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The unity of this country will be immeasurably enhanced by giving the regions a greater say in decisions made at the Centre – for even the proponents of maximum devolution grant that certain decisions, in particular those relating to national security issues, must be made at the Centre. That is why the Liberal Party has long advocated a Second Chamber, and that doubtless is why the President made that a feature of his manifesto.

Unfortunately implementation of the President’s manifesto has been left to politicians who exercise power by virtue to the current Constitution. This perhaps is the reason they have not moved on the President’s more imaginative proposals. The position of the Executive Head of the country will not be affected by the reforms this country so urgently needs, but Parliamentarians might think a Second Chamber would take away from their authority – though in fact, as the assessment of the role of Parliamentarians by a former Secretary General makes clear, they have no authority at all any more as Parliamentarians.

Given this lack of a role as far as legislation is concerned, it is not surprising that they spend an excessive amount of time and energy on constituency issues. This is well and good, but unfortunately, unless the MP is sensitive, this can take away from the role of local government. That in turn may explain why there has been no attempt to move also on another idea the President has advanced, which is to revive local government, in particular through the idea of Gramya Raj, village empowerment.

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One of the more worrying aspects of the mess we have got ourselves into recently is the revival of talk of a homeland for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. This involves treating the North and the East as a single unit, a matter that should have died a natural death following both the Supreme Court decision demerging the two provinces as well as the practical demonstration, in successive elections, that the East was a very different entity from the North.

I can however understand the renewed demand for a homeland, given our failure to build on the positive factors above after the conclusion of the war against the Tigers. I was worried then by the TNA continuing to talk about the merger, even though it was argued in their defence that this was simply a bargaining point, and of course they would accept the Province as the principal unit of devolution. Unfortunately, now that we hear more and more frequent references to abolishing the 13th Amendment, it is quite understandable that the TNA and its allies – which are now more formidable than they were two years ago – feel they might as well push the merger more forcefully.

When in 1987 the Liberal Party welcomed the Indo-Lankan Accord, and the introduction of Provincial Councils, we also made it clear that we thought the merger a fatal error, that would destroy the whole idea of devolution. We said this because we believed that devolution was needed on the principal of subsidiarity, which means decisions should be made in any sphere by the smallest unit affected by such decisions. Obviously there should be provision for consultation where others would be affected, and for National Policy to ensure consistency with regard to services available to the people, but the main purpose should be empowerment of people with accountability in units that were readily accessible to them.

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I am grateful for the request to write about India and the 13th Amendment because, while I have referred to the subject in different contexts, it would be useful to assess precisely what Indian priorities are, and how we should respond to these. In doing this, we should be clear about the principles involved –

  1. As Sri Lankans, our own national interest must come first. This includes both safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka and also ensuring that all our citizens can dwell contentedly in their country, with access to equal opportunities and full participation in politics and development.
  2. As South Asians we must also recognize the important role India plays in the region. This means that, without any violation of our own interests, we must ensure that India does not come under undue pressure from any quarter because of us.

It is clear that we got into a conflict situation with India because we violated the second principle. While India could have reacted less aggressively, I believe the Jayewardene government must be held responsible for allowing India to come under pressure from two quarters. The first was pressure from Tamilnadu, because of what was perceived as, not just discrimination, but also violence against and oppression of Tamils.

Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people, 1984

President Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people – 1984

The second set of pressures however was more worrying for India, as is clear from the provisions of the Indo-Lankan Accord. The Sri Lankan agreement then to ensure that foreign policy decisions took Indian interests into account (as spelled out with regard to Trincomalee and its oil tanks as well as broadcasting facilities to other nations) made it clear that Jayewardene’s flirtation with America in the Cold War context had worried India deeply.

We must remember that those were days in which America saw India as a hostile element, and had no scruples about engaging in activities calculated to destabilize the country. Salman Rushdie’s brilliant account of language riots in India in the fiftes, in which Tamilnadu hostility was the most aggressive, has a brilliant cameo in which he suggests the American contribution to street violence. And while obviously no direct causal connections can be diagnosed, there is no doubt that America would have been quite happy in those days for India to split up – and the obvious instrument of this would have been Tamil Nadu, with the longstanding American connection to the area, through missionaries in particular.

