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In the course of the frenetic travel programme I had set myself before the usual budget period, I had just two days in Sri Lanka last week. They were packed, with Parliament, and an overnight stay with a cousin visiting after several days, and the 92nd birthday of my most distinguished aunt, but also a couple of interviews as well as meetings with two ambassadors.

Though I feel increasingly despondent, I continue to defend the war record of the government, and indeed feel that some of the absurdities now occurring spring from the bitterness felt with regard to unfair attacks on us. But when I reiterated how fundamentally wrong the Darusman Report had been, one of them asked very simply why we had not refuted it.

3rd narrative - MargaThis failure continues to bemuse me, and the more so now after the Marga Institute produced their Third Narrative, which provides a wonderful opportunity on which government could build. But given the schizophrenia that possesses government, it will not take ownership of this document and flesh it out with details that only government possesses (though perhaps it has again misplaced them, for I had a frantic but informal request from the Foreign Ministry for the Peace Secretariat archives).

One explanation I offered the ambassador was that government simply had no one left who could argue a case intelligently and in good English. A couple of years back, when I told the President to make better use of the professionals in the Ministry of External Affairs, he told me that their command of English was weak. I fear this is a myth of which he has been convinced by those who see themselves as brilliant exponents of the language, having been to elite Colombo schools. The fact that they cannot use the language with sophistication, or respond in a manner those accusing us would take to heart, is not something the President realizes.

But there had recently been an exception, in the form of Chris Nonis, who had given a superb interview on Channel 4. All those I met in London were still full of the way he had responded, which is not something that had happened, they were kind enough to say, since my discussion on ‘Hard Talk’. However I had soon after that been removed from public appearances, except just the once when the President over-rode the blockages of the Ministry and sent me to London to deal with an attack on us organized by Channel 4.

Jon Snow dropped out after my participation in that programme was announced, though it would be too much to assert that was the reason. Conversely, after Chris’ great performance last year, a Sri Lankan station had asked him to participate in a debate with Jon Snow and Callum Macrae, but he had said he wanted me involved as well. The station then abandoned the idea, which I suppose is some sort of compliment. If both Channel 4 and local television would rather avoid me, I can claim to be perhaps the last adherent in government of Mr Bandaranaike’s Middle Path. Read the rest of this entry »

In getting ready material for the consultations I have been having with the young people concerned about constitutional reform, I finally counted up the number of Ministers we have. In fact the figure comes to less than 100, far fewer than the number of Ministers President Jayewardene had in his heyday, with far fewer Members of Parliament, on his side and taken as a whole.

His record included District Ministers too, so that 2/3 of Members of Parliament were Ministers in the eighties, and ¾ of the Government Parliamentary Group. Contrary to the hype of those critics of the current government who have forgotten completely the excesses of the past, things are better now.

But this still does not make them good. It is quite preposterous that Sri Lanka should have 65 Cabinet Ministers (along with 2 Project Ministers) plus 27 Deputy Ministers. In addition there are 4 Monitoring Ministers, as far as I know. This is fewer than I thought, but I realize now that the claim that Members of Parliament were asked to apply for these positions was not correct. I was under the impression, when I was told that I had failed to ask when applications were called, that National List MPs had not been included in the notice, but I find that others were left out too.

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A group of young people, including a few politicians, have been working recently on suggestions for Constitutional Reform following the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The brief of that Committee is wide and, even though efforts were made to hijack it, and turn it into a vehicle to amend the 13th Amendment, the Chairman stood firm and made it clear that the terms of reference as laid down by those who proposed the Committee should stand.

I have no doubt that, despite the omission of perspectives that are more common in the country and in Parliament than extreme views on either side, there are enough persons on the PSC who will ensure that the commitments that country and the President have entered into will be upheld. However I suspect the Committee will deliberate for a very long time, and a lot of problems that it would be very simple to resolve will only get worse.

