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MargaPresentation at the Colloquium of MARGA & CHA : Re Narrative iii-Last Stages of the War; A Private Sector Perspective

Let me start with a paradox. This is an extremely impressive book, but I find it woefully depressing. It has been put together, according to the introduction, by three patriots who are also strong adherents of pluralism and the rule of law. Godfrey Gunatilleka is, as Dayan Jayatilleka once described him, arguably the best intellect in public life, Asoka Gunawardena is the most balanced and practical of administrators, and Jeevan Thiagarajah combines unparalleled energy in the service of his country with wide ranging knowledge of what happened in various spheres during the conflict.

Why then am I depressed? There are several reasons for this. The first is very simply that it comes far too late. Second, it requires fleshing out through details which are only available with government. Third, it leaves unstated the need for immediate action by government in the spheres in which it is unable to refute allegations made against the country. Fourth – and I cannot believe that the main writers were responsible for this, given the very different perspective Godfrey put forward in the television interview – it seems to swallow wholesale the allegations against the UN leadership in Sri Lanka made by the Petrie Report. Finally, it leaves out one group of significant actors, namely those who have contributed heavily to the Darusman Report, if we are to believe Wikileaks: I mean the NGO representatives who produced evidence against Sri Lanka.

For these reasons, the fourth and fifth sections of this book are weak. The first two sections are very strong, and provide an object lesson to the Sri Lankan government as to how it should have dealt with the allegations in the first place. The third section is well argued, but its main point is weakened by the failure to affirm forcefully the need for a credible internal inquiry with regard to the treatment of surrendees. In this regard the book is less balanced than the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, which is surprising since its rationale is that of a middle way between that and Darusman.

With regard to the first three worries I have, the first could be compensated for by prompt action now on the part of government. But given the hamfisted way in which government dealt with the Darusman Report in the first place, I do not think anything more will be done. It seems incredible now that the government responded to allegations against it by producing a narrative that did not address those allegations. But, pace the book’s erroneous claim that the Ministry of Defence’s account of the humanitarian operation preceded the Darusman Report, the fact is that, in its ostrich like view that hiding one’s head in the sand would get rid of threats, the Ministry produced a document that might have been useful had it been produced in 2009, but which meant nothing after Darusman.

At the risk of making myself even more unpopular with government, which cannot bear other people having been correct, I told the Secretary of Defence, when I was called in to help with editing of that account, that it did not answer the allegations. His answer was that that was not the purpose of the narrative he was preparing. When I pointed out that the allegations needed to be answered, he said that he had allocated that task to the Chief of General Staff, who was however given neither resources nor encouragement to proceed. My own view is that this unintelligent approach has done more damage to our forces than anything else, given how easy a defence would have been of the bulk of the charges made against the forces. At the very least, citation of claims made during the conflict would have made clear the absurdity of charges made afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

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As pressures mount in Geneva, my bemusement increases at our failure to answer systematically the many charges made against us. I had long pointed out that the criticisms made were by and large untenable, but there were certain incidents which required to be investigated further. This view, based on close observation from the vantage point of the Peace Secretariat where I had set in place mechanisms to monitor allegations and check on them, was confirmed by the LLRC Report. That highlighted the need to check on the treatment of surrendees while affirming that indiscriminate attacks on civilians etc were absurd and tendentious charges.

To dismiss those charges however requires logical argument based on evidence. This approach is sometimes not acceptable, as I realized when I was roundly attacked for having declared way back in June 2009 that there had been civilian casualties. The then Attorney General asked me why I had said this, to which my answer was that it was true. I could however understand his assertion that people would try to make use of my answer, and I sympathize with those who feel they might succumb to leading questions and therefore stay silent. But the way of dealing with such matters is to point out the nonsensical nature of such stratagems – as I did with Stephen Sackur on ‘Hard Talk’ when he asked whether I was admitting there were civilian casualties – rather than hiding one’s head in the sand, ostrich-like, and pretending one knew nothing, or even worse, denying reality.

Unfortunately, given that we have so many ostriches in the country, blank denials are thought preferable to logical argument. Thus we seem internationally to have lost the battle with regard to the number of casualties, which has reached the inflated figure now, sanctified by the blessed Darusman, of at least 40,000. These are claimed to be civilians who were killed in indiscriminate firing.

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Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Seminar on

Crossed Perceptions: China, the United States, the European Union, Brazil and the Emerging World

October 22nd 2013, Rio de Janeiro

Let me begin with one of the formative myths of the Sri Lankan state. It deals with the introduction of Buddhism to the country, in the 2nd century BC. The king at the time, Devanampiyatissa, was out hunting when he came across a strange man in the forests of Mihintale. This was Mahinda, the son, or some say the brother, of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had converted to Buddhism after a terrible war in which, to complete his conquest of India, he had slaughtered thousands.

When the monk saw Tissa, he asked him whether he saw the mango tree before them. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked whether there were other mango trees. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked if there were trees other than mango trees. Tissa said yes again, whereupon the monk asked whether, apart from all the other mango trees, and all the other trees that were not mango trees in the world, there were any other trees.

