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I was back in the Eastern Province last week after an absence of over three years. Before that, since I was told 30 years ago by the British Council to manage a furniture project for schools initiated by the British government after the Indo-Lankan Accord, I had been a constant visitor there.

Though the scope of the project had to be changed when the Tigers renewed hostilities, we kept working in Amparai, for large areas of that District were comparatively safe. I then set up English language improvement projects in schools, for which the English Association received support from Canadians and Australians. Much of this however was in the Sinhala dominated west of the District, since the other parts were not thought safe. Indeed even to access Amparai itself we had to go through several checkpoints, while the roads were appalling and travel very slow.

Those problems persisted for twenty years, even when it became possible to get to the coastal areas. This was for the pre-University GELT project, when I managed to visit all the centres in the East, including the one in Tirukkovil which was an area dominated by the Tigers in the mid-nineties. I still recall the soldier at the checkpoint telling me cheerfully that I could go to Tirukkovil, but he could not say if I could get back. The car firm I used in those days refused to go to Batticaloa, and I had to hire vans in Buttala for the purpose. Read the rest of this entry »

CaptureI used to have very good relations with the Japanese embassy in the period between 2007 and 2014. This began with my appreciation of their support for Sri Lanka during the war period, as explained in the first of the articles about my time at the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, the series that appears in this newspaper on Saturdays.

The connection faded away in the last few years, given that I no longer held any official position connected with Japanese involvements in Sri Lanka. But suddenly last week this changed. The change began with the Dr Anthonis memorial lecture I had been invited some time back to deliver. It was organized by the Lanka-Japan Friendship Association, and the Chief Guest was the Japanese Ambassador.

But then that very evening I was invited to dinner by the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Read the rest of this entry »

CapturePresident Sirisena’s query from the Supreme Court as to whether he was entitled to a six year term was both sad and silly. It was sad because it suggested that he was anxious to go on for longer than the reduced period laid down in the 19th Amendment for which he had claimed great credit. Since his raison d’etre, as it were, was reducing the excessive power of the Presidency, he has rather shot himself in the foot by seeming to want to restore some of what he claimed he freely gave up. And the move was very silly because the Amendment was crystal clear about the reduction being applicable to the current incumbent.

But though his query was ridiculous, there was some reason for making it given that his sycophants were claiming, publicly too, that he was entitled to go on till January 2021. And just as I have been more critical of the hangers on who ruined the last couple of years of President Rajapaksa’s term, than of Rajapaksa himself, I feel that Sirisena too is more sinned against than sinning. There is no excuse for giving in to perverse henchmen but, given the indiscriminate adulation of leaders in this country, one can understand how easy it is to succumb to blandishments. Read the rest of this entry »

RAIt was profoundly ironic that the funeral of Ranjith Atapattu took place the day after the appalling spectacle in Parliament. My attention was drawn to this by the former Secretary General, Nihal Seneviratne, the launch of whose book about better days was one of the last public events that Ranjith had attended. I saw Nihal at the funeral, where we were joined by Mahinda Rajapaksa who had come again to pay his respects. But he was not allowed to stay in the background as he had wanted, given the private nature of the occasion, but was dragged off to sit next to the Prime Minister.

Ranjith was one of the most decent of politicians, absolutely honest, efficient in office, and not tainted by the violence that has possessed so many of the breed. He suffered for this, when he was forced to face a bye-election by his leader after the referendum of 1983.

In changing the constitution to extend the term of parliament by 6 years, JR pledged to clean out the corrupt. So the day he announced the referendum he handed out undated letters of resignation which were collected, as the ‘Weekend’ of that week had it, by his minions led by the current Prime Minister. The message that was given out was that members were expected to win their seats – these were still the days of constituencies – by hook or by crook.

Crookedness predominated, as exemplified by Paul Perera, who won Mrs Bandaranaike’s Attanagalla seat by a massive majority though it had voted for the SLFP candidate at the presidential election just a couple of months previously.

Paul, it may be remembered, is the father of Ronald, who heads the Bank of Ceylon which gave unprecedented credit to Arjun Aloysius, and then failed to bid properly during the next bond scam in obedience to Ravi Karunanayake’s instructions. Not surprisingly, Ronald said nothing at the time, and only shopped Ravi when the Commission of Inquiry questioned him.

