Q: Your thoughts on the impeachment crisis?
A: Having spoken in support of President Rajapaksa in his re-election campaign in December 2009 – which I do not regret for a moment – I criticised the detention of Gen. Sarath Fonseka, in an article in ‘The Daily Mirror’ and ‘The Island’ published on 15 February 2010, under the title ‘A Perfect Blunder,’ in which I listed 10 reasons for characterising it as such. I would call the impeachment motion and the manner of its implementation ‘A Perfect Blunder – 2’.
All religions preach that one should do unto others as you would have them do unto you and that one should not do unto others as you would not wish them to do unto you. It is on this basis that Immanuel Kant put forward his dictum of the Categorical Imperative, which means that one should take action only if one wishes those actions to be raised to the level of a universal practice. Therefore, those who rightly decry unfairness in the accusations and indictments of the Sri Lankan authorities by international bodies must not be so hypocritical as to practice blatant unfairness in domestic processes.
I view this impeachment as a diplomat, or more accurately an ex-diplomat, a political scientist, and as a citizen. I am appalled that in a context in which we are scheduled to host the Commonwealth summit and are subject to a growing campaign of hostility by the anti-Sri Lanka movement in the UK, the Government has made this country a larger target and has made the task of these lobbyists easier by embarking on this impeachment motion in this crude fashion. I am aghast that we have undermined our own argument that the TNA should enter the PSC, and reinforced the TNA’s argument as to why it is reluctant to do so, by permitting a PSC to treat the Chief Justice in the manner that it has!
As a political scientist I am appalled that alongside and behind this impeachment motion there is a claim that the Legislature does not have to adhere or respond to the strictures of the Judiciary. While it is indeed the Legislature that draws up laws, it is none but the Judiciary that can decide on the legality and constitutionality of such laws. Just as we go to a trained and professionally credentialed doctor in the matter of ill-health, we turn to the Judiciary to rule on whether a move is legal or not.
While the 1978 Constitution– unlike the ’72 Constitution in which Parliament was supreme –grants pre-eminence to the elected President, pre-eminence does not mean monopoly, or else the Sri Lankan political system would be classifiable as absolutist. The irreducibly autonomous spheres of competence and authority of the three arms of Government must be respected.
It is with excellent reason that the old adage has it that ‘justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done’. Our most internationally renowned and distinguished jurist, Judge C.G. Weeramantry has enunciated the basic protocols that must be observed if justice is to be done and be seen to be done. Given his strictures, it is clear that due process has not been observed in the manner that the impeachment motion has proceeded.
Today there is a dangerous disequilibrium between two pillars of the State and the third and a consequent polarisation in the polity. If the Parliament does not accept the rulings of the court on matters of legality and constitutionality, who then decides on what is legal? How then to avoid a situation in which the very legality of Parliament and the legislation that issues from it, are called into question? There may be a serious crisis of legality and legitimacy of the Government itself. We had an analogous situation with J.R. Jayewardene’s coercive and fraudulent referendum of December 1982. We seem to be on a time-machine back to that period.
The only way I see out this dangerous mess is the appointment of an Independent Presidential Commission consisting of or headed by Justice Weeramantry, to review the whole issue and restore equilibrium. We need a neutral umpire or referee.
Q: You appear to be quite adamant in not seeking another term? Why? It is the country that will be the loser…
A: While I still believe that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s historical contribution and merits outweigh his de-merits; while in the absence of a better alternative I regard him as part of the solution and refuse to cast him as the villain of the piece, still less demonise him, it is also my no less strongly held conviction that in the post-war period, the Government has deviated from the path that would lead to social progress and a sustainable peace.
This deviation has led to a deterioration of policy and distortion of the policy process, which in turn has resulted in degeneration of the System. From a strategic standpoint, Sri Lanka can no longer be successfully defended internationally without renewing its stock of moral capital and re-taking the moral high ground which it has lost in the post-war years.
