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SL Air Force helps to transport essential goods to civilians in the North

The area in which there seems the greatest perversity about the concerns that have been expressed, regarding the conflict in Sri Lanka, is that of humanitarian assistance. The Darusman report claims categorically that ‘The Government systematically deprived persons in the conflict zone of humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and basic medical supplies, particularly supplies needed to treat injuries. To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians that remained in the conflict zone.’

14.   There are in fact two charges here, which need to be distinguished. One is that government deliberately underestimated the number of civilians in the conflict area so as to deprive them of assistance. This is a wicked attribution of motives, the more wicked because the various estimates that were made never affected the programme for supplying assistance that government had put in place in consultation with its officials on the ground as well as with the UN.

Certainly there were inaccurate estimates of the numbers, but most of these were in good faith, based on calculations that did not take into account the influx of people from other areas that had taken place in the Wanni over the previous two decades. The fact that many of those who were in the area, and who are now being resettled, came originally from the hill country, and were not there at the time of the previous census, in 1981, is one reason for the miscalculation, though there should have been greater awareness of the demographical changes that had taken place in recent years.

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One of my colleagues on the recent Parliamentary delegation to India noted that all the senior Indian political figures we met asked us about our electoral system. They were very polite, and did not mention that they thought it was a mad system, but they very gently indicated that they had heard it was quite complicated, and asked for some explication.

We seemed implicitly to agree with this diagnosis, for no one tried to explain the system, as opposed to indicating that we were keen on a change. This has in fact been the consensus in Sri Lanka for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, in spite of this broad agreement, we have failed to do anything about it, though this government has got closer than most in that it actually brought forward a bill to reform, if only to a limited extent, the system for local elections. Read the rest of this entry »

The following is the text of an interview given to Lakbima News with regard to the impact on Sri Lanka of recent changes in Libya.

  1. Libyan Leader Mohommad Gadaffi’s regime was ousted a few days ago and although it was the ‘rebels’ who did that, we cannot deny that it was western powers who made it happen. Doesn’t this mean that it is still western powers that still have the ability to make regime changes despite all the talk of emergence of Russia and China?

I don’t think it has ever been doubted that it is the West that thinks of regime change and suchlike and has the power to do it. The old Soviet Union also thought in such terms but, after the Cold War ended, it has not been able to replicate this. China is still very much an emerging power in this regard, and has been content to exercise influence in different ways.

  1. Although Gadaffi isn’t even captured and his loyalists taking rearguard action in Tripoli both Russia and China have accepted rebels as the new rulers of Libya and are trying to make new business deals regarding Libyan resources. What does this tell about Russian and Chinese allies and depending on them against the West?

You must remember that neither Russia nor China vetoed the original UN Security Council resolution, which suggests they were even then in two minds about Libya. While I suspect they did not anticipate the intensity with which the West conducted its military campaign, the support the rebels seemed to have amongst other Arab nations may have influenced that decision.

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CALD Womens caucus 11-14 August 2011, Malacca, Malaysia

The Women’s Caucus of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats recently held a Workshop on Strategies for Women Candidates in Melaka in Malaysia. The event was hosted by the Women’s Wing of the Gerakan Party of Malaysia, and included delegates from nine Asian countries. Apart from staff from the CALD Secretariat, and from the Thai office of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which sponsored the event, the only men present were CALD Secretary General Neric Acosta of the Philippines and myself as CALD Chair.

Having missed the last meeting of the Women’s Caucus, I thought I should find out more about it since by next year I shall no longer be CALD chair and hence not eligible to attend. I was duly impressed, by the energy and commitment of all the delegates, and realized again the importance of ensuring a significant space for female participation in politics.

I should note that I was also enthralled, having attended a predominantly female event for the first time in nearly half a century. As a child I had attended a few guide camps with my mother, and found the evening conviviality fascinating, camp fire items, singing and dancing that bonded in a much more affectionate way than in similar gatherings for men only. In Melaka, at the grand dinner hosted by the Gerakan Party, at a centre for Babas and Nonyas, the descendants of Chinese and then European sailors who had found local wives over the centuries, the host was a jolly old Chinese gentleman dressed as a woman. He had an enormous repertoire of songs, including Sinhalese ones, and was accompanied by a two man band that went back to the days of Englebert Humperdinck. The elegant dancing of the distinguished women present was a joy to watch.

