Sri Lankan Minister calls on poets to help unite a divided nation
Feb 23, 2015
Writers, actors and dancers asked to help heal the wounds of civil war as new government pushes for reconciliation
For centuries, the poets of Sri Lanka have sung the praises of the island nation’s stunning physical beauty – and spoken too of the conflicts that have torn it apart. Now, the government is looking to the country’s literature to heal the wounds of a brutal civil war.Rajiva Wijesinha, the recently appointed minister for higher education, has called on universities to organise programmes of poetry, along with sports, drama and dance, to “bring together” the largely Buddhist Sinhala majority and the largely Hindu Tamil minority.
“The arts are important. They can only be a part of a much broader effort, but should not be neglected. Nothing will make everyone happy but you can reduce the intensity of grief and anger,” Wijesinha, who recently published an anthology of poetry translated into English from both the main local languages, Sinhala and Tamil.
Sri Lanka is struggling with the aftermath of a brutal 26-year civil war that cost tens of thousands of lives. It ended in 2009 when government forces advanced behind heavy bombardments into the strongholds of separatist extremists fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north of the country.
In the wake of the war, the rift dividing the two major national communities has remained wide.Tamils blame the former government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated in a surprise result in early elections last month, which made few concessions to their demands for greater autonomy. Rajapaksa argued that economic growth would heal the wounds of war, and refused to release Tamil political prisoners, order the withdrawal of security forces from land seized by authorities or prosecute alleged war crimes.
The Challenges before Us
Jan 09, 2015
I write this before the results of the Presidential Election are known and I assume President Sirisena will address these challenges. But since it is conceivable that President Rajapaksa might be declared the winner, and might be able to convince our people as well as the world that he was fairly elected, I hope that he too will think of these matters and not continue with the mixture as before. In particular he must make it clear that he will no longer rule through an oligarchy of family and friends with questionable capacity, but will work with senior members of his own party and technocrats subject to supervision by democratically established institutions.
The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process. For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.
This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.
Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.
But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.
An effective way of responding to external interference in relation to terrorism
Oct 09, 2014
Take Sri Lanka. After decades of fruitless negotiations, the Rajapaksa government had had enough of the Tamil Tigers’ suicide bombings (70,000 dead in 30 years) and its attempts to cut off water supplies to the Sinhalese majority. With military aid from Iran, India, Pakistan, China and Israel, Sri Lanka used crushing force to eliminate the Tamil Tigers on a remote beach. In one of the many omissions in this book, Powell does not pause to ponder why the ideological leader of the Tigers, Anton Balasingham and his ghastly Australian wife Adele, were allowed to live in the UK throughout the conflict. Or why, for that matter, is Cricklewood home to leaders of the Algerian Salafist movement that killed 200,000 people in the 1990s?
Committee on Standing Orders hasn’t met for four years; Failing to amend Standing Orders inexcusable-Prof Wijesinha
Sep 30, 2014
Failure on the part of Parliament to amend Standing Orders to ensure the smooth functioning of the House was inexcusable, UPFA National List MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha said yesterday.
Prof. Wijesinha alleged that for want of remedial measures the situation continued to deteriorate much to the disappointment of those who still believed in restoring the supremacy of parliament.
Referring to a recent interview given to The Island by UPFA Gampaha District MP Vasantha Senanayake, Prof. Wijesinha said he couldn’t comprehend the inordinate delay in amending the Standing Orders, particularly in the wake of the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Responding to a question, Prof. Wijesinha that many issues, including the impeachment of the Chief Justice could have been handled properly but for a lacuna in the Standing Orders.
Asked whether he as an MP had at least raised the issue in parliament, Prof. Wijesinha said that he had requested Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to take remedial action.
