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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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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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