Recently I took part in a seminar on Rights and Development, arranged by the Law and Society Trust. That organization used to be bitterly critical of government, but under its new Director, Mala Liyanage, it seems to be trying to go back to the more balanced perspective of Neelan Tiruchelvam. He founded it, but after his death LST, like ICES, became tools of those opposed to the SLFP. I remember, while I was at the Peace Secretariat, having to upbraid the then Chair of LST, Raja Gunasekara, who had not known what was going on, and who after our correspondence agreed to look into the matter.
Certainly the more vicious attacks stopped after that, and it is a pity that, instead of adopting that sort of reasoned approach, government now deals with NGOs, as I told the President recently, because of worries about the hamfisted way of controlling (rather than monitoring) foreign funds, through incompetent people. But gratitude, as the case of the transfer to Australia of the last Head of the Secretariat shows, is stronger than public interest.
And unfortunately we have no institutional memory. Government ignored the report I did more than five years ago on NGOs, where I showed the interlocking directorates of a few, while also pointing out that the vast majority functioned positively. Sadly it is these last who feel threatened, while the others continue as before, except where, as with LST, a change of management leads to a more balanced approach. But I don’t suppose my report can now be found anywhere.
Ironically, on the day of the seminar, I was told that the Presidential Secretariat was looking for the Peace Secretariat files, which I had told them way back in 2009 to look after carefully. In fact they did make an attempt to put things in order after the Darusman Report came out, but as usual, with no personnel in place who were able to understand the situation, that effort too seems to have come to naught.
Interestingly, it was Basil Rajapakse who told me not to try to persuade the President not to close down the Secretariat soon after the conflict ended. Since the President has told me later that closing it down was a great mistake, I was obviously wrong to think that Basil knew what he was doing. He seemed to get on well with Mahinda Samarasinghe, so I thought there would be some continuity there, but the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance was also got rid of, in his mad dash for full authority with regard to aid and development in the North.
That he was sincere in wanting to achieve results, whatever the motivation, I do not doubt, but the unfortunate results for government of his top down approach are now abundantly clear. I hope then that the President also registers that a similar approach in the South will have a similar impact. This I suspect is the reason for the decision to allocate funds through selected Members of Parliament rather than at the sole discretion of the Ministry of Economic Development. But since that is only to decentralize authoritarianism, it is essential to have systems of consultation in place. I realized from the discussion at the Consultative Committee on Public Administration Reforms that parliamentarians such as Navin Dissanayake and Thilanga Sumathipala did have such systems in place, but I can see that this is not the case everywhere.
Sadly that same approach seems now to have also affected the Defence Secretary, who was much more inclusive previously, perhaps because of his army training which meant that he knew the value of conferences and situation appraisals with study of the input of all stakeholders. Certainly the efficiency continues, as was apparent from the excellent presentation at the LST seminar of a very articulate Consultant from the UDA. But despite obvious goodwill, he could not respond effectively to the critiques made by the two other panelists. I should add that I was not on this panel, but spoke rather on Land and Development, though some of the principles I suggested with regard to compensation and justiciability would have applied in the first panel too.
One of the two other panelists in the morning session was Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most balanced and the most intelligent opposition Member of Parliament. He confined himself to four anecdotes which illustrated the heavy-handedness of the operations the UDA was conducting. One worrying tale was about the abduction of a Wanathamulla resident who had raised objections to the plans for developing the area. After protests by the residents, he was brought back, but there seems to have been no proper investigation into what happened.
The other tale was about the deployment of riot police at a consultation Eran was going to have with residents at an area near Jawatte that was scheduled for development. This seemed bizarre, but it seems now that the government, or rather the Secretary of Defence, sees conspiracies everywhere.
He may be right to be wary, but he must also realize, at least after the disaster at Weliveriya, is to put in place systems to deal with grievances, rather than allow them to fester, and be exploited by enemies of the government, as he describes some elements who have been critical of his actions. At Weliveriya for instance the worries of the vast majority could have been allayed by GN Division consultation mechanisms with statutory provisions for feedback. This is what the Secretary of the Ministry of Public Administration has tried now to put in place through a circular sent out in January, but in several places this is not in operation, and no one seems to have laid down systems to ensure follow up, such as minutes that are available for perusal with clear designations of action points.
At the seminar, when the question of inadequate compensation for those who had title and comfortable houses was raised, the Consultant mentioned a grievance mechanism at the UDA, but it seems this is not known to those who have been upset by the plans. They have gone to Court, but much more sensible, as I proposed in my paper on land problems, is mediation systems. The UDA mechanism may strive for objectivity, but this will not be accepted so an independent mediator would be better. This is the more vital since, as the third panelist, the enormously erudite Anushka Wijesinha of the Institute of Policy Studies put it, there is a tendency to adopt command structure decisions, which are not always appropriate when dealing with large numbers of independent stakeholders. It was also noted that there was a tendency to make sweeping assessments, which are not appropriate when dealing with a diversity of ownership patterns amongst those being displaced.
Though everyone – including R M B Senanayake, who rarely has a good word for government – appreciated the enormous achievements of the UDA, it was also obvious that everyone, including the very decent Consultant, recognized that greater sensitivity was in order. Though most people understand the need to clean up slums, the word slum is used for a range of households, and there must be mechanisms to ensure alternatives that are commensurate with the current living conditions of individuals. Given the potential value of the lands being released, the excuse that resources are not available for a human approach to the problem is not acceptable.
But while ensuring sensitivity, and better consultation systems and independent assessments of issues raised, the UDA must also make sure that heavy handed actions are avoided. I can understand the Secretary of Defence being paranoid, and I sympathize with his anguish, for it must be galling to be treated as a war criminal when those who accuse him know perfectly well that he sought to fight the war in as humane a manner as was possible, given the intransigence of the LTTE and the connivance of many of those now criticizing him in the strategy they adopted of holding hundreds of thousands of civilians hostage. But his recent actions suggest that he has no qualms about giving strength to their allegations, in that he seems to be advocating impunity for those who should be charged with criminal offences, ranging from the killers of the students in Trincomalee in 2006 to the BBS stalwarts who have been inciting violence and threatening even the President.
Perhaps he thinks that nothing he does will be effective, and he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. But his recent indication that those responsible for the deaths at Weliveriya are in prison suggests that he understands the need for action. And now that he has the excellent narrative of the War put together by Godfrey Gunatilleke and others to help him argue his case, he must surely substantiate his defence in the many areas in which Sri Lanka did nothing wrong, while not attempting to defend the indefensible actions of a few individuals after the conflict. Simply allowing full implementation of the LLRC recommendations, and not standing in the way of the efficient unit set up in the Presidential Secretariat for the purpose, will do wonders for the country. But continuing intransigence, as well as unnecessary repression in connection with the otherwise excellent work of the UDA, will cost the President, and the country, dear.