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qrcode.26820002So his attitude seemed to harden with the passing years. Also, sadly, even though he might not have been ambitious himself, he seemed to see himself as the principal guardian of the victory the forces had won, with an obligation therefore to block the way of those who were anxious to give more political powers to Tamil politicians. Though, under threat from the LTTE, some of these had seemed to subscribe to the LTTE ideology, in fact most Tamil politicians were moderates who were relieved that the LTTE had been vanquished. They were prepared to disavow terrorism as well as separatism, but they were anxious to exercise political power in predominantly Tamil regions, at least in terms of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. But those who were opposed to even that limited devolution, on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to separatism, saw Gotabhaya as their champion, and he came in time to articulate their views with increasing assertiveness.

An extreme example of this came when, in 2013, with the President making preparations to have the long delayed Provincial Council election in the North, he declared publicly that it should not be held. Ironically, according to the President, he had been in favour of holding those elections a few years earlier, soon after the war ended, which would have been a sensible move, and would have led to a better result for the government. It was Basil then who had insisted on delay, on the grounds that his building programme would ensure more and more support for the government. But by 2013, more perceptive perhaps than Basil about political realities in the area, perhaps realizing too how he had contributed to increasing unpopularity, he came out strongly against having a poll. And typically this occurred while one of the more extreme coalition partners of the government, which was seen as close to Gotabhaya, had introduced a Bill to amend the Provincial Councils Act so as to water down their powers. So powerful did this combination seem, even though the evidence of elections had made it clear they had minimal popular support, that it was feared the President would back down.

But he went ahead and elections were held. The TNA won handsomely, with the determination of the Tamils to vote against government increased perhaps by what seemed strong arm tactics on the part of the forces against a candidate who was identified closely with the LTTE. She did remarkably well, which might well have been predicted.

This makes one wonder why the forces should have got involved, and indeed it was so foolish an action, were they the perpetrators, that one wonders whether she herself had arranged the attack, given that only she could benefit. However there had been previous instances of such folly on the part of the forces, as when a meeting of the TNA had been attacked some months previously.

That incident was bizarre, because by the time the violence occurred the TNA representatives had finished speaking and left, and until then, they said, what were clearly soldiers in mufti had behaved with restraint. When I asked the Jaffna District Forces Commander what had happened, he said that his orders to behave correctly had been disobeyed, as a result of provocation by one of the later speakers, a Sinhalese member of a small radical party. But I could not understand why he did not then take forceful disciplinary action. Apart from the fact that soldiers should under no circumstances react violently against civilians unless they are themselves in grave danger, it was possible that there were members of the forces who had no affection for the government, nor for Tamils (following the approach of Sarath Fonseka before his conversion), and they had no qualms therefore about aggression that could bring the government into disrepute. Government was only playing into their hands by refraining from disciplining them. Read the rest of this entry »


qrcode.26819894What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.

This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.

Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.

Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.

In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.

It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.

Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

Bash-ful 3GL and Sajin meanwhile failed to take things forward in the other area which had been entrusted to them, in that they brought nothing from the negotiations to the PSC. It became such a joke that even representatives of the hardline parties asserted this and said it should be wound up. This made sense for nothing of what we had discussed,the unexceptionable measures which the TNA had accepted in principle, and which could have been fleshed out by the PSC, a second chamber for instance and increased power to local bodies, the elimination as far as possible of the concurrent list, were not discussed by the Committee. Both Vasantha and I had brought these matters up, and it was clear that the more intelligent members of the Committee found them interesting, but there seemed massive resistance to any reforms. But in a context in which Sajin Vas Gunawardena seemed to be calling all the shorts, and given his control of both the Minister of External Affairs and the President’s son, so that the President himself seemed unable to move without his blessing, there was little hope of the regime breaking out of the straitjacket in which it was held.

Namal however, though he would not stand up against Sajin, did seem to have his measure, as was apparent in the brief period in which Tamara Kunanayagam was able to deal direct with the President while she was in Geneva. Her sudden removal was probably due to what she had discovered while she was there, and the realization that her direct link with the President would stymie the various stratagems that were laying the country low.

When she arrived a month before the September 2011 UN Human Rights Council Session, she was informed that Kshenuka had been negotiating with the American ambassador about a resolution to bring Sri Lanka before the Human Rights Council for an Interactive Dialogue. When she contacted the Ministry about this and instructions on how to respond, it was to find that they had no knowledge of such an initiative. However they did not seem to take it seriously, so Tamara called the President direct, and he asked her to fly to Colombo immediately for a briefing.

