One of my more naïve assumptions as I entered Parliament, in April 2010, was that it was an independent institution. I also assumed that it was the role of backbenchers, even on the government side, to bring issues to the attention of the executive. I was therefore the first member on the government side to ask a question, and also the first to propose an adjournment motion.

Some of my colleagues actually questioned this and suggested I was trying to embarrass the government. But at a Parliamentary Group Meeting the President indicated that we should get involved in such parliamentary practices, and not leave it all to the opposition, whereupon others followed suit.

I was less lucky about another initiative I started, which was to propose adjournment motions signed also by opposition members. I had found several who seemed like me to want the dignity of Parliament upheld, but after I had got several signatures – Ramesh Pathirana and Neranjan Wickremesinghe from the UPFA, Rosy Senanayake and Buddhika Pathirana from the UNP, Sunil Handunetti of the JVP and Mr Saravanaparvan of the TNA and Mr Radhakrishnan of the UPF – one member of the government group questioned the concept and, sure enough, at the next Parliamentary group meeting, the President said this was not proper. Unbeknownst to me, his idea of promoting consensus was to bring people over to then vote with government on all issues – which happened soon afterwards, giving the government a 2/3rd majority – not, as I had hoped, to promote initiatives which parliamentarians on all sides would favour. As a matter of interest, I give here the text of the motion which eight of us signed and handed in to the Leader of the House –

We, the undersigned Members of Parliament, representing a cross-section of parties, request that the following adjournment motion be taken up for discussion as soon s possible –

That this House do stand adjourned to regret the numerous occasions on which Parliamentary questions have to be postponed again and again because of a failure to provide answers in time; to request Hon Ministers, while recognizing that such delays are due to circumstances beyond their control, to emphasize to Ministry staff and Heads of Departments the importance of providing answers quickly; to suggest that Ministries should set up systems to maintain records more carefully so as to have essential information readily available; to urge the relevant Ministries to devise and implement swiftly training programmes for public servants that will ensure skills in line with the requirements of a knowledge society; to request a thorough overhaul of the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration to promote the provision of courses that may receive appropriate accreditation , to improve soft skills of communication and analysis as well as administration; and to urge the entrenchment in the public service of a culture of swift responsiveness to the needs of the public, with regard to information as well as action.

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The Paranagama and the Geneva Reports: Attempts to Mislead the Public – Pt 1 contd.,

  • Question 10:

The Government has alleged that the Paranagama Report agrees with the Channel 4 video allegations.   Is that true?

  • Answer

Not at all.  It is a deliberate misreading of the Paranagama Report.   At paragraph 428, the Paranagama Report states explicitly “ the authenticity of the video footage is not an issue that the Commission can resolve…”.

If, of course, the authenticity of the video is proved, that would establish a prima facia case.   The Paranagama Commission goes on to advocate that there should be a proper judicial inquiry.

Indeed the very same was suggested by the LLRC report, which called for an independent investigation.      Thus to say that the Paranagama Commission has validated the genuineness of the Channel 4 footage is false.  Because if it had, what would be the necessity to call for an inquiry to ascertain the authenticity of the footage?   Indeed the Paranagama Commission criticizes Channel 4 in paragraph 432 (page 105) for failing to supply the original film footage.  Why would the Paranagama Commission do this, if it had accepted the film footage as authentic?


  • Question 11

What is the link between the OISL report and the Darusman Report with respect to the gravity of the allegations made against Sri Lanka?

  • Answer

The answer to this question is to be found in paragraph 22 (page 8) of the OISL report which reads as follows:    “ Another key source of information was the United Nation’s Secretary General’s panel of experts headed by Mazuki Darusmann with experts Yasmin Sooka and Steven Ratner.”

Thus, it is quite clear, that the OISL report is firmly grounded in the grave allegations made by the Darusman Report.   Therefore it raises the question as to why the Paranagama Commission 2nd Mandate Report which dealt with most of the allegations in the Darusman Report was not tabled in Geneva by the Government.

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I have refrained thus far from getting involved in the debate over the Geneva Resolution for a number of reasons. One is a commitment to finalize a few books, and in particular an account of what Sri Lanka did right, in winning the war, and then did wrong in losing the peace.

Secondly, I had long felt that the last government was destroying the country by its ostrich approach to the allegations made against us. As I told Al Jazeera on the day I expressed publicly my support for the Maithripala Sirisena candidacy, when hardly any one else who was part of the previous government took the plunge, I felt that a continuation of the Rajapaksa Presidency would lead to disaster. I was glad someone who had stood foursquare behind the President during the war years was the challenger, because while I hoped he would correct the faults that had arisen after the war, I assumed he would stand by the achievement of the first Rajapaksa Presidency in eradicating terrorism from Sri Lanka.

