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My decision to stage a fast unto death was not a sudden initiative

Jul 17, 2010 10:39:31 PM- transcurrents.com

by Wimal Weerawansa

I believe these are, to say the least, controversial times for me, my party and the government because of the events of the past week. The fast unto death that I staged gave rise to a lot of discussion and there were many bouquets and brickbats that came my way.

I therefore think that it is only correct that I should provide not only an explanation for what happened but that I should also put the record straight with regard to some of the speculation that surrounded those events.

The decision to stage a fast unto death was not a sudden, spur of the moment initiative. When United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki moon first announced that he was appointing an 'advisory panel' to instruct him on the final stages of Sri Lanka's war against terror, we in the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) saw that as a first step in a dangerous chain of events.

Ban Ki moon had 'opened a file', so to speak, on Sri Lanka. It could lead to the appointment of an investigation panel and then to the summoning of Sri Lanka's Commander-in-Chief, armed forces chiefs and war heroes before a war crimes tribunal.

We also thought that Ban Ki moon had unilaterally exceeded his mandate as the Secretary General. If he was concerned about events in Sri Lanka he could have made representations to either the Security Council or the Human Rights Council of the UN. Instead, he took this rather unusual step.

Contrary to what he has been saying in some quarters, the joint statement he made with the government when he visited Sri Lanka in May 2009 also has no reference to the government agreeing to such a panel. That statement says: "The Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government will take measures to address those grievances". Therefore it is clear that it is the government that is responsible for any issues regarding accountability.

We also noted that faced with all this, the government had rejected the panel and announced that its members would not be granted visas. Therefore, while it was pursuing the matter through diplomatic channels we in the JNP decided that we should embark on measures that would lead to massive public opinion both locally and internationally against Ban Ki moon.

We were of the opinion that the UN and indeed Ban Ki moon had become a puppet in the hands of a few western nations such as the United States. They resented Sri Lanka's victory against terror. They would have wished to see the creation of an East Timor like situation here, where they would have a greater say in our internal affairs. The appointment of the 'advisory panel' was in retaliation to Sri Lanka's refusal to give in to the demands of these western nations and the UN during the final stages of our war against terror.

We in the JNP were among those who were first and foremost in the forefront in urging the government to prosecute the war to a finish, when others were considering peace talks and negotiated settlements. Therefore, if any harm were to befall the government, the armed forces and their leaders as a result of prosecuting the war, we felt we were somewhat responsible.

At the JNP, we first decided that we would launch a protest march to the UN head office in Colombo and that two former MPs and a provincial councillor would then begin an indefinite fast there. Former parliamentarians Mohammed Muzammil and Nimal Premawansa along with Provincial Councillor Senarathne Silva began the fast.

No hostage taking

We never had any intention of taking UN staff hostage, as some allege nor did we have any plans to hurt anyone. None of the vehicles in the UN compound were damaged in any way during the entire episode. Not even a rotten egg was thrown at the UN. In fact, a pregnant lady officer who wanted to leave the office was allowed to do so without any fuss. This is in marked contrast, for instance, to the protests in Canada against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) where the protestors inflicted considerable damage.

On the contrary, we were at the receiving end of violence from the Police during the protest march. Two of our party stalwarts, former minister Piyasiri Wijenayake and our Publicity Secretary Priyanjith Vitharana were injured.

It was then that I intervened to prevent the incident from escalating any further. I spoke to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa from my mobile phone. Now, there is a rumour that the Defence Secretary used my phone to order a Deputy Inspector General of Police at the scene to withdraw the Police! That is simply not true. I learnt that after I spoke to the Defence Secretary, he had given the necessary instructions to the Inspector General of Police.

During the protests, Foreign Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe who arrived at the scene arranged for an activist, Dr. Wasantha Bandara to meet the UN staff. Dr. Bandara explained the purpose of the protest to them, assured them that they would not be harmed and requested them to convey to Ban Ki moon our request to withdraw his 'advisory panel'.

That night, the JNP met again to decide on our future course of action. We decided that one of our three sitting MPs-Achala Jagoda, Weerakumara Dissanayake or myself-should stage a fast unto death. There was agreement that the maximum impact would be derived if I were to stage the fast, but there were those in the party who were opposed to my joining the fast as well.

The fast was hard

I took care not to inform those near and dear to me about my plans. I told my wife Shashini that I would be staging a fast but didn't tell her that it was to be a fast unto death. I know that some are suggesting that this was all a drama staged and directed by those holding the highest offices in the government but the truth is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not informed. He was in the Maldive Islands anyway but I knew that if he came to know that I was to begin a fast unto death, he would dissuade me and I would have found it difficult to say no to his request.

