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Back in Colombo in early April, I went ahead and introduced my proposed 23rd and 24th amendments to the Constitution. During the previous year Vasantha Senanayake and I had discussed proposing some changes, since we felt we had an obligation to make clear the need for reform. He had put forward a Bill then to reduce the size of the Cabinet and was astonished at the reaction. Apart from strong arm tactics from Basil, the President had called him in and told him he was being unduly influenced by me, which made him indignant given his long family commitment to democratic politics. Twice then he withdrew the Bill or rather, as he affirmed since he did not want to close the door completely, postponed it.

With the change of government we had hoped those who had professed commitment to good government would take our proposed reforms on board,  but we soon realized they had no interest in details, and those in charge were keen only to transfer power to the Prime Minister. We ourselves were hamstrung by the fact that we were part of the executive and could not therefore move Private Bills, but when I resigned I was free of this constraint. Unfortunately Vasantha had by then passed on the ownership of his Bill to the JVP, which having agreed to move it promptly reneged on the commitment – and I was then unable to move such a Bill myself since only one Bill on a particular subject could be entertained at any one time.

But with some help from the Bills Office I put forward two Bills and presented them in Parliament on April 9th. One was about Electoral Reform, and the other was a principle I thought essential for an independent Public Service, namely that Permanent Secretaries be appointed by the Public Service Commission, not the President. Both Bills were seconded by Pabha, the actress who had been elected on the UNP list for Gampaha, but who had then crossed over in the mass defection to the government that took place early in 2007. She understood little about politics, but was keen to learn, and had an intrinsic commitment to democratic governance. Read the rest of this entry »

The manifesto was launched at a ceremony at Vihara Maha Devi Park on December 19th. That was my grandmother’s birthday, and I thought, when I went to the cemetery afterwards, that she would have been pleased that I was working together with Ranil. At the same time, though I realized that was essential, and UNP support was of the essence if Maithripala Sirisena were to win, it was also clear that the UNP itself was in shambles, and had little capacity for effective coordination.

I had sensed this in the decline of Mangala Samaraweera, whom I had thought of as one of the more sophisticated members of the UNP. He had been instrumental in getting Vasantha Senanayake to be the first member of the government to announce publicly that he would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, though sadly for Vasantha he ignored the request that the Press Conference be held at an independent venue. Mangala instead dragooned Vasanth into making his announcement at Siri Kotha, which led to him being identified with the UNP, which had never been Vasantha’s intention. That was taken ruthless advantage of later to cut him down, tragically for both President Sirisena and also for the UPFA, which he could have contributed to immeasurably.

Twice after the common candidature was announced, Vasantha took me to see Mangala. But instead of the bright strategist I had assumed I would find, I had to deal with an amiable drunk, who wanted nothing better than to gossip over a drink, and then another. After the second such evening, in his delightful house in Ratmalana, I realized that this was yet another broken reed, his period out of power having deprived him of the capacity to focus which he had displayed earlier as a Minister.

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The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.

We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.

Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.

That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President. Read the rest of this entry »

There was much to do in the few days following my father’s death, but we had no complications, because both my mother and he had been very clear when they wrote their wills. My father had not wanted to write one, on the grounds that he had nothing in his name, but I had persuaded him that he had to because unexpected possessions could turn up. And in fact he certainly possessed a car.

He said he would leave that to me, but I thought that would not be correct given that I had persuaded him to write a will. He then wanted to leave it to Anila’s son, which seemed an eminently sensible idea, but she was adamant about not having a benefit for her family over and above what the children of my brother had. So in the end my father decided to give the car to Chamara who had looked after him devotedly over the last couple of years.

Anila, hyper-conscious of equity, suggested he leave it to both those who looked after him, but this was silly because Sunil, whom I had taken on when the Reconciliation Office closed, though a good worker, was not the old friend Chamara was regarded as by my father. I thought it best then not to consult Anila about the will in general, in particular the clause about a residual legatee, which was essential since one never knew what might pop up in my father’s name. Again he wanted to nominate me, but I insisted on Anila and he did not demur. This proved just as well, because there turned out to be a motorcycle he had bought for his last driver, Jayantha, and also some shares in my mother’s name.

The main house had been left by my mother to my sister and me jointly, on the grounds that we would not quarrel. This did not prove to be an accurate prediction, since we had very different tastes, but it was certainly true that no one could have doubted Anila’s financial integrity and sense of equity, and I hope she would say the same about me. Read the rest of this entry »

In retrospect it is clear that there was no hope of stopping Mahinda Rajapaksa rushing headlong into disaster, given that so many of those around him, while pursuing their own agendas, had lulled him into a false sense of security. But it still seemed necessary to try, and I did have at least one significant success. This was heartening, since it suggested he was not totally unaware of the problems being created for him.

