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Making barons out of robbers – issues of good governance


“If you remember, when you came into power you said, about opening up the economy, that you saw no harm in letting the robber barons come. Now you are trying to make barons out of robbers.”

Two days ago, Sam Wijesinha, former Secretary-General of Parliament, had reportedly given a talk at the Open University of Sri Lanka on the subject of good governance. In his own inimitable style, he had made many anecdotal references to issues of governance in the past. Understandably, he was careful not to refer to the present. The above quote is also from him, but it was stated not at the Open University lecture but in a conversation he had with a journalist many years ago. Wijesinha had made that remark to the then President J R Jayewardene over some other issue. We quote that remark because of its relevance to our present time.

In an essay he wrote in the nineteen eighties on parliamentary government in Sri Lanka and which he later published in a collection, Sam Wijesinha quoted Paul Johnson, the British conservative journalist and writer: ‘The former colonies became the prey for the great human scourge of the 20th century – the professional politician. If decolonisation possessed an ethical principle, it was that political forms were ultimate standards of value and the true criteria of statehood. Every adult, even if he or she is an illiterate living in a remote village, is capable of holding an opinion about the future of the society to which they belong.’ Wijesinha adds that people do not put a government in power but in office. It is the electorate that should be thought of as the repository of parliamentary government in Sri Lanka. It is the electorate that should be nursed, nurtured, developed and trusted. It is the electorate that should be at the helm of our destiny. He warned that people’s revolutions are born from the course of events and are not artificially created. It is the fundamental duty of the professional politician to guide the course of events and the future of society so as to preclude the need for violent change. His vision has to extend beyond the confines of his electorate and beyond the shell of parliament to explore fresh methods of political decision-making at local, regional and national levels. He has to learn that political thinking does not consist of deciding on the conclusion first and then finding good arguments afterwards.

Wijesinha’s reflections in his essay are a fine definition of the principles underlying good governance. They are also reflected in a report put out some years ago by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). The report stated that good governance should embody processes that are ‘participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and (which follow) the rule of law.’ The report went on to state that good governance ‘assures that corruption is minimised, the views of minorities are taken into account, and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.’

Issues of governance in Sri Lanka

There are today several people’s revolts taking place in many countries of Africa and Middle East. Some like in Tunisia and Egypt have already toppled governments and some like in Yemen are on the verge of toppling others. Asia has has also seen successful people’s revolts as in Philippines. In Sri Lanka today, it is necessary for the political leaders and their advisors to adopt the processes of good governance if we are to prevent the need for violence. They need to ensure a more participatory form of governance, seeking consensus where the voices of the most vulnerable and the most affected in society are heard in decision-making. As Wijesinha said, they must avoid, deciding on the conclusion first and finding arguments for it later.

This is what happened with the building in the Negombo Lagoon of a platform for the landing of sea-planes for the benefit of tourists. This is what is happening now with the eviction of the urban poor from their homes in Slave Island and Kollupitiya. The vulnerable in society need to have their voices heard and their concerns treated with respect. Shangri-las, casino bars and comfort lodges a la Madame Jeena may be considered necessary to bring in the tourist and foreign exchange, even if some of the promoters are robber barons. But let us not make barons out of robbers.

The Hambantota Port

Transparency is another key element in good governance. People, particularly those affected by any decision, have a right to be kept informed of the thinking and reasoning behind decisions. Hambantota, the home district of President Rajapaksa, has seen the establishment of an international sports stadium and an international sea port. There are also plans to establish an international airport. Here again, as Wijesinha pointed out, the President’s vision has to extend beyond his narrow home base. The decision to embark on these three massive projects should have been preceded by a feasibility study of the best location for each of them, given certain criteria at a national level. That would have been the only way to ensure that what was paramount was the national interest. .

These concerns also now arise as a result of reports that Lloyds Underwriters have been unwilling to provide marine insurance cover for ships calling at the Hambantota Port. It is claimed that the concerns of underwriters are about the depth of the harbour, the strength of the breakwater to withstand strong waves and the rock formations at the entrance to the harbour. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority has issued a statement rejecting ‘misleading reports’ and assuming full responsibility for the safety of the Port for the purposes for which it was built and for safeguarding the reputation of the Port and the national interest. But sadly the statement does not address the specific concerns raised in the ‘misleading reports’. Their report cites thousands having witnessed ships entering the Port in November at the time of the opening. The ships (Sri Lankan naval/merchant vessels?) entering the Port in November does little to re-assure a sceptical public. It may be that the Port is still not fully operational and further dredging is required to increase the depth of the Port and further civil engineering work is required. If so, the Ports Authority needs to come clean, to be more transparent, and let the public know the real situation and what steps have been or are being taken to ensure the safety of the Port. The public will understand if the opening was pre-mature and was done for political reasons. That is the way of politicians. But this is a national venture and the public need to be re-assured that any concerns raised in the original feasibility study and any concerns being raised now are being handled with professionalism.

It is reported that the Kirinda Fisheries Harbour has not been successful because its location was not selected for professional reasons. Only time will tell about the success of having sited the sea port and the sports stadium, both built at a huge cost, at Hambantota. We trust that the location of the new international airport will even at this late stage receive professional re-evaluation. The site has already been changed once and, from a long term point of view, it is better to write-off the amount already spent rather than continue spending a colossal amount on an unsuitable location. Statesmanship requires a vision not only extending beyond a parochial mindset but also a willingness change course when required.

The Rule of Law

On another aspect of good governance, a group of concerned citizens recently addressed the question of the recent appointments to the Human Rights Commission. The question of the suitability of the appointments raises the broader issue of having the appointments vetted by a Constitutional Council as under the 17th amendment. There are uncomplimentary stories about one of the appointees engaging in unprofessional practices. But the issue of the appointment of a former Inspector General of Police, even with his impressive professional record as a policeman, is a valid concern, even despite the spirited defence of his appointment by another former IGP. He would have been suitable for another Commission but not for a Human Rights Commission. There are many complaints that a citizen, particularly the poor in rural areas, does not receive the justice that is their due at Police Stations. In fact, the Asian Human Rights Commission reports violations by the Police almost on a daily basis – often the arrest and torture of innocent persons by the Police at the behest of politicians or the powerful in the village. The poor victim gets nowhere with complaints unless they are taken up by an independent body. Justice must not only be done and but also seen to be done. That is why it is best to avoid former Police officers to serve in the Human Rights Commission. They have served well in the past in bodies like the Bribery Commission where their expertise and professionalism has been useful
Sri Lanka Gaurdian

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