Former President Maithripala Sirisena emerged a few days ago from a long hibernation, interrupted only by his participation in the last parliamentary election to retain his long-held Polonnaruwa district seat. He recently awoke from his slumber sharing a platform with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Yoshide Suga of Japan at an international symposium on Shared Values and Democracy in Asia organized by the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation. The event was necessarily held under virtual technology in these Covid-wracked times, and our former president, who chose not to ride gracefully into the sunset at the end of the presidential term, was no doubt flattered to receive the invitation to participate in a prestigious international event. He became president as the common opposition candidate under “fortuitous circumstances,” if we may borrow the expression used by Mr. W. Dahanayaka, the veteran politician of yesteryear, on attaining the prime ministry after Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination.
So much for the background of Sirisena, who retains the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) he deserted in 2014, to run for president the following year. His speech at the Vivekananda symposium received considerable publicity, both here and abroad. Ironically, its theme was a concept to which politicians worldwide pay lip service, but is sadly something that is commonly discarded upon attaining office. Sirisena is no exception to this actuality and the people of Sri Lanka who voted him into power on high expectations have not forgotten what happened in October 2018 even if the former president has let that sorry episode slip out of his memory. If we may remind him, that was when he committed the impeachable offence of dismissing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government and appointing Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man he defeated in 2015, as the new prime minister. Rajapaksa, at Sirisena’s invitation, formed an illegal short-lived government despite being a minority in the legislature and Sirisena, the prime mover of those machinations, was forced to eat humble pie by a unanimous decision of the country’s highest court.
At the start of his speech into which he must have had considerable input, but was surely ghost-written
as far as the English version he read out was concerned, Sirisena quoted from the familiar Pali stanza which appears at the end of the Pirit Pota. Certainly Raja bhavatu dhammiko was not what happened in October 2018; nor Yahapalana post-2015. It may be correctly said that the then prime minister asked for what was done to him by the man whose United National Party anointed as president in 2015. The evocative Sinhala idiom illagena parippu kewa says it all. Sri Lanka’s political history vividly demonstrated in the past, certainly up to the last election when the GOP was reduced to zero, that a common opposition is a sine qua non to topple a powerful government in this country. There is no need to labour the fact that Maithripala Sirisena would not have been elected president in 2015 but for the UNP support of his candidature. Even if 1956 when Mr. Bandaranaike’s SLFP-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) scored a landslide victory, the MEP had a no-contest agreement with the two old left parties, the LSSP and CP, then a formidable presence in the country’s political firmament. The elections of March and July 1960 best illustrate this point. The UNP led by Mr. Dudley Senanayake won in March and formed a minority government which was defeated in the very first Throne Speech presented to Parliament.
Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake recommended dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a new general election to Sir. Oliver Goonatillake, the Governor-General in the then prevailing order. The arithmetic of the March 1960 electoral result clearly showed that many seats the UNP carried there would have been lost if the anti-UNP vote was not divided between the SLFP and the left parties. It is commonly said that it was the entry into politics of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, widely described as the “weeping widow” during that campaign, that made the difference. She replaced Mr. C.P. de Silva as the leader of the SLFP and prime minister-designate. Mrs. Bandaranaike, then not even a Member of the House of Representatives (she chose not to run at that election), became the world’s first woman prime minister as a member of the then Senate. It was the ‘No Contest’ Pact between the SLFP and the old left parties that benefited both sides that enabled the SLFP victory. The blue party was not the sole beneficiary; the reds too won more seats than they otherwise would have. The SLFP having enough seats to form a government of its own did not invite its electoral allies to join the new administration and the LSSP and CP joined the UNP in the opposition.
We return to Maithripala Sirisena now that we are done with the short capsule of post-Independence political history. Predictably Sirisena outlined at the symposium some of the achievement of his tenure including the shedding of certain presidential powers and the Right to Information Act. Some of the presidential powers removed by the 19th Amendment have been restored by the 20th recently enacted. Sirisena voted in its favour although he boasts of trimming presidential power in his day. He also supported the 18th Amendment which abolished the presidential term limit but did not in any way seek to abolish the presidency which all holders of that office, with the exceptions of Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, pledged to do. All of them, Sirisena included, welshed on that promise. Let us not deny him his moment in the limelight following the end of his glory days. But let us not forget the contradictions of his actions as president and the virtues he preached at the symposium.
PTA as a bludgeon
Wednesday 1st February, 2023
Colombo Chief Magistrate Prasanna Alwis, who heard a case against Convenor of the Inter-University Students’ Federation, Wasantha Mudalige, yesterday, ruled that the latter had not committed any offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Mudalige was cleared of the PTA charges, but taken back to remand prison over some other cases pending against him.
