Courtesy of Asela aAtukorala and his blog site …. http://aselaatukorala.blogspot.com.au/2017/07/six-sri-lankan-specialists-discuss-sri.html … where the title reads: “Six Sri Lankan Specialists Discuss Sri Lankan Issues”
I travelled to Sri Lanka in May this year and had the opportunity to meet several specialists to discuss Sri Lankan issues that were mostly related to politics and economics. In this article, I’ll be sharing the highlights of my meetings with the 6 people I had the privilege of talking to.
Monday 8th May 2017 ….This was the first meeting which was at Verité Research. Their workplace was an old house re-done as an office and it had great architecture.
That afternoon, I met Janeen Fernando who’s the Head of Politics at Verité Research. As part of his role, he’s in charge of the Sri Lankan trilingual political tracking site Manthri.lk. I’ll now list some highlights from our discussion.
- I asked Janeen what his thoughts are on the political alliance between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) whether it’s providing benefits, causing problems or both. Janeen responded that these 2 major parties have competing ideologies, a different voter base and that there have been clashes, but the 2 parties working together allows them to carry out major reforms.
- Janeen thinks the government’s priority should be constitutional reform as we’ve never had a Constitution that the 2 parties agreed on as the 1972 Constitution was brought by the SLFP & opposed by the UNP while the 1978 Constitution was brought by the UNP & opposed by the SLFP. He mentioned that a new Constitution by both parties is an opportunity.
- I asked Janeen how the recent Right to Information (RTI) law impacts his work at Manthri.lk. He said that they have filed an RTI request on Parliamentary attendance and are waiting for a response. Subsequently, I discovered that an image on Parliamentary attendance has been posted recently on Manthri.lk.
- Janeen mentioned the interesting fact that during the 1970 General Election, the UNP got more votes than the SLFP, with the results being something like 36% for the SLFP and 37% for the UNP, but that the SLFP won because of the first-past-the-post system.
- I asked Janeen whether the order of Ministers is Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers. He said that it isn’t the case, adding that what’s more important is if the Minister is a Cabinet Minister or a Non-Cabinet Minister based on differences such as a Cabinet Minister attending a Cabinet sub-committee which a Non-Cabinet Minister wouldn’t attend. He also said that a senior Minister might get the State Minister title for their seniority, but that there is no clear distinction between State Ministers and Deputy Ministers.
- Janeen said that the Code of Conduct and the National Audit Bill are 2 promises from the 100 day program that haven’t been delivered.
- On the Code of Conduct, Janeen said that its draft has been released to the public in December and that he has some issues with it.
- I asked Janeen if the Code of Conduct can reduce corruption. He said that it isn’t a major or magic solution for that, but it’s part of the process of reducing corruption, saying that the Code of Conduct isn’t the role of the Bribery Commission or Supreme Court and that you need both this law and these institutions.
Tuesday 9th May 2017 ….This was the busiest day for meetings as I had 3 meetings starting at 9 am.
Dimantha De Silva
I first went to Moratuwa University to meet Dr. Dimantha De Silva for an interview. He’s the Consultant/Team Leader for the Colombo Transport Plan of the Megapolis. The Megapolis is a massive government infrastructure project aiming to improve the Western Region of Sri Lanka. Unlike the other meetings, I won’t list highlights of it only to say that it focused on the Colombo Transport Plan covering mostly transport issues as well as some politics and economics relating to that plan. Those interested in reading the interview can access it here.
In the afternoon, I met Rohan Masakorala, CEO of the Shippers’ Academy Colombo to discuss economic affairs which he’s very knowledgeable about. The meeting took place at the office of a mutual contact. Here are some highlights from the meeting.
- I asked him how Sri Lanka’s foreign direct investment (FDI) can be increased. He said it would be by correcting the legal system and the tax system as well as institutional reforms.
- On the issue of the planned Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) for Sri Lanka to sign with India, he wants it to happen, the faster the better. Rohan said that Sri Lanka is “just a small city” compared to India, and that ETCA is more positive to Sri Lanka as it can access a massive market.