Presentation at the Colloquium of MARGA & CHA : Re Narrative iii-Last Stages of the War; A Private Sector Perspective
Aug 31, 2014
Let me start with a paradox. This is an extremely impressive book, but I find it woefully depressing. It has been put together, according to the introduction, by three patriots who are also strong adherents of pluralism and the rule of law. Godfrey Gunatilleka is, as Dayan Jayatilleka once described him, arguably the best intellect in public life, Asoka Gunawardena is the most balanced and practical of administrators, and Jeevan Thiagarajah combines unparalleled energy in the service of his country with wide ranging knowledge of what happened in various spheres during the conflict.
Why then am I depressed? There are several reasons for this. The first is very simply that it comes far too late. Second, it requires fleshing out through details which are only available with government. Third, it leaves unstated the need for immediate action by government in the spheres in which it is unable to refute allegations made against the country. Fourth – and I cannot believe that the main writers were responsible for this, given the very different perspective Godfrey put forward in the television interview – it seems to swallow wholesale the allegations against the UN leadership in Sri Lanka made by the Petrie Report. Finally, it leaves out one group of significant actors, namely those who have contributed heavily to the Darusman Report, if we are to believe Wikileaks: I mean the NGO representatives who produced evidence against Sri Lanka.
For these reasons, the fourth and fifth sections of this book are weak. The first two sections are very strong, and provide an object lesson to the Sri Lankan government as to how it should have dealt with the allegations in the first place. The third section is well argued, but its main point is weakened by the failure to affirm forcefully the need for a credible internal inquiry with regard to the treatment of surrendees. In this regard the book is less balanced than the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, which is surprising since its rationale is that of a middle way between that and Darusman.
‘The Right to Land and the Right to Development“ Irreconcilable Differences?’ at the Forum on ‘Sri Lanka’s Road to Sustainable Development’ organized by the Law and Society Trust, August 22nd 2014
Aug 24, 2014
The Right to Private Property is not recognized in the Sri Lankan Constitution. When the Liberal Party first asserted the need for this, in the eighties, we were considered eccentric, as we were then with regard of our advocacy of the German Mixed System of Election and a Second Chamber.
Now that the idea – like those others, I should note - is more widely accepted, I should also stress the flip side of this, as it were, namely that this Right is not in conflict with State needs when it comes to development. Those must necessarily take precedence. As I have pointed out recently, in dealing with the constant queries that come up at Divisional Reconciliation meetings, the State does have the right to take over land for public purposes, and this cannot be circumscribed. However it has to be exercised in conformity with clear regulations, which include the stipulation that nothing that is not strictly necessary for the stated purpose is taken over. There must also be transparency as to the purpose and the rationale for selection, and the process needs to be justiciable. The third principle that must accompany these is of adequate compensation, again with transparency as to the calculations, and justiciability.
The principles may be simple, but putting them into practice is not. Also, given the delays and expenses of our legal system, it is desirable to put in place, to ensure justice, mediation mechanisms, so that recourse to law is rare. And there must be systems in place to ensure that judicial or quasi-judicial decisions are not flouted.
I say this because of the sorry history of a project that I think exemplifies the problems we face. I refer to the Southern Highway, which I think everyone will agree is a welcome development that benefits the country as a whole. Yet we know that it took ages to complete, and the route was changed finally so that much more private property was taken over than on the initial plan, and much more compensation paid than should have been necessary. And though the ADB had a complaints mechanism in place, and though that mechanism ruled in favour of those who had objected to the new route, that ruling came too late to bring relief.
Sri Lanka’s Relations with the Outside World - Post Conflict Reconstruction in Sri Lanka and the International Community
Aug 01, 2014
A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.
However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.
Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here -
Sri Lanka needs to be aware of both facts and principles in dealing with Post Conflict Reconstruction. The facts are simple, and we must recognize that the world at large is aware of them. First, we need aid and assistance for reconstruction. Second, that assistance will be more readily forthcoming if we make significant progress towards reconciliation. Third, reconciliation will be judged in terms not only of what government says, but also the responses of the Tamil community.
