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qrcode.26572681Basil had told me that I did not need to worry about the Peace Secretariat being closed because I had another position too, that of Secretary to Mahinda Samarasinghe’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. That was correct, and for anyone else that would have been a full time job. But the wider dimensions of the work we did, and in particular the need to coordinate work with regard to the North, had been facilitated by my position at the Secretariat, with the authority to coordinate responses from a range of Ministries.

In theory the Ministry had a coordinating role with regard to humanitarian assistance but, during the course of that year, Basil had ensured that was eroded. The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, which Minister Samarasinghe had chaired, hardly met in 2009, and its role was taken over by a Task Force for the North which Basil chaired. That did not initially include any Tamils, which was typical of the command structures Basil enjoyed, though after some protests Minister Douglas Devananda was included.

Still, there was enough to do, given the situation in the Welfare Centres and the need to continue to liaise with the UN, and in particular the Special Representative for the Rights of the Displaced, Walter Kalin, who visited us three times during this period and was extremely helpful, whilst also pointing out areas in which we could do better. I also continued to work on humanitarian support, and in particular tried together with Mr Divaratne, who was the Secretary to Basil’s Task Force, to introduce some cohesion into the inputs of the various Non-Governmental Organizations keen to work in the welfare centres, and then in the areas in which the displaced were being resettled.

Most important of all, though, I felt, was finishing the plans we had been tasked with formulating with regard to Human Rights. One was the National Action Plan, which we had pledged in Geneva at the Universal Periodic Review, in May 2008, that we would get ready. This was done, despite all our work in relation to the conflict, through committees chaired by professionals of great ability, and we managed in the latter part of 2009 to bring the recommendations together and produce a draft.

As important I felt was the Bill of Rights, which the President had pledged in his 2005 manifesto, and for which a Committee had been appointed under the aegis of the Ministry of National Languages and Constitutional Affairs. When Mahinda Samarasinghe crossed over to the government early in 2006 and his Ministry was created, obviously it became the body responsible, but I found when I was appointed to be its Secretary in June 2008 that there had been no progress on the matter. Together with his Consultant, Nishan Muthukrishna, whom I had known long ago as a schoolboy, through the cultural activities I had worked on while at the British Council, we went into overdrive and persuaded the Chair – a distinguished lawyer who was however close to President Kumaratunga and had little confidence in the current President’s commitment to Rights – to produce a draft. He and his committee did in the end deliver, and I had that draft too ready by the end of 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

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happy 1During the conflict period, relations with India had been handled not by the Foreign Ministry, but by three trusted confidantes of the President. These were his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, and two of his brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. These two, both younger than the President, were neither of them Ministers at the time (as opposed to the oldest brother, Chamal, who was a long standing member of Parliament and a senior Minister). It was the two younger brothers however who were considered the most powerful members of the government. Gotabhaya was virtually a Minister in fact, since he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, with the President being the Minister, and leaving most of its running to him.

Basil_Rajapaksa

Basil Rajapaksa … succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality.

Basil at the time was a Member of Parliament, but his executive responsibilities were informal, arising from his chairing the Task Forces that were responsible for reconstruction of the East (which had been retaken from the Tigers fully by 2007) and later of the North. He was an extremely hard worker, and had managed, well before the Tigers were destroyed, to have succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality. His technique had been massive infrastructural development, and the connectivity that was restored to the East had enabled its full involvement in the economic life of the country.

Late in 2008 he was appointed to chair what was termed a Presidential Task Force for the North. This was expected initially to make arrangements for the care of the internally displaced, most of whom were being held hostage by the Tigers at that time. Over the next six months they were driven into more and more restricted areas in terms of the Tiger strategy of using them as a human shields. This made the task of the military extremely difficult, but in the end, when the Tigers were destroyed, nearly 300,000 civilians were rescued, and taken to what were termed Welfare Centres.

Though there were complaints at the time about conditions in the camps, they were comparatively speaking much better than the lot of most displaced persons in such conflicts. Health services were excellent, and within a few days mortality figures had stabilized. Food supply and distribution was competently handled, and soon enough educational services too were made available.

Still, there had been much confusion initially, and this contributed to the feeling that government had been callous. More serious was the charge that government had wanted to keep the displaced in what were termed internment camps, and did not wish them to be resettled soon in their original places of residence.

