What infuriated the President most, it seemed, about the attack on Chris Nonis was the information that Sajin had been rude about the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka and connected this with Chris, who was a Catholic and was therefore compared to the imperial power that had sought to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist identity. But instead of dealing with the actual problem, the President had called Chris up and accused him of conspiring against the re-election the President hoped to achieve in the very near future, following the Pope’s visit.
A Cabinet Minister who had been present when the conversation took place said he had never heard such language previously from the President, and expressed the fear that he was not in control of himself. Certainly his reaction suggested some sort of schizophrenia, since he himself had earlier expressed suspicion that those who wanted him replaced would soon engineer conflict between him and the Catholics.
This was in the context of his claim that the hostilities the Bodhu Bala Sena were provoking with Muslims were part of a conspiracy to reduce his popularity and make re-election difficult. He had told me then that the next step would be to sow dissension between him and the Catholics.
But instead of looking into what seemed a gratuitous insult to Catholics, the President contented himself with believing that Chris was to blame for having complained about the matter to the Cardinal. It seemed indeed that he thought Chris was making the story up, for he attacked Chris for not having mentioned this when they met at the Waldorf. The fact that Chris had been trying to make him take the assault seriously was evidently forgotten, and now the whole episode seemed to have turned into yet another reason for the President to feel sorry for himself as the victim of an international conspiracy, with no attention at all to the fact that his nearest and dearest seemed to be the principal conspirators.
Thus, as mentioned already, he excused Gotabhaya’s involvement with the BBS, and was ignorant of the manner in which the BBS indicated how it had been cultivating Gotabhaya – albeit at the behest of someone they described as a foreign sympathizer. And now he did nothing about Sajin stirring up a hornet’s nest, even though this was in line with the attacks on the Portuguese being propagated by the favourite propagandists of the Ministry of Defence. One of them even went so far as to claim that Joseph Vaz, whose beatification was on the agenda for the Pope’s visit, was a foreign spy.
Sajin himself brought up the derogatory reference to the Portuguese in explaining his actions to a friend. Though the source for this was a website in opposition to the President and his government, what it said echoed Chris’s own account of what had happened – ‘The controversial supervising MP of the external affairs ministry Sajin Vaas Gunawardena has told a wealthy Muslim businessman whom he meets frequently, “Don’t you be afraid. The boss will never sack me. Boss can’t do without me.”
He was responding to a question by the Muslim businessman, who asked, “What trouble you are getting into, boss?” Explaining the incident, Sajin Vaas has told him that together with Kshenuka, he had been planning for a long time to expel Chris Nonis. Making use of his closeness to the president, Chris had continued to disregard ministry orders, he said, adding that the anger within him for a long time exploded while he was under the influence of liquor.
“Chris thought the H.E. was treating him more than me. The man came to Sri Lanka whenenever he wanted for his business purposes. When we called for explanations, the man tried to show his might. I have been thinking about that. The Foreign Service should have no people whom I cannot control. I expelled all such persons. Who he is to show his might to me, even when the minister too, is under my control? I do not care whatever is published by websites. The boss doesn’t care either. We do not govern accoding to what they say.”
“If not for Prasad (Kariyawasam) and the political counsellor, Chris would have lost a couple of his teeth. They were the ones who restrained me. It was a good opportunity for me to make trouble for Chris as there weren’t many people at the party. When I ridiculed him by calling him a Portuguese, he acted as if he did not hear. It was a good thing that Lalith Weeratunga was not present. Majintha too, was not there. So did Suresh. I punched him saying that he cannot be the president’s lad, and that I am the president’s lad. On the previous day, I tried to provoke him. But, Nimal Siripala, Nirupama, Shavendra, Kohona all were there. So, I gave up. Chris is a Colombo aristocrat. I am a street fighter from Ambalangoda. I beat up Chris in order to teach a lesson to the others,” he boasted to his Muslim businessman friend.’ (http://lankanewsweb.net/news/9025-boss-won-t-sack-me-sajin-vaas)
The article notes the involvement of Kshenuka in what was clearly a conspiracy. It does note that the principal motive was Sajin’s anger that Chris should have had a direct line to the President. This had become obvious when Chris was asked for an explanation of why he had come to Sri Lanka, and after consulting the President, said that he had given his answer to him.