These three facts are I think readily recognized by government, and there is no essential difficulty about working in accordance with them. There is however a fourth fact that we need to bear in mind, which is that some elements in the international community believe that the attitude of the diaspora is the most significant element in assessing Tamil responses. This is potentially an upsetting factor, and we have to make sure we deal with it convincingly. Similar to this is a fifth factor, that assessments made in Colombo are often used by salient elements in the international community to judge what is happening with regard to reconciliation and the responses to this of the Tamil community at large. Again, this is a factor that government must take into account.
Text of an interview given by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP to Deutschewelle
May 14, 2014
Five years after the end of the civil war, how do you assess the reconciliation process between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka?
It is not going at all well, largely because there is no focus on Reconciliaton. In the Draft National Reconciliaton Policy prepared in my office, we noted the need for..
Establishing a multi-stakeholder institutional mechanism with responsibility to promote and monitor the reconciliation process. A Parliamentary Select Committee should review the work of this mechanism. The mechanism should thereafter cease to exist at the end of three years unless Parliament decides otherwise.
Far from this being done, I had no response whatsoever to the draft. This was to ignore what the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission had clearly stated, viz ‘‘...despite the lapse of two years since the ending of the conflict, the violence, suspicion and sense of discrimination are still prevalent in social and political life. Delay in the implementation of a clearly focused post conflict peace building agenda may have contributed to this situation.’
The situation after five years is much worse, because the government has not understood that reconciliation cannot come through what is termed a trickle down effect. This is the more astonishing in that the President has a political perspective that understands you cannot rely on a trickle down effect to promote national prosperity through pure capitalism. He appreciates the modern Liberal philosophy expressed by John Rawls through the Maxi-Min principle. But, while working on rural development, he does not apply similar practices to the areas decimated by the war.
UN vote and reconciliation in Sri Lanka Experts debate whether UN resolution will help bring reconciliation between majority Sinhala community and Tamils.
Apr 08, 2014
The UN Human Rights Council at its session in Geneva passed a resolution against Sri Lanka that paves the way for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes in the final phases of the civil war in 2009.
Both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam rebels have been accused of committing atrocities during the war, but the conduct of government troops have been criticised due to the high level of casualties, with one UN report saying that about 40,000 civilians were killed by troops.
We ask two Sri Lankan experts whether the UN resolution will help bring reconciliation between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority.
Cunning piece of work
Rajiva Wijesinha, Member of Parliament and Adviser on Reconciliation to the President. Former head of the Peace Secretariat and former secretary of the Human Rights Ministry.
The resolution against Sri Lanka that the United States precipitated in Geneva was a very cunning piece of work. It dealt with a number of issues that are of concern to many Sri Lankans, but which are not material for such resolutions.
Extremists in Govt. determined to destroy country’s credibility - Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Mar 21, 2014
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, a National List MP of the ruling Party, who along with a group of government parliamentarians wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa warning about possible economic sanctions, said in an interview with Ceylon Today, extremists within the government ranks are 'determined to destroy country's credibility.' He also said the External Affairs Ministry has been forced into the 'mute submission of the extremist agenda.'
Q: You were one of the six government parliamentarians, including four ministers, who sent a letter to the President regarding the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution. What was that letter about?
A: That letter was intended to draw attention to the dangerous situation the country was in, which we felt had not been conveyed accurately to the President.
Q: What did you urge the President to do? What did you warn him about?
A: We urged him to address international concerns strategically and have informed discussions to develop a counter-strategy to address what would be raised in Geneva this month. We need to convey systematically the work done by the government since March 2009 towards uniting this country, using competent communicators able also to deal with questions.We need to recover the lost friendship with our neighbour India, not least because it is difficult to obtain the wholehearted support of Asia, the Non-Aligned Movement and the larger Third World, without having its support. We need to strengthen the relationship with Japan and China since we cannot ignore some recent statements made by them, which suggested the importance of moving swiftly through our own mechanisms on fulfilling our commitments in the area of human rights. We also need to work with African and Latin American States. Most importantly, we suggested that we need to ensure credibility by fast forwarding implementation of the LLRC recommendations, and having a dedicated agency for this purpose, which acts transparently and responds promptly to concerns and queries.