qrcode.26458058If G L Peiris moved only gradually into seeing his principal role as advancing the agenda of the Secretary of Defence, his intellectual counterpart in the inner echelons of government, Mohan Pieris, had from the start been associated with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He began his rise to the position of Chief Justice by being Advisor to the Ministry of Defence. His reputation at the bar, after he had left the Attorney General’s Department, rested however on his commercial skills, and his main use initially was to advise on arms procurement for the Ministry of Defence.

Gotabhaya had set up a dedicated agency for this purpose, and it seemed an extremely good idea in a context in which, for years, arms procurement had been a cash cow for favourites of the incumbent President. Jayewardene had set the ball rolling, with indulgence of his Secretary, a former very junior public official called Menikdiwela, whose son became a well patronized dealer in arms. Premadasa was exempt from this trait, but Chandrika Kumaratunga allowed free rein to the children of both her Secretary, another not very capable official called Balapatabendi, and her Secretary of Defence, a distinguished public servant called Chandrananda de Silva. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government took things a stage further, when the offspring of his Minister of Defence, Tilak Marapana, a former Attorney General, also got into the game.

Obviously dishonesty with regard to arms purchases also required the connivance of some serving officers, and there were many in the forces who believed that an unholy combination of corrupt civilians and military men were actually determined to keep the war going so they could continue to line their coffers. In this regard Gotabhaya was seen as a breath of fresh air, and the measures he took to ensure that money was well spent, and the forces supplied with both materials and motivation to take the war to a conclusion, was immensely appreciated. Mohan’s role then in the arms procurement agency set up through the Ministry was also highly respected.

Mohan indeed seemed a refreshingly decent addition to the team that went to Geneva during Dayan Jayatilleka’s tenure. I first attended sessions of the Human Rights Council in September 2007, when Mahinda Samarasinghe led a delegation that also included the then Attorney General, C R de Silva, and two of his brightest staffers, Yasantha Kodagoda and Shavindra Fernando. They seemed however conservative in their outlook, and were clearly not willing to move with regard to any of the issues as to which Sri Lanka was facing criticism. In particular, the Attorney General was not willing to bring a prosecution with regard to the killing of five youths in Trincomalee, in which everyone agreed that members of the Special Task Force (not an army unit, but belonging to the police) had been grossly guilty.

Mohan came to the next session I attended, and seemed infinitely more gentle. We knew that CR was due to retire soon, and Mohan was one of the candidates to replace him though, as he was seen as an outsider, this was not viewed with favour by members of the Department. However, given his very civilized approach to human rights in general, and his frequently repeated assertion that it would be a relatively simple matter to bring a prosecution, it seemed that he would introduce new and much needed liberal perspectives into the Department.


I was a strong proponent of Mohan being appointed

Dayan was certainly of this view, but he was also perspicacious enough to note even then a weakness in Mohan that ultimately proved fatal. He told me, having seen Mohan in action with the Rajapaksa brothers, that he reminded him of the classic Mafia lawyer, who would argue even the worst case with apparent sincerity in the service of his masters. He also added that, while Mohan was able to assert his liberal beliefs with both the President and Basil, he was embarrassingly respectful to Gotabhaya. Dayan indeed imitated Mohan standing attentive with his hands behind his back as Gotabhaya asserted his opinions.

Despite this, having also met CR’s deputy at the Department, who did not seem half as able or articulate as CR himself, I was a strong proponent of Mohan being appointed. I argued the case once with the President, and Mohan indeed thanked me later and said he had been summoned and told to be ready to take up the appointment. However it was put off, and he was most depressed when I met him next and said there had been second thoughts.

Mohan was a Catholic, and indeed a devout one (frequently leaving meetings early on Sundays to go to Mass). In a perception about what government priorities should be that was increasingly gaining ground amongst those commited to the war against the LTTE, it was argued that the chief positions in government should be given to Buddhists. We were indeed seeing a rerun of a conflict that had developed during the early years of Mrs Bandaranaike’s first government, when what was called ‘Catholic Action’ was seen as deeply inimical to the country itself.

There may have been a grain of truth in this as regards the attitude of leading members of the Catholic hierarchy at the time, given that this was before Pope John XXIII’s hugely liberalizing impact on the church. The Western allegiance of leading Catholics at the time could not be gainsaid and, while their influence was not very great, it came under greater scrutiny when the majority of officers, army and police, who plotted the coup against Mrs Bandaranaike in 1962 were found to be Christians. It was not thought germane that the leading political influence on these officers was a Sinhalese Civil Servant with close ties to the UNP???? So one of the consequences of the planned coup was ruthless takeover of Catholic schools, to break the back of what was thought a nursery of anti-government thought. But this was not in fact necessary, for Catholicism itself was changing, and by the early seventies the church was much more radical. At that stage most of the remaining Catholic schools handed themselves over to government control, in the belief that an integrated system of education was best for the country.

