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Presidency 18Sri Lanka Cricket appeared recently before the Committee on Public Enterprises, which is perhaps the only institution in Parliament to have had some effect over the last four years. It could do more, if the Speaker only convened the Committee on Standing Orders, but sadly the Speaker seems to have decided that it is not his business to strengthen Parliament. Instead he too seems ready to jump on the bandwagon on those who wish to abolish the Executive Presidency. That would be disastrous in the current situation but he, like many others, does not seem to understand that an Executive based in a Parliament which has no independent status would be equally lacking in transparency and accountability. And an Executive which has neither professionalism nor collegiality cannot be created simply by moving back to the Westminster model.

But I cannot expect anyone who took an interest in Parliament only after J R Jayewardene had denigrated it beyond measure to understand what a Parliament should really be like. The President does, but I think only he and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Vasudeva Nanayakkara remain in active politics of those who were in Parliament before 1977  (I do not count the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons). Fortunately we have a couple of people with political understanding based on previous generations, such as the Chief Government Whip. And recently an even younger parliamentarian with statesman potential, Vasantha Senanayake, has proposed some changes which would save both the country and the President from the abyss into which we are staring.

The manner in which Sri Lanka Cricket has run amuck typifies the need for greater transparency and accountability. Arjuna Ranatunge, for whom my respect has grown given his regular attendance and thoughtful contributions to COPE, pointed out that SLC’s current disastrous financial situation arose from massive expenditure on three stadiums, including the new one in Hambantota. He also established what was obviously corruption in the manner in which the contrast for telecasting rights had been given to the Carlton Sports Network at a time when his brother Nishantha was involved in both institutions. Nishantha’s plaintive defence that he had recused himself from the decision making process rang hollow, given the obvious bad faith of the Marketing Manager who functioned under him, who tried to throw the blame on Asanga Seneviratne, who roundly denied this. Read the rest of this entry »


After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.

Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.

I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.

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In addition to discussion of the role of oversight committees of Parliament in reducing corruption, two other important issues were raised at the Transparency International consultation with Parliamentarians, where structural reforms are required if corruption is to be reduced. One is an area in which the system we have increases the temptation, or perhaps even the need, to be corrupt.

This is our current electoral system, where those seeking election to Parliament, and indeed to any political body, have to campaign over a vast area, and combat members of their own party as well as the opposition. The obvious solution is to change the electoral system, but another method proposed was to have strict caps on election expenses, with funds provided by the state. I am not sure this will work, given the many ways in which money can be spent with no direct connection to the candidate, which indeed might increase corruption. But I was happy that the issue had been considered, and some sort of remedy thought essential.

The other structural problem we have is the vast size of the Cabinet. There may be no direct link between the plethora of Ministerial positions and corruption, but it certainly makes financial controls more difficult. In addition to the natural desire of any Minister to make a mark, which requires spending money, the number of Ministers means that Parliament cannot properly exercise financial controls over the Executive, since it is holders of Executive office who dominate Parliament and all its committees. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the most depressing features of government is the readiness with which transfers are used to solve problems. At the Education Consultative Committee in Parliament, some of my colleagues pointed out what seemed to them grave faults in Principals or Zonal Directors of Education, and recommended that they should be transferred at once. They were startled when I said that would be wrong, but then acknowledged that, if the officials concerned were unsatisfactory, it would be destructive to transfer them to other responsibilities where they would also prove unsatisfactory.

Last week the same thing happened at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting, when strong objections were made to a particular Grama Niladhari. Again, the community representatives who made the charges – with no inhibitions about naming their subject – seemed surprised when I said that was inappropriate, but agreed with my point that their complaints should be investigated. The man should then be reprimanded if the charges were established, and subsequently dismissed if he did not improve.

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Join us in calling on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet to 20, with no more than 20 Cabinet Ministers and no more than 20 other Ministers of Junior Ministerial rank.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

Short link –


Having written a hundred and more articles on Human Rights, I thought it time now to turn to another subject where the Sri Lankan state could do better. As I found with regard to many areas in which Rights could be strengthened and protected more effectively, problems arise more from incompetence and carelessness rather than deliberate wrongdoing.

In order to improve things, it seems to me vital that we ensure greater discipline and efficiency in all organs of government, and in particular the administration. I am not sure that writing about it will improve things, because I am sure that others too are aware of shortcomings and wish to improve things, it is simply that the will and energy are lacking. Sometimes then it seems much easier to just let things be.

But often one does come across situations in which ignorance or a lack of clarity are the reasons for systemic failure, and I hope that at least in these areas some reforms can be swiftly put in place by those in charge. Often the failure to hold officials accountable for their shortcomings contributes to further shortcomings, until in time the officials do not even realize that they have failed to do their duty. Read the rest of this entry »

The need to train productively and continuously

Having written for nine months about children, I thought of moving to another topic that seems to me equally important in the current context. It is also possibly of greater topical interest. And though I believe the care of children is of crucial significance, and that we must do better in this regard to promote development as well as equity in this country, I think the better deployment of the armed forces would also help us immeasurably to achieve these goals.

I say this because we are faced with a terrible crisis of administration in this country. I have been exploring elsewhere, and will continue to do so, how we can make our administration more responsive as well as more effective, but I think we also need for this purpose to look at best practices that can be replicated. In Sri Lanka we find that only amongst the armed forces.

