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A Reluctant Hero

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

Italy in 1967 still had a heavy American military presence, dating back to World War II. I had been in Italy for less than a year and did not speak the language well. I must have been about 38-years old, but had a nagging backache, which I attributed to the violent physical sports of my youth. I had tried many cures, including visits to London hospitals; but to no avail.

I had heard of the thermal baths in Ischia (an island near Capri) that were supposed to be good for backaches. I decided to go there, since it involved only a two-and-a- half-hour boat ride from Naples. In Ischia, having booked myself into a small pensione, I bought a one-week pass to the major thermal bath on the island. It was a large complex with a big garden, several pools at varying heat-levels, enclosures for mud baths (the volcanic mud was said to be good for aches) and cubicles for massage. The main clients were elderly Germans, who kept coming to the terme every year at spring-time. I happened to be the only dark-skinned person there!

On my first morning, when I was going to the hot springs, a man in camouflage uniform leapt out of the bushes to salute me: I recoiled in surprise. He seemed to be an ex-military man with a clipped moustache, balding and a bit of a belly; he turned out to be the gardener. At the baths, I swam in the biggest pool and soaked in the thermal springs. I was then offered a soak in the volcanic mud, or just a plain massage. I opted for the latter. The masseur was highly amused at my insisting on a tiny towel to cover my nakedness.

I had been only a few months in Italy: I could understand Italian well but could hardly speak, responding only with a ‘si’’ or ‘no’ to any questions asked of me. The masseur (Gianni) kept on chatting to me in Italian, asking me many personal questions. All his questions were about my physical activities. He first asked me whether I flew planes – and how many planes I had shot down, going rat-a-tat-tat, to imitate a machine gun. When I answered that I had not shot down any planes, he seemed genuinely disappointed! He then asked me how many enemies I had killed in hand-to-hand combat. When I answered in the negative, he seemed even more disappointed. I too was disappointed that I had to answer ‘no’ to all his questions: for he was only trying to make conversation. His next question was whether I was a boxer – like Muhammad Ali. By this time, I realized that I was not living up to his expectations, so I said: “‘Sort of – but that was long ago”: I had boxed a bit in my youth. ‘Giorgio’, he called to the masseur next-door: ‘This guy is a famous boxer!’ Giorgio burst into my booth to admire this famous boxer, while I clutched desperately at my skimpy towel!

Gianni resumed his questioning, asking me whether I was an actor in films. Since I was answering ‘no’ to all his questions, I desperately wanted to say ‘yes’ to something: so I responded weakly, ‘Si’. ‘Stefano’, he shouted to the next cubicle, ‘This guy is a famous actor in films’. I coyly clutched at my tiny towel as Stefano burst into my cubicle. The latter asked: ‘Were you like zero, zero, sette – like 007, like James Bond’? This line of questioning was leading me into greater lies, but I nodded weakly. With a sly wink, he then asked me: ‘So you must have had many women, like 007’? Unable to speak the language and unwilling to disappoint him, I responded with a nonchalant shrug of my shoulders, which he took to mean ‘quite a few’. He called excitedly to Roberto next door, telling him breathlessly that I had slept with many, many women! Roberto asked ‘then you must be a good lover, no?’ I was cornered: with seeming modesty, I answered ‘Si’. They believed what they wanted to believe vicariously of me, what they wanted me vicariously to be: a boxer like Muhamed Ali, a film-star like James Bond, making love to many women, just like James Bond! I was beginning to believe my own yarns myself!

All this made me famous! Everyone treated me with new respect. When I came to the baths next morning, even the old soldier saluted me with new gusto! So for one week at the baths I was a hero, walking on clouds. I was brought back to earth only when I had to return to my cheap pensione!

After I returned to Rome, I often wondered about my stay in Ischia. Why had they asked me only about armed activities and only about my physical prowess? It all made sense only when I learned that there was an American air force base in Naples. They had hardly seen a dark-skinned person in their remote Ischia. They had actually mistaken me for an Afro-American airman from the American base in Naples. I had fitted their imagined stereotype of an Afro-American airman: and I had fuelled their fancy fantasies. I had been their hero – although for one week only!

A Would-be Italian Lover

I met Ruggeiro (Roger) when he parked his caravan (trailer) next to mine at a lake (Lago di Bracciano), about one hour’s drive from Rome. It was a fresh-water lake (reputedly 800 feet deep) formed in the basin of a volcano, long years ago. Ruggeiro was full of fun, seldom serious, with an impish grin on his face and a wild sense of humour: he was known for his racy stories and sense of fun. Ruggiero had a wife, but no children. He must have been about 38-years old (around 1975). He wore a skimpy bathing slip, had sparkling blue eyes which contrasted well with his tanned skin, while a curl on his forehead hid a receding hairline.

 

We would usually meet at the lake on weekends. What brought us together was that we both had sail-boats. Mine was an all-purpose boat which could also be sailed, while his was a professional sail-boat. Likewise, whereas I could sail only tentatively, he was a serious sailor. This did not deter him from trying his pranks on me. When I would set out hesitantly and with trepidation (I had never taken sailing lessons), he would ride the waves triumphantly, ramming my boat repeatedly and laughing uproariously – only to pass me a bottle of grappa (intoxicating drink from Italy). After I had taken a frightened gulp, he would bump my boat again – to get his bottle back for another drink. He would bump me repeatedly, either to give me the bottle or to take it back. This ‘game’ would go on and on, till we had finished the bottle! Needless to say, when we finally reached the shore, I could hardly get out of my boat and stagger home!

