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I was away during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister and, with internet limited in Turkmenistan, could not follow what happened nor what was said. But enough came through to remind me of what happened 30 years ago, at the time of the Indo-Lankan Accord.

The recently founded Liberal Party found itself in a unique position on that occasion, since we welcomed the Accord but regretted three elements in it. One was the proposed merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which we predicted would prove divisive. That regret is not my subject here, but it may be worth noting that, in addition to the practical problems we saw, we bewailed the fact that the whole concept of devolution was being perverted.

We had long promoted devolution on the grounds that government should be closer to the people. That is why we would have preferred District Councils, and why even recently we extolled the virtues of Divisional Secretariats for practical support to the people, given that Provincial Councils cannot now be abolished. In passing, I should note that the failure of the President to push through the commitment in his manifesto about Divisional Secretariats is another example of the sidelining of the structural changes this country so badly needs.

In 1987, President Jayewardene squandered the opportunity to streamline administration and, by proposing a merger, promoted the idea that devolution was about ethnic enclaves. That was a sure recipe for further dissension. Indeed what happened in the world afterwards has proved that. In the early eighties one could think of Federalism as a mechanism to bind different parts of a country closer together while allowing independent initiatives based on local needs (as with for instance the United States or Germany), But now it is seen as a precursor to separation, as has happened in the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – and which is why India needs to be careful, not least with regard to one of the largest of its component states to still remain undivided.

But all that is another story. More relevant here is another of our caveats about the 1987 Accord, namely the elements in the Annexures which placed Sri Lanka firmly under Indian suzerainty. We had previously argued that the adventurism of the Jayewardene government with regard to India was potentially disastrous, and the manner in which India responded – which included strong condemnation using Argentina at the then equivalent in Geneva of the Human Rights Council – ensured our subjugation.

The Liberal Party had no quarrel at all with the actual restraints put upon Sri Lanka, for Jayewardene’s games with Trincomalee (including leasing the oil tanks to a Singapore based company, having cancelled the tender which an Indian company had won on good grounds), and the setting up of a Voice of America station at Iranawila, were unnecessary provocations. Given the then unremitting hostility of America to India, seen as a Soviet ally – and hence fair game for the terrorists being trained in Pakistan to attack not just the Soviets in Afghanistan – our getting involved in this latest version of the Great Game was idiotic. Read the rest of this entry »

Prince 2But Vasantha was also aware of the need to strengthen Parliament. Given the usual domination of the House by members supportive of the Executive leadership, he introduced a Second Chamber which would provide other perspectives more systematically, and enable Parliament to fulfil its legislative functions with care. The Senate was to be elected on the basis of equal representation from each Province. This would strengthen inputs from the periphery into decisions made at the centre, which was essential since, whatever the extent of devolution, some decisions, including those concerning national security, would have to be made at the centre. And the TNA had indeed accepted that a Second Chamber was desirable during the negotiation of 2011.

Given however the current oppositional nature of Sri Lankan politics, the proposals had emphasized the primacy of the House of Representatives with regard to matters of finance. They also made provision, obviously necessary given what now seemed a regular occurrence in the United States, for the executive to continue governing the country in the event of Parliament failing to pass the budget.

Legislature

1. Parliament:

All legislative powers of the people shall be exercised by the Parliament which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

2. House of Representatives:

The House of Representatives shall be 200 members elected every 5 years of whom a half shall be elected from territorial constituencies on FPP basis and the balance shall be chosen by a separate vote to determine support for individual parties.

25 persons shall be selected proportionately by the political parties represented in parliament with particular regard to women, youth and demographics not represented adequately in parliament.

All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.

Budget: In the event of non approval of the budget for the year, the budget of the previous year will continue to be in effect

Parliament shall have exclusive powers to make laws on subjects mentioned in the reserved list

3. The Senate:

Four Senators shall be elected at a separate election to represent each province, by the people for a term of five years.

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I am grateful for the request to write about India and the 13th Amendment because, while I have referred to the subject in different contexts, it would be useful to assess precisely what Indian priorities are, and how we should respond to these. In doing this, we should be clear about the principles involved –

  1. As Sri Lankans, our own national interest must come first. This includes both safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka and also ensuring that all our citizens can dwell contentedly in their country, with access to equal opportunities and full participation in politics and development.
  2. As South Asians we must also recognize the important role India plays in the region. This means that, without any violation of our own interests, we must ensure that India does not come under undue pressure from any quarter because of us.

It is clear that we got into a conflict situation with India because we violated the second principle. While India could have reacted less aggressively, I believe the Jayewardene government must be held responsible for allowing India to come under pressure from two quarters. The first was pressure from Tamilnadu, because of what was perceived as, not just discrimination, but also violence against and oppression of Tamils.

Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people, 1984

President Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people – 1984

The second set of pressures however was more worrying for India, as is clear from the provisions of the Indo-Lankan Accord. The Sri Lankan agreement then to ensure that foreign policy decisions took Indian interests into account (as spelled out with regard to Trincomalee and its oil tanks as well as broadcasting facilities to other nations) made it clear that Jayewardene’s flirtation with America in the Cold War context had worried India deeply.

