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Text of a Lecture given to the Masters Course at the Kotelawala Defence University

June 15th 2013

Ethnicity and Religion are perhaps the most obvious elements through which people distinguish themselves from each other. They are not the only ones, and sometimes elements such as caste and class become even more important in the emergence of reasons to limit association with others.

Fortunately we in Sri Lanka do not have too much experience of this, though we should constantly be aware that the phenomenon exists, and needs to be guarded against. What we do have, which keeps people apart even where there is the utmost goodwill, is barriers created by language. Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world where those who have school leaving qualifications are not required to know a second language. The result is that many of our people are trapped in a monolingualism that stops them communicating, and hence associating, with others.

It was language that first led to the ethnic tensions that later erupted in terrorist activities. At the same time we should not forget that the only major crisis government faced between the communal violence of 1958 and its re-emergence 19 years later was because of caste and class resentments. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was about many youngsters who shared religion and ethnicity and language with those in power feeling that only violent revolution would resolve their problems. And though the JVP violence of the late eighties had wider political reasons, the areas in which the movement was strongest suggest continuing perceptions of caste and class discrimination.

To return to the language problems, they arose because Tamils felt that they had been reduced to second class status when Sinhala was made the only official language, through an Act that simply asserted this, without making clear how it was to be implemented in practice. That would have required explaining how those who did not know Sinhala would function, and clearly those who drafted the Act did not expect that it meant that those who did not know Sinhala would be rendered dysfunctional. But their carelessness and their callousness meant that nothing was spelled out, and the result was that an obviously unfair measure led to – and was used for the purpose of exacerbating – ethnic tensions.

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Perhaps the most destructive of the machinations designed to weaken the government took place way back in 2009, when various groups got together to support the candidature of Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. In one sense their getting together was not surprising, for all of them thought the President had to be weakened if their own ambitions were to succeed. But it was astonishing that they should have used Sarath Fonseka as their instrument, since in theory at any rate all of them found his basic mindset anathema.

Until late 2009 certainly Fonseka made no bones about that mindset. On the one hand, he believed strongly that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority of its inhabitants, not just the Sinhalese, but Sinhala Buddhists. He enunciated this clearly in 2007, bringing back memories of President Wijetunge’s claim that the Sinhalese were the tree around which minorities clung like vines.

Sarath Fonseka then was the most prominent exponent of one extreme which Fr Vimal Tirimanna described in LTTE Terrorism: Musings of a Catholic Priest, his balanced account of the crisis we went through. He writes there  of political hypocrisy being often justified ‘using hackneyed, out-dated and false socio-political premises, like “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists” or “North and East of Sri Lanka is the Tamil homeland”.

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At a regional consultation last month on educational assistance, I was immensely struck by the assertion of one participant that programmes should aim at ‘making the classroom more joyful’. Sadly, that is not seen by many educational administrators or trainers as important. The result is that teachers do not focus on this sufficiently, even though doing this would also help to make teaching an enjoyable vocation for practitioners, and not just a job.

I was the more conscious of this for recently I read a critique of a description I had written some time back of members of the Hela school who had made learning at S. Thomas’ such a joy. Arisen Ahubudu for Sinhala, and his great friends Mr Coperahewa and Jinadasa for Art and Science respectively, had hugely enjoyed their work, and we had hugely enjoyed both their teaching and the performances in which they engaged. In the process we had also learned a lot. Perhaps I had not made this clear, but I had the impression that the critique was based on the assumption, not uncommon in Sri Lanka, that I had been rude in describing the additional input of these memorable masters.

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I wrote last week about the need to amend the Standing Orders of Parliament so that they provide clearcut guidelines about how Parliament should proceed. This is particularly important with regard to Consultative Committees, which now do very little of consequence.

Most Parliamentarians think they are a place to raise problems related to their electorates. Thus in the Education Committee questions are raised about Principals of schools, in the Justice Committee questions about whether there is a functioning lift in a particular Court, in the Cultural Affairs Committee whether Cultural Centres have been set up in particular places. Rarely are there discussions about policy.

It seems that no one has bothered to explain, either to Members of Parliament, or to the Ministers who function as Chairmen of these Committees their actual function. According to the Standing Orders, ‘The duty of a Consultative Committee shall be to inquire into and report upon such matters as are referred to it by the chairman or by Parliament, including any Bill, proposals for legislation, supplementary or other estimates, statements of expenditure, annual reports or papers.’

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I referred previously to machinations essentially by the opposition to create uncertainty and confusion within government. Trying to advance the date of the Presidential election, or suggesting deep divisions with regard to the position of Prime Minister, are intended to provoke reactions and sometimes precipitate crises that would not otherwise occur.

But there are also intrigues by those within government, and sometimes by elements in the administration who wish to promote their own agendas, regardless of the damage this might do to government – or perhaps to inflict this. One such incident occurred about a year ago, when an Indian Parliamentary delegation visited Sri Lanka, shortly after the resolution in Geneva which India unfortunately supported.

I was reminded of this when there was another Parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka this month, this time organized by a Chamber of Commerce. There had been efforts in India to prevent it coming, and naturally one of the Sri Lankan papers opposed to government declared triumphantly that the pressures exercised had succeeded. Fortunately the presence of the delegation in Sri Lanka at the time the report was published enabled swift refutation.

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I am grateful for the request to write about India and the 13th Amendment because, while I have referred to the subject in different contexts, it would be useful to assess precisely what Indian priorities are, and how we should respond to these. In doing this, we should be clear about the principles involved –

  1. As Sri Lankans, our own national interest must come first. This includes both safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka and also ensuring that all our citizens can dwell contentedly in their country, with access to equal opportunities and full participation in politics and development.
  2. As South Asians we must also recognize the important role India plays in the region. This means that, without any violation of our own interests, we must ensure that India does not come under undue pressure from any quarter because of us.

