Back in Colombo in early April, I went ahead and introduced my proposed 23rd and 24th amendments to the Constitution. During the previous year Vasantha Senanayake and I had discussed proposing some changes, since we felt we had an obligation to make clear the need for reform. He had put forward a Bill then to reduce the size of the Cabinet and was astonished at the reaction. Apart from strong arm tactics from Basil, the President had called him in and told him he was being unduly influenced by me, which made him indignant given his long family commitment to democratic politics. Twice then he withdrew the Bill or rather, as he affirmed since he did not want to close the door completely, postponed it.
With the change of government we had hoped those who had professed commitment to good government would take our proposed reforms on board, but we soon realized they had no interest in details, and those in charge were keen only to transfer power to the Prime Minister. We ourselves were hamstrung by the fact that we were part of the executive and could not therefore move Private Bills, but when I resigned I was free of this constraint. Unfortunately Vasantha had by then passed on the ownership of his Bill to the JVP, which having agreed to move it promptly reneged on the commitment – and I was then unable to move such a Bill myself since only one Bill on a particular subject could be entertained at any one time.
But with some help from the Bills Office I put forward two Bills and presented them in Parliament on April 9th. One was about Electoral Reform, and the other was a principle I thought essential for an independent Public Service, namely that Permanent Secretaries be appointed by the Public Service Commission, not the President. Both Bills were seconded by Pabha, the actress who had been elected on the UNP list for Gampaha, but who had then crossed over in the mass defection to the government that took place early in 2007. She understood little about politics, but was keen to learn, and had an intrinsic commitment to democratic governance.Of course the introduction of the Bills meant little, since they had then to be referred to a Committee dominated by government which we knew would do little about them, but I felt I had discharged a personal obligation. This was the more essential in that it was clear, from the discussions taking place over the 19th amendment, that there was little regard to principle, and on all sides there was simply a desire to fulfil parochial agendas.
In the first place perhaps the most important component of the government’s reform agenda, electoral reform, was ignored. The President spoke to the UPFA Parliamentary Group on the 10th and confirmed his commitment to this, but it was clear he was not going to insist on that too being incorporated into the 19th amendment. However we all believed in his promise that he would not dissolve Parliament until electoral reform too had been introduced, and I still feel that he also believed in what he said. Unfortunately he was weak enough to succumb to pressure a couple of months later and dissolve Parliament before he fulfilled his commitment. But weakness is no excuse and I can understand those who read what I say scoffing at my justifications for the President. A former Vice Chancellor recently commented, ‘Rajiva, you (and Chanaka) saw through the Machiavellian plans of JRJ quite early from within….Hence, l am surprised about you being so naive about Maithripala’.
As regrettable was what happened, when the 19th Amendment was finally carried at the end of April, to the commitment to reduce the size of the Cabinet. The government’s anxiety to have a Parliamentary majority after the next election led it to provide that, though the Cabinet was to be confined to 30 members, an exception would be possible after the next election in the event of a National Government being formed. What was meant by a National Government was not defined. The Opposition attacked this provision but, instead of getting rid of it, they insisted that special provisions after the next election were unacceptable and the exception should be permitted subsequent to any election. They also removed the limitation on numbers in the event of such exception – which is why the current government is able to expand the Cabinet to a ridiculous extent. Needless to say my amendment, to insist on a limit of 30 in any event, was shouted down when what was in any case a shambolic discussion took place when the 19th Amendment was taken up.
In such a context I took refuge again in travel. Over the New Year period I went to Cyprus, which I had long wanted to visit. However, though it was part of the European Union, one needed a separate visa, so this journey required more planning than my other visits to Europe. The effort was fully worth it though, for Cyprus proved fascinating.
I began in Larnaca, where the main airport is, and found it a microcosm of the whole, with a Venetian fort and a picturesque mosque and church side by side. It was also good to see the statue of the Athenian admiral Cimon, one of the heroes of the wars against the Persians, though less celebrated than he deserved since he was on the conservative side in the tumult of Athenian politics.
The next day I booked a tour to the central highlands, going via the capital Nicosia which allowed a quick look at some of the Christian and Muslim monuments there. The churches in the little mountain villages were delightful, and I was also pleased to find on the bus a family from Jaffna, though they were now settled in Tonbridge in England.
