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One of my Tamil friends was recently at Temple Trees to participate in the exercises the poor President is now engaged in to try to win hearts and minds. But the experience was surreal, for discussion of substance was it seems left to Basil Rajapaksa, whilst the President contented himself with assuring his guests that he had taken precautions to stop further crossovers. Whether this was through carrots or sticks he did not elaborate.
Basil’s idea of substance of course leaves much to be desired. As the villagers where I spent the last weekend were saying, with regard to the sudden lowering of fuel and gas prices, the President thinks they are all babies. But at least the President, I still firmly believe, loves the people, and his tragedy is that he seems to love more those who do not share his own instincts and affections. But Basil it seems has nothing but contempt for them, for he thinks nothing of their future. As one shrewd Indian commentator put it with regard to the manner in which Kshenuka Seneviratne destroyed the goodwill Dayan Jayatilleka had built up, she ignored those without glamour except to ask them, when a crisis loomed, for their votes.
Kshenuka of course, unlike Dayan who could provide leadership to various causes, had nothing to offer in exchange. Basil has much. But the piling up of largesse in the form of sewing machines is not convincing, and the President should know this from the fact that, as my friend put it, the people of Uva took the sewing machines and voted for the opposition.
Basil’s answer to the request to cite some industries in the North was that, if he did that, he would have to sell the country. Since he is widely perceived as having done that already, beginning with his foolish handover of freehold to the Shangri-La Hotel, and since developing factories will cost much less than the fantasies that have been constructed in recent years, he only succeeded in upsetting his interlocutors further. Read the rest of this entry »
Though the choice the nation has to make on January 8th is a very serious one, there has certainly been a lot of entertainment to be had during the last few days. This is not all on one side, since it is odd to find many individuals who had little time for each other in the past now working together. My friend Dayan Jayatilleka first decided that the JHU provided the saving graces to the campaign of the common candidate, but then threw in his lot with the President. I assume he thinks there is hope of reform, which is ironic given his deep distrust of the Secretary of Defence. However I can but hope that he will be given control of the Foreign Ministry, given his incisive dissection of its disastrous workings in the last few years. He will certainly put an end to what he diagnosed some time back, that the Foreign Ministry was territory occupied by the Defence Ministry, and the Defence Ministry was territory occupied by Israel. His return to the Rajapaksa fold suggests that the President has begun to see sanity – though, as Dayan has noted, the President is generally sane when you talk to him, it is his capacity to implement his own decisions and follow his instincts that has been in doubt over the last few years.
Dayan’s decision may have also been dictated by his dislike of both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is another irony that these two have now discovered each other’s virtues. But politics has always brought together people who were on different sides earlier, and this is understandable since we all need to look for good qualities in politicians and hope that these lead to productive synergy. Chandrika reminded me, when we met on the day of the first Press Conference, that I had once told her I wanted to bring her and Mahinda together. I certainly regret that both did not try harder, because had they at least talked to each other, and tried to reach consensus on issues both had been positive about earlier, such as the 13th amendment, Mahinda would not so easily have become the prisoner of the rent seekers and extremists who now dominate him.
People forging new alliances then, or going back to old ones, is not preposterous. What is preposterous is the excess the government has indulged in, in coping with the surprise it got when Maithripala Sirisena became the common candidate. First it had, as the President indicated, to make sure that no one else crossed over. To do this it employed both carrots and sticks, giving full publicity to the latter effort. This came in the form of the President’s declaration that he had files on everyone. Read the rest of this entry »
Though I do not in any way regret our decision not to support Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming Presidential election, I do feel immensely sorry for him. He is neither a fool, nor a villain, so he knows well the mess into which he has got himself. Though he and his advisers will use every trick in the book now to win re-election, and he might even succeed, he knows that the methods he is now using serve only to make crystal clear how very unpopular he has become.
This was not something the Mahinda Rajapaksa who led us to victory over the Tigers deserves. It is quite preposterous that a man who took bold decisions to save the country from terrorism has been incapable of taking any decisions at all in recent months to remove the various blights that have hit us.
