By Rajiva Wijesinha –
In 2011 then it seemed that GL was intransigent about granting anything the TNA wanted. Obviously however this was not because of any principles, given that in 2002 he had been excessively indulgent about giving the LTTE anything they wanted. The conclusion then is inescapable that he simply deduced what his patron of the moment wanted, and then went much further.
In 2002 he had been serving Ranil Wickremesinghe who was complaisant about LTTE demands, since he saw an agreement with them as the key to his future electoral success in contesting the presidency. In 2011 however GL served a different master, and this was not it seems the President, given his refusal, on the grounds that his neck would be on the block if things went wrong, to follow the President’s instructions about submitting a draft in accordance with what had been agreed with the TNA. Rather, it would seem that GL was working in accordance with what he thought were Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s predilections. Basil certainly seems to have been of this view, and was bitterly condemnatory of GL when he mentioned him.
Another instance of GL’s acquiescence in the Defence Secretary’s agenda was apparent late in 2013, when the South Africans launched an initiative to promote Reconciliation. The South African ambassador to Sri Lanka, who seemed anxious to help Sri Lanka, had no reason to have faith in GL, since it was not likely he would pass on any serious messages. The High Commissioner therefore had himself met the President to promote a dialogue, and the President proved enthusiastic and met with a high level South African team late in 2012 to formulate a plan – without GL being at the meeting.
It was decided that a delegation be sent to South Africa to explore options, and the President, who had surprisingly invited me to the initial meeting, insisted that I go too. This was in contradiction of his assertion that the delegation would be from the SLFP, his own political party, a formula designed to leave out the hardliners from other political parties who were part of his coalition. I pointed out that I was not a member of the SLFP, but he said that did not matter.
Unfortunately the leadership of the SLFP was not enthusiastic, and suggested a date far in the future. The ambassador called me and I contacted the President’s Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, whose intervention seems to have proved fruitful because the delegation left for South Africa before the Christmas lull of 2012. However I was omitted, which was a pity because I had discussed expanding the powers of local government with the President, an idea he had welcomed, and I was perhaps the only one of those he had initially selected who understood how the original post-apartheid South African constitution had been later amended to strengthen the role of local authorities. This had happened in India too, as we had noted in our discussions with the TNA, and it seemed the obvious solution to fears about confrontation between the central government and provinces that saw themselves as the alternative centres of power.
With none of the other members either enthusiastic or knowledgeable, that initiative failed, but the South African ambassador was indefatigable. Over the following year he promoted much interaction between Sri Lankan politicians and those who had steered the reconciliation process in South Africa following the initial agreement between Mandela and the apartheid government.
His commitment became clear when President Jacob Zuma, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November 2013, gave Sri Lanka a great opportunity to move forward while repudiating the unwarranted interference of the British Prime Minister David Cameron. He responded very positively to President Rajapaksa’s request for advice and assistance on the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which had reduced animosities in South Africa. The President’s request was clearly a great step forward, since it seemed to recognize the need for solutions based on culturally appropriate models of inclusiveness, rather than the oppositional punitive approach that Cameron was advocating.
But the opportunity was not immediately taken up, and it was apparent that at least some elements in the Sri Lankan government were wary of South Africa. Indeed this had become apparent a few weeks earlier, when a high level delegation came over to facilitate discussions on reconciliation, and a seminar was held at the LakshmanKadirgarmar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies, which came under GL.
The list of Sri Lankan participants the ambassador had suggested was ruthlessly pruned by the LKIRSS. My own omission could well have been due to the diffidence about me the President had explained, but Dayan Jayatilleka, who had been a strong supporter of GL when he and Mahinda Samarasinghe were the two possibilities to take over from Bogollagama, was obviously omitted because it was thought Gotabaya Rajapaksa would object. And even more astonishingly, the members of the LLRC whom the military used for its own seminars, were also left out. The Sri Lankan side was represented then by those associated with the two Rajapaksa siblings, rather than anyone wishing to promote consensus with representatives of the Tamils.
GL’s treatment of Dayan is indeed indicative of his determination to promote the agenda of the Secretary of Defence. I had assumed that, after he replaced Bogollagama, Dayan’s services would be made use of again, but for six months there was no sign of that happening. I then took the initiative and suggested to the President that he should use Dayan, and he agreed, though he said London would be inappropriate because of the Sinhalese lobby there that would disagree with Dayan’s conciliatory approach to moderate Tamils. He also said he could not change our representative to the UN in New York, who had recently been appointed, and rejected my suggestion that that also very able envoy be sent to London.
