24 January 2021

Government by, with and for the people or the UNHRC?

 


Last week we wrote that it's time for the Geneva Circus and that it would come with molehills and mountains. Well, now we have it all in a single document. The report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka is now in the public domain. A dismissing observation frequently used by high school debaters in another era is apt: ‘It reminds one of a Texan bull — a point here, a point here and, yes, a lot of bull between.’

As expected the report waxes eloquent over Resolution 30/1, one which the then Government in its wisdom (read ‘a combination of arrogance, ignorance and pernicious intent’) co-sponsored and from which this government duly withdrew. That co-sponsorship was severely criticized by the then opposition and it is reasonable to assume that the defeat of the Yahapalana Government had a lot to do with that intemperate move. It is not surprising that apart from the aghast of the likes of Mangala Samaraweera and the pro-resolution NGO adjuncts of that government, the decision to withdraw was barely even commented upon in Sri Lanka. Had to be done, was done. That was the message.

The UNHRC report then talks of ‘emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability and human rights’. Flag that word ‘emerging.’ We’ll get back to it presently. The implementation of Resolution 30/1 is commented on. Conclusions and recommendations are offered.

Here are the ‘threats’: a) militarization of civilian government functions, b) Reversal of Constitutional safeguards, c) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations, d) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric, e) surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, f) new and exacerbated human rights concerns.

Appointment of ex-military officers as heads of certain state institutions doesn’t constitute ‘militarization.’ They are, for all intents and purposes, civilians and have the same legitimacy as, say, some NGO backer of a particular government being appointed to head, say, the State Pharmaceutical Corporation. However, the extensive role of the security forces in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic can certainly be construed as ‘militarization.’ The report divests comment of context. If Sri Lanka has had any success in managing the pandemic, it is on account of two factors: a strong health infrastructure dominated by state agencies and the absolute commitment at great risk of security forces in tracking and tracing operations over and above the daily grind of ensuring that basic safety protocols are maintained.

It reminds one of the hue and cry over the relief centers set up in anticipation of the end of the conflict and gradually downsized as per lessening requirements following resettlement of the displaced. ‘Concentration camps!’ screamed the objectors, who, not surprisingly are still to go-to people for information when reports such as this are compiled and who, again unsurprisingly, were ardent backers of the Yahapalana government whose ‘performance,’ again unsurprisingly, is (mildly) applauded in the report. Just imagine a bunch of NGOs handling that unprecedented situation where hundreds of thousands of civilians previously held hostage by the LTTE had to be fed, clothed, housed and most importantly connected with families torn apart as the LTTE corralled and moved them to maintain its ‘human shield’. Just imagine a single ministry or department handling the same. It would have been a disaster.

The High Commissioner is ‘particularly troubled’ by the appointment of Lt Gen Shavendra Silva as Army Commander and Maj Gen (rtd) Kamal Gunaratne as Secretary, Ministry of Defence, because ‘it is ALLEGED (note the word) that they are implicated in ALLEGED (that word again) war crimes and crimes against humanity.’ Governments cannot punish anyone by denying seniority-driven promotions on account of allegations, and certainly not those submitted by individuals and organizations with dubious agenda based on statements/claims that are unsubstantiated. That’s with respect to the Army Commander. As for Gunaratne, he is, as pointed out above, a civilian and the objections on account of allegations are of no worth for the very same reasons mentioned with respect to Silva’s appointment.

Constitutional safeguards. The reference is to the 20th Amendment and talks of ‘democratic gains of the 19th Amendment’. The key ‘issue’ for Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner, is ‘[the erosion] of the independence of key commissions and institutions on account of procedures to select, appoint and dismiss. The 19th, she says made for a constitutional council of ‘eminent persons’. The CC was severely tinted in favor of politicians. Their eminence, we don’t have to talk about. As for ‘civil society representatives’ they were all political addicts of the then government. They rubber stamped the will (whims and fancies, really) of the then Prime Minister. The 20th has a Parliamentary Council. All politicians. As eminent or otherwise as those in the CC. And look what they’ve done! They approved the promotion of the six most senior judges of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court! How appalling, eh? Then they approved the top most senior judges of lower courts plus a highly respected senior lawyer plus a person from the AG’s Department to fill vacancies in the Appellate Court. Appalling, that!

To be fair, not all appointment to the various commissions followed the same logic. Partisanship has been a factor. However, nothing in these appointments are ‘worse’ than those we saw during the yahapalanaya years; those appointments didn’t provoke as much as a murmur from the bosses of the UNHRC at the time. Telling!

As for ‘democratic space,’ the government has not held the long-postponed provincial council elections. True, they are white elephants. True they are the outcome of the most pernicious piece of post-independence legislation (the 13th Amendment). It’s part of the constitution though. Hold them or amend the constitution, that’s what is logical. Apart from this, it is silly to say that democratic space has shrunk. Elections were held just a few months ago. No complaints of any wrongdoing there. NGO activists can claim to be scared to speak. Claim. It is useful to say ‘scared’.

The report talks about political victimization. Now there are two sides to this coin. The gripe is about cases filed during the previous regime being withdrawn. Fair enough. However, the UNHRC has not bothered to consider the possibility that there were thousands who were hauled before the FCID during that period, many put behind bars etc., but no one found guilty. Whether this is due to some back-house deal among politicians or simply lack of evidence, we don’t know. However, it is no secret that the FCID was run by a few pro-UNP lawyers who used the mechanism to harass one and all who they imagined were Rajapaksa loyalists. If indeed THAT was victimization, offering relief is certainly not out of order. The report makes much of the Shani Abeysekera case, forgetting that he was in the thick of things in the vandetta circus of the previous regime.

The report takes issue with the ‘Commission on Victimization’. The High Commissioner alleges, ‘The Commission has also interfered in other criminal trials, including by withholding documentary evidence, threatening prosecutors with legal action, and running parallel and contradictory examinations of individuals already appearing before trial courts.’ It’s up to the Commission to respond to these charges, which are certainly serious.

Then it talks of ‘majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric’. First off, we’ve had a nauseating load of ‘minoritarianism’ and minoritarian-driven ‘exclusionary rhetoric’. Secondly, the allegations are nothing more that perceptions and demonstrate a woeful lack of appreciation of history, heritage and most importantly demographic realities.

For example, the report says, ‘In June 2020, a Presidential Task Force was established on the sensitive issue of Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, consisting almost entirely of Sinhalese members, including two Buddhist priests, despite the diverse population and heritage of the region.’ Here’s the truth. The vast majority of archeological sites in the island that are ‘Buddhist’ in character so happen to be in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The vandalism of the same at the hands of the LTTE is very well documented. The Government could have included Muslim and Tamil historians and/or archaeologists in this Task Force, true, but the UNHRC statement seems to confuse the past and present. This is archaeology. Period.  


As one might expect, the issue of disposing the bodies of the Covid-19 dead has been mentioned. This is a contentious issue with respect to which the Government has not covered itself in glory. However, the politicization of the issue has not been the preserve of the government or the majority community. Not a single all-Muslim community has come forward to say ‘bury them here, right here in our village!’ That ‘lack’ indicates how politicized the issue is, over and above the constant shifting of goal-posts regarding this issue by Muslim representatives (first it was ‘our religious right’ and when that was sought to be affirmed by arranging burial in the Maldives it was ‘we want to be buried in our motherland; now God’s Kingdom now and now Motherland!). Anyway, the UNHRC alleges ‘impact on religious freedom’ and talks of the Covid-19 pandemic ‘exacerbating the prevailing marginalization and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community’.

Marginalized? In what way? Discrimination? In what way? Has Bachelet been advised on privileges enjoyed by the Muslims that are denied to other religious communities? Has the UNHRC talked of the privileges embedded in Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and of course the rank sexism in that community affirmed by the same? Is the marginalization and discrimination of ‘Muslims women’ not an issue for the UNHRC?

The section on surveillance and intimidation of civil society is laughable. Are these actors, with sad and even corrupt histories, above the law? Can they not be questioned or investigated? In any event, all we have with respect to this ‘issue’ are (we assume for lack of any other evidence), complaints. The complainants, as is well known, need to paint a picture of woe to remain relevant (and their organizations to remain financially viable). What’s wrong in checking on funding sources in a world where international organizations are used as cat’s paws by certain countries to destabilize others, especially when the governments in power are not ‘friendly’. This government is certainly not malleable. The previous one was not just malleable but seemed to consider genuflection an article of faith!

The section on Hejaaz Hizbullah is not without merit. There were technical errors committed in the arrest. He’s under a detention order. The UNHRC is upset that he might go for 10 months without being charged. It is indeed revealing of the true political will of the UNHRC that it found no compulsion to comment on the case of Pilleyan (who went 5 years (!) without being charged!).

‘Mysterious deaths under custody’ is an issue. It is a long-standing issue. The 2015-2019 period saw many such cases. UNHRC noted some of these cases but didn’t make a song and dance about it. Molehills were left as molehills. However, such ‘incidents’ are scar the government. It’s something the Government does not need.

It is then a report that is full of exaggeration and in a sense a regurgitated whine over Resolution 30/1. It is a report that is built on a long history of falsehood and exaggeration furnished almost exclusive by actors who are certainly not dispassionate nor apolitical but rather had heavily invested in certain outcomes that have nothing to do with human rights or democracy. It is, nevertheless, an official report which charges the government among other things of not responding to queries submitted to it. The Foreign Ministry needs to respond comprehensively.


