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Significance of Ceylon-China Trade Agreement of 1952

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by Dr. J. B. Kelegama

Excerpts from the keynote address at the 50 th anniversary celebrations of the historic “Rubber-Rice Pact” between Sri Lanka and China at the BMICH on December 20, 2002

I am honoured by the invitation of the Sri Lanka-China Business Cooperation Council and the Sri Lanka-China Society to deliver today the keynote address on the occasion of the golden jubilee celebrations of the historic Rubber-Rice Pact between Sri Lanka and China signed in December 1952.

I accepted this invitation with alacrity and pleasure, firstly because I have conducted negotiations with China and actually implemented the Agreement over a period of about 12 years in my capacity as a senior government official, secondly, because I have visited China seven or eight times both as a government official and a UN consultant and thirdly, because I have been a student of China’s economic development for many years and written and published several articles on China’s economic and trade issues, under my own name as well as under pen-names.

Further, I had the privilege of speaking on this subject at the death anniversary of Mr. R. G. Senanayake some years back, on the invitation of no less a person than Mrs. R. G. Senanayake herself.

The Ceylon-China Trade Agreement of 1952 was undoubtedly the most useful trade agreement negotiated by Sri Lanka and one of the most successful and durable trade agreements in the world, having been in operation for 30 years. It is therefore useful to assess the significance of the agreement and to refresh our memory regarding the circumstances that led to it and the person who played the key role in bringing it about – R. G. Senanayake.

 

Rice shortage

1952 was a very bad year for Sri Lanka. Premier D. S. Senanayake had died and Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when the country had to face a world shortage of rice.

The Government was committed at that time to provide every adult person with two measures of rice per week at a subsidised price, but rice was not available from the traditional suppliers – Burma, Thailand and Indo-China – and the world market price of rice had risen by 38 per cent between 1951 and 1952.

Sri Lanka was therefore compelled to buy 60,000 tons of rice from the USA and 10,000 tons from Ecuador at high prices, although this variety of rice was not suitable to the Sri Lankan palate. She was however not in a position to buy all the rice she needed at this high price as her foreign exchange resources were limited; besides, distribution of this rice would have pushed the food subsidy bill to intolerable levels.

The country was also facing a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in her export prices brought about by the quick end of the Korean War boom. The end of the Korean War and the drastic reduction of commodity purchases by the West – in particular, of natural rubber by the United States – led to a collapse of Sri Lanka’s export prices by 23 per cent between 1951 and 1952.

The price of natural rubber declined by 36 per cent, of tea by 10 per cent, and of coconut oil by 40 per cent. Import prices increased by 8 per cent and terms-of-trade fell by 28 per cent. The trade surplus of Rs. 345 million in 1951 turned into a trade deficit of Rs. 200 million in 1952 and external assets fell by 30 per cent. In this critical situation Sri Lanka attempted to negotiate with the USA for a loan of US$50 million and for favourable prices for rubber exports and rice imports, but failed. The country was facing an unprecedented crisis: she could not find enough rice to feed her people and she had no prospect of a favourable market for her rubber exports.

It was in this grim setting that R. G. Senanayake, the then Minister of Commerce, played his master stroke. He found out that China was prepared to sell rice to Sri Lanka in exchange for rubber. At that time China was unable to obtain rubber as a result of prohibition of rubber exports from Malaya following a UN resolution preventing the sale of rubber to China. Thus China wanted rubber as badly as Sri Lanka wanted rice. R. G. Senanayake was quick to realise the mutual benefits of trade with China, and negotiated the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement or the Rubber-Rice Pact in Beijing towards the end of 1952. He stated in Parliament.

“We waited for foreign aid, foreign assistance. As you know Sir, over and over again, we made appeals for Point Four aid, we waited four long years. We have got in the form of assistance only a cook for the Kundasale Girls’ School. Therefore in these circumstances, it was necessary that we should go where it was possible to get our requirements.”

 

Opposition

The Agreement was negotiated in the teeth of opposition from some of his own colleagues in the Cabinet. Indeed, the opposition of J. R. Jayewardene, the Minister of Finance, was well known. The Cabinet was advised by the newly created Central Bank under an American Governor. Opposition also came from R. G. Senanayake’s predecessor in the ministerial post, from the American Government, and from some of the local newspapers which carried on a virulent press campaign against any dealings with Communist China. S. P. Amarasingham’s informative book “Rice and Rubber: The Story of China-Ceylon Trade” provides a detailed account of the strong opposition R. G. Senanayake had to face in negotiating the Agreement.