Lalith Weeratunge made the excuse for him that the truth was being kept from him. Last March, after I had drawn his attention yet again to the problems that were mounting, he wrote to me that ‘Once I return end of next week, i.e., about March 30, I must meet you to have a frank chat. Little I can do, I will. Not many speak the truth today and all I hear are blatant lies. However, not many know that I have my ears to the ground; in every district, little groups have been talking to me. I am sure both of us could bring out the reality.’
But we never did get to meet, and time and again he cancelled meetings because he had suddenly to go abroad. In time I stopped regretting this, because it seemed to me that there was little we could do together that Lalith could not do himself, given that he still I think commanded the President’s confidence. But I suppose we have to sympathize with his lack of confidence in his ability to correct things himself, given the much stronger motivations of those who had hijacked both the President and the Presidency. After all he had failed to get the President to correct course when his wife first drew attention to aberrations at the Securities Commission.
Underlying the diffidence however was the belief that the President was not really in danger. I suspect those around him never thought that Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the main candidate against them, and understandably they thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa would then be a shoo-in for the Presidency. After the Uva election they might have thought twice, but they doubtless assumed they would not find it difficult to construct a pitch, as it were, of their choosing. This would be the past, and the Tigers, and on such a pitch Ranil would flounder – though, to make sure of this, they have got ready vast amounts of propaganda to remind the people of Ranil’s past. The posters I have seen recently with Richard de Zoysa’s picture indicate how far back they were determined to go, but with control of so much of the media, they must have thought they could keep attention during the campaign on Ranil’s weaknesses, rather than the recent failures of governance.
That complacence explains the fact that they were quite prepared to not just forget but even to actively alienate Muslim voters. It seems to have come as a shock to government that even Rishard Bathiudeen was preparing to cross over to the common opposition. But had they bothered to listen to what he has been saying in Parliament recently they would have realized how deeply upset he was. The desperate measures they have had to engage in to keep him and his party, carrots and sticks extending even to getting rid of faithful old Mr Azwer from Parliament, indicate they understand how important such voters are. But though they might paper over the façade, a moment’s thought should make them realize that, given the manner in which the Muslims have been treated, there is no way anyone in the community can support the President and succeed in any future election. Indeed I suspect that even Faizer Mustapha will have to move, given that his efforts to control the BBS rally in Aluthgama were treated with contempt, a fact known to the entire Muslim community, even if the President were deceived about it. Read the rest of this entry »
Nearly two months back the Liberal Party wrote to the President urging that he not hold elections in haste, and indicating that he should proceed first with the various reforms he had pledged. We got an acknowledgment, but not a response, though I suspect a call from a close relation urging that I support the President was a consequence of the letter. The refusal to consider issues seriously, while simply providing assurances that things will improve, is not however something that can be accepted ad nauseam. Indeed, while in India I was told by a political scientist who had been fully supportive of our destruction of the Tigers in Sri Lanka, that the President, having promised the Indians that he would implement the 13th Amendment, was heard to say as they were leaving that he had fooled them again.
I refused to believe this, and argued that the President would not have behaved like that. My own view is that he is generally sincere in the commitments he makes, and he did his best on various occasions to promote the LLRC. But unfortunately he imagines he is weaker than he is, and gives in to pressures from others, all of whom have their own agendas. So, following his commitment to the Indians, he did nothing when that was repudiated by a spokesman, and he did not bother when G L Peiris did not respond to a request for clarification sent by the Indian Prime Minister. As Lalith Weeratunge said with regard to the clear commitment to change the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province, he could do nothing because his hands were tied – but this was probably not, initially at any rate, by the President.
It is this failure to move straight, despite what I continue to believe are admirable political instincts, that led the Liberal Party last week to confirm its earlier decision and support Maithripala Sirisena. Though it is argued that the Sirisena candidacy is the result of a foreign conspiracy, it is in fact a continuation of the present regime that will lead to increasing interference in our affairs by the more prejudiced elements in the international community.
