Aug 31
Sri Lanka collects direct taxes from the well-to-do but also far more in the form of indirect taxes that both the rich and the poor have to pay.  Waste and corruption, as estimated by independent sources, fritter away 20-40 percent of the total collectable, leaving only the balance to go into the state’s coffers.  Usually the losses attributable to these two factors can be traced to the greed of our political leaders and acquiescent administrators who unconscionably collaborate with and protect thieving party members, relatives and supporters from being investigated, charged, prosecuted and punished in accordance with the laws of the land.  However, politicians and conniving public servants are not alone in misusing the wealth that the people contribute to the nation’s exchequer.
Let us take the case of a university student.  He has already benefitted from 12-13 years of free education financed by the country’s taxpayers.  When he joins the ranks of the undergraduate world, it is by having done academically better than those who have did not have the advantages enjoyed by him by way of genetically-acquired inborn talents and the good fortune of having been able to get into a superior secondary school.  On admission to a university, he becomes the beneficiary of the huge expenditures incurred by the state in building and running the university.  The vast sums released by the treasury are invested on infrastructure, laboratories, equipment, libraries, lecture halls, common rooms, sports facilities and hostels for our universities, as well as remuneration for teaching and supporting staff, together with the provision of security, maintenance and other services. Non-competitive scholarships and other forms of financial assistance, too, are generously given to undergraduates to help them to work constructively to attain their goal of acquiring such knowledge and skills as they have committed themselves to do.
Given the high level of financial allocations required to support their studies and extra-curricular development, undergraduates may be reasonably expected by taxpayers to do their academic work in a disciplined and dedicated manner, without neglecting sports, social activities and all those things which form an essential part of university education.  If our undergraduates act accordingly, our fellow citizens would undoubtedly feel a sense of satisfaction that the taxes paid by them to the state are not being squandered at least by those who may be classified as intelligent young persons.  On the other hand, taxpayers feel badly cheated and greatly frustrated when these fortunate youngsters do not work diligently and fail to show any appreciation of their good fortune and the sacrifices made on their behalf by the people.
It would not be wrong to say that undergraduates are contractually bound to the state to make proper use of the funds spent on their behalf.  Those who do not fulfil their part of the contract entered into with the state are in gross breach of their lawful obligations. Just so that there is no misunderstanding regarding the legal position, it may be noted that the university is an institution that acts as an agent of the state to offer educational and ancillary facilities to those who are able to establish their suitability to utilise such facilities in accordance with the conditions laid down by the university.  By accepting the university’s offer, the undergraduate enters voluntarily into a legally binding contract with the university and is constrained by law to conform to the conditions stipulated in the university’s offer.
As the basic minimum, undergraduates are obligated to attend all lectures, workshops, laboratory sessions, library reference work, tutorial periods and also complete whatever other assignments are set for them by their teachers.  Subject to undergraduates meeting these fundamental expectations, the average citizen would not begrudge them their right to clamour and struggle to change those things that they believe are wrong with the universities and society in general provided, however, that these expressions of dissatisfaction are indulged in without causing a nuisance to the public or inflicting injury, damage and loss to persons and property.  However, participation in dissenting action cannot be allowed at the expense of wasting the substantial resources deployed by the state to give free university education to those who have been considered to be deserving of this privilege.  No citizen would want anyone who is paid or supported by the State, whether as a government employee or an undergraduate, to misapply tax moneys wastefully or destructively.  But is this what prevails now?
Hundreds of students from our state universities have been wantonly throwing away the precious resources that members of the public, including their own parents, have contributed, to state funds to provide every kind of facility and support for their education.  Instead of attending lectures, they have been spending their time marching, shouting, causing damage to public and private property, physically attacking law-enforcement personnel and, not least of all, disrupting the lives of thousands of members of the public by selfishly and recklessly hindering them from going to work, to schools, to hospitals and to wherever else that citizens have a right and need to go.
We have also come learn that the more prominent of these defaulting undergraduates are a few incorrigible individuals who have been on the rolls of their universities for up to six or seven years without finishing their 3-4 year courses of study.  They have neglected to honour the obligations cast upon them as members of the university.  Instead, these ne’er-do-wells spend most of their time coercing and/or threatening their more law-abiding younger fellow students to join them in frequent violent rallies and demonstrations.  It is also credibly alleged that these nihilists and their close collaborators are hyper-active members of an extremist organisation that has infiltrated and taken control of all university student unions by terrorising the undergraduate population.  Why the university authorities do not enforce their contractual rights against these delinquents is a serious shortcoming that needs to be probed, preferably by a Presidential Commission with appropriately wide terms of reference, particularly as there are allegations that the ultimate goal of these agitators is to make the country ungovernable by lawfully elected governments.
Their campaign of subjugating the student community has, for long, been deliberately started off by subjecting fresh entrants to demeaning, offensive, sadistic, sexually perverted and other forms of vicious ragging until all newcomers are made so fearful of their tormentors that the victims are driven to participate in whatever ruinous activities are organised by these terrorists.  One needs to realise that the problem is made more complex by the fact that far too many of the teaching staff have been leaders of the ragging mafia in their senior undergraduate days and are in a morally weak position to restrain those who are following their bad example – but with a far more deadly agenda.
Taxpayers are entitled to ask the government why it is spending their hard-earned money on wastrels who are not doing what they should be doing their universities.  It is, therefore, high time to decide that admission to university be made subject to unequivocally strict written conditions, rigorously enforced. The parents of a student who obtains the necessary qualifications to enter university should be informed in writing that he would have to sign a contract that sets out explicitly his responsibilities and duties to the university, the state and the public.  Failure to sign the written undertaking and significant violations of the terms agreed to would be dealt with respectively by denying entrance to the university or expulsion from the rolls of the university.  If a student has not attended the minimum stipulated number of lectures during any academic term, and has not completed his tutorial and course work assignments, he should be given a written warning that he will be barred from continuing further with his studies unless he conforms forthwith to the university’s rules regarding attendance, studies and completion of assignments.  The undergraduate’s parents, too, should be informed directly that their offspring is acting in such an irresponsible manner that he will not be allowed to continue at the university unless he begins to comply immediately with the university’s rules. The contract should specifically leave no room for the student to indulge in any form of activity that would be prejudicial to the university or the public.
