By Rajiva Wijesinha
T S Eliot’s exhortation in ‘Ash Wednesday’ seems particularly appropriate when we consider the life of Dr Anthonis whom we celebrate today. At the time of his death, less than eight years ago, when he was 98, he had the stature of an icon. He had retired nearly 40 years earlier but was still thought of as one of the country’s most distinguished doctors.
He was well known for social service, and as a dedicated family man, but he was in no sense a conformist. He did what he wanted to do, and saw no reason to limit his own sense of freedom, except when it came into conflict with the freedoms of others. In that sense he was a true liberal, though it is important in this day and age, when neo-liberalism is rampant, to register the difference between that selfish and destructive creed and liberalism.
The latter believes in freedom, but also affirms the need for social support, to facilitate all people having better opportunities to exercise their freedoms. The former, in denying the duties of the state with regard to economic and social rights, allows for a free for all in which the weakest are driven to the wall. For Dr Anthonis, born in the same year as our great liberal leader, Dudley Senanayake, the philosophy that now many elements in government follow, fortunately not all, would have been anathema.
Is that why I was given the honour of delivering this oration in his memory? The gentleman who asked me obviously wanted a political dimension to my reflections, for he gave me a title on which to speak, and noted that Dr Anthonis ‘often lamented the lack of a strong leadership in our Political Hierarchy’. I feel I should take up this challenge, but I will try to do so in terms of some principles, linked to the quotation with which I began. I should note though that I will not refrain from discussing personalities too, where appropriate, because this country has suffered more than most from the pursuit of personal agendas rather than national ones.
And perhaps we should begin with the cardinal error of the two most admired politicians this country had, namely D S Senanayake and his son Dudley. My admiration for them is enormous, but it is necessary to register that the rot perhaps set in here when the former decided that he wanted his son to succeed him. I recall my aunt Ena de Silva telling me that, when she went to the older Senanayake’s funeral house, her aunt Molly, as she called her, urged her to tell Dudley to take up the position. It took my aunt some time to understand what our first Prime Minister’s widow was talking about. It was of course the succession, and sadly Dudley succumbed despite qualms, only to resign a couple of years later. But the bitterness that move engendered has stuck with us, and has set precedents that several of our leaders have succumbed to. Incidentally, one should note the role wives of leaders and mothers of potential leaders have played in this game, beginning with Molly, and running through Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Nalini Wickremesinghe and Shiranthi Rajapaksa, to say nothing of others and their progeny, the phenomenon made worse by our appalling electoral system.
Teach us to care, and not to care. What T S Eliot meant was that we should care about people and situations that need care. We should not care about our own aggrandizement. This does not mean that parents should not care about children, families upon dependents, politicians about their constituents. But they should not exercise that care at the expense of other people and other institutions more deserving of attention in particular contexts.
Unfortunately our political system has entrenched what I would describe as that negative concept of care, indulgence to one’s own at the expense of the state. We begin with the lunacy of the private offices of Ministers being packed with their relations – who may be there only to give them an occupation, but they themselves do not accept their limitations and see themselves rather as decision makers.
I still recall my shock, in dealing with Kabir Hashim when he occupied the position I did later – but had a less interfering Minister than he proved to be – to find that I had to go through his sister-in-law. She was a charming woman, and straightforward – and revealed to me why the government in 2002 was so indulgent to the LTTE – but putting her in that position was not what I would have expected of Kabir Hashim. Later I found though that this was the rule, and indeed she at least was intelligent, which is more than can be said of some of those who wield authority on behalf of ministers.
But that is just the surface of the problem. More insidious is the assumption that the purpose of ministerial office is the continuation in office of the minister. As a result, jobs are given to individuals from the Minister’s constituency, as I found for instance when visiting the university at Oluvil, way back in the nineties, to find the security guards were all from Galle. Richard Pathirana had put them there, but they said in defence that the Galle port was packed with Ashraff’s men from the Kalmunai area. And now I find that Nipunatha Piyasa is packed with people from Galle, given the long tenure of the Vocational Training Ministry by Piyasena Gamage. I should note that I had a comparatively decent Minister, who assures people that he does not put in people from Kalutara. But this does not prevent his underlings from trying to influence decisions as to appointments. And the same is true with regard to the current Minister, though he too is comparatively speaking less ruthless about self interest than most Ministers.