I was deeply disappointed that the new government did not embark on the reforms it had promised, and also disappointed that it did not move swiftly towards transparency on the question of accountability. I proposed at my first Parliamentary Group meeting that we should publish the Udalagama Commission Report, because I believed its findings would make clear that our judiciary was perfectly capable of conducting a credible inquiry. I had also long argued that justice needed to be done for the boys killed in Trincomalee, and had repeated urged the President to ensure that indictments were made.

The Prime Minister said he would look into the matter, but it was not even minuted – as opposed to mechanisms to find vehicles and provide jobs for supporters – and after I left the group it was forgotten. The same seems to have happened to the Paranagama Report, to which, belatedly, the Rajapaksa government had added value through the advice of international lawyers who were aware, unlike the Foreign Ministry, of the danger of the charges made against us.

Just as, alone of Parliamentarians, I had two years ago signed a petition about the killings at Weliveriya, I signed this year a petition asking the President to ensure that justice was done to our forces by publicizing the Report. While I had no doubt that, like the LLRC, it would demand accountability with regard to events as to which there was prima facie evidence of abuse, it would make it clear that the worst charges against us were incorrect.

Sadly my detailed defence of the errors in the Darusman Report was completely ignored by decision makers in the last government, except for the one person who understood the importance of our image. When nothing was done and we subscribed to a resolution that detracts from the very principles on which the UN had been established, I feared that the same lack of intelligence was now affecting our decision makers and those advising them. The consequences to the country will be equally disastrous. But to go on telling decision makers they are being silly did not help in the last few years, and I did not think one should continue beating one’s head against yet another brick wall.

However what seems to be subterfuge in Parliament makes me wonder whether I am wrong to assume just incompetence, and whether I should worry about an agenda that will strip this country of all self respect. After all, eight years ago, I recall those now in authority trying to stop our defeat of terrorism by invoking foreign assistance.

I have therefore engaged in some study of the issues through experts on the subject, and would like to bring the following facts into the public domain, through a simple question and answer exercise –

  • Question 1:

Do you accept the statements made by the Government in relation to the 1st and 2nd mandate reports issued by the Presidential Commission to Investigate Missing Persons, otherwise known as the Paranagama Commission?

  • Answer :

No, because the statements made are misleading, and in large measure lacking in truth.  They strike at the very heart of good governance, especially when Parliament and the country as a whole are seeking to discover the truth.

It is essential that the Government briefs Parliament correctly about the various allegations made against the Government of Sri Lanka and our Armed Forces by two key UN reports known as the “Darusman Report” and the “ OISL Report”.  The Government also has the duty to inform the nation about what it has committed to implement in terms of a judicial mechanism in the co-sponsored UN resolution.   The fact that these important reports were not translated into our National languages Sinhala and Tamil, and also there was no effort made to make them available widely, through both the release of an electronic soft copy version of it and printed versions, appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep the public in the dark.

The Government failed during the Parliamentary debate to truthfully point out the positive aspects of the recommendations contained in the 2nd mandate report of the Paranagama Commission and how the conclusions of the international experts consulted by the Paranagama Commission have exonerated the armed forces of Sri Lanka from the suggestion of “genocide” that maligned our country after the release of the Darusman Report.   The Paranagama Report also refutes the crimes against humanity charges against Sri Lanka.

  • Question 2:

Is it true or false that the Paranagama Commission recommended a hybrid court similar to the Gambian Model to be implemented in Sri Lanka as suggested by the Government?

  • Answer:

It is false.    The Paranagama Commission’s Second Mandate report that was tabled in Parliament proposed ONLY a pure domestic mechanism and not a hybrid court.  Under Chapter 8 of the Report, paragraph number 625 and 626, it explicitly explains this mechanism.

In order to deal with an accountability mechanism suitable to Sri Lanka, it was incumbent upon the Commission to embark upon a review of measures taken in other countries before proposing a specific mechanism for Sri Lanka.

In paragraph 624, the Paranagama Commission lists out several different options available to the Government to consider, providing a review of all the mechanisms.   In paragraph 625, the Paranagama Commission sets out the proposed mechanism under the sub-heading “Proposed Mechanism”.   The Mechanism that the Paranagama Commission had recommended here is wholly domestic and coupled with a TRC that makes it a unique mechanism for Sri Lanka.

Thus the reference to the Gambian example being advocated by the Paranagama Commission is  misleading,   especially when a clear mechanism, purely of a domestic kind, without foreign judicial intervention of any kind had been proposed by the Paranagama Commission.

