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In the course of the frenetic travel programme I had set myself before the usual budget period, I had just two days in Sri Lanka last week. They were packed, with Parliament, and an overnight stay with a cousin visiting after several days, and the 92nd birthday of my most distinguished aunt, but also a couple of interviews as well as meetings with two ambassadors.

Though I feel increasingly despondent, I continue to defend the war record of the government, and indeed feel that some of the absurdities now occurring spring from the bitterness felt with regard to unfair attacks on us. But when I reiterated how fundamentally wrong the Darusman Report had been, one of them asked very simply why we had not refuted it.

3rd narrative - MargaThis failure continues to bemuse me, and the more so now after the Marga Institute produced their Third Narrative, which provides a wonderful opportunity on which government could build. But given the schizophrenia that possesses government, it will not take ownership of this document and flesh it out with details that only government possesses (though perhaps it has again misplaced them, for I had a frantic but informal request from the Foreign Ministry for the Peace Secretariat archives).

One explanation I offered the ambassador was that government simply had no one left who could argue a case intelligently and in good English. A couple of years back, when I told the President to make better use of the professionals in the Ministry of External Affairs, he told me that their command of English was weak. I fear this is a myth of which he has been convinced by those who see themselves as brilliant exponents of the language, having been to elite Colombo schools. The fact that they cannot use the language with sophistication, or respond in a manner those accusing us would take to heart, is not something the President realizes.

But there had recently been an exception, in the form of Chris Nonis, who had given a superb interview on Channel 4. All those I met in London were still full of the way he had responded, which is not something that had happened, they were kind enough to say, since my discussion on ‘Hard Talk’. However I had soon after that been removed from public appearances, except just the once when the President over-rode the blockages of the Ministry and sent me to London to deal with an attack on us organized by Channel 4.

Jon Snow dropped out after my participation in that programme was announced, though it would be too much to assert that was the reason. Conversely, after Chris’ great performance last year, a Sri Lankan station had asked him to participate in a debate with Jon Snow and Callum Macrae, but he had said he wanted me involved as well. The station then abandoned the idea, which I suppose is some sort of compliment. If both Channel 4 and local television would rather avoid me, I can claim to be perhaps the last adherent in government of Mr Bandaranaike’s Middle Path. Read the rest of this entry »

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Presidency 16Recently I took part in a seminar on Rights and Development, arranged by the Law and Society Trust. That organization used to be bitterly critical of government, but under its new Director, Mala Liyanage, it seems to be trying to go back to the more balanced perspective of Neelan Tiruchelvam. He founded it, but after his death LST, like ICES, became tools of those opposed to the SLFP. I remember, while I was at the Peace Secretariat, having to upbraid the then Chair of LST, Raja Gunasekara, who had not known what was going on, and who after our correspondence agreed to look into the matter.

Certainly the more vicious attacks stopped after that, and it is a pity that, instead of adopting that sort of reasoned approach, government now deals with NGOs, as I told the President recently, because of worries about the hamfisted way of controlling (rather than monitoring) foreign funds, through incompetent people. But gratitude, as the case of the transfer to Australia of the last Head of the Secretariat shows, is stronger than public interest.

And unfortunately we have no institutional memory. Government ignored the report I did more than five years ago on NGOs, where I showed the interlocking directorates of a few, while also pointing out that the vast majority functioned positively. Sadly it is these last who feel threatened, while the others continue as before, except where, as with LST, a change of management leads to a more balanced approach. But I don’t suppose my report can now be found anywhere.

Ironically, on the day of the seminar, I was told that the Presidential Secretariat was looking for the Peace Secretariat files, which I had told them way back in 2009 to look after carefully. In fact they did make an attempt to put things in order after the Darusman Report came out, but as usual, with no personnel in place who were able to understand the situation, that effort too seems to have come to naught.

