So too it was individuals associated with Gotabhaya who made the Indian government feel it had been betrayed, which contributed to India supporting the American resolution against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2012. After a meeting with the President, the Indians issued a statement to the effect that a commitment had been made to proceed with devolution in terms of the 13th Amendment, but a Presidential spokesman denied this. There was no effort by the Foreign Ministry to reassure the Indians, and a letter sent by the Indian Prime Minister seeking clarification went unanswered – or, rather, the Minister of External Affairs, having sent an answer, then withdrew it, with a lack of professionalism that would have been startling had this not by then become endemic in that Ministry (which, as a shrewd observer put it, was territory occupied by the Ministry of Defence, which in turn was territory occupied by the Israelis).
Gotabhaya’s fatal misunderstanding of the way the world functions became apparent when, in 2009, he was instrumental in having our Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva removed. Dayan Jayatilleka, handpicked by the President for the job, had initially been close to Gotabhaya, and indeed helped him with procuring arms from different sources at a time when some Western nations were trying to impose an embargo of sorts. But it soon became clear that they had very different perspectives on the purpose of winning the war, and Gotabhaya proved the decisive factor in enabling the then Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, to have Dayan unceremoniously dismissed. This was in July 2009, just a couple of months after he had staved off a forceful attack on Sri Lanka in the form of a Special Session requisitioned by the West.
I used to think that this was mainly because Dayan had articulated forcefully the need to proceed with devolution immediately after the war, and got involved in protracted argument in newspaper columns with journalists close to Gotabhaya. But it transpired later that the Israelis had long been pressurizing Gotabhaya to have Dayan dismissed, given the leadership he provided in Geneva to the Palestinian cause. Once there seemed no further need for Dayan, since he had prevented interventions that might have stopped the war and let the Tigers off the hook, Gotabhaya obliged his patrons.
That Dayan’s dismissal upset the Indians, and indeed the vast majority of countries that had been in the forefront of support for Sri Lanka during the war, meant nothing to Gotabhaya. In fairness to him, what amounted to adherence to an ultimately Western agenda may have seemed to him sensible, since he had also obtained support for the war from the United States Defence Department, during the hawkish days of George Bush. Certainly, even as late as 2013, he was expressing confidence that the United States would not press a case against Sri Lanka, since he felt the Defence Department was fundamentally on his side. He seems not to have understood that the Defence Department in the United States carried much less influence on government than he himself did in Sri Lanka. And he certainly did not understand that Israel’s primary motive was self-preservation, and that they had no worries about the consequences for Sri Lanka of Dayan’s dismissal, provided they got rid of a potential threat to their own power.
Despite his aggressiveness, Gotabhaya commanded a lot of affection as well as respect. As one perceptive Member of Parliament put it, the others around the President who perverted his purposes did it to pursue their own, whereas the actions and pronouncements of the Secretary of Defence were in fulfillment of ideals he wished to fulfil. These might have been extreme, and in terms of ultimate goals muddle-headed, but they were undoubtedly sincere, and went beyond the aims of ambitions of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in himself.
And, while clear about what he deplored, he was willing to listen. I had found this when I first met him, not indeed having recognized him when I was seated next to him at a dinner party way back in 2006. When he introduced himself, I mentioned a pet topic of mine, the need to recruit Tamils to the military, but was told that that was not possible at that time, because of security considerations.
I had expected this, so I told him that what should be done was to recruit them into the Cadet Corps, where they would not have access to weaponry or other opportunities for sabotage. This was in accordance with another project I was concerned with, namely the development of English teachers since the Ministry of Education was clearly failing in this task.
Gotabhaya took up the idea enthusiastically. He put me in touch with the Commandant of the Cadet Corps, a retired general who was full of enthusiasm, and we formulated a project. The Ministry of Education kept blocking it, and in the end we worked with the Ministry of Provincial Councils which could recruit teachers to provincial schools, and within a few years the first Tamil Commissioned Officers of the Sri Lankan army for years (along with Sinhalese and Muslims too) were commissioned and deployed to schools. Sadly, I found out later that, far from the process being replicated, the Ministry of Education had blocked any subsequent efforts at such recruitment.