- I heard that Rohan had done some work for former Ministers, Lalith Athulathmudali & Ronnie De Mel and asked him about it. Rohan hadn’t done work for Lalith Athulathmudali but knew him well as a teenager in the 1980s. Lalith used to visit Rohan’s family very often and encouraged him to get into the export business, thus Rohan credits Lalith as the reason he went into the export sector. Rohan worked for Ronnie De Mel as a consultant from 1999, associated with him for many years and up to date keeps in touch with him.
- I mentioned 2 controversial institutions being set up at the start of the year. One was the Horana Tyre Factory and the other was the ‘Western Automobile Assembly Factory’ that was originally supposed to be a Volkswagen Assembly Plant. I asked Rohan if he thinks that they can bring benefits to the country despite these controversies. Rohan thinks so, saying that they are a value addition in the smallest scale. He mentioned that this is a beginning, saying that even if someone starts a bicycle tyre business that’s a positive first step. Rohan said that this was how the apparel sector started.
- Rohan thinks Sri Lanka’s RTI law is a reform that’s good for investment.
- Rohan thinks the current Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy is an excellent choice who has integrity, straightforwardness and is non-controversial.
Following my meeting with Rohan Masakorala, I met with Dr. A.C. Visvalingam, President of the Citizens Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG). I met Dr. Visvalingam at his house. Here are some highlights from the meeting.
- Dr. Visvalingam is a 50:50 civil/structural engineer who was a civil engineer in state employment and a structural engineer in the private sector. He has international experience having studied in the UK & spent 16 months in Japan, 11 years in the UK, 3 months in Germany and 30 months in Ghana.
- When he returned to Sri Lanka, he worked as as Deputy General Manager (Civil) of the River Valleys Development Board on the Walawe Project (1971-1973). There was political interference in the Board which nullified all efforts to educate farmers on water conservation and growing crops to the appropriate soil conditions. The Deputy Minister publicly stated that there was no need to listen to engineers and that if the Walawe Ganga ended up having insufficient water, he would “”divert the water of another river into this one”. That experience led to his activism for good governance.
- Dr. Visvalingam got involved in CIMOGG in 2002 when a group of people got together. CIMOGG comprises retired persons, including many public servants. Dr. Visvalingam was elected as their President in 2005.
- CIMOGG does not look for funds from government or local/foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) so as to maintain its independence and they don’t wish to have people with political connections associated with the group. Over 90% of the funds are generated internally and a few donations from individuals have been accepted from time to time.
- Dr. Visvalingam has had negative experiences of writing reports on politicians. He said if you write a mix of positive & negative comments about them and conclude with a positive remark, they’ll highlight the concluding positive remark and you become a collaborator. He also said if you write something negative about them, they will go against you.
- Dr. Visvalingam has a problem with the fact that the 1978 Constitution put Parliament above the Supreme Court, saying that it is difficult for Judges to make independent judgements. He also thinks that corruption really increased since the 1978 Constitution.
- On Sri Lanka’s proposed new Constitution, Dr. Visvalingam thinks that it should have a separation of powers and with a ceremonial President chosen by a committee.
- Dr. Visvalingam believes that despite issues of corruption, to not give up in his desire for good governance such as through his writings, with the hope that it might eventually arrive.
Friday 19th May 2017 ….. After a gap of 10 days, I had my final set of meetings which began in the morning.
I went to Transparency International Sri Lanka at the start of a working day to meet their Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere. Interestingly, Asoka was the person who came up with the idea of Manthri.lk and used to run the site (The political tracking site now run by Janeen Fernando, the first person that I met) when he worked as a Governance Consultant at Verité Research. Here are some highlights from our meeting.
- I asked Asoka how the implementation of Sri Lanka’s RTI Law is going. He said that effective implementation requires a change in the public sector, referring to its culture of secrecy. He said that the Government Information Department have been training Information Officers on RTI, but don’t seem to be training citizens on how to use it. He mentioned that there is a resistance to RTI in some public bodies, with some Information Officers asking citizens requesting information questions like “Who are you?” & “What do you do?” and that citizens tend to back off when information officers say that. He also said that citizens should ideally have been able to request anything covered under RTI since February.
