Sri Lanka’s soon-to-be-ex-Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva took time off from his busy schedule of sipping martinis, getting up the Americans’ noses, and fighting on the Western Front, to have a little chat with us. This is his first interview since the Foreign Ministry announced that he has been recalled from Geneva, effective August 20th.
David Blacker: First off, there seem too be two opinions on your sacking. One, that you were too pushy about the 13th Amendment. Two, that you pissed off the Israelis. Which is it?
Dayan Jayatilleka: It could be either, both or neither. The editorials in The Island and the Daily Mirror on July 20th, indicate that it could have a personal aspect. Let’s unpack the other opinions. If I were ‘pushy’ about the 13th amendment I was only pushing a line that was the official stance of the government of Sri Lanka as contained in two post-war joint statements, of May 21st and 23rd. I was doing so in the English language, trying to convince the international community and the Tamil Diaspora of the sincerity of the Government’s commitment to devolution and a political solution, in a context where there was and is a powerful campaign calling for international intervention of one or other sort on the grounds that the Government will not implement such reforms. I was also waging an ideological struggle against those hard-line fringe elements who were opposed to the 13th amendment and playing into the hands of Sri Lanka’s enemies. I was not instructed to do otherwise.
As for the charge that I should not write to the papers or express my views in the media, I have always done so with the disclaimer that these are strictly my personal views. There are other diplomats who have done the same. The controversial articles in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, by Dimitri Rogozin, Russia’s serving ambassador to NATO in Brussels, and a political appointee, not a professional diplomat. The respected diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore was a star speaker in New York’s seminar circuit where he would preface his remarks by saying ‘these are not the views of the permanent representative of Singapore but simply of Mahbubani’. In our own diplomatic history, there is the example of Ambassador Ernest Corea, the former editor of the Daily News who was posted by President Jayawardene to Washington DC, precisely so he could use his journalistic skills.
The Israeli story is old hat. That issue came and went, and I was sent a letter signed by the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry which said that H.E. the President wished me to stay on in my post until May 31st 2010. Furthermore, after I received instructions, I have stayed off the Israeli issue. Therefore, that is probably just an excuse.
DB: For months, there have been ominous warnings of your head being on the block — particularly over the Israeli issue, but these seemed to come to nothing, and you say you were personally assured of your position by The Man himself. So is this sacking in deed a personal vendetta by the Foreign Minister? The Island suggests he feels upstaged by you. What do you have to say about that?
Dayan Jayatilleka: What I have is a letter dated March 26th, signed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which says that H.E. the President has decided that I should stay on until May 2010. This was after the initial controversy involving Israel. Even if some one had a personal vendetta against me, I am not naive enough to think that this sort of decision, in the wake of an earlier unsuccessful effort to remove me and in the aftermath of the successful Special Session of the Human Rights Council, would have been implemented without some semblance of a green light, however fleeting and flickering, from the top political leadership. So it was probably a confluence of factors.
DB: Many people feel you’d make a better Foreign Minister than Rohitha Bogollagama, and he knows it. Do you agree?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Is that meant to be some kind of a compliment?
DB: Maybe. Were you seen as such a threat to the Foreign Minister?
Dayan Jayatilleka: That’s insane. I am neither a cabinet minister nor even a parliamentarian, nor have I displayed any interest in contesting an election. How could I be a threat to any minister?
DB: Oh, come off it. Lakshman Kadirgama himself came in via the National List, and if they can bring Karuna in as a minister, is it such a stretch to consider Sri Lanka’s pointman in Europe as Foreign Minister?
Dayan Jayatilleka: I have never shown interest in entering parliament, or in becoming a member of one of the two major political parties. In any case, given the evolution of Sri Lanka’s political culture, isn’t this speculation irrelevant?