When she did so, she found the Foreign Ministry totally hostile, and furious that she had come to Sri Lanka without authorization from them. At a meeting where GL and Sajin were present she was given instructions that she should go back immediately, and not meet the President. Fortunately she had a ticket that could not be changed, and the Secretary to the Ministry accepted this position, so she was able to meet the President.
His anger about the acquiescence of Kshenuka in Geneva to what the Americans saw as a precursor to the war crimes resolution they had been contemplating was in marked contrast to the complacence of GL and Sajin. Whereas they had not reacted at all, the President’s instructions were clear, that there should be no negotiations. Tamara accordingly made the Sri Lankan position clear, and had enough support to ensure that the proposed resolution, and a Canadian attempt to bring the Sri Lankan issue to the attention of the Council, were dropped. But the American ambassador told her that they would get Sri Lanka the next time round. Since there was no official record of the discussions Kshenuka had had with them, and neither the President nor the Minister attempted to find out, Tamara had to work in a vacuum – not helped by the fact that Ksenuka and Sajin were in firm control of the Ministry and the delegation that was sent to Geneva, as well as the Mission staff that they took over on arrival, and treated her as an outsider at the next session.

She was able to understand something more of Sajin’s mentality when, after consultation with friendly envoys, she noted that the best hope for Sri Lanka to avoid censure was swift implementation of the LLRC recommendations, which had been published at the end of 2012. But Sajin informed her that the President had no intention of taking these forward. She mentioned this to the President when she was back in Sri Lanka for the 2012 Independence Day celebrations, and cited what Sajin had said, that he knew the President’s mind as though he were inside it, which led Namal to comment that this was exactly the sort of thing Sajin would say. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26621401Mahinda Samarasinghe was appointed by Cabinet to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the Human Rights Action Plan, and wanted me to serve on it as well as on a smaller Task Force that would push things forward. Nishan told me the Minister had wanted to appoint Mohan to chair the Task Force but I told him, and the Minister too, that I would only serve on the Task Force if I were in charge. I added to the Minister, without mentioning names, that I had had enough of being appointed to committees that never met.

The Minister did not commit himself, but at the first meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee he announced that he had asked me to convene a Task Force to take things forward. He did say that even though I could be difficult – a bloody nuisance, added Mohan, in a loud whisper – he knew I would get things done. It was obvious from this that they had discussed the matter and Mohan had not been pleased. But I was able to go ahead, and we managed to move swiftly with regard to many matters, with excellent cooperation from most Ministries.

I was wary about Mohan by this stage because of my experience with regard to the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the interim recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He had been appointed to chair this when the recommendations came out late in 2010, but there was no sign of any progress at the time the Darusman Committee issued its report in April 2011. I told the President this and, when he claimed that the Committee had made much progress, I said I thought it had never met.

At my suggestion he then told his Secretary to appoint me to that committee as well as to the team negotiating with the TNA. He also authorized me to collect from the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs details of the Committee’s work, which he thought was being reported on a regular basis.

The Secretary sent me the file which contained only the first report that had been given to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. This said a committee that had been appointed to implement the interim recommendations of the LLRC, and government had used that to argue that the Darusman report was unnecessary. But there were no minutes of meetings, and the Foreign Secretary said he had been told that minutes were not kept.

Meanwhile, the President’s Secretary had rung me shortly after the President instructed him about the appointments, to say the letter with regard to the negotiating team would be sent, and that Mohan had made no objection to my being put on the other committee. It was only after I put the phone down that I wondered about Mohan having been consulted. While obviously it was a courtesy to keep him informed, I wondered about his views being sought after the President had given an order.

Sure enough, I was told by Lalith Weeratunge a few days later that it was thought I should not be on the committee since I was a Member of Parliament, and that it consisted only of officials. I asked the President about this, and he confirmed that he had been told it would not be proper. I then suggested that monitoring the work of the committee and reporting to him about it should be one of my duties as his Advisor on Reconciliation, to which he agreed.

Armed with that clause in my letter of appointment, I saw Mohan who was as charming as always. He confessed – this was in May 2011, nine months after it had been appointed – that the committee had never met. I suggested that perhaps I should attend its first meeting and he agreed and said he was waiting to get a date from the Secretary of Defence. This was a story he repeated over the next few months, until he finally confessed that the Secretary did not want the committee to meet. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26604602Nearly two months back the Liberal Party wrote to the President urging that he not hold elections in haste, and indicating that he should proceed first with the various reforms he had pledged. We got an acknowledgment, but not a response, though I suspect a call from a close relation urging that I support the President was a consequence of the letter. The refusal to consider issues seriously, while simply providing assurances that things will improve, is not however something that can be accepted ad nauseam. Indeed, while in India I was told by a political scientist who had been fully supportive of our destruction of the Tigers in Sri Lanka, that the President, having promised the Indians that he would implement the 13th Amendment, was heard to say as they were leaving that he had fooled them again.

