Jun 29

Political Scientist, Author, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to France, Spain & Portugal, and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, delivered on 29 May 2013 before the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance held in the Auditorium of the Organization of Professional Associations, Colombo

Thank you Dr Visvalingam.  Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening!

You are a collection of individuals who have served Sri Lanka with distinction over many years. Not content with serving Sri Lanka in various capacities for decades, you continue to interest yourself in the country’s present and future. And for that, I salute you. Your contribution is something that sets a high benchmark for people like me.

Now, that having been said, it is a matter of regret that Sri Lanka, almost alone among the nations of South Asia, does not have a tradition, or if it had one, discontinued the tradition, of continuing to utilize the wisdom that people like yourselves have accumulated over decades of State service. In India and Pakistan, people like yourselves would be inducted into the various public policy boards. You would be serving on the Boards of think-tanks, institutes of strategic studies, institutes of public policy. This is how settled and wise systems continue to use the experience, talents and the intellect of distinguished citizens.

You have not only accumulated much knowledge and experience, the country has in some cases invested in that experience. Many of you who have moved up through the civil service, through the military, have had the opportunity of progressing with distinction through higher academia and professional training institutions. Most societies try to continue to use people such as you in training younger generations, in imparting the wisdom of experience, in serving as an institutional memory which we have lost. But we for some reason do not do this. In fact, the experience of people such as you, usually serve as a disincentive. If one mentions A, B or C and says he served during this time, the immediate response is yes, very good, but so and so would be unhappy if we associated him in any way in the policy or policy review process. So, that is one of the things that have gone wrong in Sri Lanka. I am happy that your organization has not contented itself with mere lamentation but has chosen to try to do something about it yourself. I have read Dr Visvalingam’s interventions over the years on matters of public policy and I thank him for that. But more importantly, all of you could be doing something else during your weekly meeting and yet you continue to engage in deliberation, in making proposals, in trying to make things better.

Now, part of my speech this evening is to urge you to do more. Because when one is in a situation where the State, or the regime or the status quo is not functioning as it should; not even in its own enlightened self-interest, then the center of gravity must shift to society, to the professionals, to the citizens. And here, your organization sets an example. But the challenge is greater than it has ever been. And therefore, the task is also more onerous and more urgent.

Let me venture a common or even banal suggestion. And that suggestion is that most of us in this room and most people we know would have been positively disposed about the decisive termination of the war in May 2009. Now the term “positively disposed” covers a continuum from glad to relieved or happy to relieve. But I also think that most of us in this room and most of the people we know have a sense of disquiet about the present and if we take our minds back to May 2009, I dare say that none of us really expected to be here in this mood 4 years down the road. That is not what we thought things would be like. That’s not what we thought we would feel 4 years later. So there has been an important gap between expectation and fulfillment. And this gap, I submit, can be super-imposed on yet another gap between promise and fulfillment.

Sri Lanka’s story or the story of Ceylon is probably that story; the story of the gap between our promise as a country, as a society and the actual outcomes, the actual performance. But today, we are at a particular point of crises. I certainly do not say that this is the worse crises we have faced because we have faced far worse situations. Not only did we have three decades of war, at least two of which were punctuated by suicide terrorism every month, perhaps even every week, but we also had a situation in the late 1980s where we faced triple challenges. We had the Southern insurrection, a Northern insurrection and an external military presence on our soil; all at the same time during the period 1987-90. And this is one of the worse situations that any society or State would be in.

So where we are now is not anywhere as bad as where we have been. But in a different sense, in a different dimension, it is somewhat more disturbing. I would call this the human resource dimension. Because however bad things were in the 1980s or the 1990s, we could always count on human resources of a certain quality. We could think of certain names or leaders, or people who could perhaps turn things around. The system was not as depleted of quality human resources as it is now.  The human resources crisis is perhaps best dramatized by the phenomenon of the brain drain which has accelerated in the post-war period.  Now, THAT is an anomaly. The brain drain is something we have been discussing for decades but we now have a situation where young people don’t even wait to finish their first degree. If they can leave during their first degree they’ll leave. So the brain drain is cutting deeper and deeper in. Young professionals look for the first opportunity to head for the exit ramps. This is exactly the opposite of what any post-war society should look like; especially one in which the legitimate State won. We have contrary examples in Angola, in Ethiopia, even in Rwanda where the degree of recovery and development has been much faster. But here, not only are young people leaving and few coming back but the policy of the system seems to be at best ambivalent, at worse a conscious disincentive to such return. Take the issue of dual citizenship.

