By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise: Grumpy 2
So his attitude seemed to harden with the passing years. Also, sadly, even though he might not have been ambitious himself, he seemed to see himself as the principal guardian of the victory the forces had won, with an obligation therefore to block the way of those who were anxious to give more political powers to Tamil politicians. Though, under threat from the LTTE, some of these had seemed to subscribe to the LTTE ideology, in fact most Tamil politicians were moderates who were relieved that the LTTE had been vanquished. They were prepared to disavow terrorism as well as separatism, but they were anxious to exercise political power in predominantly Tamil regions, at least in terms of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. But those who were opposed to even that limited devolution, on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to separatism, saw Gotabaya as their champion, and he came in time to articulate their views with increasing assertiveness.
An extreme example of this came when, in 2013, with the President making preparations to have the long delayed Provincial Council election in the North, he declared publicly that it should not be held. Ironically, according to the President, he had been in favour of holding those elections a few years earlier, soon after the war ended, which would have been a sensible move, and would have led to a better result for the government. It was Basil then who had insisted on delay, on the grounds that his building programme would ensure more and more support for the government. But by 2013, more perceptive perhaps than Basil about political realities in the area, perhaps realizing too how he had contributed to increasing unpopularity, he came out strongly against having a poll. And typically this occurred while one of the more extreme coalition partners of the government, which was seen as close to Gotabaya, had introduced a Bill to amend the Provincial Councils Act so as to water down their powers. So powerful did this combination seem, even though the evidence of elections had made it clear they had minimal popular support, that it was feared the President would back down.
But he went ahead and elections were held. The TNA won handsomely, with the determination of the Tamils to vote against government increased perhaps by what seemed strong arm tactics on the part of the forces against a candidate who was identified closely with the LTTE. She did remarkably well, which might well have been predicted.
This makes one wonder why the forces should have got involved, and indeed it was so foolish an action, were they the perpetrators, that one wonders whether she herself had arranged the attack, given that only she could benefit. However there had been previous instances of such folly on the part of the forces, as when a meeting of the TNA had been attacked some months previously.
That incident was bizarre, because by the time the violence occurred the TNA representatives had finished speaking and left, and until then, they said, what were clearly soldiers in mufti had behaved with restraint. When I asked the Jaffna District Forces Commander what had happened, he said that his orders to behave correctly had been disobeyed, as a result of provocation by one of the later speakers, a Sinhalese member of a small radical party. But I could not understand why he did not then take forceful disciplinary action. Apart from the fact that soldiers should under no circumstances react violently against civilians unless they are themselves in grave danger, it was possible that there were members of the forces who had no affection for the government, nor for Tamils (following the approach of Sarath Fonseka before his conversion), and they had no qualms therefore about aggression that could bring the government into disrepute. Government was only playing into their hands by refraining from disciplining them.
But Gotabaya seemed beyond such considerations, in what seemed wholehearted endorsement of what the forces did. Another example of this occurred in Weliweriya, in the Gampaha District, where the forces opened fire on some demonstrators and killed a couple of young men. It was argued that the demonstrators had intended to provoke, which was doubtless true, but that did not explain why the forces reacted as the provocateurs wanted. And though Gotabaya granted that the incident was regrettable and needed to be looked into, it was not apparent that disciplinary action was in fact taken against those responsible for undue violence. Indeed, as usual, the report of the inquiry that was held was not made public, nor any action taken on the basis of that report publicized.
Matters were complicated by the army insistence on secrecy with regard to such disciplinary proceedings. Thus, when the LLRC report came out, and the Army Commander appointed a Commission to look into matters it had raised, he kept the matter quiet. I told him that he should at least publicize the fact that an inquiry was being conducted, but he said that was not their practice. Predictably, when a couple of months later he told an American envoy what was being done, there was a newspaper report to the effect that, under American pressure, an inquiry was being conducted.
I used to believe it was simply a foolish and unthinking adherence to British practice, that the British themselves had changed, which led to such secrecy. But I realize too that this is an easy way of actually avoiding serious action. If what is done is not made public, then it is very easy to do nothing, or very little. Certainly there seems to be no evidence that the forces have taken disciplinary action commensurate with obvious breaches, or have looked systematically into the abuses as to which, according to the LLRC report, there are credible allegations.
