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24102013240The cultural programmes I worked on in 2013, with Daniel Ridicki and the Indian High Commission and various universities, went hand in hand with the Divisional Reconciliation Committee meetings that were my main official responsibility during this period. Having been to all the 35 Divisional Secretariats in the North, which I did three times in fact in the less than three years in which I was Adviser on Reconciliation, I had started on the East. Over that year I covered all 45 Secretariats, bemused though by the way new ones had been set up at the drop of a hat, simply to satisfy the sectarian compulsions of particular politicians. And it was clear that there were many problems in the East too, and that government simply had no system in place to listen to the people.

But in September I found that the DIG in charge of the Eastern Province, Pujith Jayasundara, had tried to institutionalize community relationships through what were termed Civil Defence Committees, which were supposed to function in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. This did not always happen, but Pujith, whom I had known for a long time, was 30102013323analytical in his approach, and had set up formal mechanisms to ensure action. I knew nothing about all this, but I was by chance in the vicinity when a meeting of their community advisers took place, and was asked to address them.

This obviously went down well, for I was asked to address a larger gathering later in the week. Though my book launch at the Indian High Commission was scheduled for the day before that meeting in the East, I thought I should not refuse. So having come back and got through the launch, I left well before dawn to get to Batticaloa in time for the meeting which was held at the Municipal Hall. This was followed by another meeting next day at Kattankudy.

IMG-20131031-16830I took advantage of all this to rationalize the system, which we were able to do when the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, P B Abeykoon, sent a letter I drafted asking the Divisional Secretaries to revise the manner in which what were termed Civil Defence Committees were constituted. Earlier the Chairman was  supposed to be a leading member of the community, but such people, however worthy, had no official position. They could therefore be ignored by those with formal authority. Though in some cases they commanded respect, this was not always the case. Though the Grama Niladhari was supposed to act as Secretary of the Committee, this did not always happen, and there were no mechanisms for follow up.

The Secretary’s letter instructed that the Grama Niladhari chair the meeting, with the police acting as secretaries to the committees. This was not done everywhere but, where instructions were followed, there were better results in terms of people actually feeling they had an opportunity to be heard by those in decision making positions. Unfortunately our administrative system had not enjoined clear follow up mechanisms, as I found when I happened to visit the Nittambuwa Police Station when my car broke down near there on a journey the following year. I found a very intelligent and committed OIC, who was happy to talk to me at length about what he was doing. He had ensured that there were well maintained files for each GN Division, but he had not been able to break through the system and take advantage of the other government officials who were allocated to specific GN Divisions. These were the Economic Development Officers and the Samurdhi or Divineguma Officers, both working for Basil Rajapasa’s Ministry, but without clear instructions as to how they were to coordinate with other government departments. Read the rest of this entry »

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

qrcode.30456176Today, 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

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Doc 3Dayan’s point then was that Lalith too was part of the group around Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, that had decided after the 2010 election that the President should not make too many concessions with regard to a political settlement. This did not mean Lalith would set himself up consciously against the President, as even Gotabhaya was to do with regard to the issues noted above. When he was ordered to move, he did so, as when he produced swiftly an Action Plan for the LLRC Recommendations, which Mohan had held up, presumably again on Gotabhaya’s instructions. But he did not see any need to embark on any initiatives on his own that would take forward the commitments the President had made with regard to devolution or accountability.

And on occasion he went even further than Gotabhaya in putting forward a mindset that seemed at odds with the official position of the government. Thus, at the launch of a book called ‘Gota’s War’, which suggested the primary responsibility of the Secretary of Defence for the victory against the Tigers, Lalith launched into a vast attack on India for its part in strengthening the Tigers during the eighties. And just before the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in 2014, having been sent to lobby in the West, Lalith attacked what he termed the excesses of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the eighties, and claimed that, were investigations of abuse in Sri Lanka to proceed, the IPKF atrocities too should be gone into.

Our High Commissioner in Delhi, the normally placid career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam, complained sadly about what seemed an unnecessary alienation of India at a crucial time. He did not tell me who was responsible, but Indian officials were more forthright. When they brought up the question of criticism of the IPKF which had come to Sri Lanka at the request of the Sri Lankan government, and fought against the Tigers, they met the excuse I made, that there were extremists in the government who did not represent the views of the President, with the information that the assertion had been made by the President’s own Secretary.

