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13 Jan 2015

Hon. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

Leader, Liberal Party of Sri Lanka

State Minister of Higher Education, Sri Lanka


Dear Hon. Wijesinha:

On behalf of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), let me extend our warmest congratulations to you on your appointment as State Minister of Higher Education.   We are very pleased that the newly installed government of Maithripala Sirisena has placed  its confidence in your capacity to make positive contributions to the Sri Lankan higher educational system.

Your recent appointment reminded us of the 2010 CALD Conference on Education in  Colombo, Sri Lanka, where you made this important point on what should be the educational thrust of your country: “…commitment to education is unique, and I think bodes well for the enhanced efficiency we must aim at as education and advanced training become even more important. We need to ensure that all our citizens are able to embrace the opportunities a country finally at peace can provide. For that purpose I believe the liberal philosophy of education is the most suitable, and I trust we will be able to proceed on these lines to ensure excellence, choice and a wider effectiveness.”

We are also pleased that you and the Liberal Party are now in a better position to shape Sri Lankan higher education based on liberal principles. And that you will be accomplishing this in the context of an unprecedented election result that made it very clear that the Sri Lankan people wanted positive change means that you could most likely count on popular support for the educational reforms you foresee.

The Sri Lankan people have done their part in ensuring a peaceful transition of power. Now it is up to Sirisena’s government to ensure that power will never be abused again, and that it will be used to bring peace, democracy and prosperity to Sri Lanka.

It is an enormous task, but the Sri Lankan people deserve nothing less. We wish you the best, and we look forward to a brighter future for the people of your beautiful country.

Sincerely yours,


By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, former CALD Chair

Of the proceedings of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on

Synthesis – Managing Burma’s Political Transitions: The Challenges Ahead

Producing a synthesis of the various interesting and instructive papers we heard today is not an easy task. Understandably, almost all speakers looked at the issue under discussion through the prism of their own experiences, but unfortunately very few made any clear connection between the problems they discussed and those of Burma, which is supposed to be our primary concern.

Nevertheless the issues they raised suggest what I hope will be productive lines of thought. I will look at these in terms of a formula suggested by a former President of Sri Lanka who had to deal with the aftermath, in the early nineties, of not only the ethnic conflict and the settlement brokered by India, but also a Sinhalese youth insurrection that used dissatisfaction with that settlement as a focus to rouse armed opposition to government. His argument was that we must have consultation, compromise and consensus, and I was reminded of this when Cambodia raised the question of the possibility of talking with the devil, and Hong Kong talked about dancing with wolves.

The answer to what might be a conundrum was outlined in the very first presentation we had on Burma, which fleshed out the position put to us by Aung San Suu Kyi when I was privileged to lead the CALD delegation that met her way back in January 2011. Earlier we had been to the NLD headquarters where some of the party elders seemed to suggest that no compromise was possible. But her position was clear, that she was prepared to talk and to aim for consensus, but she would not compromise on basic principles. Compromise I believe is generally a good thing, when it is based on sensitivity to the positions of other individuals. It should not involve abandoning principles, but one should be prepared to be flexible with regard to other people in trying to reach a common understanding.

Dr Aung this morning, in a moving description of the approach taken by his party now, mentioned that they engaged in talks with all parties based on mutual respect. Their aim was long lasting peace and reconciliation, and this clearly required understanding of what the different parties wanted, what they needed, and what they stood for.

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Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the  Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand

The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.

In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.

But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.

Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.

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Expanded Version of the closing remarks of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha – Former Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, at the Closing Session of the CALD General Assembly, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy

Hon Sam Rainsy, Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Hon Vasantha Senanayake, our closing Keynote Speaker, colleagues and friends, though I should not take too long about these winding up remarks, I must record my appreciation of the seminal contributions to political thinking that have emerged during the last couple of days. The threat of populism to liberal democracy is something we must be very careful about, and not least because there is a tendency amongst intellectuals – a disproportionate number of whom subscribe to Liberalism for obvious reasons – to assume that we necessarily know better than the people. We thus tend to dismiss as populism even legitimate concerns.

