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President Rajapaksa and his 13A dilemmas

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by Rajan Philips

It was said of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike that “it was a grim irony that he should be called upon, at the moment of his greatest political triumph, to articulate the strong opposition of the Sinhalese to any attempt to establish a federal constitution.” Sixty-five years later, it could be said in reverse that it is a grimmer irony for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be unfairlyput on the spot by his most ardent supporters and their insistent calls for abolishing the Provincial Council system, in total disregard of the realities of political and geopolitical consequences of such abolishing, not to mention the extraordinary Covid-19 challenges that he has to deal with now. The irony is to be noted because Mr. Rajapaksa was among the first to raise the call for abolishing the PCs as far back as 10 years ago, when even the mere thought of becoming Sri Lanka’s president may not have crossed his mind as an American citizen.

The PCs are not the only dilemma that President Rajapaksa has to wrestle with. He is grappling with quite a few of them. While almost all other presidential dilemmas are connected to Covid-19, the dilemma over 13A and the Provincial Councils is antecedent to Covid-19, but like everything else in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, is complicated by it. Hence the lingering question, why bother with a new constitution now? And especially for this President, whose credentials are totally those of a practical doer, and not at all the characteristics of a constitutional visionary? The answer might be that it is the ‘constitutional cabal’ that is running the constitutional show, like every other cabal running every other government show.

 

‘Sapatha’ and Overreach

The immediate cause for the abolishment calls is the apparent decision of the government, or the Prime Minister, to go ahead with the long postponed (by the Wickremesinghe-TNA-JVP threesome) elections to the currently defunct Provincial Councils, which were established under the 13th Amendment. The sources of these calls are also a classic case of multiple political tails trying to wag the country’s presidential executive and his brother prime minister. A government minister, indeed, the Minister for Public Security and the State Minister for Provincial Councils, has, in ancient Mahabharata “sapatha kara kiyanawa” style, made a solemn pledge to the members of the Civil Defence Force that he would put an end to the system of Provincial Councils. The Experts Committee tasked with preparing a draft for the new Rajapaksa constitution, is also reported to have expressed concern over holding PC elections before their draft is done and a new constitution is in place.

It is not clear if there is unanimity in the committee over this concern, or if some committee members are speaking publicly for the whole committee. There was an earlier news report that the Experts Committee took an internal vote and decided by majority on a matter that is apparently fundamental to preparing the draft constitution. That an expert committee on the constitution would take an internal vote to decide on a fundamental question without referring it to its political masters in the government (with the parliament helplessly sidelined in the whole exercise) is an extraordinary overreach. If this is any indication, even the draft constitution that the committee would likely produce (presumably by a majority vote) may turnout to be extraordinary and tendentious.

Does the matter that the committee had to vote on have anything to do the 13th Amendment? We do not know. But we know that the more powerful members of the committee are not amused by the government’s apparent decision to go ahead with PC elections. And that is some gall for a committee appointed by the country’s Head of State to publicly tell the government if or when it should conduct elections to any elected body. For now, there is more than Expert Committee amusement or gall that has been put on display. Real midweek fury against the Provincial Councils has been unleashed by Prof. GH Peiris, who is also a prominent member of the Experts Committee.

 

Facts and Fabrications

Anyone looking to get refreshed on the materially relevant historical background to the constitutional voids that were unnecessarily created in 1972 and in 1978 – and their partial filling by the 13th Amendment (in 1987) and the Provincial Councils it created, could re-read Chapter 36 in KM de Silva’s (1981) “A History of Sri Lanka.” Even its first few pages will do. My opening quote on SWRD Bandaranaike in today’s article is from page 513 of de Silva’s book, in Chapter 36: “The Triumph of Linguistic Nationalism”. The quote might suggest that the historian was having his academic tongue in his political cheek, but it reads far superior to anything that a geographer seems to be able to politically offer 40 years later. And this is not because Sri Lanka has too much history and too little geography.

