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24102013240The cultural programmes I worked on in 2013, with Daniel Ridicki and the Indian High Commission and various universities, went hand in hand with the Divisional Reconciliation Committee meetings that were my main official responsibility during this period. Having been to all the 35 Divisional Secretariats in the North, which I did three times in fact in the less than three years in which I was Adviser on Reconciliation, I had started on the East. Over that year I covered all 45 Secretariats, bemused though by the way new ones had been set up at the drop of a hat, simply to satisfy the sectarian compulsions of particular politicians. And it was clear that there were many problems in the East too, and that government simply had no system in place to listen to the people.

But in September I found that the DIG in charge of the Eastern Province, Pujith Jayasundara, had tried to institutionalize community relationships through what were termed Civil Defence Committees, which were supposed to function in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. This did not always happen, but Pujith, whom I had known for a long time, was 30102013323analytical in his approach, and had set up formal mechanisms to ensure action. I knew nothing about all this, but I was by chance in the vicinity when a meeting of their community advisers took place, and was asked to address them.

This obviously went down well, for I was asked to address a larger gathering later in the week. Though my book launch at the Indian High Commission was scheduled for the day before that meeting in the East, I thought I should not refuse. So having come back and got through the launch, I left well before dawn to get to Batticaloa in time for the meeting which was held at the Municipal Hall. This was followed by another meeting next day at Kattankudy.

IMG-20131031-16830I took advantage of all this to rationalize the system, which we were able to do when the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, P B Abeykoon, sent a letter I drafted asking the Divisional Secretaries to revise the manner in which what were termed Civil Defence Committees were constituted. Earlier the Chairman was  supposed to be a leading member of the community, but such people, however worthy, had no official position. They could therefore be ignored by those with formal authority. Though in some cases they commanded respect, this was not always the case. Though the Grama Niladhari was supposed to act as Secretary of the Committee, this did not always happen, and there were no mechanisms for follow up.

The Secretary’s letter instructed that the Grama Niladhari chair the meeting, with the police acting as secretaries to the committees. This was not done everywhere but, where instructions were followed, there were better results in terms of people actually feeling they had an opportunity to be heard by those in decision making positions. Unfortunately our administrative system had not enjoined clear follow up mechanisms, as I found when I happened to visit the Nittambuwa Police Station when my car broke down near there on a journey the following year. I found a very intelligent and committed OIC, who was happy to talk to me at length about what he was doing. He had ensured that there were well maintained files for each GN Division, but he had not been able to break through the system and take advantage of the other government officials who were allocated to specific GN Divisions. These were the Economic Development Officers and the Samurdhi or Divineguma Officers, both working for Basil Rajapasa’s Ministry, but without clear instructions as to how they were to coordinate with other government departments. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.30675367The last conference I attended was in the North East of India, where the topics encapsulated in the title of Prof. Hettige’s book loomed large. The same issues that bedevil development questions in this country were apparent there, and could be summed up perhaps in one word, namely consultation.

I was asked, earlier this week, to speak on the ‘Nexus between Development and Governance; a Sri Lankan Perspective’ at the launch of Prof. Siri Hettige’s latest book, ‘Governance, Conflict and Development in South Asia: Perspectives from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka’. This is in fact a collection of essays, co-edited by Prof. Hettige, bringing together the proceedings of a series of discussions on the subject.

I must confess that I went through only the essays on Sri Lanka, which is a shortcoming, but I should add that I thought it best to concentrate on this country, given the crisis we are going through. Prof. Hettige made some admirable points, though he did so with the detached dignity of an academic, whereas in the current context there might have been a case for a more aggressive approach. But since the essays were written some time back, and the book was a record of what had taken place, I must grant that it would have been difficult to be creatively topical.

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qrcode.30124925I come back to Education because, with every day that passes, it is more and more obvious that we must engage in quick reform of the system. We need to change structures to allow for quick decisions. We need to change syllabuses to ensure that our youngsters get basic knowledge and also the ability to access necessary information. We need to encourage thinking skills and initiative, and also group learning that will promote cooperation rather than competition that puts us each in his own little compartment.

