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Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew at Anuradhapura



One day President JRJ telephoned me from Nuwara Eliya. He was wont to occasionally telephone me direct in the past. He informed me that PM Lee Kuan Yew would be arriving in Anuradhapura two days later, with Minister Gamini Dissanayake in attendance. I was to give the PM of Singapore the ancient city treatment for 40 minutes, and to remember to show him where Fa Hien the Chinese pilgrim cried, during his sojourn at the Abhayagiri monastery.

So I arrived at the appointed meeting place, the Tissawewa rest house where the Singapore PM and his party were having refreshments. I saw Murthy of the Overseas Service, who told me that I was expected, and that both the Singaporean PM and his wife were “top lawyers” who were educated at Cambridge. I was to expect searching questions. 

I went upstairs to see a long table replete with refreshments, Lee Kuan Yew seated at the centre and Gamini D. standing by. I addressed him in Sinhalese, identified myself as Raja de Silva and said that I had come to guide the visitors around Auradhapura. At this point the following conversation took place:

Minister Gamini to Lee Kuan Yew: This is Raja de Silva of the Archaeological Department who will be acting as our guide.  

LKY to RHdeS:

Are you in charge of this station?


It comes under my archaeological control, Sir.  


Are you in charge of this district? 


The district comes under my archaeological control, Sir. 


Are you in charge of this Province?

RHdeS :

This Province and the whole country comes under my archaeological control, Sir. 

LKY (looking satisfied):

Where did you learn your stuff?


In an old university in England.


Where was that?


In Oxford, Sir. 


Whatever reason did you go there for? 


Sir, for the same reason you went to Cambridge. 

LKY (all smiles, turning to his wife):

Did you hear that? He has gone to Oxford. 

From then on the PM of Singapore spent much time at certain spots and my 40 minute time limit was ignored. At one point in the Abhayagiri area, at the splendid remains of an image house, the following dialogue took place. 


It was here that Fa Hien,  the Chinese pilgrim, saw a donatory. Chinese silk flag and his eyes were brimful of tears. 


Your President told me about that. 

It was altogether an enjoyable outing. 


Raja de Silva

Retired Commissioner of Archaeology

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by Dr Nihal Jayawickrama

The Constitution states that a President who is elected by the people shall hold office for a term of five years. In the event of his death, resignation or removal, his successor shall be elected by Parliament to serve the unexpired period of his term of office. Any Bill that seeks to amend the Constitution to extend the prescribed term of office of the President is required to be passed by Parliament by a two-thirds majority and then approved by the people at a referendum. The Constitution also provides that the poll for the election of the President “shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months” before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office. A popular television channel appears to be unaware of these constitutional requirements when it keeps chanting in the middle of its news programmes: “When is the Election?”

Who may contest?

Any citizen who is qualified to be elected to the office of President may be nominated as a candidate for that office by a recognized political party. Alternatively, a citizen who is or has been an elected member of Parliament, may be nominated by any other political party or by an elector whose name appears on any register of electors. Upon being nominated by a recognized political party, that candidate will be allotted the approved symbol of that party. For other candidates, the approved symbol for each candidate will be determined, in the first instance, “by agreement among such candidates”. In the absence of such an agreement, the symbol is determined by the Commissioner. However, the approved symbol of a recognized political party may not be allotted to a candidate who is not nominated by that party.

A person is disqualified from being elected to the office of President if such person is under the age of 30 years, or has been twice elected to the office of President by the People.

Who may vote?

A Sri Lankan citizen who is not otherwise disqualified from being an elector (for example, if under the age of 18 years, or is serving a prison sentence, etc), will be entitled to vote only if that citizen’s name is entered in the appropriate register of electors. To be entitled to have one’s name and address entered in a register of electors, a citizen should be “ordinarily resident”, as a member of a household, at such address, within an electoral district, on the first day of June in the relevant year. A citizen’s temporary absence from such address on that day will not disqualify such citizen if it was due to “the performance of any duty incidental to any office, service or employment held or undertaken” by him/her. A citizen who has migrated abroad may therefore not be entitled to vote.