The American Government invoked the Battle Act which prevented it from giving aid to countries selling strategic materials to Communist countries and cut off aid to Sri Lanka. In addition, she stopped selling sulphur needed by Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations. This was the price that had to be paid for trading with China.

Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, however, fully backed his Minister of Commerce and was prepared to pay this price; he realised that the benefits to Sri Lanka from the agreement far outweighed losses consequent to the cutting-off of American aid. He argued:

“Ceylon’s old trade pattern has been knocked out by changes in the world market and we have to seek new markets for our needs of essential foodstuffs and for our exports.”

Rebutting the charges that the Trade Agreement was opening the door to communist influences in Sri Lanka, he pointed out:

“Communism thrives in many places not through an understanding of that particular ideology but through poverty and want. I am confident that our Trade Agreement with China will instead of opening doors to communism help us to stand firmer against it.”

It is a tribute to the two Senanayakes that they displayed remarkable pragmatism and courage in negotiating the Trade Agreement. They did not allow their prejudices or ideological considerations to stand in the way of deciding what was in the best interests of the Country; nor were they intimidated by threats of big powers.

 

R. G. Senanayake stated:

“I have always held the view that political ideologies should not stand in the ways of countries trading with each other if that trade is to their mutual advantage.”

He foresaw as far back as 1952, the emergence of China as a world power. He stated in a speech: “Talking of China in particular, it would be unrealistic to ignore a nation of 500 million in our continent with a united and cohesive government for the first time in many centuries. She is bound to be a major factor in world trade.”

As he foresaw, China has now become the seventh largest exporter in the world and the largest trader among developing countries whose purchases and sales influence the world markets. In 2000 for instance, her exports were US$249 billion and imports US$225 billion. If we include Hong Kong’s trade with China (as the greater part of Hong Kong’s trade is entrepot trade with China) then China becomes the fourth largest exporter in the world after the USA, Germany and Japan, its exports amounting to $452 billion.

 

The Agreement

The Trade Agreement signed in 1952 was for five years and renewable; there was, however, an annual Trade Protocol specifying the quantities of commodities to be exchanged in the ensuing year, which had to be negotiated every year. The trade was based on barter – exports and imports to balance every year; only the outstanding balance at the end-of-the-year was to be settled in foreign exchange.

Trade however was rarely balanced in the following years but the outstanding balance was generally carried forward to the next year without settlement in foreign exchange.

In the first part of the agreement there were specific commitments by Sri Lanka to purchase rice, and for China to buy rubber; the values were to balance. Thus in 1953, Sri Lanka agreed to buy 270,000 tons of rice from China which in turn agreed to purchase 50,000 tons of rubber; these quantities were exchanged on the basis of world market prices and were equal in value. In addition, China agreed to pay a premium price for rubber over the world market (Singapore) price and further, handling charges for rubber exports in Colombo.

Thus in 1953, China paid for Sri Lanka rubber Rs. 1.74 per lb. whereas the average world market price was Rs. 1.05 per lb. This premium varied with every five-year agreement. The handling charge which was fixed at five cents per lb. too varied in subsequent years. China also agreed to supply rice to Sri Lanka below market prices – at 54 pounds or Rs. 720 per ton in 1953.

Thus Sri Lanka benefited both ways from the agreement. The second part of the agreement covered trade in other commodities – those Sri Lanka and China wanted to buy and sell – but without specific commitments; the total value of exports and imports however were expected to balance every year. In view of the substantial mutual benefits, the Trade Agreement was renewed every five years by R. G. Senanayake’s successors in his ministerial post – in 1958, 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1977 – and was wound up, in the sense that the barter element was given up, in 1982 when it was found that the barter of rice and rubber was no longer in mutual interest. Sri Lanka had almost reached self-sufficiency in rice and needed only very small quantities from abroad while China was able to purchase rubber from several rubber producing countries without restriction and without paying a premium.

R. G. Senanayake paid an important tribute to China after negotiating the Trade Agreement, when he concluded his Cabinet paper on the subject in the following words:

“We noted on the Chinese side the absence of the spirit of bargaining and haggling on comparatively small points. On the other hand, they gave us the impression of being large-minded and forthright in their dealings.”

