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Gampaha 1961: Some Very Important People and Events

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(Excerpted from the Memoirs of Senior DIG (Retd.) Edward Gunawardena)

With a month to go for my confirmation as an ASP, Police Headquarters thought it fit to assign me to the important police district of Gampaha. Western Province North was the SP’s Division. The office of the Supdt. of Police Western Province North was located in Gampaha. The other ASP’s districts in the Division were Peliyagoda and Negombo. The ASP Peliyagoda was T. Thalayasingham and K.V. Ramanathan was the ASP Negombo. The DIG in charge of the WP North Division was C.C. Dissanayake, DIG Range I.

The Gampaha Police district had six police stations at the time. The officers in charge were Tharmarajah, HQI Gampaha, SI P. Vedamuthu, OIC Weliweriya, SI Percy Wijesuriya, OIC Kirindiwela, IP Hamid, OIC Veyangoda, IP Alex Abeysekera, OIC Nittambuwa and IP Michael Schokman, OIC Mirigama.

Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister and Horagolla Walawwa was located in the Nittambuwa Police Station area. This country residence of the PM was not even guarded by the police then. She did not want the field police to be hanging round at Horagolla. Whenever she visited the mansion, her security division headed by ASP Rajasooriya managed without taxing the local police. She had immense faith in her two bodyguards, IP Chandrasekera and SI Wewala. However, I did not fail to realize that the security of Horagolla was my prime responsibility. Apart from the Prime Minister, every state guest visited Horagolla, some even over nighting there.

The other politicians that mattered were the MPs with their electorates, or part of them, in the Gampaha police district. They were all cultured, honourable gentlemen with whom I could empathize with ease. There were no Provincial Councilors or Pradeshiya Sabha members at that time – the tinpot political scum of today. In that respect the sixties were wonderful years. At that time MPs had high respect for public servants; they got on excellently with each other with mutual respect for one another.

Of the MPs representing Gampaha at the time, the majority are no more. S.D. Bandaranayake and Lakshman Jayakody (LJ) are the only two living as I write this account today. The former was the MP for Gampaha and latter was the MP for Divulapitiya. The other parliamentarians were: Felix Dias Bandaranaike ( Dompe – Kirindiwela police area), Wijayabahu Wijesinghe (Mirigama), S. K. Sooriarachchi (Mahara – Weliweriya Police area) and M.P. de Z. Siriwardena (Minuwangoda). There was also JP Obeysekera (Attanagalla).

The friendly experiences I had with some of these MPs are worth recalling. The first of them I met was J.P. Obeysekera. After I had received my transfer order to Gampaha, one day I dropped in at the Fountain Cafe for lunch. I was in uniform. My father, who was the Asst. Manager there, sat at the same table and was chatting to me. Most of the senior waiters dressed in immaculate white were round my table chatting. Some of them had even carried me as a child. I still remember the names of a few of them – Cornelis with a ‘konde’ and a crescent turtle shell comb, Alphonso, Ambrose, Bhatia and Kitta. The last was the waiter who brought our meals from Fountain Cafe to St. Joseph’s College during the war years. Martin and Simon the cooks also joined the group.

As I was finishing my lunch a lean, tall man dressed in white slacks and white long sleeved shirt walked in smiling. My father greeted him warmly and guided him to a table. After he was seated, father introduced me to him. Only when I got talking to him that he realized that I was to be the new police chief of the district; and it was only then that I came to know the MP for Attanagalle. JPO was a gentleman to his finger tips. After the initial meeting at Fountain Cafe, I seldom met him. He belonged to the cream of the low-country aristocracy, was well endowed with wealth and had graduated from Cambridge. He became a friend of mine but did not want the police by his side to boost his ego. What a contrast to the politicians of later years!

After I left the Gampaha District on transfer I had the opportunity of meeting him on several occasions. Long after my retirement from the police, I wrote a novel ‘Blood and Cyanide’ published in 2001 when I was a Director of Lake House. On reading the reviews of this novel in the newspapers, JPO telephoned to congratulate me. I felt guilty about not having invited him to the book launch at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and I sent him a copy. He reciprocated by sending me his book on his solo flight to Ceylon from Britain after he completed his studies at Cambridge.

As I write these memoirs today S.D. Bandaranayake is alive and one of his sons, Pandu, is an MP. Before I went to Gampaha I had heard much about SD, more as a troublesome character who did not like the police very much. As he was the MP for the electorate of Gampaha I decided to make contact and took the initiative by telephoning him on a Saturday morning. He was surprised. “This is the first time a police officer has contacted me and wanted to call on me. Mr. Gunawardena, you are most welcome. My wife and I will be delighted to have you for a little dinner with us this evening”. I kept the appointment. It was quite a sumptuous dinner considering the austere times, preceded by vodka, caviar and a lively conversation. SD had many contacts in the Russian Embassy. Hence the repast!

