Tuesday 12th October, 2021
The government apparently does not care to get its priorities straight. It also bites off more than it can chew. It is now talking about a new Constitution and a different electoral system instead of doing something to ameliorate the suffering of the people, who are struggling to keep the wolf from the door.
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa came forward to run for President, he may not have had the foggiest idea of the mess he as well as the country was getting into. Today, he finds himself in an unenviable position. He has many seemingly intractable problems to contend with on all fronts. The pandemic is far from over, and the people are behaving in such an irresponsible manner, ignoring as they do the Covid-19 prevention protocols, that an explosive spread of the disease may come sooner than expected. It is doubtful whether the country will be able to afford another lockdown to save lives. The prices of essential commodities have gone into the stratosphere and are still rising. The economy is in very bad shape. The country’s foreign exchange reserves are woefully low. The rupee is unstable. As if these problems were not enough, there have been warnings of threats to national security, according to media reports. The President thus has his plate full, and why he has undertaken to introduce a new Constitution expeditiously is the question.
True, the present Constitution has some serious flaws, which need to be rectified. But the real problem is not the flawed supreme law as such but the kind of leaders we elect. The late J. R. Jayewardene, who was long in the tooth when he became the Prime Minister in 1977, wanted to savour as much power as possible in the shortest possible time. He appointed himself the Executive President by introducing the existing Constitution, and changed it according to his whims and fancies. His successors were no better except perhaps D. B. Wijetunga. What else is to be expected of politicians who cannot think, much less act, like statespersons?
There have been only two progressive constitutional amendments, and both of them came into being under weak governments. Unfortunately, they are now defunct. The 17th Amendment was passed to whittle down some powers of the executive presidency while President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government was on the verge of collapse in 2001. The 19th Amendment was introduced after the 2015 regime change while the yahapalana government was wooing the public to win the general election, which came a few months later. President Maithripala Sirisena was enthralled by euphoria, and therefore did not mind being stripped of some of his executive powers. When he wised up to what was going on, he objected. All draconian constitutional amendments were introduced by powerful governments at the behest of their leaders. The 18th Amendment (2010) was the brainchild of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the incumbent President, following in the footsteps of his elder brother, had the 20th Amendment enacted.
It, however, needs to be added that the 17th Amendment was not without flaws, which were mainly due to the mighty hurry on the part of its architects to secure its passage. They telescoped the process of drafting it into a few weeks. The 19th Amendment contained some questionable provisions introduced to empower the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to act as the de facto head of state.
So, in our book, before pressing for a new Constitution, we need a radical rethink about our assessment of the persons we elect as our leaders; given their insatiable greed for power, even if we were to write the best Constitution in the world, some leader down the line thirsting for self-aggrandisement would still change it in case of being able to secure a two thirds majority in Parliament. Electing the right people as our representatives is half the battle in ushering in good governance with or without the present Constitution.
President Rajapaksa has not mentioned when he is planning to unveil the new Constitution, but as for his offer at issue, it is better to let sleeping dogs—feral ones at that—lie at least until the many problems that the country is beset with are sorted out. Street demonstrations for or against a draft Constitution is the last thing we need while struggling to contain the worst-ever health crisis and make ends meet. First things first!
From Esmond to Edmund and beyond
Tuesday 3rd October, 2023
Elaborate preparations have been made to felicitate a veteran editor, today. Edmund Ranasinghe is his name. He needs no introduction and deserves to be honoured for his outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan journalism. We extend our congratulations to him.
Today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be held under the patronage of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Secretariat, of all places. The fact that the President’s late father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, was also a colossus in Sri Lankan journalism makes today’s event even more significant. The felicitation of a nonagenarian print media great, we believe, is time for reflection.
Esmond died in 1985, and Edmund retired some years ago. They made their mark in two different eras, but the print media was without much competition then. The world of newspapers has since moved on at a rapid pace, and is facing numerous unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, some of which are of existential nature.
Technology keeps pushing the envelope, opening up new frontiers in human communication, and throwing up more challenges to the ‘traditional media’; the newspapers are the worst affected. The emergence of social media, and news portals with digital agility and ability has done to print media what T20 did to Test cricket. Due to the proliferation of web publications and the expansion of social media and instant messaging, news cycles have come down to minutes, if not seconds. Most newspaper readers have become netizens thanks to the rapid expansion of the digital realm, and their needs and expectations have undergone radical changes, as never before. Artificial Intelligence has revolutionised communication, and one may say, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, that for the print media it takes all the running it can to keep in the same place, and if it wants to get somewhere, it must run at least twice as fast as that. How would Edmund propose to overcome these challenges if he happened to be in active journalism at present?
