Shamindra Ferdinando, in the Island, July 21 and 28 July 2015
Today, 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
(Q) What led you to join the Maithripala-Wickremesinghe combination last November?
(A) I felt the last government had run out of steam, and was no longer acting in accordance with its manifesto. There was far less consultation than earlier, and the government seemed to support individuals who were acting in a silly manner while essential problems were not being addressed. The behaviour of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) worried me, as did the assault on the then Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner, in the UK, Chris Nonis, while we seemed to have lost the confidence of India, as was exemplified by it voting against us at the UN in 2012 and 2013. And then when India did not vote for the resolution against us in 2014, we failed to re-establish the sort of understanding that had held us in good stead in 2009.
I felt very much that more of the same government would be a disaster for the country, and also lead to massive problems on the international front. I would have preferred it if the President delayed the election and engaged in some promised reforms, and the Liberal Party wrote to him accordingly, but we got no response, only a brief acknowledgement. However, I made clear to Mr Wickremesinghe, we could not support him. Mr Sirisena seemed to us ideal, however, for there was continuity with regard to the achievements of the Rajapaksa government, with greater commitment to democratic governance.
(Q) Why did you switch allegiance to ‘bring-back-Mahinda’ campaign in March this year?
(A) I did not switch allegiance to the Bring Back Mahinda campaign, though I was sympathetic to his desire to come back since I believe he was very badly treated after the election. I had noted at the time the need to treat him with respect, and I believe the readiness with which he gave up the leadership of the SLFP and the UPFA indicated that he would not have wanted to come back had he not felt threatened. The last straw for me was the hypocritical attempt to involve him in a bribery charge with regard to the Ministry for Tissa Attanayake, when Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed to have done the same and worse.
But I also felt that the ideals on which the campaign was being run were being traduced by Mr Wickremesinghe. Despite campaign pledges, he did not involve the SLFP in decision making, even though its leadership had made it clear in January that they would not try to topple the government. No proper SLFP representative was in the National Advisory Council, there was no consultation with regard to Electoral Reform, which was a key pledge. And when the government incorporated members of the SLFP, they left out the senior leadership, which meant that they were not in a position to put forward anyone else as a potential leader in any subsequent election.
Much of the blame for this goes, I think, to former President Kumaratunga who told me that she looked after the interests of the SLFP in forming the Cabinet, but she played completely into the hands of the UNP. I had, in fact, told her, in November, that while she was energetic in adversity, she relaxed when her immediate objective was achieved. I think she understood what I meant, but said things would be different but I said I did not blame her, because I knew her heart was no longer in Sri Lanka. It was understandable that she wanted to spend much of her time in England and sure enough, soon after the election, she went off there for a month or so.
The problem was that she had no real interest in the SLFP or the UPFA and did not really have faith in its present leadership. She should have insisted on a higher proportion of non-UNP members, in the Cabinet, and she should have argued for meaningful portfolios for senior leaders when members of the SLFP were inducted into the Cabinet in March. But she was concerned only with her own favourites, and was more intent on destroying Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is no way to look after the party which had given her a platform for so long.
In my own case, though I resigned from my portfolio, in February, because of broken promises and interference that made work difficult, I did not wish to leave the government side, but they simply ignored my resignation and the Prime Minister lied about this to the house about me. They did nothing about answering letters that came to the Ministry, and, in fact, sent me a whole load several weeks after I had vacated office. I did not want to be blamed for neglect so I thought it best to make the position crystal clear.
But that was in effect a good thing, for the Central Bank Bond Scam had then broken, and I realized that this government was both hypocritical and cunning in its corrupt practices. I continue to feel the President continued idealistic but, as is clear from the Prime Minister ignoring his wishes with regard to the Governor of the Central Bank, he was not able to assert his principles.
(Q) At he launch of Narrative III by Marga Institute, on August 29, 2014, in spite of being in the UPFA, you joined one-time Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Geneva, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka to roundly condemn the post-war conduct of the then Rajapaksa administration. Narrative III dealt with issues of truth and accountability during last stages of the war in Sri Lanka. The then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, came under heavy ‘fire’ at the book launch with some of the speakers alleging the war veteran of influencing foreign policy matters. Do you really believe the Rajapaksas are ready to act sensibly after being in the Opposition for six months?
(A) I believe they must, because they have realized how disastrous was the negative approach adopted previously. I personally believe the former President had a more open approach, but some of those around him were dogmatic, and they were not prepared to discuss the implications of their actions and those of others with experts in the field – such as for instance Dr Jayatilleka or Ms Kunanayagam.
