By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Five years ago, I spent the week of my 55th birthday in Geneva. I had been summoned there urgently, because some Western nations had been trying to get sufficient signatures to hold a Special Session of the Human Rights Council in an attempt to stop our imminent conquest of the Tigers. By the time I got to Geneva though, the danger was over, and there was much to celebrate. The superb diplomacy of Dayan Jayatilleka, our Representative in Geneva, supported admirably by the international coalition he had built up, had ensured that the West did not get the required number of signatures, and the danger passed.
By the time I got back to Colombo, we had registered an even more remarkable victory, in that the Tigers were finally destroyed. The last 100,000 civilians who had been held hostage were rescued, and it was reported too that Prabhakaran had been killed. The terrorism that had held Sri Lanka in thrall for 20 years had finally been destroyed.
But there was a postscript, for the West, or rather its more intransigent elements, did not let up, and they used all their muscle to get the missing signatures. I gathered that Bosnia was told that their bid for EU membership would be in jeopardy if they did not toe the line, and Azerbaijan was pursued with carrots and sticks like Edward Lear’s Snark. They succumbed, and once again I had to head back to Geneva for the Special Session, which took place on May 27th and 28th.
But before that I ,had been asked up to Kandy, for dinner at President’s House where Ban ki-Moon was being entertained. When I got there, the great man was deep in discussion with Foreign Ministry officials, and it took some time before they emerged with a joint communique, which was duly signed before dinner.
When I saw the text, I was startled because it seemed to grant the need for an inquiry into our conduct during the war. I was reassured however by the Ministry official to whom I addressed my concerns. Later, when I got to Geneva, I found that Dayan too was alarmed by the actual text, and I realized then that, perhaps because we understood the language better than most, we understood too potential dangers in a way beyond the ken of the usual Ministry official. However, in mitigation, I should note that Palitha Kohona, then our Foreign Secretary, told me that the President had been advised against that particular clause, but had finally got impatient and insisted that the text be finalized.
But in fact no great harm would have ensued had the President lived up immediately to his promise. Dayan found in Geneva that that particular clause helped to win round several countries that had been alarmed by reports of violations of law during the conflict. The most serious allegation related to the so called White Flag case, about some senior LTTE functionaries having negotiated a surrender, but having then been killed when they came out of the jungle bearing White Flags.
The agreement the President had signed, noting that such concerns would be addressed, proved helpful in providing us the overwhelming majority with which the Human Rights Council endorsed the resolution that Dayan and his friends had crafted. I still recall the enthusiasm of the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors, who supported Dayan in his negotiations; the solid support of the Cuban and Egyptian ambassdors who, as heads of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of Islamic States, provided invaluable support; the experienced Russian and Chinese ambassadors who gave solid advice whilst advising throughout that it was Indian support that was most important; the charming Brazilian and South African ambassadors who, though after many questions as befitted their reputations as countries of high principle, gave us unqualified assistance; and my old friend from Oxford days, the Japanese ambassador, Shin Nakamura who was able, despite Japan’s general alignment with the West, to make clear the commitment of his government to Sri Lanka.
The proceedings were watched carefully in Sri Lanka, and our victory in Geneva was also much celebrated by those who understood its significance. But I fear Dayan and I destroyed our futures, and perhaps the country too, by performing too well. When we spoke, there was pin drop silence in the Council and, as had become common practice in the preceding two years, our speeches were warmly received by our friends. But this naturally raised hackles, and not only amongst those who did not share our commitment to plurallsm. When the urgency seemed to have passed, animosities and jealousies could be given full rein. Two months later Dayan was removed, and in Sri Lanka the Peace Secretariat was summarily closed down. The President later told me that this was one of his biggest mistakes, but I found that I had had no support in my efforts to turn it into an instrument of Reconciliation. The link on which I had relied turned out, Dayan was told, to have been one of the principal proponents of his removal.
But, as I told Dayan later, this was all his fault. He had won his victory in Geneva so readily, that it was thought in Colombo that any fool could do the same. And so he was removed, and the fools were given their head.
I will return to the continuing failures of our foreign policy over the last five years, but first I should address the more serious issue, of how our military victory in 2009 has also been so thoroughly undermined. Five years ago it seemed impossible that the LTTE could be rebuilt, certainly not within a few years. But we are now told that there is a serious danger of an LTTE revival, and the more overt expressions of the security paraphernalia, removed to the joy of the populace after the war, have now been restored. Three individuals were killed recently in Vavuniya North, and we have been told of the seriousness of their efforts to revive terrorism, and this has led to checkpoints being reintroduced even in the East.
