations. But I remembered that Lalith had been a good friend of Palitha’s when they were both young, and had indeed mentioned, way back in 2001, that perhaps he should be persuaded to come back to Sri Lanka.
Lalith then had probably been the principal factor in persuading the President to bring Palitha back into a prominent position. And Dayan claimed too that he had been one of the principal factors in his own removal from Geneva in July 2009, having been pushed into this, along with Gotabaya, by the Israelis. At the same time Dayan granted that Palitha, having begun to see the bigger picture, had not contributed to this move at the time, and indeed Palitha told me that he had refused to sign the letter of dismissal – though he had allowed it to be signed by his Deputy.
It is possible that Dayan exaggerated the animosity of Israel. But given the careful way Israel operated, it is understandable that they wanted to get rid of someone who had given intellectual as well as moral leadership to the cause of the Palestinians. In contrast to the generally circumspect manner in which the more sophisticated Third World diplomats conducted themselves, someone like Dayan who was forthright in his condemnation, not just of Israeli excesses, but also of Western hypocrisy in this connection, and also elegant and convincing in expression, was to be got rid of if possible.
Certainly, in 2011, when Tamara Kunanayagam was appointed to Geneva in place of Kshenuka Senewiratne, the Israeli ambassador told her how much he had disliked Dayan, whereas he had found Kshenuka much better. Tamara had expressed her disagreement, and perhaps this contributed in turn to her own removal a few months later, just when she was beginning to rebuild the coalition that Dayan had used so masterfully, and with mutual benefit to all, during his tenure.