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Being blooded into the Ceylon Army in 1971

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Gotabaya R was in that officer intake

By Maj Gen (Rtd) Nanda Mallawaarachchi VSV

History bears evidence that the consolidation of a security arm of any country has its origins in a crisis.

In Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, it fell on the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, to face an insurrection by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna better idenfified as the JVP. Through attacks on Police Stations that began on April 5, 1971, their abortive attempt to overthrow a lawfully elected government began with an attempt to seize weapons.

Using shotguns, locally turned-out Gal Kattas and other improvised weapons they attacked the Wellawaya Police Station pre-dawn. Whether this launch was the result of mixed up communications or not, it did alert both the Police and the Armed Forces

Whether this group received wrong information regarding the date of the attack is arguable. Whatever the case, the JVP’s overall strategy and tactics utilized failed to overthrow the government. Unlike the present day, the Armed Forces of the 70s were miniscule in comparison. The Police Force was the main bastion of the state. To overcome future eventualities, Mrs. Bandaranaike took the crucial decision to expand the then Ceylon Army. As a result, 30 officer cadets, the largest contingent since the inception of the Ceylon Army, were recruited on April 26, 1971. It was to be Officer Cadet Intake 4. Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa was among them.

I was fortunate to join 29 other school leavers to embark on an epic journey. Having reported to the Army Recruiting Officer at Army Head Quarters on Lower Lake Road (later Baladasksha Mawatha), we went through the enlistment procedure. We were now officially Officer Cadets with Cadet number C/51183 assigned to me including a princely monthly salary of SLR 430.00.

After being accommodated in a billet at the Headquarter Company of the Army HQ, we were served dinner. On the following day all of us were bundled into a rickety old Army bus for the journey to the Army Training Centre (ATC) in Diyatalawa. We were escorted all the way to the ATC by a dashing young Captain. We never saw him again until we passed out as officers and joined our respective regiments. (Later we recognised this dashing Captain as the “Aide-de Camp” to the then Army Commander, Major General Sepala Attygalle.

The bus ride to Diyatalawa was of course the time for dreams. A smart jungle green uniform with umpteen pips on the shoulders, sitting rigidly in an Army jeep being driven around was a favourite scene for all of us. Talk about pies in the sky! Instead of jeeps, we were carted around in a WW II era 4T transporter in which the tailgate was never lowered. Getting in and out of this vehicle was therefore a challenge. Cursing and swearing during this high risk manoeuvre was a regular norm for us in addition to being ingrained with the military term “debussing”!

Diyatalawa was a different kettle of fish to what we were used to where the weather was concerned. If it was shock tactics we were supposed to be subjected to, then it worked perfectly. It was freezing cold during nights. The blankets, probably of World War I vintage, did little to keep us warm. The next day after the attendance being noted, we were issued with the Universal Army Kit Bag, better know as the “Ali Kakula” and the AFQ-1 items issued to a recruit. These consisted of basic items such as an aluminium plate, a mug, a mess tin etc. Various types of uniforms were also issued including berets, cap badges, collar badges and the likes.

Once the “kit issue” parade was concluded and the newly acquired items packed inside the “Ali Kakula“, it weighed at least 20 kg. The fun had just begun! We were then taken on a “camp visit” with strict orders for the “Ali Kakula” to be held over our heads. It was however not a walk in the park but a camp tour “on the double”, a medium paced jogging speed. The “Ali Kakula” was not allowed to be kept on the ground at any time during the “Observation tour”. What a spectacle we would have made; dressed formally in shirt, formal trousers and neck-tie carrying the Universal Kit Bag over our heads.

Ten minutes were allocated for us thereafter to change into out PT kits and report. There we were, punctually, in white shorts, white T shirt, white socks and white canvas PT shoes for the next round of manoeuvres. Frog-jumps, Forward rolls and the likes were thereafter executed under the hawk eyes of the Under Officer from Intake 3. The initial briefing in the Cadets’ Café by the Chief Instructor, Major SP De Silva of the CLI, still echoes in the writer’s mind. “Gentlemen, welcome to the Ceylon Army” he said. “We will break you and re-make you in such a manner that nobody, repeat nobody, will be able to break you ever again!”

For three long months thereafter it was being “ground into the ground”. Gruelling lessons, drill, parades and the deadly billet and uniform inspections. We spent most nights in a foxhole (two-man trench) defending the camp with rain and freezing cold as team members. It was a miracle that nobody lost teeth due to the constant chattering. There was no respite in the mornings thereafter. Roll call was once again at 0530h. The camp buglers ensured that we were up prior to the rooster’s call.