The story is treated with a pinch of salt in several quarters, with questions as to the failure of government to identify the policeman who was supposedly shot at, the absurdity of a terrorist hiding under a bed breaking through a cordon of police, the failure of the army which was in attendance in Dharmapuram at the time to deal with the problem, the ridiculousness of the suspects retreating to an area where the army was engaged in exercises. But there is no reason to assume the military have concocted the story, and indeed I was convinced of the sincerity of its representative who came to me with details of what was going on – though I should note that sincerity in those who believe a story is not proof of its actuality.
I do realise that there are now a range of elements in the military, and the enormously decent professionals who fought the war have less influence than those who follow the more occult practices of the West in countering terror. But even they must surely realize that what happened recently is an admission of incompetence greater even than that which created the Taliban and Al Qaeda as forces of immense power. My interlocutor told me that the vast majority of the people in the North were sick and tired of terrorism, and – as perhaps the only parliamentarian from the South who visits regularly for free interactions with the populace – I certainly believe him. But in that case, how on earth can there be a serious threat of an LTTE revival?
The fact that this is deemed possible suggests the total failure of government policies over the last five years. My interlocutor granted this, under somewhat Socratic questioning, and placed the blame predominantly on the Ministry of External Affairs. I agree with him to a great extent, and as mentioned will return to our failures in that area which have given the more intransigent elements in the diaspora renewed influence. But I also pointed out that domestically too we had failed signally.
It is fashionable to blame the Secretary of Defence for all this, but I do not think that is fair. I continue to have a soft spot for him, in part because I still recall his very categorical statement at a Christmas event at the Central Bank in 2008 that, while he was now confident of winning the war, peace required a political settlement, which would have to be brought about by others. Of course he may have changed, though I have also been told that his problem is that he has two personalities, and the second is now in the ascendant. Though I now have some experience of this, since he was irritated by my signing a petition with regard to the incidents at Weliveriya, even then I found him prepared to listen, and grant that what happened was wrong and merited an inquiry. Unfortunately the line was bad, but subsequently I have found him as willing to talk as previously, and also willing to listen, a trait he shares with the President. Even when they disagree, they will give their reasons and, albeit not often, they are prepared to change their minds.
The trouble now is that hardly anyone will raise counter arguments with the Secretary of Defence. In that regard the Western manoeuvers with regard to Sarath Fonseka had an unexpected result – though perhaps all is grist to the Western mill. In the first place, they removed someone whom the Secretary had seen as his equal, if not his superior in military terms. The result is that he now reigns supreme, and hardly anyone will challenge him. Second, what happened made it much easier for the term traitor to be bandied about. What Sarath did was bad enough, in spilling the beans in the United States, including his own ones, craftily attributed to others as with his December White Flag statement. But there were also the efforts of the egregious Paul Carter to buy over the former military spokesman, which meant that no one could be sure who had been approached, who had succumbed. As a result, everyone was frightened to say anything that might cause contention, given the allegations that could be made against them – as indeed happened to me, when Wimal Weerawansa went on the rampage and suggested that I too was working for foreign interests. Ironically this was around the same time as I was told, by someone who had been warned against me but later became a very good friend, that new arrivals to Sri Lanka were being told that I was very prejudiced against the West. But I suppose the few intransigent elements in the West knew who the strongest and most effective opponents of submission were, and were wary of me (and in Dayan’s case actively campaigned for his removal, though I was never I think seen as dangerous enough to warrant overt interference).
Weerawansa’s critique (which I am told also contributed to my not being given a Ministry, to what I now realize is the continuing perdition of our Education system) was with regard to my pointing out that Sarath Fonseka had withdrawn his allegation with regard to the White Flag incident. The way in which government mishandled that is perhaps symptomatic of the willingness to sacrifice long term interests for immediate gains, and it should therefore be looked at more closely here. In particular the failure to respond swiftly to American queries about the incident, at the one moment in the years after the war concluded when the Americans were positive (and in the person of John Kerry), shows how incompetent our current decision makers are.
The fact is that Sarath Fonseka made a speech in Ambalangoda in August 2009 in effect claiming credit for the murders of the surrendees, and this was questioned in a list of concerns drawn up by the State Department on the basis of a report from an American congressional committee headed by John Kerry. The list was sent to the government around October 2009, but it was in effect ignored. I kept telling Lalith Weeratunge that the questions could easily be answered, and I brought up the matter frequently with Mohan Pieris and suggested we could answer them ourselves, with the material I had accumulated at the Peace Secretariat. But though both agreed, characteristically they did nothing about it.
Dayan mentioned the matter to the President when they were in Vietnam together that year, and had been assured the matter was under control and a committee had been appointed to report. But the committee never met. Its only active member, Nihal Jayamaha, told me this when I met him at the President’s Christmas Party and asked why I had had no response to my letter suggesting they go through my material. But nothing happened for a further six months, and then, shortly after they did get in touch, I was told that their work had been subsumed in that of the LLRC, so they now had no reason to meet. But of course the LLRC could not address the Kerry concerns direct, and so they went unanswered.
