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Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.

I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.

The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially. Read the rest of this entry »


Chanaka Amaratunga died 19 years ago, on the 1st of August 1996. He died a disappointed man, for he had not entered Parliament, which had been his dream. Only Chanaka, imbued in the Westminster style of Liberal Democratic politics, could have written an article entitled ‘In Praise of Parliament’ at a time when the Executive Presidency was well entrenched in Sri Lanka, and the tradition of the independent Parliamentarian long lost.

qrcode.30571558He had hoped to enter Parliament in 1988, when he was on the SLFP National List, but the defeat of the SLFP then had led to the sidelining of Anura Bandaranaike, who had been his great friend. He told me that, when he went to Rosmead Place on the day after the election, Sunethra had met him with the claim that the only hope for the party now was to bring Chandrika back. He had said this was nonsense, and that perhaps put paid to his chances. After her defeat, Mrs Bandaranaike too felt that the policies Anura had promoted had been a mistake, and moved back to the left.

Anura still had residual support, but he was soft-hearted to a fault, and gave up the Secretaryship of the party when he was appointed to the post on a split decision. The newspapers at the time reported that his mother had stormed out of the room, and he had followed her, and agreed to a compromise whereby Dharmasiri Senanayake became Secretary. The latter worked for Chandrika, and as we know she came back and took over. By then, though, it should be noted that Sunethra was supportive of her brother and when, forgetting the change that had taken place, I asked her what her sister was up to, she told me that she was trying to throw ‘my darling brother’ out of the party.

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qrcode.30283437I was surprised to be told recently that the Secretary to the Cabinet Ministry under which I was supposed to work as State Minister of Higher Education had been dismissed. Eran Wickremaratne explained the reasons to me, but I will not go into those since, much as I respect Eran’s own integrity, there may be another side to the story, which reflects less well on the Cabinet Minister than the Secretary.

In particular, after the admission that Kabir Hashim, along with Malik Samarawickrema and the Minister of Finance, had been in the Central Bank to raise the issue of obtaining more money, shortly before Arjuna Mahendran’s fatal decision to take 10 billion by auction, I have my suspicions about what has been going on there. Thankfully, Eran said very clearly that he was not at that meeting and had known nothing about it, which I suspect would be true of the Secretary too.

I did raise with Eran the question of the failure of the 19th Amendment to address a fundamental principle of Good Governance, which is the strengthening of the independence of Public Servants. Certainly there should be provision to dismiss public servants if they do something wrong, but that should not be a political decision, it should be made by the Public Service Commission. And we must go back to the usual practice in parliamentary democracies where Ministers come from within Parliament, which is that Secretaries to Ministries are in effect Permanent, and not changed with every change of government.

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Doc 4When Neelan was assassinated, it was initially assumed that Jeevan Thiagarajah, a younger protégé to whom he had become increasingly close, and whom he had seen as his chosen successor, would take over. But Radhika came to a swift arrangement with Neelan’s widow Sithy, and between the two of them they ran ICES for the next few years. Sithy was given unlimited access to ICES funds and resources, and the finances suffered terribly. Radhika’s lame excuse when the problems were laid bare was that she had merely signed whatever the Financial Director laid before her, and it was only after she left that she realized he knew little about finance.

In 2006 Radhika took up a UN assignment but ensured that someone she had herself selected, Rama Mani, who was very much on the international NGO circuit, succeeded her as Executive Director. Rama managed to alienate most of the researchers at ICES and evaded queries about financial problems until finally Kingsley de Silva, who was still Chairman of the Board, dismissed her.

At this point all hell broke loose. Apart from the efforts at blackmail of Angela Bogdan, Radhika weighed in heavily from New York on Rama’s behalf, while Rama even got the UNDP Regional Director to sign a petition asking for her reinstatement. This turned out to be under false pretences, and he retracted apologetically, while in New York, after much complaining, Radhika agreed with the Secretary General that she would give up her continuing involvement with ICES, which she should indeed have done when taking up a UN involvement.

My own deep worry about ICES had begun when Gareth Evans, who had chaired the Committee that developed the R2P concept, had been invited by Rama to deliver the Neelan Tiruchelvam memorial lecture, and had engaged in wild attacks on the Sri Lankan government. Having refrained from any mention of who had killed Neelan, he basically suggested that the Sri Lankan government, while engaged in excesses in its efforts to suppress the Tigers, was essentially racist and becoming ripe for R2P intervention.

