by Our Political Affairs Editor
Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is a renowned political scientist in Sri Lanka who has served as a diplomat in the country and the adviser to the Presidents. He is considered to be a foremost authority on the political situation in Sri Lanka, and has played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s political landscape through his expertise and advice. With a deep understanding of the complex and often deeply polarized political environment in Sri Lanka, Dr. Jayatilleka provides valuable insights into the current state of the country and its future prospects.
The editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian recently sat down with Dr. Jayatilleka for an in-depth interview to gain a clearer picture of the political situation in the country. During the interview, Dr. Jayatilleka provides a detailed analysis of the current political landscape in Sri Lanka, including the major players and the various political forces that are shaping the country’s future. He also discusses the challenges and opportunities facing Sri Lanka as it navigates a difficult and often contentious political environment. With his extensive knowledge and experience, Dr. Jayatilleka provides a nuanced and insightful perspective on the complex and deeply polarized political situation in the country.
Excerpts of the interview;
Sri Lanka Guardian (SLG): Dr Dayan; Thank you for joining us after a long time. What fascinates us is that you never stop writing. You continued to write under any circumstances. Tell us, why should one write?
Dr Dayan Jayatilleka (DJ): I write to illuminate and to intervene; to shed light on a subject or a situation and to change it for the better or to prevent it from getting worse. If one has knowledge about a subject it should be shared. This is especially so if the subject is in the public interest but even if not there could be even a small group interested in it which could benefit. Writing is a form of education. I am a political scientist so I write about politics as an act of education as well as intervention.
In my case there is another, more personal reason for writing. The very first memory I have is of my father sitting at a typewriter, typing. I was in my playpen! My father’s last column appeared on the same day as his obituary. In that sense he is something of a role model for me.
SLG: But, we can see that there are many TV shows, and newspaper columns with too much politics but lack science. What is your take as an influential political scientist?
DJ: Well, I did my best to apply political science and scientific political analysis in the public discourse when I had a regular TV show in Sinhala and in English on a well-known TV station, but it was interrupted during my term in Moscow as ambassador and I was not given back the show on my return from Moscow in January 2020. As for the Sinhala language newspapers I used to be interviewed by them frequently, but that too has dropped off. I am happy to have my regular column, every Thursday, in the prestigious Daily FT.
SLG: Journalism is your home subject. Give us a gist of the reasons behind the decline in quality, credibility and authenticity of journalism in Sri Lanka.
DJ: Well, journalism is my home subject in that I was born into and raised by a journalist father, Mervyn de Silva, in whose name the pinnacle award of the annual journalism awards is named: the Mervyn de Silva Award for Excellence in Journalism. That award was not instituted by me or my father’s family but by the profession itself—the Editors’ Guild ( of which he was founder-Editor) and the Publishers’ Society. However, my mother was a teacher. So I suppose I tend to combine the two: while I am by no means a professional journalist unlike my father who rose to the top of his profession, I am a political analyst, critic, commentator and columnist who tries to educate, teach, through the medium.
I’m not sure I see a ‘decline’, but I see a definite change, and that’s natural. It is a different generation and different times.
SLG: As a person with deep roots and strong ties to this subject (journalism), do you have any recommendations you would like to give the country’s media outlets?
DJ: Well, I can only tell them what I saw of the best journalists of an earlier time. I was privileged to meet and interact with my father’s seniors too: Tarzie Vittachi and Denzil Pieris. What I know is that my father’s generation of journalists read widely and thought deeply. They read books and most importantly, the best of world journalism in the English-language. The quality of their discussions and presentations, including their conversations, was very high. They were always aware of the highest international standards in their profession, and of aspiring to and maintaining them. They had a broad education in the humanities which gave them a truly international outlook. While they were thoroughly westernized, they were also deeply committed to the emancipatory project of the Third World, the global South.
