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Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.
It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.
After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.
But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored. 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.
GL’s appointment as Minister of External Affairs in 2010 was generally welcomed. Bogollagama had lost the election, which made the President’s task easier since, given his complaisant approach to those who supported him, he would have found it awkward to replace Bogollagama. The only other serious candidate was Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had peformed well as Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The Sri Lankan Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, who had done a fantastic job in staving off moves against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council, had refused to deal with Bogollagama and instead insisted on the Minister of Human Rights being the main Ministerial presence at sessions of the Council.
Bogollagama however got his revenge soon after Jayatilleka’s greatest triumph, at a Special Session of the Council summoned on a largely British initiative to discuss Sri Lanka. This initiative, generally used only for emergencies, had succeeded only after the Tigers had been defeated. This was fortunate, since clearly the game plan had been to insist on a Cease Fire. Jayatilleka, who had extremely good relations with Sri Lanka’s natural allies, the Indians and the Pakistanis, Egypt as head of the Organization of Islamic States and Cuba as the head of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Chinese and the Russians, and the Brazilians and the South Africans, put forward his own resolution before the Europeans had got theirs ready, and this was carried with a resounding majority.
The ease of the victory, and the widespread perception in Sri Lanka that he was its architect, was his downfall. Samarasinghe was irritated in that his role was played down. Also upset was the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, despite the fact that Jayatilleka had been instrumental in persuading the President to have him appointed. Pieris had come prepared to speak at the Session but, after Jayatileka made the opening statement, he got me to deliver the closing remarks, given that we had worked together on the Council very successfully, and knew which factors to emphasize. But this did not please the duo and they did nothing to defend Jayatilleka when the knives came out. Indeed they failed even to contact him when he returned to Sri Lanka.
Typically, the President was the first to get in touch, and try to use Jayatilleka’s services again: when the latter mentioned how disappointed he had been that no one had contacted him after he got back to Sri Lanka, the President said that was no surprise, after the manner in which he had been treated. The fact that the President himself had acquiesced in the dismissal was thus sublimely passed over.
It was less than two months after the resolution that Jayatilleka was summarily removed. The President may have been persuaded by the ease of the victory to the belief that any idiot could handle international relations, for that certainly is the view he and the government embodied over the next few years. It was also alleged however that the Israelis had moved heaven and earth to get rid of Jayatilleka, since his intellectual abilities had put him in the forefront of moves to bring the Palestinian issue to the attention of international fora. Unfortunately the Israelis had the ear of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and also of Lalith Weeratunge, both of whom actively promoted Jayatilleka’s dismissal.
He was replaced in Geneva by Kshenuka Seneviratne, who was perhaps the last official in the Ministry to represent the mindset of the eighties when, under Jayewardene and his Foreign Minister Hameed, it was assumed that Sri Lanka had to be firmly allied to the West. This also involved hostility to India, and Kshenuka certainly embodied this, and was found later to have actively tried to set the President against the Indians, after the 2012 March Geneva debacle when a resolution against Sri Lanka was carried at the Human Rights Council.
Kshenuka had been High Commissioner in London in the days when Britain was bitterly opposed to Sri Lanka but she had done little to counter this. She claimed on the strength of her time there to be an expert on the country, and when her successor, a retired judge, proved ineffective, she took charge of the President’s approach to Britain. Thus, late in 2010, she encouraged him to travel to Britain just to address the Oxford Union, something he had already done. The High Commissioner in London advised against this, as did his experienced Deputy from the Ministry, Pakeer Amza, but Kshenuka’s will prevailed.