How prudent is it to force young people of Sri Lankan origin to actually have to choose between being citizens of the United States, or Canada, or Australia and citizens of Sri Lanka. Why do we wish them to make this choice? One may of course speculate about certain considerations which are said to be of a security nature but it really doesn’t make sense to me when you weigh the pluses and the minuses because if we were to adopt a rational and open minded policy about dual citizenship, what we would immediately do is secure for Sri Lanka shareholders in many parts of the world. The moment you give dual citizenship freely then you are buying into most of the Western societies from which the anti-Sri Lankan lobbying operates. When you fail to do so, you are depriving yourself of a possible strategic advantage. Why would anybody want to do this certainly beats me.

We are also placing ourselves in a social situation which is little short of tragic because those of you who have children and grandchildren would love to have them come back or come back more often. But if the doors are shut, if the attitude is one of a lack of welcome then it is we who will be the losers. Those who have children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces out there who do want to come back and work, who want to spend time and be citizens of Sri Lanka as well. It is we who are saying ‘may be not’.

This goes in a completely opposite direction of the two miracles of the contemporary world: India and China. Very different systems but similar policies. Both countries have over billion people. One would have thought that they would say ‘look we can afford not to have people coming back because we have such a large population and an educated one. But you know that the overseas Chinese and the non resident Indians have been crucial players in catalyzing the economic revolutions of China and India. But we are doing just the opposite.

What this tells me is that the main reason for the gap between promise and fulfillment has been in the realm of mentality. There is something about the mentality of those who are making the decisions that reflects itself in the policy process. And those policies have blocked the transition from a successfully won war to a sustainable peace. Now, what can we, as citizens, do about this blocked transition? How can we unblock it because we do have a vested interest? We do want a country in which there isn’t an economic free fall and a relapse into anarchy. We want a country to which our youngsters can come back from overseas; and those who are here would want to say. So there is a vested interest that all of us have. So what really can be done?

I wish to suggest three or four ideas so that you might take it up during your own deliberation. The first is that organization such as CIMOGG should function actively as public interest or public policy think-tank. Now to do that, a basic principle has to be adhered to, and that is that you would reach out to – and you certainly number already amongst yourselves – the best minds that we have. Now this is a simple principle but it is one that is observed in the breach, in Sri Lanka. One never thinks in terms of bringing together the best minds to deliberate or recommend on anything. So many other criteria are in play except for that fairly basic one. But CIMOGG in by itself, or together with other similar organizations, can strive to rehabilitate and practise that principle.

So you can address yourselves, as you have been doing in the past but perhaps in a more systematic manner, across the board to a whole range of public policy issues. This may involve issues of diplomacy, strategy, security, economic policy, health policy, whatever. You have all been involved in this. When I look around in the room, I can see that you have been involved at the highest level. There are people here who have actually made history. So you do have the capacity to bring together the best minds and reflect on these matters; not necessarily behind closed doors but in terms of public seminars, symposia, round table discussions. For instance, a round table discussion need not have as many people as a larger event such as a conference should have but it is important to be active in that realm and to produce some kind of outcome documents which can then be fed not to the rulers who probably don’t read it but to the public. There is really no point, anymore, in sending up documents to the people who matter because the people who matter do not read those. They would prefer to rely on what their own inner circle or clan would say rather than reach out to the best professionals, and specialists and the most experienced people in the respective fields. This is why public opinion has to be built up. Not only in the newspapers and articles but by using the new social media and some of the traditional media which have not been used by people like ourselves who tend to write to newspapers.  There’s also FM radio, there’s television and there’s of course the internet. Keep maintaining a steady drum beat of comments and criticisms. Keep intervening and build up opinion.

I do know that Dr. Visvalingam is working on a very interesting document, a draft constitution. I followed some of the suggestions made over the years. I may not agree with all of them but I think it is a very well worth exercise. You have to keep generating and feeding ideas to all the political parties, to civil society organizations. Keep pushing up there because that is how the change took place and in far worse circumstances in Western Europe, in Latin America, in the Philippines, in many part of the world where we thought that change was just not possible. Change is possible because society was the battlefield. The State was bypassed. But in society there were a lot of discussions, dialogue and a battle of ideas as it were. So in terms of public policies there is much that can be done; on every issue. Write a letter to an editor; write an article to the newspapers. Don’t give up.

