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.
This happened because former Secretary General Priyani Wijesekera had been appointed as our Consultant. She had served only in post 1977 Parliaments and did not know much about practices in regular democracies, as I found on reading the book she had written, which was handed out to all new Parliamentarians. It assigned hardly any role to Parliamentarians with regard to legislation, except only that of voting. Her view seemed to be that legislation was the prerogative of the executive and the judiciary. Perhaps she cannot be faulted for this in a context in which proposed legislation is not brought before Committees until the very end, when they are expected only to rubber stamp it (which happens generally, though on occasion there are protests, and then necessary legislation is shelved, without being sensibly amended through consensus).
Despite her parochial view of Parliament, she was supportive of the changes we made. But then one member, who had contributed hardly anything, despite many years in Parliament, with different parties, objected to her involvement because she was on the Working Committee of the UNP. This was true, and she explained this by saying that Ranil Wickremesinghe has wanted her because he was facing a challenge and needed loyalists.
The Speaker then, I suppose understandably, though she had not been partisan in the Committee, ruled that her services should be discontinued. The Secretary General was irritated by this, and did not thereafter convene the Committee, saying that it could now be handled by his Deputies. But they did not have the clout to push the Speaker, and for four long years nothing happened. I kept asking that we should resume, but it turned out that no one else was interested. The Opposition Representative was John Amaratunga, who always agreed when I suggested that the matter be taken up, but obviously he did not push. Nor did Mr Sumanthiran, But the fact that the Deputy Speaker also did nothing now makes me think that those in government who were in charge of parliamentary business did not want anything to change. This was established a couple of years back, when Basil Rajapaksa stopped my motion to amend Standing Orders being taken up. But that I will take up later, after looking too at my other efforts earlier on to increase Transparency and Accountability.
Ceylon Today 27 August 2015 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/90-102055-news-detail-the-road-not-taken-why-standing-order-changes-were-delayed.html