Wickremesingheâ€™s Hockey Sticks Brigade
TOPICAL INTEREST: Having dealt during the last few weeks with what
might be termed conceptual issues, I thought I should turn this week to
something of topical interest, namely the splendid suggestion by the
leader of Her majestyâ€™s loyal opposition (as the British migth put it)
that General Janaka Perera be appointed Secretary of the Ministry of
This is part and parcel of the widespread campaign that has now taken
center stage on various opposition platforms, to designate the current
Secretary to the Ministry as the most prominent enemy of the people.
It seems then that Col Rajapaksa has in this respect now overtaken
Basil Rajapaksa, who was top of the pops
for several weeks running, for
having entered into a secret agreement with the LTTE. This suggests that
the silly season is now over, and once again the LTTE has decided it
must deploy all its guns on more serious issues.
Unfortunately, for the LTTE, its biggest gun has once again gone off
at a tangent. The general idea was to present Col Rajapaksa as a
monster, who abducted people was generally far too tough.
Ranil Wickremesinghe however, decided to go on the opposite tack, and
criticise Col Rajapaksa for not being tough enough, which is why he
should be replaced by General Perera, who did abduct people in the
General Perera could however say in mitigation that he was only
following orders then, in those dark dying days of the Jayewardene
government, when Wijedasa Liyanaarachchi was killed and students in
Ratnapura had nails driven through their heads. Of course there were
officers then such as Devinda Kalupahana and Vipul Boteju who treated
the monstrous politicians of those days with the contempt they deserved,
and who had their military careers ruined as a result.
But General Perera certainly redeemed himself in the nineties, when
the Sri Lankan Army was able to abandon the bullying tactics that had
been enjoined upon it by the Jayewardene government.
Wickremesingheâ€™s pronouncement however, as the last surviving member
in the opposition of that government, suggests that he still hankers
after the escapades of his youth.
He used then to be a prominent member of what was known as the hockey
sticks brigade, after the cry popularized by the British schoolboy
comics of the sixties, â€˜Up sticks, and at themâ€™, which signaled a full
assault on opponents.
I first realised the depth of Wickremesingheâ€™s involvement in such
thuggery when I was staying with Henry Gunasekara, a wonderful old
school member of the UNP, unlike his radical brother DEW. This was I
think early in 1980, when I was still very positive about President
Jayewardeneâ€™s reforms. Gunasekara however was deeply critical of the
corruption he claimed had overtaken his old party.
He said categorically that there were only two ministers who were
â€˜You mean Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ranjith Atapattu?â€™ I said rather
proudly, convinced as I still am that
neither of them would make money for themselves.
â€˜No,â€™ he said thoughtfully. â€˜Ranjith, yes. The other is Gamini
Jayasuriya. Ranil may not make money, but he uses thugs. That is not
That was my first sad lesson in what that particular wing of the UNP
would have termed realpolitik. I remember once, in the Wickremesinghe
house, confronting Paul Perera and asking why they used violence, and
being told witheringly that I did not know the violence that had been
unleashed against the UNP during Mrs. Bandaranaikeâ€™s 1970-1977
But violence is an appetite that feeds on itself, and sure, enough
Paul Perera turned his thugs a few years later, after the 1981 and 1983
pogroms against Tamils, against his daughter and her husband, of whom he
That, interestingly, was why he was not appointed Minister of
National Security, a newly created post for which he had been tipped, so
that Lalith Athulathmudali got the position instead.
Incidentally - for people have now forgotten the absolute horrors of
those years - the Deputy Minister of Defence (Home Guards) at the time
was Anura Bastian, who achieved greater prominence by denying, though no
names were mentioned when the incident was reported, that he was the MP
who had threatened a leading Civil Rights activist with a pistol at a
polling station during the referendum.
Wickremesinghe in those days was the patron of Gonawala Sunil and of
Kalu Lucky, who organised the intimidation of Supreme Court judges who
had found against the government on a fundamental rights issue.
Government papers highlighted Kalu Luckyâ€™s claim, despite having
brought his hordes in CTB buses to the homes of the judges, to have been
simply a private citizen exercising his right to demonstrate - until the
â€˜Islandâ€™ publicized the fact that Wickremesinghe had been the signatory
at his wedding.
But by the nineties it seemed that Wickremesinghe had reformed. The
cruder creatures were dead, and more respectable bodyguards, like
Caligulaâ€™s horse which was made a consul, could move into his office or
be sent to the United Nations as first a driver and then a Public
Even more creditably, Suranimala Rajapakse, initially renowned for
breaking up strikes in the Biyagama Free Trade Zone, became a member of
parliament and Minister for Schools Education.
Meanwhile, there was a totally different approach to Defence. Far
from thinking like Janaka Perera, Ranil appointed Austin Fernando, a
charming civil servant who was totally at sea, except when the Tigers
were bringing in weapons in boats that he was too nice to have searched.
As Minister, instead of appointing Gamini Athukorale, who had
anticipated the position, Wickremesinghe appointed Tilak Marapana. His
antics there, and in Highways, which was also bestowed on him after
Athukoraleâ€™s sad death, led to even newspapers solidly behind the UNP
government highlighting the corrupt deals in both ministries.