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Rajya Sabha

One of the most interesting aspects of the recent visit to India by a Parliamentary delegation was the opportunity it gave us to learn more about the Indian upper house and the way it functions. We were taken in to a meeting of the Rajya Sabha as it is called, and did not have to endure any protests, as had happened in the Lok Sabha – though I should note here that, while media attention was concentrated on the ten or so members who shouted at us, the 500 and more who cheered us were ignored, friendship obviously not being as notable in media parlance as hostility. And we should also register the authoritative but dignified way in which the Lady Speaker handled the situation, shooting down singlehanded it seemed the vociferous shouts of the unruly members.

There was a different scene in the Rajya Sabha, when one member insisted on making a protest and then walking out. I was told later that this was a member of the DMK, and he could not allow his party to be outdone, since the protest in the morning had been led by Jayalalitha’s AIDMK. The Chair of the upper house, who is also Vice-President of India, an extremely dignified Muslim gentleman, was not equal to shouting down his recalcitrant member, but that would not have been appropriate perhaps in that house. His apology however was equally sincere, and the rest of his membership, including a very articlulate member from Tamilnadu, more than made up for the embarrassment.

But that is the very nature of an upper house, a forum for quiet and collegiate discussion, where different approaches can be reconciled without recourse to the dramatization that is the essence of lower house debates all over the world. I have already mentioned the need to improve our committee system in Parliament, so as to develop opportunities for informed discussion and the building of consensus.  But whereas that is part of the inner workings of a lower house, it is the very essence of an upper house which, while necessarily subordinate in legislative and other parliamentary powers to its twin, usually has a larger role to play with regard to fine-tuning legislation and ensuring responsiveness to non-political concerns.

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Though Parliament is meant to approve all legislation, the way legislation is currently formulated presents massive problems to Parliamentarians, and I suspect few understand thoroughly what they are voting for or against. I include myself in this number, even though I have no doubts about my own intellectual capacity. The problem is, most Bills take the form of Amendments to earlier Bills, and all that is placed before Parliamentarians are such Amendments, without the original text. Obviously these cannot be understood easily without the original bill.

Initially, when it seemed that something more than simple changes of figures was involved, I used to seek a copy of the original Bill which was being amended. This however takes time to obtain, so I have requested the Secretary General to make copies of the original bill available in the Chamber.

He readily agreed but, on the first occasion on which I took advantage of this facility, I found another complication. What was being amended was an Act of 2006 as amended in 2007 and 2008 and 2009. It was therefore essential to get copies also of those Amendments, in addition to the original Act.

Then however I found that trying to follow amendments to amendments with three sets of papers in front of one is very difficult. If Parliamentarians find this difficult, it must be impossible for ordinary citizens. This only plays into the hands of lawyers, and I am sure contributes to litigation which would be unnecessary if the law were clear.

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I had intended to conclude this series with the previous article, but confusion in Parliament recently, with regard to the Local Authorities Election (Amendment) Bill, highlighted some problems that require resolution. The main problem that arose was the absence of a Tamil translation of amendments that were to be moved in the Committee stage of the bill, but there were other problems too, all of which can be dealt with easily if some conceptual clarity is brought to the legislative process.

For those who do not understand the process by which legislation is passed – and this includes many Parliamentarians – there are supposed to be three Readings of any Bill before it becomes law. The first is simply the notice to Parliament that a Bill is proposed. There is no vote on this Reading.

Then comes the main decision making process, which is called the Second Reading.  Before this there is usually a debate, and that debate is usually used to make general political points. Whilst a few of my colleagues actually address the provisions of the Bill, in support or in Opposition, most of them simply talk about politics in general. This is not however unusual or regrettable, since this is what might be described as the political stage of the legislative process.

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Cutting down on election costs and refunding these through public funds

The reforms I have suggested may seem esoteric, of interest only to the few people who are concerned about constitutional principles. They could be dismissed as the obsessions of a theoretician, with little practical experience of politics.

