In the last paragraph of his usually trenchant and insightful presentation on this page today, our regular columnist Rajan Philips socks home a message about what the people of this country want from their leaders at this point in history. He forcefully makes the point that non-delivery of 20A, or even a new constitution, with which the government is now overly obsessed, will not be held against either the president or his government saying: “What the people will not forget, or electorally forgive, would be a failure to protect their health from the corona virus and protect their households from economic destitution. Anything less will not pass muster with the public.” That obviously is a given that needs no further emphasis.
There is not the slightest doubt that President Rajapaksa and, perhaps to a lesser extent, his government deserves full marks for what has been done up to now to contain the global Corona virus pandemic within this country as far as possible; and this despite our limited resources. Sri Lanka’s successes in this area in the early days has been internationally applauded. But, largely due to the negligence of the us all, the previous achievements are now being dissipated resulting in the breaking out of what we called a “second wave” in this space last week. It is not our intention to engage in an exercise of finger-pointing blaming anybody for what has happened, but there is no escaping the reality that far too many of our people had begun to behave as though normalcy had been restored. The whole country has now been jolted into the reality that this is not the case.
The easy way out, of course, is to revert to a total or near lock down to contain the spread of the disease. But this is not possible in the context of our battered economy and, more so, the hundreds of thousands of our people who keep body and soul together by earning a daily wage. A lock down would drive them to near starvation. The authorities are doing their best to strike a fine balance imposing necessary restrictions with minimum hardship to as many as possible. The grade five scholarship examination has been held and the ‘A’ level exam is ongoing. Covid twice compelled their postponement earlier and any interference now must be a very last resort under absolutely unavoidable conditions. Everything necessary to prevent such an eventuality is being done and it is to be hoped that the Gods will smile down on us and help avert such a calamity.
Given the situation the country is at present, the last thing we need is the ongoing political war over 20A. Given the notorious shortness of memory of this nation, most have forgotten that the much derided 19A which admittedly had many desirable provisions, as well as weaknesses targeting individuals not excluding the incumbent president, was passed near unanimously in the legislature with only a single dissenting vote. The landslide winners of both the presidential and parliamentary elections say they have the mandate to do what they are seeking to do with the constitution. There is no denying that both President Rajapaksa as well as the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna won overwhelming majorities. Yet they sought to incorporate provisions into 20A that that they themselves now admit were unconstitutional, compelling the Attorney General to assure the Supreme Court that these would be duly amended at the Committee Stage of the legislative process. Let us no forget that those who eloquently accused their opponents of “smuggling” unwanted provisions (as in the case of the Provincial Councils Election (Amendment) Act) into legislation during Committee Stage proceedings are also making such amendments. Admittedly, these were furnished during the court proceedings so no smuggling allegation can stand.
It has been widely reported that the Supreme Court has held that some of the provisions of the draft 20A needs to be passed by a two thirds majority and also obtain the consent of the people at a Referendum. It is clear that the government does not wish to test its mandate at a Referendum and it is a certainty that those sections that would require such reference to the people for their consent (if there are such sections) will be duly amended so that they could be adopted by the two thirds majority the government is confident of obtaining in parliament. The Supreme Court ruling is not in the public domain, with the judges having communicated it only to the president and the speaker. There was one report that the speaker had not even opened the envelope in which the determination had been conveyed to him. However that be, a purportedly leaked judgment has been widely disseminated. Many sections of the polity have correctly refrained from commenting on the judgment until it is formally communicated to parliament next week.
There is no doubt that the government will go ahead with its announced intention of enacting 20A. But the time for doing so is not propitious. The most important item in the public agenda is protecting the health of the people and ensuring that the most vulnerable segment of our population is not driven to destitution. Getting the battered economy into the best possible shape is also most important. The people will applaud the president and the government if “first things first” is made the national priority.
Terrorism and hidden hands
Wednesday 28th October, 2020
The government is awaiting the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which is probing the Easter Sunday attacks, to effect changes to the national security apparatus, Education Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris has reportedly said. The yahapalana government neglected national security and jeopardised public safety as never before. Those who were at the helm of that administration are now blaming one another. The incumbent administration has apparently straightened up the defence establishment, but much more remains to be done.
Religious extremism is not the only threat Sri Lanka’s national security is faced with although it is a very grave one, which has to be tackled urgently. Security threats emanate from other quarters as well. Who actually masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks, which were carried out by the NTJ, is not known. It is claimed that there was an invisible hand behind those terror strikes. Who is responsible for the serious lapses that enabled the terrorists to strike with ease is now public knowledge. What needs to be found out is who was actually behind the carnage, which may have been part of a strategy to destabilise Sri Lanka.
