By Rajiva Wijesinha –
I was quite flattered recently by a mention of one of my books in the review by Michael Burleigh of Talking to Terrorists by Jonathan Powell. Powell, incidentally, had been a few years junior to me at University College, as was the current British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who is of a very different political persuasion. The mention is only in passing but, given that my book has been totally ignored by our own establishment, it was heartening – ‘One book that does not figure in Powell’s bibliography is Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Best of British Bluff, in which this smart Sinhalese intellectual mocks British interference in his nation’s affairs.’
Unfortunately the mention came in the week when any hope of claiming the moral high ground with the British, which we had managed to do successfully half a decade ago, was swept away. What had happened to Chris Nonis had, I was informed, prompted a perhaps kindly, perhaps patronizing, comment from Hugo Swire, to suggest to the High Commissioner that he might now understand why the British had such a critical view of our government. And certainly many of us, who had hoped that our President, given his once shrewd political instincts, would recognize the need for reforms if the dangers the country faces are to be averted, have had to accept that the seal has been set on the self-destruction into which we are catapulting ourselves.
I cannot see how this can be avoided, but since we have to keep trying, I did point out to the President the need for radical rethinking. To do this successfully, he also needs to reflect on the past, and to understand why we are now in such a weak position, in contrast to the respect in which we were held for a year and more after the conclusion of the victory over terrorism. I should stress that, whatever his current weaknesses, the country must be eternally grateful to him, and to the teams he had in place to deal with the range of problems the country faced, for the relief we have had since 2009.
The decline began in November 2010 when the President had to leave England in what seemed disgrace, after the cancellation by the Oxford Union of the speech he was scheduled to deliver. The tragedy is that he had been advised not to come by the then High Commissioner, as also by our Deputy High Commissioner in London at the time, Mr Amza, a brilliant diplomat who has also now become a victim of the anger of those who run foreign policy on the President’s behalf. I suspect the anger is because of the advice he gave. Certainly the then High Commissioner, Nihal Jayasinghe, was nervous about expressing his views in writing, given the forces in favour of the visit. He did however bring himself to write in the end, but his advice and Amza’s was over-ridden. It was after that disastrous episode, compounded by General Gallage having been advised to leave the country hastily in what could be presented as fear of prosecution, that the decline in our international reputation began.
I do not think that fact was a coincidence. Less than two years later, the same trick was tried on Douglas Devananda. Our then Ambassador in Geneva came home to find that his bags had been packed, and he was about to be taken to the airport. When she asked why, she was told that the President had advised him to leave, since he might otherwise have been arrested. The message had come through Sajin Vas Gunewardena.
Tamara, who knew given diplomatic conventions that Douglas was in no danger at all, called up the President, who said that he had been told Douglas was worried. He had merely acquiesced in what he thought was Douglas’s wish, to get away. The message again had come through Sajin Vas Gunewardena.
In this case prompt action by Tamara saved the day. Otherwise one can imagine the reports of a Sri Lankan Minister fleeing Switzerland for fear of arrest, and the gloating of LTTE supporters, as had occurred when Gallage left hastily, and when the President had to come back with his tail in effect between his legs, having been debarred from the Oxford Union.
Such foreign policy debacles have never been investigated. How can they be, when the Minister who is supposed to be in charge of foreign relations is so nervous about losing his position that he simply acquiesces in every debacle? And in all fairness to the man, he contributed to what Lalith Weeratunge has described as shaping the situation, when an attempt was made to sow bad blood between the President and the lady who is now the Indian Minister of External Affairs.
This was in 2012, after India had voted against us at the UN Human Rights Council, something I felt had been a mistake. I believe Sushma Swaraj felt the same, for she had always been positive about Sri Lanka, and was even more so than usual when she headed a Parliamentary delegation that visited us soon after the defeat in Geneva.
However the President had told Lalith, shortly before he was due to meet the delegation, that he wanted the meeting cancelled. The reason was that he had been told Sushma Swaraj had been critical of him at a dinner hosted by the Indian High Commissioner – and that Nimal Siripala de Silva had seemed to acquiesce in her comments.
Lalith realized something was amiss, and persuaded the President that he should check on the facts. Both Basil Rajapaksa and G L Pieris said that nothing of the sort had happened, and indeed Sushma Swaraj had been her usual positive self. Lalith felt therefore that he had set things to right. Sadly it had not occurred to him to find out what had prompted the President’s ire.
I was able to tell him because a few days earlier Harsha Navaratne of Sewalanka had described how Kshenuka had come up to the President, at the funeral of the mother, if I recollect aright, of the Air Force Chief, and spun him her tale of woe. The President had believed this, perhaps in line with the Goebbels view that, the bigger the lie the more it would command credibility, and had left the place in high dudgeon.
Unfortunately, though the President increasingly now loses his temper when things are not going well, his anger never lasts long for him to want to analyse what has happened. So now he readily dismisses problems as arising from that he claims is an international conspiracy. The altercation between Sajin Vas Gunewardena and Chris Nonis he thinks is connected with the fact that ‘a section of the international community is plotting against his regime to set up a puppet government in the country’, which is the picture he is reported to have tried to present to the Sri Lankan community in Italy, when he recently went to the Vatican, accompanied as usual by the pretty pair.
Whilst it is not an excuse for reneging on commitments, I can accept that the President is not entirely wrong. The attacks on us whilst we were fighting against terror, the subsequent canonization of Sarath Fonseka, the effort to use Sri Lanka as a case study for the extreme version of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, all suggest that we need to be careful. But what the President should also consider is why we seem as a nation to fall into all the traps that are set.
Michael Burleigh’s reference indicates that Sri Lanka can deal with threats if the country is able to use intelligent elements who are familiar with all aspects of the international community, and know how to work with those who can help us, whilst firmly opposing unwarranted interference. But with the President the prey of those who attack the intelligent, whilst also aggressively undermining the image of the country, I see little hope of escape. And that means that the victories of 2009 will be wiped out, a tragedy for which the President will have only himself to blame if he is unwilling to embark on the reforms the country, as well as the leading lights of the SLFP, so anxiously desire. To continue to rely on those who came in through the back door, and who fuel his suspicions of those who were his partners in politics when the going was difficult, is a blunder that will cost the country, and the party, dear.