Saturday 22nd August, 2020
Leon Trotsky, one of the finest political writers the world has ever seen, once identified clarity and brevity as the hallmarks of good political writing. The same is true of political speeches. Professional trainers of writers and speakers insist that when one says something one has to make sure one has said it. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy statement in Parliament, on Thursday, conformed to the aforesaid yardsticks of effective communication. He came, he delivered his short speech without bellowing sententious rhetoric and went away. The occasion was devoid of customary pomp and circumstance. A great deal of taxpayers’ money must have been saved.
The President’s policy statement was not much different from what is stated in his presidential election manifesto, Vistas of Property and Splendour, on which there has been a substantive public discussion. What we found more noteworthy than anything else in the presidential address was the SLPP’s undertaking to frame a new Constitution after abolishing the 19th Amendment (19A), which has been a thorn in the side of the government. How serious is the new dispensation about introducing a brand new Constitution?
The SLPP leaders have no problem with the existing Constitution except 19A, which was tailored to the needs of the UNP leaders who wanted to prevent former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from running for President again and ruining the chances of other Rajapaksas of doing so while enabling the then Prime Minister to arrogate to himself some of the presidential powers. However, 19A has strengthened the Independent Commissions and such salutary features must be retained. President Rajapaksa had a two-thirds majority in Parliament, from 2010 to 2015, but was not keen to have a new Constitution written. Instead, he introduced the 18th Amendment to vest more powers in the executive presidency.
The framing of a constitution is a problematic process owing to devolution, which has led to the failure of several attempts to introduce constitutional reforms under previous governments. The Kumaratunga adminstration’s draft Constitution was stillborn; the LTTE had rejected it out of hand and the UNP and the JVP shot it down in Parliament subsequently. It offered to devolve more powers to the periphery in the form of regional councils. All-party talks under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government failed mainly due to issues related to devolution. The yahapalana government undertook to formulate a new Constitution but chose to fight shy of addressing the issue of devolution, and its constitution-making project was put on hold and then forgotten. It obviously did not want to take a political risk.
The present government has within its ranks opponents of the 13th Amendment, which they want scrapped because the country has done without Provincial Councils for years. It will come under international pressure to devolve more powers in case it undertakes to formulate a new Constitution. A previous Rajapaksa government offered 13 Plus, and the TNA, which is struggling to shore up its shrinking vote bank following the recent electoral setback, will have a rallying point in such an eventuality. This is something the government needs like a hole in the head.
The yahapalana government introduced 19A to further its interests, while promising a new Constitution, which became pie in the sky. The SLPP government is trying to abolish 19A for political expediency while promising to frame a new Constitution. Once this amendment is replaced with a new one tailored to the needs of the SLPP leadership, there will be no need for the government to introduce a new Constitution.
Why has the government promised to make a new Constitution? A promise is said to be like the pie crust which is made to be broken. One can only hope that the government will adopt a consensual approach to amending the Constitution, and something similar to the 18th Amendment will not be thrust upon the country.
Why tax cops to boost political egos?
Tuesday 29th September, 2020
It is only right that most of the MPs do not deserve police protection. The police are overstretched with 38,000 of its 84,000 personnel providing security to VIPs, according to Minister of Irrigation and State Minister of Interior Security Chamal Rajapaksa. There are no security threats to most politicians, who consider themselves VIPs, and police protection only helps boost their egos. There are others such as judges who need special security. High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was gunned down by an underworld gang, in 2004.
Time was when MPs became targets of terrorist outfits such as the LTTE and the JVP. Both these threats were effectively neutralised. The National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) did not target politicians, and the government is confident that it will not be able to raise its head again. Only the underworld can be considered a threat. But most politicians have not taken on the netherworld of drugs and crime and, therefore, they do not need protection against organised criminal gangs. Some of them allegedly have underworld connections.
It may not be too cynical a view that most of the so-called political VIPs will never be targeted by those who want to destabilise this country, for with them as our representatives we need no enemies. A prerequisite for eliminating crime syndicates is to sever their links with politicians.
It is being argued in some quarters that the deployment of so many police personnel for VIP security is the reason why the crime rate remains high. This is only partly true. Lack of manpower is no doubt a problem for the police, but it is only one of the several reasons why they have failed to combat crime efficiently. Criminals have emerged strong because they are in league with some police officers such as the corrupt ones who have brought the Police Narcotic Bureau into disrepute. If police stations are without enough man power to deal with criminal gangs, they can always ask for help from the Police Headquarters or pass information about criminals on to the special units that specialise in crime-busting ops. Police also steer clear of criminals due to political pressure. It has been revealed before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the Easter Sunday carnage that political pressure prevented the police from taking on the NTJ while it was preparing for terror strikes.
