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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.
Text of an inaugural presentation at the Fifth South Asia Economic Summit on Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia.
Islamabad, 11th September 2012
I am grateful to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan for inviting me to this Summit, and giving me an opportunity to discuss its theme in relation to Sri Lanka. As you are aware, Sri Lanka recently came out of decades of conflict which had impaired economic development, and in particular the promotion of equity in such development.
Comparatively speaking Sri Lanka in fact did reasonably well with regard to growth, except when there were grave problems, as in 2001. However that growth was lopsided, with almost all the increase in wealth that has propelled us upward from being a low income country into middle income status occurring in the Western Province. Since it was such lopsided development that contributed to a series of youth insurrections in the last four decades, it is vital that we correct this imbalance if we are not to face further disruptive unrest in the future.
Presentation at a meeting of the Pakistan Liberal Forum – Islamabad, 11th September 2012
I am grateful to the Pakistan Liberal Forum for having invited me to speak today at your seminar on Challenges for Democracy in the upcoming Elections. Though you have suggested I present a regional perspective, it would be more practical I think for me to talk about democracy in Sri Lanka and the challenges we have faced, which may perhaps have lessons for you in Pakistan too.
Sri Lanka has been a functioning democracy for 80 years now, with Universal Adult Franchise bestowed on us by the British in 1931. That they gave us a privilege you in the then united subcontinent did not receive for over a decade longer is not a tribute to us, but rather a function of our small size and the perception that, whatever happened, we would not be a threat to the Empire. We were given not only the opportunity to select a legislature, but also an approximation to Cabinet government with seven Ministers chosen from amongst the members of the Legislature. Needless to say, though, there were three appointed Ministers, for Law and Finance and what was termed Chief Secretary, while Defence and External Affairs were kept in the hands of the Governor.
We followed the classic Westminster model which, as you know, does not separate the Executive from the Legislature. All members of the Cabinet were chosen from the Legislature, but unlike in Britain this soon turned into membership of the Legislature being seen as the main qualification for becoming a Minister. Ability was not considered important, and seniority seemed a sufficient claim.
There were a few exceptions, and I can also think of one case where a man of recognized ability was brought into a safe seat, a practice that the British had, so as to bring in people of talent. More importantly they also had a House of Lords to which proven talent could be introduced, which India for instance still continues with, in the form of the Rajya Sabha. As you know, several of the most distinguished Ministers in the Indian cabinet have not faced the hustings, but are in effect appointed.
Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the session on
Clauses for a Sustainable Political Relationship in Trade Agreements: Effective Against Possible Threats to Democracy?
At the Summit of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Brussels, June 2012
To cite the preamble to this dialogue between Asian and European Liberals, we agree that, ‘from a liberal standpoint, it is mutually beneficial for countries to engage in trade, and free trade is one of the means to lift countries out of poverty.’ Unfortunately this ideal is under attack for a variety of reasons, and most of the attacks come, it should be noted, from powerful countries. Thus we need to worry – and I hope Liberals in the West will help us to overcome this worry, given their own ideals – as to whether, again to cite the preamble, ‘trade, instead of forging a mutually beneficial partnership between developed and developing countries, has been a mechanism to subject the latter into a dependent relationship.’
The most obvious example of this in recent times is the pressure exercised by the United States to force countries to stop trade with Iran. The excuse for this is suspicions about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but there is little doubt that there are no reasons for these suspicions, given the international mechanisms to deal with these, except intrinsic American hostility to Iran. Given that on the previous occasion on which America acted because of purported suspicions with regard to nuclear weapons, the pretext turned out to be palpably false, a process of induction suggests that now too the world is being dragooned into conflict – and in the process the ideal of free trade is being traduced, with no concern for development as opposed to vindictive dogma.
What I find saddest about such actions is the total silence of our Liberal colleagues around the world about this appalling behavior. It is true that most of Europe refused to be dragged into war in Iraq, and it was a British Labour government that proved President Bush’s staunchest ally. The British Liberal Democrats behaved much better on that occasion than the main Conservative opposition. But their failure now, when in government, to demand accountability, to pursue more carefully the appalling fate of David Kelly, to look into the strong evidence provided by the former ambassador to Uzbekhistan, Craig Murray, now a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, of collusion in human rights violations by the British and American governments, is most disappointing. In such a context, to fail to speak out loud and clear about the current American policy towards Iran seems to me culpable, and I hope our colleagues here will strive to remedy the situation.
Expanded version of closing remarks at the
Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom”
arranged in Ulaan Baatar by the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia
together with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung
May 24th 2012
I was not expecting to conclude this seminar, but it is a pleasure to do so since the interaction between liberal thought and the situation here in Mongolia has been most stimulating. I suspect that the biding image I will take with me is the comment by Mr Demirel, with his distinguished leadership of your dynamic Chamber of Commerce, that Mongolia is a nomadic country, and the essence of the nomadic life is freedom.