Defending Sri Lanka internationally now requires reforming and democratising Sri Lanka domestically. The struggle to defend Sri Lanka in New York and Washington, Geneva and Delhi, Pretoria and Brasilia, and in the court of world opinion, now requires a struggle for democratic transformation as well as a struggle against undemocratic measures and the dominant political culture at home.
In this context, seeking another term or even an extension would mean continuing a relationship with the status quo that I do not wish to maintain unaltered, given my deep disgust at the dominant ethos and the degree of decay and decrepitude in the System. The famous Cuban national hero Jose Marti used a phrase that became legend; he said he had “been in the belly of the beast and knew its entrails”. He was of course referring to the Biblical legend of Jonah, who was in the belly of a whale. I too have been in the belly of the beast that is the Sri Lankan Establishment, the System, and I no longer can abide the thought of continuing to inhabit it while its ethos remains unchanged.
As to the loss to the country that you mention, it is my firm conviction that Sri Lanka’s international position is deteriorating and the country will be placed at great risk, precisely because of domestic dynamics, i.e. the positive reforms that are not being undertaken and the negative actions that are underway. In today’s situation I would be harming the country more if I did not point out the dangers to the national interest and to our strategic and security situation, of the grave mistakes and distortions that are taking place.
Q: In the recent past, it was Ambassador Kunanayakam, and then followed by Ambassador Godage, and now yourself? Your thoughts?
A: There are commonalities but also differences in our situations. Having beaten back in full public view a vicious attack on me from within the System early in 2012, I served out my full term in France – carried my bat through the innings as it were – gave three months notice and clearly and publicly disengaged of my own accord.
It’s a great pity that an outstanding senior professional such as Mr. Godage on the one hand and a European educated multilingual woman of Sri Lankan Tamil ethnicity such as Ms. Kunanayagam were so shabbily treated by the System and that the country was deprived of their services in the international arena.
Q: You are going back into the corridors of academe in Sri Lanka. Your thoughts on the future of university education in the context of the unprecedented recent FUTA strike?
A: The FUTA struggle was an important one, in that it represented an awakening of one of the most vital social sectors in this or any country. Not since the general election campaign of 1970 has there been such a mobilisation of the university academics. The future of any society resides with its educated youth and therefore with its institutions of higher education, especially the universities.
A country that boasts of 7-8% growth must surely invest more in higher education, including in its cadre of university teachers which constitutes the segment in society with the highest levels of education. A highly educated populace is a foundation of national security and sovereignty. Absolutely nothing can justify the decline in the spending on education in post-war Sri Lanka.
How is it even conceivable that a country spends less on education in peacetime than it did in wartime? This will make Sri Lanka far less able to deal with the challenges it faces in the cold war that is being waged against it by the separatist faction of the Tamil Diaspora. We can win the cold war only if we have the highly educated and internationally competitive human resources to do so.
This having been said, I must add that there were tactical errors and a rhetorical inflation in the FUTA struggle, which brought it to a risky impasse. It is good that Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri and Ven. Dambara Amila Thero, who are politically literate, managed to avoid a July 1980 type defeat that would have resulted from the tactic of frontal confrontation.
One of the weaknesses of the FUTA strike was that there were a large number of academics who did not sign up; who did not participate. I do not refer to the handful who took the side of the Establishment; I refer to the middle ground. So it seems to me that FUTA should have continued the public pedagogy and agitation for a longer period, broadening and deepening its support base, convincing the middle ground among the academics, before it resorted to strike action.
Q: Your greatest achievements in both spells as Ambassador?
A: In my first spell, as Ambassador in Geneva, they were:
- Firstly, preventing the EU from being able to table a resolution to stop the war before it had ended in victory for Sri Lanka.
- Secondly, after the war had been successfully concluded, preventing the same group from passing a critical resolution calling for war crimes investigations and accountability at the UNHRC in May 2009.
After the sessions, two people immediately sent text messages of congratulations to a member of our delegation and through him to me while we were still in the UNHRC hall after our victory in the vote. They were the (then) Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda.
