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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 »

Dayan Jayatilleka’s current forceful advocacy of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the best possible future leader of this country has raised many hackles, but I believe he has answered the criticisms raised effectively. What he has not explored is the irony of there being two contradictory approaches adopted, one accusing him of inconsistency in that he was critical of Gotabhaya in the past, the other accusing him of having failed to be so critical.

What is even more strange is that it is somehow assumed that those critical of the current government cannot be allowed to change their minds, whereas those in the UNP who engaged in abject racism and authoritarianism in the past are allowed to begin with a clean slate as it were, with no examination of their past records. So Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appalling racism in 1983 is forgotten, his claiming that the attacks on Tamils were a mere bagatelle compared with what the Bandaranaikes had done to Sinhalese businessmen while privileging the minorities. Forgotten too is his claim, when he was last Prime Minister, that, as had happened in Korea and Taiwan, democracy could be delayed and what was important was development, even if it came through dictatorship.

This does not necessarily mean that Ranil cannot change, though the inductive evidence suggests increasing doubts about this, and one should therefore take care. I myself have twice assumed he would change, and indeed told my aunt Ena de Silva when I voted for the UNP in 2001 that I believed Ranil and Chari had become better. She being wiser was not so sure. And though what happened then should have taught me a lesson, I did not think it a mistake to support a slate in the 2015 election in which Ranil would be Prime Minister. Read the rest of this entry »

The election was held on August 17th, and four days later I learnt that I had not been put into Parliament. I had been on the UPFA National List, which I gathered had been with the approval of both factions of the SLFP. But it had become clear almost immediately that happened that the polarization that was taking place would leave no room for anyone trying to hold a balance.

I had not been able, before it was submitted, to see the President to check about whether I would be on the List. But I did see him on July 14th, along with Faizer Mustapha, who had also resigned as a State Minister early in the year, deeply upset that as the leading Muslim in the SLFP who had supported the President’s campaign he had not been put into the Cabinet. The President told us that he had been responsible for ensuring that we were on the list, and we thanked him, but Faizer was much more worried about the fact that he was low down on the list, and kept questioning the President about his chances of being nominated to Parliament.

Maithripala, with a touch of the gentle irony I had found attractive in my few dealings with him, noted that he had thought we had come to thank him, not to complain. But Faizer was not to be deterred in pressing his case, and proceeded to claim that the Rajapaksa camp was deeply hostile to him because of his devotion to the President. I found this odd, given that Faizer had been one of those who crossed over to support Sirisena only when it became clear that he had a chance of winning, and when it was obvious that the Muslims would vote for him en masse and the Muslims who remained in the Rajapaksa camp had, for the moment, no prospect of political success.

But it was precisely those who crossed over late, in pursuit of their own advantages, who had to convince the President of their undying loyalty. They had nothing else to put forward, since obviously they had no commitment to the principles on which for instance Vasantha Senanayake and I had moved to support Sirisena – having previously, unlike others in government with a few honourable exceptions, raised questions with Mahinda Rajapaksa when we thought his government was going astray. Read the rest of this entry »

I returned from Azerbaijan on June 23rd and had to go that morning to Parliament for a COPE meeting. The report on the Bond scam was being drafted, and it was clear that it would show that Arjuna Mahendran had interfered egregiously with bond placements to the great detriment of the economy. The Opposition was feeling quite confident, but this made it push its luck and indicate that it would press for a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, who had clearly been responsible for what had happened, as indicated by his spirited defence of his acolyte – and indeed the instructions he had given to less scrupulous members of COPE to delay proceedings.

But this was not the only issue of importance, and it should not I felt be allowed to detract from the reforms that had been pledged in the President’s manifesto. The most important of these, which had been ignored when the Constitution was amended in April, was electoral reform, but the President had promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until that was accomplished. I believe he was sincere, but I worried given the rumours that were circulating about an early dissolution. However Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the Opposition, assured me during this week that the President had again promised that he would ensure electoral reform before having an election.

One area that I had not been able to address in the Manifesto was the need for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. This had been pledged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 manifesto, and he had indeed appointed a Committee headed by Jayampathy Wickremaratne to draft one. But by 2007, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, this lay forgotten, with the President and Jayampathy clearly no longer trusting each other. I was sorry about this, and told Jayampathy he should proceed, but it was clear he did not think the effort worthwhile in the prevailing dispensation.

But when in 2008 I was appointed also to the position of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following a renewed pledge in Geneva that a Bill of Rights would be introduced, I felt I could press, and Jayampathy was persuaded to reactivate his committee. We used many of the people who were also working on the Human Rights Action Plan that had been promised in Geneva, and well before the end of 2009 we had good drafts ready.

