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In retrospect it is clear that there was no hope of stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa rushing headlong into disaster, given that so many of those around him, while pursuing their own agendas, had lulled him into a false sense of security. But it still seemed necessary to try, and I did have at least one significant success. This was heartening, since it suggested he was not totally unaware of the problems being created for him.
The problem had once again been caused by Basil Rajapaksa. While in the East for Reconciliation meetings, late in 2013, I was told about proposals that had been prepared at District and Divisional level for a large UN project which was funded by the European Union. This had been agreed with the government, after Basil had suggested various modifications including that it be extended to areas outside the North and East too. But then suddenly he had clamped down on it and said it could not proceed.
My informants in the Administrative Service thought it was because his favourites, Bathiudeen and Hisbullah who had been basically given a free hand in the North and the East respectively, had not been consulted in the planning. It was believed they wanted the money for political advantage and were resentful that they had not been able to put forward projects that catered to their own agendas. An alternative view was that Basil wanted to control all the funds himself and did not like the decentralized manner in which the project had been conceived. Yet another explanation was that Basil was deeply upset that the Northern Province had so conclusively rejected the government at the recent Provincial Council election, and this was his revenge. Sadly, this was perfectly in character, and led to Sarath Amunugama describing him behaving strangely because of what he characteristically described as ‘unrequited love’.
After I heard about the stoppage I inquired about it from Subinay Nandy, the UN Head whom I would meet regularly though there was increasingly less I could offer him with regard to progress about Reconciliation. He was obviously deeply upset about what was happening, and could not understand how the government could reject such a large tranche of assistance. I wrote then to the President in November about the matter –
During Reconciliation meetings in the Eastern Province, I was told about a European Union project to spend 60 million Euros on District Development which has been abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Economic Development. The Development Officers of the Ministry of Economic Development had been aware of the project and prepared proposals but had no idea why the Ministry had stopped work.
This stoppage was after approval had been granted, following an adjustment of the project, at the request of the Minister of Economic Development, so as to include Districts outside the North and East too. Efforts on the part of the UN, which initiated the Project, to meet with the Minister and the Secretary, to clarify matters have proved fruitless….
If this policy of inaction is in accordance with a government decision, I have nothing to say except that it will seriously damage efforts at Reconciliation. But knowing Your Excellency’s commitment to the reconciliation process, I believe this is yet another example of governmental efforts being subverted by individual compulsions, a sure recipe for disaster.
I would be grateful if this matter could be looked into and steps taken to adopt a more positive approach to dealing with the United Nations. We can ill afford to alienate the positive elements in the international community at this stage, and I believe the arbitrary decisions that are made, without explanation, will not help us to safeguard our sovereignty and the ideals for which you stand.
Typically there was no response. But at the dinner after the budget I brought up the matter. It was evident that he had not seen my letter, which reminded me of what he had once said when I told him, about some step that he belatedly agreed should be taken, that I had written to him about it previously. ‘But you write in English’, he had said, ‘how can you expect anyone to understand?’
At the budget dinner however I was able to explain the matter very simply, and he seemed to have taken action promptly. Before the end of the year, Subinay told me, the Secretary to the Treasury had instructed that the project was to proceed.
I felt I was not wrong then in feeling that the President still had a positive mindset about how the country should move forward. But it was also clear that he was less and less in control. Read the rest of this entry »
Dayan’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 »
In 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 »
On the old Bibilical adage that, from him to whom much is given, much is expected, the most reprehensible of those on whom the President relied was his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge. But in addition to his undoubted intelligence and administrative abilities, there was another factor which led to high expectations. This was that, whereas all the others whose influence has been described were exercising this to fulfil their own agendas, with Lalith it was never doubted that he saw himself as only serving the purposes of the President.
