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Editorial

Foil bid to ‘steal’ US election

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Wednesday 26th August, 2020

Washington heaved a sigh of relief when Sri Lanka successfully conducted a general election amidst the Covid-19 pandemic about three weeks ago. It also exhorts governments here to uphold democratic values, hold free and fair elections and respect people’s verdicts. America’s concern about Sri Lanka’s democracy is to be appreciated, and, now it is up to Colombo to reciprocate by urging Washington to ensure a free and fair presidential contest in the US, in November 2020, for no less a person than US President Donald Trump has complained of a sinister attempt to ‘steal’ the election. “They’re using Covid to defraud the American people,” he said at the Republican Convention in North Carolina, on 24 August.

President Trump maintains that mail-in ballots could lead to a vote fraud. He is confident of his victory although he is lagging behind his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in opinion polls. (However, he won the presidency despite losing the popular vote in 2016.) “The only way they [Democrats] can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump said at the convention, declaring, “We’re going to win!” There has been a huge increase in mail-in votes owing to Covid-19. Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission Ellen Weintraub has pooh-poohed Trump’s claim, saying, “There is no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.” But Trump is convinced otherwise.

Trump’s oft-repeated claim of attempts to steal the November election has given rise to speculation that he might reject polls results in case of his defeat and try to stay put. (This is what the US-led international community and their Sri Lankan allies feared the then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa would do in 2015, when he faced a presidential election to secure a third term, albeit in vain. But he conceded the race gracefully.)

US democratic system is certainly much stronger than Trump, and he does not look equal to the task of crashing it single-handedly, but any attempt to do so will have a devastating impact on the US democracy. One may recall that about 145 years ago, the US experienced a situation similar to what is being anticipated. The closely-contested 1876 presidential election led to chaos following the submission of conflicting electoral certificates by three States. That sparked a political battle in the Congress, which was unable to decide which certificates should be accepted. The situation became chaotic as main candidates, Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) and Samuel J. Tilden (Democratic), who was leading in popular votes, claimed to have won the election. The Congress set up an ad hoc Election Commission to settle the dispute. Luckily, the two parties reached a compromise and Hayes became the President. A new law was made the following year to help deal with such situations in the future, but legal experts have found some serious deficiencies therein. There’s the rub.

The US had another disputed presidential election outcome in 2000. Democratic Candidate Al Gore lost amidst a controversy over ‘hanging chads’ and ‘pregnant chads’ in Florida, where the Governor was Republican Candidate George W. Bush’s brother. Following weeks of legal and political battles, Al Gore conceded the election, and Bush became the President. A crisis was thus averted.

Unless Trump is defeated decisively with huge margins in both popular and electoral votes, in November, he is not likely to concede the race easily, or at all. It is highly unlikely that he will poll more popular votes than Biden, but nobody knows what is in store as regards the Electoral College. Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton beat Trump in popular votes, in 2016, although she failed to win the presidency. She obtained 2.1% more popular votes than Trump. She has been ranked third among the candidates who swamped their rivals in popular votes but failed to make it to the White House, the first and the second being Andrew Jackson (10%) in 1824, and Tilden (3%) in 1876, respectively.

Among those puzzled by the US Electoral College (EC) mechanism was the genius who ushered in the Nuclear Age. Albert Einstein famously said he could not understand the EC. So much for the way the US Presidents are elected.

All democratic nations are duty bound to rally behind the US, which is on a global crusade to protect democracy; they must help prevent what the US President fears—an election fraud—from coming to pass.

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Editorial

Blinding ingratitude

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Saturday 19th September, 2020

A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.

The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.

During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.

Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.

President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.

The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.

Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.

 

 

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Editorial

Terrorists and ‘babies’

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Friday 18th September, 2020

What is unfolding before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage reminds us of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Erik Solheim once called the Tiger chief a nonpareil strategist. In fact, during the Vanni war, he sought to discourage the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa from going all out to eliminate the LTTE’s military muscle; he told the latter, at a meeting, that Prabhakaran was blessed with superb strategic thinking and capable of springing huge battlefield surprises for the army. Solheim’s claim did not have the desired impact on Mahinda, who bluntly said he would fight the war to a finish, come what may. Prabhakaran perished several months later, and the war came to an end.

Solheim was not alone in mistakenly believing that Prabhakaran was trying to achieve his goal according to a well-thought-out strategy. They must now be convinced that the LTTE had no such plan, and Prabhakaran should have waited and launched his Eelam War IV under a UNP government. From what former intelligence bigwigs and defence officials have revealed before the aforesaid PCoI so far, it is patently clear that the UNP-led yahapalana government made a big mess of national security from 2015 to 2019, and if the LTTE had been around it would have been able to make the most of the situation.

The UNP government (2001-2004) undermined national security in a similar manner. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicrkremesinghe were at loggerheads during that period. The LTTE made use of a fragile truce to consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the South, take delivery of arms shipments, decimate the military intelligence network in areas under its control, and prepare for war. Prabhakaran, while being trapped in the shallows of Nandikadal, must have rued the day he had engineered UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat in the 2005 presidential race by ordering a polls boycott in the North and the East. If he had not meddled with that electoral contest, the UNP would have captured power and undermined national security big time.

