I mentioned last week the lack of intelligent policy formulation in areas where new initiatives are urgently needed. One of these is industry, where we do not have any clear policy. This has come home to me through the pronouncements of our Manufacturing Sector Council, which notes that it is difficult to develop training plans with regard to production since no one has any idea when sudden shifts in tariffs will destroy investments. They have therefore had to confine themselves thus far to trying to streamline service sectors in their sphere of expertise, modernizing training for vehicle operators and welders and electricians and so on.

Interestingly enough, the ADB understood what they meant when it was explained to them that swift action in that area was difficult, unlike say in Construction or IT where our Sector Councils have done so much in so short a period. But even though the point seemed to be understood when I brought it up at the committee set up by the Prime Minister, nothing further has been done about it. I did ask the committee to give us reports on what it had actually achieved, but this seemed beyond it, at least in the period before I decided there was no point in listening to a plethora of platitudes with no action.

It is possible though that, since both the Chairman, the delightful Ken Balendra, and I like to hear the sound of our own voices, and he ran the show, I jumped ship because he insisted on pontificating and would not allow me to do so. But since I have actually studied the subject, whereas he was thrown into it without proper briefing – I had to tell him some weeks into his tenure that the previous government had actually introduced a Technology Stream in school – I got tired of endless reports that repeated what everyone knew, with no steps to expedite remedial action. In that regard, working with Mahinda Samarasinghe was much more productive, because he at least studies his briefs and is able to pinpoint what is needed.

Unfortunately, though Mahinda is supposed to be in charge of the subject, the Prime Minister continues on his merry way with no proper consultation. This was the case with regard to the bright idea he conceived of making 13 years of education compulsory for everyone. He decided for this purpose to introduce vocational subjects in schools after the Ordinary Level, but did not think of consulting other stakeholders in the field. The National Education Commission tried to find out what was happening, but it turned out that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Education was also clueless about what was happening, and it was in fact only through the ADB that I saw the first proposals with regard to reform, which the ADB rightly pointed out were incoherent and did not properly address the relevant issues. Read the rest of this entry »

I wrote last week of the corruption that this government has engaged in, quite contrary to the President’s commitment to stop mega corruption and wastage. This week I would like to look at how the manner in which this government is working on that commitment has stopped the development activity the President hoped to increase.

They have done this by terrifying public servants out of their wits, in penalizing them for the excesses that occurred. Some weeks back Dr Nalaka Godahewa, in writing convincingly about problems in the government’s development strategy, noted how a particular tender was not awarded because the person responsible wanted someone more senior also to sign. That person in turn wanted to pass the buck higher up, and of course in each of these stages files sit for ages on a desk without being attended to. The upshot is that no work has been done.

I thought he exaggerated, but the story did remind me of the mess Ranil caused in education during his last stint as Prime Minister, when he appointed a hopeless Secretary to the Ministry. In fact the committee he had entrusted with the task of proposing names had recommended Lalith Weeratunge who had been an excellent deputy to Tara de Mel (and though I could understand Charitha Ratwatte gibbering when I suggested they reappoint Tara, because she was associated too closely with Chandrika Kumaratunga, even Chari had agreed that Lalith would be a good choice).

But Ranil had a personal problem with Lalith, and instead sent a character called V K Nanayakkara. Lalith promptly moved on to other things. I asked him to stay on, but he said working with Nanayakkara was impossible, for if you went to him with four signatures recommending a course of action, he would ask for a fifth. Read the rest of this entry »

It is now clear that one expected outcome of the regime change of 2015, namely a more helpful approach to Sri Lanka on the part of the West, is not going quite as expected. Though the European Union has finally granted us GSP, against some significant opposition, its decision makers are going on and on about the need to implement those aspects of the President’s manifesto that they consider important. In the process they ignore elements in the President’s manifesto more important to our nation, and concentrate instead on those commitments to the West made by individuals and organizations funded by the West.

The latest to pronounce, without ever I suspect having read the President’s manifesto, is the new German ambassador to Sri Lanka. He seems to be a throwback to the ambassador of the war period, Jurgen Weerth, whose patronizing lectures astounded even other Western envoys.

