President: After you chase us away, why elect us again?
People: After we chase you away, why come again as candidates?
by Rajan Philips
We are into political education by way of presidential questions and answers. The President is asking the questions and the rest of us are free to provide answers as commoner than commonest of people. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t see the point in people re-electing the same politicians whom they have defeated before. He is, therefore, according to a Daily Mirror headline news story, urging voters “to look for new people without electing the same set of people.” He is asking the people not to elect the current opposition parties to be government again because they were a failure in office and were defeated in the elections. He goes further, “Even if myself or the ministers in my government don’t meet your expectations, don’t elect the same set of people. Look for new people. This system has to change.” Then some candour, “I don’t know how it could be done but that is the reality.” And finally, the punchline, “Once you chase us away, again you elect us. What’s the point in that ?”
In an interesting coincidence, President Rajapaksa’s quondam military colleague and current MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka also made an observation last week that “people do not see the SJB as a party which is capable of running a government though they have got fed up with the present government,” and that “around 50 percent of those who supported and voted for SLPP are frustrated today.” Two contrasting political observations from two former military men. The President makes no mention of the dejection in the SLPP ranks, but is asking the voters to “look for new people if they have grown disenchanted with him. The Field Marshal, on the other hand, is not asking the voters to “look for new people,” but he is telling the SJB and Sajith Premadasa that they have to “woo the dejected SLPP members at the grass roots level,” to reinforce the SJB as an alternative contender.
The short answer to the President’s questions is that defeated politicians are not going away after they are defeated. They keep returning. They nominate themselves to be candidates again and the people are presented with the same poor choices. The fault is not with the people, Mr. President, but with the entrenched political system – politicians, political parties and the process of nominating candidates from the topmost presidential slot to the lowliest Pradeshiya Sabha membership. The President should redirect the question to his own party, the SLPP, even though he is still not a member of that party or any party. And he should redirect it to his own family, and ask, “Once the people have chased us away, why are we standing for re-election? “I don’t know how it could be done but that is the reality,” the President acknowledged.
How it can be done
It is not at all difficult to know how it can be done. Just tell his extended family that they have been in politics for over 50 years and in power for over 15 years. It is time to stand down and make way for “new people”. So, don’t contest the next set of elections – from the local government to the president of the Republic. With this simple instruction, the President could change the whole system, and the reality, in one stroke. Once the Rajapaksas voluntarily stand down, Ranil Wickremesinghe and his entourage, and everyone else who have overstayed their welcome span in politics, will have no excuse but to follow suit. Sri Lanka would have been transformed. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be hailed as a hero and revered in retirement. Whether the retirement is going to be in Colombo or California, it will make no difference.
There are other more structural (if he wouldn’t mind the jargon) ways of doing it. The simplest would be to bar all elected officials from running for a third consecutive term. So, every elected official can serve two consecutive terms and will have to take a break in the next election, but will not be prevented from running again after the break. That will replenish all elected offices every two years, without preventing experienced politicians returning to service after a break.
He could quite immediately put an end to defeated candidates entering parliament abusing the National List system. He could sponsor and implement new rules for National List nominations: make defeated candidates ineligible for National List placements; set firm candidate criteria for National List nominations – say 60% to be female nominees, and requirements for socially, territorially and professionally diverse representation. As well no individual should be eligible to serve more than two terms in total as a National List MP.
Here are questions that the people may want to ask the President. Will he provide for such term limits and criteria for nominating candidates in the new Constitution? Will he facilitate legislation to make the candidate nomination process in all political parties to be open, transparent and include objectively-positive criteria for nomination as candidates? Will these changes be considered in the working of the OCOL (One Country, One Law) Task Force under the leadership of one of Sri Lanka’s most erudite forensic minds? There’s more. What is the point in presidents pardoning criminals, convicted by courts? What is the point in appointing people put away by the courts as Chairmen of statutory bodies and task forces? What is the point, if any, in the Attorney General pre-emptively protecting people who might be put away by courts, by withdrawing indictments?
The President seems to have given up on the highly touted ‘Gama samaga Pilisandara’ (Conversation with the Village) approach and is now making statements and firing questions from public forums. He is addressing the people of Sri Lanka even from far flung forums – at the UN (New York) and at COP26 (Glasgow). In Glasgow, President Rajapaksa tried to show off as his government’s achievements what are in fact controversial actions on the environmental front. Whoever who is advising the President made him miss an opportunity to join forces with Sri Lanka’s South Asian neighbours like Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan to push for global support for economically challenged countries undertaking adaptation measures against immediate effects of climate change – unseasonal and heavy rains, floods, drought, heat, wildfires and rising sea level.
