Q:Although you say you do not perceive yourself as a “rebel” MP I am sure you must be aware of reports describing you as one. There have also been reports that you were to be moved out of Parliament on account of you being a “rebel”and that your National list MP slot would be given to Mr. Rohitha Bogollagama. It was also said that Mr. Bogollagama would be appointed External Affairs minister thereafter. Is this a likely scenario?
Answer: I don’t think this is on the agenda of the government and, though I have been told by two senior members of government that Mr Bogollagama was behind the stories, I do not believe this for a moment. Though I do not know him intimately, we got on well when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, and he was always prepared to listen on the few occasions on which I spoke to him on important issues. I should add that he called up out of the blue some months back to express his support for me when I had been attacked in a communiqué from the Foreign Ministry.
I would say then that these reports about Mr.Bogollagama replacing me are another examples of the technique of hitting out in all directions and hoping that new animosities can be created. I should add in fairness to Mr. Bogollagama that he was a very successful Foreign Minister and, though I thought that his replacement would do a better job, I was completely wrong.
Q: Given your stated disappointment with the current External Affairs Ministry I want to ask you about another related reference in this sphere. It was reported that you had requested an opportunity to speak on the votes of the External Affairs Ministry and also informed the Chief Whip that you would be critical of the Ministry. Thereafter the Chief whip Dinesh Gunawardena had reportedly checked with the powers that be and stopped you from speaking . Was this what happened?
That again is complete nonsense. I was told that speeches in the Third Reading would be given in terms of Committees of which one was a member, so the idea of speaking on External Affairs never occurred to me. I thought I would be speaking on Education, and I had also asked for the Child Development and Women’s Affairs, a Ministry with which I have been working a lot because of the requirements of the Human Rights Action Plan and because its Secretary was one of the most thoughtful and efficient persons I had come across in the Public Service.
But when I got back from the Conference on Indo-Sri Lankan Relations that I had attended during the last stages of the Second Reading of the Budget, I was told that I had been allocated Resettlement and External Affairs. I told the office of the Chief Government Whip that I would be happy to speak on the former, but I might be critical of the latter Ministry and he might like to reconsider. Since he told me that he had made the decision himself initially, because he thought I would be suitable for this, I had no doubt the decision would be changed, but a week passed before I was told the position, so I prepared speeches over the weekend – as I had done while in India for Education.
" I was also the only Parliamentarian to contribute to the journal that Parliament decided to publish, though perhaps for that reason, there has not been a second volume as yet. I believe the essays I have written on reforming Parliament, though they do not seem to have had an impact on my colleagues, will be useful when we finally all realize the need for constitutional reform "
Sure enough, on the day of the Resettlement debate, one day before the External Affairs debate, I was told that I would not be required to speak, but was also told that this was because there were already too many speakers. This was not at all surprising, and I should note that the Chief Whip was not involved in communicating anything to me.
Q: So there is no misunderstanding with Dinesh Gunawardena as alleged?
No! In fact this is again an example of the animosity creating technique, since Dinesh Gunawardena is someone I like and respect very much, ever since the days when we were instrumental in setting up the Democratic People’s Alliance under which Mrs Bandaranaike contested the 1988 Presidential Election. Significantly, I think, he went out of his way to congratulate me on my speech in the Resettlement debate, and this is typical of a very warm-hearted man.
Q: But the speech you had prepared was somewhat critical of the External Affairs ministry. Though you did not deliver it in Parliament you did release the text of the speech to sections of the media. The speech is viewed by some as being critical of the External Affairs Ministry. The Minister is reportedly peeved which is hardly a surprise. Given your disappointment with the External Affairs Minister and Ministry was the speech published deliberately to irritate or provoke?
Of course not! Since I had prepared the speech, and I thought it had some ideas that deserved wider provenance, I sent the speech to the ‘Sunday Observer’, though I did tell the Editor that he might need to think about using it in case the Foreign Ministry was upset. But this was not because it contained anything that was especially critical of the Foreign Ministry, or its Minister.
Q: If it was not critical of the ministry or minister why should it cause an upset?
An upset being caused was possible because of my praising Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam . That would upset those elements in the Foreign Ministry who had got rid of them from Geneva, which was a great blow to Sri Lanka.