SLG: This year is a very interesting year not only for us, Sri Lanka but for many countries. Like us, our longstanding ally and friend Burma/Myanmar also completed 75 years as an independent nation. On the other side, Israel is also going to compete for 75 years of its establishment. Simultaneously, Palestine is commemorating 75 years of losing its statehood. More importantly, the document known as the “global constitution” UDHR is completing 75 years by December this year. Do you see any similarities between these events and do you believe there is a lot to learn from each other but yet to learn?
DJ: Yes, in the sense that all these anniversaries mark the post-World War II period where Nazism had been defeated; humanity had experienced the worst horrors in history at the hands of fascism; the Cold War had just commenced; Socialism had expanded offering humanity an alternative to capitalism; colonialism was breaking down and on the retreat. It was a very progressive time in the consciousness of the world.
SLG: Do you agree if I say that inability to learn from history is rooted in behaviour of Sri Lankans? How can we change this?
DJ: It is not the inability to learn from history but the inability to teach history and point out the correct lessons. It is inability to analyze history. That is why there is an inability to learn from history.
SLG: Well, let us talk about your area of expertise; recently Sri Lanka faced the UPR. More than three hours long live streaming video demonstrated the positive and negative sides of submissions and responses by the government. While watching this, I was recalling when you were in Geneva during one of the most difficult times, representing the country and telling the world what exactly happening on the ground. That was a real battle, isn’t it? What is the difference between then and now?
DJ: Then, 14 years ago, we succeeded in persuading the overwhelming majority of the UN Human Rights Council, through reasoned argumentation, of our case. We had a stronger, more credible narrative than our critics did. As a consequence, we were able to construct a very broad coalition of member-states to support us. However, a mere six weeks after we won that vote, getting more support than even the USA has managed to get in its resolutions critical of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, the Rajapaksa regime removed our successful team and changed our discourse, stance and strategy. Our victory held for three years and then Sri Lanka began to lose serially because our vote base, including in the global south, had been eroded. We lost in 2012, 2013, 2014 under the Rajapaksas—though I was serving as Ambassador to France and they could have sent me back to Geneva after I had completed my assignment by January 2013.
Then we had the Yahapalanaya government with the UNP – Ranil and Mangala –handling foreign policy and they abjectly surrendered in Geneva, co-sponsoring a resolution which commended and was based upon UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid al Hussain’s Report which accused Sri Lanka of ‘system-wide’ i.e., not merely individual or aberrant, war crimes and crimes against humanity! Ranil and Mangala agreed to courts sitting in Sri Lanka with foreign judges, foreign prosecutors and foreign counsel!
Finally the Rajapaksas returned and we resumed our losing streak, getting dwindling support every time.
Now the two sides which ruined us in Geneva—the Rajapaksas and Ranil—are together, and the result is still a disaster.
What is radically different between Geneva 2009 and Geneva 2012-2023, is that in May 2009, the immediate aftermath of a long and bloody war and with massive demonstrations by the Tamil Diaspora in Europe including Geneva, outcries in the international media, and the signed intervention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in support of the Western resolution against us (her April 4th cable disclosed by Wikileaks), Sri Lanka succeeded in the battle of arguments, because we had accumulated a sufficient stockpile of soft-power through our credible narrative, rational discourse and broad united front. In the decade 2012-2022, Sri Lankan Governments destroyed all that, beginning with my removal six weeks after our diplomatic victory of 2009, which was never repeated.
SLG: But, we have not seen any substantive presentation from the government side denying the so-called genocide charge of some parties. Why?
DJ: There should have been an internationally credible, domestic accountability mechanism and process as recommended by the LLRC, the Paranagama commission report – authored by Sir Desmond de Silva—but this was never done. Significantly, even Ranil and Mangala buried the Desmond de Silva report, which had an annexure authored by the former head of the British SAS which completely demolished the allegations of a policy of premeditated war crimes on the part of the Sri Lankan military.
SLG: Do you think we are losing the grips in the international community to certain elements in Tamil Diaspora?
