CaptureDevelopments in the two weeks I was away suggest that the government is, a year before I expected it, hurtling towards its end. Or rather I should say towards its end as we know it, since the manner in which the Elections Bill was changed at whim suggests that we are back to the days of J R Jayewardene and his manoeuvers to stay in power at any cost. We can therefore expect strategies on the lines of the first few amendments to the Constitutions which

  1. Stymied the Courts which had delivered a judgment in favour of Mrs Bandaranaike when J R was engaged in stripping her of her Civic Rights
  2. Allowed him to have a Presidential election at a convenient time whereas the Constitution had earlier had fixed terms which is the norm with regard to an Executive Presidency
  3. Permitted a Referendum to extend the term of Parliament even though the Constitution itself specifically laid down that the term of that Parliament, elected under the first past the post system, ended in July 1983

Unfortunately the Joint Opposition is not very good at dealing with such manoeuvers, and we will see much sleight of hand with regard to perverting democracy in the months to come. The only positive aspect is that this President I think has a conscience and will not be the lead plotter, as Jayewardene was. But his conscience has not always triumphed. And as we saw when he dissolved Parliament before fulfilling his solemn promises, or when he sacked the secretaries of the parties he headed, including the coalition group which allowed him no such authority, he can be panicked into behaving badly.

The fact then that his heart still seems to be in the right place, as shown by his robust defence of the Attorney General’s Department against UNP calumnies, may not prove enough to save us from a repetition of the horrors of the mid-eighties. But the behavior of others suggests that they too know that sticking with the Wickremesinghe formula of lopsided and selective development will destroy the last vestiges of popular favour. Read the rest of this entry »

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CaptureIn the midst of continuing dysfunctionality, increasing evidence of financial corruption, arbitrary decisions at education, abrupt changes of personnel initially introduced with great hype, it was good last week to receive some positive news. This was in the form of a circular issued by the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs with regard to Divisional and District Secretariat Development Forums.

This is the first indication that there is at least some concern with regard to the commitment in the President’s manifesto, that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.

I had hoped for some input from Mr Abeykoon, since he had been Secretary of the then larger Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs when we had tried, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, to introduce some order into the functions of regional government agencies. It was following the excellent report on the subject by Asoka Goonewardene – whom I was glad to see the Prime Minister had subsequently roped into his little committee to suggest reforms for the public sector – that I suggested that idea for the manifesto. I was delighted that it was accepted, but then all interest seemed to lapse.

I had been particular worried about this because there was simply no coordination at all with regard to service delivery. The staff in the Divisional Secretariat had not been briefed properly about their responsibilities, nor how to work. This was perhaps understandable since many of them had been taken on for government to win political points by giving jobs to unemployed graduates – including those with external degrees, which seemed even madder than usual – and there had been no attempt to train them properly or ensure that they understood their dual responsibilities, to the line ministries to which they were attached as well as to the head of the government administration in the area in which they were deployed, namely the Divisional Secretary.

The problem was further compounded by what were termed Coordinating Committees, which did nothing of the sort. They were chaired by politicians, generally Basil’s favourite. Since the man’s idea of administration was to empower sycophants, in the North and the East he gave enormous authority in this regard to Rishard and Hisbullah, both of whom made an effortless transition to the new regime.

Neither cared overmuch about consultation or coordination, so I found that in many places the Coordinating Committee had not met for months. I suggested then to the Divisional Secretaries, who suffered from this, that they should hold the meetings on schedule, and politely tell the Chair, if he was busy and suddenly asked for postponement, that this was not possible. But to keep him happy they could tell him that decisions would be subject to his concurrence.

Unfortunately they were too nervous to do this. Now however they have been specifically told that ‘After the dates for the Divisional or District Coordinating Committee are finalized on the calendar, unless it be a national reason, the fixed dates shall not be altered and although it is difficult for certain representatives to attend the meeting, the committee shall have the authority of convening the meetings and taking action accordingly. At a time when the Co-chairpersons fail to attend a certain committee meeting, the proceedings of the meeting should be continued by adopting a proposal for a temporary Chairman. Accordingly the proceedings held in such a manner shall be equally valid as the proceedings of the meeting chaired by the Co-chairpersons.’ Read the rest of this entry »

I have spent the last few weeks looking at both our parliamentarians and the public service, and these are certainly areas in which reforms are urgently required. At its simplest, we need a public service that works efficiently for the public, rather than for politicians. We need politicians who understand what their responsibilities are, to constituents as well as to the country at large, and who fulfil those responsibilities efficiently and effectively.

