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Constitutions and amendments

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By Neville Ladduwahetty

The 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution has become a topic of spirited debate and discussion. Much of it is generated by misunderstanding the true intent of 20A. It should not be a durable amendment to the Constitution. Instead, it should be temporary, until a comprehensive new Constitution is developed and presented to the nation.

Until then, 20A should serve as a stop gap for the Executive President to address the unprecedented challenges the country has to face following the COVID-19 pandemic. With this in mind, the intent of 20A should be to either repeal those provisions that had been introduced by the 19th Amendment to seriously dilute executive powers as admitted by the framers of 19A or to repeal 19A altogether and restore the executive powers the President had under the 1978 Constitution. It is only by removing the constraints that exist under 19A that the President would be in a position to address the daunting challenges that lie ahead. Without strengthening the hand of the Executive, the formidable task of social and economic recovery that the country is compelled to face because of the global pandemic would be a near impossibility.

 

THE NEED for 20A

The two most formidable issues that should engage the full attention of the government and the nation are:

(1) The need to continue with the very effective measures adopted to contain COVID-19 in order to prevent the possibility of a resurgance.

(2) The absolute urgency to revive the seriously depressed economy, brought about nationally and globally by the pandemic.

As far as the first issue is concerned, the government has demonstrated very effectively that it has the capabilities and organizing abilities to implement procedures and practices to maintain the health of the nation to such a degree that the President and the Sri Lankan nation have received international acclaim. An equally encouraging aspect is the support extended by the public to the call of the government to practice the health safeguards recommended by the government. What the government and the nation have collectively achieved is a shining example to the world for which we as a nation could be proud of.

The elephant in the room is how to revive the depressed economy. While the measures that need to be adopted are bound to test the skills and ingenuities of the entire nation, an equally important factor that would have a direct bearing is the freedom for the government, in particular the President and the executive branch, to act without being constrained by the fetters introduced by 19A.

There is no denying the fact that 19A was introduced with the deliberate intent of diluting executive powers of the President. In fact, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne P.C., (Dr. JW) referring to 19A, has admitted that the initial attempt was “to completely abolish the Presidential system of government”. This attempt failed because the Supreme Court ruled that the intended attempt would require a referendum. The end result was the compromised version of 19A. According to Dr. JW, “The experience under 19A clearly showed the need to completely abolish the Presidential form of government and move towards a Parliamentary form…” (The Island, September 8, 2020).

The approach should not be to analyze which Article should be amended and to what degree, since such an exercise would not only be time consuming but also would add to the confusion that already exists in 19A. Instead, the approach should be to undo the entirety of 19A, and for the executive power of the President that had existed under the 1978 Constitution to be restored, for the simple reason that tough measures are needed to overcome the economic black hole Sri Lanka is in, the likes of which the nation as a whole has never seen.

The argument that such an approach would restore what is often described as draconian executive power amounting to a Presidential dictatorship that had existed under the 1978 Constitution, is unfounded if one realizes the full impact of the economic catastrophe the nation is currently facing. The situation is so dire that the bulk of the nation is more concerned with the basics of existence and survival rather than about niceties of Democracy and Good Governance that only the fortunate few could afford to be concerned about.

 

THE NEED for a NEW CONSTITUTION

Having addressed the short term issues, the next is the long term issue of a new Constitution. The genesis for 19A and 20A is the 1978 Constitution. Therefore, any anomalies and contradictions that exist in amendments invariably are a result of anomalies and contradictions in the 1978 Constitution. Describing the system of government under the 1978 Constitution, Dr. JW quotes Dr. Colvin R. De Silva as having described the 1978 Constitution “as a constitutional presidential dictatorship dressed in the raiment of a parliamentary democracy’ (Ibid). The comment is justified because the 1978 Constitution has features of Presidential and Parliamentary systems, notwithstanding that each represents one of the two ideologically completely different systems of government by which practically all democracies are governed. If such contrasting systems are incorporated in a single constitution confusion is inevitable, as evident from the 1978 Constitution and its related amendments. Therefore, the framers of a new constitution should endeavour to base it on either one or the other, a Presidential or a Parliamentary system, but certainly not a mix of both.