Fortunately he was succeeded by a young man who moderated that approach, and then a charming very positive individual, who has been now sent to Mumbai, doubtless for not being tough enough. In his place we now have an individual who talks of the changes ‘promised by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015’, if the newspaper report is accurate.

He obviously does not understand that the change happened because Maithripala Sirisena was elected President, and that Maithripala Sirisena owes it to the people to fulfil his promises to them, not promises made by others, to others who did not contribute (except perhaps financially) to his electoral victory. In particular he said categorically that ‘I will allow no international power to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism.’

Even as the West resorts to extreme measures to deal with the terrorism that they have inflicted on the world, in their haste to effect regime change – supporting the Taleban initially in Afghanistan, and then fundamentalists in Libya and Syria – they continue to insist that our forces be punished. They have been supported in this by our Foreign Minister, who has at least been consistent, in obviously having resented during the war period the successes the forces were achieving. But government policy is made by the President, and this should be done in terms of his commitments to the people.

Why he continues to tolerate a Foreign Minister who strives to undermine what the President has promised baffles me. Perhaps he thinks that Mangala should be allowed to bark, since he will not be given the teeth to bite our war heroes. But at least now the President should realize that, by allowing Mangala full rein, he leaves room for those who want to control us to continue to make veiled, and not so veiled, threats.

Sadly the German ambassador has not considered the fact that the issue which carries most space in the President’s manifesto is corruption. It seems he does refer to corruption, but he has twinned it with impunity, which in the general understanding of it as having to do with war crimes is of much less concern to the people. That was not central to the President’s vision. In that regard, while it is clear that the ambassador recognizes that corruption continues, he ignores the fact that it is promoted by the failure to fulfil other aspects of the President’s manifesto that were much more important to the people. In particular, the Right to Information Act was totally inadequate, and when it is implemented in the breach, with the Prime Minister’s Secretary finding excuses for refusing to hand over his Assets Declaration, one realizes that we have the mixture as before, only worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Scott, the British writer I admire most of those active in the second half of the last century, was adept at exploring how people let each other down. In one of his novels, he refers to the various betrayals his protagonist engaged in.

I was reminded of that in thinking, as we reach the half way point of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, of the various betrayals he has been forced into. I do not say he has perpetrated these, for I still see him as a passive onlooker, but that does not absolve him of responsibility. After all he was elected President, and he should have worked towards fulfilling as many as possible of the promises he made in his manifesto. Instead he has allowed the country to sink into more corrosive corruption than ever before.

Last week I wrote about perhaps the most expensive mistake he made, namely allowing an exception to the pledged constitutional change to limit the size of the Cabinet. He, or rather those who make decisions in his government, have now exploited that provision with the utmost cynicism, so that we have 45 Cabinet Ministers apart from the President, and another 45 State / Deputy Ministers.

Each of them is entitled to private staff, many of whom have little to do, and little understanding of what should be done beyond expanding the influence of the Minister. They have innumerable vehicles and personal security, and they all have offices, many of which have been redecorated at vast expense. Read the rest of this entry »

I discussed last week the absurdity of how appointments are made to the cabinet. But the problem goes deeper than that, in that we have completely perverted the whole concept of cabinet government, and then multiplied the problem by having massive cabinets. Indeed the 19th amendment, contrary to the pledge in the President’s manifesto, practically entrenched this, by introducing provision for what is described as a National Government, with no effort at all to define what that might mean.

So we now have a government that certainly does not represent the nation, since it is clear that parties representing a majority of the Sinhalese and a majority of the Tamils are not in government. Only the Muslims can claim that, and even that perhaps may soon be in doubt, given the breach that has developed between Rauff Hakeem and Hassen Ali, who is one of the few Muslim politicians who can claim to be a man of principle. He was one of the five members on the government side who did not vote for the impeachment of the then Chief Justice, the only member of the Muslim Congress who stood firm.

