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Power of goodwill gestures applies locally and internationally

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By Jehan Perera

 

The US government has decided to include Sri Lanka as one of the countries to which it will donate the excess stock of Covid vaccines it has purchased. The US announced its framework for sharing at least 80 million vaccine doses globally by the end of June and the plan for the first 25 million doses which will include 7 million to specified Asian countries, including Sri Lanka. This is a welcome action that will have a tangible impact on the lives of millions of people in the beneficiary countries. The explosion in the numbers of Covid victims, particularly in poorer countries that have less access to vaccines, has driven up the demand which outstrips supply and to an increase in prices. Sri Lanka which originally was paying only USD 5.50 for a single dose is now paying USD 15 which it can ill afford.

The beneficial action of the US government, led by President Joe Biden, is an indication of the complex nature of democratic countries. The Biden administration’s decision to give Sri Lanka the benefit of free Covid vaccines comes at a time when the US has been open about its dissatisfaction with the direction of the Sri Lankan government in terms of both its internal policies, especially those relating to national reconciliation, and also foreign policy in relation to China. This has led to verbal sparring between Sri Lankan leaders and US government representatives on issues such as the human rights resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the scuttling of the MCC grant of approximately USD 500 million and Sri Lanka’s growing geopolitical linkage with China.

The US government’s decision to include Sri Lanka in its Covid vaccination package may be considered as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to step forward with appreciation and accept the goodwill of the United States and transcend the recent past. The value of the US system of government, as indeed any democratic system, is that there is no one source of power in them as is the case of one party states. There are multiple sources of power in democratic countries. If the relationship with one power centre is not positive, it may be possible to approach another power centre. In the US, there is not only the presidency, there is also the Congress, the judiciary, the civil society, including human rights organisations, and there is the media. These are each of them powerful and can act as counter balances and an appeal can be made to them in case of injustice.

President Biden’s administration has currently reached out to Sri Lanka and to its people in our time of need, with around half a million people vulnerable to the Covid infection due to their inability to get the second dose of AstraZeneca vaccine. It is unfortunate, however, that also at this time Sri Lanka is gearing up for an angry exchange of words at the very least with the US on the issue of Sri Lanka’s national reconciliation process. This is on account of a resolution that been presented to the US Congress by some of its representatives that calls for a political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. Unless wiser counsel prevails, government leaders will soon be seeking to demonstrate their patriotism by denouncing the US for its interference in our internal affairs and depicting worst case scenarios to mobilise popular opinion behind them.

 

US RESOLUTION

Some analysts may look upon the move of a bipartisan group of US legislators to take up the issue of Sri Lanka’s post-war reconciliation process in Congress as due to unhappiness with Sri Lanka’s growing geopolitical links with China. Other analysts see the power of Diaspora lobbying and bringing to the consciousness of the US government that it too bears a measure of responsibility as one of the four co-chairs of the Norwegian-led peace process, which unfortunately did not go through. The resolution “acknowledges the 12th anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka and offers its deepest condolences to all those affected by the conflict.” It then goes on to “urge the international community to advocate for and protect the political rights and representation of the historically oppressed northeastern region of Sri Lanka and work towards a permanent political solution to address the underlying issues that led to the ethnic conflict.”

There are many assertions in the resolution that the government will find unacceptable. The resolution has background information that “the northeastern region of the country, the traditional Tamil homeland, remains heavily militarized with up to one soldier for every two civilians in the most war affected regions” which can be contested. While the assertion about the military presence might be true if an Army camp is next to a village, it will not be true of the Northern and Eastern provinces taken as a whole, whose combined population is in about three million. Another contestable feature will be the description of the Northern and Eastern provinces as being the traditional Tamil Homeland. The Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 which was signed by both the governments of India and Sri Lanka stated “that the Northern and the Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples, who have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups.”

The Indo-Lanka agreement which led to the 13th Amendment, to the provincial council system and to the temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, which was subsequently undone by judicial decision, was one that was developed for peace in a situation of war. From a Sri Lankan perspective, giving special status to any part of the country to any particular community would be unacceptable as Sri Lanka is the country of all Sri Lankans regardless of ethnicity or religion. It is a pointer to the need for the government leadership to desist from describing Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist country with the implication that the ethnic and religious majority has a special place in it. The use by anyone of the concept of ownership and primacy will invariably lead to its counter with similar racist imagery and eloquence.