And we now have hardly any defences against such incursions that are based on rationality. I think the recent removal of Chris Nonis, following his able defence of the country when dealing with the international media, suggests that those close to the President are determined to destroy our defences. In some cases this may be due simply to jealousy, but I suspect this was stirred up for ulterior motives, the same motives that led to the dismissal of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayakam.
Underlying all this is the absence of a coherent strategy. Tamara Kunanayakam relates how Sajin Vas Gunawardena had said that the government had no strategy when she asked what was the strategy to deal with the draft resolution against Sri Lanka that the Americans were preparing way back in September. Her staff had told her that this had been shared with Kshenuka Seneviratne on her private email address, but not communicated to Colombo.
Instead of looking into that aberration, the Ministry however was annoyed with Tamara for having found it out, and did not want to think about the matter. It was the President who had told Tamara to come to Colombo to discuss the matter, and been very clear in his instructions, to the effect that Tamara should not negotiate with the Americans, but should instead rally support amongst our usual allies. This Tamara did, and as had happened in 2007, when the British Ambassador had to allow the resolution he had tabled in 2006 to lapse, the American resolution, which the Canadians had tried to bring forward, was not moved.
But before that the Ministry had tried to prevent Tamara seeing the President, and had indeed ordered the Secretary to put her on a flight before the scheduled breakfast meeting with the President. Fortunately the Secretary then, Karunasena Amunugama, was a practical man, and when he found the ticket could not be changed, he had allowed Tamara to stay on. But contrary to the very clear instructions the President had given, which were in line with the strategy we had employed between 2007 and 2009 to defend our interests, Sajin had simply scoffed and said we had no strategy because the President changed it all the time. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the reasons I still continued to have hopes about Mahinda Rajapaksa was that his instincts have always been sound. This was exemplified when I called him to complain about what the Bodhu Bala Sena had been up to in Aluthgama. Instead of attempting to defend them, as I had feared, he promptly declared that they were involved in a conspiracy to bring his government into disrepute. He claimed that they were funded by the Americans and the Norwegians, and that they were determined to alienate him from the Muslims.
The story seemed to me implausible, even though I knew there was some basis for his allegations. What had been the precursor of the BBS had received funds from the Norwegians, and though I believe the Norwegian government as represented by its regular diplomats in Colombo acts in good faith, I have no similar confidence in Mr Solheim and his acolytes. One of them, who once boasted to me of his acquaintance with Mr Solheim, was Arne Fjiatoff, who had been the godfather of, if not the BBS, its principal lay spokesman Dilantha Withanage. I have little doubt, given that he has also recently been fishing in troubled waters in Burma, that he had a shrewd inkling of what they were up to.
With regard to the Americans, we have long known that they will recruit anyone to bring down what they are most worried about at any point, with no concern for possible consequences. At one stage I thought their sublime ignorance was to blame, but there is a certain callousness too, and a confidence in their own strength which leads them not to worry about catastrophes for other people. I find this wicked, and the fact that Americans claim that such behavior is only response to (other) evil empires is no excuse.
Recently, at the Congress of Liberal International in Hong Kong, I voted against a resolution urging immediate action against ISIS, not because I do not acknowledge the danger it represents, but because there was no mention in the text of the American adventurism that had led to the rise of ISIS. Unless that is registered, the world is in grave danger of similar blunders that can lead only to anarchy. I am happy to say that the British Liberal Democrats whom I upbraided agreed with me about the responsibility of the Americans for what had occurred, beginning with the illegal invasion of Iraq. But unlike the Liberals in the days of my youth, who were able to call a spade, the modern generation is wrapped up in trying to achieve a European consensus, and that consensus is swept away by the American penchant for othering – which requires total devotion to the Americans, whether promoting democracy or anarchy. Read the rest of this entry »
My mother, had she lived, would have been 89 today. Mahinda Rajapaksa is 69, and today is also the 9th anniversary of his election to the Presidency. Given that the Constitution prescribes 6 year terms, it seems absurd that he is thinking of cutting short his Presidency yet again, and submitting himself for election for the third time. Given how exhausted he was during the Uva Campaign, it is worrying that he keeps going on and on with such campaigns, without reflecting on how much time he has spent in the last nine years in electioneering, time that could have been spent better in actually governing the country.
