GL Peiris interviewed by Jamie Metzl at the Asia Society, New York … & Comments from Godage and Chandraprema

on 27th September, 2010; courtesy of the Daily News, 10 Oct. 2010

  Q: My first question to you is, if you were a Sri Lankan Tamil who opposed and condemned the violence of the LTTE, but also felt that Sri Lankan Tamils and other minorities were not being treated equally and fairly by the Government of Sri Lanka. If you felt that way, how do you interpret the Government of Sri Lanka’s actions over the past years and how would you feel about your place in Sri Lankan society today and in the future?

A: Well I think the most convincing answer to that was given by somebody who spoke to you in this very hall not so long ago. One of our most distinguished professional is an architect by the name of Angelendran. He happened to be a friend of mine, I know him. I was told that he came here just as I did, he spoke to you and a question was put to him on these lines. “You produced such magnificent work and his work is really magnificent, “how was it possible for you as a Tamil oppressed as you are in Sri Lanka, how was it possible for you to produce work of this quality?” and I was told that Angelendran has given an answer which I think is quite remarkable in many ways. He said, ‘alright I was born a Tamil but, I am a Sri Lankan and I have had every opportunity to engage in my profession and to achieve the heights of excellence as I have done. Nobody stood in my way. There was no discrimination. I was not threatened or discouraged and that it is the answer I am giving you. That is all.

In Sri Lanka we have equality of opportunity, we have free education, from the kindergarten to the University, Tamils have reached the zenith of attainment, in many walks of life, in politics, in professions, in banking, in entrepreneurship, in civil society and that is a demonstrable fact. The LTTE was not really fighting for the rights of Tamils at all. I would vigorously contest that because the LTTE has a claim to exclusivity that was the crux of it, right? The LTTE had claimed that they were the sole an exclusive exponents of the rights, culture and heritage of the Tamil people and anybody that came in the way had to be physically annihilated. So we had Tamil leaders, many of you in the United States are familiar with the name of Neelan Thiruchelvam who was a fellow student in the University of Ceylon before he went to Harvard on Fulbright scholarship, and I went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and our paths crossed again when we entered politics in the same year, in 1994, we both came into the Parliament in the same year.

He was brutally killed. Now when I was handling the peace process on the behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka, my counterpart the late Dr Anton Balasingham in a private conversation with me in Thailand, while we were having coffee together, in spirit of a mea culpa he told me, that the LTTE were very sorry that they have killed Neelan Thirichelvam because he is somebody who might have been very useful, had he been around (inaudible) of course came too late. So one must not confuse these things. It is not as though the Tamils are discriminated against, the Tamils are oppressed, there is tyranny and the LTTE are saviours of the cause of the Tamil people.

The LTTE simply decimated the Tamils who did not agree with the LTTE. Today there is equality of opportunity. The President recently told me why don’t you talk to your friends in the university, in professions, Tamils we would like to welcome them to politics. Earlier it could not happen, it could not be done because they had legitimate fear for their lives. That would be destroyed, it is no longer the case. Well just observe what will happen in Sri Lanka in the next two three years, we will find Tamils who are respected, looked up to by their community, coming into politics more and more. There will be equality of opportunity simply because the LTTE is not around to threaten them and that is very much the reality of the situation that is developing in Sri Lanka today.

Q: And I think that certainly myself and I would imagine, most everybody in this room has no sympathy for the LTTE and were happy to see them gone. I would also imagine that there are either people in this room or watching online in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, who might say that your characterization of the role in the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka is something that they may not agree with. And may be as questioned one rather than putting words in anyone else’s mouth, if there are people who would question the characterization of the position of Tamils in Sri Lanka today, I think your point is very fair, may be if you have a comment on that, lets have that as on category of comments, but we will certainly take you at your word and everybody whose concerned at the brutality that the LTTE showed towards Tamils themselves and moderates who would have played a very constructive role in building society, and yet in your remarks, you talked about terrorism as the cause of the problems and the divisions that Sri Lanka had and yet there is a whole history and obviously the Sinhala supremists movement and the language issues, there were a lot of legitimate grievances, perhaps certainly illegitimate expressions, but some of those grievances were believe, it were legitimate and needed to be, as some would say perhaps, and I would say, there are still ways to go in addressing them and no society is perfect.

United States is far from perfect. One of the approaches you mentioned was the 13th Amendment in 1987. That time there was a philosophy at least that the devolution of power, the de-centralization, was one mechanism, for allowing people to feel empowered and that their voices are heard. There are many who are critical today of the implementation of the 13th Amendment. So my question to you is, do you accept the concept that devolution of some power to the provinces is a key not ‘the’ key to lasting peace in Sri Lanka, and if so, do you believe that the 13th Amendement is, and you briefly mentioned these in your remarks, being adequately implemented?

