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Presidency 22When I wrote about corruption last week, I concentrated on the structural absurdities that have been introduced into the allocation of development funding. Given the blatant deployment of this for electoral purposes, many politicians have the liberty to award contracts for projects as seems most beneficial to them, rather than the people they are supposed to serve. And while of course some development will occur, and perhaps a lot in some areas, the bottom line is that the people are no longer being fooled, as the last set of election results made clear.

But I would be remiss if I did not talk too of the perceptions of corruption at the top, since the general impression seems to be that what we have now is a kleptocracy. I should note that the President himself does not figure in these rumours, though he too must know that some who do are alleged to also act as agents on his behalf. And sadly – though given his excessive indulgence of those close to him, I can see other reasons for his weakness in this regard – his failure to discipline them is attributed to worry about what they might reveal.

Given what he has achieved however, there is little anger, except amongst those who disliked him in the first place. What is serious now is the erosion of confidence in those around him, and in particular with the immediate family. Thus, when I was recently in Kandy, I was told about a new hotel that was coming up that there were rumours that it was owned by Gotabhaya – and then later I was told that it belonged to Basil.

That both stories should be circulating indicated that these were rumours, and it is quite possible that they are unfounded – or even that they are being spread by those who do own the hotel, and who think their position will be stronger for whatever planning needs they have, if it is thought that powerful people were involved. But I was saddened by this, remembering my father’s old friendship with D A Rajapaksa, one of the simplest and most honest politicians I knew, who had almost no assets when he lost his Parliamentary seat in 1965 and travelled home by bus.

The story about Gotabhaya upset me particularly, because I had unhesitatingly stood up for him when criticism first started about the powers the family had. I had been impressed by the confidence he had given the forces, not least because the corruption that had reigned previously with regard to procurement had been stopped. He was clearly the best man for the job at the time, and the country must continue grateful to him for what was achieved – and not least because all accounts are that he tried to fight the war as cleanly as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

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presidency 21There has been much exultation in some quarters in Sri Lanka about the conviction of Jayalalitha, but I was glad to see that at least some articles also noted the need for stringent measures in Sri Lanka too, to combat corruption. One article however missed the point, in citing as an example of what needed to be dealt with firmly the Ceylinco case.

The failure to deal with that swiftly, and provide compensation to the victims of the scam, is indeed appalling. But that failure has to do with the delays, not necessarily arising from corruption, of our judicial system. Certainly we also need measures to make our courts move and it is sad that those have been forgotten. Though it is featured in the Human Rights Action Plan, as far as I can see no one has bothered about that plan following my resignation as Convenor of the Task Force to implement its recommendations.

But that is a different issue, and what we are talking about in Jayalalitha’s case is the corruption of politicians. Now this is nothing new, and it also happens all over the world. I remember the scandals in Local Government in Britain when I was a student, more recently we had the horrors of the Bush administration dishing out contracts in Iraq to agencies in which senior officials had interests.

Nearer home however aggrandizement seems to be excessive. The Jayalalitha case is about disproportionate assets, and in Sri Lanka too it is the inordinate greed of those who are plundering the state which has skewered development plans whilst also contributing to the increasing unpopularity of the government. And sadly government seems to be conniving at this corruption, given the mechanisms it has set up this year, with no transparency, to spend public money. Read the rest of this entry »

downloadSeveral papers, though interestingly enough not all, carried accounts last week of the failure of Vasantha Senanayake to propose the Constitutional Amendment that stood in his name on the Order Paper of Parliament on September 25th. It was not however registered that he had not withdrawn the motion, which was to introduce statutory limitations on numbers in the Cabinet. He merely postponed it, while meanwhile requesting government to set up a Committee to go into that and other constitutional amendments he had proposed.

It seemed to me a pity that he had not gone ahead with the motion, not least because of the enthusiasm with which government members had greeted it on the day. One government MP came up to congratulate him, and was deeply disappointed to be told that he would not be proposing it that day. Even more surprisingly, a Cabinet Minister, albeit a particularly honest and honourable one, told me it was a very good idea. And the enthusiasm of the opposition also took the form of recognition of their own inadequacies, for Ravi Karunanayake, who had proposed something of the sort through a Private Members Motion, granted that it was much more effective to put forward a Bill.

Ravi indeed has contributed to the contumely in which Private Members Motions are held, by proposing hundreds of varying importance, which has contributed to Fridays becoming a day to avoid Parliament. And it is a mark of the lack of awareness about Parliamentary practice in those who pass for senior Parliamentarians that it was a first time member who registered the importance of putting forward a Bill, instead of adding through a Motion to the tedium of Fridays. That day in Parliament is now largely the preserve of Ravi and of his great rival Buddhika Pathirana, along with legions of the dead (obituaries being the other main subject of discussion on Fridays, apart from the motions of the dynamic duo).