The poll

Where there are only two candidates, the voter will be required to mark figure 1 opposite the symbol and name of that voter’s preferred candidate. Where there are three candidates, the voter may specify his/her second preference by marking figure 2 opposite the symbol and name of that voter’s second choice. Where there that more than three candidates, the voter may indicate his/her second and third preferences by marking figures 2 and 3 opposite the relevant symbols and names. If a voter has specified a second preference only, or a third preference only, or both such preferences only, without specifying that voter’s first preference, the ballot paper will be void and will not be counted.

The count

The Commissioner will declare the candidate who has received “more than one-half of the valid votes cast” as elected to the office of President. In an election where there are only two candidates, this result will be immediately apparent.

Where there are three candidates, the candidate who has received the lowest number of votes will be eliminated, and each returning officer will be directed to count the second preference of those voters whose first preference had been for the candidate eliminated, as a vote in favour of one or other of the remaining two candidates.

Where there are more than three candidates, all the candidates other than the candidates who received the highest and second highest number of votes will be eliminated. Thereafter, each returning officer will be directed to count the second preference of each voter whose first preference had been for a candidate who had been eliminated, and if it is for one or other of the remaining two candidates, as a vote in favour of such remaining candidate. If the second preference is not counted, then the third preference of such voter, if it is for one or other of the remaining two candidates, will be counted as a vote in favour of such remaining candidate.

Therefore, it is evident that, whatever the number of candidates, or the number of second and third preferences that are taken into account, the new President will be the one or the other of the two candidates who received the highest number of votes in the first count.

The morning after

After the new Executive President takes his oath of office, his first duty will be to appoint the Member of Parliament who, in his opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament, to be the Prime Minister. Thereafter, in consultation with the Prime Minister, he is required to determine (a) the number of Ministers, (b) the Ministries, and (c) the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers. Finally, in consultation with the Prime Minister, he is required to appoint Ministers to be in charge of the Ministries that he has determined. He may, if he wishes to, appoint additional Ministers not of Cabinet rank, as well as Deputy Ministers.

The challenge that will face the new President will be to ensure that he commands the support of a majority of the 225 members of Parliament. Failure to do so will leave his government paralyzed and unable to secure the passage of any legislation, including money bills. This is the fundamental weakness of the executive presidential system. President J.R. Jayewardene addressed this challenge by securing an extension from six to twelve years of the life of the Parliament in which he enjoyed a five-sixth majority through an amendment of the Constitution, a rigged referendum, and through other devices such as obtaining undated letters of resignation, maintaining secret files on the financial and other activities of his Ministers, and by imposing civic disabilities on his political opponents.

It is a challenge which Anura Kumara Dissanayake, with a three-member party in Parliament, and even Sajith Premadasa, whose party falls far short of the required minimum of 113 members, will have to face. Even if the newly elected President decides to immediately dissolve Parliament, he will have to appoint his Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers before doing so from among the members of the present Parliament. Ranil Wickremesinghe, if he chooses to contest, and is elected, may not face this problem if his current Cabinet of Ministers remains intact. If the new President decides to immediately dissolve Parliament, what guarantee is there that he would secure the required majority at the general election that follows?

The hypocrisy of politicians

Ten years have elapsed since the late Rev. Maduluwawe Sobitha, through his National Movement for Social Justice, began the campaign for the abolition of the executive presidential system. It received the enthusiastic support of several politicians, including the three political party leaders who are now seeking to perpetuate that system. It is a movement which his successor, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, has resolutely kept alive. That same idealism inspired the “Aragalaya” of 2022 to drive an Executive President out of his office, his residence, his country, into the high seas, seeking refuge in a ship. Yet, after 45 years of autocratic presidential rule, buttressed by a corruption-ridden electoral system, and marked by massive loss of human life and unprecedented levels of bribery and mismanagement, three professional politicians are now seeking to perpetuate that iniquitous system.