What the contract document should contain is a comprehensive and explicit legal formulation of the current rules, regulations and laws, as well as new constraints on participating in anti-social or criminal activities.  Until such time as the new paperwork is completed, the university authorities must employ the powers that they are already endowed with, to ensure that public money is not wasted on non-performing undergraduates.
Aug 17
The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has always been against the concept of having an Executive Presidency because the concentration of state power in a single person is a sure formula for destroying good governance.  An Executive President is invariably a politician with partisan views and would place his own and his party’s interests before those of the country.  The deeds of J.R.Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunge, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena provide ample evidence to support this assertion.
It is no secret that two of these Presidents appointed certain persons to high judicial positions despite well-publicised evidence of behaviour that would have been totally unacceptable at any level in the judiciary in the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence.  The damage done to Sri Lanka by these appointments is incalculable. The disgraceful packing of the Courts with compliant judges would have been much less likely if there had been a sufficient separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, allowing the latter to develop its own rules for the appointment, promotion, transfer and dismissal of judicial officers without being dictated to by the executive.
Politically-motivated interference with the judiciary is only one of the grounds why, from the mid-1990s, there has been increasing pressure from the public for a new Constitution to replace the current one.  There is no doubt that a new Constitution is desperately needed and that, inter alia, it must have the elimination of the Executive Presidency as one of its mandatory objectives, together with a clearer and stronger separation of powers than we now have.
We must be alert to the danger that, during the exercise of forging multiple compromises in writing a Constitution from among the conflicting demands of all stakeholders, we could find ourselves being unwittingly dropped from the frying pan into the fire.  Most specifically, there is the ever-present danger that the Constitution would create a Prime Minister endowed with all the powers of an Executive President minus only “presidential immunity”.  We must not let this happen or we shall be no better off than we are at present.
A glaring instance of the immense power of an (executive) Prime Minister was that of Tony Blair of the UK, who badgered the members of his cabinet to support a declaration of war against Iraq based on a fabricated story about that country possessing “weapons of mass destruction”.  The colossal suffering and damage caused to the people and economy of Iraq, the Middle East, Libya and many other countries by this crime cannot be quantified.  The lesson for us here is that the dominance of the Prime Minister’s office must be limited.
The foolhardiness of having a too-powerful Prime Minister would be compounded if we were also to allow Parliament to be anointed with the “supreme” label.  J.R.Jayewardene implicitly fashioned this concept through the wording of Article 4 of the 1978 Constitution.  Anura Bandaranaike, when he was Speaker, went one step further and declared explicitly that Parliament was “supreme” and, in particular, was not obliged to respect the views or decisions of the Courts.
Whereas Article 4 of the Constitution made the judiciary totally subservient to Parliament, Articles 30-41, in their turn, gave the President almost unlimited powers.  How shamefully Presidents and Parliament have exercised judicial power can be gauged from just two incidents, namely, (a) the cruel manner in which a newspaper editor was forced to grovel before the House because some minor employee in his organisation had inadvertently switched two unrelated photographs and their respective headings, and (b) the thoroughly demeaning and crude language, and unjust procedures, that were employed during the “trial” of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, who had declared correctly that a proposed piece of legislation was not constitutionally acceptable.
It is nauseating to recall that many of those who had signed the impeachment motion against Ranasinghe Premadasa later claimed that they had not read what they had signed!  In the case of the 18th Amendment, the text of it was not seen by most MPs until just before they were dragooned into voting for it.  Most of the 117 MPs who signed the impeachment motion against Shirani Bandaranaike were not given the opportunity or time to examine critically what they were being asked to sign and its implications.  These three cases demonstrate how little the MPs concerned would have reflected upon their obligations in respect of the doctrine of public trust.  With MPs of this calibre comprising the majority in Parliament, should the people consent to this body being classified as “supreme”?  Assuredly not.
CIMOGG stresses that the people are supreme.  Article 3 of the Constitution asseverates that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable.  Sovereignty includes fundamental rights, the franchise and the powers of government.  The people never surrender their sovereignty to anyone or any body but, from time to time, for practical reasons, they delegate the exercise of their powers of government to the legislature, the executive and the judiciary whilst retaining their fundamental rights and the franchise.  Parliament, being a subordinate body to which the people delegate some of their powers for a fixed period of time, cannot logically, morally or lawfully claim “supremacy” over the very people who have granted it such powers.
The standard picture of a pyramid with Parliament at the apex and the people at the bottom, with the Grama Niladhari Divisions, Pradeshiya Sabhas, District Council and Provincial Councils in between, is an affront to the sovereignty of the people.  If the pyramid analogy is to be used at all, it should be inverted so that the people are located at the broad top face and power flows down to the point at the bottom, where Parliament may be considered to be situated.  Indeed, it would be far more sensible to regard all these institutions as being located in concentric circles at one level with the people at the periphery, the Grama Niladhari Divisions in the next inner circle, and so on, to Parliament at the centre.
The Constitution has given Parliament, which should be concerned largely with legislative matters, unlimited authority over the executive and the judiciary.  Those who have been brought up to think of the UK’s unwritten Constitution and established conventions as being the “gold standard” that is being followed in Sri Lanka fail to appreciate the fact that the historical processes that Sri Lanka has experienced over the past two millennia are unlike those which apply to the UK and that this “gold standard” cannot be adopted blindly.  By virtue of conventions built up over hundreds of years in the UK, the executive and the judiciary cannot be bulldozed by their Parliament.  There are numerous independent mechanisms in all three arms of government to ensure that the government acts with the benefit of the informed advice of highly professional technocratic and other specialists.   Transparency and full accountability are the features that ensure that there is little room for corruption or gross inefficiency.
Our constitution-writers have given Ministers both legislative and executive powers but without the strong financial and other controls that members of the UK public service and the judiciary exercise strictly.    In contrast, our public servants have been stripped of all independent authority and have to function at the unfettered will and pleasure of our Presidents and Ministers.   Another important differentiating factor is that UK voters are far more issue-oriented and less personality-oriented than their Sri Lankan counterparts.  Hence, the separation of powers cannot be left at the mercy of long-established UK conventions but must be spelled out unambiguously.
The four “subjects” mentioned in the title above are critically important and should be dealt with circumspectly and comprehensively in a new Constitution.  To these must be added the burning need to include features that would help forge a truly Sri Lankan identity, without emphasising differences of race, caste, religion, class, gender, colour, occupation and other divisive classifications.  It would also be salutary for MPs to be reminded firmly and constantly by the public that the people will continue to exist whether there is a Parliament or not; but Parliament cannot exist without the people.
 