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Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

ceylon today1. Is there a need for a completely new constitution or will reform of certain provisions in the existing constitution be sufficient?

A completely new constitution would be best, but since that could take time, there should be swift reform of the worst features of the current constitution.

2. “Ensure the independence of the judiciary whilst promoting transparency with regard to appointments” is what you have said regarding judicial appointments. This is a bit vague. Do you think the President of the Republic should have the ability to directly appoint Judges of the Supreme Court after seeking the recommendations of the Parliamentary Council which will invariably not oppose presidential nominations? This effectively means the President has direct control over Supreme Court appointments. Is this conducive or should this power be curbed in a potential new constitution?

There are three separate issues with regard to the Judiciary. The first is independence with regard to the decisions it makes, which must be absolute. As I put it in the series on Constitution Reform now on my blog, www.rajiva.wijesinha.wordpress.com, ‘there should be no interference, by individuals or any other branch of government, with regard to the content of the decisions it makes’.

The second is procedure, as to which the Judiciary must conform to laws, and make rules for itself where the law is silent. I have written at length about the inconsistencies in the way in which judges give out sentences, and how they fail to fulfill their basic obligations of checking on prisons etc.

The third is appointments, where usually on a Presidential system the President appoints. However this should be subject to controls. Requiring the consent of the legislature or a component of it would be good, but consultation also can be effective in preventing hasty or inappropriate appointments. Such consultation should be transparent, which the 18th Amendment permits, because it does not require the Parliamentary Council to maintain confidentiality.

In a Westminster style Constitution, where the Head of State makes appointments, but on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, there is usually no rejection of a recommendation, but the very fact of a second entity being involved makes the Prime Minister careful. So too, if the Parliamentary Council functioned now, the President would necessarily be careful about not putting forward names of those who might cause him embarrassment. Both Shirani Bandaranaike and Mohan Peiris could have fallen into this category, and in fairness to both of them, they should not be subject to rumours but their conduct should have been subject to transparent scrutiny. Read the rest of this entry »

Over the last 25 years the idea of Cabinet government has become a joke. I suspect this was the intention of J R Jayewardene when he imposed an Executive Presidency on a Westminster style system of Cabinet government. In no other country in the world in which the Constitution is a serious document is there an Executive President who has to select his Cabinet from amongst Members of Parliament who continue thus to serve in a dual role. And I should add to this that, in the Westminster system, where all Ministers are Members of Parliament, there is provision generally for additional talent to be included through a Second Chamber – as we see illustrated so effectively in India today.

Adding to the problem is the tradition introduced by President Jayewardene of giving ministerial positions to almost everyone. This led to the assumption that not being made a Minister was an insult, which warranted conspiring against the government. Given that the provisions to prevent cross-overs have also become a joke, this meant that the cabinet had to be continually expanded. Even honourable retirement is now accompanied by a ministerial position, and since the criterion seems to be just age, extraordinarily able people like Sarath Amunugama and D E W Gunasekara are shoved upstairs and replaced with persons without the half of their talents. The latest anomaly, of a Senior Minister also becoming a Junior Minister, since someone of enormous ability is now needed in Parliament as financial problems mount, only serves to make clear to what a ridiculous position we have brought ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »

I have now served two and a half years in Parliament. This would have been half the term in the old days before the United Front government of 1970 extended its own term by two years, and added one year to all future terms. This began the rot of Parliament expanding its own powers and privileges, which the Jayewardene government of 1977 took even further, extending its term to over 11 long and woeful years.

These terms, it should be noted, are not fixed, and the government in power has the right to have an election when it wants. Naturally it does this when it thinks conditions are most favourable. And in Sri Lanka the situation is made worse by the fact that we have two sets of elections to decide on who is going to govern us, namely a Presidential election as well as a Parliamentary one. Naturally both are fixed in terms of advantages to the incumbent, with the added benefit of having one or other of the executive authorities continuing in power during the election.

This situation is unusual, since elsewhere in the world where there is an Executive Presidential system, terms are fixed. This was the case in Sri Lanka when the system was introduced, but J R Jayewardene changed it for purely selfish motives, to ensure the perpetuation of his power.

