National List MP Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha has been in the news lately for his independent approach and outspoken views. In this interview the academic turned politico speaks out openly on a number of issues including the impeachment motion against the chief justice, stalled Govt-TNA talks, National Reconciliation, about the President being reportedly annoyed with him and whether he desires a cabinet portfolio.
Q: Let me begin with a topic that is close to your heart as well as mine. National Reconciliation! You are an adviser to the President on reconciliation and have taken much effort in this regard. Could you talk about your work in this sphere and the progress achieved so far?
The Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I have had have been very useful, in part because they allow for attention to the problems that affect the day-to-day lives of communities, and in part because some government agencies have been quick to respond with solutions. But by and large my work has not moved as quickly as the situation demands, because there is no specific responsibility in government for Reconciliation.
Q: As the Presidential adviser on Reconciliation have you made any suggestions or recommendations to rectify this situation? I did read about a report you had submitted. Could you elaborate please?
I believe a Ministry for National Reconciliation is essential and I have suggested this to the President in the Report I have submitted, together with suggestions as to who should be appointed, either as Minister or as Deputy if the President wishes to keep the portfolio himself.
I have made 21 recommendations altogether, including strengthening of Divisional Secretariats so as to promote more responsive and accountable government with regard to the immediate problems of communities which now feel alienated from the decision making process. I have also dealt with three areas of particular concern, namely land issues, livelihood development which must be promoted hand in hand with infrastructure development and with much greater efforts for skills development to empower people to take advantage of the opportunities that are being opened up, and psycho-social support which has been comparatively neglected.
More concerted efforts to promote language learning and develop better communication between different communities is also essential, and we have to think outside the box to achieve this, given the continuing incapacity of the Ministry of Education to train and deploy sufficient teachers.
Q:You also formulated a draft National reconciliation policy that had many commendable features. What is the position on that?
A: I think my greatest disappointment has been the fact that the draft National Reconciliation Policy prepared in my office with the involvement of a multi-party multi-religious group, and endorsed by a range of politicians, media personnel, religious leaders and members of Civil Society, has been ignored.
The President said he had passed it on for comment, but he has warned me that things get lost in his office, and reminders have not helped to resurrect this. I am sorry about this, because endorsement, of course with whatever amendments Cabinet might make, would make it clear that Reconciliation is a national priority, with a home grown framework through which to implement the LLRC Action Plan as well as think beyond that for long term attitudinal change on all sides.
Q: I am sorry to hear that the policy draft has been ignored. However on that note of reconciliation being a national priority, let me turn to another related area involving you where there seems to be an impasse.What is your opinion on the current state of affairs regarding the talks between the Government and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in which you participated? Are you optimistic still?
A: I am not optimistic, since government seems determined that the TNA join the Parliamentary Select Committee, while the TNA has issued several statements to the effect that they think this is a tactical move. While I regret grandstanding, and hope the TNA will join, I can understand their disappointment that the talks they engaged in proved fruitless.
While they should have come for talks earlier, I fear that the team that initially began negotiations seemed to have no desire to take things further. There were endless delays about meetings, and no response was made to the very healthy suggestions made by the TNA in March 2011.
Q: You came into the talks with the TNA after Ratnasiri Wickramanayake quit. Your inclusion in the Govt delegation was very welcome from a Tamil perspective because of your commitment towards a negotiated settlement and reconciliation. I know for a fact that the TNA was greatly encouraged by your participation. You were a source of confidence to them. Unfortunately there were bottlenecks leading to much delay and finally you also quit the talks. That was a disappointment. What happened?
I think I contributed a lot to increasing confidence, for instance by suggesting positive measures such as a Second Chamber and the strengthening of Local Government institutions, which government finally put on the table, having first told me that they did not think new things could be introduced.
It is typical of what the President has described as the tendency of several of those who cling to positions around him that they embrace things for themselves and will not engage in the consultations that alone help to take things forward.