Dr A.C.Visvalingam
President, CIMOGG
www.cimogg-srilanka.org
acvisva@gmail.com
Jun 09

Until such time as the Elections Commission is empowered and obliged to demand more strict academic, professional and other relevant performance criteria to be met by those aspiring get on voting lists to contest for seats in Parliament and lesser elected bodies, we are going to be burdened with people’s representatives of whom the majority are unqualified to hold public office.  It is embarrassing for Sri Lankans to have to admit to the world at large that 94 of our MPs do not even have the General Certificate of Education at O-level, only about 68 MPs have passed the GCE O-level examination, about another 38 MPs have obtained GCE A-level passes, and there are barely 25 MPs who have a university degree.  Consequently, other than being blessed with an excessive capacity to indulge in trivial debating exercises – too often personal or crude or both – the majority of our MPs have not had the benefit of the basic mental training required to comprehend and contribute usefully to proceedings which deal with the countless complex issues that have to be evaluated and voted on by the Parliament.

Getting back to basics, it is no secret that advertisements that call for applications to fill vacancies of every imaginable kind insist upon some kind of academic qualification from Year 7 or so to PhD-plus, depending on the nature of vacancy to be filled.  It is only in the case of manual workers and Parliamentarians that there is no stipulation regarding the minimum academic or professional qualifications required.  Considering that Parliament is responsible for the collection of taxes of every kind from the people and the efficient disbursement of the funds so collected, both running into trillions of rupees, could there any excuse for allowing citizens without a good academic, professional and administrative background to decide on what and how this hard-earned wealth of the people is to be spent? Whether the proposed new Constitution is going to address this deficiency is still in doubt.  It is obvious that something positive should be done in the short term while we wait for the new Constitution.  In other words, it would be prudent for the present to find a way of dealing with the problem of making do with MPs that we have, especially those without O-level or A-level passes?

To digress for a moment, in the early days of learning to use table-top personal computers, one had recourse to a series of books titled “PCs for Dummies”, “Microsoft Word for Dummies”, “Lotus 1-2-3 for Dummies” and so on.  For those who could not find the time to go for computer classes, these books were a source of immense help to improve their computer skills.  However, as well-known computer programs were progressively made more and more comprehensive by software writers, their “Help” features began to be expanded and integrated into the main programs.  Thus, the need for books for “Dummies” diminished rapidly as most tasks could now be handled without recourse to external instructional media.