The keynote address at today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be delivered by former Editor of the Divaina and the Rivira, Upali Tennakoon, who was Edmund’s understudy. Upali’s presence evokes our memories of a dark era, when he had to flee the country following an attempt on his life during an SLFP-led regime. That incident happened years after a grenade had been flung at Edmund’s house during a UNP government, which went all out to silence the Divaina and The Island, but in vain.
Today, the UNP has joined forces with those who were blamed for many crimes against journalists, such as the attack on Upali, the abduction of The Nation Deputy Editor Keith Noyahr, and the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The UNPers who alleged that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had a hand in Lasantha’s assassination, and went so far as to coin slogans like ‘saatakaya gaathakaya’ are on honeymoon with the Rajapaksas!
The Rajapaksa Brothers may be maintaining a low profile at present, but trouble for journalists is far from over; now, they have Big Brother to contend with! The SLPP-UNP regime is determined to steamroller the Online Safety Bill through Parliament despite vehement protests from the media, the Opposition, lawyers and many others who cherish democracy. Ironically, this draconian Bill, which reminds us of the plight of Winston Smith in Orwell’s, dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been crafted and is to be passed by Parliament on the watch of Esmond’s son, under whose patronage Edmund is to be felicitated today!
The highest honour that can be conferred on veteran journalists is to support the causes they have held dear and safeguard media freedom. One can only hope that the Online Safety Bill will be withdrawn forthwith, and the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media institutions, such as arson attacks on television studios and printing presses, brought to justice without further delay.
Guilty until proven innocent?
Monday 2nd October, 2023
There are no signs of an early détente between India and Canada. The two countries continue to trade allegations. Other nations are divided along the lines of strategic alliances rather than anything else. Interestingly, the US government is seen to be tilting towards Canada.
What the ongoing diplomatic row of epic proportions, and Washington’s stance thereon signify is that India has not received full membership of the club of powerful nations. The US firmly stands behind India only when the latter locks horns with China, which the West is all out to keep at bay for economic and security reasons, but when India happens to cross swords with a western nation, it cannot depend on the US to have its six, so to speak. The US has no permanent friends, as has been the experience of Pakistan, which Washington used in the Cold War era and then discarded. Perhaps, the painful diplomatic knock New Delhi has received from Ottawa could not have come without Washington’s knowledge; it could be attributed to strong economic ties India continues to maintain with Russia, refusing to toe the western line over the war in Ukraine. The Indian refineries are reported to have snapped up discounted Russian oil since the West imposed sanctions against Russia.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may not have expected India to strike back with might and main, resorting to tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats when he went public with his ‘credible allegation’ of India’s involvement in the killing of a Khalistan activist on Canadian soil and ordered an Indian diplomat out of the country. Indian commentators have asked how an allegation could ever be considered credible. Whether the term ‘credible allegation’ is a contradiction in terms, as India has claimed in a bid to deride PM Trudeau, may be a moot point, but it can be used against Canada as well. One can argue that India’s allegation that Canada has become a haven for terrorists is credible, and therefore Canada should be dealt with in the same manner as the other countries that harbour terrorists and face hostile action at the hands of the West.
The Trudeau government’s judgement and its ability to engage in critical inquiry, which involves gathering facts, questioning assumptions, evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives and arriving at well-reasoned conclusions, are in serious doubt. It was only the other day that a nonagenarian Nazi veteran was mistaken for a Ukrainian freedom fighter, brought to the Canadian parliament and honoured during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit. (The Fuhrer would backflip in his grave in glee if he knew the Canadian government’s faux pas!)
An extreme course of action such as expelling diplomats is something that a country should resort to as pis aller, if at all, only after ascertaining irrefutable evidence to substantiate an allegation against another nation.
Whether India actually did what it is accused of having done in Canada, one may not know, but it behoves Canada, which PM Trudeau proudly calls a country that upholds the rule of law, and other nations which have taken upon themselves the task of protecting global democracy, to respect the cardinal principle of justice that every person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent unless and until his or her guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. Before crossing the Rubicon, Trudeau should have ascertained irrefutable evidence to support his claim that India had a hand in the killing of the Sikh activist.
Credibility is something subjective influenced by various factors including an individual’s beliefs, experiences, knowledge and biases. If ‘credible allegations’ are to be accepted as the basis of offensive action or casus belli, PM Trudeau would find himself on a sticky wicket; a former Indian diplomat named Deepak Vohra has accused Trudeau of having been high on drugs during his recent visit to India to attend the G20 summit, and claimed Trudeau’s plane was found to be full of cocaine. Trudeau’s office has denied this allegation vehemently. What if the Canadian public were to go by the inversion of the principle of presumption of innocence, buy into the former Indian diplomat’s claim and consider Trudeau guilty of drug abuse until he is proven innocent?
