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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.




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