I welcome therefore what I see as a Youth Initiative, and have been impressed by the systematic way in which they are proceeding. They have used as a basic text a comparison which has been made of the three recent comprehensive proposals for Constitutional Reform that have been published. The first of these – as usual, I am tempted to say – was that of the Liberal Party, and this was followed this year by the proposals of the UNP as also those of a group led by the Rev Omalpe Sobitha.

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I have been reading with some bemusement the recent exchanges regarding the role and views of my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka, who has been under attack because of his support for the 13th Amendment and devolution. This is an old story, and he is well able to defend himself. But recently there has been a change, because he is attacked not only for what he believes – which he would be quite happy to deal with – but also on the grounds that he caused problems for the government because he defended us forcefully against attacks in the international arena way back in 2009.

The argument is that he put us in a difficult position through his defence, which involved commitment to the 13th Amendment. As I have said before, this is nonsense, because all he was doing was reiterating what our old friend Mahinda Samarasinghe would describe as the consolidated position of the government of Sri Lanka. This had been expressed clearly by the President in a joint communiqué with the Indian government as also in a joint statement issued together with the UN Secretary General. This last indeed contained material relating to accountability which I thought unnecessary, but which it seemed only Dayan and I, thought of as outsiders with no diplomatic training, recognized was potentially dangerous. Foreign Ministry officials saw no problem with that commitment on the part of government, though later Palitha Kohona told me he had advised against that clause, and it was only the President’s haste to settle the matter that curtailed further discussion.

That having been said, the clause would have caused no problems had we interpreted it straight away on our terms. It was the culpable neglect of what we had pledged that has contributed to our problems, and that was nothing to do with Dayan, who was given the cold shoulder soon afterwards. He was to spend a year in limbo, until the President recalled him to service in Paris, where he did a fantastic job.

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In a forceful critique of attempts to amend the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Secretary General of the Liberal Party, Kamal Nissanka, also made no bones about the fact that the current Provincial Council system had many flaws. Though the Liberal Party has always been in favour of devolution, we have also noted that there are several things about the 13th Amendment that need improvement. However we believe that this is best done through comprehensive discussions and consensus, certainly not through contentious piecemeal adjustments.

But while several structural changes are desirable, Kamal also noted a very practical problem that I had not seen highlighted before. He wrote that the system ‘had become a method  of wielding power  by  the same people  who enjoyed  power in the centre.  Close relatives of leading politicians were promoted to stand for provincial councils making it a political extended family.’

This indeed makes a mockery of the idea that Provincial Councils should provide the people with an alternative mechanism to address their concerns. Given that the current structure entails several overlaps, the duplication of authorities which have the same perspectives means that in essence the senior partners will lay down the law.  The Provincial Councils then become a sort of rubber stamp for the central government.

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At many of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I have attended in the last few months, there has been harsh criticism of what are termed District and Division Development Committee meetings. Often I am told that problems are raised at these meetings, but nothing is done. Promises are made, but they are never kept.

More recently, since I have again been in the East, having concentrated for the first five months of this year on the North, there have been many complaints about decisions made at Development Committee meetings being changed by the Chairman. There are also allegations of contracts awarded to Rural Development societies being cancelled and given to other entities. Some of this has to do with the comparatively large sums made available through Deyata Kirula for development projects.

Though the allegations made suggested corruption, on going into details I felt that some changes made sense. However it is clearly counter-productive to make decisions after consultation and then change them without at least keeping all stakeholders informed of the change and the reasons for the change.

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When I wrote some weeks back about the supposed Norwegian involvement with the Bodhu Bala Sena, I had not seen the clarification which the Norwegian Embassy had put on its website about the allegations. Having read it, I am more than ever convinced that the Norwegian government and its embassy have not behaved badly, but also that they, and also the Sri Lankan government, must go more carefully into the matter and check on what exactly has been going on. If they can do this together, so much the better, though I fear that neither side will have the correct skills and attitudes to ensure fruitful and productive cooperation.