I refused to believe this, and argued that the President would not have behaved like that. My own view is that he is generally sincere in the commitments he makes, and he did his best on various occasions to promote the LLRC. But unfortunately he imagines he is weaker than he is, and gives in to pressures from others, all of whom have their own agendas. So, following his commitment to the Indians, he did nothing when that was repudiated by a spokesman, and he did not bother when G L Peiris did not respond to a request for clarification sent by the Indian Prime Minister. As Lalith Weeratunge said with regard to the clear commitment to change the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province, he could do nothing because his hands were tied – but this was probably not, initially at any rate, by the President.

It is this failure to move straight, despite what I continue to believe are admirable political instincts, that led the Liberal Party last week to confirm its earlier decision and support Maithripala Sirisena. Though it is argued that the Sirisena candidacy is the result of a foreign conspiracy, it is in fact a continuation of the present regime that will lead to increasing interference in our affairs by the more prejudiced elements in the international community.

And we now have hardly any defences against such incursions that are based on rationality. I think the recent removal of Chris Nonis, following his able defence of the country when dealing with the international media, suggests that those close to the President are determined to destroy our defences. In some cases this may be due simply to jealousy, but I suspect this was stirred up for ulterior motives, the same motives that led to the dismissal of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayakam.

Underlying all this is the absence of a coherent strategy. Tamara Kunanayakam relates how Sajin Vas Gunawardena had said that the government had no strategy when she asked what was the strategy to deal with the draft resolution against Sri Lanka that the Americans were preparing way back in September. Her staff had told her that this had been shared with Kshenuka Seneviratne on her private email address, but not communicated to Colombo.

Instead of looking into that aberration, the Ministry however was annoyed with Tamara for having found it out, and did not want to think about the matter. It was the President who had told Tamara to come to Colombo to discuss the matter, and been very clear in his instructions, to the effect that Tamara should not negotiate with the Americans, but should instead rally support amongst our usual allies. This Tamara did, and as had happened in 2007, when the British Ambassador had to allow the resolution he had tabled in 2006 to lapse, the American resolution, which the Canadians had tried to bring forward, was not moved.

But before that the Ministry had tried to prevent Tamara seeing the President, and had indeed ordered the Secretary to put her on a flight before the scheduled breakfast meeting with the President. Fortunately the Secretary then, Karunasena Amunugama, was a practical man, and when he found the ticket could not be changed, he had allowed Tamara to stay on. But contrary to the very clear instructions the President had given, which were in line with the strategy we had employed between 2007 and 2009 to defend our interests, Sajin had simply scoffed and said we had no strategy because the President changed it all the time. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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.


… 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 »

sleepy 4Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sleepy (Part 1)

Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sleepy (Part 2)

Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sleepy (Part 3)

Meanwhile GL was also making a mess of the other task that had been entrusted to him, namely negotiations with the Tamil National Alliance, which had done well in local elections for the North, and could credibly claim to represent the Tamils. The main components of the Alliance had seemed to support the Tigers during the war, but this was obviously because they were fearful of what would happen to them otherwise, given that the Tigers were ruthless in eliminating any Tamils opposed to them.

However, while careful not to engage in overt condemnation of the Tigers, its principal leadership made it clear after the war that they were not unhappy the Tigers had been destroyed. In this context they were able to hold discussions with the various groups that had opposed the Tigers, and almost all of these now joined the TNA.

The Tamils of Indian extraction whom the British had brought over during the colonial period were an exception. Though the Ceylon Workers Congress, the main party that represented them had been part of the Tamil United Liberation Front, that had contested the 1977 election as a united group, it had soon afterwards joined the Jayewardene government. Its exceptionally able leader, SauviamoorthyThondaman, had won for his people much that they wanted and needed and, after the UNP lost, he had joined the SLFP led government led by Chandrika Kumaratunga. After his death his grandson took over the leadership of the party, and remained with government, though with nothing like the effectiveness of the older Thondaman.

The principal exception with regard to the TNA of Tamils from the north of the country was Douglas Devananda. Sadly he and the other Tamil groups that had been opposed to the Tigers had not got on, and government failed to build up a solid alliance either before or immediately after the war. Perhaps enmities lay too deep, but given Douglas’ dependence on the government, and the brave stand taken against the Tigers by the others, some serious effort would surely have produced dividends.