The recently-released Charles Petrie Report on the role of the UN during the Lankan war and its last stages has almost two pages on the UN Human Rights Council April-May 2009. It reveals or rather, confirms, that the West had tried to get a Special Session on Sri Lanka through the UN Human Rights Council in April 2009 in order to stop the war, but failed to do so because it was thwarted from obtaining the requisite 16 signatures by the efforts of the Sri Lankan delegation.
As to the second achievement, it is better to quote from hostile sources in the interest of objectivity:
- ‘The Cage’ by Gordon Weiss: “On 27 May at the Palais des nations in Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanetham Pillay, addressed the Human Rights Council and called for an international inquiry into the conduct of both parties to the war. While the EU and a brace of other countries formulated and then moved a resolution in support of Pillay’s call, a majority of countries on the council rejected it out of hand. Instead they adopted an alternative motion framed by Sri Lanka’s representatives praising the Sri Lankan Government for its victory over the Tigers...” (p229)
In his concluding chapter Weiss describes my role: “Dayan Jayatilleka, one of the most capable diplomats appointed by the Rajapaksa regime, had outmanoeuvred Western diplomats to help Sri Lanka escape censure from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.” In his Notes he makes this evaluation: “Jayatilleka was the most lucid of the vocal Government of Sri Lanka representatives...” (p 330)
- Nirupama Subramanian in the The Hindu: “As Sri Lanka mulls over last month’s United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, it may look back with nostalgia at its 2009 triumph at Geneva. Then, barely a week after its victory over the LTTE, a group of Western countries wanted a resolution passed against Sri Lanka for the civilian deaths and other alleged rights violations by the Army during the last stages of the operation. With the blood on the battlefield not still dry, Sri Lanka managed to snatch victory from the jaws of diplomatic defeat, with a resolution that praised the Government for its humane handling of civilians and asserted faith in its abilities to bring about reconciliation.” (The Hindu)
- Research scholar David Lewis at the University of Edinburgh: “Many of the battles over conflict-related norms between Sri Lanka and Europe took place in UN institutions, primarily the Human Rights Council (HRC)… it was Sri Lanka which generally had the best of these diplomatic battles... Although this process of contestation reflects shifting power relations, and the increasing influence of China, Russia and other ‘Rising Powers,’ it does not mean that small states are simply the passive recipients of norms created and contested by others. In fact, Sri Lankan diplomats have been active norm entrepreneurs in their own right, making significant efforts to develop alternative norms of conflict management, linking for example Chechnya and Sri Lanka in a discourse of state-centric peace enforcement. They have played a leading role in UN forums such as the UN HRC, where Sri Lankan delegates have helped ensure that the HRC has become an arena, not so much for the promotion of the liberal norms around which it was designed, but as a space in which such norms are contested, rejected or adapted in unexpected ways...” (Lewis: 2010, ‘The failure of a liberal peace: Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency in global perspective’, Conflict, Security & Development, 2010, Vol 10:5, pp 647-671.pp. 658-661)
In my second spell as Ambassador, in Paris, my task was rather different from that in Geneva, and therefore required a different skills-set and brought to the forefront a different aspect of my personality. I had extricated myself from a two year renewable contract as Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, in answer to the President’s invitation and the External Affairs Minister’s request to return to representing my country so as to help protect it from the adverse effects of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Expert’s report, aka the Darusman Report, which was on the horizon. Since France is a P-5 member of the Security Council, this posting was doubly important and challenging.
I would regard my main achievements in Paris as:
n Having come in at a time that France was fairly strident in supporting the call for full-on international accountability on the final stages of the war, and to have succeeded through honest, sincere, and open dialogue at the policy making and academic levels, in communicating the complexities of the Sri Lankan situation, and establishing common ground and concord based on shared or compatible values.
- Practicing a policy of outreach, non-discrimination, multi-ethnicity, multi-culturalism, multi-religiosity and integration; maintaining a dialogue with the moderate segments of the Tamil Diaspora, and for two years running, being invited by the Tamil cultural association in the Parisian suburb of Bondy which has a large Sri Lankan Tamil population, to be the chief guest and distribute certificates along with my wife Sanja, at the Tamil school.
- Having been an active, frontline participant in the successful battle for the recognition of Palestine by UNESCO.