SLMC leader and SJB MP Rauff Hakeem, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday attacks, said in September that the NTJ had not masterminded the attack, and it had been only a pawn. When the commissioners asked him to reveal who had been behind the attacks, he said he would do so in camera. He should have made his findings known to the public.
Hakeem is not alone in suspecting a hidden hand behind the attacks. In July 2019, no less a person than Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith said that the attacks were part of an international conspiracy, and the conspirators had used ‘misguided Muslim youth’ to carry them out.
The LTTE has not given up its struggle; its activists are all out to have its proscription lifted in the UK. Pressure is mounting on the British government to deproscribe the LTTE, and the pro-Tiger activists backed by their lawyers might succeed in preparing the ground for reviving the LTTE in Europe. There have been reports that the LTTE is active in Tamil Nadu; some of its activists have been arrested while trying to smuggle explosives here. In August 2018, the Rameswaram police took into custody seven suspects with 5,000 detonators which were to be smuggled to Sri Lanka by boat. In October 2019, a former LTTE cadre was nabbed by the army and handed over to the Serunuwara police, and a subsequent search of his house yielded several hand grenades, C4 explosives, 62 rounds of 9mm ammunition, a T-56 weapon, 154 rounds T-56 ammunition, one semi-automatic rifle, one magazine, two detonator cords, 62 different types of detonators, and a knife.
About 12,500 former LTTE combatants have been rehabilitated and released. However, there is no guarantee that all of them will never revert to their old habits simply because they have undergone rehabilitation. The former war zone is awash with lethal arms, ammunition and explosives. Worse, some politicians are openly espousing the LTTE’s cause and commemorating the dead Tiger leaders.
Sri Lanka has antagonised some powerful nations that do not hesitate to promote terrorism to further their geo-political interests. These countries did not want the LTTE defeated because the perpetuation of the war here would have served their interests; they even tried to throw a lifeline to a beleaguered Prabhakaran. Some of them went so far as to rush their foreign ministers here in a bid to stop the final battle and, thereby, save the LTTE leaders, albeit in vain.
In introducing national security reforms, the government ought to be mindful of the threats from not only the non-state actors but also the states that promote terrorism as an extension of their foreign policy.
US turning on soft targets
Tuesday 27th October, 2020
The US presidential election is only a few days away. Why does Washington think Sri Lanka is so important as to be visited by no less a person than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at this particular juncture? Reasons for this high-profile visit seem to be both domestic and international. Internationally, the US has its work cut out to counter the growing Chinese influence. Its military and economic prowess is of little use in overcoming formidable challenges that China poses. The US and its allies are without enough surplus funds to match China’s ability to grant loans or undertake development projects around the world. They are particularly troubled by a gnawing sense of insecurity vis-à-vis China’s ambitious Belt and Road project. Unable to take on China for obvious reasons, the US is turning on soft targets like Sri Lanka dependent on Chinese aid, and has forged alliances with other nations to shore up its diminishing power. Washington is also in a hurry to have the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact inked here. Pompeo is likely to give Colombo a Hobson’s choice, in this regard.
In the US, former President Barrack Obama, and Democratic Party vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris have apparently left nothing for Joe Biden to do in his electoral battle against Trump; they have torn President Donald Trump to shreds. If Trump could survive Obama’s campaign complete with extremely successful drive-in car rallies, and secure a second term, he could consider himself the luckiest man on earth. Having failed on all fronts, and being troubled by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is ripping through the US, the only way Trump apparently can think of mustering enough electoral support is to do a Captain America on a mission to save the US from China. In fact, the GOP has asked its activists not to defend Trump but to attack China. Pompeo’s tour of South Asia could be considered as part of the GOP’s desperate efforts to drum up support for Trump at home by undertaking a mission to counter China’s influence in this part of the world.
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Dean R. Thompson’s recent unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka as regards its dependence on China for financial assistance is of crucial import: “We urge Sri Lanka to make a difficult but necessary decision to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity, and we stand ready to partner with Sri Lanka for its economic development and growth,” he said. How does the US propose to help Sri Lanka? How much is it willing to grant Sri Lanka by way of financial assistance without expecting anything in return other than loan repayment? Can it match what Sri Lanka receives from China as loans and grants?