Prior to the fast, I also prepared a letter of resignation from the Cabinet. I knew that at some point an accusation would be levelled that, because I was a cabinet minister, I was bringing the government into disrepute due to my actions. I was not fasting because I was a cabinet minister; I was fasting as a citizen of this country. So, I wanted to resign if that contention was made.

The following morning, we held a media briefing and announced that ‘an MP’ would be staging a fast unto death unless Ban Ki moon withdrew his panel. We did not reveal his identity until the fast actually began.

At this stage, I honestly believed I could continue the fast unto death but I was not sure whether Ban Ki moon would withdraw his panel, even if I did so. But I did know that by my actions, I could generate massive public opinion against Ban Ki moon and his advisory panel whereas until that point in time only those who were politically sensitive were aware of the Secretary General's designs on Sri Lanka.
The fast itself was an unusual experience for me. The heat and the dust added to the significant discomfort I felt because of hunger pangs, gastric pain and headache. Yet, the sentiments etched on the faces of those who gathered around me gave me the courage to continue.

I am happy that I can honestly say that I really fasted without any food or drink. I was determined to stop taking water from the outset itself, which is not the case in most death fasts where protestors would initially take water before giving it up eventually.

The setting for the fast was an open venue, so anyone would have clearly spotted any indiscretions had I attempted them. In fact, a private television station which appears to dislike my forthrightness stationed cameramen round the clock-and their cameras were trained on me throughout!

On the second day of my fast, our party had arranged for a message to be handed over to the Russian Embassy in Colombo. It was to express our appreciation of their opposition to Ban Ki moon's 'advisory panel' and also to request them to pressurise the Secretary General to withdraw the panel. I was told that this was an unqualified success.

Meanwhile, I learnt that the UN had responded to my fast, but in doing so they were forced to utter half- truths and blatant lies to cover their lapses. They announced that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office would be relocated, implying that this was a consequence of my actions when the reality was that this decision was taken much earlier.

They stated that the UN head office in Colombo was closed that day-when in fact there was free movement in and out of the office. They also claimed that the UN's chief officer in Colombo, Resident Co-ordinator Neil Buhne was being 'recalled' when in fact he was only being summoned to New York for discussions.

That day, ministers Douglas Devananda, Keheliya Rambukwella, Bandula Gunawardena and Dinesh Gunawardena visited me. Minister Dinesh Gunawardena informed me that although it was the traditional post-Budget dinner in Parliament, they had left without dining because they knew I was on a death fast.

Keheliya and Bandula told me that before visiting me, they were with President Rajapaksa-who had by then returned from the Maldives. They wanted me to end the fast and said that some were suggesting that my actions were embarrassing the government.

I told them to convey to the President that I did not wish to give up the fast. However, I informed them that I would do what I can about causing embarrassment to the government. It was thereafter that I dispatched my letter of resignation to the President's office.

Then, I learnt that the President had spoken to my wife and my daughter Vimasha. He had told my daughter that he would bring her father home 'soon'. Fortunately my son Vibhuthi was away in the United Kingdom, on an educational tour with his schoolmates at Ananda College.

As the second day ended, I felt quite weak and dizzy but the large crowds who had gathered by now gave me the strength and determination to continue with my fast.

As the third day dawned, the Army had taken control of the environs. I believe this was necessary because the crowds would at times become emotional because they were concerned about my health and worried that some harm would befall me.

There was some speculation that the President wanted to visit me that day at about eleven a.m. When I heard this I conveyed to the President through intermediaries that he should not do so, as it was inappropriate. However, he did meet with a delegation from the JNP that day where he had rejected my resignation letter.

The President had told the delegation that he was not prepared to sacrifice me to please someone. But he had also said that now it was time for me to give up the fast because he was pursuing the issue of the 'advisory panel' with the UN. In fact, when Neil Buhne had met him, the President had told him to convey to Ban Ki moon our concerns with a request that he withdraws his panel.

By this time, those who were monitoring my health, led by Dr. Sisira Siribaddana, were becoming concerned. I was dehydrated, my gastric condition had worsened and my heart rate was rising indicating that medical complications of the fast were now taking its toll. Medical staff who were there offered me saline. I refused, but they insisted and forcibly gave me an infusion.

Decision to end fast

There was also some conjecture that the Army was about to take me forcibly in an ambulance for treatment. I pleaded that this should not be allowed to happen. That was when I told the media-although I could hardly speak by then-that I would not abandon the fast even if the President requested me to do so and that the only person capable of ending my fast was Ban Ki moon.

The Maha Sangha began visiting me in large numbers. Ven. Velamitiyawe Kusaldhamma Thera came from his hospital bed to visit me. I was also visited by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who urged me to call of the fast saying I should live if I was to continue my struggle.

