| by Rajiva Wijesinha
( April 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I was quite saddened by some of the responses to my article entitled ‘Letting down the President’, which recorded instances in which I thought the President’s instructions had been completely ignored, to the detriment of the country. I had been prepared for those who believe this government is appalling to claim either that I was being hypocritical, or else that I was naïve to have thought that progress towards pluralism was possible. But what upset me was the view of someone who I believe appreciates what this government has done, who suggested that the body tasked to work out an Action Plan for implementation of the LLRC Report had perhaps ‘been warned not to go ahead with the meetings’. The response went on to claim that ‘the LLRC was an opportunist ploy so as to meet the widespread criticisms’.
When I asked for evidence for this view however I got none, except for the suggestion that I did not really understand politics, and in particular what was described as Palace Politics. That is possible, though sometimes I feel the study of literature is a better preparation for politics than more obviously relevant subjects, because it is personalities that govern politics and particularly so in Sri Lanka (which, in this respect as in others I studied for my doctorate, is more like Victorian England than most Western societies are now). Indeed recent events concerning the abduction of the mysterious Mr Mudalige make me wonder whether my comments on the dysfunctionality of government did not err on the side of caution.
But, to get back to the President’s instructions and expectations, I believe the evidence suggests that he is the victim, rather than the fountainhead, of a wholly impractical system. In a Presidential system, and increasingly so now even in Westminster style systems, the Head of Government must have functionaries who ensure by working behind the scenes that the policies he has spelled out are implemented. That used to be the function of the President’s Secretary, but unfortunately the present incumbent has been snowed under with an excess of work that has prevented him from carrying out his primary function. As can be seen from his presence on political platforms as well as television chat shows, he is expected to do much more than his predecessors, and in the field of politics as well as administration.
Of course it would not be fair to compare Lalith Weeratunge to Presidential Secretaries such as Mr Manikdiwela and Mr Balapatabendi who were personal assistants elevated to what should be one of the most important functional positions in the land. But the most distinguished of his predecessors, Mr Wijeyedasa, also a skilled Civil Servant, never appeared in public, and performed his duties to the entire satisfaction of the President.
But there are other reasons too for the slowness with which the Presidential Secretariat operates, and its incapacity to ensure fulfillment of the special mandates the President has given out, as with the various committees I mentioned, ie to report on the first American report on possible War Crimes, to implement the interim recommendations of the LLRC, and to prepare a road map for the final LLRC recommendations. One is that timelines are not taken seriously, and the President is not made aware by those who should advise him of expectations that must be fulfilled if further problems are not to arise. Second is the assumption of some of those appointed to such committees that their primary allegiance is not to the President, but rather to what are perceived as other power centres in the government. This is where the Secretariat must make clear the primacy of the President’s authority in decision making but, if the Secretariat too has got involved in politics, then such absolute commitment to the Presidency is difficult to sustain.
Finally, there is the continuing assumption that all decisions must be made at the top, which when combined with the excess of responsibilities that have accrued to the President means that nothing moves for ages. I did wonder whether this was in part because the caliber of younger officials is not as high as it should be, but I was told that the tendency to hold onto everything is endemic now – and indeed this perhaps explains why youngsters cannot develop quickly, as they used to do in the good old days of the Civil Service, when relative autonomy led to the swift emergence of capable decision makers.
These factors have led to at least 12 examples where I have been concerned where clear Presidential directives were delayed or ignored. In some cases, after a few reminders, the desired action was taken, but obviously I cannot go and stand in the Secretariat for hours to achieve this, as I have been advised to do. The result is continuing delays with regard to Reconciliation initiatives and implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan, which will of course lead to continuing problems for Sri Lanka.
But even more serious are the delays I am aware of in areas with which I have not been directly concerned. The most obvious in the current context is the failure to develop a Road Map for the LLRC, a task given out by the President many months ago. There has been no sense of urgency about this, but I believe the President was not informed, for he himself suggested using the material that was ready in Geneva. He was dissuaded, entirely because there is nothing worth talking about ready as yet, but this has not actually been told him, and even I found some sleight of hand about what was going on when I inquired.
Earlier there was the appalling delay in responding to the initial American report. In that case I know that one of the younger lawyers who had been appointed to the Committee was himself upset that it had not met – I remember the date on which he told me this, since it was at the Carol Party at Temple Trees in 2009 – but why the matter was not pursued I cannot understand. It could be argued that our culture does not permit of haste, and that perhaps is why I was described as a bloody nuisance when I was appointed to convene the Task Force on the Human Rights Action Plan, but surely those who are directly responsible to the President must realize the gravity of any delays with regard to their mandates.
I continue then to believe that the President is the victim of these delays, rather than the cause. But I suppose I must grant to my critic that, if there is no effort even now to ensure structural changes, then one will have to grant, as Harry Truman noted, that the buck stops at the top.