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It will take a lot to bury 2020, but let’s give thanks for being alive

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by Malinda Seneviratne

The year 2020 was eminently forgettable and that has very little to do with politics. The obvious need not be stated. As for the political, we had parliamentary elections and the passage of the 20th Amendment. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna effectively consolidated its hold on power, securing close to a two-thirds majority. The UNP (official) was routed and the UNP (in new garb, i.e. the SJB) was a distant second.

The new parliamentary configuration resulted in the 20th Amendment being passed. Of course there were objections. Court was petitioned. The Attorney General promised that certain articles would be amended at the ‘Committee Stage’ and the court ruled, except with regard to just a single article, that if this was done a special majority (two-thirds) would suffice. Clarity in the structure of governance, sorely compromised by the 19th Amendment, was restored. Most of the powers clipped from the office of the president by the 19th Amendment (in order to strengthen the then prime minister, appointed in contravention of all established procedure and at the time not even enjoying a parliamentary majority), were restored. The dangers are obvious but that’s something that the Opposition cannot complain about.

So, in effect, 2020 was a ‘pohottuwa’ year. The Opposition, in disarray, did make a few noises towards the end of the year thanks to Covid-19 and little else. The Opposition could not even hold on to the worrisome incident at the Mahara prison where 11 persons died and over 100 were wounded. It was distracted by the controversial ‘Dhammika Syrup’. The UNP is yet to name someone to the national list slot that came its way. The JVP has gone silent. The strongest party in the Opposition, the SJB, seems to be readying for a cold war for party leadership.

Patali Champika Ranawaka launched a separate political project called ‘The Group of 43.’ Ranawaka, who left the Jathika Hela Urumaya, was named one of six Deputy Chairmen of the SJB which technically dilutes his position in the party. He is not even the Deputy Leader (there is no such post, at present). Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary of the UNP and recently appointed as the General Secretary of the SJB, claimed ‘Sajith Premadasa will be the common candidate of the Opposition.’ There’s a long way to go before parties nominate presidential candidates but if Attanayake’s predictions come true, Ranawaka’s obvious political ambitions would take a hit. It is unlikely that he would let himself be shoved to the sidelines. Interesting times ahead, therefore.

With the two major elections done and dusted following a rousing victory for the SLPP in the local government elections (February 2018) which in fact gave that party its initial momentum, only the provincial councils are left to be fought over.

The PCs have been dissolved for several years now. The administrative apparatus remains and of course Governors who are from time to time appointed, removed and replaced. Illegally constituted though they are, the PCs remain part of the overall governance structure. They are constitutional by habit, if you will. Have they served any purpose, though? They have certainly helped the career politicians, many of whom have seen PCs as stepping stones to Parliament. A lot happens at the provincial level, especially with regard to education and health, but as we’ve seen over the past three years or so, all you need for effective delivery of services is decentralization of administration. It is not as efficient as could be, but in the very least things are no worse than when the PCs were fully functional.

Anyway, whether or not to hold PC elections is a political decision. The Government is currently mulling comprehensive constitutional reform which could take the form of a fresh constitution. The future of the 13th Amendment is at stake here.

Perhaps this is why the likes of Dayasiri Jayasekera and former president Maithripala Sirisena have made some noise on the subject (Note: the SJB, the JVP, the UNP and not even the TNA has uttered a single worry-word in this regard).

Dayasiri Jayasekera, State Minister and General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), while acknowledging that the electoral system should be amended has stated that any decision regarding PCs should be first discussed with India. That’s strange because India didn’t keep her part of the deal in the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in July 1987. It was, in the first place an Indo-Indo Accord; drafted by India, signed by Rajiv Gandhi who saw it as ‘the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’ and by J.R.Jayewardene (under duress) to secure India’s interests. Sri Lanka was only interested in getting the LTTE disarmed. India undertook to do it but did not.

Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP and former President, in an interview with ‘The Hindu’ told Meera Srinivasan that ‘abolishing PCs [would be like] playing with fire.’ That comment was taken as the headline. Sirisena, to his credit, wasn’t at all gungho about PCs, a point that ‘The Hindu’ has played down for obvious reasons. Sirisena clearly expressed disappointment with the PCs and proposes decentralization through ‘District Development Boards.’ It is only when Srinivasan pushed him on ‘abolition’ that Sirisena, slipped to diplospeak, alluding to (non-existent) ‘friendship’ between the two countries, speculating that ‘India could get a little upset’ and quickly upping it to the headline-possible, ‘abolishing PCs is like playing with fire.’

The Government, meanwhile, has decided that PC elections will not be held soon. That’s not good news to politicians looking to move up. The so-called lower ranks do play a role in the larger political game, but then again the next test, so to speak, is several years away. Postponement of elections is not a good thing. The previous government paid a heavy price in this regard. This government could too, unless abolition is being seriously contemplated. That would require a constitutional amendment where the two-thirds might be harder to secure than it was in the passage of the 20th Amendment.