The appropriate stance for the Sri Lankan government to take would be to repeat the words of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena when he addressed the UN Human Rights Council in January 2021. The Minister stated that “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multicultural people of Sri Lanka, closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.”

 

PTA REFORM

On the other hand, there are sections of the resolution in the US Congress that need to be taken seriously not to satisfy the US but also for the sake of the people of Sri Lanka. The resolution states that “arbitrary arrests and threats by the state, and impunity prevails in the country with the outdated and the excessively harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act, which does not comply with international standards and has still not been repealed despite repeated promises by the government.” One of the promises made by the previous government was to replace the PTA with a national security law that is more in conformity with international standards. Even if this draconian law was justified during the war, it is now 12 years since the end of the war and there is no need for it to remain in force and to tie the hands of the judiciary.

On May 18, the Tamil people in the North and East prepared to commemorate the loss of their loved ones in the final battles at the end of the war. However, the government has regularly taken up the position that these commemorations to mark loss of life at the end of the war are really to valorize the LTTE and to pave the way for their return. Accordingly public commemorations were prohibited or restricted on May 18 for reasons of public safety and Covid-related health regulations. On the other hand, the position of the Tamil people and their political and religious representatives has been that large numbers of Tamil civilians died in the last stages of the war and they need to publicly remember their loved ones.

In Batticaloa, as reported in the Tamil language media and told to me by a lawyer, who was present at the case, a group of about 10 members of a family, who had lost their loved ones in the war met privately on the sea beach and held a memorial ceremony at which only they were present. One of them posted this event on social media. Shortly thereafter they were all arrested under the PTA and have been in remand custody for over two weeks with the magistrate before whom the case was heard unable to release them on bail as it is under the PTA. One of them is a mother of a two-year-old child. The inequity of the punishment is compounded by the fact that there were commemorations held in other parts of the country without similar harsh action taken against those who engaged in those commemorations.

The government may feel the need to ensure that its orders are followed and those who violate them are punished. At the same time it should not create a system where even the courts of law, which are part of the Sri Lankan state, cannot demonstrate mercy because a harsh law ties their hands. These words of Shakepeare have a special meaning for Sri Lanka in the context of the Biden administration’s decision to grant Sri Lanka a share of its Covid vaccines, and the resolution before the US Congress:

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The thronèd monarch better than his crown.”

 

 

 



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Govt. actions must be for people’s benefit

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President at the Independence Day ceremony on Saturday

By Jehan Perera

The government celebrated the 75th Anniversary of its independence from colonial rule under tight security.  President Ranil Wickremesinghe did not even deliver a speech on the occasion.  He had an excellent written speech, but chose not to deliver it for reasons not known.  The speech was circulated later. The exclusion of the general public from the parade grounds was another notable feature of the Independence Day event.  Under normal circumstances, Galle Face green where the celebration took place, is packed with people who come to enjoy the sea, the fresh air and the vast expanse of greenery.  The spectacle of a military parade and an air show provided an occasion that people would not have wished to miss if they had been given the chance to attend it.  But the government was clearly insecure and wanted to make sure it controlled the situation, which accounted for large security deployments.

The general public were kept away from the celebrations as the government feared that if they were permitted into the area some of them might protest.  Indeed, the previous night a sit down public protest (satyagraha) organised by a mostly youthful group of protestors was water cannoned and forcibly broken up.  The youth were protesting against the misallocation of resources for celebration at a time when the country’s people have little cause to celebrate.  Although there was a large presence of security forces, they stood by when a group of political thugs attacked the peaceful protestors.  When the satyagrahis resisted the attack they were chased, beaten and arrested by the security forces. The government was less concerned to win the hearts and minds of its people than to conduct its Independence Day event without disturbance.

 Ironically, the manner of the celebration, with the general public not present at the site of celebration, and security forces out in strength on the roads, was reminiscent of the days of war that the country experienced decades past.  In those days too, the Independence Day celebrations took place under tight security, with the people preferring to stay in their homes than to brave possible LTTE bombs. This throwback to the past is relevant as those years of war have contributed in no small measure to the economic collapse that has befallen the country and blighted the life of its people.  More than 70 percent of the population have reduced their food intake and 40 percent of the population have descended below the poverty line.  In recognition of the connection between ethnic conflict and economic underdevelopment, President Wickremesinghe has prioritized a political solution to the ethnic conflict without delay.

