qrcode.30291555Many who supported Maithripala Sirisena during the last presidential campaign felt that handling of foreign relations by the previous government had been inept. In particular, it seemed that relations with India had deteriorated, sadly so given how solidly India had supported us during our war against terror. Though the then president seemed positive about India, those around him seemed to sidestep any commitments he made, while there was clear evidence of an active effort to destabilize relations.

This happened when he was almost persuaded to cancel a meeting with the leader of an Indian parliamentary delegation, Sushma Swaraj, now India’s foreign minister. That disaster was averted but the anti-indian lobby in the foreign ministry managed in the media to blame India for the debacle that had occurred in Geneva. A resolution critical of Sri Lanka, introduced by the West, had passed, with India voting in favour. But we were told that we should now go back to our traditional foreign policy of friendship with the West, since others were unreliable.

This policy was not at all traditional and only dates back to the aberrations of the eighties, when then president J.R. Jayewardene became an enthusiastic Cold Warrior and thought his alliance with the West was secure enough to withstand Indian displeasure. He even tried to invoke the 1947 Defence Treaty with Britain – and I am told Mrs Thatcher, whom he supported over the Falklands, was inclined to agree – but the British Foreign Office refused.
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qrcode.30283437I was surprised to be told recently that the Secretary to the Cabinet Ministry under which I was supposed to work as State Minister of Higher Education had been dismissed. Eran Wickremaratne explained the reasons to me, but I will not go into those since, much as I respect Eran’s own integrity, there may be another side to the story, which reflects less well on the Cabinet Minister than the Secretary.

In particular, after the admission that Kabir Hashim, along with Malik Samarawickrema and the Minister of Finance, had been in the Central Bank to raise the issue of obtaining more money, shortly before Arjuna Mahendran’s fatal decision to take 10 billion by auction, I have my suspicions about what has been going on there. Thankfully, Eran said very clearly that he was not at that meeting and had known nothing about it, which I suspect would be true of the Secretary too.

I did raise with Eran the question of the failure of the 19th Amendment to address a fundamental principle of Good Governance, which is the strengthening of the independence of Public Servants. Certainly there should be provision to dismiss public servants if they do something wrong, but that should not be a political decision, it should be made by the Public Service Commission. And we must go back to the usual practice in parliamentary democracies where Ministers come from within Parliament, which is that Secretaries to Ministries are in effect Permanent, and not changed with every change of government.

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qrcode.30268994In these last few articles on the tragedy that befell our hopes for comprehensive reform, I thought I should spell out how exactly Ranil Wickremesinghe and those working to his agenda hijacked the process. Their purpose, far from broadbasing power and ensuring a range of different authorities, was to concentrate power in the hands of what one of them lovingly described early on as an Executive Prime Minister.

Thus they took upon themselves alone the drafting of the 19th Amendment, without open discussion as had been pledged through the National Advisory Council. And so the discussion paper that came out in early March, circulated only to a select few, declared that

33A (2) The President shall, except in the case of the appointment of the Prime Minister or as otherwise required by the Constitution, act on the advice of the Prime Minister or of such other Minister as has been authorized by the Prime Minister to advise, the President with regard to any function assigned to that Minister

The rest of the draft was based on this proposition, with the Prime Minister being ‘the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers’.

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qrcode.30245058Chapter 6 of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka dealt with the introduction of Universal Franchise to Sri Lanka, and the beginning of   Representative Government. This happened through the Donoughmore Constitution, which gave Sri Lankans a much greater say in government than in any other colony which was not composed largely of European settlers.

The main grievance of Ceylonese politicians with regard to the Manning-Devonshire Constitution had been that while the Legislative Council, in theory, had authority over the government through its financial and legislative powers,  it had no executive powers. The two representatives in the Executive Council, without responsibility for any specific area, could not really influence governmental action.

In response to these grievances, Britain sent another commission at the end of that decade to draw up a new constitution. In the 1920s, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, along with at least some members of the cabinet and parliament was keen on reforms in the colonies. The Donoughmore Constitution, as it was known after the Chairman of the Commission, Lord Donoughmore, moved in radical new directions. It introduced universal suffrage, which was opposed by most Sri Lankan politicians such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan, James Pieris, E.W. Perera, D. B. Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayake and S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. Only two minor politicians, one of whom was the Labour Party leader, A. E. Goonesinha, spoke in its favour.

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qrcode.30233817In this last lap as it were of my discussion of what should have been  comprehensive Reform Agenda, I thought it would be instructive to lay down the Reforms that were pledged in the manifesto on which the President won the election, and to explain how they have been ignored. Amongst these perhaps the most significant was the pledge about Electoral Reform, which read as follows –

Wednesday January 28

An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality

This pledge was totally ignored. No all party committee was set up, and no one seemed to have been entrusted with the task. The issue only came to the fore when the Opposition made it clear that that had to go through as well, if support for the 19th amendment was expected. Discussions then started, but many of those involved, politicians as well as officials, noted that the Prime Minister kept stalling. He ignored the clear information the Elections Commissioner gave about how a compromise formula could be implemented swiftly, and kept insisting that the change could not be made in time for his main ambition to be fulfilled, namely having Parliament dissolved on April 23rd. The constant reiteration of that theme and date by his sycophants in his party made clear that that was what they thought the President’s manifesto was about, not the range of reforms that had been put forward.