By then government had decided to take electoral advantage of Sarath Fonseka’s second statement about the White Flag case. So, instead of rebutting that on the grounds that he was a liar, and had claimed the opposite earlier (that he had done it contrary to what the Secretary of Defence wanted, whereas the later claim was that the Secretary was responsible), they called him a traitor. So I became a traitor too, when I tried to rebut the claim rationally. Unfortunately what all those who thought only of electoral advantage forgot was that, in criticizing Sarath only for being a traitor, they were implying that what he had said was true. And that also made it difficult for government later to investigate the case, which obviously prima facie raised legitimate questions, since that would allow Sarath to turn round and call those conducting any investigation traitorous.
This underlies the failure of government to fulfil the commitments the President made to Ban ki Moon in May 2009. It underlies the fatal delay in appointing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which thus seemed only a belated response to the appointment of the Darusman Committee. It underlies the failure to implement swiftly the interim recommendations of the LLRC since, though it dealt with a range of Issues, government put Mohan Pieris in charge and he was worried about the reactions of the Secretary of Defence to any action. Therefore he did not convene the Inter-Ministerial Committee he had been appointed to head, and which could have done much with regard to land issues amongst other matters of immediate concern to the population.
And, fatally, it underlies the failure now to implement fully the recommendations of the LLRC, which were welcomed so positively by most people, and the entire international community except the Americans. Even now the President has assured the visiting Japanese Minister that everything in the last Geneva resolution will be complied with save the international investigation, which is a position I quite understand and endorse. But rejecting an international investigation can only be done acceptably if there is a credible domestic mechanism. In a context in which even Cabinet Ministers point out that we make promises in Geneva that are not fulfilled, we must do better. But I fear the President is not advised properly, and is given reassurances by those who are not concerned about facts, but simply say what they think he wants to hear.
To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.
The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.
That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.
What went wrong? It is absolutely shocking that government has not studied this phenomenon. In any country which took election results seriously, the Minister of Economic Development would have resigned, or at least given up his monopolistic control of development activities in the North. In Sri Lanka all that happened was that his effort to block development aid to the area, in what seemed a fit of pique, was stopped by the President’s personal intervention, and he continues in charge of implementation activities. No efforts have been made to correct course after the fiasco of the election results, and also the disappointment of the recent Southern election. Instead the President seems to have been convinced that yet more elections are the answer, even though it is clear that he is the only asset the government possesses, and that alone will not be enough if the performance of others in authority multiplies resentments. Certainly, given the absence of a credible alternative, the President will doubtless win an advanced Presidential election easily but, even with the prestige factor of such a victory, he will find it increasingly difficult to govern productively in the future.
It is a pity then that he has not established a think tank to explore the reasons for the decline in government popularity in the North. It would not take rocket science to understand that resentments have developed because of what are perceived as top down policies, that also fail to take into account the day to day concerns of people. It is astonishing, for instance, that Human Resources Development has been largely neglected in the North, even though it was apparent to anyone who bothered to think that there was a crying need for education and training, given the need to ensure not just economic development but also economic activity on the part of the populace.
I have written about this at length, following frequent visits to the North and East, but unfortunately the President has no mechanisms whereby the suggestions of his Advisers are studied and digested and implemented as appropriate. At the same time the Line Ministries are starved of funds – as indeed Ministers have complained, one even going so far as to say that the Ministry of Economic Development was eroding the responsibilities of every Ministry. So the recognition that Value Addition was vital for Agriculture only went as far as the declaration that 2013 was to be the year of Value Addition but, as the Minister confessed, nothing was done about this.
Vocational Training is hardly off the ground yet, even though that Minister assured me in 2010 that he would take this forward – but all his officials could tell me, when we discussed the matter at a consultation that the International Organization for Migration had arranged, though I fear a couple of years after I had first suggested such meetings, was that there were plans to set up a German Technical Institute in Kilinochchi. This is an admirable idea but, while such a large scale project was pending, arrangements could have been made to set up small centres in every Division. The figures the authorities gave us at COPE indicate how little has been done in an area which would have helped considerably in developing skills to take the area forward while also winning hearts and minds.
I have done a small amount myself, in setting up five centres in the Wanni through my decentralized budget. One Divisional Secretary told me that I had allocated much more for his Division than any other Parliamentarian, from government or opposition, and I found how true this was when I was sent the schedule of work in Mullaitivu for 2013. In the area west of the A 9, which is comparatively neglected in a comparatively neglected District, mine were the only projects to promote sustainable development, with a million rupees each for two training centres. Meanwhile my colleagues in government have, in one Division, given a total of I think 95,000 rupees, in small bits that buy uniforms for school bands or repair a school fence. In mitigation though, one of them, who was invited to open the centre, has agreed to do more in this field this year.