In Sri Lanka the cabinet has become a reward for getting into Parliament and having pleased those in power. Being a Minister does not however necessarily confer power with regard to policy making, but this is not a problem for most Ministers because they are not really concerned with policy, and few have the capacity to understand policy and planning. Rather, they see ministries as providing them with perks, as the excesses of the last few weeks have made clear, the massive sums the country now has to fork out for yet more vehicles for yet more ministers. Read the rest of this entry »

Dayan Jayatilleka’s current forceful advocacy of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the best possible future leader of this country has raised many hackles, but I believe he has answered the criticisms raised effectively. What he has not explored is the irony of there being two contradictory approaches adopted, one accusing him of inconsistency in that he was critical of Gotabhaya in the past, the other accusing him of having failed to be so critical.

What is even more strange is that it is somehow assumed that those critical of the current government cannot be allowed to change their minds, whereas those in the UNP who engaged in abject racism and authoritarianism in the past are allowed to begin with a clean slate as it were, with no examination of their past records. So Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appalling racism in 1983 is forgotten, his claiming that the attacks on Tamils were a mere bagatelle compared with what the Bandaranaikes had done to Sinhalese businessmen while privileging the minorities. Forgotten too is his claim, when he was last Prime Minister, that, as had happened in Korea and Taiwan, democracy could be delayed and what was important was development, even if it came through dictatorship.

This does not necessarily mean that Ranil cannot change, though the inductive evidence suggests increasing doubts about this, and one should therefore take care. I myself have twice assumed he would change, and indeed told my aunt Ena de Silva when I voted for the UNP in 2001 that I believed Ranil and Chari had become better. She being wiser was not so sure. And though what happened then should have taught me a lesson, I did not think it a mistake to support a slate in the 2015 election in which Ranil would be Prime Minister. Read the rest of this entry »

I wrote last week of the destruction wrought by the West, to itself too, by its cynical support for terrorists when it sees them as helpful. But while I deplore what it did to Sri Lanka, we in Sri Lanka must also recognize that we contributed to the disasters that have overwhelmed us in the international sphere, beginning with the hunting down of this country in March 2012. It is simply the frosting on the Western cake that now our own Foreign Ministry is supporting this vendetta.

But while the Clintons and Millibands and sadly the Camerons of this world are guilty of double standards, reinforced by the hound dog mentality of Rice and Power and Donohue and Sisson and Chilcott and now Dauris, we must also recognize that much of the running is done by idealists with no capacity to sift evidence. The latest report emanating from Australia with regard to General Gallage is typical of how myths become entrenched in stone if not immediately exploded.

I can understand Dayan Jayatilleka’s current admiration for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and I share his view that he is perhaps the most competent and least selfish of those who ran things under the last government. But there were weaknesses, which as Dayan noted both he and I drew attention to.

In this context I should note that, while I stand by what we wrote about Weliveriya, the aftermath raised my admiration and affection for Gotabhaya. Unlike others in government who undermined me behind my back, Gotabhaya was direct, and called me up and shouted at me. And what he stressed was not so much the content of what we had written – he agreed that there needed to be an inquiry into what had happened – but the fact that I had signed a petition along with enemies of the government. Read the rest of this entry »

Another mark of increasing age, though I suppose I should be pleased at this one, was a request to deliver a memorial lecture. The topic given to me was ‘The March of Folly’, which led me to look up the origin of the phrase. I knew it was the title of a book by the popular American historian Barbara Tuchman, but I had thought this was the one she wrote about the beginnings of the First World War, chronicling the headlong rush into a war that could have been avoided, and which destroyed the world its perpetrators thought to perpetuate.

In fact ‘The March of Folly’ is a later book, based on the idea that folly is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Tuchman deals with four examples of this, beginning with the decision of the Trojans to take into their city the horse left on the beach by the Greeks who had pretended to abandon their attempt to conquer Troy. She goes on to discuss the policies of the Popes who precipitated the Reformation, and then the British blunders that led to the independence of the United States. Finally, and at length, she deals with the American disaster in Vietnam.

All very interesting subjects, and I should now read the book. But it gave me a focus for this new series, which will look at recent political history in the context of folly in the Tuchman sense. I will not confine myself to governments alone, since the whole picture demands looking also at what others in the political arena engage in. And the series will be different from the lecture, which will have to be tightly focused. But these articles will I hope provide some food for thought, and with luck some changes in approach – assuming, that is, that those who decide, and those who influence decision making, both read and think.