A: No it hasn’t been adequately implemented over the years but that is part of existing law, so I don’t think anybody would question that some degree of devolution is necessary. It has been implemented in some respects, not fully. Many governments have ruled the country during the last 25 years and now we have this unique situation since 1977, now we have for the first time in Sri Lanka, a Government that has a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The Government has now roughly about 161 members supporting it in a Parliament of 225. That’s little more than two-thirds. Now the significance of that is that the first time in a quarter of a century, we have in Sri Lanka a Government with the legal capability to change the Constitution. So that is a unique opportunity. So that is why we are eager to have an open dialogue with the Tamil community and with the other minority communities as well. Of course what is sought to be implemented must also have the support of the majority community and it was the lack of that which inhibited implementation in the past. So I think we need to decide what is the point of departure. Where do you begin? I think you begin by holding free and fair elections which we are doing, without LTTE terror. You then talk to the people who emerge from that process as the legitimate representatives of the Tamil people. That opportunity is now available. And once you decide on a set of proposals that command the acceptance of the country at large, well the government today has the capability to implement it. Several attempts were made in the past, notably in the year 2000, in August 2000 to implement far reaching changes but that failed because of the lack of 2/3rds majority. Now that constraint is no longer there, so I would suggest that is the way to set about it.

Q Over the past year Sri Lanka has seen a massive centralization of Presidential power. Many people would agree, at least as observer, that seems to be the case, with the 18th Amendment that recently became law, abolishes term limits for the Executive Presidency which, it’s certainly an issue which we have struggled with both in this country and even in this city. Yet, it’s a critical issue in many democracies.

It weakens the restrains on the power of the 17th Amendment and it empowers the President to appoint many Commissions that the President wasn’t empowered to appoint previously, including elections, national police, human rights, ombudsman…. and then the list goes on. This happens in addition to the increasingly powerful role the family of the President is playing, the President himself is personally in charge of several key Ministries, Defence, Public Security, Law and Order, Finance, Planning, Religious Affairs, his brother Basil is the Economic Development Minister, his brother Chamal is the Speaker of Parliament, his son Namal is a member of Parliament (elected by the people – MEA… interruptions….). His brother Gotabhaya is the Secretary of Defence, in-charge of Security Forces as well as recently taken on supervision of the Attorney General Office and responsibility for NGO Secretariat and Urban Development Department. So this seems a lot of centralization. The Centre for Policy Alternatives…. (Inaudible) if I can just say,…. but my question is (inaudible)…. you probably even know the quote I am about so say…… “…. the Centre of Policy Alternatives has called the 18th Amendment at assault on Constitutional Democracy…… (Inaudible)”. My question to you, is a year after the victory of the civil war, two stunning electoral wins, why is so much emphasis being put on centralization of power and does this come a the expense of the ideas of devolution that you have (interruptions…. ‘no… no’) and secondly, how does this fit into overall sense of checks and balances which is so important to the long-term functioning of a democracy.

A: You know there are several misunderstandings that are kind of implied in that series of questions. Now, the 18th Amendment was necessary for many practical reasons. Now you spoke all Commissions. I think you are referring 17th Amendment, which set up these Commissions and provided for a certain modality to appoint them. It never happened on the ground.

Not many people are aware that when the 17th Amendment was set to the Supreme Court to be tested for constitutionality, the Supreme Court in its judgment made an observation which turned out to be prophetic. They said this simply can’t work on the ground and we envision, not as a matter of mere likelihood or probability, but as a matter of virtually certainty that this will break down. Why? Because for the 17th Amendment to be implemented, there had to be agreement among an array of Opposition political parties, about who was going to be appointed to the Constitutional Council, that agreement was never forthcoming. Then all these parties got together and appointed Committee of Parliament which was mandated to find a practical solution to this problem.

There had many, many sittings but up to now they had not be able, all of them together, to sign a set of proposals which commanded the acceptance of all of them. So you had a situation in which this elaborate machinery has totally broken down. But, we believe the Commissions are necessary. They are a salutatory instrument and now we have made provision for the President to appoint the Commissions after full consultation with the Parliamentary Committee.

A Parliamentary Council consisting of the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition, a representative of the Leader of the Opposition, as well as a representative of the Prime Minister, that is essentially a much more democratic mechanism than a Constitutional Council which consists of people outside who are put on that body for no other reason than their political affiliation. The whole premise of your question is, that was democratic, this is not. How can you possibly argue that de-politicization is going to be achieved by a Constitutional Council whose composition is directly and overtly based on party politics? You can pick up anybody and put him on the Constitutional Council. He is a nominee of a political party, responsible and accountable to nobody other than the political party that appointed him. It is impossible to suggest, that is an acceptable way of achieving de-politicization. Now instead of that, we have put in place a mechanism that is going to work and don’t forget that Sri Lanka has very strong institutions and it is wrong to be cynical.

Now at the height of the war, I am not talking about now, but at the height of the war, the Supreme Court handed down a judgement which declared that road blocks are illegal. At that time, the Government decided to have roadblocks in the city of Colombo to prevent LTTE cadres from moving around and bombing people out of existence. Now organizations like CPA who are fond of litigation and go to a Court asking for various remedies, now one of those organizations, I’m not saying it is the CPA, somebody went to Court and the Court then said ‘dismantle all of this, it is illegal.’

Government said we think this is going to lead to the loss of many lives. But the Supreme Court in its wisdom has declared that this must be done and because we don’t want to challenge the authority of the Supreme Court, with great reluctance and with many misgivings, we are giving effect to this judgement which we know will result in mass murder. That happened. Lots of people got killed. So it is a country with established institutions, very vigorous, virile, assertive and the Executive has always respected even decisions which we knew were going to cause immeasurable harm. So the 18th Amendment is not a denial of freedom, it is simply a way of putting in place salutary mechanisms in a way that would work.