The assumption in the press was that Vasantha had been pressed by the UPFA leadership into withdrawing the motion. This had indeed happened earlier, for he had put forward the Bill some months ago, but on that occasion the President had spoken to him and, in talking about his bright future, persuaded him not to put it on the agenda. I suppose it is because I do not have a future that I would have sought some sort of commitment from His Excellency to encourage debate and discussion on the matter, but I can understand someone of Vasantha’s age believing that that would not be the end of the matter. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 19When I began this series, over four months ago, the title may have seemed excessive. And even my good friend Dayan Jayatilleka thought I was being unduly pessimistic about the President’s pulling power when I said that the UNP would poll at least 40% in Badulla. But the results there have shown that the threat is even more serious than I had thought.

Over the next few weeks I will explore how the threat might be averted. But I suspect that that will serve no purpose, for Basil Rajapaksa, who may be the only one of the decision makers who reads what I write, would by then have dragooned the President into having an early election. He did this in 2009 when, as the President then put it to me – with a hint of contempt I think for what he deemed the amateur nature of our advice – only Gota and I told him not to have the Presidential election so soon.

That haste, to entrench not the President, whose popularity was unrivalled at the time, but his rent seeking friends and relations in power, has been the root of the evils we have suffered. Contrariwise, Mahinda Rajapaksa, if left to himself, would I think have gone ahead with the reforms he had promised. And he can still save himself, and his legacy, if he works on reforms such as those so helpfully suggested by Vasantha Senanayake, which aim at strengthening the effectiveness of the Executive, not its power. But even now, understanding that having the Presidential election soon would be unwise, the rent seekers are trying to precipitate an early Parliamentary election. They ignore the fact that Parliament has a year and a half to go, and the President more than two years, ample time for the pluralist Mahinda Rajapaksa to recreate himself, free of the baggage he has been compelled to carry.

But can he do this? Does he have the will and the ability to assert himself again? Sadly, the way in which he has allowed little things to get out of control, through a combination of indulgence and lethargy, suggests that the will is weakening, even if his abilities are still in good order. I will illustrate this in my column this week by exploring the sort of embarrassment to which he allows himself to be subjected, when he forgets that the leader of a country should not let himself get involved in trivialities or in criminal activities. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 18Sri Lanka Cricket appeared recently before the Committee on Public Enterprises, which is perhaps the only institution in Parliament to have had some effect over the last four years. It could do more, if the Speaker only convened the Committee on Standing Orders, but sadly the Speaker seems to have decided that it is not his business to strengthen Parliament. Instead he too seems ready to jump on the bandwagon on those who wish to abolish the Executive Presidency. That would be disastrous in the current situation but he, like many others, does not seem to understand that an Executive based in a Parliament which has no independent status would be equally lacking in transparency and accountability. And an Executive which has neither professionalism nor collegiality cannot be created simply by moving back to the Westminster model.

But I cannot expect anyone who took an interest in Parliament only after J R Jayewardene had denigrated it beyond measure to understand what a Parliament should really be like. The President does, but I think only he and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Vasudeva Nanayakkara remain in active politics of those who were in Parliament before 1977  (I do not count the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons). Fortunately we have a couple of people with political understanding based on previous generations, such as the Chief Government Whip. And recently an even younger parliamentarian with statesman potential, Vasantha Senanayake, has proposed some changes which would save both the country and the President from the abyss into which we are staring.

The manner in which Sri Lanka Cricket has run amuck typifies the need for greater transparency and accountability. Arjuna Ranatunge, for whom my respect has grown given his regular attendance and thoughtful contributions to COPE, pointed out that SLC’s current disastrous financial situation arose from massive expenditure on three stadiums, including the new one in Hambantota. He also established what was obviously corruption in the manner in which the contrast for telecasting rights had been given to the Carlton Sports Network at a time when his brother Nishantha was involved in both institutions. Nishantha’s plaintive defence that he had recused himself from the decision making process rang hollow, given the obvious bad faith of the Marketing Manager who functioned under him, who tried to throw the blame on Asanga Seneviratne, who roundly denied this. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 17Recently, at a Consultative Committee in Parliament, one of my colleagues remarked that there was no need of any opposition given my own contribution. I had been critical but what my colleague, from the Gampaha District, failed to understand was that I had criticized neither policies nor action. What I had been objecting to was a failure of action, and had the gentleman understood how Parliaments should be conducted, he would have realized that I was actually trying to help. Surely it should be the business of politicians supportive of the government to promote action in accordance with productive policies, not to sit back complacently when there is no progress.

The incident occurred at the 17th meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, when I wondered what had happened about a matter I had raised at the previous meeting, held 3 months earlier (meetings are supposed to happen every month, but this Standing Order, like almost all others, is observed in the breach). In May I had brought up the question of opening computer laboratories which had, in at least two cases I knew of, been completed and equipped, but were awaiting a ceremonial opening.

The Minister had claimed on that occasion that such a ceremony was needed so that the people would know who had gifted the laboratory. But when I pointed out that these were not gifts, but built with the people’s money, he had granted my point. So, to cite the minute, he ‘stated that the Chairman of the Development Committee of the area should be responsible to utilize them and instructed to take immediate action to open them’.

