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qrcode.30141748Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.

Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?

I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.

But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.

I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.

Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?

Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.

I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.

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happy 1During the conflict period, relations with India had been handled not by the Foreign Ministry, but by three trusted confidantes of the President. These were his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, and two of his brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. These two, both younger than the President, were neither of them Ministers at the time (as opposed to the oldest brother, Chamal, who was a long standing member of Parliament and a senior Minister). It was the two younger brothers however who were considered the most powerful members of the government. Gotabhaya was virtually a Minister in fact, since he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, with the President being the Minister, and leaving most of its running to him.

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Basil Rajapaksa … succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality.

Basil at the time was a Member of Parliament, but his executive responsibilities were informal, arising from his chairing the Task Forces that were responsible for reconstruction of the East (which had been retaken from the Tigers fully by 2007) and later of the North. He was an extremely hard worker, and had managed, well before the Tigers were destroyed, to have succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality. His technique had been massive infrastructural development, and the connectivity that was restored to the East had enabled its full involvement in the economic life of the country.

Late in 2008 he was appointed to chair what was termed a Presidential Task Force for the North. This was expected initially to make arrangements for the care of the internally displaced, most of whom were being held hostage by the Tigers at that time. Over the next six months they were driven into more and more restricted areas in terms of the Tiger strategy of using them as a human shields. This made the task of the military extremely difficult, but in the end, when the Tigers were destroyed, nearly 300,000 civilians were rescued, and taken to what were termed Welfare Centres.

Though there were complaints at the time about conditions in the camps, they were comparatively speaking much better than the lot of most displaced persons in such conflicts. Health services were excellent, and within a few days mortality figures had stabilized. Food supply and distribution was competently handled, and soon enough educational services too were made available.

Still, there had been much confusion initially, and this contributed to the feeling that government had been callous. More serious was the charge that government had wanted to keep the displaced in what were termed internment camps, and did not wish them to be resettled soon in their original places of residence.

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Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander

Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander, who had wanted to increase the size of the army when the war ended, probably because of a belief that Israeli type settlements were the best way of preventing future agitation. But this was certainly not the view of the President, who from the start urged swift resettlement, and hoped that the fertile land of the North would soon provide excellent harvests. And Basil Rajapaksa certainly wished to expedite resettlement, as I found when I once wrote to him suggesting that this was proceeding too slowly.

This was in August 2009, three months after the conclusion of the war, and he called me up and sounded extremely indignant. He declared that he had said he would perform the bulk of resettlement in six months, and he intended to do this, give or take a month or two. He had done a similar task in the East, and I should remember that a commitment of six months did not mean half in three.  In fact he started the resettlement soon after, though there was a hiccup, in that many of those sent away from the main Welfare Centre at Manik Farm in Vavuniya were then held in Centres in the District Capitals through which they had to transit.

I was in Geneva at the time, at the September 2009 session of the Human Rights Council, and for a moment I wondered whether the allegations that were being flung around, that we had started the Resettlement to pull the wool over the eyes of the Council, were true. Basil it turned out was nowhere to be found, a practice he often engaged in when upset, going back to the United States where he had been settled when his brother was elected President.

However Jeevan Thiagarajah, head of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, that had worked very positively with the government, went up to Jaffna to check, and informed me that the Special Forces Commanders in the Districts had been asked to subject those being resettled to another security check. But they assured him that they proposed to do this very cursorily, and would send them to their places of habitation within a day or two. What was left unsaid was who had ordered the second check, but I assumed this was Sarath Fonseka, in pursuit of his own agenda – and this was confirmed by the irritation he was later to express in writing to the President, about the Resettlement programme going ahead more quickly than he had advised. Basil, I realized, had felt frustrated, and gone away, but his intentions were carried out by the generals in the field, who were on the whole much more enlightened than Fonseka. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

download (3)An enormous step forward was taken recently by Parliament, the first with regard to Parliamentary practice since COPE decided to establish Sub-Committees so that it could try to cover all the institutions that came under its purview each year. I can take some credit for this step too, since the Secretary General kindly informed me that this followed on my pointing out to him that the proceedings of Parliamentary Consultative Committees were not available to the public.

Beginning with the proceedings of May 2014, Parliament now issues a Monthly Report that consists of the Minutes of the Consultative Committees. This should in theory be a monthly document, since there are 60 Consultative Committees, all of which should meet every month according to Standing Orders. However there were only 15 sets on minutes, one of which recorded that the meeting was not held since only the Minister and I were present. So there was no quorum, though I should note that we did have a very fruitful discussion, which has been recorded, since the Ministry, that of National Languages and Social Integration, had invited representatives of the Ministries of Education and of Youth Affairs to discuss matters of common interest.

For five other Ministries the minutes had not been confirmed, which I presume means the Ministry has not as yet responded to the draft sent by the Committee Office. 40 Ministries it seems had not met. One excuse made for this lapse is that, given limited space and time, it is not possible for all the Ministries to meet each month. But this will not wash since, given that more than one meeting can be held at a time, and that Parliament sits for 8 days each month, it would easily be possible to cover the whole gamut  if 7 or 8 meetings are held on each sitting day.

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Amongst the many complaints against government made by its own Ministers and Members of Parliament who attended the Consultative Committee on Resettlement was one relating to something that has been a constant theme of the opposition. This is that the armed forces are engaging in business at the expense of civilians.

