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img_5858The third country I visited in June 2014, in that period of quietude when nothing was moving in Sri Lanka except for an increasing sense of decline, was Jordan. I did not count it as a new country, for I had stayed overnight there in a hotel, when I was traveling to Turkey early in 1989 to join the SS Universe, for the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea programme. It was for a long interport stint, to cover the whole of Asia as it were, even though the ship was not coming to Sri Lanka. So I was able in that year to visit the pyramids of Egypt for the first time, and in India Tanjore and also Kerala. I also swam off Cape Comorin, and lost my spectacles in the waves, which meant I had to make do with contact lenses for Trivandrum and Cochin and the long train ride back to Chennai, where I had a spare set on board the ship.

It had proved very difficult to get a flight to Turkey. I had set off for Thailand, from where I was to fly back after finally disembarking in Penang, and in Bangkok I had got the Turkish visa without difficulty. But the airlines going to Istanbul were very wary of a Sri Lankan passport. Even the Romanians, and that in the days of Ceausescu too, would not allow me even to transit in their capital. The embassy staff in Bangkok obviously thought their regulations silly, and agreed that it was hardly likely I wanted to stay in Bucharest (this was the year in which Ceaucescu was finally overthrown), but they would not budge. Finally the Jordanians did give me a ticket, and provided me with a hotel for the overnight layover, but they took away my passport at the airport and ensured that I did not stray.

In Turkey I was able to explore to my heart’s content, taking advantage of their fantastic network of buses that enabled me to get to Ankara and even to Trabzon, a place I have always thought of as magical, ever since reading Rose Macaulay’s wonderful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which begins with perhaps the maddest opening line in English literature, “Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’) The city lived up to expectations, with its fantastic monastery up in the snow covered mountains, and so did the rock houses of Cappadocia and its extraordinary underground city. I went too to the remote East, the Kurdish area which proved more peaceful than I had thought, and Antakya in the south, the old Antioch, tropical weather even in January and wonderful mosaics. Read the rest of this entry »

In the month after my extended 60th birthday celebrations, I travelled extensively. This was not however to any new countries, so I remained stuck on 89 for a few months more. But I was able to get to fascinating places in countries I had been to previously.

img_3859In India this was to the North East, which had until a few years previously been forbidden territory except with a special permit. But by now things had settled down in a few of states that had been created out of the original Assam Province.

I was invited there by the Centre for Regional and Industrial Development, which was based in Chandigarh, but had been working for some time in this relatively neglected region. Given the special circumstances of our own North East region, it was quite interesting to work on a paper on ‘Sri Lanka’s North East, and the need to promote integration whilst preserving local identities’ for the Conference to which I was asked. Before delivering the paper I was able to register some  similarities in our situations and work these into what I said.

The conference was held in Shillong, which had been the capital of Assam but was now part of Meghalaya, which had been created in 1972. It did not have a proper airport however, so we flew to Gauhati, the capital of Assam, and then drove for several hours to get to the University in Meghalaya, where the conference was held. The roads were not very good, which renewed my appreciation of what the Rajapksa government had done in building up connectivity so swiftly after the conflict. Had it only applied similar energy and commitment to human resource development, we would not have suffered continuing tension, but I suppose that lacuna is a function of our general neglect of an area which it is not profitable to work in.

An unexpected bonus of Shillong having been the original capital of the area in British times was the grandeur of the residence of the Governor, where we were hosted to dinner. This had been the home of the British resident, and the splendor of the reception rooms, with lovely wooden paneling, was still preserved.

The university staff were extremely helpful about arranging a car for me to hire to travel, after the conference had ended, to Cherrapunjee, which has claims to being the wettest place in India. The drive there was wonderful, with detours to spectacular waterfalls and also shrines in caves, including a beautifully formed stalagmite, which had naturally to do duty too as a Shiva lingam.

Cherrapunjee lived up to its reputation while I was there, with torrential rains all night. But before that I had enjoyed a fantastic sunset over the hills, at the isolated resort for which the university had arranged a special price. And the next day I had a memorable excursion deep into the forest, to see what are termed root bridges, tangles of massive thick roots joined together by the tribes who inhabit the area, to form bridges which are immensely strong and can take dozens across them at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

Introductory remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

at the Panel discussion during the Seminar

‘Afkar-e-Taza: Rescuing the Past, Shaping the Future’

Lahore, April 1st – 3rd 2016

I will be very brief since I presume discussion, and responding to questions that are raised, will be a more useful way of dealing with this question. To introduce the topic however I will paraphrase some remarks I made at a seminar on working Towards an Asian Agenda also held in the Punjab, in Chandigarh just six months ago.

I noted then the need for more concerted Asian inputs in what current dominant forces believe is a unipolar world. This belief has led now to greater terrorist activity that threatens all of us, including the horrendous attack in this very city, less than a week ago.