Sadly, no one had bothered to educate him in the sort of work he should be doing instead of just responding to trivial requests. Of course I realize that he has to win elections but, because government is so weak about planning and coordination, an opportunity for winning votes whilst also providing for a better future for the people of the area has been lost. And, while I have no objection to him getting credit for work done with my funds, given that I am not in competition with him, I can only hope that he will learn from what he saw. But I fear that politics has turned into sound bites and fury, with no planning through consultation of people’s needs.
This was even more apparent in the islands of the Jaffna District where government had won control of some local authorities. I had initially concentrated on the Wanni, so it was only in 2013 that I made sure I covered all Divisions in Jaffna. What I found was deeply upsetting. Clearly those who had won election had done nothing for the people. It was only an enterprising Divisional Secretary who had begun vocational training in Kayts, whilst in Delft the only sensible initiative with regard to employment had been taken by the navy, which had trained several girls and then set up a factory to make uniforms.
Nothing had been done for the boys. When I asked, in what was predominantly a fishing area, what happened when their boats had mechanical problems, they told me that they had to be taken to Jaffna for repair. No one had thought, as had been done by the Agency to which I had entrusted the Vocational Training Centres I had set up the previous year in the eastern part of Mullaitivu, to train youngsters in engine repair. This would have provided lucrative employment whilst also saving the people of Delft much time and money. But in a context in which no one thought of anything, I need not have been surprised – and I was not entirely surprised when, a few months later, the Chairman of the Authority was killed in what was evidently a crime of passion involving the man, from his own party, who had just been made leader of the opposition in the Provincial Council.
Why government had relied on such people I cannot understand. When I was discussing this matter with the military, they told me that they had advised government to select people of standing in the community, but it seems that their advice like mine was ignored. And, contrary to popular belief, the decisions were made not by the military, but by the Minister of Economic Development, who had decided to go along with the recommendations of the politicians whose support he thought invaluable. Despite this, government had done well in some elections earlier. But nothing was done after that to ensure that the people benefited from having a local authority able to work with government, nothing was done to ensure that those who were elected actually worked actively for the people they had been chosen to represent.
Symptomatic of the whole mess I suppose is my old friend Rishard Bathiudeen, who had been Minister of Resettlement when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and whom I had found it easy to work with then. Obviously he felt obliged to advance the interests of the Muslims who had been driven from the North by the LTTE, but this was understandable in a context in which the old displaced population was comparatively neglected. He looks after them still, which is also understandable. But he does this now as Minister of Industries, while he seems to have contributed nothing to developing Industries, in the North or anywhere else. But I don’t suppose anyone would be surprised at this, given that no one could imagine there was any reason to appoint him Minister of Industries, a position held by senior politicians such as Maithripala Senanayake and Philip Gunawardena and T B Subasinghe and C V Gooneratne, except that the Minister of Economic Development saw him as a subservient ally.
But, while what he contributes in this position is debatable, he has not been able to contribute formally to the welfare of his people. He has therefore had to work in subtle ways, which have contributed to increasing unpopularity for the government, whilst he himself feels badly let down, as he now makes clear. For, in the absence of clear policies with regard to Resettlement, what was given to people was seen as ad hoc, and obviously this leads to bitter complaints when some people get much while others are deprived.
I understood something of what was going on when there were complaints in Mullaitivu about Muslims being given large amounts of land there. It was explained by a member of Rishard’s party, when I brought the matter up, that extra was being given because there had been natural increase in the numbers of the Muslims driven away by the LTTE. But my point was that government should not be thinking about double compensation as it were, until all the displaced had received single compensation. And sadly I later found that some of the strongest complaints against Rishard were made by Muslims who did not have his patronage, and thought that those who did were getting excessive benefits, having already received housing in Puttalam – where he and President Rajapaksa’s first government had done wonders in finally delivering some decent benefits to those who had been grossly neglected since the LTTE expelled them way back in 1990.
Interestingly enough, Rishard recently made the point himself about the need to settle the needs of the displaced first, before moving on to other settlement projects. This was with regard to the settlement of Sinhalese from the South which is now taking place in some areas in the North, a phenomenon to which my attention was first drawn by the Sinhalese of Vavuniya South, who were deeply resentful. Their point was that their needs should have been addressed first, and those of their offspring, before new people were brought it. They added that priority should also be given to Tamils and Muslims from the area who had suffered during the war, and that bringing in new settlers was a great mistake.
