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Five years ago the country was full of promise. I believe that promise could easily have been fulfilled, had government not fallen prey to a few rent seekers. What happened, in particular in the last couple of years, was tragic, and I believe a full study of the triumph and the tragedy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be immensely illuminating.

But that should be undertaken after more reflection. In this series I will look only at a few measures that could easily have been undertaken without controversy, to have strengthened relations between the government and the people. I am sure many individuals had many ideas, but obviously I can only discuss in some detail those I had personal knowledge of. I will therefore in this series look at some of the work I tried to do, which was stymied more through neglect than deliberate policy – except perhaps with regard to one or two individuals, who could brook no rivalry (something from which President Sirisena too suffered). For this purpose I will go through some of the letters and memoranda I sent over the years, with decreasing impact.

To go back to 2010, President Rajapaksa had succeeded the previous year, against what seemed insuperable odds, in eliminating the LTTE in Sri Lanka. Then he had won the Presidential election handsomely, despite the range of support, national and international, received by his opponent, General Sarath Fonseka. He had also won the parliamentary election that followed, with a healthy majority.

Reconstruction was proceeding apace in the North, and the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres was moving ahead successfully. The over 4000 suspects, who had been in custody before the conclusion of the war, had been reduced to well under 2000. For this purpose the President had appointed a Committee which I chaired, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and we had received full cooperation from the relevant authorities, the army and the police and prisons officials. And the National Human Rights Action Plan, which had been abandoned during the election period, was being finalized.

I was no longer officially in charge, for I was now in Parliament. The Ministry of Human Right had been abolished and, when I inquired as to what would happen about this vital area, I was told that it would be looked after by the Ministry of External Affairs. But the Ministry was ill equipped for such a task, and indeed it failed to make proper use of my project staff, who had been transferred there. In fact, because of bureaucratic delays, it lost the services of our able consultant Nishan Muthukrishna, and I began to wonder whether the Action Plan was doomed. But then the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, was put in charge. Though he was very busy, he allowed our meetings to be held in his office, and we were able to move swifty and have a final draft approved by Cabinet the following year.

I had expected to receive a Ministry, since there seemed no purpose in having someone who was not a constituency politician, and had no ambitions to become one, in Parliament without other functions. I gather this had been planned, but the delay in finalizing the election results proved fatal, and I was told there was strong opposition to my being appointed by those who disliked my pluralistic credentials and my support for the 13th Amendment. The Swiss Ambassador at the time had told me she had heard I was to become Foreign Minister, but that seemed far-fetched. Education seemed more likely, but then Lalith Weeratunge told Kumar Rupesinghe, who said he had been pushing for this, that they had found someone far more suitable. Bandula Gunawardena was accordingly appointed.

I did not worry about this, for I thought I should in any case learn more about Parliament, and I had assumed, having known Parliament previously from the days when my father was Secretary General, that members could contribute to legislation and policy decisions. That was intended according to the Standing Orders, which I studied because, unexpectedly, I was put on the Committee on Standing Orders. I had not asked for that, or the Committee on Public Enterprises, but these soon became my main areas of concentration.

With regard to Ministry Consultative Committees, I was not put on those for Defence and for External Relations which I had asked for, given my previous work in those areas as Head of the Peace Secretariat. But I was interested enough in some of the others I was appointed to, including Women’s Affairs and Child Development, and also Resettlement. But I soon found that these were not productive bodies, being occupied for the most part with individual constituency concerns.

I tried to change this, and was happy when Manthri, the organization that monitors the work of Members of Parliament, reported recently that I was the most active in this regard of National List MPs, and in the first ten of all MPs. They were able to do this because, after I pressed the matter, the Secretary General decided to publish the proceedings of Committees. These make clear how few members bother to attend, and indeed how infrequently meetings are held. Indeed, in the over five months in which a government supposedly dedicated to strengthening Parliament was in office, just nine committee meetings were held, whereas there should have been one a month for each Ministry, a total of about 150.

Meanwhile the Committee on Standing Orders came to a standstill. We had proceeded swiftly after our first meeting, at which it became clear that not many of the members had much interest in the matter or any great understanding of the issues involved. But they were happy to let those of us who were keen on the matter – namely the Deputy Speaker, Chandima Weerakkody, Mr Sumanthiran of the TNA and myself – to work intensively. We had redrafted about a quarter of the document when all hell broke loose.

