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by Shamindra Ferdinando

qrcode.30456176Today, the electorate is at a crossroad with twice-president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, launching a new movement to form a government, at the Aug 17 parliamentary polls. A confident Rajapaksa launched his parliamentary polls campaign at Anuradhapura where he vowed to overcome the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination. The pledge was made at the largest ever gathering in the historic city, where Rajapaksa recalled ancient kings had defeated foreign invaders. The war-winning leader alleged that the present Yahapalana government had destroyed, within six months, what his administration had achieved since the conclusion of the war in May, 2009. The former President asked what would have happened if the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration had continued for five years. Since the change of government, in January consequent to Rajapaksa’s defeat, some of those, who had switched their allegiance to the then common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena deserted the new administration. Having joined Yahapalana project, late last November, Liberal Party Leader and State Education, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, quit the administration in March. The UPFA included Prof. Wijesinha, in its National List submitted to the Elections Secretariat on July 13, hence making him a key element in Rajapaksa’s team.

Full text of an interview with Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

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presidency 25When I read of, and hear, the President expressing concerns about an international conspiracy to destabilize his government, and topple him, I feel immensely sad. One reason is that what he fears is not entirely without foundation.

The idea was put to me, quite politely, by the head of the Sri Lanka desk at the UN, who said that, whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa had been a good leader during the War, perhaps someone else was better suited to lead during peacetime. The young man from our Embassy who had accompanied me to that meeting said the same proposition had been put to Nivard Cabraal. Both of us repudiated the idea, and indeed I recall citing Tolstoy in this connection, given the theory he had put forward in War and Peace, about the visionary Alexander having to take over after the practical soldier Kutuzov had won the war. I have no idea what arguments Nivard used, but I have no doubt that he would have shared my conclusions.

Sarath-Fonseka

… the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency

The Tolstoyan imagery was pertinent with regard to the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. This seemed to me rank wickedness, and I believe some European ambassadors shared my view, for they told me – at a farewell lunch I gave the two nicest of them – that they knew what he was like, and could not understand what some of their colleagues were up to.

I am not sure that the Americans, who were foremost in the venture (or at least some of them, for I cannot believe that thoroughly decent people like the then Social Affairs Officer Jeff Anderson were involved) were actually wicked. I have long learnt that one should never attribute to wickedness what can be put down to stupidity. I suspect then that those who still had some values but went along with the idea thought that Sarath Fonseka would split what they saw as the extreme vote, and that this would enable Ranil Wickremesinghe to win.

Ranil's fault

… the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.

Ranil however was sharper than them, and withdrew – which is perhaps what prompted Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at the Christmas Party given by the then Deputy British Head of Mission, to say that the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.

Sarath Fonseka lost conclusively – despite Sara’s efforts to suggest the election had been fraudulent – which is why the protests I suspect had been planned never got off the ground. But the American extremists had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, because Mahinda Rajapaksa abandoned his visions, and a new homespun Kutuzov emerged.

For with Fonseka as his principal opponent, Rajapaksa had to cover that flank as it were, so that it was extremists who played the largest role in his campaign, not the fundamentally decent and moderate SLFP leadership. And so they have emerged as the strongest influences on policy in the government. Read the rest of this entry »

downloadEnemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sleepy (Part 1)

Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sleepy (Part 2)

Mahinda Samarasinghe was asked to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the Human Rights Action Plan, and as usual I had to do much of the work through convening a Task Force to expedite implementation.

I resigned however in 2013 when I found that, though there was much goodwill from many Ministries, and we got a few things done, no formal coordination of activities and initiatives was possible. I realized that it was impossible without proper authority to expedite decisions and action. I told Samarasinghe in my resignation letter that he should request that a Ministry be set up. While he was the obvious person to be Minister, I told him he should suggest the President take over the portfolio and be his Deputy. This upset him, even though I pointed out that he would still be in the Cabinet with his existing portfolio of Plantation Industries.

He ignored the letter, and simply declared that he would not let me resign, but did nothing further about the matter. So, after my resignation, hardly anything happened, with Mahinda Samarasinghe uncertain too about his own position, being often asked to go to Geneva at the last minute for Council sessions. By 2014 he was talking about resigning himself, but characteristically he held on to the position, though in effect doing nothing to promote the Human Rights Action Plan.

Human Rights were grossly neglected by the Foreign Ministry, with no invitations to any Special Rapporteurs, until they were forced to interact more positively from late in 2013. Contrariwise, we had tried to engage with them constantly, and had indeed had invaluable support from the Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, Walter Kalin, who came to Sri Lanka three times during the conclusion of the War. But there were no visits after that until the High Commissioner herself came in 2013, followed by Kalin’s successor.

