SPECIAL REPORT : Part 82July 28, 2015, 5:51 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
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.
Continued from July 22
(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 his 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 lead 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 (concluded).