Now the other one, I don’t think that’s fair. Basil Rajapaksa, the brother of the President was elected with the largest majority in the second most popular region in the country. I think in terms of preference votes, he got something like 75 percent of the votes that were polled by his party. The President’s son Namal topped the list easily in the Southern Province. Now being the President’s brother or the President’s son is not a qualification.

It is surely also not a disqualification. So now, these are people who have got into Parliament as a result of the votes of the people. Well, John Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as the Attorney General. He wanted someone he trusted. So dynasties are not exclusively a phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics. What about the Bushes, what about the Kennedys, why are we talking only about Sri Lanka? (applause) So I don’t think that is fair. This is human nature. I don’t think human nature changes that much from North America to South Asia. Look at the Bhuttos of Pakistan, the Gandhis of India, look at the Akinos of Philippines.

Corozon Akino, now her son is the President of the Philippines. Why zero in on Sri Lanka and make out that Sri Lanka is doing something horrendous. The human nature in Sri Lanka is, after all, not very different from the human nature in your own country and in many other parts of the planet.

There I would certainly agree to that point about human nature. Yet I would suggest that in any country, whether in Pakistan or in Philippines or here in the United States, if one power, one family, the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Clintons or the Ramsey Elliots began to amass so much power, then there would need to be some process, democratic or otherwise, to challenge that. To be continued

Minister Peiris takes on the Asia Society in NY

A: Well I think the most convincing answer to that was given by somebody who spoke to you in this very hall not so long ago. One of our most distinguished professional is an architect by the name of Angelendran. He happened to be a friend of mine, I know him. I was told that he came here just as I did, he spoke to you and a question was put to him on these lines. “You produced such magnificent work and his work is really magnificent, “how was it possible for you as a Tamil oppressed as you are in Sri Lanka, how was it possible for you to produce work of this quality?” and I was told that Angelendran has given an answer which I think is quite remarkable in many ways. He said, ‘alright I was born a Tamil but, I am a Sri Lankan and I have had every opportunity to engage in my profession and to achieve the heights of excellence as I have done. Nobody stood in my way. There was no discrimination. I was not threatened or discouraged and that it is the answer I am giving you. That is all.

In Sri Lanka we have equality of opportunity, we have free education, from the kindergarten to the University, Tamils have reached the zenith of attainment, in many walks of life, in politics, in professions, in banking, in entrepreneurship, in civil society and that is a demonstrable fact. The LTTE was not really fighting for the rights of Tamils at all. I would vigorously contest that because the LTTE has a claim to exclusivity that was the crux of it, right? The LTTE had claimed that they were the sole an exclusive exponents of the rights, culture and heritage of the Tamil people and anybody that came in the way had to be physically annihilated. So we had Tamil leaders, many of you in the United States are familiar with the name of Neelan Thiruchelvam who was a fellow student in the University of Ceylon before he went to Harvard on Fulbright scholarship, and I went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and our paths crossed again when we entered politics in the same year, in 1994, we both came into the Parliament in the same year.

He was brutally killed. Now when I was handling the peace process on the behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka, my counterpart the late Dr Anton Balasingham in a private conversation with me in Thailand, while we were having coffee together, in spirit of a mea culpa he told me, that the LTTE were very sorry that they have killed Neelan Thirichelvam because he is somebody who might have been very useful, had he been around (inaudible) of course came too late. So one must not confuse these things. It is not as though the Tamils are discriminated against, the Tamils are oppressed, there is tyranny and the LTTE are saviours of the cause of the Tamil people.

The LTTE simply decimated the Tamils who did not agree with the LTTE. Today there is equality of opportunity. The President recently told me why don’t you talk to your friends in the university, in professions, Tamils we would like to welcome them to politics. Earlier it could not happen, it could not be done because they had legitimate fear for their lives. That would be destroyed, it is no longer the case. Well just observe what will happen in Sri Lanka in the next two three years, we will find Tamils who are respected, looked up to by their community, coming into politics more and more. There will be equality of opportunity simply because the LTTE is not around to threaten them and that is very much the reality of the situation that is developing in Sri Lanka today.

Q: And I think that certainly myself and I would imagine, most everybody in this room has no sympathy for the LTTE and were happy to see them gone. I would also imagine that there are either people in this room or watching online in Sri Lanka or elsewhere, who might say that your characterization of the role in the history of Tamils in Sri Lanka is something that they may not agree with. And may be as questioned one rather than putting words in anyone else’s mouth, if there are people who would question the characterization of the position of Tamils in Sri Lanka today, I think your point is very fair, may be if you have a comment on that, lets have that as on category of comments, but we will certainly take you at your word and everybody whose concerned at the brutality that the LTTE showed towards Tamils themselves and moderates who would have played a very constructive role in building society, and yet in your remarks, you talked about terrorism as the cause of the problems and the divisions that Sri Lanka had and yet there is a whole history and obviously the Sinhala supremists movement and the language issues, there were a lot of legitimate grievances, perhaps certainly illegitimate expressions, but some of those grievances were believe, it were legitimate and needed to be, as some would say perhaps, and I would say, there are still ways to go in addressing them and no society is perfect.

