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The seven weeks after the press conference at which Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidature were hectic and tense. During the conference itself, I had a telephone call to say that the Presidential Secretariat had called to demand that the vehicle I was using be returned. This struck me as petty, and foolish given that Chandrika Kumaratunga had just announced that those of us who had come out in favour of the common candidate would be persecuted.
I am aware that Mahinda Rajapaksa felt he had been betrayed by Maithripala Sirisena since, even when they had had dinner together the night before, the latter had given no hint that he was going to contest. But the manner in which I was deprived of my vehicle, even while I was still technically Adviser to the President on Reconciliation, indicated the manner in which anyone who was open in their actions would be treated.
In my case the President had no reason at all to feel betrayed, since I had written to him clearly in October to say we could not support him if he did not proceed with some of the reforms he had pledged earlier. And over the last few months I had made clear the need for reform, both Vasantha and I even proposing Private Members Bills with regard to burning issues such as reducing the size of the Cabinet. Interestingly enough, Vasantha told me that the President had called him and said that he was being unduly influenced by me, but he did not bother to speak to me himself. It was only just before the common candidate declared himself that one of his confidantes, Sarath Wijesinghe, called me and said that he assumed I would support the President. But even Sarath had no answer when I mentioned what worried me, such as the appalling treatment of Chris Nonis.
I have no hard feelings though about Mahinda Rajapaksa, because I believe he was grossly misled by a small coterie around him who cared neither for him nor for the country. What was surprising was that a man of such capacity, and sensitivity to the needs of the country, should have allowed himself to be dominated by a bunch of callous rascals. I should note that, though I have never had any high regard for Basil Rajapaksa, I do not include him in the category of those with undue influence, since he was undoubtedly a man of ability. And he achieved much in terms of development, even though he was not capable of twinning this with human development, which was essential if the fruits of development were to be equitably distributed. And of course he was largely responsible for alienating the President from the senior members of his party, since the impression they had, indicated to me vividly by one of the most decent members of the Cabinet, John Seneviratne, was that he was usurping the powers of all other ministries.
But there were reasons at least, if not good enough ones, for the President’s reliance on this brother. What was totally unacceptable was the role played by individuals such as Sajin vas Goonewardene and Kshenuka Seneviratne, at whose behest the President summarily dismissed those who did so much for their country such as Tamara Kunanayagam and Dayan Jayatilleke; the indulgence shown to individuals such as Duminda de Silva and the Chairman of the Tangalle local body who was responsible for the death of a British tourist; the failure to deal with racist elements such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, and equally to stop the fuel for their fires provided by the activities of Rishard Bathiudeen, who had so effectively alienated not just Sinhala extremists but also all Tamils. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week Parliament debated an Adjournment Motion introduced by Mr Yogarajan, one of the more thoughtful members on the government side of the house. He wanted more consultation of political parties and interested groups with regard to electoral reform.
This is an admirable idea, but it is significant, sadly so, that he should have proposed this only in June. As I have pointed out previously, the President’s manifesto said very clearly that on Wednesday January 28th ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’
Nothing of the sort was done, so it was surprising to hear the gentleman who seconded the motion claiming that the government had fulfilled almost all its promises. In essence, the process of consultation that the minor parties are pushing for now is something they should have urged as soon as the government was elected.
In 2011 I had personal experience of how diffident Lalith could be. After the Darusman Report came out, with its excessive attack on the manner in which Sri Lanka had dealt with LTTE terrorism, I thought it necessary to warn the President about what was going on. I saw him in his office and said we had done nothing to fulfil our own commitments. When he asked me what I meant, I cited two clear examples.
The first was the negotiations with the TNA, which had shown no progress. He understood immediately what I meant, and acquiesced straight away with the suggestion that I be put on the negotiating team. Ordinarily I would have been wary of putting myself forward, but there seemed to be no alternative, and the President seemed to agree.
The second point I made was that there had been no progress whatsoever on implementing the interim recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He evinced surprise when I said this, and declared that he had appointed a Committee which was doing its job. But I told him I thought that Committee had never met, and that he should put me on it.
