(This is a slightly modified version of the article published online on May 16.)
by Rajan Philips
Sri Lanka didn’t need a Y2K (shorthand for year 2000) problem at the dawn of the 21st century, indeed, the third millennium. The island of millenniums had enough baggage from the old century to carry over into the new century, if not from the old millennium to the new. Old problems were carried with new mutations and whole new other ones were added. The war that was muddled through the nineties consumed almost the entire first decade of the new century, before ending in 2009. The end of the war did end much of the social tragedy that it created, but it did not end the farcical continuation of war by political means. Mercifully, the killings ended but the agony of the living has persisted with no certainty about the dead and the missing. Not to mention the endless spat over how many died, with nary a thought or hand for the survivors of war and their livelihood struggles.
The war added new mutations to the old national question. The emergence of the Tamil diaspora and with it the phenomenon of diasporic nationalism, are developments that no one could have foreseen even as late as 1982. Equally, at both the state and societal levels, Sri Lanka has not fully come to terms with the rise of new strands of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism outside the ambits of mainstream political parties among the Sinhalese. Add to these, the coming of age of Muslim nationalism after having long been in the shadows of Sinhala and Tamil politics. These developments have defined the 21st century course of Sri Lanka’s never ending constitutional odyssey, especially involving the fate or the future of the 13th Amendment, the Provincial Councils, and even the Executive Presidency. A new dimension to the course of politics was provided by the end of the war itself, rather by the debate over how the war ended and whether or not crimes were committed.
The JVP insurrection and the Tamil separatist challenge that arose soon after, have been interpreted as accusations against (or rejections of) the post-colonial establishment (or ‘imaginary’) that had been taking shape in the two decades after independence. The establishment had its own internal contradictions and contestants: Left vs Right, and ethnic conflicts over language, religion, habitats and constitutions. But the JVP and later the LTTE assaults targeted the whole establishment without discrimination. Insofar as both assaults have ended in defeats, if not failure, a practical question would be – what next? It is also a fact that the post-colonial establishment that was evolving after independence now stands more deformed than reformed, though not wholly as a result of the JVP and LTTE assaults. What was once a reasonably working system of parliamentary democracy has degenerated into caricature as an ineffectual presidential system.
Twelve years after the war ended, there are no answers in sight to the questions that led to the war and have survived the war. There are no permanently correct answers in politics, but the task of every generation is to keep the balance on the side of more correct than incorrect answers. As things are in 2021, and thanks to an untoward juncture of a global pandemic and government incompetence, there are mostly only incorrect answers and hardly any correct answers to the many questions that Sri Lankans are facing. The current juncture will pass one way or another, but there is hardly a positive sign that the national question involving Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups that have been bestirred in the aftermath of the war might likely be answered satisfactorily any time soon.
A Dysfunctional Family
If Sri Lanka is a family of nationalisms, it has been for the most part a dysfunctional one. This is because Sri Lanka’s nationalisms have grown into being more conflictual and competitive than being complementary. The war and its aftermaths would appear to have exacerbated these tendencies and the unfolding of diasporic and Jathika Chinthanaya phenomena would certainly attest to this. At the same time, their emergence also provide insights into the social and cultural roots of the nationalist stirrings among the Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims. Identifying and sharing these insights is needed to get rid of the always simplistic, and very often offensive, stereotypes, which have for far too long informed each community’s understanding of the other.
As stereotypes go, “Mahavamsa mindset” apparently sums up the Tamil understanding of Sinhala nationalism. For the Sinhalese, Tamil nationalistic claims are nothing more than a new ruse for Vellala domination. And Sri Lankan Muslim nationalism is simply dismissed as Sri Lankan manifestation of global Islamic fundamentalism. There is more to each nationalism than these stereotypes, and each involves the lives and mores of people that cannot be summarily dismissed in any approach to accommodating them and making them complementary to one another. There are people in each community who do not subscribe to the narrow nationalistic claims that are made on behalf of their community. And stereotyping smudges them as well out of recognition.
It might not be widely known outside the JC universe that the political roots of the two intellectual prime movers (Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara and Prof. Nalin de Silva) behind JC are traceable more to Marxism and left politics than to any Mahavamsa mindset. In fact, one of them (Prof. de Silva) is known to have been a supporter of the right of self-determination of the Tamil people before 1983. The open economy politics that began in 1977 and its social eruption in 1983 have more to do with the emergence of the Tamil diaspora and the Jathika Chinthanaya soul searching among the Sinhalese intelligentsia, than anything that stereotypical explanations can provide.
