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Reform 9I come now to what seems a contentious issue, unnecessarily so. The manifesto on which the President won the election clearly pledged that ‘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 commitment, in the 100 day manifesto, was fleshed out in the commitment to a Compassionate Cogvernment and a Stable Country, as follows: The existing electoral system is a mainspring of corruption and violence. Candidates have to spend a colossal sum of money due to the preferential system. I will change this completely. I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own. The new electoral system will be a combination of the first-past-the post system and the proportional representation of defeated candidates. Since the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal, I would be able to get the agreement of all political parties represented in Parliament for the change. Further, wastage and clashes could be minimised since electoral campaigns would be limited to single electorates.’

This makes clear the urgent need for change. Sadly, the United National Party, having scented power, seems determined to continue with a system that practically demands corruption and violence. And while it will not openly promote corruption, the manner in which it is trying to grab vehicles from Ministries to give Members of Parliament shows that it will command resources without hesitation to promote its victory.

Fleets of vehicles naturally seem essential when candidates have to work in whole districts. So do millions of posters and hundreds of people to paste them. That in turn leads to violence that is more intra-party than between parties, since one’s immediate rivals are those in one’s own party. But presumably that matters nothing to the Prime Minister who belongs to the Divide and Rule Jayewardene philosophy in the UNP rather than the more inclusive Senanayake tradition.

The main argument against a First Past the Post system is that it distorts the will of the electorate. We saw this in both 1970 and in 1977, when governments had massive majorities in Parliament even though they had just bare majorities. But that is why the Maithripala Sirisena manifesto says very clearly that there would be mechanisms for plurality, and even more significantly, ‘the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal.’ Read the rest of this entry »

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presidency 23In my student days I had a great friend who simplified Wittgenstein into the theory that people simply created their own mythology. That was a satirical idea, used about the more obsessive amongst us, but I fear it is the most suitable image for what is now happening in government. And the saddest aspect of such personal mythologies is that those who create them begin to believe them, and become enthralled by their own vision of the world, even if it has no connection with reality.

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…sheer ignorance of government about the information revolution that has taken place in recent times

This phenomenon seems to lie behind some of the confusion that has beset the country in the last few weeks. And it is compounded by what seems the  sheer ignorance of government about the information revolution that has taken place in recent times. A simple understanding of the world, as it actually is, would have prevented the efforts to give a positive spin to the President’s meetings with other leaders while he was in New York. But there were immensely optimistic pronouncements, which came an absolute cropper. This was not only because of the immediate response of the American government, but also because several news outlets that Sri Lankans read with ease today cited that response.

The manner in which the Americans corrected the spin ‘government sources’ had tried to put on the meeting the President had with John Kerry was pretty shaming. Their spokesman said, about the report that had appeared in a Sri Lankan paper, to the effect that the American position was softening, that ‘The only thing that was right was that the Secretary did speak with the Sri Lankan president on the margins of the UN General Assembly. He did so with the express purpose of conveying that U.S. policy with regard to Sri Lanka has not changed’. In effect, she made it clear that the report had got everything else wrong, so that she was able to assert clearly the opposition of the American government to what is going on in Sri Lanka. Had we not tried to lie about that, it would not have become known so widely.

A further reflection on what can only be described as the idiocy of those who are interpreting what goes on internationally is that we have been here before. I remember being confidently assured by someone in the Ministry of External Affairs early in 2013 that the Americans were softening, and that there would be no resolution about us in Geneva that year. But even an idiot reading what the Americans were saying would have realized that they were not happy.

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..they are deliberately misleading him, so that they can fulfil their own nefarious agendas

It is sad to think that those who are now running our foreign policy and advising the poor President are worse than idiots. But it would be sadder to think that they are deliberately misleading him, so that they can fulfil their own nefarious agendas. But that seems to be the truth. Given how clever they have been in getting rid of anyone sensible who might have brought some sense into our actions, one has to conclude that they are not really idiots, but instead devilishly clever.

Certainly to have bamboozled someone I had thought of as one of the shrewdest political minds in the business shows great skill. And what is worse is that they have actually persuaded him to deploy all his own skills to fulfil their own agendas. The efforts to black out the story of what happened in New York might indeed have succeeded, given the persuasive powers of the President, were it not for the immense power now of social media. But the way in which that works, the fact that one cannot limit access to websites, the immense ease with which a story spreads if just a few people with social media capacity and skills are determined to get their message across, all seem to be unknown in the corridors of power in Sri Lanka.

And of course once a story breaks, no one can afford to keep quiet about it. This may not be entirely true in Sri Lanka but, despite the determination of the state media to suppress anything that does not conform to the vision they are propagating, we now have enough and more outlets that will keep the people informed.

