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In 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.
In this last lap as it were of my discussion of what should have been comprehensive Reform Agenda, I thought it would be instructive to lay down the Reforms that were pledged in the manifesto on which the President won the election, and to explain how they have been ignored. Amongst these perhaps the most significant was the pledge about Electoral Reform, which read as follows –
Wednesday January 28
An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality
This pledge was totally ignored. No all party committee was set up, and no one seemed to have been entrusted with the task. The issue only came to the fore when the Opposition made it clear that that had to go through as well, if support for the 19th amendment was expected. Discussions then started, but many of those involved, politicians as well as officials, noted that the Prime Minister kept stalling. He ignored the clear information the Elections Commissioner gave about how a compromise formula could be implemented swiftly, and kept insisting that the change could not be made in time for his main ambition to be fulfilled, namely having Parliament dissolved on April 23rd. The constant reiteration of that theme and date by his sycophants in his party made clear that that was what they thought the President’s manifesto was about, not the range of reforms that had been put forward.
In the last few articles in this series, I think I should look at how and why the great hopes with which this government was elected have been shattered. I thought this essential because I have read many versions of how the 19th Amendment was passed. Many of the commentaries written in English seem largely designed to place in a bad light those who wanted amendments to the various versions put forward in various ways by government. What is forgotten now is how the Amendment was produced without consultation, in contrast to the promise in the Manifesto of the President.
Since memories are so short, I will note here some important pledges that were completely ignored by the cabal that decided to take charge of the Reform Process
1. Saturday January 10
The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, will take his oath of office
2. Sunday January 11
A Cabinet of not more than 25 members, including members of all political parties represented in Parliament, will be appointed with Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister
3. Monday January 12
In order to strengthen democracy, a National Advisory Council will be set up inclusive of representatives of parties represented in Parliament as well as Civil Society organizations.
Monday January 19
Parliament will meet
Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.
Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?
I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.
But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.
I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.
Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?
Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.
I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.
Parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha is no stranger to controversy. A State Minister in the yahapalana government that took office in January, he was the first to cross the floor and rejoin the opposition. Though he has fallen out with what he describes as a UNP government, he remains combatively loyal to president Maithripala Sirisena. In this interview, Rajiva speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about the difference between RW and MS.
Q. How would you briefly describe your experience of the yahapalana government in the short time that you were in it?
A. The major problem is Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is JR’s creation which means a lack of morality and a certain ruthlessness. In a Westminster style system you don’t get rid of your rivals in the party. If they are able, they get a position. There was a promise that I would be in the cabinet and I told the president this. He told me that I should talk to Chandrika and to Ranil as it is they who decide on the cabinet but nothing came of it. There is really no one to argue with Ranil in cabinet except Rajitha and Champika. Rajitha was very good at getting the transfer of powers from the president to the prime minister stopped. But you need a critical mass. M.K.D.S.Gunawardene is upset about what is going on, but he cannot argue in cabinet. This is supposed to be a coalition government but in reality it’s not. It’s a UNP government which happens to have two or three outsiders in it. Kabir Hashim was appointed cabinet minister of higher education above me. There is no point in having a position where you can’t work. FUTA (The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) had a meeting with Ranil and later Kabir informed me that he had written to the president recommending the removal of the UGC chairperson…
Q. What bugged you the most, was it the turf war between you and your cabinet minister or the principle behind the removal of the UGC chairperson?
A. Both really. If there is a State Minister he should have been consulted on a decision like that. We could have discussed the matter. FUTA announced that the prime minister had said that the UGC chairperson would be removed and a letter would follow from the president’s secretary. What you don’t do is to ask someone to resign because of pressure from FUTA. Once something is done without consulting you, that will become a routine practice. I was even told that the UGC has to be reconstituted and that there are lists in the prime minister’s office and that I should go and have a look. I said that this is not a political matter so why should there be lists of potential candidates in the PM’s office? Basically what we should be doing is looking for the best people and anyway, the prime minister should not be involved as it’s the president who appoints members of the UGC.
Q. That brings us to an interesting point. You said earlier that people like Champika and Rajitha Senaratne were taking the lead in not allowing the transfer of power from the president to the prime minister. But before the election when Maithripala Sirisena came to Sirikotha he told the assembled UNPers that even after becoming president he will continue to address Ranil as ‘Sir’. Then he said that he was not going to step into any of the presidential residences. All that was said to convince the voter that he was going to dismantle the executive presidential system. He signed MOUs with many parties saying he was going to abolish the presidency and with the JHU saying that only certain powers of the executive presidency would be reduced. People like Jayampathy Wickremeratne and the other NGO activists who backed the yahapalana campaign want it abolished. Why are you, a liberal, in favour or retaining the executive presidential system?