He agreed again, and immediately rang Lalith and told him to appoint me to both positions. He also told the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, who he thought knew about the work of the Committee, to send me all relevant papers, since I told him that I should see the minutes of meetings and find out what had been going on, if I were to contribute.
Lalith rang me in the car as I was leaving. He told me that the letter putting me on the negotiating team would be sent straight away, and added that he had spoken to Mohan Pieris, who chaired the Committee to implement the LLRC interim recommendations, and he had no objection to my appointment.
I only understood the implications of this after I had put down the phone. I realized that, when the President made a decision, there was no reason for Lalith to consult anyone else. Keeping Mohan informed as a courtesy that there would be a new member of his Committee was one thing, seeking his acquiescence was quite another.
I had every reason to worry. Lalith told me a few days later that it was felt inappropriate for me to be on the Committee since I was a Parliamentarian, and the other members of the Committee were officials. I called the President about this, but he told me he had been told it would not be proper. By then I had been told by the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs that there were no minutes of meetings. The only papers he had were those prepared when the Committee was first appointed, and a report was made to Geneva. Like me, he too suspected that the Committee had not done very much.
I told this to the President, who thereupon agreed that amongst my duties as his adviser on Reconciliation would be monitoring the work of the Committee and reporting to him on what was happening. Fortunately Lalith had failed for six months to send me my terms of reference (having it seems lost the original draft I had sent him, and then delayed further when I sent him a copy). So now he made no objection when I told him the President had agreed that this should be added.
I therefore duly got a fairly comprehensive list of duties. But I then found, as noted previously, that Mohan, having first admitted that the Committee had never met, but claimed he was waiting for a date from the Secretary of Defence, finally confessed six months later that the Secretary did not want there to be any meetings. There had certainly been some progress in matters pertaining to the work of the Ministry of Defence, but no measures had been taken to expedite action on other matters of urgency, such as restoration of lands, which the LLRC had highlighted. Read the rest of this entry »
What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.
This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.
Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.
Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.
In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.
It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.
Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »
Though I do not in any way regret our decision not to support Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming Presidential election, I do feel immensely sorry for him. He is neither a fool, nor a villain, so he knows well the mess into which he has got himself. Though he and his advisers will use every trick in the book now to win re-election, and he might even succeed, he knows that the methods he is now using serve only to make crystal clear how very unpopular he has become.
This was not something the Mahinda Rajapaksa who led us to victory over the Tigers deserves. It is quite preposterous that a man who took bold decisions to save the country from terrorism has been incapable of taking any decisions at all in recent months to remove the various blights that have hit us.
Lalith Weeratunge made the excuse for him that the truth was being kept from him. Last March, after I had drawn his attention yet again to the problems that were mounting, he wrote to me that ‘Once I return end of next week, i.e., about March 30, I must meet you to have a frank chat. Little I can do, I will. Not many speak the truth today and all I hear are blatant lies. However, not many know that I have my ears to the ground; in every district, little groups have been talking to me. I am sure both of us could bring out the reality.’
But we never did get to meet, and time and again he cancelled meetings because he had suddenly to go abroad. In time I stopped regretting this, because it seemed to me that there was little we could do together that Lalith could not do himself, given that he still I think commanded the President’s confidence. But I suppose we have to sympathize with his lack of confidence in his ability to correct things himself, given the much stronger motivations of those who had hijacked both the President and the Presidency. After all he had failed to get the President to correct course when his wife first drew attention to aberrations at the Securities Commission.
Underlying the diffidence however was the belief that the President was not really in danger. I suspect those around him never thought that Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the main candidate against them, and understandably they thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa would then be a shoo-in for the Presidency. After the Uva election they might have thought twice, but they doubtless assumed they would not find it difficult to construct a pitch, as it were, of their choosing. This would be the past, and the Tigers, and on such a pitch Ranil would flounder – though, to make sure of this, they have got ready vast amounts of propaganda to remind the people of Ranil’s past. The posters I have seen recently with Richard de Zoysa’s picture indicate how far back they were determined to go, but with control of so much of the media, they must have thought they could keep attention during the campaign on Ranil’s weaknesses, rather than the recent failures of governance.