A few days later, the Gampaha police raided an illicit liquor den in Yakkala. SD telephoned me and told me that the man under arrest was known to him and that he was not a kasippu dealer or seller. In spite of protests by the HQI Gampaha, the suspect was released by me. However, I told SD that there was good evidence against the man. Emboldened by the leniency shown by the Police this man recommenced his trade and I decided to lead a raid. It was successful. Several bottles were seized. Other than the seller, three others who were consuming illicit liquor were also arrested.

All these people together with the productions were bundled into a Land Rover and driven straight to Madugas Walawwa, SD’s residence. He was on the verandah. When I told him what happened, he was most embarrassed. He angrily walked up to the Land Rover, got his friend to alight, gave him two thundering slaps and told him to stop this business forthwith. The gentleman he was, SD did not hold this against me.

Lakshman Jayakody (LJ) was a well to do proprietary coconut planter and a full blooded Trinitian. A large part of his electorate fell within the Mirigama Police area of which the OIC was Michael Schokman. Jayakody and Schokman had both played cricket for Trinity, the latter the senior of the two. They got on very well and as a result the ASP Gampaha had very few problems from the Mirigama Police area!

Lakshman J being a descendant of John de Silva was a lover of the Tower Hall Sinhala Music. He himself was fond of singing these famous old songs. One day in 1961 he invited me to a musical evening with an exclusive audience, mainly from the diplomatic corps. It was held at the Tower Hall and lasted for about three hours. Some of the singers were H.W. Rupasinghe, Eddie Master, Allen Ratnayake, A.M.U. Raj, Latiff Bhai and G.S.B. Rani. The only instruments were the tabla, serapina (harmonium) and the violin. The violinist was W.D. Albert Perera who later changed his name to W.D. Amaradeva.

Lakshman Jayakody and I have remained friends ever since. In the 70s when I was the Director Planning and Research and P.A. to the IGP, I had occasion to work with him closely particularly during the JVP uprising of 1971. When two Cessna light aircraft were acquired by the SLAF at that time, it was he and I who travelled in the inaugural flight to Palaly. Apart from Palaly, where we were entertained to lunch by Col. Bull Weeratunga, we visited the Karainagar Naval base which was in charge of Commander Neville Andrado. Lakshman J. was the Junior Minister of Defence at that time.

Felix Dias Bandaranaike was a friendly sort when I first met him in 1961. He was the MP for Dompe and the Kirindiwela police station came within the Gampaha police district with SI Percy Wijesuriya in charge. Whenever FDB visited his electorate he functioned from the Weke Walawwa which was in the Kirindiwela police area. I still remember the day he wanted me to stay for lunch with him. He had got the caretaker to prepare his favourites, jak curry and a dry fish bedun which I too enjoyed. A heavy smoker, FDB smoked a pipe and cigarettes. At the end of the meal, he was looking for a cigarette as he had finished all he had brought. Accepting a Bristol cigarette from me he joked, “no harm sharking a punt from a Peradeniya junior.” Perhaps the Peradeniya connection helped us to get on well.

With FDB’s meteoric rise to dizzy heights in the political firmament, lesser mortals like me quite naturally faded away from his reckoning. However, I consider it my good fortune to have known him well even fleetingly. He indeed has a unique place in Sri Lanka’s history. It was he by his courageous and decisive conduct that saved the nation when democracy was in peril in 1962 and 1971.

Wijebahu Wijesinghe and S.K.K. Sooriarachchi were also easy to get on with. The former once visited the United States on an official visit with fellow MPs Wijepala Mendis and I.A. Cader. As they were to visit Texas A and M, I made arrangements for them to stay with my brother, Irwin, who was doing his Master’s degree there.

M.P. de Z Siriwardena, the MP for Minuwangoda was the Deputy Minister of Labour. Very much unlike the other MPs of the Gampaha district, he was abrasive in his ways and often rubbed the police on the wrong side. I soon realized that he was a man who could easily be outwitted. His main support group in the electorate was the large scale illicit distillers and he was determined to protect them from police action. He even encouraged them to resist and obstruct police raids.

Once a police party from Gampaha led by IP Buhary was obstructed. Buhary, acting in self defence, had used a police baton on a violent thug. This man had died of head injuries and a magisterial inquiry was in progress. One morning when I was in the HQI’s office M.P. de Z S walked in with a few others saying, “I say ASP, your people have killed my man.” I told him to sit down and requested the HQI to send for the Information Book. I calmly told the MP that as he appeared to know something about the death, that he is at liberty to make a statement. He got cold feet and left saying that he did not want to make a statement. Politicians are big talkers but discreetly avoid situations that make them witnesses in court cases. They shun cross-examination.