Thanks to the PCoI, especially the probing questions its members and the Attorney General’s Department personnel pose to key witnesses, we know how lightly the yahapalana government took national security and public safety. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were busy fighting each other. Intelligence big guns were playing ping-pong over matters of crucial national importance. They worked in silos and, not to put too fine a point on it, behaved like a bunch of Montessori kids. They did not share foreign intelligence about impending Easter Sunday terror strikes with one another properly. Instead, they wrote letters about it to various others obviously in a bid to pass the buck. The State Intelligence Service (SIS), the President and the Prime Minister did not care a tinker’s cuss about national security, which became nobody’s business. The National Security Council became a joke.

The person who was the Chief of National Intelligence, in 2019, has recently told the PCoI that the SIS chief disconnected a call during a telephone conversation, on 20 April 2020, about the foreign intelligence pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks and never called back. Former President Sirisena has claimed that nobody had told him, prior to the terror strikes, that Zahran was a terrorist. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, he said he knew about a ‘golden horse’ and many other assets of the Rajapaksas, but he now claims that, as the President and Commander-in-Chief, he was not aware that Zahran was a terrorist!

Zahran was a kindergarten tot in the world of terror, compared to Prabhakaran, but national security was neglected to such an extent, during the yahapalana days, that even he could easily carry out a series of suicide blasts, which shook the world. What would have happened if Prabhakaran had been alive, or the LTTE rump had made a serious effort to regroup and make a comeback between Jan. 2015 and Nov. 2019?

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Editorial

A shocking lament

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Thursday 17th September, 2020

Perhaps, nothing hurts good judges more than having to acquit anti-social elements owing to flaws in cases and lapses on the part of the police and others responsible for prosecution. Colombo High Court Judge Vikum Kaluarachchi had this experience, on Tuesday. He had to acquit an accused produced before him for possessing drugs. He censured drug busters and prosecutors for their negligence, which had allowed the accused to go scot-free. His consternation is understandable. It is little wonder the conviction rate is said to be below 5% in this country.

The learned judge’s lament is an indictment on the police who conduct drug raids and those entrusted with the task of prosecuting the suspects taken into custody. This, however, is not the first time a drug baron has got away with his crimes. There have been many instances in the past, as we have pointed out in this space over the years. The police have botched up numerous probes, and drugs sent to the Government Analyst’s Department for testing have mysteriously become flour, of all things. Thanks to the arrest of over a dozen corrupt Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) sleuths for collaborating with the drug Mafia, the public knows why charges against some drug lords cannot be proved and the drug trade is thriving here.

Drug barons have colossal amounts of ill-gotten wealth and huge slush funds which they expend generously to safeguard their interests, as is public knowledge. Drug lords have infiltrated all vital state institutions such as the legislature, the police and the Government Analyst’s Department. In 2012, late Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne told Parliament that politicians including some MPs were involved in the drug trade. He made no revelation, but other MPs let out a howl of protest. He stood his ground. Ironically, one year later, he was accused of having links to drug dealers because a haul of heroin was found in a container his office had sought to have cleared on priority basis. The Opposition demanded his resignation. The then UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera said in Parliament that some MPs were living on drug dealers’ money. He, however, stopped short of naming names. Mangala must be au fait with what is happening on the political front, where shady characters bankroll election campaigns of prominent politicians. More than a dozen PNB officers are in hot water for having allegedly sold drugs taken into custody and their deals with drug barons. It may be recalled that an IGP once attended the birthday party of a drug lord’s daughter, in a Colombo hotel, as a special invitee.

In the run-up to the last general election, some candidates were accused of being drug dealers, and they have been elected! So, one may argue that discrepancies and contradictions in police officers’ reports and testimonies and lapses on the part of prosecutors are not due to negligence. Is it that they craftily open escape routes for drug dealers on the judicial front?

The police and the Attorney General’s Department officials know what they are doing. They do not easily make mistakes. They ensure that ordinary lawbreakers get convicted and sentenced expeditiously. Curiously, investigators and prosecutors lack this kind of efficiency when wealthy drug barons happen to be caught and prosecuted.

Drug dealers are among the richest in the world. Colombian Pablo Escobar, who was ranked the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes, made a bonfire of cash worth USD2 million to keep his daughter warm and cook food while fleeing, his son revealed in 2009. Thankfully, he is not among the living. Sri Lanka drug dealers may not have wads of dollars or rupees to burn, but they are certainly wealthy enough to buy off venal police officers, politicians and state officials and get away with their crimes.

Some cricketers are notorious for spot fixing, and what they do at the behest of bookies are made to look slip-ups such as dropped catches, careless strokes and fumbling on the field. Are the police officers and others responsible for prosecuting drug barons ‘fixing cases’? Those whose ‘lapses’ help drug dealers go scot-free must be probed.

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