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On your marks, get set – for the weakest parliament to face the gravest crises



by Rajan Philips

The country has been on its marks for nearly five months for Wednesdays election. There have been false starts given the long wait. Now it is time to get set, in track and field terminology. Get set for what? When the gun go off, the race be over, the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had predicted before his scandalously record shattering 100 meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The race seems to be over in this weeks election even before the people have fired their voting guns.

Victory is seemingly assured for the SLPP. The question is whether the Rajapaksa Party will set a new ground record with a two-thirds majority in a proportional representation election. There are other mini bets going on among political bookies. Who will come second: Ranils almost-dead UNP, or Sajiths struggling-to-be born SJB? How well or badly will the JVP do? Will there be a new challenger to the TNA in the shrinking Tamil universe? How divided will be the Muslim vote? And will the Thondaman scion be able to deliver upcountry Tamil votes to the SLPP the way his forefathers delivered them to the UNP?

Whichever way these questions get answered as the votes get counted the day after the election, there is not going to be much of a difference in the new parliament. For, as I wrote last week, a majority of the 188 sitting MPs who are running again are likely to get re-elected in spite of the deep revulsions that most people have against almost all of them. The really bad apples are equally distributed between the SLPP/SLFP and the UNP/SJB.

The only way to prevent at least the worst among them from returning to parliament, is to elect new MPs from outside the four (SLPP/SLFP and UNP/SJB) Parties. And this can only happen in the South where it matters, if at least a dozen or more new JVP/NPP MPs get elected on Wednesday. Whether the country can muster sufficient electoral wisdom to accomplish this, we will know on Thursday.

The JVPs Vijitha Herath has told Chandani Kirinde of the Daily Financial Times (Friday, August 31) that his Party would not allow the repeal of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and would join forces with any Party in the next Parliament to block any such moves. This is courageous and encouraging, something to which Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa have not committed themselves so far. Resistance is not part of their political DNA.

Already, there are worries among civil society activists who worked hard for the enactment of 19A that even if the government does not get a two-thirds majority in the election, it will find a way to buy out enough MPs from the UNP and the SJB to get it after the election. That will be their path of least resistance if there is no JVP in parliament strong enough to mobilize resistance to repealing 19A. A good dozen of them (JVP) can make a world of difference in parliament. They can save what is being set up to be the weakest parliament in Sri Lankan history from becoming its worst as well.

During the last five years, it was often said and heard that Ranil Wickremesinghe plays the long game in politics. That is, he keeps a distant focus, is not ruffled by all the setbacks around him, and keeps moving slowly in the right direction. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe started early in politics and have lived with it for 50 and 43 years, respectively. Mahinda Rajapaksa has seen and achieved everything a Sri Lankan politician can possibly accomplish. Ranil Wickremesinghe too, except the coveted presidency.

We can only say that Mr. Wickremesinghe has played too long a game in politics, over too long a period, and it is now time for him to settle down over a card game of Patience or Solitaire. They are not long games, but they can be played endlessly to turn them into a long game to no end. If it is game over for Ranil Wickremesinghe, what is in the game for Mahinda Rajapaksa? President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is at a different point in his political game. He started late in politics, but he became President without wasting any time in parliament, unlike his older brother. What will he do with his presidency? That is the question.

1960 parallels

Although the circumstances are drastically different, there are similarities between the aftermaths of the July 1960 election and August 2020 election. The hallmarks of the 1960-64 SLFP government were overall incompetence, economic mismanagement, and the total repudiation of the efforts of SWRD Bandaranaike to settle the Tamil question. Between July 1960 and June 1964, there were four finance ministers, and the fifth one Dr. NM Perera lasted six months from June to December 1964, when the first coalition government fell. There was Satyagraha in Jaffna, a failed military coup, and the prolonged detention of all MPs of the Federal Party. The economy began its downward slide, with unemployment and the balance of payments becoming the chronic scourges.

The SLFP government lost the elections in 1965, and when it returned to power in 1970, it was the two Left Parties (the LSSP and the CP) that were left to do all the heavy lifting: on the economy, the constitution and the plantations, and transport and housing. Philip Gunawardena and William Silva had played a similar role in the first SLFP/MEP government under SWRD Bandaranaike. The objective outcomes of coalition politics were undoubtedly the weakening of the left movement and the disenchantment of the youth, but the main SLFP purpose in coalition politics was not to forestall a social revolution but to compensate for SLFP incompetence by aligning with the left. Even the electoral no-contest pacts were a secondary purpose. How are these relevant today?

