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 »

In the more than a month that passed two years ago between my resigning as State Minister of Higher Education and crossing over to the opposition, I realized how utterly Ranil despised the concepts of good governance that had been a cornerstone of President Sirisena’s manifesto. The failure to amend Standing Orders as promised, the omission of Ministry Secretaries from the purview of the Public Service Commission, the frivolous way in which the Cabinet was appointed and functions distributed, all indicated that he thought it best to muddle along, so long as he was doing the muddling.

But the concepts he brought to bear were also deeply destructive, as I saw in particular with regard to the issue that prompted my resignation. Both he and Kabir Hashim lied like Trojans throughout the problem period, but I detected a difference in the way they thought truth of little importance. Hashim tended to lie about the future, in that he obviously thought any commitment he made a trifling matter, and did nothing to live up to promises (or perhaps he believed that commitments were not promises, and what had to be honoured was the sort of commitment made in the course of bargaining to Rauff Hakeem and Rishard Bathiudeen to win them over, as declared by the leader of his party).

With regard to what happened however I think he was more reliable than Ranil. Hashim told me on several occasions that he had asked the UGC Chairman to resign because of pressures he could not withstand (though here too his letter contained an untruth in that he claimed he made the request on the instructions of the President, which the President denied absolutely).

That there were pressures I knew because I had been sent the minutes of the meeting with FUTA conducted by the Prime Minister, which made it clear that Ranil would do what FUTA wanted. This I should note was in the honeymoon period with Ranjith Devasiri, who was thereafter sacked himself from the Board of the NIE (though to his credit it should be said that that apparently was because he was trying, albeit in his usual blundering way where his personal interests are not involved, to limit abuses there).

Ranil however lied in telling me that the dismissal was nothing to do with pressures, it was in accordance with a principal he claimed he had laid down, that all appointees should accept their appointments from the government in power. What this meant was that he was determined that all those in authority should see themselves as political creatures. Indeed he went so far as to say that, after the UGC was got rid of, I could reappoint whom I wanted (though Hashim I think it was introduced the limitation that I should make these appointments from lists in the Prime Minister’s office). What was important was that those in positions of authority should owe their position to this government rather than the previous one. Read the rest of this entry »

I must confess to a sense of déjà vu in reading about the disappointment Kabir Hashim has expressed about the recent changes in Ministries. Two articles on the subject present very different perspectives, which together suggest that he is being the classic spoilt child, upset about his own powers and dignity – since he ‘cannot suffer the ‘indignity’ of an emaciated Ministry’. Typically, he lies like a Trojan about his situation, claiming indeed that, when Sirisena’s first Cabinet was appointed, ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe thought that he could be more useful in Skills Development’.

That Kabir Hashim tells lies with no shame has been clear to me, from the time he demanded that Kshanika Himburuwegama resign as Chairman of the UGC with the claim that the President had instructed this. Sirisena assured me that he had done nothing of the sort, but he did nothing to undo the damage that had been done.

Contrary to his current grand claim about why he was given Skills Development, Hashim told me when he was made Cabinet Minister that he knew I was the expert on education, and he would leave everything to me – since in any case, as both Chairman and Secretary then of the party, he had to concentrate on the forthcoming election. And in fact making him Cabinet Minister of Higher Education was an afterthought, since initially he had only been made Minister of Highways – which was of course where he could work on the election, given the manner in which his Prime Minister awarded contracts for unsolicited bids at much higher rates than those paid during the Rajapaksa days.

Hashim was made Minister of Higher Education – along then with Highways, a ludicrous combination that still continues, with an even more incompetent though perhaps less deceitful Minister in charge – after Chandrika Kumaratunga threatened me when I refused to summarily dismiss Kshanika Himburuwegama as she demanded. She told me to wait and see who would be put on top of me, a metaphor that accords with her assumption that government is about power rather than productivity.

Initially Hashim pledged not to interfere, but soon enough he started pushing the envelope, beginning with trying to collect evidence against S B Dissanayake. I suspect that was not his idea, but rather thrust upon him by Chandrika and possibly Ranil, given their technique of trying to ensure submission by threatening prosecution. Of course, once S B joined the government, he was let off scot free, and typically the first thing Kabir did after I resigned was requisition some of the 14 vehicles S B had used (of which I had returned 12 to the pool). Read the rest of this entry »

I wrote last week, in rather sad vein, about the Cabinet reshuffle. But I did suggest that there might be a silver lining in the cloud, in that Ravi Karunanayake was less likely than Mangala to pursue the emasculation of our armed forces, and indeed the nullification of our victory over terrorism. I also argued that, absurd though Mangala was at representing the country internationally, he was supposed to be honest, and was also aware that he knew nothing about Finance.