Rishard mentioned that government felt the best way of promoting reconciliation was to have Sinhalese and Tamil and Muslim villages contiguous to each other. This is a plausible supposition, but obviously it is absurd to start implementing this before there is careful discussion and the formulation of clear government policy in this regard, with attention paid to ensuring that such programmes do not foster animosity rather than fellow feeling. And surely more important is to ensure that races can mix together freely, which would mean getting rid of our segregationist education policies and also promoting active communication by entrenching bilingualism if not trilingualism. But little seems to be being done about such matters, and the relevant Line Ministries are starved of funds for such initiatives. Instead the priority seems to be to implement ad hoc measures for which funding goes through either the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Economic Development, or the Presidential Task Force for the North.
With such activities going on, without transparency, it is no wonder that resentments are increasing. If then those elements that wish to revive the LTTE feel optimistic, government will have only itself to blame. The Secretary of Defence has studied the literature on the subject, and knows that fish will swim only if the pool nurtures them. It is sad then that he does not argue for more inclusive policies that will build on the basic dislike for the LTTE and its terrorism evinced by the vast majority of the Northern population. He at least should have commissioned a study of what changed between previous elections, when government did relatively well, and last year’s poll. To blame it on the diaspora alone is myopic, and can only lead to further disasters.
Military intelligence understands well that the diaspora is not a monolith. Indeed my interlocutor noted that only about 7% of the diaspora were supporters of the LTTE. But this made it all the more culpable that government has done nothing about working with the rest, the more than 90% who have wanted only for their kinsmen who remained in Sri Lanka to enjoy equal benefits with the rest of the population. The LLRC recommendation in this regard, about developing a policy to work together with the diaspora, has been completely ignored. Instead those who did well in this regard, such as Dayan when he was in Paris, were the subject of intelligence reports that drew attention critically to their work with Tamils. The fact that in theory this was government policy meant nothing, since very few others were doing anything about this, and there was no coordination of such efforts in Colombo.
Excessive zeal on the part of military intelligence seems to have caused other disasters. We had an excellent High Commissioner in Chennai, but he was summarily removed because, it was reported, the security establishment had criticized him. Similar reports were in circulation about the withdrawal of our High Commissioner in Malaysia, though he himself thought the Minister of External Affairs was the real villain of the piece.
In Chennai, no efforts had been made to engage in the dialogue that the High Commissioner, who was Tamil, tried to initiate. When I spent a few days there a couple of years ago, with my ticket paid for, not by government, but by an agency that had wanted me in Nepal but was willing to fund a journey through Chennai, I was told that I was the first senior representative of government who had gone there for such discussions. The academics and journalists who attended the meetings were willing to listen, but soon afterwards the High Commissioner was exchanged for a Sinhalese, and the initiative stopped. It was only a couple of years later that government finally got round to inviting the senior newspaperman Cho Ramaswamy to send some journalists to report on the situation, which High Commissioner Krishnaswamy had advocated much earlier. What they published made it clear that we had erred gravely in ignoring his advice for so long. The obvious benefits of having a Tamil in station in Chennai, which without him even doing anything made it clear that allegations of systemic discrimination against Tamils were misplaced, never occurred to a Ministry of External Affairs which seems more keen to assuage possible ruffled feelings within Sri Lanka than develop and implement a foreign policy that would take the country forward.
This anxiety to hold onto position seems to have dominated the thinking of the Minister of External Affairs. The contempt in which he is held by many foreign diplomats in Sri Lanka is startling, beginning with the American ambassador who, way back in 2012, when I told her she should credit what was said by official government spokesmen such as the Minister, rather than giving weight to the pronouncements of people like Wimal Weerawansa (this was in connection with the LLRC Report), told me firmly that the Minister had lost all credibility.
That was the year when the Minister destroyed any hope of Indian support for us at Geneva, when he failed to respond to the request for clarifications sent by the Indian Prime Minister. Or, rather, he replied, and then, unprecedentedly, withdrew the letter. I still recall Aruni Devaraja, one of our more able Foreign Ministry officials, who has now made her escape from there, telling me that withdrawing letters was simply not done. This was in connection with Dayan’s successor in Geneva withdrawing the letter I had sent to Philip Alston, who was understandably enough nervous of engaging in correspondence with me. The withdrawal of my letter was the end of my shelf life as far as interactions with the UN was concerned, but I suspect Aruni was wrong in simply putting the action down to a lack of professionalism. Rather, given other priorities, getting me out of the way was a matter of urgency. I felt after that that there was no purpose in my going to Geneva, and turned down the President twice, though the third time round I felt I could not refuse. However I stayed on the sidelines, and realized from the shambles that was going on that we had little hope of success – and that was before I knew of how foolishly the Minister had responded to the Indian Prime Minister.
Why the President continues to keep him on is a mystery, unless it be the well known Southern trait of gratitude, and the continuing affection Namal Rajapaksa has for his mentor. The latter has even gone to the extent of suggesting to a group of young MPs that they propose to the President that Prof Pieris be made Prime Minister, but that suggestion was thankfully resisted. Meanwhile the other possible reason the President has is what he proffers, that there is no one else. But that is an absurd idea, given the capability of people such as the Leader of the House, or D E W Gunasekara who was once appointed to act in the position.
