1. In a series of articles entitled “Enemies of the President’s Promise: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs”, you have chronicled the degeneration of the regime from its glorious days into an autocratic regime with no vision or direction for itself and for the nation it claims to protect from international conspiracies. How would you look back on the performance of the regime?
It has been extremely disappointing. Though talking to the President sometimes encouraged one to think he would move, there has been disappointment after disappointment.
2. Who are the key figures behind the powerful oligarchy within the Government that led to the birth of a system of sycophancy which virtually besieged President Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Of the seven dwarfs the worst influence was Basil, who thinks politics is about fooling people, which I don’t think was the President’s position before. He was also entrusted with all development work, but he cannot plan coherently, and thought pouring in cement would win hearts and minds. Then Namal was a destructive force, because the President does understand Basil’s shortcomings but he is incapable of checking Namal. In fact his reaction to criticism of his indulgence to the children is instructive, in trying to justify the helicopters – whereas Namal claimed they only had toy helicopters.
The two Peiris twins were sycophants of the highest order, but more to what they thought were Gotabhaya’s wishes than to the President, which led them to let down the President when he tried to do good. Gotabhaya I think more honest as a human being, but his recent political ambitions have spoiled him. Lalith Weeratunge I know regretted what was happening, but did not have the courage to set the President right, which is a pity because in his heart the President knows Lalith is the only person who can be trusted.
And finally there is Sajin, to whom the President is devoted, which beggars belief (and the nation too).
3. You were the head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) from 2007 to 2007. How would you revisit the pivotal role played by Norwegians in the peace process in general and Norwegian politician Erik Solheim in particular?
I think the Norwegians in general behaved very well, and the ambassadors I dealt with stood up to the LTTE. In my time the Monitoring Mission was headed by a Norwegian who was balanced, and helped me overcome the prejudices of some of his staff. There had been some prejudice before against Sri Lanka and its unity, most obviously on the part of a Swedish General who had headed the SLMM – I failed to get the Foreign Ministry to register protests officially about this, though I did my best. Also I think the ambassador at the time of the Ceasefire Agreement being signed was indulgent to the LTTE because he had been here in the eighties and was influenced by the excesses against Tamils of the Jayewardenepura government. Finally, I found Solheim shifty, and have said so to those who approved of him, beginning with Mr Bogollagama. It was a great pity he had so much influence at the time, because I think his agenda was always a selfish one, a view shared by the Norwegian Liberals with whom I was in contact.
4. How would you assess the impressive performance of the first term of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was able to militarily defeat the LTTE and restore peace in the North and the East and successfully countered a negative resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva?
The achievements of his first term were impressive, and this is something to which a new government will continue to give credit. He understood then the importance of a clear strategy, which the forces were able to develop and implement, and he also understood the importance of ensuring international support, as to which the key was cooperation with India. He had excellent diplomats in place to ensure Indian support as well as to prevent multilateral criticism. Our weak point was London, where Kshenuka Seneviratne failed to stop machinations against us, most obviously the resolution against Sri Lanka which Britain tabled in Geneva in 2006. Dayan fought that off, but then he was replaced just after the war by Kshenuka, who had boasted in 2008 that she would get rid of Dayan. Indeed the Foreign Ministry tried to shift him before the end of the war, and it was only the personal intervention of the President that kept him on to so forcefully defend us during the Special Session the West instituted.
But then things fell apart, the President allowed Dayan to be sacked, which Dayan claims was because of Israeli anger which influenced Gotabhaya. And those who are prejudiced against India were allowed full rein. Sadly Lalith Weeratunge seems of this persuasion, which contributed to the feeling that the President was lying. But I would like to think he meant what he said when he made commitments to India, and it was only his weakness in allowing those around him to bully him that led to changes.
5. In the aftermath of the war in the North and the East, President Rajapaksa made a firm commitment to India that he would go beyond 13th Amendments to the Constitution ( 13th Plus) which unfortunately he did not keep and that also contributed to the diplomatic estrangement between Sri Lanka and India. Your comments…
I agree that that was a disaster, and I still cannot understand why the President did not move on anything. He had a two thirds majority, and he could easily have moved, in a way that would have ensured National Security, while permitting devolution so that the people in all our regions could have made decisions about what affects them closely. I told him this often, but he said he might not get a majority. When I said that the SLFP in general was moderate and would support him, he said that I did not know them, and that he was the one who had to win elections.
What is sad is that India did not ask for the plus, which was a commitment he entered into freely. Indeed to me he once said that, with the North East Merger nullified, he was willing to give not just powers in education etc, which I was concerned about, but even police. He also said that Gotabhaya had been willing initially to give community policing powers, but changed his mind after the Oxford debacle, for which Kshenuka and Sajin were responsible.
The then Japanese ambassador told me he could not understand why we did not move, and mentioned the Second Chamber, which is in the Mahinda Chintanaya. The President instructed Lalith to move on this when I told him this, but nothing happened. In the end I think the problem is that there was no commitment of anyone in authority to move on the President’s pledges, and by the middle of his second term he had lost interest in reform and saw himself as simply serving the interests of his friends and family, while keeping the voters happy with what he saw as sops. Since the Indians were not voters, I think he saw no reason at all to ensure that they continued to support us. Indeed one of our High Commissioners said that Namal thought it was better for us to lose in Geneva in 2012, since that might win more electoral support in Sri Lanka. That may explain why we threw away the support the Indians had pledged.
