Behind the Scenes: The American Contribution to the Current Crisis in Sri Lanka

Rajiva Wijesinha** responding to an Editorial Request to comment on Daya Gamage: “The American Agenda for Sri Lanka’s National Issue,” ….

The request to write an article on US Policy towards Sri Lanka in 2008/2009 came at a timely moment, for I had been reflecting in some anguish on the crisis that the Sri Lankan government is now facing. I believe that this crisis is of the government’s own creation, but at the same time I believe that its root causes lie in US policy towards us during the period noted.

Nishan de Mel of Verite Research, one of the organizations now favoured by the Americans to promote change, accused me recently of being too indulgent to the Sri Lankan government. I can understand his criticism, though there is a difference between understanding some phenomenon and seeking to justify it. My point is that, without understanding what is going on, the reasons for what a perceptive Indian journalist has described as the ‘collective feeling that the Sri Lankan State and Government are either unable or unwilling’ to protect Muslims from the current spate of attacks, we will not be able to find solutions.

Nishan might have felt however that I was working on the principle that to understand everything is to forgive everything. But that only makes sense if corrective action has been taken, i. e. if the perpetrator of wrongs has made it clear that these will be stopped and atoned for. Sadly, after the recent incidents at Aluthgama, I fear the time and space for changing course are running out. But even if we can do nothing but watch the current government moving on a course of self-destruction, it is worth looking at the causes and hoping that history will not repeat itself at some future stage.


My contention is that the appalling behavior of the government at present springs from insecurity. That insecurity has led it to believe that it can rely only on extremist votes and extremist politicians. Thus the unhappiness of the vast majority of the senior SLFP leadership, and their willingness to engage in political reform that promotes pluralism, are ignored in the belief that victory at elections can only be secured if what is perceived as a fundamentalist and fundamental Sinhala Buddhist base is appeased.

The problem is exacerbated by the adulation these forces offer the Secretary of Defence. Though the international elements that believe they need to interfere in Sri Lanka see the Rajapaksa family as a monolith (and are right to the extent that internal divisions will not interfere with united action against outsiders), the recent aggressive critiques of the government’s economic policies are a clear challenge to the Minister for Economic Development. These critiques will have no effect since he is seen as the genius behind electoral strategy. But they indicate what will follow a government electoral victory, since there is no doubt the President would prefer his son to be his successor, and the Secretary of Defence is more likely to fall in with such an agenda than his younger brother. What the President does not realize is that the extremists are as little enamoured of the son, with his penchant for Western modes of entertainment, as of the current economic dispensation.

Internal rivalries then play their part in the current crisis. More serious is the complete neglect of the real power base of the government, namely the old SLFP. But the President has no confidence in that section of his support base, and will not take the first step required to shore up his popularity, namely appointing a serious Prime Minister from their ranks. If only the leading contenders would get together and agree on a name, perhaps the most senior being the least contentious, they could help resolve the problem. But this seems unlikely, and so resentments will continue, with all sorts of elements opposed to the President fishing in the troubled waters, which in turn only increases his sense of insecurity.

But I do not blame them for the crisis. The depth of the forces ranged against them became clear to me when I was told in 2012 about the efforts made by the head of the kitchen element in our Foreign Policy trying to convince the President that the Indian Parliamentary delegation, led by its present Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, had connived with the Leader of the House to criticize him. Fortunately the Secretary to the President had been able to convince him otherwise, but the readiness of the President to believe the worst about the principal elements that would combat extremist influences on him shows how brilliantly the insecurity has been orchestrated.


With friends like that, then, who needs enemies? But I think to understand the sense of siege that has overtaken the government, we need to go back to the violent shock to the mindset that occurred in 2009. I refer to the range of forces that supported Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency when he ran against the incumbent President.