Sirisena, in that same interview, has stated bravely that the SLFP is planning a rejuvenation program. He complains about SLFPers being treated like second-class citizens by the SLPP, forgetting that such is the fate of any small party aligning itself with one that is larger, more popular and far better organized. Srinivasan interjects the SLFP’s numbers (14), but doesn’t state the obvious that it is highly unlikely that the SLFP would have got so many members in had it gone alone in August 2020. Sirisena’s comments about the SLPP-SLFP alliance is a sad whine. If, for example, the 13 who contested under the lotus bud symbol were asked to choose one party over the other, the majority are likely to ditch Sirisena and the SLFP. The SLFP is ready to go alone, Sirisena says. The SLFP did go alone just three years ago (Local Government Elections) and was well and truly creamed. There’s nothing to indicate a mass migration of people from the SLPP (or any other party for that matter) to the SLFP.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has discussed the matter of constitutional reform and concluded that it would call for a mechanism formulated with the involvement of the international community. The party has already drafted a 21-page proposal to the experts’ committee appointed to draft a new constitution. It is reported that this draft includes suggestions to formulate new laws pertaining to certain aspects such as education, law, land tenure, health, agriculture and irrigation on the Northern and Eastern Provinces. 13A+, so to speak, is what the TNA’s proposal would be, certainly not support for abolition or a shift to a district-based system of devolution/decentralization as the SLFP seems to be inclined towards.

The SLFP is not the only party that’s in crisis. Developments in the Northern Province indicates that internal disagreement has cost the TNA. The elections of the Mayor of Jaffna by the Municipal Council following the budget being defeated twice resulted in Wishvalingam Manivannan of the EPDP with 21 votes edging out the TNA’s Arnold Emmanuel who got 20 votes. On the same day, the TNA candidate for the post of Chairman, Nallur Pradeshiya Sabha, Koomaraswamy Mathusuthan (8 votes) was pipped by Padmanathan Mayuran, the candidate filled by the TNPF, a party led by Ganendran Ponnambalam.

These losses do indicate that Tamil people are to some degree disenchanted with the TNA and may look for leadership elsewhere. That, however, would be later. These squabbles notwithstanding, it is likely that all Tamil political parties will resist any moves to abolish the 13th Amendment. They are also likely to welcome any move in any multilateral forum that had the potential to embarrass or wound the present government.

The most thorny issue at hand of course is that of how to dispose the bodies of people who have died on account of Covid-19. At present the Government has ruled out burials on account of infection worries. This has irked many Muslims, here and abroad, who see this as a racially motivated position. A Muslim organization based in the UK is to sue the Government. The BBC has put a spin on the story. Par for the course, one might say. It all points to one thing: all roads lead to Geneva when the government in power is not to the liking of Europe and North American governments.

Sri Lanka does not stand to win anything by appeasing those who knowingly or unknowingly play into the hands of the big boys and girls on the global stage. It’s a naduth-haamuduruwange, baduth-hamuduruwange game, after all; a global version of the USA’s play on Sri Lanka with respect to the MCC Compact. It was supposed to be a gift which Sri Lanka didn’t seem to be interested in; so the offer was withdrawn with not so veiled threats of repercussions. It’s just about playing a game skewed against you under rules made by the powerful and amended at will by the same.

The issue of burial has been politicized. The Muslim leaders are guilty of this politicization — when a solution (burial in the Maldives) was proposed, those who take diktat from God and aspire to God’s kingdom suddenly became patriotic, wanting the dead to be buried in ‘The Motherland’. It has been politicized by extremists in the majority community who demand that the Government should not pander to the whims and fancies of the Muslims. The Government has not done itself any favors by doing zilch about necessary changes in accordance with the election promise, ‘One country, one law.’ The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act stands. The unchecked Madrasas still function.

However, it is wrong to dismiss the burial option simply because Muslim leaders have been intransigent, extremist and absolutely racist. It is also wrong to dismiss the dismissal of the burial option because it is espoused by Sinhala Buddhist extremists and chauvinists. Acceptance or rejection has to be based on scientific evidence.

As things stand and as the eminent virologist Dr Malik Peiris has explained, it is highly unlikely that burial is risky in terms of infection. ‘Highly unlikely’ sits this side of ‘absolutely impossible,’ but then again, if strict burial protocols are observed, it is less risky than, say, the possibility of infection in a supermarket by an unidentified carrier. Moreover, there are theoretically hundreds of locations on this island where burial would have no risk whatsoever. Sure, the chest-beating Muslims worried about the afterlife haven’t bothered to look for empty land in all-Muslim areas so they could say ‘if there’s a risk, we’ll take it.’ That’s beside the point.

