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IMG_4239.JPGMy last trip abroad as a member of Parliament was to Azerbaijan. After my visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I realized how utterly fantastic the Islamic civilizations of Central Asia were. Azerbaijan was not of course in Central Asia, being on the other side of the Caspian Sea from Kazakshstan, but obviously it had shared in the splendours of a period the world knew little about.

Kithsiri came along again, resigned now to the fact that it was only to the more difficult places in the world that he would accompany me. But, apart from being enthusiastic about wild life, having been trained in the Ena de Silva school as it were of jungle exploration, he was appreciative enough of the magnificient civilizations we had seen. His first trip abroad had been to Iran, and then we saw Syria, Aleppo and Palmyra and the Crac des Chevaliers, before the wicked Americans embarked on destroying the place in their relentless pursuit of world domination. He had also enjoyed the Lebanon and Tunisia and Ethiopia and even, despite the flies, the pyramids of the Sudan.  And then Central Asia had been an eye opener, so that he was more than happy to come along to Azerbaijan too.

I had no idea what to expect, but the Lonely Planet guide indicated a range of interesting sights, beginning with the varied attractions of Baku. I had not realized before going there that this had been the oil capital of the world in the early days of the combustion engine, and that those who had made their millions in that early boom had built the most extraordinary creations, grafting Asiatic flourishes onto European lines of architecture. Read the rest of this entry »

IMG_0275.JPGCOPE began its investigations on Friday June 5th, and we met every day the following week, except on the Friday – again my fault, for I had arranged another trip, our High Commission in Delhi having succeeded in getting visas for Azerbaijan. During the weekend I read the reports the Bank had prepared on the whole business, and found the situation even worse than I had thought. Because of Mahendran’s actions, the interest the country had to pay on bonds had shot up, so that not only had Perpetual Treasuries, the company associated with Mahendran’s son-in-law, made a massive profit, but also the interest payments Sri Lanka had to make on loans after February 2015 reached ridiculous heights.

Our questioning of bank officials revealed an even more sordid side to Mahendran’s machinations. The first Deputy Governor we interviewed seemed to me a very shady character, and not very bright. I actually asked Nivard Cabraal why he had promoted him, to which the answer was that he was good at some things, and had seniority on his side. But he knew nothing of debt, so it was suspicious that Mahendran had put him in charge of that area.

The Director in charge of that area also knew nothing of the subject, but my sister told me that she was known for her honesty. She had called my sister when she was transferred to that position, expressing worries about her capacity to handle the job, but my sister told her that integrity was vital and that was perhaps the reason for the move. Certainly she exuded decency, to the point of practically breaking down when we reprimanded her for not having told the Governor that it was wrong to take 10 billion worth of bonds when the advertised amount had been 1 billion, and the few bids for large amounts were at high rates of interest. She declared that they had told him this repeatedly and, though they stopped him from insisting on 20 billion being taken, he had been adamant about 10.

Her Deputy was a very smart young man, and it was clear that he had made the position clear to Mahendran, but they had been over-ruled. It transpired too that Mahendran had come down to the bidding floor twice that morning, and had interfered egregiously in the process. It was absurd therefore that the UNP lawyers had claimed that he had no direct responsibility for what occurred.

Other suspicious details included the fact that Perpetual Treasuries had obtained a loan from the Bank of Ceylon for its bid, and that this had been approved straight away with no proper assessment of the request. It was unprecedented that the Bank, which was also a primary dealer, should not have bid to any substantial degree for bonds, but had instead underwritten the bid of a private company. Read the rest of this entry »

When I got back to Colombo from Uzbekistan, the Central Bank Bond issue was hotting up. Ranil had tried to suppress the report his own lawyers had produced, which made it clear that chicanery had taken place. They had I think been asked to protect Arjuna Mahendran, and this they did with a dogmatic claim regarding his innocence, which the rest of their report belied. Even devoted UNP lawyers, it seems, were not prepared to put their reputations on the line by claiming that nothing wrong had occurred.

The Opposition demanded a debate on the subject, but the Speaker, perhaps trying to maintain a balance, decided that the issue should be investigated by the Committee on Public Enterprises. D E W Gunasekara, its dedicated Chairman, was keen to start immediately, but I was due to go abroad again on May 24th and he decided to postpone sittings. Though others perhaps would disagree, he saw me as the most valuable member of the Committee, and felt I needed to be present to deal with what he realized would be obfuscation on the part of UNP members.

I make no bones about the fact that the transformation of COPE had been largely because of my initiatives. I had not asked to be put on this Committee, having asked instead for Consultative Committees in areas which I knew about. But the myopic Ministers the President had put in charge of subjects relating to Reconciliation obviously wanted no one around with significant capacity. So this was the most important Committee I was appointed to, apart from the one on Standing Orders, and that ceased to meet after a few months.