The US would not have had to throw its weight around in this manner if it had conducted itself as a true world leader and tried to win over other nations instead of resorting to hostile action against them on some pretext or the other. Libya, which used to be a land of prosperity, whose free education, free healthcare and welfare systems made the developed world turn green with envy, is now a hellhole thanks to the regime change engineered by the US-led forces in 2011 purportedly to restore democracy there. Rival factions have been at war for the last nine years or so, and the Libyans are going through hell. It has taken more than four decades for the people of Chile to undo what Augusto Pinochet did to their country after capturing power with the help of the US through a military coup. They voted overwhelmingly at a recent plebiscite for abolishing the existing Charter drafted by Pinochet, in 1980, and writing a new Constitution enshrining their rights and freedoms. Afghanistan and Iraq are still embroiled in internecine conflicts thanks to the US-led wars to further western interests. There is no end in sight to their suffering, and their wars have spawned terrorist outfits such as the ISIS and Al Qaeda threatening global peace.
As for the MCC compact, what the Rajapaksa government should do is to refer it to Parliament. That is the most democratic way to handle the issue. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa says his party is opposed to it. Most SLPP MPs including ministers, who wrap themselves in the flag, have condemned it. Thus, the Opposition and the government should be able to reject the compact with a two-thirds majority. The US never misses an opportunity to urge Sri Lanka to respect the authority of Parliament, doesn’t it?
Caesar, Antony, Diana and 20A
Monday 26th October, 2020
The Opposition MPs who voted for the 20th Amendment (20A) in Parliament, the other day, are making a vain attempt to justify their action. They would have us believe that they did so without expecting anything in return. There is no such thing as a free vote in the Sri Lankan Parliament. What took the cake was SJB National List (NL) MP Diana Gamage’s excuse. She said she had acted like (Mark) Antony, who, she said, had stabbed Caesar for the love of Rome.
Diana’s version of history has left us baffled. If Antony had stabbed Caesar, Brutus would not have had to flee and run on his sword in the end. Most of all, the question is why Caesar said, “Et tu, Brute?”, and not “Et tu, Antony?” (Diana is fully qualified to head the Office of the United National High Commissioner for Human Rights, for she has the knack for levelling baseless allegations.)
What one gathers from Diana’s statement at issue is that she thinks what she wrongly attributed to Antony—stabbing Caesar—was justifiable because, she thinks, he acted out of his love of Rome. She is apparently given to confusing wrong for right in making decisions. No wonder she voted for 20A!
The NL mechanism was introduced to bring in eminent persons as MPs. But thanks to our political party leaders who act out of expediency rather than principle, we have had some political dregs in the garb of NL MPs. One may recall that the Kumaratunga administration opened a new low in parliamentary politics by creating an NL vacancy and bringing in Mervyn Silva, of all people, to Parliament. The yahapalana government abused the NL to appoint a bunch of defeated candidates to Parliament and even made most of them Ministers. In so doing, it made a mockery of people’s franchise and sovereignty because the people had deemed them unfit to enter Parliament. One of the main arguments that the SLPP government put forth in support of its decision to abolish the Constitutional Council was that it had unelected members, making vital decisions. It remains to be seen whether the government will cause one of its NL slots to fall vacant so that it can appoint to Parliament an outsider who neither contested the last general election nor was an NL nominee, to Parliament, and make him a minister.
It is high time a constitutional amendment was introduced to prevent anyone whose name does not appear on the NL submitted to the people by recognised political parties or independent groups before a general election from being appointed an MP. The deplorable practice of catapulting outsiders to Parliament via the NL is antithetical to democracy and must be brought to an end urgently. True, it was the late President J. R. Jayewardene who surreptitiously inserted a provision into the Constitution to enable outsiders to be appointed MPs via the NL, but those who claim to be ready to lay down their lives to protect democracy can easily amend that provision, can’t they?
Meanwhile, Diana’s reference to ancient Rome reminds us of the danger a country faces when its leaders are torn by divided loyalty, which the present-day dual citizens in politics and key government positions are accused of. After Julius Caesar’s assassination, General Antony neglected his duties much to the consternation of Octavius (or Octavian) Caesar, betrayed his citizenship and forged an alliance with a foreign queen. Finally, he turned against the empire as he loved Cleopatra and Egypt more than Rome. He had this to say melodramatically when Rome summoned him while he was leading a decadent life with Cleopatra: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space/Kingdoms are clay …” – (Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra).
When MP Diana Gamage said in Parliament that she had emulated Antony in voting for 20A, the irony of her utterance may not have been lost on the students of world history and literature, for Antony was a member of the Roman Triumvirate upon which autocratic powers were legally conferred. The Triumvirate, according to some historians, had its opponents destroyed and their properties seized.
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