But the very emergence of the Third Narrative, which was encouraged by some of those in government, indicates that there were more practical people around, though they had little influence. I believe such people, such as Nivard Cabraal, who was, I think responsible for hiring Sir Desmond de Silva when others were belittling the possible threat to us, should have a greater role in any future UPFA administration, as should Dayan and Tamara. I think they will ensure a return to the thoughtful foreign policy that brought us successfully through the war. But it is clear that for the last couple of years foreign policy was in a mess, and more concerned with personal aggrandizement than benefits to the country at large and systematic consolidation of the achievements of the first Rajapaksa Presidency.
(Q) The UPFA is confident of returning to power in mid-August. The parliament will meet on the morning of September 1, ahead of the 29 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As perhaps the only critic (while being in the previous government) of the handling of the Geneva issue, what do you think of the ‘ground situation? Have you (read as UPFA) reached a consensus as regards Sri Lanka’s response at the next Geneva round?
(A) I have no idea what has been discussed with regard to Geneva, but I believe that if we win the election there should be an immediate brainstorming session, with reaching out to all stakeholders. I am confident that, after an electoral victory, provided we are not intransigent, we can satisfy legitimate concerns while also making sure that unwarranted criticism comes to a halt.
But there is need of a moral approach to the issue, which means standing by commitments we made, while at the same time making it clear that we are perfectly competent to look into allegations and deal with any abuses. We must ensure transparency about this, and involve those countries that stood by us, in 2009, but feel that we did not move forward as quickly on Reconciliation as we should have.
(Q) Many professionals and some politicians reacted angrily to the conduct of the then President Rajapaksa. Having strongly condemned the previous government, Dr. Jayatilleka switched his allegiance to Rajapaksa several weeks before the January 8 presidential poll. One-time Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva, too, re-joined the Rajapaksa camp after having campaigned for his defeat. In fact, Wimal Weerawansa fired the first salvo at the Rajapaksas by entering into a dialogue with Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thero in July last year. Do you regret having contributed Rajapaksa’s defeat last January?
(A) Not at all, because I think a change of approach was essential. To be honest, I expected President Rajapaksa to change his approach last year when he realized what problems he would face, and I was surprised that the results of the Uva Provincial Council election were not studied aright. But I think that by then those around him, who were benefiting from his Presidency were blinding him to what was going on in the world at large. Being a skilled politician though, I think by now he would have understood what needs to be done, and I am sure he will have mechanisms in place, if we win to avert the problems that were looming last year. But I think it will be important to have a dedicated agency for the purpose, and I hope we will have a Ministry of Human Rights and Reconciliation that will formulate policies, after consultation, and ensure their implementation. It is a shame that various initiatives the government took, the Human Rights Action Plan and the LLRC Action Plan, were not given priority, and I think we should also adopt, after due consultation, the National Reconciliation Policy and the Bill of Rights that I was responsible for formulating over the last several years.
(Q) General Secretary of the Communist Party veteran politician DEW Gunasekera strongly urged the then leader Rajapaksa not to call for early presidential. Gunasekera warned Rajapaksa of dire consequences if he went ahead with political project. The Island exclusively reported Gunasekera’s warning during the first week of Oct. 2014. Gunasekera had the backing of Messrs Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Prof. Tissa Vitharana. A confident Rajapaksa ignored their concerns. What was your position?
(A) We were of the same view, and we too wrote to him last October, though with less publicity. We had been talking to these left leaders and also other politicians, in the government, who were deeply unhappy. I should note though that, with one exception, there was almost no criticism of the President, but rather of those they thought were misusing his authority.
There were also worries that some elements close to the President, were supporting extreme movements such as the BBC, (?) but in that regard I was heartened when the President expressed opposition to their actions. However, he should have been more firm with them and made clear his commitment to a pluralistic society. But that must be through listening to those genuinely representatives of those communities, not people chosen by those around him simply because they belong to minority communities. The failure of the government to win hearts and minds in the North, and increasingly the East too, was because it had no idea of what people really wanted, of which dignity is, perhaps, the most important element.
(Q) The questioner strongly believes the need to engage the Tamil Diaspora in spite of strong critics by some political parties and groups. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s efforts to reach an understanding with the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) as well as other influential groups are appreciated by many. Explain your stand on Diaspora and the LTTE rump?