Yet, no one can do worse than CA Chandraprema’s attempt to rewrite history, as he did in his hagiographic monograph, “Gota’s War.” We can anticipate versions of it to be undiplomatically broadcast from Geneva from March onward. The one thing about the history of Sri Lanka’s national question or conflict is that it is a well studied (even “over studied”, as AJ Wilson used to say) subject, and almost everyone who is of consequence either in Sri Lanka or abroad is well versed, in it and knows to discern between facts and fabrications. More than historical writings, Sri Lanka’s stubborn facts always give the fabricator’s, if not the government’s, game away. Just as it is impossible to hide a whole pumpkin in a plate of rice. Peremptorily abolishing the Provincial Council system will be one more stubborn fact that will fetch no credit for Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankans who have lived through and politically experienced the tumults and wars after 1977 need no lesson from old history, colonial, or pre-colonial. Some of us–Burghers, Muslims, Sinhalese, and Tamils rising above our ethnic strictures, happened to be involved in efforts to respond to these events within the framework of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE).1983 is now considered a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s modern history, one that is totally negative and even calamitous, and quite different from 1956 which bore both positive and negative fruits. However, 1983 had its annual forerunners. Riots broke out in 1977, after a twenty-year hiatus and within months of the UNP’s bigger than landslide election victory. For the first time, plantation Tamils were targeted in communal rioting. In 1978, the UNP used its massive majority in parliament to elevate one of its MPs, Prime Minister JR Jayewardene, as the country’s first executive president. 1979 was the year of the Emergency in Jaffna, when President Jayewardene ordered Brigadier (Bull) Weeratunga (not DIG/IGP Rudra Rajasingham) to “eliminate the menace of terrorism in all its forms from the island and more specially from the Jaffna District.” Two years later, in 1981, tea plantation districts were targeted again in the south, while off-duty policemen burnt down the Public Library in Jaffna. In 1982, President Jayewardene upended parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka through the chicanery of a referendum. One year later, what was catastrophic became calamitous, as the Palestinians are known to say.

1983 implicated Sri Lanka not only geopolitically with India, but also internationally with practically every western country where Tamils leaving Sri Lanka found a foothold. The Sixth Amendment that was passed during the dark and difficult days of August 1983, erased the elected TULF off the political map and handed over the keys to Tamil politics to armed militants. Sarath Silva said as much in his 2005 ruling as Chief Justice, in the course of denying President Kumaratunga’s plea to stay in office a year longer.

The commonplace argument is that 13A and the Provincial Councils were foisted on Sri Lanka by India’s machinations taking advantage of an old, weak, and beleaguered President Jayewardene. While this argument might be politically potent, it is bereft of any analytical insight or credibility, and it flies in the face of events and the alignments of political forces within Sri Lanka before and after 1983. The notion that India’s role in Sri Lanka was triggered by the fury of Indira Gandhi after she was apparently scorned by JR Jayewardene is cheap table talk and should not be a serious political consideration. And in 2020 it is utterly inappropriate to speak of any woman, let alone a woman political leader and Prime Minister, being scorned, leaving aside the not uncommon misattribution to Shakespeare of the line (“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”) that was satirically written by William Congreve (1670-1729) in his play, The Mourning Bride.

 

Indian Involvement and Sri Lanka’s Failure

I make no suggestion that India’s involvement, or interference, in Sri Lanka was entirely, or even primarily, motivated by neighbourly altruism. There were of course machinations, but they were mostly of the raw bureaucratic kind, thanks to the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s wannabe CIA. And whether it was Indian involvement or interference, it did not arise out of nothing and would not have transpired the way it did and to the extent it did, without compelling circumstances in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan political circumstances after 1977, and more so after 1983, provided both the pretext and the context for India to get involved in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. And no one, not even India, could have anticipated that things would get ugly and totally out of control as they did over several years. It is still the sorest point among many Sinhalese that India peremptorily prevented the Sri Lankan military onslaught on the LTTE in June 1987 with its controversial air drop of food supplies in Jaffna. The contention is that were it not for this highhanded intervention, the war would have been over by and large in 1987 itself. This is debatable because the LTTE was then primarily a guerrilla organization and may have survived the onslaught to live and fight another day. It was only years later that the LTTE would build up its so called conventional fighting force and convert itself from being a fighting-fit guerrilla force to a flabby national army, and getting drunk in the process with its own myth of invincibility. And in this saga of ironies, India that initially aided and armed Tamil militant groups on the beaches of Tamil Nadu, would later preside over the disarming of every militant group bar the LTTE, engage its army in an unfinished and unsuccessful fight against the LTTE, and finally – 22 years after the infamous ‘parippu drop’ – end up aiding and assisting the government of Sri Lanka to vanquish the LTTE once and for all. It was not only the Central Government in Delhi that went through these about-turns, but also the state and government leaders in Tamil Nadu who were complicit at every step along the way. And there is no shortage among Sri Lankan Tamils who believe that the Tamils were shortchanged in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment, and especially by the provisions of the Provincial Councils Act that the two gave rise to.

 

As for JR Jayewardene, although his detractors among the Sinhalese may never concede this, he must have felt entitled to a little last laugh in getting India to clean up the militant mess which in his mind was mostly of India’s making. To his justifiable credit, however, he conceded in the end that India was the only external agency, and not any western country or international agency, that would help him put his Sri Lankan house in order after national politics has unravelled beyond restoration by any domestic initiative alone. This very point was well articulated in a public statement, at the time of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, by more than a score of left and liberal Sinhalese intellectuals, activists, and academics. I do not have the statement at hand, but suffice it to say that the anti-13A lobby is not entitled to claim exclusive monopoly over Sinhalese political thinking, then or now.