Police stations, however, need more personnel to perform regular tasks such as patrolling the streets, responding to emergencies and conducting investigations. Policemen are generally overworked due to a chronic shortage of man power; they must not be taxed. Therefore, most of the police personnel assigned to protect MPs and other politicians should be relieved of those duties and sent back to their stations forthwith.
Military intelligence has regained its vitality under the current dispensation. It should be able to ascertain information about organised gangs with ease. Its efficiency has become evident from the Covid-19 contact tracing operations. The police have also pulled up their socks under pressure from the Defence Ministry and are carrying out anti-underworld operations much more efficiently than in the past. What the MPs of both sides of the House should do is to call for an all-out war on the underworld to make the country safe for everyone. This is no easy task, but that must be accomplished.
Politicians should be stripped of security and made to feel as vulnerable as the ordinary people who elect and maintain them if they are to realise the need to ensure public safety.
Let the MPs who insist that they need enhanced security, be urged to heed what an intrepid Delhi High Court judge told the Indian politicians, in 2007; he asked the latter not to visit crowded places if they felt threatened. In this country, it is the people who have to be protected against politicians like the SLPP MP, who has been sentenced to death for killing an Opposition activist.
Compassion and reconciliation
Monday 28th September, 2020
Much-respected surgeon, Prof. A. H. Sheriffdeen, has given the errant members of Sri Lanka’s medical fraternity a rap on the knuckles over an unpardonable delay on the part of the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital (LRH), where a 10-year-old child with a ruptured appendix did not receive emergency surgical care. Prof. Sheriffdeen’s letter to the President of the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka, published in The Island, on Saturday (26), is tantamount to a refresher course on medical ethics for the Sri Lankan doctors who have among them some shirkers. He has pointed out how surgeons in days of yore placed duty before self and worked tirelessly day and night to save lives.
One can only hope that Prof. Sheriffdeen’s missive will have the desired impact on the errant doctors concerned, and they will mend their ways. Doctors’ trade unions that pontificate to politicians on accountability, etc., owe an explanation, and the LRH ought to conduct an investigation. We, however, hasten to add that the aforesaid unfortunate incident should not cast all the doctors at the LRH in a poor light; most of them work really hard and have even gone out of their way to save children’s lives by launching the Little Hearts project. Let them be commended for their good work. Each and every profession has its share of bad eggs, and nobody should shield them.
One of our readers in New Zealand has, in a letter published on the opposite page today, praised Prof. Sheriffdeen for having performed an emergency operation to save the life of the mother of one of his colleagues. It is an inspiring story about a successful effort by a group consisting of the members of the Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim communities to save a precious life. All of them were driven by the milk of human kindness, which alone can help the country’s reconciliation efforts reach fruition.
Reconciliation continues to elude us thanks to the self-serving politicians who make use of ethno-religious and other divisions among Sri Lankans to create block votes for them. However, let us not discuss the actions of the unspeakable. Suffice it to say that they are the real enemies of reconciliation.
‘Reconciliation’ has also become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Many outfits have sprung and taken upon themselves the task of ushering in reconciliation, which they have turned into a lucrative business with some foreign governments known for their ulterior motives showering funds on them. During the last couple of decades, we have seen quite a few conferences at five-star hotels and workshops elsewhere to promote reconciliation, but communal tensions prevail and, at times, find expression in violent clashes.
An ounce of the milk of human kindness, we reckon, is more useful and effective than all the dollars, pounds, etc., in the world put together as far as reconciliation is concerned. People should come together and do what is good for one another if true reconciliation is to be achieved.
A few moons ago, we based an editorial comment about national reconciliation on a slogan written on a trishaw—Sinhale, Demale, Marakkale tsunami wele ekama wale—which roughly rendered into English means ‘when the tsunami disaster struck, members of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities were buried together’. All the organisations that launch expensive campaigns to promote reconciliation have failed to send out a powerful message like the aforesaid one, which is also a counter to the ideology of an association calling itself Sinhale.
The present situation where national reconciliation is seemingly unattainable has come about because those who are really capable of helping achieve it have been left out.
