Dudley Senanayake, who was prime minister of this country four times (counting the short period he served after his father’s death before winning his own mandate in 1952) in his 62 years, once declared in parliament that Hansard could not be quoted against him. Although Ranil Wickremesinghe who has served as premier six times – though in a longer political career and lifetime – has outdone Dudley, there is no record of Dudley’s claim ever being proved incorrect. But all the fuss and bother now evident on whether or not the scheduled local government elections will be held has provoked bells, books and candles being flung at each other by mainstream political parties that have either been in government and parties that have collaborated with those in government.
Mealy-mouthed claims by the SLPP, especially its General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, that they are prepared for and will win the elections cut no ice whatever with the electorate. Everybody, and most of all the incumbents, know that any election be it local, provincial or national will be disastrous for the Wickremesinghe – Rajapaksa regime. Even the notoriously short memories of the Sri Lankan people who have in recent months borne never before known hardships with more in store, will spare those in power of a trouncing. That much is certain. Hence the efforts that are being made by the day not to hold these already called elections for which nominations have closed and polling day set. There are forthcoming court actions challenging what the government is doing and, possibly, their determinations may be the last word on the subject.
But the drama is long drawn and the latest of many episodes saw last week’s show by the Government Printer. She’s said that ballot papers for seven (the unions said 10) districts have been already printed and the question of the required funds for what remains to be done will be discussed with the Treasury. Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardene has, in a sworn affidavit, told court that there are no funds for an election and whether this matter will be settled before postal voting begins on the due date of Feb. 22, and continuing for two days thereafter, is still an open question. It is common knowledge that the government, without funds for everyday expenditure, has for long resorted to the printing press to fund its needs. The resulting inflation and its impact on the lives of the population is too well known to merit elaboration. There is no way a court will order a government, even one that recently splurged Rs. 200 million to celebrate 75 years of Independence despite its empty coffers, to print money and fund the election.
It was reported on Friday that the former Commissioner General of Elections, Mahinda Deshapriya, whose bearded countenance was an everyday sight on television screens on most days of the previous election season (presidential and parliamentary 2019 and 2020) has, may we say direly, predicted that if the election just down the road is postponed for want of funds, there is every prospects of other elections in the future suffering a similar fate. Right now Deshapriya is serving as Chairman of a five-member National Delimitation Commission for the demarcation of wards for local authorities. Whether that Commission has completed its task or not we do not know but its term is due to end, if not extended, by the end of this month. Asked what he would have done if faced with the current predicament, Deshapriya cannily said that is a matter for the incumbents.
Predictably, parties opposed to the ruling SLPP-UNP combine running for an election that may or may not be held, are flinging the allegation that the incumbents are in a blue funk. Everything that has happened in recent days and weeks regarding the LG elections have clearly demonstrated this to be true. The country is not new to the experience of due elections not being held. The rot began with Mrs. Bandaranaike’s United Front government of 1970 in which the old left of the LSSP and Communist Party were members. They were widely regarded a moral force in the politics of the early post and pre-Independence years before they entered coalition governments. That government postponed a national election by two years on the excuse that the JVP’s 1971 insurrection cost them part of their elected term.
Then came JRJ’s infamous referendum and the grant of a second term sans elections to an incumbent parliament enabling the UNP to maintain its five sixths majority of 1977 without facing the country. It was widely alleged that the referendum was rigged though not conclusively proved.
Since then there have been numerous actions of omission and commission by the mainstream parties, including the JVP that has threatened to take to the streets if the LG polls are postponed. Has the JVP forgotten how they attempted with armed violence to disrupt election in the eighties and even murdered those who dared to vote? However that be, what is of immediate relevance is what is happening now with a president unelected by the people and beholden to the discredited Rajapaksas for his office, is doing now. Nobody can predict what will happen if this present despicable endeavour succeeds. Sri Lanka is already off the frying pan and in the fire. Can we afford street violence and protests that the ongoing undemocratic project will surely provoke?
From Esmond to Edmund and beyond
Tuesday 3rd October, 2023
Elaborate preparations have been made to felicitate a veteran editor, today. Edmund Ranasinghe is his name. He needs no introduction and deserves to be honoured for his outstanding contribution to Sri Lankan journalism. We extend our congratulations to him.
Today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be held under the patronage of President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Presidential Secretariat, of all places. The fact that the President’s late father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, was also a colossus in Sri Lankan journalism makes today’s event even more significant. The felicitation of a nonagenarian print media great, we believe, is time for reflection.
Esmond died in 1985, and Edmund retired some years ago. They made their mark in two different eras, but the print media was without much competition then. The world of newspapers has since moved on at a rapid pace, and is facing numerous unprecedented and unforeseen challenges, some of which are of existential nature.
