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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.

Sarath-Fonseka

… 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… the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.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Party given by the then Deputy British Head of Mission, to say that the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.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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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.

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Perhaps the most destructive of the machinations designed to weaken the government took place way back in 2009, when various groups got together to support the candidature of Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. In one sense their getting together was not surprising, for all of them thought the President had to be weakened if their own ambitions were to succeed. But it was astonishing that they should have used Sarath Fonseka as their instrument, since in theory at any rate all of them found his basic mindset anathema.

Until late 2009 certainly Fonseka made no bones about that mindset. On the one hand, he believed strongly that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority of its inhabitants, not just the Sinhalese, but Sinhala Buddhists. He enunciated this clearly in 2007, bringing back memories of President Wijetunge’s claim that the Sinhalese were the tree around which minorities clung like vines.

Sarath Fonseka then was the most prominent exponent of one extreme which Fr Vimal Tirimanna described in LTTE Terrorism: Musings of a Catholic Priest, his balanced account of the crisis we went through. He writes there  of political hypocrisy being often justified ‘using hackneyed, out-dated and false socio-political premises, like “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists” or “North and East of Sri Lanka is the Tamil homeland”.

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15 Oct 2012

At the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, there was much emphasis on the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review which Sri Lanka will undergo in Geneva in November. I would have preferred direct concentration on the Action Plan, since I believe we should be committed to progress in this area for our own people, rather than because there is an External Review. I am pleased that Mahinda Samarasinghe is in charge of the delegation, notwithstanding the various leaks from the Ministry of External Affairs to suggest that only officials would be on the delegation, and I was glad that he was taking a forthright approach to the process. However I continue to believe that we are not being practical enough in our pursuit of Rights for our people, and we really must ensure clearcut responsibilities and reporting mechanisms.

After all sincerity – which Minister Samarasinghe has in abundance, along with his principal aide in the process, the former Attorney General Mohan Pieris – is not enough, as compared to statistics. I recall some months back the withering reply of Ambassador Patricia Butenis, when she was complaining that Sri Lanka was coming out with various contradictory positions about the LLRC, and I told her that she should not take seriously what others said, but should concentrate on the official position as expressed by the Ministry of External Affairs and by Mr Pieris. Her comment was that they no longer had credibility in her eyes.

I have referred previously to how the Americans, by their own disparate approaches, contributed to the erosion of trust that we have witnessed in recent years, but for the moment I shall concentrate on what we need to do, not just to make our commitment clear, but to ensure too that that commitment leads to positive results. In simple terms, the reason for collecting and collating statistics is not only to affirm the good work that has been done, but also to register for ourselves what more needs to be done, and to plan to do it expeditiously.

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‘The nuns we studied under were tough and they disciplined us, but I am here because of them.’

US Ambassador – Patricia Butenis

The quotation is from a fascinating article by an employee of the US government which provided interesting insights into the legacy that the departing American ambassador seems to want to leave. She is advising the girls of Uduvil College in terms of her own education. It is a touching article, that places Ms Butenis in a charming light, at a time when, as the article states,  ‘the US Government played out its most controversial engagement so far in Sri Lankan affairs in the history of US-Sri Lanka relations.’

The article however immediately issues a sort of disclaimer, in that the ambassador is cited as saying that ‘I think it is a mistake if people think that we can dictate to this Government’. It seems that the impression sought to be created is of a country resisting calls by Tamils for intervention in a context in which ‘We can’t trust India. Karunanindhi and Jayalalithaa are only looking after their interests. Only the US can dictate.’

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The recent intrigues by the nastier elements in the Ministry of External Affairs have prompted some thought about the confused and confusing nature of the diverse elements that make up the current government. The need to examine this in greater detail has been made clearer by the strange affair of Mr Gunaratnam. The implications of what occurred there have been explored carefully in a thoughtful article by Laksiri Fernando, through analysis of the statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs. I believe that article should be studied carefully by all those concerned with the continuity and success of this government, which is I believe the perspective from which Prof Fernando has written.

There are some related considerations that I think should be explored further, given the statement by the Ministry, which in fact exposes its complete incompetence in this regard. Prof Fernando suggests that the statement indicates that ‘the “security establishment” has encroached into other ministries and in this case the Ministry of External Affairs’ but I think what it also indicates is that that Ministry has completely abandoned its responsibilities in dealing with international issues.

