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Former 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.
Though 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 »
Recently I took part in a seminar on Rights and Development, arranged by the Law and Society Trust. That organization used to be bitterly critical of government, but under its new Director, Mala Liyanage, it seems to be trying to go back to the more balanced perspective of Neelan Tiruchelvam. He founded it, but after his death LST, like ICES, became tools of those opposed to the SLFP. I remember, while I was at the Peace Secretariat, having to upbraid the then Chair of LST, Raja Gunasekara, who had not known what was going on, and who after our correspondence agreed to look into the matter.
Certainly the more vicious attacks stopped after that, and it is a pity that, instead of adopting that sort of reasoned approach, government now deals with NGOs, as I told the President recently, because of worries about the hamfisted way of controlling (rather than monitoring) foreign funds, through incompetent people. But gratitude, as the case of the transfer to Australia of the last Head of the Secretariat shows, is stronger than public interest.
And unfortunately we have no institutional memory. Government ignored the report I did more than five years ago on NGOs, where I showed the interlocking directorates of a few, while also pointing out that the vast majority functioned positively. Sadly it is these last who feel threatened, while the others continue as before, except where, as with LST, a change of management leads to a more balanced approach. But I don’t suppose my report can now be found anywhere.
Ironically, on the day of the seminar, I was told that the Presidential Secretariat was looking for the Peace Secretariat files, which I had told them way back in 2009 to look after carefully. In fact they did make an attempt to put things in order after the Darusman Report came out, but as usual, with no personnel in place who were able to understand the situation, that effort too seems to have come to naught.
Interestingly, it was Basil Rajapakse who told me not to try to persuade the President not to close down the Secretariat soon after the conflict ended. Since the President has told me later that closing it down was a great mistake, I was obviously wrong to think that Basil knew what he was doing. He seemed to get on well with Mahinda Samarasinghe, so I thought there would be some continuity there, but the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance was also got rid of, in his mad dash for full authority with regard to aid and development in the North. Read the rest of this entry »
I have a great affection for General Chandrasiri, and indeed great admiration too. This began when, in 2008, he invited me to be the Chief Guest at the Future Minds Exhibition he had organized in Jaffna. The other principal invitee was to be the Bishop of Jaffna, someone else for whom I have both affection and admiration. Though he has always stood up for the rights and dignity of the Tamil people he serves, he has also spoken out against terrorism and the LTTE.
Indeed, it is a mark of his integrity that the strongest evidence against the spurious allegations made against us with regard to the first No Fire Zone comes in the letter the Bishop wrote on the day that Zone was subject to attacks. Contrary to what the Darusman report insinuates, and what an even less scrupulous report claims was our plan to corral civilians in places where the LTTE had weaponry, the Bishop said that he would ask the LTTE to refrain from transferring weapons into the No Fire Zone. Unfortunately neither the Ministry of Defence, nor the Foreign Ministry (the latter, as Dayan Jayatilleka graphically described it, now territory occupied by the MoD), have bothered to argue against the allegations on the basis of facts and evidence from independent sources.
Unfortunately the aim of General Chandrasiri in 2008, to avoid politicians, as he put it to me when asking me for the event, was countered by Douglas Devananda doggedly turning up and taking a prominent role. I could understand then why he could not be put off, but it is sad that he did not take up the idea suggested by the General’s assertion of the need to develop human resources. Instead, even in the local authorities his party won, he allowed personal predilections to come to the fore, and did nothing for development. There was no thinking of the type of partnership that could have been set up, to train youngsters and start businesses, through a synergy of talents, with civilians being in charge but accepting advice and assistance from the military.
The request to write an article on US Policy towards Sri Lanka in 2008/2009 came at a timely moment, for I had been reflecting in some anguish on the crisis that the Sri Lankan government is now facing. I believe that this crisis is of the government’s own creation, but at the same time I believe that its root causes lie in US policy towards us during the period noted.
Nishan de Mel of Verite Research, one of the organizations now favoured by the Americans to promote change, accused me recently of being too indulgent to the Sri Lankan government. I can understand his criticism, though there is a difference between understanding some phenomenon and seeking to justify it. My point is that, without understanding what is going on, the reasons for what a perceptive Indian journalist has described as the ‘collective feeling that the Sri Lankan State and Government are either unable or unwilling’ to protect Muslims from the current spate of attacks, we will not be able to find solutions.
Nishan might have felt however that I was working on the principle that to understand everything is to forgive everything. But that only makes sense if corrective action has been taken, ie if the perpetrator of wrongs has made it clear that these will be stopped and atoned for. Sadly, after the recent incidents at Aluthgama, I fear the time and space for changing course are running out. But even if we can do nothing but watch the current government moving on a course of self-destruction, it is worth looking at the causes and hoping that history will not repeat itself at some future stage
My contention is that the appalling behavior of the government at present springs from insecurity. That insecurity has led it to believe that it can rely only on extremist votes and extremist politicians. Thus the unhappiness of the vast majority of the senior SLFP leadership, and their willingness to engage in political reform that promotes pluralism, are ignored in the belief that victory at elections can only be secured if what is perceived as a fundamentalist and fundamental Sinhala Buddhist base is appeased.
I have been mostly away for some weeks, but that is not the only reason I did not talk about the appalling violence that occurred in Aluthgama almost a month ago. I was waiting, because I hoped that this would be a turning point for the Presidency. I hoped that, in reacting to violence that goes against the principles on which he has twice won the Presidency, the President would free himself from the polarizing shackles that have fallen upon him.