With regard to the forces, it was less easy after the 1962 attempted coup for Christians to get into the forces, though interestingly enough Tamils and Muslims were recruited freely, until the rise of the LTTE put a brake on this. It is worth noting though that there was never any formal stoppage of recruitment of Christians, and indeed a comparatively high proportion of officers who served in important positions during and after the war were Catholics.

In Mohan’s case certainly the objection did not seem insurmountable, but I found that when I next spoke to the President, he was less receptive. However I had to stay on to discuss other matters on that occasion, and indeed we were joined by both Basil and Gotabhaya, and I was able to explain with regard to another problem that came up that Mohan would be the best person to solve it. That seemed to have done the trick, with Gotabhaya also there to reinforce the point. Soon afterwards Mohan was called by the President and given the appointment. Mohan told me however that the President had made one condition, namely that after his appointment he call on the leading Buddhist prelates of the country, the Mahanayakes of Malwatte and Asgiriya. So it would seem indeed that there had been forceful objections to Mohan with regard to this point, to the extent of insinuating that he was so committed a Catholic that he would not pay respect to Buddhist dignitaries. But that was not in the least a problem for Mohan, and after his appointment he duly made the required visits.

Soon after that appointment I think I noticed that Mohan was comparatively less accessible, and did not for instance return calls with the assiduity he had evinced before, but I did not take this too seriously. What was indubitably serious was the hostility he exhibited towards senior members of the Department, refusing for instance to include Yasantha on delegations to Geneva. Shavi had by then moved to the Foreign Ministry as Legal Advisor, so he came anyway, but the much more dynamic Yasantha was obviously persona non grata. Instead Mohan initially sent a couple of youngsters who had no idea what was going on, and contributed nothing. Later he sent a more senior man called Nawaz, who was more responsive to issues but obviously could not speak at the Council, an exercise in which Yasantha used to be most impressive.

Mohan Pieris

I continued to be deeply appreciative of Mohan’s input.

Still, I continued to be deeply appreciative of Mohan’s input, and in particular what seemed his similar commitment to promoting Human Rights whilst not deviating from the goal of getting rid of Tiger terrorism in Sri Lanka. I also got quite close to him personally, and felt deeply sympathetic when I was told that his only daughter had died when she was in her teens. Mohan used always to bring his wife when he came to Geneva, and he told me that he could not leave her alone at home since she was always thinking of their daughter. Later I was told by one of his relatives that the couple had suffered deeply, which was entirely understandable, but also that Mohan’s personality had changed after the tragedy. The implication was that he had then allowed ambition to take him over, and that he had been a much nicer and more accessible person beforehand.

But he always continued charming when we met, and he was a useful support to Dayan when pressures were brought to bear on Sri Lanka as the war was drawing to a conclusion, and then when, in the aftermath, the West moved for a special session against us. Dayan however, with support from a host of sympathetic countries, was able to have a resolution passed supportive of our position rather than critical. This involved much negotiation, and though later there was criticism that we had compromised, Mohan was one of those supportive of the changes which were entirely in line with commitments made independently by the President previously, in communiqués signed with the Indian government and with the Secretary General of the United Nations.

But soon after that session I sensed that something had changed. Dayan told me later that Mohan had expected to make the final speech at the session, whereas Dayan had wanted me to do it, he himself having spoken at the inception of the session. Mohan had seemed happy with this, but Dayan said he had prepared a speech, and was not very pleased that it had to be omitted. And I suspect the publicity both of us received had been an irritant, since cutouts of us appeared, along with Minister Samarasinge, and Mohan himself was hardly mentioned.

I should add that I told Dayan I thought we had also made a mistake in refusing to go out to dinner that night with the Minister and Mohan to celebrate. I was actually exhausted, and simply wanted to sit down quietly in the comfort of Dayan’s home, but I think this was seen as unsocial and arrogant of us, and probably the Minister and Mohan were not very happy that we left them to themselves. Certainly the next time I saw Mohan, at the ordinary session of the Council in June (I had stayed on in Europe, to attend the wedding of a friend in Hamburg), he told me that the Secretary of Defence was very angry with me.

3 Dec 2014 – http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/35696

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