As well, the 13th Amendment is not the only controversial initiative, constitutionally or otherwise, that JR Jayewardene implemented and presided over aided by his tyrannical majority in parliament. His entire 1978 constitutional project has been controversial from the time of its inauguration. In fact, the 13th Amendment has had greater support among non-UNP Sinhalese, than the 1978 Constitution ever did. Abolishing the executive presidency has been the winning battle cry in every election from 1994, until 2019. At none of these elections, including, I believe, the 2019 and 2020 elections, did any of the main contenders for power promised to abolish the Provincial Council system.

On the contrary, Chandrika Kumaratunga and her People’s Alliance movement used Provincial Council elections to launch their campaign against and eventually oust the UNP from power after its seventeen year rule. Mahinda Rajapaksa cleverly and consistently used PC elections to consolidate his electoral fiefdom. Again, as political indicators go, the 2014 PC election in Uva signalled the people’s regime fatigue after 10 years of Rajapaksa rule and 20 years of SLFP-dominated governments. Lacking Chandrika Kumaratunga’s charisma and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cleverness, the beleaguered yahapalanaya folk shuttered up the Provincial Councils and postponed their elections indefinitely. Their dillydallying has created the current dilemma for President Rajapaksa.

There is no dispute that the implementation of the Provincial Councils system has not turned out to be an appealing success. But this is not due to any systemic or structural shortcomings, but entirely due to the failure of political leadership. The blame for the worst leadership failure should fall squarely on the shoulders of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe in general, and particularly on the TNA and CV Wigneswaran for what they have done and what they failed to do with the Northern Provincial Council after its first and only election in 2013.

There is no question that the PC system needs changes and reforms, regardless of when the next elections are held. And unlike any other institution in Sri Lanka, the PC system has a handbook of reform recommendations in the comprehensive symposium complied, in 2010, by the late Ranjith Amarasinghe, Asoka Gunawardena, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, and AM Navaratna-Bandara. There have been plenty of other suggestions, most recently by Austin Fernando and Nirmala Chandrahasan.

In his December 25 article in The Island, Fernando recounts that the current government includes many past champions of the PC system, including former Provincial Chief Ministers and Governors. Will they speak out now, or stay silent as the current abolishment clamour grows? The current voices of abolition have been around from the time the PCs were introduced in 1987-88. But for over 30 years they have not gotten anywhere close to influencing, or dictating to, the policy of any Sri Lankan government on the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils. Until now. And that is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s main dilemma.

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SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……

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Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement in response to an article (That hazardous Ratmalana Wall) published on 21 Jan.

It is with regret that I would like to inform you that the newspaper article titled “That Hazardous Ratmalana Wall” published in The “Island” newspaper of 21 January 2021 contains false information which has not been clarified from the Air Force Director Media nor any other official channel of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

It should also be highlighted that the Sri Lanka Air Force does not wish to challenge the freedom of reporting information by journalists. However, news articles of this nature published with the use of unsubstantiated information tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka Air Force.

The newspaper article in concern has caught the attention of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force. As alleged in the article, the Commander has not declared on behalf of the SLAF that there is no objection for the removal of the wall and replacing it with a fence. On the contrary he had in fact stated that a collapsible wall could be put in place of the permanent wall which should have a solid finish obstructing the view from outside due to security reasons.

In addition, to date there has been no incident/accident reported at the Ratmalana Airfield related to the wall along the Galle Road. Further, vehicles such as passenger coach/container etc; travelling on the main road would be taller than the wall in concern and according to the article, the main road would also have to be closed each and every time when an aircraft approaching of taking off from that end of the runway. International runway due to limitations which is also can be considered as hazardous to flight safety, SLAF consider Flight Safety is a paramount important factor as an organization which operates different types of aircraft over the years from this airfield.

It is pertinent to mention the wall in concern was erected by the SLAF before year 2009 with the consent of the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) to address the security concerns at that time and maintained to date. The outer perimeter security of the Colombo International Airport at Ratmalana is being provided by the SLAF free of charge over years. As a measure of gratitude, with the consent of AASL and the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), SLAF authorized to erect hoardings along this wall and to utilize the funds generated for welfare measures of airmen.

Further, publishing of an article which has an author with a fictional name will have serious and adverse effects on the newspaper as well as the goodwill which prevails between SLAF and AASL. The goodwill which prevails between the SLAF and your esteemed Organization will also be adversely effected by articles of this nature. SLAF Directorate of Media always provide accurate and precise information to media institutions which has an impact on general public as well as to other organizations. Undersigned is contactable any time of the day through mobile (0772229270) to clarify ambiguities of SLAF related information.