Assessing what COPE was about, I found that we were supposed to report on a couple of hundred institutions, but managed in a year to look at fewer than 50. This struck me as ridiculous, so I suggested sub-committees, which D E W Gunasekara institutionalized, against opposition I should note by Ravi Karunanayake who thought the whole committee should look at any institution (despite the evidence that this was not possible). Read the rest of this entry »

After the disappointing 19th amendment I had just over a week in Sri Lanka before leaving on what was to be the most exciting trip of this period. There was much to do however, because I had to go down to Getamanna regarding the survey of the land I hoped to sell there, and I was also engaged in constructing a couple of new bathrooms at Lakmahal. These last were necessitated by the fact that the bathrooms attached to the two biggest bedrooms were on land that now belonged to my brother.

But the workmen I used, who had put up the additions to my cottage, were entirely reliable. I usually worked through Kithsiri, who had found them in the first place, but since I was going to Uzbekistan, I took him along as well, and found when I got back that the work had proceeded without any problems.

I had been helped with regard to Uzbekistan by Yves Giovannoni, who had headed the ICRC office in Colombo, having served previously in that country. My friends at the Embassy in Delhi got me the visa but this was facilitated by his contact Ravil who also arranged a tour that covered everything I wished to see.

After a night in Delhi, we got to Tashkent on the 8th of May, and were met by Ravil who was as nice as Yves had indicated. I had booked a hotel which was near enough to the Russian cathedral for us to walk there that first evening. I then had my first taste of the extraordinary hospitability of the Uzbeks, for as we were walking back a boy spoke to us and then offered to drive us back to the hotel. And that evening also introduced us to Uzbek food, and what was termed Bukhara bread, which was both crisp and luscious. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Deciding that I would make it clear that I was no longer part of the government, made it easier for me to deal more firmly with the manoeuvers Ranil was engaged in with regard to the promised constitutional reform. Jayampathy Wickramaratne had produced a draft that affirmed that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister. I believe he had initially worked on his own, but later some party leaders had been consulted. I had not been asked and I complained to the President about this, so on Sunday March 15th I was duly invited to a discussion chaired by the President at his Secretariat.

I was blunt in my criticism of the underhand manner in which Ranil was trying to take full powers with no respect for the electoral process. I was backed by not only the SLFP representatives but also the JHU, which later commented on how forceful I had been. Ranil plaintively claimed that he had been promised this change, and that he would complain to Chandrika, but the President did not give in. The final decision was that Jayampathy would amend his draft, a task in which he was supposed to consult G L Pieris.

G L I fear did not check on what was going on, and the amended draft we received had changed the principal instrument of transferring power to the Prime Minister, but little else. We protested at the meeting to discuss the changes that was held in Parliament, but later we found that the gazetted version confirmed the primacy of the Prime Minister. Jayampathy claimed that this had been the decision of the Cabinet.

What had transpired in the interim was a sordid effort to in effect bribe those assumed to be the more malleable members of the SLFP. A week after the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, it was announced that the Cabinet had been expanded with the addition of several members of the SLFP. But it transpired that the leadership of the party had not been consulted, and it looked as though individuals had been selected principally by Chandrika. Having bitterly resented the fact that the senior leadership of the party had gravitated to Mahinda Rajapaksa after he had been made the Presidential candidate in 2005, she ignored them completely, which had dire consequences for the President.

Ironically one of those appointed to the cabinet was S B Dissanayake, who had fallen out with her dramatically after initially having been a favourite. S B was obviously someone who knew on which side his bread was buttered, but he was also an intelligent man, and indeed the only one in the 2001 UNP cabinet of those I met together with a German consultant trying to promote educational reform who was able to conceptualize. I asked him then why he had allowed Jayampathy to get away with a draft that stripped the President of his powers, but it turned out that he had not been at the crucial Cabinet meeting. So what Jayampathy tried to make out was an all party consensus was in fact the result of the second rank of the SLFP having been hurriedly elevated to unwarranted authority, quite in contravention of the promise on which the President had been elected.

Still, the Parliamentary group stood firm, and even those who had initially acquiesced in what Jayampathy had had gazette insisted on the President retaining his primacy. There was indeed strong resistance to supporting the constitutional amendment, but the President came to the group meeting in Parliament, and promised to address their concerns. In particular he granted that it was a pity the proposed 19th amendment did not introduce the electoral reforms he had pledged, and he solemnly promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until a 20th amendment that introduced a mixed system of election had also been passed. Read the rest of this entry »

The manifesto was launched at a ceremony at Vihara Maha Devi Park on December 19th. That was my grandmother’s birthday, and I thought, when I went to the cemetery afterwards, that she would have been pleased that I was working together with Ranil. At the same time, though I realized that was essential, and UNP support was of the essence if Maithripala Sirisena were to win, it was also clear that the UNP itself was in shambles, and had little capacity for effective coordination.