So Sri Lanka finds itself under continuing suspicion. While I believe we must resist efforts to have international investigations (not least because the manner in which the Darusman Panel conducted itself leaves open to question both the motives and the methodology of those who will be imposed upon us), our internal investigations must be credible. This means that they should be conducted not by the forces, but by an independent panel. That we have amply qualified people for this purpose is obvious from not just the LLRC (which those opposed to us said previously would be a whitewash) but from the Udalagama Commission which looked into the Trincomalee incident amongst others. The failure of government to publish the report of that Commission testifies both to the objectivity of the report and the incapacity of government to deal with anything that does not conform to its own myopic perspectives.
In this regard Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s determination to defend his forces from any criticism, regardless of what they might have done, may in the end prove decisive in ensuring the success of the campaign to denigrate Sri Lanka and its government. This in turn will set the seal on the failure of the Rajapaksa government to promote reconciliation within the country and thus build sustainable peace following its military victory. But Gotabaya would cite precedent for his intransigence, namely the approach of the Israelis, whom he sees as a model with regard to dealing with terrorism. Certainly the new settlements that are being introduced in the North, even if not as blatant and widespread as what the Israeli government has perpetrated in Palestinian lands, seem based on the Israeli approach to ensuring control of a recalcitrant minority.
Gotabaya could cite precedent too for ignoring UN reports, given how the Israelis dealt with the Goldstone report. But the idea that Sri Lanka can work as Israel does is preposterous, given that we do not have the support of the Americans, who have made it clear that they will nullify any international criticism of Israel. And of course Gotabaya’s approach goes hand in hand with actions designed to alienate India, which might have provided some sort of a shield against international condemnation, even if not as thorough a one as the Americans furnish Israel with.
This continuous jibing at Inda led most recently for example to a more than usually flagrant insult to India in a column by Shenali Waduge, who has become the commentator of choice on the Defence website. That, which was run by professionals during the conflict, turned into a loose cannon afterwards, dedicated it seemed to promoting the Secretary to the Ministry, whose public appearances and pronouncements were given prominence – quite unlike what had happened previously, when he had been content to remain in the background. Then, a couple of years back, Shenali Waduge was discovered, and featured prominently, as she also is in government newspapers.
On this latest occasion the Indian High Commission had protested, and the article was removed. This was accompanied by an ‘unqualified apology’ and the claim that the article ‘had been published without appropriate authorization and not reflecting any official position of the Government of Sri Lanka or Ministry of Defence and Urban Development’.
This is unlikely to convince anyone, not least because the article had been accompanied by a ridiculous cartoon, which was not the work of Ms Waduge. And the fact that she, and those expressing similar viewpoints, have been featured prominently on the website as well as in government newspapers, is not likely to have escaped the notice of the Indian government.
My attention had been drawn to this phenomenon a few years back by an Indian journalist who had covered the conflict, and whose balanced reporting had made it clear that our forces had not behaved in the appalling manner they were accused of. She expressed regret that the Sri Lankan government was so negative about India, and when I said I did not think this was the case, she pointed out the many articles attacking India that seemed to have official sanction. I did raise the issue subsequently when the management of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises, and asked if this was policy. To my relief I was supported by almost all other members of the Committee, whether from government or opposition, though one said that we had a right to defend ourselves when attacked. But when I pointed out that the Indian government, far from attacking us, had supported us solidly in our fight against terrorism, he too granted my point.
The Secretary to the Ministry said there was no policy at all to attack India, and later thanked me for the intervention and said it would help him to exercise some control. But he proved powerless, for the attacks continued. Clearly the influence of the Defence Ministry, and the Minister of External Affairs who took his cues from Gotabaya, was too strong for him. The sniping continued, and Shenali Waduge, joined in 2014 by Senaka Weeraratne who had worked at the Peace Secretariat but whom I had had to restrain because of his chauvinism, which was expressed with astonishing insensitivity, became the most publicized writers in government publications. Denying them after they were given excessive publicity was a foolish step. Some sort of remedial action is needed, and it is to be hoped that Gotabaya, or the President if Gotabaya believes he can get away with this sort of behavior again, calls a halt to such effusions in state outlets.