In 2009 I believe the President was willing to move forward on necessary reforms. Unless it is assumed that he is an inveterate liar, his commitments to both the Indian government and to the UN Secretary General indicate a positive mindset. And in all fairness to the Minister of Economic Development, in his previous incarnation he was absolutely sincere about resettling the displaced as swiftly as possible. It was then Sarath Fonseka who stood in his way, as for instance when the Commanders on the ground were told to recheck those who had been sent back to the various districts. But in those days the ground leadership, led by enlightened active generals such as Kamal Guneratne and Brindley Mark, only paid lip service to the instructions and sent the displaced swiftly to their original places of residence

But two months later, it was that same Sarath Fonseka who had become the darling of the West, or rather the Anglo-Saxons (a couple of European ambassadors told me they could not understand what was going on), and also of the Tamil National Alliance as well as the politically inclined NGO community, one of which actively endorsed Fonseka (though the more aggressively anti-government ones were more circumspect, understanding that Fonseka was only being used as a tool).

What had happened? The key, to be indulgent to the Americans, lies in what former Ambassador Robert Blake is supposed to have told a senior Indian politician, namely that they had discovered the perfect weapon to pressurize Mahinda Rajapaksa. In all fairness to Bob Blake, who I think had been a good friend to Sri Lanka when he was Ambassador, he was now serving a different administration, and was perhaps under pressure himself to correct what was seen as the triumphalism that accompanied the end of the war. I would like to think then that perhaps his idea, while playing along with his superiors at the State Department who were negative about us, was to keep our President on the straight and narrow by splitting him off from his hardline supporters.


But unfortunately the chosen instrument of the new policy was a new Ambassador, who was not as nuanced as Bob Blake. Though I can understand why one of the more sensitive American diplomats in Colombo at the time told me that he thought our best friends were Blake and his successor Patricia Butenis, that was after Patricia understood more about the country. In her first few months however, she saw things in black and white, and in her usual gung-ho fashion went straight into trying to ensure that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election.


I was present at what I think was a salient moment, at the house of her Political Affairs Officer, Paul Carter. He was by no means subtle, and later came into conflict with Butenis when he thought she was not being hard enough on us. The occasion was his Boxing Day Party, when I think I was the only government representative present. Present also was Mr Sambandan and, when I went to speak to him, I found him deep in conversation with Patricia and the then head of the EU Mission, who was also one of those deeply critical of the government at the time. Patricia, who always wore her heart on her sleeve, looked very shifty, and would not talk to me, and it was left to the EU to make polite conversation until I took myself away.


Sambandan ended up endorsing Sarath Fonseka, which was disastrous. I think the TNA now realizes how foolish it had been. Though I can accept their argument that they did not want to support the President, following the war, they could easily have kept neutral. By following the American line, they sent a message to the President that they would prefer anyone to him. Given that they well knew Fonseka’s much more nationalistic outlook, the argument that he had promised to give them what they wanted was no justification for spurning the President’s efforts at the time to reach a widely acceptable solution.

The American strategy was to unite all the forces opposed to the President, and perhaps hope that, if Fonseka won, he would live up to his initial promises and make Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and allow him to take all important decisions. That was an absurd supposition, and would not have been made by Bob Blake had he been on the ground. Indeed I suspect that Blake would have realized the absurdity of the strategy when Ranil dropped out of the race. Before that the hope would have been, given the simplistic interpretation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a hardliner, that he and Fonseka would have split the extremist vote, allowing Ranil somehow to be elected.

But Ranil sensibly enough withdrew – which perhaps contributed to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu’s claim, being now obliged to support Fonseka, that it was Ranil who had ruined everything. Saravanamuttu, it should be noted, clung to the old strategy even on election day, trying to create doubts about the results, in pursuit of the strategy the West has pursued with regard to elections where the result is not to their liking, of crying foul and encouraging civil unrest. Fortunately the margin was decisive enough in 2010 for that strategy to prove impossible, though there is little doubt that it will certainly come into play in 2015.

Contrary to what I believe the Americans initially wanted, though ultimately playing into their hands, was that the extremists rallied to the President. Indeed, when Sarath Fonseka emerged as the common candidate, those able to deal with Fonseka on his own terms became the leading lights in the election campaign. Symptomatic of the strategy was the way in which Fonseka’s insinuation that the Secretary of Defence was responsible for the killing of LTTE leaders who surrendered was tackled. Instead of calling the man a liar, and citing his previous claim that he was responsible (which indeed the Americans had helpfully brought to our attention), government summarily dismissed Mahinda Samarasinghe who had been asked to take the lead at a press conference, and instead entrusted the job to Wimal Weerawansa and his like.