The two main issues, the democracy deficit and the devolution issue, I am not going to bore you with my stump speech.  Again I would just leave you with a few ideas.

We have all been living or working in Sri Lanka or with the Sri Lankan issue for many years. There was something we could always count on and that we do not have today. That is the countervailing effect of an opposition. Whichever party we belonged to or didn’t, we could always count on the fact that the opposition in Parliament, at the elections, would act as a pressure group, as a competitor and therefore help self-correct the course of the country. Now we can’t count on that anymore. Why is this? I won’t come up with the usual jokes about the opposition. I would limit myself to two political science observations. One is that a war changes history in a way that few things do. It is a landmark event, whichever society you are talking about or whichever time of history. The experience that France went through during the occupation, the experience of the French resistance, it affected developments for decades after that; at least until 1968 and the resignation of de Gaulle after the referendum.

So Sri Lanka went through this massive experience; and wars define positions. You don’t live down the position you took during the war. If you have been on the wrong side of the war, you really cannot be on the right side of an election. There is no way to live that down, so long as this generation lives and may be even later because it goes into the history books. So a political party or leadership that got it wrong on something so massive as a war, that is associated in the minds of the people with a period of national retreat or retrenchment and the humiliation of the armed forces is never going to be able to match, let alone surpass someone who got it right. So either the status quo remains, in which case those in power do not have anything to worry about because they know that the electorate will never opt for a certain kind of leader or a certain other kind of leader, however the serious economic crises gets because finally you have to go into that polling booth and decide “Is the country safe in the hands of X or Y?”  If both candidates are seen as equally patriotic then people would go on the basis of economic performance; which is what happened in 1988 between Madam Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Premadasa. If both candidates are seen as equally unpatriotic there again the question does not arise and you go on the basis of the economic variable. But if one has a legitimacy that accrues from having been a successful war time leader and the other is indelibly associated with a period of national humiliation, then no economic crises is going to be able to change that.

So what we have today, for the first time in our lifetime, is a political system which is no longer competitive. And it is uncompetitive not primarily because the President is coercively suppressing the main opposition because I do not see any members of the United National Party actually locked up, but simply because it is in implosive collapse. And if that is to change, the main democratic opposition has to dissociate itself from that particular period in its history. Just as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had to dissociate itself from the memories of economic hardships of 1977 and substitute for Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who had shifted the party’s stance on the economy to one of embracing the open economy. So long as the SLFP was seen as the party that would perhaps take us back to the dark era of shortages, there was no way it was going to win. It is even more so in a matter which is more emotive; such as the recently concluded war.

So this is a choice that society has to make because the government will always prefer a discredited and weak opposition. But society can make that choice. And there are no coercive penalties for trying to change democratically the leadership of an opposition party and make it more competitive. So this is one thing I suggest civil society concentrate on if we want a change at least in the behavior and perhaps in the policies of the regime. And if there is no change in the behaviors and the policies then of course the citizenry will have once again the option that we always had but that we don’t seem to have now; which is of changing the administration by recourse to the ballot and that opportunity comes up in two and a half years latest. This is a fundamental systemic question. And I would argue that the democratic deficit is not so much a question of a bad constitution but a political market place which is no longer competitive. And unless that is changed, we will not be able to restore something that is fundamental to any society, namely, equilibrium. Right now there is no equilibrium.

Finally on the issue of devolution, my views on this are fairly well known. I would therefore only wish to deal with one aspect and that is the external dimension. I have been amazed that the debate on devolution in Sri Lanka seems to have one or two unconscious assumptions. One is that there are only Sinhalese people on this island and the other is that this island is the only place on the planet. Because if one factored in that, though the Sinhalese are 75%, there are other communities on this island and we all have to live together, we have to cohabit. And if one factored in that just across the water, we have Tamil Nadu with 70 million people of Tamil origin and which is no longer a kingdom as it was in ancient time but it is part of India. And if we factor in the strategic vulnerabilities of this island, we would be less cavalier in the kind of suggestions that I find in daily newspapers, may be even at the highest level.

