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qrcode.30889285Tarzie Vittachi’s ‘Island in the Sun’ is perhaps the best piece of political satire written in this country. It has graphic desctiptions of the politicians of the nineties, with Sir John Kotelawala for instance being the Rogue Elephant and Dudley Senanayake the Tired Tortoise. J R Jayewardene was the Seethala Kotiya, a description that perhaps would not fit his nephew, familiarly known as ‘Poos’ in the family, a milder member of the Cat family.

But there is another description that fits Ranil well too, given the strange goings on at the Central Bank. Tarzie suggested that R G Senanayake could not move straight even when that was the easiest thing to do. So now we find that, what might have been an understandable – if capital friendly – change of policy was not done direct as a principled man like Eran Wickremaratne might have done. Rather there was clandestine activity which, in a Watergate style operation, has been concealed so that the ugly truth emerges only gradually.

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qrcode.30341177In this 8th Chapter of my book on this subject I look at how the majoritarian system of democracy we had in this country contributed to increasing resentment by those who felt shut out of the decision making process. This played out principally with regard to racial differences, where what seemed majoritarianism on the part of successive elected governments contributed to the movement for autonomy and then for secession. But we should also remember that there were deep resentments based on class differences that led to two violent youth insurrections in the seventies and the eighties.

The Official Languages Act

In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, in a coalition of nationalist forces dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He had established the party after leaving the United National party (UNP). During the election campaign he had presented himself as a champion of the common man against the elite who had dominated Sri Lankan politics. But due to the pressures of political competition his victory was seen as the triumph of Sinhala nationalism.

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Prince 1It is not likely that the President will be awakened swiftly from the enchantment cast upon him by his closest advisers. However, if and when he does realize that a change is essential if he is to preserve not just his legacy, but even perhaps his Presidency, he has some obviously desirable remedies to hand.

For though the Parliamentary Select Committee has thus far achieved nothing, it has had some very sensible proposals brought before it by moderates within government. The Liberal Party made suggestions made on its experience of acting as a link between successive governments and representatives of Tamil parties, but even more important were the suggestions made by Vasantha Senanayake on behalf of a group of young politicians and professionals. Subsequently the Liberal Party, after studying the proposals, wrote to the PSC endorsing them.

Vasantha was the scion of a great political family. His great grandfather D S Senanayake had been Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, and his great uncle Dudley had been elected Prime Minister three times. Both had presided over Cabinets with representation from popular Tamil political parties.

Vasantha however had left the United National Party, which his great grand father had founded, and now sat in Parliament as a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to which the President belonged. He, like many other promising youngsters, had been sidelined by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had, on the pattern of his mother’s cousin, J R Jayewardene, wanted absolute control of his party, and thought ability less important than personal loyalty. Read the rest of this entry »

dopey 1It is entirely understandable that the President should indulge his son Namal. Given the manner in which politics in Sri Lanka has been conducted, it is also understandable that he should see him as his eventual successor.

The tradition goes back to the first Prime Minster of Sri Lanka, D S Senanayake, who wanted his son Dudley to succeed him, and appointed a complaisant Governor General, Lord Soulbery, who duly requested the son to take over when the old man died. Later Mrs Bandaranaike took over from her husband, and in time handed over control of the party, and thus the Presidency, to her daughter Chandrika.

A senior Indian journalist told me recently, when I questioned him about Rahul Gandhi, that this phenomenon of family politics in South Asia had produced youngsters who combined arrogance and stupidity in astonishing measure. I objected with regard to Mrs Gandhi herself, but he quickly granted her ability, and noted that she had come up the hard way. To some extent that could be said of both Dudley Senanayake and Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the former certainly is remembered as a good leader. But clearly now the situation has changed, and even basic ability is no longer required, at least in Sri Lanka, for political advancement.

This is to a great extent because of the electoral system we have. In the 1978 constitution, J R Jayewardene introduced proportional representation, given that the first past the post system we had previously had produced lopsided majorities. This was because so many constituencies in the country were marginals that a small swing nationally was enough to give the more popular party a massive majority. However, the pure list system he first introduced led to those low down on the list not working at elections – and indeed sometimes crossing over to the other side – since it was obvious that, on PR, they would not be elected.

Jayewardene therefore introduced a preference system. In itself this might not have been objectionable but, instead of one preference per voter, he granted three. This meant that candidates were obliged to seek preferences in the entire catchment area they represented. Though in theory they were appointed as organizers to particular constituencies within the District, the electoral catchment area, they could not only seek votes in that constituency. Nor could they object to others, from other constituencies, seeking votes in their own particular area.

So elections became a free for all, with candidates evincing greater hostility to members of their own party, their rivals for preferences, rather than to members of the opposing party. Certainly in recent years the vast majority of complaints about electoral violence have been intra-party complaints.