While therefore avoiding the excesses of indulgent populism, avoiding the temptation to play to the gallery on the assumption that ignorance is something to take advantage of for political gain, avoiding full discussion and comprehensible advocacy, we should also ensure that our ears are to the ground, and that we take account of all concerns. Though some concerns may seem to us trivial or not quite legitimate, we should not dismiss them, but should rather take them seriously and discuss them in a manner that illuminates and assuages. We may not always be successful, but it is as bad as playing to the gallery to assume that the gallery is irrelevant.

I am glad therefore that our concluding session was about developing a symbiotic relationship between Populism and Democracy. Earlier we looked at the manner in which policies can contribute to populism, which should make us realize that populism is not always a reaction to emotions or parochial interests. Sometimes it is the politicians who are responsible for rousing and privileging such emotions and interests. We have looked at examples of such in earlier sessions, and I believe we have been able to cast light on the problems inherent in democratic dispensations, which we must strive to overcome through greater transparency, through more thorough methods of stimulating discussion and thought.

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Address of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Opening Session of the CALD General Assembly 2012, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.

I must begin by thanking the Secretariat of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats for putting together an excellent concept paper, which presents us with a very balanced view of the topic of our general assembly this year. It is all too easy to think of populism in negative terms, and indeed the list of what are seen as populist leaders of recent times with which the paper begins is one that many liberals would abhor. But the fact remains that the individuals on that list have in almost all cases been the leading choice of the people in their own countries, and we cannot dismiss them readily without trying to understand what makes them popular.

One name on that list however is an exception, and I think it makes clear to us the difference between populism that must be respected, even if it cannot be approved of, and what must from our point of view at least be rejected. I refer to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, who was never chosen by a majority of the people of his country to be its leader. I would suggest that shows the limits of populism that is based on pure negativity, an appeal to people that necessarily means rejection of other people. Wilders did strike a chord with the people of the Netherlands and did comparatively well, but he did not have a majority, unlike Chavez and Morales in Latin America, Shinawatra and Estrada in Asia, and Berlusconi in Europe.

Interestingly enough, the first four appealed to people on the basis of their poverty, which demanded alleviation. Berlusconi seemed rather to appeal on the basis of wealth which demanded protection. I think that suggests another dimension to populism that will become increasingly important in the years to come, as the privileged use the media with increasing skill to hold onto their privileges. Indeed I would suggest in this regard that perhaps Ronald Reagan was the first populist President on that pattern, using his cinematic skills to win people to a partisan agenda that, like Berlusconi’s, was based on the suggestion that the state had been too indulgent to its less affluent segments. I still recall John Kenneth Galbraith claiming that Reagan’s philosophy was that the poor were not working hard enough because they had too much money, and the rich were not working hard enough because they had too little. The consequences of that type of populism are I believe still with us, in the rhetoric that dominates American primaries and which therefore finds its way into government policy too.

In Asia, though, it is to the deprived that populists generally appeal, and it is for that reason that, though we may worry about the policies they advance, that seem to us to be unsustainable, we must worry too about the sense of deprivation to which they appeal, and which demands alleviation. The Democrats in Thailand, and the Liberals in the Philippines, have both realized that they must overcome the image they project amongst many of the underprivileged, that they are an elite that does not understand the day to day problems of the peasantry and the urban poor. The need then to first develop policies that take those problems into consideration, and second to explain more clearly and convincingly the benefits of measures that may seem harsh initially, is better understood now because of the success of a more simplistic approach to poverty alleviation on the part of less responsible forces.

In the Sri Lankan context, I believe we too must recognize that some policies which seemed populist, in catering to the deprived without concern for wider interests, cannot be condemned out of hand. The shift in language policy that occurred in the fifties, the takeover of schools in the sixties, the takeover of lands in the seventies, the introduction of quotas for university education during that time, are all seen now as shortsighted, and certainly they were implemented with a lack of sensitivity and careful planning that has cost us dear. But we must also realize that they sprang from very real needs, and it was only the haste with which they were imposed, rather than being implemented after careful consideration of all options, that caused problems.