We seem to have forgotten the bitter lessons of the past. We have forgotten what happened before the intrusive airdrop of 1987. Everybody knows about the airdrop but we forget what happened 24 hours before and I think it is almost paradigmatic. Because 24 hours before we were informed that there were supplies which Indian boats, flying the Red Cross flag wished to deliver to the suffering citizens of the North of Sri Lanka. Now, we had two options there. One was to receive those supplies and distribute them jointly. This was one thing we could have done but we did not do that. Instead, with a rather loud insistence on sovereignty and under the direct orders of the then Minister of National Security who was in direct contact with our Navy boats, we turned back the Indian boats with the Red Cross flag. And then for few hours we were on Cloud 9 or in 7th heaven as they say. And what happened then was that the President of Sri Lanka was informed, not very politely, that the same supplies would be delivered by Indian Air Force transport planes, which would be accompanied by Mirage 2000 interceptors and that any action against the transport plane would be responded to by military force.

Now, we have a bill which will be presented today I believe to the Parliament which will inevitably come up to debate. It is to do with the abolition of the 13th Amendment. As a student of comparative politics, I remember that a country, to which we were very close, Yugoslavia, ceased to exist in our lifetime. Yugoslavia was very proud of its military, and rightly so. I visited Yugoslavia with my parents and learnt of their history from the post-war period based on the valiant and successful partisan resistance to the Nazi general armies, an army that was multiethnic and built up on the basis of fighting a partisan war and was therefore able to deter Stalin’s Russia from intervention. That Yugoslavia disintegrated. How did that happened? It began when Serb nationalists, after the death of Marshal Tito, decided that Tito had been over-generous to the minorities. The Serbian Academy of Sciences, of all things, in 1986 started a campaign to repeal the autonomous status of some of these republics and provinces. That process of repeal began with the autonomous province of Kosovo, in 1990. When the Constitution was revised, the autonomous status of the province of Kosovo was revoked and the province of Kosovo was dissolved in 1990. Now today, Kosovo is not a province. It is a country.

So I tend to think in terms of process. You can do something like turning back the Indian Navy boats but you must also be able to understand that unilateralism has consequences. And we have to grasp the realities of the balance of power.

I would conclude my remarks with drawing attention to something I had written about last week in the newspapers. I think some of you in the audience know that India has long had a naval air force in the South of India with the longest air strip in Asia; which is understandable as it has to do with monitoring the naval traffic. But a few days ago, a brand new airbase was opened in Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu. And India located its most leader war plane, the SU30MK1, at that Thanjavur airbase. I am sure it has nothing to do with Sri Lanka. It is probably part of monitoring the Indian Ocean but one also knows that India’s threat perceptions come from Pakistan and China. And neither Pakistan nor China is close to the South of India. We also know that strategic planners must base themselves not only on stated intentions but on capabilities. What is that airbase capable of doing in a worst case scenario? For some strange reason, the Indian Minister of Defense – Mr. Anthony – in his speech during the opening of this airbase, which has nothing to do with Sri Lanka, reassured the audience that Sri Lankan military personal would not be trained there. Now how Sri Lanka came into that speech, I do not know but there was this reference. So this is why I say that this policy debate and these moves that are been made or sought to be made on these issues of devolution, must also take into account the reality of Tamil Nadu.

Thank you.

Jun 27

Two prior CIMOGG articles under the generic title “Inadequate Constitutional Proposals” appeared in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 9 June and 23 June 2013.  They may be accessed at www.cimogg-srilanka.org.

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka would have grown economically at least as well as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have done, if only we had elected or appointed more capable and honest persons to the legislative and executive arms of government.  Nothing short of overhauling thoroughly the manner in which the legislative, executive and judicial powers are delegated by the People will enable us to make up for the time and opportunities that have been lost since 1948.  Investors have to be convinced that the economy is being professionally managed and that they will have access to a well-run administration.  Entrepreneurs, both from within and from outside the Country, will need to be assured of the independence and effectiveness of the Public Service, the Police and the Judiciary.  These assurances can be given only if the framing of a new Constitution is done with these objectives specifically in mind.