An exception could be made with regard to the Secretary of Defence, in that it could be argued his agenda was not intended for his own benefit, as opposed to the other five whose ambitions have been noted. But increasingly during the President’s second term in office Gotabhaya Rajapaksa began to see himself as fulfilling a purpose, albeit idealistic, that was at odds with what his brother intended. It was almost as though, having previously claimed that he could win the war but the political solution had to come from elsewhere, he had begun to think that his role was crucial for any acceptable political settlement. So he even directly criticized his brother, for instance by arguing that Northern Provincial Council elections should not be held, or by allowing crude attacks on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on the Defence Ministry website.
Lalith was different, in that he did not think the President’s essential vision was at fault. Indeed the closest he got to criticism was to declare that those around the President concealed from him what was really happening. His claim then was that he kept his ear to the ground and knew what the real situation was. But, though his primary allegiance to the President was never then in doubt, he too unfortunately failed to provide advice and assistance that would enable the President to pursue the objectives he had outlined in his manifesto, or to fulfil the commitments he had made with regard to pursuing a pluralistic political solution.
Thus for instance, he remained passive when the President failed to fulfil his promised to change the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province after the Provincial Council election in which the TNA had won a massive majority, towards the end of 2013. The TNA provocatively and unnecessarily passed a motion in the Council to the effect that the Governor, former General G A Chandrasiri, should be removed. But in conversation with the President the moderate Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, accepted that this could not be done immediately. It was agreed then that the President would make a change in that respect when Chandrasiri’s current term ended, in July 2014. However he agreed that the Chief Secretary, who had made it clear that her allegiance was to the Governor, rather than the elected Board of Ministers (on whose advice the Governor was meant to act) would be changed at once.
Lalith was instructed to make the change, and this mark of a willingness to compromise was conveyed to diplomats who had been positive about Sri Lanka. They felt betrayed then when action was not taken, and all Lalith could say in excuse was that his hands were tied. Even if this meant that the President had changed his mind, it was incumbent on Lalith to point out to the President the negative consequences of what would seem duplicity, and urge at least a further discussion with the Chief Minister. But nothing of the sort happened. Typically, in July 2014, General Chandrasiri was reappointed Governor for a further five year term.
Another earlier example of Lalith’s passivity, more reprehensible perhaps because it was with regard to a matter that was not contentious, was his failure to move on the President’s commitment to introducing a Second Chamber of Parliament. This had been a key feature of the Liberal Party’s proposals for Constitutional Reform, but I had found that the All Party Representatives’ Committee that met in my office when I was Head of the Peace Secretariat was not at all interested in the idea. The APRC was chaired by Prof Tissa Vitharna, of the old Trotskyist Party, the LSSP, and they looked on the concept in the light of their scorn for the British House of Lords. Read the rest of this entry »
1. In a series of articles entitled “Enemies of the President’s Promise: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs”, you have chronicled the degeneration of the regime from its glorious days into an autocratic regime with no vision or direction for itself and for the nation it claims to protect from international conspiracies. How would you look back on the performance of the regime?
It has been extremely disappointing. Though talking to the President sometimes encouraged one to think he would move, there has been disappointment after disappointment.
2. Who are the key figures behind the powerful oligarchy within the Government that led to the birth of a system of sycophancy which virtually besieged President Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Of the seven dwarfs the worst influence was Basil, who thinks politics is about fooling people, which I don’t think was the President’s position before. He was also entrusted with all development work, but he cannot plan coherently, and thought pouring in cement would win hearts and minds. Then Namal was a destructive force, because the President does understand Basil’s shortcomings but he is incapable of checking Namal. In fact his reaction to criticism of his indulgence to the children is instructive, in trying to justify the helicopters – whereas Namal claimed they only had toy helicopters.
The two Peiris twins were sycophants of the highest order, but more to what they thought were Gotabhaya’s wishes than to the President, which led them to let down the President when he tried to do good. Gotabhaya I think more honest as a human being, but his recent political ambitions have spoiled him. Lalith Weeratunge I know regretted what was happening, but did not have the courage to set the President right, which is a pity because in his heart the President knows Lalith is the only person who can be trusted.