On the face of it, one might say that this report is just one of the many things that came up this week, but considering the history of such documents and the possible impact, it does warrant extensive response. For example, while the UNHRC report tutors the government on do’s and don’ts, it calls upon the Human Rights Council and member states to do much more than knuckle-rapping.

It wants the Council and member states to explore possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged (cute term, that!) perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses (yes, guilty until proven innocent, over and above the fact that allegations have been submitted by individuals and organization that have pernicious agenda, the fact that substantiation is weak and reliability of witnesses worth little more than toilet wash). They want to stringent vetting procedures applied to Sri Lankan police and military personnel identified for military exchanges and training programs. Based on allegations, yes.

But here’s something cuter. The Council and member states are urged to ‘prioritize support to civil society initiatives and efforts too reparation and victims’ assistance and priories victims and their families for assistance in their bilateral humanitarian, development and scholarship programs.’ Rewards for those who follow the scrip? The UNHRC could but will not revisit the term ‘civil society’ with respect to Sri Lanka.

This won’t change a thing in Geneva. There will be censure, notwithstanding any decision taken by this government. Maybe that’s it and nothing more. The Government has its work cut out. Response is required. Not that it will change things, for that’s not how the ‘international community’ operates. However, it is important to paint the whole picture, even if people are persuaded to look away or vandalize it, as is the norm.

A gazette was issued by the President’s Secretary Dr P.B. Jayasundera appointing a three person Commission of Inquiry (Supreme Court judge A.H.M.D. Nawaz, as Chairperson former IGM Chandra Fernando and retired District Secretary Niam Abeysiri) to investigate all allegations of human rights. The Commission has been given six months to report findings. The gazette notification alludes to the government’s decisions from withdrawing from Resolutions 30/1, 40/1 and 34/1, notwithstanding which pledges to work with the UN and its agencies on accountability and human resource development to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation.

The government will not be applauded by the UNHRC. That’s for sure. However apart from this  ‘basic’ and the basic of comprehensive response, it is important for the government to retain the confidence of the citizens. That’s not only about the UNHRC circus, however. It’s about delivering promises, being acutely aware of and sticking to mandate. In the end, that’s what will matter most.






21 January 2021

It’s time for the Geneva Circus replete with molehills and mountains

 


 

Circus Pacifica, Apollo Circus and of course the amazing Chinese Circus — readers of an earlier generation will no doubt remember these. The Apollo Circus however planted itself on Pedris Park for quite awhile, but the others were rare.

Perhaps the antics of politicians, political parties, activists of various persuasions and of course the NGO rat pack compensated. They have entertained us even as they went about their charades, clowning, sleight of hand, somersaults and such, prompting quite a few oohs and aahs from an audience that wasn’t exactly applauding in unison.

We could never look forward to the real circuses. We didn’t have to anticipate with bated breath the political circus. However, there’s one which comes around every year around February. The Geneva Circus.

There are essentially two scripts: one to be used when a US-friendly or rather servile-to-the-USA government is in power and the other when the regime is not willing to play ball with eyes closed. In the first case, we get co-sponsored anti Sri Lanka resolutions, soft deadlines, much forgiving and forgetting. The run-up to the UNHRC sessions are not marked by Washington-led media outfits badmouthing Sri Lanka. The separatist groups abroad are in ‘go-easy’ mode. Human rights outfits barely murmur ‘concerns.’ Their local counterparts go into hibernation and the slumber is so deep that they don’t have the eyes to see any wrongdoing.

Well, we are not in that situation right now. It’s ‘the other guys’ in power and perforce it’s the second script that’s being played. This is how it goes.  

It begins with the collection/construction of evidence. There are claims that strangely (and by now predictably) are filed without substantiation. Non-movement on agreements that are no longer valid will be noted. There will be a lot of striving and straining to enumerate ‘minority grievances,’ and to this end, the local lackeys in political and NGO circles will do their bit. Statements will be issued by the representatives of nations that have clout in Geneva (the ‘Cesspool of bias’ description notwithstanding). All ‘concerns’ raised will be duly documented. Human rights outfits, international and local, silent for months, will suddenly find voice.

‘Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021.’

That’s Human Rights Watch. Absolutely predictable. It comes with ‘evidence.’

HRW claims that security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists.’ If activists and claimants of past abuses, political operatives who conveniently wear the lawyer or journalist hat are upset about outcome preferences that haven’t materialized feel some anxiety and want to call it ‘intimidation’ or ‘surveillance’ that’s their right. A state cannot be faulted to be cautious, especially given a thirty yer war against terrorism and a jihadist movement that unleashed terror on civilian targets that matched the worst of the LTTE. We don’t even know if there was intimidation or surveillance. We do know that ‘intimidation’ is frequently fabricated, posted on dubious websites and photoshopped into newspaper cuttings. We know that such ‘evidence’ is sent to the right addresses where the relevant householders lap it all up gleefully.

HRW is upset about Sri Lanka withdrawing from the resolutions co-sponsored by a more than mischievous minister on behalf of a government operating absolutely against popular will on the relevant issues. However, when the wording is regurgitated, it does sound ominous. It’s as though Sri Lanka has decided that truth-seeking, accountability and reconciliation are irrelevant. That’s hardly the case. Well, not ‘Reconciliation = Eelamist Agenda’ certainly, but those who preferred THAT version were booted out by the voter. HRW has missed the incontrovertible truth that even those who pushed that version, did an about turn, pledging in two major elections to uphold the unitary character of the state. As for the devolution element of reconciliation, not even its most ardent advocates seem interested in provincial councils.

So it’s natural that the HRW feels a reversal in ‘gains of the previous government.’ HRW feels that minorities are 'more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out.’ That’s what Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the outfit says. It’s cut-and-paste stuff, nothing more.

If ‘security’ is about a separatist agenda moving in the ‘right direction,’ sure, that’s not happening. ‘Victims of past abuses,’ she says — well, such as? Critics? Does she mean those who were unofficial adjuncts of the political camp that lost? They are wary, are they? ‘Wary’ is certainly a politically more useful descriptive than, say, ‘devastated by political defeats.’

There is certainly a more military presence in government. Systemic flaw and woeful incompetence by officials haven’t really helped the President get things done, especially in a pandemic context. It’s no secret that it is the security forces and the State Intelligence Service that have sacrificed the most, working tirelessly around the clock, to support the efforts of the medical teams fighting Covid-19. The retired officers (they are civilians now, let us not forget) haven’t done worse than those they replied as heads of certain key institutions. In fact, in certain cases, they’ve managed to streamline operations, cut costs and get things done.

HRW says ‘they were, like the President, implicated in war crimes.’ Here we go again! Accusation treated as established fact in a political project which is not described as such, naturally. HRW makes much of the USA announcing that General Shavendra Silva was ineligible to enter that country.’ Oh dear! The USA passes judgment and that’s the last word? This is the point where the clowns do their turn. Loud applause and much laughter follow!

HRW talks of a ‘false accusation on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus.’ Lots happen on social media. Some take it seriously, some don’t. HRW seems to have done some surveillance and cherry-picked. Good for HRW.

HRW does better on the issue of burials/cremation. The Government has not sanctioned burial. Yet. The issue has been politicized by multiple parties, Muslim politicians included. Maybe HRW is not interested in delving into the details and the complexities, but the Government could (still) act in ways that alleviate the apprehensions of the Muslim community.

The High Commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet has also made the expected noises, flagging ‘freedom of expression’ issues related to what she calls ‘criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation.’ This is not the time to be mischievous and some certainly were, and that, Bachelet and HRW will not agree, can have serious impact on the entire population. The nice thing about it is that neither HRW nor UNHRC has to do the cleaning up when the gooey stuff hits the fan.

Ganguly ends with some poetry. Nice. ‘Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations. Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.’

Concerned governments, she says. Does she mean the USA, UK and those in the EU? Laugh, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what you do when the circus comes to town!

Yes, the EU too. The EU has, as expected when the Geneva Circus is around the corner, ‘raised concerns’ on human rights. The wording is identical, almost: inclusiveness, reconciliation and fair treatment of minorities.’ The EU office has also tweeted that it is ‘saddened by the destruction of the monument at the Jaffna University.’

What’s the story there? Students cannot put up structures at will on state property. If the monument was sanctioned, the person who gave permission was the first culprit. However, having allowed it or turned a blind eye to it (as the case may be), it is wrong to arbitrarily raze it to the ground. The Vice Chancellor opined that it was an obstacle to reconciliation. The students’ response (‘we tell the “Sinhala Government” that we don’t want to fight a war, we just want to honor our dead’) seems to justify his position, but that’s a different matter. If students want to celebrate brutes, that says a lot about the students. However, if it’s about remembering kith and kin, that’s another matter altogether. If that’s the case, though, why make a political fuss about it? Why turn it into a circus?

The VC has since done a U-Turn and even laid the foundation for a replacement monument. The government missed a trick here. It could have engaged the students. It could have discussed the possibility of a monument before which anyone could grieve, especially the near and dear for the temperature of their tears are the same and truer than those shed by the politically motivated. Could have, should have, still can do. Never too late.

There are circuses and circuses. Some International, some local. We had the US Ambassador finding her voice after a long silence to express dismay over the assault on the Capitol Building in Washington DC. ‘We will continue to try to be more perfect,’ she pledged. So, the USA and everything in that country including racism, police brutality and a foreign policy that’s only about securing markets, plundering resources and bombing countries to the middle ages if that’s what pursuing strategic interests entails, is ‘perfect.’ That’s the claim. Laugh ladies and gentlemen!

