Stephen Long’s “Revenge Politics”: Endorsements

Michael Roberts

Stephen Long is clearly an adventurous American who has travelled widely and ventured into the paths of Buddhist meditation as a central facet within this journey – so much so that he adopted a brahmacharya philosophy of life leading to his ordination in Los Angeles.[1] He does not seem to be a mere dabbler in the Buddhist dispensation: he has published a book entitled Karmic Ties: A Novel of Modern Asia (1999).  He also got to know Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In my conjecture this could have been in Los Angeles;[2] but he also refers to a meeting with Gotabaya when the latter was effectively overseeing Defence (with his brother President Mahinda as formal Minister).

His recent article “Sri Lanka: A Tragic Lesson in Revenge Politics” betrays a distinct bias: it overblows the weight of Gotabaya’s hand in Sri Lanka’s victory in Eelam War IV just a tad.[3] However, when Long asserts that Gotabaya Rajapaksa “literally had the country ‘wired’ for real-time information-collecting and feedback to authorities,” he pinpoints a vital pillar in the war campaign. As we know from a wide variety of sources and as Long claims, this security pillar was systematically dismantled by the Yahapālana government, thereby opening the door for the Zahran Hashim network to implement its carnage on Easter Sunday despite intel-reports from abroad with concrete data on their intent (see below).

No review of Long’s position can disclaim his main charge: namely, that the Yahapālana government was devoted to a campaign of revenge directed at the Rajapaksas. The local politicians were not alone of course. Lasantha Wickremasinghe’s wife and daughter as well as a wide network of journalists who were attached to Lasantha, together with other reporters hounded out by the pressures heaped on them by the intel-personnel under the Rajapaksas, have shown inclinations to seek redress and/or revenge. We may regard this as “natural.” But it is still a form of vengeance – a brand of just retribution perhaps, but actions that fall within the rubric “revenge.”

Nor does one need the mantle of a Solomon to conclude that those Sri Lanka Tamils all over the world who were attached to Prabhakaran and the cause of Thamilīlam desired “retribution” – that is, revenge/vengeance while wearing the hat of “just punishment” shaped by themselves. We know that the Global Tamil Forum is one source of this activity. Long deploys his American grounding to present us with useful data on this count: especially via his reference to the GTF Branch in USA hiring “a former US Attorney, Bruce Fein (for a reputed $100,000 per month), …. to be their front man in this enterprise. When he indicates that former Tamil employees in the US embassy in Colombo served as key agents in the processes that led the Secretary of State’s Department to undermine the Rajapaksa government, Long has, once again, revealed useful information in conjunction with analytical acumen.

When Long adds that the “Sri Lankan Government had virtually no defences in the court of world opinion” in this encounter, he is also on the ball. This, in my extension, is a criticism of the Rajapaksa government for its choice of ambassadors[4] and for letting loose its own brand of disastrously devious operators (for e. g. Sajjin Vass Gunawardena) as agents in foreign lands.

Long also refers to “a special police task force for intelligence called the Financial Crimes Investigation Department” set up by the Wickremasinghe government in order to hound the Rajapaksas and asserts that their investigators were even sent to USA “to interrogate US dual citizens – including a former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington DC, and a former Sri Lankan Consul General in Los Angeles.  This is important detail: juicy titbits calling for more elaboration, that is, names and dates.

Stephen Long’s main criticism is that the Wickremasinghe-Sirisena government was so obsessed with clamping down on the Rajapaksa political threat that they took their eye off the issues of state security. They not only paid no heed to the burgeoning currents of Wahhabism in some Muslim quarters, but also dismantled the security apparatus in force under Gotabaya and did not attend to two critical principles: namely,  (1) a clear chain of command in the intelligence machinery; and (2) selecting personnel versed in the complex arts of espionage and counter-espionage.

Here, let me reproduce Long’s searing criticism: “The choice of yes-men for key posts in the security apparatus has been disastrous. Sirisena, Wickremasinghe and several government MPs seem to have paid no heed to the clear intelligence warnings from Indian and Turkish sources which highlighted a jihadist threat and even pinpointed Easter Sunday as the target date. This reaction was as dumb as one could get.”

But let me move beyond Long’s article and pinpoint one reason for this colossal failure.  It is only too apparent that Maithripala Sirisena is a mediocrity and too pea-brained for his chair. Long does not seem to be aware that this outstation MP from Polonnaruwa District was pinpointed by the US embassy as a potential populist prospect in 2013  and given a Harvard Fellowship as part of prospective plan to turn him against his own party leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa.[5] The conspiracy came to fruition in late 2014 with Chandrika Kumaratunga as a key broker – the kapuwa as we call this mediation in Sinhala. The turncoat Sirisena became the Presidential candidate in alliance with the right-wing UNP favoured by USA and the West. They won the Presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.