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Doc 1On the old Bibilical adage that, from him to whom much is given, much is expected, the most reprehensible of those on whom the President relied was his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge. But in addition to his undoubted intelligence and administrative abilities, there was another factor which led to high expectations. This was that, whereas all the others whose influence has been described were exercising this to fulfil their own agendas, with Lalith it was never doubted that he saw himself as only serving the purposes of the President.

An exception could be made with regard to the Secretary of Defence, in that it could be argued his agenda was not intended for his own benefit, as opposed to the other five whose ambitions have been noted. But increasingly during the President’s second term in office Gotabhaya Rajapaksa began to see himself as fulfilling a purpose, albeit idealistic, that was at odds with what his brother intended. It was almost as though, having previously claimed that he could win the war but the political solution had to come from elsewhere, he had begun to think that his role was crucial for any acceptable political settlement. So he even directly criticized his brother, for instance by arguing that Northern Provincial Council elections should not be held, or by allowing crude attacks on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on the Defence Ministry website.

Lalith was different, in that he did not think the President’s essential vision was at fault. Indeed the closest he got to criticism was to declare that those around the President concealed from him what was really happening. His claim then was that he kept his ear to the ground and knew what the real situation was. But, though his primary allegiance to the President was never then in doubt, he too unfortunately failed to provide advice and assistance that would enable the President to pursue the objectives he had outlined in his manifesto, or to fulfil the commitments he had made with regard to pursuing a pluralistic political solution.

Thus for instance, he remained passive when the President failed to fulfil his promised to change the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province after the Provincial Council election in which the TNA had won a massive majority, towards the end of 2013. The TNA provocatively and unnecessarily passed a motion in the Council to the effect that the Governor, former General G A Chandrasiri, should be removed. But in conversation with the President the moderate Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, accepted that this could not be done immediately. It was agreed then that the President would make a change in that respect when Chandrasiri’s current term ended, in July 2014. However he agreed that the Chief Secretary, who had made it clear that her allegiance was to the Governor, rather than the elected Board of Ministers (on whose advice the Governor was meant to act) would be changed at once.

Lalith was instructed to make the change, and this mark of a willingness to compromise was conveyed to diplomats who had been positive about Sri Lanka. They felt betrayed then when action was not taken, and all Lalith could say in excuse was that his hands were tied. Even if this meant that the President had changed his mind, it was incumbent on Lalith to point out to the President the negative consequences of what would seem duplicity, and urge at least a further discussion with the Chief Minister. But nothing of the sort happened. Typically, in July 2014, General Chandrasiri was reappointed Governor for a further five year term.

Another earlier example of Lalith’s passivity, more reprehensible perhaps because it was with regard to a matter that was not contentious, was his failure to move on the President’s commitment to introducing a Second Chamber of Parliament. This had been a key feature of the Liberal Party’s proposals for Constitutional Reform, but I had found that the All Party Representatives’ Committee that met in my office when I was Head of the Peace Secretariat was not at all interested in the idea. The APRC was chaired by Prof Tissa Vitharna, of the old Trotskyist Party, the LSSP, and they looked on the concept in the light of their scorn for the British House of Lords. Read the rest of this entry »

Bash-Ful 4What 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)

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presidency 30One of my Tamil friends was recently at Temple Trees to participate in the exercises the poor President is now engaged in to try to win hearts and minds. But the experience was surreal, for discussion of substance was it seems left to Basil Rajapaksa, whilst the President contented himself with assuring his guests that he had taken precautions to stop further crossovers. Whether this was through carrots or sticks he did not elaborate.

Basil’s idea of substance of course leaves much to be desired. As the villagers where I spent the last weekend were saying, with regard to the sudden lowering of fuel and gas prices, the President thinks they are all babies. But at least the President, I still firmly believe, loves the people, and his tragedy is that he seems to love more those who do not share his own instincts and affections. But Basil it seems has nothing but contempt for them, for he thinks nothing of their future. As one shrewd Indian commentator put it with regard to the manner in which Kshenuka Seneviratne destroyed the goodwill Dayan Jayatilleka had built up, she ignored those without glamour except to ask them, when a crisis loomed, for their votes.

Kshenuka of course, unlike Dayan who could provide leadership to various causes, had nothing to offer in exchange. Basil has much. But the piling up of largesse in the form of sewing machines is not convincing, and the President should know this from the fact that, as my friend put it, the people of Uva took the sewing machines and voted for the opposition.