The question is simple: how should bodies be disposed? The answer, based on scientific evidence, should be expressed by the Government. Experts have been asked to give their recommendations. They’ve had enough time. Their conclusion should be made public. Clearly. Logically. Regardless of who is pleased or displeased. It is a communication problem, in essence. If ‘politics’ HAS to be injected (and we do understand that this is more probable than possible) AND if it’s an issue of allaying the anxieties of one community at the cost of aggravating the anxieties of another community, it has to be sorted out by addressing the full gamut of issues that come under ‘politics of religion.’ For example, if burial is deemed safe and it is felt that this would cause the Sinhalese to suspect that the government is pandering to particular minority, then all relevant and unresolved political issues need to be sorted out. As pointed out in this column previously, the full implementation of the recommendations tabled by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Extremism (February, 2020).

Death-rites cannot wait, though. Politicians and officials are notorious for foot-dragging. Disposal is a ‘Right Now’ issue. The Government can, if it is concerned about political fallout, issue clear statements about what’s being done on other counts as alluded to above.

The disposal issue is likely to be sorted out soon. It won’t stop the USA, UK and other rogue states from beating Sri Lanka down with one or more heavy clubs at their disposal in Geneva in a few weeks time. Those are factors beyond anyone’s control. We saw what Mangala Samaraweera’s appeasement strategy did. Nothing.

In the end, the government can trust only one political entity. The people. Take the hard decisions, explain them and trust the people to understand. Do a lot, not just one thing, for in ‘the lot’ there will be several things that will be applauded. Otherwise, like what happened to the yahapalana gang, the tag ‘anti-people’ will be pinned firmly on the body of the government. Not by NGOs and foreign powers (their pins just won’t stick) but the people!

Writing this on January 1st, I am acutely aware that today is not unlike the 31st day of December, 2020. The world has not changed and change has little or nothing to do with the structure of a calendar.

But let’s say hello to 2021 anyway. Let’s learn to live with Covid-19 until such time we can bury it for good. Let’s learn to live with one another, because we just can’t bury each other.

 

malindasenevi@gmail.com

. www.malindawords.blogspot.com.

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Politics

It’s time for the Geneva Circus replete with molehills and mountains

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by Malinda Seneviratne

Circus Pacifica, Apollo Circus and of course the amazing Chinese Circus — readers of an earlier generation will no doubt remember these. The Apollo Circus however planted itself on Pedris Park for quite awhile, but the others were rare.

Perhaps the antics of politicians, political parties, activists of various persuasions and of course the NGO rat pack compensated. They have entertained us even as they went about their charades, clowning, sleight of hand, somersaults and such, prompting quite a few oohs and aahs from an audience that wasn’t exactly applauding in unison.

We could never look forward to the real circuses. We didn’t have to anticipate with bated breath the political circus. However, there’s one which comes around every year around February. The Geneva Circus.

There are essentially two scripts: one to be used when a US-friendly or rather servile-to-the-USA government is in power and the other when the regime is not willing to play ball with eyes closed. In the first case, we get co-sponsored anti Sri Lanka resolutions, soft deadlines, much forgiving and forgetting. The run-up to the UNHRC sessions are not marked by Washington-led media outfits badmouthing Sri Lanka. The separatist groups abroad are in ‘go-easy’ mode. Human rights outfits barely murmur ‘concerns.’ Their local counterparts go into hibernation and the slumber is so deep that they don’t have the eyes to see any wrongdoing.

Well, we are not in that situation right now. It’s ‘the other guys’ in power and perforce it’s the second script that’s being played. This is how it goes.

It begins with the collection/construction of evidence. There are claims that strangely (and by now predictably) are filed without substantiation. Non-movement on agreements that are no longer valid will be noted. There will be a lot of striving and straining to enumerate ‘minority grievances,’ and to this end, the local lackeys in political and NGO circles will do their bit. Statements will be issued by the representatives of nations that have clout in Geneva (the U.S. ‘Cesspool of bias’ description notwithstanding). All ‘concerns’ raised will be duly documented. Human rights outfits, international and local, silent for months, will suddenly find voice.

‘Sri Lanka’s human rights situation has seriously deteriorated under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2021.’

That’s Human Rights Watch. Absolutely predictable. It comes with ‘evidence.’

HRW claims that security forces have increased intimidation and surveillance of human rights activists, victims of past abuses, lawyers, and journalists.’ If activists and claimants of past abuses, political operatives who conveniently wear the lawyer or journalist hat are upset about outcome preferences that haven’t materialized feel some anxiety and want to call it ‘intimidation’ or ‘surveillance’ that’s their right. A state cannot be faulted to be cautious, especially given a 30-year war against terrorism and a jihadist movement that unleashed terror on civilian targets that matched the worst of the LTTE. We don’t even know if there was intimidation or surveillance. We do know that ‘intimidation’ is frequently fabricated, posted on dubious websites and photo-shopped into newspaper cuttings. We know that such ‘evidence’ is sent to the right addresses where the relevant householders lap it all up gleefully.

