By Rajiva Wijesinha –
When I wrote some weeks back about the supposed Norwegian involvement with the Bodhu Bala Sena, I had not seen the clarification which the Norwegian Embassy had put on its website about the allegations. Having read it, I am more than ever convinced that the Norwegian government and its embassy have not behaved badly, but also that they, and also the Sri Lankan government, must go more carefully into the matter and check on what exactly has been going on. If they can do this together, so much the better, though I fear that neither side will have the correct skills and attitudes to ensure fruitful and productive cooperation.
The reason I believe investigation would be useful is because of two names I noticed in the official Norwegian statement. One is that of the Worldview International Foundation, which is essentially run by a gentleman called Arne Fjiatoff, who has been in Sri Lanka now for several decades. During this period he has been involved in a range of projects with various Sri Lankan governments, which are in theory designed to benefit the Sri Lankan people, but which have also brought considerable benefits to Arne himself.
I was introduced to him initially by Dilanthe Withanage, the other name I noticed in the statement. Dilanthe has now emerged as the lay spokesman for the BBS, though I knew him earlier in another very positive incarnation, as running computer programmes for the Ministry of Education when I was Adviser there on English. Though I took on the position mainly to reintroduce the English medium option, given the paucity of capacity there at the time, I ended up involved in many other initiatives, ranging from curriculum revision to primary English materials.
I had been appointed by Tara de Mel, who I still think was one of the best Secretaries of Education Sri Lanka has had. Her involvement with Arne however surprised me, for she did not seem to have realized that the project he had suggested through Dilanthe, and which I was asked to comment on, was expensive and not likely to prove productive. As always with such unsolicited projects, it included the purchase of a great deal of software, for which it seemed a loan would be available, though the terms did not seem especially favourable. And my suspicions were roused further when Arne referred to the benefits there might be for me, including travel to Norway and consultancy payments.
I realized then how he had been operating over the previous decades, given how easy it is to win the support of government officials through what is not strictly bribery, but rather the provision of what seem enormous benefits, given the joys and profits of foreign travel. Incidentally, it seems that that is what the Norwegian government did try to do with the monks it had taken to Norway, though the benefits conferred do not seem to have produced any positive results in that instance.
I was negative about the project and tried to keep my distance, though after Tara ceased to be Secretary she had me over to see Arne again about what seemed another far fetched scheme which also seems to have been forgotten. I should note that it is a pity government has not since 2005 tried to make use of Tara’s services since, though she was understandably loyal to President Kumaratunga who had entrusted her with major responsibilities, her abilities were unquestionable, and she would bring similar professionalism to bear in any other position. Given current problems with education, we cannot afford to ignore people of talent and ability.
Dilanthe I felt was the same, so I was glad to see him back in harness at the Presidential Secretariat in relation to I think the Trilingual Initiative. I also saw that he was associated with a website called Sithamu, for which I was asked to write, and which seemed to me to provide space for a range of interesting and constructive articles.
That had initially been a project of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, and I believe it had received Norwegian funding through either the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF) or the Nordic International Foundation (NIS Foundation), both of which are mentioned in the Norwegian Embassy statement. What exactly was achieved through their support is not clear, except for the visit to Norway by Dilanthe and the monks, in connection with a Reconciliation Conference which does not seem to have had any productive outcome. The NIS Foundation is said to have then supported a reconciliation project, but what this was is not explained.
Earlier this year Sithamu suddenly stopped functioning, which seems a great pity. I was told that funding had run out, but I cannot understand why the Ministry and the Norwegians who funded it were not able to continue to provide support, since very little would have been required for a functioning website, with no payments required for contributors.
I believe it is important, given the worries caused recently by what seem BBS initiatives, for the Ministry and the Norwegian Embassy to look carefully into what has happened, and make details public. I should note that one of the ways in which Arne sold himself, I believe throughout his stay in Sri Lanka, but certainly at the time I met him, was by claiming that he had good connections with the Norwegian government and in particular Eric Solheim. I do not think it is only my own worries about Solheim and the generally destructive effect he has had on Sri Lanka that makes me think the Norwegian Embassy would do well to find out exactly what Arne’s role has been in promoting contacts between BBS personnel and Norway, and also in providing funding for any projects. Why the project stopped, and what happened to any remaining funds should also be looked into and disclosed.