I can confirm this as I conducted trade negotiations with China over a dozen times. Benefits

The significance of the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement lies in the positive benefits Ceylon received during the thirty years of its duration. Those benefits exceeded expectation as China expressed her gratitude to Sri Lanka for supplying her rubber when other rubber producers were not prepared to do so and in spite of the opposition and denial of aid by the US Government. These benefits are discussed in detail below.

(1) The premium over world market price for rubber was estimated between Rs. 68 and Rs. 95 million in 1953 alone. It was about 56 per cent more than the world market price in that year. No estimates are available for successive years, but the premium was substantial, for even a ten cents premium meant Rs. 200 per metric ton and Rs. 10 million for 50,000 tons.

(2) The handling charge of 5 cents per lb., in 1953 was equal to Rs. 100 per metric ton or Rs. 5 million for 50,000 metric tons of rubber. As the charge and quantity varied from year-to-year the total sum too changed, but it was significant.

(3) The sale of rice by China to Sri Lanka at prices below the world market resulted in a net benefit of about Rs. 92 million in 1953 alone. Although there was a net benefit in the following years, no estimates have been made. China agreed to sell rice at the same price Burma sold rice to Sri Lanka with certain adjustments for differences in quality and transport costs. China never tried to exploit the rice market to her advantage.

Even when she did not have an exportable surplus, she supplied Sri Lanka with rice direct from Burma under a triangular trade arrangement, but charged us only the price she paid Burma – not a cent more – even when she had reason to charge something more.

(4) As a result of the agreement a grant of about Rs. 125 million was extended by China during the ten-year period 1958-68 to meet part of the costs of rubber replanting. Thousands of acres of uneconomic rubber land were replanted thereby revitalizing our rubber industry.

(5) China continued to purchase Sri Lanka’s rubber at a premium even when other markets were prepared to sell her rubber at lower prices.

(6) Sri Lanka found an assured market for her rubber and an assured source of supply for her rice and insured herself to a great extent against vagaries in the world market. She also diversified her export and import markets.

(7) The Trade Agreement benefitted the Ceylonese traders as against non-national traders by creating a new market for them. In spite of the opposition from non-national trading establishments – particularly British managing agency houses – R.G. Senanayake reserved the export of rubber to China for the Ceylonese traders. He also reserved China for the Ceylonese importer under his policy of Ceylonizing the external trade of the country.

(8) The Trade Agreement laid the foundation for expanding trade between Sri Lanka and China even after the barter agreement ceased to operate. In 2001 for instance China and Hong Kong (which mainly re-exports China’s products) constituted the largest supplier of imports valued at Rs. 64 billion to Sri Lanka.

(9) Economic co-operation between Sri Lanka and China began with the Trade Agreement. It was expanded by leaps and bounds with establishment of diplomatic relations with China by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and closer relations under Sirimavo Bandaranaike as symbolised by the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), textile mills at Veyangoda and Pugoda, other grants and interest-free loans. Economic co-operation thereafter is demonstrated by the superior courts complex, Gin ganga scheme and assistance to restore Abayagiri dagaba.

(10) The Ceylon-China Trade Agreement with its price concessions for both Sri Lanka’s exports and imports and assistance to rubber replanting by China was perhaps the first instance of a developing country giving economic assistance to another developing country. In other words, it was the first time where economic co-operation among developing countries or South-South co-operation took place.

(11) Finally, Ceylon-China Trade Agreement and closer commercial and economic relations laid the foundations for a firm friendship between Sri Lanka and China, which was strengthened, expanded, and cemented by the Bandaranaike governments. China’s friendship for Sri Lanka has been demonstrated not only in trade and economic co-operation but also in times of national crisis. There was only China to warn other countries to ‘keep their hands off Sri Lanka’ at the height of the Indo-Lanka crisis in June-July 1987. This friendship was demonstrated again thereafter by the visit of Prime Minister of China and his offer of Rs. 375 million in economic assistance.