PUBLIC ANGER

The public protests against the celebration of Independence Day was not only in Colombo but also in other parts of the country, most notably in the north of the country.  The main Tamil political party as well as smaller ones also called for a boycott of the Independence Day events and did not participate in them.  University students in Jaffna declared a hartal and flew black flags.  Most of the people, however, showed no interest either way. There was no display of national flags in a spontaneous manner nor did the government make such an appeal.  It seemed as if the government was celebrating Independence Day for itself.  Gleaming new vehicles with police escorts drove in assorted governors, ministers and other dignitaries into the stalls where they would seat themselves with all the national television stations focusing on them. However, to the general public watching the celebrations on their television sets, the sight of the luxury vehicles bearing the dignitaries would have been infuriating.

 Not even a year ago, these same political leaders were hiding in the face of the protest movement that took to the streets in the aftermath of the collapse of the national economy and declaration of national bankruptcy.  The general public, many of whom had never taken part in public protests, came to the streets to protest.  They came from near and far, children with their parents, the elderly and the differently abled, to demand the exit of the government leaders who had stolen the wealth of the country and brought the masses of people, including them all, to near penury.  These same people who watched the Independence Day events on television would have been greatly angered to see those same political leaders now disembarking from luxury vehicles while they scraped the bottom of the barrel in their homes.  What they demand from the government, both in street protests and in their homes, is an end to impunity for corruption, abuse of power and extravagance in  public life, which the government appears to be shying away from.

 The question arises for whose benefit was Independence Day celebrated in this manner?  Independence Day in a situation of economic collapse was celebrated in a most unimaginative manner.  The government tried to heed the public opprobrium regarding the cost of the event, and reduced the size of the military parade.  It also axed the cultural parades that represent the aesthetic side of life.  Independence Day should have been celebrated differently, not for the political leaders and not for the international community, but for the people.  This event did not receive much international publicity.  It would not have changed the way the world sees us.  It did not touch the hearts of the Sri Lankan people either.  They were watching on their television sets and conscious of the expenditures that were being incurred for no good reason, and certainly not for their benefit.

BOLD PLEDGES

The celebration of Independence Day could have been done differently.  The government could have recognised the poverty that has ravaged the lives of the people.  It could have organised an Independence Day event that demonstrated an ethos of care for the people.  It could have brought a thousand schoolchildren from the poorest families around the country, and from all ethnicities, religions and castes, and made them a symbolic presentation of schoolbooks and school clothes that would have reflected the government’s commitment to invest in the country’s children.  This was an opportunity lost and would work to the detriment of the government which will be reflected in its electoral performance at the forthcoming local government elections. President Wickremesinghe’s pitch that the country needed a plan to become a developed country in 2048 is to miss people’s concerns to get by the day.  In his televised speech to the nation he said “Let us devote ourselves, unite as children of one mother. Let us make our country one of the most developed in the world by 2048, when we will celebrate 100 years of independence.”

 Despite all the criticism of the priorities of President WIckremesinghe and the government there are still many who continue to place their hope that the president will succeed in problem solving that is in the national interest.  One of President Wickremesinghe’s bold pledges has been to resolve the ethnic conflict that gave rise to three decades of war and to reach a situation of national reconciliation in this 75th year of Independence and “unite as children of one mother”.  When he first committed himself to this task three-months ago, there was some anticipation that this ambitious task may even occur prior to Independence Day itself, or “mission accomplished” would be announced on the auspicious day.  This has not been the case and it appears that even the first steps are yet to be made.  Now the focus of attention will be the president’s policy statement on February 8 when he reconvenes parliament following its prorogation by him a fortnight ago.

 National reconciliation in an ethnically divided society is never an easy proposition.  It requires the support of multiple actors in multiple sectors.  An indication of the president’s determination in this regard was the singing of the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil languages at the Independence Day event. This was after a lapse of four years and reflects the president’s resolve to overcome the divisions of the past.  It must be noted that it was under his leadership as prime minister in the period 2015-19 that the national anthem was sung again in Tamil on Independence Day after the passage of many decades.  There are elements in the president and his government that require support from civil society.  We need to overcome the legacy of past mistakes and forge ahead to a future in which lessons have been learnt and mistakes not repeated.