One of the problems about concerted action from a South Asia perspective is possible worries about India taking a leading role. That seems essential, for reasons of geography as well as the size and wealth of India in comparison with its neighbours. But I recognize that this point may be challenged, and most obviously by Pakistan.

Personally I regret this, and I regret too the manipulation of the post-colonial situation in South Asia from the time in which the then dominant world powers realized the independence of their colonies was inevitable. The dispensation put in place then led to an othering confrontational situation, as opposed to the more civilized inclusive approach that should have been normal for the East.

All that however is water under the bridge, and we have to recognize that the suspicions that were engendered during the Cold War years will not be easy to overcome. Instead of engaging in wishful platitudes therefore, we need to think of ways in which the rest of South Asia will worry less about domination by one of our number. I was impressed then by the fact that the seminar in Chandigarh included participants from Central Asia, because that is a region which has ancient cultural and trade connections to the South, but it was cut away because of the dichotomies of the colonial era.

Strengthening links is vital, but I believe this may also contribute to resolving the South Asian problem, on the model of what Paul Scott suggested when he wrote of a stone thrown into a pond leading to ever widening ripples that then connect with the ripples of another stone. At its simplest, the overwhelming threat, that India’s size can be interpreted as by one or more other countries in South Asia, diminishes in the context of a larger group which will involve countries with greater economic leverage too, such as the energy rich nations of Central Asia.

Future discussions should focus then on how regional cooperation can be expanded, so as to avoid possible perceptions of security threats. The model of the European Union, which could not be replicated in an unbalanced situation as obtained in South Asia, can be more easily replicated in a larger grouping.

At the same time the problems that now beset Europe can be avoided, by greater mutual respect for the different cultural and social perspectives in the South and Central Asian region. For while we need to focus on what we have in common, we should also celebrate differences and seek out what we can learn from each other. In particular we all need to know more about the astonishing achievements of different elements in Islam basSouthed civilizations, that move beyond the monolithic vision of Islam that leads to confrontation such as many Islamic countries – but not those in Central Asia – are suffering from now.

Such educational initiatives should also include a cohesive programme in all our countries to increase awareness of the cooperation of the past, and the cultural connectivity that flourished. The way in which civilizations built on each other, and the role of trade in promoting personal interactions even in times of political hostility, needs celebration. That may also help to reduce prejudices, as has happened through for instance the Erasmus programme in Europe.

I should note too that, in addition to increasing cooperation with Central Asia, we should as a body move also towards better relations with ASEAN. That too will I think help to kick start SAARC again since – to return to Paul Scott’s metaphor of stones creating wider circles – success with other bodies will help to get over the distrust within SAARC that I have noted.

For this purpose I believe it would be helpful if there were regular meetings of senior administrators in our countries to work out not just common approaches, but also structures that would facilitate cooperation. At present SAARC centres hardly function, though I did find, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, that the SAARC Disaster Management Centre was an exception – and largely I think because of the excellent understanding between the Indian and the Pakistani heads of the relevant institutions, both professionals of the highest calibre.

More cooperation in such fields would I think help to bring us closer together, and also help countries like Sri Lanka, which no longer has as good civil servants as India and Pakistan have, to develop greater professionalism that would help to overcome the predilections of politicians. These can be destructive at times, for obvious reasons, but a bedrock of professional understanding would I think help us to work together more productively.

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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qrcode.30675367The last conference I attended was in the North East of India, where the topics encapsulated in the title of Prof. Hettige’s book loomed large. The same issues that bedevil development questions in this country were apparent there, and could be summed up perhaps in one word, namely consultation.

I was asked, earlier this week, to speak on the ‘Nexus between Development and Governance; a Sri Lankan Perspective’ at the launch of Prof. Siri Hettige’s latest book, ‘Governance, Conflict and Development in South Asia: Perspectives from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka’. This is in fact a collection of essays, co-edited by Prof. Hettige, bringing together the proceedings of a series of discussions on the subject.

I must confess that I went through only the essays on Sri Lanka, which is a shortcoming, but I should add that I thought it best to concentrate on this country, given the crisis we are going through. Prof. Hettige made some admirable points, though he did so with the detached dignity of an academic, whereas in the current context there might have been a case for a more aggressive approach. But since the essays were written some time back, and the book was a record of what had taken place, I must grant that it would have been difficult to be creatively topical.

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qrcode.30541069Today, the electorate is at a crossroad with twice-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launching a new movement to form a government, at the Aug 17 parliamentary polls. A confident Rajapaksa launched his parliamentary polls campaign at Anuradhapura where he vowed to overcome the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination. The pledge was made at the largest ever gathering in the historic city, where Rajapaksa recalled ancient kings had defeated foreign invaders. The war-winning leader alleged that the present Yahapalana government had destroyed, within six months, what his administration had achieved since the conclusion of the war in May, 2009. The former President asked what would have happened if the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had continued for five years. Since the change of government, in January consequent to Rajapaksa’s defeat, some of those, who had switched their allegiance to the then common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena deserted the new administration. Having joined Yahapalana project, late last November, Liberal Party Leader and State Minister of Higher Education, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, quit the administration in March. The UPFA included Prof. Wijesinha, in its National List submitted to the Elections Secretariat on July 13, hence making him a key element in Rajapaksa’s team.