- Initiating and organising a UNESCO international scholarly symposium on ‘The Contribution of the Buddha’s Teachings to Universality, Humanism and Peace,’ in commemoration of the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, in partnership with the Asia-Pacific group and the participation of scholars from seven countries.
- Recruiting to the Embassy a multiethnic, multi-religious cadre of second generation Sri Lankan students with excellent French academic training and credentials and encourage their effort to reach out to and network their peers, resulting in a sparkling cluster of French-Sri Lankan postgraduates and young professionals, calling itself What’s Next, which hopes to be a bridge between France and Sri Lanka.
Q: Your thoughts on the current situation regarding the Jaffna University? In Sri Lanka the LTTE has been defeated on ground. What is the situation now – is it triumphalism still, or is reconciliation possible?
A: My view is rather different from the two extremes, the liberals and radical leftists on the one hand and the neoconservative securocrats on the other. If we take the example of India and Kashmir, it is obvious that any country, however democratic, which has a restive separatist sentiment in a vulnerable buffer/border region across which there exists an unfriendly pro-separatist populace, tends to be ultra-sensitive and super-vigilant on security issues.
I disagree with those who regard the students’ commemoration of Mahaveera Day as justifiable or excusable and therefore regard any counteraction as reprehensible, just as I disagree with those who regard the students’ commemoration as heinous and therefore deserving of the crackdown by the State.
If the need was to commemorate the Tamil dead, including those who fought on the side of the LTTE, a different day could have been chosen. The fact that it was Mahaveera Day clearly shows sympathy for and some tacit endorsement of the LTTE, whose remnants are active across the border in Tamil Nadu and in the Western Diaspora. Only the naïve will fail to recognise the interlock and overlap of separatist proxies, front organisations and fellow travellers, and the Sri Lankan security forces and majority of the country’s citizenry are not that naïve.
The TPNF of Gajan Ponnambalam is clearly pro-separatist. The TNA is neither pro-Tiger nor pro-separatist, but there are a few elements within its fold who are. It is asked whether it is wrong for the dead Tigers to be commemorated on Mahaveera Day while JVPers who died in the neo-barbaric surge of the late 1980s are commemorated on Mahaviru Day. That is a valid and important question but the bottom-line is that the LTTE is a proscribed organisation in Sri Lanka (and India) while the JVP is not. Furthermore, in many countries, there is a difference in the manner in which Stalinist, Maoist or ultra-leftist excesses are regarded and separatist and fascist atrocities are viewed.
The argument of iconic scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm is that leftist crimes arose from a distortion, debasement and derangement of praiseworthy original universalist ideas of social justice, while those of a separatist or fascist movement do not originate from such noble impulses and are not a distortion of lofty ideals. Look at neighbouring secular democratic India: public opinion, the mass media and the intelligentsia regard the Naxalites with their savage excesses, very differently from the manner in which they regard the Khalistani or Kashmiri separatist terrorists. However, I regard the Sri Lankan State’s current crackdown as dangerously counter-productive.
The erroneous ideas of the students who commemorated Mahaveera Day can be combated only by correct political ideas; by debate and ideological engagement and challenge. This should have been left to the anti-Tiger Tamil political tendency. The question should for instance have been posed as to whether those Tigers who killed Jaffna University academic Dr. Rajani Tiranagama, and those LTTE leaders who ordered the killing, are Mahaveeras or not, and whether and when the Jaffna university students will commemorate the killing of Rajang and denounce her killers, the Tigers.
Naming and shaming is the right way to go, not beatings and detention without due legal process. Though they may be enamoured or remain uncritical of the LTTE and its war, these youngsters are not hardcore Tigers and probably not even hardcore separatists. Repression will only radicalise them further, when what is required is precisely a contrary policy of de-radicalisation. As for the rehabilitees, generous start up loans and ‘decent work,’ to borrow the ILO’s slogan, are the best method of de-radicalisation.