She was strongly supported by Sajin Vas Gunawardena, whom the President chose as what was termed Monitoring Member of Parliament for the Ministry of External Affairs, on the grounds that administration there was a mess and someone was needed to sort things out. Sajin was a good friend of Namal’s, and GL naturally acquiesced in the appointment. Sajin and Kshenuka got on extremely well, and they in effect ran foreign policy over the next few years. Read the rest of this entry »
In 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 was privileged, a couple of weeks back, to attend the release of the Northern Education Sector Review Report at a ceremony held at Vembadi Girls School. I had last been at Vembadi in 2008, when the then Commander of the Special Forces in Jaffna, General Chandrasiri, arranged what was termed a Future Minds Exhibition. It was at the height of the war, but the General had already begun to plan for the future, and sensibly so for he stressed the need for the development of human resources.
I was struck by the irony now, with the controversy over his continuation as Governor. I will look at that issue elsewhere, but here I will dwell on the fact that the Provincial administration had invited him as Chief Guest, to be given the first copy of the report, and all the speeches made were in a spirit of cooperation. In particular the chair of the committee that had prepared the report, the distinguished athlete Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham, still described as the Olympian, emphasized that the recommendations of the Review were all within the framework of National Policy.
That having been said, the Review is masterly, in clearly identifying many of the problems we face, and suggesting simple remedies. But obvious though many of the pronouncements are, I fear that such an essentially sensible work could not have been produced in any other Province.
There are many reasons for this. I do not think there is any essential intellectual difference between those in the North and others in the country, but I do believe that the urgency of the problem with regard to education is better understood in the North. After all it was simplistic tampering with the education system that first roused deep resentments in the younger generation in the North (Prabhakaran’s batch were the first victims of standardization), and the incapacity or unwillingness of successive governments since then to provide remedies has entrenched bitterness. And whereas Chandrasiri way back in 2008 understood the importance of action in this field, and entitled his Exhibition accordingly, he has since had to serve a political dispensation that cares nothing for the mind.
A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.
However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.
Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here –
Sri Lanka needs to be aware of both facts and principles in dealing with Post Conflict Reconstruction. The facts are simple, and we must recognize that the world at large is aware of them. First, we need aid and assistance for reconstruction. Second, that assistance will be more readily forthcoming if we make significant progress towards reconciliation. Third, reconciliation will be judged in terms not only of what government says, but also the responses of the Tamil community.
These three facts are I think readily recognized by government, and there is no essential difficulty about working in accordance with them. There is however a fourth fact that we need to bear in mind, which is that some elements in the international community believe that the attitude of the diaspora is the most significant element in assessing Tamil responses. This is potentially an upsetting factor, and we have to make sure we deal with it convincingly. Similar to this is a fifth factor, that assessments made in Colombo are often used by salient elements in the international community to judge what is happening with regard to reconciliation and the responses to this of the Tamil community at large. Again, this is a factor that government must take into account.
In one sense this should not be too difficult. A similar situation obtained even with regard to the conflict. We needed assistance to deal with the threat of terror, and in obtaining this we had to make it quite clear that we looked to a military solution only for military matters, ie the secessionist military activities of the LTTE. The solution to the problems of the Tamil community had to be found through negotiation as well as sympathetic understanding. We were also able to show that the Tamil community in the affected areas was not indissolubly tied to the Tigers, inasmuch as once liberated they participated actively in elections in the East, and they took the opportunity in the North (as they had done in the East, in a military campaign that saw no civilian casualties except in a single incident which the LTTE precipitated) to escape from the LTTE as soon as we were able to provide such an opportunity. The simple fact that many of the younger cadres disobeyed orders about firing on civilians, and came over willingly, makes clear the positive response of the affected Tamils.
I have been mostly away for some weeks, but that is not the only reason I did not talk about the appalling violence that occurred in Aluthgama almost a month ago. I was waiting, because I hoped that this would be a turning point for the Presidency. I hoped that, in reacting to violence that goes against the principles on which he has twice won the Presidency, the President would free himself from the polarizing shackles that have fallen upon him.
I fear that nothing of the sort has happened, and it is possible that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka was right, if prematurely, in suggesting that the Mandate of Heaven might have passed. He said this a year back, after the Weliveriya incident. Though I did not agree with him then, I must admit that he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than I did. But, like him in his recent claim, citing Juan Somavia, that this man should not be isolated, I think it would make sense to continue to urge reforms from within.