That the President does understand something of the problem is apparent in that he had recently asked yet another person, of some intellectual capacity, to take up the position of Deputy. That individual told me he would not touch the position, but that I should. But having once as a great concession offered to take up the job when the President told me he had no one capable, and been insulted for my pains, I made it clear that this was not something I would ever let myself in for. Entertainingly, in regretting my refusal to vote for the impeachment of the Chief Justice, a Deputy Minister told me that, if not for that, I would have been made Deputy Minister of External Affairs. To avoid such a fate would alone have been a good reason for not voting as enjoined.
But, even if the President understands the position – and so obviously does the Minister of Economic Development, given the despair he has often expressed about the Ministry – the Minister will be secure given that he has so assiduously covered what he sees as the most important flank, namely the security establishment. Since he will never advise the President that the best way out of the international obloquy we have attracted in the last few years, in sharp contradiction to the support for our stance we commanded in Dayan’s time, is to have a credible national inquiry, he will remain in harness. And no one else would be acceptable to those he cultivates, since it is obvious that anyone sensible would insist that, at the very least, Sri Lanka must fulfil its international commitments, that promises once made cannot be forgotten.
It is doubtless because of the determination to follow an ultra-nationalist line that we have blundered so spectacularly with regard to the Darusman Report. The official government line is that we have had, and will have, nothing to do with it or what springs from it. But the fact is that government did send a representative to meet the Secretary General before the Report was issued – an activity which Wimal Weerawansa’s agents tried to attribute to me, though I believe it was Mohan Pieris alone who made the journey, and came back with a characteristically rosy report. True the Minister did not seem to approve of this bu,t given that fact, it was neither sensible nor convincing to officially ignore the report, while at the same time getting sympathetic journalists to give it maximum publicity.
Pottiest of all were the responses to the Report which pretended not to be responses. An account of what had happened should have been set out in 2009, but nothing was done about that until after the Darusman Report became public. Then, instead of responding immediately, the two books that were produced were fine-tuned for ages, and came out finally in a bulk that made them unreadable. The book that described the humanitarian assistance had several appendices, whereas the allegations were few and should have been addressed briefly and direct. Worse, the book that dealt with the military operation did nothing at all to rebut the various allegations which Darusman had recorded. When I pointed this out, I was told that this was not the place for dealing with those. I insisted that that had to be done, and was then told that that task had been entrusted to the Chief of Defence Staff, but of course nothing was produced in that regard.
So rebuttal has been left to a number of very capable Sri Lankans in their private capacities, but for them to get even basic information to build up their responses has been a trial. Most recently, when the Americans issued a misleading tweet, the individual who has produced a detailed refutation of most allegations asked for information as to the place the Americans had mentioned, but his explanation of how there were errors in the tweet was not taken up. Indeed, there was no formal calling in of the American ambassador, with a polite but firm request that the misleading tweet be withdrawn – but such tools are beyond the use of a Minister and a Ministry that prefer to walk sideways rather than do anything straightforwardly.
Thus we have managed to render useless the very elements in the UN that supported us steadily, and which are as much a victim of Darusman as the Sri Lankan state is. When the report came out I pointed out that we could use the positive correspondence we had with the UN to rebut several allegations, but this was not done. The suggestions I made as to clarifications that should be sought were ignored. So we have now allowed the Darusman Report to become canonical, whereas a few short and sharp questions, with an obvious identification of clear falsehoods, would have reduced its impact considerably. But this had to be done officially, since obviously there is no reason for the world at large to credit what individual Sri Lankans say in their private capacities. Similarly, while respecting the confidentiality considerations of the ICRC, we should have coordinated responses with them to allegations about which they had information. I tried to develop dialogue on these lines with the Head of the ICRC who had studied the papers and was clear that the collateral damage that had occurred was not to any great degree culpable. But such dialogue was not what the ostriches running policy in this regard could contemplate, let alone practice.
The myopia that may well destroy us more effectively than Prabhakaran and David Miliband together in 2009 is best exemplified by the response to the Kerry communique. Far from trying to meet the Americans half way, those in authority saw this as a sign that the Americans were beginning to accept that we had done the correct thing throughout, and would soon come round totally.
This false optimism, which is based on the assumption, which is quite contrary to the indications he has given, that the President wants to do none of the things he promised, has extended now to assuring him that all will be well after the Indian election, and we ourselves do not have to do anything to improve our situation. I am reminded then of JR Jayewardene twisting and turning in the years between 1983 and 1987 as he avoided action, and was forced gradually to concede, but always doing too little too late. So I wrote once that he assured us that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, during his discussions with India in 1986, but in the end the rabbit he pulled out of his hat was General Zia ul Haq. The idea that the Ministry of External Affairs has tried to convince the President that Mr Modi will play Santa Claus is preposterous, but I fear that that is the type of advice and advisors the President has to put up with.