HRW is upset about Sri Lanka withdrawing from the resolutions co-sponsored by a more than mischievous minister on behalf of a government operating absolutely against popular will on the relevant issues. However, when the wording is regurgitated, it does sound ominous. It’s as though Sri Lanka has decided that truth-seeking, accountability and reconciliation are irrelevant. That’s hardly the case. Well, not ‘Reconciliation = Eelamist Agenda’ certainly, but those who preferred THAT version were booted out by the voter. HRW has missed the incontrovertible truth that even those who pushed that version, did an about turn, pledging in two major elections to uphold the unitary character of the state. As for the devolution element of reconciliation, not even its most ardent advocates seem interested in provincial councils.

So it’s natural that the HRW feels a reversal in ‘gains of the previous government.’ HRW feels that minorities are ‘more insecure, victims of past abuses fearful, and critics wary of speaking out.’ That’s what Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of the outfit says. It’s cut-and-paste stuff, nothing more.

If ‘security’ is about a separatist agenda moving in the ‘right direction,’ sure, that’s not happening. ‘Victims of past abuses,’ she says — well, such as? Critics? Does she mean those who were unofficial adjuncts of the political camp that lost? They are wary, are they? ‘Wary’ is certainly a politically more useful descriptive than, say, ‘devastated by political defeats.’

There is certainly a more military presence in government. Systemic flaw and woeful incompetence by officials haven’t really helped the President get things done, especially in a pandemic context. It’s no secret that it is the security forces and the State Intelligence Service that have sacrificed the most, working tirelessly around the clock, to support the efforts of the medical teams fighting Covid-19. The retired officers (they are civilians now, let us not forget) haven’t done worse than those they replaced as heads of certain key institutions. In fact, in certain cases, they’ve managed to streamline operations, cut costs and get things done.

HRW says ‘they were, like the President, implicated in war crimes.’ Here we go again! Accusation treated as established fact in a political project which is not described as such, naturally. HRW makes much of the USA announcing that General Shavendra Silva was ineligible to enter that country. Oh dear! The USA passes judgment and that’s the last word? This is the point where the clowns do their turn. Loud applause and much laughter follow!

HRW talks of a ‘false accusation on social media that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus.’ Lots happen on social media. Some take it seriously, some don’t. HRW seems to have done some surveillance and cherry-picked. Good for HRW.

HRW does better on the issue of burials/cremation. The Government has not sanctioned burial. Yet. The issue has been politicized by multiple parties, Muslim politicians included. Maybe HRW is not interested in delving into the details and the complexities, but the Government could (still) act in ways that alleviate the apprehensions of the Muslim community.

The High Commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet has also made the expected noises, flagging ‘freedom of expression’ issues related to what she calls ‘criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 situation.’ This is not the time to be mischievous and some certainly were, and that, Bachelet and HRW will not agree, can have serious impact on the entire population. The nice thing about it is that neither HRW nor UNHRC has to do the cleaning up when the smelly stuff hits the fan.

Ganguly ends with some poetry. Nice. ‘Concerned governments should do all they can to prevent Sri Lanka from returning to the ‘bad old days’ of rampant human rights violations. Governments need to speak out against abuses and press for a UN Human Rights Council resolution that addresses accountability and the collection and preservation of evidence.’

Concerned governments, she says. Does she mean the USA, UK and those in the EU? Laugh, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what you do when the circus comes to town!

Yes, the EU too. The EU has, as expected when the Geneva Circus is around the corner, ‘raised concerns’ on human rights. The wording is identical, almost: inclusiveness, reconciliation and fair treatment of minorities.’ The EU office has also tweeted that it is ‘saddened by the destruction of the monument at the Jaffna University.’

What’s the story there? Students cannot put up structures at will on state property. If the monument was sanctioned, the person who gave permission was the first culprit. However, having allowed it or turned a blind eye to it (as the case may be), it is wrong to arbitrarily raze it to the ground. The Vice Chancellor opined that it was an obstacle to reconciliation. The students’ response (‘we tell the “Sinhala Government” that we don’t want to fight a war, we just want to honor our dead’) seems to justify his position, but that’s a different matter.

If students want to celebrate brutes, that says a lot about the students. However, if it’s about remembering kith and kin, that’s another matter altogether. If that’s the case, though, why make a political fuss about it? Why turn it into a circus?

The VC has since done a U-Turn and even laid the foundation for a replacement monument. The government missed a trick here. It could have engaged the students. It could have discussed the possibility of a monument before which anyone could grieve, especially the near and dear for the temperature of their tears are the same and truer than those shed by the politically motivated. Could have, should have, still can do. Never too late.