But all that is forgotten now. Forgotten too is the bifurcation of
Defence, so that the police were handed over to another Ministry,
entrusted to that other pillar of moderation and rectitude, John
But, in fairness to the man, he was probably not privy to almost the
first initiative of his Ministry, the raid by Superintendent Udugampola
- brother of one of the police officers found guilty by the Supreme
Court of fundamental rights violations in the early eighties - on the
Athurugiriya Safe House.
That action, crowed over by Sivanayagam, the editor of the Tiger
journal Hot Spring, led to the decimation of army intelligence. Sadly, I
suspect it was the plans for that operation, which entailed publicizing
secrets, were the reason for the bifurcation of defence functions, since
it then seemed plausible to claim that the left hand did not know what
the right hand had done.
General Perera meanwhile languished in Australia, though all reports
indicated that he was doing a marvelous job, which he repeated in
Indonesia. There was no move to bring him back to Defence, dying in the
gentle hands of Marapana and Fernando. And meanwhile it was planned to
appoint Gen Lohan Gunawardena as Army Commander, and to bypass the
President in making army appointments.
To give President Kumaratunga her due, it was the gazetting of
regulations in this respect, which she had refused to sign herself,
which prompted her to reassume total control of Defence, and throw
Marapana and Fernando out on their ears, on which as far as I know they
Now General Gunawardena is I believe a totally honourable man, and
there have never been suggestions of connivance with the LTTE, or of
drinking in their bunkers when Kilinochchi was over-run, which have
arisen with some of the other retired officers who advised the UNP.
For one of the most awful aspects of those two nightmare years, which
saw such an accession of strength to the Tigers and such decimation
amongst Tamils who opposed them, was the erosion of confidence within
It is the resurrection of confidence there now, the feeling that in
general the right people are being chosen for the right jobs, the belief
that weapons are being procured with defence considerations paramount,
rather than commissions, that gives the lie to the allegations that Col
Rajapakse is not doing his job properly.
So one can well understand the concerted campaign to denigrate him as
heavy handed. This is conducted in the belief that, if you fling enough
mud, it will stick, and sadly that is true in the drawing rooms of
Colombo and amongst diplomats who are more concerned about the comments
of their peers here than the policies their governments pursue.
So, some weeks back, we had the categorical allegation that the
Secretaryâ€™s security had been high-handed in the center of town, with
Wickremesinghe and Amaratunga trying to make capital of it, only to find
the newspaper issuing a correction the next day.
I suspect something similar will happen with regard to the present
assertion that he threatened a newspaper editor, whose worries about the
Karuna faction would do credit to Prabhakaran himself. More sadly,
allegations about them and about our own forces, though welcome if
substantiated, are too often highlighted without proper evidence.
But that is not surprising in Sri Lanka, where it will be remembered
the allegations against the security forces with regard to the killing
of aid workers in Mutur were based on contradictory accounts of the
timings. What is sad is that even Chilcott seems to have succumbed to
the Sri Lankan disease so soon after getting here, and forgotten the
principal lesson Oxford should have taught him, which was to check his
But, sadly, the naâ€¹ve and the wicked will pursue their own
destructive agenda, forgetting that they should be concentrating on the
problems of the Tamils, and ensuring a decent political solution,
instead of concerning themselves with the problems of the Tigers,
concern that contradicts the stated goal of eliminating terrorism.
Fortunately, India and to some extent the United States understand
the distinction, that there is an ethnic problem that needs a fair
solution based on universally accepted political principles, and there
is a terrorist problem that requires military responses.
But meanwhile what of the leader of the oppostion? Why the sudden
reversion to General Perera, forgetting the born again moderate of
Marapana / Fernando fame? Why this hankering after retired generals, a
strategy that led in the eighties to empowerment of terrorists, to civil
strife in North and South, to traduction of civil rights that young
Chilcott would do well to study?
Sadly, I donâ€™t suspect, twenty years after, that he would even think
of contacting David Gladstone, the idealistic ambassador of the time of
terror, who provided safe conduct to so many youngsters who would
otherwise have been abducted and killed.
Mr Gladstone, it may be remembered, had his own views about
Wickremesinghe, though doubtless these are not on file. But he would
have understood what was going on, particularly in the light of the
recent claim of Johnston Fernando that amongst UNP members the
government was targeting were himself, Tissa Attanayake, Vajira
Abeywardena, Lakshman Seneviratne, Thalatha Athukorale, Mahinda
Ratnatilleke and Ranga Bandara.
In short - whilst wondering what Seneviratne and Ms Athukorale are
doing in that list - we have been introduced to the new UNP, the team
that will run the country when the stars in their courses finally bring
Wickremesinghe back to power.
It is conceivable that Jayawickrema Perera and Rukman Senanayake have
been left out because it is assumed they would not be there by the time
the stars work their magic, but I rather suspect that, in the eyes of
these young loyalists, they are dispensable, and the plums of office
will rather go to the clones. Certainly it is not likely that there will
be any room for independent talents such as Premadasa and S.B.
Violence and dishonesty are bad enough, but at least when Jayewardene
encouraged these in the eighties he employed much talent too, and did
not rely entirely on mediocrities.
But, while Prabhakaran has his baby brigade, Wickremesinghe has his
troop of adolescents, armed with their hockey sticks. Sadly, I donâ€™t
think he has realized that General Perera at least has grown up and is
not likely to want to get involved in a rerun of the horrendous