United States is far from perfect. One of the approaches you mentioned was the 13th Amendment in 1987. That time there was a philosophy at least that the devolution of power, the de-centralization, was one mechanism, for allowing people to feel empowered and that their voices are heard. There are many who are critical today of the implementation of the 13th Amendment. So my question to you is, do you accept the concept that devolution of some power to the provinces is a key not ‘the’ key to lasting peace in Sri Lanka, and if so, do you believe that the 13th Amendement is, and you briefly mentioned these in your remarks, being adequately implemented?

A: No it hasn’t been adequately implemented over the years but that is part of existing law, so I don’t think anybody would question that some degree of devolution is necessary. It has been implemented in some respects, not fully. Many governments have ruled the country during the last 25 years and now we have this unique situation since 1977, now we have for the first time in Sri Lanka, a Government that has a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The Government has now roughly about 161 members supporting it in a Parliament of 225. That’s little more than two-thirds. Now the significance of that is that the first time in a quarter of a century, we have in Sri Lanka a Government with the legal capability to change the Constitution. So that is a unique opportunity. So that is why we are eager to have an open dialogue with the Tamil community and with the other minority communities as well. Of course what is sought to be implemented must also have the support of the majority community and it was the lack of that which inhibited implementation in the past. So I think we need to decide what is the point of departure. Where do you begin? I think you begin by holding free and fair elections which we are doing, without LTTE terror. You then talk to the people who emerge from that process as the legitimate representatives of the Tamil people. That opportunity is now available. And once you decide on a set of proposals that command the acceptance of the country at large, well the government today has the capability to implement it. Several attempts were made in the past, notably in the year 2000, in August 2000 to implement far reaching changes but that failed because of the lack of 2/3rds majority. Now that constraint is no longer there, so I would suggest that is the way to set about it.

Q Over the past year Sri Lanka has seen a massive centralization of Presidential power. Many people would agree, at least as observer, that seems to be the case, with the 18th Amendment that recently became law, abolishes term limits for the Executive Presidency which, it’s certainly an issue which we have struggled with both in this country and even in this city. Yet, it’s a critical issue in many democracies.

It weakens the restrains on the power of the 17th Amendment and it empowers the President to appoint many Commissions that the President wasn’t empowered to appoint previously, including elections, national police, human rights, ombudsman…. and then the list goes on. This happens in addition to the increasingly powerful role the family of the President is playing, the President himself is personally in charge of several key Ministries, Defence, Public Security, Law and Order, Finance, Planning, Religious Affairs, his brother Basil is the Economic Development Minister, his brother Chamal is the Speaker of Parliament, his son Namal is a member of Parliament (elected by the people – MEA… interruptions….). His brother Gotabhaya is the Secretary of Defence, in-charge of Security Forces as well as recently taken on supervision of the Attorney General Office and responsibility for NGO Secretariat and Urban Development Department. So this seems a lot of centralization. The Centre for Policy Alternatives…. (Inaudible) if I can just say,…. but my question is (inaudible)…. you probably even know the quote I am about so say…… “…. the Centre of Policy Alternatives has called the 18th Amendment at assault on Constitutional Democracy…… (Inaudible)”. My question to you, is a year after the victory of the civil war, two stunning electoral wins, why is so much emphasis being put on centralization of power and does this come a the expense of the ideas of devolution that you have (interruptions…. ‘no… no’) and secondly, how does this fit into overall sense of checks and balances which is so important to the long-term functioning of a democracy.

A: You know there are several misunderstandings that are kind of implied in that series of questions. Now, the 18th Amendment was necessary for many practical reasons. Now you spoke all Commissions. I think you are referring 17th Amendment, which set up these Commissions and provided for a certain modality to appoint them. It never happened on the ground.

Not many people are aware that when the 17th Amendment was set to the Supreme Court to be tested for constitutionality, the Supreme Court in its judgment made an observation which turned out to be prophetic. They said this simply can’t work on the ground and we envision, not as a matter of mere likelihood or probability, but as a matter of virtually certainty that this will break down. Why? Because for the 17th Amendment to be implemented, there had to be agreement among an array of Opposition political parties, about who was going to be appointed to the Constitutional Council, that agreement was never forthcoming. Then all these parties got together and appointed Committee of Parliament which was mandated to find a practical solution to this problem.

There had many, many sittings but up to now they had not be able, all of them together, to sign a set of proposals which commanded the acceptance of all of them. So you had a situation in which this elaborate machinery has totally broken down. But, we believe the Commissions are necessary. They are a salutatory instrument and now we have made provision for the President to appoint the Commissions after full consultation with the Parliamentary Committee.

