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 »

IMG_4239.JPGMy last trip abroad as a member of Parliament was to Azerbaijan. After my visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I realized how utterly fantastic the Islamic civilizations of Central Asia were. Azerbaijan was not of course in Central Asia, being on the other side of the Caspian Sea from Kazakshstan, but obviously it had shared in the splendours of a period the world knew little about.

Kithsiri came along again, resigned now to the fact that it was only to the more difficult places in the world that he would accompany me. But, apart from being enthusiastic about wild life, having been trained in the Ena de Silva school as it were of jungle exploration, he was appreciative enough of the magnificient civilizations we had seen. His first trip abroad had been to Iran, and then we saw Syria, Aleppo and Palmyra and the Crac des Chevaliers, before the wicked Americans embarked on destroying the place in their relentless pursuit of world domination. He had also enjoyed the Lebanon and Tunisia and Ethiopia and even, despite the flies, the pyramids of the Sudan.  And then Central Asia had been an eye opener, so that he was more than happy to come along to Azerbaijan too.

I had no idea what to expect, but the Lonely Planet guide indicated a range of interesting sights, beginning with the varied attractions of Baku. I had not realized before going there that this had been the oil capital of the world in the early days of the combustion engine, and that those who had made their millions in that early boom had built the most extraordinary creations, grafting Asiatic flourishes onto European lines of architecture. Read the rest of this entry »

COPE began its investigations on Friday June 5th, and we met every day the following week, except on the Friday – again my fault, for I had arranged another trip, our High Commission in Delhi having succeeded in getting visas for Azerbaijan. During the weekend I read the reports the Bank had prepared on the whole business, and found the situation even worse than I had thought. Because of Mahendran’s actions, the interest the country had to pay on bonds had shot up, so that not only had Perpetual Treasuries, the company associated with Mahendran’s son-in-law, made a massive profit, but also the interest payments Sri Lanka had to make on loans after February 2015 reached ridiculous heights.

Our questioning of bank officials revealed an even more sordid side to Mahendran’s machinations. The first Deputy Governor we interviewed seemed to me a very shady character, and not very bright. I actually asked Nivard Cabraal why he had promoted him, to which the answer was that he was good at some things, and had seniority on his side. But he knew nothing of debt, so it was suspicious that Mahendran had put him in charge of that area.

The Director in charge of that area also knew nothing of the subject, but my sister told me that she was known for her honesty. She had called my sister when she was transferred to that position, expressing worries about her capacity to handle the job, but my sister told her that integrity was vital and that was perhaps the reason for the move. Certainly she exuded decency, to the point of practically breaking down when we reprimanded her for not having told the Governor that it was wrong to take 10 billion worth of bonds when the advertised amount had been 1 billion, and the few bids for large amounts were at high rates of interest. She declared that they had told him this repeatedly and, though they stopped him from insisting on 20 billion being taken, he had been adamant about 10.

Her Deputy was a very smart young man, and it was clear that he had made the position clear to Mahendran, but they had been over-ruled. It transpired too that Mahendran had come down to the bidding floor twice that morning, and had interfered egregiously in the process. It was absurd therefore that the UNP lawyers had claimed that he had no direct responsibility for what occurred.

Other suspicious details included the fact that Perpetual Treasuries had obtained a loan from the Bank of Ceylon for its bid, and that this had been approved straight away with no proper assessment of the request. It was unprecedented that the Bank, which was also a primary dealer, should not have bid to any substantial degree for bonds, but had instead underwritten the bid of a private company. Read the rest of this entry »

When I got back to Colombo from Uzbekistan, the Central Bank Bond issue was hotting up. Ranil had tried to suppress the report his own lawyers had produced, which made it clear that chicanery had taken place. They had I think been asked to protect Arjuna Mahendran, and this they did with a dogmatic claim regarding his innocence, which the rest of their report belied. Even devoted UNP lawyers, it seems, were not prepared to put their reputations on the line by claiming that nothing wrong had occurred.

The Opposition demanded a debate on the subject, but the Speaker, perhaps trying to maintain a balance, decided that the issue should be investigated by the Committee on Public Enterprises. D E W Gunasekara, its dedicated Chairman, was keen to start immediately, but I was due to go abroad again on May 24th and he decided to postpone sittings. Though others perhaps would disagree, he saw me as the most valuable member of the Committee, and felt I needed to be present to deal with what he realized would be obfuscation on the part of UNP members.

I make no bones about the fact that the transformation of COPE had been largely because of my initiatives. I had not asked to be put on this Committee, having asked instead for Consultative Committees in areas which I knew about. But the myopic Ministers the President had put in charge of subjects relating to Reconciliation obviously wanted no one around with significant capacity. So this was the most important Committee I was appointed to, apart from the one on Standing Orders, and that ceased to meet after a few months.

Assessing what COPE was about, I found that we were supposed to report on a couple of hundred institutions, but managed in a year to look at fewer than 50. This struck me as ridiculous, so I suggested sub-committees, which D E W Gunasekara institutionalized, against opposition I should note by Ravi Karunanayake who thought the whole committee should look at any institution (despite the evidence that this was not possible). Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2017
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