The SLPP incompetence and its cabinet material today are far worse than those of the SLFP in 1960-64. Even if you compare head to head the four Finance Ministers, whom Mrs. Bandaranaike tried before turning to NM for rescue, with the SLPP ministers today (the election will not make a difference), you would see that each one of the old SLFPers being heads and shoulders above their SLPP counterparts today. Felix Dias, though he was too clever for his own good, would wipe the floor of parliament with any SLPPer of today. CP de Silva, Senior Civil Servant and later Minister, was in a lofty league of his own, that nobody now can even touch. PBG Kalugalla and TB Ilangaratne were not intimidating intellectuals, but they had direct political constituencies and loads of political experience. They were party stalwarts and not family placeholders.

There is no Left, like there was in the 1960s, to which the President can turn for assistance in competence. Instead, he is turning to the military for competence. It was different in 1962, when the government had to put down a military coup to take over the country because the government was incompetent in the minds of the military. Now there is creeping takeover of the country not by any military coup but by military task forces.

Most importantly, the challenges that the country is facing today are far more severe and intractable than those in 1960, or any time in Sri Lankas modern history. The mismatch between government competence and the severity of challenges has never been so unmanageable. Can the executive presidency, which nobody even imagined in 1960, make a difference? Apparently not. The President wants a two-thirds majority in parliament before he can make any difference. He wants more power in parliament to increase his own powers and reduce the cabinet of ministers and the parliament itself to being rubber stamps of the executive.


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Development after the elections



By Jehan Perera

Many years ago, former Government Agent of Jaffna, Dr Devanesan Nesiah, explained the northern sentiment when elections were taking place.  He said there was apprehension about the possible turn of events over which they had no control.  The minority status of the Tamil people would invariably mean that their future would be determined by the outcome of the power struggle in the south of the country.  I was reminded of these words of Dr Nesiah during discussions organised by the Civil Society Platform in the northern towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna on the democratic challenges arising from the forthcoming elections.

The main theme, at the present elections in the south, and most of the country, has been the need to elect a strong government and to give it a 2/3 majority to change the constitution, accordingly.  The response in Vavuniya and Jaffna, by the members of civil society, was that a strong government would not heed the wishes of the people. Like people in other parts of the country, they felt let down by the political leaders and said they did not know for whom to vote.  The issues that they highlighted as being their concerns were economic ones, such as the lack of jobs for youth and the harm to families caused by an unregulated micro credit scheme that made them vulnerable to the predatory actions of money lenders.

The civil society members, in the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna, did not take up the issue of the 19th Amendment and the possible threat to civil society space that the speakers from the south put before them. This indicated a longer term need to have educational programmes on the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence, in particular, to ensure justice and non-discrimination.  But they also did not comment or discuss the manifesto put out by the main Tamil political party, the TNA, which addressed longstanding issues of the Tamil polity, including self-determination, federalism, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces or the newer post-war issues of missing persons and accountability for war crimes.


The absence of public debate, at the civil society meetings in the north on the political dimension at the forthcoming elections, may reflect a wariness about speaking publicly on politically controversial matters. Civil society groups throughout the country have been reporting there is more police surveillance of their work. The fear of falling into trouble and being seen as anti-government may have restrained the participants at the civil society meeting in the north from expressing their true feelings. On the other hand, there is also the reality that existential issues of jobs, loans and incomes are of immediate concern especially in the context of the Covid-induced economic downturn. The short term concerns of people are invariably with economic issues.

One of the salient features of the present elections has been the general unwillingness of even the main political parties to address any of the issues posed by the TNA.  This would be due to their apprehension of the adverse fallout from the electorate. It could also be due to their lack of ideas regarding the way forward. Apart from the 19th Amendment, another impediment to a strong government, that is identified by its proponents is the 13th Amendment. In the run up to the elections, there have been calls for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, which created the devolved system of provincial councils, along with the 19th Amendment that directly reduced the power of the presidency and increased the independence of state institutions. The provincial councils have been emasculated by denying them of both resources and decision making power and are condemned for being white elephants.

It has been noted, by the political commentator D B S Jeyaraj, that the TNA’s choice of focusing on issues of transitional justice, in dealing with war time violations of human rights, led to the TNA aligning itself with Western powers. This did not yield the anticipated benefits as the previous government failed to implement many of its commitments in regard to transitional justice. It would have been better to have focused instead on getting the provincial councils in the north and east to engage in more development-oriented work which would have met the existential needs of the people.


