When I read of, and hear, the President expressing concerns about an international conspiracy to destabilize his government, and topple him, I feel immensely sad. One reason is that what he fears is not entirely without foundation.
The idea was put to me, quite politely, by the head of the Sri Lanka desk at the UN, who said that, whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa had been a good leader during the War, perhaps someone else was better suited to lead during peacetime. The young man from our Embassy who had accompanied me to that meeting said the same proposition had been put to Nivard Cabraal. Both of us repudiated the idea, and indeed I recall citing Tolstoy in this connection, given the theory he had put forward in War and Peace, about the visionary Alexander having to take over after the practical soldier Kutuzov had won the war. I have no idea what arguments Nivard used, but I have no doubt that he would have shared my conclusions.
The Tolstoyan imagery was pertinent with regard to the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. This seemed to me rank wickedness, and I believe some European ambassadors shared my view, for they told me – at a farewell lunch I gave the two nicest of them – that they knew what he was like, and could not understand what some of their colleagues were up to.
I am not sure that the Americans, who were foremost in the venture (or at least some of them, for I cannot believe that thoroughly decent people like the then Social Affairs Officer Jeff Anderson were involved) were actually wicked. I have long learnt that one should never attribute to wickedness what can be put down to stupidity. I suspect then that those who still had some values but went along with the idea thought that Sarath Fonseka would split what they saw as the extreme vote, and that this would enable Ranil Wickremesinghe to win.
Ranil however was sharper than them, and withdrew – which is perhaps what prompted Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at the Christmas Party given by the then Deputy British Head of Mission, to say that the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.
Sarath Fonseka lost conclusively – despite Sara’s efforts to suggest the election had been fraudulent – which is why the protests I suspect had been planned never got off the ground. But the American extremists had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, because Mahinda Rajapaksa abandoned his visions, and a new homespun Kutuzov emerged.
For with Fonseka as his principal opponent, Rajapaksa had to cover that flank as it were, so that it was extremists who played the largest role in his campaign, not the fundamentally decent and moderate SLFP leadership. And so they have emerged as the strongest influences on policy in the government.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa seems to be the leader of this group, but while his ideas have some congruence with theirs, I believe he is a more serious thinker, and his apparent support for extremists arises more from security considerations. The President told me once that he had been prepared to give up a substantial portion of police powers until the incidents connected with the abortive visit to Oxford, the repercussions of which have not been sufficiently analysed.
Indeed the TNA said something similar, in claiming that much of the land around Palaly that is now in the possession of the army was going to be given back to its rightful owners, but the decision was altered after the debacle at Oxford. Sadly, despite his reliance in other respects on his intelligence services, Gotabhaya has not bothered to investigate what really happened in relation to the Oxford visit, and why one of his most decent officers had to leave England suddenly, setting off an immense propaganda onslaught about our vulnerability to charges of war crimes.
But this brings me to the second reason for my sadness, which is that we simply have not bothered to think out ways of dealing with whatever conspiracies exist. Indeed, instead of thinking of them as conspiracies, we should view them as strategies to achieve certain ends, and should ponder as to whether some of those ends cannot be granted, whilst ensuring that we sacrifice nothing of essential worth. Instead, carried away by self-pity about the nasty world outside – and not reflecting on how Sri Lankan politicians too engage in nasty stratagems to gain their ends – we engage in blustering and categorical denials, many of which have had to be reversed. And when we reverse direction and do things we should have done of our own accord, we get no credit, but rather increasing contempt, and a determination to tighten the screws further, since that seems the only way to get us to move.
So we never responded to the very moderate report put forward for a Congressional Committee headed by John Kerry, the current Secretary of State; we appointed the LLRC only after Ban ki Moon had appointed his own commission, and we allowed the appalling Wimal Weerawansa to protest outside the UN compound; we did nothing about the excellent interim recommendations of the LLRC, which would have taken the wind out of the sails of much criticism, which the hot air of the Darusman Report helped advance; we took ages to adopt and act on the recommendations of the LLRC, and indeed we have kept many areas outside the purview of the effective and efficient officials ostensibly in charge of implementation.
And we have not bothered to engage. In the two years before the war ended, and in the short period afterwards when I was Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, we hosted several visits by UN officials. In fact there were three by the Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced (a factor practically ignored by the Darusman Report and also the Petrie Report, which was designed as a knife job, not on us, but on the various UN officials who had been so positive about Sri Lanka whilst still enunciating and helping to promote international standards with regard to victims of conflict).
But there was no Ministry for Human Rights after the 2010 election. This was entrusted to the Ministry of External Affairs, even though its Secretary made it clear that it did not have the capacity to handle the matter. He did think that they could handle the external aspect of this, but this too was a disaster for, as my former staff who had been transferred there said, letters were never answered. In fact it took three years for engagement to be actively pursued, and it is only now that we are thinking of inviting the assistance of the Working Group on disappearances, a Group of dedicated professionals with no agendas of their own, whom I had met with frequently when I was at the Ministry.
The biggest problem the President faces is the absence of think tanks with regard to not just policy or also strategy. Other countries implement their policies through study of people as well, which is why for instance we had the shameful effort to suborn army personnel. But the manner in which Patricia Butenis reacted to that episode should have made us realize that she was a fundamentally decent woman. Though she had to stand by her staff, she would have welcomed assistance with reining in the more nasty of them (we have some very strange people in this office, said Jeff, when I was trying to understand what was going on), provided we also helped her to achieve her policy objectives where they did not run counter to our own interests.
Jeff told me that he thought the best friends Sri Lanka had in the State Department were Bob Blake and Patricia Butenis, and I believe him. The former had lived through the war with us, and understood the horror of the Tigers. Even though he was tougher in 2009 that was, as he said, because he now worked for a different administration, and we should have built on his understanding of the situation.
Patricia was tougher when she first came out, and I think was gung ho about the Sarath Fonseka strategy (as she was about everything). But in the Snow White imagery that helps to structure my analysis of what has gone wrong, I see her as the Huntsman, sent to execute, but having second thoughts. Certainly there was a period between 2010 and 2011 where we could have addressed her concerns without sacrificing our own. And even though she had instructions to be tougher after the Darusman Report came out, concerted action on the LLRC would have helped to win her round and make her a more effective advocate on our behalf.
But, as she put it, the last time we engaged positively with each other, both waiting to see the Secretary of Defence, we were ambiguous about the LLRC. I thought she was referring to Wimal Weerawansa’s antics, and said she should rather rely on what those officially in charge of the matter were saying. She wanted to know who they were, but when I said it was G L Pieris and Mohan Pieris, she just scoffed. Neither had any credibility any more, she said, with the international community. I thought this was an extreme position, but I fear that the lady was more perceptive than I was.