By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Perhaps the saddest influence on President Rajapaksa was his Foreign Minister, G L Peiris. There were two main reasons for this influence. One, commonly known, was the hold he had on the President’s eldest son, Namal, who had been elected to Parliament in 2010 and who saw himself as his father’s successor – a prospect made possible when, soon after that Parliament was elected, after a few crossovers from the opposition made a two thirds majority possible, the Constitution was changed to remove term limits with regard to the Presidency.
In principle this made sense, since otherwise the lame duck syndrome would have set in almost immediately. There would then have been internecine warfare between Basil, who had previously assumed he would succeed, and the old guard of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. This was inevitable given Basil’s political history, even though they had a healthy regard for Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had remained faithful to the party during the dark days when President Jayewardene was using all the powers of government to split and destroy it, and also when he was treated with disfavor, despite his seniority, by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The latter had left the SLFP because of disagreements with her mother over the succession. When she felt sidelined in favour of her more right wing brother Anura, she set up her own left wing group together with her husband. Basil however, in the darkest days for the SLFP, had actually joined Jayewardene’s UNP. His elder brother indeed did not entirely trust him, but found him a hard worker and a capable strategist, and hardly ever spoke ill of him to others.
With Namal the situation was very different. The intensity of his dislike and perhaps nervousness with regard to Basil became clear when he attempted to get a group of young Members of Parliament to send a petition to the President requesting that GL be appointed Prime Minister. That post was held by a senior and very old member of the SLFP, D M Jayaratne, who seemed at death’s door a year or two after he was appointed. This led to the memorable quip by the President that he was the only senior member of the government who was praying for the man to live, whereas his colleagues were all dashing coconuts (a formula to invoke both blessings and curses) for his death. Members of the opposition indeed claimed, when the Prime Minister was in the United States for treatment it was doubted would be successful, that there had been seven aspirants for his post.
The most junior of these, but also closest to the President, were Basil and GL. Though the application of the latter seemed preposterous, Namal’s effort to dragoon support for him made it clear that his ambitions were not without hope of success.
His influence with Namal lay in the fact that he had coached him for his Bar Exams. The boy had been sent to university in England, but had dropped out. Though incapacity was alleged, it was more likely that he had been unable to resist returning to Sri Lanka when his father was elected President, and working towards a political career. His father, who had been mentored in his youth – having been elected to Parliament at the tender age of 24 in 1970 – by the then Secretary General of Parliament, one of the few from his home District of Hambantota to have received a good education in the days before the Second World War, had been encouraged to enter Law College and qualify as a barrister. He pushed his son into the same course, and the boy passed out before the 2010 General Election, albeit to claims that special arrangements had been made for him to take the examination.
This was likely, given security considerations and the reach of the Tigers before the war concluded. Less plausible was the claim that GL had in fact answered the papers himself. However it was no secret that GL’s support had helped Namal to qualify, and Namal, a cheerful and good-natured soul, was deeply grateful. His gratitude also increased when GL, as Foreign Minister, took Namal on many official trips, and gave him pride of place. His father, wiser than both GL and his son, occasionally put his foot down about the former’s obsequious suggestions, but on the whole he was pleased that he had taken his preferred successor under his wing.
This was due to the other reason for GL’s influence, which was not generally recognized. The Rajapaksa government saw itself as home grown, and took pride in this, but this did mean that it was not very sophisticated. Of the seven aspirants to the Prime Minister’s post, only GL was seen as Westernized, and able to deal with important players in the rest of the world on their own terms.
Though a Buddhist himself, he had after all been educated at S. Thomas’, the leading Christian school for boys in the country. Having got a law degree from Colombo University, he had won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he obtained a doctorate in three years. Back at Colombo University, he had risen rapidly to become Professor of Law, and then Vice-Chancellor, a position he gave up to join the SLFP and enter Parliament in 1994.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga too had had great faith in him, and put him in charge of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, with great hopes of achieving agreement with the Tamil parties, who had warmly welcomed her election. GL however was not an effective negotiator, and the talks collapsed. He however went on from strength to strength, being used by the President also as her Deputy in the Ministry of Finance, which she headed. This meant that often he had to present the budget in Parliament, and answer questions, which gave him even more prominence.
