bookBook Review
By Enid Wirekoon

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha had a ringside seat at recent events that shaped and defined the political environment of Sri Lanka today.

In June 2007, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Wijesinha to head his Secretariat for coordinating the Peace Process and he was in that position in May 2009 when the final military defeat of the LTTE took place.

Throughout the pages of his book, Triumph and Disaster: The Rajapaksa years, Wijesinha deals with events and people whose involvement in those events are commented on with an experienced and a critical eye that he brings to bear on the issues that confronted the army, politicians and the people. He begins his introduction by being critical of the failure of successive Governments to introduce simple reforms that may have assuaged resentments that festered and led to violence. He has no hesitation in concluding that politicians have failed the people with their own interest being put before all else in order to cling on to power. His stinging criticisms of the LTTE and its leadership are also set out in vivid detail.

The book highlights issues that are of contemporary concern by posing such questions as to how President Sirisena can keep in office such persons as the present Foreign Minister who on the 20th of September 2015 launched a savage attack on the armed forces of Sri Lanka who, he alleged in committing war crimes, were “following orders”. The author adds, “I did not expect the government under President Sirisena to thus attack our own armed forces”, and goes on to assert that he cannot believe that the President accepts, that large scale violation in terms of policy were carried out from above. The author’s observations in this regard are in fact coincide with the findings of the recent Paranagama Second Mandate Report which holds that there was no such overarching plan by the then Government to wantonly kill civilians.

With regard to the issue of child soldiers recruited by the LTTE, the author does not hesitate to pull his punches by saying that the Rajapaksa Government failed to deal with the problem robustly, and permitted the international community to gain the impression cultivated by the LTTE that this was all down to the Karuna faction. The NGO, Human Rights Watch does not escape the lash of the author’s condemnation with the remark that “Sri Lankan forces have been far more careful about civilians than many governments which HRW does not seem inclined to criticize with the same personal intensity”. He also alleges, that HRW worked abroad to rally opinion to stop the war against the LTTE and that “coincidentally”, their diatribes emerged just before Sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva which was the pattern to be followed later by Channel 4.

Coming to grips with some of the highly publicised major crimes during the Rajapaksa years, the author deals with the killing of five students in Trincomalee in 2006 and the impact that event had internationally when the government appeared to do nothing. Indeed, he throws light on the incident by saying, that he had been informed by Dayan Jayatilleka that President Rajapaksa was in favour of having the perpetrators arrested, but that this was stifled by the Ministry of Defence. The author inferentially raises the question as to the quality of advice Presidents and Ministers receive from their advisors.

The book then deals with the 17 aid workers from a French NGO (ACF), killed in Muttur in 2006 and goes on to say, that it was clear that they had been executed rather than having been killed in battle. Whereas the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) chief at that time, Swedish General Ulf Henriccson, issued a statement attributing responsibility to Sri Lankan Forces, the author raises a doubt over this matter and indicates that it may even have been Muslim Home Guards, or even the withdrawing LTTE who might have been responsible. The ACF case was one of the most prominent dealt with by the Udalagama Commission. Rajiva Wijesinha goes on to underline that the suppressing of the Report was a great mistake by the Rajapaksa Government. Suppression leads to the conclusion that there is something to hide. Happily, this has been corrected by the present Government tabling the Udalagama Report together with the Paranagama Second Mandate Report before parliament.

One of the principle allegations made by the recent Geneva OISL Report, dealt with an accusation against the Government of Sri Lanka for using starvation as a weapon of war. In his book, the author asserts that it was in fact, the LTTE who were quite prepared to use deprivation as a weapon. To quote he says,

“… the Commissioner General was sending about 20 lorries in every day with food for sale …. But, listening to LTTE supporters worldwide and naïve idealist who believe that what they are told several times over must be true, the impression is that no food will ever reach Wanni, unless it is in the hands of anyone other than the Government.”

Indeed, the author notes that the LTTE did not disrupt the food supplies through the UN, because they (LTTE) were the greatest beneficiaries. The author recalls being told by a senior member of USAID, that had the US known that the terrorists were consuming the food sent by the UN, they would not have funded it, as it is against their laws. The Book chastises the then Government for failing to properly make a case to reflect the position on the ground. For example, the fact that the ICRC stayed in the North for the entire duration of the war and continued to help with the evacuation of the wounded and the sick was never emphasised. The author then goes on to underline the fact that a number of dead civilians were in fact much fewer in number than came to be alleged by individuals such as Gordan Weiss, in his Book “The Cage” and the Darusman Report. The book is rightly critical of claims made by Weiss and Darusman, which have since that time been shown to be flawed by the recently published Paranagama Second Mandate Report.

The concluding pages of this excellent book deal with the triumph Dayan Jayatilleka, the then Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the author enjoyed at the special Session of the Human Rights Council when on the 27th of May 2009 the Council passed a Resolution with 29 votes in favour, 12 against and 6 abstentions, commending the Sri Lankan Government and focuses on the abuses of the LTTE.

The book ends with the observations as to how, despite winning the war the government went on to lose the peace. The author observes that perhaps the victory enjoyed by Sri Lanka before the UNHRC in May 2009 had given some in authority the idea that Sri Lanka was impregnable and to that extent made the government bury its head in the sand in the hope that the subsequent looming problems would go away with no real understanding of the mounting international pressures.

For anyone interested in our recent history as to the way the war ended and its immediate political aftermath, this book is invaluable, as it gives a personal insight into events that were experienced at first hand, by its perceptive author.

Island 19 February 2016 –