I was certainly critical of what I call those Neanderthal elements – which I don’t think include the Foreign Minister though he sometimes gives in to them against the more intellectual position which I trust would be his natural standpoint - who still follow Cold War policies.
This is despite the President having made it very clear that that should give way to what I would call traditional SLFP Foreign Policy. But the brighter intellects in the Foreign Ministry should recognize that this is designed to help them do things better, and in particular I mentioned the need for better training for communications.
" I also believe we need much better training programmes, as I mentioned in the speech that was not delivered. Some time back I offered to do some , and was surprised that the Minister did not accept but, as the President told me, he gets frightened when another Professor appears. Fortunately Dayan Jayatilleka is not a Professor as yet, so I hope my suggestion of using him is accepted "
Q: How did your speech sent to the “Observer” end up on other websites?
The speech was sent to stakeholders, one of whom with my permission sent it to a few electronic websites. I was sorry the Observer too did not carry it, since I believe the points it made will hold us in good stead in the coming months.
Q: On the question of External Affairs. As a Liberal and as a Govt MP it seems clear that you are dissatisfied by the External Affairs ministry performance. What do you think should be the priorities with regard to Foreign affairs and External relations? What should be done in your opinion?
Firstly we need clear conceptualization which is shared by all elements in the Ministry as well as stakeholders whose actions are relevant to the role of the Ministry. I have to say that I am impressed by younger elements in the Ministry, in particular those appointed when Mr Kadirgamar was Foreign Minister, since he understood what was needed, whereas in Mr Hameed’s time even incompetents were taken in. But systems of discussion and analysis have not been developed, and the seniority system prevalent in this country means that some people who are still fighting the battles of 1987 still exercise excessive authority.
That needs to change, and we need to go back to the Non-Aligned principles that characterized SLFP foreign policy, when indeed this country had a stature it lost during the lickspittle Jayewardene days.
I also believe we need much better training programmes, as I mentioned in the speech that was not delivered. Some time back I offered to do some , and was surprised that the Minister did not accept but, as the President told me, he gets frightened when another Professor appears. Fortunately Dayan Jayatilleka is not a Professor as yet, so I hope my suggestion of using him is accepted.
I should add that we need to build up teams, as I tried in setting up a discussion group of politicians and civil society and military officers, but the Foreign Ministry did not respond to my invitation. I hope however that, with Dayan’s return, it develops a system of intelligent spokesmen who will promptly respond to important letters as well as to criticism – and be proactive, for instance as with my initial suggestion as to how to deal with the Darusman Report.
Ignoring it, like ostriches do when they bury their heads in the sand and hope things will go away, simply will not work.
Q: On that note I would like to know your views on another area which you are interested in and have much expertise on. Education! What do you think should be the Government’s priorities in the field of Education reforms?
I think government has to move swiftly on education reforms that promote a diversity of service providers, in Education, Higher Education, Vocational Training, Teacher Training, materials supply and indeed all areas connected with education. This does not mean that it should forget one of the most important duties of government, which is ensuring that all children get a good education, and no one is deprived of this through lack of resources. I should note that the same applies to Tertiary Education, with the proviso that this cannot be universal – though government should explore ways of maximizing the number who get tertiary education, without necessarily taking on the financial burden itself. Loan schemes, work placements, and targeted subsidies should all be explored, to expand opportunities.
Government must also make better use of the resources it does expend, by having tighter financial controls – which can be done by ensuring accountability to stakeholders, since much corruption at universities for instance could be avoided if students were entitled to check on accounts. Government should also make better use of plant, for instance for having courses in schools at times when they are not used. They should also insist on teaching happening throughout school hours, with extra-curricular activities afterwards, and also all training programmes, which can take place at weekends or during holidays.
Alternative systems of teacher supply are essential, because we need to move swiftly on ensuring that all our children are at least bilingual. Passing in a second language at Ordinary Level should be a requirement for proceeding to higher studies, and private tuition banned, at any rate during school hours. Local administrators, in particular principals must be strengthened, but with strict accountability mechanisms.
Q: There is a general impression that when compared to the speeches and lectures you deliver outside Parliament your contribution inside Parliament is less. Are you disappointed that you don’t get enough chances to speak in the legislature?