This week also saw an incarceration drama. Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to a four year prison term for contempt of court. Naturally, the opposition cried ‘foul.’ Ranjan’s ethics are obviously of the kind that makes ‘foul’ a weak descriptive. He did rant and rave in ways that others did not. He did insult the judiciary. He demanded an independent judiciary but was caught on tape (his own) promising to intercede on behalf of a judge, taking her case to the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (yes, under whose watch HRW and the UNHRC says ‘there was progress’!).

Was there political motivation at work in the court decision? We don’t know. We can speculate though. Speculation on this count was fueled by the acquittal of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan allies Pilleyan, former Chief Minister, Eastern Provincial Council and leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

Ranjan in, Pilleyan out! How horrendous! That’s the line the Opposition took.
Well, Pilleyan belonged to a terrorist organization. That’s bad. He was accused of murder. That’s not good. However, on that particular charge, his innocence has to be presumed until and unless proven guilty. He was held for five years without trial. Five years! That’s when the government which HRW and Bachelet believes ‘made some progress.’ Those making a song and dance about Ranjan’s sentence and about ‘the lawyer’ Hejaaz Hizbullah being held without trial over suspected involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks, weren’t upset over Pilleyan’s incarceration. Five years was enough to find the evidence, but apparently the Attorney General couldn’t make a case. That, or he bowed to political pressure. The former indicates that his predecessor was playing politics with justice. The latter, if that’s the case, doesn’t cover the current Attorney General in glory. However, all this is speculation. We really don’t know.

Maybe investigations regarding Hizbullah are incomplete. He’s been under custody for many months. Not yet ‘years.’ Years, however, is the time-slice in the case of LTTE cadres currently in detention. Neither the previous regime nor this has moved to bring matters to a close. It would be a horrible travesty of justice if they are finally released ‘due to lack of evidence’ or an unwillingness to continue with the prosecution (either of which could be the case with respect to Pilleyan). Not a laughing matter, ladies and gentlemen
.
We had the President slipping in Ampara over the last weekend. To be fair by him, the President has been badgered endlessly by Harin Fernando from day one. The President responded in jest, but what he said was not really funny. He alluded to Prabhakaran and how that terrorist’s life ended. Unnecessary. Unbecoming. Harin is, relatively, small fry and his political track record is so sketchy that responding to him constitutes a salute, an undeserved one. Harin claimed he knew about the Easter Sunday attack AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT! Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during the election campaign, conducted himself well. He didn’t utter one word about his fellow candidates. He focused on his program. He slipped. That’s no laughing matter either, even though people are making a mountain out of a molehill here.

There was noise over the East Terminal of the Colombo Port. The unions and several political parties objected. They met with the President. The talks were disappointing, they said. The President said it will not be sold. He said it’s a joint venture with a minority control for the Indian port development company. He didn’t say that the same company is building a competitor-port in Kerala. Obviously there’s ‘understanding’ that’s not been put into words and made public.

Obviously the (virtual) sale of the Hambantota Port by the previous regime has constrained the President vis-a-vis Indian ‘concerns’. The President has gone on record to say that India’s national security concerns will not be compromised by Sri Lanka. There’s a cheque being cashed by India but we don’t know what we got in return. The vaccine? That’s a laugh — in any case 99.5% of the infected recover, the vaccine is still an unknown quantity and there are alternatives out there in the vaccine market. A (nominal) buffer in Geneva? Possible but again, we do not know. Such things are not said. Arms are not twisted in public.

A government besieged (as this one is) has few options. Geneva is a circus but not one where the Sri Lankan delegation will get to laugh. The Government has one trump. Not Donald. The people.

Let's go for 13 Plus




The number 13 is thought by some to be unlucky. Some even believe it is associated with evil. The number 13 is associated with Sri Lankan politics and some may say ‘entrenched’ in it or even use the word ‘inextricable.’ We’ve had the 13th Amendment and 7 more thereafter but ‘stuck with it’ still applies. Nothing lasts forever and one day we will move on. Not yet, obviously. Not in the foreseeable future? Well, who can tell?

Were we unlucky? For some, the ‘13th’ was a stroke of luck. I can think of two categories of people: those invested in the notion of Indian hegemony in the region and those Eelamists who subscribe to the Chelvanayakam Formula (a little now, more later).  Speculation on luck is fun, but there’s no need to do that. The 13th was and is something to be lamented for multiple reasons.

First, it cast the Indian footprint on Sri Lankan politics in cement (deliberately put in these terms for those who whine about the ‘Chinese Footprint,’ who, not coincidentally have no eyes to see the British Footprint or the US Footprint or, if they could see, ignore or even celebrate the servility that is embedded in the positions they take).  For Rajiv Gandhi it was about ‘Bhutanizing Sri Lanka.’

Secondly, it have the LTTE a new lease of life and postponed war-end by 22 years during which tens of thousands perished, thousands were disabled and suspended development indefinitely. Thirdly, it gave credence to Eelamist demarcation, which is nothing more and nothing less than a superimposition of a map inspired land-theft designs on a map made of arbitrary lines drawn by the British for administrative convenience in 1889. Fourth, it created a white elephant.

Monies allocated weren’t even spent by an Eelamist-dominated Northern Provincial Council. Provincial Councils have been dissolved and even years after this happened we are yet to see the most ardent advocates of devolution shedding tears over the fact. In short, the 13th Amendment was a ‘solution’ for a non-existent or at least mis-formulated problem. In short, it was not sought but imposed. In short, it should go. That may happen, but, as R Sampanthan pointed out during a budget debate almost a decade ago, repealing the 13th Amendment ‘could cause grave and irreparable damage to the country’s future’ — well, not because it would put the Eelamists on the back foot, but, as pointed out by those who use and abuse the notions of geopolitics, since it could upset ‘big brother’. Yes, the Ugly Indian (which implies there are beautiful Indians too, although most of them are not in decision-making positions in Delhi).

Sampanthan, in the same speech said, ‘the 13th is the only constitutional provision that recognizes diversity’.  The truth however is that quite apart from the fact that the 13th legitimates the work of a frivolous map-maker later used by Eelamist myth-mongers for their own purposes, Sampanthan forgot (as many others have and do) that communities are not held by maps and frequently fall out of provincial boundaries.  The recognition of difference, as in the existence of different communities and people with different religious faiths, finds more than adequate mention in the constitution.  The only major differentiation that the constitution is silent on is that of class. 

Interestingly, Sampanthan, back then, expressed a willingness for a re-demarcation of provincial units, i.e. three to four zones instead of the present nine provinces, an opinion he has reiterated in 2015. It is an opinion that has been echoed by Public Consultation Committee for Constitutional Reform appointed by the last Government (Lal Wijenayake Committee), which proposed five major regions based on river basins, which give each province a share of the coastal sea board allowing direct access to the oceanic resources.

Re-demarcation makes sense given that a) the current boundaries were arbitrarily drawn, and b) typically boundaries are obtained from geological formations (rivers, mountains, canyons etc) or ethnic enclaves (note: almost 50% of Tamils live outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces). Redrawing boundaries is logical but this does not mean ‘power-devolution’ is. They are two distinct issues. Decentralization of administration makes sense though. The first step, then, is re-demarcation.

India, obviously, will be upset by a total abandonment of the 13th Amendment. One could argue, ‘considering that we are damned if we do it and damned if we don’t, let’s just get rid of it’ (for reasons enumerated above). Easier said than done, of course. It would take a strong leadership that trusts (more than is trusted ) by the people. Such things are hard to gauge and politicians tend to give exaggerated value to certain factors (external threats, for example).

India would be upset, but India doesn’t have a moral right to object (note: morality is not important in these things, but we lose nothing by flagging certain factors): a) India under Modi is going for an Indian identity that goes against the spirit of the federalist model, b) India, in how it annexed Ladakh, showed how India looks at things like ‘self-determination,’ c) India, legislatively, has since Independence systematically subverted the federal arrangement.

And yet, India, as stated by its foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar during his short visit to Sri Lanka, wants ‘a united Sri Lanka.’ United, not ‘unitary’.  India wants the 13th. Fine. If it is believed that repealing the 13th is out of order, then we could keep it but under a different provincial map. We would have to live with that silly reality of devolution, but perhaps that’s a price we will have to continue to pay. For a while, at least.

The question is, ‘how would you re-demarcate’? If one were to go about it in a scientific manner. Sampanthan, back then, flagged ‘efficiency in resource allocation.’ There is palpable and stark differences in the ‘resource complement’ across the provinces. The Western Province, for example, contributes a massive slice to the country’s GDP. If ‘devolution’ is driven to its logical conclusion, the WP could determine that what it earns should not be spent on other provinces. This is not something that anyone outside the WP would cheer. We cannot have equity in this manner, however, we can make things less unequal. For this we would have to reduce the number of provinces.

As pointed out in an article titled ‘If 19 is to equal 13+,’ logic and science as opposed to political expediency and untenable ethnic ‘enclaving’ should guide the cartographer. This is where we need to take seriously the formulation proposed by Prof C M Madduma Bandara which recommends s a return to the Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti boundaries. The comment on Sampanthan’s speech included the following:


‘What would result is ‘horizontal democratization’ as some have put it, provided of course that the devolved complement of powers exceed what is contained in the 13th.  Provided, also, that the power of the citizen to participate in decision-making is enhanced in the process.  For example, devolving the power to exercise strong-arm tactics and be dismissive of manifesto post-election from center to province won’t make things easier for anyone but the politicians.’ This is what the 13th did. Horizontalizing thuggery and theft, if you will.