That complacence explains the fact that they were quite prepared to not just forget but even to actively alienate Muslim voters. It seems to have come as a shock to government that even Rishard Bathiudeen was preparing to cross over to the common opposition. But had they bothered to listen to what he has been saying in Parliament recently they would have realized how deeply upset he was. The desperate measures they have had to engage in to keep him and his party, carrots and sticks extending even to getting rid of faithful old Mr Azwer from Parliament, indicate they understand how important such voters are. But though they might paper over the façade, a moment’s thought should make them realize that, given the manner in which the Muslims have been treated, there is no way anyone in the community can support the President and succeed in any future election. Indeed I suspect that even Faizer Mustapha will have to move, given that his efforts to control the BBS rally in Aluthgama were treated with contempt, a fact known to the entire Muslim community, even if the President were deceived about it. Read the rest of this entry »
This did not mean it was not sincere about reconciliation. Basil I think honestly believed that rapid development of the North would make everyone happy. Certainly he seems to have been surprised when the election results were announced, and winning less than a quarter of the vote clearly upset him, even though the confidence he had expressed previously, that government would do well in several places, may have been bravado.
The problem was, he did not consult those whom he thought he was helping, rather like the devoted lady in Trollope who did everything in terms of her passion for Phineas Finn, but never thought of asking him what he might want. Thus, when the Northern Task Force was set up initially, there had been no Tamils on it. Though this was soon remedied, Basil did not much consult Douglas Devananda, the Tamil Minister who was on that body, and who was the most forceful of the former terrorists who had given up arms after the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987, and thus became the greatest enemy of the Tigers.
Douglas himself was not perhaps capable of clear conceptualization, and the most clear thinking of his supporters, who might have helped him to plan, had been assassinated by the Tigers a year before the war ended. Still, he might have been able to articulate some of the aspirations of at least some of the Tamils. But Basil could not work with other strong personalities, so the main instrument he selected to represent the people of the North was Rishard Bathiudeen, one of the Muslims the Tigers had ejected from the North way back in 1990. Having obtained a degree and then developed as a politician despite these difficult beginnings, Rishard was a doughty fighter, who certainly did a lot for his community. But he was in mortal fear of Basil, as we found when we tried to persuade him as Minister of Resettlement to urge swifter action on sending the displaced home. The reason I wrote to Basil in August 2009 was because, at the meeting at which it was decided that someone should do so, Rishard flatly refused and wanted someone else to do it.
An interesting aside on that episode was that Basil, in scolding me, told me to tell my friends that he was not going to fail in his commitment. I wondered whom he meant, and it turned out that he was talking about the Americans. It transpired that the head of USAID, who was a great friend, and had indeed supported the government actively in its reconstruction programme in the East, has been ordered by her Embassy to write to Basil herself, when they heard that we had decided to do this. She told me, when I upbraided her, that she thought this was a mistake, but she had had to do it – which brought home to me how keen the Americans were for credit. Doubtless, had my letter drawn the required response, there would have been a cable to the effect that Basil had moved quickly on resettlement because of American pressure.
After the 2010 election, when Basil became Minister of Economic Development, with a massive brief that included the main social service programme of government too, Rishard was made Minister of Industries. That someone not easily able to plan was given such an important position indicated that Basil simply wanted a sidekick he could command. It also ensured that there was little thinking about the Small and Medium Enterprises that should have been initiated in the North, little planning about the Micro-Credit that was essential, little effort to provide the training that was so desperately needed.
For Basil had failed to realize that the North, and in particular the Vanni, which the Tigers had ruled, needed human resources development on a massive scale. Though agriculture came back to normal soon, the people needed training in marketing , as one bright woman from a Rural Development Society said at the Reconciliation meetings I had started holding in the North and East. Little was done about the value addition that was essential if the peasants were not to be exploited by middlemen who paid them a pittance for their produce and kept the profits for themselves. In 2013, when I was pursuing this after several meetings at Divisional Secretariats where the rural communities had made known their wants and needs, the Minister of Agriculture told me that 2013 had been designated the Year of Value Addition, but they had done nothing about it. Read the rest of this entry »
To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.
The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.
That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.