By Rajiva Wijesinha –
When Neelan was assassinated, it was initially assumed that Jeevan Thiagarajah, a younger protégé to whom he had become increasingly close, and whom he had seen as his chosen successor, would take over. But Radhika came to a swift arrangement with Neelan’s widow Sithy, and between the two of them they ran ICES for the next few years. Sithy was given unlimited access to ICES funds and resources, and the finances suffered terribly. Radhika’s lame excuse when the problems were laid bare was that she had merely signed whatever the Financial Director laid before her, and it was only after she left that she realized he knew little about finance.
In 2006 Radhika took up a UN assignment but ensured that someone she had herself selected, Rama Mani, who was very much on the international NGO circuit, succeeded her as Executive Director. Rama managed to alienate most of the researchers at ICES and evaded queries about financial problems until finally Kingsley de Silva, who was still Chairman of the Board, dismissed her.
At this point all hell broke loose. Apart from the efforts at blackmail of Angela Bogdan, Radhika weighed in heavily from New York on Rama’s behalf, while Rama even got the UNDP Regional Director to sign a petition asking for her reinstatement. This turned out to be under false pretences, and he retracted apologetically, while in New York, after much complaining, Radhika agreed with the Secretary General that she would give up her continuing involvement with ICES, which she should indeed have done when taking up a UN involvement.
My own deep worry about ICES had begun when Gareth Evans, who had chaired the Committee that developed the R2P concept, had been invited by Rama to deliver the Neelan Tiruchelvam memorial lecture, and had engaged in wild attacks on the Sri Lankan government. Having refrained from any mention of who had killed Neelan, he basically suggested that the Sri Lankan government, while engaged in excesses in its efforts to suppress the Tigers, was essentially racist and becoming ripe for R2P intervention.
Gareth came to see me afterwards and I challenged his claims, in particular his assertions that there had been genocide and ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka, conditions which warranted exercise of R2P. The only instance of the former he could mention was what had happened in July 1983, and he granted that that was no reason for evoking R2P now. With regard to the latter, he could not remember his reasons for the claim, and had to turn to his assistant, Alan Keenan, who had worked for ICES and developed an insidious interest in Sri Lanka which he now exercised on behalf of the International Crisis Group which Gareth headed.
Keenan sanctimoniously referred to the expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE, which had happened in 1990. Neither the date nor the perpetrators had been mentioned in Gareth’s speech, which made clear the sleight of hand involved. I mentioned that there was other shoddy work in the speech, and he agreed to respond when I had written to him about this, but needless to say, I never received any answers.
Interestingly enough I met Gareth again the following year, in Geneva, and I reminded him that he had not responded. He first claimed to have done so, and then changed his stance and said that he had been told I was a difficult person to deal with. I was flattered, that a former Australian Foreign Minister should be nervous of me, but I persevered, and he told me to write to Alan again with the questions. Obviously this time too there was no response.
But I had previously realized how dangerous Gareth himself could be because, while the financial problems at ICES were emerging, a Sri Lankan social activist noted on the web that ICES Colombo had been made a Regional Centre for R2P. This had been done by Rama off her own bat, working together with Gareth and with Radhika in New York, and the ICES Board in Sri Lanka knew nothing of what was going on. This was highly improper, and I duly complained to the President, who looked into the matter and decided that Rama’s visa should be cancelled.
But then Bradman Weerakoon intervened. In the sixties he had, as a bright young Civil Servant, been Mrs Bandaranaike’s Secretary when she was Prime Minister. But later, after the government changed, he had given evidence against her brother, who had been her private secretary, in a bribery case. Mrs Bandaranaike claimed he had not told the truth – the brother was found not guilty – and Bradman had been sent to a remote area as Government Agent when she became Prime Minister again in 1970. Since then he had been a solid supporter of the UNP, working for both President Jayewardene and President Premadasa.