But they do have a very practical application, which will be extremely beneficial not only to the people, but also to politicians. For instance, it is obvious to everyone that the present electoral system requires massive resources on the part of individuals. A few individuals do have such resources in terms of personal fortunes, and a very few of these have acquired such fortunes in ways that the public at large would find acceptable. But the vast majority have either to engage in businesses that provide massive quick returns – which entails obligations that are not always desirable – or else have to find resources in other ways.

This has contributed to what I still find bizarre, the general acceptance of the principle that Parliamentarians sell off the permits they obtain to buy duty free vehicles. One former opposition Parliamentarian has indeed confessed to this openly, in claiming that he was able to bestow largesse through the sale of his permit. This is not generally considered abhorrent, and certainly I can understand what has occurred, because the expenses now of elections are astronomical. I can claim no credit for not having as yet made use of my permit, because I was fortunate enough to have been appointed on the National List.

It would be absurd then for me to sit in judgment on much better politicians than I am, who have had to work through a wasteful system. And I should add that I sympathize with my colleagues who used to serve as Provincial Councillors, and who are now unable to obtain permits because five years have not elapsed since they got such permits in their previous incarnation. Five years did not lapse between them having to find resources for Provincial Council elections and finding resources for the General Election, and naturally they feel cheated that they should suffer a loss that old hands in Parliament need not endure.

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The recent series of articles by Mr Wijeweera on parliamentary and administrative reforms are a welcome feature in the columns of the ‘Island’. I do not propose to discuss here the different ideas he puts forward. Some are similar to those I advanced in a series on parliament that I wrote some months back, some are different, some seem to me unquestionably good, others I would hesitate about. But the details are not the point. What is important is that he has raised several issues, with criticism based on careful argument about current practices.

I can only hope then that authorities in Parliament, in the offices of the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip and the Opposition Whip, will have read these carefully. I am not too certain though that this will happen, and lead to fruitful discussion and reform. However perhaps our quest for improvement will revive now, since we had the benefit recently of a Parliamentary delegation visiting India and finding out about practices in the Indian Parliament.

Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal - Minister for Parliamentary Affairs

The visit, and in particular a meeting with the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Shri Pawan Kumar Bansal, were most enlightening. Our delegation was headed by the Speaker, and included the Chief Whip, though perhaps it is a pity that our own Minister for Parliamentary Affairs was not with us, since I am sure she could have engaged actively with her counterpart to pick up some good ideas.

Most interesting I thought was his description of what are described as Departmentally Related Standing Committees. There are 24 of these, and they deal with subject areas rather than Ministries. They are distinct from the Consultative Committees, which we also have, which are based on Ministries and chaired by the concerned Minister.

The Standing Committees cover areas which come under the purview of different Ministries. Ministers are not permitted to sit on these Committees, which therefore deal with policy matters from a wider perspective. The Minister also noted that these Committees tend to work on a less confrontational basis than happens in Parliament as a whole, and can therefore come up with helpful and generally acceptable proposals.

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UAV footage of LTTE firing on fleeing civillians

I have looked previously at concerns about civilian casualties during the first part of the conflict. Since allegations of civilian casualties increased astronomically during 2009, it will be salutary to address these separately.

11. Concerns were expressed in January 2009 that civilians were falling victim on a large scale to army attacks. Whereas in the last seven months of 2008 only 78 civilian deaths were alleged by Tamilnet, in January 2009 alone there were allegations of 689 civilian deaths.

The largest allegation in this regard was on January 26th when there was an allegation that more than 300 people died. There was another allegation on the same day of more than 100 civilians killed. Both allegations refer to the safety zone, and it is possible that the references are to the same incident.

These allegations occurred a day after the Bishop of Jaffna said he would be ‘urgently requesting the Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery-shells and rockets at the Army. This will only increase more and more the death of civilians thus endangering the safety of the people.’ This was also the time when the UN Resident Coordinator, having first thought the army was firing into the safety zone, sent a text message to say that most of the firing came from the Tigers.

Letter from the Bishop of Jaffna - January 2009

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2011
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