By A. PATABENDIGE
The ceremonial opening of the 9th Parliament, held on August 21, 2020 saw the President, a war veteran, nothing less, do away with the mainly military ceremonies that held sway before. However, what was unsettling were the actions of the Sergeant-at-Arms trio at the main entrance. They bushwhacked the President’s theme even if it was unintentional. It went largely unnoticed but needs to be corrected, fast.
The trio was armed with swords drawn. In fact, they looked somewhat dangerous and also totally incongruous. Where was the 24-pound gilded mace made of teak permitted by the Sergeant-at-arms but inside Parliament? It is the real symbol of authority even if it is blindly copied from the British. Similarly, as in Britain, he may carry a sword-which is safely sheathed and never drawn for obvious reasons.
The trio was spread out in line across the steps like a rugby front row at the kick off. They wore a peculiar black uniform with a shirt, tie and short jacket.
What was unsettling here was that they had swords drawn. While the Sergeant-at-Arms, according to British tradition, is permitted to wear a sword on the floor of Parliament and it is never unsheathed. In fact, a man in the UK (happens to be Nigerian) wears formal dress. His predecessor was a Moroccan Muslim when a Jew was Speaker. That is the beauty of British liberalism. There was once a female too, Jill Pay. Food for thought in SL.
According to the Parliament website the sergeants-at-arm are permitted to wear the gorget patches of a Major General and the epaulettes of an Admiral on what is meant to be the same as an Army officer’s No 1 dress! What an ill-begotten travesty equating this lot with the illustrious military, even if two of them have been senior military officers? Had their sword drills and dress passed muster with the Defence Ministry?
The Prime Minister in his normal white national dress and prominent ‘kurakkan satakaya’ arrived unescorted. As the Prime Minister walked up the steps, one of the trio, mulishly, thoughtlessly and acting dumb, stood directly in the path of the Prime Minister. He did not budge. The Prime Minister went around him nonchalantly despite having some difficulty in climbing. This has to be corrected and fast.
The President then drew up unescorted. He was dressed in a suit as a nod to this special occasion in Parliament. This would appear to be a calculated choice.
The national dance troupe that never fails to be anything but spectacular, sophisticated and captivating greeted him on the side of the entrance steps. At the top of the steps, a bevy of stunningly pretty schoolgirls, dressed in pleasant hues of pink and blue lama saris, stole the show as they sang jayamangala gathas beautifully and joyously. The President invited and spoke to them at tea after his address, making it a day they will never forget.
When the President mounted the stairs, the three swordsmen with drawn swords climbed the steps behind the President, the Speaker and the Secretary General. Does anyone in the close protection team of the President or even the Secretary General of Parliament, know how this potentially dangerous activity by men whose job is almost totally ceremonial and limited actually to the floor of parliament, was adopted, allowed, permitted or even considered at this ceremonial function?
A cordial chat with a genial Secretary General revealed that he was very proud of the inherited traditions of the UK Parliament as seen that day. He said the sergeant-at-arms tradition came from the time they were bodyguards to the British Sovereign. He said the Sergeant-at-Arms was the only one who was allowed to carry a sword (inside the floor of parliament). He did not say what that man was meant to do with it, except to imitate the UK model.
He was not much aware of the uniform with a tie, etc. that his Sergeants wore on August 21, 2020. He thought they had worn the military type dress uniform with gorget patches of a Major General and epaulettes of a ‘flag rank officer of the Navy’ approved as their ceremonial dress. He believed two of the trio were senior officers from the military. He was relieved to know the swords being ceremonial could not cut, but was told that a jab would be just as painful. He however did not show he relished even vicariously having Majors General and Admirals, at least as far as the uniforms went, obeying his orders.
SL’s Parliament may have copied all things British from the start. However, it is clear that SL has only inherited the form but not the substance of the British traditions. The conduct, behaviour and speech of MPs have been scandalous. While these experiments with dress were being introduced, it is good to recall that like in the UK a bomb was exploded by Guy Fawkes, while at Diyawanna it was by the JVP, which is not repentant but still tolerated. The danger exists.
It is time SL retained only the best of inherited ‘traditions’ and brought in the best and most appropriate traditions of yore to Parliament, to prevent dilutions and experiments, especially to allow Sergeants-at-Arms to run riot, befuddling the Secretary General and endangering both VIPs and all others.
Instead of there being various imitations of military dress, the trio could be dressed in the more majestic and imposing ceremonial dress of the Kandyans, provided the hill men do not object. Even the dress of the MPs could do with a stylised national dress the Kandyan way. This may have a salutary effect on their behaviour, too. Swords if they are to be retained by the Sergeant-at-Arms should never be drawn. And never again should a swordsman by any other name stand in the way of the Prime Minister.
The lasting curse of Janasathu
Let me begin with two anecdotes.
In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!
The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.
The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.
Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.
Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.
I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.
In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.
At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.
As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.
Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions
I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.
In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.
Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.
Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”
Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!
Need for best relations with China
(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)
I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.
Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.
I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.
Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.
It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.
It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.
A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.
These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future
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