There is yet five months to go. Is there not sufficient time for Parliament to replace the list system with the first-past-the-post system of single and multi-member constituencies, supplemented with an element of proportional representation to ensure an equitable distribution of seats based on the totality of votes cast for each political party? Is there not sufficient time for another constitutional amendment to provide for the President, the constitutional Head of State, to be elected by Parliament or other representative body? Is there not sufficient time to dissolve Parliament and hold, on the same day, a general election and a referendum (required by the Supreme Court on several occasions, though not by the Constitution) together? Indeed, is there not sufficient time to draft and enact a new Constitution to give effect to these very desirable and much awaited reforms?

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May Day Politics: A Pregame to Presidential Election



2024 May Day Rally

by Rajan Philips

May Day this week lived up to expectations as pregame to the presidential election that is expected before the end of October. Political parties strutted their wares and prospective candidates made their pitches. Little was said that was not already known but what was said by each contender does give clues to the direction that each one’s campaign would likely take. There was one constant refrain in the editorials and commentaries before and after May Day: that the Day was all about propaganda for the presidential election, and nothing about the rights of the working people, or their plights – from unemployment to underemployment to low wages, regressive taxes and the crippling cost of living.

Workers Charter

There was even nostalgic harking back in some commentaries to the days of the Old Left when workers’ demands were privileged over everything else in the May Day slogans and platform resolutions. Not without some nostalgia I have juxtaposed above a picture of the JVP/NPP’s colourful May Day rally this year and a black and white photo of Bala Tampoe standing tall under a cloudy sky and speaking in front of an exclusively workers’ gathering in a different era. More than Nostalgia, Bala Tampoe, whom the LSSP’s Lloyd de Silva once described as the “lone ranger in the mass movement,” championed the adoption of a Workers Charter after the trade union movement was hijacked by the UNP after 1977 and the rights of workers were wiped out by President Jayewardene in 1980.

During the early years of the (Chandrika) Kumaratunga presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Minister of Labour worked closely with Bala Tampoe to draft a Workers Charter for adoption by parliament. A National Workers Charter was in fact promulgated on September 2, 1995, but was apparently scuttled by senior ministers in the cabinet. Some ten years later, in 2014, participating in a panel discussion on National Policy on Wages organized by the Sri Lanka Economic Association, Bala Tampoe waxed eloquent that protecting the fundamental human rights of workers is as important as fighting for higher wages. He went on to assert that “the real issue for workers in countries like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and a greater part of Asia … is not labour rights, not worker rights, but their rights as humans.”

From what I have seen in the May Day news stories this year, there was no assertion or declaration about workers’ rights as human rights and as wage rights at this year’s May Day. Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), the bearer of the red banner today, was reportedly more focused on declaring that “organizational power and law abiding society” are needed to develop the country, and asserting that “only the NPP has the best organizational power and discipline to develop this country.” The JVP/NPP also put on display a devolution of May Day observances by organizing same day rallies in Anuradhapura, Colombo, Jaffna and Matara. AKD addressed two of them, first in Matara and then in Colombo. So did Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, but the spectacles were different.

Optimism or Cockiness

Understandably Mr. Dissanayake projected optimism, but to the point of bordering on cockiness. He took to mocking those who had mocked at the JVP’s chances: “Our enemies mocked us saying that converting three percent of popularity into 51 percent would be a miracle. That miracle has been achieved. Mustering the trust of more than 51 percent of electors for the NPP no longer is a magic or miracle. It has become a ground reality.” And further, “This is the last May Day we mark under these rulers who ruined this nation. The next May Day will be held under an NPP government. Victory is assured for our party. We must work harder for the next three months to realize our goal for our own government.”