Jeyaraj has also surmised that if the TNA had chosen the path of utilising the provincial council system for development work, it could have obtained support from India, which had been the co-architects of the provincial council system, in 1987, along with the then Sri Lankan government. India has a moral obligation to contribute to developing the north and east of the country where the war raged in full fury and led to immense destruction. India’s role in destabilising Sri Lanka and enhancing the military capacity of the Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, is a bitter and abiding memory which the journalist Shamindra Ferdinando has written extensively about.

A creative suggestion made during the civil society discussion in Jaffna was for the provincial councils to implement what governments have promised to implement but have failed to do. An example given was that of reparations to war victims. The previous government pledged to set up a system of reparations in terms of the UNHRC resolution in 2015. But, although an Office for Reparations was established, very little was done. The question was whether the provincial councils in the north and east could not have utilised their resources for the purposes of instituting schemes of reparations as it would be clearly within the policy framework of the government.

While the issues in the TNA’s manifesto will remain perennial ones to the Tamil polity, the people are looking for political leaders who will deliver them the economic benefits in the same way as in the rest of the country. The civil society meetings in the north suggests that the northern people are not showing priority interest in political issues as they believe these are non-deliverable at the present time. Instead of using its majority status in parliament and seeking to abolish the 13th Amendment, and the provincial council system, and creating a crisis with the Tamil polity and India, the new government would do better to work through them to meet the material needs of the people. They need to also realize limits of the constitution, and focus on social, economic and political pluralism and promote values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise, and consent of the governed.


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A blazing story!



The local showbiz scene is ablaze with a story about the members of a particular band, who indicated that they are undergoing a tough time, abroad, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a video, showing the members pouring forth their difficulties, and earnestly requesting the authorities concerned to bring them back home, that got others to move into action…and the truth has come out.

After having looked into their situation, extensively, knowledgeable sources say that the video contained a load of lies and, according to reports coming our way, the band has now been blacklisted by the authorities for lying about their situation.

These guys have, apparently, gone on Holiday Visas and have, thereby, contravened the Visa conditions.

The story going around is that they have had problems, within the band, as well.

The authorities, in Sri Lanka, are aware of the situation, in that part of the world, but there are many others who are waiting to get back home and, they say, musicians can’t get into the priority list.

So, it’s likely to be a long wait for these guys before they can check out their hometown again!


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Top local stars to light up ARISE SRI LANKA



Richard de Zoysa’s brainchild, ARISE SRI LANKA, is going to create an awesome atmosphere, not only locally, but abroad, as well.

This telethon event will feature the cream of Sri Lankan talent, said Richard, who is the Chairman of Elite Promotions & Entertainment (Pvt) Ltd.

Put together as a fund-raiser for those, in the frontline, tackling the coronavirus pandemic, in Sri Lanka, ARISE SRI LANKA will bring into the spotlight a galaxy of local stars, including Noeline Honter, Damian, Mahindakumar, Rukshan, Melantha, Jacky, Ranil Amirthiah, Mariazelle, Trishelle, Corinne, Sohan, Samista, Shean, Rajitha, Umara, April, Shafie, Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe, Kevin, Ishini, and Donald.

Mirage is scheduled to open this live streaming fun-raiser, and they will back the artistes, assigned to do the first half of the show.

Sohan & The X-Periments will make their appearance, after the intermission, and they, too, will be backing a set of artistes, scheduled to do the second half.

The new look Aquarius group, led by bassist Benjy Ranabahu, will also be featured, and they will perform a very special song, originally done by The Eagles, titled ‘There’s A Whole In The World.’

The lyrics are very meaningful, especially in today’s context where the coronavirus pandemic has literally created holes, in every way, and in every part of the world.

Aquarius will be seen in a new setting, doing this particular song – no stage gimmicks, etc.

The finale, I’m told, will be a song composed by Noeline, with Melantha doing the musical arrangements, and titled ‘Arise Sri Lanka.’

The programme will include songs in Sinhala, and Tamil, as well, and will be streamed to many parts of the world, via TV and social media.

Richard says that this show, scheduled for August 29th, is in appreciation of the work done by the frontliners, to keep the pandemic, under control, in Sri Lanka.

“We, in Sri Lanka, can be proud of the fact that we were able to tackle the Covid-19 situation, to a great extent,” said Richard, adding that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged the fact that we have handled the coronavirus pandemic, in an exceptional way.

The team, helping Richard put together ARISE SRI LANKA, include Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Donald Pieries, from the group Mirage, Benjy Ranabahu, and the guy from The Island ‘Star Track.’


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