This freedom that we value so much is freedom not only to think and speak and act as each individual wishes, so long as they do not limit the freedom of other individuals; it is also freedom from the restrictions that limit the exercise of that freedom. For this last purpose the State is needed, which is why, though Liberals want a small state, they also require, as perhaps the most important leader of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff put it, a strong state. In that sense, to expand the sporting metaphor introduced by Rainer Adam, who has done so much through the FNS to promote Liberalism in Asia, we have to make sure that the state as referee is not also a play, but we also need the state to ensure that there is a level playing field. While pursuing equality is a mirage, we need to promote equality of opportunity, though through positive measures that expand opportunities for the deprived, not negative ones that restrict opportunities for the more fortunate.
Promoting both types of freedom can sometimes lead to tensions when different liberal thinkers place different priorities on the various freedoms we need, but perhaps for that very reason one of the freedoms we should value most is freedom from dogma. This freedom to think outside the prevailing box when circumstances require it lies at the heart of the history of liberal thought, which was so ably expounded by Lito Arlegue, Executive Director of CALD, in the first session.
Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP, Leader – Liberal Party of Sri Lanka
And Presidential Adviser on Reconciliation to the President, Sri Lanka
On ‘The Global War on Terror: How Do the Liberals Respond?’
At the Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom”
Organized by the Civic Will Green Party of Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, May 24th 2012
Let me first express my thanks to our hosts, the Civic Will Green Party of Mongolia, for having invited the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats to their country, and arranging this very timely seminar. The Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which has supported CALD so graciously over the years, was established to promote freedom, and it is this core value of Liberalism that we must see as the bedrock, not only of our own philosophy, but also of equitable and sustainable development all over the world.
Freedom does not, we should emphasize, mean the freedom of the wild ass. As the former head of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff said, while Liberalism demands a small state, it also requires a strong state. Thus I believe my colleague who will talk about environmental issues will stress the need for forceful regulation, to ensure protection for vulnerable people and places. That is why true Liberalism, while being committed to a market economy, does not believe that market forces alone should dictate policy. The state must ensure that the vulnerable are protected, that a level playing field is promoted, that development is both balanced and enduring.
It is in this context that we must formulate our response as Liberals to what is described as the Global War on Terror. We are aware that terrorism is now a much greater threat than it was in the past. But we must also recognize that the world should not allow itself to be blinded into seeing terror as somehow connected primarily with Islam, following on the appalling events of September 11th 2001. That was an event that had long been brewing, and I fear that tacit encouragement had been given to its perpetrators over the years, when other priorities suggested to the West that terrorists could be a useful tool against more dangerous enemies – just as the West had believed that fundamentalism could be a useful tool against godless Communism.
The consequence was the apotheosis of the Taleban, guided by Al Qaeda, into the government of Afghanistan, a government that promoted international terrorism. Many have now forgotten that, when the US government first reacted forcefully to Taleban excesses against its own, the bombs it dropped killed personnel being trained to attack the Indian government in Kashmir. But that meant nothing, for over the previous decade, such terrorism had seemed an acceptable offshoot of support for fundamentalist terrorist against the Soviet Union – and in those days the West had seen India as an ally of the Eastern Bloc. Read the rest of this entry »
The following remarks had been prepared in the belief that speakers would have about 10 minutes each. However, speakers were only given a few minutes for a few introductory remarks, the rest of the 45 minutes for the opening section being devoted to answering questions from the Moderator.
Unfortunately I had no chance to make my introductory remarks since I was asked to respond to what Callum McRae said. I thought this required some analysis, in the time he had taken, but it seemed I was expected to respond only briefly, and then make my introductory remarks. This was made clear only after I had responded, but I suppose Stephen Sackur was doing his best to have debate from the start and could not then give me another chance to put forward some points for response myself.
So here they are now –
I am grateful to the Frontline Club for this opportunity to engage with at least half the Channel 4 team responsible for such effective attacks on Sri Lanka. I am sorry that Jon Snow dropped out after he heard that I would be attending this event, but I am used to that by now, given the manner in which Channel 4 has consistently refused to engage with me, except when the BBC kindly allowed me to highlight their pusillanimity on the Breakfast Show. The interview that followed I think made clear the sleight of hand in which Channel 4 had indulged, which explains why repeated requests for further live discussion have been turned down.
What should have been a lively discussion then on media manipulation and media ethics, or the absence of them, has now been transformed. We have only the commercial side of Channel 4, the Golden Dustman adept at turning rubbish into lucre. Interestingly enough, Dickens provides yet another clue to the motivations of Channel 4, given the Mutual Friendships that in a more just world would have been identified as conflicts of interests.
