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The Indian journalist Sathiyamoorthy, one of the sharpest – and also I think most sympathetic – commentators on the Sri Lankan scene, wrote recently on questions in connection with the army and the police in the North. With regard to the latter, he seems to be of the view that the police should not come under the Ministry of Defence, which is not an argument I accept.
My main reason for this is the very simple belief – on the basis of a principle known as Occam’s Razor – that one should not create entities unnecessarily. Unfortunately Occam’s Razor is unknown in Sri Lanka, where we multiply entities endlessly, as with Ministries and layers of government. In affirming the need to keep the police under the Ministry of Defence I believe we should also extend the principle more widely, but that is another question, and requires more thought and strength of mind than is usually applied in this country.
Sathiyamoorthy thinks a division between the police and the Ministry of Defence would help ‘in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alientated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs’.
The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.
This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.
Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.
After many months of thinking Prof G L Pieris was leading the President down the garden path, I was pleased recently to find that he had lived up to his intellectual reputation and given some reasonably sound advice. This was with regard to the effort to amend the 13th Amendment, as to which initially there were four areas of apparent concern.
When the Cabinet was finally given some amendments to consider however, there was only one proposal for change. This was after G L had been asked for advice, and it looks like he had very sensibly said there was no point in worrying about land and police issues. Given that National Policy on all issues remains with the central government, and given the practices that have been instituted since the days in which the 13th Amendment was passed, there is no doubt that government will continue to be in charge of these areas. Implementing national policy through regional agencies, whether elected or appointed, will of course continue, and I can only hope that government moves swiftly towards making sure this happens through small units which can actually relate readily to the people.
At the inauguration of the MA Course in Development run by the Marga Institute with the Open University, I was asked about a matter that had recently created some interest in the media. It was on the lines of the alleged Norwegian funding for the Bodhu Bala Sena and the questioning of the head of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung with regard to funding opposition meetings.
The way the other matter had been presented in the press suggested it was more serious, in that the suggestion was that United States funding was being provided surreptitiously to the Trincomalee Urban Council. In fact reading what was actually happening (if I have got it correct), namely the funding of American sponsored social and cultural activity in the Urban Council premises, I did not think there was any great problem.
However there is an important issue of principle, namely that this agreement seems to have been entered into without the knowledge or consent of the Ministry of External Affairs. Again I do not know if this is correct, but it would certainly not surprise me. The incapacity of the Ministry of External Affairs to enforce the norms which should govern the relationships of external funding sources with Sri Lankan bodies is nothing new.
In his brilliant account of our current economic situation, delivered at the Liberal Party discussion on Economic Reform, Indrajith Coomaraswamy spent some time in discussing the budget deficit, and why it is particularly worrying in the current context.
He noted that the current account of the balance of payments has been in deficit since 1957, while the current account of the budget has been in deficit since 1987. He made it clear that it is not a new phenomenon that government has been borrowing to meet some of its recurrent expenditure and all of its capital expenditure over the last 25 years. But he also noted why Sri Lanka needs now to be even more worried than before about living beyond its means.
A budget deficit is a principal source of instability in the system. High budget deficits lead to inflation by creating excess demand. The inflation differentials between Sri Lanka and its competitors and trading partners that result exert pressure on the exchange rate. But, given the high import component in our basic consumption bundle, it is politically difficult to maintain a flexible exchange rate policy.
One of the most depressing features of government is the readiness with which transfers are used to solve problems. At the Education Consultative Committee in Parliament, some of my colleagues pointed out what seemed to them grave faults in Principals or Zonal Directors of Education, and recommended that they should be transferred at once. They were startled when I said that would be wrong, but then acknowledged that, if the officials concerned were unsatisfactory, it would be destructive to transfer them to other responsibilities where they would also prove unsatisfactory.
Last week the same thing happened at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting, when strong objections were made to a particular Grama Niladhari. Again, the community representatives who made the charges – with no inhibitions about naming their subject – seemed surprised when I said that was inappropriate, but agreed with my point that their complaints should be investigated. The man should then be reprimanded if the charges were established, and subsequently dismissed if he did not improve.
Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows, as exemplified recently by the allegation made by Shenali Waduge against Dayan Jayatilleke. I see Shenali Waduge as an aggressive writer, a description I am sure she would relish. Yet the charge she levels against Dayan is precisely that which was made a few weeks back by Tissa Jayatilaka, whose agenda now seems to be wholly that of the Americans whose Fulbright Commission he now heads.
Shenali’s criticism of Dayan occurs in the midst of a massive diatribe against G L Peiris, with which I must confess I have some sympathy. Yet I think Shenali has missed the point, because she thinks GL has a perspective which is opposed to her own, whereas the reality is that GL has no perspectives at all. Dayan on the contrary does, but Shenali is totally wrong to say that the 2009 vote in our favour in Geneva was because Dayan ‘secretly inserted a clause stating Sri Lanka would implement the 13th amendment’. This is of a piece with Tissa Jayatilaka’s claim that the victory in 2009 was a disaster because the draft contained pledges which have now come back to haunt us.