 

PARLIAMENTARY and PRESIDENTIAL

FORMS of GOVERNMENT

Under a Parliamentary system, Parliament is supreme and as described in the 1972 Constitution is the “supreme instrument of State Power”. This means that Parliament is responsible for Legislative and Executive functions. A few members of Parliament are selected by the Prime Minister to form the Cabinet of Ministers to exercise the executive functions of the government. Consequently, the Cabinet of Ministers is responsible and answerable to Parliament.

On the other hand, under a Presidential system, the cardinal principle is the separation of Legislative and Executive power. This separation is underscored by the fact that each branch is separately elected by the people and responsible for the exercise of separate powers, namely Legislative and Executive. This separation is clearly outlined in Articles 4 (a) and 4 (b) respectively, of the 1978 Constitution.

Article 4 (a) states: “the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by parliament…”.

Article 4 (b) states: “the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President…”.

Commenting on the executive power of the people, the Supreme Court in S.D. No. 04/2015 stated: “It is in this background that the Court in the Nineteenth Amendment Determination came to a conclusion that the transfer, relinquishment or removal of the power attributed to one organ of government to another organ or body would be inconsistent with Article 3 read with Article 4 of the Constitution. Though Article 4 provides the form and manner of the sovereignty of the people, the ultimate act or decision of the executive functions must be retained by the President. So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and to others to whom such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise the Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President”.

On the other hand, Article 43 (1) states: “There shall be a Cabinet of Ministers charged with the direction and control of the Government of the Republic which shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament”.

Commenting on Article 43 (1) the Supreme Court in the same case, S.D. No. 04/2015 stated: “This important Article underscores that the Cabinet collectively is charged with the exercise of Executive power, which is expressed as the direction and control of the Government of the Republic and the collective responsibility of Cabinet of which the President is the Head. It establishes conclusively that the President is not the sole repository of Executive power under the Constitution. It is the Cabinet of Ministers collectively, and not the President alone, which is charged with the direction and control of the Government.

 

This Cabinet is answerable to Parliament. Therefore, the Constitution itself recognizes that Executive power is exercised by the President and by the Cabinet of Ministers, and that the President shall be responsible to Parliament and the Cabinet of Ministers, collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament with regard to the exercise of such powers…”.

It is evident from the opinions cited above that the powers of the President depend on whether he acts under provisions of Article 4 (b) or Article 43 (1). For instance, under provisions of 4 (b) the “President as the Head of the Executive is sovereign in the executive field”. However, if the President acts under provisions of Article 43 (1) the Court stated that “the Constitution itself recognizes that Executive power is exercised by the President and by the Cabinet of Ministers”. The potential for such contrasting interpretations that exist in the 1978 Constitution have been blindly repeated in 19A without regard for their relevance or irrelevance.

Another serious contradiction often overlooked is that a President elected by the People should be recognized as being co-equal with Parliament under provisions of separation of power. Therefore, the President cannot be responsible to another organ of government– the Parliament. Furthermore, if the Cabinet of Ministers derive their authority from the President as interpreted by the Supreme Court, the Cabinet cannot be responsible and answerable to Parliament either. Under the circumstances, Article 33A that calls for the President to be responsible to Parliament “for the due exercise performance and discharge of his powers, duties and functions” is a violation of the principle of separation of power.

The few examples cited above amply demonstrate that while the framework of the 1978 Constitution is essentially Presidential, it has sufficient elements of a Parliamentary Democracy to warrant the Judiciary from giving contrasting opinions depending on which Article it interprets. This ambiguity requires Sri Lanka to adopt either a Presidential or a Parliamentary system, but not a mix of both systems. Despite the fact that such contradictions have been brought to the attention of the public, confusion has reigned uninterrupted. Therefore, the need is for Parliament to vote on which system of government is best suited to govern Sri Lanka. Furthermore, when formulating a new constitution, it is also recommended that a fresh approach be incorporated to devolve power to the smallest practical workable unit in order to strengthen operations in the periphery.

 

CONCLUSION

According to media reports the intention of the government is to introduce the 20th Amendment. Indications are that each Article would be reviewed and amended where necessary. Such an exercise is bound to repeat the contradictions in 19A because the framers mechanically copied provisions from the 1978 Constitution without understanding what separation of power is all about in a Presidential system. Therefore, it is best to repeal 19A completely, and go back to the powers exercised by the President under the 1978 Constitution as a stop gap measure until a new constitution is formulated. Such an interim measure is vital in order to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 and to equip the executive with necessary powers to revive the depressed economy.

