Ferment in Lanka’s Political Firmament: Three Tamil Voices — Philips, Moonesinghe and Somasundram

Rajan Philips:  “One more symbolic step: Wigneswaran’s audience with the Mahanayake Thera,” September 16, 2017

We need a break from the tedium, rather the opprobrium, of national corruption. To paraphrase Dr. Harsha de Silva’s public lamentation, the whole country is awash in corruption. The continuing non-promotion of people like Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne to full cabinet rank shows the depth of cabinet entrenchment by the corrupt and the crooked and the extent of exclusion of the bright and the honest. The government leadership has a lot to answer for its cabinet choices even as it has a lot of explaining to do about its highway contract choices.

There are plenty of potholes in the government’s Central Expressway explanation that was presented in parliament by the Prime Minister (and not some ‘e miniha’ in government). But I thought I will stay away from political potholes this week and use my space today and the good editor’s indulgence to applaud the historic audience that the inscrutable Chief Minister of the Northern Province, CV Wigneswaran, sought and was given by the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter, the Most Venerable Tibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera.

This is yet another small but significantly symbolic step on a long road, the direction and destination of which are yet to be figured out. But a starting point for the road has been established by three judges of the Supreme Court in August of this year. The Chief Minister, himself a former Supreme Court Judge, referenced the court ruling ever so gently to make a soft sell, so to speak, of federalism in the highest precinct of the First Estate of Sinhalese society. Symbols are significant when there is nothing substantial going on in the political realm. Nothing tangible will come out of this meeting, but the intangibles of the occasion and its meanings deserve recognition and celebration.

A major expectation of those who were enthusiastic about the TNA’s choice of Mr. Wigneswaran as candidate for Chief Minister in the first Northern Provincial Council election in 2013, was that he would be a bridge builder between the north and the south and a political ambassador for the Tamils among the Sinhalese and the Muslims. It was also expected that by being a bridge builder and ambassador, he would be able to speedily facilitate the rebuilding and restoration of postwar North not only physically and materially, but also emotionally and psychologically. The Chief Minister’s aplomb and ambassadorial abilities were in full display on national television during his meeting with the Mahanayake. And the main purpose of his meeting was not to advocate federalism but to ask the Mahanayake to intercede on behalf of the Tamils in the North and impress on the government the urgency of rebuilding and restoration work in the Peninsula and the rest of the Northern Province.

The Mahanayake does not have to do anything to intercede. His audience to the Chief Minister was the intercession, and it is up to the President and the Prime Minister to respond in kind by giving priority to addressing the land question and the livelihood of people who are still destitute even after eight years since the war ended. As the Chief Minister laid it out before the prelate, there are 89,000 war widows, almost one for every ten people living in the north, and 60,000 acres of land (a quarter of the area of Jaffna) are still in the control of the army. People’s traditional means of livelihood, farming and fishing, are still struggling to become barely subsistent, let alone reach the surplus status that they once occupied. The people of the North need government help to turn things around from rock bottom and not the building of steel houses and super highways. Super highways can come later, but prefabricated steel houses should have no place in the north or anywhere in Sri Lanka.

Better late than never

Although it is now water under the bridge, if not the Elephant Pass, one cannot help speculating how things would have worked out for Mr. Wigneswaran and his Administration if he had started doing soon after becoming Chief Minister what he is doing now in visiting the Mahanayake in Kandy. On the contrary, he was given and followed wrong advice in turning his ambassador role into the role of a propagandist of an old narrative that needs no new elaboration. Against his better judgement, it would seem, he took flight to bandy the message of the Tamils among the converted overseas and forgot the hard work of seeking and persuading audiences here at home.

For a time, the Chief Minister was carried away by passing high-octane resolutions that evaporated into thin air, instead of sober canvassing to achieve real redress for a battered people. He became an instrument in the hands of those who are desperate for an electoral vehicle to win an election because they badly need a seat in parliament to scratch their ‘parliamentary itch’ – as GG Ponnambalam QC memorably described a congenital condition among peninsular candidates. Not that Mr. Wigneswaran could have done much to help unworthy candidates win elections on the pseudo-premise of self-determination, except to help them save face by saving their deposits.

In applauding the Chief Minister’s audience with the Mahanayake, I am not envisaging or speculating about a new trend in Tamil politics. I have no clue about what Mr. Wigneswaran will do tomorrow, the next week, or for the remaining months in his first term as Chief Minister. What we can be certain about is that he would do himself, his reputation and his administration much good if he were to stay the new course that he seems to have started in Kandy. What he has started in Kandy is something that has not been attempted previously by any Tamil leader. There were good reasons and bad reasons why such bridge building and ambassadorship were not attempted earlier. But after a century of fruitless experience, it is never too late to try something that has not been tried before. And the meeting between the Mahanayake Thera and the Chief Minister can certainly be described as an encouraging first step.