Why was the PTA ever used against Mudalige? The government, the police and the state prosecutor should answer this question.
There are situations where protesting university students turn unruly and even become a public nuisance. Troublemakers in the garb of students have to be dealt with according to the law, and the police cannot be faulted for doing so, but draconian measures such as the use of the PTA against them cannot be countenanced on any grounds. Ironically, the incumbent dispensation, which has the police arrest anti-government protesters under the PTA, has chosen to grant presidential pardons to several LTTE cadres serving jail terms for terrorist activities! It seems to think that anti-government protesters are more dangerous than terrorists!
Arrested about five months ago, Mudalige underwent tremendous suffering due to being charged under the PTA. This can happen to anyone who dares organise or take part in anti-government protests. Detention or a protracted stay in remand prison is tantamount to punishment in this country.
The police and all others responsible for having Mudalige arrested under the PTA and pressing trumped-up charges against him must be held to account. There is no way they could justify what they have done to him, and it is hoped that legal action will be instituted against them so that the government and its stooges in the police and the Attorney General’s Department will be deterred from using the PTA as a bludgeon against protesters; most of all, the police will be compelled to act within the confines of the law without overstepping their limits to humour their political masters.
Preaching while splurging
The government has been advertising its financial difficulties for the past few weeks apparently in a bid to bolster its claim that it is not in a position to allocate funds for elections. The Department of Government Printing has reportedly asked the Election Commission to settle its dues and make an advance payment for carrying out election-related printing!
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have directed all public officials not to obtain goods and services on credit. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said external debt restructuring is always at the expense of foreign taxpayers, and therefore the countries that have lent funds to Sri Lanka expect us to make sacrifices. One could not agree with him more, but will he explain why the government has not cancelled the Independence Day ceremony, which will cost taxpayers an arm and a leg? The cost of the grand event has been estimated at Rs. 200 million, according to media reports, but there must be other hidden costs. Let the government leaders who are grumbling about lack of funds be urged to learn from Tanzania how to rationalise state expenditure.
Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan was considerate enough to cancel her country’s Independence Day celebrations, last month, and direct that the funds earmarked for the event be used to construct dormitories at schools for children with special needs. In 2015, the then President of Tanzania John Magufuli cancelled the Independence Day celebrations and allocated funds saved therefrom for the development of roads in Dar es Salaam. He did so again in 2020 and the money allocated for the Independence Day celebrations was used to acquire medical facilities. In this country, money that should be spent on treating and feeding poor children at state-run hospitals is being utilised for Independence Day celebrations!
Media reports say there have been no reductions in funds allocated for the offices of the President, the Prime Minister and others despite the current economic crisis. Don’t the government worthies who are wailing that they cannot meet state expenses think that they have to practise what they preach to others?
A regime sans shame
Tuesday 31st January, 2023
The SLPP-UNP combine, which is taking great pains to delay the local government (LG) polls for fear of losing them, is all out to make the public lose interest in elections; it is trying to engineer a low voter turnout. Voter apathy is usually advantageous to unpopular regimes in power. Trotting out lame excuses to make a case for postponing the mini polls, the government claims that it is so broke that it cannot allocate funds for an election at this juncture. Curiously, it is not without such pecuniary difficulties where fund allocations for celebrations are concerned. If the country is to wait until the economy is turned around to go to the polls, it will have to wait until hell freezes over!
The government propaganda mill is in overdrive to deprive the ongoing electoral process of legitimacy. No sooner had it been reported that three members of the Election Commission (EC) were receiving death threats the Government Information Department issued a media statement, claiming that ‘the gazette notice with signatures of the Chairman and other members of the Election Commission required for the commencement of the Local Government election process has not been sent to the Government Press for printing.’ The EC has dismissed this claim as baseless.
The Information Department’s media statement reminds us of an ill-advised letter that Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Neil Hapuhinne, recently sent to the District Returning Officers in a bid to prevent them from accepting deposits for the LG elections. The EC reacted swiftly and Hapuhinne withdrew his letter. The EC assured the public that the electoral process was on track. Hapuhinne was lucky to get away with only a rap on the knuckles from the EC. Now, Director General of Government Information Dinith Karunarathna has done something similar.
We argued, in a previous comment, that Hapuhinne had to be dealt with in such a way that action against him would constitute a deterrent for others of his ilk bent on scuttling the LG polls. He should have been made to face the full force of the law for his high-handed action. It is never too late.