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Issues in fully implementing the 13th Amendment – Police Powers

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President J. R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord, which paved the way for the 13th Amendment..

By C. A. Chandraprema

While most provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution have been implemented, sticking points have persisted with regard to two matters – the devolution of police and land powers. Appendix I of the Provincial Councils List in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution provides for the devolution of police powers. The implementation of these provisions will entail the division of the Sri Lanka Police Force into a National Police Division which includes special units such as the CID; and a Provincial Police Division for each Province, headed by a DIG.

According to Section 6 of Appendix 1, the IGP shall appoint a DIG for each Province with the concurrence of the Chief Minister of the Province. If there is no agreement between the IGP and the Chief Minister, the matter will be referred to the National Police Commission, which after due consultations with the Chief Minister shall make the appointment. Thus, the effective appointing authority of the provincial DIG is the Chief Minister. Section 11 stipulates that all Police Officers, serving in units of the National Division and Provincial Divisions, in any Province, shall function under the direction and control of the provincial DIG who, in turn, will ‘be responsible to’ and ‘under the control of’ the Chief Minister in respect of the maintenance of public order and the exercise of police powers in the Province.

According to section 12.1, it is the Provincial police forces that will maintain law and order and be responsible for the prevention, detection and investigation of all offences in the Province except for the 11 specified offences allocated to the National Police Division which are as follows: international crimes, offences against the State, offences relating to the armed services, offences relating to elections, currency and government stamps, offences against the President, Ministers, MPs public officials, judges, etc., offences relating to state property, offences prejudicial to national security, offences under any law relating to any matter in the national government list and offences in respect of which courts in more than one province have jurisdiction. Most of these offences are not really a part of day to day police functions and occur infrequently. Thus, under the 13A, it is the Provincial Divisions which will handle the bulk of actual day to day police work.

Provincial Police to the forefront

Signifying the extent to which the National Police Division will be expected take a back seat, Section 10.1 of Appendix 1 requires members of the National Police Division to ordinarily be in plain clothes, except when performing duties in respect of the maintenance of public order. For all practical purposes, the only uniformed police force, visible to the public, will be the Provincial Police. Recruitment to the National Police Division is to be done by the National Police Commission and to the Provincial Police Divisions by the respective Provincial Police Commissions. According to Section 4, the Provincial Police Commissions will be made up of a) the Provincial DIG, b) a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President; and c) a nominee of the Chief Minister of the Province. Thus the Chief Minister has complete control over both the Provincial Police Chief as well as the Provincial Police Commission.

In addition to the above, according to Sections 7 and 8 of Appendix 1, the Provincial Police Commissions, which are completely under the sway of the Chief Minister, will have a say in deciding on the cadre and salaries and even the type and quantity of firearms and ammunition used by the Provincial Police forces. However, the potentially horrendous implications of Sections 7 and 8 are mitigated to some extent by the proviso that ‘uniform standards and principles’ shall be applied across the board with regard to these matters for all Provincial Police Divisions.

When recruitment for the Provincial Police Forces are to be carried out by Provincial Police Commissions which are completely under the sway of the Chief Ministers of the Province, the politics of the Province will become the politics of the Provincial Police force, as well. The most obvious foreseeable result of recruiting, within the Province for the Provincial Police force, is that the Northern Province Police force will be predominantly Tamil, the Eastern Province police force largely Tamil and Muslim, and the police forces of all other Provinces, predominantly Sinhala. The implications of politicians, elected on communalistic political platforms, having armed police forces under their control, to further their political objectives, should be clear to anybody. For a country like Sri Lanka which has experienced protracted conflict between ethnic and religious groups, the police powers provisions in the 13A are a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

An equally important consideration is the fact that crime prevention, detection and investigation is very much an inter-provincial, countrywide activity in this country. The creation of nine separate Provincial Police Divisions, answering to nine different lines of command, will seriously hamper the crime fighting capacity of the police which we now take for granted. Today, the IGP and the police force, under him, acts on the imprimatur of the national government, and its outreach extends to every nook and corner of the country. If the 13th Amendment is fully implemented, and the principle day to day police functions, such as maintaining law and order, and crime fighting, becomes the exclusive preserve of the various Provincial Police forces, whose authority does not extend beyond the borders of their Provinces, even pursuing a criminal across Provincial borders will become a tedious, process heavy with bureaucratic procedures and the entire country is going to suffer as a result. (The Colombo and Kotte city limits will not belong to the Western provincial police division but to a Metropolitan police under the National Division according to Item 1 on the Provincial Councils List.)