A paradox of Sri Lankan society and politics is the incongruence between the intensity of political differences between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims, on the one hand, and the extent of commonalities between their social and cultural spheres, on the other. Unlike in most situations riven by ethnic conflicts, it is not the social and cultural differences that manifest as political conflicts in Sri Lanka, but it is the aggravation of political contentions that has almost always disrupted the social peace and communal harmony. The politics of language and religion, despite the eloquent warnings of both SWRD Bandaranaike and GG Ponnambalam, have created permanent fissures – to paraphrase the latter – in the structures of the state and society.

The evolutions of the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims from caste groups and village communities into ethno-national entities were for the most part in separate and even hostile silos. There was never an overarching process to synthesize and integrate the highest commonalities of the three groups. No one ventured out to discover Sri Lanka the way Jawaharlal Nehru embarked on his Discovery of India. And Nehru was not the only Indian leader to be preoccupied with nation making and nation building tasks. The task in Sri Lanka should have been much simpler and easier but we made heavy weather of it through a lack of mutual appreciation and the absence of synthesizing efforts. The only Sri Lankan political leader who showed some interest in overarching synthesis was Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, whose 164th birth anniversary was this week – on September 14. But even he couldn’t survive the squabble over representation in Colombo, and was apparently “hooted in the streets of Jaffna” when he went there after his disappointment in Colombo.

After a hundred years, representation is still debated in Colombo, and Jaffna would have been much better off if it had stayed with hooting as its mode of politics instead of shooting. The legacies of hundred years are still a dead weight on the country’s future. The Supreme Court ruling in August and the meeting between the Mahanayake and Chief Minister Wigneswaran are small steps leading away from the past to avoid being buried under it. But the country is not short of people who will not let go of the past even when it suffocates them. They are not at all happy with the Supreme Court ruling on federalism and are digging up irrelevant authorities to second guess and spread alarm about a very sound and well-reasoned ruling.

There is some concession in the grudging admission that federalism might be legal, but it is nullified in the next breath by alluding to its supposedly worrisome geopolitical implications. Another delusion is about ethno-federalism, as if the experience of ethno-unitarianism has been a bed of historical roses. There is some truth in what Alexander Pope, the English poet, wrote: “for forms of government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best.” Sri Lanka is a living example of much contestation over the form of government with no consideration for achieving even a second-best administration.

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Gnana Moonesinghe:The Deferential ‘Holy Cow’ Icons in Sri Lanka” Island, 17 September 2017

The cow is a symbol of reverence among Hindus in India. For the one ‘Holy Cow’ revered, idolized and remain hallowed within India, Sri Lankans have over the years gathered several ‘Holy Cows’. Unlike in the Indian concept the ones in Sri Lanka are morally unsustainable but nevertheless each considered more ‘sacred’ than the other, each proved to be a road block to progress and peace. They have however become invincible mounts of ‘sanctity’. The Sri Lankan culture has been plagiarized by these ‘Holy Cows’ and it is therefore necessary to take cognizance of them. Education should be used as a tool to focus on these icons with which to explain the why and the wherefore of their intrusion into the general dialogue and equip the people with information regarding their unethical ‘presence’ and the consequences.

This will help to inject a dose of morality in people’s overview of men and matters. Day to day activity need to be handled with moderation, restraint, and tolerance together with a thirst for accountability from self and others. This will contribute to the sustenance and continuance of the democratic spirit and help politicians and citizens to deal with the ‘Holy Cows’ scenario. A few of the irritants from among the lead icons in the Sri Lankan ‘Holy Cow’ trail are listed below:

  1. The Politician

The reference here is to the politician with or without ideology or principles to back him. He holds the lead position in governance and in society and is visualized as being at the apex of the ‘Holy Cow’ league. He is no longer one among many but the lead player among other minions to be conferred with at all times. The eye of the politician is on power for himself/herself rather than service to others. Even in a Government bound by the Constitution, political parties and accommodating majorities in parliament make it possible to bypass constitutional provisions and conventions and make laws, install systems and organizations that become malleable features backed by rationale suitable to each contravention. The people remain apathetic either out of fear to oppose powerful personalities or are uninformed and therefore remain ‘mute’. Too often ‘democratic’ adaptability morphs into ‘democratic complacency’ which permits politics to be manipulated to work the administration. The system under these conditions sags so much that it was possible for a former president to comment unashamedly that the only thing he could not do was to change a man into a woman or vice versa. The reference here points to the high point of arrogance of power.