(A) I have always argued for such engagement, and this is mentioned in the Draft National Reconciliation Policy I prepared with consultation of a range of stakeholders, way back in 2012. I have also drawn attention to the failure to address this even though it was recommended in the LLRC. I think the Foreign Ministry was much to blame in this regard, because this job was entrusted to them, not to the excellent team that did the bulk of work with regard to the LLRC. I am disappointed that work is not almost forgotten, and I think it was a mistake to put Chandrika Kumaratunga in charge of this area because, though I am sure her heart is in the right place, she cannot concentrate and is unwilling to build on what has already been done.
But I am glad the present Foreign Minister is talking to the diaspora, though I would wish it were done with better planning and in terms of the needs of Tamils in Sri Lanka as identified by government. I firmly believe that engagement with Tamils in this country is even more important than talking to the diaspora, as I made clear to the British Foreign Office in 2009 when they said we should be talking to Tamils. We knew that, I said, but I reprimanded them for saying we should talk to the TGTE, because our responsibility was the Tamils of Sri Lanka and not those who had been involved with terrorist activity in the past and still thought in terms of a separate state.
Unfortunately, except for a little I did in my regular visits to the North and East for meetings at Divisional Secretariats, we have not done enough about working with the Tamils, and, indeed, the Muslims and Sinhalese, who suffered because of the war. This government, too, has neglected them, and the unrest expressed by the Members of Parliament from the affected areas, which we heard about in April, reflects the problems that will arise if we think in terms only of elite needs and aspirations, whether those of the intellectuals of Jaffna or diaspora political theorists. So I think this government is in danger of allowing the Diaspora to speak for the Tamils. Though much of what came out in the joint communiqué was sensible, these were ideas government itself should have come out with, not allowing it to seem that it was the diaspora or Tamil politicians alone who could understand the problems of the Tamils. Ownership of Reconciliation must be with the government, though it should also involve consultation of all stakeholders.
(Q) Although some sections within the UPFA are critical of the role played by the US, the previous administration received critical support from the US to defeat the LTTE. With the US blessings, Israel remained a key weapons supplier, throughout the war, and the previous government expanded its relations with the US by entering into Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in early 2007.What is your perspective of the future US role here, in case UPFA regained power?
(A) We have to understand that the US is a very confused country, often with different elements pulling in different directions. This will get worse in an election year, which is why we have to remain in constant consultation with those who make decisions, whilst also understanding the possible limitations of their decision making power.
I think we did a very silly thing late in 2009, when, despite the efforts against us in Geneva, in May, a committee, under John Kerry, issued a very positive report. They also asked us some questions about the war, but included assistance with the answers, and we were foolish not to answer and try to address concerns. I kept urging that we respond swiftly, but government appointed a committee which slept on the matter, and that letter was finally forgotten. I believe part of the problem is a complete lack of planning capacity in the Foreign Ministry, while it was also dominated in recent years by one or two officials who did not have the interests of the country at heart. So proper briefing notes were not prepared, and any form of intellectual engagement was frowned upon. I hope very much that one of the first priorities of the new government will be the establishment of think tanks that will help to formulate and implement policy.
PART TWO: 27 July: Today, 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 Minister of Higher 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.
(Q) According to former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, India had warned the previous government not to go ahead with $1.4 bn Chinese-funded Colombo Port City Project, on the basis of it being a ‘security threat’ to India. India also opposed the $ 46 bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) due to security concerns. In the 80s, India strongly objected to the then President JRJ’s evolving relationship with the US, Pakistan, China, as well as Israel. In fact, no less a person than, one-time Indian Foreign Secretary, J. N. Dixit, cited JRJ’s foreign policy primary reason for Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. In the backdrop of the India-US-Japan partnership to thwart China, South Korea, as well as the Philippines, are also in the US – led alliance Sri Lanka is coming under increased pressure to align with Western powers. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit underscored US interest in Colombo. As a spokesperson for the government – in-waiting, can you explain how UPFA can sustain its long standing relationship with China without displeasing the US-led block?
(A) I believe a fundamental element in our foreign policy should be sensitivity to Indian concerns. There are two reasons for this, one that I might term moral and the other practical. There is an obligation on neighbours not to create unnecessary problems for each other, and we are dealing here with a country that has many elements in common with us – cultural, religious and social.
If I might digress to an image I have used in papers I have written on various subjects, we should pay attention to the philosophical truth contained in the story about how Buddhism came to this land. We have not, I think, understood the significance of the question Mahinda Thero asked King Devanampiyatissa before deeming him fit to understand the Dhamma. He asked him if he saw the mango tree before him, and then asked him if there were other mango trees in the world. When the king said yes, he asked if there were other trees apart from those other mango trees. When the king said yes, he asked if there were any trees in the world apart from those other mango trees and those other trees that were not mango trees. The king had to think for a moment, and then he said that there was the original mango tree.
