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The State Minister for Higher Education Professor Rajiva Wijesinha maintains that the promises made during the presidential campaign period have taken a backseat with the general elections in the offing. At an interview with the Dailymirror Prof. Wijesinha was candid on the reasons that led to his resignation, on the reforms he planned in the higher education sector. He has expressed negative views on the progress of the 100-day programme of the new government.Excerpts of the interview follow.
Q. Was it solely the resignation of the UGC Chairman – a subject on which you claim you weren’t consulted – that led to your resignation from your portfolio?
Last week I attended the portrait unveiling of Mr. Kadirgamar at the Peradeniya University. One of the first questions directed at me by an academic was why I was defending this lady (UGC Chairperson). I said I’m not defending her because no-one has attacked her. But we are here for good governance and a lot of principles have been violated.
“Appointing the Cabinet and ministers was delegated to Ranil and Chandrika. Chandrika took care of HER SLFP while Ranil simply did what he had to do: look after the interests of the UNP”
The first principle on which my resignation was based was a simple one – if someone is in charge of a subject and you are their superior, you do not interfere [with what they do in office]. When I was appointed as a State Minister I registered my disappointment with the President, but said I would continue to work because it was an interesting subject.
But, one week later, Kabir Hashim was appointed the Cabinet Minister and he told me that even he was not informed of it [ appointment] beforehand. But he told me that he did not have time to look into ministry matters since he would be busy with election work and for me to take on the responsibilities.
However, on Friday (13) I found that he had been ordering my secretary to do things without telling me. I was cross about that. I wrote to him and said it was unethical and that if he wished to get any information he should have asked me.
Meanwhile, I got an e-mail from the UGC Chairperson Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama saying that Minister Hashim had asked her to resign and she thought I knew. I was never consulted on the matter and when I attended work on Tuesday (16) I found she had resigned. I was in a fix because the Act does not give the minister any powers, only responsibilities; and the minister can only act through the UGC. Incidentally, on that day for the first time I discovered prima facie evidence of corruption, which I ordered my secretary to inquire into. The Act states ‘Chairpersons shall work until successors are appointed’; so I informed her to continue work until her position was filled. I was told it might not be a good idea because the FUTA will be annoyed that I’m trying to keep her when I was only trying to get the work done. I decided I cannot operate under such circumstances and wrote to the President informing I would be resigning with effect from February 17 or to appoint me as the Cabinet Minister for Higher Education. The second reason was due to the demand for the UGC Chair to resign that would result in a violation of the principles of justice. If people make allegations I will definitely investigate them. But I have not received a single official complaint about her.
Q. Did you make any statement implying you were against university dons engaging in politics?
During a discussion, in Peradeniya, I mentioned that we must have systems to stop university officials getting involved in politics. It was decided that perhaps the best step is to have a rule that says university officers don’t have political rights. I never mentioned anything about dons because they have always wanted political rights. They pride themselves in it and why not. They are brighter and more aware etc. Of course they should engage in politics. You and I know that during the previous regime, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa did wrong when he simultaneously engaged in politics while being a secretary of a ministry. But it was not so clear cut about the UGC Chair because she was not a public official but an academic.
Q. It seems you have a grievance on not being appointed to the Cabinet?
You see, when we were all appointed as State Ministers, many people were not entirely happy. But we all decided to work. People like Rosy was not pleased. She is a very able person but without warning, a Cabinet Minister was appointed [ over her].
“One thing about good governance is that it should be swift. Justice delayed is justice denied: likewise governance delayed is governance denied “
Ranil’s Cabinet portfolio is absolute crackers! Policy planning, youth, cultural and women’s affairs and investment promotion-but no- one knows where reconciliation fits in. Some people think Ranil is in charge, some think its carried out through a presidential task force but nothing has been done. This government promised to have a ‘scientific’ Cabinet. But guess under which portfolio, the divisional and district secretariats are? When they should clearly be under public administration they are with the Fisheries Ministry!
