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bishopLakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala from 1962 to 1983, died 30 years ago, on October 23rd. He was undoubtedly the most impressive Anglican Bishop Sri Lanka has produced, and with every year that passes his stature seems to grow.

Much has been written about him recently, most notably in Rajan Hoole’s detailed assessment of what happened in July 1983. Hoole shows how those events contributed to his premature death for, though he had a heart condition and had been advised to take things slow, he threw himself into trying to assuage the hurt felt by Tamils who had suffered in the state sponsored attacked on them.

He had been in England in July, taking the much needed break his doctors had advised, and trying to set down his thoughts on an oriental view of Christianity. In the last conversation we had, on the phone for I got to England on the day he was due to leave, he assured me that he would take things slow, in trying first to understand what had happened, and how the social dispensation into which he had been born had turned rabid. But seeing the suffering and the bewilderment, he did not rest, being the first Sinhalese dignitary to go up to Jaffna to apologize for what had happened.

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As this series draws to a close, bringing with it perhaps intimations of mortality, I thought of engaging in reflections relating to the death anniversaries of some people I admired tremendously. Closely connected to a range of human rights issues was the murder of Richard de Zoysa, 13 years ago this week, undoubtedly by government para-military forces.

At the time of his death government papers engaged in a campaign of disinformation and vilification, but the case resonated, and I believe it contributed to the disbanding of the forces that had been used to quell the JVP insurrection. Memories of those events have returned, with the discovery of a mass grave in Matale, but I am not sure that it would make sense to revive inquiries into the subject now.

That was a brutal period, with the initial provocation coming from a government that had completely subverted the democratic process. However the violence the JVP engaged in was disproportionate to the provocation, and lasted beyond the removal of the principal cause of despair. When elections were finally held, at the end of 1988, the JVP should have re-entered the democratic process, but the excesses that followed, directed also against the opposition party that had suffered so much from UNP violence, led to even greater violence on the part of the State.

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At many of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I have attended in the last few months, there has been harsh criticism of what are termed District and Division Development Committee meetings. Often I am told that problems are raised at these meetings, but nothing is done. Promises are made, but they are never kept.

More recently, since I have again been in the East, having concentrated for the first five months of this year on the North, there have been many complaints about decisions made at Development Committee meetings being changed by the Chairman. There are also allegations of contracts awarded to Rural Development societies being cancelled and given to other entities. Some of this has to do with the comparatively large sums made available through Deyata Kirula for development projects.

Though the allegations made suggested corruption, on going into details I felt that some changes made sense. However it is clearly counter-productive to make decisions after consultation and then change them without at least keeping all stakeholders informed of the change and the reasons for the change.

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Transparency International recently held a workshop on how Parliamentarians could contribute to reducing corruption. Though it was mainly opposition members who attended, government too was represented, in the form of Rev Athureliya Rathana of the JHU, as well as Thilanga Sumathipala, Vidura Wickramanayake and Manusha Nanayakkara, apart from myself.

Much discussion centred around the oversight role of Parliament, following an informative introduction by former Auditor General Mayadunne. He noted that Parliamentary questions should be an important tool of ensuring financial probity, while there were several forms of Committees that could also do much to reduce corruption. Unfortunately, as almost all speakers noted, questions have little impact, since there are innumerable delays in answering most questions of consequence – while even more seriously, the Committee system in Parliament has almost completely collapsed.

We tried to correct the former problem in what proved the abortive attempt by the Committee on Standing Orders to amend them. With the full approval of the Speaker, we planned to introduce a provision that made prompt answers to questions mandatory, with a requirement that the Speaker call on the head of the Executive for remedial action if there were delays. Unfortunately this, like all our other suggestions, fell by the wayside when the Consultant Parliament had hired behaved foolishly, and drew an equally excessive reaction from a member.

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Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Seminar on

Crossed Perceptions: China, the United States, the European Union, Brazil and the Emerging World

October 22nd 2013, Rio de Janeiro

Let me begin with one of the formative myths of the Sri Lankan state. It deals with the introduction of Buddhism to the country, in the 2nd century BC. The king at the time, Devanampiyatissa, was out hunting when he came across a strange man in the forests of Mihintale. This was Mahinda, the son, or some say the brother, of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had converted to Buddhism after a terrible war in which, to complete his conquest of India, he had slaughtered thousands.

When the monk saw Tissa, he asked him whether he saw the mango tree before them. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked whether there were other mango trees. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked if there were trees other than mango trees. Tissa said yes again, whereupon the monk asked whether, apart from all the other mango trees, and all the other trees that were not mango trees in the world, there were any other trees.

Tissa thought hard, and then replied that there was indeed the original mango tree the monk had pointed out. This was when Mahinda decided that Tissa was a fit person to understand the doctrines of Buddhism, so he preached to him and converted him and through him his people. Buddhism has since been the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, though, I think uniquely, we also have substantial proportions of our population belonging to the other principal faiths of the world, Hinduism and Islam and Christianity.

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As I have noted before, the thoughtful new Secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement remarked, at a seminar at the Officer Career Development Centre in Buttala, that Nation Building needed much more attention, to complement the State Building that is proceeding relatively well. His Ministry, along with the Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation and the Presidential Task Force for the North and the Ministry of Economic Development, have amply allayed the fears expressed in 2009, that were claimed to be the reason for the Resolution brought against us in Geneva.

The displaced who were at Manik Farm have been resettled, and the former combatants have been released after rehabilitation. This has been done under much better conditions and more swiftly than elsewhere in the world. Economic activity is at a higher level in the Wanni than ever before, helped along by remarkable infrastructural development. That extends to schools and hospitals and other basic requirements, which are available now at a higher standard than ever before in the area.