Neither the Westminster system nor the Executive Presidential System possesses the basic foundation for good governance and the Rule of Law, namely a clear separation of powers and functions between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.  With Ministers having one foot in the Legislature and one foot in the Executive, they misuse both their legislative and executive powers to the utter detriment of the public interest.  To make things much worse, the 18th Amendment enables the Executive to coerce the Legislature and the Judiciary to do whatever it (the Executive) wants, even against the most clear Constitutional principles.  We have yet to see a convincing proposal in the media as to how to move away from the highly damaging entanglement of these three entities to which the People have delegated the main components of their sovereignty.  As indicated in our first article of this series, we must get away from tinkering with the familiar, but far from adequate, Constitutions that we have been saddled with from 1947 onwards and, instead, devote the time and energy required to “think out” logical solutions to the various issues that need to be addressed.

In an efficient separation of functions and powers, the Legislature is charged with looking after lawmaking and the control of the Nation’s income, expenditure, assets and liabilities.  The Executive’s task is to set up priorities for the overall development of the Country and then seek the Legislature’s assent to the programmes proposed, as well as the authorization to spend the funds needed for implementation.  The Judiciary has responsibility for interpreting the Constitution and passing judgment on any disputes which are referred to it by a citizen or a lawful entity.  It is obvious that, in order to eliminate conflicts of interest between the repositories of these three components of delegated power, no person or entity should be a member of more than one of these arms of government at any one time – that is, one has to be either only in the Legislature, or only in the Executive, or only in the Judiciary.  This is a fundamental condition that must be included in a Constitution if we want to avoid having to amend it extensively over and over again.

In Sri Lanka, whatever party was in power at a given time thought nothing of foisting yet another costly election on the public to suit its political, astrological or other convenience.  This freedom must be curtailed altogether.  Optimally, all elections should be held at fixed intervals of time so that wasteful disruptions to the work and life of millions of citizens, on the present excessive scale, are eliminated or at least reduced.  By doing so, the State and the public will be spared the huge expenditures and the loss of production that accompany a multiplicity of unwarranted or untimely elections.

Furthermore, we have so many holidays in Sri Lanka already that it would be sensible to stipulate that all elections shall be held on Saturdays, so as not to diminish further the very low levels of productivity that prevail in all sectors of the economy.

One of the most important truths that we cannot circumvent is that, to make the best of our Country’s resources, it is vital that, without frittering away our energy quarrelling with each other, every citizen of this Country should think of himself and his fellow citizens solely as Sri Lankans with one common identity.  It is only by doing so that we shall be able to make the fullest use of the human and other assets that Sri Lanka possesses, and function as a strong, united, democratic nation.  A country that fails to encourage the building of a proud, common identity for all its peoples will find itself in a permanent state of racial, religious, class or some other form of tension and conflict.  Social, cultural and economic development will be adversely affected.  Therefore, it is imperative that the Constitution should include the same rights, duties and privileges for every citizen irrespective of race, religion, caste, class, profession, language, wealth, colour, gender, age, political loyalties and so on.  Every effort should, therefore, be made not to word the Constitution and other legislation in such a way as to keep harping on or accentuating the differences between the different ethnic and religious groups, or to favour one group at the expense of the others.  Apposite constitutional provisions do not have to be worked out from scratch but can be extracted from the several covenants, protocols and treaties that Sri Lanka has signed since it joined the UN in the early 1950s.

We have already referred to the excessive number of MPs that we have for a country of Sri Lanka’s size and population.  Within this overabundance, we also have a superfluity of Ministers – a Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Senior Ministers, plain Ministers and Deputy Ministers – totalling around 60 in number.  This scandalous surplus has arisen not because of a heavy work load but because it is only by giving MPs these profitable positions that their loyalty to the Government is retained.  Far, far bigger countries like the USA and India have less than half this number of Secretaries or Ministers.  In this connection, it is worthy of note that, in 2007/2008, the Organization of Professional Associations (OPA) of Sri Lanka, which has a membership of over 40,000 professionally qualified persons, assembled a group of 150 or so highly experienced experts to study how to improve the efficiency of government.  They concluded that 25 Ministries would represent the right balance for Sri Lanka (see pp 194-196 of GOOD GOVERNANCE AND THE RULE OF LAW  or pp 219-222 of NEETHIYA HA YAHAPAALANAYA RAJAKARAVAMU  by A.C.Visvalingam).

CIMOGG has worked out that, to match the number of Ministries proposed by the OPA, there should be 25 Permanent Parliamentary Committees of five MPs each in Parliament to study all issues in sufficient depth.  Additionally, there would need to be three more MPs, elected by their fellow MPs, to act as the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Assistant Speaker.  Thus, Parliament would need only 128 MPs in all, a number that is well within the range of 125-150 that was mentioned towards the end of the first instalment of this series of articles.