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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects.

by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), which introduced devolution of power to the periphery, is again in the news, this time on the need to fully implement it. President Ranil Wickremesinghe first raised the issue in Parliament, asking the various parties whether they are for 13 Plus, meaning improving on 13A. SJB’s Lakshman Kiriella, an avowed supporter of devolution, while saying that his party is for it, asked the President whether Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP, which provides the President with the Parliamentary majority he needs for his legislative agenda, was supportive. Pressed by the President and Kiriella for a response, Rajapaksa, who had promised India to improve on 13A, rose reluctantly and said ‘13 Plus’.

President Wickremesinghe’s attempt to get a consensus on a constitutional settlement of the national question did not get off the ground. The SLPP is unlikely to abandon its Sinhala-nationalist platform. Opposition parties were sceptical. Realising the impossibility of a far-reaching amendment, the President has changed his strategy to one of fully implementing 13A, without changes, or with minor changes, that could muster SLPP support.

Several Opposition parties, that attended the previous meetings of the All-Party Conference (APC), stayed away from the meeting, held on January 27. While the SJB said that the APC was a mere ‘talk show,’ its ally among the Hill Country Tamils, the TPA, said that the President had not considered the issues facing them. The SJB’s Muslim allies did participate. MP Harini Amarasuriya clarified that while the NPP supported the 13A, in principle, it did not consider the President’s statement, on fully implementing the13A, credible.

The main areas in which the 13A has not been implemented are law and order (Police powers) and land. To add to this, successive governments have, over the last 35 years, taken back several subjects, and functions, that legitimately belong to the Provincial Councils (PCs) – agrarian services being one of them. The high point of central intrusion was the Divineguma Act of 2013, under which several functions of PCs, related to rural development, were taken over, using the two-thirds majority that the Government possessed.

Constitutional and legislative changes

The President spoke of the need to establish the National Land Commission, a requirement of the 13A, but which successive governments had not done. He also said that a decision on whether to continue with Provincial Police Commissions, or to bring the Provincial Police, under the National Police Commission, had to be taken. The latter would be a centralising feature—a 13 Minus—that will be to the disappointment of pro-devolution forces.

At the time of the 13A, there was no National Police Commission. Appointments, transfers, etc., of Police personnel, were handled by the Public Service Commission, with the Cabinet of Ministers having the power to overturn decisions of the PSC. To set up the National Police Commission and Provincial Police Commissions, provided for by the 13A, the Police Commission Act No. 1 of 1990 was passed but has not been brought into force by successive Presidents. Under the 13A, a Provincial Police Commission would consist of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, a person nominated by the Public Service Commission, in consultation with the President, and a nominee of the Chief Minister. Since the 13A, a National Police Commission was set up by the 17th and 19th Amendments, and the President now appoints its members on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The writer submits that these changes must be reflected in the Provincial Police Commissions, as well. The sub-committee on Law and Order, of the Constitutional Assembly of the previous Parliament, recommended that the Chairman, and the members of the Provincial Police Commissions, should be recommended by the Constitutional Council, having considered nominations, jointly provided by the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the respective Provincial Council. The writer submits that a better option would be for a Provincial Police Commission to be appointed by the Governor, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which should be required to call for nominations from the general public and also consult the Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition of the Province concerned. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment.

The 13A requires the Government to establish a National Land Commission, which would be responsible for the formulation of a national policy, concerning the use of State land. This Commission will include representatives of all Provincial Councils. The Commission will have a Technical Secretariat, representing all the relevant disciplines required to evaluate the physical as well as the socio-economic factors that are relevant to natural resources management. National policy, on land, use will be based on technical aspects, but not political or communal aspects. The Commission will lay down general norms, regarding the use of land, having regard to soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors, economic viability, etc. In the exercise of the powers devolved on them, Provincial Councils shall have due regard to national policy, formulated by the National Land Commission. The Constitution does not set out the composition, etc., of the National Land Commission. The establishment of the Commission would have to be ordinary legislation.

Broad consensus needed

President Wickremesinghe, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, sitting beside him, told the APC that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved the full implementation of the 13A. If as President Wickremesinghe confidently says, he has the support of the Cabinet of Ministers and, thus, of the SLPP, the full implementation of 13A would be certainly possible. But it is important that the President reaches out to the Opposition parties, as well. The SJB is for devolution as a solution to the national issue. Sajith Premadasa’s Presidential election manifesto pledged maximum devolution, within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Premadasa won areas dominated by Tamils, Muslims and Hill Country Tamils, with percentages second only to those secured by President Kumaratunga, in 1994. SJB’s Muslim and Hill Country allies support devolution, but the President needs to talk to parties representing those communities, about issues pertaining to them, too.