In current circumstances, it is surely a great pity that no book has been written at any time with the title “Governance for Dummies”, with Sri Lankan parliamentarians in mind, to enable them to understand the fundamentals of the more frequent subjects that come up for discussion or debate in the House.  Such a book could have been made recommended reading for our MPs with some incentive offered to encourage them to study and understand the contents.  This is not an exercise in sarcasm, which is generally considered to be the lowest form of humour, but a desperate effort to find a way out of the current mess.

Defenders of our insufficiently schooled politicians are known to argue that Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake had only completed Year 7 of his studies.  However, they do so without making any allowance for the superior quality of the Year 7 schooling of DSS’s era as compared to its present equivalent as well as the fact that he had the support of a high-powered cabinet of well-qualified and experienced men.  The aforesaid defenders also neglect to take into account the enormous changes that have occurred between the time Senanayake became Prime Minister and today – namely, the vast expansion in the scope and complexity of the issues that our governments have to deal with as compared to the much simpler national concerns of 60-70 years ago.

By now, Sri Lanka has almost completely run out of uncultivated but cultivable land to enable the authorities to allocate a few hectares each to landless farmers, as was usually done in the old days, to help increase food production to cater to its growing population.  Our cheap hydroelectric power sources have been almost fully exploited and we now rely hugely on coal and oil imports to help bridge the gap between power production and power consumption.  Alternative energy sources have, therefore, to be exploited wherever conditions are favourable.  The high rate of population growth has put unprecedented and unrelenting pressure on the housing, education, health and transport sectors.  There are previously un-encountered issues relating to nuclear power, global warming, space exploitation, terrorism, violent religious extremism, telecommunications, genetic engineering, computerisation, environmental pollution, solid waste disposal, gender discrimination and a hundred others that would clearly tax the intellectual and professional capabilities of even the best-qualified MPs.  It is self-evident that national problems that have to be faced currently are immeasurably more difficult to resolve than those that the Parliaments of six or seven decades ago had to face.  Hence, it is imperative that Sri Lanka should work out a methodology to ensure that, at least in the years to come, candidates for election as MPs would be sufficiently intelligent and academically disciplined so as to be in a position to contribute discriminating, scientific and pragmatic inputs to discussions and debates.

Patently, every MP cannot be well-informed on every subject that is discussed in Parliament.  Therefore, the major political parties should ideally divide their total strength in Parliament in such a way that, on any matter that comes up before the House, there will be at least four MPs from each of the major parties who would have enough knowledge to contribute in depth to the debate.  Taking all the parties in Parliament, there would then be a fair chance that there would be at least ten MPs who would be capable of grasping the import of whatever reports are received by Parliament from experts in the Ministries and outside, and who would be able to talk discriminatingly and constructively about whatever bill or other document is under discussion.

In addition to the above proposal being adopted, steps should be taken well before any important issue is to be debated in Parliament to get a reputed, independent research institution to prepare, say, a 10 to 20-page “executive summary” explaining, in simple language, the pros and cons pertaining to that issue.  Such a measure would go a long way to help all our MPs – especially the less mentally tutored ones – to grasp at least the basics  of the matters on which they would be required to vote on behalf of the people.  Such executive summaries would be almost certainly be greatly appreciated by the general public as well, if our newspapers could be strongly persuaded by the authorities to contribute sufficient space to publish them.

Dr A.C.Visvalingam
President, CIMOGG
email:  acvisva@gmail.com

Mar 30

Towards the end of its war to establish an independent state, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) did not allow civilians to move out of those areas from which it was attacking the Sri Lanka Army.  It has been accused of deploying these hapless fellow citizens as human shields so as to discourage the security forces from firing in their direction or dropping bombs in their vicinity.  The LTTE took advantage of the fact that the government was bound by its inherent obligations to its own people and in line with international humanitarian law.  The net effect was that the LTTE treated the lives of the residents of the North as an expendable commodity in the prosecution of its political and military aims.

The ISIS has been doing something similar, but even worse, particularly in the city of Mosul in Iraq.  It has effectively compelled the residents of Mosul not to move out of their homes and has then booby-trapped nearby static structures and vehicles of every kind.  If a bomb or gunfire from the government side hits one of these booby-trapped locations, the explosives installed by ISIS blow up and multiply the devastation caused by the incoming missile. The ISIS, like the LTTE, is playing fast and loose with the lives and limbs of defenceless men, women and children in its determination to resist the advance of state troops.

Whenever the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) calls upon its members to strike, the painful reality is that it is the poorest sections of our society who are subjected to inhuman hardship.  Anyone who has seen (on TV) the impotent resignation on the faces and in the words of those suffering patients who had had to travel long distances, in pain, after waking themselves up during the darkest hours before dawn, and spending for their travel from the meagre resources available to them, cannot but fail to be disgusted by the heartless members of the GMOA, who think nothing of depriving these desperate fellow citizens of the medical care which is owed to them in terms of the Hippocratic oath, ordinary humanity and the deep debt that these professionally-qualified ingrates owe to the public of Sri Lanka for having given them free education from the age of 5-6 years until they graduated and completed their training.