I have used this image to illustrate the need for an inclusive vision of society, rather than the oppositional approach favoured by Western philosophy. We need to appreciate what we have in common with others, first those around us, and then those more distant. But in the end the touchstone has to be ourselves.
In international relations this means that our first priority has to be the interests of the people of this country. But then we should think of our neighbours, beginning with the closest. This is what the President’s manifesto lays down, but the present government has ignored its stress on India and China and other Asian countries.
The practical reason for being sensitive to Indian concerns is that, if India feels threatened, it can damage us, and no one else is in a position to come to our defence. The Jayewardene government made the mistake of thinking the West would rescue us, and, in fact, tried to invoke the 1947 Defence Treaty with Britain against India, but was told in no uncertain terms that it was not possible. I think some elements in the last government thought China could be relied upon to see us through any hostility, but this was to ignore the very clear indications by China that we should maintain good relations with India.
And the advantage of India in this regard is that it does not want exclusive rights to anything. The Western approach is different, in line with the oppositional approach I have noted above, and they not only want friendship – which we must give – but hostility towards their enemies. This has led them into perpetrate great disasters on the world, as in their use of extremists – opposed to the Soviets in Afghanistan, to the Libyan and Syrian governments – to achieve their own ends, which are then nullified.
I believe, therefore, that keeping good relations with India as the cornerstone of our foreign policy, we should continue very positive relations with China, which has also been solidly supportive of this country – but we should make it clear to both countries that we do not wish to be drawn into hostilities with anyone else. And we should also use our good offices, as happened in the time of Mrs Bandaranaike, to bring our Asian neighbours close together, if possible. We should also encourage the West to think in terms of a Win-Win Situation, not continue to play the Zero Sum Games they have engaged in that have caused such suffering in the world in recent years. I believe there are very civilized people in the West who will understand this, so we must maintain continuous engagement with them, and in particular the think tanks that manage to continue with independent thinking. For that purpose, as I have often advised, we must develop our own think tanks, and maintain close links with their counterparts all over the world, as Mr tried to do.
(Q) You were one of those who had contributed to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, though it lacked the mandate to conduct a cohesive inquiry. Please examine India’s accountability in Sri Lanka in the backdrop of one-time Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit admitting in his memoirs (Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha) released in 2004 that India intervened here to protect in domestic as well as in accordance with geo-political objectives.
(A) I do not think there is much point in going back that far with regard to accountability issues, since we all know what happened. While India too is aware of the mistakes it made then, we must remember that we ruined a very good relationship because of J R Jayewardene’s Cold War adventurism and his efforts to oppose India. This naturally led to worries, given also what was happening as an offshoot of the American support for extremists in Afghanistan. We must remember though that once India’s security concerns were addressed, through the Annexures to the Indo-Lanka Accord, they stood by us solidly, and despite pressures within the country helped us not only to deal firmly with the terrorists but also to withstand pressures from some countries to let them off the hook.
We must not forget that the Sri Lankan government entered freely into some commitments with India after the war ended, and there were other commitments later which were forgotten. That is no way to conduct a foreign policy, and even in 2012 we sacrificed Indian support because we did not answer a letter sent by the Indian Prime Minister. And then, after the vote, the destructive elements in the Foreign Ministry tried to create further animosity, which was only avoided by some quick work by the President’s Secretary. But he failed to look into the problem, and I believe there was further damage to the relationship over the years.
So I believe it is counter-productive to be resentful about the past unless we also examine the role of the Jayewardene government in dismantling the foreign policy that had served us so well previously. Instead we should concentrate on the future, which is what the LLRC was primarily about. It is about ensuring that the concerns of all those who suffered during the conflict in this country are addressed.
(Q) While the vast majority of your colleagues, both representing the UPFA and the UNP as well as the TNA move in super luxury duty free vehicles, what prompted you to use a relatively old car? Political parties speak of a new political culture while members receive duty-free car permits for every five-year term. What is your stand?
(A) I have never owned a car, but used to hire one for long journeys which I did in terms of my various responsibilities for English programmes round the country. I then had an official car when I was appointed Head of the Peace Secretariat, and then in terms of my Human Rights and then Reconciliation responsibilities, and also while I was a State Minister. I did not have the money to buy a car on the duty free permit, and thought it wrong when colleagues offered to sell it for me. I continue therefore now to use the car which I used to hire before, though I am lucky to have friends who will lend me a car when the old car needs repair. Fortunately, I enjoy the heat and can manage without air conditioning.