But he told me that he would appoint Dayan immediately to either Paris or Brussels. I thought the latter more appropriate, but when I spoke to Dayan, he said he preferred Paris. I said this to the President, who told me to tell Dayan to call GL immediately, and the decision was confirmed.
But Dayan had hell in Paris. Though his relations with the French Foreign Ministry were excellent, and he also opened up a dialogue with moderate Tamils in Paris, as recommended by the LLRC, he found that the Defence Attache was sending home reports critical of his approach. In addition, the Foreign Ministry persecuted him, and produced audit queries about very minor matters, which were blown up in the press with the suggestion that he would have to be recalled – a very different procedure to that followed with regard to the much more serious audit queries about Kshenuka Seneviratne’s activities in Geneva, which were suppressed.
Dayan had indeed to come to Colombo to see the President, who reassured him that he would not be dismissed, but suggested that he keep his head down and just stick out the rest of his term. There was obviously no question of him being extended and, when Dayan came back to Sri Lanka at the end of 2012, it was clear that the President saw no further use for his services.
The Foreign Ministry had also been responsible for destroying the President’s efforts to make use of Tamara Kunanayakam, who had replaced Kshenuka in Geneva and then been summarily dismissed after the disastrous vote against us at the March 2012 session of the Human Rights Council. Tamara’s efforts to rebuild the coalition against the campaigns to condemn Sri Lanka, which Dayan had put up as a defensive wall three years earlier (though another South Asian envoy present at the time had described it rather as an empire, so great was Dayan’s influence with those opposed to a unipolar view of the world), were beginning to prove successful. It was a pity then that her tenure was cut short, though this was as far as Sri Lanka was concerned, and those in authority at our Ministry of External Affairs may well have thought otherwise, and that this was a triumph rather than a pity.
Tamara’s dismissal was in the form of an announcement that she would be moving to Cuba. Having been moved suddenly from Cuba to Geneva when it was clear that Kshenuka was not able to withstand moves against Sri Lanka, she told the President that this was not an appointment she was willing to accept. He however invited her to join him on a visit to Brazil, and told her that he intended her to have a roving ambassador role to South America in general, a sensible initiative given that we had practically lost South American support in the preceding period.
Tamara accepted, but she found that the Ministry refused to issue an appointment to that effect. She was told to take up the post in Cuba, and then send proposals for visits to other countries. This was not a position she was willing to accept, but the President did not seem willing to press the matter, and so her services were lost to the country.
GL’s willingness to sacrifice her was ironic because, in March, she had been supportive of him in the obvious rivalry between him and Mahinda Samarasinghe. After several months of having been ignored with regard to international relations, Samarasinge had been appointed the President’s envoy with regard to Human Rights when it became clear in 2011 that Sri Lanka would be targeted in this regard.
He had called me in then to say that he wanted to set up the old team, but I told him that there could be no such team without Dayan, and I would not be willing to go to Geneva with him. I agreed however to help him with the National Human Rights Action Plan, and for a year I convened the Task Force to expedite action in this connection.
Samarasinghe however resumed his visits to Geneva for the Human Rights Council, but in March 2012, with the American resolution on the table, GL went too. The President asked me too to go, and initially I refused, as I had done in September 2011. But when he asked again, I thought I had to agree, particularly as Tamara too had wanted me there. However I made it clear that I was going mainly to support her and, though I made one intervention at the Council when we came under unfair criticism (a practice that had ceased after Dayan had left, so that attacks on us went on record with no repudiation), I realized soon enough that we had completely lost the respect we had commanded three years previously.
The Sri Lankan delegation itself was a complete joke. Dozens of delegates had been sent, at vast expense, and to little purpose it seemed. Tamara managed to secure a commitment from the Indians that they would not vote against us, but Samarasinghe promptly undid this by ignoring their request that this be kept confidential.
This was disastrous, because it led to vociferous protests from politicians in Tamilnadu. The pressure on the government in Delhi was exacerbated when it was reported that our High Commissioner there had denigrated those politicians, and he had to clarify his comments through what was presented as an apology. In his case the Indian Foreign Ministry recognized that he had been misquoted, but they had actually taken up formally Mahinda Samarasinghe’s indiscretion, given that it had ruined the strategy they had intended to adopt. In addition, it turned out that the letter sent by the Indian Prime Minister requiring clarifications with regard to our position on a political solution was left unanswered – or rather, even more seriously, GL had sent a reply and then withdrawn it.
