By Rajan Philips –
Last Sunday I alluded to Geneva anxieties. Since then things have got sillier and more complicated at the same time. On Monday, the Northern Provincial Council, that has not been enabled to do anything worthwhile after its election in September, passed a resolution calling for international investigation into the last stages of the war, and for erecting a memorial at Mullivaikal to honour the civilians killed there during the war’s final phase. The Council also decided to send Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan as its representative to Geneva to speak on the question of the missing persons. The resolution seems to have come out of the blue for most observers, and certainly for the UPFA government (which lately has been losing its original SLFP blueness).
The government has not provided a response to the resolution for nearly a week. The usually truculent government spokespersons haven’t said anything, and the President appears to be too busy for serious politics given his ceremonial duties as Head of State and the urgency of picking fair candidates from film-star and night-star contenders for the forthcoming PC elections in the Western and the Southern Provinces. On the matter of the Northern Provincial Council, even after a much publicized and reportedly cordial meeting with Chief Minister Wigneswaran, the all-powerful President, I must say, has been quite simply dithering. The President did not even follow up on his reported agreement with the Chief Minister to replace the currently contentious Chief Secretary of the Province with a new appointment acceptable to both the President and the Chief Minister.
Chief Justice and Chief Secretary
That the President could not do so because of some threatened opposition by the SLAS Union is nonsense. Chief Minister Wigneswaran has already exposed the absurdity of this excuse from the legal and administrative standpoints. Politically, it is laughable that a government that got rid of the country’s Chief Justice without any fuss cannot replace a Secretary in Jaffna, even though she seems to be capable of more fuss than Chief Justice Shiranee Bandaranayake. Rotations and replacements of senior civil servants are routine affairs after elections and change of governments and these are not subject to trade union rights. No one is calling for the Secretary’s dismissal or punishment, but only an administrative change following the first ever Provincial Council elections in the North, with due compensation to the Secretary as per her terms of employment.
According to Wigneswaran, it is the frustration of powerlessness that precipitated the NPC resolution calling for international intervention. It was a rather hotheaded response to a frustrating situation that also had a lot to do with the internal politics of the TNA Councillors. It may have been an attempt to put Wigneswaran on the spot while embarrassing the government. The resolution reportedly required a lot of debate and much persuasion by Wigneswaran to avoid the inflammatory reference to ‘genocide’ in the resolution. For the amateurish TamilNet theoreticians, the exclusion of the term ‘genocide’ has inexcusably diluted the resolution. For pro-Rajapaksa, anti-Rajapaksa-advisers commentator Dayan Jayatilleka, the resolution is a “dangerous escalation” that will only weaken the hand of the President and strengthen the chorus of anti-devolutionists in the South. The fact of the matter is that the President’s hand needs no strengthening. He has the strongest political hand ever among all of Sri Lanka’s Prime Ministers and Presidents, but he also has the least willingness to use it to resolve the Sinhala-Tamil problem in our lifetime.
The hand that has been weakened is the hand of Chief Minister Wigneswaran. And the history of Sinhala-Tamil politics is being repeated now in more ways than one. It was the earlier failures to honour the agreements with parliamentary Tamil leaders that gave rise to the rise of Tamil political violence and the rejection of non-violent parliamentary politics. Wigneswaran is already beginning to experience the disappointments that befell Tamil leaders like Ponnambalam, Chelvanayakam and Amirthalingam. Rather than working with Wigneswaran and enabling the new Northern Provincial Council to carry out its mandated business, the President is duplicitously promising to work with him and then doing nothing about it.
Those of us who were associated with the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in the late 1970s and chronicled “Emergency ‘79” can see another connection. Just a month before imposing Emergency Rule in Jaffna, after which Jaffna would never be the same again, the Jayewardene government transferred out of Jaffna its then Government Agent, Lionel Fernando, a Sinhalese Civil Servant and one of the more popular GAs ever to serve in Jaffna, and replaced him with Yogendra Duraiswamy, a retiree from foreign service and a Tamil political busybody, who was also a defeated pro-government candidate in the 1977 election. Lionel Fernando was a fearless civilian interface between the security forces and the people of Jaffna. In contrast, when the army descended on Jaffna to enforce Emergency Rule, the new GA, Duraiswamy, went ingloriously missing in action until he was finally removed. It has been reported that that the present contentious Chief Secretary in Jaffna is a niece of Yogendra Duraiswamy. For those interested in family trees, they are respectively the grand daughter and the elder son of Sir Waittilingam Duraiswamy, a Jaffna notable and former Speaker of the State Council.
Preparation for Geneva
After its two botched attempts in diplomacy and communication, sending all and sundry of its myriads of hangers on, to the UNHRC sessions in 2012 and 2013, the government has sent Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga as its public face to Geneva to prepare the ground for the March sessions this year. From Geneva, Mr. Weeratunga has gone on to canvas the Americans in Washington, where the government (rather the Central Bank) is already investing almost US$ 200,000 annually in a Public Relations firm to spruce up Lanka’s image for the Americans. Keeping him in check is Sajin de Vass Gunawardena (Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs – whatever it means in the Rajapaksa lexicon of cabinet government), who apparently has been given the responsibility for handling UNHRC matters for 2014. But making power point presentations is Mr. Weeratunga’s forte. In Geneva and in Washington, Mr. Weeratunga has been just doing that dutifully.
In a selectively axe-grinding commentary, Dayan Jayatilleka has all but called Weeratunga’s salutary professional efforts a waste of time given the government’s utter lack of progress in regard to an internally agreed-upon strategy, in April 2011, to trade-off devolution for accountability to quieten the West, and the Presidential directive to start working with the TNA immediately. Dr. Jayatilleka rightfully lambastes the impertinence of Sajin de Vass Gunawardena in provoking the TNA leader R. Sambanthan into a public fury a few months later and virtually freezing all communications between the TNA and the government. More months later, the LLRC Report recommended the same trade-off loud and clear, but between lines.
Dayan Jayatilleka also pokes fun at the government’s apparent new strategy to emulate Israel’s obduracy in international forums. This is a new development following a little reported aspect of the recent multi-purpose visit of the multi-hued Presidential entourage to the Holy Land. Reportedly, President Rajapaksa sought out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advice about influencing Washington to appreciate the Sri Lankan government’s no less obdurate position. We do not know whether any notes were compared in this strange meeting about creating offensive human settlements in unwanted places. Mr. Netanyahu can give ample advice on that. But what happens then to the Rajapaksa government’s Non-Aligned Middle East policy?
While the Sri Lankan government was focusing on Washington to prepare for Geneva, Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal of the US State Department has been visiting Jaffna and London, as part of the US preparation for Geneva. On Sunday, January 26, before the NPC Resolution in Jaffna, the TNA leader issued a public statement in Trincomalee following the Central Committee meeting of the old Federal Party (ITAK). It seemed to be a point-by-point response to the government’s power point presentation in Geneva, and covered the yet unfinished, or yet to be started, business in six critical areas: Land, Missing Persons, Military Presence, Independent and Impartial Investigation, Government’s failure to implement previous agreements with the TNA, and the continued disabling of the newly elected Northern Provincial Council. The next day, the disabled Northern Council bestirred itself into a passing a resolution. All of which the government could have easily avoided.