The problem had once again been caused by Basil Rajapaksa. While in the East for Reconciliation meetings, late in 2013, I was told about proposals that had been prepared at District and Divisional level for a large UN project which was funded by the European Union. This had been agreed with the government, after Basil had suggested various modifications including that it be extended to areas outside the North and East too. But then suddenly he had clamped down on it and said it could not proceed.

My informants in the Administrative Service thought it was because his favourites, Bathiudeen and Hisbullah who had been basically given a free hand in the North and the East respectively, had not been consulted in the planning. It was believed they wanted the money for political advantage and were resentful that they had not been able to put forward projects that catered to their own agendas. An alternative view was that Basil wanted to control all the funds himself and did not like the decentralized manner in which the project had been conceived. Yet another explanation was that Basil was deeply upset that the Northern Province had so conclusively rejected the government at the recent Provincial Council election, and this was his revenge. Sadly, this was perfectly in character, and led to Sarath Amunugama describing him behaving strangely because of what he characteristically described as ‘unrequited love’.

After I heard about the stoppage I inquired about it from Subinay Nandy, the UN Head whom I would meet regularly though there was increasingly less I could offer him with regard to progress about Reconciliation. He was obviously deeply upset about what was happening, and could not understand how the government could reject such a large tranche of assistance. I wrote then to the President in November about the matter –

During Reconciliation meetings in the Eastern Province, I was told about a European Union project to spend 60 million Euros on District Development which has been abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Economic Development.  The Development Officers of the Ministry of Economic Development had been aware of the project and prepared proposals but had no idea why the Ministry had stopped work.

This stoppage was after approval had been granted, following an adjustment of the project, at the request of the Minister of Economic Development, so as to include Districts outside the North and East too. Efforts on the part of the UN, which initiated the Project, to meet with the Minister and the Secretary, to clarify matters have proved fruitless….

If this policy of inaction is in accordance with a government decision, I have nothing to say except that it will seriously damage efforts at Reconciliation. But knowing Your Excellency’s commitment to the reconciliation process, I believe this is yet another example of governmental efforts being subverted by individual compulsions, a sure recipe for disaster.

I would be grateful if this matter could be looked into and steps taken to adopt a more positive approach to dealing with the United Nations. We can ill afford to alienate the positive elements in the international community at this stage, and I believe the arbitrary decisions that are made, without explanation, will not help us to safeguard our sovereignty and the ideals for which you stand.           

Typically there was no response. But at the dinner after the budget I brought up the matter. It was evident that he had not seen my letter, which reminded me of what he had once said when I told him, about some step that he belatedly agreed should be taken, that I had written to him about it previously. ‘But you write in English’, he had said, ‘how can you expect anyone to understand?’

At the budget dinner however I was able to explain the matter very simply, and he seemed to have taken action promptly. Before the end of the year, Subinay told me, the Secretary to the Treasury had instructed that the project was to proceed.

I felt I was not wrong then in feeling that the President still had a positive mindset about how the country should move forward. But it was also clear that he was less and less in control. Read the rest of this entry »

After those idyllic few days with my father at my cottage, I went to Algeria, determined to see more of the Roman remains of Africa, and if possible get to the deep desert. Years earlier I had bought guidebooks for Tunisia and Libya, which had better sites, and I had managed to get to Tunisia in 2013. But Libya had now been in essence destroyed by the West’s wickedness in getting rid of Gaddafi and unleashing extremist forces. The Tunisians had told me sadly how, pleased though they were with their own change of government, what had happened in Libya now threatened them too. And a couple of years back there was indeed an attack on the El Bardo Museum in Tunis, with its wonderful collection of Roman mosaics.

Algeria had less to offer in that respect, but I much enjoyed the site at Tipaza which we visited on the first full day there. It had two splendid amphitheatres and an impressive gate, but I also relished its setting, on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.

img_9195That had been an unexpected joy with regard to Algiers itself. We had found a hotel overlooking the sea, which allowed for the most exquisite sunrises. And though there was nothing spectacular, the religious buildings in the city were well worth viewing, especially the Cathedral high on a hill overlooking the city.