I remember, not long after, a strong supporter of the MP made a complaint against the police of assault. The complaint, made to the SP Jayakody, alleged that an Inspector had even spoken disparagingly of the MP. As my SP showed interest in this complaint, I fixed an early date for the preliminary inquiry in my office and notified the witnesses. Two days before the inquiry this MP had telephoned the SP and told him that the inquiry should be held in a school at Asgiriya. I told the SP that in that case it will take the form of a public inquiry. “Gune, do whatever you want”, was his response.

I told HQI Tharmarajah to arrange a school and fixed the date for the inquiry. I also told him that at the request of the MP this will be a public inquiry and told him to arrange for a few people to come forward and volunteer evidence favourable to the police. Tharmarajah, the seasoned policeman, was amazed at the suggestion. After recording the statements of the formal witnesses I announced that any person who wished to give evidence could do so. Three out of many who came forward were selected. Their evidence (well coached by the police) was most convincing. My SP had no alternative but to agree with my findings. M.P. de Z S certainly went through a learning exercise. Distraught and defeated he had told my SP, “your ASP is a hard nut.”

 

Funeral of Singho Mahattaya alias Wickramarachchi of Attanagalla

One morning IP Alex Abeysekera, the OIC Nittambuwa telephoned me that Singho Mahattaya of Attanagalle had died; and the Governor -General and Prime Minister were due to pay their respects at his residence. I had never heard of Singho Mahattaya and told the Nittambuwa OIC to have some police presence at the residence and also along the route. On second thoughts I asked Tharmarajah the HQI Gampaha about the deceased. He told me that it was this man, who was rich and influential, who had always been the proposer of the name of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike at elections.

After the discussion I had with Tharmarajah I decided to visit the sprawling residence of Singho Mahattaya at Maligatenne. OIC Nittambuwa was there and he introduced me to Singho Mahattaya’s two sons, Nagasiri and Kithsiri who warmly received me. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike had already visited the funeral house once with her children and was expected to visit again. Nagasiri and Kithsiri were awaiting the arrival of Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, the Governor-General. When he arrived in his Austin Princess I saluted him and received him. I was the most senior public official present.

Having introduced the two sons, I accompanied him into the house and remained close to him. Soon I realized that he was comfortable with me by his side. Before leaving the funeral house the G.G. whispered to me that he would like to visit the Bandaranaike Samadhi that was being constructed at the time. I conveyed this information to the HQI and went ahead of Sir Oliver, having instructed the pilot officer to stop behind my car that will be parked on the road opposite the Samadhi site.

Although my intention was to take him to the site by car, he preferred to walk. The G.G. was received at the site by the most senior officer of the Public Works Dept. who was present, Peter Jayawardena. Peter explained the difficulties to meet the completion target of September 26, 1961. Sir Oliver saw for himself how the work was going on day and night. There were several temporary tea kiosks that had come up on the roadside to cater to the workers. He walked with me to all these places and told the boutique keepers that they should unfailingly supply the workforce with their requirements. Before getting into his car he told me to get these kades to supply whatever the workers want and send the bill to Queen’s House! A tall order indeed from a man who had even been the country’s Auditor-General. I passed this information to Peter Jayawardena. That’s all I could have done.

During my meeting with Sir Oliver at this funeral he even addressed me as ‘Sonny’. Showing great interest, he asked me about crime in the area and troublesome characters. He asked me about the MPs and the relations I maintained with them, specially asking me whether they interfere in my work. He was also keen to know about the popularity of each of them in their respective electorates. The significance of this conversation with Sir Oliver dawned on me only after the attempted coup d’etat which took place a few months later.

Singho Mahattaya had been a great admirer of SWRD Bandaranaike. Because SWRD had gray hounds, he (Singho Mahattaya) had also thought of bringing up dogs. He had imported a pair of Great Danes and named them Barnes and Barney. Barnes Ratwatte was the father of Sirimavo! Nagasiri, the elder son of SM who became very friendly with me, gifted me with a full grown Great Dane that had shown affection to me whenever I visited him. However, after about eight months I had to put him down because he became fierce and even growled at me. Nagasiri was a great friend indeed. Whenever I visited him he treated me with the best of food and drink. He died young. I remember attending his funeral at Attanagalle with Stanley Senanayake, the IGP, who also had known Singho Mahattaya and his family.



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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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