That was considered necessary but not sufficient. Therefore, the following observation:

‘The trick then would be to follow such re-demarcation as per a 13+ formula with vertical democratization which includes measure to correct current institutional flaws, ensure greater transparency and obtain greater degrees of accountability.  Ideally, the two processes, vertical and horizontal, can be sought through a single amendment or better still a new, that is a third, republican constitution, but this may not be the proper time. Insistence on a double-push might kill both.’
 
What the latter seeks to address is not something that came with the 13th Amendment but was embedded in the 1978 Constitution. Therefore, constitutional amendment that does both of the above would not just be 13+ but 13++.

If Sri Lanka opts for such ‘change’ then India will have its 13+, Eelamists may be unhappy but devolutionists cannot whine and most importantly, lines based on and promoting myths and legends will be replaced by those drawn on a scientific logic that takes into account ‘economic imperatives.’

A final note: It was Mahinda Rajapaksa who gave life to the ’13 Plus’ notion in a careless moment, unintentionally arming thereby the pro-Eelam devolutionists. The LLRC recommended devolution but interjected the important caveat, ‘agreeable to all communities,’ a caveat which those who gaily quote this element of the LLRC report happily leave out. Well, let’s go for 13 plus. A different ‘plus’ and one that makes sense. If we get there, some will say ‘lucky’ and some will say ‘damn it,’ but at least, reason would have prevailed over emotion.

malindasenevi@gmail.com

14 January 2021

The political economy of accusation, guilt and punishment


Whenever predictions are made about repercussions from the international community for things said or left unsaid or else things done or left undone, I am reminded of Libya. Muammar Gaddafi was for decades the bad boy. He decided at one point to try being the good boy. We all know how he was rewarded by those who saw him as an enemy and who he later thought were friends.

That’s how the international community operates. International community as in the movers and shakers who can and do move and shake on account of bucks and guns (to put it mildly). It’s all about playing ball. It’s all about conviction beyond any shadow of doubt that ball will be played. In other words, there are no brownie points for good behavior. There has to be an unblemished record of servility. One black mark and trust is compromised forever. An unblemished ball player is thereafter backed, groomed and even brought to power.  If there’s no such entity, then they go for the lesser evil option. Maithripala Sirisena for example.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a statement in jest in Ampara last week and it got a lot of play.  That is not a statement one expects from someone who refused to badmouth his political opponents. It was careless. It was crass. However, as often happens word was extracted from context, tone and flavor. We saw inflation. We saw extrapolation. His detractors warned that it will strengthen moves against Sri Lanka in the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva. This, on top of ‘concerns’ over the cremation of Muslims who have died of Covid-19. They will no doubt add the demolition of a memorial erected for LTTE cadres who perished during the 30 year long conflict.

A word on the last is warranted. First and foremost students do not have any right to put up buildings or memorials on state university property unless so sanctioned by the relevant authorities. Whoever allowed that memorial to be put up needs to explain his or her actions. Secondly, having allowed it to remain and thereby providing consent by default, arbitrary demolition is questionable. Thirdly, some students have issued statements claiming that they are not interested in warring ‘with the Sinhala government.’ The wording indicates that they do not see themselves as part of this country. The Vice Chancellor’s claim that the monument was an affront to reconciliation and peace therefore does have some merit. His decision to lay the foundation stone for a replacement monument is therefore confusing.

Another word on the matter is warranted. It is not illegal for anyone to believe he/she does not belong to Sri Lanka. Theoretically, a monument to soldiers could be seen by some as a celebration of ‘wrongdoers and wrongdoing’ although not legally, at least ethically or just in terms of perceptions. A monument to JVP cadres could similarly be seen by UNPers as a celebration of terrorists and terrorism. The Jaffna University students are celebrating people who fought for a ruthless terrorist organization. We could play that back and forth and remain where we are, i.e. fighting a war along the alleyways of memory.

A third word. The President can be open about these things, speak with these students and ask them if they want to remain in the past or move to a different future. He could say, for example, that the only grief that is indubitably genuine is that which is felt by the near and dear of the dead, regardless of what the dead believed, fought for, killed and were killed for. The temperature of the tears shed for all the dead, combatants and civilians are approximately the same. The President could request the Jaffna University students to design a monument where everyone can grieve for what eventually proved to be a conflagration that produced nothing of substance but only delivered death, destruction, dismemberment and displacement.
 
Now whether the President moves in the above manner or in some other way that pleases the students and the Tamil community, he will not be applauded by those who want to bring him and his government down, here and abroad. It just doesn’t work that way.

There is a political economy of punishment and reward, censure and ‘let be’.  'A threat is often more powerful than its execution’ is a quote attributed to several top chess grandmasters and frequently used by chess coaches. That’s how it works.

We get a string of accusations, a string of recommendations and a spoken or left hanging ending, ‘…or else!’

This brings me to the most critical issue of the day. The East Terminal of the Colombo Port. India wants it. We are told that Sri Lanka will have a 51% stake. Operations, if the deal is done, would be controlled by an Indian company.  It is reported that the frontrunner-investor is the Adani Group of India. The very same group is building a port in Kerala. A competitor port in every sense of the word. Forget Adani. It will be an Indian company that would ‘run’ operations even as an Indian company is busy building a port that is designed to draw transshipment business away from Sri Lanka.

Giving the green light to such a move is suicidal. It would reduce the Sri Lankan transshipment footprint in the Indian Ocean. The JVP, FSP and others including trade unions of all political parties have objected. Groups that backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP have objected. The political fallout is not difficult to calculate.

In such circumstances why would a government accede to India’s not so veiled demand for the East Terminal? Is there some subtle, ‘diplomatic’ arm-twisting happening? Is a give-and-take being negotiated? If it’s a deal then obviously the costs and benefits are not contained by ‘port development.’ It has to do with sweeteners. The Covid-19 vaccine? ‘Support’ in Geneva? What? 

So, in essence, there’s no clean, neat, integrity-driven logic. The ‘international community’ will accuse and treat accusation as proven guilt. The ‘international community’ will say things that end with ‘or else….!’ The ‘international community’ will want to punish and will create guilt to do so. That’s politics. That’s economics. That’s political economy. 

Any government that does not play ball is in a lose-lose situation. And such governments (and we are not staying that this government is one of them) have one option. Side with the people. Trust their judgment. ‘People’ as in general sentiments and not those that come percolated through political interests or structured by possible benefits to individuals or specific groups.


10 January 2021

The Quad halved, then drawn and quartered



This column focuses on local politics. As opposed to global affairs. However, ‘local-global’ is, as sociologists would point out, a false dichotomy. What happens or rather can happen here is by and large determined by overarching global political and economic structures. Local affairs don’t always shape global processes unless the particular ‘local’ enjoys privileged position in the overall structure, but they can inform the manner in which particular countries or country-collectives  engage.

Let’s start with a few examples.

The previous government was the darling of Western powers. The leaders believed that the West would help. Then came Brexit. The leaders got the jitters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suddenly opened his eyes and saw ‘The East’. This, after seniors in that administration, before and after the January 2015 election had made many disparaging comments about China, as one would expect for their view of the world was largely a matter of echoing the voice of Washington.
So, in essence, Britain sneezed and these ladies and gentlemen caught a cold.

That’s one side of the coin. The USA-led section of the ‘international community’ spared no pains to rubbish the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. It is no secret that Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign was actively backed by the USA. The language of engagement with ‘Sri Lanka’ changed. The US mission in Colombo, hell-bent on hauling Sri Lanka over the coals with respect to largely inflated horror stories about the war, suddenly wanted the local Tamil allies to go easy on human rights. Come 2019 November the tone changed. Now this is not strange. One does not deal with known friends in the same way that one engages with perceived enemies.

This week, the global touch was inescapable for different but not unrelated reasons. A US story and an Indian story dominated political headlines, the former on account of the assault on Capitol Hill, Washington by supporters of Donald Trump and the latter having to do with the visit by the Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar. The former is distant but makes for interesting comment considering Washington’s use and abuse of democracy. Sorry, the term ‘democracy.’ So let’s start right there.

On Wednesday supporters of Donald Trump, convinced that their champion had been robbed, gathered outside the Capitol building. They forced entry into the chamber of the House of Representatives wanting Congress to discard the results of the November 3 election. Four died, one from gunshot injuries. Dozens were arrested. Congress prevailed and Trump, in a predictably roundabout way, grudgingly announced he would leave office.

Democracy is the word here. An election was held. Sorry, a selection, for that’s essentially the political process which produces presidents in that country. Some claimed that there was jugglery. Some went to court. Court dismissed these petitions. Now, in the name of democracy, a bunch of irate Trump supporters (a minuscule minority of the voting population) decided that Congress should submit to their will. Trump, remember, lost the popular vote by a massive margin.  

The entire carnival showed up the farce that is US politics. First, the vast majority of these ‘rebels’ were white. The way that the authorities responded was in stark contrast to the way that the police reacted to peaceful protests against white police brutality and racism over the past seven months. Racism is what colors the ‘fabric’ and racism tore that cloth a long time ago or rather, racism ensured that the threads would never make a textile worth talking about.

Secondly, we have to measure this against the standard US narrative on democracy and democratization outside its shores. No country has prostituted these terms the way Washington has. The US has invaded countries, mis-described rag-tag agitators as ‘pro-democracy masses’ who were then funded and armed, orchestrated military coups, supported the butchering of pro-democracy protesters who had been duly called ‘insurgents’  and dropped bombs. All in the name of democracy.

As a wit put it, ‘due to travel restrictions, Americans had to invade their own country this year.’ Here’s another that’s making the rounds on social media: ‘The US has invaded the US to spread democracy.’ And here’s the plum atop the pudding: ‘The US is honestly just a comedy show to the rest of the world right now.’