The silly season however had set in by then, and the President was concerned now only about the election. He had said work on the HR Plan should only continue after the election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe was not willing to press, nor even to bring the Bill of Rights to his attention. I foolishly asked him whether I could put it on the Ministry website as a draft, which he forbade, whereas I should have gone ahead without asking him, so that he would not have got any flak. Read the rest of this entry »

COPE began its investigations on Friday June 5th, and we met every day the following week, except on the Friday – again my fault, for I had arranged another trip, our High Commission in Delhi having succeeded in getting visas for Azerbaijan. During the weekend I read the reports the Bank had prepared on the whole business, and found the situation even worse than I had thought. Because of Mahendran’s actions, the interest the country had to pay on bonds had shot up, so that not only had Perpetual Treasuries, the company associated with Mahendran’s son-in-law, made a massive profit, but also the interest payments Sri Lanka had to make on loans after February 2015 reached ridiculous heights.

Our questioning of bank officials revealed an even more sordid side to Mahendran’s machinations. The first Deputy Governor we interviewed seemed to me a very shady character, and not very bright. I actually asked Nivard Cabraal why he had promoted him, to which the answer was that he was good at some things, and had seniority on his side. But he knew nothing of debt, so it was suspicious that Mahendran had put him in charge of that area.

The Director in charge of that area also knew nothing of the subject, but my sister told me that she was known for her honesty. She had called my sister when she was transferred to that position, expressing worries about her capacity to handle the job, but my sister told her that integrity was vital and that was perhaps the reason for the move. Certainly she exuded decency, to the point of practically breaking down when we reprimanded her for not having told the Governor that it was wrong to take 10 billion worth of bonds when the advertised amount had been 1 billion, and the few bids for large amounts were at high rates of interest. She declared that they had told him this repeatedly and, though they stopped him from insisting on 20 billion being taken, he had been adamant about 10.

Her Deputy was a very smart young man, and it was clear that he had made the position clear to Mahendran, but they had been over-ruled. It transpired too that Mahendran had come down to the bidding floor twice that morning, and had interfered egregiously in the process. It was absurd therefore that the UNP lawyers had claimed that he had no direct responsibility for what occurred.

Other suspicious details included the fact that Perpetual Treasuries had obtained a loan from the Bank of Ceylon for its bid, and that this had been approved straight away with no proper assessment of the request. It was unprecedented that the Bank, which was also a primary dealer, should not have bid to any substantial degree for bonds, but had instead underwritten the bid of a private company. Read the rest of this entry »

Deciding that I would make it clear that I was no longer part of the government, made it easier for me to deal more firmly with the manoeuvers Ranil was engaged in with regard to the promised constitutional reform. Jayampathy Wickramaratne had produced a draft that affirmed that the President should always act on the advice of the Prime Minister. I believe he had initially worked on his own, but later some party leaders had been consulted. I had not been asked and I complained to the President about this, so on Sunday March 15th I was duly invited to a discussion chaired by the President at his Secretariat.

I was blunt in my criticism of the underhand manner in which Ranil was trying to take full powers with no respect for the electoral process. I was backed by not only the SLFP representatives but also the JHU, which later commented on how forceful I had been. Ranil plaintively claimed that he had been promised this change, and that he would complain to Chandrika, but the President did not give in. The final decision was that Jayampathy would amend his draft, a task in which he was supposed to consult G L Pieris.

G L I fear did not check on what was going on, and the amended draft we received had changed the principal instrument of transferring power to the Prime Minister, but little else. We protested at the meeting to discuss the changes that was held in Parliament, but later we found that the gazetted version confirmed the primacy of the Prime Minister. Jayampathy claimed that this had been the decision of the Cabinet.

What had transpired in the interim was a sordid effort to in effect bribe those assumed to be the more malleable members of the SLFP. A week after the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, it was announced that the Cabinet had been expanded with the addition of several members of the SLFP. But it transpired that the leadership of the party had not been consulted, and it looked as though individuals had been selected principally by Chandrika. Having bitterly resented the fact that the senior leadership of the party had gravitated to Mahinda Rajapaksa after he had been made the Presidential candidate in 2005, she ignored them completely, which had dire consequences for the President.

Ironically one of those appointed to the cabinet was S B Dissanayake, who had fallen out with her dramatically after initially having been a favourite. S B was obviously someone who knew on which side his bread was buttered, but he was also an intelligent man, and indeed the only one in the 2001 UNP cabinet of those I met together with a German consultant trying to promote educational reform who was able to conceptualize. I asked him then why he had allowed Jayampathy to get away with a draft that stripped the President of his powers, but it turned out that he had not been at the crucial Cabinet meeting. So what Jayampathy tried to make out was an all party consensus was in fact the result of the second rank of the SLFP having been hurriedly elevated to unwarranted authority, quite in contravention of the promise on which the President had been elected.

