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presidency 25When 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.

Sarath-Fonseka

… the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency

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's fault

… the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.

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Party given by the then Deputy British Head of Mission, to say that the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.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 »

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7 dwarfs introIn May 2009, Sri Lanka seemed on top of the world. Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan government and forces had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist movement that had dominated Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. It had survived conflict with not just successive Sri Lankan governments, but even the might of India.

Though the Tigers had been banned by several countries, there was some sympathy for them in many Western nations who could not make a clear distinction between them and the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who they felt had been badly treated by successive Sri Lankan governments. Fuelled by a powerful diaspora that sympathized with and even supported the Tigers, several Western nations had tried to stop the war being fought to a conclusion. When this attempt did not succeed, they initiated a special session against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but the condemnation they anticipated of the Sri Lankan government did not occur.

Instead, Sri Lanka initiated a resolution of its own, which passed with an overwhelming majority. It received the support of most countries outside the Western bloc, including India and Pakistan and China and Russia and South Africa and Brazil and Egypt.

Less than three years later however, the situation had changed, and a resolution critical of Sri Lanka was carried at the Council in Geneva in March 2012, with India voting in its favour. The resolution had been initiated by the United States, and it won support from several African and Latin American countries, including Brazil, that had been supportive previously. The following year an even more critical resolution was passed, with a larger majority. This was followed in 2014 by a Resolution which mandated an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner. India, it should be noted, voted against this Resolution, but it still passed with a large majority.

Meanwhile international criticism of Sri Lanka has increased, and it had a very tough ride in the days leading up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Colombo in November 2013. Though the British Prime Minister withstood pressures to boycott the event, the Indian Prime Minister did not attend. Though the Indians did not engage in overt criticism, the Canadian Prime Minister was extremely harsh in explaining why he would not attend. And the British Prime Minister made it clear that he would raise a number of issues suggesting that Sri Lanka needed to address several grave charges.

How had this happened? How had a country that dealt successfully with terrorism, and did so with less collateral damage than in other similar situations, found itself so conclusively in the dock within a few years? How had it lost the support of India, which had been strongly supportive of the effort to rid the country of terrorism? Read the rest of this entry »

I will return to the continuing failures of our foreign policy over the last five years, but first I should address the more serious issue, of how our military victory in 2009 has also been so thoroughly undermined. Five years ago it seemed impossible that the LTTE could be rebuilt, certainly not within a few years. But we are now told that there is a serious danger of an LTTE revival, and the more overt expressions of the security paraphernalia, removed to the joy of the populace after the war, have now been restored. Three individuals were killed recently in Vavuniya North, and we have been told of the seriousness of their efforts to revive terrorism, and this has led to checkpoints being reintroduced even in the East.

The story is treated with a pinch of salt in several quarters, with questions as to the failure of government to identify the policeman who was supposedly shot at, the absurdity of a terrorist hiding under a bed breaking through a cordon of police, the failure of the army which was in attendance in Dharmapuram at the time to deal with the problem, the ridiculousness of the suspects retreating to an area where the army was engaged in exercises. But there is no reason to assume the military have concocted the story, and indeed I was convinced of the sincerity of its representative who came to me with details of what was going on – though I should note that sincerity in those who believe a story is not proof of its actuality.

I do realise that there are now a range of elements in the military, and the enormously decent professionals who fought the war have less influence than those who follow the more occult practices of the West in countering terror. But even they must surely realize that what happened recently is an admission of incompetence greater even than that which created the Taliban and Al Qaeda as forces of immense power. My interlocutor told me that the vast majority of the people in the North were sick and tired of terrorism, and – as perhaps the only parliamentarian from the South who visits regularly for free interactions with the populace – I certainly believe him. But in that case, how on earth can there be a serious threat of an LTTE revival?

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As I have noted, the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that have been sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee are to form the basis of the discussions the Marga Institute is facilitating to promote consensus. The most innovative of the ideas put forward in the memorandum submitted to Parliament is the suggestion that we accept the logic of the Executive Presidential system, and therefore bring the Cabinet in line with the executive system in other countries which have Executive Presidents – the United States and Russia and France and the Philippines, to name but a few.

On a proper Executive Presidential system, unlike the hybrid perversion J R Jayewardene introduced, those put in charge of the different branches of the executive come from outside Parliament. If they are in the legislature, they have to resign their Parliamentary positions, as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry did. Even when the President has a Prime Minister whose tenure depends on the confidence of Parliament, when that Prime Minister has won election and established a majority, he gives up his seat to take up an executive position. And as we saw with Vladimir Putin in Russia, someone who had been elected to Parliament and thereby been chosen as Prime Minister, can easily, and with greater effectiveness, be replaced by a technocrat.