As we know, the turncoat Sirisena turned again in October 2018 and sought to link-up with the Rajapaksa combination in a re-worked governing combination.[6] This did not work out. Relations between the President and the PM Wickremasinghe have since been strained to the point of mutual non-communication – or so it seems. This situation may have contributed to the security lapses.

Thus, one of the principal reasons for the security lapses in March/April lies in the deficient intellectual capacity in security matters displayed by both men – Sirisena and Wickremasinghe. There is, however, another factor that was of major pertinence in generating this failure of security: namely, the parliamentary support base of the UNP-Sirisena cliques in power.

The latter point is of some consequence and is not addressed by Stephen Long. In a parliament of 221 MPs, the Muslim MPs number 22; while there are four Muslim Ministers in a field of 32.[7] Though representing a wide variety of districts and with a strong cluster from the Eastern Province, they are mostly firm supporters of the UNP.  I speculate that this political dependence on the Muslim MPs was an influential factor in the Yahapālana duumvirate’s inattention to the warnings and in letting their guard down on security matters during the whole of their tenure.

However, we should also raise questions about the degree of acumen on this front revealed by the Muslim MPs: were all of them like the proverbial blind monkeys? Long indicates that in 2017 the Ambassador for Turkey provided “a list of fifty known terrorists from the Gulenist Terror Group (FETO) who had been trained in Turkey and were sent to Sri Lanka to plan terrorist events;” while Ameer Ali says that it appears that 8 dockets of information from Kattankudy was passed on in 2017 [by some Muslims ] to the IGP, Defence Secretary and the Attorney General;[8] and Shamindra Ferdinando has indicated[9] that one MP named Azath Salley had conveyed information on these dangers to President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, the Sec. of Defence (Hemasiri Fernando) and Col. Kodituwakku, the Director of Military Intelligence. But few precautions or in-depth investigations seem to have been pursued.

This information indicates that the Yahapalana government had placed incompetent personnel in these vital security positions, thereby compounding their own insouciance. Stephen Long has hit the nail on the head when he asserts that the intelligence officers were “asleep on the switch.” He is also on target when he bangs the drum “revenge politics” as one reason for this severe failure.

The contrast with Gotabaya Rajapaksa is stark. Facing a formidable enemy in the LTTE, an insurgency that had become de facto state with allies in the West, Long claims that he engineered an outstanding military intelligence network: in this  interpretation Gotabaya “literally had the country ‘wired’ for real-time information-collecting and feedback to authorities.” This evaluation seems to have been derived in part from a convivial meeting with Gotabaya at some point during Eelam War IV (based presumably on precious associations in Los Angeles): I experienced first-hand the intensity of Gotabhaya’s unrelenting commitment to protecting his country from the terrorists.”

This is an ethnographic finding of great importance because it is the type of data which a political scientist or anthropologist derives from face-to-face encounters. It is probable that Gotabaya Rajapaksa also had a say in the planning of the GSL military strategy; but one requires inside information on this issue from the commanders at the top.

One of his momentous contributions, moreover, was in persuading his brother the President to cough up enough money to expand the four arms of the defence system: army, navy, air force and police (plus home guards). This expansion was then animated and rendered effective by hiring the advertisement agency Triad Advertising to devise an imaginative and effective video campaign labelled Api Wenuwen Api — a project I have highlighted some years back because I was quite amazed by its pitch when I happened to catch it on TV during a visit to Sri Lanka in the war years.[10]

Victories in protracted war are rarely secured by one leader however and the various leadership contributions towards Sri Lanka’s triumph in Eelam War IV will have to await a book-length study by someone who gains access to all the key commanders and Presidential advisers.[11]

What can be said here in conclusion is the pertinence of the title chosen by Stephen Long for his Asian Tribune essay: viz., “Revenge Politics.” Let it be noted that the play of vengeance in the political field has not been limited to the present administration.  I speculate that revenge politics has been a powerful ingredient at all levels of politics from the year 1948 onwards (and I do not imply that Sri Lanka is different from other societies in this regard).