There are circuses and circuses. Some International, some local. We had the US Ambassador finding her voice after a long silence to express dismay over the assault on the Capitol Building in Washington DC. ‘We will continue to try to be more perfect,’ she pledged. So, the USA and everything in that country including racism, police brutality and a foreign policy that’s only about securing markets, plundering resources and bombing countries to the middle ages if that’s what pursuing strategic interests entails, is ‘perfect.’ That’s the claim. Laugh ladies and gentlemen!

This week also saw an incarceration drama. Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to a four year prison term for contempt of court. Naturally, the opposition cried ‘foul.’ Ranjan’s ethics are obviously of the kind that makes ‘foul’ a weak descriptive. He did rant and rave in ways that others did not. He did insult the judiciary. He demanded an independent judiciary but was caught on tape (his own) promising to intercede on behalf of a judge, taking her case to the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (yes, under whose watch HRW and the UNHRC says ‘there was progress’!).

Was there political motivation at work in the court decision? We don’t know. We can speculate though. Speculation on this count was fueled by the acquittal of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan allies Pilleyan, former Chief Minister, Eastern Provincial Council and leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP).

Ranjan in, Pilleyan out! How horrendous! That’s the line the Opposition took.

Well, Pilleyan belonged to a terrorist organization. That’s bad. He was accused of murder. That’s not good. However, on that particular charge, his innocence has to be presumed until and unless proven guilty. He was held for five years without trial. Five years! That’s when the government which HRW and Bachelet believes ‘made some progress.’ Those making a song and dance about Ranjan’s sentence and about ‘the lawyer’ Hejaaz Hizbullah being held without trial over suspected involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks, weren’t upset over Pilleyan’s incarceration.

Five years was long enough to find the evidence, but apparently the Attorney General couldn’t make a case. That, or he bowed to political pressure. The former indicates that his predecessor was playing politics with justice. The latter, if that’s the case, doesn’t cover the current Attorney General in glory. However, all this is speculation. We really don’t know.

Maybe investigations regarding Hizbullah are incomplete. He’s been under custody for many months. Not yet ‘years.’ Years, however, is the time-slice in the case of LTTE cadres currently in detention. Neither the previous regime nor this has moved to bring matters to a close. It would be a horrible travesty of justice if they are finally released ‘due to lack of evidence’ or an unwillingness to continue with the prosecution (either of which could be the case with respect to Pilleyan). Not a laughing matter, ladies and gentlemen .

We had the President slipping in Ampara over the last weekend. To be fair by him, the President has been badgered endlessly by Harin Fernando from day one. The President responded in jest, but what he said was not really funny. He alluded to Prabhakaran and how that terrorist’s life ended. Unnecessary. Unbecoming. Harin is, relatively, small fry and his political track record is so sketchy that responding to him constitutes a salute, an undeserved one.

Harin claimed he knew about the Easter Sunday attack AND DID NOTHING ABOUT IT! Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during the election campaign, conducted himself well. He didn’t utter one word about his fellow candidates. He focused on his program. He slipped. That’s no laughing matter either, even though people are making a mountain out of a molehill here.

There was noise over the East Terminal of the Colombo Port. The unions and several political parties objected. They met with the President. The talks were disappointing, they said. The President said it will not be sold. He said it’s a joint venture with a minority control for the Indian port development company. He didn’t say that the same company is building a competitor-port in Kerala. Obviously there’s ‘understanding’ that’s not been put into words and made public.

Obviously the (virtual) sale of the Hambantota Port by the previous regime has constrained the President vis-a-vis Indian ‘concerns’. The President has gone on record to say that India’s national security concerns will not be compromised by Sri Lanka. There’s a cheque being cashed by India but we don’t know what we got in return. The vaccine? That’s a laugh — in any case 99.5% of the infected recover, the vaccine is still an unknown quantity and there are alternatives out there in the vaccine market. A (nominal) buffer in Geneva? Possible but again, we do not know. Such things are not said. Arms are not twisted in public.

A government besieged (as this one is) has few options. Geneva is a circus but not one where the Sri Lankan delegation will get to laugh. The Government has one trump. Not Donald. The people.

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Politics

KKS Perera’s Under the Lovi Tree

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Thirteen short stories of varied ‘plots’ comprise this slim book, author-published by KKS Perera in December 2020. Introducing the contents, KKS says the book “… include snippets of the writer’s own personal experiences from the tender age of six – fondly put together and offered to those who might enjoy the experience.” Most of them feature pets: dogs and cats, and one emotionally touching story is specifically about the happenings in the Perera household with regard to moving from injections to sterilizing surgery for Lanney, their pet dog.

 

Subjects and plots

The subjects of the stories are varied from a family occurrence to walking down memory lanes; to a child’s joy of possessing a torch bulb; to the chatter at a wedding reception; and workers’ lives. Mystery and mayhem are included. Mail Train and a Murder brings in even a Madam and her girls, who Perusivalam Velu Sinnatambi, the railway worker, mistakes in his innocence as Madame Carmen’s daughters and then that she runs a boarding. The man is invited to dinner with Carmen which results in his serving several years in prison for murder. He returns to his old haunts in the up-country railway station with familiar trains chugging or rattling past and learns the truth. One night’s Cell-ter is also situated in a prison cell – no murder but a death.