A. The Liberal Party was the first to say that the presidency has too much power. That situation was exacerbated by the removal of term limits through the 18th Amendment. In 2013, the Liberal Party came to the conclusion that the presidential powers should be pruned but the institution retained. But I don’t have any objection to abolishing it. When we were preparing the manifesto Jayampathy Wickremeratne said that we are committed to abolishing the executive presidency and that legislation is being drafted to transfer power to the prime minister. I said that such an arrangement was immoral and that I can’t ask people to vote for Maithripala Sirisena in order to make Ranil Wickremesinghe the leader of this country.
Q. But that precisely was the promise that was held out in the election campaign and that is why UNPers came out in their numbers to vote for Maithri and to do all the ground level work for the election campaign.
A. That was never the position of the coalition. In any coalition people are going to say different things.
Q. Everybody who spoke of the powers of the executive presidency wanted the institution scrapped not to have its powers pruned.
A. That’s not true of everybody. That is true of some people including Jayampathy. The point that I wanted to make was that the removal of excessive powers does not mean the transfer of excessive powers. My point was that if the powers of the executive president are being removed you do not give them to another executive.
Q. The vast majority of the votes that Maitripala got were from the UNP and they voted for Maithri on the understanding that RW would be made prime minister. If you don’t fulfil the expectation that the vast majority of those who voted for Maithripala had, that raises questions about the whole concept of popular sovereignty.
A. Over the past several years, Ranil did not get anything more than 35% of the vote. Many people are emphatic on the point that they voted for Maithripala. The UNP is now going around and saying that Maithripala won because of them.
The incident he faced as State Minister of Higher Education regarding the removal of the UGC Head and Faizer Mustapha’s resignation as State Minister of Aviation will not negatively impact the 100-day program but is a wakeup call for the whole alliance to realise that it needs to be more serious, says Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily FT, he also noted that the alliance gave a specific deadline to the people and there were very important pledges that it had done nothing about. “People are expecting us to fulfil these within the mentioned deadlines. We are here to respond to people and we must do so quickly,” he added.
However, Wijesinha emphasised that the pledge of abolishing the executive presidency shouldn’t be fulfilled since it was something that required a lot of consideration and it was important to ensure that what was put in its place would be acceptable to the people at large.
Following are excerpts:
A: Kabir took some action while I was away which I thought was totally inappropriate. I think Kabir should have consulted me. However, he has been very gracious about expressing the error involved. But the bottom line is that I know that this will go on.
If ‘A’ doesn’t give the right answer, they go to ‘B’. If one person is clearly in charge and then there is another person is also there, anyone who doesn’t get a good answer from ‘A’ will go to ‘B’. If technically ‘A’ is under ‘B,’ it is impossible for ‘A’ to actually carry out his work. I have told Kabir that this cannot go on like this. He too agreed and said that he would tell the Prime Minister to appoint me as a Cabinet minister. That would make a lot of sense and I hope that it will happen.
Q: Are you saying your action was not against the removal of the UGC Chairman but was purely based on error in protocol?
A: We are going to engage in what we call good governance. You must not do things that are contrary to every single principle of good governance. People ask me why I am defending the UGC Chairman. It is not a question of my defending her. It is a question of two fundamental principles of governance being breached.
The first is, very simply, Kabir should not have taken any decision affecting my work without telling me. The second fact is that, if they wanted to respond to allegations against the UGC Chairman, there should have been an investigation with due process. Rather interestingly Kabir told me there was lot of pressure from FUTA and that is why he went ahead with it. I told Kabir that he should not give into pressure. One of our biggest complaints against the UGC Chairman was that she had given into pressure. If we are going to do things simply because there is immense pressure from other parties, how are we any better than what we claim she was?
Q: But FUTA has been against the appointment of UGC Chairman and it was one of their conditions when supporting Maithripala Sirisena.
A: I know nothing about such a condition. Don’t forget that I translated the manifesto and there was nothing of that sort there. In any case, if you are going to remove anyone, you need to do it through due process.
Let me give you an example; they now claim that I know what the allegations are. But no one has given me any of the allegations except one professor who wrote a long email to me in which he basically mentioned all kinds of negative things about the UGC Head, such as she is the worst person in the system and a strong supporter of President Rajapaksa. I wrote back asking to send me those allegations systematically because I cannot carry out an investigations based on an email with someone’s own private grievances. He didn’t come back to me. How can anyone expect me to carry out any investigations without a proper complaint?
