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One of the defining features of politics over the last thirty years has been the staggering of elections so that the ruling party could benefit. The process has always obtained under a Westminster style constitution, which I believe is one of its drawbacks, but consistent abuse of the process occurred only after the 1978 Constitution and its creation of two power centres, both of them equipped with executive power, unlike in other Presidential constitutions.

Since Ministers in Parliament exercise Executive power in addition to the President, if elections are held to the two institutions separately, there will always be one institution with power that can be used to influence elections. Jayewardene made it clear that such influence was to be exercised ruthlessly, when he amended his constitution to allow the President to call an early Presidential election. This was in addition to the Westminster practice of allowing early Parliamentary elections. Knowing that he was relatively popular, and having taken the precaution of knocking out his main opponent by taking away her Civic Rights, he held a Presidential election in 1982, 1 ½ years before he needed to.

But that in fact was not enough for him, because even though he could now use his Presidential powers for the Parliamentary election that was to follow, he knew he would certainly not get anything like the majority he had enjoyed under the First Past the Post system under which the 1977 Parliament had been elected. So he resorted to a Referendum, which he also fiddled outrageously, throwing the principal opposition protagonist into jail and then later banning the JVP so as to get over the legal challenge they had mounted.

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I have long had faith in the Norwegian government and its representatives in Sri Lanka, even though – as I have always made clear to them – I thought that Eric Solheim was a shifty character and should not have been trusted. However, though he was not I think an honest broker as far as the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement and the negotiations that followed were concerned, I believe the Norwegian Mission here more than made up for his lapses.

At least I believe that is true after the initial period, when Jon Westbord was Ambassador. He was unlike Solheim however in that his motives were misplaced idealism, rather than personal advancement. Westborg had after all been in Sri Lanka in the eighties, when elements in the Jayewardene government, led by Cyril Mathew, had encouraged and indeed participated in attacks on Tamils, and his mindset was governed therefore by total sympathy for the Tamil cause.

Even in the eighties he had been what might be termed an activist, in that he had supported a lot of colonization in the Vanni by Tamils of Indian origin. I don’t think he saw this as a deliberate attempt to influence the demographics of the area, but rather as providing solace to those who had been attacked in their homes. After all it was the Indian Tamils who suffered most in both 1977 and 1981, despite the fact that Mr Thondaman was solidly behind the government by the latter date.

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Having looked at one example of rent seeking, in an unusual format, in the field of education, I came across another that was also quite illuminating about the way in which we allow ourselves to be exploited. This, also startling, case of abuse came to my notice when I went through the documents sent by the National Lotteries Board, after they had been examined by the Committee on Public Enterprises, and been found wanting.

What I read seemed to suggest appalling waste, and I hope very much that COPE will include strong strictures in its Report and recommend strongly that better systems be put in place. Though the aberrations that came to my notice had occurred a decade ago, and I don’t suppose there is any way in which the money wasted by government can be recovered, there are lessons to be learnt.

In particular it seems clear that there should be measures to ensure more careful assessments by Cabinet or any Committee it appoints about proposals made in Cabinet papers. As far as I can make out, what happened then was that the Minister of Economic Reform, Science and Technology had a discussion with ‘Norwegian Authorities’, who were not specified, and then put a paper to Cabinet to ‘set up a scholarship fund to provide scholarships to needy students in the country through an innovative lottery project’. Why the Minister of Economic Reform, Science and Technology should have been concerned with lotteries or with scholarship funds is not clear, but it seems that the question did not occur to Cabinet. Perhaps the word Norwegian was seen then as a sign sent from God, or the Prime Minister, so the Cabinet then approved setting up a Committee to ‘negotiate suitable terms & conditions with NORSE TIPPING Norwegian Lottery and make suitable recommendations’.

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The term rent-seeking is generally applied to politicians and government officials who seek benefits from the implementation of rules and regulations they administer. But the term is also used of those who benefit from the rent that, as it were, they pay to those in authority. Influencing government officials, and even government itself, to grant favours is an easy way of profiting in cultures where transparency is lacking and decision makers have discretion (which is generally a good thing) but without accountability (which is essential, with regard to discretionary decisions as well as finances).