PT, ablutions and breakfast thereafter was the routine. Half a loaf of bread, pol sambol and gravy with a banana thrown in; was the gourmet breakfast menu, day in day out. We ate fast as the small amount of gravy in the plate might otherwise have evaporated. All movements during this time within the camp were “on the double”. The entire batch of officer cadets would be moving “on the double” from the billet to the mess hall, from the mess hall to the training area, from the training area to the lecture hall etc. Dozing off during lectures was a norm for some due to physical fatigue. The Spartans from the days of yore would have been proud of our training regime.

By the third week of this “breaking us” (prior to remaking us), we had hit an extreme situation where morale was concerned. “Decamping” was a common topic of discussion amongst us. One cadet threw in the towel during the first week; he could not take it anymore. The initial financial bond which we all had to sign at “A” Branch of Army HQ, compelling us to pay a proportionate amount to the Army in the event we resigned, might have been psychological balm that motivated some cadets to carry on. By and by, we gradually got used to the training whereas rules allowed us to “march” instead of moving “on the double” between venues after the first month.

Teachers form an integral part of anything taught. A teacher could make the training interesting and absorbing or make it lacklustre for the student not to learn at all. We had a batch of disciplined instructors of sterling quality who ensured that we learnt all that was supposed to be learnt. Discipline in parallel was ingrained into us from day one. The Commandant of the then Army Training Centre (ATC), was none other than Lt. Col. Denis Perera (later the Army Commander), a stickler for discipline. No slack was tolerated at any time. He would occasionally visit us during our theory classes held at that time in the Cadets’ Café. You could hear a pin drop during the silence that followed.

The military lecturer, after obtaining permission, would carry on with the lecture. Any cadet dozing off, would suddenly be jolted back to life when his name was fired after a question was posed by the Commandant himself. He was omniprescent, his rough and commanding voice unmistakable. He would drive around the cantonment in his personal vehicle. The Mercedes Benz with its registration number 5 Sri 111, is still etched in this writer’s mind.

We learnt tactics, fieldcraft, map reading and current affairs. Leadership studies of course overarched all courses. Military tactics such as defilading, enfilading and reverse slope manoeuvres began to haunt us thereafter in our dreams. WO 2 Peris of the Armoured Corps, as the “Cadet Wing” Se argent Major, equipped with the pace stick, taught us drill. Corporal Dassanayake of the Signal Corps was the specialist teacher on signals theory and practices. Corporal Cyril the PT Instructor made us physically fit and robust. Gymnastics, “horse work” and rope climbing were to become a norm during this time. Corporal Cyril also took us on walks and runs up to the Diyatalawa City Marker in the direction of Haputale. Corporal Wreeves, the explosives expert from the Engineers taught us the use of minor explosive devices. He also had the dubious honour of checking us inside the foxholes at night and meting out punishment to whoever was caught sleeping.

Corporal Thusiman, the perpetual disciplinarian, was ever ready to mete out extra punishments. Corporal Boyagoda was the compassionate one checking on our wellbeing at all times. While we were busy during military drill at the Parade Square, our billets were inspected by the Under Officer or Course Commander for orderliness and cleanliness. Anything “out of line, balance and sheen” was rewarded with “pack-drill” during afternoons and night.

Weapon training was another adventure. We were issued the 22 during the first term and trained to shoot at indoor targets at 50y meters. Later we used the legendary Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle (known as the “Smellie” during WW II), better known as the 303, with five rounds in the magazine. Natural sense prevailed when adjusting the sights. It was “click-up” or “click-down” for elevation during sighting. We developed a healthy respect for the weapon. Woe betide anybody having a space between the rifle butt and “anterior deltoid” during prone firing exercises. The 303’s recoil was so powerful that a mule kick, in comparison, could have been considered a pleasant experience.

It was a miracle there were no broken shoulder blades. The bayonet and the 303 were also a deadly combination. We were mighty careful during rifle drill, especially during “slope arms” with the bayonet fitted. The bayonet would have pierced the right cheek had we not been careful. We used the 303 even as officers in the various units till the advent of the “self-loading rifle” era. The 303 was used for Inter Unit Firing Competitions where we had to hit the “bull” on a 10’ x 10’ target at 1000 yards. The “click-up” and “click-down” adjustments came in handy during these extreme distances.