It had been claimed previously that he had wanted Eran Wickramaratne to be his Deputy, and this has now happened. Indeed things are even better than expected in that Eran is now a Minister of State. Ministers of State are a preposterous concept when there is also a Cabinet Minister. This became clear when Kabeer Hashim was suddenly made Minister of Higher Education, after Chandrika told me I should watch out for who would be above me when I refused to summarily dismiss the UGC Chairman, and then, having assured me that he would not interfere, sacked the Chairman while I was away, lying to her in claiming that the President had ordered this.

In those days the President was wimpish and, let alone asserting himself when his Ministers lied about his instructions, could do nothing whatsoever to control the UNP or to work on fulfilling the promises in his manifesto. But, beginning with his finally getting rid of Arjuna Mahendran, he has begun to act a little bit like a President, and the reshuffle suggests that he is coming into his own. I believe Ranil was not entirely happy about what happened, and indeed Harsha’s tweet about Anoma Gamage waiting for a change of portfolio suggests that Ranil did want to place another unthinking acolyte in a position of responsibility.

The Gamages, a wonderfully Dickensian couple, are I should note nice enough in themselves, but they are an integral component of Ranil’s efforts to make himself Master of the Universe. Hence Daya Gamage’s elevation in the past to a position of great influence in the party so as to cut down more able people, and then Anoma’s being put into Parliament when Daya failed to get elected in 2010. Now they are both there, one a Minister and another a Deputy, but neither really with anything substantial to do except work on raising the profile of the party and its leader. Read the rest of this entry »

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

 

Eliot’s conclusion to ‘The Hollow Men’ seems to sum up the general reaction to the Cabinet reshuffle that took place last week. To call it a Cabinet reshuffle is perhaps a misnomer, since there were very few changes.The most significant shuffle was that Ravi Karunanayake and Mangala Samaraweera changed places, the former moving to the Foreign Ministry about which he knows little, and the latter moving to the Ministry of Finance, about which he knows nothing.

As though to prove this, he also takes with him to that Ministry the control of Mass Media. This means that the main loser, as it were, of the reshuffle is the amiable Gayantha Karunatilleke, but to compensate for this he has been given Lands. It was not mentioned in the reports of the reshuffle that John Amaratunga had in fact been deprived of Lands, but this is understandable since it would seem that he did not know this was in his charge, and did nothing about it.

But while the sheer absurdity of, not just the whole exercise, but the previous allocation of responsibilities, is made crystal clear by last week’s gamesmanship, I should note that, if one uses rose coloured spectacles, one can discern something positive about what happened. Though the common view is that the President lost out completely, and has made manifest his weakness, I can argue in his defence that he got his way as to the main reasons for his wanting a change.

First and foremost it was clear that he was dead worried about the way in which Mangala was selling not just the armed forces but the whole country down the river. In that regard, he can feel that Ravi Karunatilleke will not be so callous. Ravi after all believes he has a political future – unlike Mangala who is so firmly tied to the Ranil-Chandrika mast that this is necessarily an Endgame for him – and will make sure that he cannot be characterized as a traitor to the nation. Unlike Mahinda Samarasinghe, whose experience would have allowed him to steer the nation out of the net Mangala had thrown, Ravi will not find his path easy, but I believe he will try. Read the rest of this entry »

I was away during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister and, with internet limited in Turkmenistan, could not follow what happened nor what was said. But enough came through to remind me of what happened 30 years ago, at the time of the Indo-Lankan Accord.

The recently founded Liberal Party found itself in a unique position on that occasion, since we welcomed the Accord but regretted three elements in it. One was the proposed merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which we predicted would prove divisive. That regret is not my subject here, but it may be worth noting that, in addition to the practical problems we saw, we bewailed the fact that the whole concept of devolution was being perverted.

We had long promoted devolution on the grounds that government should be closer to the people. That is why we would have preferred District Councils, and why even recently we extolled the virtues of Divisional Secretariats for practical support to the people, given that Provincial Councils cannot now be abolished. In passing, I should note that the failure of the President to push through the commitment in his manifesto about Divisional Secretariats is another example of the sidelining of the structural changes this country so badly needs.