If only we could laugh! It’s no laughing matter to the victims of systemic brutality and racism in the USA. It’s no laughing matter to the recipients of ‘Democracy — US style.’

The Biden administration will no doubt say ‘that’s all Trump stuff’ and maintain the Washington Doctrine on International Affairs. Washington is quiet now. That ‘little affair’ has been sorted out. Democracy, they’ll say, has won the day. It will be business as usual. The US will resume lecturing the world about democracy, peace, human rights, co-existence and reconciliation. Representatives of the nations targeted will have to swallow down the giggles, IF they do see the hypocrisy that is — let’s not bet on that!

India. That’s the other big story. In your face and all. But first a preamble. India is part of the Quad, i.e. the shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes the USA, Japan and Australia. The purpose is to contain China’s rise, the ‘Asian NATO’ as some call it, never mind that the USA is not part of Asia. The big Sri Lankan story for the USA in recent times was the MCC Compact. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government didn’t play ball. The US Embassy in a statement informed one and all that the deal was off. Chagrin was written all over it. The local ‘friends’ warned of serious repercussions. The UNHRC sessions are just weeks away. And we have Jaishankar visiting Sri Lanka.

Jaishankar, a retired diplomat and former Foreign Secretary, is well-known for working out ‘friendship’ with the USA and is mentioned for his role in the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Just the other day, he signed on behalf of India, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA. The two countries are the more vocal of the four that make ‘The Quad.’ India, moreover, has expressed concerns about the so-called Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka, never mind the bloodstained Indian footprint courtesy the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The IPKF left, but the footprint remained. Jaishankar even mentioned it.

Sure, he spoke of the sweetener in all the deals he made or wanted to make with Sri Lanka in the pursuit of the eminently defensible ‘India First’ foreign policy of his government. He spoke of the Covid-19 vaccine. It is, as yet, untested. It is not expensive. India will give some vaccines FoC and some on a concessionary loan, most likely. Vaccine or not, only 0.5% of the infected will succumb to the virus. What’s the price Sri Lanka has to pay, though? Why, the 13th Amendment or more!

Jaishankar, addressing the media, used Eelam-speak. ‘A united Sri Lanka’ he said. Now ‘unity’ cannot be legislated. A federal arrangement does not necessarily mean unity and neither does a unitary system. Jaishankar doesn’t know, hasn’t been told or knows and ignores the fact that the two main candidates at the last presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa both pledged to uphold the unitary status of the country. Almost 95% of the country’s voting population voted for these two candidates.

Jaishakar doesn’t care. He has a script. He reads from it.

‘Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing,as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled.that applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.’

That’s a lecture. He or rather India wants Sri Lanka to inhabit his/India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality. What’s the reality? The 13th is a white elephant. Romesh De Silva, who heads the experts’ committee tasked to draft a new constitution said as much about ten years ago. We have not had Provincial Council elections in years. No one has complained. Things could be better but no will argue that things are worse on account of PCs remaining dissolved.
 
The Indian foreign minister met with the President, Prime Minister and his Sri Lankan counterpart. It might appear that his powwows with the leaders of Tamil parties and the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa were cursory affairs but one hesitates in concluding thus. After all, the proposals to the constitution-drafting committee submitted by both the Tamil National Alliance and the Thamizh Makkal Tesiya Kootani both want the unitary character of the state undone. ‘Unity’ is the word both these entities use. Just like Jaishankar.

India or rather Delhi has a political issue to resolve in Tamil Nadu. There’s opposition to Delhi’s drive to make Hindi a national language in that state. Tamil Nadu is ok with ‘One India’ but not a ‘One India where Tamil could get diluted vis-a-vis Hindi.’ Appeasing Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps Delhi believes, might help sort out the political problem in the southern part of the country. ‘Help’ is the key word. It won’t be enough, but it’s not a stone that they would want to leave unturned.

Any devolution that grants control of parts of the country to Tamil political formations, they might believe, would compromise the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The US could obtain by way of price an MCC Compact without an MCC Compact, so to speak. We don’t know if Jaishankar murmured ‘Geneva’ in his discussion with the president, prime minister and the foreign minister, but certain things can be said in silence.

There would have been talk of the contentious Eastern Terminal. India’s port development operations in the Andaman Islands is not a secret. Compromise the Colombo Port and Delhi is in easy sea-street.

There’s more local play to this story. Sajith Premadasa appointed Dayan Jayatilleke as his advisor on international affairs. Dayan’s genuflection before India is legendary. Not surprisingly, in an article published immediately after his appointment, Dayan responded to an announcement by the Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong, who said, ‘China will promote the alignment of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” manifesto to promote economic and social engagement between the two countries.

Now, there are two ways to interpret this statement. One is to believe that whatever part of the BRI that’s promoted will be framed by what’s pledged in Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. Nothing wrong with that. Dayan worries that it’s the other way about. He asks the legitimate question: ‘If President GR’s Sri Lanka has joined hands with China to respond to challenging international and regional situations according to a consensus between the two leaders, how will it take a nonaligned, equidistant or balanced stand with regard to US-China internationally and India-China regionally?’

He is the international affairs guru of the Opposition Leader and therefore the ball is in the court of Dinesh Gunawardena. He has to respond to this question.

Dayan, in the same article (‘The Xi factor, Delhi’s deterrence, and the Pakistan model’ in the Daily FT), berates the government for postponing the PC elections.  He worries about what the new constitution would and would not do, never mind that we are yet to see a draft and never mind that obtaining the two-thirds parliamentary majority to get it passed will not be easy.

‘The new Constitution will kill the 13th Amendment and the semi-autonomous PC system, de-linking the Sri Lankan state from the Indo-Lanka Accord, removing not only a counterweight to de facto military rule over the island but also a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’

All this, yes, all of it, is almost like a speech written in Delhi. Consider this part: ‘a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’ That’s the Indo-Lanka Accord. The annexures do talk of foreign presence but entities OTHER THAN INDIA! For Dayan, India is not ‘foreign’. Her footprint is alright. Is India part of Sri Lanka? Would Jaishankar respond to this question, ‘Yes, most certainly!’? Of course not. The implication is that Sri Lanka is part of India or rather India’s plaything. Pawn. There’s Indian hegemony written all over Dayan’s and therefore Sajith Premadasa’s and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s position on these matters.

And Jaishankar, kindly, invites Sajith Premadasa to visit Delhi. Maybe he will also facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the likes of M.A. Sumanthiran and C.V. Wigneswaran, a meeting that such politicians must have requested repeatedly from Indian diplomats in Colombo who they meet with frequently.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although in desperately depleted circumstances has chipped in with a request of his own. Yes, Jaishankar covered all the bases, even those that have become politically redundant. Wickremesinghe requested Jaishankar ‘to expedite the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to Sri Lanka.’ Yes, that’s the sweetener.

What’s the price and who pays it? No one will ask Wickremesinghe. The likes of Premadasa need not answer. The likes of Dayan Jayatilleke are not required to answer and anyway, as has been the practice of this colorful commentator, he will use one convoluted argument after another, replete with selective examples from history and convenient quotes from theoretical texts to conclude ‘it’s worth the price!’.

The Government on the other hand, cannot beat around the bush. What’s the price you want us to pay for India’s ‘amazing’ vaccine, Mister President? What was agreed on our behalf and why?

Well, folks, that’s it for this week. A week where the local was more-than-usually overshadowed by ‘the international’ and where one half of ‘The Quad’ dominated. We’ve drawn and quartered, but just in an analytical sense. We would not be presumptuous to claim anything more! 

 

malindasenevi@gmail.com

07 January 2021

Subramanyam Jaishankar and pounds of flesh

 

 

The Indian Foreign Minister arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday. His schedule includes discussions with the President, Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.  Any visit by any Indian minister or senior official is important, this is undebatable. Not because ‘we are old friends’ or ‘have a long, shared history’ (the ‘friendship’ is debatable and the ‘history’ has been by and large sordid).

That said, things can change (very slowly, yes). Prime Minister Modi is not exactly a clone of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who thought the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 would be the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka. Nothing wrong in hoping that he has abandoned the age-old Kautilyan foreign-relations ‘non-negotiables’ of fighting with closest neighbors and being friends with those beyond. India is not friends with China (despite the massive volume of trade between the two countries). India is more than cosy with the United States of America and Jaishankar has had a lot to do with improved relations.

The USA is not Sri Lanka’s friend. Let’s get that straight and out of the way. So when the USA gets pally with India after showing disappointment that Sri Lanka wasn’t interested in the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, Sri Lanka should be wary of any Indian moves. The USA’s ideological and political allies in Sri Lanka (including ex-Deputy Governors of the Central Bank, SJB parliamentarian Harsha De Silva, and the [un]thinking tank Advocata) appear to be more upset than the US Ambassador over this non-event. Some have screamed, ‘repercussions!’

Well, India has buddied with the USA to set up the ‘Quad’ or the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes Japan and Australia, which is clearly a move to contain China’s rise in the region and of course the world. Some call it the Asian NATO. The Indian Defense Secretary recently insulted Sri Lanka during a visit to Nepal, warning (yes!) that country from getting assistance from China. China, by the way, is not Sri Lanka’s best friend in terms of aid. That ‘distinction’ goes to Japan.

This is not all the context there is. There’s the impending UNHRC sessions in Geneva. The by now par-for-the-course surrounding noise has been made by the Washington-led media and of course the Washington-dependent rights outfits. Sri Lanka is set to be hauled over the coals. Yes, the USA has pulled out from that ‘Cesspit of bias’ but that hasn’t stopped Uncle Sam from leveraging its allies to get the dirty work done. It’s an ideal time for India to play ‘friend!’ If there is a resolution against Sri Lanka, India won’t object. India might not even support it. However, India is most likely to do the friend-thing: dilute the resolution. And Sri Lanka would be required to applaud.