The new ‘Helicopter’ alliance seems unable to take a unified stand on the 13A. Dullas and Dilan Perera were at the forefront of CBK’s campaign for devolution, and Professor G.L. Pieris was the architect of her devolution proposals. Tissa Vitarana did an admirable job of getting a consensus on the national issue, through the APRC process. The Left parties in the Utttara Sabhagaya are strong supporters of devolution, while their nationalist allies are against it. Former President Sirisena spoke in support of implementing the 13A at the APC. The JVP/NPP is unlikely to oppose moves to implement the 13A.

It must not be assumed that the President’s declared intention to implement the 13A could be put into practice easily. Sinhala nationalists, in the Uttara Sabhagaya, have already declared war against fully implementing the 13A, and not all SLPP elements would be enthusiastic about supporting the proposed changes. They are sure to be joined by Sinhala extremists outside Parliament. Anti-13A forces would attempt to use discontent among the masses suffering due to the economic mess the country is in. In these circumstances, the Government needs to convince the people, and the Opposition, of the genuineness of the exercise and the chances of its success. Lest the extremists raise the ‘separatist’ bogey, President Wickremesinghe and the Government must meet such arguments, taking the bull by its horns, and also explain to the people that power-sharing, through devolution, is a must, not only to solve the ethnic issue but also for the development of the periphery. Given its composition, the present Government cannot do so on its own. It must reach out and build a broad consensus on the issue.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Former president Sirisena has declared that he is poor and therefore has to go begging to pay compensation awarded by the Supreme Court to the victims of the Easter Sunday massacre! He was unwilling to stand in the dock when he appeared as an accused in a subsequent case and had to be ordered to do so by the Magistrate.

Just imagine an ex-president going around begging from the populace that was made destitute by the actions of the government he headed and the government that followed, which he was part of! To make matters even worse he gives totally ludicrous and unbelievable explanations. Let me add a few of my thoughts to many opinions expressed so far, including those in the editorial “Sirisena’s plea” (The Island, 24 January) wherein the editor quite rightly names those responsible for making this totally undeserved person the President, and suggests that they should help him pay, if at all.

The two important issues that need consideration are whether Sirisena is guilty of neglecting his duties as president in not defending the country from terrorism and who is responsible for paying the compensation awarded by the Supreme court.

I pose the first question because in numerous press conferences, Sirisena has stated that the Supreme Court awarded compensation because he was indirectly responsible for the actions of security chiefs he appointed, implying that there is no direct responsibility! One wonders whether Sirisena is unable to understand the judgement, which categorically states that there were lapses such as the malfunctioning security council for which he was directly responsible. In fact, what surprised me was the reflected annoyance or frustrations of the honourable justices by their use of terms like “what takes the cake” in referring to some of these terrible lapses! Though Sirisena does not come from an academic background, having been a cabinet minister and the general secretary of a major political party for years, surely, he should be able to grasp the contents of a judgement.

Obviously, Sirisena cannot challenge the judgement as it was delivered by the highest court in the land and he cannot criticise the judgement as it would amount to contempt of court. Therefore, it is pretty obvious that he is using a diversionary tactic hoping to fool us. Perhaps, he is unaware of the famous adage: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Sirisena seems to have developed total amnesia about the commission he appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday massacre! From parts of the report released, it was pretty obvious that the blame lay, in addition to the security establishment, on him as well as the prime minister of the day, who as the present president must be having bad dreams of the day when he no longer has presidential immunity!

In fact, one of the reasons for the downfall of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was his reluctance to take action on that report. Perhaps, he did so at the behest of his younger brother who was obsessed with the two thirds majority.

Sirisena seems to disregard facts and is on a shameless mission to deceive the public again by stating that he has no means to pay compensation. He claims that his only income is from a mango plantation and that he does not own even a motorcycle. But have we ever seen him riding a bicycle or travelling by bus?

Although he has not provided any proof, Sirisena claims that he was in a hospital in Singapore for an urgent medical condition at the time of the attack. Why did he go to Singapore instead of seeking treatment at home? Afterall, he was the Minister of Health before contesting the presidency! How did the urgency resolve for him to return the following day? How did this poor mango grower have the money to go to Singapore for treatment? Did the public coffers cough up the money for allegedly a shopping trip he did for his son’s wedding?