In 1972, dozens of Tamil youth were arrested and incarcerated for putting up black flags, and now, 40 years later, it is for lighting lamps in however misguided a cause. Those arrests in 1972 did not help stabilise the situation; they sowed the seeds of conflict. My father, Mervyn de Silva who was Editor of the Daily News, warned against it in an editorial in that newspaper in early 1972. Nobody listened. We know the consequence of that. After all we’ve been through, is anybody listening today? Why are we repeating the same blunders — and in a far more seriously hostile external environment?
As for the second part of your question, I fear that triumphalism has afflicted the vision of the leading elements of the State but reconciliation is still possible. Having fought and won a basically just war, the State and the country’s leadership have failed to establish a just peace.
The crisis of the State is partly a crisis of reconciliation. It must be understood that there are only three possible pathways to reconciliation: equal citizenship, eliminating all forms of discrimination against or for any segment of the populace on the basis of ethno-lingual or religious markers; a reasonable sufficiency of devolution of power to the provinces; or a hybrid of elements of both approaches, with improvements in one realm offsetting inadequacies in the other.
For the moment though, I count far less on the State for the process of reconciliation, and far more on interactions and initiatives in the social and artistic domains, especially by the educated young people. It alarms me that there is an absurd tendency to denounce as separatist conspiracies, any attempt by lawyers, academics, students and youth activists, to build bridges between north and south or even to mobilise on a multiethnic or non-ethnic basis.
Q: Any suggestions for making our diplomatic missions more relevant to the country’s need?
A: In the first place we need a coherent foreign policy, which is conformity with the enlightened self interest of Sri Lanka. Today we do not have such a policy. There is no single centre or stable collection of designated individuals who make foreign policy decisions and oversee their implementation. There is a strange combination of semi-anarchy and the pressure of parasitic patronage networks.
What passes for a patriotic foreign policy is an attitude of truculent parochialism. It is discordantly irrational to invoke indigenous cultural values as an immunity defence in UN forums such as the Human Rights Council – something I never did in May 2009 – because of the glaringly obvious fact that UN forums are founded precisely on universality; on shared values and norms that we have all subscribed to.
We must understand that on the one hand, foreign policy cannot be a simple projection of domestic policy; a propaganda discourse that may sell in a protected domestic market – the provinces of Sri Lanka – does not travel well, does not do well under international standards and norms. On the other hand we must also realise that there cannot be a growing disconnect between our international stance and domestic practices and that what happens in the country is quite transparently seen by the world and impacts upon world opinion, which former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali designated ‘the other superpower’. We have almost depleted our soft power and we continue to erode it with every irrational move.
We have deviated from and forgotten the basic objectives of diplomacy, namely serving the national interest by maintaining a continuous dialogue with the State and society to which the Embassy is accredited and honestly, intelligently, presenting the case for Sri Lanka to the host state and society. The Embassy is an institutional bridge between Sri Lanka and the state in which it is based, while the diplomats are a living bridge. The basic function of diplomacy is not to serve the émigré Sinhala community, centres of religious worship and partisan lobbies back home!
Furthermore, Sri Lankan diplomatic practice must not alienate the professionally and academically accomplished elite of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, Sinhala and Tamil, Muslim and Burgher, in favour of émigré strata with resentful views and no niche in the society of the host country. We must be capable of harnessing the best brains of the Diaspora, especially its youth — but the profile, attitudes and sub-culture of our Missions are such that the educated youth of Sri Lankan parentage — the second generation – feel utterly alienated from them.
Sri Lankan diplomacy must realise that no country or may I say no other country, regards its diplomatic missions as places of religious worship and ritual, nor permits diplomatic decision making to be intruded upon by religious clerics. Currently Sri Lankan diplomacy is strangled by intersecting networks of political patronage, religious sectarianism and ultranationalist political partisanship. If we do not break through this suffocating net, how is the country to compete with and prevail over the sophisticated campaign that is underway to isolate and encircle Sri Lanka?
Unless we change for the better, unless we change the System for the better, we shall be unable to raise our diplomatic game to the highest international levels and we shall be unable to win the cold war that is ongoing on all continents against our country. We must exit the matrix!