In summer, the Italians would usually take their families to the seaside. One early summer’s day, I asked Ruggeiro whether he would be going to the beach. He responded with a knowing wink that he would be sending his wife to the beach with her sister and mother. I asked him whether he would be going too. ‘No, no’, he replied with a sly grin, ‘I will be staying in Rome: I will wait for the girls from Europe to come flocking for Italian lovers: they will leave their knickers behind in the Alps’, rubbing his palms together with glee! I noted that he had removed his wedding ring in anticipation; but its removal had left a thin, white, exposed band on his otherwise tanned skin. When asked whether this would not give him away, he replied with a wink and grin: ‘There’s nothing that a bit of shoe polish cannot accomplish!’

 

Babes in the Wood

At a long weekend around 1980, the few Sri Lankan families in Rome decided to have a picnic. We decided to go to the Pineta d’Ostia with its forest of pine trees, covering many square miles before reaching the sea in Ostia. It was a lonely spot in those days: my kids and I used to pack our bikes in our old station wagon and go to these woods to cycle for miles in these beautiful pine forests, which had good tarred roads, despite its loneliness. We had chosen an idyllic spot for our picnic, a clearing in the woods surrounded by trees and greenery. Our picnic lunch was a relaxed affair, lasting the whole morning and extending well into the afternoon. Much good food was eaten and much wine drunk.

The kids were playing in the clearing near us. But when we were clearing up to leave, we realized with consternation that two of our children had wandered off: Anjali, our daughter (aged five years) and a friend’s child, Gitanjali (Jayasundera) aged six. Searching in the vicinity with no results, we sent out systematic search-parties – but with no success. Becoming really worried, we thought of going to the police; but dismissed the idea because there was no police station close by. Hence, we merely intensified our search, sending out search parties in all directions.

Fortunately for us, the two children had been picked up by a police car that was cruising by in these woods. They were taken to the nearest police station, where they were questioned by the kind and concerned police men. They enquired where the children’s parents were. The children, thinking that this was all a joke made up a story that they did not know our whereabouts. The police then asked them how long they had been lost. The children fantasized that they had been roaming the forests for three whole days. The policemen asked them how they had survived for so long – to which the kids replied that they had survived by eating grass! This was too much for the policemen! They put the children in the squad car and went around the forests searching for their parents. Luckily they found us – though in deep distress. They gave us a good scolding for our carelessness, but smilingly admonished us not to send out our children to eat grass!

 

Migrants’ Tales

The first wave of migrants from Sri Lanka comprised professionals (doctors and engineers) who migrated to English-speaking countries where their (English) professional skills were recognized and valued. The second wave consisted of unemployed labour going into the non-English speaking countries – Italy, France and Germany – for manual or semi-skilled jobs, where language skills did not matter much. Usually the latter type of migration is spear-headed by the adventurers, often the ‘ne’er do wells’ who have nothing to lose; to the contrary, those with secure jobs would be afraid of undertaking such a risk at all!

Our story is about an adventurer who took the risk of migrating to Italy in the early days. He obtained a job as cook and major-domo to a rich bachelor. He had never cooked in his life. In those days (1975), Sri Lankan men never cooked at all: he was able to bungle through with the help of his indulgent employer. A month passed by – and he was still holding his job. He was keen to boast to the folks at home how well he had done in Italy. So he told friend to take a photograph. But before the photo, he arranged the pose and moved the furniture accordingly! He lay on his employer’s bed; he pulled the TV behind the bed, so that it would show in the photo. No one in his village owned a TV in those days. He pulled the two phones in the house beside his bed. Dressed in his employer’s best shirt, suit and shoes, and seeming to give important instructions over the phone, a cigarette dangling from his lips, he asked his friend to take the photograph. Needless to say, when the photo made the rounds in the village, not only was his reputation redeemed, but all the young men were jumping up and down to go to Italy!

Finally, a sad story comes to mind. By this time (around 1985), immigration to Italy had increased to a flood. Middlemen and brokers had entered the fray, promising everything from a passage to Italy to a forged visa, in return for an enormous fee. Desperately poor rural families mortgaged or sold their homes in order to finance their passage to Italy. This story is about one set of migrants who were able to find the large sums of money demanded by their agent. They were told to find their way to Hambantota where they were clandestinely loaded into a boat at night. They sailed for many days from Lanka’s shores, crossing many fishing vessels and ocean liners on their way, while some of the passengers were violently seasick.

After sailing for about a week, they at last sighted land-lights in the distance; they were told that they had reached Italy. They would land secretly at night on a thinly wooded shore; they were told to lie low for the night and to work their way to the nearest town in the morning. When morning came, they crept into the closest town in twos and threes, as instructed…… Only to find that they had landed in Hambantota – the very town from which they had departed! They had literally been taken for a ride! To add to their dismay, they had to face the shame of their village, the blame of their families and the demands of their creditors!



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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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