All this is based on the assumption that somehow we can avoid implementation of the 13th Amendment. Because the advisors believe that subterfuge will win the day, no attempt has been made to analyse the 13th Amendment, see if anything in it is potentially dangerous, and then develop mechanisms to avoid those dangers. Instead we are doing nothing about the vast areas in which the strengthening of local administration – and concomitant local accountability – would immeasurably benefit the people.
The President I think understands this, for he was very positive about the ideas I suggested be discussed at the negotiations government had with the TNA. But the history of those negotiations makes it clear why we are in such a mess. The President put me promptly on the delegation when I pointed out there had been no progress over the preceding three months, and in the next three months we saw much progress, in part because I insisted on meetings being fixed on a regular basis. The government also put forward suggestions of its own, that I had proposed, whereas previously it had simply listened to what the TNA put forward, and then failed to respond despite promises.
I managed to change all that, and my suggestions of a Second Chamber – to strengthen the influence of the periphery at the Centre – and of strengthening Local Government bodies were both well received by the TNA after G L Pieris, after having first said that nothing new could be brought in at this stage, turned up with elaborate proposals in both respects. I realized later that he must have consulted the President, and found him as always willing to move forward. But having got the agreement in principle of the TNA, Prof Pieris did nothing further.
Even worse, he did nothing about an area on which we had got substantial agreement. Nimal Siripala de Silva, who should have been in charge of negotiations, given his very positive approach, insisted that we see the President about what had been agreed with regard to the concurrent list and, after some discussion, the President told us to go ahead in most areas. But when we came out and told Prof Pieris to draw up a paper, he demurred, and in response to the point we made, that the President had approved, he told us that, if things went wrong, it would be his neck that suffered. I could not understand this at the time, but later I realized that he did not trust the President but was worried about the Secretary of Defence objecting. The simple expedient of preparing a draft, and discussing any concerns he might have with the Secretary, as well as with the President, was not something that Prof Pieris was willing to contemplate, given that he saw himself as an obedient servant rather than an adviser with special professional capabilities.
The last straw for those who thought continuous delay would win them kudos occurred when Mr Sumanthiran and I produced a draft that dealt equitably with the question of land powers. Based on the Constitution and existing practice, it was designed to assuage fears all round, fears we both recognized were genuine on either side. But the President was told that I was selling the pass, and indeed called me to tell me not to concede too much. Ironically, he did this without seeing the draft, whereas other members of the TNA delegation, having seen what Sumanthiran had agreed to, had said he had conceded too much. But the obvious solution, of discussing the matter and returning finally to a settlement on the basis of our draft, was avoided because my colleagues at this stage, having described me as the TNA member of the government delegation, stopped informing me about meetings.
The opportunity to move forward, on the basis of the very reasonable approach the TNA was taking in 2011, was thus lost. By the next year they were of the view that international intervention would get them more, but I still believe that, despite the resolution passed in Geneva in 2012, discussions would have taken us forward. But by then the President had been assured that it was only a matter of time before the TNA came on board, and so he insisted on them joining the Parliamentary Select Committee, while refraining from introducing as a basis for discussion the material that had been agreed on for this purpose in the preliminary discussions.
So we now have a Northern Provincial Council in which the TNA has a massive majority, and what seems to be increasing confrontation whereas, had negotiations been conducted sincerely when the TNA was happy to talk, we could have laid down guidelines for the smooth functioning of the Northern Administration. But even now it is clear that there is room for compromise, given the moderate leadership of the Council, and the voting pattern which showed the support of the Northern people for moderates, not only Justice Wigneswaran, but also Mr Sidharthan of PLOTE, which had stood firmly against the Tigers right through the last 20 years. But instead of working productively with such forces, government seems to have decided that provoking confrontation is the preferable option. Taken together with the playing up of what is termed the current serious LTTE threat, it seems as though, as Israel did with the PLO so that Hamas became more powerful, government wishes to polarize, in the belief that elimination of the moderates will make it easier to deal with what can be presented as extremist forces. Unfortunately no one has told the government that Israeli tactics are based on absolute support from the United States, whereas we are in a very different situation.
So even on a very simple matter like the appointment of administrative officials for the Province, government has dug in its heels. This is despite commitments, and I must admit to deep sorrow that I find that now Lalith Weeratunge, who I felt was the one element close to the President that worked solely in the interests of the President, was also now losing his credibility. When diplomats tell one that the promises he made were not fulfilled, one worries about the extent to which the rot has spread. With the Secretary of Defence, who also I think does not have a personal agenda that will lead to his enhanced influence or profit, now pursuing an agenda in contradiction to what the President has committed to (as seen most obviously in the criticism of the LLRC that the Defence Ministry website engaged in, as well as in the effort to prevent the Northern Province election being held), it would seem that the President will be enmeshed deeper and deeper in the trap that he believes has been set for him.