Indeed, one can go further by taking careful note of the ethnographic findings of Gananath Obeyesekere in an essay entitled “Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and the Canalization of Aggression in Sri Lanka”  — a work (in 1975) that would also have been guided by his intensive field work in the interior south-west of the island in Hinidum Pattu which generated Land Tenure in Village Ceylon (1967). Here, Obeyesekere addressed a puzzle arising from mid-20th century criminal statistics which indicated that only 20 per cent of homicides in Sri Lanka were premeditated and thus unusually low on comparative scales for the world. He conjectured that this figure arose from the recourse to indirect methods of murder via resort to huniyan specialists,[12] vas-kavi specialists[13] and pleadings before specific sorcery shrines.

While the specialist routes were difficult to penetrate, Obeyesekere used research assistants to collect data from 803 clients who visited three of the more popular shrines over three months at each spot This material indicated the playing out of vengeance and the encouragement afforded to such practices by the availability of safe methods of “murder” or retributory punishment.

What we witness then is the pursuit of revenge via indirect channels (rooted in what rationalists would see as superstitious thought). Perhaps the best illustration of this course of vengeance comes from a photograph deployed by Bruce Kapferer in his book Legends of People, Myths of State (1989): the visage of a mother witnessing such a course of revenge by her daughter directed at the deserting husband who had left her destitute. The egg in this photograph represents the husband and the kapurāla is about to write his name on it. The egg – “powerfully symbolic of cosmic origin” in Kapferer’s reading – will be smashed, thereby extinguishing the husband in fragmentation. Indeed, the spell fashioned by the mediating kapurāla seeks a wide range of punishments on the husband — from death to smallpox, leprosy and eczema.[14] Thus, here, we see revenge inscribed deep.

IMG-20190524-WA0009

Revenge can also spread wide when linked to racist and chauvinist politics. Motives of “just retaliation,” as we know, instigated the rumours and actions that were central to the pogroms of 1958, 1977 and 1983 directed against the Tamils – though political manipulations also played a major role in the work of killing and burning. Women were among those who spread deadly (and often false or exaggerated) rumours that sparked furious assaults and killings by aggressive males. In certain circumstances word of mouth has an evocative circulatory capacity and animating impact that is powerful.[15] Modern methods of social media may widen and deepen this force; but even without such aids,  several pogroms in the past were fuelled by deadly tales igniting pre-existing divisions and heightened moments of political tension.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chandradasa, Malaka n.d. “Learning from our enemies: Sri Lankan naval special warfare against sea Tigers,” https://globalecco.org/learning-from-our-enemies-sri-lankan-naval-special-warfare-against-the-sea-tigers.

Chandraprema, C. A. 2012 Gota’s War, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism, Colombo.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009a “Maritime Counter-Terrorism and the Sri Lanka Navy,” Asia-Pacific Db harathaefence Reporter, November 2009, 35: 32-33.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “Good Education: Sri Lankan Infantry learns Insurgency Lessons,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2009, pp. 3-7.

De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009 “Lessons in Maritime Counter-Insurgency,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, January 2010, 36: 50-53.

IDAG 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,”http://www.margasrilanka.org/ ORhttp://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice.

Jane’s Naval Intelligence 2009 “Sri Lanka learns to counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” March 2009, pp. 20-26.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1975 “Sorcery, premeditated murder and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology, 14: 1-23 (also available as SSC Pamphlet No. 11 (1993).

Peiris, Gerald H 2019 Peiris Confronts Samarasinghe and Other Pundits,” 19 November 2019,  https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/11/19/peiris-confronts-samarasinghe-and-other-pundits/

Philips, Rajan 2018 Continuing uncertainty, conflicting claims and counter-claims,” lsland, 3 November 2018.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “Mentalities, ideologues, assailants, historians and the pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-81… reprinted as “Marakkala kolahalaya…, in Roberts, Confrontations,

Roberts, Michael 1994c “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317-25. …. Reprinted in Nethra, 2003 vol. 6: 199-213.

Roberts, Michael 2017 “Anguish as Empowerment … and A Path to Retribution,” 22 March 2017, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/?p=24595&preview=true

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” South Asia, Special Issue, XIX: 205-20.

Rogers, John R. 1987 “Social mobility, popular ideology, and collective violence in modern Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies, 46: 583-602.

Tambiah, S. J. 1996 Leveling Crowds, New Delhi.

Welikala, Asanga 2018 “The Maithrie-Mahinda Coup Stymied?” 16 November 2018, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/11/16/the-maithri-mahinda-coup-stymied/

END NOTES

[1] Visit http://drstephenlong.com/bio/ and http://www.asiantribune.com/node/86922 and http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=6,9619,0,0,1,0#.XOIQ-_ZFyVM. Long is also Chairman of the Board of Captive Daughters, an all-volunteer California non-profit, which is dedicated to ending sex trafficking in the world. (www.captivedaughters.org)

[2] When Gotabaya retired from the SL Army and moved to USA, Los Angeles was where he settled down and it is reasonable to conjecture that Long met him there at one of the Buddhist centres.