Look what happened with Faizer. If you don’t want to make them Cabinet ministers it’s fine, but why put them under Cabinet ministers because the Constitution is clear that the President can appoint Cabinet ministers and assign them their jobs. The President can also appoint non-cabinet ministers. Cabinet ministers can allocate anything he/she wants to a non-cabinet minister but the non-cabinet minister is not under the Cabinet minister. They are supposed to have an independent existence but none has it. I can think of half a dozen in the present Cabinet, who should not be in it.
The task of appointing the Cabinet and ministerial portfolios was delegated to Ranil and Chandrika. Chandrika was to look after the interests of SLFP-ers and she took care of HER SLFP. Ranil simply did what he had to do, which is look after the interests of the UNP. Who is in the Cabinet? Who should not be there? Faizer, Wasantha, Nandimithra, Radhakrishnan- none of them were considered. What we have is a UNP Cabinet.
If this continues, much resentment will brew not only with us but also among the people who we could have been given leadership. This government is divided between people who want reforms and those who don’t. The UNP by and large didn’t want reforms, they wanted to come into power and continue what the previous guys were doing.
Q. During the past few years, every other university was having issues and students were protesting. How are you planning to resolve them?
The basic problem is that these problems should have been solved within the university by the councils. But the universities have reached a stage where the councils are not trusted because they are the tools of the VCs of politicians.
There are issue prevailing mainly in four universities: one is in Jaffna, the other in the south eastern university where it seems there had been financial corruption. I have requested the Bribery and Corruption Commission to probe into it. Former minister SB Dissanayake’s brother is a member of the council of this university. Prima facie evidence points to financial misappropriations. The audit reports are pretty damning too.
Then there is the Eastern University where I appointed a new council. Issues in the Colombo University are mainly due to the ego trip between the FUTA and the Hirimburegamas. I believe Hirimburegama should never have stood to be appointed as the VC, I told this to Kshanika as well.
“I have noted seven things we must implement before the expiration of 100-days. And there can be no compromises. That is what we want; not an election”
Q. Students are still protesting over the use of Rakna Lanka for security in universities.
I think the problem was a too-close relationship between the Defence Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry. Once a contract is given it has to run its course and expire. I have been clear – the universities can decide on whom they want as their security. Its wrong for the ministry to interfere. We are not here to follow the dictates of another ministry. When I questioned the orientation programme run by the Ministry of Higher Education I realised there was a much deeper link with the military. I have to start making arrangements to enable the UGC and the students to give me ideas on how to set up a new structure. I am determined to give a programme to students through which the 18 months they spend between school and university, could be spent developing soft skills such as English, computer science etc. based on a credit system.
Q. What is the response to the demands that have been made by FUTA?
We need to look into salary anomalies. When I assumed duties, I was also cross about the manner in which non-academic staff members were deprived of a salary hike. As soon as I was appointed, I made sure the budgeted amount for paying salaries to workers were given to them. A six per cent GDP allocation will be implemented systematically. All student unions should also be reinstated in universities. QWhat became of the allegation against Namal for influencing the admission of a student? Unfortunately in our political life whether it was Namal or the coordinating secretary, people get nervous. Many ministers have written to me asking for favours or requests to ‘look into’ certain matters but I have responded saying, ‘don’t interfere’. If anyone writes to me and says there is an injustice I will ask for a report. What I gathered is that basically there had been anomalies [in admissions]. My view is that if there had been an anomaly it should be corrected as long as you are not depriving another person.
Q. What you think about the 100-day programme?
It’s a complete disaster because no-one is concerned about the programme. I have noted seven things we must implement before the expiration of 100-days. And there can be no compromises. That is what we want; not an election. I heard today that this so-called ‘Council’ has not met for a month.
Q. What are you planning to do after your resignation?
I have no idea! According to the information gathered so far, the President had instructed Kabir. Unfortunately he had thought he needs to consult the PM who had then turned to CBK. When I spoke to the PM about the situation, he told me to read Butler’s ‘Art of the Possible’. I don’t need to read that; I need to start work.