Representing the citizens of the Country in Parliament cannot be treated as a hobby.  Being an MP should not be considered to be an avocation to which one devotes whatever little time one can spare from one’s main occupation outside.  There must be a serious commitment to one’s responsibilities as a conscientious representative of the People.  Under the present Constitution, many MPs mark their attendance, spend a little time listening to the contributions of the more regular speakers and then retire to their offices or elsewhere to engage themselves in matters which may or may not be related to their duties as MPs.  A few do take their Parliamentary duties very seriously and undertake a great deal of study before they speak.  Too many of the others attend only to cheer or jeer as they think their leadership might appreciate.  To rectify this shortcoming, MPs should be compelled by the demands of the new Constitution to spend a minimum number of hours per week working in and for their respective Permanent Parliamentary Committees.  It goes without saying that the levels of remuneration paid to elected representatives should be such as to attract good candidates who would be prepared to devote the necessary amount of time to the demands of their office.  The provisions of the Constitution must make this happen.

The fourth and later instalments of this series will cover a number of other neglected issues.

Jun 16

The CIMOGG article titled “Inadequate Constitutional Proposals” appeared in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 9 June 2013 and may be accessed at www.cimogg-srilanka.org.

In this second instalment, we turn first to the vexed question of the meagre numbers of women and youth in our elected bodies, with the classification “youth” being generally understood to be those under 35 years of age.

There are calls by spokesmen for the larger political parties to fix a minimum allocation of seats for women and youth.  A combined total allocation of “at least 25%” is often mentioned.  On the other hand, if we take the voting population as whole to be 14.1 Million, it is found that those below 35 account for approximately 46% and those above 35 take up the balance 54% (see Economic & Social Statistics of Sri Lanka 2013 – Central Bank).  Therefore, if all voters are treated as equals, there should be around 27% of males over 35, 27% of females over 35, 23% of males under 35 and 23% of females under 35.  If we now exclude the 27% that may be claimed by males over 35, the total target for women and youth should be 73% and not 25%!  Consequently, aiming for 25% is hardly generous on the part of the males above 35 who currently dominate the upper echelons of political parties.

The principal reason why the majority of women, young and old, do not wish to get involved in the hurly-burly of present-day Sri Lankan politics is that they cannot cope with the crudities and violence of the electoral playing field.  As explained in the aforementioned article that appeared in the SUNDAY ISLAND of 9 June 2013, success in getting elected is greatly dependent on having a large election war-chest with funding mostly from undesirable sources.  Most women would be less inclined than men to seek campaign assistance from those who carry clubs, knives and illegal firearms or operate at the boundaries of the law in illegitimate enterprises.

Although it may be challenged, CIMOGG’s assessment is that, on average, the women of Sri Lanka have more backbone than the men and are more socially-conscious.  It hardly needs emphasizing that optimum use should be made of these two admirable qualities.  Indeed, it seems quite likely that, if there had been more women and younger people chosen on their own merits to elected office over the past six decades, regard for good governance and the Rule of Law would almost certainly have reached a much higher level than it is today.

The youth who are presently active in public life are almost exclusively related in some way to the leadership of the principal political parties.  There is no question that the doors into the political arena need to be opened out much more widely so as to allow committed and capable young men and women from less well-endowed backgrounds to enter the Legislature.  A new Constitution must, therefore, provide carefully-modelled electoral

systems where large amounts of money and violent support from disreputable sources will not have a significant role to play to get elected.

The next topic is of critical importance and relates to the poor distribution of political and economic power.

The excessive concentration of power at the “Centre” is a defect that requires to be addressed in a new Constitution so that local institutions are given the legal framework and the funds to do those things which they are fully capable of doing without having “Big Brother” in Colombo holding the purse strings tightly and deciding what is good for those at the periphery.  This cardinal flaw in Sri Lankan constitution-making cries out to be corrected because virtually all the powers of government and the assets of the People, other than some of their fundamental rights and the franchise, have been appropriated by the institutions at the Centre, particularly by the Executive Presidency, Parliament and a subservient Judiciary, to do with as they please.  Once Presidential and Parliamentary elections are over, citizens have little or no say in how the Country is managed or its assets utilized.  Voters may decide to cast their votes against the Government at the next available opportunity but, even then, not much good will be achieved by this show of displeasure because the Opposition, once it gains power, will find it materially more rewarding to follow the bad examples of the ousted Government rather than try to correct the system.