I fear that nothing of the sort has happened, and it is possible that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka was right, if prematurely, in suggesting that the Mandate of Heaven might have passed. He said this a year back, after the Weliveriya incident. Though I did not agree with him then, I must admit that he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than I did. But, like him in his recent claim, citing Juan Somavia, that this man should not be isolated, I think it would make sense to continue to urge reforms from within.
There are signs that this will not be a hopeless task, given the recent visit of the South African Vice-President, which our Deputy Foreign Minister said very clearly in Parliament sprang from an invitation from our President, who hoped to learn from their experience. Wimal Weerawansa will of course claim that his threats have worked and South Africa will not interfere, but his capacity to delude himself, and assume the world is deluded too, is unlimited, and we need not worry about that. Obviously South Africa had no intention of interfering at all, because like all those in the coalition Dayan Jayatilleka built up in 2009, she subscribes to the basic UN principle of national sovereignty. But she has clearly been invited here in the hope that we might be able to move forward, and get out of the morass into which, with much help from ourselves, we have been precipitated.
I was privileged last month to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual gathering of those engaged in mediation and conflict resolution. I had been invited, along with Mr Sumanthiran, to debate on whether it was correct to talk to extremists. The concept paper referred in some detail to recent developments in Nigeria and Afghanistan, but we were in fact the only participants in the debate from a country which had recently been in grave danger from extremists. We were able however to benefit during the Forum in general from informed inputs from several delegates from countries now suffering from extremism, such as Nigeria and Syria and Yemen.
Our own debate was chaired by Tim Sebastian, and though it was generally accepted that I came off well, I told him afterwards that I was glad my Hard Talk interview had been not with him, but with Stephen Sackur. Interestingly, that interview still raises hackles amongst those who seem stuck in an extremist agenda, so I presume they are grateful to our government for no longer using the services of anyone who can engage effectively in Hard Talk. In turn I am grateful to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Switzerland, which organizes the Oslo Forum, and more recently to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for giving me a forum in which to argue the case for what the Sri Lankan government has achieved. Contrariwise, those now with the mandate to represent us internationally seem busily engaged in undoing that achievement day by day.
But that discussion, grandly termed the Oslo Debate, was only part of a very interesting programme. Amongst the contributors were Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, and I felt particularly privileged to talk to the latter, still thoughtfully constructive at the age of almost 90. I look on him as the best President America has had in recent times, perhaps the only idealist of the 20th century apart from Woodrow Wilson – which is perhaps why their tenures ended in what seems failure. Certainly, as I asked him, his signal achievement in putting Human Rights at the centre of American Foreign Policy seems to have been perverted by his successors who have turned using it for strategic purposes into a fine art.
I write this in Shillong, capital of the state of Meghalaya, while attending a Conference on ‘India’s North-East and Asiatic South-East: Beyond Borders’. It has been arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, which has an impressive array of full-time staff as well as Consultants. One of them, a retired Colonel who had worked for many years in the North-East when it was a hotbed of insurgency, delivered a fascinating paper on the subject. In addition to his many ideas for improving the situation, I was fascinated by the interchanges between him and academics from the area, who deplored his use of the term ‘misled brothers’ to describe the former insurgents. They thought it patronizing, whereas the Colonel had thought it a less divisive way of describing those who had previously taken up arms against the State.
Regardless of the merits of the case, what was illuminating was the manner in which such debates took place. CRRID is supported by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, but the participants represented different views, and even the personnel from CRRID, including several former MEA dignitaries, made no bones about what they thought could be done better by the Indian government. This should be normal practice, but sadly it is unthinkable in Sri Lanka. I was reminded then of the absence of Tamil politicians when the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute finally got off the ground, with a Seminar on Reconciliation. Not one of them had been asked to present their views, and consequently they did not attend.
In passing I should note that that prompted the workshop which the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies arranged, at which we had a wide range of views. The proceedings culminated in a decision, suggested by Javid Yusuf, to formulate a National Reconciliation Policy, which soon got underway in the office I then had, as the President’s Adviser on Reconciliation. This was discussed with a wide range of stakeholders, politicians and religious leaders and media personnel, at gatherings kindly arranged by solid supporters of Sri Lanka as well as Reconciliation, the Japanese Ambassador and the Papal Nuncio. After finalization the Draft Policy was sent to the President, where it got lost.
The government decided last week, when faced with the announcement by Navi Pillay of her team to investigate Sri Lanka, to propose a motion in Parliament against such an investigation. This was a shrewd move, since it puts the main opposition on the spot with regard to whether it supports such an investigation. I can understand the TNA opposing such a motion given that it sees this as one way of achieving its goals, even though I think it would have achieved more had it, like the Indian government, stood foursquare against international interference whilst also urging the Sri Lankan government to pursue reconciliation and a better deal for the Tamil people more comprehensively.
What would be unacceptable is for the national opposition to oppose such a motion, and I think the UNP will find it difficult to decide how to respond. It would seem a sad betrayal of our sovereignty to oppose such a motion, and I think sensible people in the UNP would not want to commit a political blunder of such magnitude.
And the decision to support the motion should be the easier for any forward looking Sri Lankan, given that the motion is so limited in scope.Government has not gone down the disastrous route advocated by Wimal Weerawansa of opposing not only an international investigation, but of also opposing any effective domestic mechanism. Indeed government has scored a major triumph in having the motion proposed in the name of Achala Jagodage, who came to Parliament through Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front. And though most of the other signatories cannot be described as political heavyweights, also included as a signatory is perhaps the most intelligent amongst the new SLFP entrants into Parliament, the Hon Janaka Bandara. He chaired the only Committee in Parliament, apart from COPE, that proved effective in the last four years, and he also had the courage of his convictions and resigned when he found that the report of that Committee, on public petitions, was ignored.