Interestingly, it was Basil Rajapakse who told me not to try to persuade the President not to close down the Secretariat soon after the conflict ended. Since the President has told me later that closing it down was a great mistake, I was obviously wrong to think that Basil knew what he was doing. He seemed to get on well with Mahinda Samarasinghe, so I thought there would be some continuity there, but the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance was also got rid of, in his mad dash for full authority with regard to aid and development in the North. Read the rest of this entry »

MargaPresentation at the Colloquium of MARGA & CHA : Re Narrative iii-Last Stages of the War; A Private Sector Perspective

Let me start with a paradox. This is an extremely impressive book, but I find it woefully depressing. It has been put together, according to the introduction, by three patriots who are also strong adherents of pluralism and the rule of law. Godfrey Gunatilleka is, as Dayan Jayatilleka once described him, arguably the best intellect in public life, Asoka Gunawardena is the most balanced and practical of administrators, and Jeevan Thiagarajah combines unparalleled energy in the service of his country with wide ranging knowledge of what happened in various spheres during the conflict.

Why then am I depressed? There are several reasons for this. The first is very simply that it comes far too late. Second, it requires fleshing out through details which are only available with government. Third, it leaves unstated the need for immediate action by government in the spheres in which it is unable to refute allegations made against the country. Fourth – and I cannot believe that the main writers were responsible for this, given the very different perspective Godfrey put forward in the television interview – it seems to swallow wholesale the allegations against the UN leadership in Sri Lanka made by the Petrie Report. Finally, it leaves out one group of significant actors, namely those who have contributed heavily to the Darusman Report, if we are to believe Wikileaks: I mean the NGO representatives who produced evidence against Sri Lanka.

For these reasons, the fourth and fifth sections of this book are weak. The first two sections are very strong, and provide an object lesson to the Sri Lankan government as to how it should have dealt with the allegations in the first place. The third section is well argued, but its main point is weakened by the failure to affirm forcefully the need for a credible internal inquiry with regard to the treatment of surrendees. In this regard the book is less balanced than the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, which is surprising since its rationale is that of a middle way between that and Darusman.

With regard to the first three worries I have, the first could be compensated for by prompt action now on the part of government. But given the hamfisted way in which government dealt with the Darusman Report in the first place, I do not think anything more will be done. It seems incredible now that the government responded to allegations against it by producing a narrative that did not address those allegations. But, pace the book’s erroneous claim that the Ministry of Defence’s account of the humanitarian operation preceded the Darusman Report, the fact is that, in its ostrich like view that hiding one’s head in the sand would get rid of threats, the Ministry produced a document that might have been useful had it been produced in 2009, but which meant nothing after Darusman.

At the risk of making myself even more unpopular with government, which cannot bear other people having been correct, I told the Secretary of Defence, when I was called in to help with editing of that account, that it did not answer the allegations. His answer was that that was not the purpose of the narrative he was preparing. When I pointed out that the allegations needed to be answered, he said that he had allocated that task to the Chief of General Staff, who was however given neither resources nor encouragement to proceed. My own view is that this unintelligent approach has done more damage to our forces than anything else, given how easy a defence would have been of the bulk of the charges made against the forces. At the very least, citation of claims made during the conflict would have made clear the absurdity of charges made afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Much has been reported recently about the various Public Relations firms government – or rather elements in government, since it seems that there has been no Cabinet approval for these ventures – have hired to raise our profile in countries which seem hostile to us. There have been a host of such firms in the United States, and one in Britain. The first lot were almost all arranged through our Embassy in Washington, whilst Bell Pottinger, which also works in the United States though it is essentially a British firm, was arranged by Nivard Ajith Cabraal, the Governor of the Central Bank. More recently it seems Mr Cabraal has also been instrumental in arranging yet another firm in America.

The reports are very critical of those who make these arrangements, but I believe there is need of some discrimination here. I cannot defend the earlier agencies in America, for I found the only two I was introduced to, way back when I headed the Peace Secretariat, to be both naïve and incompetent. One of them had a young Sri Lankan who seemed to have initiated the relationship, but he was almost as ignorant as the large American he brought with him. Given the manner in which our Embassy in Washington conducted business, that being the operative word it seems, I believe there should be thorough investigation of what happened.

It is also worth noting that our relations with the United States deteriorated significantly during this period. Hiring of such firms began in the time of the Bush administration, which was relatively positive about us. The excessive expenditure then that our Ambassador in Washington was incurring was culpably unnecessary. More bizarrely, when the Obama administration took over, he continued to work with agencies that had good Republican connections.