It can be seen clearly enough that there is a paramount need for a new Constitution to address the question of how to restore power and control over local resources to the various units at the periphery, eg. Grama Niladhari Divisions, Pradeshiya Sabhas, District and/or Provincial Councils, so that as much as possible of the work of socio-economic development could be done locally by the members of these geographic units, leaving only problems of a genuinely national nature – such as defence, foreign relations, currency, national standards, major infrastructure projects etc – to be handled by the Centre.  Have any of the proponents of constitutional improvement suggested that this should be done and, if so, how will their proposals achieve this?

We turn now to the question of educational requirements for elected representatives.

It is self-evident that elected representatives must be able to read administrative and technical reports, draft bills, petitions and a host of other documentation with a reasonable measure of understanding.  Moreover, with advances in Information Technology, a modern legislator will find himself at a great disadvantage if he has insufficient training in the use of a computer to access national and international databases, as well as to communicate with his fellow representatives and the public.  As Sri Lanka has had free education for around six decades, anyone who aspires to enter Parliament to be a representative of the People could reasonably be expected to have had the mental equipment, ambition and persistence to have acquired a degree recognized by the University Grants Commission and become acquainted with basic IT techniques.  One cannot avoid mentioning here that a PhD awarded by a martial arts academy would not fall into the category of an acceptable degree!  However, it has been strongly argued by some that the late D.S.Senanayake had not gone very far in his schooling but had been an able and respected Prime Minister, and, therefore, high educational qualifications need not be stipulated.  On the other hand, today’s lawmaking and budget-making require a depth of knowledge that was not required in the less complex world of the period immediately before and immediately after the Second World War.  How will the newly proposed Constitutions address this issue?

As things stand at the moment, the only thing that most MPs are capable of doing is to vote as ordered to do so by the party whips, without having to think for themselves.  Indeed, sometimes they do even “better” by signing at the foot of blank sheets of paper and having someone else fill in the text above!  Public perception, based on the media reports of the time, is that something on these lines happened on at least three occasions in recent years that have had a profoundly adverse effect on democratic governance and the Rule of Law.  Considering that the Supreme Court has allowed MPs to retain their party membership, cross over to the “enemy” ranks, and vote against their own original party whips – on the grounds of conscience – should not a new Constitution include an explicit provision to allow MPs the freedom to vote in accordance with the dictates of conscience and not as forced to do so by their party leaders?

The next instalment of this series will attempt to highlight the need for constitutional provisions to deal with some other neglected issues, subject, of course, to the necessary editorial leave.

Jun 07

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has been looking at the various proposals that are being put forward by many vested and non-vested interests calling for the present Constitution to be amended or rewritten.  What is striking about all these proposals is that they are, for all practical purposes, founded on the half-built or badly damaged foundations of the three Constitutions that we have had since 1947.  Marginal improvements in governance, abolition of the Executive Presidency, and token undertakings to give power back to the People are included in most of these proposals; but what is unsaid is what really says a great deal!

We have had three new Constitutions covering a period of just over six decades.  This shows that we have not thought deeply enough on the subject all three times.  Indeed, it is our mental inertia and political myopia that have led to this state of affairs, quite apart from the overwhelming greed to build in electoral advantages for the Constitution-making party.  We are reminded of what the famous engineer, Professor Hardy Cross (the inventor of the “moment distribution method”), stated in his book ENGINEERS AND IVORY TOWERS, that most people would not mind doing any amount of extra work to get a task completed, however badly, rather than spend time on thinking of how to do it properly.  We, too, seem to be headed towards yet another unsatisfactory Constitution that will have to be re-written in another 20-25 years, if not before.

In the circumstances, CIMOGG plans to bring to the notice of the public some vital issues that have not been given adequate attention in the proposals that have been most widely publicized hitherto.  Given below is the first instalment of CIMOGG’s concerns.

We shall start with the selection of candidates.