This is one reason why governments should reduce the number of rules and regulations, and the number of times the public have to seek government approval for any initiative. This does not mean government should abdicate its responsibility of formulating and enforcing regulations, in the interests of equal opportunities and fair play. But too often regulations lead to individuals capable of winning favour easily obtaining approvals and support from officials, while members of the general public are driven from pillar to post to get answers, let alone permission. That is why, as the great Liberal statesman of the German Free Democratic Party put it, a country needs strong government, but it should be small.

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One of the more bizarre aspects of the post-conflict situation is the strange combination of forces trying to undermine the security forces in their work in the North. I believe their presence there is essential, and not only for security reasons, which we cannot ignore just because the LTTE in Sri Lanka has been destroyed. LTTE sympathizers are still active elsewhere, as we can see from the determination not to condemn any acts of the LTTE – except only for the occasional general admission that both sides violated international norms, followed by a catalogue of what the forces are supposed to have done, with no specifics with regard to the LTTE.

But it is not only fear that the enormous resources LTTE and separatist sympathizers command will be used again for violence that requires the continuing presence of the armed forces in the North. It is also that they still continue with massive services with regard to the restoration of basic infrastructure. Unfortunately they have not developed a system yet of recording the number of wells they have dug, the houses they have built, the roads they have repaired, the playgrounds they have constructed, so their contribution goes unsung. And trying to introduce coherence into the government narrative is of course impossible, given that it privileges style over substance, but really has no idea of the style that would carry conviction.

Meanwhile the vociferous opponents of reconciliation in Sri Lanka ignore all the work the military has done, and continue to talk of a military presence, which only they seem now to see. Most disinterested observers, on the contrary, are now struck by the absence of soldiers on the ground in most of the North. Interestingly, the assistance provided still by the military is appreciated not only by those who actually supply assistance and see how the military has facilitated resettlement, but also by the majority of the resettled. At Divisional Secretariat meetings, while they continue to draw attention to what they see as shortcomings – and also what is occasionally described, in the Vanni, as the unfair allocations decided on by politicians – there is no criticism of the military.

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The beginning of the implosion of the President’s pluralistic vision, which had led him to sideline Sarath Fonseka and his hardline views in the aftermath of the war, began I believe with Fonseka’s effort to remake his image. He did this through his interview with the Sunday Leader where, assuming the Americans were right in their report of what he had said in Ambalangoda in August, he did a 180 degree turn, and accused his erstwhile superiors of having done what earlier he had claimed to do himself.

The Americans had cited a speech Fonseka had delivered which was publicized by Lankanewsweb, one of the many sites associated with Mangala Samaraweera. That had reported Sarath Fonseka as having said, ‘I managed the war like a true soldier. I did not make decisions from A/C rooms. I was under pressure to stop the war even during the final phase. I got messages not to shoot those who are carrying white flags. A war is fought by soldiers. They do so by putting their lives on the line. Therefore, the decisions about war should be taken by the soldiers in the battlefront. Not the people in A/C rooms in Colombo. Our soldiers have seen in life the kind of destruction carried out by those people before they decided to come carrying a white flag. Therefore, they carried out their duties. We destroyed any one connected with the LTTE. That is how we won the war,’ Fonseka said at an event held in Ambalangoda to felicitate him on July 10.’

This gung-ho approach was not however suitable for someone aspiring to be a common candidate. In December therefore he told the Sunday Leader the opposite, declaring that it was in effect those in air conditioned rooms who had ordered that those carrying white flags be shot.

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Perhaps the most destructive of the machinations designed to weaken the government took place way back in 2009, when various groups got together to support the candidature of Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. In one sense their getting together was not surprising, for all of them thought the President had to be weakened if their own ambitions were to succeed. But it was astonishing that they should have used Sarath Fonseka as their instrument, since in theory at any rate all of them found his basic mindset anathema.

Until late 2009 certainly Fonseka made no bones about that mindset. On the one hand, he believed strongly that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority of its inhabitants, not just the Sinhalese, but Sinhala Buddhists. He enunciated this clearly in 2007, bringing back memories of President Wijetunge’s claim that the Sinhalese were the tree around which minorities clung like vines.