[3] No victory in a prolonged war can be attributed to one hand.

[4] In posting one of their relatives, one Jaliya Wickremasinghe, as Ambassador in Washington from 2008 The Rajapaksa administration made a disastrous choice; while their inspired choice of Tamara Kunanayakam for Geneva was undermined by her displacement by a weak Foreign Service replacement working in the shadow of the wheeler-dealer Sajjin Vass.

[5] See Daya Gamage 2019.

[6] Positions on the legality of the Presidential moves have generated as sharp a divide as the combat in parliament, court and media waves for e. g. see Welkala2018; Rajan Philips 2018 and Gerald Peris 2019).

[7] Information sent by Neelan Tiruchelvam in an email ‘contest’ with two other informants, viz Anishka Arseculeratne and Mohamed Mowzil – to all of whom I am grateful for their prompt responses.

[8] Email to Roberts, dated 23 May 2019.

[9] Email to Roberts, 23 May 2019.

[10] See Roberts “Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of Api Wenuwen Api,” 1 September 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/winning-the-war-evaluating-the-impact-of-api-wenuwen-ap/. The title could be read as “Us for Us.”

[11] Such a survey will have to pay heed to the role of the SL Air Force and the SL Navy. Thus, such works as those by Chandradasa n. d; IDAG 2013; De-Silva Ranasinghe 2017a and 2017b as well as Gota’s War by C A Chandraprema (2012)

[12] Huniyan (also spelt huniyam) is a form of contagious magic generally performed by ritual specialists known as kattadirala (Obeyesekere 1993: 2-3).

[13] “Ironically many vas-kavi specialists are Buddhist monks” says Obeyesekere (1993: 2).

[14] Kapferer 1988: 31-32.

[15] On this topic, see Chakravarti & Haksar 1987; Tambiah 1996; Roberts 1996; Roberts 2003 and Roberts 2017.

****  ****

An EMAIL MEMO from Gus Mathews in England, 25 May 2019

Michael,

Thank you for this fascinating analysis from Stephen Long and your subsequent dissertation of his views. I have no doubt of Gotabhaya’s organisational capabilities. He was also an able strategist. While Sarath Fonseka and the other service chiefs were responsible for the operational aspects of the war, GR was the individual who brought all these service chiefs together despite their personality clashes he managed them well and was singularly instrumental in coordinating the armed forces in the war in vanquishing the LTTE.
 
I fully agree with Stephen Long’s assessment that the Rajapaksa Administration did not understand the aspects of Public Relations and were woefully inadequate in dealing with the plethora of anti-Rajapaksa PR stunts ably assisted by the USA, India and the Diaspora Tamils that bore fruit to RW and CBK in ousting the Rajapaksa government. 
 
The Sri Lankan voting public fell for it hook, line and sinker and going by the political crisis that followed in October 2018 and the subsequent lapse in security are now regretting their action of voting against the Rajapaksas. I only hope MR and GR have learned their lesson well. My politics lecturer once said and I quote ‘modern day politics is based on deception and perception’ end of quote, and how right he was with regard to the ‘Yahapalanaya’ GoSL hijacking and winning the subsequent election that was based on a interminable set of lies.  Managing the PR after the war with the West, India, UN agencies and the NGOs baying for Sri Lanka’s blood was a bridge to far in PR terms for the Rajapaksa administration to handle.
 
Management of ‘Public Relations’ in any administration is a very critical aspect of government. When Tony Blair took power in the UK in 1997 he brought in Alistair Campbell a PR guru who was responsible for setting up the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’ that took on the well established anti-Labour Party right wing British Press. Unfortunately the Rajapaksa administration did not have the same nous or the experience to mitigate the relentless anti-Rajapaksa PR from the West, India, NGOs, the United Nations and of course the ever present LTTE supporting Diaspora who milked it to the utmost.

 

On Fri, 24 May 2019 at 16:11, Michael Roberts <mrober137@gmail.com> wrote:

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Stephen Long’s “Revenge Politics”: Endorsements

  1. Pingback: Gota’s Role in Eelam War Victory: Peiris challenges Roberts | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Pingback: Fine-grained Understandings of Warfare: Comprehending the SIOT Concept | Thuppahi's Blog

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