In retrospect it is clear that there was no hope of stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa rushing headlong into disaster, given that so many of those around him, while pursuing their own agendas, had lulled him into a false sense of security. But it still seemed necessary to try, and I did have at least one significant success. This was heartening, since it suggested he was not totally unaware of the problems being created for him.
The problem had once again been caused by Basil Rajapaksa. While in the East for Reconciliation meetings, late in 2013, I was told about proposals that had been prepared at District and Divisional level for a large UN project which was funded by the European Union. This had been agreed with the government, after Basil had suggested various modifications including that it be extended to areas outside the North and East too. But then suddenly he had clamped down on it and said it could not proceed.
My informants in the Administrative Service thought it was because his favourites, Bathiudeen and Hisbullah who had been basically given a free hand in the North and the East respectively, had not been consulted in the planning. It was believed they wanted the money for political advantage and were resentful that they had not been able to put forward projects that catered to their own agendas. An alternative view was that Basil wanted to control all the funds himself and did not like the decentralized manner in which the project had been conceived. Yet another explanation was that Basil was deeply upset that the Northern Province had so conclusively rejected the government at the recent Provincial Council election, and this was his revenge. Sadly, this was perfectly in character, and led to Sarath Amunugama describing him behaving strangely because of what he characteristically described as ‘unrequited love’.
After I heard about the stoppage I inquired about it from Subinay Nandy, the UN Head whom I would meet regularly though there was increasingly less I could offer him with regard to progress about Reconciliation. He was obviously deeply upset about what was happening, and could not understand how the government could reject such a large tranche of assistance. I wrote then to the President in November about the matter –
During Reconciliation meetings in the Eastern Province, I was told about a European Union project to spend 60 million Euros on District Development which has been abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Economic Development. The Development Officers of the Ministry of Economic Development had been aware of the project and prepared proposals but had no idea why the Ministry had stopped work.
This stoppage was after approval had been granted, following an adjustment of the project, at the request of the Minister of Economic Development, so as to include Districts outside the North and East too. Efforts on the part of the UN, which initiated the Project, to meet with the Minister and the Secretary, to clarify matters have proved fruitless….
If this policy of inaction is in accordance with a government decision, I have nothing to say except that it will seriously damage efforts at Reconciliation. But knowing Your Excellency’s commitment to the reconciliation process, I believe this is yet another example of governmental efforts being subverted by individual compulsions, a sure recipe for disaster.
I would be grateful if this matter could be looked into and steps taken to adopt a more positive approach to dealing with the United Nations. We can ill afford to alienate the positive elements in the international community at this stage, and I believe the arbitrary decisions that are made, without explanation, will not help us to safeguard our sovereignty and the ideals for which you stand.
Typically there was no response. But at the dinner after the budget I brought up the matter. It was evident that he had not seen my letter, which reminded me of what he had once said when I told him, about some step that he belatedly agreed should be taken, that I had written to him about it previously. ‘But you write in English’, he had said, ‘how can you expect anyone to understand?’
At the budget dinner however I was able to explain the matter very simply, and he seemed to have taken action promptly. Before the end of the year, Subinay told me, the Secretary to the Treasury had instructed that the project was to proceed.
I felt I was not wrong then in feeling that the President still had a positive mindset about how the country should move forward. But it was also clear that he was less and less in control.
Early in 2014 I managed to persuade some others too, if not to take a public stand which I would have preferred, to express their worries clearly. Though I had got through to the President on a particular issue, I felt that it was extremely unlikely he would listen to me on my own with regard to more general principles. By then I was very close to Vasantha Senanayake, who was clearly the most principled person in the SLFP, and also remarkably perceptive. But since we were relatively new to politics, we felt we had to work together with a few more senior supporters of the government.
We managed to stir some of them into action by indicating the disaster towards which the government was heading internationally. Despite the resolution critical of Sri Lanka that was carried at the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2012, nothing essentially had changed with regard to the Sri Lankan position. Mohan Pieris and Kshenuka Seneviratne had ignored his instructions that an Action Plan be prepared with regard to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and kept the President in the dark about this. Then, though he had got Lalith Weeratunge to act, and produce a Plan, nothing was done about it since Mohan did not even bother to convene the Committee that was supposed to implement it.