Apart from the widely practised corruption that the public perceive in the political world, the vast majority of citizens are disgusted with the behaviour of our politicians both within and outside their respective legislative chambers.  The language used and the charges exchanged between politicians would “make a sailor blush”.  Schoolchildren have had to be herded out of Parliament’s Visitors’ Gallery on more than one occasion so that they would not be witness, inter alia, to the exchanging of unforgivably filthy language, damaging State property by setting fire to documents within the well of the House, throwing missiles at each other and, most disgusting of all, even physically attacking the genitals of a monk MP.  The question that we have is whether the proposals made by any of proponents of Constitution-making will have inbuilt barriers to help keep out grossly undesirable characters from entering Parliament and other elected bodies?  If not, why not?

We are informed by the media at far too frequent intervals that members of some legislative chamber or other have been credibly accused of murder, rape, assault, violation of environmental laws, giving protection to drug-dealers, smugglers, land-grabbers and so on.  Do we have to continue with the situation where the Police are dissuaded from effectively investigating such offences by pressures from powerful quarters?  Will future Attorneys General belatedly find that they have “erred” in indicting a criminal and are compelled by unseen powers to withdraw the charges even without obtaining the leave of Court to do so?  Do we want to see cheque cheats being fined by Courts, instead of being jailed, and then being sponsored as candidates for election to Parliament or elsewhere?

The list is endless.  How will the new constitutional proposals being offered help to put a stop to this kind of situation continuing to arise in the future?  Merely stating that the 17th Amendment will be improved and brought back to replace the anti-democratic 18th Amendment is far from enough.

We now turn to electioneering.

It has been reported, without rebuttal, that a Cabinet Minister had stated last year that a person wishing to become a candidate for election to Parliament should be able to raise Rs50 Million if he is to have any serious chance of success.  What he failed to mention is that most such candidates would almost certainly secure the greater part of such funds from crooked businessmen, tavern-keepers, brothel owners and birds of a similar feather.  They would have a retinue of supporters of whom a considerable proportion would have unsavoury connections with the criminal world.  Moreover, such candidates would have to be of the “right” ethnic, caste and religious background to be able to convince the oligarchies that control the major political parties to provide the necessary backing and propaganda support.  It goes without saying that these candidates would be expected to leave their backbones at home when they go to meet their party leaders or to vote in Parliament or whatever other assembly to which they belong.  They should undoubtedly be devoid of that possession that is called “a conscience” so that they would have no difficulty in recovering, mostly by foul means, whatever investments they would have had to make initially (ie. the Rs50 Million or whatever) and also build a multitude of nest eggs (roc’s?) for themselves and the next few generations of their families.

CIMOGG is strongly of the view that new proposals for constitutional reform must be so structured as to eliminate the kind of candidates referred to above and to include proactive provisions to enable decent, honest and hardworking citizens with public service motivation to be able to come forward to contest elections without having to find millions of rupees or even lakhs of rupees to spend on noisy, confrontational, environmentally damaging election campaigns, which cause so much disruption to the day-to-day activities of the public and place heavy demands on the security establishments.  What a new Constitution should promote is favourable conditions of candidacy for citizens whom the People – and not only party oligarchies – put forward.  Such candidates, if reasonably remunerated and working within a Constitution that provides for a clear separation of powers, would be very much less likely to need or want to rob the general public than the majority of the representatives we now have.

The next subject of concern is our overcrowded Parliament.

Why do we need 225 MPs?  How many of the present ones have made a constructive suggestion or comment on any important issue during the entirety of their terms?  Is criticizing or abusing their opposite numbers the sole sum of their service to the People?  Would it be wrong to state that fewer than 50 MPs, out of the present 225, have made any useful contribution to improve the life of the People of Sri Lanka?  The substantial expenditures incurred in paying MPs who do little or nothing could surely be used to better purpose.  The proposals put forward to amend the Constitution should not blindly accept a figure which, subject to correction, was based on some past arbitrary MP/unit of population criterion.  CIMOGG is convinced, on carefully considered grounds, that the number of MPs could usefully and profitably be limited to between 125 and 150.

It would be quite in order for the reader to wonder whether a Constitution could be framed in such as way as to meet the requirements indicated above.  There is no question that this can be done if the People are prepared to think laterally without being bogged down in only what is familiar.  Every great discovery or advance in the past has usually been made by individuals or small groups who were able to shed the mental shackles with which the rest indolently burdened themselves.

We shall be referring to many other equally important issues over the coming weeks.