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Grumpy 5I also suggested, as happened in Pakistan, the establishment of ordinary schools by the military, or taking over the management of existing schools in areas where the military had a presence. This had been essential in Pakistan, where the public education system had been inadequate in rural areas where there were military cantonments. The army had therefore begun schools to cater to the children of military personnel, and these were then opened to the public too for a fee.

Sri Lanka however, having had a good public education system, had not initially needed such establishments while, the country being small, military personnel had not generally had their families with them when they were stationed away from Colombo, since regular visits were possible. But while coordinating on behalf of Sabaragamuwa University the degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy in Diyatalawa, I had noticed how much more content were the officers whose wives and children were with them. This was possible only when the children were very young, since later on it was thought essential that they be admitted to good schools in Colombo, given the inadequacies of rural schools. But it struck me then that the SLMA could easily take charge of one or two local schools in Diyatalawa, something I had indeed suggested for Sabaragamuwa University and the local school in Belihuloya, since I saw how my academic colleagues suffered from having to send their children to schools in bigger towns.

Given the commitment of the more sophisticated parents who would now be sending their children to the local school, the standard of education there would improve, to the benefit too of the local children. And the managing institution would make sure that essential subjects, such as English and Mathematics and Science, which were grossly neglected in many rural schools, would be properly taught.

The Ministry of Defence had indeed taken over one school after the war, but this was in Colombo. But my suggestion as to this and other initiatives was not taken up, with Gotabhaya laconically telling me that he would have to face even more criticism with regard to what was described as militarism. Later however, after a paper I produced for a Defence Seminar, he told me to go ahead, but I explained that I could do nothing, it was the Kotelawala Defence University and other military bodies that had to take the lead – though the KDU, given its civilian agenda, was uniquely positioned to move in this matter without criticism.

I did then take up the matter with the KDU but, perhaps because it had to work through civilian academics in many areas, there was hardly any progress on the matter. One Department did produce good ideas with regard to the training of medical support staff, but that alone was not enough, and soon I was not in a position, having protested about what happened at Weliveriya, to pursue the idea. I was put off, albeit very politely, with regard to a paper I had been asked to prepare for a symposium, and the Commandant later indicated wryly that the Secretary had not been pleased about my signing the petition.

I knew this, because he had in fact called me up and shouted at me for having, as he put it, signed something along with enemies of the government. He did grant that what had happened was wrong, but his point was that I was getting involved with those who were intrinsically opposed to the government. I did not think this was the case, and indeed I had toned down the initial draft which had thrown the blame for the incident on him almost personally, but I could understand his irritation. But I was surprised and saddened that he should have embargoed my participation in seminars organized by the military, because these had been amongst the most constructive in the recent past, in a context in which Sri Lanka had no real think tanks.

Indeed, just after the incident at Weliveriya, before I signed the protest, I had presented a paper at the recently established Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala, on the site of one of the Affiliated University Colleges where, twenty years earlier, I had coordinated the English course. I had found the senior officers there as worried as I was about the fact that the army had opened fire on civilians. They too recognized how bad this was for their reputation, because it would lend strength to those who claimed that the forces had targeted civilians deliberately in the war against the LTTE.

My continuing belief is that the senior officers well understood the rules of war and had worked in accordance with them during the war. After the war I had personal experience about how positive they were about the civilians they were in charge of. For instance, one of the toughest generals during the war, Kamal Guneratne, who was head of the Security Forces in Vavuniya, and responsible for the Welfare Centre where the displaced population had been housed, proved astonishingly liberal about releasing the vulnerable, even though he was told that several security checks were required before this could be done. And as noted previously, when efforts were made to delay the resettlement Basil Rajapaksa was trying to expedite, the generals in the field ignored the order they had received to recheck civilians and sent them back to their places of residence as quickly as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

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grumpy 4The Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunge, explained to me how it happened. In 2010 the President had wanted to put this brother too into Parliament, but he had scoffed at the idea and said the prospect did not interest him. However, he had added that, if the President wished to give him other responsibilities too, he would be pleased to look after Urban Development.

So, after the election, the Ministry of Defence was renamed the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, and Gotabhaya went, as it were, to town. Colombo, which had suffered both from neglect over decades, and from ghastly makeshift barriers for protection of important places when terrorist activity was in its heyday, was transformed, and began for the first time in the last half century to look beautiful.