There are signs that this will not be a hopeless task, given the recent visit of the South African Vice-President, which our Deputy Foreign Minister said very clearly in Parliament sprang from an invitation from our President, who hoped to learn from their experience. Wimal Weerawansa will of course claim that his threats have worked and South Africa will not interfere, but his capacity to delude himself, and assume the world is deluded too, is unlimited, and we need not worry about that. Obviously South Africa had no intention of interfering at all, because like all those in the coalition Dayan Jayatilleka built up in 2009, she subscribes to the basic UN principle of national sovereignty. But she has clearly been invited here in the hope that we might be able to move forward, and get out of the morass into which, with much help from ourselves, we have been precipitated.
A recent newspaper article on Sri Lankan relations with India suggested a level of incompetence that even I had not thought possible in our Ministry of External Affairs. The article described the Ministry as ‘virtually defunct’ but that is misleading. It is actually viral in its determination to destroy relations with India, and continuing to talk of its incompetence is to support its destructiveness.
I had thought it possible that the Minister was not responsible for the determination to destroy, and that he was simply anxious to keep his job, and therefore followed blindly those he thought had greater influence than he did. But the description of what happened in 2012 suggests a more insidious nature. The article declares that the Minister had ‘confirmed that Rajapaksa had promised “13 plus”’ to the Indian Foreign Minister, and that it was only after that that the Indians had gone public with that promise. But the article did not mention that not only did Peiris fail to stand up for the truth,, when various spokesmen of the President denied that promise, but he also failed to send a response to the letter requiring clarification that was sent by the Indian Prime Minister.
Or, rather, he sent a response and then withdrew it. This technique is a specialty of the current Secretary to the Ministry, Kshenuka Seneviratne, even though it is thoroughly unprofessional, as noted by a former colleague who has now made her getaway from the mess. But it is not only unprofessional, it embarrasses both sides, which I suspect Kshenuka well knows. Peiris however may not have understood that, when he sends a letter and then withdraws it, his credibility is gone for ever (though in his case I suspect it had gone long before, as American ambassador Patricial Butenis of now blessed memory put it).
I write this in Shillong, capital of the state of Meghalaya, while attending a Conference on ‘India’s North-East and Asiatic South-East: Beyond Borders’. It has been arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, which has an impressive array of full-time staff as well as Consultants. One of them, a retired Colonel who had worked for many years in the North-East when it was a hotbed of insurgency, delivered a fascinating paper on the subject. In addition to his many ideas for improving the situation, I was fascinated by the interchanges between him and academics from the area, who deplored his use of the term ‘misled brothers’ to describe the former insurgents. They thought it patronizing, whereas the Colonel had thought it a less divisive way of describing those who had previously taken up arms against the State.
Regardless of the merits of the case, what was illuminating was the manner in which such debates took place. CRRID is supported by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, but the participants represented different views, and even the personnel from CRRID, including several former MEA dignitaries, made no bones about what they thought could be done better by the Indian government. This should be normal practice, but sadly it is unthinkable in Sri Lanka. I was reminded then of the absence of Tamil politicians when the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute finally got off the ground, with a Seminar on Reconciliation. Not one of them had been asked to present their views, and consequently they did not attend.
In passing I should note that that prompted the workshop which the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies arranged, at which we had a wide range of views. The proceedings culminated in a decision, suggested by Javid Yusuf, to formulate a National Reconciliation Policy, which soon got underway in the office I then had, as the President’s Adviser on Reconciliation. This was discussed with a wide range of stakeholders, politicians and religious leaders and media personnel, at gatherings kindly arranged by solid supporters of Sri Lanka as well as Reconciliation, the Japanese Ambassador and the Papal Nuncio. After finalization the Draft Policy was sent to the President, where it got lost.