Critics to such an approach may consider it to be the death knell to Parliamentary democracy. What such critics forget is that the country is in such dire straits economically, that drastic measures need to be introduced if the country is to get back to some degree of normalcy. Proof of the merits of such an approach is evident from the uncompromising measures successfully adopted by the government to contain COVID-19; a fact acknowledged internationally. The reversal to the past is intended to be only until such time that a new constitution is tabled and adopted by Parliament and the People at a referendum.

In summary, the essence of the recommendation is for the 20A to define a clear two-step approach. Step One is to repeal all of 19A and strengthen the hand of the President and the executive with necessary powers to address all issues relating to COVID-19, and to also adopt all necessary measures to revive the economy. Step Two is for Parliament to vote and give clear direction as to whether the new constitution should be based on a Presidential or Parliamentary system to address all issues relating to good governance in all respects. Adopting such a clear cut approach without ambiguities would enable Sri Lanka to be free of the current fog of confusion, and embark on a fresh Chapter in her history.

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Features

Beyond constitutional politics and polemics

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster greet one another upon Pompeo’s arrival at the airport in New Delhi on Monday. PTI

by Austin Fernando

All quandaries on constitutional amendments are now over with an impressive victory for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the country looks forward to the implementation of the 20th Amendment (20A), to serve the people more efficiently, effectively, and economically.

Although Minister of Justice Ali Sabry declared that all 20A provisions had been in the JR Jayewardene Constitution previously, there were a few differences. Considering the volume of amendments, this stance is passable, though not exact. My observation is that Presidents Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa performed effectively in comparison to attain their development objectives through the 1978 Constitution.

Governmental performance

Economic performance is an essential ingredient in political performance and management. It is because the economics of development under all regimes has been an evaluation yardstick and also publicly questioned.

Performance by Presidents, Prime Ministers and governments are not guided and determined only by Constitutions. If Constitutions could facilitate smooth performance, why didn’t it happen during tenures of all Presidents exercising power according to the 1978 Constitution? Until 2009, they had failed to defeat terrorism. Corruption increased. The economic morass continued.

The development of a country hinges on the quality of political and business leadership, national security/stability, research/ technological /educational standards, labour legislations, foreign direct investments, foreign assistance/aid, environmental soundness, diplomacy, international political behavior, and positive responses. The Constitution could boost development, but it alone is not sufficient.

Successes do not preclude criticisms that were aplenty against the aforesaid three Presidents. Some criticisms were even acceptable as regards the moral decadence due to the open economy, proliferation of dangerous drugs, or the construction of an unoptimizable port, airport and other such infrastructural projects and debt traps.

 

Human rights

One criterion for foreign assistance is a country’s respect for human rights. I may quote Rights watchdog Meenakshi Ganguly, of Human Rights Watch- South Asia, to prove this point. After the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, she said: “The Sri Lankan government needs to hear that other countries are watching and will respond to renewed abuses.” This threat has not gone away.

Such issues will be taken up when the UNHRC meets in early 2021. Britain has already decided to withdraw the LTTE ban. Additionally, anti-China attitudes could lead to the harassment of Sri Lanka even indirectly. Contrarily, the Chinese have given assurances of bailing us out.

Even after the passage of 20A, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot expect to be exempted from such attitudes, rules, and standards. I will highlight some immediate reactions experienced with selected internationals. The way foreign powers have responded to the incumbents after the presidential and parliamentary elections will be a guide to observe the trends.

 

India

Immediately after the presidential election, India showed up in Colombo. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also positively responded and the traditional first destination visit was to Delhi. Former President Maithripala Sirisena also did so, followed by another for the second inauguration of PM Modi.

Such visits provide opportunities to evaluate silently how foreign powers respond. I had the privilege of participating in all three visits by Presidents Sirisena and Rajapaksa. President Sirisena’s first visit was considered by Indians as a grand opportunity for novel openings and approaches, having experienced a deterioration of diplomatic relations under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.

However, the agreement signed by Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Sushma Swaraj in 2017, concerning several large-scale projects, apparently to spite Chinese political/economic interference in Sri Lanka, did not reach fruition. Indians did not forgive the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government although formal relations were maintained respectfully.

