One of the reasons I still continued to have hopes about Mahinda Rajapaksa was that his instincts have always been sound. This was exemplified when I called him to complain about what the Bodhu Bala Sena had been up to in Aluthgama. Instead of attempting to defend them, as I had feared, he promptly declared that they were involved in a conspiracy to bring his government into disrepute. He claimed that they were funded by the Americans and the Norwegians, and that they were determined to alienate him from the Muslims.
The story seemed to me implausible, even though I knew there was some basis for his allegations. What had been the precursor of the BBS had received funds from the Norwegians, and though I believe the Norwegian government as represented by its regular diplomats in Colombo acts in good faith, I have no similar confidence in Mr Solheim and his acolytes. One of them, who once boasted to me of his acquaintance with Mr Solheim, was Arne Fjiatoff, who had been the godfather of, if not the BBS, its principal lay spokesman Dilantha Withanage. I have little doubt, given that he has also recently been fishing in troubled waters in Burma, that he had a shrewd inkling of what they were up to.
With regard to the Americans, we have long known that they will recruit anyone to bring down what they are most worried about at any point, with no concern for possible consequences. At one stage I thought their sublime ignorance was to blame, but there is a certain callousness too, and a confidence in their own strength which leads them not to worry about catastrophes for other people. I find this wicked, and the fact that Americans claim that such behavior is only response to (other) evil empires is no excuse.
Recently, at the Congress of Liberal International in Hong Kong, I voted against a resolution urging immediate action against ISIS, not because I do not acknowledge the danger it represents, but because there was no mention in the text of the American adventurism that had led to the rise of ISIS. Unless that is registered, the world is in grave danger of similar blunders that can lead only to anarchy. I am happy to say that the British Liberal Democrats whom I upbraided agreed with me about the responsibility of the Americans for what had occurred, beginning with the illegal invasion of Iraq. But unlike the Liberals in the days of my youth, who were able to call a spade, the modern generation is wrapped up in trying to achieve a European consensus, and that consensus is swept away by the American penchant for othering – which requires total devotion to the Americans, whether promoting democracy or anarchy.
So I can sympathize with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s paranoia. But that does not excuse the fact that his brother seemed to fall into all the traps that, in his version of events, were being set by the Western conspirators through the Bodhu Bala Sena. I was able to cite statements that suggested that his own more optimistic view of how Gotabhaya had gone to a BBS meeting was erroneous – but I suspect, in the private world into which he has now begun to retreat, he would not have bothered to check on the statement of the BBS that I cited, nor to trace the foreign sympathizer who had suggested drawing Gotabhaya in.
The President instead went on to claim that the next step in the conspiracy was to draw him into conflict with the Catholics. It seemed clear that he was conscious now of possible dangers arising from what had earlier seemed a masterstroke, the invitation to the Pope around the time of a possible bid for re-election. But what he could not have anticipated was that a possible catalyst would be his closest confidante, Sajin Vas Gunawardena.
A recent article in a website gave an account of Sajin’s explanation to a friend about what had happened with regard to Chris Nonis. Though the website is I believe one that is opposed to government, the account squares with what I heard from Chris himself. The stress was on Sajin’s anger that Chris seemed to have a close relationship with the President, exemplified by his regular visits to Colombo, which were informed only to the President. This, Chris told me, was in accordance with the agreement he had reached when he decided to accept the post of High Commissioner, which he had earlier said he could not do, primarily because of his need to be in Colombo regularly. That agreement had not however caused problems, until Chris became prominent, because of his work over the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the manner in which he dealt with the international media, which no one else had been able to do successfully after Dayan Jayatilleka and I were cut out.
After much muttering by G L Pieris – which had led the President to draw attention to his complaints in public – Chris was formally asked for an explanation, to which his answer, after consulting the President, was that the matter had been discussed with him. This was too much for Sajin, who then asked for a meeting, but Chris, being an equable sort, had agreed to Sajin’s suggestion that he should be kept informed of visits. But that too does not seem to have been enough for Sajin, who had made it clear that what he saw as insubordination was what had – in consultation with the Foreign Secretary, he had indicated – prompted the move to get rid of Chris.
But there was another element in his tale which explains how he managed to get the President on board. He mentioned in his tale that he had ridiculed Chris by calling him a Portuguese. What he did not mention was that he had tried to compare Chris to the Portuguese of an earlier period who had been the enemies of Sinhala Buddhists. This, it will be noticed by those who follow the writings of those favoured now by the Defence Ministry and the government press, is a popular theme, extending to efforts to claim that Joseph Vaz was a foreign agent.
The President should ask himself why Sajin too is playing this game. Following the logic of his instincts, he should wonder whether Sajin, or whoever is pulling Sajin’s strings, is not an agent of the Americans or the Norwegians. But instead of thinking for a moment, the President fell straight into the trap, and accepted Chris’s resignation the minute he heard that the insult about the Portuguese had been conveyed to the Cardinal. Instead of wondering why Sajin had said such a thing, he affected to believe that Chris had made it all up, and was also part of the conspiracy to destroy his electoral prospects.
Certainly a Cabinet Minister who was present when he rang up Chris to check on what had transpired between him and the Cardinal told me that he had never heard the President lose his cool to such an extent. The tirade seemed symptomatic of someone in a state of imbalance, which is not unlikely given how easy it now seems to play on his feelings if only the word ‘conspiracy’ is mentioned. But what is astounding, given that the President also tends to cool down quickly and reflect on what has really happened, is that he did not do this in the current situation, and did not bother to wonder as to why Sajin had brought up the matter. Even if it was assumed that Chris is a gentleman and would not talk, this detail gives the lie to the claim that the whole matter was resentment at the independence Chris had shown being exacerbated by alcohol.
I cannot believe though that Sajin is actively planning to bring about the downfall of the President, for he must realize that he would not be considered a great asset to anyone else. The other possible explanation then is that he is working with those who do believe the President must present himself as the representative of a majoritarian outlook, and who therefore believe that alienating all minorities is essential, since otherwise the generally urbane Mahinda Rajapapaksa will see himself as the President of all Sri Lankans, as he has tended to do in the past.
One of the consequences of the last election was that the President felt more beholden to the champions of extremism who had been his most vociferous supporters against Sarath Fonseka. Such individuals may feel that the present election offers the best hope of winning the President over completely, and will therefore support the polarizing campaign of the BBS, whether or not this is supported by shadowy elements from outside the country.
The President should realize that this is a win-win situation for extremists, both those who want to remodel him as their champion, and those who want to get rid of him without worrying about the long-term effects of polarization. But I feel increasingly that the President is past caring. Like Barack Obama, who did not have the strength to break loose from the war mentality that dominates policy making in Washington, Mahinda Rajapaksa too it seems will take the easy way out, and disappoint the hopes of those who voted for him.