But there are still problems, and the mutual satisfaction and trust that Reconciliation requires are still inadequate. To remedy this there is need of concerted action, and the Secretary, who has obviously studied and understood the problem, noted that fulfilment of both the LLRC and the Human Rights Action Plans would go a long way towards Building a Nation.

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At the recent discussion held at the Marga Institute on accountability and reconciliation, I was confronted with an accusation I found interesting, and not entirely groundless. One of the brighter individuals earlier involved in advocacy NGO work suggested that my explanations for some responses of government were similar to what was claimed in mitigation by those who refused to criticize the LTTE when it was intransigent in discussion and continued to engage in terrorist activity.

I think there are differences, not least because I have drawn attention to governmental lapses in various areas, while also arguing that, while one should understand why government hesitates to move forward on issues that would contribute to reconciliation, one should nevertheless point out the need to move. As a distinguished Indian diplomat put it when talking about his government’s support for terrorist groups in the eighties, one can understand why this was forthcoming, but that does not justify it. That is why I will continue to point out the need for government to develop better mechanisms of consultation of the people in the North, as well as sensitivity to their concerns.

But it is true that I can understand why government feels so diffident, and that is why I believe it is necessary for those who are contributing to the insecurity government feels to also mend their ways. The apologists for the LTTE would point out how Tamils had suffered in the past not only because of majoritarian political decisions but also because of waves of violence that government had unleashed, or at least not actively discouraged. Their argument was that one had to indulge the LTTE because of the distrust they felt.

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Visual QR Code Picture QR CodeSpeech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

At the debate on the Second Report

Of the Committee on Public Enterprises

October 10th 2013

Hon Chair

The publication of this Second Report of the Committee on Public Enterprises is a momentous occasion, because it exemplifies how Parliamentary Standing Committees should conduct themselves in a manner that has not been apparent in Parliament for 30 years. All credit should go to the Chairman of COPE, and the three chairs of COPE Sub-Committees, a Minister, a Junior Minister and the most responsible and respected member of the main Opposition Party, for ensuring that we covered almost all institutions coming under the purview of COPE.

When, Hon Chair, as a new Member of Parliament, I expressed astonishment at the fact that previously COPE had only looked at a modicum of the institutions it had to consider, and suggested that we work through sub-committees, one of the more experienced Opposition members of COPE objected vehemently. But the Chairman upheld the suggestion, and I am happy to say that that Member acknowledged the benefit of that very simple idea.

Another area where I was able to innovate was in insisting that a deadline be given to institutions asked to provide reports. Previously, those institutions that were asked to respond but failed to do so were forgotten until the next time they were summoned, which was often years later. Fortunately we now follow up, though not as assiduously as I would wish.

This is a pity, but we must appreciate that the COPE office is badly staffed and, having got used to the lack of energy of the Committee in earlier incarnations, is hard pressed to satisfy our needs. However I must pay tribute to the staff who have managed as best possible under difficult circumstances, and produced this thorough report.

The manner in which COPE works is a tribute to the skill of the Chair in ensuring a spirit of collegiality. Government and Opposition members work well together, and are also much more polite to administrative officials, who have in turn expressed appreciation of the manner in which we question them, and try to advise rather than blame.  Read the rest of this entry »

When I wrote some weeks back about the supposed Norwegian involvement with the Bodhu Bala Sena, I had not seen the clarification which the Norwegian Embassy had put on its website about the allegations. Having read it, I am more than ever convinced that the Norwegian government and its embassy have not behaved badly, but also that they, and also the Sri Lankan government, must go more carefully into the matter and check on what exactly has been going on. If they can do this together, so much the better, though I fear that neither side will have the correct skills and attitudes to ensure fruitful and productive cooperation.

The reason I believe investigation would be useful is because of two names I noticed in the official Norwegian statement. One is that of the Worldview International Foundation, which is essentially run by a gentleman called Arne Fjiatoff, who has been in Sri Lanka now for several decades. During this period he has been involved in a range of projects with various Sri Lankan governments, which are in theory designed to benefit the Sri Lankan people, but which have also brought considerable benefits to Arne himself.

I was introduced to him initially by Dilantha Withanage, the other name I noticed in the statement. Dilantha has now emerged as the lay spokesman for the BBS, though I knew him earlier in another very positive incarnation, as running computer programmes for the Ministry of Education when I was Adviser there on English. Though I took on the position mainly to reintroduce the English medium option, given the paucity of capacity there at the time, I ended up involved in many other initiatives, ranging from curriculum revision to primary English materials.

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The International Centre for Ethnic Studies invited me recently to a seminar which was essentially on the post-conflict situation, though it had a more philosophical title, as is required to attract funding. I was pleased to attend, since I think one should engage with such organizations. Though I felt that for many years ICES had an essentially destructive agenda as far as this country was concerned, that seems to have changed with the appointment of a new Executive Director, who is certainly critical of government, but with I think no partisan agenda but only a commitment to ethnic pluralism as well as fundamental human rights.

This is Mario Gomes, whom I first knew as a protégé of Richard de Zoysa. I was reminded of this (rather sentimentally, a sure sign of advancing age) at the opening session, which I only managed to get to late since I was driving down from Vavuniya. However I managed to hear almost the whole presentation by Qadri Ismail, who was his usual iconoclastic self, demanding a stop to generalizations about identity. I would describe this as a quintessentially liberal position except that he would probably find the term anathema (I think he still sees himself as a socialist, though I can think of no one less likely to fit into any form of collective).

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2013
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