On Monday I cleared my desk. I have a simple rule, you have to do what you say you are doing, if not you have to explain why you are not doing it. I find it appalling that on three occasions they have promised to let me know about the position but nothing has happened. It is not good governance.
One thing about good governance is that it should be swift. Justice delayed is justice denied: likewise governance delayed is governance denied.
Q. After the upcoming general elections, what is your plan?
We decided as the Liberal Party and write to the UPFA asking whether we could have a formal alliance. Although I hope that we are on to a new system, we would ask for a national list. I now believe more than ever that you need national list MPs because all other MPs are running after politics and votes. In every other presidential systems in the world, Cabinets have been outside the party. In every other country, there is a core collection of people who don’t have to run for election either because they have the Raja Sabha system or they are nominated as in Thailand or in the UK: they have safe seats. You must have people who can do work.
There is a notion that if you don’t get voted in you are not fit. But in other countries that is not the case because there are people who are expected to deliver for the executive side of things.
The incident he faced as State Minister of Higher Education regarding the removal of the UGC Head and Faizer Mustapha’s resignation as State Minister of Aviation will not negatively impact the 100-day program but is a wakeup call for the whole alliance to realise that it needs to be more serious, says Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily FT, he also noted that the alliance gave a specific deadline to the people and there were very important pledges that it had done nothing about. “People are expecting us to fulfil these within the mentioned deadlines. We are here to respond to people and we must do so quickly,” he added.
However, Wijesinha emphasised that the pledge of abolishing the executive presidency shouldn’t be fulfilled since it was something that required a lot of consideration and it was important to ensure that what was put in its place would be acceptable to the people at large.
Following are excerpts:
A: Kabir took some action while I was away which I thought was totally inappropriate. I think Kabir should have consulted me. However, he has been very gracious about expressing the error involved. But the bottom line is that I know that this will go on.
If ‘A’ doesn’t give the right answer, they go to ‘B’. If one person is clearly in charge and then there is another person is also there, anyone who doesn’t get a good answer from ‘A’ will go to ‘B’. If technically ‘A’ is under ‘B,’ it is impossible for ‘A’ to actually carry out his work. I have told Kabir that this cannot go on like this. He too agreed and said that he would tell the Prime Minister to appoint me as a Cabinet minister. That would make a lot of sense and I hope that it will happen.
Q: Are you saying your action was not against the removal of the UGC Chairman but was purely based on error in protocol?
A: We are going to engage in what we call good governance. You must not do things that are contrary to every single principle of good governance. People ask me why I am defending the UGC Chairman. It is not a question of my defending her. It is a question of two fundamental principles of governance being breached.
The first is, very simply, Kabir should not have taken any decision affecting my work without telling me. The second fact is that, if they wanted to respond to allegations against the UGC Chairman, there should have been an investigation with due process. Rather interestingly Kabir told me there was lot of pressure from FUTA and that is why he went ahead with it. I told Kabir that he should not give into pressure. One of our biggest complaints against the UGC Chairman was that she had given into pressure. If we are going to do things simply because there is immense pressure from other parties, how are we any better than what we claim she was?
Q: But FUTA has been against the appointment of UGC Chairman and it was one of their conditions when supporting Maithripala Sirisena.
A: I know nothing about such a condition. Don’t forget that I translated the manifesto and there was nothing of that sort there. In any case, if you are going to remove anyone, you need to do it through due process.
Let me give you an example; they now claim that I know what the allegations are. But no one has given me any of the allegations except one professor who wrote a long email to me in which he basically mentioned all kinds of negative things about the UGC Head, such as she is the worst person in the system and a strong supporter of President Rajapaksa. I wrote back asking to send me those allegations systematically because I cannot carry out an investigations based on an email with someone’s own private grievances. He didn’t come back to me. How can anyone expect me to carry out any investigations without a proper complaint?
Read the rest of this entry »
The admission comes two years after Australian intelligence officials told The Australian that a senior government figure close to then president Mahinda Rajapaksa was directly complicit in the 2012 surge of asylum boats to Australia.