If Lalith thought that this was a way of pressurizing India to oppose any resolution that referred to War Crimes, he obviously had no idea of the way international relations worked. But I cannot believe that he had so crude a view of the world. Rather it would seem that, like those in the Ministry of External Affairs who still resented the Indian intervention of the eighties, he thought that old Cold War Games could still be played, and we should affirm our commitment to the West by indicating how different we were to the Indians. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.Doc 2In 2011 I had personal experience of how diffident Lalith could be. After the Darusman Report came out, with its excessive attack on the manner in which Sri Lanka had dealt with LTTE terrorism, I thought it necessary to warn the President about what was going on. I saw him in his office and said we had done nothing to fulfil our own commitments. When he asked me what I meant, I cited two clear examples.

The first was the negotiations with the TNA, which had shown no progress. He understood immediately what I meant, and acquiesced straight away with the suggestion that I be put on the negotiating team. Ordinarily I would have been wary of putting myself forward, but there seemed to be no alternative, and the President seemed to agree.

The second point I made was that there had been no progress whatsoever on implementing the interim recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He evinced surprise when I said this, and declared that he had appointed a Committee which was doing its job. But I told him I thought that Committee had never met, and that he should put me on it.

He agreed again, and immediately rang Lalith and told him to appoint me to both positions. He also told the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, who he thought knew about the work of the Committee, to send me all relevant papers, since I told him that I should see the minutes of meetings and find out what had been going on, if I were to contribute.

Lalith rang me in the car as I was leaving. He told me that the letter putting me on the negotiating team would be sent straight away, and added that he had spoken to Mohan Pieris, who chaired the Committee to implement the LLRC interim recommendations, and he had no objection to my appointment.

I only understood the implications of this after I had put down the phone. I realized that, when the President made a decision, there was no reason for Lalith to consult anyone else. Keeping Mohan informed as a courtesy that there would be a new member of his Committee was one thing, seeking his acquiescence was quite another.

I had every reason to worry. Lalith told me a few days later that it was felt inappropriate for me to be on the Committee since I was a Parliamentarian, and the other members of the Committee were officials. I called the President about this, but he told me he had been told it would not be proper. By then I had been told by the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs that there were no minutes of meetings. The only papers he had were those prepared when the Committee was first appointed, and a report was made to Geneva. Like me, he too suspected that the Committee had not done very much.

I told this to the President, who thereupon agreed that amongst my duties as his adviser on Reconciliation would be monitoring the work of the Committee and reporting to him on what was happening. Fortunately Lalith had failed for six months to send me my terms of reference (having it seems lost the original draft I had sent him, and then delayed further when I sent him a copy). So now he made no objection when I told him the President had agreed that this should be added.

I therefore duly got a fairly comprehensive list of duties. But I then found, as noted previously, that Mohan, having first admitted that the Committee had never met, but claimed he was waiting for a date from the Secretary of Defence, finally confessed six months later that the Secretary did not want there to be any meetings. There had certainly been some progress in matters pertaining to the work of the Ministry of Defence, but no measures had been taken to expedite action on other matters of urgency, such as restoration of lands, which the LLRC had highlighted. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26820116So too it was individuals associated with Gotabhaya who made the Indian government feel it had been betrayed, which contributed to India supporting the American resolution against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2012. After a meeting with the President, the Indians issued a statement to the effect that a commitment had been made to proceed with devolution in terms of the 13th Amendment, but a Presidential spokesman denied this. There was no effort by the Foreign Ministry to reassure the Indians, and a letter sent by the Indian Prime Minister seeking clarification went unanswered – or, rather, the Minister of External Affairs, having sent an answer, then withdrew it, with a lack of professionalism that would have been startling had this not by then become endemic in that Ministry (which, as a shrewd observer put it, was territory occupied by the Ministry of Defence, which in turn was territory occupied by the Israelis).

Gotabhaya’s fatal misunderstanding of the way the world functions became apparent when, in 2009, he was instrumental in having our Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva removed. Dayan Jayatilleka, handpicked by the President for the job, had initially been close to Gotabhaya, and indeed helped him with procuring arms from different sources at a time when some Western nations were trying to impose an embargo of sorts. But it soon became clear that they had very different perspectives on the purpose of winning the war, and Gotabhaya proved the decisive factor in enabling the then Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, to have Dayan unceremoniously dismissed. This was in July 2009, just a couple of months after he had staved off a forceful attack on Sri Lanka in the form of a Special Session requisitioned by the West.

