I have a great affection for General Chandrasiri, and indeed great admiration too. This began when, in 2008, he invited me to be the Chief Guest at the Future Minds Exhibition he had organized in Jaffna. The other principal invitee was to be the Bishop of Jaffna, someone else for whom I have both affection and admiration. Though he has always stood up for the rights and dignity of the Tamil people he serves, he has also spoken out against terrorism and the LTTE.
Indeed, it is a mark of his integrity that the strongest evidence against the spurious allegations made against us with regard to the first No Fire Zone comes in the letter the Bishop wrote on the day that Zone was subject to attacks. Contrary to what the Darusman report insinuates, and what an even less scrupulous report claims was our plan to corral civilians in places where the LTTE had weaponry, the Bishop said that he would ask the LTTE to refrain from transferring weapons into the No Fire Zone. Unfortunately neither the Ministry of Defence, nor the Foreign Ministry (the latter, as Dayan Jayatilleka graphically described it, now territory occupied by the MoD), have bothered to argue against the allegations on the basis of facts and evidence from independent sources.
Unfortunately the aim of General Chandrasiri in 2008, to avoid politicians, as he put it to me when asking me for the event, was countered by Douglas Devananda doggedly turning up and taking a prominent role. I could understand then why he could not be put off, but it is sad that he did not take up the idea suggested by the General’s assertion of the need to develop human resources. Instead, even in the local authorities his party won, he allowed personal predilections to come to the fore, and did nothing for development. There was no thinking of the type of partnership that could have been set up, to train youngsters and start businesses, through a synergy of talents, with civilians being in charge but accepting advice and assistance from the military.
Similarly, the Secretary of Defence, through stubbornness or diffidence, refused to look at such ideas and allowed the forces that could have contributed so much to become objects criticism. Thus, though they have indeed done a great deal, there is little appreciation of their involvement. In contravention of the President’s urging that the people should be involved in making decisions that concern them, there was little provision for public consultation, and instead projects were imposed from above. This is a sure recipe for resentment, but the increasingly authoritarian approach of those who wielded power in the North made no allowances for the responses of the people.
This is where General Chandrasiri could have played a major part. I believe he was the right choice for Governor in 2009, and he threw himself into the role with enthusiasm. He had done this before, when he was appointed Competent Authority for the displaced who had been rescued from the LTTE, and it was only his energy and decisiveness that ensured that shortcomings at Manik Farm, where the bulk of them were housed, were overcome. Preparations at Manik Farm had been desultory before, which is doubtless why, when the bulk of those the Tigers had held captive managed to escape, he had to be deployed.
He had to work largely on his own initiative then, given that he had to deal with difficulties on the ground. But he found himself under greater constraints after he was appointed Governor. Unfortunately this did not mean trying to build up relationships with local politicians, but rather working at the behest of those in Colombo who had been given sole responsibility for the area.
These were of course predominantly the two brothers, but they, or rather Basil Rajapaksa, had given prominence also to the two local politicians he thought capable of winning hearts and minds in the North. These were Douglas and Rishard Bathiudeen, neither of whom is held in high regard except by the small coterie of their existing followers, for whom certainly they have done a lot. But the resentment even of Muslims in the Mannar District who had not benefited from the Minister’s largesse, the complaints of Tamils in the islands which were governed by EPDP controlled local authorities, expressed graphically in Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, made clear how appallingly government was failing to win support, even when it seemed to have all the cards on its side.
The consequences of all this became clear when the results of the Northern Provincial Council elections were announced. The Secretary of Defence, who had sensibly enough wanted to have the election earlier, had tried to prevent it happening, but thankfully the President had resisted pressures and kept to one of his commitments. Basil Rajapaksa, contrariwise, who had been against having the elections earlier because he thought the work he was doing would lead to a good result, had not changed his mind, and sadly the result, disappointed though he was with it, has not led to a change of approach.
Three years ago he had ignored advice from those on the ground to include respected figures in the government slates for the local elections, and had gone instead with Douglas’ nominees, and presumably Rishard’s in the Wanni. And even now, he sticks to the same strategy, heaping money for development on protégés from their parties, without considering whether continuing to spend massive amounts without proper consultation will not lead to precisely the same result as before, viz resounding victory for the opposition. Meanwhile a shrewd observation by a public servant from the area was that Rishard perhaps wanted government to do badly, because then he would be in control of the few representatives government had, whereas if there were more, his authority would be less.
And sadly now government seems to have decided to pursue a confrontational policy. The latest instrument of this is General Chandrasiri, reappointed to the position of Governor, contrary to the pledge given by the President. Admittedly the TNA was at fault in having demanded his dismissal soon after they won the election, just as they were wrong in calling him a military man even though he has retired. But given that they accepted the President’s explanation that it would be wrong to dismiss him, and that instead he would not be reappointed when his term was up, it is extremely sad that this commitment too was reneged upon.
And I should note too that it is a pity he was not advised on the need to adopt a different approach. Constitutionally, he should act on the advice of the Chief Minister. This does not mean he must blindly follow advice, and indeed he should object to anything that is contrary to the constitution. But in other matters he should not contradict the advice he is given, but should rather question tactfully anything he thinks unwise. And with regard to appointments he should certainly allow the decisions to be made by the elected Executive, though again, given his knowledge of the personnel involved, he can certainly make recommendations, which that Executive should treat with respect.
Earlier, though the President had agreed to transfer the Chief Secretary of the North, and indeed committed to this to those on our side in the international arena, that promise too was not kept. The impression then given to our friends is that we cannot be relied upon. And though sometimes I wonder whether the TNA does not welcome all this, since it can make such good political use of what seems deceitful behavior, there is no reason to play into its hands. If such conduct is a response to TNA provocation, then it should be explained clearly – and we should also think twice about falling headlong into the traps set for us through such provocation.
What is particularly sad about the government’s action in reappointing General Chandrasiri is that it could easily have simply exchanged him with another Governor. Certainly someone like the capable Governor of the South, Kumari Balasuriya, would have been welcomed by the TNA, while she could also have been firm in dealing with anything that seemed unconstitutional, whilst doing this with her customary charm. Meanwhile the South, where so many local authorities are busily building up unpopularity for the government, would have benefited from General Chandrasiri’s forthright approach.
Indeed, I cannot understand why the government does not make better use of competent retired officers for Governor positions where there is much less capacity than we now have in the North. The TNA has appointed professionals as Ministers of Education and Health, and they are well capable of taking these forward, within the framework set by the Constitution. The same is clearly not true of the Ministers in charge of those vital areas in the other eight Provinces. This is where a thoughtful and energetic Governor, such as General Chandrasiri, could make a great difference. But instead we have several very passive figures where imaginative action is needed, and we are wasting the good General’s tremendous abilities where they are not essential and where they will only contribute to a war of attrition, if not actual conflict.