Rajapaksa sought advice from McGuinness– Indika Perera

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By 2017-04-10

By Rathindra Kuruwita and
Umesh Moramudali

Indika Perera, attorney at law and the former Director – Programme for Initiative for Political and Conflict Transformation (INPACT) spoke to Ceylon Today about Martin McGuinness, the legendary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader, who passed away a few weeks ago, and his involvement in the Sri Lankan peace process. In the first months of Mahinda Rajapaksa's tenure as President of Sri Lanka, Perera who played a key role in introducing the two men (McGuinness and Rajapaksa) spoke of attempts made by McGuinness to share the lessons learnt, from their successful peace deal with the British Government in 1998, and how ultimately circumstances prevented Sri Lankan peace talks from coming to fruition.

?: How did you meet Martin McGuinness, the legendary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader and the MP for Mid Ulster and what role did you play in involving him in the Sri Lankan peace process, during the beginning of Mahinda Rajapaksa's tenure as President?

A: In the early 2000s I went to England to study for my Masters and I chose to write on the Irish peace process for my Master's thesis. The Irish peace process had fascinated me for a long time, as unlike many other peace agreements this was definitely a success. Anyone who knows the history of Ireland knows that there is deep enmity between the Irish and the British and the Irish have many historical grievances. I don't think that many people ever expected the Good Friday Agreement to be signed and fewer people expected it to last. When I went to the UK it was about five years after the signing of the Agreement and I realized that the conflict in Ireland had a number of similarities to the one in Sri Lanka.

So I visited Northern Ireland to collect data for my research and I visited a number of IRA and Unionist political offices. During my field work, I got acquainted with Martin McGuinness, the former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader and the MP for Mid Ulster. He knew about the conflict in Sri Lanka and was interested in my work. That is how I got acquainted with McGuinness.

It was during this time that I was involved in arranging an informal study tour for Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then, the Prime Minister in the Chandrika Bandaranaike administration. Rajapaksa and McGuinness immediately struck up a friendship. I thought this was interesting because Rajapaksa comes from a background which has made him distrustful of white people. This was how the two got to know each other.

After I returned to Sri Lanka, I became more involved with the Initiative for Political and Conflict Transformation (INPACT) Our view was that grassroots work alone is not sufficient to produce lasting change in conflict situations because 'conflict transformation is ultimately political'. We also 'organized and facilitated behind the scenes informal dialogue workshops so that the opposing parties who are publicly enemies can privately meet and engage in dialogue on issues of mutual interest.'

This was a very interesting period in recent Sri Lankan history. By this time the initial optimism regarding the Ceasefire Agreement between the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government and the LTTE had given way to disillusionment. In the South it was felt that the LTTE was preparing for war and when Presidential elections were announced, Mahinda Rajapaksa used this resentment against the LTTE to win the 2005 Presidential Election.

Although he came to power promising strong action against the LTTE, Rajapaksa was, in reality, quite hesitant to start a war. The military was weak and neither Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Sarath Fonseka had secured the kind of iron grip they had around the military. The LTTE was also aware of this and had become over confident. So, Rajapaksa initially attempted to continue the peace process and as someone involved in the process at that time, I can assure that Rajapaksa did not go into these negotiations with an ulterior motive. He really wanted to give peace a chance and wanted someone with international standing to intervene and advise the government. Because of the trust he had developed on McGuinness, Mahinda Rajapaksa thought that McGuinness would be ideal for this job and when we spoke to McGuinness he was very willing to help us.

?: McGuinness arrived in Sri Lanka in 2006 to meet a number of stakeholders. What advice did he give to the Sri Lankan Government and what was his assessment of Mahinda Rajapaksa's sincerity in negotiating?

A: Yes, he arrived in Sri Lanka in January 2006 with Aiden McAteer; a few months after Rajapaksa had won the election, and held discussions with a number of political parties. He was convinced, like many of us at that time, that a military victory was impossible for either party and that a political settlement would be the only way. When we used to drive around the country, especially Colombo, he said that the sight of numerous soldiers and check points reminded him of Belfast during the IRA arms struggle. He was also convinced that the government was open for a peace negotiation.

You have to realize that Mahinda Rajapaksa had no infrastructure to conduct the peace negotiations. On one hand there was no team in place; on the other the international perception of Sri Lanka was very bleak. President Chandrika Bandaranaike who came before Rajapaksa tried many times to meet the British Prime Minister and the Commonwealth Officials who continuously refused to meet. At this point McGuinness assisted the Sri Lankan Government to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And he also helped select and brief the Sri Lankan negotiators. McGuinness also helped the government to overcome difficulties which arose during the negotiations.

McGuinness arrived once again in mid-2006 to meet the LTTE leadership in the North, which was under rebel control at that time.

He asked the LTTE leadership to re-engage in the stalled negotiations and pointed out the need to build a credible peace process as an alternative to the escalating conflict. However, a few months later the LTTE commenced an operation in Mavilaru and that was an offensive and a violation of the Ceasefire Agreement that the Rajapaksa administration found hard to ignore but even at that point I believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would not have commenced military operations if not for the fact that Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) led a large number of its supporters to the affected area. And that was that.

?: Considering that there was a 'connection' between McGuinness and Rajapaksa, was the Irishman consulted after the war was over?

A: No. By that time Mahinda Rajapaksa was convinced that there was nothing to talk about. He had won the war, a feat no one thought was possible and he was a God to a lot of people in Sri Lanka and he was no longer interested in negotiations or discussions. But whenever I met McGuinness he would ask me about Mahinda Rajapaksa and on the rare occasion that I would bump into Mahinda Rajapaksa he would ask about McGuinness. I think it was unfortunate that ultimately nothing concrete or fruitful came out of the friendship between McGuinness and Rajapaksa. I think subsequent events took their own course.

The LTTE was overconfident of its abilities and thought that the Sri Lankan Army could never defeat it on the battlefield. And throughout the negotiation period they attempted to get an advantage by creating chaos on the ground, I think they thought they were taking a calculated risk. But the problem is that things can go really wrong when you play brinksmanship diplomacy. On the other hand after the end of the war the Rajapaksa administration did not act as a collective of civilized individuals. It could have easily recognized the suffering of the war affected Tamil people and attempted to come up with a political and economic solution that would have achieved true reconciliation. Instead they just started building roads and big government buildings and wasted a lot of money on tamashas.

?: What can civil society learn from your experience?

A: As I said earlier we attempted to work with the political leadership of the country. While grassroots work is essential and vital in transforming societies, working with top political leadership can, at most times, guarantee rapid change. For example it might take years or even decades to create adequate bottom up pressure for a government to bring in legislation, but if you work with political party leaders you can convince them the importance of such legislation, you can make them pass the legislation in a matter of months.

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