A Parliamentary Council consisting of the Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition, a representative of the Leader of the Opposition, as well as a representative of the Prime Minister, that is essentially a much more democratic mechanism than a Constitutional Council which consists of people outside who are put on that body for no other reason than their political affiliation. The whole premise of your question is, that was democratic, this is not. How can you possibly argue that de-politicization is going to be achieved by a Constitutional Council whose composition is directly and overtly based on party politics? You can pick up anybody and put him on the Constitutional Council. He is a nominee of a political party, responsible and accountable to nobody other than the political party that appointed him. It is impossible to suggest, that is an acceptable way of achieving de-politicization. Now instead of that, we have put in place a mechanism that is going to work and don’t forget that Sri Lanka has very strong institutions and it is wrong to be cynical.

Now at the height of the war, I am not talking about now, but at the height of the war, the Supreme Court handed down a judgement which declared that road blocks are illegal. At that time, the Government decided to have roadblocks in the city of Colombo to prevent LTTE cadres from moving around and bombing people out of existence. Now organizations like CPA who are fond of litigation and go to a Court asking for various remedies, now one of those organizations, I’m not saying it is the CPA, somebody went to Court and the Court then said ‘dismantle all of this, it is illegal.’

Government said we think this is going to lead to the loss of many lives. But the Supreme Court in its wisdom has declared that this must be done and because we don’t want to challenge the authority of the Supreme Court, with great reluctance and with many misgivings, we are giving effect to this judgement which we know will result in mass murder. That happened. Lots of people got killed. So it is a country with established institutions, very vigorous, virile, assertive and the Executive has always respected even decisions which we knew were going to cause immeasurable harm. So the 18th Amendment is not a denial of freedom, it is simply a way of putting in place salutary mechanisms in a way that would work.

Now the other one, I don’t think that’s fair. Basil Rajapaksa, the brother of the President was elected with the largest majority in the second most popular region in the country. I think in terms of preference votes, he got something like 75 percent of the votes that were polled by his party. The President’s son Namal topped the list easily in the Southern Province. Now being the President’s brother or the President’s son is not a qualification.

It is surely also not a disqualification. So now, these are people who have got into Parliament as a result of the votes of the people. Well, John Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as the Attorney General. He wanted someone he trusted. So dynasties are not exclusively a phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics. What about the Bushes, what about the Kennedys, why are we talking only about Sri Lanka? (applause) So I don’t think that is fair. This is human nature. I don’t think human nature changes that much from North America to South Asia. Look at the Bhuttos of Pakistan, the Gandhis of India, look at the Akinos of Philippines.

Corozon Akino, now her son is the President of the Philippines. Why zero in on Sri Lanka and make out that Sri Lanka is doing something horrendous. The human nature in Sri Lanka is, after all, not very different from the human nature in your own country and in many other parts of the planet.

There I would certainly agree to that point about human nature. Yet I would suggest that in any country, whether in Pakistan or in Philippines or here in the United States, if one power, one family, the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Clintons or the Ramsey Elliots began to amass so much power, then there would need to be some process, democratic or otherwise, to challenge that.

                        ***************                                                                   *************** 

 Minister Peiris takes on the Asia Society in NY

Nanda Godage

I never intended to comment on the speech delivered by our Minister of Foreign Affairs Professor G. L. Peiris at the Asia Society in New York during his recent visit to that city to attend the General Assembly sessions of the United Nations. How ever having had access to the transcript of the lively interactive exchange the Minister has had after his speech I decided to join the debate and post my comments.

Professor Peiris is undoubtedly the best words-smith possessing the diplomatic skills and the command of the English language to represent our country in any forum abroad and specifically to the skeptical west. Our home grown Demosthenes seems to have acquitted himself brilliantly in the question and answer sessions at the Asia Society in New York.

The transcripts indicate that almost every question was preceded by some sort of a homily which indicated not only the intention of the questioner but also betrayed his or her pre conceived opinion. The word, prejudice, I would rather avoid.

A good example is the question relating to the LLRC which was preceded by a lengthy introduction where in an attempt was made to show that the mandate of the LLRC was not only vague or ill defined but was not designed to allow a meaningful domestic investigation of the war crimes allegedly committed by the security forces acting under the instructions of our government. The necessary corollary of that assumption being that there will be no accountability or prosecutions for the alleged crimes.

The Ministers response in pugilist parlance was a “left hook that floored” the opponent. He merely quoted the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and another US Congressman who was a lawyer by Profession who had both pronounced that they were satisfied that the terms of reference were broad enough to investigate at length the questions of responsibility of individuals in respect of grave crimes or dereliction of duty. Having responded with the rejoinder containing the observation of the Congressman, the Minister had proceeded to quote our President who had stated publicly that the criminal justice system of Sri Lanka was robust enough to prosecute any persons accused of war crimes on the basis of hard evidence as against spurious allegations on the basis of hearsay.

The Minister has pointedly referred to the open and unconditional invitation extended to organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group to place their representations before the Commission either in Public or in Camera. These organizations are yet to respond he had pointed out. The Minister had also pointed out that some of the allegations made were not only false and grossly unfair but lacked both credibility and objectivity.

Responding to critics who raised issues on the credentials of the LLRC the Minister had deftly drawn their attention to the pronouncements of Secretary Hilary Clinton. “This commission holds promise, we have confidence it must work, we expect it to work.

The Minister has told his detractors not to approach this issue with their petty prejudices. “Let the Commission proceed with its work. If you come across issues that need to be addressed then address them and make your criticisms at that point. To indulge in criticisms at the threshold is grossly unfair.”