And the situation is of course much worse now, given that all Ministers have to cater to massive catchment areas, given our appalling electoral system. The situation was bad enough in the old days, but they could affirm limits and their constituents had to accept these. Now no one will take no for an answer because there are other parliamentarians in the District to go behind. Since ministers are in competition with those in their party too, they cannot afford to alienate anyone. The trough at which people feed then is massive, and you can stick your snout in at different places.
The President recently announced that the electoral system leads to massive corruption, a statement to which another of the sharp tongued aunts I had would have said, ‘Columbus has discovered….’ The phrase was used of the obvious, which someone suddenly asserted as though it were new. What is doubly sad about the President saying this is that three years ago he had an opportunity to change things, and indeed promised faithfully that he would implement that pledge in his manifesto too, before dissolving Parliament.
I do not think he was lying, but he did not keep his promise. His staff later suggested that he was dragooned into a premature dissolution by Western envoys anxious to keep their chosen Prime Minister in office. With the COPE report pending, the then Opposition was rearing to stick the knife in, since it was obvious that Arjuna Mahendran had acted on advice, as both he and the Prime Minister asserted when they thought they could get away with the scam. I told the opposition leaders then that, if they wanted to move a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, they should assure the President that he could appoint someone else he wanted, and they would not insist on the post going to someone of their choice.
But, as Vasudeva Nanayakkara foolishly admitted afterwards, they thought they had a majority and could appoint whom they wanted. As I have noted elsewhere, there is no one as devoted to the Westminster system as the old Left, and Vasudeva had forgotten that we had a constitution that allowed the President to dissolve at will.
Teach us to care, and not to care. The Opposition then was concerned only about its own agenda, and did not for a moment think that they needed also to appreciate the President’s position, and not frighten him into an early dissolution. But in the heightened emotions of that period, there was no effort to consider not simply what one wanted, but also what the other person did not want. That basic principle of negotiation, not to try to win everything, but to ensure that no one loses too much, has never figured high in our political consciousness.
That of course is what has prevented a swift resolution to what is termed the National Question. Negotiations have been conducted in terms of keeping the gallery satisfied, as indeed I found when I was briefly appointed to the government team to talk to the TNA, way back in 2011. We had to put up with endless grandstanding from both G L Peiris and Mr Sambandhan, and worse, on the government side there were no minutes and no prior preparation. I am proud to say that we achieved consensus only with regard to issues that I took up (with some difficulty because G L did not want me to introduce anything new), and indeed Mr Sumanthiran and I produced a draft with regard to police and land powers that I think would have been mutually acceptable.
The proof of this is that the President called me on the morning we were due to present our draft, and said that I should not give too much away, obviously having been briefed by Sajin Vas Goonewardene who had taken to calling me the TNA representative on the government side. Conversely Mr Sumanthiran told me as we were going in that he had been upbraided by their lawyer representative, Mr Kanag-Ishvaran, for having given too much away. Unfortunately, perhaps because we were getting too close to consensus, Sajin stopped telling me after that about meetings, and soon enough the discussions ceased The government instead decided to go for a Committee in Parliament as to which it let down the TNA with regard to prerequisites, so that in the end no one attended that Committee.
Indeed, not even its members bothered. Vasantha Senanayake and I did put up proposals to the committee, but there were just a few members to discuss them when, separately, we appeared before them. And sadly they did not bother to issue an interim report, even though Nimal Siripala de Silva, who chaired the committee, was quite capable of producing a document that would have addressed at least some major concerns. But he too is an outstanding example of a man who cares too much about safety rather than principle, which is why despite his great capacity he is stuck in a permanent secondary role that declines in importance with the years. Had he, as he was inclined to, taken the risk of supporting the present President way back in 2014, the country would not now be in the sad situation in which it finds itself, with no development, no investment, and threats looming on all sides.
I should, of course, expand on that statement since it may seem odd coming from someone who decisively supported the candidature of the current President. I have been asked recently if I regret that decision, which has been a difficult question to answer. I think on balance my answer is no because, as I have indicated above, the decision making process under the last government had been hijacked by individuals with neither capacity nor commitment. That is why the enormous promise of May 2009 was so sadly betrayed. But I must admit that the enormous promise of January 2015 has been even more sadly betrayed, and the consequences are very worrying.
This however is the place to return to the issues of principles, since to dwell on personalities, interesting and relevant as they are to the mess we are in, would be unproductive. Rather we should look at how the sterling commitments in the President’s manifesto that would have stopped this March of Folly have been so comprehensively ignored.