Shades of “NM for PM,” the LSSP slogan in March 1960, the last time a Left Party campaigned in an election with the confidence, if not conviction, of forming the next government. At an election meeting in Borella, Bala Tampoe was cocky enough to introduce NM as PM and himself as Labour Minister! The difference this time is that what then were the two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, have all but disappeared from the face of Sri Lankan politics now. The May Day did not provide any clue or carry any prospect of the old political forces channelling themselves into viable new electoral alliances. Let us start at the most ridiculous end of the spectrum.

The already emaciated SLFP has split into a legitimate and an illegitimate factions. The latter naturally under Maithripala Sirisena. And Sirisena has paired with grasshopping Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and made the May Day announcement that Rajapakshe would be the ‘SLFP’ candidate at the presidential election. One would have thought 2024 would be the first presidential election this century that will not have a Rajapaksa on the ballot. But there could be one but with an odd spelling bee difference. The bigger point is that Mr. Rajapakshe is a member of the SLPP and President Wickremesinghe’s Minister of Justice. How can anyone blame Anura Kumara Dissanayake when he mocks at the likes of Sirisena and Rajapakshe who are emblematic of the decaying political class.

Lone Ranger Bala Tampoe from Another Era

A real Rajapaksa may not be on the ballot for the presidential election, but the name bearers were there to mark May Day for the family. No Workers Charter though, but only the family elder statesman Mahinda Rajapaksa’s griping about Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake not stepping up to respond to the real ‘May Day’ call of Gota and take over the country’s leadership. “Both refused,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said, “fearing their future in politics.” He had appreciation for President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who “while the SJB and NPP backed away … took (over) the leadership with the support of the SLPP.” MR did not quite announce that SLPP would be co-sponsoring, along with whomever else, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s candidacy, but the two are too joined at the hip to be severed now.

Two-way v. Three-way

While Ranil Wickremesinghe is the preferred common candidate to a majority of MPs in the current parliament, many of them would not really like to be seen with him in public. Not the SLPP, even though they are ready to sponsor Mr. Wickremesinghe’s nomination. Not the SJB MPs, even though great efforts were made by UNP mandarins to put on a show of at least some SJB MPs returning to the old uncle-nephew family. Not one showed up. The legitimate faction of the SLFP might back him too. But they are keeping their public distance for now. Only the CWC was ready to be politically seen with Mr. Wickremesinghe, and the latter returned the favour by not only attending the CWC rally at Kottagala, but also giving a pay hike to plantation workers. The stock market reportedly took a tumble and the Planters are up in arms against the hike. But they would still vote for Ranil.

For the rest of the economy, it is IMF business as usual. That is the gist of the President’s May Day message at Maligawatte, in Colombo. That was all his message, plus the refrain urging “the JVP-led NPP, the SJB and other political parties not to undermine ongoing economic recovery efforts.” He did not quite call for the continuation of the current recovery efforts even under a new government led by the JVP/NPP or the SJB. Nor did he mention his candidacy or even the presidential election. The President is keeping his cards closed, leaving it to AKD to declare 51% victory and for Sajith Premadasa to make a laundry list of promises. The young Premadasa did just that even as his supporters hit the print media calling for a return of ‘Premadasism.’ A new addition to political vocabulary.

The young Premadasa was expansive in his May Day promises: “full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a fresh probe on the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, creating smart farmers and fishermen, creating a conducive environment for investors, creating employment opportunities and creating Silicon Valley type IT zones in every district.” And so on. Prior to May Day he reportedly volunteered to the visiting pre-election delegation from the Chinese Communist Party, his readiness to play a mediator role between India and China. It usually takes a small country leader to project global ambitions.

But Mr. Premadasa and his supporters may find reason for their own cockiness, to counter that of AKD and the JVP/NPP, in the latest Institute for Health Policy Poll that edges the SJB support over JVP/NPP (38% to 35%) apparently for the first time since these polls started political forecasting. There are known and unknown methodological issues with this poll, but what has been sauce for the JVP/NPP could be sauce for the SJB. The real political outcome of this poll, however, could be the reality of Mr. Premadasa being a candidate for the presidential election without giving way to Ranil Wickremesinghe. A Premadasa withdrawal would be the most desired scenario for the Wickremesinghe camp. But why would Sajith Premadasa withdraw when he is ahead of everyone else according to the only poll in town?

