A picture emerges from the WikiLeaks cables of a Sri Lanka where all is not as it seems. Mahinda Rajapaksa, contrary, to his caricature as a Sinhala extremist, emerges as a relative moderate, even in the eyes of an Archbishop. The cables also reveal broad awareness of human rights violations within the government and of dissent from within.
All in all, these candid reports from the US Embassy reveal a churning political system which Mahinda Rajapaksa follows as much as leads.
The broad picture emerges in cable 09COLOMBO929. Here, “Roman Catholic Archbishop Ranjith told ambassador that pushing the GSL too hard on the war crimes accountability issue now could destabilize Sri Lankan democracy and would set back the cause of human rights. He reasoned that weakening the Rajapaksas — who despite their public image were relative moderates in the Sri Lankan polity – could backfire.”
He casts Mahinda as a relative moderate, which may be relatively true. Though the President has been pilloried as pally with the extremist JHU and what was then the JVP, a different picture emerges in private conversations. In regard to an anti-conversion bill, then Prime Minister Rajapaksa said the government was delaying to counter the JHU:
“Rajapakse described the government bill as a temporary measure to counter the one presented by the JHU. Further, the government intended to bring motions and other procedural actions to keep the JHU bill from being debated in Parliament,” (04COLOMBO1280).
He admitted to playing much the same game with the JVP: “PM Rajapakse describes his pact with the JVP, which reads as an utter renunciation of the peace process and economic reform, as “just words” and assures the Ambassador of his commitment to peace and his ability to use and control the JVP,” (05COLOMBO1605).
Even within the ruling party, there seems to be doubt, dissent, and actual coherent deliberation and thought. Of the then Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, the leaky US Embassy write:
“The deeply frustrated Minister (strictly protect throughout) expressed concern that the President and his two brothers have rendered his human rights and humanitarian access efforts ineffective and that he would not sacrifice his political career to become “part of a white wash” for the Government of SriLanka’s (GSL) recent human rights violations,” (07COLOMBO176).
Also, “Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission Ananda Coomaraswamy (strictly protect) was contemplating resignation due to obstruction from the Rajapaksa administration into abductions investigations,” (07COLOMBO561).
Sadly the cables also reveal a deep lack of similar introspection in the opposition UNP dating back to 2005.
“Mahinda Haradasa and Nimal Weeraratne (protect)*two lawyers who serve as a UNP political advisor and party treasurer respectively* reported that after a period of internal reorganization and soul searching, the UNP was set to embark upon a more aggressive and visible campaign to take on the government and tout its pro-market, pro-peace platform over the next few months.”
We say sadly because this statement could have been made anytime between 2005 and today with equal impotence.
While Ranil’s limpid UNP will hopefully meet its Waterloo in the Colombo Mayoral race, what do the cables say of the other candidate Milinda Moragoda?
“Post regards him as an intelligent and savvy politician who, despite leaving the opposition UNP in 2007 to go over to the ruling coalition, has thus far avoided branding himself narrowly within the president’s shadow. In private meetings, he has indicated his receptiveness to reformist ideas, while at the same time indicating that what he may be able to accomplish is limited,” (09COLOMBO697).
“Moragoda is also highly aware that the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, and he feels that it is better that Sri Lanka recognize that fact and work within it,” (03COLOMBO909).
Strangely enough, Milinda is running his mayoral campaign based on the economic and administrative competence the UNP used to advertise. The UNP, on the other hand, is now railing against land being sold to foreigners, and calling for every trishaw stand to be protected and, essentially, for little to be changed. But back to the leaks.
As a bit of an aside, it seems that Anura Bandaranaike’s reputation for round incompetence was well earned.
“Director General of Commerce K.N. Weerasinghe (please protect), commenting on his experiences with Bandaranaike in his capacity as Investment Promotion Minister, described him as a charming self-promoter who has no scruples about claiming credit for the (successful) efforts of others. Weerasinghe also characterized his former boss as forgetful, unable to remember basic points, even if given them repeatedly,” (05COLOMBO1485).
Also, it seems that Douglas Devandanda’s electoral failures in the north may be well deserved.
“Social Services and Welfare Minister Douglas Devananda of the anti-LTTE EPDP spends much time in his party’s political office working on his ministerial portfolio. The minister doesn’t answer phone calls or letters, Ganesh asserted,” (06COLOMBO1090).
Even the nameless tell important stories in these cables. Regarding the condition of interment centers:
“According to Vijayakanth (strictly protect), a Colombo Tamil working at the Ideal Guest Lodge who was mistakenly forced onto one of the police buses and transported to Vavuniya, the school lacks adequate water or sanitation facilities,” (07COLOMBO820).
Even more alarmingly,
“On June 18, Military Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe told pol FSN in confidence that the SLN may have been involved in the grenade attack on the Pesalai church,” (06COLOMBO1041).
While these leaks and more are shockingly unredacted – revealing NGOs, journalists, government officials and the President alike – they are also quite revealing. The President is a pragmatist. Everyone playing the game seems to have a basic concept of reality, which they then warp based on shared assumptions. Mahinda pretends like he likes the JHU and JVP, Mahinda Samarasinghe pretends like he likes his job, Douglas Devananda pretends like he represents people, and the military pretends like it does no wrong. The system is internally coherent, but externally opaque.
Thus, all the calls to investigate from abroad may be, as the Archbishops says, unproductive at this time. The truth is there and, to a large degree, acknowledged in private. Though the information is now out in public, we suspect that this will not be acknowledged for years to come. What is vital to remember, however, is that no player in this game is dumb, at least not in the stupid sense. They are only dumb in that they do not speak, in public at least. Now that the US government was dumb enough to let it all leak, perhaps the drips can begin to do their work, eating away at our illusions, gradually letting in the light.