An Interview with Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha M.P. – Part 3
Q: Some observers of the Sri Lankan situation opine that a creeping illiberalism is pervading society at large under the Rajapaksa regime. As a liberal and an advocate of liberal democracy, are you not perturbed by the erosion of those very values in Sri Lanka? Are you not concerned over the creeping illiberalism?
A: I don’t think there has been any particular erosion of values recently, compared to what we went through under Jayewardene. Indeed we have a vibrant media, and relentless criticism of whatever is seen as abuse, which was certainly not the case in those days. Personally I believe that things began to ease under Premadasa, even though the Colombo elite who relished Jayewardene’s authoritarianism complained of Premadasa. But I remember the media freedoms he introduced, the liberalization of communications and the fact that we had free elections.
The point was that Premadasa , like President Rajapaksa, thought what he was doing was for the benefit of the people at large, and they were not frightened of the people or of elections. Of course both naturally attract people who are not as interested in the people as in themselves, and abuses occur, but we do have safety valves in the form of an independent judiciary which did not exist in Jayewardene’s time.
Q: But the Judiciary is under attack?
A: Unfortunately you now have a clash with the judiciary, but we must remember that, though impeachment of the Chief Justice seems excessive, we are dealing with a lady who was put on the bench with no previous judicial experience simply because the then Minister of Justice recommended her. Such a person rising through seniority to the position of Chief Justice is an anomaly, whereas President Premadasa was able to appoint a totally respected person, who was the most senior judge on the Bench at the time, as Chief Justice when a vacancy arose – confuting those who said he would make a political appointment.
" I think we should be working towards constitutional reform based on recognizable constitutional principles. One of these should be strengthening the legislative role of the legislature by strengthening the role of committees in legislation"
Q: As Liberals do you not find cohabitation in this Govt incompatible with your beliefs? Do you not feel uneasy in the midst of fellow travellers of liberalism/ liberal democracy in the conferences and other events you frequently attend, as the government that you are part of has violated with impunity, those very values you and fellow liberals advocate?
A: There is no reason whatsoever to feel uneasy, because I am proud to be associated with a government that has done more for the people of Sri Lanka than any other in recent times, and set an example to the world of how to deal with terrorism. I think we could do more for the Tamil people, and to make the minorities in general regain confidence in Sri Lanka as a whole, but we have certainly done more than critics of the government declared would be done when we got rid of the Tigers.
Liberals almost all over the world have to work in coalitions, which means being in government with those one does not agree with totally. We all know that compromises are necessary, but one does not compromise with regard to fundamental principles, and I am known well enough by Liberals internationally for them to be confident that I will not compromise on fundamentals. But I will not hesitate to criticize those who attack Sri Lanka unreasonably, with no attention to the singular positive achievements of this government.
Q: Although you say you will not compromise on fundamentals , your previous answers to questions and also some of your other writings elsewhere seem to suggest that you are unhappy with the Govt over a number of matters. Your disappointment so far at the lack of progress in Reconciliation matters, the Govt-TNA talks impasse , lack of adequate opportunities to speak on subjects close to your heart, divergence of opinion with other Govt MP’s on impeachment procedures, not being given a suitable post as deputy minister where your abilities could be utilised for the benefit of Govt and country are but some of these matter . So let me ask you again. Despite these differences what makes you continue with this Govt? Given the criticism levelled against the Govt in general and the President in particular why are you not pulling out or changing course?
A: I don’t think one should allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
I believe this government achieved more for the people of this country than almost any other since independence, first in ridding us internally of terrorism which had held up progress for so long, and second in embarking upon a massive programme of rural development which should help us get rid of the problems of inequity that have created such turmoil.
I also think, from my discussions with the President, that he has many ideas which I hope will be taken forward…
Q: But why is there slow progress in many crucial matters? Why does the President seem reluctant or hesitant to act decisively?
A: He suffers from fears of destabilization given the way previous SLFP led governments have been brought down by various stratagems, both in 1964 and then in 2001.
This problem has been exacerbated by the cynicism with which a couple of Western powers, plus the TNA, tried to use Sarath Fonseka to undermine the President, thus confirming the view that they had no principles at all when it came to undermining a government they disliked. This has made the President more dependent on some of his coalition partners who stood by him against the threat presented by Sarath Fonseka, and I can understand him being wary of taking measures that might allow similar stratagems.
