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Five years ago the country was full of promise. I believe that promise could easily have been fulfilled, had government not fallen prey to a few rent seekers. What happened, in particular in the last couple of years, was tragic, and I believe a full study of the triumph and the tragedy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be immensely illuminating.

But that should be undertaken after more reflection. In this series I will look only at a few measures that could easily have been undertaken without controversy, to have strengthened relations between the government and the people. I am sure many individuals had many ideas, but obviously I can only discuss in some detail those I had personal knowledge of. I will therefore in this series look at some of the work I tried to do, which was stymied more through neglect than deliberate policy – except perhaps with regard to one or two individuals, who could brook no rivalry (something from which President Sirisena too suffered). For this purpose I will go through some of the letters and memoranda I sent over the years, with decreasing impact.

To go back to 2010, President Rajapaksa had succeeded the previous year, against what seemed insuperable odds, in eliminating the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Then he had won the Presidential election handsomely, despite the range of support, national and international, received by his opponent, General Sarath Fonseka. He had also won the parliamentary election that followed, with a healthy majority.

Reconstruction was proceeding apace in the North, and the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres was moving ahead successfully. The over 4000 suspects, who had been in custody before the conclusion of the war, had been reduced to well under 2000. For this purpose the President had appointed a Committee which I chaired, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and we had received full cooperation from the relevant authorities, the army and the police and prisons officials. And the National Human Rights Action Plan, which had been abandoned during the election period, was being finalized.

I was no longer officially in charge, for I was now in Parliament. The Ministry of Human Right had been abolished and, when I inquired as to what would happen about this vital area, I was told that it would be looked after by the Ministry of External Affairs. But the Ministry was ill equipped for such a task, and indeed it failed to make proper use of my project staff, who had been transferred there. In fact, because of bureaucratic delays, it lost the services of our able consultant Nishan Muthukrishna, and I began to wonder whether the Action Plan was doomed. But then the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, was put in charge. Though he was very busy, he allowed our meetings to be held in his office, and we were able to move swifty and have a final draft approved by Cabinet the following year.

I had expected to receive a Ministry, since there seemed no purpose in having someone who was not a constituency politician, and had no ambitions to become one, in Parliament without other functions. I gather this had been planned, but the delay in finalizing the election results proved fatal, and I was told there was strong opposition to my being appointed by those who disliked my pluralistic credentials and my support for the 13th Amendment. The Swiss Ambassador at the time had told me she had heard I was to become Foreign Minister, but that seemed far-fetched. Education seemed more likely, but then Lalith Weeratunge told Kumar Rupesinghe, who said he had been pushing for this, that they had found someone far more suitable. Bandula Gunawardena was accordingly appointed.

I did not worry about this, for I thought I should in any case learn more about Parliament, and I had assumed, having known Parliament previously from the days when my father was Secretary General, that members could contribute to legislation and policy decisions. That was intended according to the Standing Orders, which I studied because, unexpectedly, I was put on the Committee on Standing Orders. I had not asked for that, or the Committee on Public Enterprises, but these soon became my main areas of concentration.

With regard to Ministry Consultative Committees, I was not put on those for Defence and for External Relations which I had asked for, given my previous work in those areas as Head of the Peace Secretariat. But I was interested enough in some of the others I was appointed to, including Women’s Affairs and Child Development, and also Resettlement. But I soon found that these were not productive bodies, being occupied for the most part with individual constituency concerns.

I tried to change this, and was happy when Manthri, the organization that monitors the work of Members of Parliament, reported recently that I was the most active in this regard of National List MPs, and in the first ten of all MPs. They were able to do this because, after I pressed the matter, the Secretary General decided to publish the proceedings of Committees. These make clear how few members bother to attend, and indeed how infrequently meetings are held. Indeed, in the over five months in which a government supposedly dedicated to strengthening Parliament was in office, just nine committee meetings were held, whereas there should have been one a month for each Ministry, a total of about 150.

Meanwhile the Committee on Standing Orders came to a standstill. We had proceeded swiftly after our first meeting, at which it became clear that not many of the members had much interest in the matter or any great understanding of the issues involved. But they were happy to let those of us who were keen on the matter – namely the Deputy Speaker, Chandima Weerakkody, Mr Sumanthiran of the TNA and myself – to work intensively. We had redrafted about a quarter of the document when all hell broke loose.

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qrcode.31254677I was asked recently in an interview to mention seven areas of priority for the new Parliament. I began with Education and Reconciliation which have long been priorities for me. But then I also noted some other areas in which structural change was essential.

One of these was providing greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making. But I did not by this mean a return to the old debate about devolution and sharing power between the Centre and Provincial governments. My stress was on more power to local bodies, and I also thought it vital to develop better consultation mechanisms.

I am glad that the UPFA manifesto notes this need, and I hope they will study the progress made in this area by the Ministry of Public Administration, working in collaboration with UNDP. A couple of years back the Ministry Secretary sent out a circular about regular meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and he also issued, together with the Secretary for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a circular setting up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. Building on such initiatives, there was an excellent report prepared by Asoka Gunewardena on improving Service Delivery in the Divisions. This should be used to flesh out the manifesto, leading I hope to fulfilment of the President’s commitment in his January manifesto that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area’.

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qrcode.31217364I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.

Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.

In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.

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qrcode.31104759After he won election, Jayewardene ignored his own political theories when he found himself in command of almost absolute power following the massive electoral victory in 1977. He was virtually unquestionable for, along with Senanayake, most of those who had held cabinet office in the 1965 UNP government were dead. Jayewardene was more senior than all those who remained and he soon dismissed his only contemporary, a cabinet minister who had been with him in the 1950s.

The fact that he did not implement his proposals was clearly his own decision rather than the result of political compromise. He probably realised that his control of parliament would be enhanced by continuing the requirement that the cabinet should be drawn from parliament. The executive would not be criticised by members of his own party if they were hoping to join it and if its senior members were present with them in parliament. Another reason may have been that he was winning over members of other parties by offering them executive positions. It would have been embarrassing if they had to vacate their parliamentary seats for this new system, in which case candidates would have had to be nominated to the seats by either Jayewardene himself or the party to which they had originally belonged.

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qrcode.31050227By giving parties the right to expel members from Parliament, Jayewardene destroyed an important principle of parliamentary democracy—the independence of members of parliament. The main justification of parliament is that it acts as a check on the executive. In the British system members of the ruling party generally support the government, but they are free to criticise and question it. Turning them into mere lobby fodder, programmed to support the government under any circumstances, makes them redundant.

In Sri Lanka, as time passed, MPs realised that they could invoke the authority of the Supreme Court against arbitrary expulsions. But such a move set them in a position of hostility against the party. This usually meant they had to cross over to the opposition if they wanted to assert their independence even on a single issue. So Sri Lanka has been deprived of one of the great benefits of the parliamentary system, which in other countries allows members who think on similar political lines to maintain basic loyalty to their party while criticizing anything they find aberrant. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, any dissent leads to oppositioning. So it is rare to find members willing to express different opinions, which happens usually  only if sufficiently large numbers could be brought together for a change of government. But since most parliamentarians are not likely to change loyalties on appeals of conscience alone, financial incentives and promises of future office would have to be used to lure them. Instances of this approach have occurred recently, leading at the end of 2001 to a premature election.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2015
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