The specific case cited related to entry into joint partnership with a foreign national for the generation of bio-fuels. This seems to me in itself a good idea, and I can understand why the forces have got involved. Over a year ago I urged the Minister of Environment and Renewable Energy to start such activity on a large scale, and he agreed that this was essential. Having served previously as Minister of Petroleum, he was scathing about what he described as the oil mafia, which inhibits such activities. Certainly in COPE we have found ample evidence of what would be culpable carelessness, if not dishonesty, with regard to the import of oil. And the rapid turnover of Chairmen of the Petroleum Corporation, including most recently one of the most able and honest of Civil Servants, Tilak Collure, suggests the enormous power of this mafia.

But despite understanding of the situation, the Minister has done little to take forward activities in the field of Renewable Energy. This is sad since he could have taken advantage of the authority he derived from that being added, strangely but suitably, to the Environment portfolio. I had put him in touch with the Gandhi Centre, which had done much work on a small scale with regard to Gliricidia production in the North. He encouraged them to meet with the Sustainable Energy Authority, which had been very positive. But pushing projects in this field requires the active involvement of the Minister, and I fear this has not been forthcoming.

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There are two reasons why I find ridiculous the constant assertion that the Executive Presidency must be abolished. This was made most recently by the most prominent member of the Human Rights Commission, who claimed that it was the root cause of all our problems. But I do not think that he, or all the others who parrot panaceas, have thought about what will replace it.

And the problem with such panaceas is that no effort is made to actually make the current situation better, as for instance the Human Rights Commission could do in its own area of responsibility, by taking forward the Bill of Rights. There is an excellent draft, which we managed to get done before the Ministry of Human Rights was abolished. But the Minister did not agree that it should be put forward, given the then concentration on elections, and since then it has languished. I suspect I am the only who who has even reminded the President of its existence, and the fact that it was prepared in fulfilment of a pledge in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya. His answer was that he did not agree with everything there, but the simple solution, to admit those elements, was obviously not thought satisfactory.

With regard to the Presidency, it is assumed that we can go back straight away to the Westminster system. But the Westminster system demands a functioning Parliament, and with the complete dysfunctionality of the current Parliament, we will have even greater chaos if it had supreme power. Even now, Parliament does not fulfil the role laid down for it in our Presidential constitution, which is one reason why the Executive has nothing to check it.

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The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.

This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.

Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.

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The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.

This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.

Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.

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national reconciliation policyHaving gone through another spate of attacks on Sri Lanka and its government, I thought it would be helpful to set down systematically the charges that are made, and to suggest how we can best deal with them.

In the draft National Reconciliation Policy which was prepared in my office, we referred to three areas where action is needed. The first relates to what might be termed restorative justice, and is I believe the most important.

We have done reasonably well on that in ensuring swift resettlement and much better physical facilities than the areas concerned had previously. But we should do much more about human resource development. There is absolutely no reason not to move on this swiftly, and I fear it is only incompetence and lethargy that are stopping us. Remedying all that should be a priority.

The second area of concern is empowerment. Unfortunately that debate focuses on the balance of power between the Centre and Provinces. Differences there are difficult to resolve, but they should not inhibit movement with regard to empowerment of people rather than politicians. Allowing greater authority to local bodies while entrenching processes of consultation can be pursued swiftly, with no opposition by anyone. Similarly, we can immediately set up a second chamber which will affirm the role of the periphery in decision making at the Centre, since neglect of that has also contributed to problems.

The third area of concern relates to justice, and there too progress has been stymied by excessive concern with war crimes. We should make it clear that, by and large, the allegations are absurd, and the evidence for the general conformity of our forces to rules of engagement should be put forward. But we must also take action against any aberrations, as the LLRC has pointed out.

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Text of the speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha,  MP on the Votes of the Ministry of Resettlement at the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate – 29 Nov 2012

Mr Speaker, the work of the Ministry of Resettlement is of crucial importance, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the subject. Sri Lanka has implemented perhaps the most successful programme of Resettlement in the world, and the manner in which we have developed infrastructural facilities for people who were deprived of all development for so long should be presented as a model for other countries in similar situations.

In this context I was saddened by the misleading statements of the member for Jaffna from Colombo who spoke before me, and was clearly more concerned about Colombo issues than Resettlement. I will not say that she misled the House, because I think she has misled herself, but if she visited areas such as Puthukudiyirippu as often as I have done, she would realize that what she had said is nonsense. The PTK schools have been very well equipped, and that at Kachilamadu will benefit from project funding in a way few schools have done. I could only wish that she would use some of her decentralized budget to improve actual education there. I have done this, and vocational training at higher levels will begin soon in a couple of schools in the Mullaitivu District, and I could only wish that Jaffna and Colombo representatives did even half as much for areas that had been so long deprived in the North.

But perhaps I should not blame her for her ignorance of the ground situation. That is a field in which government could have done more. Systematic presentation of what we did, with exposition also of the financial input of the Sri Lanka government, the creative involvement of our armed forces, the excellent coordination of the Governors and the Government Agents in the North and East, should have been highlighted. It is not too late, I hope, to make use of the reporting tool created by the United National Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to record Sri Lankan inputs too. This should be done at Divisional Secretariat level, because that is the unit through which progress can be seen most clearly.

It is also the unit through which we can register clearly what more remains to be done. For this reason our records of the past should be accompanied by informed assessment of the gaps that need to be filled. That is why, Mr Speaker, we need this Ministry to continue with its work, though some have argued that, with Resettlement almost completed, it could be wound up. On the contrary, we must now build on our achievements, and ensure that those who are resettled, and also those who remain to be resettled, are fully empowered to contribute to their own development as well as the development of the country.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2017
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