Indeed Sri Lanka now seems to have turned into a sort of Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, with everyone getting up and changing their seats whenever the mood takes them. Such practices reduce considerably the time for reflection, and in the case of politicians the planning and monitoring that is essential if they are to be taken seriously. The last time I spoke to the President about reforms, he told me that it was time now to concentrate on elections. But given the frenetic timetable he sets – or which is set for him by his advisers – it has become clear that there will probably never be time to think about the reforms the country needs.
The Left parties had suggested to him that he should not think of elections now, since he has two years more to go, and Parliament too can go on for over 18 months. They asked the Liberal Party too to support this stand, and we decided at our last Executive Committee meeting that we should urge constitutional and structural reforms. Unfortunately, given domination of government policy by a few confidantes of the President, nothing has been done about many of the good ideas the President had, since they do not relate to the concerns of the dominant minority.
Thus nothing has been done about Local Government Reform, save for reform of the electoral system, a good idea in itself had it not been accompanied by foolish details which meant it had again to be amended – after having been first withdrawn and then hastily reintroduced and passed. Meanwhile the act to give greater responsibility to local authorities languishes, as does the proposed Universities Act. The new Education Act, a draft of which was ready way back in 2010, is also on the back burner, while electoral reform for Parliament and for Provincial Councils, even more urgently needed than for Local Government bodies, seems to have been forgotten.
Indeed the current approach of government seems to be to compound the waste that our electoral system necessarily involves. One amongst many of its principal drawbacks is internal competition. This means candidates have to have limitless resources, given that they are competing against everyone on their party list for preferences – hence the waste and environmental damage caused by millions of posters, with the concomitant alcoholism and violence that the pasting of posters in competition with others gives rise to.
As though to promote waste, government has now devised a method of giving control of massive amounts of money to those who will have to face a Parliamentary election. Given that in recent times, and blatantly so in Uva, handouts have been considered the best way to win elections, we can expect massive expenditure, some of it derived from the two extra decentralized budgets that have been given to some government MPs – extending in some cases to over 600 million rupees.
Does the President not realize the waste that this approach to politics engenders, and the costs that will have to be met by future generations? Read the rest of this entry »
Underlying Basil’s solipsism was his political ambition. He made no bones about the fact that he saw himself as his brother’s successor. Indeed, he had been put into Parliament before the 2010 election, though a resignation of a National List member that was engineered, on the grounds that there had to be a Rajapaksa available for appointment as President if anything untoward happened to the incumbent. And though soon after the election of 2010 Mahinda Rajapaksa introduced a constitutional amendment to remove term limits, so that Basil’s hope of being seen as necessarily the government candidate in the next election was dashed, the President placed no restrictions on him presenting himself as effectively the main decision maker in government.
So, in addition to his work in the North, he set about taking control of developmental projects all over the country. Tourism was brought under the Ministry of Economic Development, which allowed him soon after the government was formed to sell a prime block of land in Colombo to Shangri-La hotels, a crass measure since it made it difficult afterwards to refuse outright ownership to such investors. Fortunately, after a great outcry, the principle that only long leases should be permitted was accepted, but again the move was typical of Basil’s propensity to push through deals quickly, regardless of wider consequences.
While he used to the full his position as patron of international ventures, he also tried to take control of the administration of the country at large. He did this through the Samurdhi programme, the welfare programme that was in place all over the country. Initially started to promote entrepreneurship, it had soon become the main vehicle of government handouts to chosen sections of the population.