  1. The Sangha

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s ideology comprised of the five institutions of the Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru. These five icons formed the pillars of the guiding philosophy in societal relationships. Over time it is only the Sangha that has gained preeminence and longevity. The others gain a degree of importance in garnering votes during elections and tend to recede in significance, post-elections. A majority of political aspirants uphold the approach of the Sangha in matters of governance as the fast track to success. Even if the Sangha were to become controversial in some of their utterances or conduct the supplicants will uphold and advocate their line of thinking. The Sinhala Buddhist society is mired in following religion as practiced within the country – without spiritualism or the deep understanding of the great philosophy. This lends itself to following the practices within the corrupted Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka without the doctrinaire philosophy. No man or woman is born yet who is willing to go against traditional but ‘corrupted’ practices of Buddhism within the country and uphold the pristine philosophy as taught by the Buddha. Having lost its authentic religious base the Sangha has become regretfully a ‘political phenomenon’. An invasive feature the Sangha has acquired is to influence in matters related to state policy. These tendencies have increased the Sangha’s clout among the people and not vice versa much to the concern of the purists among the Buddhists. It must also be highlighted that the instead of exploiting the benign quality of Buddhism, the Sangha is exploited by many among the ambitious for personal advancement. There are but a few who would dare to question the adverse tilt in the religion as practiced by the Sangha and the followers within the country.

  1. Buddhism, the foremost religion in the country

The foremost position of Buddhism was enshrined in the constitution of 1972 and “accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana’. The constitution gives assurance to all other religions of their right to practice their religion freely. Buddhism is a most acceptable philosophy, as is the Master who propounded it. Compassion and tolerance are its two main features. It would therefore seem irreconcilable in a multicultural society to give priority to any one religion. In fact it would be considered poor judgement to place Buddhism in a situation of perceived superiority to other religions in the country. However this has indeed happened and some among the followers have become less tolerant and compassionate towards other religions. Coupled with the Sinhala majority many of whom are Buddhists this line of thinking has given numerical strength for those advocating preeminent position for Buddhism. Consequently, equity status among the citizens is not a reality in practice and this has led to disunity and violence demanding change in the status quo of the present situation. The worst abuse is the active exploitation of the use of Buddhism by individuals to get ahead using it as the passport to electrifying rise in their chosen aspiration.

This appears to be the trend in many of the leading Buddhist countries. In Thailand the Head of the National Buddhism office called for plans to clean up scandal-hit monasteries. He wanted to investigate the financial status of 40,000 temples by opening up their financial activity to the public. The donations received it is claimed amount to billions of dollars every year. The Chief Monk pressured by the religious groups called for the government to sack the Head of the National Buddhism Office. His offence was the request to cleanse the religious organizations of malpractices. The position of the Sangha is invincible and has become one of the ‘Holy Cows’ not to be tampered with.

  1. Power Politics

The “Holy Cow‘ of power politics encroaches on all aspects of societal functions and for all practical purposes has come to stay as accepted strategy for the conduct of governance. The constitution which should be sacrosanct is often diluted in practice and power politics is held up as another ‘Holy Cow’ to politicians wielding political, financial and economic power. Persons wielding power are willing to distort and tamper with any aspect of governance to suit their ambitions. Forces of law and order are tampered with denying equal justice to all, an integral feature of democracy; the bureaucracy has become a collective of flexible persons possible to be bent and shaped as and how the lead personalities in the political system want. The system is riddled with the arrogant mismanagement with regard to appointments, promotions, post-retirement positions (depending on the malleability of the person when in judicial high office). To immunize the system from biased interventions, the 19th Amendment has reintroduced to the constitution the Public Service Commission and the Judicial Service Commission. Whether it will help to prevent biased action is to be seen. What has to be prevented is to curb the opportunities for powerful personalities to draw strength by aligning with religious figures, politicians and the armed forces. The distortions are often effected through bribes with money, loans, and higher office, and other favors.

  1. Financial Power – People of influence have their assets multiplied many times over. More often than not no questions are asked as to the source of their wealth. A 10% commission on all investments and other financial activity has for a long time been an accepted formula for commissions, another polite term for corruption. It is feared that this percentage for commissions has skyrocketed in recent times so much so that it has become a deterrent for investments to come into the country.