Technology keeps pushing the envelope, opening up new frontiers in human communication, and throwing up more challenges to the ‘traditional media’; the newspapers are the worst affected. The emergence of social media, and news portals with digital agility and ability has done to print media what T20 did to Test cricket. Due to the proliferation of web publications and the expansion of social media and instant messaging, news cycles have come down to minutes, if not seconds. Most newspaper readers have become netizens thanks to the rapid expansion of the digital realm, and their needs and expectations have undergone radical changes, as never before. Artificial Intelligence has revolutionised communication, and one may say, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, that for the print media it takes all the running it can to keep in the same place, and if it wants to get somewhere, it must run at least twice as fast as that. How would Edmund propose to overcome these challenges if he happened to be in active journalism at present?
The keynote address at today’s felicitation ceremony is scheduled to be delivered by former Editor of the Divaina and the Rivira, Upali Tennakoon, who was Edmund’s understudy. Upali’s presence evokes our memories of a dark era, when he had to flee the country following an attempt on his life during an SLFP-led regime. That incident happened years after a grenade had been flung at Edmund’s house during a UNP government, which went all out to silence the Divaina and The Island, but in vain.
Today, the UNP has joined forces with those who were blamed for many crimes against journalists, such as the attack on Upali, the abduction of The Nation Deputy Editor Keith Noyahr, and the assassination of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge. The UNPers who alleged that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had a hand in Lasantha’s assassination, and went so far as to coin slogans like ‘saatakaya gaathakaya’ are on honeymoon with the Rajapaksas!
The Rajapaksa Brothers may be maintaining a low profile at present, but trouble for journalists is far from over; now, they have Big Brother to contend with! The SLPP-UNP regime is determined to steamroller the Online Safety Bill through Parliament despite vehement protests from the media, the Opposition, lawyers and many others who cherish democracy. Ironically, this draconian Bill, which reminds us of the plight of Winston Smith in Orwell’s, dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been crafted and is to be passed by Parliament on the watch of Esmond’s son, under whose patronage Edmund is to be felicitated today!
The highest honour that can be conferred on veteran journalists is to support the causes they have held dear and safeguard media freedom. One can only hope that the Online Safety Bill will be withdrawn forthwith, and the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media institutions, such as arson attacks on television studios and printing presses, brought to justice without further delay.
Guilty until proven innocent?
Monday 2nd October, 2023
There are no signs of an early détente between India and Canada. The two countries continue to trade allegations. Other nations are divided along the lines of strategic alliances rather than anything else. Interestingly, the US government is seen to be tilting towards Canada.
What the ongoing diplomatic row of epic proportions, and Washington’s stance thereon signify is that India has not received full membership of the club of powerful nations. The US firmly stands behind India only when the latter locks horns with China, which the West is all out to keep at bay for economic and security reasons, but when India happens to cross swords with a western nation, it cannot depend on the US to have its six, so to speak. The US has no permanent friends, as has been the experience of Pakistan, which Washington used in the Cold War era and then discarded. Perhaps, the painful diplomatic knock New Delhi has received from Ottawa could not have come without Washington’s knowledge; it could be attributed to strong economic ties India continues to maintain with Russia, refusing to toe the western line over the war in Ukraine. The Indian refineries are reported to have snapped up discounted Russian oil since the West imposed sanctions against Russia.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may not have expected India to strike back with might and main, resorting to tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats when he went public with his ‘credible allegation’ of India’s involvement in the killing of a Khalistan activist on Canadian soil and ordered an Indian diplomat out of the country. Indian commentators have asked how an allegation could ever be considered credible. Whether the term ‘credible allegation’ is a contradiction in terms, as India has claimed in a bid to deride PM Trudeau, may be a moot point, but it can be used against Canada as well. One can argue that India’s allegation that Canada has become a haven for terrorists is credible, and therefore Canada should be dealt with in the same manner as the other countries that harbour terrorists and face hostile action at the hands of the West.
The Trudeau government’s judgement and its ability to engage in critical inquiry, which involves gathering facts, questioning assumptions, evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives and arriving at well-reasoned conclusions, are in serious doubt. It was only the other day that a nonagenarian Nazi veteran was mistaken for a Ukrainian freedom fighter, brought to the Canadian parliament and honoured during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit. (The Fuhrer would backflip in his grave in glee if he knew the Canadian government’s faux pas!)
An extreme course of action such as expelling diplomats is something that a country should resort to as pis aller, if at all, only after ascertaining irrefutable evidence to substantiate an allegation against another nation.
Whether India actually did what it is accused of having done in Canada, one may not know, but it behoves Canada, which PM Trudeau proudly calls a country that upholds the rule of law, and other nations which have taken upon themselves the task of protecting global democracy, to respect the cardinal principle of justice that every person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent unless and until his or her guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt. Before crossing the Rubicon, Trudeau should have ascertained irrefutable evidence to support his claim that India had a hand in the killing of the Sikh activist.