The result may have seemed effective electorally to the government, but it was disastrous for the Secretary of Defence. It created the impression that he had indeed done what he was charged with, and Fonseka’s crime was revealing this, not that he had made up the story. And it also made it difficult for him to do what any army should have done when credible evidence of possible abuses was placed before it, as the LLRC indicated had occurred in a limited number of cases. Whereas he should have conducted an investigation transparently and taken disciplinary action if required, he had laid himself open to the charge of being called a traitor himself.

So the very simple way to have avoided an international inquiry, laid out so systematically by the LLRC, was blocked. Interestingly enough, whereas all other reactions to the LLRC were predominantly positive, it was only the Americans, the TNA and Saravanamuttu’s CPA who were deeply critical. But again government, instead of responding to this sensibly by promptly implementing the LLRC in full, instead allowed Weerawansa and the Secretary of Defence, through the Defence Ministry website, to attack it.


I can understand then why Patricia Butenis, in the last constructive conversation I had with her, said that the government was ambiguous about the LLRC. I did point out that the Americans were largely responsible about this since, when government had unambiguous embraced the LLRC, tabling its report and asking for an Action Plan on the recommendations, it was the Americans (not Butenis but Patricia Nuland in Washington) who had been harsh. Typically the government had then reacted by in effect saying, if you want more, we have people who want less. But I told her she should listen not to individuals but to the accredited spokesmen of government.

Who were these, she asked, which was understandable given their lack of apparent authority. G L and Mohan Pieris, I said, to which her response was that both now lacked credibility. This startled me, though I have since realized that her point was totally valid. But in a context in which the President has failed to discipline contrary views, indeed seems to use them to highlight difficulties he could easily overcome, and with both G L and Mohan tailoring their advice to what they believe the Secretary of Defence wants, it is no wonder that we have lurched from crisis to crisis.

Certainly there is no doubt that we have failed absolutely to try to understand the Americans and work together positively with them in areas where we should. Thus we lost a great opportunity way back in 2009, even while some elements in their ranks were hatching the Fonseka plot, in failing to respond to the Kerry Report. That had raised some questions about the war, but in some cases had even provided us with answers to allegations. The most serious allegation related to Sarath Fonseka’s alleged assertion about responsibility for the White Flag incident, and I pointed out how we should immediately respond to this. Lalith Weeratunge agreed, but a committee was appointed that never met. And Mohan who agreed that he and I could easily draw up answers did not push, so the opportunity passed.

There may however have been a conceptual problem here, because Dayan Jayatilleka, who also pointed out to the President the need for a response (and was reassured by Lalith that a committee was looking into the matter, though typically no one bothered to ensure that the committee met), told me that there was a school of thought in Sri Lanka that claimed the Report showed the Americans had softened towards us, and understood the importance of our achievement, and would soon cease to persecute us. I was told that this view was prevalent even in the Foreign Ministry, and G L Pieris cannot be blamed for this since he was not Minister at the time – which perhaps suggests that my criticisms of him, if not misplaced, should be more general.

Meanwhile the Americans were not resting. The conversation I mentioned with Patricia, who had been the most enthusiastic of foreign envoys in supporting my efforts, through the Council for Liberal Democracy, to bring politicians of different parties together to discuss reconciliation, took place in the Ministry of Defence. I think it was on the occasion, reported in Gota’s War when she had gone there to explain away Paul Carter’s attempt to suborn the former Defence Spokesman, General Prasad Samarasinghe. That story was told me by the same NGO official, a friend of Bob Blake as well as a person generally supportive of government, who had told me about Kshenuka Seneviratne trying to create bad blood between the President and Sushma Swaraj and Nimal Siripala de Silva, and again I have no reason to doubt its accuracy.

Government as usual responded in a hamfisted fashion, allowing Patricia to offer her own explanation informally, instead of summoning her to the Ministry of External Affairs and making a formal complain, with a request for a written explanation. Thus, when I exposed the incident, Patricia was deeply upset, and turned in what struck me at the time was a Marlene Dietrich style performance, with a superbly suppressed sob, to express her sense of hurt. I too was sorry, because I had grown fond of her, and I continue to believe that, though she was driven by extremists, including Paul Carter, she was genuinely anxious for progress.