The difference in diplomatic relations is reflected in many ways. This was seen from how PM Modi responded when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited India in November 2019. Their one-on-one meeting lasted 55 minutes, and India offered US dollar 450 million to Sri Lanka in assistance. Perhaps, body chemistry of the two leaders clicked. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa once criticised Indians for having contributed to his defeat in 2015. India has proved that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in foreign relations, and it is only the mutual interests that matter.

Indians expected the fast-tracking of projects related to the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), the Mattala Airport, and Trinco Petroleum Tanks. But there has been no positive follow-up even eleven months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s discussions with PM Modi. The COVID-19 pandemic could be one reason for this delay. But a fresh dialogue is necessary if India is to be kept in the development loops.

Recently, PM Modi offered a $15-million grant for the promotion of Buddhist cultural exchanges, but his officers are slow in finalizing requests for a debt moratorium and an additional $1.1-billion assistance discussed during the visits of Rajapaksa brothers in November 2019 and February 2020. Positively, the Reserve Bank of India signed a swap of $400 million. If such needs are not met, the vacuum will be filled by another.

For comparison, Indian External Affairs Minister committed a 100-million-dollar grant and a project loan of 400 million dollars to the Maldives in mid-August this year, showing assistance did not depend on demography, revenue generation, or socio-economy, but on other priorities. The swift assistance to the Maldives and the delay in responding to our request may be conveying a message that should be heard and understood by Sri Lanka.

I quote another Indian investment in Bangladesh for comparison. The Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority was ready (mid-2020) to start site development for an Indian Special Economic Zone, where billions of dollars in investment were expected from India. Sri Lanka was not so fortunate even though such potential was in the 2017 agreement. The government must learn from Bangladesh experience.

China

Quite the opposite response was shown by the Chinese who have already handed over 500 million dollars (March 2020). When the Chinese Minister Wang Yi met Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the latter thanked China for its consistent contribution to Sri Lanka’s development process as well as their support at numerous regional and international fora, like the UNHRC. China and Russia have been helpful throughout.

Chinese involvement in infrastructure development has drawn severe criticism. This is something common throughout the world as regards the Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Another Chinese intervention took place recently when Senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who reportedly said: “Sri Lanka will firmly commit itself to deepening friendship with China, and is willing to make every effort to press forward the key BRI cooperation projects such as the Colombo Port City and the comprehensive development of the Hambantota Harbour.” This would not have pleased the Indians and Americans, and even the Japanese, who recently lost a light rail investment project here.

When Yang met PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, just after the latter’s discussion with PM Modi, the PM thanked China’s support for combating COVID-19, adding that China’s strong support in various fields had helped Sri Lanka strengthen its capacity to resume work and production amid the pandemic.

Finally, it was revealed that China would also help mitigate the financial crisis faced by Sri Lanka.

The Framework of the Strategic Cooperative Partnership between China and Sri Lanka embarked on, in 2013, gave hope of advantages through development but achievements have been slow in coming. The recent high-level Chinese visit here points to a desire to accelerate it. It must be noted that such interventions with other countries (e. g. India) were slow. The delay between bureaucratic decision-making and politicized decision-making could be the reason.

 

USA, Quad, and influences

 

The incredibly positive relations build-up by Yang Jiechi is followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Colombo. While arrangements were being made for Pompeo’s visit, the US announced that it would urge Sri Lanka “to make ‘difficult but necessary choices’ on its economic relations”. The reference to difficult economic relations invariably meant the partnering with China. The MCC is another project the US is interested in.

The US spokesperson made it abundantly clear, saying “We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices.” Media reports show that this message was partially conveyed to several Ministers by the American Ambassador Toeplitz when she met them.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the comments as a manifestation of the “Cold War mentality.” Its spokesman Zhao Lijian responded, “Attempts to use coercion to obstruct normal cooperation between countries will not succeed.”

Concurrently, Mike Pompeo has recently suggested (after the Tokyo Quad meeting) that the Quad should be institutionalized: “We [Quad members] can begin to build out a true security framework” for the Indo-Pacific. He also described the Quad as the “fabric” that could “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents to all of us.” It is clear Pompeo is gathering support against China.

In this context, meeting Pompeo after Yang Jiechi will be an embarrassment for Rajapaksas. In fact, a few months ago CCP was considered as a guide for their political party. Yet, the US will see whether Sri Lanka is prepared to counter the CCP challenges and to what extent. This is not surprising especially after India agreeing to sign a military agreement with the USfor sharing of sensitive satellite data and conducting a dialogue to counter China’s growing power in the region. It may be appropriate for Sri Lanka to remain cautious.