Instead, the President took to boasting that his “Government took firm steps to reduce imports of chemical fertilizer, and strongly encourage organic agriculture.” Then he underwhelmed: “Although this action has been broadly appreciated, it has also met with some criticism and resistance. In addition to chemical fertilizer lobby groups, this resistance has come from farmers who have grown accustomed to overusing fertilizer as an easy means of increasing yields. This is particularly unfortunate considering Sri Lanka’s rich agricultural heritage.” This is quite a characterization of the plight of the country’s farmers devastated by the government’s most ill-advised and sudden switch to organic agriculture. Not to mention the soaring food prices and the scare food scarcity. As for Sri Lanka’s rich agricultural heritage, it is useful to keep in mind ancient agricultural heritage cannot feed the 21st century population of even tens of millions in small countries like Sri Lanka.
Parliament & Courts to the rescue
We have no way of knowing what prompted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to shift gears from Gama samaga Pilisandara to the Socratic method of posing probing questions. But it is not difficult to see that the next national elections are already on his mind. He is getting resigned to the possibility that the next one will not be as smooth as the last one. It could be worse. People may not like him and his ministers. He seems equanimous about not being elected. But he is more concerned that people should not elect the opposition parties to be elected to form the next government. He is asking the voters, “look for new people.” ‘New’ as in anyone who is not at all associated with the present government and the last government. Does that mean the Rajapaksa scions are ruled out? That will be really going new.
It tells you something that someone like President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with no previous background in politics, should be thinking about the next election which is still more than half the term away. The bigger question for the people now is to how to get through life in the next year or two, and what help can they expect from the government and the President. The President telling the voters to “look for new people,” might suggest that he is subliminally giving up on himself. Where will the people then turn to? In the current system of government, with the country collapsing under weight of presidential failure, the people can as a first resort turn for help to the two branches of state, namely, the legislature and the courts. Put another way, it is up to these two branches of the state to rescue the nation. But are they up to it?
In the last few months, the courts have become the last bastion of sanity. Hopefully, they would stay that way for ever and ever. However, while courts can be bold and valiant, they can only step in to reverse bad decisions of the government often after the fact and after much damage has been done. They cannot pro-actively direct a government on matters of policy and execution. That role falls on the shoulders of parliament that includes all of cabinet except its head. The question for parliament, and all its MPS, is whether over the next three years the current parliament can stop being a rubber stamp for the executive. Not so much as a counter to the executive branch, but to contain its excesses and guide its actions. It is a tall ask of the current parliament. But the alternatives to the country are grimmer and worse.
To be clear, parliament cannot perform this containment role with its traditional government/opposition divide. And this divide has not been bridged in any meaningful way even after 40 years of executive presidency. Parliament has not evolved to be compatible with the presidential system in the manner of the US Congress and its system of Committees. That such an evolution would take place in Sri Lanka was certainly the ‘technical’ expectation of President Jayewardene, the architect of the presidential parliamentary system. We learn that from AJ Wilson’s monograph on Sri Lanka’s Gaullist Constitution.
But politically JRJ did everything to scuttle any prospect of a cross-party alliance emerging in parliament to counterbalance the executive presidency. Against his own expectations, the first Executive President began the tradition of subordinating parliament to the executive. He initiated and facilitated the unseemly practice of getting crossovers from opposition to become government ministers. MPs would crossover from the opposition to government to become ministers without losing their opposition party membership (thanks to a misguided Supreme Court ruling in the 20th century). There are no crossovers now mainly because the government has a super majority and doesn’t need any new turncoats.
At the same time, there are ‘eruptions’ within the government and the question is whether there can be alignments between the erupting government MPs and the lackluster opposition MPs on specific issues that are now critical to the country and the people. The idea of alignments on real issues is not to bring down the government as in the old parliamentary system, but to establish a counterbalance to the misfiring executive presidency. In the current situation, the onus might be on those government MPs and Ministers who assembled at Solis Hall as People’s Council, to establish a parliamentary council with cross-party participation and assert the constitutional right of the legislature to counterbalance the executive. As I said, it is a tall ask. The alternatives are worse.
Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?
By Maduranga Kalugampitiya
The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!
While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.
What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.
Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.
Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.
Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.
In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.
If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.
In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.
(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Selective targeting not law’s purpose
By Jehan Perera
The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.
Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.
But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.
The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.
Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.
In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.
The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”
Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.
The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.
Girl power… to light up our scene
We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!
The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.
Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.
It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.
Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).
Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).
Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.
They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).
Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.
The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.
Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.
She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.
“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”
With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.
“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.
Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!
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