What we must get rid of is the continuing dependence on officials who have little understanding of the ground situation in the various schools which have insufficient teachers, inadequate provision for counseling and few extra-curricular activities. That requires strengthening school based management, but we have to make sure that, when principals are given greater responsibility, they are made strictly accountable, and that they must show results that can be accesses and questioned by all stake holders.

This means more effective consultative committees in schools, but these cannot be confined to parents, because they can be easily intimidated. That is why we tried, when I worked with Divisional Secretariats, to strengthen the Women and Children’s Units, to encourage officials involved in child care at all levels to actively monitor schools. In particular the Health Department and the Probation Department should be empowered to check on the physical welfare of students in schools, and also attendance.

Unfortunately our administrative structures militate against such cooperative efforts. Institutions are compartmentalized, with no provision for the comprehensive assessments of their development that children require. The unquestioned domination of officials in a colonial administration has combined with the statism of the period just after independence to give the Ministry of Education exclusive control of the education process. But that Ministry should be confined to setting standards, whereas both implementation and monitoring should be left to local agencies that know the ground situation. Read the rest of this entry »

Richard De ZoysaI was deeply saddened earlier this month to hear of the death of the marvelous Engish actress Geraldine McEwan. I had got to know her 30 years earlier, shortly after I joined the British Council, when she toured Sri Lanka with her one-woman Jane Austen show.

I had been determined to take the tour all over the country, but by then we were advised not to go to Jaffna. So we went instead to Batticaloa, where we found a most appreciative audience. Geraldine also had what was for her a first time experience, in that bats swooped in and out of the hall during the performance.

But she, and her Stage Manager Catherine Bailey, were infinitely adaptable, and said they had enjoyed the tour thoroughly. After the Batticaloa performance, we had a cyclone scare, and had to leave Passekudah, where we were staying, before dawn broke.

That should have been the high point of the tour, but what Geraldine and Catherine remembered most vividly, during our long friendship over the next three decades, was the previous night. After a performance at Peradeniya in collaboration with the university, Richard de Zoysa turned up at the Citadel, and we had a lively dinner which went on into the early hours.

Richard was a fantastic companion in any context, and he struck exactly the right note for Geraldine and Catherine who had a deep sense of social commitment. They would ask after him often in the years that followed, and were profoundly upset when he was murdered, 25 years ago. The fact that it was because of his passion for social justice added to the poignancy of his death, for them, as it should for all of us. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26819894What was termed the militarization of the North was attributed mainly to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence, and in many minds he was considered the greatest barrier to Reconciliation. He was thought the architect of the policy that held security to be the most important consideration, and that to ensure this the footprint of the military had to be heavy and pervasive.

This was ironic, for during the course of the war he had seemed of the view that, while the forces could handle the military requirements, a settlement required the politicians, and setting this in place was not his role. Indeed, in this regard he seemed the opposite of his Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was thought to be of the view that a policy of settlements in the North was the best way of guaranteeing peace. Gotabhaya, on the contrary went along with his brothers, the President and Basil, when they sidelined Fonseka, having refused his request that the army be enlarged; and, as noted, Basil went ahead with a policy of swift resettlement, which was in accordance with the pledge of the President.

Indeed, even during the war, Gotabhaya had seemed soft in comparison with Sarath Fonseka. His chosen instruments were officers such as Daya Ratnayake, appointed Army Commander in 2013, who had developed the strategy that ensured that there were hardly any civilian casualties in the East. Sarath did not like Daya Ratnayake, and sidelined him and would have had him retired early, but Gotabhaya saved his career by sending him off to China for his Staff College Course. When he came back, he was not used at all in what remained of the Northern offensive.

Sarath had a no nonsense approach to the conflict, and when the ICRC told him that firing was coming close to hospitals, his response was on the lines that the hospitals should no longer have been there, since they had been instructed to move. Gotabhaya on the contrary had taken notice of such warnings and indicated that he would have the line of fire changed.

In general, Gotabhaya and his preferred instruments such as Jagath Jayasuriya who, as Commander of the Special Forces in Vavuniya, was in charge of the Northern operation, tended to follow international law as best possible. Given the general strategy followed in the war, and the care taken in most quarters to avoid civilian casualties, there is no doubt that Sarath Fonseka also followed the general principles laid down by the civilian command, but it was also apparent that he sometimes saw this as a needless hindrance. His initial account of the killing of those who tried to surrender by carrying White Flags and leaving the Tiger lines indicates his bluff mindset, for he was reported as having said that those in air-conditioned rooms, an obvious reference to Gotabhaya, ordered that they be spared. He however had done what was required, since he knew how they had behaved in the past.