The violence of 1983 impacted the Tamils indiscriminately and directly led to the emergence of the Tamil diaspora. On the other hand, the backlash to 1983 from outside Sri Lanka, especially the West and human rights organizations, may have been a factor in the energization of the JC school after 1983. The UNP government of the day wholly owned the 1983 disaster and deserved a great deal more than whatever blame it got and wherever it came from. JC was opposed to the UNP government’s open economy swindle and its cultural sellout, and it resented the government’s cunning approach to the Tamil national question. That was to parley with Tamil politicians in secret, and organize violence against Tamil civilians in the open. When 1983 went out of control, the backlash was not only against the government, but besmirched the entire Sinhalese society, including those who were revolted by the violence and others who were intractably opposed to the government. And there were also backlashes from different fragments in the Sri Lankan social formation.
The fragmentation of the social formation and the creation of multiple political spaces was another outcome of the open economy and the political makeover under the UNP government. Thus, there was a new sociopolitical space for the offsprings of the old, westernized Ceylonese middle class. It is not unfair to characterize the NGOs as being among the occupants of this space. And the children of 1956 were not neglected, at least from the economic standpoint. The more mobile among them easily filled up the economic spaces that the open economy created.
And for their social reproduction outside the vernacular, with a western accent, President Jayewardene gave them international schools. If that was JRJ’s belated rejoinder to the SLFP’s schools’ takeover of the 1960s, and it certainly was, he was not particularly looking to provide reparation to the Churches who lost control over many of their schools in the takeover. Rather, and worse, JRJ snobbishly abandoned caring about the entire national school system, which he had the absolute power to retool anyway he wanted – to provide international education with a national accent to the children of 1977.
There was another aspect to the open economy that the UNP, and every government thereafter, neither recognized nor addressed. It was the orphaning of the state sector at the altar of the open economy. The salaries and compensation levels in the state sector were instantly and massively devalued by the opening of the economy and the aligning of market prices and private sector remunerations to global rates. I am not sure if this anomaly has been satisfactorily addressed to date. If Singapore is the vaunted model, you cannot have a competitive public sector without matching compensation with the private sector. It is no secret that some of the best and the brightest in a whole generation of Sri Lankans, opted not to join the Central Bank, the universities or government institutions.
The upshot of these changes was the emergence of two contending formations. One of the two, the NGO-formation (to call it loosely with no disparagement intended), wanted to use 1983 as a platform to recast Sri Lanka’s political society fundamentally different from what had led to the catastrophe of 1983. The new society would be plural and secular, would celebrate its diversity and welcome devolution. Intellectually, ethno-nationalism would be called out for what it is not – not an essential human condition.
The other, the JC-formation (so called, for convenience), has diametrically been opposed to any and all of the above. The JC thinking is also indicative of the unique exceptionalism that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is uniquely constrained to project by virtue of Sri Lanka being the only natal home of the Sinhalese. In this respect, Tamil nationalism and Muslim nationalism are somewhat different, as they have external cultural validations to fall back on by virtue of language (Tamil in South India) and religion (Islam), respectively. The JC response in effect might be seen as a response to a sense of besiegement, after 1983, of the Sinhalese by forces from within (NGOs) and without (the West).
At the political level, the NGO formation found its spearheads alternatingly in Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their accomplishments fell far below expectations. The JC formation waited patiently for the most authentic Sinhala Buddhist leader in Mahinda Rajapaksa, and had its golden decade from 2005 to 2015. The rest of the Sri Lankan political field, both individuals and organizations and of all ethnic groups, have been scurrying between the two main political polarities at regular intervals. The JVP and the JHU, both beneficiaries of JC affiliations at some point, have been in both political alliances and have also splintered over which side they should be permanently aligned with. The Tamil and the Muslim political parties have had their cracks of affiliations with the two main alliances and have little to show as results for their efforts.
The new forces of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism suffered a setback when Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in his attempt to extend his presidency to a third term. They revived resoundingly within five years with the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election. The unfolding of the new Rajapaksa presidency, however, has been anything but prosperous or splendid despite the promised vistas of prosperity and splendour. Rather, the country is living through a dismal record of incompetence and inaction. The ‘young’ SLPP that was seen by some as a permanent incubator of future presidents, is no longer seen as a permanently promising political vehicle.
The alternatives to the regime are less than embryonic. Of the old JC affiliates, the JVP is trying to make a new mark as a sharp opposition party in parliament. And JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, perhaps the only politician with credible presidential ambition but without a political vehicle of his own, is now a member of convenience in Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The debate over where the UNP ends and the SJB begins seems to be never ending.
Fifty years ago, the JVP launched its first abortive insurrection ostensibly to liberate the rural poor through the agency of its youth. Within 20 years, the JVP staged its second coming and the Tamil militants launched their violent struggle. They have all run their course which came to an end in 2009. Political violence used to be justified as the last resort after all other avenues have been exhausted. The violent struggles in Sri Lanka from 1971 to the Easter bombings in 2019 were not launched after all other avenues were exhausted. The question to ask 50 years after 1971 is – what happens when the ultimatums of political violence have all been tried and exhausted as well? Should politics be reduced to a farce as the continuation of war and violence by other means?
Implementing 13A: Some thoughts
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.
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!
Harassment of women in politics on the rise
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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