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I referred some weeks back to the games being played by various individuals and institutions in Colombo with regard to the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, the political foundation of the German Free Democratic Party. This is a member of Liberal International, though its Liberalism is generally more concerned with free market economics, and does not have the same commitment to social equity as say the British Liberal Party. Still, there are enough people in the FDP, and also in the FNS, who understand our commitment in Sri Lanka to a more Gladstonian version of Liberalism, though sadly they have been in comparative short supply in dealings with South Asia.

I suppose this is understandable in that South Asia tended, at the time the FNS established itself here, to be committed to social equity from a more socialist standpoint, and it was free markets that needed nurturing. However this led to at least some personnel neglecting other aspects of Liberalism, as with the official who said he saw nothing wrong with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that democracy could be delayed, as in South Korea and other East Asian countries, until development had reached a satisfactory level.

This mindset has contributed to a generally hostile attitude to the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, though there have been honourable exceptions, including the Regional Director who encouraged my conducting workshops on Liberalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sadly he was soon sent away from Delhi, though he has since contributed immeasurably to Liberalism in South East Asia, where the command model of an open economy held sway, and it was necessary for Liberal parties to argue for the restoration of democracy and social equity.

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qrcode.18538762Keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

26 November 2013 – at the National RESC Conference – 2013

On the theme ‘Supplementing ELT Through Language Arts & Theater

I do not tend these days to accept invitations to speak in the fields of Education and English Language Teaching, but I was pleased to accept this one, largely because of the theme of your Conference. I feel in a sense out of touch with the subject, but this has been deliberate, because I must admit to some sadness at the manner in which the Ministry of Education failed to build on the foundation we had laid there for better English Teaching, and for better syllabuses for all subjects, during the years in which I advised on English, and also chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education.

We had also made plans for better use of the Regional English Support Centres to upgrade English Teacher Training, and provide ready access to degrees that would improve the professional capacities of English teachers. But all this was reversed, largely because of lethargy, and the incapacity to think and plan coherently which has so adversely affected our education system over the years. And in addition there is I fear also continuing suspicion of English, and a determination on the part of decision makers to prevent our rural populations from having access to the language which is the only way of ensuring equity and equality of opportunity in the current age. In short, English continues to be the possession of the privileged, and in particular those in authority who use the language of nationalism to keep the less privileged in check, whilst of course ensuring that their own children have English, and English medium education, and often foreign degrees.

How do we break through this stranglehold? Read the rest of this entry »

The meeting in Sri Lanka in November 2013 of the Commonwealth Heads of Government provides a great opportunity for our government. This can be summed up in one word, Engagement, which Sri Lanka has not been very good at over the last few years.

The principles of engagement, which we need to understand, are very simple. First, we need to listen carefully to what others say. Second, we need to put our own perspectives and practices clearly and systematically. Thirdly, we need to search for common ground between us and our interlocutors, and work towards strengthening those commonalities and developing understanding of how mutual appreciation could be strengthened. Fourthly we need to work out where there are differences, and point out where these are because of inadequate understanding of our situation. Finally, where there are differences based on perspectives, we need to explain our own position clearly, and indicate why changes on our part would not be beneficial to the Sri Lankan people. However – and this is a vital caveat to this last aspect – we must try to understand different positions, and listen to arguments supporting them, and if necessary adjust our own positions if those arguments are clear and convincing.

About each of these, there have been great difficulties in recent years. We do not listen carefully, and we tend to put everyone who criticizes us in the same basket. We then play to local galleries by criticizing them and, since the sincere are generally nicer than those who have a subtle agenda, we are more critical of the decent. This has made us lose credibility amongst those who, even if they have different approaches in some respects, are basically our good friends. The manner in which India is often treated in our media, and even by some in authority, is a shocking example of this absurdity. Read the rest of this entry »

Last week saw yet another example of the slow erosion of systems that makes justice so alien a concept for our people. In Parliament we received yet another Bill cointaining amendments to a previous Bill.  It will be taken up only later, so I was not surprised that the original Bill was not available, since anyone interested could look it up in the interim in the Parliament Library. But once again I found that the notes at the side of the document, which are supposed to sum up the content of each clause, simply noted that the clauses were amendments to previous clauses.

The summing up, I should note, had been included at the beginning of the Bill. This does not happen always, so one should be thankful that this time at least anyone looking at the Bill could find out at a glance what was happening where. But I fail to understand why a custom designed for convenience, to allow anyone looking at the Bill to see immediately the impact of each clause, is now ignored. The only place where it still prevails is in the last two clauses of the Bill, where a note on the side tells us exactly what is in the Bill itself. One notable piece of information thus highlighted is that, where versions of the Bill in different languages are different, the Sinhala text shall prevail.

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A group of young people, including a few politicians, have been working recently on suggestions for Constitutional Reform following the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The brief of that Committee is wide and, even though efforts were made to hijack it, and turn it into a vehicle to amend the 13th Amendment, the Chairman stood firm and made it clear that the terms of reference as laid down by those who proposed the Committee should stand.

I have no doubt that, despite the omission of perspectives that are more common in the country and in Parliament than extreme views on either side, there are enough persons on the PSC who will ensure that the commitments that country and the President have entered into will be upheld. However I suspect the Committee will deliberate for a very long time, and a lot of problems that it would be very simple to resolve will only get worse.

I welcome therefore what I see as a Youth Initiative, and have been impressed by the systematic way in which they are proceeding. They have used as a basic text a comparison which has been made of the three recent comprehensive proposals for Constitutional Reform that have been published. The first of these – as usual, I am tempted to say – was that of the Liberal Party, and this was followed this year by the proposals of the UNP as also those of a group led by the Rev Omalpe Sobitha.