I particularly enjoyed Ten at Table 10 which is not really a story but the narration of an incident; yes, guests and their mannerisms, mostly quirks, as they await the arrival of the bride who is late. KKS subtly comments on and laughs at societal norms of today vis-à-vis social weddings – so much spent on hair styles; furnishings in the hall and wedding planners. Here the innocence, albeit perceptiveness of the child crying out the ‘king has no clothes’ is juxtaposed against the idiosyncrasies of the adults.

KKS changes his oeuvre, the genre of plot in his last short story Petrified in Affection and Love. It took me time to get into the story and longer to appreciate it. But it is not a light, fluffy flight of imagination. It is a literary achievement to make the imagination live and seem real. KKS has the Isurumuniya Lovers and the Horsemen and his horse friezed on the rock above the pool, come to life. The descriptions here are poetic – the flowers, pond, moonlight; the sensuality competently conveyed. Ends thus: “There was nothing left for Suni but the memories as their limbs slid across each other in that restless sensuous tussle as she sat petrified under the roof of the Isurumuniya, with that secret smile hanging on her lips, awaiting the passage of another century for the next Water Festival.” KKS gives the characters and thus the so-familiar statues a jolting switch. Suni is Prince Harideva’s wife but seated on the thigh of warrior Weeranatha, her lover, approved of by her husband. The prince is seated relaxed with his horse – Pavani – on the rock face. A helpful historical note as Epilogue is at the end of the story, where KKS quotes a Brahmi script of donation of the temple. He says the lovers are believed to be King Kuvera Vaisrawana and his queen Kuni as in the Ramayana. Long accepted by me was that the stunning statue depicts Prince Saliya and the Chandala, Asokamala, for whom he gave up the kingdom his father King Dutugemunu had consolidated. Another belief, adds KKS, is that God Shiva and Goddess Parvathi are depicted here.

The author, in his introduction, notes that he “has observed the habits of living beings, … exposed their disturbing habits and displayed uncommon commonsense, humour and wit.” He adds “he has no intention to enrich the reader either materially or spiritually.” OK. But his stories do give food for thought and many indirectly expose universal truths of humans, and canines too. Most of them have to be read with reason and intellect alert as subtle significances are woven into them. They are not to be read rapidly just to get the story line; better with critical faculties alert.

The cover of the book is arresting with his granddaughter’s doodles. Their depiction of a dog and flowers is delightful. The book is well got up. One bit of confusion to me was the use of italics, often for reported speech and in other places too, irregularly. Editing should have been tighter.

 

The Author

KKS was a corporate executive for four decades. After retirement he took to journalism and is a freelancer. He says in his introduction that his English literature teacher of St John’s College, Ursula P Wijesuriya, encouraged him to write “little contrivances called fiction at the age of 13-years though my lethargy kept me from doing so for almost 60 years.” The teacher mentioned has written the preface to the book while Capt Elmo Jayawardena, long standing admirer of KKS’s writing, has written about the author.

All in all a good leisure time read. Priced at Rs 450/= and distributed by Sarasavi, it is out on sale in Colombo bookshops.

Nanda P Wanasundera

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Politics

The Quad halved, then drawn and quartered

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by Malinda Seneviratne

This column focuses on local politics. As opposed to global affairs. However, ‘local-global’ is, as sociologists would point out, a false dichotomy. What happens or rather can happen here is by and large determined by overarching global political and economic structures. Local affairs don’t always shape global processes unless the particular ‘local’ enjoys privileged position in the overall structure, but they can inform the manner in which particular countries or country-collectives  engage.

Let’s start with a few examples.

The previous government was the darling of Western powers. The leaders believed that the West would help. Then came Brexit. The leaders got the jitters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suddenly opened his eyes and saw ‘The East’. This, after seniors in that administration, before and after the January 2015 election had made many disparaging comments about China, as one would expect for their view of the world was largely a matter of echoing the voice of Washington.
So, in essence, Britain sneezed and these ladies and gentlemen caught a cold.

That’s one side of the coin. The USA-led section of the ‘international community’ spared no pains to rubbish the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. It is no secret that Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign was actively backed by the USA. The language of engagement with ‘Sri Lanka’ changed. The US mission in Colombo, hell-bent on hauling Sri Lanka over the coals with respect to largely inflated horror stories about the war, suddenly wanted the local Tamil allies to go easy on human rights. Come 2019 November the tone changed. Now this is not strange. One does not deal with known friends in the same way that one engages with perceived enemies.