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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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"Whether the LLRC report is good or not, we will get you in March" – US representative to the UNHRC in Geneva Elieen Donahoe

I was shocked last evening to be told that this was what the US Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva had told her Sri Lankan counterpart last in September 2011. The occasion was when she was trying to persuade the latter to accept an Interactive Dialogue on Sri Lanka, which I believe the Canadians were advancing at the time.

I suppose I should not have been surprised. The United States has been pursuing an extraordinary campaign against us, which has saddened me, because I remember the very positive approach that US officials evinced in the period in which others were resentful of us for having got rid of the LTTE from the East. The US Aid Director Rebecca Cohn, the Public Affairs Officer Jeff Anderson, led a team under then Ambassador Bob Blake which helped us considerably in rebuilding efforts.

In 2009 however something changed. Bob was supposed to have told a former American State Dept employee that the reason was he served a different government, but I suspect things went deeper. A clue was provided when, in August, Rebecca did something she should not have done, which she later told me she thought was unwise, but which her superiors had wanted.

This was to write on her own to Basil Rajapaksa, to say the same thing I had indicated, at a meeting with regard to the Displaced that was held at Minister Rishard Bathiudeen’s office. I thought, given what seemed to us delays, that I should suggest to Mr Rajapaksa that we needed to move more quickly on returning the displaced, and I did so the following morning.

I was called almost immediately by Mr Rajapaksa, who was uncharacteristically harsh and asked me what made me think he would not live up to his commitment. He said he had promised to return a large number of the displaced in six months, and he would do so, though it might take a couple of months longer. Six months did not mean half in three months, he said, noting what he had accomplished in the East, and that I should tell this to my friends.

I did not know what he meant by this last point, and asked, and he said he had received a similar letter from Rebecca. Naturally he had assumed we were acting in concert. I was shocked, and made it clear to him that I was quite capable of thinking and acting on my own, though I suspect that to this day he has a lingering doubt that I am influenced by external forces. When I called up Rebecca and reprimanded her, she was suitably contrite, but I realized then that not only does the United States want certain results that most of us would want, it requires desperately to take the credit for this. Read the rest of this entry »

I first properly came across Patricia Butenis at a Boxing Day dinner given by Paul Carter.

One reason I will not make a successful politician is that I have far too much interest in human nature. I find people fascinating and, when they are slightly unusual, I enjoy trying to understand what makes them tick, and how they perform in different situations, in comparison with others. Comparing their vision of their goals with what seem the actual goals, as well as the impression they try to create of those goals, is most illuminating.

I first properly came across Patricia Butenis at a Boxing Day dinner given by Paul Carter. If I recollect aright, I was the only one there from government, being Secretary at the time to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and having appreciated the introduction Carter had given me to the State Department Report on possible war crimes.

I spent much time talking to someone from Carter’s office who enlightened me on what seemed a strange association with the JVP. This came to mind later when I read the attack in 2011 on S B Dissanayake in the US Human Rights Report, which Carter had doubtless prepared. I was then about to leave early, when I noticed Mr

Mr Sambandhan was out in the garden, closeted with Ms Butenis and with the EU Ambassador Bernard Savage, and as I approached them, I realized I was not wanted.

Sambandhan come in, and I thought I should wish him, since I have known him for longer almost than anyone else in active politics, since meeting him in my father’s rooms in Parliament in the late seventies.

He was out in the garden, closeted with Ms Butenis and with the EU Ambassador Bernard Savage, and as I approached them, I realized I was not wanted. Ms Butenis was barely polite, and Sambandhan perfunctory, but Savage I should note was very gracious, and did his best to make me feel not unwanted, though I realized I should leave as soon as it was possible to do so without being awkward.

I know I have a suspicious mind, but I was not surprised then when the TNA endorsed Sarath Fonseka, nor when Bernard Savage made an idiotic rejoinder to a query about Western support for Fonseka in

I was not surprised then when the TNA endorsed Sarath Fonseka

which he made his predilections clear, in suggesting that Fonseka’s candidature was on a par with that of General Eisenhower. I should add that, when later I remonstrated with Westerners about their support of General Fonseka, the Europeans in general made it clear that they had found him unpalatable, whereas the British, while asserting neutrality, indicated that they would not attempt to defend the Savage approach.

Still, I believe Ms Butenis realized that Sri Lanka was not quite as she had imagined it when she was sent here, and over the next year we worked together very well, since she like some other missions supported my efforts to bring together politicians of different parties to discuss issues in a social setting. I was surprised to realize that such gatherings were not common, and I believe my colleagues all found them interesting and productive, and the heads of mission concerned also seemed pleased that we could discuss things in a friendly manner. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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