In conclusion, I would like to express our displeasure regarding the newspaper article in concern and the damage which has been done to the good name of the Sri Lanka Air Force and in particular to the Commander of Air Force.

 

WADC WIJESINGHE

Group Captain

DIRECTOR MEDIA

for COMMANDER OF THE AIR FORCEs

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Dog-eat-dog culture

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By Rajitha Ratwatte

There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.

One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.

It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!

As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.

In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!

Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.

That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.

 

Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.

It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!

 

fromoutsidethepearl@gmail.com

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Lenin comes to town (again)

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By Gwynne Dyer

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow on Sunday after convalescing in Germany from an attempted poisoning by the FSB domestic spy agency, the regime-friendly media loyally failed to mention his arrival. With one striking exception: Vremya, the flagship news show of Russian state television.

Presumably, somebody there was hoping to win favour with the Kremlin, because they briefly mentioned Navalny three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s two-hour programme. In fact, they compared Navalny’s trip home to Vladimir Lenin’s famous return to Russia in 1917, and suggested that he was as great a danger to Russia as Lenin had been.

As every Russian knows, the Germans plucked Lenin from exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War. He was sent across Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (so he wouldn’t spread the infection of Communism there) to St. Petersburg, then in the throes of Russia’s first democratic revolution – and he did just what the Germans had hoped he would.

Lenin overthrew the fumbling democratic ‘Provisional Government’ in a military coup, took Russia out of the First World War – and launched a 73-year totalitarian Communist regime that cost at least 20 million Russian lives in purges, famines and lesser acts of repression. Is Navalny really that great a danger?

The ambitious presenter at Vremya probably won’t get the job he wanted, because President Vladimir Putin really won’t have liked seeing his noisiest critic compared in stature to Lenin, a genuine world-historical figure. Putin himself never mentions Navalny’s name at all.

Russians cannot even put a name to the system they live under, as the poor Vremya presenter’s confusion illustrates. It’s certainly not a democracy, although there are regular elections. It’s definitely not Communist, although most of the regime’s senior figures were Communists before they discovered a better route to power and wealth.

It’s not a monarchy, although Putin has been in power for twenty years and is surrounded by a court of extremely rich allies and cronies. And ‘kleptocracy’ is just a pejorative term used mostly by foreigners, although Navalny does habitually refer to Putin and his cronies as “crooks and thieves”.

In fact, Putin’s regime is not a system at all. Its only ideology is a traditional Russian nationalism that is lightweight compared to blood-and-soil religious and racist movements like Trump’s in the United States and Modi’s in India. It’s a purely personal regime, and it is very unlikely to survive his dethronement or demise.

Putin has been in power for twenty years, and he has just changed the constitution with a referendum that lets him stay in power until 2036. But that seems unlikely, partly because he is already 68 and partly because the younger generation of Russians is getting restless and bored.

Navalny is a brave man who has gone home voluntarily to face a spell in Putin’s jails. (He missed two parole appointments for a suspended sentence on trumped-up embezzlement charges because he was in Germany recovering from the FSB assassination attempt.) But his role in Russian politics so far had been more gadfly than revolutionary.

His supporters do their homework and make clever, witty videos detailing the scandalous financial abuses of the regime (the latest is a virtual tour of Putin’s new $1 billion seaside palace on the Black Sea near Novorossiysk), but he is probably not the man who will finally take Putin down. What he is doing to great effect is mobilising the tech-savvy young.

Since 2018 the average age of protesters at anti-Putin demos, mostly linked to Navalny one way or another, has dropped by a decade, and their boldness has risen in proportion. Moreover, their attitude to the regime now verges on contempt. Rightly so: consider, for example, the last two assassination attempts by regime operatives.

In 2018, the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, sent two agents to England to kill defector Sergei Skripov and his daughter Yulia. The agents made two trips to Salisbury because they couldn’t find the right house, they were tracked by CCTV every step of the way, and in the end, they left too little novichok (nerve poison) on the doorknob to kill the targets.

Equally crude and bumbling was the FSB’s attack on Navalny in Tomsk, where the novichok was put on his underpants. Once again, the target survived, and afterwards the investigative site Bellingcat was able to trace FSB agents tracking Navalny on forty flights over several years before the murder was attempted.

Neither agency is fit for 21st-century service, nor is the regime they both serve. Russians have put up with it for a long time because they were exhausted and shamed by the wild political banditry of the 1990s, but Putin’s credit for having put an end to that has been exhausted. He may still be in power for years, but this is a regime on the skids.

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