Thus, though I suggested we should meet before any discussion with the TNA, this never happened, in contrast to the preparations the TNA had engaged in, even while it was clear they had disagreements amongst themselves.
Unfortunately, because I think I had contributed to some progress and an increase in confidence on the part of the TNA, some of my colleagues started calling me the TNA person on the team. Though the claim, when I objected, was that this was in jest, I think it showed a mindset that does not believe in trying to understand the other person’s point of view. Without that, even while you do not accept what goes against fundamental interests, you cannot have progress in negotiations. Ultimately I was not told of meetings, either when they were to be held, or when they were cancelled, so I resigned.
Q: Who are the people who did this?
I don’t want to name anyone.
Q: Understood. Given the composition of the Govt team one can easily deduce who they might be. But seriously is there no way to break this deadlock? As you are aware, earlier before the formal talks commenced much spadework was done through one to one meetings between representatives of the President and TNA leader Sampanthan. Cabraal and Sumanthiran met one to one . Even while the talks were on your interaction with the TNA helped on some matters. Would such a move be feasible in the current context? If so do you think the President may appoint you as his representative in this? Is there a constructive role you could play if that happens?
I think it would make sense for the President to formally allow for one to one talks between a representative of the government who would report only to him and a representative of the TNA who would report only to the TNA leader. I think the President understands, from what he has indicated, that I could do this job effectively – as was shown when we reached an agreement on land issues that was then stymied by grandstanding on either side – but I do not think those who have seen themselves as experienced negotiators, even though their work has always led to disaster, whatever government they worked for, will permit this.
Q: The prevailing impasse as well as the conflicting reports contradictory of each other after meetings with Indian ministers and officials tends to portray the President in a negative light. It is as if the President is not sincere in this exercise. His bona fides are suspect about power sharing through a negotiated settlement. What do you think?
I have every reason to believe the President is genuine, not only because of what he has said, but of instructions he has given that have consistently been ignored. For instance, he introduced the idea of a Second Chamber into his last manifesto, and when I suggested he proceed on this – following a discussion with an Ambassador of one of the countries that has supported us consistently throughout, who wondered why we did not move at all, since even one or two positive measures would relieve them of the pressures being applied – he actually instructed in my presence that this should be done. But nothing happened.
Q: If the President is of that mindset why is progress absent? What is the problem?
The failure to take forward his ideas about greater devolution, through empowerment of local communities, is symptomatic of neglect of conceptual issues, whereas the President, by instinct or through long experience, understands what people need.
The problem is that many of those whom he relies on have no vision themselves of what is needed, and so they endlessly second guess him and are terrified of suggesting anything that others might complain of.
I saw this once when, after discussion following one meeting with the TNA, he did not agree with everything we proposed but suggested a compromise, and then nothing was done, even though a couple of us pressed for this, because the fear was expressed that things would go wrong. People worry about their own necks, which reminds me of what one of the most admirable characters in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet said, about what were necks for, if one was not prepared to risk them.
Q: Here the necks are for garlands and gold chains and not for nooses or guillotines. About being prepared to risk necks – have you yourself not risked your neck as a Govt MP by not signing the impeachment motion against the chief Justice? Why did you not sign?
I did not sign because I did not think the problems that had been mentioned with regard to her work amounted to impeachment offences. I did say I would study the resolution I was asked to sign and decide, but I was told it could not be sent to me, and I was expected to come to Parliament and sign it, which is not something I felt should be done, given that impeachment is a serious matter and should be thought about carefully.
I must say that the points made in the resolution were startling, and suggested the Chief Justice was even more irresponsible than I had thought – and indeed I had been suggesting for some time that the Judicial system needed to regulate itself more formally – but I still think that impeachment without a proper judicial inquiry is inappropriate. I have written about this at length in a series which has appeared in the electronic media, and the main point I make is that the problems that have arisen are the result of failures with regard to procedures and formal guidelines, and we should address those failures instead of dealing hastily with one instance of the abuses that can result.
Q: But the entire impeachment exercise is it not politically motivated?