What is the significant moral difference, if any, between the LTTE and the ISIS getting civilians killed in furthering the objective of their vicious and inhuman “struggles” and doctors blackmailing the government by using poor, sick citizens as helpless pawns in their dispute with the authorities.  How many of these citizens suffer irreparable medical damage or even die is a statistic that the GMOA is hardly likely to publish.  Whatever merit there may be in the GMOA’s position on private medical education, it does not justify their callousness and cruelty to the very public, even the poorest of whom have paid indirect taxes all their life to educate our youth and our professionals, including doctors.  The public are not so naive as to be fooled by the GMOA’s assertions and justifications about how conscientiously it is looking after the interests of the people of Sri Lanka by its efforts to maintain high medical standards, forgetting that internationally our universities with medical faculties rank between 2100 or so and 9900 and the GMOA does not worry at all about this.  Indeed, it has been reported that one or two of our medical faculties employ veterinarians to teach human medicine on account, presumably, of the unwillingness of our medical heroes to go to the outstations to help improve the teaching at our poorer medical facilities.

It is totally unconscionable of the GMOA to use sick members of the public as pawns in the dispute that it has with the government regarding the South Asian Institute of Technology (SAITM) and other potential private medical teaching establishments.  Doctors are regarded as persons with a high IQ and social sense.  Hence, Sri Lankan doctors are treated by the people with a reverence that is greatly misplaced.  It is surely worse than immoral for persons of this quality and standing to resort to what amounts to thuggery and blackmail in their dealings with the three arms of government.

Moreover, with the active encouragement of the GMOA, hundreds of students from our state universities have been wantonly squandering the precious resources that members of the public, including their own parents, have contributed to the coffers of the government to provide every kind of infrastructure, laboratories, equipment, libraries, teachers, ancillary staff, financial assistance and much more for their education.  Instead of attending lectures, they are spending their time marching, shouting, causing damage to public property, physically attacking law-enforcement personnel and, not least of all, disrupting the lives of thousands of members of the public by recklessly and selfishly hindering people from going to work, to schools, to hospitals and to wherever else that citizens have a right and need to go.  Currently, members of the GMOA can hardly be regarded as worthy exemplars for medical students to follow to become competent, responsible and humane professionals who would become entitled to be shown the regard in which the public now holds doctors.

The members of the GMOA insincerely and sanctimoniously assert that it is their great concern for the welfare of the sick that compels them to oppose the establishment of privately-run, profit-making medical teaching institutions.  They remain deliberately blind to the fact that the government cannot find enough money even to run efficiently some of the existing poorer universities in the public sector, let alone build more universities to meet the demand for more doctors.  They conveniently ignore the fact that the first private medical teaching institution, SAITM, was established with the blessings of the government and the University Grants Council without objection by members of the GMOA, obviously owing to their dread of President Mahinda Rajapkasha and Secretary of Defence Gothabaya Rajapaksha, who also established a medical faculty at the Kotelawala Defence University.  The medical students at state universities, who are so brave now, also remained prudently silent at the time.  It is only after 8 January 2015 that members of the GMOA and medical students appear to have re-discovered their backbones vis-a-vis the government but not the powerful secret groups whose orders they dare not disobey.

If the numbers of doctors were to increase as a consequence of private medical colleges proliferating, the earnings of doctors with their feet in both sectors may tend to diminish a little.  The public believes that it is principally to keep doctors’ earnings high that the GMOA does not like to encourage private medical education.  Claiming to be highly conscious of their duty to serve the public, they stipulate that anyone is free to run private medical courses providing they do it for free!  Would anyone with a modicum of common sense come up with such a hare-brained concept?  Would members of the GMOA, even though they were educated solely at public expense, consider giving their services free to the public instead of charging unconscionable fees when they moonlight in private sector hospitals?  How do they manage to be so absurd as to insist that investors spend their own money, without any return, to train doctors?  Our position is that Sri Lanka needs more doctors.  However, the demand for training more and more doctors will level off after two or three private universities churn out enough doctors to meet the national demand.  Government regulation of all aspects of the functioning of private medical education institutions is, of course, a must but it should not be done in such a manner as to destroy these institutions.

If it is acceptable for other professionals to pay for private education, what are the grounds on which doctors want to be treated as a super-class of professionals?  We are told by them that the reason why they require to be treated as belonging to a superior calling is because it is only their profession which deals with life and death decisions and this entitles them to special consideration.  What an utter load of rubbish this is!

Doctors are not the only professionals who deal with safeguarding people from death or unjury.  Most engineers, expecially those whose work involves interfacing with natural objects like bad soil, floods, earthquakes and so on, cannot rely on book-learned formulas to construct safe buildings, bridges, dams, roads, railway tracks and so on, where a design or construction error could cause the loss of dozens, scores, hundreds or even thousands of lives.  They cannot bury their mistakes like doctors inevitably do.  What about policemen, soldiers, nurses?  Do they not take a multitude of risks to protect the public?

