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Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.
I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.
The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially. Read the rest of this entry »
Chanaka Amaratunga died 19 years ago, on the 1st of August 1996. He died a disappointed man, for he had not entered Parliament, which had been his dream. Only Chanaka, imbued in the Westminster style of Liberal Democratic politics, could have written an article entitled ‘In Praise of Parliament’ at a time when the Executive Presidency was well entrenched in Sri Lanka, and the tradition of the independent Parliamentarian long lost.
He had hoped to enter Parliament in 1988, when he was on the SLFP National List, but the defeat of the SLFP then had led to the sidelining of Anura Bandaranaike, who had been his great friend. He told me that, when he went to Rosmead Place on the day after the election, Sunethra had met him with the claim that the only hope for the party now was to bring Chandrika back. He had said this was nonsense, and that perhaps put paid to his chances. After her defeat, Mrs Bandaranaike too felt that the policies Anura had promoted had been a mistake, and moved back to the left.
Anura still had residual support, but he was soft-hearted to a fault, and gave up the Secretaryship of the party when he was appointed to the post on a split decision. The newspapers at the time reported that his mother had stormed out of the room, and he had followed her, and agreed to a compromise whereby Dharmasiri Senanayake became Secretary. The latter worked for Chandrika, and as we know she came back and took over. By then, though, it should be noted that Sunethra was supportive of her brother and when, forgetting the change that had taken place, I asked her what her sister was up to, she told me that she was trying to throw ‘my darling brother’ out of the party.
I had written about good ambassadors being dismissed well before Dayan having to come back to Sri Lanka to deal with audit queries, though in fact he survived because the President intervened and called a halt to the persecution. Asitha was not so lucky, and Chris Nonis in London told me that he had to put up with constant complaints, even though he was a good communicator and managed to deal with at least some of the propaganda against us, of which England was the main source. But Chris too had his problems, for as he was appointed he had displayed deep animosity to his excellent Deputy, Pakeer Amza, who had had to act as High Commissioner for a long period – given the absurd neglect of this vital position by the Ministry, at a time when Britain got a new government. It is likely that Chris was warned against Amza, who had stood up against Kshenuka and Sajin over the disastrous 2010 visit of the President to Britain.
But the suspicions that had been sowed had a permanent effect. Amza was swiftly transferred, as Deputy to Berlin, which was not commensurate with his abilities, though he was relieved to find a positive ambassador in the person of Sarath Kongahage, himself not a career diplomat. Along with Amza went the Political Officer, a Tamil officer of considerable capacity. So, at a time when relations with the diaspora were of the essence, the London office was without a senior official who was, or even spoke, Tamil. Chris meanwhile had been sent a very capable Ministry official called Lenagala, but he soon fell out with him, and asked for a non-career replacement. He was sent Neville de Silva, who had previously served in Bangkok, a journalist and the brother of the more famous journalist Mervyn de Silva, who was Dayan Jayatilleka’s father. But by then the suspicions Chris had developed were entrenched, and soon Neville too found himself sidelined and soon enough removed.
There was confusion elsewhere too, as has been noted for instance with regard to Canada, another post where good diplomacy was essential, given the influence of the diaspora and what seemed unremitting hostility from the Canadian government. In India there were constant changes to our representative in Chennai, and the Tamil diplomat who had been well thought of was suddenly dismissed. He had got me over in 2012 to talk to academics and journalists, and I gathered then that I was the first such visitor he had had, because the Foreign Ministry treated Tamilnadu with contempt and was then surprised when it expressed vehement criticism which Delhi then had perforce to take up.
But the Foreign Ministry was not the only place where Sajin’s destructive influence reigned. He had also been appointed as Secretary to the Committee to negotiate with the Tamil National Alliance, but he saw himself as a full member of the team, and was treated as such by GL. It should be noted though that GL had no strong principles about this, and he astonished me soon after I joined the team by bringing a young student who was the son of a former student of his (and who happened to be related to me) who he said was interested in politics, and asking if he could sit in on the discussions. The TNA did not object, but I could well understand why they found it difficult to take the negotiations seriously. Read the rest of this entry »
Undoubtedly the most bizarre of the characters who influenced the President in the period after the election of 2010 was Sajin Vas Gunawardena. He was not a relation, and he did not have the professional or academic credentials of the other characters discussed here. Indeed he had hardly any qualifications but, ever since Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, he occupied positions of trust and responsibility.
It was claimed that the reason for the confidence the President reposed in him was because, while a clerk in the Middle East, he had helped the President with the technology during a presentation that might otherwise have been a disaster. But it is also likely that, after they thus became acquainted, he was able to serve the President in a variety of ways that commanded his affection and his confidence.
The first escapade in which he was involved under a Rajapaksa Presidency was the setting up of a budget airline. Called Mihin Lanka, in honour of Mahinda, it rapidly lost a lot of money, though Sajin himself became very wealthy during his tenure in office. Before long Mihin Lanka was handed over to Sri Lankan Airlines to be managed, and the losses of both together – the Board of the latter chaired by the President’s brother-in-law Nishantha Wickremesinghe – continued a drain on public funds for many years.
I first came across Sajin when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, and was told that he was the point of liaison between the Secretariat and the President’s Office. In fact he had no interest in or understanding of our work, and I liaised mainly through the President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunge, though in those days I generally had immediate access to the President if this was needed.
I met Sajin early on in my tenure of office, and then hardly ever again, though he came I believe to the opening of the new office which had been built for us in the premises of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. When we were deciding on the allocation of rooms in that office, my Director of Administration suggested we keep a room there for the use of Sajin. This seemed to me unnecessary, particularly as the room he suggested was the second best in the building. I thought it should go to my Deputy, a retired Tamil ambassador named Poolokasingham, whose stature I thought needed to be established. I told the Director that, since Sajin had not come to the office for a long time, all we needed to do if in fact he wanted a room was to set aside one of the smaller rooms at the end of the main corridor. I heard nothing more after that about that particular suggestion, and I think the Director was secretly relieved, though he had thought it was his duty to keep Sajin happy and thus prevent any recriminations against the Secretariat in general, and me in particular. Whether this contributed to his later animosity against me I do not know, but the experience of our High Commissioner in London, Chris Nonis, indicated that Sajin wanted his importance to be recognized, and resented anyone else who had a direct link to the President.
But way back in 2007, Sajin was more interested in his own political career, and during the next couple of years he was elected to the Southern Province Provincial Council. Then, in 2010, he got nomination for the Galle district for the Parliamentary election, and did reasonably well. In Parliament he was one of the young MPs in the group around Namal Rajapaksa but initially he had no executive responsibilities.
All that changed with the realization that the Ministry of External Affairs was in a mess, and he was appointed to be its Monitoring Member of Parliament. That was the only serious Monitoring MP position, and one heard hardly anything of the few others who had been appointed, until that is Duminda Silva, attached to the Ministry of Defence, was involved in the death of Bharatha Premachandra, another SLFP politician from the Colombo district.