Readers may recall the 2005 incident during the ceasefire where some policemen, attached to the National Child Protection Authority went into an LTTE held area in search of a fugitive European pedophile and were arrested by the LTTE police. If the police powers in the 13A are fully implemented, in a context where some Provincial administrations are going to be openly hostile to the national government, as well as to other Provincial administrations, similar incidents will become day to day occurrences. The sheer practical impossibility of effectively carrying out police work in a small, densely populated country divided into nine separate police jurisdictions, manned by police forces under nine different lines of command was one of the main reasons why the police powers in the 13A have remained unimplemented for the past 37 years.

Political control over Provincial Police forces

While the IGP will nominally remain the head of the Sri Lanka Police force, even under the 13A, actual day to day police work will become the preserve of the provincial DIGs, acting under the direction and control of the respective Chief Ministers. Under Section 12.4(b) of Appendix 1, the IGP’s discretion in matters related to crime fighting will largely be centered on assigning investigations to units of the national division, like the CID, if he believes that is required in the public interest. But even to do that, he will need to ‘consult’ the Chief Minister of the Province and to have the approval of the Attorney General. Appendix 1 does not have provisions for any mechanism to enable the Provincial Police forces to work in unison in crime fighting or indeed any mechanism that can respond expeditiously to crime fighting requirements throughout the country.

The 13A was passed into law nearly four decades ago, in a different era. In the new millennium, the dominant trend has been to prevent politicians from influencing the police force but the provisions in the 13A seeks to do exactly the opposite.

Even though the new millennium has seen three Constitutional Amendments, (the 17th, 19th and 21st) promulgated for (among other things) the depoliticisation of the police force, Appendix 1 of the Provincial Councils List in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, was left largely untouched. I use the word ‘largely’, because the 17th Amendment did make a few changes in Appendix 1, but that was only to reduce the powers of the President. The Chief Minister’s powers over the Provincial Police remained untouched.

The total and complete politicisation of the police force, envisaged in the 13A, renders it out of step with the times. It was just a few months ago that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed and under its provisions, the President cannot appoint the IGP unless the Constitutional Council approves his recommended candidate and the President cannot appoint the Chairman and Members of the National Police Commission except on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council.

How will the people of this country react if the police powers, envisaged in the 13A, are implemented, and they wake up one morning to find that the Chief Ministers have been given effective control over the appointment of the provincial DIGs and complete control of the Provincial Police Commissions?

How will the people react when they find that the country has been rendered ungovernable overnight because the police force has been fragmented into nine separate police forces, under nine different chains of command? The gestation period for the fallout resulting from a wrong decision with regard to the police powers laid out in the 13A will not be years or months but weeks and days. Hence this is an area where the government will have to proceed with great caution.

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Valentine’s Day gig in Kolkata

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Yohani: Super excited to perform in Kolkata

Yes, Valentine’s Day is fast approaching…one week from today, and there’s going to be lots of action on Tuesday, February 14th.

The showbiz scene will have plenty to offer those who celebrate this day.

Our very own Yohani, who is now a mega star in India, will be in Kolkata, on Valentine’s Day.

And this is what she has to say:

“See you all on 14th February, 2023, as I would be coming for my maiden gig in the city of joy. Super excited, thrilled to meet you all.”

However, a Valentine’s Gala will be celebrated, four days ahead – on February 10th – at the Claireport Place Banwuet and Convention Centre, in Toronto, Canada.

This event, they say, has been put together to support a very talented young band (youths of Sri Lankan origin), called BluPrint, whose passion for Sri Lankan music has thrilled Toronto audiences for the last seven years.

The members have been a part of a series of sold out concerts, starting from API concert series, in 2016, to BluPrint’s Roots, in 2022.

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