DB: OK, moving along, the more right wing elements in parliament such as the JVP and the JHU are rabidly against the 13th. Has your vocal defense of this amendment lost you influential friends within the GoSL?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Oh dear, you forgot the NFF — though Nandana Goonetilleke is rather more pragmatic on devolution and the ethnic question than his comrade. They and the elements you mention weren’t my friends to lose. What is a little sad is that I seem to have lost the confidence of the President.
DB: The GoSL has resolutely maintained that it is committed to the 13th Amendment, and indeed it’s probable that a lot of India’s support during the war was conditional to this. However, now that the war is over, the JVP and JHU — and the NFF — seem keen to have the 13th removed from the table. Do you think they could be successful, and is this sacking an instrumental step down that road?
Dayan Jayatilleka: I sincerely hope not. If they are successful in such an endeavour, it would automatically mean that the balance of social, political and ideological forces is such that there would be no improved or even equivalent replacement, and that would mean a renewed cycle of ethnic polarisation and conflict, though not in the form of a war. It would also mean greater political space for the Tamil separatists especially in the Diaspora, and international pressure on and erosion of support for Sri Lanka. As for my sacking, I really do not know how the minorities and the international community will interpret my removal, though I have seen some Indian newspaper reports. They know that I have a track record of staunch opposition to Prabhakaran, the LTTE and Tamil separatism, have been a critic of centrifugal ethno-federalism and Western ‘liberal humanitarian’ interventionism, but have also stood for the implementation of the limited autonomy provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution.
DB: In addition to the right-wing, there has been some celebration in the pro-LTTE circles over your sacking. Isn’t this embarrassing for the President, and would a reinstatement or promotion seem inconceivable at this stage?
Dayan Jayatilleka: I’m not in the least surprised to hear from you that the pro-LTTE circles are celebrating. As for your question, it isn’t my call to answer, but it is clear from the decision that this is not thought to be the case.
“The atrocities committed on the innocent people of Gaza should not be permitted to be obscured, obfuscated by lies, deception, half-truths and selective reordering of facts and chronology.”
DB: These were your words when addressing the UN Human Rights Council Special Session on Gaza. But they could very well have been used by critics of the GoSL’s anti-LTTE war. Given that the Israelis have remained a staunch ally – if not a friend – to SL over the years, don’t you think your speech was ill-timed?
Dayan Jayatilleka: They have indeed been used by critics of GOSL’s anti-LTTE war, but used unsuccessfully! Had they been successful they would have won the vote at the UNHRC, not lost it so badly. They were unsuccessful because the charge is not credible or accurate, which is why those who have strong views on Gaza and are thoroughly familiar with all its details are among our strongest political and diplomatic supporters.
What is unsaid by my critics is that in every one of my speeches, I have underscored the right of the state of Israel to exist behind secure borders and to combat terrorism. I have opposed the rocket attacks on civilian targets in Israel. I have even defended the policy of selective liquidation of terrorist leaders. I was one of the few Third World ambassadors to attend the 60th anniversary celebrations here in Geneva, of the founding of the state of Israel. Furthermore, the only time that I held a position at variance with that of Cuba as Non-Aligned Movement chair here was when I spoke up in support of the abortive effort by the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestinian Territories, Emeritus Professor Richard Falk, to re-define his mandate to include the acts of terrorism committed against Israel!
Was my speech ill-timed? Hardly — it was within traditional pro-Palestinian GoSL — and SLFP, I might add — policy. Furthermore, I had, in the speech, pre-emptively demarcated the contrast between the wars in Sri Lanka and Israel/Gaza; I had already made the case for the battle I knew was to come, because I knew — and advocated — that we would have to go in for a military endgame, and that there would be a international campaign against us.
Israel has been a source of sales of military equipment to us. So too have they to many others, who spoke and voted against Israel in the Gaza special session at the UN HRC.