Tissa thought hard, and then replied that there was indeed the original mango tree the monk had pointed out. This was when Mahinda decided that Tissa was a fit person to understand the doctrines of Buddhism, so he preached to him and converted him and through him his people. Buddhism has since been the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, though, I think uniquely, we also have substantial proportions of our population belonging to the other principal faiths of the world, Hinduism and Islam and Christianity.

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Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – January 20th 2013

Let me now quickly run through measures I would suggest to maximize the impact of aid interventions.

 

  1. Request all agencies to work in selected areas and build up close working relationships with government officials in those areas.

This means they can plan outputs in terms of needs that have been contextualized, and report within a framework that tracks outcomes on a comparative basis.

The ideal unit for this would be Divisional Secretariats, since this is the smallest unit able to plan and respond swiftly to local needs. While the first interface of government with people is at Grama Niladhari level, and while we must improve consultation mechanisms at that level, decision making is more effectively done at a higher level, with professional inputs into planning and monitoring.

If agencies wish to work on a wider scale, because this will enhance their appeal to donors, they can work in Divisional Secretariats in more than one District. But a culture must be developed in which they bear responsibility for manageable units, and are accountable to both officials and the community, with regular opportunities for discussion and explication of projects.

 

  1. Agencies should employ local personnel as far as possible. They should be required to provide satisfactory justification for the hiring of expatriates and salaries that are paid to them.

As it is, far too much of aid money is spent on salaries for expatriates. Though it is claimed that suitable Sri Lankan counterparts are not available, this is often incorrect. One of the horror stories I should share with you is that of the Shelter Consultant for the Welfare Centre at Manik Farm, who cost about 11,000 dollars per month. He was hired in a strange way, because though his salary was met by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it was paid through another body called UNOPS, which is one of those bodies that survives through implementing projects that should be done by national agencies. I believe it was created for the sort of situation my friend from OCHA described, where there is virtually no government, so I cannot understand why our government still allows it to operate in Sri Lanka. Read the rest of this entry »

The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

One of the most important commitments of the National Human Rights Action Plan, as agreed by Cabinet, is the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information. Not only is this an obligation to our citizens, on whose behalf government acts, it is also practically desirable. In this modern day and age, when disinformation can be circulated so easily, and not necessarily out of malice, but through carelessness and ignorance, it would be helpful for government to have the facts readily available in clear and comprehensible form.

How useful this would be became even more clear to me when listening to the falsehoods and incomplete information purveyed by those critical of Sri Lanka at the recent discussion based on the Channel 4 documentaries that took place in London at the Frontline Club. Callum McRae, who had made them, declared that over 11,000 former LTTE combatants were still in custody, and could not be visited.

This is nonsense, for almost all combatants have been released, and throughout their stay they were visited regularly by their relatives. I did at one stage suggest to the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation that they maintain a data base of all those still in detention, with dates of visits, since I was told that none had not been visited. I suppose that would have been too complicated, but some sort of information sheet could have been prepared, and shared perhaps with the Human Rights Commission, to make it clear that there was nothing to hide.

One point we suffered from, and which I believe was a mistake, was that the ICRC was not permitted to visit. This decision sprang I believe from the view that the ICRC had been exceeding its mandate. Nevertheless, we should have made it clear that the ICRC had been involved in the registration process of

these youngsters until almost the very end. In wanting to assert our independence in this respect – which is not necessary, for the ICRC functions with scrupulous respect for the independence of those parties that have invited its assistance – we ignored this fact, whereas Wikileaks indicates that the ICRC had told the Americans in Geneva that ‘ICRC has been visiting regularly 11,400 people arrested and interned in 10 camps as suspected LTTE fighters’.

I myself had thought that the ICRC visits to the former combatants had stopped earlier, so I was pleasantly surprised when this particular Wikileaks cable was brought to my notice. What I did know was that throughout this period ICRC had had access to all those held in detention at Boossa and elsewhere, including those former combatants who had been thought hard-core, and who had therefore been transferred to Boossa (though most of them were soon transferred back, when government decided that more rehabilitation was preferable to any punitive action).

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At the Frontline Club discussion on Sri Lanka, I finally came across Frances Harrison. The name had been familiar, for in recent years, whenever I went to England, she used to tweet madly about me, in what seemed to me desperate hysteria, though I soon enough found out that many journalists tweet in that mad fashion. This time round, her fascination with me continued, in that she saw the discussion as ‘Ch 4 vs prof rajiva debate’ as she tweeted an hour before the discussion.

It is possible however that the lady is cunning rather than obsessional, because this was also a way of cutting out the contribution of Arun Tambimuttu to the discussion. Initially it had indeed been meant to be me and the High Commissioner debating Jon Snow and Callum McRae, but Snow dropped out. I thought it was because he was nervous since previously, when the High Commission had asked Channel 4 to invite me for a discussion, they had dodged, except once when we managed to corner them with the help of the BBC Today programme. However it is possible that, as one of his loyal fellow employees said before the discussion, in explaining his absence, he simply says ‘Yes’ to everything, and then changes his mind.