After the SLFP came back to power in 1994, Bradman became heavily involved in the NGO sector, helping Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu to set up the Centre for Policy Alternatives, and being the Colombo face of ICES. He now challenged Kingsley’s decision, and persuaded him to rescind Rama’s dismissal. He also got Lalith to write to me with reference to an article I had written on the problem, which had appeared on the Peace Secretariat website.
Lalith very gently told me he thought I had been too harsh, and I accordingly made a couple of changes, but I realized that he would probably succumb to pressure with regard to Rama, who had indeed already proclaimed her triumph and that she would continue in office. Fortunately the Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wikramanayake, to whom the President had entrusted the matter, was made of sterner stuff. When I spoke to him, he assured me that there would be no change, and Ms Mani would have to leave.
She did so, and the ICES Board repudiated the R2P involvement, which I think helped to reduce the creeping effort to internationalize the concept and make it a regular tool of intervention. But when Kingsley finally gave up, Sithy Tiruchelvam reasserted herself with a vengeance, and for a couple of years had a Board that did her bidding, until finally another Executive Director resigned and it was realized that the institution had to be rescued. Radhika’s candidate to become Executive Director was not appointed, and a more balanced Board was elected.
The whole episode made me realize however how shaky Lalith could be, when it came to personal relations. With no consultation mechanisms in place to ensure commitment to agreed social and political principles, he could be the instrument of anyone with sufficient personal clout, who was determined to pursue a personal agenda. With his own feelings combining respect for the West with commitment to a nationalism relying on religious feeling, he could well promote what would be grist to the mill of the Americans, resentment of India, and influences therein that were not Buddhist, combined with adulation of the West when it came bearing gifts.
The attacks on India then, which had initially astonished me, were not then so surprising. And if this contributed to failure to work together with India to reduce the impact of any resolution the West might bring against Sri Lanka in Geneva, perhaps this would not be a problem if a compromise could be reached with the West that permitted unbridled nationalism at home with commitment to the West internationally – a recipe that has prevented both Saudi Arabia and Israel from being at the butt end of criticism about human rights internally, and denigratory treatment of those who are not part of the dominant elite.
I do not suppose Lalith had thought all this through carefully and ended up deciding to promote conduct that was in opposition to the fundamental commitment of the President to a Non-Aligned Agenda, that of the traditional SLFP. But just as adherents of New Labour, when they saw the light and began to repudiate some of their old principles, found themselves caught up in a comfortable world view that privileged polarization, so too Lalith, appreciative as he was of the manner in which Gotabhaya had fulfilled his early responsibilities, may have found himself straying into strategies that went against his initial perspectives.
And so the President, when he should have been strengthened in the basic principles he had enunciated in his manifestoes, and which still emerged in his conversation when he was not sidetracked by what were presented to him as essential stratagems for elections, found himself without the support he needed. He kept being lulled into a false sense of security, believing that the West would not really persecute him as threatened, that India would rescue him, that the Chinese would protect him. But none of those close to him advised him of the few simple measures he could take to consolidate his position. A credible internal inquiry, implementation of the 13th Amendment (adjusted as required to ensure national security but allowing for local input into decision making), action on the Human Rights Action Plan and the LLRC Recommendations Action Plan which had both been adopted by Cabinet, a dedicated agency to promote Reconciliation and Human Rights, and above all fulfilment of any pledges he had made – all these, he should have been told, were essential to fulfil the promise his impressive victory over terrorism had heralded.
But instead of any of this, he was cossetted in the prejudices piled upon him by those who profited from his isolation, preserved as a sort of electoral cash cow for the endless forays into the hustings that would bring them profit and power, and continuously detract from the overwhelming popularity he had once commanded. Given that those who profited could not be expected to think of his interests, it is the more tragic that Lalith Weeratunge, whose counsel he knew to trust, and whose commitment to him was unquestionable, had neither the courage nor the commitment to try to set him straight.