I used to think that this was mainly because Dayan had articulated forcefully the need to proceed with devolution immediately after the war, and got involved in protracted argument in newspaper columns with journalists close to Gotabhaya. But it transpired later that the Israelis had long been pressurizing Gotabhaya to have Dayan dismissed, given the leadership he provided in Geneva to the Palestinian cause. Once there seemed no further need for Dayan, since he had prevented interventions that might have stopped the war and let the Tigers off the hook, Gotabhaya obliged his patrons.

That Dayan’s dismissal upset the Indians, and indeed the vast majority of countries that had been in the forefront of support for Sri Lanka during the war, meant nothing to Gotabhaya. In fairness to him, what amounted to adherence to an ultimately Western agenda may have seemed to him sensible, since he had also obtained support for the war from the United States Defence Department, during the hawkish days of George Bush. Certainly, even as late as 2013, he was expressing confidence that the United States would not press a case against Sri Lanka, since he felt the Defence Department was fundamentally on his side. He seems not to have understood that the Defence Department in the United States carried much less influence on government than he himself did in Sri Lanka. And he certainly did not understand that Israel’s primary motive was self-preservation, and that they had no worries about the consequences for Sri Lanka of Dayan’s dismissal, provided they got rid of a potential threat to their own power. Read the rest of this entry »

presidency 30One 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 »

Presidency 30Though 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 »

Bashful 2I 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 »

Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 1)

RW-GR-600x234The reason Mohan gave for the Secretary of Defence being annoyed with me in June 2009 was a matter that was to prove an enormous bone of contention over the next few years, namely the claim advanced by some in Sri Lanka that there had been no civilian casualties during the war. This was obviously nonsense, and it never occurred to me that any such claim was serious. I assumed that what was meant was we had not inflicted civilian casualties deliberately, which I firmly believe to have been government policy throughout the conflict. I had seen this illustrated in the East when Daya Ratnayake, who subsequently became Commander of the Army – after he had survived, with Gotabhaya’s support, an attempt by Sarath Fonseka to have him prematurely retired – came to brief me on the campaign in that arena of the war. He had been responsible for the strategy there, and I had called him up to find out details of this after Human Rights Watch had given excessive publicity to a report it had prepared on the conflict in the East, in which they claimed there had been indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

qrcode.26475888When I studied the report itself, however, I found that, while this claim was made in the publicity, the report itself recorded only one instance of civilian deaths. This was something for which the army had acknowledged responsibility, but explained that they had used radar directed mortars to respond when the LTTE opened fire on them. This however had been from a refugee centre, but even the Human Rights Watch report disclosed that the LTTE had had weapons there, though they claimed that they had been told no one had seen heavy weapons being used.

I have no doubt that it was the attack on the Sri Lankan forces by HRW in this instance that made the LTTE feel they could get away with using civilians as shields when they were on the defensive. Any investigation of abuses during the conflict should look into the role of HRW in making such outrageous claims without evidence, and dodging the questions I posed to them in this regard. Once the LTTE realized that they would not be blamed for firing from amidst civilians, but public opinion could be manipulated to pressurize the Sri Lankan government not to respond to such firing, they developed the technique to perfection. This strengthened their resolve to ensure that civilians were taken along with them as they retreated in the North as the Sri Lankan forces were advancing.

The claim of some of the Non-Governmental Organizations that the civilians went willingly because of fear of the forces was patent nonsense, for those same NGOs complained to us that their former employees had not been allowed to escape to government controlled territory. The same thing happened to UN employees, and indeed one of the most skilful maneuvers of the LTTE in the latter stages of the war was when they persuaded the UN that they might free these employees, thus ensuring that UN staff that had taken a convoy of food in stayed on, to negotiate. The LTTE almost daily claimed that the local staff would be released, and asked for a cessation of hostilities, a period they used for military maneuvering, only to prove intransigent in the end.

The UN staff then were kept on by the LTTE till the end, but in fact there were no casualties amongst them, except for one person who stepped on a landmine in the final escape, but was given immediate medical attention by our forces, and also survived. Similarly, the local employees of the NGOs, who had been forced to stay back, also all survived the final battles. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sajin Vas Gunawardena … was able to serve the President in a variety of ways

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.

qrcode.26301045It 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.

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Mihin Lanka …rapidly lost a lot of money, though Sajin himself became very wealthy

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.

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Sajin wanted his importance to be recognized, and resented anyone else who had a direct link to the President

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.

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… one of the young MPs in the group around Namal Rajapaksa

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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