In 1987, President Jayewardene squandered the opportunity to streamline administration and, by proposing a merger, promoted the idea that devolution was about ethnic enclaves. That was a sure recipe for further dissension. Indeed what happened in the world afterwards has proved that. In the early eighties one could think of Federalism as a mechanism to bind different parts of a country closer together while allowing independent initiatives based on local needs (as with for instance the United States or Germany), But now it is seen as a precursor to separation, as has happened in the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – and which is why India needs to be careful, not least with regard to one of the largest of its component states to still remain undivided.

But all that is another story. More relevant here is another of our caveats about the 1987 Accord, namely the elements in the Annexures which placed Sri Lanka firmly under Indian suzerainty. We had previously argued that the adventurism of the Jayewardene government with regard to India was potentially disastrous, and the manner in which India responded – which included strong condemnation using Argentina at the then equivalent in Geneva of the Human Rights Council – ensured our subjugation.

The Liberal Party had no quarrel at all with the actual restraints put upon Sri Lanka, for Jayewardene’s games with Trincomalee (including leasing the oil tanks to a Singapore based company, having cancelled the tender which an Indian company had won on good grounds), and the setting up of a Voice of America station at Iranawila, were unnecessary provocations. Given the then unremitting hostility of America to India, seen as a Soviet ally – and hence fair game for the terrorists being trained in Pakistan to attack not just the Soviets in Afghanistan – our getting involved in this latest version of the Great Game was idiotic. Read the rest of this entry »

I mentioned last week the lack of intelligent policy formulation in areas where new initiatives are urgently needed. One of these is industry, where we do not have any clear policy. This has come home to me through the pronouncements of our Manufacturing Sector Council, which notes that it is difficult to develop training plans with regard to production since no one has any idea when sudden shifts in tariffs will destroy investments. They have therefore had to confine themselves thus far to trying to streamline service sectors in their sphere of expertise, modernizing training for vehicle operators and welders and electricians and so on.

Interestingly enough, the ADB understood what they meant when it was explained to them that swift action in that area was difficult, unlike say in Construction or IT where our Sector Councils have done so much in so short a period. But even though the point seemed to be understood when I brought it up at the committee set up by the Prime Minister, nothing further has been done about it. I did ask the committee to give us reports on what it had actually achieved, but this seemed beyond it, at least in the period before I decided there was no point in listening to a plethora of platitudes with no action.

It is possible though that, since both the Chairman, the delightful Ken Balendra, and I like to hear the sound of our own voices, and he ran the show, I jumped ship because he insisted on pontificating and would not allow me to do so. But since I have actually studied the subject, whereas he was thrown into it without proper briefing – I had to tell him some weeks into his tenure that the previous government had actually introduced a Technology Stream in school – I got tired of endless reports that repeated what everyone knew, with no steps to expedite remedial action. In that regard, working with Mahinda Samarasinghe was much more productive, because he at least studies his briefs and is able to pinpoint what is needed.

Unfortunately, though Mahinda is supposed to be in charge of the subject, the Prime Minister continues on his merry way with no proper consultation. This was the case with regard to the bright idea he conceived of making 13 years of education compulsory for everyone. He decided for this purpose to introduce vocational subjects in schools after the Ordinary Level, but did not think of consulting other stakeholders in the field. The National Education Commission tried to find out what was happening, but it turned out that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Education was also clueless about what was happening, and it was in fact only through the ADB that I saw the first proposals with regard to reform, which the ADB rightly pointed out were incoherent and did not properly address the relevant issues. Read the rest of this entry »

I wrote last week of the corruption that this government has engaged in, quite contrary to the President’s commitment to stop mega corruption and wastage. This week I would like to look at how the manner in which this government is working on that commitment has stopped the development activity the President hoped to increase.

They have done this by terrifying public servants out of their wits, in penalizing them for the excesses that occurred. Some weeks back Dr Nalaka Godahewa, in writing convincingly about problems in the government’s development strategy, noted how a particular tender was not awarded because the person responsible wanted someone more senior also to sign. That person in turn wanted to pass the buck higher up, and of course in each of these stages files sit for ages on a desk without being attended to. The upshot is that no work has been done.