As commentators say, Chinese behaviour and attempts to re-order the region have caused concern among the Quad members. They believe that Quad may have to discuss a rule-based big picture of the Indo-Pacific Region, especially how to reshape China’s behaviour, and under what conditions they would reassess China as a responsible stakeholder. Pompeo is here after the Quad Foreign Ministers Meeting in Tokyo. Given this situation, how Sri Lanka should deal with him is a challenge.

 

Diplomatic conflicts and us

Countries like Sri Lanka sometimes become playing fields for powerful countries. US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz recently said that the US goal “in responding to this request (MCC) is to alleviate poverty and to boost inclusive economic growth” and identifying Sri Lanka as “a sovereign leader in maritime security”, which are indisputably favourable recognition of Sri Lanka.

But her statement “Sri Lanka should engage with China in ways that protect its sovereignty” angered China, which responded directly. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo stated that “with great shock and strong discontent, the embassy learned about the US Ambassador’s interview with a local newspaper, in which a foreign envoy from a third country openly played off China-Sri Lanka relations and severely violated the diplomatic protocol.” The Chinese are extraordinarily concerned with the US violating Sri Lanka’s diplomatic protocols. Having been a High Commissioner myself, I await such bold statements from our Ambassadors in the US or China, even violating diplomatic protocols, when a situation arises with these two governments! Am I waiting for Godot!

Further, the Chinese statement said: “Both China and Sri Lanka as independent countries have full right to develop relations with foreign countries according to our own need and will.” This reminds me of a past Chinese intervention in Bhutan. It is an example where the Chinese while seeking to mend relations with Bhutan, to make India lose ground, dropped Chinese tourist arrivals after the Doklam standoff, because Bhutan did not stand with China. It was a warning to Bhutan about the country’s vulnerability. At that point, the “full right to develop relations” with India was tabooed by China for Bhutan!

Bhutan’s obligations to act according to the Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan (8-8-1949) calling for peace between them and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs and the additional agreement by Bhutan to let India “guide” its foreign policy and consultative action on foreign and defense affairs were not considered by the Chinese, as the legal “need and will” of Bhutan.

Similarly, India’s wrath was unleashed (2012) when the then Bhutanese PM Jigme Thinley met the Chinese PM, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit. India retaliated by withdrawing fuel subsidies to Bhutan. New Delhi’s heavy-handed response was deeply resented by Bhutan.

We complain of powerful countries using the proverbial stick, but these examples show that anyone could be the perpetrator to satisfy his needs. Let us be realistic without resorting to rhetoric, which emanate from boisterous politicians mostly- even ministers.

The Chinese strongly suggested “the US quit the addiction of preaching others and applying double standards” and named four areas of misdeeds, i. e. slandering, pretending as the guardian of free trade while violating the WTO rulings, holding high the banner of transparency, and smearing others’ normal cooperation against sovereignty, while militarily misbehaving and imposing unilateral sanctions. Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines or Taiwanese in China Sea or Indians in Ladakh may blame the Chinese for not adhering to some of these principled behaviours and preaching to the US. Can Sri Lanka challenge President Xi on the same lines?

 

Conclusion

I quoted the aforesaid references to point out the difficulties faced by Sri Lanka in the big diplomatic picture. They are thrust on us. Sri Lanka must take informed positions due to practicalities.

With the Indians, the proximity, centuries old relationships, strategic location in the Indian Ocean region, which became a focused area due to Indo-Pacific Regional bias, India and Japan, etc., must be valued. The busines alliances between India and Japan on ECT and Liquified Natural Gas projects send another message. The potential/ possible Indian influence on other countries, some parliamentarians, demographic and political groups must be considered for internal political stability purposes.

The Chinese factor must be considered in the light of past transactions and potential investments that could be received faster than from borrowing agencies or formal lenders. Sri Lanka’s economic problems need immediate solutions. How far could the government wait for external interventions satisfying all criteria?

The above quoted financial requirements and responses received from India may help understand the reality of financing, for which China responds faster than any other country. Any political intervention should address this problem and adapt to systemic assistance. Of course, the disadvantages of Chinese interventions, even highlighted by the World Bank study, about procurement procedures could push countries like Sri Lanka into difficulties. What alternatives could evolve is an issue.