The big-deals will take place in this context. The Eastern Terminal for example. India is actively sabotaging the Colombo Port already through an Indian company and taking control of the terminal would put Sri Lanka at India’s mercy. India, once its port operations in the Andaman Islands are done, will ‘gracefully leave.’ And Sri Lanka would be required to applaud. Again. And again.

Subramanyam Jaishankar is no baby. He’s a seasoned operator. A career diplomat, Jaishankar was once the Secretary, Foreign Ministry. He knows India, Indian interests and how the world operates. No wonder that Tata made him ‘President - Corporate Affairs’ when he retired. Before that, though, he had already established excellent relations with the USA, playing a key role in hammering out the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. And just a few months ago on behalf of India he inked the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA.

So, friends, this is no routing courtesy call. It’s business. As usual. For India. Or anyone else for that matter. Jaishankar is taking care of Indian interests. As always there’s give and take, more of the former as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. We are not in the right market here, so we can haggle only so much about the price.  

Jaishankar will no doubt come with some sugar because deals often have to be sweetened. Going from the sound bytes we’ve heard or rather been made to listen to, it’s like to be something to do with a vaccine to combat Covid-19. India can easily spare a few pricks and offer the rest on a concessionary loan. Sri Lanka would be required to applaud.

So, friends, once the joint statement is released or when India or Sri Lanka or both issue statements, let’s resolve to read them carefully. Let’s read between the lines. Let’s keep context in mind. Let’s remember histories that have left bloodstains behind and whose shadows will invariably fall on Sri Lanka come the UNHRC sessions.

Does India want to start on a fresh page? Well, India would like us to believe they do. Will they? Will they? Unlikely. If that were the case, the Indian Defense Secretary wouldn’t have tossed around disparaging comments. If it’s about give and take, no-free-lunches and such, then India should not have any problem with the paid-for lunch or the lunch-on-credit (as per their preferred narrative) that China offers.

Subramanyam Jaishankar is a professional turned politician. That’s good for India. How good is it for Sri Lanka? Let’s not bet on such things, shall we?

malindasenevi@gmail.com

04 January 2021

It will take a lot to bury 2020, but let's give thanks for being alive


 

The year 2020 was eminently forgettable and that has very little to do with politics. The obvious need not be stated. As for the political, we had parliamentary elections and the passage of the 20th Amendment. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna effectively consolidated its hold on power, securing close to a two-thirds majority. The UNP (official) was routed and the UNP (in new garb, i.e. the SJB) was a distant second.

The new parliamentary configuration resulted in the 20th Amendment being passed. Of course there were objections. Court was petitioned. The Attorney General promised that certain articles would be amended at the ‘Committee Stage’ and the court ruled, except with regard to just a single article, that if this was done a special majority (two-thirds) would suffice. Clarity in the structure of governance, sorely compromised by the 19th Amendment, was restored. Most of the powers clipped from the office of the president by the 19th Amendment (in order to strengthen the then prime minister, appointed in contravention of all established procedure and at the time not even enjoying a parliamentary majority), were restored. The dangers are obvious but that’s something that the Opposition cannot complain about.

So, in effect, 2020 was a ‘pohottuwa’ year. The Opposition, in disarray, did make a few noises towards the end of the year thanks to Covid-19 and little else. The Opposition could not even hold on to the worrisome incident at the Mahara prison where 11 persons died and over 100 were wounded. It was distracted by the controversial ‘Dhammika Syrup’. The UNP is yet to name someone to the national list slot that came its way. The JVP has gone silent. The strongest party in the Opposition, the SJB, seems to be readying for a cold war for party leadership.

Patali Champika Ranawaka launched a separate political project called ‘The Group of 43.’ Ranawaka, who left the Jathika Hello Urumaya, was named one of six Deputy Chairmen of the SJB which technically dilutes his position in the party. He is not even the Deputy Leader (there is no such post, at present). Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary of the UNP and recently appointed as the General Secretary of the SJB, claimed ‘Sajith Premadasa will be the common candidate of the Opposition.’ There’s a long way to go before parties nominate presidential candidates but if Attanayake’s predictions come true, Ranawaka’s obvious political ambitions would take a hit. It is unlikely that he would let himself be shoved to the sidelines. Interesting times ahead, therefore.

With the two major elections done and dusted following a rousing victory for the SLPP in the local government elections (February 2018) which in fact gave that party its initial momentum, only the provincial councils are left to be fought over.  

The PCs have been dissolved for several years now. The administrative apparatus remains and of course Governors who are from time to time appointed, removed and replaced. Illegally constituted though they are, the PCs remain part of the overall governance structure. They are constitutional by habit, if you will. Have they served any purpose, though? They have certainly helped the career politicians, many of whom have seen PCs as stepping stones to Parliament. A lot happens at the provincial level, especially with regard to education and health, but as we’ve seen over the past three years or so, all you need for effective delivery of services is decentralization of administration. It is not as efficient as could be, but in the very least things are no worse than when the PCs were fully functional.


Anyway, whether or not to hold PC elections is a political decision. The Government is currently mulling comprehensive constitutional reform which could take the form of a fresh constitution. The future of the 13th Amendment is at stake here.  

Perhaps this is why the likes of Dayasiri Jayasekera and former president Maithripala Sirisena have made some noise on the subject (Note: the SJB, the JVP, the UNP and not even the TNA has uttered a single worry-word in this regard).

Dayasiri Jayasekera, State Minister and General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), while acknowledging that the electoral system should be amended has stated that any decision regarding PCs should be first discussed with India. That’s strange because India didn’t keep her part of the deal in the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in July 1987. It was, in the first place an Indo-Indo Accord; drafted by India, signed by Rajiv Gandhi who saw it as ‘the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’ and by J.R.Jayewardene (under duress) to secure India’s interests. Sri Lanka was only interested in getting the LTTE disarmed. India undertook to do it. India did not.  

Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP and former President, in an interview with ‘The Hindu’ told Meera Srinivasan that ‘abolishing PCs [would be like] playing with fire.’ That comment was taken as the headline. Sirisena, to his credit, wasn’t at all gungho about PCs, a point that ‘The Hindu’ has played down for obvious reasons. Sirisena clearly expressed disappointment with the PCs and proposes decentralization through ‘District Development Boards.’ It is only when Srinivasan pushed him on ‘abolition’ that Sirisena, slipped to diplospeak, alluding to (non-existent) ‘friendship’ between the two countries, speculating that ‘India could get a little upset’ and quickly upping it to the headline-possible, ‘abolishing PCs is like playing with fire.’

The Government, meanwhile, has decided that PC elections will not be held soon. That’s not good news to politicians looking to move up. The so-called lower ranks do play a role in the larger political game, but then again the next test, so to speak, is several years away. Postponement of elections is not a good thing. The previous government paid a heavy price in this regard. This government could too, unless abolition is being seriously contemplated. That would require a constitutional amendment where the two-thirds might be harder to secure than it was in the passage of the 20th Amendment.

Sirisena, in that same interview, has stated bravely that the SLFP is planning a rejuvenation program. He complains about SLFPers being treated like second-class citizens by the SLPP, forgetting that such is the fate of any small party aligning itself with one that is larger, more popular and far better organized. Srinivasan interjects the SLFP’s numbers (14), but doesn’t state the obvious that it is highly unlikely that the SLFP would have got so many members in had it gone alone in August 2020. Sirisena’s comments about the SLPP-SLFP alliance is a sad whine. If, for example, the 13 who contested under the lotus bud symbol were asked to choose one party over the other, the majority are likely to ditch Sirisena and the SLFP. The SLP is ready to go alone, Sirisena says. The SLFP did go alone just three years ago (Local Government Elections) and was well and truly creamed. There’s nothing to indicate a mass migration of people from the SLPP (or any other party for that matter) to the SLFP.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has discussed the matter of constitutional reform and concluded that it would call for a mechanism formulated with the involvement of the international community. The party has already drafted a 21-page proposal to the experts’ committee appointed to draft a new constitution. It is reported that this draft includes suggestions to formulate new laws pertaining to certain aspects such as education, law, land tenure, health, agriculture and irrigation on the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A 13+, so to speak, is what the TNA’s proposal would be, certainly not support for abolition or a shift to a district-based system of devolution/decentralization as the SLFP seems to be inclined towards.

The SLFP is not the only party that’s in crisis. Developments in the Northern Province indicates that  internal disagreement has cost the TNA. The elections of the Mayor of Jaffna by the Municipal Council following the budget being defeated twice resulted in Wishvalingam Manivannan of the EPDP with 21 votes edging out the TNA’s Arnold Emmanuel who got 20 votes. On the same day, the TNA candidate for the post of Chairman, Nallur Pradeshiya Sabha, Koomaraswamy Mathusuthan (8 votes) was pipped by Padmanathan Mayuran, the candidate filled by the TNPF, a party led by Ganendran Ponnambalam.

These losses do indicate that Tamil people are to some degree disenchanted with the TNA and may look for leadership elsewhere. That, however, would be later. These squabbles notwithstanding, it is likely that all Tamil political parties will resist any moves to abolish the 13th Amendment. They are also likely to welcome any move in any multilateral forum that had the potential to embarrass or wound the present government.