In a straight one to one contest between Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Either Ranil Wickremesinghe or Sajith Premadasa, Mr. Dissanayake would really need a miracle to get past the 50% mark. But anything is possible in a three-cornered contest, and in the most likely outcome there may not be a winner after the first count. The second count is really a copout because if there are not enough second preference votes to make a difference, as it likely would be in this election, the candidate with the highest number of votes in the first count would end up becoming president. The country would end up having a president with less than 40% of the original vote.

In other presidential polities, if there is no clear winner passing the 50% threshold in the first election, a new second election is held between the first two candidates with the largest number of votes from the first election. The eventual winner will have the support of more than half the people voting. Not so in Sri Lanka. That could be another reason for getting rid of this expensive and cumbersome process of having a direct election to elect a single person to the summit of power. Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only potential candidate who is committed to getting rid of direct election through a newly elected parliament in 2025. And if he were to accomplish that, he could be doing it as a 40%-vote winner in the presidential election. That would also be poetic justice.

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A season of fun & frolic



Every pantaloon is running loose

by Kumar David

What larks! Ranil can’t make up his mind whether he is the UNP or SLPP (the party of government bearing fealty to Mahinda) candidate. Mahinda’s colour is a beastly cherry; “the workers’ dye is purple now, it got mixed up with blue somehow” goes the ditty. Sajith is torn between a deal with the UNP (Ranil), or going it solo, or come what may, stitching together some other combine.

The perkiest comedy in town is the SLFP where they are quarrelling about, (i) whether Mrs B’s endowments were masculine enough and whether her voice sufficiently gruff, (ii) whether Pissu Sira should be declared a certified lunatic, and (iii) whether Wijeyadasa should sit on this side or that side of the aisle or park his rump in the gangway between. The political scene in Lanka these April days is a Spring Festival of fun and frolic; every political dunce and pantaloon is running wild.

All this jostling and jockeying is in anticipation of the menacing day when the Elections Commissioner will call upon all men, good and true, to submit nominations for the Presidential Elections due later this year. The glaring addition needed to the line-up in the previous para is Anura Kumara who is likely to score a plurality, but perhaps not a majority on the first count. If you want me to guess; Anura may collect up to 40% and a Ranil-Sajith combo with SLPP riff-raff appended may garner, say, 25%. However, the dark-horse in the current topsy-turvy is the SLFP as I will explain anon.

Since I am writing the article I have to put down numbers, otherwise you will stop reading. So, what the hell, can I spit out 15% for the still residual SLFP national base-vote? Let’s add: 40+25+15 makes 80%. This leaves 20% for all the other riff-raff; cranks like Patali, mentally deranged Field Marshals and assorted candidates offering themselves in the first round of the Presidential Election. Come on, this a fair way doing the sums at this early looney stage. Play with the numbers if you will but your guesses won’t be much different from mine eventually.

Now comes the interesting part. If no candidate scores over 50% on first count, the second preferences cast for the first two, and ONLY these two candidates, are tallied and added to the relevant person. Note this carefully. All other second preference votes are discarded. Second preference votes cast by supporters of all other candidates and for all other candidates are discarded. This seems both illogical and unreasonable but see “Counting Second Preferences” below for further comment.

Now, only a complete nut of an Anura-voter will cast a second preference for the UNP-SJB-SLPP block, and vice-versa. That is no UNP-SJB-SLPP voter in his/her right senses will give a second preference to Anura either. (SJB is Samagi Balavegaya, Sajith’s party). Hence when these relevant or permitted second preferences are included, the absolute number of votes for Anura and the UNP-SJB-SLPP block will remain almost unaltered. I call this the Prohibited Cross Voting (PCV) assumption. So, Anura will be elected president by a margin of 40 to 25 in the afore enumerated scenario. This is a stylised example but is intended to illustrate the lie-of-the-land. Let me explain it a little more.