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After nearly 100 meetings at Divisional Secretariats, with the participation often of Pradeshiya Sabha representatives, I am more than ever convinced that the future of this country lies in strengthening local government institutions. However, if they are to do more, they also need to consult the local citizenry.

At present there are no formal structures to ensure such consultation. Some local bodies do have provision for Standing Committees, and I have been told that for Pradeshiya Sabhas there is provision for members of the public to participate, but this is not the case with Municipal or Urban Councils. The latter indeed do not seem to have provision for such Committees.

This is quite contrary to the premises on which the Mahinda Chintanaya is based, and I was happy to find that efforts to amend the Acts have progressed considerably in the last couple of years. Unfortunately the same old trend of simply amending earlier Acts has continued, instead of repealing previous legislation and replacing it with a clearly comprehensible new Act. This will mean that those elected to such bodies will find it difficult to understand what their powers are, and lawyers will have a wonderful time interpreting the Acts.

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I was finally spurred, by the enormous effort made by a few expatriates to take a careful look at the casualty figures for the conflict, to try myself to put together some figures systematically. Long ago I had made some estimates, based on the details I had got from Tamilnet as well as on figures from the ICRC of the sick who had been taken to hospitals in government controlled areas. But though government has now accepted what I said, at the time I was even criticized for my candour by those who should have known much better.

I should note that I was not entirely on my own, for the army, understanding better than most what was at stake, helped me with visits to the sites where the fighting had taken place, and in particular to the hospitals which were largely undamaged, contrary to the propaganda put out about them. But when the books I produced were ignored, I thought it better to concentrate on reconciliation with regard to the future.

Recently though I have been heartened by two envoys who have done well in dealing with the media telling me that I had been their initial inspiration. And when Michael Roberts and the Marga Institute produced ‘The Numbers Game’, and the remarkably sharp journalist Kath Noble assessed this positively, I thought I should make yet another effort.

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cald logoSpeech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha – Leader of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka

On ‘Asia’s Political and Security Environment: Avenues for Inter-Regional Cooperation

At the 6th meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

On ‘Global Power Shift: Implications for Asia-Europe Relations’

November 9th 2013

Two weeks ago I was at a seminar in Rio de Janeiro, arranged by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, on the topic of responses to the emergence of bipolarity, in terms of the United States and China. I was there when I got details of this discussion, and it struck me that the different ways in which the topic, essentially the same topic, was phrased represented two different views of the world, or rather of how we relate to each other in the same world.

 This factor was indeed the subject of my presentation at that seminar, the difference between the oppositional view of the world, in terms of Western philosophy, and the more inclusive Eastern one. That first perspective, discussed by Tagore a century ago, when he advised Japan against adopting the Western ‘selfish separation of exclusiveness…in the name of false patriotism, it engenders hatred against other countries at times leading to conquest by war’ was conceptualized by Nirmal Verma when he spoke of ‘the European notion of the “other”, an inalienable entity external to oneself, which was both a source of terror and an object of desire’.

The alternative view of the world is one based on circles, concentric and overlapping, which encourages inclusive perspectives. That is the view which should inform our discussions, given their basis in our shared visions of and for Asia and Europe, those large and heterogeneous entities. We should be seeking what we have in common, and how we can expand areas of shared objectives rather than seeing things in terms of absolutes and of zero sum situations.

Central to our discussions of course is China, as the President of Liberal International, Hans van Baalen, just indicated, in beginning his presentation with its significance. But I would also stress what he said later, that our discussions should be about China, and they should be about Democracy.

This is a vital factor, but I am old enough to remember how the latter was considered totally unimportant in the bad old days of the Cold War, when China’s discovery of the free market was considered enough, and its authoritarian political dispensation considered almost an asset. Indeed, one of the saddest statements I have heard from a representative of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which we look to as a celebrant of freedom, was the assertion that it was not at all worrying to claim that economic development was a priority and political freedom could wait. This was in the context of a Sri Lankan politician suggesting that what had happened in China, and in South Korea under its military dictators, and more recently in Vietnam, should be a model for us too. To find that acceptable seemed to me a betrayal.

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After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.

Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.

I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.

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I have been reading with some bemusement the recent exchanges regarding the role and views of my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka, who has been under attack because of his support for the 13th Amendment and devolution. This is an old story, and he is well able to defend himself. But recently there has been a change, because he is attacked not only for what he believes – which he would be quite happy to deal with – but also on the grounds that he caused problems for the government because he defended us forcefully against attacks in the international arena way back in 2009.

The argument is that he put us in a difficult position through his defence, which involved commitment to the 13th Amendment. As I have said before, this is nonsense, because all he was doing was reiterating what our old friend Mahinda Samarasinghe would describe as the consolidated position of the government of Sri Lanka. This had been expressed clearly by the President in a joint communiqué with the Indian government as also in a joint statement issued together with the UN Secretary General. This last indeed contained material relating to accountability which I thought unnecessary, but which it seemed only Dayan and I, thought of as outsiders with no diplomatic training, recognized was potentially dangerous. Foreign Ministry officials saw no problem with that commitment on the part of government, though later Palitha Kohona told me he had advised against that clause, and it was only the President’s haste to settle the matter that curtailed further discussion.

That having been said, the clause would have caused no problems had we interpreted it straight away on our terms. It was the culpable neglect of what we had pledged that has contributed to our problems, and that was nothing to do with Dayan, who was given the cold shoulder soon afterwards. He was to spend a year in limbo, until the President recalled him to service in Paris, where he did a fantastic job.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2013
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