On Rajiva Wijesinghe

Rajiva Wijesinghe, the last Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), does not always make sense. However, together with Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleka, Rajiva was the centre and forward in the Rajapakse government’s efforts during the height of war to counter negative international scrutiny and coverage from independent local and international media, the UN as well as other human rights agencies.

SCOPP, at the time of its closure on 31st July, was already an anachronism. Peacebuilding or supporting a peace process was not central to the output or utility of SCOPP at the time of its closure. The SCOPP website itself offers nothing by way of good research into and analysis of options for a home-grown peace process in Sri Lanka. Years ago, before it was formally launched under the UNF government, I was privy to some conversations and material that attempted to define how a peace secretariat would support peacebuilding in Sri Lanka. Models such as the South African National Peace Secretariat (NPS) were inspiring, though problematic to institutionalise in a very different political culture. Unsurprisingly then, far from a beacon of independent and courageous thought-leadership on peacebuilding, SCOPP became a mouthpiece for government, engaged in the glib manufacture of propaganda. Even a cursory reading of Rajiva’s signature meanderings on the SCOPP site reveal a range of combative rebuttals, targeted at both local and foreign individuals to institutions that had at some point of time done or said something against the government and in particular its conduct of war. Arguably, some of these rebuttals were wholly justified on account of bad research or atrocious journalism that in no way helped bear witness to the atrocities of war, or engender peace. Many others however revealed an institution that was self-referential, at times xenophobic and inimical to peacebuilding.

Around two years ago, Rajiva noted on the SCOPP website that I was aiding and abetting the LTTE through my trenchant writing against the government and new media initiatives that supported dissent online, which I took as a compliment at a time when independent traditional media in the South of Sri Lanka faced as much violence and censorship as dissent under the LTTE. So when Rajiva asked the Producer of my television talk show whether I would be willing to talk with him, my response was that I had no absolutely reason not to, for it was he who wanted to speak with a terrorist. Broadcast on television one week ago, our conversation began with the obvious question – why SCOPP was being shut down. My submission was that post-war, SCOPP’s role and relevance would only grow in importance. Rajiva’s response was that peacebuilding was now a process for all government ministries to engage with, thus negating the need for SCOPP. I did not probe further, but found this answer inadequate and unconvincing. In a country were all that is good flows from the largesse of the Executive and when this Executive today is no less than a demigod, line ministries headed by supine apparatchiks simply have no independence or mandate to design peace processes that run counter to the government’s understanding that peace is simply the absence of war.

When I asked Rajiva about the capacity of a liberal state to engage with terrorism, I had in mind the argument that it is only by adopting and using terror itself that a war against terrorism by a State stands any chance of success. The argument put another way is that the democratic traditions of due process, the rule of law and human rights are used by terrorists, operating outside the bounds of these civilised frameworks, to hold a State bound to uphold them hostage to terror. Rajiva’s answer was to both acknowledge shortcomings in Sri Lanka’s human rights record and to delink this from the war against terror. “On the whole the war against terror was conducted with a high degree of professionalism by armed forces by and large” he said and went on to say that “… rather unfortunately, the one worry that we have had to face is an opposition that is dysfunctional. That hasn’t actually joined with the government in addressing terrorism, which I think it should, but continued to be critical in other aspects which I think any government should be. And instead this particular opposition seems to me to have done the opposite – which has tried to jump on a terrorist band wagon unfortunately, while actually not dealing in a principled way with other matters.”

Rajiva was skeptical about federalism as well, noting that while on the one hand the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka has always been in favour of devolution, “what has happened with the word federalism is it is used by people to say, here is an entity that has the right of cessation”. When I asked him about the 13th Amendment as a constitutional mechanism to address underlying socio-political grievances of the Tamil community in particular, his response was that “I think it’s perfectly viable if you treat it as something that needs to adapt to circumstances… In fact we have always said that the problem with the 13th Amendment is that no one has been bothered to work with it.”

I asked Rajiva about Dayan Jayatilleke’s surprising and curt dismissal. His answer is worth quoting at length, also because it is a record of the avowed commitment of this government to the 13th Amendment, a point on which I remain unconvinced.