This did not quite appease the critics. The next question was related to the UN Secretary General appointing a three member panel to advise him and be a resource to the Government of Sri Lanka. The Ministers response had been polite. He had deliberately avoided questioning the credentials of the three members constituting the panel although there were plenty of issues on which he could have elaborated. He responded “We are not quite clear as to what kind of contribution they expected to make. In any case our Commission was working on the ground. We do not think there was going to be any value addition.” However I consider it appropriate to go deeper into the subject of the three members of the panel appointed by the Secretary General. I take them in order. The head of the panel was a member of the Eminent Persons Group who left Sri Lanka having had a disagreement with the then Attorney General of Sri Lanka. The second member of the panel is the author of a book in which he claimed that Sri Lanka was a country that practiced Apartheid .The third member is the head of an NGO in South Africa which is wholly dependant on financial assistance from the European Union. It is well known that the European Union is hostile to Sri Lanka and it is very unlikely that this member will take a stand that will displease the European Union.

There had been no let up in the questioning. The next reference was to the Channel 4 fraudulent video. The Minister in exercising his considerable academic and forensic skills had pointed out that there indeed was a great deal of technical evidence which conclusively established beyond all doubt that the video was a fake. This exercise was wholly intended to damage the image of this country.

Another question that was asked from the Minister was on the 18th Amendment. I confess my inability to agree with the defense of the 18th Amendment offered by the Minister. Of course I consider the Westminster model that was imposed on us by the departing British rulers who granted us the Dominion status in 1948 has failed us. This is in sharp contrast to what the leaders of Independent India did. When Pundit Nehru uttered those memorable words “At mid night today India will keep its tryst with destiny” he was addressing not only the legislature of Independent India but also the constituent assembly of India that was to fashion its Republican Constitution that has withstood all the turmoil of an Independent Nation that united a sub continent molding not only an Emerging Economic Super Power but also the worlds largest Democracy where Institutions such as the Judiciary, Public Service, Elections Commission, Central Vigilance Commission have acquired an aura of sanctity not only by statute but also by withstanding the pressures of capricious politicians. In the case of Sri Lanka we still consider the Westminster model as the constitutional bench mark while our own experience during an earlier period under colonial rule (The Donoughmore reforms of the 1930s) we had the executive committee system which encouraged consensual governance.

The 17th Amendment that sought to set up independent commissions was indeed a piece of legislation that was hurriedly adopted and was certainly flawed. These short comings could have been corrected. The mechanism that was intended to set up the Constitutional Council could have been modified. The composition of the Constitutional Council could have been de linked from both parochial and political interests.Yes it is no secret that the Amendment had its flaws but they could have been corrected for its merits far outweighed its flaws, for instance the Police Commission had, in the minds of many knowledgeable persons, not functioned in the expected manner – but that could have been corrected; we have of course to factor in the fact that politicians in power always seek to have control over the Police and we may have to live with this situation. The Constitutional Council too could have also been constituted differently. It is indeed in the national interest to have independent institutions such as the Elections Commission, the Public Services Commission, the Judicial Services Commission, the Bribery Commission; it lends credibility to any government and infuses confidence among the people. It would be recalled that the 17th Amendment was rushed through Parliament without a proper study or examination of it by members unlike for instance in the US Congress where members have the benefit of being assisted by the Congressional Research Service (something we too should have) to advice them on tabled legislation to enable them to make a better contribution to debate.

 A strong Executive is indeed needed to take the country forward, (this I believe was the thinking behind JR J’s Constitution), Singapore, I believe, is the example being cited, along with the ‘Guided Democracies’ of east Asia. Perhaps there is an element of truth in this considering our past record on development but dumping the 17th Amendment is not the answer. Referring to the Parliamentary Council consisting of the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, a representative of the Leader of the Opposition and a representative of the Prime Minister, established under the 18th Amendment, the Minister has stated that it is a much more democratic arrangement than the Constitutional Council which had no politicians, but since it has a built in majority for the government this does not fit in with the overall checks and balances which is so important for the long term functioning of any democracy. May I suggest that this Council consult Parliament by referring the name of any nominee to the relevant Committee of Parliament and then submit the view of that Committee to the President, that certainly would be more democratic.

 To my mind the rot set in with the 1971 Constitution. The Public Service for instance was brought under the Cabinet, the PSC became a mere rubber stamp. The ’78 Constitution further crippled institutions we considered sacred such as the Elections Commission. Elections in this country were scrupulously conducted till 1977 (the last free and fair election) and with JR elections came to be fraudulently conducted, booth capturing, ballot rigging, intimidation on a huge scale and the use of government property by the ruling political party became the order of the day, with the Commission a pliant watcher. It must not of course be forgotten that the enormous power JR acquired for the Presidency enabled him to open the economy, enabled him to telescope the Mahaweli project that was to take 30 years to six. Yes he bequeathed to the nation seven cascading dams that irrigated vast acres and generated electricity but after him has come the deluge, as Prof AJ Wilson prophetically wrote in his illuminating analysis of the 1978 Constitution which was aptly titled “A Gaullist Experiment in Asia”, that the six cascading dams was the harbinger of a deluge “Apres Mois le Deluge”, and what a deluge it has been, for Democracy suffered fatal blows during that period. The 17th Amendment at least brought back credibility and sought to end the politicization of national institutions and to restore their independence in the national interest.