Trudeau may have thought India would take his ‘credible allegation’, and the diplomatic offensive based thereon, meekly, the way Sri Lanka did anent his genocide allegation. It is popularly said in this country that the woodpecker, which damages trees by drilling holes in them, finds itself in a bind when it sinks its restless beak into a fibrous banana trunk.
The India – Canada spat
Opinion will surely be divided on whether Foreign Minister Ali Sabry should have waded into the ongoing spat between India and Canada on the assassination of a Sikh Canadian citizen allegedly by Indian agents according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sabry got a lot of media play in India characterizing Trudeau’s statement to Parliament as “outrageous.” Colombo, of course, continues to smart under the Canadian PM’s recent remarks about “genocide” in this country which Sabry says “everybody knows” did not happen. No wonder then our minister thought it fit to tell an Indian television station that “sometimes Prime Minister Trudeau comes out with outrageous and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Given India’s generosity to Sri Lanka during the ongoing economic crisis ,Colombo would surely like to score brownie points in New Delhi. This despite clear knowledge that free lunches are not part of global international relations and the need to steer clear of rivalries between India and China in big power contests. Sri Lanka professes non-alignment and is even now grappling with issues arising from an upcoming port call by a second Chinese research ship about which Indian and U.S. concerns have been expressed.
In such situations it makes sense in not resorting to the tit for tat reactions of the kind displayed by both Ottawa and New Delhi over the Hardeep Singh Nijjar assassination. Many would regard Minister Ali Sabry’s remarks on the India – China row as partly reflective of Colombo’s resentment of genocide and pro-LTTE references emanating from Canada.
Lankans, of course, are well aware that pro-LTTE rhetoric is part of domestic politics in Canada. Some 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, comprising about 0.7 percent of the total Canadian population live in that country. These numbers are sufficient to make a difference between the two major parties at elections and much of the Canadian political discourse reflects that factor.
Similarly, Sikhs are also a significant segment of the Canadian population with the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab living in that country. According to the 2021 census, 770,000 Sikhs live in Canada and they would therefore be a more influential factor than Sri Lanka Tamils in Canadian domestic politics. Hence the various statements tilted towards these communities emanating from Canada.
Good relations with India must always be a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Such relations sank to abysmal depths during the civil war when India allowed the separatist LTTE to train and stage from Indian territory much to Sri Lanka’s detriment. The war would have probably ended long before it actually did in 2009 if Operation Vadamarachi was not aborted by India’s incursion into Sri Lanka’s air space and the infamous parippu airdrop.
The Indo – Lanka Accord and the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. Today it can be said that relations between us and our giant neighbour have never been better. True there are reservations that Big Brother is taking economic advantage of Sri Lanka’s current predicament but these are issues that must be sensibly navigated.
It must be noted that Prime Minister Trudeau did not claim ironclad evidence on the assassination of the Sikh activist in British Columbia. He merely said there were “credible allegations” (emphasis ours) on that score. Whether hard evidence could ever be unearthed on this matter is an open question. There have been media reports of early signs that both Canada and India, after the initial sound and fury, are resorting to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. That would be in the interest of both countries as well as the wider world.
There have also been reports that intercepts of diplomatic communications from the Indian High Commission in Ottawa possibly by the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the U.S., had a role in Trudeau’s allegations. However that be, the Canadian premier would not have got out on a limb with his allegation, rightly or wrongly, if he was not convinced that he was on terra firma.
End of IMF review mission
Despite the polite noises made at its closing press conference, there appears to have been no agreement yet between the Government of Sri Lanka and the IMF review mission which concluded its two weeks-long visit on Wednesday. There was no word on when the disbursement of the second tranche of the deal would begin. There is no way that the IMF board will disburse the next tranche until the staff level agreement is concluded.
The closing statement reported “remarkable resilience” of the Sri Lankan people in the face of enormous challenges and “commendable progress” in implementing much needed reforms. While reporting a string of achievements it said that “discussions are ongoing” and the authorities are making progress on their revenue mobilization targets and anti-corruption efforts. But there was no word that a desired staff level agreement has been reached or when the funds will be released.
Two weeks ago when the review began, then acting Finance Minister Ranjit Siyambalapitiya said he was “very hopeful of getting the second tranche of $330 million” from the IMF. But obviously there is more ground to cover and the funds are not likely to be available in the short term. The Financial Times in Britain reported on Thursday that Sri Lanka has failed “to reach agreement to unlock the IMF bailout tranche” and “the delay threatens to slow the country’s recovery from the worst economic crisis in its history.”
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