Facing Foursquare: Lalith Weeratunga in Q and A with Daily Mirror

Ranjith Ananda Jayasinghe, in Daily Mirror, 25 July 2018http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/I-never-took-orders-from-members-of-the-Rajapaksa-family-153131.html, where the title is “I never took orders from members of the Rajapaksa family”

Secretary to the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Lalith Weerathunga, in an interview with our sister paper Deshaya spoke about the charisma of the ousted president, the times during which the war raged and the controversial manner in which former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was arrested. This marks the first time during the past four years that Weerathunga obliged to grant an interview to a newspaper.   

 Q  You were the head of the Government services and served as the Secretary to the President during a period of ten years. How do you feel when you reminiscence the past?   

There is only one President for the whole country. Rajapaksa was my chief and he was a political leader. As his secretary I had to implement his political vision. Whatever happened I am happy even today because I was the Secretary of the Leader of the State who ended a war that ravaged the country for 30 years. I was one of those people who was very close to the war.

Before you became the Secretary to the President you were the additional secretary to the Late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. What is the difference between that era and the era of Rajapaksa?   

Madam possessed a distinct personal strength and a leadership, which the public respected, and accepted. As the first woman Prime Minister of the world and as the leader of the party she aspired to be a firm leader. At that time the secretary to the Prime Minister was Hemasiri Fernando who created opportunities for me to work closely with Madam.

The post of Secretary to the President is considered as a position that feels the heat of the throne. Did you also have that feeling?   

You should direct that question to my friends and the public. If I had behaved like having experienced that heat you wouldn’t be speaking to me now. There is a saying that danger accompanies positions. I was born into a middleclass family in Matara. I have my own personality and therefore I wasn’t affected by the heat of the throne. However, I was a workaholic, with a yearning to complete the tasks well and on time.

 The post of President is held by a human being and sometimes his decisions may be wrong. On such occasions did you point out the errors he made?   

He never asked me to do anything that was wrong. But when there were shortcomings, with regard to policy decisions, I pointed them out in public. Later when the mistakes were pointed out to him he allowed me to do the correct thing. There were many among us who were close to him, who pointed out the shortcomings in the decisions that were taken.

Despite the advise you offered, didn’t the President order you to follow his instructions?   

Never. That is why we are a happy lot today. The batch of officers of the former Government was so good and no other Government had officers of that type. This fact is now even more evident.

First and foremost the credit should be given to Alok Prasad who was the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo then. The false beliefs that were dominating in India about the war were swept aside by him

Who were the officers within who advised the President?  

Myself, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, P.B. Jayasundera, Gamini Senarath, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, Palitha Kohona and D. Dissanayake.

 When implementing the President’s decisions were there occasions when things went wrong?   

Certain difficult decisions were arrived at and implemented as ours. We always obliged him. He is a politician. He is the one who faced elections. He never forgot about this fact.

 Do you infer that you ate curd and treacle using a razor?   

To tell you the truth, he never put us in difficult situations.

 During the recent past there were many allegations against the Rajapaksa Government with the main one being that the country was being ruled by the Rajapaksa family. The names of Shiranthi Rajapaksa, Namal, Yoshitha, Gotabhaya, and Basil were mentioned often.   

Since the president was their relative there must have been some concerns. But they never interfered in our work and never asked us to do this and that. There were occasions when proposals were presented. But no orders were given as I was employed at a level where I didn’t have to accept orders. It was a job where friendly overtures were made.

Many are of the opinion that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a person who does what he thinks fit and is a tough guy. Your comments.   

Gotabaya is a person who can identify the skills of each person and is an efficient manager who can make use of the talents and skills of such persons. Without the skills of such a person institutions like the state intelligence cannot be put into operation.

What can you say about Basil Rajapaksa?   

He is a person who has done politics for a long time. There were instances when he took firm decisions. To quote one example a letter given to Basil today will be made available even after 10 years when requested. He had such organizing capabilities which I hadn’t witnessed elsewhere.

 During your time of service the crucial decisions to remove Mangala Samaraweera and Anura Bandaranaike from the Rajapaksa Cabinet were taken. How were these decisions taken?   

There were serious diplomatic reasons behind the scene which compelled us to take these crucial decisions. Basil wasn’t in agreement. But when President Rajapaksa takes a decision it’s final. We were only left with the task of implementing them.