It was odd then that, a couple of years later, Gotabhaya should have inherited the mantle of the hard-liner, but perhaps it was inevitable given the manner in which government decided to respond to the challenge presented by Sarath Fonseka, when he stood for election against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common Opposition candidate. Having experienced what seemed a Damascus style conversion, doubtless because he was backed by the Americans (who could not have been ignorant of his measure but thought him the best instrument of applying pressure on Rajapaksa), he put himself forward for election as a dove. He was indeed supported by the UNP, which had not supported the crushing of the Tigers, and by the TNA, the main Tamil political party. His approach then to the White Flag case was that it was those in air-conditioned rooms who had given orders that they be killed.

Government responded, not by pointing out the contradictions in his accounts, and calling him a liar, but by saying he was a traitor. They had decided that, since Fonseka was the principal opponent in the election, it was the hardline vote that had to be won. Patriotism, in order to get the better of Fonseka, had to be tough, so it did not matter that the impression they created was that his story might be true. The upshot of this, of course, was that when the LLRC recommended inquiries into possible abuses, the government was in difficulties, since Fonseka could well have called them traitors for letting down patriots who had only done what was necessary to eliminate terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

SriEquity for children through quality education Lanka has every reason to be proud of its record on education, in comparison with those of other countries in the region. But we should also remember that we had a similar leading position many years ago, and others are catching up. Indeed other countries in Asia have forged ahead, so we really need to stop making comparisons with those who started off far behind us, and should indeed concentrate on making things better for all our children.

For the fact is, educational disparities are still excessive. Another problem is that our children are not getting the type of education needed in the modern world. And we have done little about ensuring acquisition of the soft skills essential for productive – and lucrative – employment.

Unfortunately those who make decisions on education now do not take these problems seriously. The manner in which education reform has been delayed indicates that those in charge of the system have no interest in change. This has been the case for most of the last three quarters of a century, following the seminal changes made by CWW Kannangara when he was Minister of Education, and make equity and quality and variety his watchwords. Though there have been some exceptions, notably when Premadasa Udagama and EL Wijemanne and Tara de Mel were Secretaries to the Ministry, given the self-satisfaction of most of those in authority, even their contributions were limited.

I saw ample evidence of the lethargy in the system when I was finally sent statistics with regard to teacher availability in the poorer Districts of the Northern Province. At first glance the situation seemed acceptable, but this was because statistics are collated on the basis of Educational Zones. These often combine urban and rural areas, so that it looks like there are sufficient teachers in place. In reality however teachers are concentrated in urban areas, and it is only when one checks on teacher availability in individual schools, or in Educational Divisions, as I do during Reconciliation Meetings at Divisional Secretariats that one realizes how deprived the poorer areas are.

It has been recommended by the Parliamentary Committee on Education, which has now been discussing reforms for over four years, that Zones be abolished, and Divisions treated as the unit of significance, but nothing has been done about this.

Another problem is the appalling paucity of teachers at Primary level. The teaching of English suffers worst perhaps in this regard, and this means that the victims of this have no hope at all of learning English. Given the manner in which syllabuses are constructed and implemented, the poorer children, who generally have no foundation, have no hope of getting one, let alone building on it. Though we tried when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education to introduce remedial activity into the curriculum, this initiative was stopped in its tracks by the so-called professional educationists who took over after my term was cut short for political reasons.

But in any case that is not the solution, and we should be doing more to strengthen the training and deployment of primary teachers. But given that the Ministry has failed to solve this problem for decades, it is not likely that it has any hope of improving things on its own. However the idea of developing partnerships with private institutions, or even with Provincial Ministries, to increase supply is anathema to those who have enjoyed their debilitating monopoly for so long.

