by Savitri Goonesekere
(Speech delivered at the launch of Nihal Seneviratne’s Memories of 33 years in Parliament)
We meet this evening at the launch of a book which is the autobiography of a distinguished public servant, Mr. Nihal Seneviratne. The Sinhala translation of “public servant” is “rajaye niladhari,” or “government servant.” In this book, “Memories of 33 Years in Parliament,” Mr. Seneviratne records and shares his experience as HOLDER of high public OFFICE in our Parliament for over three decades, rather than as a “rajaye niladahari” or SERVANT of different GOVERNMENTS. So Nihal Seneviratne’s autobiography tells us that he was a “PUBLIC SERVANT,” working in an important public institution, that is one of the key pillars of governance in our country.
This is important to note, because today, government politicians elected to office by the People claim to be “in power,” and public servants in general believe that they are dis-empowered servants of politicians. This encourages politicians to abuse power and reject their responsibilities to the People when holding office. Officials then become the scapegoats for poor governance, even when politicians have abused their office, and are responsible under the law and Constitution for poor governance. This is one of the many factors that has contributed to the greatest economic and political crisis of our post-independence history. Our public institutions in governance, derived from fundamental and core values on Parliamentary Democracy, are being challenged as never before, in island wide, peaceful, street protests.
Dr Pethiyagoda in his presentation this evening has shared his perspective on these street protests. He is a distinguished scientist. I am a lawyer. I tend to see these protests very differently. They are, I think, a strident and articulate voice, reflecting disenchantment with both institutions of governance, and people who hold high public office. A collective voice of citizens, across race, religion, and class, many of them a new generation of young people, are demanding systemic and institutional changes in governance.
They want government that does not legitimize abuse of power, corruption, fiscal profligacy, and mismanagement, but is accountable to the People who placed them in high office. They are protesting the proven failures in governance of recent, especially post war decades. They are demanding profound changes to address this reality, that has been ignored by us all, for too long.
This is no time to follow the usual practice of resting on our past laurels and referring to Sri Lanka as the pride of South Asia, for its indicators in areas like access to health and education. I do agree with Dr Pethiyagoda that our experiment with democratic governance in 74 years has not always been a failure. Nihal Seneviratne’s book, launched this evening, brings to us a voice from a different past. Yet it also challenges us to recognize and address the current realities of our country, and the decline in democratic governance. Nihal Seneviratne’s book is not just an interesting personal biography. His record of memories of 33 years of work in parliament has I think, historical and practical relevance for us, in these dark times.
The book provides important reflections on how Parliament can, and should, conduct its business, as a functional rather than a dysfunctional institution, striving to deliver on the responsibilities of good governance. The author’s work also highlights a simple truth that we often ignore- that there were, there can be, and there will be Sri Lankans who hold public office with personal integrity, dignity, and commitment to fulfill the responsibilities of high office, that we as Citizens and tax payers have placed upon them. Their contribution is an indisputable aspect of governance that fulfills the need for “Yahapalanaya,” that is accountable to the People.
On a personal note, I discovered from the pages of this book that I have been right to follow in the author’s mother’s footsteps, calling him Nihal. We all know that even when he held high office he carried that other name of baptism at Royal College., which linked so neatly and happily to Srima’s famous entrepreneur family. Srima is a friend from my salad days, and Nihal a former student and friend of my husband, Senior Attorney RKW Goonesekere. We were the first generation of the Kannangara “nidhahas adyapana labee.” We experienced the luxury of what Nihal describes in this book as “carefree and fulfilling years” in a stunningly beautiful campus, in an internationally renowned University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.
That residential learning environment helped us forge bonds of friendship of a lifetime, across race, religion, social class, disciplines, and age, an invaluable legacy in our diverse and plural society. Nihal’s moorings and values, a love of books and the liberal arts, mentioned in the pages of this work, gave him something more than the “soft skills” touted today, as an add on for good management, in our hyper technology focused work environment . The book captures the tact and courtesy used in handling tough politicians, and the collegiate environment Nihal tried to create in interaction with both his superiors and subordinates.
It is clear that this impacted to resolve conflicts, and created a team spirit for work within the Secretariat. The Peradeniya environment also nurtured and created a culture, linking professional and personal relationships. This saw Nihal drop in casually at our home for a conversation with his guru- my husband. And the conversation flowed easily from an erudite discussion of Standing Orders of Parliament in a controversial impeachment, to happenings in the “Loyal to Royal” boy’s club, and Peradeniya University’s Arunachalam Hall.