Anura was the son of the founder of the SLFP and Mangala was the one who performed an enormous task to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa to power. Why were they treated in this manner? 

I cannot discuss these matters with you publicly, which were known to President Rajapaksa. When he was on the march towards winning the war he never condoned the action of those who were trying to topple the Government. He had no mercy for them.

Q  After the successes of the war some began to address Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Great King. Some ministers tied state officials to trees in public. Some powerful individuals organised night races in Colombo and Kandy. The Government was ridiculed by these actions. As state officials, who were practical, why did you fail to point out these lapses to the President?   

We witnessed these lapses and agreed that these were things that should not have happened. We made our position clear on this and made alternate proposals. These may have been ignored due to other interventions. Though not a King people accepted Mahinda Rajapaksa as their king . They worshiped him even today as before. Look at the way he is welcomed wherever he goes. He never asks for such a reception, but people spontaneously gather to welcome him.

Q  Then what about the Night Races and the tying up of a state official by a minister?   

We voiced our disapproval against Night Races, but for some reason our opposition was heeded. We protested against the tying up of the official. Several other state officials joined me in protesting against this matter. State officials were angry with us for not taking any action regarding this matter.

Back then, despite the fury of the Government service employees, decisions were taken and work was carried out. At present there is an allegation that no decisions are being taken and no work is being done.Your comments?   

Back then the Government looked after and safeguarded those in the Government service. Today this environment isn’t there, hence many of them remain unprotected. At that time there were many who worked untiringly and earned the goodwill and the appreciation of the Leader of the State.

Is there any other reason other than insecurity that is causing this present situation? 

At that time there was just one leader who possessed the Mahinda Chinthanaya. There were 624 activities incorporated therein. We had only to implement them. Today even those in the Government are questioning whether there is a vision like that?

Do you think it was correct that Sarath Fonseka, who contributed immensely towards winning the war in the North, should have been stripped of his position and later be arrested? 

There may have been many security reasons to have him stripped of his position. The State Leader would have feared and harboured suspicion regarding the environment that Fonseka had built up in the Army at that time.

When you reminisce how the Commander of the Army was taken into custody and the actions that followed, what do you think?

I do not approve them. Even today I am not aware as to what made them do it. At that time the story that circulated was that it was the work of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I know for certain that it was a co

What was the secret behind Mahinda Rajapaksa winning the war?   

Mainly it was the political leadership, followed by the contributions made by the Defense Ministry and the Tri Forces.

In 1987 J.R. Jayewardene stopped the war in Wadamarachchi due to the Indian intervention. Can you mention about any such interventions made during the regime of Mahinda Rajapakse to stop the war?   

There were influences made by people like then British Premier Gordon Brown, former US Secretary of state Hilary Clinton, Ban Ki Moon and foreign Ministers David Miliband and Bernard Kushner.

Whatever was said without India the war could not have been won. Your comments.   

Their assistance was needed. When we met Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh to discuss this matter he was severely under stress and one time did not allow even a photograph of our meeting to be taken.

He (Mahinda Rajapaksa) never asked me to do anything that was wrong. But when there were shortcomings, with regard to policy decisions, I pointed them out in public. Later when the mistakes were pointed out to him he allowed me to do the correct thing

Who was the leading Indian who offered support to win this war?   

First and foremost the credit should be given to Alok Prasad who was the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo then. The false beliefs that were dominating in India about the war were swept aside by him. He was the one who apprised Mrs. Gandhi and Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh that if this war was not ended, India would be the next target. R.K. Narayanan, the Indian National Defense Consultant, and Foreign Secretary Sivashankar Menon offered us huge support. Narayanan had a great liking towards Gotabaya and Sarath Fonseka. The Indian Government helped us so much that during the final few days of the war some of the leaders left Delhi and continued extending us support by allowing us to finish the war.

Do you remember how during the final phase of the war the foreign Ministers of UK and France came in search of the then President and they having a decisive discussion in Embilipitiya under the shade of a tree on the bank of Chandrika Wewa?   

Their message was similar to a threat. UK Foreign Minister Miliband had reportedly told President Rajapaksa that they had come all the way to convey a message from the rest of the world. The message was to immediately stop the massacre.

What was President Rajapaksa’s reply to them?   