Rajiva Wijesinha, the one-time reconciliation adviser to Mr Rajapaksa who last week was appointed Minister of State for Higher Education in the national unity government, told The Australian evidence of corruption among some close to the Rajapaksa clan was emerging following this month’s shock election result.
Professor Wijesinha singled out an individual from the southern port electorate of Hambantota, which received billions of dollars in Chinese infrastructure loans during Mr Rajapaksa’s 10 years in office, as one who was “making money hand over fist”.
The number of asylum boats leaving from Hambantota, the home town of the Rajapaksas, as opposed to the Tamil-dominated east and north coasts, has risen notably in recent years.
“Certainly accusations against individuals (of people-smuggling) as opposed to government sounded plausible,” he told The Australian of widespread rumours, adding that there was no evidence of “institutional involvement”.
“One of the reasons the Australian government was probably the least unhappy with us in the world was that the government did try to put a stop to (asylum boats).”
In July 2012, the former president’s eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, addressed allegations of involvement in a human smuggling ring transporting asylum-seekers to Australia when he told Ceylon Today newspaper he had been falsely targeted by the Tamil diaspora seeking to bring his country into disrepute.
Five months later, The Australian reported that Australian intelligence agencies believed a “senior Sri Lankan government official” (not Namal) had been directly complicit in a surge in asylum-seeker boats the previous year and that it would be impossible for so many boats to leave the island without that individual’s direct involvement.
Sri Lankan asylum-seeker numbers surged to more than 6500 in 2012 from 211 the previous year, then dropped sharply following then foreign minister Bob Carr’s December 2012 visit to Colombo, which also marked the first wavering of Australian government support for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes by both sides in the last months of the civil war.
Last year, Australia reversed its support for a UN-backed inquiry.
Sri Lankan opposition party, People’s Liberation Front last week lodged corruption complaints against the former president, his son Namal and brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, who held the economic development and defence portfolios respectively.
While the complaints largely address vastly inflated costs for national infrastructure projects, including a Chinese-built railway costing $US18 million a kilometre and allegedly 12 times the actual price, there is scope to investigate alleged involvement in people-smuggling.
How Australia’s bilateral relationship will fare under the new government is still to be tested.
1. In a series of articles entitled “Enemies of the President’s Promise: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs”, you have chronicled the degeneration of the regime from its glorious days into an autocratic regime with no vision or direction for itself and for the nation it claims to protect from international conspiracies. How would you look back on the performance of the regime?
It has been extremely disappointing. Though talking to the President sometimes encouraged one to think he would move, there has been disappointment after disappointment.
2. Who are the key figures behind the powerful oligarchy within the Government that led to the birth of a system of sycophancy which virtually besieged President Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Of the seven dwarfs the worst influence was Basil, who thinks politics is about fooling people, which I don’t think was the President’s position before. He was also entrusted with all development work, but he cannot plan coherently, and thought pouring in cement would win hearts and minds. Then Namal was a destructive force, because the President does understand Basil’s shortcomings but he is incapable of checking Namal. In fact his reaction to criticism of his indulgence to the children is instructive, in trying to justify the helicopters – whereas Namal claimed they only had toy helicopters.
The two Peiris twins were sycophants of the highest order, but more to what they thought were Gotabhaya’s wishes than to the President, which led them to let down the President when he tried to do good. Gotabhaya I think more honest as a human being, but his recent political ambitions have spoiled him. Lalith Weeratunge I know regretted what was happening, but did not have the courage to set the President right, which is a pity because in his heart the President knows Lalith is the only person who can be trusted.
And finally there is Sajin, to whom the President is devoted, which beggars belief (and the nation too).
3. You were the head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) from 2007 to 2007. How would you revisit the pivotal role played by Norwegians in the peace process in general and Norwegian politician Erik Solheim in particular?