All this was of a piece with Peiris’s failure to recognize, or unwillingness to convey, that the Human Rights situation was worrying for Sri Lanka. Unlike in the days when the dedicated Ministry under Mahinda Samarasinghe coordinated responses to critiques, writing and disseminating the most effective ones, there was now no concerted response to attacks on us. As a result, the impression gradually developed that we could not answer the many allegations against us.

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 Most pernicious for Sri Lanka was the failure to deal consistently and coherently with the UN on what were termed accountability issues. Well before GL  became Foreign Minister, the President had agreed, in a joint communication with the UN Secretary General, to address such issues. Nothing was done about this, and there was no response too later in 2009 to an American query about possible violations of law. This was very politely worded, and included material that would have helped us rebut any serious charges, but the President simply appointed a committee chaired by an octogenarian lawyer, which never met. My constant reminders to members of the Committee, and to Mohan Pieris who was Attorney General, and seen as the front man on such legal issues, achieved nothing, though Pieris kept assuring me that he understood the seriousness of the problem.

With nothing done for nearly a year, the Secretary General appointed his own panel of experts, headed by ‘Kiki’ Darusman of Indonesia, and including an American who had previously suggested that Sri Lanka was a genocidal state. Though members of government demonstrated against this, there was no formal response from the Foreign Ministry, which GL by then headed. The impression created was that this was not a serious issue for the country, but simply an opportunity for politicians to score brownie points by establishing their patriotism. Read the rest of this entry »

download (2)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.

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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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Apart from its failure to pursue Reconciliation with determination and coherence, perhaps the saddest failure of the current government has been with regard to Education. When the Cabinet was being formed in 2010, one of the President’s friends who was pressing hard for me to be appointed Minister of Education was told that they had found a brilliant candidate, namely Bandula Gunawardena. I presume his long experience in giving tuition was thought an appropriate qualification.

It was not taken into consideration that his very livelihood had depended on the failure of the education system to provide good teaching. It was not conceivable then, given that he was not likely to disrupt the livelihoods of those who had toiled alongside him in the industry, that he would prioritize the production and employment of more and better teachers. So indeed it proved. The whole approach of the Ministry in the last four years, in line perhaps with the populist rather than productive interpretation of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has dominated government during this period, was to put up larger and more elaborate buildings in select locations.

The purpose of this became clear when I brought up, at the last meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, the waste of resources in the fact that a well equipped computer laboratory had been put up in a school I knew well in a rural area, but it had remained closed for several months. I had been told that this was because the authorities were waiting for a dignitary to open the place.

Bandula confirmed this, and claimed that it was important for the people to know who had provided such a facility. That this was in fact the people, since the building had been put up and equipped through loans which the people would have to repay, was not something that would have occurred to someone who had made his living by giving tuition in Economics. Nor would he have realized that the adulation expressed in speeches at a formal opening would not have a lasting impact compared with the resentment of students, and their parents, who are bright enough to know when something intended to benefit them is being squandered for political gain.

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download (2)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.

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A recent newspaper article on Sri Lankan relations with India suggested a level of incompetence that even I had not thought possible in our Ministry of External Affairs. The article described the Ministry as ‘virtually defunct’ but that is misleading. It is actually viral in its determination to destroy relations with India, and continuing to talk of its incompetence is to support its destructiveness.

I had thought it possible that the Minister was not responsible for the determination to destroy, and that he was simply anxious to keep his job, and therefore followed blindly those he thought had greater influence than he did. But the description of what happened in 2012 suggests a more insidious nature. The article declares that the Minister had ‘confirmed that Rajapaksa had promised “13 plus”’ to the Indian Foreign Minister, and that it was only after that that the Indians had gone public with that promise. But the article did not mention that not only did Peiris fail to stand up for the truth,, when various spokesmen of the President denied that promise, but he also failed to send a response to the letter requiring clarification that was sent by the Indian Prime Minister.

Or, rather, he sent a response and then withdrew it. This technique is a specialty of the current Secretary to the Ministry, Kshenuka Seneviratne, even though it is thoroughly unprofessional, as noted by a former colleague who has now made her getaway from the mess. But it is not only unprofessional, it embarrasses both sides, which I suspect Kshenuka well knows. Peiris however may not have understood that, when he sends a letter and then withdraws it, his credibility is gone for ever (though in his case I suspect it had gone long before, as American ambassador Patricial Butenis of now blessed memory put it).

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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.

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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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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2017
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