Continued from July 22

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

qrcode.30456176Today, the electorate is at a crossroad with twice-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launching a new movement to form a government, at the Aug 17 parliamentary polls. A confident Rajapaksa launched his parliamentary polls campaign at Anuradhapura where he vowed to overcome the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination. The pledge was made at the largest ever gathering in the historic city, where Rajapaksa recalled ancient kings had defeated foreign invaders. The war-winning leader alleged that the present Yahapalana government had destroyed, within six months, what his administration had achieved since the conclusion of the war in May, 2009. The former President asked what would have happened if the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had continued for five years. Since the change of government, in January consequent to Rajapaksa’s defeat, some of those, who had switched their allegiance to the then common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena deserted the new administration. Having joined Yahapalana project, late last November, Liberal Party Leader and State Education, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, quit the administration in March. The UPFA included Prof. Wijesinha, in its National List submitted to the Elections Secretariat on July 13, hence making him a key element in Rajapaksa’s team.

Full text of an interview with Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

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qrcode.30319581In the last few weeks I have looked at the way in which several of the pledges regarding reforms in the President’s manifesto were forgotten or subverted by those to whom he entrusted the Reform process. In addition there are some fields in which reforms have been carried through, but in such a hamfisted fashion that the previous situation seems to shine by comparison.

One area in which this has happened is that of Foreign Relations. The shorter manifesto declared that ‘A respected Foreign Service free of political interference will be re-established’. This was fleshed out in the longer version, with the following being the first four Action Points –

  •  The country’s foreign policy will be formulated to reflect the government’s national perspectives.
  •  Within hundred days all political appointments and appointment of relatives attached to the Foreign Service will be annulled and the entire Foreign Service will be reorganised using professional officials and personnel who have obtained professional qualifications. Our foreign service will be transformed into one with the best learned, erudite, efficient personnel who are committed to the country and who hold patriotic views.
  •  Cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia, while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea without differences.
  • Our Indian policy will take into due consideration the diversity of India.

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qrcode.30291555Many who supported Maithripala Sirisena during the last presidential campaign felt that handling of foreign relations by the previous government had been inept. In particular, it seemed that relations with India had deteriorated, sadly so given how solidly India had supported us during our war against terror. Though the then president seemed positive about India, those around him seemed to sidestep any commitments he made, while there was clear evidence of an active effort to destabilize relations.

This happened when he was almost persuaded to cancel a meeting with the leader of an Indian parliamentary delegation, Sushma Swaraj, now India’s foreign minister. That disaster was averted but the anti-indian lobby in the foreign ministry managed in the media to blame India for the debacle that had occurred in Geneva. A resolution critical of Sri Lanka, introduced by the West, had passed, with India voting in favour. But we were told that we should now go back to our traditional foreign policy of friendship with the West, since others were unreliable.

This policy was not at all traditional and only dates back to the aberrations of the eighties, when then president J.R. Jayewardene became an enthusiastic Cold Warrior and thought his alliance with the West was secure enough to withstand Indian displeasure. He even tried to invoke the 1947 Defence Treaty with Britain – and I am told Mrs Thatcher, whom he supported over the Falklands, was inclined to agree – but the British Foreign Office refused.
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ht-home-logoThere were many firsts in the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka: An incumbent president was defeated; parties specifically representing different races and religious groups —  the Jathika Hela Urumaya for the Sinhalese, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress along with the All Ceylon Muslim Congress — came together on a common political platform; corruption was a major issue in the pre-poll campaign; and now a specific timeframe has been set for reforms.

However, the most important responsibility of the new government will be settling the national question. While the country owes him a debt of gratitude for eliminating terrorism from the country, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did nothing about the commitments he made in 2009 to ensure inclusive peace.

inclusive governanceAs a member of the Liberal Party, I urged Rajapaksa to implement the 13th Amendment, which created Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka, but met with no success. I understand that there could have been problems about some aspects of the amendment but those could have been resolved through discussions.

When we negotiated with the TNA, MA Sumanthiran and I found a solution to what had previously been considered the vexed question of powers over land. We met stakeholders, asked them about their apprehensions and assuaged those fears.

Unfortunately, two members of the government acted in bad faith, one even refusing to fulfil instructions the president gave us to act on what had been agreed with the TNA.

Reaching consensus on these matters is a priority and the new government should set a time table for this. Successive Sri Lankan governments failed because they allowed talks to drag on without any purpose.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2017
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