Though certainly measures should be taken to prevent recurrence of some things the Chief Justice has done, the way she was impeached and the haste with which the Select Committee has acted suggest political motivations too. I should add however that some of the actions of the Chief Justice also suggest political motivations. I suppose all this is inevitable when we live in a country where everything is politicized, and several aspects of the structural framework, including the Constitution and the electoral system, encourage thinking only in terms of political advantages.
Q: Most aspects of the Impeachment issue are now before courts after the Chief Justice filed certiorari and prohibition writs in the Court of Appeal. Besides you have already written extensively on this subject in various media outlets. So I will shift focus away from this matter for now and move towards another controversial issue concerning you. What has been the political fall out of your recent TV interview? It has been reported in sections of the media that President Rajapaksa is not pleased with you about it. Is that the case?
I have no reason to think so, except for what has been reported in some parts of the media. Significantly, it is elements in the media that have generally been critical of the President who claim that he is upset. I should note that I was told by someone who claims to be close to him that some individuals in government had complained, but he had noted that I was a member of the Liberal Party and entitled to my views.
I should add that other members of the government have told me they appreciate my stance but, as members of the SLFP, they felt they had to sign. It is noteworthy however that the General Secretary of the SLFP, a politician for whom I have the highest regard, given his and the Ministry’s ready and thoughtful responses to problems I bring to their notice, has said that the impeachment resolution was put forward not by the SLFP but by parliamentarians.
Q: It is well known that your father Sam Wijesinha has great affinity with President Rajapaksa. To strike a personal note I can remember telephoning your father some years ago when writing an article for a national weekly about Mahinda Rajapaksa after he had been nominated as Presidential candidate. I wanted to know some details about the Rajapaksas, particularly Mahinda. Initially your father was somewhat hostile thinking I wanted to write a negative article about Mahinda. It was only when he realized it was not so that he opened up and provided the information. This incident made me understand the bond between both.
But according to these media reports the President had supposedly said that he had appointed you to Parliament because of your father and that you are irritated because you wanted to be made Higher Education minister and the President turned you down. What is your response?
I cannot believe that the President would have said such a thing, and he would be the last person to hurt my father. The item appeared in papers which are specialized in hurting people who cannot respond, and I did not mention the matter to my father, but someone else who is close to the President did so a couple of days back and gave my father a copy of the paper. I can only hope that the President – in private, for he should not publicly respond to scurrilous attacks – reassures my father.
Q: About the ministerial portfolio...Did you ask for one and are you disappointed as alleged for not being given one? I have no doubt that, while the President is under pressure from various people to give them appointments, in my case he appreciates my track record of work, and that is why he agreed when the Liberal Party requested a Parliamentary seat.
After all, the suggestion previously that I be appointed to the Peace Secretariat was his alone, and this followed on suggestions that I take up a diplomatic posting. I did not ask for the latter, and indeed I explained when these were mooted – not directly by him I should add, though there were a couple of other things he suggested which I turned down – that it was not possible for me to leave the country for reasons which I knew he would understand.
The suggestion of the Peace Secretariat, which I knew nothing about, was entirely his, but I think it suited my capacities admirably, and I know he appreciates the work I did at a time of great difficulty.
Indeed the person I think is probably his most dangerous opponent – Mangala Samaraweera, because he is a shrewd observer of human weakness, and he plays on that – Mangala has told me that he holds Dayan Jayatilleka and me largely responsible for the ills this country suffers from because we defended the country when it might otherwise have succumbed to external pressures. I don’t think this is right, but it is an interesting take from a shrewd if somewhat lopsided mind.
Q:About asking for the Higher Education ministership and writing to Mr.SB Dissanayake. What do you say to those references in newspaper reports?
The suggestion that I asked to be made Minister of Higher Education is nonsensical, not least because S B Dissanayake is a Minister for whom I have the highest regard. He has innovative ideas and is courageous, and I have discussed this with the President, who was also very positive about him – which he is not about Ministers I think could do better.
