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Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.

It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.

After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.

But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored. Read the rest of this entry »


qrcode.26820002So his attitude seemed to harden with the passing years. Also, sadly, even though he might not have been ambitious himself, he seemed to see himself as the principal guardian of the victory the forces had won, with an obligation therefore to block the way of those who were anxious to give more political powers to Tamil politicians. Though, under threat from the LTTE, some of these had seemed to subscribe to the LTTE ideology, in fact most Tamil politicians were moderates who were relieved that the LTTE had been vanquished. They were prepared to disavow terrorism as well as separatism, but they were anxious to exercise political power in predominantly Tamil regions, at least in terms of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. But those who were opposed to even that limited devolution, on the grounds that it would inevitably lead to separatism, saw Gotabhaya as their champion, and he came in time to articulate their views with increasing assertiveness.

An extreme example of this came when, in 2013, with the President making preparations to have the long delayed Provincial Council election in the North, he declared publicly that it should not be held. Ironically, according to the President, he had been in favour of holding those elections a few years earlier, soon after the war ended, which would have been a sensible move, and would have led to a better result for the government. It was Basil then who had insisted on delay, on the grounds that his building programme would ensure more and more support for the government. But by 2013, more perceptive perhaps than Basil about political realities in the area, perhaps realizing too how he had contributed to increasing unpopularity, he came out strongly against having a poll. And typically this occurred while one of the more extreme coalition partners of the government, which was seen as close to Gotabhaya, had introduced a Bill to amend the Provincial Councils Act so as to water down their powers. So powerful did this combination seem, even though the evidence of elections had made it clear they had minimal popular support, that it was feared the President would back down.

But he went ahead and elections were held. The TNA won handsomely, with the determination of the Tamils to vote against government increased perhaps by what seemed strong arm tactics on the part of the forces against a candidate who was identified closely with the LTTE. She did remarkably well, which might well have been predicted.

This makes one wonder why the forces should have got involved, and indeed it was so foolish an action, were they the perpetrators, that one wonders whether she herself had arranged the attack, given that only she could benefit. However there had been previous instances of such folly on the part of the forces, as when a meeting of the TNA had been attacked some months previously.

That incident was bizarre, because by the time the violence occurred the TNA representatives had finished speaking and left, and until then, they said, what were clearly soldiers in mufti had behaved with restraint. When I asked the Jaffna District Forces Commander what had happened, he said that his orders to behave correctly had been disobeyed, as a result of provocation by one of the later speakers, a Sinhalese member of a small radical party. But I could not understand why he did not then take forceful disciplinary action. Apart from the fact that soldiers should under no circumstances react violently against civilians unless they are themselves in grave danger, it was possible that there were members of the forces who had no affection for the government, nor for Tamils (following the approach of Sarath Fonseka before his conversion), and they had no qualms therefore about aggression that could bring the government into disrepute. Government was only playing into their hands by refraining from disciplining them. Read the rest of this entry »

Dopey 3Namal in fact had no inhibitions about discussing with friends the lucrative business deals he was involved in. But it is possible that he did not think there was anything wrong with all these. Over the years a culture of close involvement of politicians with the business sector had developed, and the favours received from them were seen simply as tokens of friendship – as were the concessions and contracts the complaisant businessmen received. So Chandrika Kumaratunga benefited as President from the largesse of a businessman called Ronnie Pieris, who did very well under the regime, while another close friend who had worked for Emirates ended up, when he was appointed head of Air Lanka, as it used to be known, by subordinating it to that airline. Emirates emerged strengthened immeasurably by the partnership while Air Lanka lost much of the reputation and the reach it had earlier enjoyed. But these seemed isolated examples, and the connections to any incentives were never direct.

But by the time the Rajapaksa regime was settled in, the potential for business had expanded immeasurably, and Namal, with initially a lower profile than those holding executive positions, but with obviously the greatest influence of all, was soon rapidly befriended by many local and foreign businessmen. But as with the Packer deal, he could doubtless convince himself that he was promoting more economic activity in Sri Lanka, and that the country would also benefit.

27Another area in which his friends had a field day was the Stock Exchange, which it soon became known was being ruthlessly manipulated. The President’s essential innocence about this sort of thing seemed apparent when he appointed as its Chairman Indrani Sugathadasa, a former senior public servant of great integrity, who was also the wife of his Secretary Lalith Weeratunge. But before long she felt obliged to resign, and the President accepted her resignation. She had asked her husband before she resigned whether it would affect his position, and he had reassured her because he did not think he could contribute to the vitiation of her integrity. But, given that it was rumoured that Namal had played a role, on behalf of his friends, in making her position untenable, the matter obviously affected his own feelings and his potential effectiveness.

Mrs Sugathadasa was replaced by another figure of known integrity, a former Member of Parliament, Tilak Karunaratne. He was also concerned about education, and was a member of an advisory group I had set up called Religion, Education And Pluralism. After he was appointed, he suggested that we meet in the Security Exchanges Commission office, since that would save him the long journey to my Reconciliation Office which was near Parliament. I asked him then how confident he felt about his position, and the clearing up he thought was essential, and he told me that the President had assured him of a free hand to restore confidence. But within a few months he too resigned. Read the rest of this entry »

Presidency 16Recently 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 »

download (3)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.