We were not prepared for it. Our President remained calm for about 15 seconds and said,“ Mr. Minister please remember that Sri Lanka is no more a colony of England. It ended in 1948. I am the President now elected by the people and my responsibility is towards the people of this country. I am finishing this war. You go and tell your western allies that I said so”. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner at that moment barged in saying, “Mr. President you are a friend of ours” Then in rebuttal our President said, “I know very well who my friends are. When our people get killed by bombs exploded by the LTTE it is only a news for you, but remember it is a great heart pain for me”.   

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was glorified by the people after winning the war, lost the 2015 Presidential Elections. Didn’t you get a hint during the final two years of the previous Government that it was degenerating?   

I did. We made our observations, but the powerful groups led them astray. In addition there were many untruths revealed from opposition platforms about the Rajapaksa Government. The people now realise these falsehoods. When he lost people felt as if they too had lost. How is that more than hundreds of people visit him daily even after his defeat.

There were several public servants, holding high posts during the Rajapaksa regime, who slowly walked away from Temple Trees when the results of the elections were being revealed. These individuals returned to accept high positions in the present Government. Don’t you think that this is a great betrayal?   

There were people belonging to such groups and it’s amazing how they came into occupy high posts once again. But I cannot name these persons.

If there is a change of Government will they join the new regime too.   

It is better not to comment on that now.

Let us return to a very sensitive question. You are a past pupil of Matara Rahula Vidyalaya and Royal College Colombo. You were very knowledgeable on administrative regulations given your vast experiences. You know the financial regulations by heart. What made you make a slip and walk into the Welikada prison?   

I view this incident in a neutral manner. I maintain that I acted correctly. As there is a case I don’t wish to speak further. I only know of what I did therefore there are no regrets. Before this incident during the Rajapaksa Government a certain Minister of Foreign Affairs attempted to post me as the Ambassador in USA. I told President Rajapaksa what was told to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Former First Field Marshal of India Sam Manexsho, “ Madam you out of respect had proposed to me the post of Indian High Commissioner in Britain. Do you wish that I who commandeered an army of 1.5 million to be under your Foreign Secretary”. In a similar manner I said that I would go home and not return to Government Service.

Q  As the one time head of Government Services, what was your immediate response when the court gave its verdict sentencing you for rigorous imprisonment ?   

It was a foregone conclusion and therefore I didn’t take it seriously.

Q  How long were you in prison? One day in Welikada and 12 days at the Prison Hospital.

Q  There is a saying that it is only during a situation like this that you are able to recognise your friends and enemies. What was your experience like? 

We are human beings. During this incident there were many who came forward to help; some who were strangers. Among them were some who never sighted me when I was holding positions. There were some who were willing to pay the fines on my behalf. The only thing I have earned from Government service are human beings.

How did you feel when you wore the jumper inside the prison and partake meals served on zinc plates?  

I accepted that with a smile. I then remembered the popular poem by Rudyard Kipling in ‘IF’ which was translated by my father when I was a child. It goes like this, ’ Even if you walk with Kings or even with beggars if you hold your head high, then you are a man my son”   

It was heartening to note that at the time you held the post Secretary to the President, your wife was removed from the post she held at that time. What were your thoughts on this? Was it also a painful experience like your prison sentence?   

She worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission as its Chairperson. Some of the decisions she had taken at that place were not favoured by many. She became a target of a conspiracy. Many asked me at that time whether I would resign. I told them that our duties differed. There were many who did not like her and what she did. I felt sorry, and if she had continued in that institution she would have reached a very high position. She has been a tower of strength to me during all my ups and downs in life.

Q  You were at one time occupying a comfortable official quarters, but now you are compelled to stay in a rented out house and travel about in a small car. Aren’t you sad about this change of fate? 

The vehicle I am using now is owned by a relative of mine who is the owner of Nimal Stores in Matara. He is paying the lease. Earlier, when I was in position, I travelled about in good vehicles. I travelled by bus to school. Though my parents were well educated they never possessed cars. Therefore cars, vehicles, Rolex watches aren’t ornaments to me.   

Q  You lost your positions along with all the facilities and ended up being jailed. When events of this nature take place some connect them with astrology. Didn’t you check your horoscope?   

I am now experiencing Senasuru Erashtakaya (Influence of Saturn). This brings much malefics. It was predicted that I would experience very hard times and that it would be a miracle if I escaped getting injured.

Q  On hearing the seriousness of the malefic planetary effects I am eager to know the Zodiac sign under which you were born 

It is Dhanu (Sagittarius). There is a serious malefic or Erashtakaya that would last for several years.


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