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by Shamindra Ferdinando
Today, the electorate is at a crossroad with twice-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launching a new movement to form a government, at the Aug 17 parliamentary polls. A confident Rajapaksa launched his parliamentary polls campaign at Anuradhapura where he vowed to overcome the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination. The pledge was made at the largest ever gathering in the historic city, where Rajapaksa recalled ancient kings had defeated foreign invaders. The war-winning leader alleged that the present Yahapalana government had destroyed, within six months, what his administration had achieved since the conclusion of the war in May, 2009. The former President asked what would have happened if the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had continued for five years. Since the change of government, in January consequent to Rajapaksa’s defeat, some of those, who had switched their allegiance to the then common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena deserted the new administration. Having joined Yahapalana project, late last November, Liberal Party Leader and State Education, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, quit the administration in March. The UPFA included Prof. Wijesinha, in its National List submitted to the Elections Secretariat on July 13, hence making him a key element in Rajapaksa’s team.
Full text of an interview with Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
What infuriated the President most, it seemed, about the attack on Chris Nonis was the information that Sajin had been rude about the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka and connected this with Chris, who was a Catholic and was therefore compared to the imperial power that had sought to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist identity. But instead of dealing with the actual problem, the President had called Chris up and accused him of conspiring against the re-election the President hoped to achieve in the very near future, following the Pope’s visit.
A Cabinet Minister who had been present when the conversation took place said he had never heard such language previously from the President, and expressed the fear that he was not in control of himself. Certainly his reaction suggested some sort of schizophrenia, since he himself had earlier expressed suspicion that those who wanted him replaced would soon engineer conflict between him and the Catholics.
This was in the context of his claim that the hostilities the Bodhu Bala Sena were provoking with Muslims were part of a conspiracy to reduce his popularity and make re-election difficult. He had told me then that the next step would be to sow dissension between him and the Catholics.
But instead of looking into what seemed a gratuitous insult to Catholics, the President contented himself with believing that Chris was to blame for having complained about the matter to the Cardinal. It seemed indeed that he thought Chris was making the story up, for he attacked Chris for not having mentioned this when they met at the Waldorf. The fact that Chris had been trying to make him take the assault seriously was evidently forgotten, and now the whole episode seemed to have turned into yet another reason for the President to feel sorry for himself as the victim of an international conspiracy, with no attention at all to the fact that his nearest and dearest seemed to be the principal conspirators.
Thus, as mentioned already, he excused Gotabhaya’s involvement with the BBS, and was ignorant of the manner in which the BBS indicated how it had been cultivating Gotabhaya – albeit at the behest of someone they described as a foreign sympathizer. And now he did nothing about Sajin stirring up a hornet’s nest, even though this was in line with the attacks on the Portuguese being propagated by the favourite propagandists of the Ministry of Defence. One of them even went so far as to claim that Joseph Vaz, whose beatification was on the agenda for the Pope’s visit, was a foreign spy.
Sajin himself brought up the derogatory reference to the Portuguese in explaining his actions to a friend. Though the source for this was a website in opposition to the President and his government, what it said echoed Chris’s own account of what had happened – ‘The controversial supervising MP of the external affairs ministry Sajin Vaas Gunawardena has told a wealthy Muslim businessman whom he meets frequently, “Don’t you be afraid. The boss will never sack me. Boss can’t do without me.”
He was responding to a question by the Muslim businessman, who asked, “What trouble you are getting into, boss?” Explaining the incident, Sajin Vaas has told him that together with Kshenuka, he had been planning for a long time to expel Chris Nonis. Making use of his closeness to the president, Chris had continued to disregard ministry orders, he said, adding that the anger within him for a long time exploded while he was under the influence of liquor.
“Chris thought the H.E. was treating him more than me. The man came to Sri Lanka whenenever he wanted for his business purposes. When we called for explanations, the man tried to show his might. I have been thinking about that. The Foreign Service should have no people whom I cannot control. I expelled all such persons. Who he is to show his might to me, even when the minister too, is under my control? I do not care whatever is published by websites. The boss doesn’t care either. We do not govern accoding to what they say.”