DJ: Sure, but it is not just to, or mainly to, elements in the Tamil Diaspora. We have a considerable portion of world opinion against us. This is not due to the Tamil Diaspora; it is due to the ugly face of the Sri Lankan State under both the Rajapaksas and the Ranil presidency due to the latter’s repression of unarmed non-violent Aragalaya activists in a context when the Aragalaya restored Sri Lanka’s image in the global media and through it in the eyes of the world.
SLG: What should be the role of our diplomats and their subordinates to overcome prevailing challenges in the country?
DJ: Our professional diplomats are doing their best though some Gotabaya appointees especially in a crucial place like Geneva, presented an ugly, truculent image. Their personality and discourse were all wrong. The real problem is with our foreign policy. Without a correct foreign policy which I define as one that goes back at least to Lakshman Kadirgamar and then moves forward from there, you cannot sustain a successful diplomacy.
SLG: There was an interesting interview published by Indian media with Milinda Moragoda, the high commissioner of Sri Lanka to India, where he says, “New Delhi’s support to Sri Lanka was without “condition” and the package was “extremely flexible”. Any thoughts, can you offer us?
DJ: The problem I have is not with India’s support to us, which has been most valuable. It is what successive Sri Lankan administrations have sought to use and misuse India’s support for. For the last decade, Sri Lanka has not had a correct foreign policy, which crucially entails a correct India policy. Our India policy has to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy and diplomacy and must be guided by our national interest but it has not been so at any time in the postwar period. Instead, it has been guided by narrow, selfish factors. India rightly takes care of its interests, but we don’t similarly take care of ours.
SLG: A few incidents recently reported I would like to recall, first, arbitrary scraping of the tender of a project awarded to China due to India’s objection; second, for the first time in History India’s Minister urged Sri Lanka on an open platform to conduct the elections without any further due and ensure the rights of Tamil speakers; third, Indian mission in Colombo and Jaffna directly influenced the Universities especially the Jaffna University not to sign MOUs with Chinese University impacting the academic freedom. We find it quite contrary to what Mr. Moragoda tells. Your take, please.
DJ: We have lacked balance and a clear strategic vision of our national interest.
SLG: However, Sri Lanka is gearing up for much-delayed local elections. What do you think?
DJ: If the local election is not held on schedule there will be an uncontrollable chain reaction of social explosions. July 1983, two civil wars and a foreign intervention were all after and due to the postponement of imminent parliamentary elections through a fraudulent and coercive referendum in December 1982. Conversely, we began to emerge from that crisis through the Provincial Council, Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 1988-1989. Elections are the solution not the problem. Postponement of elections is the problem, not the solution.
SLG: 13A mantra again on the edge of politics. President Wickremesinghe reaffirmed his willingness to implement the 13th amendment fully. Is it the right time to do it? And do you agree with the way the President is going to implement this?
DJ: I have always supported the 13th amendment and its implementation, but the modalities, timing and sequencing of full implementation can only be deliberated upon in a triangular discussion between an elected President, a newly elected Parliament and elected Provincial Councils. It will be disastrous if it is undertaken by a president without a popular mandate, a Parliament that has forfeited its popular mandate by doing the exact opposite of that mandate, and a Provincial Council system put into a coma! What Ranil is attempting is like trying to perform brain surgery which requires a laser, with a rusty axe instead!
SLG: You are supporting Mr. Sajith Premadasa, and you were with his father too. What is the difference you see between the duo? And the mistakes of his father; Do you think Sajith can capture the people’s power? Why do you think he is the best man to run this country?
DJ: Firstly, as for the mistakes of President Premadasa, I see only one: he did not play the same guiding role in the war against the LTTE that he did in the war against the JVP. Though Ranjan Wijeratne and Sirisena Cooray played the directly leading role – the Ops Combine which defeated the barbaric JVP campaign in a few months reported ultimately to Sirisena Cooray—the guiding role, including the sincere search for peace, was Premadasa’s. He did not play the same role in the war against the LTTE and did not let Sirisena Cooray do so either. I lobbied hard for him to do so (and have my memos to prove it), but he said “Dayan, after all this is over the Tamil people must see the Presidency as being above the ethnic issue, so I do not want to be directly associated with this and I prefer to let the professional military handle the task without interference”. Sadly, he was wrong and I proved correct. That was his only real mistake.
