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 »

After the disappointing 19th amendment I had just over a week in Sri Lanka before leaving on what was to be the most exciting trip of this period. There was much to do however, because I had to go down to Getamanna regarding the survey of the land I hoped to sell there, and I was also engaged in constructing a couple of new bathrooms at Lakmahal. These last were necessitated by the fact that the bathrooms attached to the two biggest bedrooms were on land that now belonged to my brother.

But the workmen I used, who had put up the additions to my cottage, were entirely reliable. I usually worked through Kithsiri, who had found them in the first place, but since I was going to Uzbekistan, I took him along as well, and found when I got back that the work had proceeded without any problems.

I had been helped with regard to Uzbekistan by Yves Giovannoni, who had headed the ICRC office in Colombo, having served previously in that country. My friends at the Embassy in Delhi got me the visa but this was facilitated by his contact Ravil who also arranged a tour that covered everything I wished to see.


After a night in Delhi, we got to Tashkent on the 8th of May, and were met by Ravil who was as nice as Yves had indicated. I had booked a hotel which was near enough to the Russian cathedral for us to walk there that first evening. I then had my first taste of the extraordinary hospitability of the Uzbeks, for as we were walking back a boy spoke to us and then offered to drive us back to the hotel. And that evening also introduced us to Uzbek food, and what was termed Bukhara bread, which was both crisp and luscious. Read the rest of this entry »

Back in Colombo in early April, I went ahead and introduced my proposed 23rd and 24th amendments to the Constitution. During the previous year Vasantha Senanayake and I had discussed proposing some changes, since we felt we had an obligation to make clear the need for reform. He had put forward a Bill then to reduce the size of the Cabinet and was astonished at the reaction. Apart from strong arm tactics from Basil, the President had called him in and told him he was being unduly influenced by me, which made him indignant given his long family commitment to democratic politics. Twice then he withdrew the Bill or rather, as he affirmed since he did not want to close the door completely, postponed it.

With the change of government we had hoped those who had professed commitment to good government would take our proposed reforms on board,  but we soon realized they had no interest in details, and those in charge were keen only to transfer power to the Prime Minister. We ourselves were hamstrung by the fact that we were part of the executive and could not therefore move Private Bills, but when I resigned I was free of this constraint. Unfortunately Vasantha had by then passed on the ownership of his Bill to the JVP, which having agreed to move it promptly reneged on the commitment – and I was then unable to move such a Bill myself since only one Bill on a particular subject could be entertained at any one time.

But with some help from the Bills Office I put forward two Bills and presented them in Parliament on April 9th. One was about Electoral Reform, and the other was a principle I thought essential for an independent Public Service, namely that Permanent Secretaries be appointed by the Public Service Commission, not the President. Both Bills were seconded by Pabha, the actress who had been elected on the UNP list for Gampaha, but who had then crossed over in the mass defection to the government that took place early in 2007. She understood little about politics, but was keen to learn, and had an intrinsic commitment to democratic governance. Read the rest of this entry »

Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

Chairman, Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission

At the opening session of the TVEC / UNEVOC Workshop on

TVET Systems for Sustainable Development:

Innovation and Best Practices in Quality Assurance from South Asia – 20 February 2017


I am pleased, on behalf of the TVEC of Sri Lanka, to welcome participants at this workshop. It is particularly satisfying that we have so many delegates from other countries, since it is important that we meet regularly to exchange ideas, and find out about best practice in other countries. It is especially gratifying that we have so many delegates from Iran, since I believe greater participation of Iran will help us to develop our own regional grouping. SAARC is the slowest moving of regional organizations, for obvious reasons, and I believe the inclusion of Iran, given too the long standing shared cultural heritages of this part of the world, will help us to move forward more quickly and more productively.

Sri Lanka is in great need of such cross-fertilization, for we have had for many decades a dangerous degree of self satisfaction. At the time of independence, over two thirds of a century ago, we had the best statistics in South Asia for education, and we have prided ourselves on this fact. We are still doing well but, while others have improved by leaps and bounds, we have not been as innovative as we could have been, and we have allowed the good to be the enemy of the best.

And in confusing egalitarianism, which is counter-productive when it is imposed without attention to sustainability, with equity and the promotion of opportunities for all, and in particular the worse off, we have allowed ourselves to lag behind in the creation of Centres of Excellence. But these are essential, for it is through the study of best practice and striving to compete with such centres that we can promote better practices for all. Read the rest of this entry »

Deciding that I would make it clear that I was no longer part of the government, made it easier for me to deal more firmly with the manoeuvers Ranil was engaged in with regard to the promised constitutional reform. Jayampathy Wickramaratne had produced a draft that affirmed that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister. I believe he had initially worked on his own, but later some party leaders had been consulted. I had not been asked and I complained to the President about this, so on Sunday March 15th I was duly invited to a discussion chaired by the President at his Secretariat.

I was blunt in my criticism of the underhand manner in which Ranil was trying to take full powers with no respect for the electoral process. I was backed by not only the SLFP representatives but also the JHU, which later commented on how forceful I had been. Ranil plaintively claimed that he had been promised this change, and that he would complain to Chandrika, but the President did not give in. The final decision was that Jayampathy would amend his draft, a task in which he was supposed to consult G L Pieris.

G L I fear did not check on what was going on, and the amended draft we received had changed the principal instrument of transferring power to the Prime Minister, but little else. We protested at the meeting to discuss the changes that was held in Parliament, but later we found that the gazetted version confirmed the primacy of the Prime Minister. Jayampathy claimed that this had been the decision of the Cabinet.

What had transpired in the interim was a sordid effort to in effect bribe those assumed to be the more malleable members of the SLFP. A week after the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, it was announced that the Cabinet had been expanded with the addition of several members of the SLFP. But it transpired that the leadership of the party had not been consulted, and it looked as though individuals had been selected principally by Chandrika. Having bitterly resented the fact that the senior leadership of the party had gravitated to Mahinda Rajapaksa after he had been made the Presidential candidate in 2005, she ignored them completely, which had dire consequences for the President.

Ironically one of those appointed to the cabinet was S B Dissanayake, who had fallen out with her dramatically after initially having been a favourite. S B was obviously someone who knew on which side his bread was buttered, but he was also an intelligent man, and indeed the only one in the 2001 UNP cabinet of those I met together with a German consultant trying to promote educational reform who was able to conceptualize. I asked him then why he had allowed Jayampathy to get away with a draft that stripped the President of his powers, but it turned out that he had not been at the crucial Cabinet meeting. So what Jayampathy tried to make out was an all party consensus was in fact the result of the second rank of the SLFP having been hurriedly elevated to unwarranted authority, quite in contravention of the promise on which the President had been elected.

Still, the Parliamentary group stood firm, and even those who had initially acquiesced in what Jayampathy had had gazette insisted on the President retaining his primacy. There was indeed strong resistance to supporting the constitutional amendment, but the President came to the group meeting in Parliament, and promised to address their concerns. In particular he granted that it was a pity the proposed 19th amendment did not introduce the electoral reforms he had pledged, and he solemnly promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until a 20th amendment that introduced a mixed system of election had also been passed. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2017
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