The manner in which Sinhalese was made the sole Official Language of the country provides an instructive example. The original proposal was based on the fact that government functioned largely in English, and this was not a language that was understood by the vast majority of our people. Mr Bandaranaike, whose party was largely based in Sinhalese areas, proposed to replace English with Sinhala. The then UNP government, which was more Westernized in its approach, realized however that change was necessary, and adopted the same policy, but its leader, then Prime Minister John Kotelawala, declared in Jaffna that Tamil too would have parity of status.

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Welcome Address of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Opening Session of the CALD General Assembly 2012, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.

Hon Rauff Hakeem, Minister of Justice, colleagues from the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and from the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, distinguished guests and friends, I am honoured to welcome all of you to the CALD General Assembly, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy. This event is taking place in Sri Lanka after a gap of only two years. While we are glad to be able to host it, I am sorry about the circumstances that have caused this unusual repeat performance.

Both my predecessor and my successor as Chair of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats come from countries where there are actual threats to the democratic process, and harsh measures to muzzle the opposition. My predecessor was Dr Chee Son Juan of the Singapore Democrat Party, my successor will be Sam Rainsy of the Cambodian Sam Rainsy Party. My predecessor is not permitted to leave Singapore, my successor cannot enter Cambodia.

The first was convicted repeatedly in courts which sadly do not draw criticism from Western democracies that profess concern for justice and the rule of law. Unfortunately economic and political affinities count more than principle, and except for the Liberal International, which last year awarded Dr Chee its Prize for Freedom, institutions purportedly devoted to freedom allow the Singapore government a blank cheque. Laws that do not conform to basic principles of justice or democracy are not allowed to take away from its well touted status as a remarkably free country on various indices.

The Cambodian situation is even more peculiar. There the Leader of the Opposition following the last election, my colleague and successor Sam Rainsy, had his Parliamentary immunity taken away, and would face incarceration were he to return to Cambodia. This is unfortunately nothing new, for it happened to him a few years back too. This time round, it has now been established that the offence which first led to charges was not an offence at all. But political victimization does not require rationality or consistency. More remarkable I believe is the manner in which countries that should know better continue to fall over themselves to provide assistance to Cambodia. But I suppose this is not surprising, given the opportunities not just for investment, but for exploitation that a complacent regime offers.

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High schools students of Bukidnon who performed a welcome dance and sang a traditional song of blessing.

The text of welcome address by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Second Workshop on Climate Change Cagayan de Oro,  February 11-14, 2012

Following what seemed a very stimulating workshop on Climate Change in Bangkok last November, I am pleased to welcome all of you here to the second in the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats series of discussions on the subject. I am particularly thankful to our Secretary General, Neric Acosta, Presidential Adviser for Environmental Protection to the Philippine President, for facilitating our meeting here, where there is so much evidence of the potentially catastrophic consequences of Climate Change. I recall when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights in Sri Lanka meeting with counterparts here and being astonished at the impact of floods here which made our own problems seem relatively trivial.

But we should also bear in mind that such problems are never trivial to those who suffer, and in each country, regardless of numbers affected, we need to do our best to avoid disaster, as well as to mitigate its impact when it occurs. Awareness of how climate is changing, and what areas this will affect adversely in each of our countries is of the essence.

At the same time we should also be aware of factors that maximize the impact of change, and also the need to explore remedies that address other issues as well. In that regard I am particularly happy that we have added a few more topics to the issues we identified at the last workshop. Demographic Changes and Settlements are of increasing concern in many of our countries with exponentially exploding urbanization presenting increasingly complex environmental problems. In dealing with these we need also to be aware of the positive impact that judicious investment and highlighting of socially productive economic opportunities can have.

I have been made particularly aware of all this recently in my role of Adviser on Reconciliation to the President, and in looking at some problems with regard to resuscitating the Northern Province that suffered so intensely during the period of conflict in Sri Lanka. To add to the deprivation caused by decades of terrorist domination, that paid no attention to either infrastructural development or the nurturing of human resources, we found too a collapse in the agricultural activity that has such potential in the area. Read the rest of this entry »

Welcome address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Chair – Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats

At the Workshop on Climate Change

Setting CALD’s Climate Change Agenda

Bangkok, November 28th – 30th 2011

I am happy to welcome all of you here to the first of a series of discussions on Climate Change, which the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats has embarked on. We are particularly grateful that the Hon Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party of Thailand and former Prime Minister, has graced the occasion to deliver the keynote address. The recent floods in Thailand seem to me a clear example of the Climate Change that can have such adverse consequences and which needs to be address.