- I asked Asoka about his thoughts on the performance of Sarath Jayamanne as the Director General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) who replaced Dilrukshi Dias Wickramasinghe following her resignation late last year. He spoke positively of Sarath Jayamanne describing him as a very experienced prosecutor, and then went on to say his issues with CIABOC. His issues are the fact that it was set up before there were other anti-corruption agencies thus they compete with one another. He said CIABOC was set up in legal framework as the only agency for these investigations. Asoka said that CIABOC is supposed to investigate money laundering, but that it’s investigated by the FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division). He said that these agencies don’t want to share information with each other as they are in competition. Police officers are sent to CIABOC and Asoka wonders if the IGP (Inspector General of Police) would be willing to send the best police officers for these investigations pointing out that if you send the best police officers, you won’t be able to use their services.
- Asoka says that we can improve CIABOC via our commitments to some international organisations that include the World Bank. One such commitment is to allow CIABOC to conduct investigations on their own without a complaint having been made.
- I asked Asoka if he knows of any developing countries that have made successful efforts against corruption. He asked if developing countries could include countries that weren’t in a financially good state when they started their anti-corruption drive. I replied yes, and he mentioned Hong Kong as a place that has taken action against corruption and that it is mentioned a lot in Sri Lanka at present. Asoka mentioned that Sri Lankan politicians spend high sums of money for their campaigns, but get paid a low salary. Thus, this is one of the causes of corruption in Sri Lanka. He mentioned that Kenya has paid their Parliamentarians among the highest in the world due to this, but said that despite the high salaries, the lure of ill gotten wealth is still too great for some politicians to say no to.
I was to meet Dhananath Fernando next. He’s the Head (Chief Operating Officer) of Public Policy Think Tank Advocata Institute. Unfortunately something came up at the last minute, so he was unable to meet me on that day. I was however able to speak to him on the phone instead. I first heard of Dhananath from his article “What we could have done with the losses of state-owned enterprises” (on dailymirror.lk), and I was speaking to him exactly 1 year after his article had been published. Here are some highlights from our discussion.
- Dhananath said what’s currently going on with Advocata is an essay writing competition and a study of market prices. I asked about the market prices study and he said Sri Lanka has set prices for certain items such as bread. Dhananath said that a free market deals with supply and demand, and that a fixed price can cause problems so they are studying the impact of fixed prices.
- I found out that the losses of the Sri Lanka Transport Board drastically reduced in 2016 from this tweet that used Central Bank figures, and asked Dhananath about this. He said it could be due to a number of factors, and that some of these loss making state entities are profitable in some years. He elaborated that it could be due to global issues such as oil prices, saying that reductions in losses or even profits doesn’t necessarily mean better management. He said there still could be better management which is why they advocate privatisation.
- I asked Dhananath what he thinks should be the government’s economic strategy. He said that economic reforms were promised, but nothing had happened. Dhananath said that as we are in a debt trap, there should be improved tax collection of government revenue with a proper government policy on tax. He also mentioned restructuring of state-owned enterprises.
- I heard that Advocata has a partnership with the Atlas Network, an organisation based in Washington D.C. and asked about it. Dhananth said that there is no official partnership and that the Atlas Network have programs for funding based on project work which they apply for. He said these projects are based on Sri Lanka.
- Dhananath believes the private sector have a big role to play in the Sri Lankan economy. He wants the government to make it easier for them to do their work and to not get in their way.
- On the issue of Sri Lankan Airlines, Dhananath does not believe that the government should be managing an airline.
I enjoyed meeting these people to discuss Sri Lankan issues. They have knowledge in their respective fields, and talking to them made me understand some subjects I wasn’t sure about. These discussions led me to even re-evaluate my own views on certain issues. It’s interesting to note that Dhananath Fernando and Dr. A.C. Visvalingam both contributed to my article “Impact of the 19th Amendment One Year On” in July 2016.