Basil’s answer to the request to cite some industries in the North was that, if he did that, he would have to sell the country. Since he is widely perceived as having done that already, beginning with his foolish handover of freehold to the Shangri-La Hotel, and since developing factories will cost much less than the fantasies that have been constructed in recent years, he only succeeded in upsetting his interlocutors further. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 30Though the choice the nation has to make on January 8th is a very serious one, there has certainly been a lot of entertainment to be had during the last few days. This is not all on one side, since it is odd to find many individuals who had little time for each other in the past now working together. My friend Dayan Jayatilleka first decided that the JHU provided the saving graces to the campaign of the common candidate, but then threw in his lot with the President. I assume he thinks there is hope of reform, which is ironic given his deep distrust of the Secretary of Defence. However I can but hope that he will be given control of the Foreign Ministry, given his incisive dissection of its disastrous workings in the last few years. He will certainly put an end to what he diagnosed some time back, that the Foreign Ministry was territory occupied by the Defence Ministry, and the Defence Ministry was territory occupied by Israel. His return to the Rajapaksa fold suggests that the President has begun to see sanity – though, as Dayan has noted, the President is generally sane when you talk to him, it is his capacity to implement his own decisions and follow his instincts that has been in doubt over the last few years.

Dayan’s decision may have also been dictated by his dislike of both Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is another irony that these two have now discovered each other’s virtues. But politics has always brought together people who were on different sides earlier, and this is understandable since we all need to look for good qualities in politicians and hope that these lead to productive synergy. Chandrika reminded me, when we met on the day of the first Press Conference, that I had once told her I wanted to bring her and Mahinda together. I certainly regret that both did not try harder, because had they at least talked to each other, and tried to reach consensus on issues both had been positive about earlier, such as the 13th amendment, Mahinda would not so easily have become the prisoner of the rent seekers and extremists who now dominate him. 

People forging new alliances then, or going back to old ones, is not preposterous. What is preposterous is the excess the government has indulged in, in coping with the surprise it got when Maithripala Sirisena became the common candidate. First it had, as the President indicated, to make sure that no one else crossed over. To do this it employed both carrots and sticks, giving full publicity to the latter effort. This came in the form of the President’s declaration that he had files on everyone. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26592475Business opportunities need to be developed throughout the country. Though infrastructural development has been good in many parts of the country, the people need to be empowered to make use of new facilities and opportunities.

As I was told a couple of years back, in the Wanni, by a representative of a Women’s Rural Development Society, they were grateful for the assistance to resume agricultural work, but they needed training in marketing. Little has been done, too, to ensure value addition for basic produce. Though 2013 was declared the year of Value Addition, the Minister told me ruefully that hardly anything had been done.

It would help if expertise were available locally for agriculture as well as the development of industries. While there is obvious need of 59b514757c03f4e14c006ca63de02928_Mbetter training in skills, this should go hand in hand with training for enterprise development. We also need to provide better sources of credit, in particular to women. It is also desirable to provide start up support for new enterprises, in particular those that will also contribute to nutritional support, given the recent rise in the percentage of those suffering from malnutrition.

Encouragement of Small and Medium Enterprises is essential in a modernising economy. As the recent Pathfinder Foundation suggestions had it, ‘The overall business environment should assist SMEs to improve their competitiveness and market access. The major internal challenges related to SMEs include their sub-standard technology, low productivity, inferior product quality, weak access to new markets, lack of financing and financial management and scarcity of skilled labour. Their expansion is also constrained by institutional bottlenecks, lengthy and onerous bureaucratic procedures, fragmented support schemes, and a heavy regulatory burden.

It is sad that government failed in 2010 to build on the goodwill that was widely available after the destruction of the Tigers in Sri Lanka. Efforts were made then to encourage investment, and I still remember the enthusiasm at the Forum in Jaffna in January 2010. But bureaucratic delays held sway, along with rent seeking, which was made easier by bureaucratic requirements and the multiplicity of authorities whose approval was required for enterprise development.

Most important perhaps we should develop a culture of initiative and enterprise. Over half a century ago, D S Senanayake pointed out that Industry in this country has yet to be developed. Today Government service is still regarded as offering the most attractive jobs. We speak of industrialization in Ceylon but we do not seem to realise that we require well-trained personnel to enable us to compete in the industrial sphere with other parts of the world. We also want agriculturists who could help this country to compete on equal terms with the rest of the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 19When I began this series, over four months ago, the title may have seemed excessive. And even my good friend Dayan Jayatilleka thought I was being unduly pessimistic about the President’s pulling power when I said that the UNP would poll at least 40% in Badulla. But the results there have shown that the threat is even more serious than I had thought.