I had sensed this in the decline of Mangala Samaraweera, whom I had thought of as one of the more sophisticated members of the UNP. He had been instrumental in getting Vasantha Senanayake to be the first member of the government to announce publicly that he would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, though sadly for Vasantha he ignored the request that the Press Conference be held at an independent venue. Mangala instead dragooned Vasanth into making his announcement at Siri Kotha, which led to him being identified with the UNP, which had never been Vasantha’s intention. That was taken ruthless advantage of later to cut him down, tragically for both President Sirisena and also for the UPFA, which he could have contributed to immeasurably.

Twice after the common candidature was announced, Vasantha took me to see Mangala. But instead of the bright strategist I had assumed I would find, I had to deal with an amiable drunk, who wanted nothing better than to gossip over a drink, and then another. After the second such evening, in his delightful house in Ratmalana, I realized that this was yet another broken reed, his period out of power having deprived him of the capacity to focus which he had displayed earlier as a Minister.

Read the rest of this entry »

Though I resigned from my Ministerial post, I had no intention initially of leaving the government. But even within a month of the new government taking office, there were reasons for grave worry.

No concern at all was evinced with regard to the solemn commitments in the manifestos. The 100 day manifesto, drafted after so much careful discussion, was almost completely ignored. Maithripala Sirisena was indeed sworn in on the 11th, but Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in at the same time, not on the next day with the Cabinet as pledged. The Cabinet, slightly larger than pledged and composed predominantly of UNP members, without representation of all parties in Parliament was sworn in on the 13th. The National Advisory Council, renamed the National Executive Council, was again constituted late and did not have representation of all members of Parliament. It soon ceased to function, with the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament which it had entrusted to the Leader of the JVP swiftly forgotten.

Nothing was done about the pledge to amend Standing Orders on January 20th, and it was only because I already had a motion to amend Standing Orders on the table that this was taken up on the 29th. I realized then that the UNP in general was clueless about the whole business, but its membership at large was not obstructive. Lakshman Kiriella, the Chief Whip, let me move my motion, and the Committee on Standing Orders met the following month. We accomplished much, but then Ranil stepped in and imposed a delay until his proposal to set up Consultative Committees was drafted. That this was a ploy became clear when his chosen instrument for this, Priyani Wijeyesekera, told me the draft was ready but he had told her to hold it back. Read the rest of this entry »

The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.

We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.

Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.

That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President. Read the rest of this entry »

The seven weeks after the press conference at which Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidature were hectic and tense. During the conference itself, I had a telephone call to say that the Presidential Secretariat had called to demand that the vehicle I was using be returned. This struck me as petty, and foolish given that Chandrika Kumaratunga had just announced that those of us who had come out in favour of the common candidate would be persecuted.

I am aware that Mahinda Rajapaksa felt he had been betrayed by Maithripala Sirisena since, even when they had had dinner together the night before, the latter had given no hint that he was going to contest. But the manner in which I was deprived of my vehicle, even while I was still technically Adviser to the President on Reconciliation, indicated the manner in which anyone who was open in their actions would be treated.

In my case the President had no reason at all to feel betrayed, since I had written to him clearly in October to say we could not support him if he did not proceed with some of the reforms he had pledged earlier. And over the last few months I had made clear the need for reform, both Vasantha and I even proposing Private Members Bills with regard to burning issues such as reducing the size of the Cabinet. Interestingly enough, Vasantha told me that the President had called him and said that he was being unduly influenced by me, but he did not bother to speak to me himself. It was only just before the common candidate declared himself that one of his confidantes, Sarath Wijesinghe, called me and said that he assumed I would support the President. But even Sarath had no answer when I mentioned what worried me, such as the appalling treatment of Chris Nonis.

I have no hard feelings though about Mahinda Rajapaksa, because I believe he was grossly misled by a small coterie around him who cared neither for him nor for the country. What was surprising was that a man of such capacity, and sensitivity to the needs of the country, should have allowed himself to be dominated by a bunch of callous rascals. I should note that, though I have never had any high regard for Basil Rajapaksa, I do not include him in the category of those with undue influence, since he was undoubtedly a man of ability. And he achieved much in terms of development, even though he was not capable of twinning this with human development, which was essential if the fruits of development were to be equitably distributed. And of course he was largely responsible for alienating the President from the senior members of his party, since the impression they had, indicated to me vividly by one of the most decent members of the Cabinet, John Seneviratne, was that he was usurping the powers of all other ministries.

But there were reasons at least, if not good enough ones, for the President’s reliance on this brother. What was totally unacceptable was the role played by individuals such as Sajin vas Goonewardene and Kshenuka Seneviratne, at whose behest the President summarily dismissed those who did so much for their country such as Tamara Kunanayagam and Dayan Jayatilleke; the indulgence shown to individuals such as Duminda de Silva and the Chairman of the Tangalle local body who was responsible for the death of a British tourist; the failure to deal with racist elements such as the Bodhu Bala Sena, and equally to stop the fuel for their fires provided by the activities of Rishard Bathiudeen, who had so effectively alienated not just Sinhala extremists but also all Tamils. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2017
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