The system has engendered tremendous problems. First, given the vast area in which they have to campaign, candidates require more resources than in the days in which they contested in just a single  constituency. The need for enormous amounts of money naturally leads to corruption. In addition, given the material resources that those holding executive office have, and the opportunity to appoint a large number of staff members who have basically no work except to serve the Minister who appointed them, there is a massive demand for ministerial positions – which in part explains the massive Cabinets we now have. Read the rest of this entry »

download (1)A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.

However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.

Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here –

Sri Lankan relations with the different regions of Asia present a fascinating prism through which to examine our changing position in the world. The subject also suggests areas in which we might develop our position further, in terms of defining more clearly our objectives, and endeavouring to fulfil them more coherently.

Though the field requires constant attention and care, there is not really much need of further definition with regard to three areas. South Asia, the SAARC Region, and in particular India must remain our main focal point. The attention government pays to ensure that we are on a similar wavelength to India is a feature we should never have allowed to lapse, while continuing of course to ensure positive relations with Pakistan and the other countries in the region.

With regard to East Asia, similar principles apply. Our friendship with China has been a cornerstone of our approach to other countries, and this obtained even in the era soon after we obtained independence, when the Soviet bloc considered us a satellite of the West. From the time of the Rubber-Rice Pact, negotiated by R G Senanayake, we made clear our determination not to let the formulaic approach of other countries adversely affect our relations with the most populous country in the world. During the last years of the Cold War, friendship with China accorded with the predilections of the West, but now that the latter is wary of increasing Chinese capabilities, we should not let ourselves be stampeded into a less affectionate relation.

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Text of a Lecture given to the Masters Course at the Kotelawala Defence University

June 15th 2013

Ethnicity and Religion are perhaps the most obvious elements through which people distinguish themselves from each other. They are not the only ones, and sometimes elements such as caste and class become even more important in the emergence of reasons to limit association with others.

Fortunately we in Sri Lanka do not have too much experience of this, though we should constantly be aware that the phenomenon exists, and needs to be guarded against. What we do have, which keeps people apart even where there is the utmost goodwill, is barriers created by language. Sri Lanka is perhaps the only country in the world where those who have school leaving qualifications are not required to know a second language. The result is that many of our people are trapped in a monolingualism that stops them communicating, and hence associating, with others.

It was language that first led to the ethnic tensions that later erupted in terrorist activities. At the same time we should not forget that the only major crisis government faced between the communal violence of 1958 and its re-emergence 19 years later was because of caste and class resentments. The JVP insurrection of 1971 was about many youngsters who shared religion and ethnicity and language with those in power feeling that only violent revolution would resolve their problems. And though the JVP violence of the late eighties had wider political reasons, the areas in which the movement was strongest suggest continuing perceptions of caste and class discrimination.

To return to the language problems, they arose because Tamils felt that they had been reduced to second class status when Sinhala was made the only official language, through an Act that simply asserted this, without making clear how it was to be implemented in practice. That would have required explaining how those who did not know Sinhala would function, and clearly those who drafted the Act did not expect that it meant that those who did not know Sinhala would be rendered dysfunctional. But their carelessness and their callousness meant that nothing was spelled out, and the result was that an obviously unfair measure led to – and was used for the purpose of exacerbating – ethnic tensions.

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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.

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/his-excellency-mahinda-rajapaksa-the-president-of-sri-lanka-introduce-constitutional-amendment-limiting-cabinet-to-20-cabinet-ministers

Short link – http://chn.ge/YbSBgY

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Recent heated statements about the 13th Amendment confirm the view, heard recently at the Seminar on Indo-Lankan relations held at Osmania University in Hyderabad, that most commentators look on issues through a single prism. They fail to look at the principles that they would like to think they are advancing. Rather they concentrate on slogans, and become emotional, without concentrating on what those slogans are meant to represent.

Perhaps this is a necessary evil in political jousting for, if you looked at the principles, you would have to accept that even people coming from different perspectives have a lot in common. With regard to the question of devolution of power for instance, we find this to be the case, the moment we use the word decentralization instead. Most people don’t understand the distinction between them, understandably so since, for all practical purposes, there is no great distinction.

Thus there is universal agreement that we need decentralization. This is because any administration needs to have clear responsibilities with regard to the people, it needs to consult their wishes as well as be aware of their needs, and it must be accountable to them. This is not possible with regard to day to day matters when you have centralized decision making.

Thus we find that those now opposed to Provincial Councils claim that the best unit for devolution is the District. This rings a bell with me because, in the eighties, the Liberal Party put forward the suggestion that District Councils should be given greater responsibilities. Dudley Senanayake had tried to introduce these in the sixties and failed, because of opposition based on racism, sadly supported in that dark period in their history by the Marxist parties too. What finally made him abandon the plan though was the opposition in his own party, led by Cyril Mathew, supported it should be remembered by D B Wijetunge, but with the shadow of J R Jayewardene lurking in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2017
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