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Charles Haviland - BBC

I have long had a soft corner for Charles Havilland, the local BBC Correspondent. Indeed, as Marlow said of Lord Jim, have I not stood up for him, when Sri Lankans to whom one white reporter is just like another thought the BBC and Channel 4 were identical? I have argued, quite often recently, that the BBC (though not its rather strange Sinhala Service, with its conglomeration of old fashioned leftists) tries to be objective in its coverage of Sri Lanka, without succumbing to the temptation to stereotype.

I was saddened therefore to find in a report on the verdict on the Sarath Fonseka case that the BBC referred to him as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Ideological soulmate’.  This was stereotyping with a vengeance, whereas the Voice of America, which I have always thought more simplistic, actually referred to Fonseka falling out with the President over differences as to political ideology.

Anyone looking at the evidence, not least that provided by Fonseka himself, in his letter of resignation, would realize that the latter was a more plausible interpretation. Fonseka referred to the President’s rejection of his proposal to expand the army, and also criticized him for too swift resettlement of the displaced. To assume then that one Sri Lankan nationalist is identical with another seemed totally unworthy of the BBC.

US Ambassador - Patricia Butenis

I suppose it is a mark of how little interest there is really in Sri Lanka that no one has bothered to explore the implications of the differences between the two, and more particularly the divergence between what Fonseka was advocating for a few months after the war ended, and the position he took up later. Not only his interview with Federica Jansz (whether or not one believes him or her as to what he actually said with regard to the White Flag Case), but also the persona Patricia Butenis seemed optimistic about according to Wikileaks, suggests a 180 degree turn from the chauvinist rather than nationalist ideologue who fell out with the President.

More surprisingly, no one drew attention to the elephant in the room, which somehow never found its way into the Courthouse either, namely Sarath Fonseka’s claim in Ambalangoda just a couple of months after the war ended that he had resisted instructions to accept the surrender of people carrying white flags. This was to my mind the most worrying allegation that was recorded in the State Department Report that was conveyed to us around October 2009. I suggested then that we answer that report promptly, as had very politely been requested by the Americans, and I believe we would have saved ourselves a great deal of trouble had that been done. But the panel the President appointed delayed meeting, and the report was overtaken by events, not least Sarath Fonseka’s candidacy and his very different interpretation, according to Frederica, of what happened in the White Flag case. Read the rest of this entry »

The link Wikileaks has established between the Norwegian NGO FORUT and Solidar, the umbrella organization of European NGOs that benefited from so much funding in Sri Lanka in the period before the LTTE’s military wing was destroyed, prompted further research which has proved most enlightening. To be precise I should note that the link brought to our notice was between the erstwhile heads of those two organizations in Sri Lanka, but the continuation of their campaign against this country suggests that the congruence of their attitudes while they were here was not entirely accidental.

I venture to suggest now that there was even more to their plotting. In August 2008 there was a claymore explosion that damaged a car belonging to an NGO working in the Vanni, and injured its driver. This was used to criticize the Sri Lankan government and what was alleged were its Deep Penetration Units, but at the time I wrote that we needed to look at the incident in the light of the use being made of it at the time.

I noted that, ‘several NGOs, most of them international ones, are functioning in the Wanni, along with UN agencies. Most of them work primarily through local staff, whom they acknowledge are under tremendous pressure from the LTTE. This is one reason why they want more foreign staff there, though as it turns out such staff seem even more ineffective in dealing with the LTTE. Thus, while it was argued that the takeover of NPA vehicles was due to the absence of foreign staff, it turned out that foreign staff had been present, and had signally failed to inform anyone in authority, until the cat was out of the bag anyway, that the vehicles, 38 of them, had been taken over.’

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Having heard the various presentations at the Seminar about Defeating Terrorism, I think that second only to admiration for the systematic work of our forces was regret about the deficiencies Rohan Guneratne noted, with regard to presentation of the story. I hope government will swiftly take up his suggestion that we develop better information dissemination strategies, not only in the Foreign Service and the Information Ministry but also within the services themselves .

Several years back, when I was Academic Coordinator of the degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, I drew attention to the failure of our officers to set down their experiences in writing, and indeed to analyse defeats as well as victories. I recall being told then that it might be difficult to have instituted projects on say the loss of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and Pooneryn in the nineties, and Elephant Pass in 2000, since some of the officers responsible for those setbacks were still in the army.

That seemed to me an unsatisfactory answer, given for instance how thoroughly the Indian Army had tackled the story of the IPKF, which was also a setback, even though from the Sri Lankan point of view it had provided a great service to us, which we should have permitted to be concluded. I believe the Indian army learnt from its mistakes then, and certainly study of those several books taught us much about the techniques the Tigers used, not only in terms of guerilla warfare but also the use of civilians as human shields and propaganda tools.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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