The same goes with regard to another eminently sensible initiative the Ministry has recently started. I refer to the establishment of a Technical Stream in schools, in recognition of the need to train students for the world of work that many of them could satisfactorily enter. Unfortunately this initiative is confined to a very few schools, and even in some of these there are not enough teachers. Unfortunately it has not struck the Ministry that it should also simultaneously instituted mechanisms to develop teacher supply. Read the rest of this entry »

sleepy 5In 2011 then it seemed that GL was intransigent about granting anything the TNA wanted. Obviously however this was not because of any principles, given that in 2002 he had been excessively indulgent about giving the LTTE anything they wanted. The conclusion then is inescapable that he simply deduced what his patron of the moment wanted, and then went much further.

In 2002 he had been serving Ranil Wickremesinghe who was complaisant about LTTE demands, since he saw an agreement with them as the key to his future electoral success in contesting the presidency. In 2011 however GL served a different master, and this was not it seems the President, given his refusal, on the grounds that his neck would be on the block if things went wrong, to follow the President’s instructions about submitting a draft in accordance with what had been agreed with the TNA. Rather, it would seem that GL was working in accordance with what he thought were Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s predilections. Basil certainly seems to have been of this view, and was bitterly condemnatory of GL when he mentioned him.

Another instance of GL’s acquiescence in the Defence Secretary’s agenda was apparent late in 2013, when the South Africans launched an initiative to promote Reconciliation. The South African ambassador to Sri Lanka, who seemed anxious to help Sri Lanka, had long lost faith in GL, who he thought would not give the President any messages. He had therefore himself met the President to promote a dialogue, and the President proved enthusiastic and met with a high level South African team late in 2012 to formulate a plan – without GL being at the meeting.

It was decided that a delegation be sent to South Africa to explore options, and the President, who had surprisingly invited me to the initial meeting, insisted that I go too. This was in contradiction of his assertion that the delegation would be from the SLFP, his own political party, a formula designed to leave out the hardliners from other political parties who were part of his coalition. I pointed out that I was not a member of the SLFP, but he said that did not matter.

Unfortunately the leadership of the SLFP was not enthusiastic, and suggested a date far in the future. The ambassador called me and I contacted the President’s Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, whose intervention seems to have proved fruitful because the delegation left for South Africa before the Christmas lull of 2012. However I was omitted, which was a pity because I had discussed expanding the powers of local government with the President, an idea he had welcomed, and I was perhaps the only one of those he had initially selected who understood how the original post-apartheid South African constitution had been later amended to strengthen the role of local authorities. This had happened in India too, as we had noted in our discussions with the TNA, and it seemed the obvious solution to fears about confrontation between the central government and provinces that saw themselves as the alternative centres of power.

With none of the other members either enthusiastic or knowledgeable, that initiative failed, but the South African ambassador was indefatigable. Over the following year he promoted much interaction between Sri Lankan politicians and those who had steered the reconciliation process in South Africa following the initial agreement between Mandela and the apartheid government.

His commitment became clear when President Jacob Zuma, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November 2013, gave Sri Lanka a great opportunity to move forward while repudiating the unwarranted interference of the British Prime Minister David Cameron. He responded very positively to President Rajapaksa’s request for advice and assistance on the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which had reduced animosities in South Africa. The President’s request was clearly a great step forward, since it seemed to recognize the need for solutions based on culturally appropriate models of inclusiveness, rather than the oppositional punitive approach that Cameron was advocating.

But the opportunity was not immediately taken up, and it was apparent that at least some elements in the Sri Lankan government were wary of South Africa. Indeed this had become apparent a few weeks earlier, when a high level delegation came over to facilitate discussions on reconciliation, and a seminar was held at the Lakshman Kadirgarmar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies, which came under GL. Read the rest of this entry »

7 dwarfs introIn May 2009, Sri Lanka seemed on top of the world. Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan government and forces had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a terrorist movement that had dominated Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. It had survived conflict with not just successive Sri Lankan governments, but even the might of India.

Though the Tigers had been banned by several countries, there was some sympathy for them in many Western nations who could not make a clear distinction between them and the Tamils of Sri Lanka, who they felt had been badly treated by successive Sri Lankan governments. Fuelled by a powerful diaspora that sympathized with and even supported the Tigers, several Western nations had tried to stop the war being fought to a conclusion. When this attempt did not succeed, they initiated a special session against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but the condemnation they anticipated of the Sri Lankan government did not occur.