It is clear that we got into a conflict situation with India because we violated the second principle. While India could have reacted less aggressively, I believe the Jayewardene government must be held responsible for allowing India to come under pressure from two quarters. The first was pressure from Tamilnadu, because of what was perceived as, not just discrimination, but also violence against and oppression of Tamils.

Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people, 1984

President Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people – 1984

The second set of pressures however was more worrying for India, as is clear from the provisions of the Indo-Lankan Accord. The Sri Lankan agreement then to ensure that foreign policy decisions took Indian interests into account (as spelled out with regard to Trincomalee and its oil tanks as well as broadcasting facilities to other nations) made it clear that Jayewardene’s flirtation with America in the Cold War context had worried India deeply.

We must remember that those were days in which America saw India as a hostile element, and had no scruples about engaging in activities calculated to destabilize the country. Salman Rushdie’s brilliant account of language riots in India in the fiftes, in which Tamilnadu hostility was the most aggressive, has a brilliant cameo in which he suggests the American contribution to street violence. And while obviously no direct causal connections can be diagnosed, there is no doubt that America would have been quite happy in those days for India to split up – and the obvious instrument of this would have been Tamil Nadu, with the longstanding American connection to the area, through missionaries in particular.

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When I was asked recently, in fulfillment of my work on the Human Rights Action Plan, to assist the Ministries of Justice and of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to finalize the draft of an act to replace the Children and Young Person’s Ordinance, I was struck by the absurdity of a phrase which did not seem to worry anyone else at the consultation.

It related to proceedings conducted before a Children’s Magistrate’s Court (which the law sought to establish), and laid down that ‘The Chief Justice and any three Judges of the Supreme Court nominated by the Chief Justice may frame rules regulating the procedure to be followed’ in such proceedings. Leaving aside the question of the Chief Justice selecting any three judges, where I believe there should be greater precision to prevent arbitrary choices, the clause seemed to me wholly wrong headed in making such rules optional.

I was given what seemed to me two mutually contradictory answers when I made the objection. One was that the word ‘may’ in such contexts was generally held to create an obligation to act. The other was that, if there were a ‘must’ and action was not taken, then the law could not come into effect.

If the legislature wanted such rules in place – and obviously there must be rules, to prevent inconsistencies and irregularities – then it should not only make that clear, but should ensure that those rules were in place. My suggestion then was that the clause should read ‘…..shall frame rules regulating the procedure…within one month of this act coming into operation’.

It was granted that this might be effective, but then the question was raised as to what would happen if the Chief Justice failed to make such rules. The answer seemed to me simple, namely that a failure to abide by laws passed by Parliament indicated incapacity, and should therefore warrant removal. Alternatively, Parliament could decide that, were rules not formulated as laid down in the Act, Parliament would then formulate such rules itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Join us in calling on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet to 20, with no more than 20 Cabinet Ministers and no more than 20 other Ministers of Junior Ministerial rank.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/his-excellency-mahinda-rajapaksa-the-president-of-sri-lanka-introduce-constitutional-amendment-limiting-cabinet-to-20-cabinet-ministers

Short link – http://chn.ge/YbSBgY

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Having written a hundred and more articles on Human Rights, I thought it time now to turn to another subject where the Sri Lankan state could do better. As I found with regard to many areas in which Rights could be strengthened and protected more effectively, problems arise more from incompetence and carelessness rather than deliberate wrongdoing.

In order to improve things, it seems to me vital that we ensure greater discipline and efficiency in all organs of government, and in particular the administration. I am not sure that writing about it will improve things, because I am sure that others too are aware of shortcomings and wish to improve things, it is simply that the will and energy are lacking. Sometimes then it seems much easier to just let things be.

But often one does come across situations in which ignorance or a lack of clarity are the reasons for systemic failure, and I hope that at least in these areas some reforms can be swiftly put in place by those in charge. Often the failure to hold officials accountable for their shortcomings contributes to further shortcomings, until in time the officials do not even realize that they have failed to do their duty. Read the rest of this entry »

The folllowing answers were given in an interview with regard to the cancellation of the MOU between the Trincomalee Urban Council and the American Embassy to set up an American Cornet in the UC premises. Unfortunately it was not used, but since the issue needs further exposition, the questions and answers are reproduced here.

1. Do you think the interference of the ministry is warranted?

The Ministry should certainly have an overview of the activities of foreign missions in Sri Lanka. The word interference creates the wrong impression, since the principle should be institutionalized and, if activities occur without the Ministry being informed, then remedial action is necessary. Whether this should have led to the suspension of the MOU is another question, but sadly the Ministry, here as elsewhere, is simply reacting to a situation without understanding and establishing the principles that should govern such situations.

2. What do you think is the motivation for the MoU for Trinco being suspended, given the embassy has already established two centres both in Jaffna and Kandy?

I don’t think you need assume any special motive for the Ministry acting inconsistently.

3.It has been mentioned that the two centres mentioned above are also to be scrutinised, is this scrutiny justified over something that is not written in the constitution? Or do you think it is an obligation for the ministry of external affairs to have been informed?

I am not sure what scrutiny means. Given that I believe there is an obligation for the American Embassy to have informed the Ministry of External Affairs about its activities, the best remedy would have been to call the Ambassador in and explain the situation to her. But the Ministry does not know how to deal with the Americans, which is why it goes round and round without addressing issues direct. Read the rest of this entry »

Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2013
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