Gareth came to see me afterwards and I challenged his claims, in particular his assertions that there had been genocide and ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka, conditions which warranted exercise of R2P. The only instance of the former he could mention was what had happened in July 1983, and he granted that that was no reason for evoking R2P now. With regard to the latter, he could not remember his reasons for the claim, and had to turn to his assistant, Alan Keenan, who had worked for ICES and developed an insidious interest in Sri Lanka which he now exercised on behalf of the International Crisis Group which Gareth headed.

Keenan sanctimoniously referred to the expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE, which had happened in 1990. Neither the date nor the perpetrators had been mentioned in Gareth’s speech, which made clear the sleight of hand involved. I mentioned that there was other shoddy work in the speech, and he agreed to respond when I had written to him about this, but needless to say, I never received any answers.

Interestingly enough I met Gareth again the following year, in Geneva, and I reminded him that he had not responded. He first claimed to have done so, and then changed his stance and said that he had been told I was a difficult person to deal with. I was flattered, that a former Australian Foreign Minister should be nervous of me, but I persevered, and he told me to write to Alan again with the questions. Obviously this time too there was no response. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

download (2)The request to write an article on US Policy towards Sri Lanka in 2008/2009 came at a timely moment, for I had been reflecting in some anguish on the crisis that the Sri Lankan government is now facing. I believe that this crisis is of the government’s own creation, but at the same time I believe that its root causes lie in US policy towards us during the period noted.

Nishan de Mel of Verite Research, one of the organizations now favoured by the Americans to promote change, accused me recently of being too indulgent to the Sri Lankan government. I can understand his criticism, though there is a difference between understanding some phenomenon and seeking to justify it. My point is that, without understanding what is going on, the reasons for what a perceptive Indian journalist has described as the ‘collective feeling that the Sri Lankan State and Government are either unable or unwilling’ to protect Muslims from the current spate of attacks, we will not be able to find solutions.

Nishan might have felt however that I was working on the principle that to understand everything is to forgive everything. But that only makes sense if corrective action has been taken, ie if the perpetrator of wrongs has made it clear that these will be stopped and atoned for. Sadly, after the recent incidents at Aluthgama, I fear the time and space for changing course are running out. But even if we can do nothing but watch the current government moving on a course of self-destruction, it is worth looking at the causes and hoping that history will not repeat itself at some future stage

My contention is that the appalling behavior of the government at present springs from insecurity. That insecurity has led it to believe that it can rely only on extremist votes and extremist politicians. Thus the unhappiness of the vast majority of the senior SLFP leadership, and their willingness to engage in political reform that promotes pluralism, are ignored in the belief that victory at elections can only be secured if what is perceived as a fundamentalist and fundamental Sinhala Buddhist base is appeased.

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I have been intrigued recently by a couple of reports about how other countries have been providing funding to various organizations in Sri Lanka that engage in political activities. First there was the allegation, made prominently by Wimal Weerawansa but expanded on elsewhere, about Norwegian funding to the Bodhu Bala Sena.

On the same day on which I asked the Norwegian ambassador about this, I was told that Sagarica Delgoda, head of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Sri Lanka, had been questioned about support she had provided to a conference organized by the UNP. The FNS is the foundation of the German Liberal Party, the Free Democrats, and they had provided the Liberal Party, or rather our think tank, the Council for Liberal Democracy, with funds in the old days for various seminars.

When I was inquiring about the story, I was told, by Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu who had long ago been one of my Vice-Presidents in the Liberal Party, that before the lady was questioned there had been attacks on me too, in various newspapers, on the grounds that I too was receiving funds from the FNS.

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While suppressing the evidence it had commissioned from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Amnesty produced yet another report to denigrate Sri Lanka during the sessions of the Human Rights Council, and has been actively canvassing against us in Geneva. Its normally urbane representative, Peter Splinter, has been scurrying around like a headless chicken, and using language that he would not normally stoop to.

I met him as I went to the Palais on the 14th, and he did not stop to speak, understandably so for he had a meeting with the Sri Lankan delegates led by Dr Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives who have been in the forefront of the campaign against Sri Lanka. Interestingly, when most people in Sri Lanka were positive about the LLRC report, it was CPA which followed the American line of criticism, which sadly the TNA also took up. While Peter was deeply upset about what he claimed was characterization of his friends as terrorists, and this of course is nonsense, the congruence of their agenda with that of the LTTE rump that has now come to the Palais in increasing numbers is truly worrying.