The democratic system, open society and open economy was saved in 1989 by a Premadasa and Premadasa policies. That’s what it took. They will have to be saved again, this time, also by a Premadasa and Premadasa policies.
I support Sajith Premadasa because only he has the right mix of policies necessary to save the economy and democracy in this grave existential crisis. What is that mix? It is globally known as “Growth with Equity”. President Premadasa had unprecedentedly high achievements with that mix. Few leaders can do both together but he did so. In the Premadasa years we resumed high growth very swiftly, had high levels of foreign direct investment, rapid export-led decentralized industrialization, a very active Stock Market while simultaneously we had many programs of social upliftment such as Janasaviya, Free School Uniforms, Free Mid-day Meals for school children, and overall a reduction of absolute and relative poverty and income inequality.
The present government is for economic contraction, not expansion—that means low growth, which is disastrous.
The JVP-JJB’s policy manifesto is firmly opposed to the Open Economy and globalization – not just neoliberalism, which we should all oppose—and without the open economy and globalization you cannot have high growth.
The centre-right neoliberal economists are for high growth but reject simultaneous high equity as undesirable or impossible. If you have high growth but low equity you will have a revolution!
Throughout the world, ONLY a Social Democratic policy paradigm has a chance of ensuring high growth and greater social equity simultaneously. For 35 years I have been a convinced Social Democrat, even when I was an underground left activist.
In Sri Lanka, ONLY Sajith Premadasa – not even the JVP-JJB—has committed to a Social Democratic paradigm, and he has the advantage of having inherited and absorbed a proven success story of such a social democratic developmental paradigm, i.e., that of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Sajith is a relatively young leader who has the best combination of a good Western education and exposure to the world, with compassionate interventionism on behalf of the majority of the people.
What is the difference between Sajith and his father, you asked; It is the same difference as between my father and me. That difference is best encapsulated in the reply given by the legendary business magnate N.U. Jayawardene (Dr Lal Jayawardena’s father and Milinda Moragoda’s maternal grandfather), at his daughter-in-law Prof Kumari Jayawardena’s home, to my father whom he regarded with some fondness. The question around the dining table had been, “how come NU Jayawardena was an acerbic personality who didn’t suffer fools gladly; a rough diamond – while his son Dr Lal Jayawardena was a polite, amiable, tolerant person?” N.U.’s replay had been “well, I am the son of a rest-housekeeper, while he [Lal] is the son of the former Governor of the Central Bank!”
My father Mervyn used to say the same thing when a similar question was asked about him and me. Prof Kumari Jayawardena asked him “Mervyn, see how objective Dayan as a boy, is even about you, his father. He is far more objective than you are. Why can’t you be that objective?’ Mervyn used to answer: “I am the son of an apothecary, while he [Dayan] is the son of the Editor of the Ceylon Daily News!”
Similarly, Sajith is the English public school and LSE-educated son of an assassinated populist President. Naturally, he and his great-father are somewhat different. Though, both in Sajith’s case and mine, vis-à-vis our respective fathers, something that Lee Kuan Yew said is very relevant. When he was asked on the record why he thinks his son can manage Singapore, Lee replied that in his retirement he had been reading a lot of science and that the evidence was conclusive: “80% of one’s makeup comes from genetics– transmitted from your parents”.
I know for sure that as a first-time diplomat, my successful performance as Ambassador/Permanent Representative in Geneva at a crucial and challenging time in my country’s history would not have been possible had I not been the son of Sri Lanka’s foremost expert on international affairs and travelled overseas with my parents even when my father covered the 2nd Nonaligned Conference in Cairo under Nasser in September 1964, and I was seven years old.
SLG: Dr Dayan, it is indeed great listening to you. Hope we shall continue this discussion