Credibility is something subjective influenced by various factors including an individual’s beliefs, experiences, knowledge and biases. If ‘credible allegations’ are to be accepted as the basis of offensive action or casus belli, PM Trudeau would find himself on a sticky wicket; a former Indian diplomat named Deepak Vohra has accused Trudeau of having been high on drugs during his recent visit to India to attend the G20 summit, and claimed Trudeau’s plane was found to be full of cocaine. Trudeau’s office has denied this allegation vehemently. What if the Canadian public were to go by the inversion of the principle of presumption of innocence, buy into the former Indian diplomat’s claim and consider Trudeau guilty of drug abuse until he is proven innocent?
Trudeau may have thought India would take his ‘credible allegation’, and the diplomatic offensive based thereon, meekly, the way Sri Lanka did anent his genocide allegation. It is popularly said in this country that the woodpecker, which damages trees by drilling holes in them, finds itself in a bind when it sinks its restless beak into a fibrous banana trunk.
The India – Canada spat
Opinion will surely be divided on whether Foreign Minister Ali Sabry should have waded into the ongoing spat between India and Canada on the assassination of a Sikh Canadian citizen allegedly by Indian agents according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Sabry got a lot of media play in India characterizing Trudeau’s statement to Parliament as “outrageous.” Colombo, of course, continues to smart under the Canadian PM’s recent remarks about “genocide” in this country which Sabry says “everybody knows” did not happen. No wonder then our minister thought it fit to tell an Indian television station that “sometimes Prime Minister Trudeau comes out with outrageous and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Given India’s generosity to Sri Lanka during the ongoing economic crisis ,Colombo would surely like to score brownie points in New Delhi. This despite clear knowledge that free lunches are not part of global international relations and the need to steer clear of rivalries between India and China in big power contests. Sri Lanka professes non-alignment and is even now grappling with issues arising from an upcoming port call by a second Chinese research ship about which Indian and U.S. concerns have been expressed.
In such situations it makes sense in not resorting to the tit for tat reactions of the kind displayed by both Ottawa and New Delhi over the Hardeep Singh Nijjar assassination. Many would regard Minister Ali Sabry’s remarks on the India – China row as partly reflective of Colombo’s resentment of genocide and pro-LTTE references emanating from Canada.
Lankans, of course, are well aware that pro-LTTE rhetoric is part of domestic politics in Canada. Some 200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, comprising about 0.7 percent of the total Canadian population live in that country. These numbers are sufficient to make a difference between the two major parties at elections and much of the Canadian political discourse reflects that factor.
Similarly, Sikhs are also a significant segment of the Canadian population with the highest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab living in that country. According to the 2021 census, 770,000 Sikhs live in Canada and they would therefore be a more influential factor than Sri Lanka Tamils in Canadian domestic politics. Hence the various statements tilted towards these communities emanating from Canada.
Good relations with India must always be a cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Such relations sank to abysmal depths during the civil war when India allowed the separatist LTTE to train and stage from Indian territory much to Sri Lanka’s detriment. The war would have probably ended long before it actually did in 2009 if Operation Vadamarachi was not aborted by India’s incursion into Sri Lanka’s air space and the infamous parippu airdrop.
The Indo – Lanka Accord and the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) followed. Today it can be said that relations between us and our giant neighbour have never been better. True there are reservations that Big Brother is taking economic advantage of Sri Lanka’s current predicament but these are issues that must be sensibly navigated.
It must be noted that Prime Minister Trudeau did not claim ironclad evidence on the assassination of the Sikh activist in British Columbia. He merely said there were “credible allegations” (emphasis ours) on that score. Whether hard evidence could ever be unearthed on this matter is an open question. There have been media reports of early signs that both Canada and India, after the initial sound and fury, are resorting to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. That would be in the interest of both countries as well as the wider world.
There have also been reports that intercepts of diplomatic communications from the Indian High Commission in Ottawa possibly by the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence grouping between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the U.S., had a role in Trudeau’s allegations. However that be, the Canadian premier would not have got out on a limb with his allegation, rightly or wrongly, if he was not convinced that he was on terra firma.
End of IMF review mission
Despite the polite noises made at its closing press conference, there appears to have been no agreement yet between the Government of Sri Lanka and the IMF review mission which concluded its two weeks-long visit on Wednesday. There was no word on when the disbursement of the second tranche of the deal would begin. There is no way that the IMF board will disburse the next tranche until the staff level agreement is concluded.
The closing statement reported “remarkable resilience” of the Sri Lankan people in the face of enormous challenges and “commendable progress” in implementing much needed reforms. While reporting a string of achievements it said that “discussions are ongoing” and the authorities are making progress on their revenue mobilization targets and anti-corruption efforts. But there was no word that a desired staff level agreement has been reached or when the funds will be released.
Two weeks ago when the review began, then acting Finance Minister Ranjit Siyambalapitiya said he was “very hopeful of getting the second tranche of $330 million” from the IMF. But obviously there is more ground to cover and the funds are not likely to be available in the short term. The Financial Times in Britain reported on Thursday that Sri Lanka has failed “to reach agreement to unlock the IMF bailout tranche” and “the delay threatens to slow the country’s recovery from the worst economic crisis in its history.”
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