| by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
( April 22, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Events during the past two weeks took a turn that was out of character for the typically laid-back New Year season, with some dramatic developments occupying the media’s attention. Most unfortunate among these events has been the attempted vilification of Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Paris.
The pettish, nit-picking nature of the allegations leveled against one of the most able and articulate emissaries serving the country in these troubled times, is indeed regrettable, having emanated from within the Ministry of External Affairs itself (though not from the Minister’s camp, as Jayatilleka’s comments would indicate).
The missive sent to the ambassador accusing him of ‘actions punishable under the Penal Code,’ threatens him over procedural lapses in a matter as mundane as refurbishing the chancery building. The episode smacks of simmering internal jealousies manifesting in a devious attempt to oust Jayatilleka, rather than any serious misdemeanor on his part.
In the wake of the allegations the ambassador has responded to the inevitable media flurry in his usual forthright manner. “This ministry’s bureaucratic apparatus has a decades-long history of harassing those they consider to be outsiders,” said the non-career diplomat in a newspaper interview. “In my case however there are added factors. There is the resentment that a mafia of powerfully networked or ‘connected’ cut-throat mediocrities instinctively has towards someone who is neither a crook nor a mediocrity.” It is sad but true that the pertinence of this observation extends to other spheres of public life as well, so much so that one might ask, is it a national malady?
The Ministry of External Affairs is a locus of responsibility that can ill afford to come under this ‘tyranny of mediocrity’ that Jayatilleka describes. Now more than ever there is a need for brain and not brawn in addressing the complex task of revamping foreign policy to face the current challenges. There has been talk of factions within the ministry, and of ongoing power struggles. While the intrigues within the MEA may not be clearly visible to the public eye at this point, what IS visible is the manner in which Jayatilleka in his ambassadorial role, at the UN in Geneva earlier and now in Paris, deploys his formidable intellect to serve the country’s interests.
Besides, he has achieved remarkable results, as seen in defeat of the previous attempted resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in 2009 – a feat with which he is largely credited. Apart from that, his ready interactions with the media and prolific analytical writings, on matters local and international, have helped a great many readers to better understand the complexities of Sri Lanka’s seemingly intractable ethnic issue, even if they may not agree with him on every point. One can only hope that the ambassador’s openness will work in his favour and not against him, with the result that those apparently plotting his ouster will be foiled in their efforts.
The other incident that made news internationally (unrelated to Jayatilleka’s experience except for the proximity in time) was the abduction of two activists of the newly formed Frontline Socialist Party, a group that broke away from the JVP. Conflicting reports have emerged. The public had to piece this story together largely through statements made by the victims after their release (and by fellow party activists), the government and the Australian High Commission. Many who were following the drama would have noticed that all three parties seemed to know more than they cared to divulge, in what unfolded like a game of poker where each appeared to be trying to call the other’s bluff.
There are still many unknowns. But the last analysis reports seem to indicate that FSP leader Premakumar Gunaratnam, an Australian citizen, and Dimuthu Attygalle, another key party figure, were indeed abducted at gunpoint, taken to undisclosed locations and subjected to heavy interrogation, with fingers pointing to involvement of the security establishment. The highly publicized incident has naturally raised concerns that the ‘white van culture’ that blighted the country, particularly in the last years of the war, is yet to be eradicated. Two other activists of the same movement, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan went missing in Jaffna in December and their whereabouts are still unknown.
Appearing on state run TV the night that Gunaratnam was dumped by his captors (‘Doramadalawa’ program, Mon. April 9) Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said High Commissioner Robyn Mudie spoke to him two days earlier regarding the disappearance. He had informed her there was no record of such a person having entered the country, and requested details about him. Rajapaksa expressed indignation that he had sought information about Gunaratnam from Mudie far back as in September (having heard stories of his arrival and involvement in subversive politics) but had got no response. It was only in the context of his disappearance that she divulged that he had arrived on Sept. 4 on an Australian passport using the name ‘Noel Mudalige.’
While Attygalle’s former links to the JVP are acknowledged, there is still some mystery surrounding the profile of Gunaratnam with his many aliases. JVP MP Vijitha Herath told the Daily Mirror, “This person Premakumar Gunaratnam has never been a member of our politburo or central committee.”
There were two armed insurgencies led by JVP in 1971 and 1987-89, and some media reports said that Gunaratnam was wanted in connection with a jail break during the second. At some point after that he left the country. But after this abduction episode, the grounds on which he was deported were that he had overstayed his visa by six months.
The revelations made so far would seem to suggest that Gunaratnam is on a ‘wanted’ list in Sri Lanka. It is interesting in this context that Police media spokesman SP Ajith Rohana confirmed that there is no warrant for Gunaratnam’s arrest. Rohana said that he had ‘committed offences’, and went on to explain that once a period of 20 years has lapsed, the law prohibits filing charges in respect of certain offences. “We cannot re-fix the case.”
This might partly explain the Defense Secretary’s anxiety over Gunaratnam’s reappearance after over 20 years. The government’s opponents and other politically engaged persons however remain anxious for more obvious reasons.