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Campaign expenditure: How JRJ Constitution paved way for corruption



…continuing need for finger painting with indelible ink and ‘silent period’ questioned, EC reminded of risks taken by media

Text and pics by Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of Election Commission Attorney-at-Law Nimal Punchihewa on Tuesday (16) explained how the 1978 Constitution had abolished specific laws meant to ensure financial integrity of lawmakers. In terms of the pre-1978 laws, those who had acted in violation of them not only lost their parliamentary seats but civic rights, as well, Punchihewa, one-time member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, said. Punchihewa cited several examples while pointing out even the losers faced punitive measures in case of transgressions. However, the 1978 Constitution had changed the situation overnight.

 Punchihewa made the above observations at a workshop arranged by the Election Commission at its Rajagiriya Secretariat where senior lecturer Tudor Weerasinghe, Asoka Dias, Director MTV/MBC, Ariyananda Dombagahawatte, Chief Editor, Irida Lankadeepa, and Saman Sri Ratnayaka, Commissioner General of Elections, discussed the role of the media in the coverage of national election process and related matters. The opening remarks were made by Channa P de Silva, Director, research and policy planning.

 Punchihewa compared the powers enjoyed by his Commission and that of India as he explained the weakness of the EC here. Punchihewa pointed out EC in Sri Lanka lacked the power to reject even a candidate who had been found guilty by court in respect of a bribery charge.  “Therefore, we have no option but to accept nominations handed over by such persons,” he said.

Punchihewa succeeded Mahinda Deshapriya as the Chairman of EC after the last general election, in Aug 2020.

Having flayed a section of the media for pursuing agendas inimical to free and fair election process, Punchihewa emphasized the responsibility, on the part of both print and electronic media, to ensure what he called a level playing field. The media should never be a cat’s paw of racketeers. The lawyer discussed the coverage of elections in terms of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments while asserting both the print and electronic media failed to live up to expectations of those who desired neutrality on their part.

Emphasizing that any elected government should follow the basic principle that it was only the caretaker andcertainly not the proprietor, lawyer Punchihewa said that the democracy depended on free and fair elections. However, the absence of incidents on the day of the election didn’t mean a free and fair election, Punchihewa said, urging the media to respond courageously to challenging situations. Referring to Sri Lanka’s international commitments, lawyer Punchihewa said that the country couldn’t afford not to adhere to agreements, including ICCPR accepted over the years.

Pointing out that the law prevented lawmakers from engaging in business with the government, Attorney-at-Law Punchihewa mentioned two cases of members of Parliament losing their seats. Albert de Silva lost the Galle seat he won at the 1977 general election after one-time Prime Minister Wijayananada Dhanayake filed an election petition over the former having a government license to deal in kerosene, Punchihewa said. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, too, lost his seat on the same grounds though he was immediately accommodated on the UNP National List.

Punchihewa categorized the 1981 Jaffna District Development Council polls, the 1982 referendum, and the 1999 Wayamba Provincial Council poll as having had the worst abuses in Sri Lanka’s electoral history.

Citing a Supreme Court ruling in respect of a case filed against the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga putting off a scheduled election, lawyer Punchihewa said that even the President couldn’t interfere with the people’s right to exercise their franchise.

The  EC Chairman also referred to another court ruling in respect of the Army preventing those living in LTTE controlled areas from entering the ‘cleared’ area to vote at the 2001 general election to underscore the privileged status of voters to exercise their franchise under any circumstances.

 The Island

 drew the attention of EC Chairman Punchihewa to his failure to act in spite of the inordinate delay in the UNP not filling its solitary National List slot, privileged status given to ex-lawmakers to contest presidential election thereby causing a sharp increase in public expenditure (the EC was reminded its former Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya on record as having said that the cost of the 2019 presidential poll went up to Rs 8 bn from 4 bn due to doubling of the number of contestants), the Election Department/Election Commission and Parliament turning a blind eye to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ordering Northern electorate not to vote at the 2005 presidential election and recognition of the LTTE, in late 1989, as a registered political party. 

 We also sought an explanation from the EC as regards the responsibility on its part as well as that of the Parliament. The meeting was also told how the two largest political parties, represented in Parliament, the SLPP and the SJB, with 145 and 54 lawmakers, respectively, happened to be unknown political parties. The EC owed an explanation as to how registered political parties were re-registered under controversial circumstances in spite of tough measures to prevent registration of new political parties, The Island pointed out.

 Responding to criticism of the media directed by EC Chairman Punchihewa, Asoka Dias reminded the risks taken by the media in the performance of their duty. Declaring that the Dec 1999 presidential had been the first national poll that received high profile coverage by state and privately owned media, Dias recollected the Dec 18, 1999 election night suicide bomb attack directed at the then People’s Alliance final rally at the Town Hall.