The reason of course is that those who now make decisions have their own agendas, and none of them is concerned with the structural changes that are essential if history is not to continue to repeat itself, with more corruption, more inefficiency, more waste. Not many, but a significant number, are primarily concerned with retribution, retribution for leaders of the last government, retribution for our armed forces who did a fantastic job in dealing with terrorism, with none of the advantages that the brutal powers that dominate the international arena possess (and who have only succeeded in provoking more insidious forms of terrorism so that their poor civilians are now going through the horrors we experienced for a quarter of a century, when we did not know where death would strike next). In passing I cannot help noting the sanctimoniousness with which one of those pompous asses who condemned us declared after the attack on the Commons that this should never happen again. It obviously never occurred to him to think of what he meant, to recognize the means required to ensure that those who work through terror – and who refuse to negotiate – cannot continue with the mayhem they perpetrate. When I remonstrated he noted that he had not supported many of the appalling unilateral attacks of his compatriots, and that is true, but he did not consider that his objections meant nothing, and the coalitions that perpetrate destructive regime change charged on. Conversely his objections to what we did have contributed to terrorism trying again to raise its head in this land, with the support from more complacent countries that did very little to help us in that awful period.
Despite this there are those amongst us who want to punish our forces. And there are those amongst us who wish, as much for political advantage as for revenge, to punish the past political leadership. And this is what obsesses them, not the changes our polity needs to prevent excesses in the future.
This is emphatically true with regard to the issue on which indeed action is needed, namely corruption. But as I pointed out early in 2015, it is not possible to prove corruption through the courts, given the range of defensive and dilatory stratagems available. Rather what I recommended was pro-active use of Freedom of Information, by publishing the Assets Declarations of all those in authority. These could be challenged, and investigated, with provision for all those who could not satisfactorily explain what seemed unusual wealth to be allowed to return it. They would in exchange be given immunity from prosecution but a limited moratorium on participation in public life. Interestingly I was told recently that one of those who milked the country ruthlessly under the last government had had some property repossessed by the leasing company, and that seems to me adequate punishment without wasting time and energy on prosecutions that will never happen.
Tellingly, the Global Forum on Asset Recovery seemed last month to come to the conclusion I had sketched out nearly three years ago, in that it has come up with what are termed ‘innovative’ tools …. ‘to address corruption and to recover stolen assets. One of them is to divert stolen assets to building new permanent assets for public good. The legal mechanism for this is the ‘non-conviction based forfeiture’ of stolen assets. An even more radical innovation is the ‘reversal of the burden of proof’ – i.e. putting the onus on the embezzler to prove that his wealth, or portion of it, is not ill-gotten.’ To facilitate this they are also trying it seems ‘to facilitate international co-ordination and to enable banks (famously, the Swiss banks) to break with the tradition of protecting the privacy of their depositors and to co-operate with governments and asset recovery agencies to provide information and to turn over ill-gotten deposits to respective governments.’
But obviously I was foolish to expect concern about this issue in 2015, given the record of the current government, which embarked within a few weeks of taking office on more ruthless plundering of the country than any of its predecessors. What happened at the Central Bank is horrifying, and what is more horrifying were the efforts of the Prime Minister to draw red herrings, the failure of the President to get rid of the Governor immediately, and the pressure on him to dissolve so that crooks who put the money makers of the previous administration in the shade could get off the hook.
And so we find that the Right to Information Act, which it was pledged would be passed early in 2015, was delayed, and has emerged in a watered down version. I sent the Prime Minister comments on the draft that was circulated then, but got no response, and it was clear he was determined to put it off – as with the Audit Act – until he had precipitated dissolution and felt more in control. And now it is clear that government is determined to obfuscate, and those who try to invoke the Right to Information are obstructed at every turn. The fact that those who wanted to see the Prime Minister’s Assets Declaration have been obstructed is ample evidence of what I believe is the total hypocrisy that characterizes him and his minions. So in such a context there is no hope of dealing with corruption, no hope of the people finding out what is happening with their money. And sadly those who claimed they were concerned about this seem to have been satisfied when they could benefit from government appointments, and so forgot the ideals they expressed.
The worst betrayal of all, apart from the continuation of the current expensive and violence prone election system (intra-party even more than inter-party), was the failure to limit the size of the Cabinet. This has been mooted for years, and it was sad, when the JVP had a chance to entrench a limit, that they concentrated on the Constitutional Council. They failed to also insist that a constitutional amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet be a condition for their support for what was termed a Probationary Government.
To be continued on next week..