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There 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.
As 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.
What infuriated the President most, it seemed, about the attack on Chris Nonis was the information that Sajin had been rude about the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka and connected this with Chris, who was a Catholic and was therefore compared to the imperial power that had sought to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist identity. But instead of dealing with the actual problem, the President had called Chris up and accused him of conspiring against the re-election the President hoped to achieve in the very near future, following the Pope’s visit.
A Cabinet Minister who had been present when the conversation took place said he had never heard such language previously from the President, and expressed the fear that he was not in control of himself. Certainly his reaction suggested some sort of schizophrenia, since he himself had earlier expressed suspicion that those who wanted him replaced would soon engineer conflict between him and the Catholics.
This was in the context of his claim that the hostilities the Bodhu Bala Sena were provoking with Muslims were part of a conspiracy to reduce his popularity and make re-election difficult. He had told me then that the next step would be to sow dissension between him and the Catholics.
But instead of looking into what seemed a gratuitous insult to Catholics, the President contented himself with believing that Chris was to blame for having complained about the matter to the Cardinal. It seemed indeed that he thought Chris was making the story up, for he attacked Chris for not having mentioned this when they met at the Waldorf. The fact that Chris had been trying to make him take the assault seriously was evidently forgotten, and now the whole episode seemed to have turned into yet another reason for the President to feel sorry for himself as the victim of an international conspiracy, with no attention at all to the fact that his nearest and dearest seemed to be the principal conspirators.
Thus, as mentioned already, he excused Gotabhaya’s involvement with the BBS, and was ignorant of the manner in which the BBS indicated how it had been cultivating Gotabhaya – albeit at the behest of someone they described as a foreign sympathizer. And now he did nothing about Sajin stirring up a hornet’s nest, even though this was in line with the attacks on the Portuguese being propagated by the favourite propagandists of the Ministry of Defence. One of them even went so far as to claim that Joseph Vaz, whose beatification was on the agenda for the Pope’s visit, was a foreign spy.
Sajin himself brought up the derogatory reference to the Portuguese in explaining his actions to a friend. Though the source for this was a website in opposition to the President and his government, what it said echoed Chris’s own account of what had happened – ‘The controversial supervising MP of the external affairs ministry Sajin Vaas Gunawardena has told a wealthy Muslim businessman whom he meets frequently, “Don’t you be afraid. The boss will never sack me. Boss can’t do without me.”
He was responding to a question by the Muslim businessman, who asked, “What trouble you are getting into, boss?” Explaining the incident, Sajin Vaas has told him that together with Kshenuka, he had been planning for a long time to expel Chris Nonis. Making use of his closeness to the president, Chris had continued to disregard ministry orders, he said, adding that the anger within him for a long time exploded while he was under the influence of liquor.
“Chris thought the H.E. was treating him more than me. The man came to Sri Lanka whenenever he wanted for his business purposes. When we called for explanations, the man tried to show his might. I have been thinking about that. The Foreign Service should have no people whom I cannot control. I expelled all such persons. Who he is to show his might to me, even when the minister too, is under my control? I do not care whatever is published by websites. The boss doesn’t care either. We do not govern accoding to what they say.”
“If not for Prasad (Kariyawasam) and the political counsellor, Chris would have lost a couple of his teeth. They were the ones who restrained me. It was a good opportunity for me to make trouble for Chris as there weren’t many people at the party. When I ridiculed him by calling him a Portuguese, he acted as if he did not hear. It was a good thing that Lalith Weeratunga was not present. Majintha too, was not there. So did Suresh. I punched him saying that he cannot be the president’s lad, and that I am the president’s lad. On the previous day, I tried to provoke him. But, Nimal Siripala, Nirupama, Shavendra, Kohona all were there. So, I gave up. Chris is a Colombo aristocrat. I am a street fighter from Ambalangoda. I beat up Chris in order to teach a lesson to the others,” he boasted to his Muslim businessman friend.’ (http://lankanewsweb.net/news/9025-boss-won-t-sack-me-sajin-vaas)
Though I do not in any way regret our decision not to support Mahinda Rajapaksa at the forthcoming Presidential election, I do feel immensely sorry for him. He is neither a fool, nor a villain, so he knows well the mess into which he has got himself. Though he and his advisers will use every trick in the book now to win re-election, and he might even succeed, he knows that the methods he is now using serve only to make crystal clear how very unpopular he has become.
This was not something the Mahinda Rajapaksa who led us to victory over the Tigers deserves. It is quite preposterous that a man who took bold decisions to save the country from terrorism has been incapable of taking any decisions at all in recent months to remove the various blights that have hit us.