The reason I believe investigation would be useful is because of two names I noticed in the official Norwegian statement. One is that of the Worldview International Foundation, which is essentially run by a gentleman called Arne Fjiatoff, who has been in Sri Lanka now for several decades. During this period he has been involved in a range of projects with various Sri Lankan governments, which are in theory designed to benefit the Sri Lankan people, but which have also brought considerable benefits to Arne himself.

I was introduced to him initially by Dilantha Withanage, the other name I noticed in the statement. Dilantha has now emerged as the lay spokesman for the BBS, though I knew him earlier in another very positive incarnation, as running computer programmes for the Ministry of Education when I was Adviser there on English. Though I took on the position mainly to reintroduce the English medium option, given the paucity of capacity there at the time, I ended up involved in many other initiatives, ranging from curriculum revision to primary English materials.

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After many months of thinking Prof G L Pieris was leading the President down the garden path, I was pleased recently to find that he had lived up to his intellectual reputation and given some reasonably sound advice. This was with regard to the effort to amend the 13th Amendment, as to which initially there were four areas of apparent concern.

When the Cabinet was finally given some amendments to consider however, there was only one proposal for change. This was after G L had been asked for advice, and it looks like he had very sensibly said there was no point in worrying about land and police issues. Given that National Policy on all issues remains with the central government, and given the practices that have been instituted since the days in which the 13th Amendment was passed, there is no doubt that government will continue to be in charge of these areas. Implementing national policy through regional agencies, whether elected or appointed, will of course continue, and I can only hope that government moves swiftly towards making sure this happens through small units which can actually relate readily to the people.

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Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows, as exemplified recently by the allegation made by Shenali Waduge against Dayan Jayatilleke. I see Shenali Waduge as an aggressive writer, a description I am sure she would relish. Yet the charge she levels against Dayan is precisely that which was made a few weeks back by Tissa Jayatilaka, whose agenda now seems to be wholly that of the Americans whose Fulbright Commission he now heads.

Shenali’s criticism of Dayan occurs in the midst of a massive diatribe against G L Peiris, with which I must confess I have some sympathy. Yet I think Shenali has missed the point, because she thinks GL has a perspective which is opposed to her own, whereas the reality is that GL has no perspectives at all. Dayan on the contrary does, but Shenali is totally wrong to say that the 2009 vote in our favour in Geneva was because Dayan ‘secretly inserted a clause stating Sri Lanka would implement the 13th amendment’. This is of a piece with Tissa Jayatilaka’s claim that the victory in 2009 was a disaster because the draft contained pledges which have now come back to haunt us.

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One aspect of politics that draws criticism but little analysis is the phenomenon of large cabinets, with Members of Parliament imagining it their right to be appointed to Executive Office on the grounds of seniority alone.

This is nothing new, though the opposition affects to forget the massive numbers to whom President Jayewardene gave executive positions, which is when the trend really began. Not all his appointments were to the Cabinet or to Deputy positions, since he also had 25 District Ministerships to play around with, in addition to the Project Ministries he had instituted. The result was that at one stage he had over 100 Ministers of various types, in a Parliamentary group of around 140.

It is true that Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to restrict numbers, at a time when the topic had been raised by the JVP, which had made it a condition of the probation period they gave President Kumaratunga in 2001 that she restrict her Cabinet to 20. Unfortunately they failed to insist on a Cabinet amendment to this effect, and Mrs Kumaratunga in fact made it 22, though this did not help her to stay in power.

Mr Wickremesinghe adopted the expedient of appointing 40 Ministers, but putting only 20 of them in the Cabinet, and managed in the process to leave out the Minister of Human Resources Development. He claimed this was an oversight, though in fact it contributed to his favourites, Kabir Hashim and Suranimala Rajapaksa, as Project Ministers of Higher Education and Education respectively, settling themselves in their respective Ministries and exercising equal powers with Karunasena Kodituwakku who was in theory their superior. It was only three months after he first constituted the Cabinet that Ranil expanded it to include Kodituwakku and some others. Despite his claims to be cutting government expenditure, he evidently had no qualms about establishing Ministries which seemed to have no work, for some of his Ministers had no operational funds, receiving only establishment costs in the budget.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2017
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