But we also need citizens who can contribute actively both to governance and to the development process. For this purpose we need a radical overhaul of our education system, which according to recent studies

  1. is failing to develop the cognitive skills on large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English (a recent ILO report)
  2. At present a large number of students are leaving the school education either at or before GCE OL without obtaining proper knowledge, skills, competencies and qualifications necessary for their lives and world of work (Ministry of Education Discussion Paper 20160404 – 2016)
  3. not only the structure, but also the contents and delivery of curriculum should be reformed for better relevance to modern society, more focusing on nurturing ability to learn, absorb and apply knowledge rather than learning static knowledge itself (ADB comments on proposals for reform)
  4. mechanisms to ensure seamless transition between the different branches of education, and to increase the appeal of vocational training, have not been developed (TVEC Policy Paper)

Read the rest of this entry »

In the last couple of weeks I looked at current problems with regard to Members of Parliament and put forward suggestions as to how things might be improved. The meeting for which I prepared the paper that was the basis of my last article was most interesting. There were clear areas of consensus, in particular that we needed a new electoral system. Indeed one very pleasant interlocutor asked why we were stressing this since it had been agreed that a change would be made. Sadly he had not followed the manner in which, for the last two and a half years, the Prime Minister has blocked electoral reform, despite the best will of both the President and the Elections Commissioner.

Interesting statistics were put forward during the seminar, including the fact that 94 current Members had not passed the Ordinary Level Exam, and 68 had not passed the Advanced Level Exam. 38 had passed that, but gone no further, which means we have only 25 degree holders in Parliament.

I am not sure if those statistics are accurate, and indeed one participant noted that academic qualifications did not necessarily mean one made a good member of Parliament. That is certainly true, but that does not mean that Parliamentarians do not need intellectual and analytical capacities. Given that obviously these will be very different in different people – and as a recent ILO study put it, our education system has failed in the development of cognitive skills – there is clear need for training for Members of Parliament, even the graduates. This should be done by parties with regard to candidates, as well as the administration of Parliament following an election, but of course nothing of the sort happens.

Another question put forward was why the Sri Lankan public, which is comparatively educated, vote for those with less education than themselves. The answer of course is that they have to vote for candidates put forward by parties, and it is parties who are utterly irresponsible in their choice of candidates. Read the rest of this entry »

I wrote last week about how we need to improve the quality of our representatives in Parliament. I concentrated there on ensuring individuals who are accountable to particular areas, and therefore need the planning capacity to work for those they represent. But I also noted their wider responsibilities, and that indeed was what the OPA was primarily concerned with, in organizing a Seminar on Suggestions for Improving the Quality of Our Legislators.

 

But before embarking on this, we need to understand what exactly we mean by the term legislators. At its simplest, it means law makers, but we have to understand law here in terms of the functions of Parliament. And here, while Parliament is there to make laws, it also has a second function that springs from its legislative function. Amongst the most important laws it makes are those affecting the finances of the country. Hence the need to have an annual budget, which is supposed to be discussed at length by all Parliamentarians. And then,  since it is Parliament that allocates the finances which are used by the executive branch, it must make sure these are used in accordance with the provisions it makes. Hence it must monitor the use of funds by the executive.

These are the principal functions of Parliament. But because we are still steeped in the Westminster system, we confuse the functions of Parliament as Parliament with those of the executive branch of government, which on the Westminster model is based in Parliament. Even though we moved in 1978 to an Executive Presidency, we have – uniquely amongst countries which elect an Executive President independently of a parliamentary election – maintained the rest of the Executive in Parliament. Incidentally I should note that my despair about what passes for Departments of Political Science in this country is that there has been no serious research about both the rationale and the impact of J R Jayawardena’s decision to violate the commitment of his manifesto to have an executive outside Parliament. Read the rest of this entry »

Coincidentally, shortly after I began work on suggesting new ways of working in the Public Sector, I was asked to contribute to a workshop on ways in which to develop the capacity of Members of Parliament. This was a request from the Organization of Professional Associations, which I recall contributing significantly to public policy several years ago. It seems recently to have lain relatively dormant, which saddened me, not least because it had a great opportunity in 2015 when a government committed to reforms was elected.