The LTTE suicide attack claimed the lives of two media persons, namely Indika Paththiniwasam (Sirasa, assistant cameraman) and Anura Priyantha (ITN, assistant cameraman). In addition to them, five media men, including three foreigners, received injuries. A separate suicide attack at Ja-Ela, directed at an UNP rally, also on the same day, claimed the lives of several persons, including retired Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama.

Dias said Sirasa faced a dilemma whether to report the death of Paththiniwasam before informing his 25-year-old wife. The CID, however, found fault with Sirasa over the delay in reporting the Town Hall blast. Dias said that the ITN, too, would have been in a quandary.  “We were repeatedly asked why Sirasa has not reported the blast immediately”. Dias questioned the rationale behind the CID questioning Sirasa over the delay in reporting the blast.

Dias compared the experience gained by the Sri Lankan media in covering elections under exceptionally difficult circumstances and that of the foreign journalists. Referring to a spate of attacks on the media over the years, Dias asserted that the Sri Lankan media faced far more challenges in covering elections than their foreign counterparts.

Commenting on what Dias called lethargic attitude of political parties, he said that in 2000 Sirasa had offered three free minutes each to political parties contesting the general election. In spite of receiving free air time, Sirasa found it difficult to convince political parties to make use of the opportunity, Dias said.

 Responding to almost doubling of the public expenditure as a result of the number of candidates at the last presidential poll being closer to 40, Dias said that the electorate found it difficult to identify genuine contestants and dummy candidates.

Dias raised a number of questions including one on the usefulness of marking voters fingers with ink to prevent organised impersonation against the backdrop of national identity card or some other official document being made compulsory for voting. The Sirasa representative said that a substantial amount of public money could be saved by doing away with futile marking of little fingers. Dias emphasized the need to revisit the whole process, including the contentious of ‘silent period’ in the run-up to elections as social media platforms, satellite TV et al continued to campaign. According to him, the 48-hour ‘silent period’ was irrelevant due advancements made by the media.

Dias recollected how media openly backed selected candidates in 1902 at the Kotahena local government poll. At the first legislative council election in 1912, two newspapers backed P. Ramanathan (The Ceylonese) and Dr. H. M. Fernando (Morning Leader).

The Island 

pointed out the media had been conveniently silent on some contentious issues. The media largely remained silent when the EU alleged in 2004 the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA, won 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with the LTTE’s support. Another instance of media apathy was war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka contesting the 2010 Presidential, poll under the Swan symbol, a political party that hadn’t been represented in either local government institutions or provincial councils or Parliament. The Swan alliance contested 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and 2019 (Sajith Premadasa) presidential polls though the media never bothered to examine the story behind such political projects.

Tudor Weerasinghe explained how media, too, contributed to the gradual deterioration of public sector institution. Weerasinghe discussed the responsibility on the part of the media to recognize real issues. The failure to do so could be catastrophic, the lecturer said, urging the media to take on institutions instead of targeting individuals. Misdirected criticism of individuals could have a devastating impact on the entire electoral process, Weerasinghe warned. The academic explained how in spite of the change of governments the systems continued much to the dismay of those who expected genuine transformation. According to him, foreign electorates experienced the same dilemma.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s further deteriorated the global balance of power. Referring to the Suez Canal and Cuban missile crises, Weerasinghe pointed out how the West exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union to take unilateral decisions in respect of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Weerasinghe discussed how the media exploited situations as part of various political and other strategies regardless of consequences.  According to him, Sri Lankan media is no exception.

At the conclusion, Saman Sri Ratnayaka explained the role of the EC, difficulties and challenges as the electorates continued to expand as the system came under increased pressure. Ratnayake discussed responsibilities and accountability on their part to ensure a level playing field. The Island asked Ratnayake who would take responsibility –the EC or the parliament-for increasing the number of Local Government members from 4,000 to 8,600 at a massive unbearable burden to the taxpayer. The official explained the circumstances leading to the increase. According to him, the parliament took the decision.

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Speaker says he has no power to deal with smuggler MP



Mahinda Yapa

By Norman Palihawadane

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said on Friday that he had no powers to initiate disciplinary actions against Ali Sabri Raheem, who was arrested at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in Katunayake along with a stock of undeclared gold and mobile phones on Tuesday (May 23).

Commenting on a letter handed over to him by 20 opposition MPs seeking action against Raheem, the Speaker said that the Opposition MPs stated that Raheem had misused his MP’s privileges.In the letter, the MPs noted that Raheem had misused Parliament privileges accorded to MPs and his diplomatic passport to smuggle the undeclared goods via the VIP lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

“He has violated the Parliament-approved Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament in its entirety,” the letter said.

The group stressed that the violation of laws passed in Parliament by the MPs themselves will lead to a breakdown of trust among the public towards MPs of both the Government and the opposition.