However I should note that, reading in the Thai papers about your debate in Parliament on this subject, we should bear in mind that perhaps Climate Change had little to do with the catastrophe, and that it was due more to bad management by the government that took over from the Democrats earlier this year. Indeed I gather there is yet another interpretation, namely that Khun Abhisit deliberately lost the election and then called down floods from heaven to show up the inadequacies of the successor government.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats
At the meeting of the Alliance of Democrats in Rome on
The Future of Democracy
11 November 2011

I was told very recently by a young liberal friend that, whenever I spoke, a frustration with Europe came through. This, he claimed, had led to everyone switching off when I spoke. I do not know if that is true, but if it is I must thank the Alliance of Democrats even more for inviting me here again, to a gathering that I have always found fruitful and pluralistic, if I might draw attention to a value we celebrated at the recent Conference of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.

I suspect my unpopularity with someone who has grown up after the end of the Cold War is the stress I often lay on history. But I find that that history is often forgotten even by those with more experience. Recently, in talking about a country that a Belgian friend described as now hopeless, the Congo, where there seems little hope of either economic development or democracy, I mentioned the legacy of Belgian colonialism, a more horrifying entity than perhaps any other form of empire. He was quick to note that that was half a century ago. But when I pointed out that the heirs of empire had then perpetuated the rule of Joseph Mobutu, he granted that I had a point.

I make this point again because, as we strive to work together as partners from all over the world, to promote democracy together with economic development, we must recognize that the twinning of these is very recent as far as decision makers round the world are concerned. Communism of course had no commitment at all to democracy, but sadly it succeeded all too soon in turning the West into a, fortunately pale, shadow of itself: the contrast between democracy and authoritarianism was subsumed by the struggle between capitalism and communism and, until not very long ago, democracy was considered unnecessary by the West in comparison with securing allies against the Communist threat. And while some dictatorships did provide economic development, in South Korea and Taiwan for instance, the sad truth is that many others led their countries into penury, and nobody cared.

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Closing address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chairman of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats , at the Conference on Pluralism and Development In Asia: Issues and Prospects – 6th November 2011

First and foremost, my thanks to all those who have made this Congress one of our most memorable. First, to the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and our friends who have contributed much to CALD since they were first involved in our work, and who have done even more after they took up membership. I must also pay special tribute to Dr Rainer Adam, not only for his stewardship currently of the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung that works with CALD, but also for his seminal work while he was in Indonesia to support political parties as they strove to restore democracy. I was sorry when he left India where he briefly headed the South Asia Regional Office, but our loss was Indonesia’s gain, and now that of the Region, for he truly manifests the spirit of pluralism and equitable development which is essential throughout Asia.

My thanks also to the FNS representative in Manila, Jules Maaten, who has fitted in so well with our work as well as the country and the region. He has of course been helped by superb office staff in Manila. The CALD Secretariat has done a fantastic job as usual, and this is the more remarkable in that they have had a very full year, which will have encompassed 8 very significant events before it concludes. Unfortunately I cannot take credit for any of this, but as Chairman I shall certainly encourage appreciation of the fact that this has I think been CALD’s most active year since its inception.

I must also thank Liberal International, and in particular its indefatigable President and its equally energetic Secretary General, for their support throughout the year, not only for the Liberal International Congress in Manila, but also for ensuring a memorable ceremony to award the Liberal International Prize for Freedom to my predecessor as Chair, Dr Chee Soon Juan. Let me also thank Neric Acosta, our Secretary General, who has been a rock of support now to three Chairs of CALD. I can and will take credit for noting, in encouraging the Singapore Democrat Party to take up the CALD Chair when its turn came, that they could appoint a Secretary General from elsewhere. Sadly, being translated to higher things now – if there be anything higher than CALD – Neric will not be available for this in the future, but we cannot, for the sake of CALD, allow the environment of the Philippines to suffer without his advice.

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Rajiva Wijesinha


March 2023
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