Gotabhaya was helped in all this by the hard-working military personnel he could employ. I had had some experience of this when, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, I found that I had to coordinate work with regard to the many canals that wound their way through the city. The care of these, and their banks, were allocated to a dozen different agencies, and coordination between these was not easy. It was only the navy I found that had fulfilled its responsibilities swiftly and effectively, and the stretches in their care were the cleanest and best maintained.

With the Ministry of Defence coordinating action in this and other areas, development was swift. Gotabhaya also chose capable people to head the Urban Development Authority, and they were able to plan more coherently than most government departments, though it should be noted that there were still some shortcomings about coordination, especially when it came to working with local authorities not under the control of the government. Still, the UDA was quick to respond when difficulties were pointed out, and in this regard its work ethic was admirable.

This was a distinct advantage Gotabhaya had over Basil, who was not a team player at all. Perhaps because of his military training, Gotabhaya was able to identify and work with capable people. Of course in fairness to Basil it could be argued that he thought he had to do everything himself, because many officials he came across were inefficient, or incapable of taking quick decisions – unlike the military personnel Gotabhaya had worked with, both in his youth and as he took over at the Ministry of Defence. But whereas Gotabhaya was also concerned with training, and with ensuring a new generation able to work effectively, such concepts were beyond Basil.

This was another area in which the capabilities of the forces were well deployed. They were asked to take charge of a pre-University training course since it was noted that those who were admitted to universities, perhaps because of the purely academic training they had undergone in the struggle to get good enough grades for admission, had no soft skills. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26820116So 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. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26820002So his attitude seemed to harden with the passing years. Also, sadly, even though he might not have been ambitious himself, he seemed to see himself as the principal guardian of the victory the forces had won, with an obligation therefore to block the way of those who were anxious to give more political powers to Tamil politicians. Though, under threat from the LTTE, some of these had seemed to subscribe to the LTTE ideology, in fact most Tamil politicians were moderates who were relieved that the LTTE had been vanquished. They were prepared to disavow terrorism as well as separatism, but they were anxious to exercise political power in predominantly Tamil regions, at least in terms of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. But those who were opposed to even that limited devolution, on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to separatism, saw Gotabhaya as their champion, and he came in time to articulate their views with increasing assertiveness.

An extreme example of this came when, in 2013, with the President making preparations to have the long delayed Provincial Council election in the North, he declared publicly that it should not be held. Ironically, according to the President, he had been in favour of holding those elections a few years earlier, soon after the war ended, which would have been a sensible move, and would have led to a better result for the government. It was Basil then who had insisted on delay, on the grounds that his building programme would ensure more and more support for the government. But by 2013, more perceptive perhaps than Basil about political realities in the area, perhaps realizing too how he had contributed to increasing unpopularity, he came out strongly against having a poll. And typically this occurred while one of the more extreme coalition partners of the government, which was seen as close to Gotabhaya, had introduced a Bill to amend the Provincial Councils Act so as to water down their powers. So powerful did this combination seem, even though the evidence of elections had made it clear they had minimal popular support, that it was feared the President would back down.

But he went ahead and elections were held. The TNA won handsomely, with the determination of the Tamils to vote against government increased perhaps by what seemed strong arm tactics on the part of the forces against a candidate who was identified closely with the LTTE. She did remarkably well, which might well have been predicted.

This makes one wonder why the forces should have got involved, and indeed it was so foolish an action, were they the perpetrators, that one wonders whether she herself had arranged the attack, given that only she could benefit. However there had been previous instances of such folly on the part of the forces, as when a meeting of the TNA had been attacked some months previously.

That incident was bizarre, because by the time the violence occurred the TNA representatives had finished speaking and left, and until then, they said, what were clearly soldiers in mufti had behaved with restraint. When I asked the Jaffna District Forces Commander what had happened, he said that his orders to behave correctly had been disobeyed, as a result of provocation by one of the later speakers, a Sinhalese member of a small radical party. But I could not understand why he did not then take forceful disciplinary action. Apart from the fact that soldiers should under no circumstances react violently against civilians unless they are themselves in grave danger, it was possible that there were members of the forces who had no affection for the government, nor for Tamils (following the approach of Sarath Fonseka before his conversion), and they had no qualms therefore about aggression that could bring the government into disrepute. Government was only playing into their hands by refraining from disciplining them. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26819894What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.

This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.

Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.

Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.

In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.

It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.

Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2015
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