6. Partial or total absence of a coherent foreign policy and bureaucratic skullduggery spearheaded by some unscrupulous elements in the Ministry of External Affairs aided and abetted by monitoring MP at the expense of the national interest, seemed ultimately resulted in making Sri Lankan foreign policy a laughing stock in the arena of international diplomacy and at international forums. Absence of coherent foreign policy and skullduggery currently going on in the Ministry of External Affairs led to the dismissal of not only Dayan Jayatilleke and Tamara Kunanayakam but also the recent “removal” of Chris Nonis as the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in UK. Your comments…
I think there is no doubt that the main aim of those who make decisions regarding foreign policy is to do us down. I do not think this includes G L Peiris, but because he wants to keep in with what he sees as the views of the Defence Secretary, he has not given sensible advice, about the need to ensure good relations with all, and especially with India. He also allowed those in charge of multilateral relations to ruin the good relationships we had built up with many Special Mandate Holders of the UN Office of the High Commisisoner for Human Rights. We also failed to build on the good relations we had with many UN officials who worked here during the war, and did not enlist their help, which I suggested in a long letter, after the Darusman Report came out. Also the Foreign Ministry does not care about evidence, and now has no idea of where the Peace Secretariat documents are, that would show we did our best during the war to observe international law.
The key to understanding the disasters that have befallen us is the role of Kshenuka, whom Treasury officials have suggested had improper dealings with the LTTE. But the audit report they produced has been suppressed, and even the President now seems happy with her, perhaps under the influence of Sajin and Namal.
7. In a series of articles entitled ‘A Presidency Under Threat – Presidential Insecurities’, you have offered an in-depth analysis of the crisis and also offered your suggestions to reform the Sri Lankan Foreign Service, elevating it to the status of a truly professional foreign service. What are the salient reforms that you envisage towards that end?
The following is a shorter version of what I wrote for the Reform Agenda series currently appearing in http://www.colombopost.net
Tightening up Foreign Policy and Foreign Relations
1. Amongst the principles we should adopt is ensuring regular engagement with all countries and in particular with the United Nations. Whilst safeguarding our sovereignty, we should respond to concerns with understanding of the issues involved, and should fulfil any commitments we enter into.
2. Responses must be based on clear policy guidelines, which should be laid out. The most important of these is ensuring good relations with India. This cannot govern domestic policies, but there should be good and reliable communication with India as regards such policies, with the understanding that any commitments cannot be violated.
3. Within a broader framework that also lays down the need for promoting multilateralism, there should be flexibility. There should be regular consultative meetings of senior level Foreign Ministry officials. If these happen each week, there should also be provision, on a monthly basis, for consultation of officials of relevant Ministries. Such meetings should be minuted, and decisions / action points notified to relevant officials with provision for feedback.
4. We need to build up collegiality within the Ministry. Whilst there are good reasons sometimes for appointment of non-career individuals to Head of Mission posts, all other posts should be for members of the Diplomatic Service. They should be required to submit brief regular reports on their activities.
5. There is also need of a wider professionalism. Government should establish at least two high level think tanks. Existing government managed institutions could be upgraded, but should function independently and have research staff who could produce position papers and suggest responses to international developments. In addition, they should have a training wing, which develops communication skills in addition to the capacity to analyse. They should also publish journals to which diplomats are expected to contribute.
8. The dismal performance of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Minister in charge of the subject Prof. G.L. Peiris in general and Foreign Service in particular, has resulted in losing the much cherished victories that Sri Lanka gained in the arena of international diplomacy such as UN Human Rights Council adopting a resolution on Sri Lanka, calling to investigate the alleged human rights violations in the last phase of the war and de-proscription of the LTTE by the European Union, permitting the LTTE to operate within the 28 EU member countries. Your comments…
I agree that GL has been a disaster, largely because he serves his own ambitions, which has led, as Dayan put it, to the Ministry of External Affairs being occupied territory by the Ministry of Defence. He does not think about what will benefit the country, and devotes his energies to cutting down possible rivals like Chris Nonis.
9. With the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, President’s term limit was removed allowing him to go for the third term, for the first time in Sri Lanka. Is it a step towards absolute dictatorship, leading to concentration of political power in the hands of a dynasty?
Yes, it is a pity he did not use the stability he claimed the removal of term limits would bring to make necessary changes. I can see why he did not want to be a lame duck, but in fact he became worse than a lame duck in allowing his actions to be dictated by those who follow their personal agendas, political and financial.
10. What are short term and long term repercussions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a third term?
Disastrous, because we will be subject to fierce criticism internationally, which will lead to economic decline. The hard line his closest supporters pursue will alienate many countries, and both investment and tourism will suffer. In the long term this will encourage the small minority which still hankers after the LTTE agenda and they will be strengthened. That is why we need a change most of all for the security and unity of Sri Lanka.
11. Isn’t it the need of the hour to abolish the omnipotent Executive Presidency and to depoliticise judiciary, Bureaucracy in general and Diplomatic Service in particular?
Absolutely, so I hope Maithripala Sirisena will be elected with an even larger majority than we sense at present.
12. What would you envisage the immediate reforms that the common candidate Maitripala Sirisena could make to restore rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom of media? According to you, the powerful members of the “dynasty” control the economy and Colombo Stock Exchange seems to manipulate by a group of “friends” with direct links to a powerful member of “dynasty”. Your comments…
When the common candidate wins, he will easily command support to fulfil his agenda, most importantly to restore the rule of law and ensure a level playing field for economic activity rather than the crony capitalism we suffer from now. We also need more consultation of the people with regard to development activities, and better financial monitoring.