Lalith Weeratunge made the excuse for him that the truth was being kept from him. Last March, after I had drawn his attention yet again to the problems that were mounting, he wrote to me that ‘Once I return end of next week, i.e., about March 30, I must meet you to have a frank chat. Little I can do, I will. Not many speak the truth today and all I hear are blatant lies. However, not many know that I have my ears to the ground; in every district, little groups have been talking to me. I am sure both of us could bring out the reality.’
But we never did get to meet, and time and again he cancelled meetings because he had suddenly to go abroad. In time I stopped regretting this, because it seemed to me that there was little we could do together that Lalith could not do himself, given that he still I think commanded the President’s confidence. But I suppose we have to sympathize with his lack of confidence in his ability to correct things himself, given the much stronger motivations of those who had hijacked both the President and the Presidency. After all he had failed to get the President to correct course when his wife first drew attention to aberrations at the Securities Commission.
Underlying the diffidence however was the belief that the President was not really in danger. I suspect those around him never thought that Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the main candidate against them, and understandably they thought that Mahinda Rajapaksa would then be a shoo-in for the Presidency. After the Uva election they might have thought twice, but they doubtless assumed they would not find it difficult to construct a pitch, as it were, of their choosing. This would be the past, and the Tigers, and on such a pitch Ranil would flounder – though, to make sure of this, they have got ready vast amounts of propaganda to remind the people of Ranil’s past. The posters I have seen recently with Richard de Zoysa’s picture indicate how far back they were determined to go, but with control of so much of the media, they must have thought they could keep attention during the campaign on Ranil’s weaknesses, rather than the recent failures of governance.
That complacence explains the fact that they were quite prepared to not just forget but even to actively alienate Muslim voters. It seems to have come as a shock to government that even Rishard Bathiudeen was preparing to cross over to the common opposition. But had they bothered to listen to what he has been saying in Parliament recently they would have realized how deeply upset he was. The desperate measures they have had to engage in to keep him and his party, carrots and sticks extending even to getting rid of faithful old Mr Azwer from Parliament, indicate they understand how important such voters are. But though they might paper over the façade, a moment’s thought should make them realize that, given the manner in which the Muslims have been treated, there is no way anyone in the community can support the President and succeed in any future election. Indeed I suspect that even Faizer Mustapha will have to move, given that his efforts to control the BBS rally in Aluthgama were treated with contempt, a fact known to the entire Muslim community, even if the President were deceived about it. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the reasons I still continued to have hopes about Mahinda Rajapaksa was that his instincts have always been sound. This was exemplified when I called him to complain about what the Bodhu Bala Sena had been up to in Aluthgama. Instead of attempting to defend them, as I had feared, he promptly declared that they were involved in a conspiracy to bring his government into disrepute. He claimed that they were funded by the Americans and the Norwegians, and that they were determined to alienate him from the Muslims.
The story seemed to me implausible, even though I knew there was some basis for his allegations. What had been the precursor of the BBS had received funds from the Norwegians, and though I believe the Norwegian government as represented by its regular diplomats in Colombo acts in good faith, I have no similar confidence in Mr Solheim and his acolytes. One of them, who once boasted to me of his acquaintance with Mr Solheim, was Arne Fjiatoff, who had been the godfather of, if not the BBS, its principal lay spokesman Dilantha Withanage. I have little doubt, given that he has also recently been fishing in troubled waters in Burma, that he had a shrewd inkling of what they were up to.
With regard to the Americans, we have long known that they will recruit anyone to bring down what they are most worried about at any point, with no concern for possible consequences. At one stage I thought their sublime ignorance was to blame, but there is a certain callousness too, and a confidence in their own strength which leads them not to worry about catastrophes for other people. I find this wicked, and the fact that Americans claim that such behavior is only response to (other) evil empires is no excuse.
Recently, at the Congress of Liberal International in Hong Kong, I voted against a resolution urging immediate action against ISIS, not because I do not acknowledge the danger it represents, but because there was no mention in the text of the American adventurism that had led to the rise of ISIS. Unless that is registered, the world is in grave danger of similar blunders that can lead only to anarchy. I am happy to say that the British Liberal Democrats whom I upbraided agreed with me about the responsibility of the Americans for what had occurred, beginning with the illegal invasion of Iraq. But unlike the Liberals in the days of my youth, who were able to call a spade, the modern generation is wrapped up in trying to achieve a European consensus, and that consensus is swept away by the American penchant for othering – which requires total devotion to the Americans, whether promoting democracy or anarchy. Read the rest of this entry »