Former Foreign Secretary Palikakkara, in talking at a recent Liberal Party seminar on political reform, mentioned – perhaps in defence of the recent obvious incompetence of his former Ministry – that if foreign policy is ailing, it’s no different to decay in governance generally. I think this is correct, and that all branches of the government suffer from inadequate training and insufficient attention to thinking and planning skills – as well as our failure to demand that reports be written and monitoring of activities be systematic.

I recently found – or had thrust in my place – two obvious examples of our failures with regard to training and planning. One of the new graduate trainees in the North said that government was wasting their time while not giving them enough to do, which another said they had not received adequate training, and were not properly briefed about what they should do.

More startlingly, when we were considering, at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Justice, the report of the Judges’ Training Institute, which the Minister said was much improved, we found no mention at all of basic training courses for new entrants to the judiciary. In the Committee was one of the brightest of the new Parliamentarians, Mr Janaka Bandara, who had been a magistrate himself, and he described to us the inadequacies of the training he had received when he took up a judicial appointment.

The exception to this sorry state of affairs regarding training is the military, and in particular the army, which has continuous training as well as entrenched accountability mechanisms. This I think explains why they have been about the most functional unit in government over the last decade. Given the enormous talent we do have in several places, better training, as well as the allocation of clearcut responsibilities as we have in the army, will surely make good people perform better in all official agencies, and enable at least some work to be got out of those who are not so good.  Read the rest of this entry »

Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – January 20th 2013


In the last segment of this presentation, I will look at a number of factors that have to be taken into account in assessing possibilities of effective coordination. Some of them relate to government machinery, and some to the work of NGOs.

  1. Government officials have difficulties about preparing and implementing plans coherently because they have to report to many political masters.

In earlier times, government officials in particular areas related to Ministers for particular subjects and to individual Members of Parliament in whose constituency they functioned. Senior officials such as Government Agents had to relate to Members of several constituencies, but this was in terms of just one for each area.

Now however all Members in a District feel and exercise responsibilities within the whole District. In addition, government officials also have to relate to Provincial Council Members – many of them for each District taken as a whole – and to elected local government representatives, again many of them for each area.

The result  can be conflicting instructions and conflicting priorities. This also leaves little room for initiative of the part of the official. Previously such initiatives could be explained to political representatives and taken forward together, but with so many masters, it is natural for most officials to adopt more passive approaches. This applies also to suggestions that come from Civil Society, including NGOs, since it is easier to respond only to political proposals, given how many of these there can be.


  1. NGOs no longer function purely altruistically.

Until a couple of decades back, aid organizations provided support to those in need. They did this through initiatives that supported government programmes, or else through individual projects based on local needs. Their lead agents were primarily philanthropists who did not live off the work they did.

In more recent times however aid organizations have become businesses that provide livelihoods to the personnel who work in them at all levels. As with all businesses that have career structures, there is a relentless tendency to enhance those careers by increasing the size and influence of the business. NGOs wish to have a decisive say in policies and practices wherever they operate. Read the rest of this entry »

The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

In writing recently about the need to deploy resources more effectively, I concentrated on human resources, and the failure of government to develop a coherent policy that ensures attention at local levels to local problems. Employment is created en masse, without careful study of needs, and of the skills required to fulfil those needs.

The other side of this coin is the absence of procedures that will ensure, or at least encourage, the desired results. Administrative efficiency is not seen as necessary, and administrative and financial regulations seem designed to inhibit initiative and energy rather than promote them.

One major problem is the lack of any sense of urgency. When I was appointed Secretary to a Ministry, I was horrified at the manner in which files were piled up in the in-trays of my colleagues. When I expressed surprise, I was told that government did not require matters to be dealt with for three days. This struck me as preposterous and, when I probed further, I found that three days was supposed to be the maximum period within which responses should be sent.

This had become a minimum. I explained painstakingly that responses should be made immediately, unless there was need to seek further information, and that the guideline of three days was intended to set a limit on the time any institution should take to find information internally.

Obviously there would be instances in which further information had to be sought from other sources, but that did not mean that there should be no response till such information was received. The expectation was that a response should be sent in three days, indicating the action being taken and when a substantial answer would be forthcoming.

I was reminded of this when we had an almost hilarious exchange at the Committee On Public Enterprises, when it turned out that instructions we had issued over a year ago had not been followed. The institution concerned had written to the Treasury as requested after three months. The Treasury had then replied after another three months.

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I wrote last week about the need to have a Parliament in which members could fulfil their legislative role more effectively. But, in addition to changes in the electoral system, we need for this purpose to ensure that Parliamentarians have a better understanding of that role.

Essentially Parliament has two principal functions. One is with regard to laws, inasmuch as it is Parliament that formulates and passed laws. But, since laws pertain to particular functions, which are fulfilled by the Executive Branch, it is necessary for Parliamentarians to understand what those functions are.

Sadly the principal contact that Parliamentary practice in Sri Lanka now provides is used to discuss particular issues relating to constituencies, and to request resources for constituency purposes. There is hardly any discussion of policy. In any case the manner in which Parliamentarians are allocated to Committees, and the large numbers involved (many of whom do not attend, as I have found in waiting for a quorum to be made up), mean that policy discussions are rare.

The large number of Ministries we have – some of which have hardly held Consultative Committee meetings – mean that policy making is complicated, since so many different agencies are involved. The absurdity of pretending that Parliament can actually monitor the work of so many Ministries has been made manifest by the manner in which this year, twice the number of Ministries as last year have been put into a job lot for Committee Stage discussion during the Budget debate. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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