I have been mostly away for some weeks, but that is not the only reason I did not talk about the appalling violence that occurred in Aluthgama almost a month ago. I was waiting, because I hoped that this would be a turning point for the Presidency. I hoped that, in reacting to violence that goes against the principles on which he has twice won the Presidency, the President would free himself from the polarizing shackles that have fallen upon him.
I fear that nothing of the sort has happened, and it is possible that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka was right, if prematurely, in suggesting that the Mandate of Heaven might have passed. He said this a year back, after the Weliveriya incident. Though I did not agree with him then, I must admit that he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than I did. But, like him in his recent claim, citing Juan Somavia, that this man should not be isolated, I think it would make sense to continue to urge reforms from within.
There are signs that this will not be a hopeless task, given the recent visit of the South African Vice-President, which our Deputy Foreign Minister said very clearly in Parliament sprang from an invitation from our President, who hoped to learn from their experience. Wimal Weerawansa will of course claim that his threats have worked and South Africa will not interfere, but his capacity to delude himself, and assume the world is deluded too, is unlimited, and we need not worry about that. Obviously South Africa had no intention of interfering at all, because like all those in the coalition Dayan Jayatilleka built up in 2009, she subscribes to the basic UN principle of national sovereignty. But she has clearly been invited here in the hope that we might be able to move forward, and get out of the morass into which, with much help from ourselves, we have been precipitated.
Underlying the South African involvement, which is why Wimal and his ilk are so negative about it, is that she also believes in adherence to commitments any country makes, which include the instruments arising from adoption of UN mechanisms, as well as bilateral agreements we have freely entered into. I have no doubt then that South Africa, if they are going to help us, will do so in accordance with basic principles that we have sadly forgotten, including the need to implement our own recommendations. Unfortunately our Minister of External Affairs does not understand this, which is why he failed to respond to Indian requests for clarification, and has allowed a situation where the Americans can correctly say we speak ambiguously, and refer to the dominant discourse of Wimal Weerawansa and those of similar mind. But the determination of the President in welcoming Cyril Ramaphosa and facilitating his visit to the North to talk to the Chief Minister there makes it clear that he is not the prisoner of the extremists as they would like us to believe.
But he will need to move more swiftly in this regard than he is doing at present. In particular he must take both corrective and remedial measures with regard to the violence unleashed by the Bodhu Bala Sena, and he must ensure that the Secretary of Defence not only denies complicity but ensures that the forces under him make it clear that the approach of the BBS is totally unacceptable.
The Secretary understands the problem, as his recent effort to convince the media that he is not guilty shows. But mere denial is not enough, given the circumstantial evidence that has piled up against him. And as I kept saying even in the heady aftermath of the war, blanket denials cut no ice, when even small bits of evidence suggest the contrary. That is why it is necessary not only to affirm one’s innocence, but also to act in a way that makes crystal clear one’s repudiation of the very mindset that celebrates the opposite.
Whether the Secretary is mature enough to do this is another question. The manner in which he has protected some soldiers, not from prosecution, which would be understandable if he believes in their innocence, but even from a transparent investigation (while therefore sacrificing the army as a whole to the machinations of those countries who have cynically pursued us for crimes they commit with impunity every day) suggests that he is still a Colonel. So he cannot see the entire theatre of war, concentrating on just the battlefield in which he has been involved. That is why he should take the advice of his senior generals, who fought hard and generally fairly, but also knew that in any war there are aberrations. But he has gone beyond the stage of taking advice from those who disagree with him, and so those generals who understand the whole picture, but whose decency prevents them from being bought over, have to remain stoic while the criticisms of them, and our country, mount up woefully.
The similarity with what is happening with the BBS is instructive. Clearly the Secretary did have some involvement with the BBS, which the BBS chieftain now claims was only at the behest of a Norwegian. To cite the full explanation, ‘He says it was the wish of the Norwegian well-wisher of Kirama Wimala Jothi Thera, who funded the centre to have Gotabhaya as the chief guest. “We were also invited and we went there. Finally, innocent Gotabhaya Mahattaya got himself labelled as a supporter of the BBS,” the monk says.’ (The implied contrast between innocent Gotabhaya and the guilty others is instructive)
It was probably this same well-wisher who ensured that the Norwegians provided funding to Dilantha Withanage, to set up a trilingual website. The Norwegians may well have done this through the best of motives, but they should have checked on what was happening to their funding, and intervened when the website came to an abrupt halt – with the remaining funds being siphoned off it seems to the BBS. But what is more interesting, and which the Secretary should look into, is why the well-wisher wanted him involved – and whether the perceptions of softness towards the BBS after that are justified.
In that context his interview is revealing, because he oscillates between claiming that he had no responsibility at all for the lapses – ‘The Police doesn’t come under me, it’s a different Ministry in itself. Why am I blamed?’ – and then making it clear that he does in fact call the shots – ‘ However, what you have to understand the action taken by the Police. I was in Mihintale and the IGP and the Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order was also there. As soon as we got to know about this I knew it could escalate into something unwarranted because the area is a very sensitive one. Even in 2007 there was a similar tension in this area. I immediately instructed the IGP to go to Aluthgama. I also requested the secretary of the Ministry of Law and Order to go there.’
This type of inconsistency can be explained away, but it does the President no good at all. Having finally fulfilled the LLRC recommendation to have the police under a separate Ministry, it was at best foolish to make its Secretary a retired General, even if he is one of the most decent and humane officers around. And when the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence makes it clear that he continues to call the shots, and asserts that had it not been for an assault on a Buddhist monk there would have been no mayhem, he is basically playing into the hands of those who want to present the President as a majoritarian exclusivist.
I agree with the Secretary that the President is the person best placed to solve the problems that are piling on us. But the Secretary should also recognize that increasingly the problems are seen as those being brought upon us by those the President has entrusted with running the country. From this it will be but a short step to thinking that these problems are brought upon us by the President, which would be tragic, given the solutions he gave us to earlier problems – but political realities cannot be ignored, and the last Provincial Council election results showed us which way the wind is blowing.
Disaffection is indeed mountin. No one sensible in government, let alone those in the opposition, but thinks that G L Pieris has contributed immeasurably to our Foreign Policy problems, and it is only the favour he enjoys from the youngsters who dominate the President’s thinking in this regard that keeps him in office. Similarly, despite the immense admiration that the Secretary of Defence commanded for his efficiency, he must remember that some of that credit was shared with Sarath Fonseka, and what we now seem to have is a continuing hard line without the obvious terrorist threat that justified that. It seems no coincidence that the youngsters who died at Weliveriya and the Muslims who died at Aluthgama are both at the receiving end of criticism from those responsible for law and order.
With regard to Weliveriya, the Secretary claimed that disciplinary action had been taken – ‘Look at Rathupaswala, ultimately there were three deaths and the soldiers who went to protect the civilians are behind bars.’ Unfortunately the actions taken have not been publicized, and the impression created is that the report of the inquiry prepared by a Senior General was suppressed. The Secretary’s claim now puts the matter in a better light, but surely he must see that the country needs to know what happened and what disciplinary action was taken.
That is why the President must act soon, to ensure that the primacy of law and order is restored. Recently, at a Parliamentary Consultative Committee, after the opposition MPs had left, a government MP made the point forcefully that the Aluthgama incident was a symptom of a general malaise. His is not an isolated view, and it is time the President took notice of the immense anguish being caused to so many of those who believe in him by the irresponsibility of a few.