Repeated many times, “Physician, heal thyself!” sums up what needs to be done.

Dr A.C.Visvalingam
President, CIMOGG
email:  acvisva@gmail.com

Feb 27
I have chosen as my topic “Promoting Good Governance in Sri Lanka”, which should be a subject of vital concern to every citizen.

I think that it would be best if I were to begin by telling you something about how the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance came to be founded and what it has been doing for the past 15 years in the face of the formidable obstacles that have stood in its way.

One may safely assert that most Sri Lankans are extremely critical of our politicians but are not prepared to do anything to change the present system that mostly favours the incompetent and the corrupt.

Those of our fellow-citizens who are financially secure almost invariably choose to give all their attention to their jobsfamilies, friends, sports, hobbies, holidays, charitable activities, religious observances, medical problems, and so on.  Inevitably, very few prosperous citizens feel inclined to spend any of their time or other resources to promote good governance and the Rule of Law.

Unlike the well-to-do, the poor have every reason to attack mindless governance.  What they lack is credible leadership and the wherewithal to get properly organised as a powerful pressure group. In this connection, the public and the media may be inclined to credit the JVP with being the only political party that champions the cause of the have-nots.  However, I myself am quite certain that the JVP’s public endeavours on behalf of the disadvantaged constitute only a small component of its politburo’s overall agenda, which is a secret that is guarded so zealously that I am compelled to conclude that this agenda is unlikely to be in the interests of the bulk of the people.

Moreover, despite its organisational skills and slogans, the JVP has failed to activate the have-nots in sufficient numbers to achieve its anticipated goals.  The reason for the JVP’s limited success is that free education, free health services, Samurdhi payments, free land grants and similar forms of State subsidy have insulated the weaker segments of society in Sri Lanka from the desperate levels of poverty that have led their counterparts in other countries to rise up violently against their rulers.  In short, our citizens have not suffered enough to want to take the life-threatening risks that are required to participate in sustained agitation to bring about socio-political changes.

Hence, as the rich lead more or less contented lives and the poor are not poor enough in Sri Lanka, we have come to rely on a relatively small number of highly conscientious social activists to struggle on our behalf in order to secure our legitimate freedoms and rights.  There is no question that it was the unremitting efforts of our social and political activists that enabled us recently to get the 19th Amendment and the Right to Information law passed by Parliament, as well as to reduce drastically the level of threats faced by media personnel and the public.

Fighting corruption is always a tough challenge because it is those who have stolen the nations’ wealth who can afford to pay huge bribes and buy their way out of trouble easily by organising highly disruptive public protests and funding sabotage of various types.

Thinking along these lines, at the beginning of the year 2002, that is, fifteen years ago, three far-sighted men decided to try to get together a group of persons who had held high office in the public and private sectors to form an effective lobby to promote good governance and the Rule of  Law.  These three visionaries were Mr Elmore Perera, former Surveyor-General and later an Attorney-at-Law, Mr W.B.A.Jayasekera, former Chairman of the Mineral Sands Corporation and past President of the OPA, and Mr A.D.N.Fernando, former Secretary, Mahaweli Ministry.

I was one of the 150 persons who were invited to attend the inaugural meeting. What was called for by the three convenors was for the invitees to form a dedicated body to undertake serious lobbying to pressurise the government to get back to the Rule of Law. Perhaps predictably, by the time the second meeting was held, only about 20-30 persons who had attended the inaugural meeting turned up. Nevertheless, a sub-committee was formed and entrusted with the task of writing a constitution for the new body and deciding on a name for it. An interim constitution was soon prepared and the organisation was given the name CITIZENS’ MOVEMENT FOR GOOD GOVERNANCE, or CIMOGG for short.

It was also decided that the members of CIMOGG should themselves finance its operations without relying on outside donors who might have their own agendas. Thus, CIMOGG would be able to deal with any issue entirely on the merits of that particular issue. Highly-respected public figures like Mr James Lanerolle, Mr Walter Ladduwahetty and Dr Shelton Wanasinghe were successively elected President of CIMOGG, thereby giving our Movement a firm foundation.

Initially, CIMOGG concentrated mainly on public interest litigation and electoral reform. Mr Elmore Perera gave of his legal expertise and time free of cost to CIMOGG to file a number of public interest cases in the courts. Two of the more important cases that were taken up called into question the constitutionality of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s actions in appointing judges to the superior courts without the concurrence of the Constitutional Council, as required by the 17th Amendment.

In the first case, in which Mr Susil Sirivardhana and I were the Petitioners, Justice K.Sripavan, then the President of the Court of Appeal, and now the Chief Justice, did not accept our arguments which claimed that the immunity conferred on Executive Presidents is not absolute. We contended strongly that the Courts are not barred from examining acts done by Presidents and declaring whether such acts are in conformity with the law or not. We referred to a much earlier Supreme Court opinion that had held that a President’s acts may be subjected to judicial examination, even though it was conceded that defaulting Presidents could not be sued directly. Justice Sripavan nevertheless insisted that the President was protected by a concept referred to by him as “blanket immunity” and, consequently, he did not give us leave to take the matter any further. We are not convinced even to this day that Justice Sripavan was right but there was nothing further that we could do then.