In spite of the Presidential Commission he himself appointed finding him guilty and the highest court of the land directing him to pay compensation to victims, Sirisena has failed the nation by refusing to show any remorse or take his share of responsibility. Instead, he is attempting to make a political drama out of it. What about his brother Dudley, who roared like a lion threatening to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to punish his elder brother in any way? Why is he hiding like a lizard not offering to foot the bill? Has Sirisena no shame in allowing one of his supporters to beg under the Bo tree in Pettah? A decent politician would have opted to go to jail rather than beg but decency is, perhaps, something totally alien to Sirisena!

Sirisena, who really should set an example to others who were ordered to pay compensation, does not seem even to follow their behaviour of silent acceptance. He should remember that we have not forgotten what was stated by the ex-IGP that Sirisena offered him a diplomatic posting provided he accepted responsibility. He must be regretting the refusal! Those who should go round begging are government servants who have no means to pay compensation, not the mango grower whose brother is one of the richest “Hal Mudalalis”!

Mr Sirisena! You have no sense of shame and you have done everything possible to deflect blame. What I fail to comprehend is why the SLFP does not get rid of you. Perhaps, it has a death-wish and so do the ex-Pohottuwa chaps who decided ‘helicopter’! It clearly shows that ours is the land of politicians with no sense of shame!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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by Rathindra Kuruwita

Election monitors and activists express concern that digital harassment of female politicians will increase when the local council elections campaign gets into full swing in the coming weeks.According to the preliminary results of a survey conducted by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), more than 70 percent of female local councillors and grassroots political activists have faced digital harassment.

CaFFE Executive Director Manas Makeen said the majority of those who were subjected to digital harassment (around 80 percent) had not lodged complaints with the law enforcement authorities or with the political party leadership because they felt it was an exercise in futility.

“Even if these women politicians go to the police or their party leadership, there is no solution. They have to find solutions themselves. The introduction of the quota for women candidates at the local council level has upset some politicians and they have resorted to the digital sphere to undermine their female opponents,” he said.

Makeen said the survey had also revealed that about 55 percent of women politicians and activists had faced physical harassment during their political careers. However, digital harassment was the most common form of harassment now. He said almost 90 percent of those who were harassed online believed politicians in the same party were behind the attack.

Nilka Perera (not her real name) is a member of a local council in Puttalam.

The 33-year-old politician said the harassment had begun with the announcement of the 25-percent-female-candidate quota ahead of the last local council elections, in 2018.

“Some religious leaders gave sermons on why people should not vote for women and their video clips are all over social media,” she said, noting that such misconceptions were not limited to one religion or community. “People were initially sceptical about women in politics and male politicians were quick to latch on to it. While there is misogyny in society, most attacks on female politicians are organised campaigns,” she said.

SJB MP Rohini Kavirathne said the Women Parliamentarian’s Caucus was well aware of systematic digital harassment of female politicians. She said that all female politicians including her had been victims of online harassment and that the Caucus had been active in assisting women in need.

“We have always been willing to help women, on an individual basis. We have also contributed and worked with election monitors, the Elections Department, and other relevant parties to empower women and stop the harassment. While the harassment continues, I am glad to see that women are becoming stronger and are proactively countering propaganda against them,” she said.

The CaFFE survey also found that although the majority of participants received some kind of training from a government or a civil society organisation in countering digital harassment, most of the female politicians over the age of 55 were unable to answer what they would do if they faced digital harassment.

The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said he, too, had noted a spike in digital harassment of female politicians during the campaign for the 2018 local council elections after the 25 percent female candidate quota was given legal effect. At least 25 percent of the names on the nomination lists, submitted by parties or independent groups should be female candidates.

“Targeted harassment of female politicians, especially those who engage in grassroots-level politics, continues to be a serious problem,” he said, expressing fears that the problem would only aggravate with the election season approaching without any proactive countermeasures from political parties.

There was also a lot of character assassination through social media, and such campaigns were ongoing, Hettiarachchi said.

Pointing out that Sri Lanka did not have a mechanism to take swift action against election malpractice, he said this was a major lacuna that should be addressed, especially given the harassment female candidates faced in the digital sphere.