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qrcode.30227748In the last couple of weeks we have seen what seems total rejection of the ideals of Good Governance through which this government came to office. I shall look today at the performance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, having spent time previously on another vital Ministry, that of Finance. But I should note that with regard to many others – with a few honourable exceptions of course – there seems little activity, so that it is not just principles of Good Governance that are being breached, but the very idea of Governance.

I regret very much that Karu Jayasuriya has done nothing thus far with regard to the important task allotted to him with regard to Governance. I appreciate the fact that, given relations between him and Ranil he feels diffident, but that should not stop him taking initiatives in areas that will win him universal commendation. He could for instance easily stop the excessive perks that politicians enjoy, in particular the opportunities to abuse Ministry funds provided by the constitution of Ministerial private offices.

In my former Ministry for instance, now a Cabinet portfolio with a Deputy too, the perks of office continue unabated. My former staff, whose use of the vehicles to which they were entitled I restricted, have told me how many vehicles the Ministers, or rather their private staff, use between them. Meanwhile the two Ministers together are less in office than I was, and there is little progress in the University sector, with the imbroglio over the latest and the previous Advanced Levels continuing in the Courts. And though the new Cabinet Minister finally looked at the Act we had drafted, he like many others seems to think that there is no point in any action since an election is imminent.

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qrcode.30213992Democracy developed apace in Britain in the 19th century, and the Ceylonese began to ask for similar rights for themselves. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was impossible for the British government to refuse such demands. The Liberal Party had returned to office in 1906 and many years, on a reform platform that included reducing the power of the House of Lords, in pursuit of its belief that final decisions should rest with the elected representatives of the people. Though they did not extend democracy on such lines to the colonies, they began  a process which did lead to universal franchise in Sri Lanka within a quarter of a century after the reform process began.

McCallum Constitution: The Elective Principle

In 1912, the elective principle was introduced in the Legislative Council. According to the principle just one representative was to be elected by all ‘educated’ Ceylonese. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, perhaps in recognition of his contribution, was voted to this position by a substantial majority in what was a largely Sinhalese electorate. He justified this faith in his representative capabilities when he argued passionately on behalf of the Sinhalese imprisoned by the British after the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. Legend attributes the reaction of the government in Britain to representations made by E.W.Perera, who travelled to England after the riots. But that would have been far too late to save the imprisoned Ceylonese, and in reality it was Ramanathan who did most for the victimised Sinhalese.

Among the prisoners was  D. S.Senanayake who later went on to become the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka. The British administration in Colombo was threatening the severest penalties of martial law against him. It was Ramanathan’s spirited attack against the unjustified violence of the British reaction to the riots that roused the attention of the British government. When the British government was informed by telegraph of his protest, it decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach and to recall the then Governor of Ceylon.

These incidents occurred after the Colebrooke Constitution had been replaced by a constitution implemented by Governor McCallum. The franchise, by now, had been extended in Britain to include all adult males and therefore it was believed necessary to provide some concession to the elective principle in Ceylon. It was seen as one of the more advanced colonies, suitable for experiments because of its small size. The Executive Council remained unchanged, but the Legislative Council was expanded to 21, including ten unofficial members, four of whom were to be elected. Of the four elected members two were Europeans, one a Burgher and one an ’educated’ Ceylonese. The other six—three Sinhalese, two Tamils and a Muslim—were to be appointed by the governor.

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qrcode.30183456I was deeply concerned about what seems corruption in the Central Bank, an institution that had never previously roused any suspicion on such grounds. What we have thus far discovered at the Committee on Public Enterprises is startling, but obviously I cannot refer to this now.

I thought therefore of basing this article on the observations of Dr W A Wijewardena, former Deputy Governor of the Bank, who writes a regular column on Economic Matters.  Some weeks back his article was entitled ‘From bomb disaster to bond disaster: How to restore the lost reputation of the Central Bank’.

He dealt first with the bomb attack on the Central Bank way back in 1996. I still remember the incident vividly, since my sister was caught up in the attack, but unlike many of her colleagues she survived unhurt, being only drenched in blood (and walked back in that condition to our house).

Dr Wijewardena’s article commended the prompt actions of the Governor at the time, A S Jayewardena. Having described the actions he took to ensure that the Bank continued to fulfil its financial obligations, he discussed the way the media was handled. I can do no better than quote at length from what he said, in dealing with ‘a media briefing that was attended by both the local media and all the major international media agencies that had a presence in Sri Lanka. This was the opportunity which AS used to communicate to the Bank’s stakeholders that the Bank was not dead, it had started to offer its services through alternative methods until it would get back to normalcy and it would soon restore normalcy as desired by its stakeholders. The media, exercising their right to extract all the information to keep their respective audiences informed of the true status, were very critical and posed scathing questions to Governor and the senior officers of the Bank. Their questions were particularly directed to ascertain whether there was any cover-up of the true damage caused to the Bank by its senior officers. This was in fact a testing of the maturity and experience of Governor Jayawardena who was a career central banker, a former Finance Secretary and an international civil servant. Prior to the media briefing, the senior management of the Bank had participated in a crucial staff meeting and a meeting with CEOs of commercial banks. Hence, they were privy to what was happening and therefore could meet the press with one voice. That was important to quell the suspicions of the media-personnel. Thus, the media briefing was successful in communicating the Bank’s position to its stakeholders.’

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qrcode.30141748Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.

Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?

I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.

But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.

I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.

Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?

Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.

I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2015
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