In another case, in which retired Army Commander General Gerry de Silva and I were the Petitioners, we challenged, in the Supreme Court itself, the appointment by President Rajapaksa of two judges to the Supreme Court without the concurrence of the Constitutional Council. Possibly because of Mr Elmore Perera’s uncompromising stance in pursuing his arguments in the Courts – and undoubtedly for other reasons which it would take me too long to explain – Mr Perera was told by the senior judge of the two-judge bench that heard our petition that Mr Perera would be given only 30 minutes to explain the implications of the material contained in our Petition even though it contained 64 paragraphs.  This kind of arbitrary, predetermined time limit was against the Court’s normal convention of allowing Counsel a reasonable amount of time to explain the finer points of what is contained in a petition or any other document. After this strange start, the order in this case was made in less than one minute without any considered discussion regarding it by Acting Chief Justice Nihal Jayasinghe and Justice Raja Fernando, who were the two sitting judges.

A day or two later, we saw that the Court’s order, as recorded in the journal, contained just three sentences that I shall now paraphrase from memory –

  1. Leave to proceed is refused;
  2. The Petitioner Elmore Perera has filed this petition frivolously, with a collateral purpose;
  3. The Attorney General to look into the matter of charging the Petitioner for abusing the process of law and wasting the time of the Court.

A couple of days later, I received a telephone call from President’s Counsel Desmond Fernando, past President of the International Bar Association, expressing his shock about the threat of punitive action against me and General de Silva.  I reassured him that I was not in the least bit worried because the judges who had made the order had self-evidently not read even the first page of our Petition because, if they had done so, they would have known that Mr Elmore Perera was not the Petitioner but was only performing his duties as our Counsel. Mr Desmond Fernando had then privately conveyed details of this serious error to Justice Raja Fernando. 

A few days after this intervention, it was found that the second sentence of the order that had referred to Mr Elmore Perera as the Petitioner, had been struck out from the journal entry which had been made in the open court.  By virtue of this irregular deletion, General Gerry de Silva and I were restored to our roles as the Petitioners. However, this meant that the Attorney General was now obliged to come after General de Silva and myself.

Meanwhile, in another connection, Mr Elmore Perera, who was proving to be a thorn in the flesh of the judiciary, had been suspended from acting as an Attorney-at-Law. His period of suspension totalled just under an astonishingly disproportionate nine years! This outrageous punishment was meted out by Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva who rode rough-shod over the Supreme Court’s own rules governing disciplinary action against Attorneys-at-Law, disregarding even the most earnest submissions made by Mr H.L.de Silva, President’s Counsel.

After Mr Elmore Perera was silenced in this manner, General de Silva and I had to appear in the Supreme Court on several occasions, over several months, but were not asked even a single question by the Court regarding our position on the matter. In the end, the Attorney General was told by the Chief Justice, on his own initiative, that it would not be necessaryto proceed with any action against General de Silva and myself. The former Army Commander and I were thus mercifully denied enjoying some cost-free State hospitality at Welikada.

From this point onwards, as a consequence of being deprived of the dedicated services of Mr Elmore Perera, CIMOGG had to give up totally its forays into public interest litigation.

Going back now to the period from the year 2002 to 2004, CIMOGG had worked out an electoral system that was designed to empower citizens at the periphery to enjoy a reasonable measure of self-government. These proposals were presented by CIMOGG in Parliament itself to the Dinesh Gunawardena Committee for Constitutional Reform. Nothing was achieved by this initiative of ours because we were still politically rather naive and had not realised at that time that the real bottom line is that no Sri Lankan Parliament has ever had any serious intention of giving up even the tiniest fraction of its powers to those outside the Centre.

Notwithstanding this experience, CIMOGG, in late 2015, updated these early ideas, added some new material, and then submitted them dutifully to the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms, which had been appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Twenty-four copies of our 35-page submission, were sent by courier to this Committee which, however, did not bother even to acknowledge having received them.

Going back to the past once again, it was in the year 2005 that CIMOGG began sending articles relating to good governance topics to seven or eight English language newspapers. To our great disappointment, most of these journals showed no interest in our writings on good governance and the Rule of Law. It became fairly obvious that the owners and editors of these papers did not want to risk offending the government. It is only the SUNDAY ISLAND that continues to give us valuable space to this day.

To get the exposure that was denied to us by the media, CIMOGG created its own website in the year 2008 to carry all its English language articles. This site can be accessed at www.cimogg-srilanka.org.

I might also mention that, when we began to write our first articles in English, we had them translated immediately into Sinhala and sent them to the leading Sinhala language newspapers. Not one of the articles in Sinhala was published for reasons best known to the respective editors.