“Our law enforcement mechanisms are slow. During an election period, immediate action should be taken against election law violators,” he said. “What’s the point in taking action against a campaign of digital harassment a few months after the elections are over?”

Police spokesman Nihal Thalduwa said the Sri Lanka Police Computer Crime Investigation Division had been established to help victims of computer crimes including digital harassment.

“I don’t have numbers on the top of my head, but I don’t think we get a lot of complaints from grassroots-level female politicians about digital harassment,” the Senior Superintendent of Police said.

He said this was probably because the women politicians feared they would antagonise their party leaders if they complained to the police.

“However, since you brought this issue up, the police must work closely with other stakeholders as the elections approach,” he said.

The urban-rural divide

When the then government introduced a quota for women in late 2017, weeks before the nominations for local council elections were called, most political parties had not been ready, said Kalana Weerasinghe, Chief Operating Officer at the Federation of Sri Lankan Local Government Authorities (FSLGA). He said several political parties nominated friends and family members to fill the 25 percent female-candidate quota.

“Women were often made candidates in wards that male party leaders thought they would lose. However, now we have more than 2,000 female local councillors out of some 8,000, and they can be divided into three categories.

“First, there are seasoned female politicians who have been in politics for decades and some of them are even more popular than their parties’ electoral organisers. They could easily win parliamentary elections, too, if they were given an opportunity. Then there are friends and family members of political party officials, and they have no interest in politics although they are now elected people’s representatives. The third group comprises newcomers who are passionate about what they are doing.

“So, when it comes to digital harassment, the first group is capable of handling any personal attacks. The second group probably will drop out but those in the third group have learnt to adapt and fight back though they were at first depressed by digital media harassment,” Weerasinghe said.

He said the fightback was especially visible in the urban areas where women politicians were more educated and apt in digital technologies than their rural counterparts. These women realise the power of digital media, and how it can benefit their careers. “Being in politics also makes them tougher,” he said.

With the mainstream media giving little or no space for women local council politicians, social media was the main tool they could use to build up a larger support base and tell the voters about what they did and what they believed in, Weerasinghe said.

“A person who is facing harassment can lock his or her profile pic, but a politician can’t do so. No country has been able to reduce online harassment to zero. So, it is also about empowering women and building support structures. We have to make female politicians resilient and there is a lot that the government, political parties and civil society groups can do,” he said.

Role of civil society and govt.

While some female politicians in urban areas are coming to terms with the digital landscape, there are other women and activists who are not yet tech savvy to promote themselves or deal with increasing levels of online harassment.

Makeen said that although most women politicians were on Facebook, quite a few did not know how to use the platform to promote their political careers. If they faced online harassment, they would lock their profiles or stop using social media, he said.

“Early this year, we did a study on online harassment faced by women politicians. We found that they knew about the platforms and online harassment, but they did not know how to use social media to boost their career or how to proactively deal with cyberbullies,” he said.

Makeen said they had also held a series of consultations with national-level female politicians and found out they had also been victims of concerted digital harassment.

“A young former MP once told us that at the beginning of her career, she had been devastated by cyberbullying. This is the case of someone coming from a political family and had gone through trauma. She said it was so bad that she had even contemplated quitting politics. With the backing of her family, she had learnt to ignore the bullies and connect with those who supported her although she is one of the most memed female politicians today,” he said.

Women fighting back

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director of the Institute of Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES), said several young and educated female politicians including those at the grassroots level had learnt how to navigate the digital sphere.

While digital harassment continued to be a serious problem, there were signs of female local councillors building the necessary support structures to overcome it, he said.

“Initially, a lot of local women councillors were devastated by digital media harassment. I was told that some families were on the verge of breaking up. However, in the past few years, we have seen a counterattack. Female local councillors who are serious about their work have behaved with great integrity and now they are getting social recognition. Their family members, who were initially hesitant or upset about them being in politics, have now warmed up,” he said.

Describing the trend as a positive change, Gajanayake called on the government and political parties to step up efforts to end digital harassment of women candidates.

He said that often targeted digital harassment was carried out by political actors and sometimes by those in the same party.

“If the political parties are stricter and take complaints by their women candidates more seriously, we would see a sharp drop in instances of targeted digital harassment,” he said.

* This story is produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

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