So India was lost to us. Meanwhile Tamara’s efforts to present an argument to neutral nations as to the principles that needed to be upheld in the face of country specific resolutions received no support from either GL or Samarasinghe. Instead they were engaged in unseemly squabbling, which came to a head when GL announced that he would make the closing remarks on the resolution against Sri Lanka. The next day Samarasinghe said that then there would have been no point in him coming to Geneva as Head of the Delegation, and he might as well go back to Colombo. GL then withdrew, and Samarasinghe did make the final statement, which was without precedent, since such interventions are not usually made at the senior level of Ministers.
In 2009 it was Dayan and me who had spoken, and perhaps it was that which prompted Samarasinghe’s determination to speak, given the adulation we had received when Sri Lanka won that vote decisively. In 2012 however we lost, badly, and that seemed the end of Samarasinghe’s shelf life as far as primacy with regard to Geneva and Human Rights went, though he was called back to the fray once or twice more, notably when we lost again in 2013.
He got his revenge on Tamara however, who had been on GL’s side throughout, by complaining about her sending out her reasoned memorandum to various missions – even though the Peruvian ambassador, having read it, said that had he received it earlier he might have been able to get his government to change its mind. GL conversely took no steps to prevent Tamara’s dismissal, and as noted allowed the President’s effort to continue with her services in an enhanced role in South America to be subverted.
Amusingly, were it not symptomatic of the confusion that lay at the heart of what passed for Sri Lankan foreign policy, after the vote there were articles in the papers which came from Foreign Ministry sources to the effect that the vote showed Sri Lanka had been mistaken in moving away from what was termed its traditional allies in the West. Blame for the debacle was attributed to Dayan, for having so conclusively defeated the West in 2009. It was argued that he should have worked towards a compromise, an argument that ignored the fact that the West had, from before his appointment to Geneva in 2007, had resolutions on the table critical of Sri Lanka.
Typically, these pro-Western elements were joined in criticism of Dayan by the ultra-nationalists who claimed that Dayan had opened the doors to further criticism by including in the 2009 resolution references to a political settlement. It was also claimed that he was at fault in allowing a reference to accountability, which ignored the fact that the joint communique of the President and the UN Secretary General which mentioned accountability had been signed in Colombo with no reference to Dayan. Indeed, only he and I pointed out the possible implications of that clause, but I was assured by our senior career diplomat that that would not be a problem.
These efforts to shift the blame for the debacle away from the Foreign Ministry were accompanied by aggression against India. Though the resolution had been moved by the United States, with solid European backing, and India had only announced support for it towards the end, there were numerous articles, and in particular in the government press, attacking India for what had happened. A conciliatory letter from the Indian Prime Minister, which should have set the stage for rapprochement and joint action against further interventions, was ignored, as had happened with the earlier letter before the vote from the Prime Minister requesting clarifications.
What was going on became clear a few weeks later when Kshenuka nearly succeeded in precipitating a diplomatic incident with regard to the visit of an Indian Parliamentary delegation. This was led by Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the Opposition in Delhi (and future Foreign Minister), and included Members of Parliament from Tamilnadu. Having visited the North too, they had expressed themselves in a most conciliatory fashion.
However Kshenuka informed the President, shortly before they were due to meet him, that they had criticized him at a dinner at the Indian High Commissioner’s. She had added for good measure that they had been supported in this by Nimal Siripala de Silva, the senior SLFP minister who was present.
I was told about this incident by Harsha Navaratne, head of a Non-Governmental Organization that did a lot of work in the North. He told me however that the President, who had been furious, had been disabused, and had subsequently met the delegation, and all had gone well.
The story was confirmed by Lalith Weeratunge when I next met him. He said that the President had come to him in a towering rage and said he would not meet the delegation. Lalith, who realized the implications if the President cancelled a meeting with such a high powered delegation from India, persuaded him to check on the truth of the story.
Basil Rajapaksa was called and confirmed that nothing of the sort had happened, but the President was still not satisfied. So GL too was contacted, and said the same thing. Lalith told me cheerfully that he had thus, as he put it, shaped the whole matter – but it had not occurred to him to find out what had led to the President’s anger in the first place.
GL as was clear was not part of the conspiracy, but clearly he had not thought fit to check on the matter and find out how and why our relations with India were placed under threat. But this was typical of the man. All he was interested in doing was coasting along, and hoping that further plums of office would come his way.
Sadly, though the President understood his weaknesses, and also that the representatives of several countries, and their leaders, found him a pain, he did not think a change was necessary. Backed by Namal, and presumably also by others close to the President who found him malleable, he continued safe in his position.