I do not think that the Westminster model, bequeathed to us by the British, is in keeping with our historical or cultural heritage (it has bestowed a curse in the form of the political party system which only breeds hate—— the Donoughmore system created space for cooperation and consensus politics), I am of the view that we need, as the President has himself stated, to craft a new Constitution —- an entirely home grown one which not only secures the rights of all our citizens but makes for the cooperation and participation of all our citizens in the governance of our country.

In conclusion may I state that I am happy that the Minister referred to ‘Equal Opportunities” I do hope the Minister would reintroduce the Equal Opportunities Bill which he himself introduced when he was Minister of Justice in the CBK administration.

                                    ********************                                                                                                             ***********************

Wonders! A Tamil Architect!

C. A. Chandraprema in Island, 22 Oct. 2010

Having watched Jamie Metzl’s Asia Society interview with External Affairs Minister G.L.Peiris, on the internet, I was left with the feeling that something was not quite right. Of course, the first thing that would strike anyone is the manner GLP fielded the questions. Both the interviewer (Metzl) and GLP acquitted themselves very well and it was a good interview by any reckoning. Metzl prefaced his interview by telling GLP that when mountain climbers clamber up the slopes of the Alps, they may at times take paths that may seem to be the best way to get to the top, but the people hanging around in the restaurants below sipping hot coffee are able to see that the climber has not taken the correct path to reach the top. That set the tone of the interview – GLP was the mountain climber who is unable to see anything but the rock face a foot away and Metzl was the relaxed coffee drinker who could guide the climber and show him the best way to get to the top of the mountain if only the climber would consent to be guided!

It’s quite amazing to see how even an independent western intellectual like Metzl could so closely parallel the views held by most western governments about Sri Lanka. Every western government seems to think that they know how Sri Lanka’s problems should be tackled and even seem peeved that the SL government has not been willing to accept their guidance. The first question that GLP was asked was, if he was a Sri Lankan Tamil who opposed the violence of the LTTE, but also felt that Sri Lankan Tamils and other minorities were not being treated equally and fairly by the Government of Sri Lanka, how would he feel about his place in Sri Lankan society today?

Anjalendran

If Metzl expected to put the SL minster on the defensive with this question, well it did not quite work out that way and GLP’s reply was the equivalent of sinking the enemy vessel with the first broadside. His answer was that C.Anjalendran, an eminent Tamil Architect from Sri Lanka had been interviewed in this very room not so long ago and when Anjalendran was asked “How was it possible for you as a Tamil, oppressed as you are in Sri Lanka, to produce work of this quality?” To this the intrepid Tamil architect (A friend of GLPs) had replied “All right, I was born a Tamil but, I am a Sri Lankan and I have had every opportunity to engage in my profession and to achieve the heights of excellence as I have done. Nobody stood in my way. There was no discrimination. I was not threatened or discouraged and that it is the answer I am giving you”.

Having thus used Anjalendran’s answer by way of answering the question thrown at him, GLP went on to administer the coup de grace pointing out that the oppressor of the Tamils in Sri Lanka was the LTTE, and that eminent Tamils like Neelan Tiruchelvam and the political leadership of the Tamils were killed off by the LTTE, not the government. GLP pointed out in so many words that it was not as though the Tamils of Sri Lanka were under a tyranny and that the LTTE were the saviours of the Tamils. He went on to explain that in Sri Lanka, there is equality of opportunity, free education from the kindergarten to the University and Tamils have reached the zenith of attainment, in many walks of life, in politics, in professions, in banking, in entrepreneurship. It is rarely that a politician gets an opportunity to do such a complete demolition job on western misconceptions and this opening salvo set the tone of the whole interview.

There were many questions of similar nature that were posed and fielded by GLP with equal adroitness. With all that bowling and batting going on in an interview that lasted more than an hour, it was easy to miss the main point that should have been noticed and in fact, even though I was left with a vague feeling that something was not quite right, it took me a while to realize what was wrong with that interview. What was out of place, is that the interviewer Jamie Metzl seemed to be very familiar with Sri Lanka and even the minutiae of politics in Colombo. He posed questions for example about the 18th amendment to the constitution which abolished term limits for the Executive Presidency and in his own words, “empowers the President to appoint many Commissions that the President wasn’t empowered to appoint previously, including elections, national police, human rights, ombudsman”. He also posed questions about the “increasingly powerful role the family of the President was playing, with the President himself personally in charge of several key Ministries, while his brother Basil is the Economic Development Minister, his brother Chamal the Speaker of Parliament, his son Namal a member of Parliament, and his brother Gotabhaya the Secretary of Defence. He was even aware that the Attorney General’s department now functions under the presidential secretariat and not under the Justice ministry – a fact that many Sri Lankans would be unaware of.