Ranjith was incapable of crookedness, and the vote at Beliatta went against the government. The same thing incidentally happened to Ronnie de Mel, but he was parachuted to Matugama when his undated letter was activated. Ranjith received no such favourable treatment. Read the rest of this entry »

I looked last week at Nalaka Godahewa’s account of why Mahinda Rajapaksa lost, which he attributed to the excessive influence of eight people who ‘were not listening to the voices of the grassroots anymore’. Though an intelligent analysis of some aspects of the last years of the Rajapaksa administration, the article failed to distinguish between positive influences and those who contributed heavily to the defeat.

I was happy though that Godahewa was complimentary about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and I wished he had also noted how effectively P B Jayasundara and Nivard Cabraal had contributed to the economic wellbeing of the country, certainly in comparison with the current mess. And I felt too that there was more to be said for Lalith Weeratunge, though he failed to exercise his undoubted influence productively.

With regard to the four others Godahewa identifies, I feel he is generally right, though there again the analysis could have been less perfunctory. And I was sorry he left out two characters who I felt did more than anyone else to destroy the President, though again neither has been accused of financial misdemeanours.

One was G L Peiris, whose influence Godahewa belittles in asserting that ‘Sajin Vas Gunawardena was a huge influence in the External Affairs Ministry, though officially … Peiris was in charge’. That does not reduce Peiris’ culpability for disastrous foreign relations, and his failure for instance to go to America to meet Hillary Clinton when she invited him, to reply to Man Mohan Singh’s letter when the Indians were debating which way to vote at the Human Rights Council in March 2014, to move on matters which were agreed with the TNA when we were negotiating with them and the President told us to proceed. Read the rest of this entry »

‘Surrounded by cronies and not listening to those who mattered’ is the explanation Nalaka Godahewa gave in an article in Ceylon Today on why Mahinda Rajapaksa lost. I found it most interesting, with added value from the fact that Godahewa was close to the former President, and indeed came to his rescue when both Indrani Sugathadasa and Tilak Karunaratne resigned as Chairs of the Securities Commission.

Since it had been made clear that both thought there was excessive political interference, I had my worries at the time about Godahewa whom I did not know at all. I have since made his acquaintance, and believe that he was a capable man who did not make money for himself. He had a more political orientation than his predecessors, which was also true of other technocrats who served Mahinda Rajapaksa. Two of these, P B Jayasundara and Nivard Cabraal, Godahewa cites as being amongst the eight influential people in the Rajapaksa administration. But I would hold that those two, like Godahewa himself, were people who did matter in terms of the contribution they made. The desperate efforts of the current government to find dirt on both Godahewa and Cabraal, and their abject failure to succeed in that nefarious effort, even while trying to protect Cabraal’s appallingly corrupt successor, make it clear that Rajapaksa did very well to have such capable people working for him.

Comparing what is now happening to the Stock Exchange with what Godahewa achieved, just like comparing the development of the economy under Rajapaksa compared to the current disastrous situation, makes it clear that economic and financial policies were not the reasons for Rajapaksa losing. In this regard I found Godahewa’s article disappointing, since it failed to distinguish between Rajapaksa ‘cronies’ who served him and the nation relatively well, and the destructive corrupt ones. Read the rest of this entry »

bring it downAs we move towards the end of the dispensation that came in with the Presidential election of 2015, I feel immensely sorry for the President. It is true that many of the problems he now faces he brought on himself, but this was because of weakness, and because he relied on those who had no interest in ensuring he succeeded.

Chief amongst these was Chandrika Kumaratunga, and I write today on the subject of how Sirisena lost the plot because last week I was told of how willfully she betrayed the interests of the SLFP. When Sirisena won in 2015 he entrusted his section of the governing coalition to her, as he told me in explaining that she had been in charge of allocating executive positions to those not in the UNP.

Naturally she looked after only those who owed allegiance to her, the youthful Mr Dissanayake and the aged Mr Goonewardena, neither of whom could serve the country or the President with distinction. She failed to fulfil the commitment in the President’s manifesto with regard to me and Mr Radhakrishnan, to have us in the Cabinet, and she viciously betrayed Vasantha Senanayake by claiming he had joined the UNP, though she knew very well that he had done nothing of the sort. Ironically he is now perhaps the closest in thinking to the President of UNP Ministers – and though only a State Minister, he has to function as virtually a Minister given Tilak Marapana’s lack of interest in the subject.