Not really, since I realize competition is intense for speaking slots. In the olden days the President would sometimes focus on me when he had asked for volunteers, and mention that the Liberal Party should be included, but I found that his instructions were not always followed. Since one had to spend a great deal of time in the Whips’s Office to ensure speaking time, I did not bother too much.
I was touched however when some of my colleagues proposed when I spoke recently when there was an Adjournment Motion on the Rule of Law as to which I think Wimal Weerawansa said it was important to address a foreign audience. He suggested the Foreign Minister, but the President did not think that would be appropriate, and then some others suggested my name, and the President asked if I would be willing. I agreed, not least because the previous occasion on which my name had been put down, for an Adjournment Motion proposed by the TNA, I failed to speak. A workshop at the Kotelawala Defence Academy over-ran and traffic was appalling, so though the Whips’ Office had called and I tried to rush, I got there when the debate had finished. I felt bad about that.
Q: Are you satisfied that you are doing a good job as a Parliamentarian? Do you feel you as a have made a significant impact as a Liberal MP so far? If you were to evaluate your track record and found it wanting would you be prepared to resign?
I feel I am doing quite a lot, since I am one of the few Parliamentarians who attends the Committee on Public Enterprises regularly, and I believe I have contributed significantly to changing the culture there – though this was possible because we have an excellent and dedicated Chairman.
It was my suggestion that we divide into sub-committees so we could try to cover all the institutions for which COPE is responsible, and though the Opposition initially argued against this, the Chairman supported my position. Then, having discovered that nothing happened if institutions failed to respond to instructions COPE had given, I suggested having time-frames and sending reminders, which it seems had not been thought of previously.
I am also very pleased that a senior public servant, now long retired, told me that his colleagues now in service appreciated my contribution to changing the approach of COPE, which was now polite and made suggestions instead of shouting at them – I should add that I was conscious of the need to make this change, since I had been at the receiving end of the shouting when I was Secretary to a Ministry.
If you read the COPE reports you will be able to see what I have contributed, since some of the suggestions are recognizable as particular concerns of mine. The same is true of what is I think the most important product of a Consultative Committee of Parliament, namely the Report on Education proposals. The contribution I make can be judged from the fact that I was the only person to respond to the last draft, when written comments were invited – though I should add that some of my colleagues said they had not been asked, so I cannot be sure whether they were irresponsible or the Consultative Committee Office inefficient.
Now that the latest Report is out and comments have been requested by 15th January, I wonder whether the situation will be better – I have already responded, and will be crafting articles around these responses for my weekly column on ‘The Care of Children’.
I was also the only Parliamentarian to contribute to the journal that Parliament decided to publish, though perhaps for that reason, there has not been a second volume as yet. I believe the essays I have written on reforming Parliament, though they do not seem to have had an impact on my colleagues, will be useful when we finally all realize the need for constitutional reform. And the work I did on amending Standing Orders, in a committee on which I was put without having requested it, has been much appreciated by the Parliament staff. I hope that, given the current realization that Standing Orders need changing, that the Committee will soon meet again, though I am sorry that I seem to be the only person who has been asking for this over the last couple of years.
Finally, through the Council for Liberal Democracy, I was able to bring a number of my colleagues together for discussions that showed how much we had in common. I plan to do more of this through a group called Parliamentarians for Democracy, Reconciliation and Rights which I have set up with some colleagues from government and opposition. These discussions make it clear how idealistic and thoughtful many Parliamentarians are, and I am only sorry that they no longer have the benefit of familiarization sessions of the sort that was offered to new Parliamentarians during sessions in the old Parliament building.
Q: So there is no question of your resigning?
I see no reason to resign, when I feel I am contributing more than most backbenchers, always bearing in mind of course that I do not have the responsibilities and compulsions of those who have to satisfy those who voted for them and think of competing for preference in whole Districts under our preposterous electoral system.
Q: Hypothetically if there is strong disagreement between you and the Govt on policy and issues and if you are called upon to resign your MP post how would you respond?
I don’t disagree on many policies. My worry is rather the slowness with which, because of incompetence in many branches of the administration, reforms that are urgent have been delayed – for instance the admirable efforts of the Ministry of Higher Education to reform the system, the private sector pensions bill, the local government structural reforms.
Q: Your stance on issues like the 18th Constitutional Amendment and Divineguma bill. Was that not a compromise?