I took a bus back to Nicosia that night, and set off next morning to Paphos, which was supposed to be the birthplace of Aphrodite. The Archaeological Park there was a wonder, with glorious mosaics and a couple of mediaeval fortresses, including one set enchantingly on the seashore. The place also had catacombs and rock churches outside the Park, and a church with the pillar associated with Sr. Paul. A concert was scheduled there that evening, arranged by the expatriate British community, but I was tired and preferred to head back to the apartment I had got for the price of a hotel room, to enjoy a bottle of wine on the balcony as the sun set.
After a tour next morning of the archaeological museum, I went on to Limassol, with its castle and again the juxtaposition of mosque and church, given how hotly contested the island had been between Turks and a range of Europeans in Renaissance times, as indeed Othello testifies. Near Limassol is a rich historical site which I visited the next day, for a well preserved theatre in addition to another host of mosaics. And Limassol too had a good museum, which I saw before heading on to Nicosia.
The high point there was a meeting with Dindy Drury, whose husband Jamie had been Chief Adviser to the Higher Institute of English Education which the British Council had supported in the late eighties. It had done great work, and Jamie had been a tower of strength, working superbly with Lakshmi Kumaranatunga, who had headed the Institute. But that had suffered when Lokubandara became Minister of Education and closed down much of what Ranil had started, so Lakshmi went off to the Philippines where her husband was working, and Jamie was transferred to Poland. I stayed with him there in 1991, but soon after moving to Cyprus he died. His widow however decided to stay on, but it was on the Turkish side, which was where Jamie had worked.
I could not see her there, since both the Turks on that side and the Greeks in the main part of Cyprus were zealous about visa requirements, so she had agreed to come over for lunch. Before she came I visited the magnificient orthodox sites in Nicosia, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Cathedral with its brilliant frescoes, the Byzantine Museum and a lovely preserved Dragoman’s House. But then we polished off a couple of bottles of wine, over protracted reminiscences of the good old days, which meant I was no good for anything but sleep after Dindy left.
The next day was Sunday, so I was able to glimpse a melodious church service, before seeing the archaeological museum, which outshone the museums in the smaller towns, exciting though those too had been. This one has the famous statue of Emperor Septimus Severus, exuding a sense of power even though he was presented in stark nudity. Interestingly enough, as I walked to the Anglican Church outside the city walls, I came across a gathering of Sri Lankans in one of the parks. I was told this was a regular occurrence, for we had a lot of migrant workers in Cyprus, and they benefited from the laws that ensured they had off days. In Limassol indeed I had been cossetted by one of them, a pleasant girl called Lakshmi, who produced boiling water for the Thambung Hodhi I had taken with me, as a prophylactic when I felt a cold coming on.
I headed back to Larnaca that afternoon, and was again lucky to be given an apartment instead of just a hotel room, so that once again I could sit on the balcony with a bottle of wine as the light faded. Next morning I was able to get to the museum there, which had been closed the day I arrived, before my flight back.
I had only a few days at home for I was due to attend a Conference of the Asian Liberals and Democrats in Kuala Lumpur on the 25th, my last as it was to turn out. The Friedrich Naumann Stiftung had stopped funding Sri Lanka, and on the last couple of occasions I had stayed in very cheap hotels, but this time our Malaysian hosts had arranged a special rate for me so I was able to spend some time with my colleagues.
I had previously arranged to go on to Thailand to stay with friends, but with the 19th Amendment coming up on the 28th I had to change my plans and get back to Colombo early on the 27th. But before that I was determined to spend a couple of days with Mohan Bhatkal, the Indian friend of the family, who had acquired a flat in Malacca, in addition to the house he had bought in Mt. Lavinia. He came up to Kuala Lumpur to fetch me, so after a couple of sessions of the CALD conference we took the bus down to Malacca.
Sunday April 26th was a wonderfully relaxing day, with lunch at the Malacca Club, a long afternoon sleep, and drinks on Mohan’s balcony as the sun set, before dinner at a seaside restaurant. All this helped me to get through the next two days, the MTV interview, the useless discussions on the 28th to reaffirm some of the reform principles on which the President had been elected, and finally the chaotic vote. We had indeed achieved little in the 110 days since Maithripala Sirisena had been elected.
Ceylon Today 31 January 2017 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=14193