The Ministry of External Affairs is also I think culpable in not having protested about all this, but given the close relationship of the Ambassador to the President, I presume it takes guts to point out squandering of resources in such instances. This is another reason the President should be careful about appointing to high positions people whom those who should monitor such actions think have total impunity. But I suspect the President would think twice about such appointments if the problems that would arise are pointed out to him, so it is a pity that neither the Ministry nor the Parliament Committee on High Posts has done this.

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I write this in Shillong, capital of the state of Meghalaya, while attending a Conference on ‘India’s North-East and Asiatic South-East: Beyond Borders’. It has been arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, which has an impressive array of full-time staff as well as Consultants. One of them, a retired Colonel who had worked for many years in the North-East when it was a hotbed of insurgency, delivered a fascinating paper on the subject. In addition to his many ideas for improving the situation, I was fascinated by the interchanges between him and academics from the area, who deplored his use of the term ‘misled brothers’ to describe the former insurgents. They thought it patronizing, whereas the Colonel had thought it a less divisive way of describing those who had previously taken up arms against the State.

Regardless of the merits of the case, what was illuminating was the manner in which such debates took place. CRRID is supported by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, but the participants represented different views, and even the personnel from CRRID, including several former MEA dignitaries, made no bones about what they thought could be done better by the Indian government. This should be normal practice, but sadly it is unthinkable in Sri Lanka. I was reminded then of the absence of Tamil politicians when the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute finally got off the ground, with a Seminar on Reconciliation. Not one of them had been asked to present their views, and consequently they did not attend.

In passing I should note that that prompted the workshop which the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies arranged, at which we had a wide range of views. The proceedings culminated in a decision, suggested by Javid Yusuf, to formulate a National Reconciliation Policy, which soon got underway in the office I then had, as the President’s Adviser on Reconciliation. This was discussed with a wide range of stakeholders, politicians and religious leaders and media personnel, at gatherings kindly arranged by solid supporters of Sri Lanka as well as Reconciliation, the Japanese Ambassador and the Papal Nuncio. After finalization the Draft Policy was sent to the President, where it got lost.

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As I shall be away for a few weeks, I thought it best to bring this series to a close. I have tried here to discuss the need

a. for Parliament to be strengthened, through better use of Committees so that its legislative and oversight functions are treated seriously

b. of streamlining the Executive and making it more effective

c . to strengthen local administration

d. for much greater coordination between government bodies and also elected and unelected officials

e. to provide clear job descriptions and institute and enforce reporting mechanisms

f. of much better training programmes with assessments that privilege efficiency, effectiveness and initiative

I have noted some areas in which best practice is available, as with the Community Policing programmes in the East, or the regular discussions between Divisional Secretaries and Pradeshiya Sabha leaders in some areas in the North, or even the recording in Batticaloa of unused government buildings, in a context in which the thrust is to use more and more cement as yet another intelligent and able Government Agent put it.

I have also noted some areas in which reform is long overdue. A common theme of my suggestions is streamlining and targeting, as with the proposals for electoral reform that restore the link (and hence responsibility for and accountability to) between elected representative and the people; or the recommendation that the Cabinet be reduced in number with Ministers chosen for administrative capacity and planning skills rather than electoral success.

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As I have noted, the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that have been sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee are to form the basis of the discussions the Marga Institute is facilitating to promote consensus. The most innovative of the ideas put forward in the memorandum submitted to Parliament is the suggestion that we accept the logic of the Executive Presidential system, and therefore bring the Cabinet in line with the executive system in other countries which have Executive Presidents – the United States and Russia and France and the Philippines, to name but a few.

On a proper Executive Presidential system, unlike the hybrid perversion J R Jayewardene introduced, those put in charge of the different branches of the executive come from outside Parliament. If they are in the legislature, they have to resign their Parliamentary positions, as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry did. Even when the President has a Prime Minister whose tenure depends on the confidence of Parliament, when that Prime Minister has won election and established a majority, he gives up his seat to take up an executive position. And as we saw with Vladimir Putin in Russia, someone who had been elected to Parliament and thereby been chosen as Prime Minister, can easily, and with greater effectiveness, be replaced by a technocrat.