No. I saw nothing wrong with the 18th amendment, which I am attacked for having voted for. It was a distinct improvement on the 17th which confused two political dispensations, which I had long pointed out, though sadly very few of our constitutional experts understood this – unlike the IPU delegation which understood the incongruity straight away.
The problem with the implementation of the 18th is the abdication of responsibility on the part of the Opposition, which for instance failed to register dissent over the appointment of the current Chief Justice even though they claimed at the time that she was unfit to hold the position.
Again, Divineguma seems an efficient way of promoting rural development, though it needed fine tuning and government now accepts that the changes proposed by the Courts made a lot of sense, to strengthen accountability procedures.
Q: If I may ask you categorically…You will not resign even if asked?
A: I see no reason to resign, and I don’t think I would be asked to, since I am certainly fulfilling my role as a Member of Parliament from the Liberal Party within the broad government coalition.
Q: You said you were attacked for supporting the 18th Amendment. Your current role as a Govt MP seems to have irked many people of a liberal democratic mindset but who are not members of the Liberal party. This is starkly visible in the case of many human rights activists and personnel attached to Non – Governmental Organizations. As pioneers of the Liberal party in Sri Lanka you and the late Chanaka Ameratunga were very much in harmony with these sections before. Why is there hostility towards you and the Liberals now?
A: You have to realize that it is the NGO community that has changed, not the views the Liberal Party represents. In the eighties, when we began our lone crusade from a non-statist perspective against the destruction of democracy represented by the Jayewardene government, the elite of Colombo was bitterly against us, and made all sorts of allegations against Chanaka.
In those days NGO activity was not fashionable, and it was a very few who opposed the government – such as the Civil Rights Movement, which still comments in a balanced way with which I am wholly in agreement.
Q: But there are many within NGO ranks who seem to be estranged. Why is it that a section of NGO and HR activists is not well disposed towards you and is very often critical? Is it because you ruffled feelings in the NGO community and Diplomatic fraternity when tasked with the duty of defending the Country in the past?
I get on very well with most NGOs, and though the Cold War elements in the Ministry of External Affairs claim that I have upset the West, my relations with both diplomats and UN officials – except those Americans, fortunately I think not representative of the country as a whole, who tried to subvert our armed forces – and the serious hard working NGOs such as Save the Children and OXFAM – have been excellent.
It is only those advocacy NGOs who resent my forceful defence against false allegations made about the government who are critical, and you have to see the nexus between them and what I term the Colombo elite political activists who have always been critical of SLFP led governments.
While obviously I do not approve of either state socialism or chauvinism, both of which gravitate to the SLFP – though not the worst chauvinists such as Cyril Mathew who were very much UNP supporters, as were those who burnt President Kumaratunga’s proposals in Parliament in 2000 – I believe the SLFP in its commitment to reducing disparities is more akin to our vision of Liberalism. Now that it accepts a market economy, but with state support to level playing fields, I don’t think any alternative would be better, though of course much needs to be done to improve competence and ensure coherent policy making and implementation.
Q: You spoke about the Liberal Party’s lonely crusade against the Jayewardene regime in the eighties of the last century. Your recent views on impeachment related matters evokes a sense of deja vu with the 80’s when you took up a principled position on the action taken against Mrs. B. You seem to differ from the herd again in the case of Shirani Bandaranayake as in the case of Sirima Bandaranaike. Do you see such a parallel evolving now?
I think the parallels as well as the differences between the two cases are interesting. In both cases I believe I am expressing the need for fairness, but the difference is that Mrs. Bandaranaike did nothing that the average observer would have thought wrong whereas the Chief Justice seems to have benefited considerably in a case which she arbitrarily assigned to herself.
In the former case political decisions the then government disagreed with were deemed worthy of punishment, and the laws amended to prevent a Court decision having effect, whereas in this case conduct unbecoming of a Judge and leading to personal benefit is in question, in addition to financial concealments and manipulation. The lady does not seem innocent, whereas Mrs Bandaranaike was guilty of nothing culpable, and political misjudgments are dealt with by the democratic process. However Parliament must be very careful about acting as a Court, and should do nothing that erodes confidence in the legislature and the rule of law.(ENDS)
(TO BE CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com