With regard to duty free permits, I wrote to the Minister of Good Governance recently that they should be stopped. This was when I found that the vehicles I had returned to the Ministry were being plundered by Kabir Hashim’s coordinating secretaries and he said this was because the Prime Minister wanted vehicles for all his Members of Parliament. I could see the point of giving all MPs a vehicle while they serve in Parliament, but that should not be in addition to them getting a duty free permit. I said as much, but at the same time I sympathize with my colleagues, since I believe the practice was introduced to compensate them for the vast amounts they have to spend on elections on this mad system we have. I did not have to spend anything to get elected, being on the National List, so I cannot claim any special virtue about not having made money on my permit.
But all this makes crystal clear how appalling the present electoral system is. It encourages corruption as well as violence, and I am deeply sorry that the government cared little for the reforms we promised in this area. The failure to set up a committee immediately, as was promised in the manifesto, to reform the electoral system was a betrayal that will continue to have adverse effects on the country. And then, after the insistence of the UPFA on electoral reforms, and the President’s pledge that he would ensure that the 20th Amendment was carried in addition to the 19th, the UNP destroyed all efforts at compromise.
(Q) The electorate is largely divided into two groups, one led by Premier Wickremesinghe and the other under former President Rajapaksa’s command. The JVP is certain to emerge as the third political force in predominately Sinhala districts, whereas the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will comfortably regain the Northern and Eastern regions. In point form, mention seven key issues the next parliament will have to tackle.
- Human resources development to much higher levels than our current education system allows. The last government did not work systematically towards this, and the present government continues to see education as a tool of politics, without ensuring that we look at best practice in other countries and adjust our systems to ensure excellence as well as equity.
- Consolidation internationally of the victory over terrorism of 2009. The current government does not seem able or willing to acknowledge the importance of defeating terrorism and of ensuring that it is not revived. In this regard the President, who was in government and part of the determination to prevent the LTTE from recovering, knows he must ensure a shift of perspective.
- Ensuring that the fruits of that victory go to all and in particular the minorities and those in the North and East who felt alienated from the State for so long. In this regard the last government did not do enough, and sadly the present government has not taken swift corrective action. The next government must ensure that all citizens have similar opportunities, and this means ensuring that there are equitable employment opportunities in government service, and in the security establishment, in particular the police.
- Government must promote equitable development through greater concentration on the regions, with targeted investment based on people’s needs. The last government did much in infrastructure, and the present government seems at last to have realized the important of this, but the human resources to take advantage of this must also be developed systematically.
- Greater autonomy to the regions and local bodies with regard to decision making, while developing better consultation mechanisms. We should in this regard build on the systems the Ministry of Public Administration was trying to develop last year, after study of the excellent report on Service Delivery in the Divisions which was prepared by UNDP.
- A more effective public service through better training and greater responsibility and accountability mechanisms. We need to revise Financial and Administrative Regulations to increase efficiency whilst also ensuring systematic feedback to the public on matters that concern them.
- Streamlining government to make it more cohesive and ensure continuity of process by a scientific allocation of departments into ministries without unnecessary overlap. This was pledged in the President’s manifesto but was ignored when the 19th Amendment was formulated. The present government keeps shuffling Departments around, sometimes it seems at the personal whim of Ministers, and this has an adverse impact on planning.
(Q) What is your message to the electorate?
(A) Vote for the UPFA for a secure, just and prosperous society, and select candidates who will press for transparency and remain accountable.
(Q) And my final question whether the UPFA regained power or lost at the forthcoming parliamentary election, the questioner believe you should be in the next parliament. Are you confident of securing a slot in spite of the tendency to disregard suitability of candidates or national interest to various other factors?
(A) I am not confident of anything. I was not sure until the last day or so whether I would be on the List. I am not very good at hanging around and asking for things, and I prefer to write, whereas I realize most people prefer not to have to read or respond. But I believe I have a lot to offer, and I think there is increasing recognition that at least a few people who have a lot to offer and nothing to gain should be in Parliament. I believe the President understands that I am deeply committed to the ideals that he has expressed through his manifesto and his personal conduct. On the other hand, the leaders of the campaign, the former President as well as UPFA and SLFP officials, know that I do what I say, and that this is what I believe are the interests of the country, not my own interests
To be continued on Aug. 5