Sadly many of those who genuinely believed in good governance thought they had elected a government committed to this, and relaxed. Before long they realized that good governance was not at all intended by the Prime Minister who was calling the shots. He was more concerned with winning the next General Election, and for that purpose he had to ensure that the President remained a cipher. So the President did nothing constructive in the six months in which he could have asserted himself because of the strong SLFP presence in Parliament.

Instead, as he said when I complained about the first breach of his manifesto, he had left those matters to Ranil and Chandrika. He advised me to speak to them, but I said I would do nothing of the sort. I had come out in support of him, and I did not think I had any reason to appeal to two people who had shown themselves failures when they had had power. Read the rest of this entry »

The National Human Resources Development Council has recently set up a Committee to look at new ways of working in the Public Sector. I have been appointed to chair this, which makes sense because I have been writing for some time now about the need for radical reform in this field, and suggesting ways in which things should change. This is essential if the country is not to continue to decline irrevocably.

But I am obviously not the only person who senses a deep malaise in the country as a whole. Recent comments by Prof Siri Hettige, who had been appointed to chair the Police Commission after the passing of the 19th Amendment, are depressing to read, for he thinks that ‘The government seems to have lost direction’ and that ‘We have run out of viable political options’.

There is little doubt that this government is on its last legs but, as he suggests, a reversion to what we had before will not help matters. The recent catastrophe with regard to Uma Oya, and revelations about the manner in which a disastrous project was thrust upon the nation, make clear that the last government also allowed corruption to inflict irreparable damage upon us. We knew this and that was why, even though it had achieved a great success with regard to the gravest problem facing the country, it was rejected at the polls. But given that this government has proved even more corrupt, and wasteful, and ‘is not making any headway’, as Prof Hettige puts it, with regard to development, clearly many people are beginning to feel that those in charge previously would do a better job than those making decisions now.

I think so too and, as I put it two years ago, even though I think Maithripala Sirisena was the right choice for the Presidency, a government under him led by Mahinda Rajapaksa was a better option than one led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The President too seemed to think this was the case, when he gave Mahinda Rajapaksa nomination, but then panic set in. The problem was that those around Maithripala who had failed to support him at a time of difficulty poisoned his mind about Mahinda, while those around Mahinda kept declaring that Maithri would be got rid of, which exacerbated the latter’s fears. So we ended up with Ranil, even though he is disliked intensely by a majority of the people in the country, and indeed several leading lights in the UNP who see him as a Pied Piper, leading them into disaster for the third time.

While I find Ranil’s hypocrisy and incompetence, combined with a serene belief in his own capacities, quite abhorrent, I think however that we must look beyond individuals to the structural changes that the country needs. The last government made several commitments in this regard in its manifesto, but nothing has been done about these save a few cosmetic changes through the 19th amendment.

I have noted previously that the failure to change the electoral system was perhaps the worst blunder the government made. The President has declared recently that it breeds corruption, so it is sad that he did not abide by his commitment to ensure that it was changed before the last General Election. It is still not too late for him to ensure change in this regard, but he must realize that nothing will be done if he continues with Ranil as Prime Minister. Read the rest of this entry »

I am very sorry for what Britain is going through at the moment, and even sadder, to be parochial, that this should be happening when its leadership is more decent and straightforward than at any time in the last two decades. But poor Theresa is suffering now for the sins of her predecessors, who took Britain into wars that privileged extremists.

Britain may be shocked now about the revelations about the Libyan connection to the terrorism in Manchester. But its people should – as Corbyn as tried to point out – make the connection between that and the vicious manner in which Gaddafi was removed, making use of extremists who are obviously motivated by hate and see violence as a ready answer to whatever they think alien.

With India also now blindly following a Western line – as some of its rulers did a few hundred years back because of their fear of neighbours, only to find the British more ruthless taskmasters when they had established their hegemony – it is left only to a few brave Latin American countries to point out the wickedness as well as the absurdity of what the West is up to (as when Trump responded violently, as jihadists to, to yet another allegation of chemical warfare – which more objective observers attribute to the chosen instruments of the West, whether spurred on by them or not remaining uncertain).

I regret then the days when Dayan was in Geneva, and made common cause with the brilliant Indian diplomats there, as well as others representing a neutral perspective. Now, forbidden to intervene except to kowtow to the West, we will no longer enjoy the influence we had in those days, when for instance we were invited to take on a lead role in the Group of Fifteen (which Mangala proceeded to entrust to Gihan Indragupta, who had been attacking our forces even when he was being recruited to the Foreign Ministry).