Over the next few weeks I will explore how the threat might be averted. But I suspect that that will serve no purpose, for Basil Rajapaksa, who may be the only one of the decision makers who reads what I write, would by then have dragooned the President into having an early election. He did this in 2009 when, as the President then put it to me – with a hint of contempt I think for what he deemed the amateur nature of our advice – only Gota and I told him not to have the Presidential election so soon.

That haste, to entrench not the President, whose popularity was unrivalled at the time, but his rent seeking friends and relations in power, has been the root of the evils we have suffered. Contrariwise, Mahinda Rajapaksa, if left to himself, would I think have gone ahead with the reforms he had promised. And he can still save himself, and his legacy, if he works on reforms such as those so helpfully suggested by Vasantha Senanayake, which aim at strengthening the effectiveness of the Executive, not its power. But even now, understanding that having the Presidential election soon would be unwise, the rent seekers are trying to precipitate an early Parliamentary election. They ignore the fact that Parliament has a year and a half to go, and the President more than two years, ample time for the pluralist Mahinda Rajapaksa to recreate himself, free of the baggage he has been compelled to carry.

But can he do this? Does he have the will and the ability to assert himself again? Sadly, the way in which he has allowed little things to get out of control, through a combination of indulgence and lethargy, suggests that the will is weakening, even if his abilities are still in good order. I will illustrate this in my column this week by exploring the sort of embarrassment to which he allows himself to be subjected, when he forgets that the leader of a country should not let himself get involved in trivialities or in criminal activities. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 18Sri Lanka Cricket appeared recently before the Committee on Public Enterprises, which is perhaps the only institution in Parliament to have had some effect over the last four years. It could do more, if the Speaker only convened the Committee on Standing Orders, but sadly the Speaker seems to have decided that it is not his business to strengthen Parliament. Instead he too seems ready to jump on the bandwagon on those who wish to abolish the Executive Presidency. That would be disastrous in the current situation but he, like many others, does not seem to understand that an Executive based in a Parliament which has no independent status would be equally lacking in transparency and accountability. And an Executive which has neither professionalism nor collegiality cannot be created simply by moving back to the Westminster model.

But I cannot expect anyone who took an interest in Parliament only after J R Jayewardene had denigrated it beyond measure to understand what a Parliament should really be like. The President does, but I think only he and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Vasudeva Nanayakkara remain in active politics of those who were in Parliament before 1977  (I do not count the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons). Fortunately we have a couple of people with political understanding based on previous generations, such as the Chief Government Whip. And recently an even younger parliamentarian with statesman potential, Vasantha Senanayake, has proposed some changes which would save both the country and the President from the abyss into which we are staring.

The manner in which Sri Lanka Cricket has run amuck typifies the need for greater transparency and accountability. Arjuna Ranatunge, for whom my respect has grown given his regular attendance and thoughtful contributions to COPE, pointed out that SLC’s current disastrous financial situation arose from massive expenditure on three stadiums, including the new one in Hambantota. He also established what was obviously corruption in the manner in which the contrast for telecasting rights had been given to the Carlton Sports Network at a time when his brother Nishantha was involved in both institutions. Nishantha’s plaintive defence that he had recused himself from the decision making process rang hollow, given the obvious bad faith of the Marketing Manager who functioned under him, who tried to throw the blame on Asanga Seneviratne, who roundly denied this. Read the rest of this entry »

The term rent-seeking is generally applied to politicians and government officials who seek benefits from the implementation of rules and regulations they administer. But the term is also used of those who benefit from the rent that, as it were, they pay to those in authority. Influencing government officials, and even government itself, to grant favours is an easy way of profiting in cultures where transparency is lacking and decision makers have discretion (which is generally a good thing) but without accountability (which is essential, with regard to discretionary decisions as well as finances).

This is one reason why governments should reduce the number of rules and regulations, and the number of times the public have to seek government approval for any initiative. This does not mean government should abdicate its responsibility of formulating and enforcing regulations, in the interests of equal opportunities and fair play. But too often regulations lead to individuals capable of winning favour easily obtaining approvals and support from officials, while members of the general public are driven from pillar to post to get answers, let alone permission. That is why, as the great Liberal statesman of the German Free Democratic Party put it, a country needs strong government, but it should be small.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2017
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