True reconciliation will become a reality only if people care for one another regardless of their ethnicities, religions, etc. Good deeds like Prof. Sheriffdeen’s go a long way in helping achieve that goal.
Subsidised meals and police guards
There was a babble of righteous indignation when new MPs elected to the incumbent Parliament were told during an orientation session that meals served to them at the Diyawanna restaurant cost the taxpayer a cool three thousand bucks per meal though they paid only a relative pittance for what they ate. The figure, which seemed highly unlikely, was later corrected to say that a fish meal cost Rs. 950 to provide while a vegetarian meal cost Rs. 629 with MPs charged Rs. 200 per meal. In a previous comment on this subject, we said that the chances are that the entire food bill in the legislature appears to have been divided by 225 (the number of MPs) to reach the astronomical figure although it is not only the legislators who eat in Parliament. Numerous officials, policemen, the press and sundry others eat there as well knowing that they are being treated to a highly subsidized meal. Although the
Speaker promised to go into the matter and report back, nothing further was heard on the subject. So the people remain ignorant on the true situation and quite willing to believe the worst.
Now the question of the security offered to parliamentarians has cropped up with a couple of Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs saying that two police guards assigned to them is insufficient. Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, now charged with the responsibility Irrigation, Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management seems to have struck a responsive chord in the public mind saying that policemen will not be deployed “to carry files and bags of MPs.” He might have added “or answer telephones” because that is also a common chore falling on those cops assigned to security details of parliamentarians. From what the Minister said, the previous four policemen per MP has now been reduced to two and the government did not seem inclined, rightly we believe, to increase this. But there were no questions asked about numbers assigned to “special cases” including ministers, opposition personalities, and former presidents. The minister will surely be embarrassed to reveal the facts as well as the names of the privileged few.
Rajapaksa explained that it was necessary to substantially increase the protection granted to MPs, during the JVPs second adventure in the late eighties when several MPs and other political activists were literally bumped off in cold blood. There were so many of them including several MPs from both sides of the fence and others like Vijaya Kumaranatunga who might have become President as his widow, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga, did some years later, Apart from the MPs there were well known trade unionists like PD Wimalasena of the LSSP and LW Panditha of the CP. Other names that readily come to mind include Nandalal Fernando, General Secretary of the UNP and that party’s Chairman Harsha Abeywardene. Older readers might remember the grenade which did not explode flung at Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva through a verandah grill at his Kollupitiya home late in the night.
Then came the LTTE threat which was much more fearsome than its JVP predecessor with the Tigers responsible for the assassination of no less than Rajiv Gandhi, President Premadasa, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, CV Gooneratne, Ranjan Wijeratne and many more including a large number of Tamil MPs including TULF leaders like Messrs. A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparam and Tamil Congress Leader Kumar Ponnambalam. Naturally, as Minister Chamal Rajapaksa said, huge resources had to be thrown into protect national leaders and other vulnerable persons at that time. President Chandrika Kumaratunga lost an eye and barely escaped with her life in the last campaign rally she addressed prior to her re-election. An icy chill will run down the spines of all those who remember those terror-filled days. Both the JVP and LTTE terror resulted in an ever ballooning security apparatus like the Presidential, Prime Ministerial and Ministerial Security Divisions of the Police. There are necessarily special units also, like diplomatic protection. Thousands of policemen are assigned for such duties at the expense of regular law enforcement.
The extent of VIP security is usually based on threat perception. But even with such perception going sky high, as in the case of Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar, and the massive resources deployed, it was not possible to save him from the LTTE sniper who put a bullet through his head having patiently bided his time for probably months. The assassin had been holed up in the unused upper floor of a neighboring residence whose occupants did not know what was going on in a part of their house they never visited. Kadirgamar, typically, did not wish his neighbors harassed in any way and that resulted in his personal security personnel not running a fine tooth comb as they well might have had they not been prevented from so doing.
We say all this in the context of the reality that electors generally react adversely to the perks heaped on representatives sent by them particularly to Parliament. Thus the media is able to raise a great hoo haa about what their MPs are able to eat in the House restaurant and at what price. People naturally rile against security squads, sometimes converted to virtual private armies during extraordinary times, and white-gloved soldiers in VIP motorcades shooing people off the roads to make way for the high and mighty to speed by. The JVP insurrection and the civil war naturally bloated the security apparatus but does it need to remain so for all time now that the threats are gone?
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