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qrcode.30761940In the second section of chapter 8 of my book on this subject, I look at how the initially peaceful agitation for devolution turned to violence. This was despite a measure of autonomy finally being granted to elected bodies at local levels during the eighties.

District Development Councils and their Shortcomings

In the 1970s, the various Tamil parties came together to form a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). They fought the next election by asserting the right of Tamil-speaking people to self-determination, with reference in particular to the northern and eastern provinces.  Initially, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the party of the Indian Tamils who worked on the plantations in the centre of the country, was also part of the TULF. The TULF won an overwhelming majority of seats in the north and the east in the 1977 election, and emerged as the major opposition party. The constituent parties of the USA, having parted company in 1975, were decimated.

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happy 1During the conflict period, relations with India had been handled not by the Foreign Ministry, but by three trusted confidantes of the President. These were his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, and two of his brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. These two, both younger than the President, were neither of them Ministers at the time (as opposed to the oldest brother, Chamal, who was a long standing member of Parliament and a senior Minister). It was the two younger brothers however who were considered the most powerful members of the government. Gotabhaya was virtually a Minister in fact, since he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, with the President being the Minister, and leaving most of its running to him.


Basil Rajapaksa … succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality.

Basil at the time was a Member of Parliament, but his executive responsibilities were informal, arising from his chairing the Task Forces that were responsible for reconstruction of the East (which had been retaken from the Tigers fully by 2007) and later of the North. He was an extremely hard worker, and had managed, well before the Tigers were destroyed, to have succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality. His technique had been massive infrastructural development, and the connectivity that was restored to the East had enabled its full involvement in the economic life of the country.

Late in 2008 he was appointed to chair what was termed a Presidential Task Force for the North. This was expected initially to make arrangements for the care of the internally displaced, most of whom were being held hostage by the Tigers at that time. Over the next six months they were driven into more and more restricted areas in terms of the Tiger strategy of using them as a human shields. This made the task of the military extremely difficult, but in the end, when the Tigers were destroyed, nearly 300,000 civilians were rescued, and taken to what were termed Welfare Centres.

Though there were complaints at the time about conditions in the camps, they were comparatively speaking much better than the lot of most displaced persons in such conflicts. Health services were excellent, and within a few days mortality figures had stabilized. Food supply and distribution was competently handled, and soon enough educational services too were made available.

Still, there had been much confusion initially, and this contributed to the feeling that government had been callous. More serious was the charge that government had wanted to keep the displaced in what were termed internment camps, and did not wish them to be resettled soon in their original places of residence.


Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander

Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander, who had wanted to increase the size of the army when the war ended, probably because of a belief that Israeli type settlements were the best way of preventing future agitation. But this was certainly not the view of the President, who from the start urged swift resettlement, and hoped that the fertile land of the North would soon provide excellent harvests. And Basil Rajapaksa certainly wished to expedite resettlement, as I found when I once wrote to him suggesting that this was proceeding too slowly.

This was in August 2009, three months after the conclusion of the war, and he called me up and sounded extremely indignant. He declared that he had said he would perform the bulk of resettlement in six months, and he intended to do this, give or take a month or two. He had done a similar task in the East, and I should remember that a commitment of six months did not mean half in three.  In fact he started the resettlement soon after, though there was a hiccup, in that many of those sent away from the main Welfare Centre at Manik Farm in Vavuniya were then held in Centres in the District Capitals through which they had to transit.

I was in Geneva at the time, at the September 2009 session of the Human Rights Council, and for a moment I wondered whether the allegations that were being flung around, that we had started the Resettlement to pull the wool over the eyes of the Council, were true. Basil it turned out was nowhere to be found, a practice he often engaged in when upset, going back to the United States where he had been settled when his brother was elected President.

However Jeevan Thiagarajah, head of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, that had worked very positively with the government, went up to Jaffna to check, and informed me that the Special Forces Commanders in the Districts had been asked to subject those being resettled to another security check. But they assured him that they proposed to do this very cursorily, and would send them to their places of habitation within a day or two. What was left unsaid was who had ordered the second check, but I assumed this was Sarath Fonseka, in pursuit of his own agenda – and this was confirmed by the irritation he was later to express in writing to the President, about the Resettlement programme going ahead more quickly than he had advised. Basil, I realized, had felt frustrated, and gone away, but his intentions were carried out by the generals in the field, who were on the whole much more enlightened than Fonseka. Read the rest of this entry »

Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014

A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.

Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.

This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.

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At two recent meetings of Reconciliation Committees in the Eastern Province, the question of tuition came up. In one place I was asked to suggest to the President that tuition on Sundays be banned, because it took away from religious education. In the other I was told that students – from Kantale – had to travel to Kurunegala or Anuradhapura to have any hope of passing their Advanced Levels, because the quality of Advanced Level teaching was so bad.

Soon after that I was told, in Colombo, that even in S. Thomas’ sports meets had to be held in school hours, otherwise students would not be present since they thought tuition classes more important. The idea that, even in a fee levying school, extra classes for which payment must be made are mandatory bemuses me. But, such being the situation, I suppose it is not surprising then that parents who do not have to pay for education accept that they must fork out for tuition, as happens in the majority even of prestigious government schools for which parents sometimes pay through the nose for entrance.

I was pleased therefore that the lady from Kantale who spoke up plaintively objected to this sort of expenditure. But it was not only the expense of the classes and the transport that she mentioned. It was also the bad habits, as she put it, that children might pick up, on long journeys, and during long hours spent in large groups. She added that her son was not a problem, but with girls the situation might be different. I should add that the increase in teenage pregnancies, mentioned in most of the 80 Divisional and District Secretariat meetings held over the last year, is also related to the tuition culture.
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In a week of much depressing news, perhaps the most depressing was that presented under what seemed intended to be a triumphant headline. The headline read ‘President resolves Uswewa Junior School teacher shortage’, and the story was about how the President took steps to fill teacher vacancies in a Junior School in the Hambantota District.

Children from that school had been at Temple Trees, and one enterprising student had complained that there were no teachers for English or Science subjects. The President had directed the student to complain to the Southern Province Minister of Education and then issued orders to the Minister to take immediate steps to fill teacher vacancies in the school.

Assuming that teachers have now gone to the school, and will stay there, we should rejoice at the news. Any step to improve the education provided to children anywhere is a positive measure. But it is clearly completely unacceptable that there should be teacher shortages that can be resolved only if a child happens to be at Temple Trees and complains to the President.

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I wrote last week about the understandable irritation of the Minister of Education regarding media stress on mistakes in term test papers set by Zonal Offices of Education. He thought they should instead have been talking about much more important developments such as the introduction last month of a Technological Stream into schools. I agreed with him in principle, though I felt that mistakes in papers are not acceptable and he should reduce the possibility of this happening – and pressures on students – by allocating more responsibility to schools.

Last week I realized that, had the media really taken the new Technological stream seriously, as indeed they should, there would have been even more criticism of the Ministry. I found to my great disappointment that the manner in which this very worthy innovation has taken place means that areas that most need it have been left out. Up in the Gomarankadawala Education Zone, which covers four Divisions, Gomerankadawala and Kuchchaveli and Padaviya Sripura and Morawewa, there is not a single school which has started this stream.

I am not sure who decides how these benefits are conferred, but clearly the system is wrong if four of the most deprived areas in the country are left out. At the very least, the Ministry should have ensured that at least one school in every Division was assisted to get the programme going.

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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 –


I think it was Aristotle who noted that the roots of injustice lay in treating similar things as dissimilar, and different things in the same way. In line with this dictum we should recognize that the issues which trouble people in different parts of the country are different, and solutions should be specific to the problems under consideration. But, conversely, there are also some common problems, and these should be addressed in a consistent manner. Unfortunately we all tend to look on problems that affect us as particularly serious, and this can lead to injustice.

Thus over the last few years there has been much concern about those who were displaced in the North. Given the gravity of the problem, the indignation of the international community was understandable, though their failure to have addressed this issue when Tamils were being driven along by the LTTE to be used as hostages, as highlighted by Kath Noble recently, raises issues about their actual motivation subsequently. So does the fact that previously they by and large neglected the Muslims driven from their homes in the North. When the issue was raised, it was by hucksters such as Gareth Evans who used their suffering to claim that Sri Lanka was ripe for the implementation of his R2P doctrine. In asserting that ethnic cleansing had taken place in Sri Lanka, he – or rather his sidekick Alan Keenan, for poor Gareth confessed that he had no idea what he had meant by using the phrase about Sri Lanka – implied that this was by government, only to admit that they were in fact talking about what the LTTE had done to the Muslims in 1990.