While things are slow, I appreciate the seriousness with which key agencies such as the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Task Force respond to problems in the North and East which I bring to their attention, which suggests to me the commitment for the welfare of the people.
" Unfortunately you now have a clash with the judiciary, but we must remember that, though impeachment of the Chief Justice seems excessive, we are dealing with a lady who was put on the bench with no previous judicial experience simply because the then Minister of Justice recommended her "
Q: Do you not feel constricted or restricted in articulating your opinion?
A: I have no problems too about speaking out as you can see from my approach to the impeachment question, and while I feel I could do more, as I mentioned I understand the compulsions of seniority and electoral success in being selected for office.
Q: What about a ministerial portfolio?
A: I certainly do not want to be a Deputy Minister in the Foreign Ministry, which is the only suggestion I have made in that respect, that was only because the President, while claiming that he understood the need for change, said he had no one else to put there. I disagree, and think that, apart from the two Senior Ministers I have suggested, there are plenty of others who would do a better job than we suffer from at present.
Q: We spoke about the Govt-TNA talks earlier. From a Tamil perspective in particular and a national perspective in general these talks are very important as they envisage a solution to unresolved issues pertaining to what is euphemistically referred to as the “ethnic problem”. Urgent Constitutional reforms are needed in this respect. But the current impasse is most disappointing to say the least. Who is to be held responsible for this if the President is not to be faulted?
A: With regard to the TNA talks, again I think we suffered from individual predilections taking precedence over the interests of the country. I am referring primarily to the Minister of External Affairs who has, through a combination of excessive self-interest and a lack of commitment to principles, failed in all the responsibilities he has undertaken on behalf of successive governments – beginning with the Constitutional Affairs portfolio in the early nineties, the negotiations with the LTTE at the beginning of this century, the GSP plus fiasco a few years back, and now the talks with the TNA.
If the President has not realized the problems that one person can cause from the present difficulties with the Chief Justice, who the Minister in a previous incarnation tried to push into the Chair of Law in Colombo and then elevated to the Supreme Court when that effort failed, I can only assume that he can see hidden skills no one else can – but the President is the politician, and as he once told me when I was arguing a point, I should not try to teach him politics. I should add that the President’s willingness to discuss matters, even when he disagrees, is a quality I admire, which is not shared by many, and that makes me hope that in time the required reforms will emerge. Certainly no other government could achieve what the country needs.
Q: I do hope your optimism about the President will be proven right and that required Constitutional reforms to resolve the national question would evolve at some point of time. But what about reforming the Legislature? The current Impeachment crisis has led to much discussion about the role and scope of Parliament. What are your thoughts in this regard?
A: I think we should be working towards constitutional reform based on recognizable constitutional principles. One of these should be strengthening the legislative role of the legislature by strengthening the role of committees in legislation.
Secondly we should strengthen oversight by giving more teeth to COPE and the Public Accounts Committee. We should also work towards contributing to policy through advisory committees, while bearing in mind that decisions in this regard are the prerogative of the executive.
Clear conceptualization will I think also help in making stakeholders understand the responsibilities as well as the limits of executive power. There is much confusion now, with Ministers, understandably given our electoral system, thinking their executive function is also designed to help them with electoral politics. Given the large area they need to express, this often leads to squandering of resources which should be based on policies relating to executive responsibilities, not electoral ones.
Q: Let me end this rather lengthy interview with a speculative query. Given the current excitement over the Impeachment and growing dissatisfaction over rising cost of living do you foresee a people’s uprising like an Arab spring or an European type “colour” revolution happening in Sri Lanka and causing Regime change?
A: Not at all, because those revolutions occurred in countries where democracy had been suppressed for years, whereas Sri Lanka has been a vibrant democracy since independence, except for in the Jayewardene years. There is much that is wrong with our constitution, and hence with the way democracy works, but there is no doubt that this is a popular government and the people know it is their choice. They know that if things turn sour, they can elect another government but, despite economic difficulties here, as in the world in general, I have no doubt that at present they have no such desire.