However, as things began to go wrong for the Kumaratunga government, he found himself the butt end of the President’s criticism. So in 2001, a year after the Parliamentary election at which the government had again won a clear majority, he crossed over to the Opposition. The government lost its majority, so the President dissolved Parliament, whereupon the UNP won the election that followed. RanilWickremesinghe, the long standing Leader of the Opposition (seven years, followed by another 10 from 2004 onward) became Prime Minister and GL became his chief negotiator in the talks with the LTTE that government embarked upon, following a Cease Fire Agreement.
Needless to say, these talks too came to nothing, though this was mainly because of Tiger intransigence. Government in fact granted almost everything the Tigers wanted and, perhaps because of this, they demanded more and more. Thus even an agreement to explore a solution in the context of a federal Sri Lanka (a concept that was anathema to a majority of politicians as well as people in the country) was repudiated by Prabhakaran, who seems indeed to have fallen out with his chief negotiator Anton Balasingham about this. Contrariwise, the latter had probably thought he had achieved a great deal in getting the government team, led by GL, to agree to this.
As it became apparent that the Wickremesinghe government was ready to do anything to keep the Tigers happy and maintain the Cease Fire Agreement, there were signs of increasing dissatisfaction in the country. Emboldened by this, President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament early in 2004, and won the election that followed. Against her will, given massive support for him in the Party, following his performance as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, she had to make Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister.
The following year, after a Supreme Court judgment which in effect deprived her of a year of her Presidency, she had to hold a Presidential election which she could not contest, given the term limits then in place. Her efforts to suggest that her brother Anura be the candidate came to naught, and Mahinda Rajapaksa stood on behalf of the SLFP and its coalition partners, and was duly elected. This was in part because the Tigers made the Tamils in areas they controlled boycott the election, perhaps in the belief that they would have a pretext of going back to war against Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe on the contrary had given in to them in every particular during negotiations, which would make a renewal of hostilities on their part less acceptable to the world.
Early in 2007, GL crossed back to the SLFP along with almost all those who had gone over in 2001, and also many others. He had been preceded before the Presidential election by three UNP stalwarts, Rohitha Bogollagama before the Presidential election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe and Keheliya Rambukwella in 2006. The first of these was appointed Foreign Minister by President Rajapaksa in 2007, following the resignation of Mangala Samaraweera, a confidante of President Kumaratunga who had nevertheless supported Rajapaksa for the 2005 Presidential election. He had been rewarded with two important Ministries, Shipping and Aviation in addition to Foreign Affairs. However he continued close to the former President, which contributed to distrust on the part of her successor. In a Cabinet reshuffle in 2007, following the access to the government of GL and the others who had crossed over, Samaraweera was asked to choose just one portfolio. He opted for Shipping and Aviation over Foreign Affairs, since that allowed patronage with regard to appointments, thought essential for electoral purposes.
So Bogollagama became Foreign Minister, a position he had hoped for immediately after the 2005 Presidential election. This was a possibility because, just a few months earlier, the Tigers had killed President Kumaratunga’s long-standing Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. A Tamil who had worked for the UN before retiring to Sri Lanka when he was 60, he was easily Sri Lanka’s most competent Foreign Minister ever. Having joined the SLFP in 1994, he served President Kumaratunga with intelligence and independence which she appreciated, so that in 2004 she had hoped to make him Prime Minister.
The pressure from Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters however proved too strong, but Kadirgamar and Rajapaksa then began to work well together, which led to some animosity from the President. It is almost certain then that Rajapaksa would have made Kadirgamar his Prime Minister, but the Tigers were wise to the possibility, which would have been a disaster for them. In August 2005, they shot him.
Rajapaksa was compelled then to bring back President Kumaratunga’s first Prime Minister, and then, after the 2010 election, to appoint an equally senior, and far less effective, party stalwart. Tragically, he has not since seen the necessity of putting in place an effective Deputy, which he was, if briefly, to President Kumaratunga, and which the future President Premadasa was, as President Jayewardene’s Prime Minister. Perhaps his own success, and that of Premadasa, put him off, given the desire to have a family member succeed. That, the continuing curse of Sri Lankan politics, is one of the principal reasons for the disasters that have piled up in President Rajapaksa’s second term.
To be continued..