The most thorny issue at hand of course is that of how to dispose the bodies of people who have died on account of Covid-19. At present the Government has ruled out burials on account of infection worries. This has irked many Muslims, here and abroad, who see this as a racially motivated position. A Muslim organization based in the UK is to sue the Government. The BBC has put a spin on the story. Par for the course, one might say. It all points to one thing: all roads lead to Geneva when the government in power is not to the liking of Europe and North American governments.

Sri Lanka does not stand to win anything by appeasing those who knowingly or unknowingly play into the hands of the big boys and girls on the global stage. It’s a naduth-haamuduruwange, badmouth-hamuduruwange game, after all; a global version of the USA’s play on Sri Lanka with respect to the MCC Compact. It was supposed to be a gift which Sri Lanka didn’t seem to be interested in; so the offer was withdrawn with not so veiled threats of repercussions. It’s just about playing a game skewed against you under rules made by the powerful and amended at will by the same.

The issue of burial has been politicized. The Muslim leaders are guilty of this politicization — when a solution (burial in the Maldives) was proposed, those who take diktat from God and aspire to God’s kingdom suddenly became patriotic, wanting the dead to be buried in ‘The Motherland’. It has been politicized by extremists in the majority community who demand that the Government should not pander to the whims and fancies of the Muslims. The Government has not done itself any favors by doing zilch about necessary changes in accordance with the election promise, ‘One country, one law.’ The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act stands. The unchecked Madrasas still function.

However, it is wrong to dismiss the burial option simply because Muslim leaders have been intransigent, extremist and absolutely racist. It is also wrong to dismiss the dismissal of the burial option because it is espoused by Sinhala Buddhist extremists and chauvinists. Acceptance or rejection has to be based on scientific evidence.

As things stand and as the eminent virologist Dr Malik Peiris has explained, it is highly unlikely that burial is risky in terms of infection. ‘Highly unlikely’ sits this side of ‘absolutely impossible,’ but then again, if strict burial protocols are observed, it is less risky than, say, the possibility of infection in a supermarket by an unidentified carrier. Moreover, there are theoretically hundreds of locations on this island where burial would have no risk whatsoever. Sure, the chest-beating Muslims worried about the afterlife haven’t bothered to look for empty land in all-Muslim areas so they could say ‘if there’s a risk, we’ll take it.’ That’s beside the point.  

The question is simple: how should bodies be disposed? The answer, based on scientific evidence, should be expressed by the Government. Experts have been asked to give their recommendations. They’ve had enough time. Their conclusion should be made public. Clearly. Logically. Regardless of who is pleased or displeased. It is a communication problem, in essence. If ‘politics’ HAS to be injected (and we do understand that this is more probable than possible) AND if it’s an issue of allaying the anxieties of one community at the cost of aggravating the anxieties of another community, it has to be sorted out by addressing the full gamut of issues that come under ‘politics of religion.’ For example, if burial is deemed safe and it is felt that this would cause the Sinhalese to suspect that the government is pandering to particular minority, then all relevant and unresolved political issues need to be sorted out. As pointed out in this column previously, the full implementation of the recommendations tabled by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Extremism (February, 2020).

Death-rites cannot wait, though. Politicians and officials are notorious for foot-dragging. Disposal is a ‘Right Now’ issue. The Government can, if it is concerned about political fallout, issue clear statements about what’s being done on other counts as alluded to above.

The disposal issue is likely to be sorted out soon. It won’t stop the USA, UK and other rogue states from beating Sri Lanka down with one or more heavy clubs at their disposal in Geneva in a few weeks time. Those are factors beyond anyone’s control. We saw what Mangala Samaraweera’s appeasement strategy did. Nothing.

In the end, the government can trust only one political entity. The people. Take the hard decisions, explain them and trust the people to understand. Do a lot, not just one thing, for in ‘the lot’ there will be several things that will be applauded. Otherwise, like what happened to the yahapalana gang, the tag ‘anti-people’ will be pinned firmly on the body of the government. Not by NGOs and foreign powers (their pins just won’t stick) but the people!

Writing this on January 1st, I am acutely aware that today is not unlike the 31st day of December, 2020. The world has not changed and change has little or nothing to do with the structure of a calendar.


But let's say hello to 2021 anyway. Let’s learn to live with Covid-19 until such time we can bury it for good. Let’s learn to live with one another, because we just can’t bury each other.

malindasenevi@gmail.com

03 January 2021

The elephant is in the room and will not go away





No. Not THAT elephant nor the one which turned itself into a telephone. Neither are in the room. The compass is not in the room either and there’s palpable evidence that even the lotus bud has got displaced. That’s if ‘people’ constitute ‘the room.’

These days, the proverbial elephant in the room is the Coronavirus. The room is enormous and constitutes almost the entire landmass of the earth or rather those parts inhabited by humans. Today we are told that the virus is going to hang in there for quite a while, vaccines notwithstanding. We are told that we better resolve to live with the virus.

The elephant we are talking about is a tad larger than the virus. We are talking about the pachyderm, the behemoth, the elephant. Elephas maximus. And the room is the country or at least almost two-thirds of the territory.

I am not an elephant expert. However, a recent paper titled ‘First country-wide survey of the endangered Asian elephant: towards better conservation and management in Sri Lanka’ written by people who have studied the issue for a long time does shed some light. The article, principally authored by Prithiviraj Fernando, breaks it down to numbers.

There are approximately 6,000 elephants in Sri Lanka and over 4,000 of them are likely to use areas where people also live. Elephants roam in 59.9% of the island. Of the landmass a 44% slice is shared by both species. Put another way, people are resident in 69.4% of the elephant range. In other words, the ‘Human-Elephant Conflict Zone’ encompasses almost the entire Dry Zone of the country.

Given this spatial distribution and the behavior of both species, we should not be surprised at the outcome. There are fatalities on both sides. The factor that precipitates an act of aggression can vary, but deep down it is about both species wanting to survive. Individual humans and individual elephants both share a will to live and a fear of death.

For the last 61 years, the principal approach has been containment of elephants to protected areas and driving those outside into the same, as recommended by the  Committee on Preservation of Wildlife appointed by the then government. Initially, it was just elephant drives but it was found that the creatures backtracked to their original locations, some of them walking over 100 kms to what they consider to be their ‘home range’. So, in the early 1990s, the authorities came up with the idea of electric fences. It is reported that there are around 4,500 kms of fencing at present. Studies have shown that herds thus driven do not explore the protected terrain, but remain in comparatively small areas in the direction of their home range. They typically overuse their habitat and eventually face starvation.

Another problem with this strategy is that the fences have been erected on the border of territories that come under the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and the Forest Department, following the basic strategy of holding elephants in protected areas. So in effect there are elephants on either side of these fences. Human encroachment on Forest Department lands obviously invites conflict. The obvious solution is to move the fences to the boundary that separates forest from human settlements.  

That however is only in places proximate to protected areas. As the above data indicates, elephants roam far afield from what we are taught to believe are their ‘habitat’ or the areas that humans have marked as ‘elephant land’ so to speak.

The solution has to take into account the fact that the elephant is in the room. Right in the middle of it. Right in your face or rather the face of the Dry Zone citizen. In other words, the conflict occurs almost entirely outside protected areas. For example, the study conducted by Fernando and his team concludes that the conflict remains a serious issue even in areas such as Polonnaruwa, Puttalam and Hamabantota where electric fencing of protected area boundaries have been completed. The study details the biological and ecological reasons including elephant behavior and carrying capacity which contributed to the failure of this strategy.

The study also points out that increasing the carrying capacity of protected areas is not economically feasible. Apparently it costs around Rs 2.4 million per year to increase the carrying capacity of a protected area by a single elephant. Thus, it would cost close to a billion rupees per year if we extrapolated to the approximately 4,000 elephants living in 'peopled' areas.

One of the human-centric ‘solutions’ proposed and implemented, if informally, has been to shoot the elephants. It’s a simple argument: either you die or I die and I do not wish to die.’ It’s not exactly ‘shoot on sight’ but people do empathize with would-be victims shooting what are called ‘rogue elephants.’ Yes, there are rogue elephants who attack and kill for reasons that are not apparent to humans. And sometimes when it is not possible to distinguish the rogue from the innocent you shoot anyway, ‘erring on the side of caution.’

Well, there are rogue humans too and don’t we know about these! Just as the average human cannot distinguish rogue, we can speculate, the elephant too has an identification problem and could also ‘err on the side of caution.’

There is another human-centric position that seeks a solution this side of ‘getting rid of the beast,’ you know, the kind of thing that many animal lovers abhor perhaps because their lives are not at stake and who, in their innocence, arrogance or outright ignorance, berate governments and relevant departments for not doing enough to save our ‘gentle’ giants. This position is one that takes into account ‘The elephant in the room,’ literally.

We need to take into account that elephants are not naturally aggressive towards humans and it is typically their experience with our species that make them belligerent. There are problem-elephants but it is a problem that humans create in the main. The fact that around 1,000 elephants have been killed between 2017 and 2019 indicate that removing the so-called ‘problem elephants’ is not a sustainable solution.

What has worked is a strategy that goes for coexistence. Living with the elephant, so to speak. No, it’s not about elephants and humans being all lovey-dovey all of a sudden. We live with snakes, we live with dogs who get infected with rabies. We take precautions. We protect households and communities. What has worked is community-fencing. They are eminently pragmatic given that large-scale drives have not and cannot work.

Of course such a strategy would have to be accompanied by awareness-creation campaigns, protection of ‘protected areas’ — poaching, livestock grazing and invasive plants remain serious issues that need to be addressed. Most of all, there’s a need to get the facts right and peruse them with sobriety.

