By Rajiva Wijesinha –
In May 2009, Sri Lanka seemed on top of the world. Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan government and forces had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which had dominated Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. It had survived conflict with not just successive Sri Lankan governments, but even the might of India.
Though the Tigers had been banned by several countries, there was some sympathy for them in many Western nations who could not distinguish between them and the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who they felt had been badly treated by successive Sri Lankan governments. Fuelled by a powerful diaspora that sympathized with and even supported the Tigers, several Western nations had tried to stop the war being fought to a conclusion. When this attempt failed, they initiated a special session at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but the condemnation they anticipated of the Sri Lankan government did not occur.
Instead, Sri Lanka initiated a resolution of its own, which passed with an overwhelming majority. It received the support of most countries outside the Western bloc, including India and Pakistan and China and Russia and South Africa and Brazil and Egypt.
Less than three years later, the situation had changed. A resolution critical of Sri Lanka was carried at the Council in Geneva in March 2012, with India voting in its favour. It had been initiated by the United States, and won support from several African and Latin American countries, including Brazil, that had been supportive previously. Next year an even more critical resolution was passed, with a larger majority, followed in 2014 by a Resolution which mandated an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner. India voted against this Resolution, but it still passed with a large majority.
Meanwhile international criticism of Sri Lanka has increased. It had a tough ride over the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Colombo in November 2013. Though the British Prime Minister withstood pressures to boycott the event, the Indian Prime Minister did not attend. The Indians did not engage in overt criticism, but the Canadian Prime Minister was extremely harsh in explaining his absence. And the British Prime Minister made it clear that he would raise a number of issues suggesting that Sri Lanka needed to address several grave charges.
How had this happened? How had a country that dealt successfully with terrorism, and did so with less collateral damage than in other similar situations, found itself so conclusively in the dock within a few years? How had it lost the support of India, which had been strongly supportive of the effort to rid the country of terrorism?
India had made clear its commitment to the welfare of the Tamil population of Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan government had initially acted in accordance, and managed to resettle all the displaced, to rehabilitate former combatants, and to rebuild the war ravaged areas more swiftly and successfully than had initially been thought possible. Despite all this, in the election to the Northern Provincial Council, in September 2013, it was trounced by the Tamil National Alliance, which had been under the control of the LTTE while it existed.
What made the government so unpopular amongst the Tamils whom it thought it had liberated, and for whom it had developed infrastructure so effectively? Why internationally had the impression been created that the Sri Lankan government was catering to a Sinhala Buddhist constituency, with no regard for pluralism and the pursuit of reconciliation? Why did the Indian government seem upset with progress when so much had been done?
These essays will attempt to answer the above questions, by looking at the ultimately destructive contribution of several individuals to whom the President had entrusted a range of responsibilities. My own view is that the President himself had wanted to move towards reconciliation, and also to address several questions that other countries had raised, but those he thought would fulfil these tasks had failed him. Of course the ultimate responsibility is his, and his failure to ensure that those working on his behalf fulfilled the policies he had enunciated cannot be excused. But it needs to be understood, if Sri Lanka is to move forward from the morass in which it now finds itself.
Before discussing the problems caused by individuals in whom the President had reposed trust, I will set out here the major errors that I believe occurred in the last four years, to bring us to the current position.
First, in July 2009, soon after the seminal victory at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, who had been the architect of that victory, was summarily dismissed. Significantly, another ambassador had described the protective wall he had built as an empire. Yet the Sri Lankan government got rid of a diplomat who had commanded this level of confidence amongst his colleagues.
Second, when the American government in October 2009 addressed a list of questions about the conduct of the war, posed in a conciliatory manner, the Sri Lankan government failed to respond. This was though the questions were based on a Foreign Policy assessment by a committee chaired by John Kerry which suggested that the US government should engage more sympathetically with Sri Lanka.
Third, when the former Commander of the Army alleged that decision makers in government were responsible for the execution of Tigers who had come forward with White Flags so as to surrender, he was accused not of lying, but of being treacherous. This created the impression that what he had said was true. In fact he had made a very different allegation some months earlier, in claiming that he had been ordered to spare people carrying White Flags but, since he knew their enormity, he had acted as required. It would seem that his position then was that he was the hero of a tough war, whereas the government had been soft. But a few months later, he was able to present the government as the tough guys, a trap into which they readily fell.
Fourth, though the President had frequently promised interlocutors from the Indian government that he would move swiftly on greater measures of devolution, statements to this effect were rejected by various government spokesmen. The understanding the Indian government thought it had was never confirmed by either the President or the Minister of External Affairs, though the Indians believed the position they had put forward had been agreed.
Fifth, understanding the damage done by the new ambassador in Geneva, the President recalled her and replaced her with a trusted confidante, Tamara Kunanayakam, but the Ministry of External Affairs sent a massive delegation to Geneva in March 2012 which subverted her efforts and embarrassed the Indian government. Following the vote, she was dismissed.
Sixth, despite difficult relations with Britain, the position of High Commissioner there was left vacant for several months, and the opportunity to establish good relations with the new Conservative government, following the low level to which they had sunk while David Miliband was Foreign Minister, was lost.
Seventh, following her removal from Geneva, the President asked Ms Kunanayakam to serve in Cuba with a brief to develop better relations throughout Latin America, but the Ministry of External Affairs did not allow this initiative to go ahead.
Eighth, though Dayan Jayatilleka was appointed to Paris several months after being dismissed from Geneva, he was subject to harassment, from the Ministry of External Affairs as well as the Ministry of Defence. Having finished his contract, he returned to Sri Lanka but has not been deployed effectively.
Ninth, the President’s commitment to address accountability issues was forgotten until after the UN appointed its own panel of investigation. Though the President then appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, its interim report was ignored, whereas swift action could have overcome some of the criticism raised in the UN report.
Tenth, there was no rebuttal of the charges made in the UN report, even though several of the allegations it recorded contradicted what UN records of the period in question had established.
Eleventh, though the President asked in December 2011 for an Action Plan to carry out the recommendations of the LLRC , nothing was done about this until after the HRC Resolution of March 2012. A Task Force to implement the Action Plan did not meet for several months, and only began to act and report coherently in 2013.
Twelfth, the negotiations between government and the TNA, which the President initiated in 2011, were sabotaged, with the government for the most part failing either to put forward any ideas of its own, or to respond to those the TNA put forward.
All these inadequacies need to be discussed. I propose to do this through an assessment of those in whom the President reposed trust but who, in fulfilling their own agendas, failed to deliver what he and the country needed.