Unfortunately, caught up also in its own electoral agenda, government did not expedite negotiations with the TNA immediately after the war, while conversely the TNA explored other options, including support in the 2010 Presidential election for Sarath Fonseka. This was not conductive to trust between them and the government. Given the general approach of Fonseka to Tamils during the war, the message this move sent out was that the TNA was implacably opposed to the President.

Despite this, agreement to negotiate was reached by the beginning of 2011. The government team consisted of the Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva, former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wikramanayake and GL. Added to these was Sajin Vas Gunawardena, ostensibly to maintain records, a task he singularly failed to accomplish. Instead he was seen as an influential member of the team, given his close relationship with the President. Certainly the others were nervous of him, and GL clearly assumed that he knew the President’s mind. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 16Recently I took part in a seminar on Rights and Development, arranged by the Law and Society Trust. That organization used to be bitterly critical of government, but under its new Director, Mala Liyanage, it seems to be trying to go back to the more balanced perspective of Neelan Tiruchelvam. He founded it, but after his death LST, like ICES, became tools of those opposed to the SLFP. I remember, while I was at the Peace Secretariat, having to upbraid the then Chair of LST, Raja Gunasekara, who had not known what was going on, and who after our correspondence agreed to look into the matter.

Certainly the more vicious attacks stopped after that, and it is a pity that, instead of adopting that sort of reasoned approach, government now deals with NGOs, as I told the President recently, because of worries about the hamfisted way of controlling (rather than monitoring) foreign funds, through incompetent people. But gratitude, as the case of the transfer to Australia of the last Head of the Secretariat shows, is stronger than public interest.

And unfortunately we have no institutional memory. Government ignored the report I did more than five years ago on NGOs, where I showed the interlocking directorates of a few, while also pointing out that the vast majority functioned positively. Sadly it is these last who feel threatened, while the others continue as before, except where, as with LST, a change of management leads to a more balanced approach. But I don’t suppose my report can now be found anywhere.

Ironically, on the day of the seminar, I was told that the Presidential Secretariat was looking for the Peace Secretariat files, which I had told them way back in 2009 to look after carefully. In fact they did make an attempt to put things in order after the Darusman Report came out, but as usual, with no personnel in place who were able to understand the situation, that effort too seems to have come to naught.

Interestingly, it was Basil Rajapakse who told me not to try to persuade the President not to close down the Secretariat soon after the conflict ended. Since the President has told me later that closing it down was a great mistake, I was obviously wrong to think that Basil knew what he was doing. He seemed to get on well with Mahinda Samarasinghe, so I thought there would be some continuity there, but the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance was also got rid of, in his mad dash for full authority with regard to aid and development in the North. Read the rest of this entry »

Much has been reported recently about the various Public Relations firms government – or rather elements in government, since it seems that there has been no Cabinet approval for these ventures – have hired to raise our profile in countries which seem hostile to us. There have been a host of such firms in the United States, and one in Britain. The first lot were almost all arranged through our Embassy in Washington, whilst Bell Pottinger, which also works in the United States though it is essentially a British firm, was arranged by Nivard Ajith Cabraal, the Governor of the Central Bank. More recently it seems Mr Cabraal has also been instrumental in arranging yet another firm in America.

The reports are very critical of those who make these arrangements, but I believe there is need of some discrimination here. I cannot defend the earlier agencies in America, for I found the only two I was introduced to, way back when I headed the Peace Secretariat, to be both naïve and incompetent. One of them had a young Sri Lankan who seemed to have initiated the relationship, but he was almost as ignorant as the large American he brought with him. Given the manner in which our Embassy in Washington conducted business, that being the operative word it seems, I believe there should be thorough investigation of what happened.

It is also worth noting that our relations with the United States deteriorated significantly during this period. Hiring of such firms began in the time of the Bush administration, which was relatively positive about us. The excessive expenditure then that our Ambassador in Washington was incurring was culpably unnecessary. More bizarrely, when the Obama administration took over, he continued to work with agencies that had good Republican connections.

The Ministry of External Affairs is also I think culpable in not having protested about all this, but given the close relationship of the Ambassador to the President, I presume it takes guts to point out squandering of resources in such instances. This is another reason the President should be careful about appointing to high positions people whom those who should monitor such actions think have total impunity. But I suspect the President would think twice about such appointments if the problems that would arise are pointed out to him, so it is a pity that neither the Ministry nor the Parliament Committee on High Posts has done this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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