In April 2011, we decided to have the first 100 or so of the English language articles published in book form for the benefit of those who are not comfortable with computers and the internet. Over the last six years, Vijitha Yapa’s bookshops have not been able to sell even 100 copies of this book, although it is priced at 50% below the cost of printing.

In yet another effort, in September 2012, to reach ordinary Sinhala-speaking citizens, we got more than 120 of our English language articles translated into Sinhala and published in book form. Once again, priced at less than half the cost of printing, fewer than 80 copies have been sold to date.

As CIMOGG is not an entity that is easily discouraged, we have recently built a Sinhala language web site for all our translated articles. It can be accessed at  www.cimogg-sinhala.org. We are hopeful that at least a few of the Sinhala-speaking public who access this web site will begin to appreciate the necessity and importance of their participation in promoting good governance.

Having spoken so far about CIMOGG’s rough ride in trying to foster interest in good governance, we need to have a look at what is going on currently.

Recalling the events of 8th January 2015 and the victory speech made by Mr Maithripala Sirisena, many of us were overjoyed to think that we were replacing a cheap, narcissistic, brutal and dishonest political dynasty with a patriotic coalition of sorts. The speedy repeal of the 18th Amendment and the passing of the 19th Amendment encouraged us to think that we were on the right path. The virtual disappearance of white vans and the freedom given to the media and our citizens to speak their minds without fear have also been major advances.

However, after only about a year in power, President Sirisena began to give greater priority to ensure the welfare of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and to strengthen his own hand rather than to his obligations to the country as a whole. It is now clear that he has decided to fight not only for his personal survival but also to ensure that the SLFP does not get weakened to the point where the UNP smothers it totally. For this endeavour, he has gathered around him some of the most unscrupulous thieves of Ali Baba’s gang.

Given this background analysis, it should now be less difficult to fathom why, when Minister S.B.Dissanayake recently proposed to the SLFP that the Executive Presidency should not be abolished and that President Sirisena should seek a second term of office, President Sirisena remained seated silently like an Egyptian sphinx. He did not reject Minister Dissanayake’s self-serving and servile proposalas we would have expected him to do, by stating categorically that he would never ever dream of breaking the promises that he had made so publicly and earnestly to all the people of Sri Lanka, just two years earlier.

At the same time, the UNP fears that it cannot, on its own, prevail against a coalition of a united SLFP and a few minor parties. It is, therefore, in the UNP’s political interests to do whatever is possible to keep the SLFP divided more or less equally so that the two fragments would dissipate their energies squabbling with each other but without disintegrating totally. We believe, therefore, that the UNP will not go to the extent of weakening excessively the so-called Joint Opposition.

Having given sufficient room to the SLFPers who are now Ministers in the government to continue to line their pockets handsomely, the UNP has now presumably given the same freedom to at least some of its own members to collect enough money, inter alia, to fill up its coffers to fight the next couple of elections. What I am postulating is that, for the reasons that I have mentioned, there has been little incentive over the past two years for the main political parties to eliminate corruption despite the people’s fervent hopes.

It remains the duty of conscientious citizens to continue with the unending war against corruption and become even more determined whenever even a small battle is won.  CIMOGG’s hope is that, with the passage of time, more and more of our citizens will come to realise that it is only by being vigilant and keeping up the pressure on our MPs that this generation would be able to bequeath to its descendants a less debased country than we now have.

Before concluding my talk, I should like to mention that the phrases “good governance” and “yahapalanaya” were not employed very much by anyone other than CIMOGG until the beginning of the year 2014, which was when we noted that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was beginning to use these terms with increasing frequency.  This was the time when, we believe, President Rajapaksa was warned by Dr P.B.Jayasundara that his lavish spending was going to catch up with him rather sharply in 2015. This was undoubtedly the real reason why the Presidential election was advanced by two years. Once it was decided that an election had to be held, and that, too, as soon as possible after the President’s birthday, his trusted astrologer conjured up an auspicious date, and all of us know what happened thereafter.

I shall now make a few very brief comments on the need for a much better Constitution than we now have.

Our present Constitution allows plenty of room for incompetents and criminals to be elected to Parliament with the sponsorship of unscrupulous party oligarchies. The Constitution should contain the stipulation that election candidates fill in an application form that gives details of their age, gender, secondary education, higher education, professional education and experience, current employment, and a resumé of the social service work that they have done. They should also declare whether they have faced criminal proceedings of any kind and what were the outcomes of such proceedings.  Copies of the completed forms should be distributed to all the households in the electorate so that voters may be able to compare the relative merits of the relevant contestants.

Under the present Constitution, too much unfettered power and discretion are given to the President and to Ministers, who grossly abuse such power and discretion as and when they please.  The President, the Prime Minister and Parliament should be required to concentrate on legislative functions and limit their interference with the functioning of the Judiciary as well as the administrative machinery of government, including especially the Attorney General and the Police. In other words, the separation and independence of the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the government should be enhanced drastically.

There is much more to be said regarding the Constitution but I have probably exceeded the time allowed to me and shall, therefore, stop here.

Dr A.C.Visvalingam

President, CIMOGG