I think the Norwegians in general behaved very well, and the ambassadors I dealt with stood up to the LTTE. In my time the Monitoring Mission was headed by a Norwegian who was balanced, and helped me overcome the prejudices of some of his staff. There had been some prejudice before against Sri Lanka and its unity, most obviously on the part of a Swedish General who had headed the SLMM – I failed to get the Foreign Ministry to register protests officially about this, though I did my best. Also I think the ambassador at the time of the Ceasefire Agreement being signed was indulgent to the LTTE because he had been here in the eighties and was influenced by the excesses against Tamils of the Jayewardenepura government. Finally, I found Solheim shifty, and have said so to those who approved of him, beginning with Mr Bogollagama. It was a great pity he had so much influence at the time, because I think his agenda was always a selfish one, a view shared by the Norwegian Liberals with whom I was in contact. Read the rest of this entry »
Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, son of late Sam Wijesinha, Former Parliamentary Secretary General is a member of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka. In June 2007 President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed him Secretary-General of the Sri Lankan Government Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process, and in June 2008 he became the Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. In February 2010 he resigned from the Ministry and the University, and became a member of Parliament on the National List of the UPFA following which he was appointed a member of Parliament. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Professor Wijesinha speaks about the lack of control among ruling party leaders, the loopholes in the educational system and the civil service in Sri Lanka.
Q. Describe your entry into politics
I have always been interested in political history and I have done a lot of political writings. In fact one of my best papers was political philosophy. Basically I have been involved with the Liberal party of Sri Lanka. Liberalism means freedom and for freedom you need several factors. When talking about an executive presidency, about having too much power, ever since the time of Montesquieu, there has been an idea of the removal of arbitrary powers. But the first thing we should all realise is that in any government the most important and in fact the most powerful is the executive. You need to check that executive; whether it is a child, a president or a prime minister from exercising arbitrary power. Also what are the instruments that will control the arbitrary power of the ruler on behalf of the people?
Montesquieu suggested two institutions which needed to be powerful; the Parliament, whose role was to pass the laws and money and oversee the proper spending of that money-which was why the budget was such an important occasion in our lives. The other is the Judiciary, who should independently administer the law. Another extremely powerful institution that plays a role on behalf of the people is the media. Another element is the public service. Increasingly the concept developed around an independent public service with no servants for a king or a minister.
The need for a free economy should be addressed. However, I am delighted by the fact that statism changed its phase after JR’s open economy was established. At that time I was writing for my PhD and by the time I got back I found him to be rather authoritative and I was horrified by the type of things he did.
We were the first people to say, “control the power of the executive”. Before the 17th Amendment, the President appointed anybody he wanted for anything. We were the ones who said that on a political philosophy it was totally unacceptable. We pooled in a lot of ideas then, which are now universally accepted. Chanaka Amaratunge had a deep knowledge about the constitutions all over the world. We said that the election system was mad and proposed for a mixed system. We said a lot of things and gradually people came to accept them.
Q. What do you think of this newly emerging ‘defection-culture’ and the political scenario as of late?
I think the country is pleased. In my opinion, every individual who crossed over to the Opposition had a strong identity. I think Maithripala Sirisena is a very capable person, yet the cross-over by Tissa Attanayake is quite ineffective. The opposition need not be sorry that he is gone.
Q. Do you regret your transition from being an academic to a politician?
No. I have done a lot in academia and I was responsible for taking the initiative to transform university education, through the introduction of ‘co-courses’. The British education system relies on a very good school education. In America, students are taught basic skills in universities and this was initiated from Harvard in the 19th Century. What they said was that as soon as you came into a university you didn’t specialise, but you have to learn a little bit about science, mathematics and the like.
The Harvard by the end of the 20th Century had expanded the co-courses into 10 separate things and the students had to do a little of each. These courses included communication, inter-cultural skills, inter-personal skills and the like. When I went back, I introduced this system at the University of Sabaragamuwa. So every student had to do English and they also had to do both Sinhala and Tamil, because my Tamil and Sinhala students could not write anything. Along with these I also introduced critical thinking. At first they used to curse me for this but then later they said that this was what they got when they went for jobs. Also many of these students did not know how to use a book. For example, when asked to find the largest country in the world the whole class was busy turning pages, but of course there was a contents page. Therefore, I also introduced library skills. Since these skills were introduced, which I think are very important to any student, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has announced that they were mandatory.