In Paragraph 616 of the Report, The Commission says “In the event Sri Lanka was to set up a purely domestic tribunal without the participation of any foreign judges, it is the view of the Commission, that there should be international technical assistance and observers”. International technical assistance does not equal foreign judges sitting in judgement over Sri Lankan citizens.

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Five years ago the country was full of promise. I believe that promise could easily have been fulfilled, had government not fallen prey to a few rent seekers. What happened, in particular in the last couple of years, was tragic, and I believe a full study of the triumph and the tragedy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be immensely illuminating.

But that should be undertaken after more reflection. In this series I will look only at a few measures that could easily have been undertaken without controversy, to have strengthened relations between the government and the people. I am sure many individuals had many ideas, but obviously I can only discuss in some detail those I had personal knowledge of. I will therefore in this series look at some of the work I tried to do, which was stymied more through neglect than deliberate policy – except perhaps with regard to one or two individuals, who could brook no rivalry (something from which President Sirisena too suffered). For this purpose I will go through some of the letters and memoranda I sent over the years, with decreasing impact.

To go back to 2010, President Rajapaksa had succeeded the previous year, against what seemed insuperable odds, in eliminating the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Then he had won the Presidential election handsomely, despite the range of support, national and international, received by his opponent, General Sarath Fonseka. He had also won the parliamentary election that followed, with a healthy majority.

Reconstruction was proceeding apace in the North, and the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres was moving ahead successfully. The over 4000 suspects, who had been in custody before the conclusion of the war, had been reduced to well under 2000. For this purpose the President had appointed a Committee which I chaired, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and we had received full cooperation from the relevant authorities, the army and the police and prisons officials. And the National Human Rights Action Plan, which had been abandoned during the election period, was being finalized.

I was no longer officially in charge, for I was now in Parliament. The Ministry of Human Right had been abolished and, when I inquired as to what would happen about this vital area, I was told that it would be looked after by the Ministry of External Affairs. But the Ministry was ill equipped for such a task, and indeed it failed to make proper use of my project staff, who had been transferred there. In fact, because of bureaucratic delays, it lost the services of our able consultant Nishan Muthukrishna, and I began to wonder whether the Action Plan was doomed. But then the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, was put in charge. Though he was very busy, he allowed our meetings to be held in his office, and we were able to move swifty and have a final draft approved by Cabinet the following year.

I had expected to receive a Ministry, since there seemed no purpose in having someone who was not a constituency politician, and had no ambitions to become one, in Parliament without other functions. I gather this had been planned, but the delay in finalizing the election results proved fatal, and I was told there was strong opposition to my being appointed by those who disliked my pluralistic credentials and my support for the 13th Amendment. The Swiss Ambassador at the time had told me she had heard I was to become Foreign Minister, but that seemed far-fetched. Education seemed more likely, but then Lalith Weeratunge told Kumar Rupesinghe, who said he had been pushing for this, that they had found someone far more suitable. Bandula Gunawardena was accordingly appointed.

I did not worry about this, for I thought I should in any case learn more about Parliament, and I had assumed, having known Parliament previously from the days when my father was Secretary General, that members could contribute to legislation and policy decisions. That was intended according to the Standing Orders, which I studied because, unexpectedly, I was put on the Committee on Standing Orders. I had not asked for that, or the Committee on Public Enterprises, but these soon became my main areas of concentration.

With regard to Ministry Consultative Committees, I was not put on those for Defence and for External Relations which I had asked for, given my previous work in those areas as Head of the Peace Secretariat. But I was interested enough in some of the others I was appointed to, including Women’s Affairs and Child Development, and also Resettlement. But I soon found that these were not productive bodies, being occupied for the most part with individual constituency concerns.

I tried to change this, and was happy when Manthri, the organization that monitors the work of Members of Parliament, reported recently that I was the most active in this regard of National List MPs, and in the first ten of all MPs. They were able to do this because, after I pressed the matter, the Secretary General decided to publish the proceedings of Committees. These make clear how few members bother to attend, and indeed how infrequently meetings are held. Indeed, in the over five months in which a government supposedly dedicated to strengthening Parliament was in office, just nine committee meetings were held, whereas there should have been one a month for each Ministry, a total of about 150.

Meanwhile the Committee on Standing Orders came to a standstill. We had proceeded swiftly after our first meeting, at which it became clear that not many of the members had much interest in the matter or any great understanding of the issues involved. But they were happy to let those of us who were keen on the matter – namely the Deputy Speaker, Chandima Weerakkody, Mr Sumanthiran of the TNA and myself – to work intensively. We had redrafted about a quarter of the document when all hell broke loose.