After Mohan became Chief Justice, Lalith asked Dhara Wijayathilaka to take over, but she could do little, and her work was not publicized to diplomats in Sri Lanka, given the animosity the Foreign Minister felt towards her. It was only through me that the Heads of the UN and the ICRC heard about her work, and both found her very impressive, but in fact she was not allowed to do much, and controversial areas continued to be ignored, in the ostrich like approach that held sway.
It was clear then that we were in for a tough time in March 2014, and Vasantha and I prepared a letter which we persuaded some very senior figures to sign. These included D E W Gunasekara and Tissa Vitharna and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, though sadly the only person in the SLFP to sign, apart from Vasantha, was Minister Navinne. Some of the stronger language I had originally included was modified, but we managed to get consensus on some important points –
We the undersigned members of the Parliament are deeply concerned about the situation Sri Lanka would face subsequent to the March 2014 Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. We urge your immediate attention to the problems the country faces….
We stress our concerns as to the current position of our foreign policy, given the many contradictory pronouncements and initiatives taken since pressures first began mounting against us in 2010. We must request your personal intervention at this critical moment to avoid any effort to internationalise our domestic problems… We strongly believe that, in the absence of your personal involvement in taking Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards the right direction, we will have to face:
- A resolution to set up an international inquiry to investigate into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law
- A loss in any vote with an ever increasing majority against our country
- Increasing economic difficulties, with sanctions and boycotts unilaterally imposed on our state
- Increasing hardening of stances that will prevent a swift resolution of political problems within Sri Lanka and increasing international intervention in this regard
It is the belief of the undersigned party members that the foreign policy direction of our government is currently confused and needs better focus. In particular we should be able
- To address the concerns raised by the international community in a strategic manner
- To develop through informed discussion a counter-strategy to address concerns of Geneva March 2014. This should commence immediately since sending mammoth delegations at the last minute to Geneva is absolutely ineffective.
- To draw attention to the immense amount of work done by government since March 2009 towards uniting this country. This must be presented systematically by competent communicators able also to deal with questions
- To recover the lost friendship with our neighbour India, considering the difficulties that Sri Lanka has faced in obtaining the wholehearted support of Asia, the Non-Aligned Movement and the larger Third World, without having the support of India.
- To strengthen the relationship with Japan and China through constant engagement with them since we cannot ignore the recent comparatively alarming statements made by these two friendly nations. We must listen to our friends and help them to support us instead of later regretting negative steps taken by them
- To also attempt to increase the votes against any resolution at the upcoming March 2014 Geneva UN Human Rights Council Session by focusing not only on India, China and Japan but also by working more consistently with African and Latin American states to build up relationships with the wider community and in particular those states that hold membership of the UNHRC
- To host a high-level dialogue among the UNHRC member states on Sri Lanka in a strategic location (i.e. New York or London) prior to March 2014 session as a strategic move to deal with concerns raised by the international community
We must also ensure credibility by fast forwarding implementation of the
LLRC recommendations, and having a dedicated agency for this purpose with a high profile executive authority which acts transparently and responds promptly to concerns and queries.
Vasu and Vasantha saw the President to deliver the letter, and said he was receptive and agreed there was a problem. They had been worried that he would be angry but, as I had always argued, it was best to approach him direct. But even though he registered the validity of the worries the letter expressed, nothing was done, and sure enough for the first time, in March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating an international inquiry. India did not vote for this resolution, which made it clear that, had we worked together with them, we could have avoided such an unfortunate outcome.
Apart from this, Vasantha and I would meet regularly to discuss how change might be brought about. We also worked together with a group of young people on proposals for constitutional change, which Vasantha then submitted to the Parliamentary Select Committee that was supposed to propose solutions for the National Question. This was not a serious exercise given that the TNA did not participate, but a few members attended when the Committee was convened, to go into Vasantha’s proposals, as also those the Liberal Party had submitted previously. I also thereafter persuaded the party to declare its support for Vasantha’s proposals, since they were very similar, and I thought something from an SLFP member would carry more weight. But soon enough the Committee ceased to meet, and did not produce an interim report which I urged. Amongst the most important of our proposals were reducing the size of the Cabinet and also electoral reform, both of which were prominent aspects of the manifesto on which Maithripala Sirisena was elected President.
Ceylon Today 11 Oct 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=7100