I am not talking only of the political motivations of Shirani Sabaratnam and Stuart Cosgrove, who actually voted in a preposterous LTTE rump election in this country. I am talking also of the researcher for Siobhain McDonagh who claimed to have supplied Channel 4 with video evidence, who changed his mind about sending me this evidence, doubtless because it would have been obvious that it was tainted. Instead he sent me another video that is so clearly manipulated that he was roundly scolded for engaging with me by his mentors. Much of the information about this is available on http://www.youtube.com/reconcilesrilanka and on my blog www.rajivawijesinha.wordpress.com at the time of the meetings covered in those videos[Part 1, Part 2, Part 3].
Mr Chairman, my distinguished fellow speakers Dr Shantha Sinha, Chair of the Indian National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and Mr Qamar Zaman, Secretary of the Pakistan Ministry of Training, Rotarians, I hope I will be excused a small anecdote on relations between our countries before I begin my presentation. It arises from the impressive use at yesterday’s opening ceremony, graced by His Excellency the President of Nepal, of Hindi and Urdu quotations which so many of you seemed to understand; and then from the announcement this morning of the approval by Pakistan of Most Favoured Nation status to India to promote commercial links. I hope this will be the precursor to even greater friendship between the countries of the region, and a greater role for SAARC in promoting common initiatives in fields such as education.
My anecdote dates back to 2009, when Sri Lanka faced hostility at the Human Rights Council in Geneva from some Western nations, and our ambassador there found tremendous support from Asian countries and in particular from both India and Pakistan. The ambassadors from those two countries were his advisers in negotiations, and once it seemed, when he was under some pressure, I think it was from the Germans, and was inclined to yield, the Indian and Pakistani started talking in a language that no one else understood. Then they turned to him together and told him to stand firm. They were talking in Urdu, the language of the heart, as we heard yesterday, but also useful in less romantic contexts.
To return to education, Sri Lanka has had an extremely good record as to literacy for well over half a century. Not only have we been consistently at over 90% during this time, but female literacy has also been commensurate with that of males. Coincidentally, the comparative excellence of Sri Lanka figured yesterday in some of the Indian newspapers that were discussing the UNICEF report released earlier in the week on the ‘State of the World’s Children’, and brought home to me again that we have much to be proud of, even though I have long argued that we can also do much better.
The reason for this exception – apart from the Maldives – as far as South Asia is concerned, as was noted in several speeches at your opening session last evening, is that we had a visionary Minister of Education from the time Sri Lankans were given executive responsibility through the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931. He built on the existing system which had begun with Christian missionary schools in the early to mid 19th century, and been expanded on when Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim societies realized the advantages education conferred. By 1931 there were excellent schools in almost all big towns in the country, often a Catholic and a Protestant school together with a Buddhist or Hindu one (and twice over, since these schools were segregated by sex). They were not segregated by religion, and it was indeed because many Buddhist and Hindu parents had had to send children to Christian schools that their religious organizations decided they had to develop their own initiatives.
It was good to hear the message of the President read out in all three languages, and the stress there, as well as in other messages read out, on reconciliation is most welcome. We have now emerged from several decades of great danger to the country, when we had to deal with terrorism of an extremely effective sort. That had to be destroyed, for the sake of all our people, in particular the Tamils of the North who had suffered so much repression, and I am happy that life is now back to normal in those areas and agriculture and commerce are flourishing.
But we need to do more to bring our people together, and in particular we must ensure better communication and understanding between our people. In this regard, the trilingual initiative of the President is an urgency, and I hope very much that the coming years will see all our people at least bilingual, if not trilingual. I used to think I was too old to learn another language, but the President puts us all to shame in the manner in which he communicates enthusiastically and effectively in Tamil as well as in Sinhala and English. Read the rest of this entry »
I should begin by thanking Dr Ganesh Devy for giving us yet another fascinating and stimulating day. It was a wonderful experience to come today to the Adivasi Centre he has set up, and to participate in the exhibition of photographs of their ancestors that he has managed to bring together here, from archives of the colonial period in Cambridge and Leipzig. Those two names make clear the serious scholastic nature of the use made of those photographs, but it is more heartening to see the human reactions of people whose ties to their community are so important, when faced with these early records of their lifestyles.
I am not so sure that I should thank him for asking me suddenly to speak at this closing session at which he would like ideas exchanged about how we are to move forward, with regard to the work we have participated in over the last few days. I am not a linguist, and his work and yours in promoting the study of languages that might otherwise be lost is beyond my area of expertise. However, perhaps I might make some suggestions based on my understanding of the very human element he had helped us to share.
Though I must admit I was more fascinated by the old mosque at Champaner, one of India’s less well known heritage sites, I was involved on the way here in a discussion on the People’s Linguistic Survey, the first fruits of which were launched in Varodara yesterday. There were suggestions that the methodology employed might not have been precise, given the vast range of volunteers involved, and the impossibility, except possibly through an official census, of knowing exactly how many people spoke any language, and at what levels.