This week, the global touch was inescapable for different but not unrelated reasons. A US story and an Indian story dominated political headlines, the former on account of the assault on Capitol Hill, Washington by supporters of Donald Trump and the latter having to do with the visit by the Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar. The former is distant but makes for interesting comment considering Washington’s use and abuse of democracy. Sorry, the term ‘democracy.’ So let’s start right there.

On Wednesday supporters of Donald Trump, convinced that their champion had been robbed, gathered outside the Capitol building. They forced entry into the chamber of the House of Representatives wanting Congress to discard the results of the November 3 election. Four died, one from gunshot injuries. Dozens were arrested. Congress prevailed and Trump, in a predictably roundabout way, grudgingly announced he would leave office.

Democracy is the word here. An election was held. Sorry, a selection, for that’s essentially the political process which produces presidents in that country. Some claimed that there was jugglery. Some went to court. Court dismissed these petitions. Now, in the name of democracy, a bunch of irate Trump supporters (a minuscule minority of the voting population) decided that Congress should submit to their will. Trump, remember, lost the popular vote by a massive margin.  

The entire carnival showed up the farce that is US politics. First, the vast majority of these ‘rebels’ were white. The way that the authorities responded was in stark contrast to the way that the police reacted to peaceful protests against white police brutality and racism over the past seven months. Racism is what colors the ‘fabric’ and racism tore that cloth a long time ago or rather, racism ensured that the threads would never make a textile worth talking about.

Secondly, we have to measure this against the standard US narrative on democracy and democratization outside its shores. No country has prostituted these terms the way Washington has. The US has invaded countries, mis-described rag-tag agitators as ‘pro-democracy masses’ who were then funded and armed, orchestrated military coups, supported the butchering of pro-democracy protesters who had been duly called ‘insurgents’  and dropped bombs. All in the name of democracy.

As a wit put it, ‘due to travel restrictions, Americans had to invade their own country this year.’ Here’s another that’s making the rounds on social media: ‘The US has invaded the US to spread democracy.’ And here’s the plum atop the pudding: ‘The US is honestly just a comedy show to the rest of the world right now.’

If only we could laugh! It’s no laughing matter to the victims of systemic brutality and racism in the USA. It’s no laughing matter to the recipients of ‘Democracy — US style.’

The Biden administration will no doubt say ‘that’s all Trump stuff’ and maintain the Washington Doctrine on International Affairs. Washington is quiet now. That ‘little affair’ has been sorted out. Democracy, they’ll say, has won the day. It will be business as usual. The US will resume lecturing the world about democracy, peace, human rights, co-existence and reconciliation. Representatives of the nations targeted will have to swallow down the giggles, IF they do see the hypocrisy that is — let’s not bet on that!

India. That’s the other big story. In your face and all. But first a preamble. India is part of the Quad, i.e. the shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes the USA, Japan and Australia. The purpose is to contain China’s rise, the ‘Asian NATO’ as some call it, never mind that the USA is not part of Asia. The big Sri Lankan story for the USA in recent times was the MCC Compact. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government didn’t play ball. The US Embassy in a statement informed one and all that the deal was off. Chagrin was written all over it. The local ‘friends’ warned of serious repercussions. The UNHRC sessions are just weeks away. And we have Jaishankar visiting Sri Lanka.

Jaishankar, a retired diplomat and former Foreign Secretary, is well-known for working out ‘friendship’ with the USA and is mentioned for his role in the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Just the other day, he signed on behalf of India, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA. The two countries are the more vocal of the four that make ‘The Quad.’ India, moreover, has expressed concerns about the so-called Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka, never mind the bloodstained Indian footprint courtesy the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The IPKF left, but the footprint remained. Jaishankar even mentioned it.

Sure, he spoke of the sweetener in all the deals he made or wanted to make with Sri Lanka in the pursuit of the eminently defensible ‘India First’ foreign policy of his government. He spoke of the Covid-19 vaccine. It is, as yet, untested. It is not expensive. India will give some vaccines FoC and some on a concessionary loan, most likely. Vaccine or not, only 0.5% of the infected will succumb to the virus. What’s the price Sri Lanka has to pay, though? Why, the 13th Amendment or more!

Jaishankar, addressing the media, used Eelam-speak. ‘A united Sri Lanka’ he said. Now ‘unity’ cannot be legislated. A federal arrangement does not necessarily mean unity and neither does a unitary system. Jaishankar doesn’t know, hasn’t been told or knows and ignores the fact that the two main candidates at the last presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa both pledged to uphold the unitary status of the country. Almost 95% of the country’s voting population voted for these two candidates.

Jaishakar doesn’t care. He has a script. He reads from it.

‘Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing,as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled.that applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.’

