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The election was held on August 17th, and four days later I learnt that I had not been put into Parliament. I had been on the UPFA National List, which I gathered had been with the approval of both factions of the SLFP. But it had become clear almost immediately that happened that the polarization that was taking place would leave no room for anyone trying to hold a balance.
I had not been able, before it was submitted, to see the President to check about whether I would be on the List. But I did see him on July 14th, along with Faizer Mustapha, who had also resigned as a State Minister early in the year, deeply upset that as the leading Muslim in the SLFP who had supported the President’s campaign he had not been put into the Cabinet. The President told us that he had been responsible for ensuring that we were on the list, and we thanked him, but Faizer was much more worried about the fact that he was low down on the list, and kept questioning the President about his chances of being nominated to Parliament.
Maithripala, with a touch of the gentle irony I had found attractive in my few dealings with him, noted that he had thought we had come to thank him, not to complain. But Faizer was not to be deterred in pressing his case, and proceeded to claim that the Rajapaksa camp was deeply hostile to him because of his devotion to the President. I found this odd, given that Faizer had been one of those who crossed over to support Sirisena only when it became clear that he had a chance of winning, and when it was obvious that the Muslims would vote for him en masse and the Muslims who remained in the Rajapaksa camp had, for the moment, no prospect of political success.
But it was precisely those who crossed over late, in pursuit of their own advantages, who had to convince the President of their undying loyalty. They had nothing else to put forward, since obviously they had no commitment to the principles on which for instance Vasantha Senanayake and I had moved to support Sirisena – having previously, unlike others in government with a few honourable exceptions, raised questions with Mahinda Rajapaksa when we thought his government was going astray. Read the rest of this entry »
I had intended, in what was to be the last article in this series, to look at the question of external security, and how to work towards bipartisan consensus in the conduct of international relations, so that the nation as a whole is strengthened. At present, on the contrary, we seem, while pursuing partisan political agendas, to allow ourselves to become the playthings of other countries.
Instead of that however, in what will be the last article in this series, I will look at what seems an even more vital issue in the context of the events of last week, namely the question of internal party democracy. That question has been raised by others too previously, but the dismissal by the President of two party secretaries off his own bat has highlighted the problem of intra-party decision making.
Those who defend the actions of the President claim that he was under great pressure, both political and emotional, but even they feel that the actions took away from the great reputation for decency that he had established. And in the long run, given the way the results worked out, it has taken away from what would have been his stature in presiding over a national government. It is still not too late to develop a national consensus, but everyone will have to work all the harder for this purpose if we are to avoid confrontational oppositioning.
Though the choice the nation has to make on January 8th is a very serious one, there has certainly been a lot of entertainment to be had during the last few days. This is not all on one side, since it is odd to find many individuals who had little time for each other in the past now working together. My friend Dayan Jayatilleka first decided that the JHU provided the saving graces to the campaign of the common candidate, but then threw in his lot with the President. I assume he thinks there is hope of reform, which is ironic given his deep distrust of the Secretary of Defence. However I can but hope that he will be given control of the Foreign Ministry, given his incisive dissection of its disastrous workings in the last few years. He will certainly put an end to what he diagnosed some time back, that the Foreign Ministry was territory occupied by the Defence Ministry, and the Defence Ministry was territory occupied by Israel. His return to the Rajapaksa fold suggests that the President has begun to see sanity – though, as Dayan has noted, the President is generally sane when you talk to him, it is his capacity to implement his own decisions and follow his instincts that has been in doubt over the last few years.
Dayan’s decision may have also been dictated by his dislike of both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is another irony that these two have now discovered each other’s virtues. But politics has always brought together people who were on different sides earlier, and this is understandable since we all need to look for good qualities in politicians and hope that these lead to productive synergy. Chandrika reminded me, when we met on the day of the first Press Conference, that I had once told her I wanted to bring her and Mahinda together. I certainly regret that both did not try harder, because had they at least talked to each other, and tried to reach consensus on issues both had been positive about earlier, such as the 13th amendment, Mahinda would not so easily have become the prisoner of the rent seekers and extremists who now dominate him.
People forging new alliances then, or going back to old ones, is not preposterous. What is preposterous is the excess the government has indulged in, in coping with the surprise it got when Maithripala Sirisena became the common candidate. First it had, as the President indicated, to make sure that no one else crossed over. To do this it employed both carrots and sticks, giving full publicity to the latter effort. This came in the form of the President’s declaration that he had files on everyone. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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).
The government decided last week, when faced with the announcement by Navi Pillay of her team to investigate Sri Lanka, to propose a motion in Parliament against such an investigation. This was a shrewd move, since it puts the main opposition on the spot with regard to whether it supports such an investigation. I can understand the TNA opposing such a motion given that it sees this as one way of achieving its goals, even though I think it would have achieved more had it, like the Indian government, stood foursquare against international interference whilst also urging the Sri Lankan government to pursue reconciliation and a better deal for the Tamil people more comprehensively.
What would be unacceptable is for the national opposition to oppose such a motion, and I think the UNP will find it difficult to decide how to respond. It would seem a sad betrayal of our sovereignty to oppose such a motion, and I think sensible people in the UNP would not want to commit a political blunder of such magnitude.
And the decision to support the motion should be the easier for any forward looking Sri Lankan, given that the motion is so limited in scope.Government has not gone down the disastrous route advocated by Wimal Weerawansa of opposing not only an international investigation, but of also opposing any effective domestic mechanism. Indeed government has scored a major triumph in having the motion proposed in the name of Achala Jagodage, who came to Parliament through Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front. And though most of the other signatories cannot be described as political heavyweights, also included as a signatory is perhaps the most intelligent amongst the new SLFP entrants into Parliament, the Hon Janaka Bandara. He chaired the only Committee in Parliament, apart from COPE, that proved effective in the last four years, and he also had the courage of his convictions and resigned when he found that the report of that Committee, on public petitions, was ignored.