The rich can get away with anything as long as they are seen to be opulently wealthy. Corruption is the holy cow which also ties up with financial power, economic power and political influence. In whatever combination they are worked, the consequences affect the poor adversely. When ill-gotten wealth is splashed around as the recognizable hall mark of affluence, society condones. People bow and scrape to the wealthy. Shame as a concept in ethical accounting has all but receded to the background. Everyone is ready to party with the greedy, the wily collector of ill gotten ‘gold’. From religious luminaries to the law makers to citizen Perera all are ready to bow and bend before these ‘holy cows’. In fact in KKS Perera in an article (Daily Mirror, August 30, 2017) quotes a BBC interview with our respected then Foreign Minister, the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar. When the then minister was asked about suspected misappropriation of tsunami relief funds, he acknowledged that there were allegations which had to be investigated but admitted that “wherever there were money and humans, there was corruption.” This approach is ineffective to restrain corruption. What needs to be pointed out is that it is morally wrong to abuse financial trust and that errant persons must be brought to book. No doubt many have raised their voices against such complacency. There can be no doubt that corruption must be reined-in because public resources must be utilized for the public good. Otherwise it would lead to inequity in society leading to divisions and conflict.

  1. The Defence Forces and the Security Phobia

The Defense Forces and the security phobia have also become ‘Holy Cows’. Having rid the country of a violent terrorist movement and successfully restored the security of the nation the forces has been elevated to a pre- eminent position as well as to be inured with impunity. Even to raise questions of inquiry into alleged atrocities by some members of the military, not the entire force mind you, is still considered irreverent to the forces who had given the country security and peace. No one wants to understand that when anyone from the forces is accused, it applies only to the few and not to the entirety of the forces. The public has been made to think of the forces as being above the law and the very act of vanquishing the terrorists has given them immunity from the normal laws of the country.

It is important that at least some of the individuals outside this network of ‘Holy Cows’ and their hunger for power express their thinking to make a difference between right and wrong. Right choices made by the people and the politicians form the essence of democracy, of leadership. This is what will make democracy safe and functioning for the country. The ‘Holy Cows’ must be shown up as unholy and detrimental to the people’s welfare. They must be shorn of their present sanctity and shown up when their acts are seen as unethical. There is a sense of natural justice in our people and we must encourage the free play of this instinct.

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 Jolly Somasundram:  Sil Redda: A Shakespearean Moral Moonscape for Senior SLAS Officers,” Island, September 16, 2017, 

       “I have done some service to the State”.- Shakespeare: Othello

The Sept. 10 editorial in the Sunday Island titled “Lalith Weeratunga” is timely, reflective and balanced. It ironises on the predicament faced by an honest and efficient SLAS Officer Lalith Weeratunga, the former Secretary of President Rajapaksa, (a Secretary to the President is the number one public servant of Sri Lanka). The predicament was caused by a land mark judicial decision: Lalith was sentenced to three years rigorous imprisonment, fined significant sums by the Colombo High Court Judge. He was walked handcuffed to the Black Maria on his way to prison. Lalith was dealt with not for corruption but for carrying out a Presidential suggestion, to divert state funds to finance the President’s election bid.

His implementation of this illegal suggestion, violating sacred election laws, was a body blow to Democracy and a moral horror. The Nuremburg principles laid down that an illegal directive cannot be implemented. No claim could be justified on the basis that that an illegal directive was made by a superior authority. As far as known, the sentencing of Lalith is the first instance in independent Sri Lanka, where an official had been judicially indicted for misdiversion of state funds, to help an election contest to boot.

Watch dog organisations went berserk with delight at the sentencing, claiming credit for the schadenfreude. Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon, head of The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE,) preening with rock star allure, was euphoric. He expressed a groanworthy “heartfelt thank you” to Election Monitors, PAFFREL, CMEV, and TI, Ravi Waidyalankara, Thusith Mudalige(Anti-Corruption Secretariat), and Wasantha Samarasinghe of the JVP and others for continuously “pushing for justice”. Lilliputians, who would never have made it to the SLAS, brought down a giant and tied him head and foot within prison. The Sunday Island of September 10 had another view of Lalith. The same editorial went further, “Few, if any, would have taken pleasure at the High Court conviction of Lalith Weeratunge” it said.

Lalith was an enabler not a beneficiary, a catalyst who facilitated a relationship but was not himself changed by it. By his actions Lalith upheld another sacred principle of representative Democracy – that an official will never blame his Minister for a decision he carried out at the Minister’s behest. Whistle blowing is not part of Democracy’s vocabulary. At the sentencing, the political direction giver and beneficiary of Lalith’s implementation, was nowhere to be seen. It was the unkindest absence of all. In the Black Maria ride to prison, did Lalith reflect, like Cardinal Wolsely placed in a similar predicament, “had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my King, He would not have in my age (and dire diabetic condition) left me naked before my enemies”?