That evening ministers Susil Premajayantha and Anura Yapa visited me. They were alarmed by what they saw. Despite my protests, they informed the President-who was by then in Kandy-that my health condition had taken a turn for the worse.

Apparently the President cancelled the rest of his scheduled engagements for the day. He couldn't board a helicopter from Kandy because of the heavy rains there. He had travelled by road to Mawanella from where he boarded a chopper for Colombo.

By then, the situation at the fast had become tense. Some of those in the crowds that had gathered had become hostile towards our party workers for allowing me to continue with the fast. They were saying that I shouldn't be allowed to die and threatening to set fire to themselves.

Because of all these emerging issues, the JNP had met again that day. They informed me that they had decided that I should call off the fast. I protested saying that I had begun the fast as a fast unto death and that I cannot call it off without winning my demands.

Our party members then said that the decision to commence the fast and to nominate me for the fast was a party decision and that if I had abided by that decision I should abide by this decision too. They also informed me that the President would be visiting me shortly. Soon afterwards, President Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived to the cheers of the crowd. They were urging him to save my life. He had tears in his eyes.

It was a very difficult moment for me. In the end, I decided that considering the high emotions expressed by those who had gathered, the request from my party much against my wishes and the President's decision to forego protocol and visit me personally, I would end the fast.

The President called my daughter Vimasha and said, 'Come, duwa, let us give thaaththa some water'. Together, they offered me water which I drank. It was an emotional moment for me but its full impact dawned on me only later because I was quite dizzy and my vision was blurred. I was whisked away by ambulance to the Army Hospital.

Will do it again if need arises

I learnt that the President had dispatched his personal physician, Professor S.D. Jayaratne to see me. The results of the tests conduced on me showed some weaknesses in my system. The President also visited me at the Army Hospital. My physician, Dr. Siribaddana wanted me transferred to a private hospital but the President disagreed, saying I needed privacy at that moment. Ministers Basil Rajapaksa and Dullas Alahapperuma also visited me at the hospital.

The next morning I learnt that fate had been unkind to me too: my mother who had been ill for a few weeks had passed away the previous night. She was not aware that I had begun a fast unto death and she was not allowed to watch television news bulletins or read the newspapers, so I believe she did not know of what had transpired when she passed away.

When I came home on Monday, it was to find my mother's remains lying at my residence. I had to attend to duties related to her funeral and for the next few days, I had little time to reflect on the political implications of what I had embarked on.

But now, I have done so. I am indeed proud of what I did. I would argue that it took us two years and more than a hundred public meetings to educate the Sri Lankan public that Norwegian intervention in this country was detrimental to us. It took a lot of hard work to drill that into the psyche of the average Sri Lankan.

Yet, in three days I was able to enlighten most Sri Lankans-except those who steadfastly refuse to believe the obvious-that Ban Ki moon's actions are similarly vindictive. As a result, today every schoolboy knows about his advisory panel and understands why we should resist it. As I see it, that is my victory.
In any event, I was not attempting to change the mindset of those who have an innate sense of hatred towards our motherland. I was only addressing those have even the slightest feeling towards our nation. If I was able to rouse them from apathy to action, then I have succeeded.

I must re-iterate that this was not a conflict with the UN. It was only a struggle against Ban Ki moon and the interests he represents. I am not ashamed of how that struggle was waged-no one was hurt, no property was damaged.

To the criticism that I gave up the fast without Ban Ki moon yielding to my demands, I note that he has taken a step back. His latest statement says that his panel will not target individuals and that is a significant shift in his stance.

These critics probably fail to realise that even when Mahathma Gandhi staged his death fasts, he was at times compelled to give them up at the insistence of his colleagues and the general public. We demonstrated to the world that there are enough patriots in this country who will risk their lives for the honour and dignity of their nation. I am confident that as long as there are such persons amongst us, the plans of Ban Ki moon-and those others like him-will never succeed.

We will soon extend our protests overseas. Already, there have been protests at the UN office in Geneva. Another protest is planned at the UN office in Japan. I do not for a moment believe that what I did has cost us international support. If the Non-Aligned Movement is reticent about supporting us, that is because of their concerns regarding Israel-and not because of what I did.

I did learn one lesson though-if I were to stage another fast unto death, it would be in such an environment that I would be immune to the pressures of others, so I could carry out my obligations to the end without hindrance and interference from those who I know have my best interests at heart. Having to defy them was the most difficult task I had to confront.

Nevertheless, as a politician I firmly believe that I should be able to play the role demanded of me at a particular moment in time. Therefore, even in the future, if the occasion calls for it, I would not hesitate to fast unto death once again. ~ courtesy: the sunday times ~