Places were miles apart in Algeria, so we could not use buses, but flights were cheap. We went first to Tamanrasset in the south, where there were spectacular formations in the desert. But as I was arranging with the hotel to go out to one for an overnight stay, we hit an unexpected snag. I had been provided with an escort from the airport when I went to the hotel because I had a diplomatic passport, but then it turned out that this meant they were excessively careful about my safety. There had, I think some time back, and just once or twice, been an attack on foreigners venturing into the desert, and they would not give me a permit. Indeed they would not let me out of the hotel without a guard, so it was a good thing that on the evening we arrived we had had a long walk through the city. Read the rest of this entry »

My sister, who has a healthy regard for Ranil Wickremesinghe, was deeply upset when I resigned from my Ministerial position and made it clear that I thought Ranil was largely responsible for the betrayal of the ideals and promises contained in the manifesto on which the President had been elected. The conclusion she came to was that I was impossible to get on with, and had lost all my friends.

She said this to my driver, claiming that the only people I was close to were Nirmali Hettiarachchi and himself. He said she had a catch in her voice, and seemed very worried for me. But the names she gave me when I asked her whom I had alienated were so ridiculous, that I realized she had a very strange idea of my social life. I was reminded then of Trollope’s Lady Laura, whose love for Phineas Finn was absolute, but who never, Trollope remarked, thought of what Phineas might want when making plans on his behalf.

For I am very much a solitary person, and the members of Colombo’s social elite whom she mentioned had never figured large on my list of people I want to spend time with. They were all nice enough, and I liked the interactions I have had with them. I was sad since, from what my sister said, I assumed the two who were close friends of hers had expressed some animosity towards me. But this was obviously the result of a strong stand I took with regard to the devious behavior against Sri Lanka’s interests of someone they were both devoted to, so I did not think I needed to bother too much.

The third person she mentioned was someone I had long lost touch with, and in any case I had only had interacted with him previously, and not to any appreciable extent, because of a close connection to a couple I still love dearly. Ironically, when I inquired about him I was told that there had been a great falling out there, which I realized my sister too knew nothing about. Her judgments seemed then based on preconceptions rather than attention to the facts. Read the rest of this entry »

Prince 2But Vasantha was also aware of the need to strengthen Parliament. Given the usual domination of the House by members supportive of the Executive leadership, he introduced a Second Chamber which would provide other perspectives more systematically, and enable Parliament to fulfil its legislative functions with care. The Senate was to be elected on the basis of equal representation from each Province. This would strengthen inputs from the periphery into decisions made at the centre, which was essential since, whatever the extent of devolution, some decisions, including those concerning national security, would have to be made at the centre. And the TNA had indeed accepted that a Second Chamber was desirable during the negotiation of 2011.

Given however the current oppositional nature of Sri Lankan politics, the proposals had emphasized the primacy of the House of Representatives with regard to matters of finance. They also made provision, obviously necessary given what now seemed a regular occurrence in the United States, for the executive to continue governing the country in the event of Parliament failing to pass the budget.


1. Parliament:

All legislative powers of the people shall be exercised by the Parliament which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

2. House of Representatives:

The House of Representatives shall be 200 members elected every 5 years of whom a half shall be elected from territorial constituencies on FPP basis and the balance shall be chosen by a separate vote to determine support for individual parties.

25 persons shall be selected proportionately by the political parties represented in parliament with particular regard to women, youth and demographics not represented adequately in parliament.

All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.

Budget: In the event of non approval of the budget for the year, the budget of the previous year will continue to be in effect

Parliament shall have exclusive powers to make laws on subjects mentioned in the reserved list

3. The Senate:

Four Senators shall be elected at a separate election to represent each province, by the people for a term of five years.

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Prince 1It is not likely that the President will be awakened swiftly from the enchantment cast upon him by his closest advisers. However, if and when he does realize that a change is essential if he is to preserve not just his legacy, but even perhaps his Presidency, he has some obviously desirable remedies to hand.

For though the Parliamentary Select Committee has thus far achieved nothing, it has had some very sensible proposals brought before it by moderates within government. The Liberal Party made suggestions made on its experience of acting as a link between successive governments and representatives of Tamil parties, but even more important were the suggestions made by Vasantha Senanayake on behalf of a group of young politicians and professionals. Subsequently the Liberal Party, after studying the proposals, wrote to the PSC endorsing them.

Vasantha was the scion of a great political family. His great grandfather D S Senanayake had been Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, and his great uncle Dudley had been elected Prime Minister three times. Both had presided over Cabinets with representation from popular Tamil political parties.

Vasantha however had left the United National Party, which his great grand father had founded, and now sat in Parliament as a member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to which the President belonged. He, like many other promising youngsters, had been sidelined by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had, on the pattern of his mother’s cousin, J R Jayewardene, wanted absolute control of his party, and thought ability less important than personal loyalty. 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 »

Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2017
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