“It may lead to a situation where the citizens will also refuse to adhere to the country’s laws,” they said.  The MPs, therefore, called on the Speaker to take strict action against the offending MP.

The request was signed by opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, several other MPs of the SJB, SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara, Supreme Lanka Coalition member MP Udaya Gammanpila, MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara and several others.

Puttalam District MP Ali Sabri Raheem was arrested at the BIA along with a stock of undeclared gold and mobile phones on May 23.

The Customs officials on duty at the airport had impounded a total of 3.5kg of undeclared gold and 91 mobile phones from the possession of the parliamentarian who was returning to the island from overseas.Later, the MP was fined Rs. 7.5 million and released on payment of same while the undeclared gold and mobile phones were confiscated.

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Lankan hospitality professional grabs top US luxury hotel job



Sanjiv Hulugalle

Sanjiv Hulugalle has been appointed Group President – Hospitality & Real Estate in May 2023 overseeing all aspects of Kohler luxury hospitality businesses and championship golf courses, the company announced.

“He provides full-scope strategic and operational leadership strength, vast global experience, and a service mindset. He possesses an outstanding track record of hiring, training, engaging, and retaining high-performing teams focused on delivering exceptional one-of-a-kind luxury resort experiences, a news release on the appointment said”.

Prior to joining Kohler, Hulugalle served as Regional Vice President and General Manager at Mauna Lani Resort, Hawaii, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection. In that role, he managed Mauna Lani along with regional responsibility for five additional properties around the world, delivering significant growth, large-scale renovations, and increased revenue.

Before that, he was the Regional Vice President and General Manager at Jumeirah Al Naseem and Madinat located in Dubai, and spent 22 years with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in general management leadership roles.

His vast work experience in the luxury resort business has led him to work in 12 countries on four continents, including Syria, Dubai, Malaysia, and China.

He holds a bachelor’s degree from the Australian College of Physical Education in Sydney and began his upwardly mobile career as a physical training instructor in the hotel industry serving a short internship at Ahungalle Hotel during his university period.Sanjiv is the son of Mr. Arjuna and Mrs. Sally Hulugalle of Colombo.

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Guardian report harshly critical of working conditions on tea estates



More than 300,000 people work in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations

Tetley says it has suspended work on some central estates

The respected British newspaper, Guardian last week ran a story strongly critical of Sri Lanka’s once British-owned tea industry focusing on its poorly paid labour force and the harsh living conditions they are forced to tolerate.The report was headlined: “We give our blood so they live comfortably’: Sri Lanka’s tea pickers say they go hungry and live in squalor.” It reported that Some of the world’s leading tea manufacturers, including Tetley and Lipton, are examining working conditions on the plantations of its Sri Lankan suppliers, following a Guardian investigation.

The report quoted Tetley saying it had suspended work with some central Sri Lankan estates while it conducted its own inquiries. Ekaterra, which owns Lipton and PG Tips, said it was in contact with the Rainforest Alliance over the findings. Yorkshire Tea, another company that sources tea from the estates the Guardian visited, said it was speaking to the plantations concerned.

Two global trade-certification schemes, Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance, are also conducting inquiries after it was revealed that some workers on 10 certified estates could not afford to eat and were living in squalid conditions, Guardian said.

Some of the pickers said they had so little money that they were having to skip meals and felt forced to send their children to work, the Guardian report said.

More than 300,000 people work in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, which are mainly in the mountainous Central Highlands. In 2022, the industry generated £1.079bn in exports.

Some of the pickers said they had so little money that they were having to skip meals and felt forced to send their children to work, the report said.It was replete with quotations from workers complaining of harsh working conditions and poor remuneration. A sample:

Workers claimed some estate supervisors have tried to underpay workers. Lakshman Devanayagie, 33, said: “Even if we pick good tea leaves, they will say it’s not good enough, and they will tip it out, or that they are going to cut our pay.

“If we give them five kilos of tea leaves, they will only pay us for two or three. When we ask them, they say, ‘we’re doing as we’re told, so why don’t you do as you’re told?’,” she said, adding that she felt suicidal at times.

Rangasamy Puwaneshkanthy lives with her husband and three children in the hills above one tea estate. She said has had to take out loans to pay for food and regularly missed meals, adding that she often chose to forgo buying sanitary towels so she could buy food for her children.

“If there’s no food at home, then I don’t take any to work. I tell them [supervisors] I’m going home for a bit and then come back, because I can’t watch other people eating,” Puwaneshkanthy said.

She said pressure to pick quickly meant that she did not have time to watch out for leeches, which are common in the damp climate. Last year, her leg became infected from one and she had to walk for an hour to see a doctor because she could not afford a rickshaw ride.

“If we stop to pick the leech off, then we’ll be one kilo down – that’s how we’re thinking when we work,” said Puwaneshkanthy.

“We don’t know what to do. We’re working on the estate, but we have no salary. What are we meant to do?”

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