DB: Sri Lanka has often been compared to Israel of late whenever a hardline stance against terrorism is discussed. You, however, in your speeches, have often gone to great lengths to distance the two conflicts. Why?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Some try to divert attention from Gaza by pointing the finger at Sri Lanka. We must not allow ourselves to be used as a red herring. Sri Lanka has never invaded any other country and occupied the lands of others. We are not in violation of any UN Security Council resolutions. Ours is a strictly internal conflict. Under international law, Israel and Sri Lanka are two very different cases. It is also because I have successfully argued this at the UN HRC that while there is a UN HRC mandated probe headed by Justice Richard Goldstone currently holding public hearings in Gaza, there isn’t one gearing to go to Sri Lanka, which was the aim of the Special session!
DB: Was there really a single moment when world opinion turned against the LTTE? Was it really the aftermath of 9/11 or the killing of Lakshaman Kadirgama? Or was it more a collection of trickles that became a river?
Dayan Jayatilleka: No, there wasn’t a single moment. World opinion didn’t turn against the LTTE to the point that it would have opposed the evacuation option for the Tiger leadership that some seemed to have had in mind following a so-called humanitarian pause, but it had turned to the extent that there was indifference to the fate of the Tigers as distinct from the Tamils, and that those who wanted such an “honorable exit” couldn’t mainstream it. It was really a cumulative affair — one had to remind audiences of the litany of Tiger crimes and the track record of repeatedly sabotaging chances for a negotiated settlement. If you want a turning point, it was the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, which pretty much ensured that a Sonia-led Congress administration would not save the Tigers nor join the West in pressurizing to stop the final offensive. If India had been on the other side of this, we would have been in a fix.
DB: What’s your view of the IDP camps? Do you think they are the necessary evil that the GoSL claims they are?
Dayan Jayatilleka: When an 18-person Task force was set up to manage the IDPs, it was originally pan-Sinhala. There was not a single Tamil to handle the fate of a purely Tamil populace of IDPs! Later, two Tamils were inducted, but not at the very top. There should be someone in charge who can speak to the IDPs in their own language and is sensitive to their predicament as a member of the same community — someone who would be motivated at least because these are his potential constituents. This would fast-track things. The sole Tamil Minister in the Cabinet, Douglas Devananda, should be co-chair of the Task Force set up for the IDPs and the North.
DB: The LTTE’s aggression – the boycotting of elections, the throwing out of the EU members of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission – created a lot of sympathy for the GoSL overseas. This sympathy possibly was justified with the victory against the LTTE. Is the GoSL in danger of squandering this goodwill over the IDP camps issue in a similar way that the Bush administration did by invading Iraq, creating Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Any administration and any society, would do well to be mindful of the lessons of History, which is that one can win a war but lose the peace and that winning the war is different from a successful and sustainable occupation of the ground which requires the winning of hearts and minds. The Six Day War was one of the most stellar military victories of the 20th century, but look at the endless quagmire that has resulted from the policies of occupation. I have long advocated the Chechen solution — an all-out, combined arms war to destroy the terrorist militia, followed by the implementation of some form of autonomy and self-governance for the area and stabilization through the rule of an elected local ally. Our military victory has to be politically conserved and socially stabilised. That’s what my advocacy of the 13th amendment is about. As for the IDP camps, I think I made clear that our Tamil partner, Minister Devananda, Minister of Social Services, should be mandated to co-manage the problem.
DB: While INGOs and certain groups within international bodies such as the UN have been heavily critical of the GoSL, during the war and since, the latter have managed to keep the head of the UN and most heads of state more or less onside. Given this, don’t you think that the GoSL’s siege mentality over certain issues such as the IDPs is an overreaction – and even bordering on paranoia?
Dayan Jayatilleka: The world has given us six months, which is the period of time within which we said we hoped to re-settle the bulk of the IDPs, though that was, as the president said, a target rather than a pledge. We will be evaluated by how much progress we have made towards that target. Conditions are better than made out in the Western media, but I guess the real moral test is whether we would like our grandmothers, mothers or kid cousins to be in these same conditions. Even from a counter-insurgency point of view, having large numbers in camps for a prolonged period is counterproductive.