We were allowed to leave the camp for a day out after our first term of training. Terms and conditions still applied. We could only go out in pairs. We had to keep step when walking and walk abreast. Polished shoes, smart trousers, pressed long sleeved shirt, neck tie and blazer were a must. The writer remembers getting “Seiyathu” the tailor, to sew his blazer. It was a matter of undertaking a couple of fittings before the blazer was ready. The day out was of course memorable. We would make a dash to Bandarawela by bus; a one way ticket cost 30 cents. The Chinese Restaurant operated by Mr. Lee was one of our favourite haunts. A bottle of beer was Rs 6.00 whereas a sumptuous meal was Rs. 9.00. The Hidaya Bakery was another restaurant we used to frequent. We would walk the entire length of the Main Road from the Bus stand, past the Market building down to Cyril Studio and back to get on the bus for the return to the Camp.

We were taken to Lahugala for a thirty-three day “Jungle Training” during our final term of training. Captain Wijaya Wimalaratne (posthumously promoted to Major General in 1992) who had returned from Malaysia after having followed the Malayan Jungle Course was to be our instructor. The then Malayan Army having fought a long drawn jungle warfare campaign had managed to defeat communist insurgents. This experience had been condensed into a few jungle warfare books and pamphlets and published. These publications would initially serve as basic theory for us.

Captain Wimalaratne was to conduct the practical training for us. He had designed and built a “Jungle Base” consisting of a billet for thirty officer cadets, accommodation for the officer instructors, other rank Instructors and cook house etc. The base was located adjacent to the ‘Heda Oya’, thereby ensuring a regular supply of clean water.

The cadets divided into three sections were taken into elephant infested jungle, progressively penetrating deeper and deeper into the dense foliage where the jungle canopy did not even allow the sun to penetrate and where advancing even a metre required the use of machetes. Ambushing the enemy, counter ambushing drills, Immediate Action drills (IA Drills) etc. were the norms during this time. It was 33 days of hell. The conditions were exacerbated due to real life scenarios. There was no possibility of bathing for up to five days. Drinking water was limited and carried in our water canteens. The only food allowed was “meal ready to eat” (MRE), where the quantities consisted of no more than two to three tablespoons.

The Jungle Warfare Training started during the Intake 4 era, morphed from the initial embryo stage into a fully functional streamlined, professional training in later years. The credit for organizing and streamlining this training goes to the late Major General Wijaya Wimalaratne, who was known as “Jungle Wimale” amongst our batch mates.

We started rehearsals for the “Passing out Parade” (POP) exactly two months prior to the event. This was to be the hightpoint of our training and subsequent graduation. We were eager to become commissioned officers. All rehearsals included the sword and the scabbard. The sword of course symbolised “the commission” presented by the Governor General of Ceylon. Full dress rehearsals were held two to three weeks prior to the event again so that we were fully versed with the process and utilization of full regalia. The Hon. Lakshman Jayakody (Deputy Minister of Defence) was the Chief Guest at the POP. Nineteen cadets passed out in 1972 as Second Lieutenants. We were officers of the Ceylon Army. Our pride knew no bounds! The commissioning dinner was thereafter held at the Ceylinco House (opposite the Central Bank) in Colombo which at that time was the tallest building in the country.

As new commissioned officers, we had the option of joining a unit of our choice. This of course was based on the number of vacancies in that particular unit and our aptitude for the unit’s speciality. Most got their chosen unit whereas some did not. However all batchmates settled in where they were posted to develop a professional military career. The writer was posted to the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI), an ambition fulfilled. This would be the start once again of other specialised training for us, the freshly baked Second Lieutenants. The training in Diyatalawa was a foundation at the beginning of a career. It broke us in a way and remoulded us to fit a specific role. We were taught never to give up and to find options and solutions. Now, light years away from the gruelling training we can look back at those days with nostalgia.

Us batchmates, were many and we definitely were different. Some were physically strong, some mentally. Each had his own strengths and weaknesses. We managed to amalgamate into a strong group and exploit our strengths, which were to prove crucial in later years. We managed to provide moral strength to each other. Whatever was thrown at us, good or bad, was accepted with courage and purpose. We never looked down on our colleagues until unless it was, literally, to give them a helping hand.

Our batch accepted all challenges that came our way in life. Some of us rose to the highest ranks in the military. We served our country and proved ourselves in combat with heads held high. Let us also bow our heads for a moment in silence to remember the batchmates not with us today. Some of us upon retirement from our “employer” went on to accept other challenges. “The batch” produced Secretaries of various Ministries, Directors-General of Departments and Ambassadors who represented the country. Intake 4 should also be the proudest batch of Officer Cadets.

Officer Cadet C/51185, our batchmate of Intake 4, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, went on to become the nation’s Defence Secretary and subsequently the incumbent Executive President! Allow me, on behalf of the entire Intake 4, to wish His Excellency, the best in fulfilling his duties. Thus a saga undertaken in 1971 has continued to this day. Strong foundations laid 50 years back have enabled us to build even stronger structures throughout our journeys in life.



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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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