Immediate response to the statement by Dean Thompson was experienced with Sri Lanka’s government bonds falling heavily last week. This is the danger that could be created by big brothers. The African proverb, ‘When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’, is always valid.

It is time for those who yelled last week that restrictions on stability/development could be remedied by constitutional amendments to keep quiet because it is not the absolute truth. The 20A had other objectives as is obvious. They should look afresh realistically and consider whether ignoring the international developments is possible. Let saner counsel prevail.

Simply stated, it is time to ditch camouflaged rhetoric heard in the House last week and look incisively, realistically, logically, and face the international challenges caused by the financial crisis, COVID 19, political conflicts, etc. Being a small nation, we need everyone’s support.

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Soon…a celebrity Doctor!

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Dr. Nilanka is a name to be reckoned with in the local showbiz scene – not as a doctor, but as a vocalist/entertainer.

Although she has not been in the vocal spotlight, on stage, in a big way, this awesome singer has been churning out some beautiful music, in the studio, and uploading them on social media – her Facebook page – and, especially, on YouTube.

When ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ was taking shape, in August, I came across a video clip of Dr. Nilanka singing the Roberta Flack hit ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Obviously, there are several versions of ‘Killing Me Softly’ (Frank Sinatra, Fugees, Lauryn Hill), but Dr. Nilanka’s version just blew me away.

Since I was in the ‘Arise Sri Lanka’ committee, I thought we should have this singer on our show and immediately sent her video clip to those concerned. And, they were all unanimous in their decision.

And…Dr. Nilanka was there, on stage, on the night of Saturday, August, 29th, 2020, impressing everyone with her version of ‘Killing Me Softly.’

Those who heard her sing, that particular night, had only superlatives to describe her performance.

Yes, and a star was born – Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe.

Her latest contribution, via a video clip, is The Bangles hit song, ‘Eternal Flame.’

Sohan Weerasinghe describes her as a singer with a marvelous voice and he did mention that he would feature her as a guest star, with The X-Periments, as often as possible.

He went on to say that she is in a class of her own. “A very talented singer with an absolutely seductive voice. Awesome talent, indeed.”

And, that means, we are going to see, and hear, a lot of Dr. Nilanka in the near future….

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Women in Power

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The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva,Doreen,Vivi and Srima

By Kusum Wijetilleke (kusumw@gmail.com) and
Rienzie Wijetilleke (rienzietwij@gmail.com)

(Continued from yesterday)

US President John F. Kennedy modified a policy on the release of US rubber stockpiles after Ms. Bandaranaike wrote to him explaining the consequences of the policy on Sri Lanka’s rubber export earnings. She exchanged further letters with JFK on the most critical issue of the period, nuclear proliferation, expressing her dismay at nuclear tests undertaken by the US. Citing her speech at the 1961 Non-Aligned conference, JFK wrote back stating “…although there may be some differences between us as to what constitutes ‘effective’ inspection and control, I am heartened that we seem not to differ over the need for it.”

The 1962 Sino-Indian War led to some 6,000 deaths and Ms. Bandaranaike, realizing how devastating war between the super powers would be for Ceylon’s economic aspirations, travelled between China and India seeking compromises. Her efforts were some time before the term “shuttle diplomacy” entered the lexicon of international relations. A team of six non-aligned nations led by Ms. Bandaranaike and Sri Lanka led to a dramatic de-escalation in hostilities and earned her further recognition on the international stage. Her close relationship with Indira Gandhi led to a negotiation between PM J.R. Jayawardena and Indian Diplomat J.N. Dixit, on the restoration of her civil rights and parliamentary membership, after she had been convicted of abuses of power in 1977.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s political career was full of peaks and valleys, but her ascension to power was not merely a twist of fate caused by the assassination of her husband. At the age of 19, she took up social work in rural areas of the country, distributing food and medicine to villages and joined the Lankan Women’s Association, the largest voluntary women’s organization and served as its Treasurer, Vice-President and President. It might be unfortunate that her performance as a leader is defined by the decline of the Sri Lankan economy during her stewardship. It diluted a ground breaking career as a woman of formidable intellect with unrivalled power in a new political frontier.

A similar fate would befall another pioneering woman of Sri Lankan politics, its first female cabinet minister; Ms Wimala Wijewardene, whose political career was inextricably linked to the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination.