Chandrika was nasty about Vasantha when I expostulated with her about how shabbily he was treated, but I now wonder whether she was not also motivated by a desire to build up the UNP. Around that time she told a friend who was interested in politics that there was no place in the SLFP for sophisticated people like him, unlike in the days when she led the party. She said Ranil was now much better than in the days when they had been bitter rivals, and she advised him to join the UNP instead. Of course it was precisely such people that Maithripala Sirisena needed if he was to lead an SLFP capable of running a government on its own, but doubtless Chandrika feared anyone else with international standing being in the party where she was now flexing her flabby muscles. Read the rest of this entry »

UntitledI was asked last week by the European Union to an exhibition about ‘Celebrating Partnerships’, and attended, though I left early when the speeches began. I was not sure why I was asked, since the invitation was for development partners and the TVEC was not involved in the project.

But as I looked round the exhibition, I realized that, as Charles Ryder put it in Brideshead Revisited, ‘I had been there before; I knew all about it’. And it brought back fond memories of the last public service I performed successfully, before (as I put it in Endgames and Excursions, memoirs of the last five years which Godage published), ‘I began to feel that my shelf life was over’.

I have written about how I helped the UN resurrect the project in the 6th chapter of that book. Though I start by saying that it seemed clear in 2013 that ‘there was no hope of stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa rushing headlong into disaster, given that so many of those around him, while pursuing their own agendas, had lulled him into a false sense of security’, the way he responded to my appeal indicated he still genuinely cared about the country and the development programme he had embarked on.

In late 2013 I had been told about proposals prepared at District level for a UN project to be funded by the European Union. This had been agreed with the government, after Basil Rajapaksa suggested modifications including that it be extended to areas outside the North and East too. But then suddenly he clamped down and said it could not proceed. Read the rest of this entry »

CaptureWhile there is much uncertainty now about what will happen to the country, certain certainties are assured. Chief amongst them is the headlong destruction of his reputation that Ranil has precipitated in the last three years.

I do not refer only to his unashamed capers with regard to the bond scam, the continuing defence and harbouring of Mahendran and now Ravi, the snide attacks on the Auditor General and Nivard Cabraal without substantiating them, the blithe disregard for the massive loss the country suffered not once but thrice. What is also clear is his complete ignorance of economics, even though he used to masquerade as an expert in the field.

Indeed way back in 2003, when I begged him to stop the collapse of the English medium experiment that had begun in 2001, he said he could not work on that now since he had to concentrate on putting the economy right. He claimed then that no one else had the capacity to institute reforms, a position he seems to have moved on from now, with his recognition of the capabilities of the boy genius Akila Viraj.

But economics he thinks must continue as his preserve, and he has such confidence in the brilliance of his geriatric pet shop boys (plus Mahendran and Ravi) that he has not even bothered to find a permanent secretary for the Ministry he uses, in Basil style, to assert his control over everything and everybody.

Now however he has had to grant there is a crisis, which he claims is because of adverse weather. He fails to admit that, before the weather too turned on him, employment dropped between 2014 and 2016 (8.5 to 8 million), the surplus on Balance of Payments became a massive deficit (plus $1,369 million to minus $500 million), the trade deficit rose (from $8,287 million to $9,090 million), Foreign Direct investment dropped by nearly a third (from $1,635 million to $1,079 million), and our international credit ratings plummeted. We have sunk in indices with regard to the Ease of Doing Business and Global Competitiveness and Corruption Perception as well as the Rule of Law. Read the rest of this entry »

CaptureI was a bit startled to find on Saturday that those who had been arrested at Gintota a couple of weeks back, and then remanded on November 18th until the 30th, had then been remanded again. No one was allowed bail, and they have been put back in prison for a further two weeks. Sadly, I could find no reports of this in any newspaper, nor any worries by the usual run of human rights activists about what seems arbitrary detention.

Given the problems in the area two weeks back, I can understand the police engaging in a trawl and putting people in jail to prevent any possibility of a recurrence of the violence. But now that the situation has settled down, it seems unconscionable that, without charges being made, all those arrested then should continue to be incarcerated.

The usual run of activists will not I suspect worry too much, because they will doubtless think it a good thing that there should be prophylactic detention as it were when there is any risk of racist attacks. But those same activists would not allow the same leeway with regard to the risk of terrorist attacks. Though I will write this week to the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission to ask what they are doing, and to the UN Resident Coordinator to ask that these persons also be visited by the UN Group on Arbitrary Detention, I suspect there will be no urgency about redressing the situation.

Some years back, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I had some responsibility for such matters, though I had to accept that my authority was limited while we were under terrorist threats. But soon after the war ended, I was able to agitate more. What transpired is best illustrated by an extract from my second book on the Rajapaksa Years, Failure in Reconciliation – Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha


June 2023
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