Another instance in which I found him immensely practical was when I asked him, shortly after taking over as Head of the Peace Secretariat, in June 2009, about opening the A9. This was the road that passed from the south, through LTTE held territory, to the Northern Jaffna peninsula which was held by the government. I had started a process of consultation with the citizenry of the North, and the Chambers of Commerce told me that they were put to great inconvenience in that the road was open only three days a week, and all goods had to be checked carefully for security reasons.
The solution my Director of Economic Affairs propounded was to buy a scanner, which had been suggested to him by UNOPS, one of the new UN agencies that had been set up to deal with operations in difficult areas. I thought this absurd since the checkpoint was not far from conflict affected areas, and any even slight explosion could render the scanner – which would cost around $6 million dollars – inoperative. But the head of UNOPS, an Austrian I thought had his own agendas too, said that they would find money for another.
As usual he sounded as if the largesse of the UN was unlimited, but of course such purchases came out of the very limited funding available for Sri Lanka. I thought instead that I should ask the Secretary of Defence whether he could have the A9 opened more regularly. He rejected the idea straight away, but gave me the reason, which was that the LTTE had attacked the line of defence in the North after sending cadres in a bus in the guise of civilians, who had suddenly opened fire when stopped for checking.
But I had not been talking of the North, but rather of the checkpoint at Omanthai which was at the south of LTTE held territory. The response of the Secretary was that he would open that seven days a week if I wanted. When I asked him why he had not done so, he said that the ICRC would not let him. He could not or would not tell me why.
So I wrote to the ICRC, the head of which called me and said that he could not explain on the phone, but wanted to see me. When we met, he said that the ICRC could not monitor such transit points unless it was agreed by both parties. When I asked him whether the LTTE had objected, he said his discussions with the parties had to be confidential. But he was an amiable soul, who got on well with government, and he seemed readily to acquiesce when I said that, since I was asking him on behalf of government to have the road open more regularly, it was clear that it was the LTTE that was objecting. I therefore formally asked him to check with them, and he said he would.
But there was no response by the time of the next meeting of the Coordinating Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, which was chaired by the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, but held at the Ministry of Defence. This was before I became Secretary to the Ministry, which happened only in June 2008. The question of the scanner, which had been entrusted to the Peace Secretariat, came up, and I said it was too expensive, and I thought it better to open the road on a daily basis. The Minister asked why this had not been done, and the Secretary of Defence responded that he would be happy to have it open if the ICRC agreed.
I asked that this be minuted, though I had indeed, having checked the draft later, to have it inserted. I kept then pushing the ICRC, and sure enough, a couple of weeks later, they said that the road could be opened 6 days a week. Entertainingly the media unit of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (which the Norwegians had put in place to monitor the Cease Fire Agreement) issued a release to the effect that this followed on an LTTE request, but by then I had established with the Head of the SLMM that their weekly releases had to be approved by us before going out to the press. I pointed out that we had made the request, though I said I would not object to it being claimed that the decision was by mutual agreement.
This of course was another example of the brilliant propaganda of the LTTE. Having ensured the closure of the road for half the week, which caused economic hardship, they placed this at the door of the government. Given our own lack of coordination, and our failure to investigate systematically, and understand and respond to, the problems of the citizenry, we allowed them a field day.
The problem the Secretary of Defence faced was that few people actually spoke to him openly. This was a pity because, though he had a tendency to lose his temper easily, he was always willing to listen, and generally responded positively if his pet concerns were not endangered. Thus after I had been appointed Adviser on Reconciliation, I set up several dialogues, including with military involvement, with his support. In addition to the main political and educational and youth groups, I also worked with the Norwegian ambassador to have regular dinner meetings for the Secretary of Defence to meet with the politicians and civil society representatives who had worked with me on the Draft National Reconciliation Policy. The core group consisted of the Ambassador and the Secretary and myself, M A Sumanthiran of the TNA, Eran Wickremaratne of the UNP, Jeevan Thiagarajah of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies and Javid Yusuf who had earlier headed the Muslim Peace Secretariat. The Secretary was always willing to listen, and was generally amenable, though Sumanthiran would say, generally rightly, that follow up action was slow.
This was surprising and perhaps contributed to Sumanthiran’s view, though he was always willing to engage, that the Secretary was not committed to the exercise. I was disappointed at the lack of action, for one reason for the respect in which he was held was his undoubted efficiency. This had led to an expanded role for the Ministry of Defence following the 2010 election, which initially raised eyebrows but was later seen as a productive initiative.