DB: The loss of Lakshman Kadirgamar was a great blow to the GoSL’s fight against pro-LTTE international opinion. However, do you think that the GoSL would have been able to conduct the war in a similar manner had Kadirgamar been the Foreign Minister?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Kadirgamar would not have interfered in the conduct of the war. What he would have done was to provide, on the international front, a diplomatic and policy leadership parallel to and as good as the defence and military leadership was this time around.
DB: Velupillai Prabakharans’s death remains shrouded in mystery. Do you agree with the GoSL’s version of events – in effect, that he was ambushed by chance and killed, or do you have your own theory?
Dayan Jayatilleka: No theory of my own. The man is dead, that’s for sure and that’s all that counts. I lost just too many friends and acquaintances because of that predator. Kethesh, Neelan, Lakshman Kadir, Pathmanabha, Ossie Abeygoonesekara, Premadasa. I’ve been for too many funerals and know more dead people than live ones because of that man.
DB: While your use of blogging and other online media has made you one of the most accessible members of the Sri Lankan administration – at least to the IT generation – it has been counterbalanced by your often archaic ‘60s revolutionary stance – quoting Lenin and Castro for example in your writings. Deep inside, do you see yourself as a Commie hippy?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Ok, I’m a modernist, not a post-modernist, but Che is never archaic, anymore than Jimi Hendrix is or will be. And hey, check out Slavoj Zizek, the trendiest of philosophers in Europe today. He’s hardly archaic and he uses Marx and Lenin extensively. Commie hippy I don’t know, but I dig Lenin and Leonard Cohen. Lenin, not as Commie ideologue but as political thinker, Mao as philosopher, but I’m heavily into Nietzsche as well, at least after my parents died within 18 months of each other and I found myself a middle-aged orphan. I am more a Social Democrat or on the liberal-progressive wing of the US Democrats than a Commie, but I used to be one and a dedicated revolutionary too. So then, an ex-Commie who is a big fan of Barack Obama and one who predicted his victory and the dawn of an Obama Age, in print, while he was still behind in the primaries. Plenty ex-revo Commies who are pro-Obama, in nationalist, progressive and leftwing Latin American governments today – most of whom voted with Sri Lanka at the UN HRC special session — but unfortunately not a mix or profile you find in Sri Lanka!
DB: It’s rumored that you wear a Che T-shirt around the house, and that your ringtone is La Marseillaise. True?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Nope, I have a Che T-shirt, a gift from Havana, but I hardly get the right occasion to wear it and my phone has a standard nondescript ring tone. If I had a moment to change my ring tone it would be either to blues guitar prodigy Derek Trucks’ So Close, So far Away or Richie Havens’ Hands of Time. Around the house I do have, let’s see, an op-art Che poster (also a gift from Havana), a Sri Lankan woodcut of Christ with a crown of thorns, both books by Barack Obama, a picture of my parents with Indira Gandhi, one of me at age seven with my dad at the second Non-Aligned Movement conference in Cairo, CDs of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Waits and John Maclaughlin, and a small stack of DVDs of Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Lou Reed, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Carlos Santana, all in concert. I also stay up late to watch BBC 2 re-runs of my favorite TV series The Wire — It used to be The Sopranos, Millennium and NYPD Blue, and in the 1980s, Miami Vice.
So what’s next ? Some of your more vocal critics have suggested you be made ambassador to Havana. What do you see in your immediate future?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Our current ambassador to Havana, Ms Tamara Kunanayakam, is a literate, multi-lingual, well educated intellectual and researcher whose views on foreign and domestic policy I share. She is perhaps the most intelligent of our DPLs and is doing an excellent job in Havana.
DB: OK, OK, I get it. So, before I let you go, who do you think is hotter — Arundhati Roy or MIA?
Dayan Jayatilleka: Man that is easily the easiest question I have been asked in quite a while. Arundhati Roy, for sure, though her political writing has declined from a superb initial critique of the Iraq war to an all points of the compass loony left nihilism.