I think part of the problem about that, as you know perfectly well, is that a few months before there was an allegation that he was being transferred, or rather his contract was being cut short, because of too much animosity to the West. I think part of the problem is that our ambassador to Geneva, one of the ablest people I know and one most highly principled, tends to attract jealousy simply because of his abilities, and a number of people for number of personal reasons might have then argued a theoretical case and perhaps it was felt that controversy was not appropriate… as far as I know the Foreign Ministry and all its personnel are emphatically in favour of devolution and perhaps you want to go further. So the particular decision made I don’t think affects the 13th Amendment. I think one of the problems in the last two weeks was controversy about the 13th amendment…  a matter that’s no longer relevant for the simple reason that the President has made it very clear that in January 2008 he got his whole government party to agree to devolution based on provincial councils.

Soon after my interview, I was reliably informed that SCOPP’s termination was also as unexpected as Dayan Jayatilleke’s firing. These are particularly revealing decisions of an administration that post-war sees no greater talent necessary for the engagement of the international community beyond the pathetic bumbling of other high officials in the Foreign Ministry.

What SCOPP was designed to be, could have been and ultimately became are now matters for academic debate. It is unclear what role Rajiva will now play in a regime that has no further use for his missives in its defence. Off camera, I encouraged Rajiva to blog. I found it hilarious that he found the term rather distasteful, because under his tenure, I could argue that the SCOPP website was essentially his personal blog. Rajiva’s writing enraptured or enraged. His polemics, vivid imagination and leaps in logic weren’t for the fainthearted, but entwined in his madness were glimpses into a well-read mind and a sardonic expression that I found entertaining.

I think there are far worse beasts in government, and they are slouching towards our peace.

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3 thoughts on “On Rajiva Wijesinghe

  1. Rasika says:

    The phrase ‘home grown’ seems to pervade media literature these days. Interesting to note the expectation at the time… that SCOPP would be the entity to demarcate a Sri Lanka specific peace process; a home grown solution to peace building etc… In view that we are still quite unsure of any definite way forward in the context of post conflict peace building (and quite undecided on the scope of our national problems), it might be a good thing for someone to flesh out the contours of ‘home grown’… (in terms of expectations, institutions, process etc…).

    Dont see how Rajiva’s skepticism on federalism is relevant in anyway… federalism not being an option that anyone is exploring at the moment. If the Government is committed to a 13th amendment type ‘devolution’ (which is not federalism), then again we are confronted, not so much with the question of the degree of commitment, but rather with the question of ‘home grown’. Will the full implementation of the 13th provide the solutions for post conflict ‘Sri Lanka’ (or even irrespective of the ‘post conflict’ part)..?? Perhaps the answer lies in whether the 13th is conterminous with home grown…

    The ‘external’ beginnings of the 13th doesn’t necessarily negate the fact that it has the potential to fulfill the aspirations of a home grown solution. But despite all the bantering of the home grown, I for one don’t see where its parameters lie… (maybe I am limited)

  2. ASW says:

    Sanjana, polite request – I strongly urge you to bear in mind that SCOPP was not one man, it was an institution. So if you are referring to any shortcomings, in your view, of an individual you should explicitly make clear that that is the standpoint from which you are commenting.

    SCOPP was involved in numerous peace-building initiatives in the North and East. Remember, SCOPP was never designed to be an IMPLEMENTING agency (like a Ministry), it was meant to be a coordinating body, a faciliatator, something that oils the wheels and catalyses an activity. If SCOPP was to be in the limelight and show off all its involvements, we take away the one incentive ministries had in working with SCOPP as a partner – they get the credit, their minister looks good.

    SCOPP was involved in moving top private blue chips to enter the East and Jaffna on economic initatives that promoted peace building. The same can be said of the programmes on English and IT for peacebuilding – implementation under the Cities of Excellence programme. Similarly the National Framework on Reintegration of Ex-combatants, supported by the ILO.

    So, without any real insight into what initatives and programmes went on, led by SCOPP as a whole, I urge you to rephrase your critique. Your critique here is not of the institution, but of the individual, with whom you seem to have obvious disagreements with. So make that distinction clear.

    Because otherwise, you’re doing a great injustice to the numerous private and public sector organisations, and the people both on ground and at policy level, who had very good interactions and work programmes with SCOPP.

  3. Sanjana Hattotuwa says:

    ASW,

    Polite request – educate yourself. There’s a lot of free online material on peacebuilding and conflict resolution that’s quite good, and it’s never too late to learn, even for sanctimonious humbugs. Then talk to me about peacebuilding and SCOPP.

    Sanjana

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