Basil decided to use it to expand his empire, with graduates employed in every Division in the country to affirm the primacy of his Ministry. Indeed I was told that there had even been an attempt to appoint Samurdhi officials as Grama Niladharis, the office that was the first point of interaction between people and government. The Ministry of Public Administration staved off this effort, but it meant that for several years Grama Niladhari positions that were vacant were not filled, until finally that Ministry reasserted its control of the position. Indeed a measure of Basil’s unpopularity with his colleagues was the categorical statement, when I told the Minister that he should guard against his responsibilities being encroached upon, that the Ministry of Economic Development was encroaching on everything. Read the rest of this entry »
When I read of, and hear, the President expressing concerns about an international conspiracy to destabilize his government, and topple him, I feel immensely sad. One reason is that what he fears is not entirely without foundation.
The idea was put to me, quite politely, by the head of the Sri Lanka desk at the UN, who said that, whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa had been a good leader during the War, perhaps someone else was better suited to lead during peacetime. The young man from our Embassy who had accompanied me to that meeting said the same proposition had been put to Nivard Cabraal. Both of us repudiated the idea, and indeed I recall citing Tolstoy in this connection, given the theory he had put forward in War and Peace, about the visionary Alexander having to take over after the practical soldier Kutuzov had won the war. I have no idea what arguments Nivard used, but I have no doubt that he would have shared my conclusions.
The Tolstoyan imagery was pertinent with regard to the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. This seemed to me rank wickedness, and I believe some European ambassadors shared my view, for they told me – at a farewell lunch I gave the two nicest of them – that they knew what he was like, and could not understand what some of their colleagues were up to.
I am not sure that the Americans, who were foremost in the venture (or at least some of them, for I cannot believe that thoroughly decent people like the then Social Affairs Officer Jeff Anderson were involved) were actually wicked. I have long learnt that one should never attribute to wickedness what can be put down to stupidity. I suspect then that those who still had some values but went along with the idea thought that Sarath Fonseka would split what they saw as the extreme vote, and that this would enable Ranil Wickremesinghe to win.
Ranil however was sharper than them, and withdrew – which is perhaps what prompted Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at the Christmas Party given by the then Deputy British Head of Mission, to say that the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.
Sarath Fonseka lost conclusively – despite Sara’s efforts to suggest the election had been fraudulent – which is why the protests I suspect had been planned never got off the ground. But the American extremists had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, because Mahinda Rajapaksa abandoned his visions, and a new homespun Kutuzov emerged.
For with Fonseka as his principal opponent, Rajapaksa had to cover that flank as it were, so that it was extremists who played the largest role in his campaign, not the fundamentally decent and moderate SLFP leadership. And so they have emerged as the strongest influences on policy in the government. Read the rest of this entry »
I was quite flattered recently by a mention of one of my books in the review by Michael Burleigh of Talking to Terrorists by Jonathan Powell. Powell, incidentally, had been a few years junior to me at University College, as was the current British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who is of a very different political persuasion. The mention is only in passing but, given that my book has been totally ignored by our own establishment, it was heartening – ‘One book that does not figure in Powell’s bibliography is Rajiva Wijesinha’s The Best of British Bluff, in which this smart Sinhalese intellectual mocks British interference in his nation’s affairs.’
Unfortunately, the mention came in the week when any hope of claiming the moral high ground with the British, which we had managed to do successfully half a decade ago, was swept away. What had happened to Chris Nonis had, I was informed, prompted a perhaps kindly, perhaps patronizing, comment from Hugo Swire, to suggest to the High Commissioner that he might now understand why the British had such a critical view of our government. And certainly many of us, who had hoped that our President, given his once shrewd political instincts, would recognize the need for reforms if the dangers the country faces are to be averted, have had to accept that the seal has been set on the self-destruction into which we are catapulting ourselves.
I cannot see how this can be avoided, but since we have to keep trying, I did point out to the President the need for radical rethinking. To do this successfully, he also needs to reflect on the past, and to understand why we are now in such a weak position, in contrast to the respect in which we were held for a year and more after the conclusion of the victory over terrorism. I should stress that, whatever his current weaknesses, the country must be eternally grateful to him, and to the teams he had in place to deal with the range of problems the country faced, for the relief we have had since 2009.
Read the rest of this entry »