I will begin however in an area where obviously I cannot hope for influence, since I shall talk about the folly of the West in persecuting us for achieving what it pretends it desires, namely the eradication of terrorism. But from the Sri Lankan perspective it is essential to consider this too, for the mess the current government is in springs largely from its unthinking acceptance of Western mythology. Some in the government, and even perhaps the Prime Minister, have begun to realize how badly they blundered way back in 2015, but he has no idea how to reverse gear effectively, and he certainly cannot even begin to do this while Mangala Samaraweera continues to run foreign affairs and bleat helplessly in Geneva. Read the rest of this entry »

The election was held on August 17th, and four days later I learnt that I had not been put into Parliament. I had been on the UPFA National List, which I gathered had been with the approval of both factions of the SLFP. But it had become clear almost immediately that happened that the polarization that was taking place would leave no room for anyone trying to hold a balance.

I had not been able, before it was submitted, to see the President to check about whether I would be on the List. But I did see him on July 14th, along with Faizer Mustapha, who had also resigned as a State Minister early in the year, deeply upset that as the leading Muslim in the SLFP who had supported the President’s campaign he had not been put into the Cabinet. The President told us that he had been responsible for ensuring that we were on the list, and we thanked him, but Faizer was much more worried about the fact that he was low down on the list, and kept questioning the President about his chances of being nominated to Parliament.

Maithripala, with a touch of the gentle irony I had found attractive in my few dealings with him, noted that he had thought we had come to thank him, not to complain. But Faizer was not to be deterred in pressing his case, and proceeded to claim that the Rajapaksa camp was deeply hostile to him because of his devotion to the President. I found this odd, given that Faizer had been one of those who crossed over to support Sirisena only when it became clear that he had a chance of winning, and when it was obvious that the Muslims would vote for him en masse and the Muslims who remained in the Rajapaksa camp had, for the moment, no prospect of political success.

But it was precisely those who crossed over late, in pursuit of their own advantages, who had to convince the President of their undying loyalty. They had nothing else to put forward, since obviously they had no commitment to the principles on which for instance Vasantha Senanayake and I had moved to support Sirisena – having previously, unlike others in government with a few honourable exceptions, raised questions with Mahinda Rajapaksa when we thought his government was going astray. Read the rest of this entry »

I returned from Azerbaijan on June 23rd and had to go that morning to Parliament for a COPE meeting. The report on the Bond scam was being drafted, and it was clear that it would show that Arjuna Mahendran had interfered egregiously with bond placements to the great detriment of the economy. The Opposition was feeling quite confident, but this made it push its luck and indicate that it would press for a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, who had clearly been responsible for what had happened, as indicated by his spirited defence of his acolyte – and indeed the instructions he had given to less scrupulous members of COPE to delay proceedings.

But this was not the only issue of importance, and it should not I felt be allowed to detract from the reforms that had been pledged in the President’s manifesto. The most important of these, which had been ignored when the Constitution was amended in April, was electoral reform, but the President had promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until that was accomplished. I believe he was sincere, but I worried given the rumours that were circulating about an early dissolution. However Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the Opposition, assured me during this week that the President had again promised that he would ensure electoral reform before having an election.

One area that I had not been able to address in the Manifesto was the need for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. This had been pledged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 manifesto, and he had indeed appointed a Committee headed by Jayampathy Wickremaratne to draft one. But by 2007, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, this lay forgotten, with the President and Jayampathy clearly no longer trusting each other. I was sorry about this, and told Jayampathy he should proceed, but it was clear he did not think the effort worthwhile in the prevailing dispensation.

But when in 2008 I was appointed also to the position of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following a renewed pledge in Geneva that a Bill of Rights would be introduced, I felt I could press, and Jayampathy was persuaded to reactivate his committee. We used many of the people who were also working on the Human Rights Action Plan that had been promised in Geneva, and well before the end of 2009 we had good drafts ready.

The silly season however had set in by then, and the President was concerned now only about the election. He had said work on the HR Plan should only continue after the election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe was not willing to press, nor even to bring the Bill of Rights to his attention. I foolishly asked him whether I could put it on the Ministry website as a draft, which he forbade, whereas I should have gone ahead without asking him, so that he would not have got any flak. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2017
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