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Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.
Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?
I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.
But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.
I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.
Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?
Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.
I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.
Parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha is no stranger to controversy. A State Minister in the yahapalana government that took office in January, he was the first to cross the floor and rejoin the opposition. Though he has fallen out with what he describes as a UNP government, he remains combatively loyal to president Maithripala Sirisena. In this interview, Rajiva speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about the difference between RW and MS.
Q. How would you briefly describe your experience of the yahapalana government in the short time that you were in it?
A. The major problem is Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is JR’s creation which means a lack of morality and a certain ruthlessness. In a Westminster style system you don’t get rid of your rivals in the party. If they are able, they get a position. There was a promise that I would be in the cabinet and I told the president this. He told me that I should talk to Chandrika and to Ranil as it is they who decide on the cabinet but nothing came of it. There is really no one to argue with Ranil in cabinet except Rajitha and Champika. Rajitha was very good at getting the transfer of powers from the president to the prime minister stopped. But you need a critical mass. M.K.D.S.Gunawardene is upset about what is going on, but he cannot argue in cabinet. This is supposed to be a coalition government but in reality it’s not. It’s a UNP government which happens to have two or three outsiders in it. Kabir Hashim was appointed cabinet minister of higher education above me. There is no point in having a position where you can’t work. FUTA (The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) had a meeting with Ranil and later Kabir informed me that he had written to the president recommending the removal of the UGC chairperson…
Q. What bugged you the most, was it the turf war between you and your cabinet minister or the principle behind the removal of the UGC chairperson?
A. Both really. If there is a State Minister he should have been consulted on a decision like that. We could have discussed the matter. FUTA announced that the prime minister had said that the UGC chairperson would be removed and a letter would follow from the president’s secretary. What you don’t do is to ask someone to resign because of pressure from FUTA. Once something is done without consulting you, that will become a routine practice. I was even told that the UGC has to be reconstituted and that there are lists in the prime minister’s office and that I should go and have a look. I said that this is not a political matter so why should there be lists of potential candidates in the PM’s office? Basically what we should be doing is looking for the best people and anyway, the prime minister should not be involved as it’s the president who appoints members of the UGC.
Q. That brings us to an interesting point. You said earlier that people like Champika and Rajitha Senaratne were taking the lead in not allowing the transfer of power from the president to the prime minister. But before the election when Maithripala Sirisena came to Sirikotha he told the assembled UNPers that even after becoming president he will continue to address Ranil as ‘Sir’. Then he said that he was not going to step into any of the presidential residences. All that was said to convince the voter that he was going to dismantle the executive presidential system. He signed MOUs with many parties saying he was going to abolish the presidency and with the JHU saying that only certain powers of the executive presidency would be reduced. People like Jayampathy Wickremeratne and the other NGO activists who backed the yahapalana campaign want it abolished. Why are you, a liberal, in favour or retaining the executive presidential system?
A. The Liberal Party was the first to say that the presidency has too much power. That situation was exacerbated by the removal of term limits through the 18th Amendment. In 2013, the Liberal Party came to the conclusion that the presidential powers should be pruned but the institution retained. But I don’t have any objection to abolishing it. When we were preparing the manifesto Jayampathy Wickremeratne said that we are committed to abolishing the executive presidency and that legislation is being drafted to transfer power to the prime minister. I said that such an arrangement was immoral and that I can’t ask people to vote for Maithripala Sirisena in order to make Ranil Wickremesinghe the leader of this country.
Q. But that precisely was the promise that was held out in the election campaign and that is why UNPers came out in their numbers to vote for Maithri and to do all the ground level work for the election campaign.
A. That was never the position of the coalition. In any coalition people are going to say different things.
Q. Everybody who spoke of the powers of the executive presidency wanted the institution scrapped not to have its powers pruned.
A. That’s not true of everybody. That is true of some people including Jayampathy. The point that I wanted to make was that the removal of excessive powers does not mean the transfer of excessive powers. My point was that if the powers of the executive president are being removed you do not give them to another executive.
Q. The vast majority of the votes that Maitripala got were from the UNP and they voted for Maithri on the understanding that RW would be made prime minister. If you don’t fulfil the expectation that the vast majority of those who voted for Maithripala had, that raises questions about the whole concept of popular sovereignty.
A. Over the past several years, Ranil did not get anything more than 35% of the vote. Many people are emphatic on the point that they voted for Maithripala. The UNP is now going around and saying that Maithripala won because of them.
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »