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Please don’t forget people who elected you, Mr. President!

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Ven. Gnanasara rowing with the police (file photo)

By Rohana R. Wasala 

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.

– Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE)

According to a popular online Sinhala language news portal (October 31), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that he appointed (Bodu Bala Sena leader) Ven. Galagodaatthe Gnanasara Thera as chairman of the (recently established) “One Country One Law” Presidential Task Force to advise him, but not to make laws. The President made this remark when asked about the PTF at a government party leaders’ meeting. He pointed out that he had the ability to appoint any person to the PTF according to his personal preference. He was also reported to have said that if he tried to consult party leaders about everything, he would have to get their permission about associating with friends! (Aside: As President, he ought to seek advice from sincere, non-politicking people about that, too. RRW)

The President further said that the same sort of objections were raised when he appointed Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice; but now he is performing his duties to the satisfaction of everyone, the President added.

Talking about advice, I think President Gotabaya should take MK Sivajilingam’s demand as helpful advice and immediately disband the ‘farce’ (as the latter correctly describes it) of this one-country, one-law Task Force headed by Ven. Galagodaatthe Gnanasara Thera. The value of Sivajilingam’s request lies in the fact that he cannot have any intention of betraying the president; only close friends can betray a person, but not an enemy or a stranger. Sivajilingam is an enemy at the gate (Pl. see the epigraph above), but an enemy that we know as one of our fellow Sri Lankans (who doesn’t show false friendship), with whom we can easily restore our traditional bonds of brotherhood by sorting out our domestic problems through talks among ourselves without disgracefully allowing outsiders to exploit them for their own advantage and to our common detriment.

The reference in this case is to The Island correspondent Dinasena Ratugamage’s dispatch “Sivajilingam tells President to disband ‘one-country, one-law’ Task Force and solve the country’s problems” (Saturday, October 30) about MK Sivajilingam, former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Northern Provincial Councillor and close relative of Velupillai Prabhakaran, speaking to the media in Jaffna the previous day (Friday 29). He was reported to have claimed that the Task Force was an attempt to boost President Rajapaksa’s flagging popularity. Sivajilingam recalled the President’s earlier promise of a new constitution to safeguard the rights of every citizen.  “Everyone wants the President to come up with a new Constitution. There is pressure to address the issues faced by the Tamil people. However, the President has suddenly appointed a Task Force on “One Country One Law”. The task force is a joke. Appointing Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera as the head of the task force makes it a farce,” he was reported as saying. (He’d have been closer to the truth if he said, ‘There’s pressure on the President to address the issues faced by all Sri Lankans, not just by the Tamil people’. But he can’t be blamed for focusing on the community that he represents, in this instance.)

“The task force was not appointed after consulting people. We urge the government to stop distracting people and address the real issues. What we need is a task force to get the country out of the economic, social and political disasters it is facing. The leaders must be smart enough to get the support of everyone. If the government doesn’t show it cares about Tamils, they will  keep on opposing the government. A divided country can’t face the challenges we are facing now,” he said. I, for one, agree with him. That bit about caring about Tamils, though justified from his point of view, is a different matter, but the same is applicable to every community, and is not an insurmountable obstacle to the restoration of unity among the communities.

Of course, Sivajilingam may be making this demand or offering this advice, tongue in cheek; he may be calling the president’s bluff. Sivajilingam is a politician and, since all politicians are typically wily, must be handled with care. Having said that, I think his comments should be taken as a piece of constructive criticism that offers an opportunity for opening a people-to-people dialogue involving the north and the south with a view to bringing about an end to the reluctant mutual estrangement between the two communities that has been deliberately created by opportunistic politicians of both sides.

Let me try to put Sivajilingam’s remarks in perspective according to my own lights as a Sri Lankan citizen with a certain degree of hindsight (due to my age), insight (gained through formal and informal education and life experience) and a modest amount of foresight (sharpened by both).

The  responsible citizens of Sri Lanka pulled the country back from the brink of national disintegration and general disaster by electing Gotabaya Rajapaksa (his chief attraction was his non-politician image) as president and the SLPP to parliament less than two years ago. In both cases the election was fought on the major platform of ‘One Country, One Law’, in  which for completely apolitical reasons, Buddhist monks take an intrinsic interest. But now it looks like Gotabaya has been betrayed and, into the bargain, converted into something even more malleable than his predecessor to the wishes of another. The circumstances (i.e., issues and the government’s authoritarian responses to them) are again pushing the country to the edge of a precipice.

An Extraordinary Gazette notification was issued on October 27, 2021 to the effect that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had appointed a 13-member Presidential Task Force (PTF), using powers vested in him as president by Article 33 of the Constitution, 1. To make a study of the implementation of the concept: “One Country, One Law” within Sri Lanka and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose and 2. To study the draft Acts and amendments that have already been prepared by the Ministry of Justice in relation to this subject and their appropriateness, and if there are suitable amendments to submit proposal (sic) for the purpose and include them in such relevant draft as is deemed appropriate.

I was deeply shocked and disappointed when my eyes fell on the relevant gazette notification online within a few hours of its issuance on 27 October. My immediate mental reaction was: ‘What a harebrained initiative!’ To be frank, I never expected this sort of frivolous exercise from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in whom I have had implicit faith. But then, we can only guess that he has done this under constraint.

The PTF was ostensibly established to study how to put into effect the “One Country, One Law” concept and how to bring the ‘Acts and amendments’ already drawn up by the ministry of justice into line with that concept. The committee comprises the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) leader Ven. Galagodaaththe (not Galabodaaththe?) Gnanasara Thera (Chairman) and twelve others including academics, lawyers, and eminent persons (the last category has a maulavi from the Galle Ulama Council and three other Muslims. The Galle Ulama Council is supposed to be anti-Wahhabi, as allegedly claimed elsewhere. The PTF originally had no Tamils or explicit representatives of any Christian or Hindu religious organization. In view of the objectives stated, this was a glaring shortcoming, that would not have been allowed to happen, if the President had any sincere adviser.

 This totally erroneous exclusion of Tamils provided a genuine reason for Sivajilingam to complain. However, at a meeting chaired by the President at Temple Trees the next day (October 28), Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda and Deputy Chairman of Ceylon Workers Congress Senthil Thondaman and several others raised this issue of non-representation of Tamils in the PTF and the President agreed to correct the anomaly. Please treat these Hindu Tamil leaders as well as you treat Muslim and Christian leaders. We need every community’s cooperation to neutralise the looming fundamentalist threat.

 In my humble opinion, the appointment of this task force will prove a suicidal move both for the Gotabaya presidency and the SLPP government. The negative image of the monk who heads it, whether justified or not, the apparent mediocrity of the rest of the members, and the suspicion of an anti-Tamil bias generated by the initial imbalance of its communal composition (though set right later) will be major setbacks for its success. The PTF appears to me to be a hastily but cunningly devised contraption designed by a saboteur so as to be dysfunctional from the beginning, and to ultimately kill the project it was purportedly set up to bring to fruition (i.e., the one country, one law project). It seems to be the sinister proposition of an evil genius within the president’s inner circle.

To be continued



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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