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qrcode.31254677I was asked recently in an interview to mention seven areas of priority for the new Parliament. I began with Education and Reconciliation which have long been priorities for me. But then I also noted some other areas in which structural change was essential.

One of these was providing greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making. But I did not by this mean a return to the old debate about devolution and sharing power between the Centre and Provincial governments. My stress was on more power to local bodies, and I also thought it vital to develop better consultation mechanisms.

I am glad that the UPFA manifesto notes this need, and I hope they will study the progress made in this area by the Ministry of Public Administration, working in collaboration with UNDP. A couple of years back the Ministry Secretary sent out a circular about regular meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and he also issued, together with the Secretary for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a circular setting up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. Building on such initiatives, there was an excellent report prepared by Asoka Gunewardena on improving Service Delivery in the Divisions. This should be used to flesh out the manifesto, leading I hope to fulfilment of the President’s commitment in his January manifesto that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area’.

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qrcode.31217364I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.

Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.

In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.

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qrcode.31104759After he won election, Jayewardene ignored his own political theories when he found himself in command of almost absolute power following the massive electoral victory in 1977. He was virtually unquestionable for, along with Senanayake, most of those who had held cabinet office in the 1965 UNP government were dead. Jayewardene was more senior than all those who remained and he soon dismissed his only contemporary, a cabinet minister who had been with him in the 1950s.

The fact that he did not implement his proposals was clearly his own decision rather than the result of political compromise. He probably realised that his control of parliament would be enhanced by continuing the requirement that the cabinet should be drawn from parliament. The executive would not be criticised by members of his own party if they were hoping to join it and if its senior members were present with them in parliament. Another reason may have been that he was winning over members of other parties by offering them executive positions. It would have been embarrassing if they had to vacate their parliamentary seats for this new system, in which case candidates would have had to be nominated to the seats by either Jayewardene himself or the party to which they had originally belonged.

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qrcode.31050227By giving parties the right to expel members from Parliament, Jayewardene destroyed an important principle of parliamentary democracy—the independence of members of parliament. The main justification of parliament is that it acts as a check on the executive. In the British system members of the ruling party generally support the government, but they are free to criticise and question it. Turning them into mere lobby fodder, programmed to support the government under any circumstances, makes them redundant.

In Sri Lanka, as time passed, MPs realised that they could invoke the authority of the Supreme Court against arbitrary expulsions. But such a move set them in a position of hostility against the party. This usually meant they had to cross over to the opposition if they wanted to assert their independence even on a single issue. So Sri Lanka has been deprived of one of the great benefits of the parliamentary system, which in other countries allows members who think on similar political lines to maintain basic loyalty to their party while criticizing anything they find aberrant. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, any dissent leads to oppositioning. So it is rare to find members willing to express different opinions, which happens usually  only if sufficiently large numbers could be brought together for a change of government. But since most parliamentarians are not likely to change loyalties on appeals of conscience alone, financial incentives and promises of future office would have to be used to lure them. Instances of this approach have occurred recently, leading at the end of 2001 to a premature election.

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qrcode.31030374I had intended, in what was to be the last article in this series, to look at the question of external security, and how to work towards bipartisan consensus in the conduct of international relations, so that the nation as a whole is strengthened. At present, on the contrary, we seem, while pursuing partisan political agendas, to allow ourselves to become the playthings of other countries.

Instead of that however, in what will be the last article in this series, I will look at what seems an even more vital issue in the context of the events of last week, namely the question of internal party democracy. That question has been raised by others too previously, but the dismissal by the President of two party secretaries off his own bat has highlighted the problem of intra-party decision making.

Those who defend the actions of the President claim that he was under great pressure, both political and emotional, but even they feel that the actions took away from the great reputation for decency that he had established. And in the long run, given the way the results worked out, it has taken away from what would have been his stature in presiding over a national government. It is still not too late to develop a national consensus, but everyone will have to work all the harder for this purpose if we are to avoid confrontational oppositioning.

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qrcode.30986403The last chapter of my book dealt with election systems, a matter of particular concern today, when we are conducting an election under a system that is universally condemned. One of the most serious tragedies of the Sirisena Presidency thus far is the failure of those to whom he entrusted the reforms he had promised to work immediately (as promised in the manifesto) on electoral reforms. It seems he tried his best, but was defeated by the intransigence of the UNP, and its fear of both the COPE Report and possible No Confidence Motions.