By then though our meetings had stopped, because after an adverse newspaper report in which Wimal Weerawansa had attacked her for something said at one of them, she had taken against Dilan Perera and insisted that I not invite him. I was not prepared to do this and I think this was seen as a test case of my commitment finally to a Sri Lankan agenda rather than an American one. But even so it is possible that, given the sterling commitment of Jeff Anderson, who had overseen the programme – and whose laconic comment on the Carter incident was that there were some very strange people in the Embassy – we would have continued had Carter not contributed to raising the stakes so aggressively.


Given all this, I think we must understand and sympathize with the anguish felt by the Secretary of Defence. Having received solid cooperation from the American government under George Bush, having I believe done his best to fight a clean war, he did not know what hit him when he became the target of criticism, with his own senior generals offered virtual asylum if they provided testimony against him – while Sarath Fonseka, who he knew had to be restrained on occasion, had turned into the darling of those members of the international community determined to criticize us.

But understanding his bewilderment does not excuse the dogmatic response he has engaged in. Following an extremist agenda because he believes these are the only people he can rely on has resulted in polarization that will destroy the country economically as well as socially. And sadly he does this whilst feeling immeasurably superior to other politicians, on the grounds that he is efficient and they are not.

I have some sympathy with this position, having seen how ineffective my colleagues in Parliament are. But we have also to recognize that he has highly trained professionals to work for him, whereas in other areas our administrators have been hamstrung and rendered ineffective by both the educational and the administrative systems; he has unlimited funds, a position only enjoyed also by his younger brother in the Cabinet, whereas other Ministers have to beg for funds and have no mechanisms to ensure coordinated action; and above all he knows he can do what he wants, whereas others are in danger of having their decisions flouted, with few able – as Karu Jayasuriya did – to say enough is enough and leave when he was not able to be an effective Minister.

So it should not be a matter for adulation that the Ministry of Defence works well. And it should certainly not be a reason for allowing the Secretary to dictate policies in other areas too. The recent tragedy of broken promises with regard to the Northern Province is symptomatic of the incapacity to understand the wider dimensions of the situation. We simply cannot alienate everyone, nationally and internationally, who does not share our mindset. And while I firmly believe we must continue our excellent relations with China, we must also follow Chinese advice and not believe that this can be done to the exclusion of others.

So, though I believe American machinations are to blame for engendering the current exclusivist mindset, the responsibility for the disasters that are piling up are our own. I believe the President is a capable politician and could change course if he really understood the position. But if he is lulled into complacence, as has happened year after year, if distrust of potential allies except for the family and the kitchen cabinet is inculcated in him, if he is not aware of the economic and educational problems that are mounting, then it seems we have only further suffering in store.

Whether the Americans will be happy with this I do not know. I would like to think not, but if we are not able to talk to them sensibly, then I suspect they will go into Mark Antony mode, as they have done in so many places lately, and with what they convince themselves are the best of motives, let slip the dogs of war.

**  Rajiva Wijesinha can be reached at

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One response to “Behind the Scenes: The American Contribution to the Current Crisis in Sri Lanka

  1. From Philip Fernando in LA
    Getting the winning electoral calculus had remained well-etched going by the last several election results in Sri Lanka: combining the substantive majority community vote with a commanding minority support. Rajiva Wijesinha has thrown valuable insight to validate that while pointing to an erosion of that formula. The recent traumatic disruption of law and order has made the leadership suspect the efficacy of their commitment, triggering a loss of faith in the time-honoured formula of success. Rajiva’s anecdotal insights are right on target. Whether the incumbent Rajapaksa administration would retrieve the magic touch is anyone’s guess? Uva PC elections would be watched. The Papal visit scheduled for January would also be indicative of the potential for staying the course.
    Rajiva also captured the near-conspiratorial moves by a Western embassy to lure Sarath Fonseca to arrive at a winning electoral formula by soliciting and getting the support of the TNA during the 2010 election (more like cajoling) —but things went askew because that made Fonseca the appeaser of the vanquished Tigers, the antithesis of his platform that projected him as the Tiger avenger.
    Rajiva has documented a piece for the political historians to chisel with a vengeance.
    Philip Fernando in Los Angeles

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