This time it was reported that some laboratories had been opened already, and that many more would soon be opened in the Uva Province. This caused a lot of giggles, but that did not matter so long as the children were now able to use the equipment. But surely it should have struck my colleagues that, even if the priority was to get brownie points from these computers, the sooner they were in use, the better for the politicians too, as well as the children. For obviously the people would know if there were an unnecessary delay – it was parents and teachers who had kept me informed in areas I am familiar with – while there is also a risk of computers deteriorating if not swiftly put into operation. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 16Recently 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. Read the rest of this entry »

Much has been reported recently about the various Public Relations firms government – or rather elements in government, since it seems that there has been no Cabinet approval for these ventures – have hired to raise our profile in countries which seem hostile to us. There have been a host of such firms in the United States, and one in Britain. The first lot were almost all arranged through our Embassy in Washington, whilst Bell Pottinger, which also works in the United States though it is essentially a British firm, was arranged by Nivard Ajith Cabraal, the Governor of the Central Bank. More recently it seems Mr Cabraal has also been instrumental in arranging yet another firm in America.

The reports are very critical of those who make these arrangements, but I believe there is need of some discrimination here. I cannot defend the earlier agencies in America, for I found the only two I was introduced to, way back when I headed the Peace Secretariat, to be both naïve and incompetent. One of them had a young Sri Lankan who seemed to have initiated the relationship, but he was almost as ignorant as the large American he brought with him. Given the manner in which our Embassy in Washington conducted business, that being the operative word it seems, I believe there should be thorough investigation of what happened.

It is also worth noting that our relations with the United States deteriorated significantly during this period. Hiring of such firms began in the time of the Bush administration, which was relatively positive about us. The excessive expenditure then that our Ambassador in Washington was incurring was culpably unnecessary. More bizarrely, when the Obama administration took over, he continued to work with agencies that had good Republican connections.

The Ministry of External Affairs is also I think culpable in not having protested about all this, but given the close relationship of the Ambassador to the President, I presume it takes guts to point out squandering of resources in such instances. This is another reason the President should be careful about appointing to high positions people whom those who should monitor such actions think have total impunity. But I suspect the President would think twice about such appointments if the problems that would arise are pointed out to him, so it is a pity that neither the Ministry nor the Parliament Committee on High Posts has done this.

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download (8)I had a bizarre experience recently when I had to attend what is termed Standing Committee B of Parliament, which deals with legislation. This was in connection with the Vasantha Senanayake Foundation (Incorporation) Bill which I had sponsored. The experience was rendered worse by the Minutes which I received subsequently, which bore no relation to what had actually taken place.

I presume that there is some formula for reporting the meetings of these Standing Committees, but it was certainly inappropriate in this case, given that I had raised some matters which I had asked to be recorded. The Minutes state that I moved several amendments to the original draft of the Bill I had presented. This was not the case. What happened was that we were told the legal advisers had gone through the draft and suggested amendments. I accepted these, but I asked the basis on which they had been made.

It turned out then that the representative from the Legal Draughtsman’s Department who was supposed to liaise with Parliament regarding the Bill had no idea of the reasons. After much discussion one bright lawyer from the Attorney General’s Department said that the changes were probably because the Bill as it stood seemed to be in conflict with the Constitution.

I gathered then that for years the Attorney General had advised against many charitable works by Foundations on the grounds that the Constitution, following the introduction of the 13th Amendment that introduced Provincial Councils, declares that ‘No Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List shall become law unless such Bill has been referred by the President…. to every Provincial Council’.

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download (7)An opposition member noted that recently there had been much speculation in the corridors of Parliament about the manner in which funds were being allocated for development. I had realized something unusual was going on, because during Reconciliation meetings in the North I had been told about massive amounts being made available to individual Members of Parliament.

I had not received anything myself, and indeed had to ask for the Rs 5 million that has been given each year to all Members of Parliament. I was particularly keen to have this available, because it was only recently that I realized that no one else spent even a modicum of what I did in the less populated Divisions in the North. I had decided that this year then I would spend the bulk of my funds, not split between North and South as previously, but largely in the East, because I realized there were also Divisions there which received little. But I am not sure whether I might not be forgotten, given the rush to spend the much larger sums that have been given selectively.

What the rationale for selection is I am not clear about, though I know that DEW Gunasekara has not received any, and it seemed Rauff Hakeem had received nothing either. I was told though that, when he complained about this to the President, it transpired that the latter was not aware of this and urged him to write in and ask. I have followed suit, but as yet have received no reply.

At a recent Consultative Committee meeting however, since the Minutes referred to the allocations, we were able to ask, and received a very clear picture of the manner in which the development budget allocated to the Ministry of Economic Development is being spent. It seems that large amounts have been allocated to government Members of Parliament who chair particular Divisional Development Committees, and they are asked to decide on Projects. This is of course not meant to be spent arbitrarily, but is supposed to be after due consultation of the people.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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