Nihal records in this book a comment by President JR Jayewardene when Parliament moved to its new home in Kotte. Parliament was, he said, to be a “temple of democracy where members have a responsibility to conduct themselves for the welfare of the many, including generations yet to come.” How ironical that this is exactly what citizens, including the millenial generation, are demanding today, from Members of Parliament, as their guaranteed rights. Yet Parliament, near the beautiful environment of the Diyawanna Oya, is now associated in the public mind with raucous, adversarial, senseless and rambling arguments. Rarely do we witness intelligent informed discussion and debate, on issues of urgent public concern.
Sometimes we are fortunate to have Members of Parliament like Mr Eran Wickremeratne, present with us this evening, who break the mold, and fulfill their responsibilities to us citizens, in debates on the floor of the House. Mr Karu Jayasuriya, who is also with us, responded as Speaker with wisdom, courage and dignity to the shameful incidents in Parliament during the Constitutional crisis of 2018. Nihal Seneviratne’s book records another reality, where Parliament functioned very differently. It provides us with insights on lost Parliamentary procedures and practices, and will hopefully encourage change, but with an appreciation of the need to revive positive past traditions.
I am sure that readers will appreciate the “insider” information Nihal provides on some critically important and historical events, so relevant for today. He writes of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s loss and re-acquisition of civic rights, a No Confidence Motion won by one vote, that led to the fall of her government. He writes on a failed assassination attempt, a failed impeachment motion against a President, and conflict between Parliament and senior journalists, called to account for their alleged breach of Parliamentary privilege.
Nihal provides insights on how the Speaker, he and his staff responded, focusing constantly on understanding and implementing Parliament’s rules and procedures, so as to give clarity and coherence to decision making. Being faulted for not doing so, and being called to account, was considered part of the responsibilities of office, and adherence to a system put in place, to ensure respect for the Rule of Law. Some of the events described were connected to litigation in the Supreme Court. My husband appeared for Lalith Athulathmudali in the case in which he challenged expulsion from his party, and loss of his seat in Parliament. We know how jurisprudence in the courts has shaped the response to the now infamous cross overs by Parliamentarians.
The book has profiles of public figures, perhaps lost to a new generation. They are chosen selectively, in recording memories of Nihal’s personal interaction with them. Some of the “greats” featured are from what an older generation we knew as the “old left,” that inspired in particular young citizens. These persons were very different from those parliamentarians of the “pseudo old left” of later decades. Nihal profiles briefly NM Perera Covin R de Silva, Dr. SA Wickremesnghe and Sarath Muttetuwegama. Also some politicians of the liberal right– Lalith Athulathmudali. Mangala Moonesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Shelton Ranaraja. The wit and intellectual sharpness outside and on the floor of the House, reminds us that our Parliament was indeed a very different place.
So Nihal, thank you for overcoming your usual modesty and for being “reluctantly persuaded ” to record your experiences in three decades of a working life, within one of the most important public institutions of our country. Our Constitution concludes its text with a much loved Buddhist stanza in Pali. I sometimes wonder whether our Parliamentarians have read, understood, and reflected upon its content, though it is frequently recited at ceremonial events they attend.
“Devo vassathu kalena
(May the rains fall in season)
sassa sampatti hothu ca
(May there be a good harvest)
Phito bhavatu loco ca
(May there be well being for all the People of the world)
Raja bhavatu dhammiko
” (May the Ruler be righteous)
This is surely as succinct a statement, of what we as citizens are entitled to claim from politicians, and those like you, Nihal who held high public office, to help achieve governance that is accountable to the People. You have recognized, in the pages of this book, that you were not given “power,” but “placed in a high “office, that brought with it duties and responsibilities . Let us hope that we can all learn from past experiences, recognize the failures of governance in this country, and introduce essential modifications and changes to rebuild our nation, from the abyss that has impacted all our lives.
If we can face that challenge, this Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Serendib, Paradise Isle, described as “a Land without Sorrow ” in antiquity, our Sri Lanka, will become a country that delivers on the promise of accountable governance, for the well -being of all our People. Perhaps we should recall at this time the words of SWRD Bandaranaike at the ceremonial opening of our first Parliament in 1948. He said:
“No People can live on memories alone. It is equally true that history often provides a source of both strength and inspiration to guide them in the future. It is only against the background of the past that the present and the future can be viewed in their correct perspective.”
Memories of 33 years in public service, in an important public institution, Parliament, like those Nihal Seneviratne has shared with us, can be a resource for analysis of current realities. It can also help us I think to “chart a new path, and leave a trail.”