First-Past-the Post System

Reform has been an urgency for a long time, for Sri Lanka was singularly unlucky in the election systems it has adopted over the years. Initially it had the first-past-the-post system used in Britain, whereby the country was divided into constituencies which elected members by a simple majority. In Sri Lanka a few constituencies had more than one member. This was designed to ensure representation of different communities where they were mixed up together so that two separate constituencies would not have served the purpose. Thus, Akurana usually elected one Sinhala and one Muslim member, while Nuwara Eliya, which became a multi-member constituency for the 1977 election, had one representative each of the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC).

In general, however (as opposed to the few multi-member constituencies) the philosophy was that those who won, by however small a margin, took it all. In Britain, the effect of this is mitigated because there are certain constituencies which always stay with one party, so that a party that loses the election still has substantial strength in parliament. In Sri Lanka, however, where most constituencies are what are termed marginals, that is, a small shift either way changes the result, the two major parties found themselves reduced to very small numbers when they lost an election. Thus, the UNP got eight seats out of 101 in 1956 and 17 out of 157 in 1970, while the SLFP had eight out of 168 in 1977. Conversely, the party that won had a massive majority, even though its share of the national vote was just around 50 per cent.

Both in 1970 and in 1977 these massive majorities enabled the party in power to do virtually anything it wanted, including the introduction of new constitutions that represented their narrow interests, and the extension of the term of parliament. It is conceivable that in 1970 those who perpetrated this injustice actually believed in the slogan that parliament was supreme, in that it represented the people. The constitutional principle that representatives elected by the people for a particular period cannot deprive the people of their basic rights was not recognised by them.

Proportional Representation System

J.R. Jayewardene, who presided over the 1977 government and its majoritarian excesses, understood the need for better representation and more safeguards. In his new constitution he introduced proportional representation. He instituted an election system for the future where voting was according to districts. The quota of seats for the district was divided according to the proportion of votes each party got within that district as a whole. In that system, a majority of two-thirds in parliament would mean the mandate of a high percentage of the population.  The special measures passed by such a parliament would enjoy the support of representatives of well over half the population. However, he passed several measures with the two-thirds majority he had obtained under the earlier system, including a bill to amend the Constitution to extend the term of that parliament by a further six years.

Initially, the system of proportional representation Jayewardene introduced simply required voters to select a party. The seats the party won would be allocated to its candidates according to their position in the party list. However, in the first election held under that system—the election for District Development Councils in 1981—Jayewardene realised its drawbacks. Those who were not placed high in the party list found out that they could not be elected. Sometimes they crossed over to another party, which would place them high in their list. If they remained on the list, they did not bother to canvass for votes.

Jayewardene, therefore, amended the legislation to allow the voter three choices for selecting candidates on the list. In principle, the idea of allowing the voter choice was a good one, but allowing one choice per voter would have been enough. Candidates could then have campaigned in designated areas against candidates of the opposing party. By allowing three choices, Jayewardene ensured, not only that all candidates would campaign actively all over the district, but also that they campaigned against the other members of their own parties.

Though he succeeded in his aim, it was at a great cost to the country. To cover an entire district in active campaigning required a lot of money, and soon it became apparent that those who did not have massive resources had to acquire them, in order to stay in the race. Thus, after an election candidates made it their first priority to recover the  money they had spent. There was greater opportunity for corruption and increased instances of violence. Paid workers of political parties, for instance, who were traditionally plied with liquor, often turned violent in the process of putting up posters or tearing down those of other candidates, especially those of their own party.

Other aspects of the legislation introduced by Jayewardene with regard to elections were also faulty.  One provision was that any member of parliament who ceased to be a member of the party from which he had been elected would automatically lose his seat. The argument was that, since a member was elected only by virtue of a vote for the party, he had no individual right to remain as a representative if he no longer belonged to the party. This provision was, however, implemented even for members of the 1977 parliament who had been elected from constituencies as individuals. However, those who had crossed over from the opposition to his party were retained in parliament through a special constitutional amendment. And even when the system of choices within the proportional representation system was introduced, the provision that candidates would lose their seat if they were no longer in the party was retained.

One reason Jayewardene had introduced the provision of losing a seat upon change of party for that it enabled him to exercise a tight control over his party members. While it could be argued that members of political parties should not be allowed to change sides—Jayewardene had first hand experience of the implications of this, since he had been closely associated with the offering of bribes that brought down Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s first government in 1964—the provision entailed that members expelled by their party also lost their seats. Thus, by threatening expulsion against anyone who did not toe the party line, Jayewardene ensured absolute obedience to the party. By the party was meant allegiance to Jayewardene himself as party leader, since there has never been a tradition of internal party democracy in Sri Lankan political parties.

Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2015
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