“If not for Prasad (Kariyawasam) and the political counsellor, Chris would have lost a couple of his teeth. They were the ones who restrained me. It was a good opportunity for me to make trouble for Chris as there weren’t many people at the party. When I ridiculed him by calling him a Portuguese, he acted as if he did not hear. It was a good thing that Lalith Weeratunga was not present. Majintha too, was not there. So did Suresh. I punched him saying that he cannot be the president’s lad, and that I am the president’s lad. On the previous day, I tried to provoke him. But, Nimal Siripala, Nirupama, Shavendra, Kohona all were there. So, I gave up. Chris is a Colombo aristocrat. I am a street fighter from Ambalangoda. I beat up Chris in order to teach a lesson to the others,” he boasted to his Muslim businessman friend.’ (http://lankanewsweb.net/news/9025-boss-won-t-sack-me-sajin-vaas)
I 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 »
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 »
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 »
When I wrote about corruption last week, I concentrated on the structural absurdities that have been introduced into the allocation of development funding. Given the blatant deployment of this for electoral purposes, many politicians have the liberty to award contracts for projects as seems most beneficial to them, rather than the people they are supposed to serve. And while of course some development will occur, and perhaps a lot in some areas, the bottom line is that the people are no longer being fooled, as the last set of election results made clear.
But I would be remiss if I did not talk too of the perceptions of corruption at the top, since the general impression seems to be that what we have now is a kleptocracy. I should note that the President himself does not figure in these rumours, though he too must know that some who do are alleged to also act as agents on his behalf. And sadly – though given his excessive indulgence of those close to him, I can see other reasons for his weakness in this regard – his failure to discipline them is attributed to worry about what they might reveal.
Given what he has achieved however, there is little anger, except amongst those who disliked him in the first place. What is serious now is the erosion of confidence in those around him, and in particular with the immediate family. Thus, when I was recently in Kandy, I was told about a new hotel that was coming up that there were rumours that it was owned by Gotabhaya – and then later I was told that it belonged to Basil.
That both stories should be circulating indicated that these were rumours, and it is quite possible that they are unfounded – or even that they are being spread by those who do own the hotel, and who think their position will be stronger for whatever planning needs they have, if it is thought that powerful people were involved. But I was saddened by this, remembering my father’s old friendship with D A Rajapaksa, one of the simplest and most honest politicians I knew, who had almost no assets when he lost his Parliamentary seat in 1965 and travelled home by bus.
The story about Gotabhaya upset me particularly, because I had unhesitatingly stood up for him when criticism first started about the powers the family had. I had been impressed by the confidence he had given the forces, not least because the corruption that had reigned previously with regard to procurement had been stopped. He was clearly the best man for the job at the time, and the country must continue grateful to him for what was achieved – and not least because all accounts are that he tried to fight the war as cleanly as possible. Read the rest of this entry »
I have been mostly away for some weeks, but that is not the only reason I did not talk about the appalling violence that occurred in Aluthgama almost a month ago. I was waiting, because I hoped that this would be a turning point for the Presidency. I hoped that, in reacting to violence that goes against the principles on which he has twice won the Presidency, the President would free himself from the polarizing shackles that have fallen upon him.
I fear that nothing of the sort has happened, and it is possible that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka was right, if prematurely, in suggesting that the Mandate of Heaven might have passed. He said this a year back, after the Weliveriya incident. Though I did not agree with him then, I must admit that he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than I did. But, like him in his recent claim, citing Juan Somavia, that this man should not be isolated, I think it would make sense to continue to urge reforms from within.
There are signs that this will not be a hopeless task, given the recent visit of the South African Vice-President, which our Deputy Foreign Minister said very clearly in Parliament sprang from an invitation from our President, who hoped to learn from their experience. Wimal Weerawansa will of course claim that his threats have worked and South Africa will not interfere, but his capacity to delude himself, and assume the world is deluded too, is unlimited, and we need not worry about that. Obviously South Africa had no intention of interfering at all, because like all those in the coalition Dayan Jayatilleka built up in 2009, she subscribes to the basic UN principle of national sovereignty. But she has clearly been invited here in the hope that we might be able to move forward, and get out of the morass into which, with much help from ourselves, we have been precipitated.