In any society 80% has to go into business, technical work and you must educate people for that. You cannot educate 100% of a population. We see graduates coming unemployed and our rulers offer them jobs. The brightest minds in the country are going and sitting at the Divisional Secretariats as Samurdhi officers and when I ask them what they when I ask them what they are doing, they say ‘data collection’. When asked for the purpose, they keep staring at me. So we can see that no one has been doing anything about this mismatch in education. In fact I think what I did was quite useful. Read the rest of this entry »
“About three years ago, at a private meeting at the Central Bank Maithreepala Sirisena was the first person to say that there are questions about the way the roads are being built. He said there was a lot of waste going on. I think that was very brave of him.”
University don turned parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha was in the news recently for having crossed over from the government to the opposition and for having appeared on Al Jazeera with the head of the Global Tamil Forum Suren Surenthiran where he made some utterances that have been given various interpretations. In this interview, he speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about his Al Jazeera interview, and his support for Maithreepala Sirisena.
Q. You seem to have ruffled feathers in Colombo with your interview on Al Jazeera. I have heard you (and many other people) saying much worse things about the Rajapaksas. It would appear that the reason for people to be upset about what you said would be that you seemed to be telling Surenthiran that what he was saying (about Rajapaksa being taken to the International Criminal Court like Charles Taylor or Milosevic after he loses the election) was ‘precisely the kind of nonsense that will lead to an undesirable result at this election’. You also said that the GTF should have the sense not to try to interfere in this election ‘because they will pervert it’. That may have been interpreted as your telling Surenthiran not to say such things because his statements will skew the election result in favour of the government and defeat the ‘common goal’.
A. I said that in direct contradiction to what Suren Surenthiran was saying. When I said that I believe the army fought a very good war both Surenthiran and the lady doing the interview started shouting at me to which I responded by saying that ‘I am not concerned about the prejudices of the international community’. I also said that at the rate the government is going our forces will suffer if Mahinda Rajapaksa is re-elected because Mahinda Rajapksa’s foreign minister has utterly betrayed the record of our forces. No answers have been made to the allegations made against us, there have been blanket denials, and there has been no analysis to show that the allegations made are false. Only I have done that. Mahinda Rajapaksa says that I nodded my head to what Suren Surenthiran said about taking him to the Hague after the election. But I have said very clearly that there is absolutely no case (against Sri Lanka).
Q. Could this irritation be because you were considered a friend of the family and even appointed as a national list MP? In such a context some of the things you said may be quite hurtful. Such as for example saying that “there is a dangerous collection of people around him (the president) who are treating him as a cash cow” and they have “blockaded him from the reality of what is going on in the country and they let him out of this fortress only in order to use him.”
A. I have been saying this sort of thing to him before. And about being grateful to be a national list MP, I think the boot is on the other foot if I may say so. I was offered a couple of ambassadorships but I turned them down because I could not leave my father who was growing older. Then I was offered the position of head of the Peace Secretariat which I never asked for. I accepted it because it was a challenge and I think I did a very good job and I think gratitude is owed to me and it may be because of that that I was appointed to parliament. When G. L.Peiris didn’t want to use me, he (the president) used my services to go abroad to deal with the channel 4 challenge. I feel very strongly that we fought a good war and I was very happy to defend our people in that situation. He asked me to go to Geneva three times, but I said I couldn’t because I found the whole thing was a mess. Read the rest of this entry »
UPFA Parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha, former Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, addressed a letter to all party leaders regarding the audit report on the refurbishment of the official residence of the Permanent Representative in Geneva on Tuesday.
Professor Rajiva Wijesinha elaborated on the matter on our special segment Newsline – 22 Oct 2014.