Incurable prejudice

GLP, always diplomatic and courteous pointed out in the most civil manner that it was hardly fair to zero in on Sri Lanka about family members being involved in politics when in the USA itself President Kennedy appointed his brother as the Attorney General while another brother became a Senator, and of course there was the example of Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. He took other examples of family members of politicians holding political office from India, Pakistan and even the Philippines, but for some reason he did not mention another readily available example – that of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being a presidential hopeful and the present US Secretary of State, because hubby was a former president of the USA. It may be that GLP did not want to say anything that may ruffle any feathers especially in an environment where the interviewer was expressing moral indignation at family members of politicians holding high office. There also probably was the fact that GLP and Hillary had been graduate students together at either Harvard or Oxford.

Be that as it may, the question I wanted to raise was that it seems rather odd that an interviewer especially in an organization like Asia society which specializes in the study of Asia would be well informed about the difference between the 17th Amendment and the 18th Amendment to the constitution, but unaware that only a minority of Tamils lived in the north and east and that the majority of the Tamils lived cheek by jowl with the Sinhalese and that Colombo city has more Tamils than Sinhalese. It also seems unforgivable that any interviewer with specialist knowledge on Asia could have asked an English speaking Tamil like Anjalendran, a hot shot professional who designed chic buildings for the social elite, as to how he got to the top because he is supposed to be an oppressed Tamil. What such questions seem to indicate is that Asia Society has come under the influence of the LTTE lobby in the USA (which of course does not openly pose as LTTE) who would claim that no Tamil is allowed to come up in life in Sri Lanka.

In fact any elitist Tamil in Colombo would be embarrassed to be categorized as an oppressed minority. Rather they would claim that they are the social elite and that English was the language of the home and that they drank premium Scotch whisky, sent their children to international schools, drove Mercedes and BMWs and lived in palatial houses worth as much as any house in a western capital! No English speaking Tamil in this country has any real problems just like any other English speaking Sinhalese or Muslim. It’s really the poor Tamils who speak no other language than Tamil who have a problem as they cannot readily communicate with the state agencies in Colombo. When Karu Jayasuriya was the minister of Public Administration he did take steps to address this problem by bringing in new regulations relating to Tamil language proficiency for public officials.

Naïve Americans

It does not seem right that an interviewer who prefaced his interview with a desire to guide the Oxford educated External Affairs minister of Sri Lanka on the right path would be unaware that elitist Tamils had no more problems than elitist Sinhalese, and that non-elitist Tamils shared all their problems with the non-elitist Sinhalese except for that one additional problem that Tamils faced in terms of communicating with government offices in Colombo in Tamil. Now that the war is over, ordinary Tamils do not have the problem of searches and ID checks either. Even at the height of the war, in 2007, when the present writer interviewed Robert Blake, the then US ambassador in Colombo, he acknowledged that even expatriate Tamils still had faith in Sri Lanka because they had been investing heavily in buying condominiums in Colombo. Until expatriate Tamils started the condominium craze in Wellawatte, everybody wanted to live on the ground and own their own patch of land in Colombo. Living in blocks of flats was for low-income types. Now attitudes have changed and even the social elite does not mind living in a flat and the condominium craze has extended beyond Tamil dominated Wellawatte.

It would appear that any Sri Lankan who appears before Asia Society is asked the same stock question – if he is a Tamil he is asked how he got to the top as an oppressed Tamil. If he is Sinhalese, he is asked to imagine how life would be for him if he had been an oppressed Tamil. This sounds like propaganda which somewhat mars what would otherwise have been a good interview and it is hoped that the answers given by Anjalendran an eminent Tamil, and GLP, a distinguished Sinhalese, would make Asia Society take this stock question off their interviews. In the 1990s, when Kumar Ponnambalam was cornered in a TV debate about grievances which were exclusive to the Tamils and not shared by other ethnic communities of a similar social standing, he was forced to admit that many of the earlier Tamil grievances had been addressed except the use of Tamil language in public administration and even for this the legislation is in place even though implementation has been slow. Ponnambalam then began propounding the theory that the Tamil struggle had moved beyond ‘grievances’ and were now fighting for their ‘aspirations’. Ponnambalam was posthumously awarded the title of ‘Maamanithar’ by Prabhakaran himself which shows that he too agreed with this theory. In the US however, it may be more advantageous to portray Tamils as being so oppressed that for any Tamil to have distinguished himself in Sri Lanka, even as a professional architect, was nothing short of a miracle! This is probably why Metzl thought it was of interest to US audiences to know how successful Tamils like Anjalendran had managed to outfox the oppressors. What can one say about such an attitude? It’s surprising that the Asia Society has not had a whole series of interviews with successful Tamils from Sri Lanka to ask them how they outfoxed their oppressors so that other oppressed minorities the world over will be able to learn some lessons on how to overcome their own oppressors and rise to the top.

1 Comment

Filed under Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil migration, unusual people

One response to “GL Peiris interviewed by Jamie Metzl at the Asia Society, New York … & Comments from Godage and Chandraprema

  1. Manel Fonseka

    [GL Peiris’s] … answer was that C.Anjalendran, an eminent Tamil Architect from Sri Lanka……….when Anjalendran……….. To this the intrepid Tamil architect
    (A friend of GLPs)
    [[[WHO SAYS!!!!! Very easy to make claims that can hardly be denied by the “innocent” party!!!! ]]
    had replied……

Leave a Reply to Manel Fonseka Cancel reply