There is no way the government could avoid defeat by postponing elections. Such action is as injudicious and futile as ‘using a loincloth to control dysentery’, as a local saying goes. If the SLPP had plucked up the courage to face the LG polls, last year, instead of postponing them, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration would have suffered an electoral setback and realised the need to make a course correction, which might have helped prevent the current economic crisis.
The SJB, the JVP, the SLFP and some SLPP dissident groups are on a campaign to ensure that the LG elections are held as scheduled, but they, too, have sullied their reputations by helping put off elections. The SJB consists of former Yahapalana MPs; they, the SLFP and the JVP unashamedly joined forces, in 2017, to postpone the Provincial Council elections, which they knew they would lose. Their modus operandi was antithetical to democracy and parliamentary norms they claim to uphold. They helped the UNP-led Yahapalana government stuff the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Bill (2017) with some sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, and steamroller it through the House. The SLPP dissidents, who have taken up the cudgels for the people’s franchise had no qualms about supporting the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s decision to postpone the LG polls.
That the country needs alternatives to both the government and the Opposition, as evident from the phenomenal rise of anti-politics and the growing resentment of the youth cannot be overstated, but first of all, it has to be liberated from the clutches of the current regime, and the LG polls will help loosen their vice-like grip thereon—hopefully.
Democracy in danger
Monday 30th January, 2023
Those who are all out to scuttle the local government elections (LG) scheduled to be held on 09 March have got down and dirty. Having failed to intimidate the Election Commission (EC) into postponing elections, they are now trying to scare the members thereof into resigning as part of their strategy to delay the mini polls. Their desperation knows no bounds and they will baulk at nothing.
The EC members who have been threatened with death to resign from their posts are S. B. Divaratne, M. M. Mohamed and K. P. P. Pathirana. P. S. M. Charles has already tendered her resignation letter. It is obvious that someone is trying to render the EC incapable of having quorate meetings by causing three or more of its five members to resign. It is hoped that the EC members will be given maximum possible security so that they will be able to carry out their duties without fearing for their safety.
Ironically, those who resorted to mindless violence to disrupt elections in the late 1980s are currently at the forefront of a campaign to safeguard the people’s franchise and some of their political rivals who dared protect democracy by holding elections and participating therein during that time are all out to sabotage polls. The JVP attacked the public officials who were on election duty during its second uprising (1987-89) and some of them were gunned down. The intrepid voters who defied the JVP’s order to boycott elections during the reign of southern terror were also attacked. Some of them died violent deaths at the hands of the JVP sparrow units, which terrorised the country. The then UNP governments held elections, which they rigged and won, and the current SLPP leaders who were in the Opposition at the time took part in those electoral contests courageously despite threats to their lives. Today, there has been a role reversal! The JVP is threatening to take to the streets if elections are postponed, and the UNP and the SLPP are trying every trick in the book to delay the polls.
The act of threatening EC members, or anyone else for that matter, with death, is a serious criminal offence, which must be treated as such. The caller who issued death threats to EC officials must be traced, brought here, made to reveal who his handler is and prosecuted forthwith.
Nobody should be considered guilty until proven innocent, but it is only natural that as for the threats to the EC members, fingers are pointed at the government, which is doing everything in its power to delay the LG polls for fear of losing them. The SLPP and the UNP have no one but themselves to blame; he that has an ill name is half-hanged, as a popular saying goes. All other political parties including the dissident SLPP constituents are keen to face an election at this juncture, when the public is resentful and the government’s approval ratings are extremely low. The worst times for the country are the best times for the Opposition both politically and electorally. The only way the SLPP-UNP administration could clear its name, if at all, is to ensure that the person who is threatening the EC members is brought to justice immediately. It will not be difficult to trace the caller if he or she has no links to the ruling coalition. Even Sri Lanka’s Napoleon of Crime, Makandure Madush, was arrested in Dubai, and extradited. So, it will be child’s play for the Sri Lankan police and their UAE counterparts backed by Interpol to arrest the caller.
Those who fear elections will not spare any institution in their efforts to postpone polls. There have been situations where repressive governments targeted even the judiciary to further their interests. The stoning of the houses of the Supreme Court judges, in 1983, following their historic judgement in a fundamental rights petition filed by Vivienne Goonewardene against the Police is a case in point. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government went so far as to ‘impeach’ Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, whom it considered an obstacle in its path. It removed her from office in the most despicable manner. Today, the SLPP and the UNP are savouring power together.
It goes without saying that the ruling alliance, which poses a serious threat to democracy, has to be tamed, and the best way to achieve this end is to ensure that the LG polls are held as scheduled and the people given an opportunity to subject the government to an electoral shock.
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