He also changed the electoral system he had introduced for similar selfish motives, when he realized that a proportional representation system without a preference vote meant less effort on the part of those low down on the list, with no hope of being elected. The system of preferences he introduced has been the single most destructive feature of Sri Lankan politics over the last quarter of a century. Read the rest of this entry »

I believe it is essential to reform Parliament, to establish fixed terms to avoid elections being manipulated for the advantage of the ruling party, and to have a Second Chamber based on equal representation for all provinces, so as to promote the consultation of regional interests in legislation. Many of our problems have sprung from hasty legislation, while international experience teaches us that a second chamber, with powers to go through legislation calmly, can often save government from the excesses of emotional responses to particular situations, whether economic or political or social.

However, whatever changes are made, the first house of Parliament, which is supposed to be elected on the basis of providing representation to the people, will be supreme. We must therefore put in place changes to allow the representatives thus elected to fulfil their principal roles effectively. For this purpose we should change the constitution so as to

  1. ensure responsibility of members for a limited area and accountability to a constituency

and

  1. To ensure that Parliament as a whole is proportionate to the wishes of the electorate

I would suggest therefore that the House of Representatives consist of two hundred Members elected on a mixed system. One hundred of them will be elected on the basis of constituencies in which the electors shall be similar in number. Such constituencies shall be prescribed by a Delimitation Commission which shall combine the Grama Niladhari Divisions into Constituencies which have commensurate numbers or as near commensurate as possible.

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By D.B.S.JEYARAJ
National List MP Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha has been in the news lately for his independent approach and  outspoken views. In this interview the academic turned politico speaks out openly on a number of issues including the impeachment motion against the chief justice, stalled Govt-TNA talks, National Reconciliation, about the President being reportedly annoyed with him and whether he desires a cabinet portfolio.

Q: Let me begin with a topic that is close to your heart as well as mine. National Reconciliation! You are an adviser to the President on reconciliation and have taken much effort in this regard. Could you talk about your work in this sphere and the progress achieved so far?

The Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I have had have been very useful, in part because they allow for attention to the problems that affect the day-to-day lives of communities, and in part because some government agencies have been quick to respond with solutions. But by and large my work has not moved as quickly as the situation demands, because there is no specific responsibility in government for Reconciliation.

Q: As the Presidential adviser on Reconciliation have you made any suggestions or recommendations to rectify this situation? I did read about a report you had  submitted. Could you elaborate please?

I believe a Ministry for National Reconciliation  is essential and I have suggested this to the President in the Report I have submitted, together with suggestions as to who should be appointed, either as Minister or as Deputy if the President wishes to keep the portfolio himself.

I have made 21 recommendations altogether, including strengthening of Divisional Secretariats so as to promote more responsive and accountable government with regard to the immediate problems of communities which now feel alienated from the decision making process. I have also dealt with three areas of particular concern, namely land issues, livelihood development which must be promoted hand in hand with infrastructure development and with much greater efforts for skills development to empower people to take advantage of the opportunities that are being opened up, and psycho-social support which has been comparatively neglected.

More concerted efforts to promote language learning and develop better communication between different communities is also essential, and we have to think outside the box to achieve this, given the continuing incapacity of the Ministry of Education to train and deploy sufficient teachers.

                            RECONCILIATION                                

Q:You also formulated a draft National reconciliation policy that had many commendable features. What is the position on that?

I think my greatest disappointment has been the fact that the draft National Reconciliation Policy prepared in my office with the involvement of a multi-party multi-religious group, and endorsed by a range of politicians, media personnel, religious leaders and members of Civil Society, has been ignored.

The President said he had passed it on for comment, but he has warned me that things get lost in his office, and reminders have not helped to resurrect this. I am sorry about this, because endorsement, of course with whatever amendments Cabinet might make, would make it clear that Reconciliation is a national priority, with a home grown framework through which to implement the LLRC Action Plan as well as think beyond that for long term attitudinal change on all sides. Read the rest of this entry »

Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the  Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand

The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.

In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.

But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.

Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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