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I will return to the continuing failures of our foreign policy over the last five years, but first I should address the more serious issue, of how our military victory in 2009 has also been so thoroughly undermined. Five years ago it seemed impossible that the LTTE could be rebuilt, certainly not within a few years. But we are now told that there is a serious danger of an LTTE revival, and the more overt expressions of the security paraphernalia, removed to the joy of the populace after the war, have now been restored. Three individuals were killed recently in Vavuniya North, and we have been told of the seriousness of their efforts to revive terrorism, and this has led to checkpoints being reintroduced even in the East.

The story is treated with a pinch of salt in several quarters, with questions as to the failure of government to identify the policeman who was supposedly shot at, the absurdity of a terrorist hiding under a bed breaking through a cordon of police, the failure of the army which was in attendance in Dharmapuram at the time to deal with the problem, the ridiculousness of the suspects retreating to an area where the army was engaged in exercises. But there is no reason to assume the military have concocted the story, and indeed I was convinced of the sincerity of its representative who came to me with details of what was going on – though I should note that sincerity in those who believe a story is not proof of its actuality.

I do realise that there are now a range of elements in the military, and the enormously decent professionals who fought the war have less influence than those who follow the more occult practices of the West in countering terror. But even they must surely realize that what happened recently is an admission of incompetence greater even than that which created the Taliban and Al Qaeda as forces of immense power. My interlocutor told me that the vast majority of the people in the North were sick and tired of terrorism, and – as perhaps the only parliamentarian from the South who visits regularly for free interactions with the populace – I certainly believe him. But in that case, how on earth can there be a serious threat of an LTTE revival?

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Soon after I had written last week’s column about improving protection at local levels, I found a structure already in place that was based on a similar idea. This was in relation to the Community Policing that that present Inspector General has instituted.

His determination to establish mechanisms for this is in line with the Mahinda Chintanaya commitment to ensuring consultation at village level. Sadly I don’t think any other government department has moved coherently to implement this idea, and I can only hope that the present IGP does not fall prey, as his most illustrious predecessor Osmund de Silva did, to resentment on the part of politicians who want to provide solutions to all problems themselves. Osmund de Silva found that his efforts to develop a productive relationship between the police service and village communities was looked on with suspicion by the politicians of a newly independent country who thought they were the heirs to all the authority that the British had exercised.

So, whereas the British hierarchichal system, with the police seeing themselves as representatives of a government that was at a remove from the people, has changed in Britain, with greater understanding of the community basis of democracy, it continues in Sri Lanka. And though the IGP has tried to change things, I suspect old habits will die hard in many parts of the country, not least because of the different layers of politicians who insist on controlling things themselves – as was tragically illustrated in the recent reign of terror in Sabaragamuwa.

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I was pleased to find last week a Divisional Secretary who had already put in place consultative mechanisms at village level. I have been suggesting these at other Secretariats, where I found an absence of systems to ensure attention to what people needed. Though some Secretaries seemed to take the ideas on board, I fear they will not be entrenched – and therefore will not be productive – unless clear instructions are issued by the Ministry.

The innovative Secretary was at Dehiattakandiya, where perhaps the difficulties he faces had led to action on the principle of necessity being the mother of invention. He has only 5 Grama Niladharis, for 13 Divisions, which in fact span 46 villages and nearly 60,000 people.

This is preposterous, and I could not understand why action had not been taken earlier to fill up the vacancies. I am assured now that an examination has been held and interviews will be conducted this month and the vacancies filled, but I was bemused that initiating the process had taken so long. However there was a good explanation, in that I gathered there had been a proposal to appoint Samurdhi officials to the post.

That would have been a mistake, since the basis on which those officials had been appointed initially was dubious, and the position of Grama Niladhari requires a certain stature. This is not always present, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the commitment of many of the GNs I have come across, in meetings now at 75 Divisional Secretariats. Were they given clear job descriptions, with a requirement of reporting in writing, I have no doubt that most of them would give excellent service to the people, and also function as the sort of early warning mechanism this country needs to avoid problems such as led to the tragedy at Weliveriya.

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The recent incidents at Weliveriya raise a number of questions which should not be confused. Most important is the fact that three civilians died at the hands of the army. As the new Army Commander has indicated, this is not acceptable. Measures must be taken for a full and credible inquiry, with appropriate penalties as well as the institutionalization of safeguards to prevent repetition.

But it is also important to look at the way in which a simple problem escalated out of control. The preliminary inquiry of the Human Rights Commission has indicated that there was no coordination amongst the various agencies responsible, both for the technical questions as well as the representational ones.

Several weeks ago I wrote to the President about this situation, and suggested some remedial measures. What I said then is worth quoting – ‘At present there is little possibility of particular shortcomings with regard to basic services receiving the full attention of authorities at a higher level, whether the Province or the Centre. This amendment will focus the attention of local bodies on important services, and allow them leeway to take corrective action if none is forthcoming from other authorities. As Your Excellency has noted, this is vital with regard to transport, but it should also extend to educational and vocational training services, and to basic health facilities.’

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2018
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