Ms. Wimala Wijewardene contested the seat for Kelaniya in 1952, at the 2nd Parliamentary election, but was defeated by her nephew J.R. Jayewardene. She would enter parliament and become a Cabinet Minister in 1956, but her career would be overshadowed by her close association with the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and its Chief Priest, “Ven.” Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera. The Chief Priest had long been suspected of racketeering and other not so venerable business dealings. He was also the founder of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) which represented the politicized section of the clergy. Pamphlets, anonymously distributed, implied an affair between Buddharakkita and Sri Lanka’s first female Cabinet Minister. When Ms. Wimala urged SWRD to take action, he disregarded the request and allegedly retorted “Wimala, after all, aren’t some of these things true”. Investigations following the assassination of the Prime Minister revealed that Buddharakkita had convinced a fanatic nationalist monk to murder the PM and reportedly even provided the weapon. Further investigations revealed SWRD Bandaranaike’s wavering patronage to Buddharakkita and his business interests; the refusal of a shipping contract and a sugar manufacturing license, as prime motives for his assassination.

Ms Wijewardene was arrested along with Buddharakkita as a suspect in the murder assassination, but was later released. She did not return to politics but the dramatic events should not dilute a crucial political career which peaked with her appointment as the Minister of Health in 1956. Twenty years later, another equally skilled administrator would be appointed as the Minister of Health.

Sivagami Verina “Siva” Dassanaike and her husband James Obeysekere lll, were early supporters of the breakaway faction led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s. Thus, “Siva” became politically active in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the age of 22 and contested the Mirigama seat in 1965 at the age of 36. Her victory as a first time candidate was even more impressive considering that she was an Anglican contesting a majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist district.

As Health Minister, Siva formulated a National Health Programme that would be adopted by the United Nations as an international model, earning her a special award of appreciation from the United States Senator for Massachusetts: Edward Kennedy. However Ms Obeysekere’s career was characterized by more than an award from a Kennedy. Despite, or may be because of a privileged upbringing, she was ahead of her time in realizing that the poorest in Ceylon had no meaningful income through employment and what work they did do was often exploitative, both in deed and remuneration. During her visits to far flung villages around the island she noticed that local artists in rural towns and villages, many of them women, would lovingly create handicrafts and handlooms but received very low prices for their labour. That was until Ms Obeysekere created ‘Laksala’ to earn better prices for handicrafts, an income generator to this day. Ms Obeysekere’s work towards uplifting the poor earned her the title of “Deshamanya” (Pride of the Island); the first female recipient of the award.

Sri Lanka’s independence heroes are rightly revered, with monuments, institutes and street signs bearing their names. D.S. Senenayake, Henry Pedris, C.W.W. Kannangara, Leslie Gunawardena, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Colvin R. De Silva and the like are cemented in history, but there are others who deserve recognition. Sri Lanka’s independence movement was partly the result of the agitation of a broad coalition of leftist political parties, thus Sri Lanka’s original socialists deserve more than an honourable mention.

The country’s first political party was the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), formed in 1935 by Colvin R De Silva and Philip Gunawardena on an anti-imperialist platform. The party aimed to dismantle the colonial government from within by fielding popular candidates to positions in the State Council. Yet the first leftist to be elected to the State Council was Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe (1931), who later founded the Communist Party of Ceylon, and had met the aforementioned Colvin R.de Silva and Philip Gunawardena many years earlier in the UK. Whilst socializing amongst the radicals in London, Dr. Wickramasinghe would also meet his future wife, Doreen Young, whose parents were ardent British socialists and ingrained in her a revolutionary streak that would serve Ceylon well in later years.

Ms. Young would relocate to Ceylon as Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya in Matara and made her mark almost immediately by launching a campaign of formal training for Ceylon’s predominantly female teachers, so they may obtain qualifications and improve their bargaining positions in the labour market. Her career as a revolutionary and radical in Ceylon had begun. She learnt Sinhala and proceeded to update the local curriculum to replace British history with Sri Lankan and world history. Her marriage to the leader of the Communist Party and their anti-imperialist campaigns led to the revocation of an employment offer from Vishaka Vidyalaya. She was later also removed as the Principal of Ananda Balika Vidyalaya in 1936, accused of spreading anti-British propaganda.

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