We must remember that those were days in which America saw India as a hostile element, and had no scruples about engaging in activities calculated to destabilize the country. Salman Rushdie’s brilliant account of language riots in India in the fiftes, in which Tamilnadu hostility was the most aggressive, has a brilliant cameo in which he suggests the American contribution to street violence. And while obviously no direct causal connections can be diagnosed, there is no doubt that America would have been quite happy in those days for India to split up – and the obvious instrument of this would have been Tamil Nadu, with the longstanding American connection to the area, through missionaries in particular.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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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 »

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 »

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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One of the main problems we have had with regard to devolution is the failure of our law makers to draft legislation properly. The 13th Amendment is a case in point, since it is full of confusion about how power should be exercised.

The most obvious example of this is in relation to what is termed the Concurrent List, where the Constitution says that, where there is conflict, the decision of the Central Government will prevail. This is not concurrence. When this is pointed out, the response is that the clause was taken from the Indian Constitution.

In India that provision did not matter much, since the States had had governments before the Centre did. State governments therefore had experience in passing legislation, and the Central government would not counter such legislation, unless there were potentially destructive consequences.

In Sri Lanka however, Provincial Councils were new, and Jayewardene compounded the problem by choosing good fighters to head the lists for the elections that were held. This was understandable, given the violence in the country at the time, but it put paid to constructive development in the Provinces, except in Wayamba, where the toughie chosen also happened to be an able and imaginative administrator. Read the rest of this entry »

When I was in Delhi last week, I was privileged to meet the Indian Minister of External Affairs who turned out, though he looks old and distinguished, to have been at Oxford while I was there – and to have succeeded Ravi Tennekoon as a Lecturer at Trinity College, before heading back to India to better things. I still recall Ravi telling me that he was giving up the position at Trinity – which seemed to my undergraduate enthusiasms all one could hope for – to get back into real life. Well, he is a barrister in London, when I believe he could have contributed much more either to Sri Lanka or to academia, or to both – as did his predecessor as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Professor Peiris, before ambition turned him sour. Salman Khurshid meanwhile is the Minister of External Affairs in India, and still extraordinarily mentally agile, as befits a lawyer turned novelist turned politician.

Our meeting was to present him with my latest publication, ‘Mirrored Images’ a collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry from Sri Lanka. Published by the National Book Trust of India, as a companion to ‘Bridging Connections’, a collection of short stories, it shows the common themes explored by writers in different languages in Sri Lanka. It would be an ideal showpiece around which our ambassadors abroad could show the reality about this country, and combat the divisive propaganda of those trying to destroy Sri Lanka. Needless to say, our Foreign Ministry will do nothing about this, as they did nothing about the wonderful film, ‘Common Differences’, made by a Croatian who showed the essential unifying features of this country. It was only after I had screened the film myself that, under prodding from the Ministry of Defence, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre finally had a screening on April 3rd. Thankfully, they took a leaf out of my book, and instead of engaging in the othering that so many of those who think themselves patriotic engage in, they asked Jehan Perera, along with other participants in the film, to contribute as discussants.

This concept of othering, which we seem to have adopted from the West instead of sticking to our cultural traditions of inclusivity, recurred in my mind as fundamentally destructive, when I heard Mr Khurshid talking about the close links India had with Sri Lanka. His view was that, whatever other links India would build up, with the region, with Asia, with the world, there was something special about the relationship with Sri Lanka. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

In the whole sorry impeachment saga, the UNP seems to have done the impossible and managed to keep everyone happy. Though some other opposition parties are making valiant attempts to criticize them, since the criticisms are not based on clear arguments, similar generalities on the part of UNP officials will allow them to emerge unscathed.

This is a pity, because proper analysis of their role will also suggest what they might do to make things better in the future. Firstly, they should acknowledge the absurdity of the Standing Order that they put in place hurriedly in 1984, mainly it seems to keep Neville Samarakoon quiet. While they have granted that this is hopelessly inadequate and requires further elaboration, the efforts of some to condemn the Standing Order were stymied, on the grounds that that would amount to criticism of their sacred cow, namely J R Jayewardene’s Constitution and its appendages.

Since the UNP leader affirmed this principle, and also refrained from speaking on the Impeachment Resolution, he continues to convince decision makers in government that he is the best possible Opposition Leader for the Government. This is myopic, because they think only in terms of popularity within Sri Lanka. Whilst certainly Ranil Wickremesinghe would fare disastrously in any electoral competition with the President, the same applies with regard to any other possible leader of the Opposition.

Read the rest of this entry »

I have entitled this series ‘Looking Forward’, because it is meant to suggest positive measures that would strengthen institutions. That seems to me the best outcome of the tensions that have arisen, with all sides now seeming to be convinced that, because of the inequities of others, they do not need to ensure that their own mistakes will also not be repeated.

JR-jayawardene

There were five distinct steps that Jayewardene took that led to protracted suffering for the country.

In this light, it may be useful also to look back at the mistakes of the Jayewardene government, because it is vital that, having so successfully overcome the terrorist threat, this government does not repeat some of the mistakes that Jayewardene did in his consolidation of a monolithic power structure.

There were five distinct steps that Jayewardene took that led to protracted suffering for the country. In essence they all arose from his determination to brook no dissent.

The first was the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, using a Kangaroo Court, which he claimed was acceptable since it consisted of members of the Judiciary. The manner in which the three individuals he handpicked to destroy Mrs Bandaranaike made their decisions is ample evidence that judges are not necessarily trustworthy or guardians of democratic practice. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2017
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