Before Chris was appointed, he had noted that he would find it difficult to accept the post because of the need to be in Sri Lanka regularly for meetings of the Board of the family company he headed. But the President had reassured him that that was acceptable, and from the time of his appointment Chris had travelled to Sri Lanka regularly, of course at his own expense.
There had been some resentment about this, but matters came to a head only when Chris performed too well. He had done much to make the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting a success but, when there were suggestions that he would make a good Foreign Minister, GL began to panic, and tried to shut him out of meetings, including the Commonwealth Business Forum and the call Prince Charles made on the President at the beginning of his Sri Lankan visit. On one occasion indeed GL’s jealousy had drawn a reprimand from the President, when Chris appeared at the residence at a time GL had been trying to send thim away, and had obviously complained to the President that he was overstaying.
The situation became even worse when Chris performed very well at an interview with an international news channel, something that Sri Lankans had not been able to take pride in for years, after Dayan Jayatilleka and I were no longer called upon to defend the country. After that he had been invited for various gatherings, including as a keynote speaker to the Annual Defence Conference, which had had few capable Sri Lankan civilian speakers, after I had knocked myself out after my protest about Weliweriya. Chris was a welcome fresh face this year, which had doubtless caused the Foreign Minister even greater heartburn.
Chris saw no reason to abandon the privilege he had been accorded when he was made High Commissioner, but he had agreed to keep Sajin informed of his visits when the latter had asked to see him to see how they could overcome the problem. Sajin had seemed satisfied then, and had even indicated that the problem was due to Kshenuka, but obviously he had had second thoughts, and these burst out into the open in New York. That the whole exercise was designed to get rid of Chris was apparent not only from what Sajin said, but from the fact that the baiting had begun the previous evening in a very public place, and it was only when that failed to draw an aggressive response from Chris that violence was used – but in a more private setting.
But even if GL and Sajin were motivated largely by jealousy, the one frightened for his job, the other for his overarching influence, the introduction of the Portuguese element should have alerted the President to a more complex agenda. In Sajin’s case it is possible that, like GL, he thought that ethnic polarization was the aim of the Secretary of Defence, and he was happy for this to take place since then the President could be persuaded after his re-election that he owed the minorities nothing, and could embark on an exclusivist social and economic agenda where potential rent seekers would be confined to one community, which would then have a field day.
But the President should also have thought about his own predictions, and wondered whether polarization were not also the aim of those who wanted him defeated. Certainly, if the Catholic vote were alienated, he would have a difficult time getting re-elected if the opposition put forward a credible candidate. Given Kshenuka’s previous involvement with the West, it was at least conceivable that she had an interest in weakening him and, as Chris had earlier diagnosed, had no problem bending Sajin to her will.
The question of Kshenuka’s motives became the more relevant given another matter that resurfaced after the problem with regard to Chris. When the President finally announced that an inquiry would be held, into the allegation Chris had made, he added that there would also be an inquiry into Chris’s own behavior, his relations with his subordinates and more importantly a complaint by Kshenuka that he had insulted her. This however drew attention to Kshenuka herself, and the JVP brought up an audit query that had been made about a contract awarded during her time in Geneva to a firm that had connections with the LTTE. Though GL defended her in Parliament, his defence raised even more questions, and the more information that came in, the more obvious it was that something irregular had taken place, which government seemed determined to conceal.
Initially the President had realized the gravity of what had occurred and, when Tamara first drew his attention to a possible security threat, he had sent a team from the Treasury to check. Their report was devastating, but it was suppressed, being handed over to Sajin according to information Tamara gave in a newspaper interview. But given that the President was obviously no longer in a position to challenge Sajin, that was the end of the matter. Even though he knew about collusion between Sajin and Kshenuka on many other matters, ranging from his disastrous attempt in 2010 to address the Oxford Union (when his Chief of Security had seemed to flee Britain and he himself had had to come back with his tail between his legs) to the effort to send Douglas Devananda back from Geneva in 2012, which would have prompted similar crowing about Sri Lankan fear of war crimes prosecutions, he no longer had the will or the capacity to react.
Why he continued to rely so much on Sajin will be the greatest mystery of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term in office. Sajin’s claim that he knew the inside of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mind, which Namal said was characteristic of the man, was clearly not an absurdity. And perhaps his knowledge of what he had helped to put there rendered him invincible, as he boasted to the acquaintance he took into his confidence about how he had dealt with Chris Nonis. But given such control, it was clear that another Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency would not bode well for the country, or for his own party, given the exclusive mentality of those who now controlled the President.