Instead, Sri Lanka initiated a resolution of its own, which passed with an overwhelming majority. It received the support of most countries outside the Western bloc, including India and Pakistan and China and Russia and South Africa and Brazil and Egypt.

Less than three years later however, the situation had changed, and a resolution critical of Sri Lanka was carried at the Council in Geneva in March 2012, with India voting in its favour. The resolution had been initiated by the United States, and it won support from several African and Latin American countries, including Brazil, that had been supportive previously. The following year an even more critical resolution was passed, with a larger majority. This was followed in 2014 by a Resolution which mandated an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner. India, it should be noted, voted against this Resolution, but it still passed with a large majority.

Meanwhile international criticism of Sri Lanka has increased, and it had a very tough ride in the days leading up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Colombo in November 2013. Though the British Prime Minister withstood pressures to boycott the event, the Indian Prime Minister did not attend. Though the Indians did not engage in overt criticism, the Canadian Prime Minister was extremely harsh in explaining why he would not attend. And the British Prime Minister made it clear that he would raise a number of issues suggesting that Sri Lanka needed to address several grave charges.

How had this happened? How had a country that dealt successfully with terrorism, and did so with less collateral damage than in other similar situations, found itself so conclusively in the dock within a few years? How had it lost the support of India, which had been strongly supportive of the effort to rid the country of terrorism? Read the rest of this entry »

download (7)An opposition member noted that recently there had been much speculation in the corridors of Parliament about the manner in which funds were being allocated for development. I had realized something unusual was going on, because during Reconciliation meetings in the North I had been told about massive amounts being made available to individual Members of Parliament.

I had not received anything myself, and indeed had to ask for the Rs 5 million that has been given each year to all Members of Parliament. I was particularly keen to have this available, because it was only recently that I realized that no one else spent even a modicum of what I did in the less populated Divisions in the North. I had decided that this year then I would spend the bulk of my funds, not split between North and South as previously, but largely in the East, because I realized there were also Divisions there which received little. But I am not sure whether I might not be forgotten, given the rush to spend the much larger sums that have been given selectively.

What the rationale for selection is I am not clear about, though I know that DEW Gunasekara has not received any, and it seemed Rauff Hakeem had received nothing either. I was told though that, when he complained about this to the President, it transpired that the latter was not aware of this and urged him to write in and ask. I have followed suit, but as yet have received no reply.

At a recent Consultative Committee meeting however, since the Minutes referred to the allocations, we were able to ask, and received a very clear picture of the manner in which the development budget allocated to the Ministry of Economic Development is being spent. It seems that large amounts have been allocated to government Members of Parliament who chair particular Divisional Development Committees, and they are asked to decide on Projects. This is of course not meant to be spent arbitrarily, but is supposed to be after due consultation of the people.

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Apart from its failure to pursue Reconciliation with determination and coherence, perhaps the saddest failure of the current government has been with regard to Education. When the Cabinet was being formed in 2010, one of the President’s friends who was pressing hard for me to be appointed Minister of Education was told that they had found a brilliant candidate, namely Bandula Gunawardena. I presume his long experience in giving tuition was thought an appropriate qualification.

It was not taken into consideration that his very livelihood had depended on the failure of the education system to provide good teaching. It was not conceivable then, given that he was not likely to disrupt the livelihoods of those who had toiled alongside him in the industry, that he would prioritize the production and employment of more and better teachers. So indeed it proved. The whole approach of the Ministry in the last four years, in line perhaps with the populist rather than productive interpretation of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has dominated government during this period, was to put up larger and more elaborate buildings in select locations.

The purpose of this became clear when I brought up, at the last meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, the waste of resources in the fact that a well equipped computer laboratory had been put up in a school I knew well in a rural area, but it had remained closed for several months. I had been told that this was because the authorities were waiting for a dignitary to open the place.

Bandula confirmed this, and claimed that it was important for the people to know who had provided such a facility. That this was in fact the people, since the building had been put up and equipped through loans which the people would have to repay, was not something that would have occurred to someone who had made his living by giving tuition in Economics. Nor would he have realized that the adulation expressed in speeches at a formal opening would not have a lasting impact compared with the resentment of students, and their parents, who are bright enough to know when something intended to benefit them is being squandered for political gain.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2017
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