The bottom line, of course, is that a sixty-year strategy has not worked. Bad medicine will not work just by increasing the dose. Mis-identification of the ailment will obviously lead to erroneous prescription. There is an elephant in the room; not in the rooms inhabited by humans who don’t have to worry about face-to-face encounters with pachyderms but out there in almost the entire Dry Zone. That elephant is not going to move.

malindasenevi@gmail.com

29 December 2020

There's movement within and without (parties and nations)

 


Those who worship free markets would say, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ Nothing comes free. Everything has a price which, they claim, is determined by the play of demand and supply in a market where everyone is endowed with the capacity to obtain all relevant information.


Nice on paper. But let’s go along with the story. So, if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, what do these pundits have to say about the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s purported gift (withdrawn recently after intense lobbying by the US Ambassador and MCC officials, backed by certain members of the previous regime, in particular Mangala Samaraweera)?  They say, ‘There will be dire consequences!’

Strange. Someone offers a free lunch, the would be ‘beneficiary’ says ‘thank you, but no’ or at least shows sufficient reluctance to exasperate the gifting party, the offer is withdrawn and the intended beneficiary is told ‘damn you, you will pay for this!’ So, pay if ‘gift’ is accepted (as per the theory of ‘no free lunches’) and pay if it is declined!

Not too long ago, the US Ambassador was rebuffed by the then Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, when he was told to go easy on the government, i.e. regarding the alleged human rights issue which, interestingly, the US had held like a massive rock over the head of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. We had resolutions moved against Sri Lanka in Geneva during that period. Come the Yahapalanists and the USA eases off. Obviously human rights were not the issue but whether or not the particular government was willing to play ball. Clearly the Yahapalanists were.

Wigneswaran upset the Ambassador. He is no baby in this game, but he stuck to his guns. Today, if the US Ambassador were to pow-wow with Wigneswaran, she wouldn’t say ‘back off, big guy,’ but is more likely to spur him on. 

The US Ambassador is doing just that, with the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance. Strategizing for Geneva in a few months time. Of course the USA, under Donald Trump, quit the UNHRC calling it ‘a cess pool of bias’ but that hasn’t stopped US representatives from deploying proxies to get its dirty work done. The noises we hear from London regarding Geneva 2021 clearly indicate that Sri Lanka can expect to come under fire.

Having opted out of Resolution 30/1 which was happily co-sponsored by a naive, nay pernicious, set of decision-makers, Sri Lanka would no doubt have raised the ire of her detractors, led of course by the USA and the UK. The US Ambassador, whose stint in Colombo seems to have been almost exclusively about pushing through the MCC, needs to wash off the egg from her face. Her not so behind-the-scenes maneuvers is just that.

The NGO lobby currently languishing in reduced circumstances are doing their bit. This time around they are in the business of disposing dead bodies. Yes, the ‘controversial’ issue of whether or not to bury those who have died of Covid-19. It’s the Muslims who are upset and that works well with their whine about majoritarianism. 

The Government has played into their hands by its indecision. To be fair, the entire Covid-19 story is about incomplete knowledge. London is now hit by a new strain of the virus. London will revisit policies. The lack of complete knowledge forces decision-makers to err on the side of caution. The government decided that burial was risky. The World Health Orgainzation says ‘it’s not unsafe.’ However, they’ve added that factors particular to the country need to be taken into account.

So far, the authorities advising the Government on the safety or otherwise of burials have ruled ‘unsafe.’ In deference to a need to be sensitive to religious sentiments, the Government explored the possibility of burying Muslim victims in the Maldives, following discussions with that Government.  Muslim leaders who have played the religion card in this issue seem to have suddenly found a patriotic card up their sleeve: ‘we want to be buried in our motherland,’ they cry. So far, representatives from exclusively Muslim populated areas haven’t offered to accept the bodies of their brethren who succumbed to Covid; those in Kattankudy, for instance, haven’t said ‘come, bury them here.’

The government is paying the price for trying to please everyone. They want to allay the fears of the general public and also want to sort out the anxieties of a particular community. It is best to let Science chair the decision-making process. What’s safest? Cremation, obviously. Is burial really risky? If the answer is, ‘there’s zero risk in buying the Covid-19 dead in certain parts of the country’ and this assertion is accompanied by a list of ‘safe spots,’ then the Government should go with it.

The decision should not be shaped by the interests of any particular community but instead framed by the interests of the safety of all citizens. If there’s no risk in burial, then the government could say ‘dispose as you will, of course subject to following protection protocols.’

So far, we’ve been getting mixed signals. Deciding that ‘burying’ will not win any friends in Geneva. If it’s not one thing, it will be another — that’s how the human rights game is played. The government cannot afford to ignore ‘Geneva’ but shouldn’t let the antics of that political theater frame decision-making here in Sri Lanka. Clarity is what is required and opaque is what the government has given us so far.

We mentioned Mangala Samaraweera. He sided with Sajith Premadasa when the UNP fell apart, but decided he wouldn’t campaign. He went into what could be called semi-retirement. However, he continues to be political, taking potshots at his favorite enemies, the Rajapaksas. More recently, he has targeted Patali Champika Ranawaka. Managala probably sees Ranawaka as a possible presidential candidate after the latter quit the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), clearing that obstacle to a bid to wrest leadership of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) at some point in the future.

Mangala has attacked Ranawaka using the hackneyed epithets of chauvinism and racism. Ranawaka’s backers have responded to Mangala, pointing out that this ‘great liberal’ was not averse to playin the caste card when contesting elections in Matara. To be fair, ‘caste’ hasn’t factored in Mangala’s decisions when in power. Race and religion have, though, in reverse: he’s shown a rabid aversion to the Sinhalese and Buddhists.

Someone might say, ’But he’s a Sinhalese and a Buddhist!’ True. Consider this, however. In a colonial theatre, the victims are relentlessly suppressed and ridiculed to the point that they begin to hate themselves. They source humiliation  to the truth of their reality, their history and heritage. The weak, by way of ‘escape,’ parrot and mimic the words and actions of their subjugator in a conscious or unconscious belief that this would qualify them for membership in the victor’s club. They seek in suddatvaya what they are denied on account of their sinhalatvaya, so to speak. The sudda attacked the Sinhalese and Tamils. The sudda attacked the Buddhists and Hindus. The sudda didn’t worry about caste. Does that tell Mangala’s story? He would know but even if he did, he probably won’t say it.

The Mangala-Ranawaka spat, however, is just a side show at the intra-party circus. Sajith Premadasa and other SJB stalwarts took to the streets over the Covid-19 burial issue. Ranawaka was a conspicuous absentee. Silences and absences also tell stories. This one is just starting.

However, a week ago, the SJB’s working committee met to ratify a party constitution. Sajith Premadasa was named leader. No deputy leader was named. Kabir Hashim was elected Chairman along with six others who were named ‘Senior Vice Chairman’ — Kumara Welgama, Rajitha Senaratne, Ranwaka, Thalatha Athukorala, Imitiaz Bakeer Markar and Sarath Fonseka. Ranjith Madduma Bandara is now the General Secretary and Tissa Attanayake the National Organizer. Officially, at least, Ranawaka is at the second-tier and he’s not alone. How his political fortunes unfold is left to be seen.

Another story that’s just moved out of the foreword or rather is being written in fits and starts is that of the Ape Jana Bala Pakshaya (AJBP). The AJBP started its political life inauspiciously. Several lists were rejected. The party didn’t win a single seat from any of the districts it contested. However, they were accorded one slot when the numbers for each party from the national list was determined.

That was the second inauspicious eventuality. As is often the case with parties who secure just one slot in the national seat (e.g. the United Socialist Alliance in 1994, the Sihala Urumaya in 2000), there was a scramble (to put it mildly). The then Secretary nominated himself. Ven. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero of Bodu Bala Sena fame and Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero (formerly of the JHU, credited with precipitation the JHU parting ways with the Rajapaksa and making way for Maithripala Sirisena’s ascension to the presidency) objected.

It took four months for the protagonists to resolve the matter. Ven Gnanasara was ineligible since the list on which his name was had been rejected (he could make a come-back if the person who does get in resigns). The Secretary was removed. An election pact had given Ven Rathana the authority to endorse a nominee, i.e. he had veto power.

We do not know what kind of agreement was made between the interested parties, but as of now, Ven Rathana has the floor. What he does there is anyone’s guess, but it would not be wise to count him out. Ven Rathana has a long history of identifying key moments and weaknesses, he can mobilize forces almost like a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat. He should not be underestimated.

So now we have 223 Members of Parliament and the Speaker. That’s 224. How about the 225th? That’s reserved for the United National Party (UNP) and that too courtesy the national list. The party, having suffered the most humiliating electoral defeat in its history, has not shown the kind of bickering we saw with the AJBP, but neither have we seen any urgency regarding this matter.

Of course as things stand it is of little consequence. The party is in crisis and has to worry about survival. Ranil Wickremesinghe is still the leader and will remain so until 2023, unless he steps down. This was the decision reached when the party decided to nominate Sajith Premadasa as its candidate for president in 2019. All top posts will fall vacant at the end of the year. Wickremesinghe, not surprisingly, still holds the reins but of a party that’s in very real danger of following other ‘old parties’ such as the LSSP and CP into oblivion.

What will 2021 have in hold, politically? We are not soothsayers, but it is safe to say that the way of the virus and of course how it is responded to will shape things like few other factors can.

May the year 2021 bring peace of mind. Good health to all! Stay safe and don’t forget to abide by protection protocols. Be kind to others. Now, unlike any other time, this might make a different to self, family, community, nation and the world.



malindasenevi@gmail.com