Peter engaged in his own insults when he described the session at which Jeevan Thiagarajah and Javid Yusuf and I spoke about taking Reconciliation forward as a Dog and Pony show. I do not think he intended any particular insult to Mr Yusuf, but it is this type of cultural insensitivity that Amnesty would have been careful about in the old days when people committed to Human Rights without a political agenda, such as Anne Ranasinghe and Javid himself worked for it.

The political agenda is clear in the latest report issued by Amnesty, with its claim that unlawful detention practices continue. In the past I used to think Amnesty was genuine in its commitment to human rights, and I have no objection to it drawing attention to practices it sees as illegal or improper. What I object to is its use of particular instances to engage in generalizations that shore up the impression it seeks to propagate, of Sri Lanka being a militarized state where abuses are the norm. I am sure Amnesty is aware of the vast number of deaths in police custody in Britain in recent years, and I am sure that it will draw attention to these, albeit less dramatically than it does to problems in countries it dislikes – but I do not see it claiming that such abuses in Britain are endemic and indicative of state policy.

The particular instances Amnesty draws attention to in its current assault are largely taken from the past. All case studies as far as I could see were of people arrested in 2009 or earlier, and several of them had been released. While I have no doubt that, like any country under threat from terrorism, arrests sometimes erred on the side of caution, several of the studies indicate that there was good reason for the arrest, ranging from the foreign national who came out to work in an orphanage, as he claimed, and was then recruited by the LTTE (whether forcibly or not is not indicated) to the cadre who had lied under interrogation about his work for the LTTE though he has readily admitted it to whoever interviewed him for Amnesty.

Amnesty also ignores the fact that, whereas we did have large numbers in detention in 2009, those have been significantly reduced. While at the Ministry of Human Rights we would urge that cases be expedited, we could understand that while LTTE terrorism was still an active threat in Sri Lanka, we had to be cautious. Shortly after the war ended however the President appointed a Committee which I chaired to ensure that cases were dealt with, and I had complete cooperation from the prison authorities, the police and the Attorney General’s Department. Though we would complain that this last was slow in dealing with files entrusted to it, the number was halved by the time the Committee ceased to function with the election of 2010.

Since then the Attorney General worked expeditiously to reduce the numbers, and the figure of 2000 cited by Ambassador Godage, cited in the Amnesty Report from the LLRC hearings, is now down to a few hundreds. It should be noted too that ICRC has been visiting such detainees since 2007. I remembered that we used to get reports when I was at the Ministry, but I checked again and ICRC has confirmed that its visits have continued throughout.
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Yesterday I wrote a satirical account of a meeting held at the house of the American Ambassador, reportedly at the request of Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. In noting some versions of stories in circulation about what had been going on there, and why, I had based my account on what Jehan Perera had said to the newspaper which had leaked the story, namely that the discussion was about how the Report of the Darusman Panel could be made use of for reconciliation, instead of for ‘division and polarization’.

I was naïve. I have since found out that there was a strong school of thought, reported as extremist or hardline, which had intended the discussion to be about how the Report could be used to precipitate an external War Crimes investigation. This view had been expressed forcefully, though I was assured that none of the Ambassadors present had taken that line.

I then asked whether that line had been pushed purely by the Non-Governmental Organizations present, which the newspaper report had indicated were purely Sri Lankan. This would not have surprised me given the divisive and polarizing agenda of many of those cited as present. In my take-off of the Darusman Report, I had noted earlier that ‘The failure of Ambassador Butenis to invite anyone from government, or any NGOs not overtly hostile to government, for a meeting supposedly dedicated to reconciliation points to a possible violation of the responsibilities and obligations of diplomats’.

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I am writing in response to criticism of me contained in Dr Saravanamuttu’s article in your newspaper this morning, arising from some reports in the Sunday Leader. His main criticism is that I took no action on the note about Sarath Fonseka I was given at the British High Commission, which he reports without adding the reasons I gave, which even the Leader was kind enough to mention.

I agree with Dr Saravanamuttu that the incident does raise moral issues, but taking action in such situations is never simple. Passing on such a note means that one takes on responsibility for the communication, and implies that one believes it should be acted upon. It was in this context that the Irudina for instance asked if I would be prepared to testify in a Court of Law once the matter was publicized, and I said that if asked to, unquestionably I would agree. I could of course only testify to what had happened, but any responsible authority would have asked my views on the contents of the note.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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