Characteristically, Dayan Jayatilleke opposed the suggestion on the grounds that it would lead to the President filling the executive with his own relations. This was yet another example of an otherwise very distinguished analyst allowing ad hominem arguments to influence his judgment. I should add that his position also fails to take into account the fact that any relations who aspire to executive office will have no difficulty in getting elected, as both our Parliament and many Provincial Councils exemplify. The problem then is that even the very able start making getting re-elected their priority, whereas if Ministers concentrated only on making a success of the areas for which they are responsible, we would have decisions and actions that focus on results rather than popularity.

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Last week the Marga Institute held a discussion on several sets of proposals that had been forwarded to the Parliamentary Select Committee looking into ‘Political and Constitutional Measures to Empower the People of Sri Lanka to Live as One Nation’. After much animated discussion, it was decided to work with the set of proposals put forward by Vasantha Senanayake, and a couple of groups have been established to flesh these out.

Senanayake is perhaps the brightest of the young Members elected newly in 2010, a factor noticed by several embassies that have sent him on delegations of young Members to visit their countries. These proposals sprang from his work with the One Text Initiative which had seen him spearhead a group of Parliamentarians, representing government as well as different opposition parties, who had interacted with members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, both Sinhalese and Tamil, in Britain. They had sent a report on their visit to the President, though there has been no response to the interesting ideas and suggestions they put forward.

Vasantha had worked together with a group of young professionals to put forward the proposals which included some startlingly innovative ideas. Perhaps the most important of them is not however new, because it was one of the principal elements on which three recent documents on constitutional reform agreed, namely those of the Liberal Party, the UNP and the group led by Rev Sobitha. This was the need to get rid of the present system of elections, and I think it would be useful to return to this now, since the last set of elections to Provincial Councils made crystal clear – again – how destructive the current system is.

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I was finally spurred, by the enormous effort made by a few expatriates to take a careful look at the casualty figures for the conflict, to try myself to put together some figures systematically. Long ago I had made some estimates, based on the details I had got from Tamilnet as well as on figures from the ICRC of the sick who had been taken to hospitals in government controlled areas. But though government has now accepted what I said, at the time I was even criticized for my candour by those who should have known much better.

I should note that I was not entirely on my own, for the army, understanding better than most what was at stake, helped me with visits to the sites where the fighting had taken place, and in particular to the hospitals which were largely undamaged, contrary to the propaganda put out about them. But when the books I produced were ignored, I thought it better to concentrate on reconciliation with regard to the future.

Recently though I have been heartened by two envoys who have done well in dealing with the media telling me that I had been their initial inspiration. And when Michael Roberts and the Marga Institute produced ‘The Numbers Game’, and the remarkably sharp journalist Kath Noble assessed this positively, I thought I should make yet another effort.

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Having looked critically at the negative impact on the Sri Lankan government of pressures that seem both unfair, and tangential to the progress on pluralism that the country needs, I must nevertheless admit that the government is not doing enough to counter those pressures. While the main focus of reform must be the pursuit of pluralism and equitable prosperity, it is also desirable I feel to point out what more could be done to dismiss the absurd charges against us.

We should not after all feel that all those who launch what seem hypocritical and unfair attacks on our conduct of the war are engaging in cynical bullying, either to win votes or to bring us into line with their own agendas. We must recognize that there are those who genuinely think we were guilty of excesses and, while many of those who attack us will not listen to reason or evidence, a few might.

It is for this reason that government should make much more of the extraordinary efforts made by a few expatriates to look carefully at all available evidence in order to arrive at a reasonable assessment of the number of civilian casualties during the war. I felt tremendous relief when I saw their report, now presented twice at the Marga Institute, with thoughtful and convincing introductions by Godfrey Gunatilleke and Michael Roberts. Before that I had felt I was working in a vacuum, since no one else seemed inclined to challenge through facts and figures the outrageous claims of the Darusman Report.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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