I thought he exaggerated, but the story did remind me of the mess Ranil caused in education during his last stint as Prime Minister, when he appointed a hopeless Secretary to the Ministry. In fact the committee he had entrusted with the task of proposing names had recommended Lalith Weeratunge who had been an excellent deputy to Tara de Mel (and though I could understand Charitha Ratwatte gibbering when I suggested they reappoint Tara, because she was associated too closely with Chandrika Kumaratunga, even Chari had agreed that Lalith would be a good choice).

But Ranil had a personal problem with Lalith, and instead sent a character called V K Nanayakkara. Lalith promptly moved on to other things. I asked him to stay on, but he said working with Nanayakkara was impossible, for if you went to him with four signatures recommending a course of action, he would ask for a fifth. Read the rest of this entry »

It is now clear that one expected outcome of the regime change of 2015, namely a more helpful approach to Sri Lanka on the part of the West, is not going quite as expected. Though the European Union has finally granted us GSP, against some significant opposition, its decision makers are going on and on about the need to implement those aspects of the President’s manifesto that they consider important. In the process they ignore elements in the President’s manifesto more important to our nation, and concentrate instead on those commitments to the West made by individuals and organizations funded by the West.

The latest to pronounce, without ever I suspect having read the President’s manifesto, is the new German ambassador to Sri Lanka. He seems to be a throwback to the ambassador of the war period, Jurgen Weerth, whose patronizing lectures astounded even other Western envoys.

Fortunately he was succeeded by a young man who moderated that approach, and then a charming very positive individual, who has been now sent to Mumbai, doubtless for not being tough enough. In his place we now have an individual who talks of the changes ‘promised by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in 2015’, if the newspaper report is accurate.

He obviously does not understand that the change happened because Maithripala Sirisena was elected President, and that Maithripala Sirisena owes it to the people to fulfil his promises to them, not promises made by others, to others who did not contribute (except perhaps financially) to his electoral victory. In particular he said categorically that ‘I will allow no international power to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism.’

Even as the West resorts to extreme measures to deal with the terrorism that they have inflicted on the world, in their haste to effect regime change – supporting the Taleban initially in Afghanistan, and then fundamentalists in Libya and Syria – they continue to insist that our forces be punished. They have been supported in this by our Foreign Minister, who has at least been consistent, in obviously having resented during the war period the successes the forces were achieving. But government policy is made by the President, and this should be done in terms of his commitments to the people.

Why he continues to tolerate a Foreign Minister who strives to undermine what the President has promised baffles me. Perhaps he thinks that Mangala should be allowed to bark, since he will not be given the teeth to bite our war heroes. But at least now the President should realize that, by allowing Mangala full rein, he leaves room for those who want to control us to continue to make veiled, and not so veiled, threats.

Sadly the German ambassador has not considered the fact that the issue which carries most space in the President’s manifesto is corruption. It seems he does refer to corruption, but he has twinned it with impunity, which in the general understanding of it as having to do with war crimes is of much less concern to the people. That was not central to the President’s vision. In that regard, while it is clear that the ambassador recognizes that corruption continues, he ignores the fact that it is promoted by the failure to fulfil other aspects of the President’s manifesto that were much more important to the people. In particular, the Right to Information Act was totally inadequate, and when it is implemented in the breach, with the Prime Minister’s Secretary finding excuses for refusing to hand over his Assets Declaration, one realizes that we have the mixture as before, only worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Scott, the British writer I admire most of those active in the second half of the last century, was adept at exploring how people let each other down. In one of his novels, he refers to the various betrayals his protagonist engaged in.

I was reminded of that in thinking, as we reach the half way point of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency, of the various betrayals he has been forced into. I do not say he has perpetrated these, for I still see him as a passive onlooker, but that does not absolve him of responsibility. After all he was elected President, and he should have worked towards fulfilling as many as possible of the promises he made in his manifesto. Instead he has allowed the country to sink into more corrosive corruption than ever before.

Last week I wrote about perhaps the most expensive mistake he made, namely allowing an exception to the pledged constitutional change to limit the size of the Cabinet. He, or rather those who make decisions in his government, have now exploited that provision with the utmost cynicism, so that we have 45 Cabinet Ministers apart from the President, and another 45 State / Deputy Ministers.

Each of them is entitled to private staff, many of whom have little to do, and little understanding of what should be done beyond expanding the influence of the Minister. They have innumerable vehicles and personal security, and they all have offices, many of which have been redecorated at vast expense. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2017
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