But in trying to deal with the enormity of what had occurred then, we have neglected the abuse of the Muslims of the East, which the LTTE had been steadily engaging in even before 1990. I was therefore startled, which is a reflection of my ignorance, by the assertions of Muslim leaders in Kattankudy about 65,000 persons deprived of their lands, for whom no remedial action had been taken. They noted that whole villages had been erased from the map, and that they were now confined to a tiny area – which was practically bursting at the seams, as was clear from the dumping of garbage which the Kattankudy Urban Council is engaged in, with no regard for health or safety or the inevitable destruction of water resources that such squalor will result in.

Participants at the meeting were also particularly indignant that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission had ignored their plight. I wondered about this, given the thorough job the LLRC had done but, in looking next day at the Action Plan, I realized that the despair of the citizens of Kattankudy was understandable. The sole recommendation noted in this regard was to ‘Appoint a special committee to examine durable solutions and formulate a comprehensive State policy on the issue (of Muslim IDPs displaced from the North) after extensive consultations with the IDPs and the host communities’. Read the rest of this entry »

UPFA parliamentarian Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha says the reconciliation process is essentially a multi-pronged approach, as the government approach to anything should be. However, he noted that although there is no guarantee that the proposed PSC would bring about the final political solution there is a trust feature if all parties including the TNA participated in it. Referring to the Eastern Provincial Council election, he observed that the government should have initiated a dialogue with the TNA on a national government since the party had expressed its willingness to discuss. “I think it should have been tried, but I also understand the difficulty. Managing a coalition is not easy. The government should however take note of the results,” Prof. Wijesinha said.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How confident is the government that the Indian government would put pressure on the TNA to participate in the reconciliation process?

A: I am not privy to what happened in India but I do know that India would like a reasonable solution.  From what I know, while they sympathise with the TNA position they also understand our position and might take a basic line between the two positions.  It is simply that the more dogmatic personnel on both sides perhaps would like to push their points of view; I think we must take all views into account but aim to satisfy the moderates on both sides.

Q: The TNA has questioned the government reconciliation process. What is the reconciliation process proposed by the government?

A: The reconciliation process is essentially a multi-pronged approach, as the government approach to anything should be. The government assumed, with some justification but I think it needs fine-tuning, that they needed to do quick restoration which is also what is prioritized in the National Reconciliation Policy document my office prepared  In that, we divide the reconciliation process into different segments. Of which the most important is restoration, which is based on the enormous physical suffering that the war brought; the bulk of which was borne by the people of the North. The government assumed that a lot of the macro stuff would lead to people returning to normal life; this happened in the East where the remarkable development programme was picked up by the state.  By and large they gained satisfaction, this does not mean that there are no questions but by and large there is satisfaction with the President.

In the North we have two separate problems, neither of which did we address carefully enough.  The first is in the Wanni where I think we did a fantastic job in restoration, and again I think the people are very satisfied, but we are not giving them the extra skills development to take advantage of the situation. I told the Indians we had to introduce local labour for their houses and they agreed.  But when I went up last time there are three contractors in one particular area, one is using local labour the other two are not.

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One of the greatest barriers to Reconciliation, I fear, is the difficulties government has to make its position clear. This springs in part from the systemic failure that will soon overwhelm us if remedial action is not taken swiftly. As it is, I believe we continue to survive only because of the enormous energy of a few, and the general decency of many of our administrators, whom the system however tends to suppress, with no efforts to institutionalize procedures and reporting mechanisms.

Symptomatic of this is the confusion about the guidelines that are issued to Grama Niladharis, the lowest rung of the ladder in the public service, but arguably the most important, for they are the interface between government and the public. Strengthening their administrative capacity would go far towards overcoming many problems government now faces, with more senior decision makers plagued by problems that could so easily – and with much less inconvenience to all concerned, including travel time and money – have been resolved lower down.

When I first realized the wide differences between Grama Niladharis in terms not just of efficiency, but also with regard to understanding of their roles, I asked what instructions were given to them when they were appointed. I was presented then with a Diary, which had in its initial pages a list of responsibilities which seemed to me a regurgitation of what they had been expected to do in the times of the colonial administration. I trust I am wrong, and that amendments have been made over the years, but in general it is clear that a thorough overhaul is essential, not just tinkering. In particular, the ethos should be one of local consultation, with mandatory provisions for this – on the lines of the advisory bodies envisaged in the original Mahinda Chintanaya – rather than the top-down approach that was appropriate for a colonial power co-opting local agents whose responsibilities were to the governors, not the governed.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2017
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