The cultural programmes I worked on in 2013, with Daniel Ridicki and the Indian High Commission and various universities, went hand in hand with the Divisional Reconciliation Committee meetings that were my main official responsibility during this period. Having been to all the 35 Divisional Secretariats in the North, which I did three times in fact in the less than three years in which I was Adviser on Reconciliation, I had started on the East. Over that year I covered all 45 Secretariats, bemused though by the way new ones had been set up at the drop of a hat, simply to satisfy the sectarian compulsions of particular politicians. And it was clear that there were many problems in the East too, and that government simply had no system in place to listen to the people.
But in September I found that the DIG in charge of the Eastern Province, Pujith Jayasundara, had tried to institutionalize community relationships through what were termed Civil Defence Committees, which were supposed to function in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. This did not always happen, but Pujith, whom I had known for a long time, was analytical in his approach, and had set up formal mechanisms to ensure action. I knew nothing about all this, but I was by chance in the vicinity when a meeting of their community advisers took place, and was asked to address them.
This obviously went down well, for I was asked to address a larger gathering later in the week. Though my book launch at the Indian High Commission was scheduled for the day before that meeting in the East, I thought I should not refuse. So having come back and got through the launch, I left well before dawn to get to Batticaloa in time for the meeting which was held at the Municipal Hall. This was followed by another meeting next day at Kattankudy.
I took advantage of all this to rationalize the system, which we were able to do when the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, P B Abeykoon, sent a letter I drafted asking the Divisional Secretaries to revise the manner in which what were termed Civil Defence Committees were constituted. Earlier the Chairman was supposed to be a leading member of the community, but such people, however worthy, had no official position. They could therefore be ignored by those with formal authority. Though in some cases they commanded respect, this was not always the case. Though the Grama Niladhari was supposed to act as Secretary of the Committee, this did not always happen, and there were no mechanisms for follow up.
The Secretary’s letter instructed that the Grama Niladhari chair the meeting, with the police acting as secretaries to the committees. This was not done everywhere but, where instructions were followed, there were better results in terms of people actually feeling they had an opportunity to be heard by those in decision making positions. Unfortunately our administrative system had not enjoined clear follow up mechanisms, as I found when I happened to visit the Nittambuwa Police Station when my car broke down near there on a journey the following year. I found a very intelligent and committed OIC, who was happy to talk to me at length about what he was doing. He had ensured that there were well maintained files for each GN Division, but he had not been able to break through the system and take advantage of the other government officials who were allocated to specific GN Divisions. These were the Economic Development Officers and the Samurdhi or Divineguma Officers, both working for Basil Rajapasa’s Ministry, but without clear instructions as to how they were to coordinate with other government departments.
Pujith understood what could be done, but unfortunately he was having problems about complaints against him, arising I believe from his determination to deal forcefully with police officers who behaved badly. He came to see me more than once in the next few days about this but, though I think the IGP understood his worth, he was in the end transferred. I do not think his successor was as productive with regard to community liaison.
Sadly I do not think either Pujith or Mr Abeykoon has built on what was achieved during that period. And unfortunately we could not entrench this since the job descriptions we drafted, following discussions with the UN which tried to help me to improve delivery of services, were not sent out. By the middle of 2014, with elections on everyone’s mind, developing administrative systems was the last thing on the minds of those worried about their careers. I was reminded then of how the vital work we had done with regard to the Human Rights Action Plan and the Bill of Rights in 2009 fell prey to the worries of those concerned with elections when, then too, Mahinda Rajapaksa called an election long before it was necessary.
In October though I was able to leave all this behind, when I had three glorious weeks in South America. I had not been there since 1990, when I had visited Peru in January and Mexico in May, on either side of the second voyage round the world I made on the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea programme. Those journeys had been even more marvelous than my first visit to the continent, in 1986, to Brazil. The people there had been delightful, and I had much enjoyed the colonial architecture in Belo Horizonte and Recife, and the unbelievable Foz de Iguacu. But Peru and Mexico had also had breathtaking indigenous monuments, Machu Pichu and Cuzco of the Incas, Teotihuacan and the Floating Gardens in Mexico City and the Mayan remains in the Yucatan, including the Magician’s Pyramid, a building that grips one as does the Taj Mahal or Angkor, or Milan and Chartres Cathedrals.
I had been invited in 2013 by the Brazilian government’s foreign policy think tank for a conference on the emerging role of China. The Brazilian ambassador had recommended me, following discussions on developments in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in connection with the problems we were facing in Geneva. The paper I delivered was I think well received, and an adapted version is the first essay in my latest book, published last month by Godage & Bros, The Mango Tree: Inclusivity and Integrity in International Relations.
The title is based on the symbol that Mahinda Thero used when he was testing King Devanampiyatissa’s capacity, and which I use as the epitome of the principles on which countries should relate to others. The launch of the book at the beginning of August was accompanied by a seminar on ‘India and China: Cornerstones of Sri Lankan Foreign Policy?’ with presentations by two brilliant envoys, Sudharshan Seneviratne and Dayan Jayatilleka, foolishly removed by this government and the last one when they had established their intellectual credentials in the places where they were posted. But intellect and the capacity to conceptualize have not been taken seriously for the last few decades as far as those who make decisions with regard to foreign policy are concerned, except for that brief and shining period when Lakshman Kadirgamar was in charge.
Ceylon Today 16 August 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=4273