And finally there is Sajin, to whom the President is devoted, which beggars belief (and the nation too).
3. You were the head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) from 2007 to 2007. How would you revisit the pivotal role played by Norwegians in the peace process in general and Norwegian politician Erik Solheim in particular?
I think the Norwegians in general behaved very well, and the ambassadors I dealt with stood up to the LTTE. In my time the Monitoring Mission was headed by a Norwegian who was balanced, and helped me overcome the prejudices of some of his staff. There had been some prejudice before against Sri Lanka and its unity, most obviously on the part of a Swedish General who had headed the SLMM – I failed to get the Foreign Ministry to register protests officially about this, though I did my best. Also I think the ambassador at the time of the Ceasefire Agreement being signed was indulgent to the LTTE because he had been here in the eighties and was influenced by the excesses against Tamils of the Jayewardenepura government. Finally, I found Solheim shifty, and have said so to those who approved of him, beginning with Mr Bogollagama. It was a great pity he had so much influence at the time, because I think his agenda was always a selfish one, a view shared by the Norwegian Liberals with whom I was in contact. 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 »
Tamara’s success in averting a resolution against us at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2011 was not however to be repeated the following year. She had no say in the massive delegation that was sent, and the strategy to be followed. Though by then I had met her and liked her, even though she had also called asking me to be present at the sessions in March, I refused when the President first asked me, and was able to cite another commitment. But I did suggest to the President that he send Jeevan and Javid Yusuf, who had been a long-standing member of the SLFP and had served as our ambassador in Saudi Arabia at one stage. They both went, and the former established a close friendship with Tamara.
When the President asked again I could not refuse. Jeevan told me that he had suggested taking the draft of the LLRC Action Plan to Geneva, but been told it was not ready. While I was in Geneva I asked Mohan whether I could look at the draft, but he told me it was confidential. I asked then if he would show it to me in his presence, whereupon he said that he was doing it with the Foreign Ministry, and I should ask the Foreign Minister. I did so, whereupon G L Peiris said, ‘What draft?’
I could only deduce that Gotabhaya had told them not to bother, and GL had assumed that this was the President’s view too. Mohan however undoubtedly knew the real situation, and therefore continued to deceive the President about progress while, as with the LLRC interim recommendations, ignoring his instructions. So three months after the LLRC had reported, we had evidently done nothing to take matters forward.
After the resolution was passed, the President entrusted formulation of a plan to his Secretary, who invited Mrs Wijayatilaka, who had been doing yeoman service on the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force that I convened, to assist. The President had also indicated that Civil Society representatives should be asked to contribute, and Jeevan and a couple of others were accordingly invited to one of the first meetings.
When Mohan came in and saw them, he walked out immediately. He had it seems objected, and though they stayed for that meeting, they were not invited for any others. When I asked Lalith Weeratunge about this, he told me that it had been decided the plan should be drafted only by government officials. Mohan it should be noted was not in fact an official, since he had retired by now as Attorney General, but I suppose his leading role was in terms of his most recent appointment, that of Legal Advisor to the Cabinet, clearly a consolation prize since he had not been made Chief Justice as he had hoped. But his authority was such that, contrary to the President’s instructions, Jeevan and the others were left out after that. Lalith assured me though that they would be invited to serve on the Task Force to implement the plan.
Within a couple of months Lalith’s committee had produced a draft which he showed me, saying that he would be putting it to Cabinet the next day. He anticipated no difficulty about having it adopted. I thought it pretty good, and recognized Mrs Wijayatilaka’s footprints all over it, in particular in the inclusion of Key Performance Indicators, a pet requirement of hers while at the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation. I rang her then to congratulate her on her work, only to be told that she had no idea the draft they had been produced had been accepted and would be going to Cabinet. 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.
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.
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