The claim the paper made was what I call typical Mangala speak. The technique is to make people distrust each other, and its practitioners would be the more delighted if these were people who were or should be natural allies or friends, which is what I feel with SB. I therefore wrote to SB to explain the situation, and called him up, and he was characteristically reassuring and told me that I should not take any notice of such papers. Typically, the paper then complained that I had written to him, instead of responding to them, indicating that they were upset that the technique had failed.
Q: On the question of your wanting a ministerial portfolio… This is not the first time that reports of this nature have appeared. When you became an MP there was much speculation that you were to be Foreign Affairs minister. Then again about wanting to be the Higher Education Minister. Did you eye those ministries and ask the President for a portfolio? If so, are you disappointed that you have not been given a cabinet berth?
I think these matters require a detailed explanation.
Q: Please go ahead.
With regard to my not having a portfolio, I am not disappointed, but I am surprised in that, when I was appointed to Parliament, I assumed my capacities, which are conceptual and administrative, rather than electoral, would be used. But what I was particularly interested in, as I said in an interview on Rupavahini before the election results were announced, and when the interviewer seemed to think I would be given executive office, was that I thought I could best help the President in the field of Reconciliation.
At the time the Swiss ambassador had told me that she had heard I would be appointed Foreign Minister, which I thought was a joke, or a rumour spread by those who wanted Mr Bogollagama out. Someone else said I had been considered for the position of Minister of Education but he had been told that they had found someone else who was characterized as a brilliant choice. At the time I had no desire for either of those portfolios, because I knew how difficult they are to manage.
However, because of my realization of the enormous mess the Ministry of External Affairs was making of everything, I did after having gone to Geneva in March – having refused to do so for months, but finally thinking that I could not refuse the President yet again, and because I realized our Ambassador there needed support – tell the President that he needed to make a change there.
His response was that he knew there were problems, but he had no alternatives. I did then suggest that he could use me as a Deputy Minister, but when he then told me that I too was asking for positions like everyone else, I pointed out that I had never previously asked for any executive position.
I have noted several people who would do better as Minister of External Affairs, since they would command more confidence, for instance Sarath Amunugama or D E W Gunasekara whom the President once appointed to act in the portfolio. And my old Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe would also I believe now do a better job, though I am sorry to say that in 2010, when he seemed to be the other candidate, I thought a brilliant intellect counted for more than charm. I was wrong.
With regard to SB, that is one position that should not be changed even if there were a reshuffle, because it would send out the wrong message. Government must concentrate on getting his new Act through, and recognize that the failure to push this a couple of years back, when he first got it ready, was yet another example of how lethargy can lead to disaster.
Q: This Independent approach you adopt contrasts sharply with most of your Parliamentary colleagues on the Govt side where conformity is the name of the game. Your not signing the impeachment motion, for example, is an act that goes against the grain of herd instinct displayed by many of the signatories. Some of the views you express on Impeachment related issues too are of a dissident nature. Against such a backdrop you are viewed as a dissenter or rebel. Some media even describe you as a rebel. If I may be a little flippant there was a popular movie starring James Dean called “Rebel without a Cause”. Would you regard yourself as a rebel within Govt ranks? If so are you one with or without a cause? If you are indeed a rebel with a cause then what is that cause?
I don’t see myself as a rebel in government ranks, since I continue to see the work of this government as being better for the country than any other. However I certainly have a cause, which is that of the liberal approach to politics. That means first and foremost, as I think Gladstone put it, reform and reform and reform. Reforms are meant amongst other things to promote fairness and equity, as well as the rule of law, and to expand freedom and opportunity to enjoy freedom.
Over the last year I have been pointing out that we did not have the rule of law and that is why the Courts needed to make Rules, so that justice would be consistent and quick. But by quick I meant stopping endless postponements and remanding at the drop of a hat, not rushing through cases.
Unfortunately the Standing Orders are not equitable and the case was rushed through, so that it does not seem fair, which the Select Committee itself notes is necessary.