Sarath Fonseka then was the most prominent exponent of one extreme which Fr Vimal Tirimanna described in LTTE Terrorism: Musings of a Catholic Priest, his balanced account of the crisis we went through. He writes there  of political hypocrisy being often justified ‘using hackneyed, out-dated and false socio-political premises, like “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists” or “North and East of Sri Lanka is the Tamil homeland”.

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I referred previously to machinations essentially by the opposition to create uncertainty and confusion within government. Trying to advance the date of the Presidential election, or suggesting deep divisions with regard to the position of Prime Minister, are intended to provoke reactions and sometimes precipitate crises that would not otherwise occur.

But there are also intrigues by those within government, and sometimes by elements in the administration who wish to promote their own agendas, regardless of the damage this might do to government – or perhaps to inflict this. One such incident occurred about a year ago, when an Indian Parliamentary delegation visited Sri Lanka, shortly after the resolution in Geneva which India unfortunately supported.

I was reminded of this when there was another Parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka this month, this time organized by a Chamber of Commerce. There had been efforts in India to prevent it coming, and naturally one of the Sri Lankan papers opposed to government declared triumphantly that the pressures exercised had succeeded. Fortunately the presence of the delegation in Sri Lanka at the time the report was published enabled swift refutation.

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Much energy has been expended in recent months in speculation as to whether we will soon have a new Prime Minister, and if so, who it will be. I was confidently told by an opposition Member of Parliament that 7 Ministers had applied in writing for the post, and opposition papers are having a field day in declaring that senior members of the SLFP are disaffected because their claims might be ignored.

All this speculation is destructive, not least because those about whom there is speculation feel both that they must defend themselves against allegations of untoward ambitions, and also against the possible untoward ambitions of others. Thus opposition politicians and media outlets will in fact contribute to fulfillment of the prophecies they make.

What is not taken into account in all this is that such speculation is inappropriate when there is no impending vacancy in the position of President. Given that the post of Prime Minister carries little power, there is no reason for anyone to want that appointment. Though it is true that both Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa did much as Prime Minister, they would have done the same without such a position. Conversely, the only person who succeded to the Presidency by virtue of being Prime Minister was D B Wijetunge, and he did nothing of any significance in that position.

I could understand there being frenetic anxiety now for the position of Prime Minister had we not had the 18th Amendment, but since that was supposed to put paid to the lame duck syndrome, it is unfortunate that speculation still continues, and in the process weakens the Presidency. One reason I thought the removal of term limits, which is generally not a good idea, acceptable in the Sri Lankan context is that I had seen what happened to Chandrika Kumaratunga towards the end of her second term. Indeed I was told by a shrewd political commentator around 2004, when I had been impressed by her courage in dealing with the harassment she faced as President when the opposing party was in power, that there was no point in wondering what she might do, for she was history. Read the rest of this entry »

Over three years ago I told the President that he should not have Presidential election early, but should rather hold the Parliamentary elections first. Needless to say he ignored my advice, even though I sent him a detailed paper on the reasons for the view I held. He told me that it was only Gota and myself who thought it unnecessary to have the Presidential election so soon.

He said this jovially, implying I think that Gota and I were not politicians, and others knew much better. But, leaving me aside, he should have realized that the Secretary of Defence is the only one of his close advisors, excepting only the Secretary to the President, who has no personal agenda. And as it turned out,  many of the problems we face now spring I think from that early election, though no one  could have predicted the divisive effect – in an unexpected fashion – of Sarath Fonseka’s entry into the fray along with his insistence on being a common opposition candidate. As an aside, I should note that only one point in my paper  was later addressed, namely the lame duck effect. But the remedy put in place caused worries of another sort, and it does not seem to have helped very much, if current reports as to continuing maneuvers are correct.

I was reminded of all this when I saw that the United National Party has declared that it must get ready for a Presidential election in 2014, because it believes there are plans to amend the Constitution to make this possible. As it stands, the election cannot be held before 2015,  because the President has to complete 4 years in office before he can offer himself for re-election, as President Jayewardene quaintly put it when he introduced the 3rd amendment to the Constitution. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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