By Rajiva Wijesinha –
In the course of the frenetic travel programme I had set myself before the usual budget period, I had just two days in Sri Lanka last week. They were packed, with Parliament, and an overnight stay with a cousin visiting after several days, and the 92nd birthday of my most distinguished aunt, but also a couple of interviews as well as meetings with two ambassadors.
Though I feel increasingly despondent, I continue to defend the war record of the government, and indeed feel that some of the absurdities now occurring spring from the bitterness felt with regard to unfair attacks on us. But when I reiterated how fundamentally wrong the Darusman Report had been, one of them asked very simply why we had not refuted it.
This failure continues to bemuse me, and the more so now after the Marga Institute produced their Third Narrative, which provides a wonderful opportunity on which government could build. But given the schizophrenia that possesses government, it will not take ownership of this document and flesh it out with details that only government possesses (though perhaps it has again misplaced them, for I had a frantic but informal request from the Foreign Ministry for the Peace Secretariat archives).
One explanation I offered the ambassador was that government simply had no one left who could argue a case intelligently and in good English. A couple of years back, when I told the President to make better use of the professionals in the Ministry of External Affairs, he told me that their command of English was weak. I fear this is a myth of which he has been convinced by those who see themselves as brilliant exponents of the language, having been to elite Colombo schools. The fact that they cannot use the language with sophistication, or respond in a manner those accusing us would take to heart, is not something the President realizes.
But there had recently been an exception, in the form of Chris Nonis, who had given a superb interview on Channel 4. All those I met in London were still full of the way he had responded, which is not something that had happened, they were kind enough to say, since my discussion on ‘Hard Talk’. However I had soon after that been removed from public appearances, except just the once when the President over-rode the blockages of the Ministry and sent me to London to deal with an attack on us organized by Channel 4.
John Snow dropped out after my participation in that programme was announced, though it would be too much to assert that was the reason. Conversely, after Chris’ great performance last year, a Sri Lankan station had asked him to participate in a debate with John Snow and Callum Macrae, but he had said he wanted me involved as well. The station then abandoned the idea, which I suppose is some sort of compliment. If both Channel 4 and local television would rather avoid me, I can claim to be perhaps the last adherent in government of Mr Bandaranaike’s Middle Path.
But though I am on the blacklist, government had at last found someone as able, and it is for that reason I assume that Chris was invited to be one of the principal speakers at the last Defence Seminar. I had been a regular there, as well as at seminars at the KDU and the Buttala Academy, but after I signed a petition with regard to the unsavoury episode at Weliweriya, I was politely uninvited to an event at which I had been asked to speak. Interesting enough though, recently there was an attempt to get me back, and my inquiry as to whether the ban had been lifted was met with a polite chuckle.
Chris did well at the Seminar, and perhaps it is that which precipitated the crisis. Earlier he had faced harassment, which had increased after his seminal work in making sure CHOGM was a success, and he had even tendered his resignation, but the President had persuaded him to stay on. Interestingly enough, he still has a touching affection for the President, and has no idea what has changed. It seems he has not read ‘The Lord of the Rings’, or seen the brilliant account in the film of ‘The Twin Towers’ of the increasing anarchy in the Kingdom of Rohan. That, which I saw again on the flight to London, is what makes me, given my own affection for the President though I have far fewer illusions now than Chris, still hope things might change. But I have to recognize that we have no Gandalf – unless Gotabaya takes on the role.
He should, because what is happening under his nose is that his defences are being eroded. The reason for this needs to be established, but even if it is perfectly innocent, he needs to take action. With the UN report due shortly, with intelligent argument needed as to the efficacy of the systems Sri Lanka has put in place, he needs people who can talk convincingly, but at present he has none.
The innocent explanation of what happened is simply jealousy. Over the last year, following his CNN interview, Chris has been invited to speak by a host of important bodies, the Institute of Architects, the Youth Affairs Ministry, the Commonwealth ICT Conference, as well as giving the concluding address at the Defence Seminar. After the first speech, he was working with Tourist agencies, when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs imposed a general fatwa, asserting that such matters had to go through the Ministry.
Given the neuroses that govern the conduct of the Minister – which the President knows well, for it was he who warned me about them in saying that the Minister for frightened when he saw another Professor – that alone may explain the manner in which Chris was humiliated, so that those who understand the mindset of a civilized man of character knew he would resign. But I suspect there is more, for I do not see Sajin Vas Gunawardena as the hatchet man of the Minister, being rather someone who is able to play on the Minister and has trained him now to his will.
I thought back then to something I had been told some years ago, by an envoy who said that Sajin thought he ran Kshenuka but in fact it was Kshenuka who ran Sajin. Given their very different spheres of ambition, it is not however unlikely that they each use the other, in an arrangement that Tolkien certainly would have understood.
But then what is it that Kshenuka wants, apart from power and position? The answer seems to lie in the scandal that has now burst, and in which both Sajin and the Minister, and also Wimal Weerawansa, have defended her forcefully. I suspect no one else in government will want to get involved, though they may in time be forced into it. But the clear evidence that is mounting of not just financial impropriety, but also dealings with those with LTTE corrections, is something that should serve as a red light to all those concerned about their political futures.
The removal of Chris Nonis will be welcomed by those elements still pursuing the agenda of the LTTE. The head of military intelligence assured me that such elements amounted to no more than 7% of the diaspora, but he then had no answer to my question as to what we were doing about the more than 90% whom we should have been winning over. Finally he granted that the fault was that of the Ministry of External Affairs, and indeed I am horrified that it has done nothing about one of the most important recommendations of the LLRC, namely developing a strategy to work with the diaspora. Unfortunately Gotabaya, given his Pavlovian opposition to the LLRC, has concentrated on blocking its very mild recommendations about possible abuses (after the war, he should note it stresses, not in the conduct of the war) and done nothing about other work that would help him in defence.
Chris had noticed this, and mentioned in his speech at the Defence Seminar that perhaps Gotabaya, who had conducted the war so successfully, should also take charge of this aspect. Certainly the myopia with which Gotabaya looks on 2009, his adulation of his troops (which in effect is what allowed Sarath Fonseka to emerge as a rival) and his belittling of the role of our diplomats and negotiators, will destroy us if unchecked. That is why perhaps Chris was right in proposing a solution that would satisfy Gotabaya’s ego while also ensuring that Sri Lanka uses all resources available rather than only military style intransigence.
But Gotabaya was not listening, and instead it was those who now have a monopoly on the way we deal with other countries who heard, and perhaps therefore panicked. And so we have moved into tactics that will plunge us into further disrepute with the West that is pursuing us, successfully now unlike when Dayan Jayatilleka was in charge of our approach.
Chris was not even allowed to take formal leave of his office, after the decision was taken to accept his resignation (a resignation that was initially denied). But the Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps, for instance, heard about the resignation, and invited him over to St James’ Palace for a farewell on behalf of the Queen. Other envoys in London had commiserated, and a British Minister had made the point, though sympathetically, that perhaps Chris now understood why the British were so critical – criticism which Chris had done his best to combat. And certainly, after the report on the inquiry into what happened in New York, it will be impossible for Sri Lankans to claim that internal inquiries into possible abuses will suffice.
So Gotabaya’s defences are further weakened. So are those of the country, which I hope the intelligent officers around him will tell him, instead of letting him continue to indulge forces he must recognize do not share his intense patriotism.