Still, the Parliamentary group stood firm, and even those who had initially acquiesced in what Jayampathy had had gazette insisted on the President retaining his primacy. There was indeed strong resistance to supporting the constitutional amendment, but the President came to the group meeting in Parliament, and promised to address their concerns. In particular he granted that it was a pity the proposed 19th amendment did not introduce the electoral reforms he had pledged, and he solemnly promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until a 20th amendment that introduced a mixed system of election had also been passed. Read the rest of this entry »

The manifesto was launched at a ceremony at Vihara Maha Devi Park on December 19th. That was my grandmother’s birthday, and I thought, when I went to the cemetery afterwards, that she would have been pleased that I was working together with Ranil. At the same time, though I realized that was essential, and UNP support was of the essence if Maithripala Sirisena were to win, it was also clear that the UNP itself was in shambles, and had little capacity for effective coordination.

I had sensed this in the decline of Mangala Samaraweera, whom I had thought of as one of the more sophisticated members of the UNP. He had been instrumental in getting Vasantha Senanayake to be the first member of the government to announce publicly that he would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, though sadly for Vasantha he ignored the request that the Press Conference be held at an independent venue. Mangala instead dragooned Vasanth into making his announcement at Siri Kotha, which led to him being identified with the UNP, which had never been Vasantha’s intention. That was taken ruthless advantage of later to cut him down, tragically for both President Sirisena and also for the UPFA, which he could have contributed to immeasurably.

Twice after the common candidature was announced, Vasantha took me to see Mangala. But instead of the bright strategist I had assumed I would find, I had to deal with an amiable drunk, who wanted nothing better than to gossip over a drink, and then another. After the second such evening, in his delightful house in Ratmalana, I realized that this was yet another broken reed, his period out of power having deprived him of the capacity to focus which he had displayed earlier as a Minister.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.

We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.

Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.

That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President. Read the rest of this entry »

My sister, who has a healthy regard for Ranil Wickremesinghe, was deeply upset when I resigned from my Ministerial position and made it clear that I thought Ranil was largely responsible for the betrayal of the ideals and promises contained in the manifesto on which the President had been elected. The conclusion she came to was that I was impossible to get on with, and had lost all my friends.

She said this to my driver, claiming that the only people I was close to were Nirmali Hettiarachchi and himself. He said she had a catch in her voice, and seemed very worried for me. But the names she gave me when I asked her whom I had alienated were so ridiculous, that I realized she had a very strange idea of my social life. I was reminded then of Trollope’s Lady Laura, whose love for Phineas Finn was absolute, but who never, Trollope remarked, thought of what Phineas might want when making plans on his behalf.

For I am very much a solitary person, and the members of Colombo’s social elite whom she mentioned had never figured large on my list of people I want to spend time with. They were all nice enough, and I liked the interactions I have had with them. I was sad since, from what my sister said, I assumed the two who were close friends of hers had expressed some animosity towards me. But this was obviously the result of a strong stand I took with regard to the devious behavior against Sri Lanka’s interests of someone they were both devoted to, so I did not think I needed to bother too much.

The third person she mentioned was someone I had long lost touch with, and in any case I had only had interacted with him previously, and not to any appreciable extent, because of a close connection to a couple I still love dearly. Ironically, when I inquired about him I was told that there had been a great falling out there, which I realized my sister too knew nothing about. Her judgments seemed then based on preconceptions rather than attention to the facts. Read the rest of this entry »

Chanaka Amaratunga died 20 years ago on August 1st, 1996. He died a very disappointed man, for he had not been put into Parliament at the previous election. Those of us who have been in Parliament can vouch that that is no panacea for disappointment, given how sadly our Parliamentary traditions have been traduced. But Chanaka was a passionate believer in the Westminster system, the last perhaps to care deeply about its forms, with the possible exception of his great friend, Anura Bandaranaike.

I have written previously about the reasons Chanaka was not put in Parliament, but it is appropriate here, today, to note categorically that his hopes were destroyed by two people. In their careers they have often seemed polar opposites, but at the time they were united in their determination to keep Chanaka out. But I should note that it was not primarily dislike of him that motivated them, but rather fear – a much under-estimated factor in Sri Lankan politics. The fear was not of him but of another of his great friends, Gamini Dissanayake.

The two conspirators I refer to are Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is the more essential now to expound what happened because, in their subtle and not so subtle ways, they will now destroy Maithripala Sirisena, as they have destroyed so much else, unless their essential negativity is recognized. For once again what has brought them together is not anything positive, but rather a visceral hatred of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And underlying this hatred again is fear, and envy for they realize that he is much loved still in the country. This is despite all his faults and the faults of his government, because he achieved much for the country, not least destroying the terror that had burgeoned under their watch. They on the contrary did very little when they were in power, one for over a decade, the other in short spells, during which the power of the Tigers grew exponentially. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2017
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