So it is astonishing that the President does not seem to understand this. His anger when the story he had tried to suppress broke, and he found out that it would overshadow his visit to the Pope, indicates a mind that is no longer in touch with reality. This is contrary to the hope of one of the few sensible people still in close contact with the President who had hoped, since he had ‘my ears to the ground; in every district, little groups have been talking to me’ that there could be some sort of a reality check. But he too seems to have been overborne by those he described in nothing that ‘Not many speak the truth today and all I hear are blatant lies.’ Read the rest of this entry »

… after the unprecendented action of two Cabinet Ministers who did not vote for the government in a vote of confidence, after which one of them has put the government on probation.

 

Your Excellency

Last year, when I did not vote for the impeachment of the Chief Justice, instructions had been given, before I even returned home, to reduce my Security. I did not see this as a problem, since I have long argued that we now deploy far too much security, which makes a mockery of your great achievement in getting rid of terrorism from Sri Lanka in 2009. Two officers, as I now have, are quite enough for Members of Parliament, with perhaps one more for Constituency members. And certainly Ministers too could do with far less security, given the numbers and the expense involved.

I was happy therefore to contribute even in a small way to reducing government expenditure, and I realized that such a token reprimand made sense given the general requirement to support government in votes. However it is generally accepted in all parliamentary democracies that votes of conscience are acceptable, and certainly so when there is no threat of instability for government.

The case is very different in the case of a No Confidence Motion against government, and it is unthinkable that Cabinet members should refrain from voting. I hope therefore that I will not be the only person to suffer for having failed to vote, given also the great difference between that occasion and this.

On a related point, two years ago you called me to say I should not criticize public servants who are not able to respond. That was with regard to the falsehood told you by Ms Kshenuka Seneviratne, calculated to rouse suspicions about the Indian Parliamentary delegation as well as the Leader of the House. I noted that it would have been reprehensible to remain silent, and you told me then that I should write to the Ministry. I did so, but have not as yet had a response. I was told by the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs at that time that he had sought advice from the Presidential Secretariat, given the seriousness of the matter, but had received no response.

I should note that your Secretary was aware of the incident, and confirmed that you had indeed been misled about the delegation, but that he had sought reassurance from the Ministers of Economic Development and of External Affairs, who had confirmed that there was no truth whatsoever in the story you had been told. Given the tremendous sympathy displayed towards Sri Lanka by the head of the Indian delegation, Sushma Swaraj, and the important role she is likely to play in the new Indian government, it is worth reflecting on the enormous damage that would have been done to Sri Lanka had you cancelled your meeting with that delegation as was your inclination after your mind had been poisoned.

Recently I was sent by Mr Kumar Rupesinghe the text of an interview given by the Minister of Housing and Construction, in which he is deeply critical of the Secretary to the Treasury. This is the more reprehensible since, as Mr Rupesinghe pointed out, the Secretary must be acting in accordance with policies decided on by government and by you as Minister of Finance. This is a very different situation from that of Ms Seneviratne who acted on her own in spreading malicious gossip.

I hope therefore that suitable action will be taken to make it clear that the Secretary to the Treasury should not be publicly insulted when following government directives and that such conduct is not acceptable in a Member of the Cabinet.

In all fairness however to the ideas expressed by the Minister of Housing and Construction, I believe he too has now understood the need for reforms, so that we might fulfil the tremendous potential the country had at the time of the last election. But it would be a pity if reforms sent us backward, whereas the commitments to pluralism and wider consultation that were made at the time would help us to move forward and overcome the various threats we face. We should also be aware of the increasing feeling against current structures, and should therefore – given your immense popularity as compared with that of your Cabinet colleagues – work towards a Presidency that can function effectively with full accountability to a Parliament that is strengthened to fulfil its basic responsibilities.

 Yours sincerely,

 

Rajiva Wijesinha

 

 

cc.      Hon Dinesh Gunawardena, Chief Government Whip

Mr Lalith Weeratunge, Secretary to the President

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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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, at the first session of the Conference on Pluralism and Development In Asia: Issues and Prospects – November 5th 2011

Let me begin with the obvious. Pluralism is fun. Uniformity is not only dull, it is also destructive. We all need variety in our lives, we need different interests to keep our minds active. We need to explore new idea, and we do this best through experiencing and engaging with a range of perspectives.

But, in celebrating variety, those of us who are innately fascinated by novelty must also realize that this has its risks. Conformity provides certainty, and we need to remember that security is perhaps the most important of all emotional needs for humans, or should I say for all living beings. And familiarity inculcates security. We should not then underestimate the strength of the need to live amongst those who share language and religion and customs.

Two factors have contributed to institutionalizing this thrust towards uniformity in the construction of nation states. The first is the strength of revealed religion. This is most apparent now with regard to Islam, where the urge for conformity seems particularly invasive of individuality. But we have to remember that this is not a new phenomenon, and the great intermingling of civilizations that took place through the explorations of post-Renaissance Europe was often fuelled by a thirst to convert.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2017
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