Sarath_Fonseka_at_Ananda

Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander

Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander, who had wanted to increase the size of the army when the war ended, probably because of a belief that Israeli type settlements were the best way of preventing future agitation. But this was certainly not the view of the President, who from the start urged swift resettlement, and hoped that the fertile land of the North would soon provide excellent harvests. And Basil Rajapaksa certainly wished to expedite resettlement, as I found when I once wrote to him suggesting that this was proceeding too slowly.

This was in August 2009, three months after the conclusion of the war, and he called me up and sounded extremely indignant. He declared that he had said he would perform the bulk of resettlement in six months, and he intended to do this, give or take a month or two. He had done a similar task in the East, and I should remember that a commitment of six months did not mean half in three.  In fact he started the resettlement soon after, though there was a hiccup, in that many of those sent away from the main Welfare Centre at Manik Farm in Vavuniya were then held in Centres in the District Capitals through which they had to transit.

I was in Geneva at the time, at the September 2009 session of the Human Rights Council, and for a moment I wondered whether the allegations that were being flung around, that we had started the Resettlement to pull the wool over the eyes of the Council, were true. Basil it turned out was nowhere to be found, a practice he often engaged in when upset, going back to the United States where he had been settled when his brother was elected President.

However Jeevan Thiagarajah, head of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, that had worked very positively with the government, went up to Jaffna to check, and informed me that the Special Forces Commanders in the Districts had been asked to subject those being resettled to another security check. But they assured him that they proposed to do this very cursorily, and would send them to their places of habitation within a day or two. What was left unsaid was who had ordered the second check, but I assumed this was Sarath Fonseka, in pursuit of his own agenda – and this was confirmed by the irritation he was later to express in writing to the President, about the Resettlement programme going ahead more quickly than he had advised. Basil, I realized, had felt frustrated, and gone away, but his intentions were carried out by the generals in the field, who were on the whole much more enlightened than Fonseka. Read the rest of this entry »

download (5)The last few weeks have seen much agitation about Non-Governmental Organizations, with threats to introduce new legislation to control them more effectively. The whole exercise seemed to me absurd, since existing legislation is quite enough to prevent abuse. If it is not working, it is because the personnel involved are incompetent, and even much stronger legislation or regulation will serve no purpose unless more capable people are deployed.

Unfortunately the President has been pushed into a position where he can only employ the second rate for this purpose, as he has realized was the case with Lakshman Hulugalle. The only qualification for the job seems to be total subservience to the powers that be, what Dayan Jayatilleka described as the Mafia lawyer syndrome when he first identified the breed, six years ago. He actually demonstrated the posture, hands held crossed behind the back, head nodding in acquiescence, claiming that the model derived from ‘The Godfather’.

How sad the situation of the present incumbent of the position is became clear when I attended the launch of the Roadmap prepared by the Association of Women Affected by War. I sat behind so did not recognize the attractive young lady who was in the centre of the front row along with a couple of envoys. It was only at the end that I realized she was Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, whom I had met a few weeks earlier at the Oslo Forum where I had been invited to debate against Mr Sumanthiran on the propriety of talking to extremists.

By then I knew that she had been instrumental in developing Security Council Resolution 1325 about the need to involve women in peace initiatives – and also that, though invited for the launch, she had been forbidden to speak. The press had also been barred from attending the event.

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download (4)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.

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As I have noted before, the thoughtful new Secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement remarked, at a seminar at the Officer Career Development Centre in Buttala, that Nation Building needed much more attention, to complement the State Building that is proceeding relatively well. His Ministry, along with the Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation and the Presidential Task Force for the North and the Ministry of Economic Development, have amply allayed the fears expressed in 2009, that were claimed to be the reason for the Resolution brought against us in Geneva.

The displaced who were at Manik Farm have been resettled, and the former combatants have been released after rehabilitation. This has been done under much better conditions and more swiftly than elsewhere in the world. Economic activity is at a higher level in the Wanni than ever before, helped along by remarkable infrastructural development. That extends to schools and hospitals and other basic requirements, which are available now at a higher standard than ever before in the area.

But there are still problems, and the mutual satisfaction and trust that Reconciliation requires are still inadequate. To remedy this there is need of concerted action, and the Secretary, who has obviously studied and understood the problem, noted that fulfilment of both the LLRC and the Human Rights Action Plans would go a long way towards Building a Nation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2018
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