Characteristically, Dayan Jayatilleke opposed the suggestion on the grounds that it would lead to the President filling the executive with his own relations. This was yet another example of an otherwise very distinguished analyst allowing ad hominem arguments to influence his judgment. I should add that his position also fails to take into account the fact that any relations who aspire to executive office will have no difficulty in getting elected, as both our Parliament and many Provincial Councils exemplify. The problem then is that even the very able start making getting re-elected their priority, whereas if Ministers concentrated only on making a success of the areas for which they are responsible, we would have decisions and actions that focus on results rather than popularity.

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I was deeply touched last week, at the Reconciliation Committee meeting in Manthai East, when Father James Pathinather expressed appreciation of a position I had put forward, and said that it had required courage. I also felt very humble, for nothing I had done could come close to the courage he himself had displayed, in April 2009, when he tried to protect LTTE combatants who had sought shelter in the Valayanamadam Church.

He had been attacked for his pains by the Tigers. After he was gravely injured, and evacuated from the War Zone in one of the regular rescue missions we facilitated for the ICRC, the LTTE drove off those who had sought to escape from them by taking shelter in the Church. Many of those forced again into combat are doubtless among the few thousands who then disappeared.

The courage of those like Father James, who sought to stand up to the LTTE when it was at its most ruthless, should be celebrated by the Sri Lankan State. But we have completely ignored these heroes, who had an even tougher time than our soldiers who had to fight virtually with one hand tied behind their backs, given the use the LTTE was making of the human shields it had dragooned into Mullivaikkal. Those soldiers had at least the comfort of comradeship, whereas those who stood up against the LTTE inside the No-Fire Zone were isolated, and subject to enormous pressures as well as brutality of the sort Father James experienced.

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Some weeks back I was sent, by a friend in England, a book entitled ‘The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media’. It was by someone called Lila Rajiva, but doubtless that was not the only reason to assume it would interest me.

I took some time to start on the book but, once I did so, it had to be finished. Published in 2005, it is a graphic and convincing account of the manner in which the Americans ignored all moral restraint in the war against terrorism they were engaged in.

That part was convincing, and simply fleshed out what one knows anyway, that countries in pursuing their own interests will stop at nothing. What was more startling was the suggestion that the wholesale prevalence of this absolutist mindset also represented a takeover of the ruling political dispensation by a culture of chicanery that strikes at the heart of supposedly predominant American values.

At the core of this transformation is the corporate supremacy represented most obviously by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the takeover of much supposedly military activity by private contractors and special agents, who move with seamless dexterity from one world to another. Exemplifying this, and indicative of what C S Lewis would have described as a Hideous Strength which finds its own partisans dispensable, is the strange story of Nicholas Berg, the shadowy contractor whose beheading served to deflect the story of torture at Abu Ghraib, and in some minds excuse the institutionalized torture that was taking place there.

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Having spent a week over the New Year in Laos and Cambodia, exploring ancient Khmer temples and gazing at spectacular waterfalls, I thought it would be difficult to return to the mundane realities of Human Rights in Sri Lanka. However some of what I saw and was told relates to one of the problems we are going through, and sheds some light on the polarization that is taking place.

I refer to the question of War Crimes, which still bemuses me. The charge was led in 2009 by the British, for what seemed primarily electoral considerations, while now it is the Americans who have come to the fore. When everyone else welcomed the LLRC report, their demand for more indicated that they wanted their pound of flesh, though I have no doubt they are in some confusion themelves about whether it has to be cut from breast or thigh, with or without blood.

Unfortunately given the games they played with Sarath Fonseka, claimed by a senior American diplomat to an Indian friend to have been a secret weapon to extract concessions from the Rajapaksa government, their seriousness must be in doubt. Certainly this particular criticism of Sri Lanka seems the height of hypocrisy, after what I saw and heard of what the Americans had done in Laos and Cambodia. They would only command credibility in this regard if they hauled Henry Kissinger up before the Courts, and I regret that no one has tried to do this in the decades that have passed since his vicious period in power.

Muang-Ngoi-Neua_UXO

Used Cluster bomb cases dropped by the US : Vietnam War 1955 – 1975

A little boy who insisted on following us at the Temple Complex in Sombhur kept pointing out craters caused by American bombs, and also showed us a temple that had been flattened. And in Laos we were constantly reminded, travelling in the Bolaven Highlands, of the secret war that had been conducted in the American effort to eradicate not only the Ho Chi Minh trail, but all those who contributed to the supply chain. I was reminded too of the coup that had brought Lon Nol to power, and its similarity to what the CIA had done in Chile, where Salvador Allende was murdered and Pinochet propelled into power.

Coincidentally in Cambodia I bumped into my old friend Mark Gooding, who had been Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, and then been elevated to the Embassy in Phnom Penh. He was with the intrepid Tom Owen Edmunds, who had been officially only the third in rank at the High Commission in Colombo, but was clearly the brightest person there (and a Balliol man to boot). He went straight from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, so I have no doubt his responsibilities are not slight.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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