Lalith, a Shakespearan tragedy, is a classic fall guy, one who took it on the chin like a true SLAS officer, while beneficiaries of his largesse disowned him. In public management, the minister and Secretary are in an administrative husband and wife relationship. There is policy and information give and take which is privy to them, not recorded and, indeed, not recordable. Those who emphasise that all controversial directions made by the Minister should recorded are not living in the world of public administration. As much as in a spousal relationship, where the partners are legally prohibited from giving evidence against each other, there is an urgent need to impose a similar prohibition between the two top political and administrative players.

I was an Additional Secretary (Policy) in the Ministry of Public Administration (1990) working under both Minister Festus Perera and Deputy Minister John Amaratunge. The newly created policy division was given responsibility for implementing the 10 1/2 reports of the Wanasinghe recommendations on administrative reform. It was at this ministry that I first met Lalith, on his being appointed my senior assistant secretary. What an exceptional public official he turned out to be! Administrative reform was implemented with the guidance of PNM (Lumpi) Fernando, an honest but hard taskmaster, an iconic public servant and a cerebral public administration thinker. Those who worked – and survived – under Lumpi- were the best of the best.

Remembering events which had taken place over quarter century ago, the policy division tried, among others to whittle down the bloated public service by offering accelerated early retirement (circular 44/90). It introduced provincial and district recruitment which would reflect the ethnic proportions of these areas, a by-product being better ethnic reconciliation (circular 15/90). But the most triumphant change lay in introducing recruitment to public service posts, solely by examination, thus precluding appointment by politicians. This daunting change required hectic bargaining with hesitant decision makers: many were the hours that the policy division spent in Parliament, persuading reluctant politicians – of all stripes – to forego their dearly held power to recruit public servants, some female appointments being made in resthouses!

I left the ministry two years later to join the SLIDA, leaving Lalith with Lumpi in the ministry. Since SLIDA was a part of the ministry, it could be justifiably claimed that Festus Perera’s period (1990- 1995) was the best period Sri Lanka ever enjoyed in public administration and no wonder, the ministry having officers like Lumpi and Lalith serving it. The ministry of public administration was created in 1972 with high expectations of it becoming the public service personnel department. Considerable progress was made in going towards this goal during Festus Perera’s period.

Lalith enjoyed rapid upward mobility under both political parties, holding prestigious posts, climaxing his career as Secretary to the President. In his career, there were no allegations of financial impropriety nor that he personally benefited from financial malfeasance. The press is not known to be effusive about public servants but about Lalith, the Sunday Island wrote that in the same editorial, “Lalith,a senior public servant known both for his efficiency and self-effacing ways, never threw his weight around, was courteous to all with whom he dealt with and was obviously loyal to his boss“.

Much of the misunderstanding of public administration arises from its dual source of power. Politicians (elected public servants) are responsible to their electorates to which they have recourse, to renew their mandates. Public administrators (selected public servants) were to carry out their responsibilities being constitutionally mandated to work, “under the direction and control of the Minister”. The befuddlement of public servants is due to the existential despair of being unable to reconcile one with the other, thus being compelled to compromise. Like Shylock said of the Jews, this was the badge of public administration life. Each public servant would understand a paraphrased Hamlet soliloquy,

“To succumb or not to succumb, that is the question.

Whether, it is nobler in the SLAS, to face and suffer

A quiver full of slings and arrows, shot by politicians,

Accompanying a threat of an immediate despatch to the ‘Pool’,

Or, take arms against this sea of politician induced troubles,

And, by opposing, end them, or end oneself”.

NGO’s, celebrating Lalith’s downfall as justice rendered, do not recognise that the empowered ones who gave the order are still roaming free, while those who implemented the order, have been incarcerated.

The decision to sentence Lalith and determine the extent of his punishment was a judicial decision, taken after assaying the evidence and the laws which were breached. But Shakespeare also spoke of mercy.

“The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed,

It blesses him that gives and him that takes:

It is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The throned Monarch better than the crown.

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty.

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of Kings;

But mercy is above this sceptered sway.

It is enthroned in the hearts of Kings.

It is an attribute to God himself.

And earthly power doth show like its God’s,

When mercy sensors justice”.

Granted the enormous contribution made to the State, Lalith, surely deserves mercy. But before mercy is extended, Lalith should exhibit genuine contrition and remorse for his actions in debauching Democracy. Evidence of remorse should include a full and unreserved public apology to the People. If Shakespeare had been living, using the raw material of this episode, he would have written a cracking play on public administration, which could even have surpassed his masterpiece, Coriolanus.

Jolly Somasundram was a member of the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS)


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