That’s a lecture. He or rather India wants Sri Lanka to inhabit his/India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality. What’s the reality? The 13th is a white elephant. Romesh De Silva, who heads the experts’ committee tasked to draft a new constitution said as much about ten years ago. We have not had Provincial Council elections in years. No one has complained. Things could be better but no will argue that things are worse on account of PCs remaining dissolved.
 
The Indian foreign minister met with the President, Prime Minister and his Sri Lankan counterpart. It might appear that his powwows with the leaders of Tamil parties and the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa were cursory affairs but one hesitates in concluding thus. After all, the proposals to the constitution-drafting committee submitted by both the Tamil National Alliance and the Thamizh Makkal Tesiya Kootani both want the unitary character of the state undone. ‘Unity’ is the word both these entities use. Just like Jaishankar.

India or rather Delhi has a political issue to resolve in Tamil Nadu. There’s opposition to Delhi’s drive to make Hindi a national language in that state. Tamil Nadu is ok with ‘One India’ but not a ‘One India where Tamil could get diluted vis-a-vis Hindi.’ Appeasing Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps Delhi believes, might help sort out the political problem in the southern part of the country. ‘Help’ is the key word. It won’t be enough, but it’s not a stone that they would want to leave unturned.

Any devolution that grants control of parts of the country to Tamil political formations, they might believe, would compromise the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The US could obtain by way of price an MCC Compact without an MCC Compact, so to speak. We don’t know if Jaishankar murmured ‘Geneva’ in his discussion with the president, prime minister and the foreign minister, but certain things can be said in silence.

There would have been talk of the contentious Eastern Terminal. India’s port development operations in the Andaman Islands is not a secret. Compromise the Colombo Port and Delhi is in easy sea-street.

There’s more local play to this story. Sajith Premadasa appointed Dayan Jayatilleke as his advisor on international affairs. Dayan’s genuflection before India is legendary. Not surprisingly, in an article published immediately after his appointment, Dayan responded to an announcement by the Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong, who said, ‘China will promote the alignment of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” manifesto to promote economic and social engagement between the two countries.

Now, there are two ways to interpret this statement. One is to believe that whatever part of the BRI that’s promoted will be framed by what’s pledged in Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. Nothing wrong with that. Dayan worries that it’s the other way about. He asks the legitimate question: ‘If President GR’s Sri Lanka has joined hands with China to respond to challenging international and regional situations according to a consensus between the two leaders, how will it take a nonaligned, equidistant or balanced stand with regard to US-China internationally and India-China regionally?’

He is the international affairs guru of the Opposition Leader and therefore the ball is in the court of Dinesh Gunawardena. He has to respond to this question.

Dayan, in the same article (‘The Xi factor, Delhi’s deterrence, and the Pakistan model’ in the Daily FT), berates the government for postponing the PC elections.  He worries about what the new constitution would and would not do, never mind that we are yet to see a draft and never mind that obtaining the two-thirds parliamentary majority to get it passed will not be easy.

‘The new Constitution will kill the 13th Amendment and the semi-autonomous PC system, de-linking the Sri Lankan state from the Indo-Lanka Accord, removing not only a counterweight to de facto military rule over the island but also a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’

All this, yes, all of it, is almost like a speech written in Delhi. Consider this part: ‘a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’ That’s the Indo-Lanka Accord. The annexures do talk of foreign presence but entities OTHER THAN INDIA! For Dayan, India is not ‘foreign’. Her footprint is alright. Is India part of Sri Lanka? Would Jaishankar respond to this question, ‘Yes, most certainly!’? Of course not. The implication is that Sri Lanka is part of India or rather India’s plaything. Pawn. There’s Indian hegemony written all over Dayan’s and therefore Sajith Premadasa’s and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s position on these matters.

And Jaishankar, kindly, invites Sajith Premadasa to visit Delhi. Maybe he will also facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the likes of M.A. Sumanthiran and C.V. Wigneswaran, a meeting that such politicians must have requested repeatedly from Indian diplomats in Colombo who they meet with frequently.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although in desperately depleted circumstances has chipped in with a request of his own. Yes, Jaishankar covered all the bases, even those that have become politically redundant. Wickremesinghe requested Jaishankar ‘to expedite the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to Sri Lanka.’ Yes, that’s the sweetener.

What’s the price and who pays it? No one will ask Wickremesinghe. The likes of Premadasa need not answer. The likes of Dayan Jayatilleke are not required to answer and anyway, as has been the practice of this colorful commentator, he will use one convoluted argument after another, replete with selective examples from history and convenient quotes from theoretical texts to conclude ‘it’s worth the price!’.

The Government on the other hand, cannot beat around the bush. What’s the price you want us to pay for India’s ‘amazing’ vaccine, Mister President? What was agreed on our behalf and why?

Well, folks, that’s it for this week. A week where the local was more-than-usually overshadowed by ‘the international’ and where one half of ‘The Quad’ dominated. We’ve drawn and quartered, but just in an analytical sense. We would not be presumptuous to claim anything more!

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