The Minister of Economic Development seems to believe nothing can be done, for he had told a former envoy in Geneva that the West was determined to get the three brothers, and there was nothing that could be done to save the situation. Given his maneuvering skill, one doubts that he would take all this lying down, but I am not sure that the suggestion that was made, that there were ongoing discussions with the Americans, is plausible. Given the fate of those who did engage in such discussions after initial animosities, Colonel Gaddafi being a prime recent example, to say nothing of Mr Yanukovich, such discussions would not guarantee success.
Rather it seems as though the President has been persuaded that, along with a little help from Mr Modi, another election in Sri Lanka will solve all his problems. But the evidence of the last round of Provincial Council elections shows that the old magic does not have the same effect. And meanwhile within the government itself there are cracks, not only in terms of the bitterness of the old SLFP Ministers who feel sidelined, but also in more obvious animosities that affect those who have most influence with the President.
The last two weeks have seen significant developments in this regard. The problems caused by the Bodhu Bala Sena, which has led to increasing worries amongst the Muslim countries that supported us so solidly in the past, have now spilled over into efforts to undermine other elements in the governing coalition. Then the Government Whip on what was erroneously termed the Casino regulations was ignored by large numbers. Wimal Weerawansa was amongst these, and he then launched a scathing attack on other elements in the government, including it would seem the Secretary of Defence, with whom he had previously been associated. Though it has been claimed that this is a ploy, designed to check out general feelings, such ploys necessarily contribute to an impression of weakness.
The problem has been heightened by Namal Rajapaksa, and many of his friends, being amongst those who failed to vote. Whether this was because of other commitments he thought more important, or a way of showing opposition to economic activities associated with an uncle he does not get along with, cannot be said with certainty. But that was followed by him missing the Youth Conference, of which he was supposed to be a Co-Chair. Again, this may have been because he wanted to lie low after the attack on Opposition members who visited the Mattala airport, an attack strongly condemned by the Speaker, yet another uncle he does not get on so well with. But it is also said that he was not happy that the prime role was given to a Minister who is amongst the most sensible and moderate members of the Cabinet and also has the confidence of the President.
Given President Rajapaksa’s political skills, I have no doubt that he will be able to overcome these problems if he puts his mind to it. But he has some hard choices to make and, whereas he was able to make hard choices when he had an opponent worthy of his steel, namely Prabhakaran, the absence of real opposition seems to have softened him. Whereas he needs now to throw the rats off the sinking ship, and thus enable it to sail forward easily again, his instinct is to try to keep everyone happy, and so he will try to sail on with rats and all.
That would be a recipe for disaster. Recently a young Member of Parliament, Vasantha Senanayake, put forward a motion to amend the Constitution to limit the Cabinet to 30 members. The bill was gazetted, and should have been presented to Parliament on May 8th. It would then have been submitted to the Prime Minister for his observations, and would then come up for Second Reading after six months.
This would have been a great opportunity for the President to show his commitment to reform. Senanayake had put forward many admirable proposals to the Parliamentary Select Committee (which does meet on occasion, though even its members do not seem to take it seriously except for what I would describe as a hard core of those who appreciate what Parliament could be and do), but he had chosen one to concentrate on because no one sensible could oppose this. He had, it should be noted, taken the precaution of informing the Secretary General that the Amendment should become effective after the next election, so that the vast numbers now in the Cabinet would not feel threatened.
But the Bill was not presented. Someone has got at the President, it seems, and convinced him that the Bill should be opposed, evidently on the grounds that it restricted the President to just one Ministry, that of Defence. But if the President indeed felt strongly about this, he could have had that clause amended. The basic principle, that the country needs a small cabinet, that could function as normal cabinets do, and take collective responsibility, was something he should have welcomed.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa who achieved the great victory of 2009 was someone who could take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. In an interview on his initiative, Senanayake mentioned that everyone said terrorism could not be defeated militarily but President Rajapaksa proved the opposite. So too, whereas it is claimed the appalling constitution J R Jayewardene introduced cannot be changed, Senanayake believes President Rajapaksa has the capacity to achieve another miracle. Whether he will be energetic enough to overcome the current negative perceptions of his government, and inspire the traditional SLFP to support him in a reformist agenda remains however a moot point, given the vested interests that need the status quo to remain. And thus the opportunity for a gr Presidency may well be squandered, and the defeat of the Tigers become simply a passing element in an ongoing tragedy of confrontation based on personal agendas rather than the national interest.