Implications of PCV behavioural assumption

First let me repeat because it is vital though you will find it obvious when you think it over. Say the results of the first vote count are candidate-A (say Anura) is placed first, and candidate-B (the principal opposition candidate) is placed second, or of course, vice-versa. Then the “Prohibited Cross Voting” (PCV) thesis ensures that the candidate who wins the first round will inevitably become the president because the total votes and the relative positions of these two candidates will NOT change because of the PCV behavioural assumption.

Please take a moment to mull this over, though it is self-evident once you get the hang of it. Win the first count and you are the president! Your relative position (total number of votes) will hardly change a jot thanks to the PCV behavioural assumption. Say the first candidate polls 5,550,000 and the second polls 5, 500,00 at the first count. Then after the second count (tallying of second preferences) neither will poll hardly one vote more or one vote less if voters strictly adhere to PCV. Win the first count (round) and you are president, home and dry! PCV underpins this essay but it has other significant consequences as you will see as you read on.

Then the crucial point is how valid is the PCV assumption? In general, and in other countries it may not hold, but violation of PCV is hardly thinkable in present day Lanka and at the upcoming presidential election. Imagine an Anura voter casting his second preference for candidate-B (a Sajith-UNP-SLPP etc offering) or a voter who gives first choice to candidate-B giving second choice to Anura. Unthinkable! Voters may spew out second choices anywhere they wish to and to anyone they like, but not to the principal opponent candidate says the PCV behavioural model’s assumption.

This has crucial implications for Lanka’s political dullards with bursting waistlines in white national-dress costumes protruding at the waist and jutting at the posterior. But they will soon wake up as nomination-day approaches and implications for future scams and graft dawn on these dullards. The most important point is that though the SLFP is in shambles right now and the goings-on are a fool’s carnival, it could emerge as a king-maker. To do so, it must join the candidate-B camp and line up behind this candidate formally. Then we may have candidate-B, including the SLFP, polling say just over 40% while Anura polls say just less than 40%. Anura is then edged out of the presidency if PCV strictly holds. (It may not hold, because some SLFP voters in camp-B may not play strictly by PCV and may be tempted to cast their second preference for Anura, in violation of PCV behaviour. This is possible if you recall that the SLFP once upon a time thought of itself as a left force).

Counting second preferences

I carefully discussed the way second preferences are counted with a lawyer and Oxonian who says he is an expert on the matter. He assured me that second preference votes cast for all candidates except the first and second are discarded. Furthermore, only second preferences among (within) the first two candidates themselves are taken into account he said.

Second preferences cast by supporters of all other candidates, even for the first two, are discarded he says. (This is the reason for my previous 5.55 and 5.50 million vote examples). This is an absurd system and defeats the whole purpose of giving voters a second preference vote. I must check this expert lawyer’s opinion with other informed people.

DBS Jeyaraj joins the fun and frolic

I will not question DBS’s personal integrity at this point but his prominent recent column “RW’s Caravan Moves on Despite Barking Dogs” is some panegyric! If it had been crafted in consultation with Ranil himself it could not have been more laudatory. DBS argues that Ranil has managed to hold diverse political forces together within the government, that he has retained the support of Ministers and State Ministers that he inherited from Gotabaya, and most important, DBS claims that only Ranil can pull the country out of the deep morass it has sunk into in the last two years and that he is capable of leading Lanka to economic recovery. Phew! The scribes at Dinamina are surely burning the midnight oil rendering this encomium into Sinhala. DBS’s views also reflect the thinking of educated Tamils and to a degree of pro-capitalist business classes, so they are worth reflecting over.

A previous draft of this article appeared in Colombo Telegraph. This version however takes precedence.

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