It is a pity that we have been silenced, for recently, courtesy of one of the few Britishers to stand up for principle, we have been provided with evidence of the duplicity of the British in their efforts to convict our decent soldiery of war crimes. We have now received, although with some important areas blacked out, the reports of the then British Defence Attache, Lt Col Anton Gash, during the last period of the war. Amongst his observations was stress on the ‘compassion, respect and concern’ shown by the soldiers for those being evacuated – and mention of the fact that these had ‘release’ passes issued by the LTTE. Read the rest of this entry »

I referred last week to the manner in which Chandrika and her cohorts were promoting Reconciliation. In the nineties she and Mangala had embarked on the Sudu Nelum movement, which did not win hearts and minds but at least that functioned in areas which were supposed to have a majority mindset that was to be changed.

In time however the idea of Reconciliation through cultural activity became the preserve of the elite. As I noted when I took over the Peace Secretariat, vast amounts of money were given to those with good connections to produce propaganda supposed to promote peace. I used to call this the Dancing Butterflies syndrome, different coloured youngsters moving together so as, in theory at any rate, to encourage ethnic binding. Not entirely coincidentally, those who governed the funds awarded money to each other, Uyangoda being a principal culprit in this regard through the Social Scientists’ Association, while Young Asia Television was by far the largest beneficiary.  No one bothered to measure the impact of all this work, or rather of all this money for very little work.

Now the practice has begun again, and the elite have produced what is termed ‘A Conversation across Generations’, targeted at ‘bridging a gap between the generations – a gap of comprehension, a gap of empathy, of knowledge or perspective’. The technique employed was, it seems, to interview older people and create monologues from their memoirs.

I was invited to a performance of four monologues, and am very glad I went, since a couple were most entertaining. The most entertaining told us little about the past though, one being a wryly amusing account of an old lady trying to cope with the modern technology through which her children, now living abroad, try to maintain contact. Pia Hatch, daughter of two memorable stage stars of the seventies, Graham and Michelle Leembruggen, was delightful as an old lady not sure what buttons to push or how to deal with a Skype call.

The second lively performance was in fact a dialogue, between a lady who had been great friends with those who plotted the 1962 coup and her devoted manservant. His asides were most amusing, while Ranmali Mirchandani captured superbly the cocooned life of ladies of leisure in those distant days. I suspect nothing much has changed, except that they now have to jostle with those whose wealth is more recent to exercise influence with decision makers. Read the rest of this entry »

I was sent recently a link to a bizarre article headlined ‘Retired MI5 Agent Confesses On Deathbed: “I Killed Princess Diana”’. It appeared on a site called ‘YourNewsWire.com’ and was supposed to be written by someone called Baxter Dmitry – about whom there seems to be some controversy, in that there are claims that he is the same person as writes under other names too.

The article itself is not very plausible, though it is accompanied by a splendid photograph of an old man in a hospital bed. And another website called ‘www.snopes.com’ claimed ‘There was no truth to the story, which originated with YourNewsWire, a fake news site. As is often the case with fake news, the article lacked critical details such as when and where the confession occurred or how the purported assassination took place, and no other credible news outlet (or even tabloid) reported the story.’

This last is not quite true in that the ‘Daily Star’, a tabloid founded to match the ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘The Sun’, did report the story though it claimed that the story was found to be fake. But it gave no reason for this last assertion save stating that Snopes had said so.

All this is of a piece with the manner in which news is manufactured, not just for sensation and denigration of individuals, but for political purposes. We are all now aware of the lies that Tony Blair perpetrated so that he could support George Bush over the Iraq war. We are aware of the way in which Gaddafi was vilified with false allegations that he was planning a bloodbath in Libya, a pack of lies that was used by the West to perpetrate its own continuing bloodbath all over the Islamic world. We know of the false claims about Assad using chemical weapons some years back, when the UN made it clear that the likelihood was that these weapons had been used by the rebels the West was then backing.

More recently there was another allegation against Assad which led to Trump bombing Syria – even though now it is clear that it is the rebels who have access to chemical weapons, as a very recent article on the BBC makes clear. Quentin Sommerville records notes by a fighter in which ‘in the munitions section and in his own handwriting, he lists “chemical munitions” as a weapon. There’s been much debate over whether IS has used chemical weapons in Mosul. Here at least, we know they are trained and prepared to use them.’

But there has been no demand for accountability with regard to the public lies that have created so much mayhem in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2018
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