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Editorial

Suffering and suffrage

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Friday 12th February, 2021

The much-delayed Provincial Council (PC) polls can be held within a couple of months if Parliament passes necessary laws urgently, the Election Commission (EC) is reported to have said. The task of making laws is child’s play for the incumbent government with a two-thirds majority in Parliament; the Opposition will also be left with no alternative but to support legislation to obviate the legal impediments to the conduct of the PC elections. Having swept the parliamentary polls, the SLPP was initially keen to hold the PC elections, but it lost interest subsequently, maybe due to the plummeting of its popularity ratings.

The EC is there to conduct elections, and, therefore, its urge to hold the much-delayed PC polls is understandable. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy; ideally they must not be postponed. But the question is whether it is advisable to hold the PC polls soon, given the severity of the national health emergency. The Election Secretariat has been closed temporarily following the detection of a COVID-19 infected worker. So, how can the EC claim to be able to conduct the PC polls while the pandemic is ripping through the country? Some government doctors are of the view that the country is now facing the community transmission of COVID-19, and there will be an exponential increase in infections unless tough measures are adopted to curb the spread of the virus.

The EC may be able to ensure the safety of elections officials and the voting public on the polling day. In fact, it did so when the parliamentary election was held last year. But the problem is not voting as such but electioneering. Politicians and their supporters threw caution to the wind and blatantly violated the health regulations in the run-up to the 2020 general election. There were countless rallies, where physical distancing was conspicuous by its absence. A few months later there was an explosive spread of COVID-19. The election must have made a huge contribution to the rapid transmission of the virus although the ‘second wave’ of infections is said to have been triggered by a group of workers brought here from a neighbouring country without being properly quarantined.

The general election was held to elect 196 representatives in the 225-member Parliament, which has 29 appointed MPs. The PCs, numbering nine, have 455 members. The higher the number of contestants in the fray, the more intense an electoral contest. Even if the PC elections are staggered, they are bound to aggravate the health crisis in the provinces that go to the polls, and infections will spread to other areas.

If the PC polls had been held when the terms of the PCs expired under the previous government, the present situation would not have arisen; the people would have had to pay through the nose to maintain 455 politicians, but they would not have been exposed to health risks. Unfortunately, the UNP, the SLFP, the JVP, the SLMC, the TNA, and all others supportive of the yahapalana government joined forces to postpone the PC elections as they were scared of facing electoral contests. They unashamedly secured the passage of the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act of 2017 after stuffing it with sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, for that purpose.

It is being argued in some quarters that the PCs are useless, and therefore, one should not make an issue of the postponement of elections to them. True, the PCs are a herd of white elephants, as it were, and its members hardly rendered any service to the public during the last three decades. But the postponement of the PC polls is not a solution to the problem. The PCs are functioning although there are no elected representatives. They are being run by some bureaucrats and the Governors appointed by the President.

If the PCs are useless and a drain on the public purse as the opponents of the 13th Amendment argue, they must be abolished. Prolonging the postponement of elections to them in the hope that the problem will solve itself with the passage of time is not the way to set about tackling the problem. The fact, however, remains that it is not advisable to conduct an electoral contest at this juncture; priority should be given to the alleviation of suffering rather than the exercise of suffrage.



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Editorial

When ignorance kills

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Saturday 6th March, 2021

Superstition can be dangerous when taken to an extreme. A female exorcist who mercilessly caned a nine-year-old girl in a bid to ‘expel an evil spirit’, thereby, causing her death, in Delgoda, and the victim’s mother have been remanded. They are not alone in resorting to occult practices that have survived in spite of scientific and technological advancements during the last several centuries; humans have failed to overcome their atavistic fears.

The Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists (SLCP) has, in a statement published in this newspaper today, condemned the aforesaid incident, and scientifically explained the phenomena that crafty exorcists use to fleece the public. “These individuals who repeatedly go into trance and possession states should be referred for psychiatric assessments, following which they may be referred for psychiatric or psychological treatments. Today, every district in Sri Lanka has a general psychiatry and child psychiatry clinic that can investigate these abnormal behaviours and deliver treatment.” The SLCP has rightly said acts such as beating children to ‘expel evil spirits’ are an anachronism from the Stone Age. But it is doubtful whether the good doctors will be able to knock any sense into those with a Stone Age mindset.

Sri Lanka is said to be home to several great religions, but superstition apparently remains the prominent religion of feeble minds, and one wonders whether it even receives state patronage albeit unofficially. A few weeks ago, we saw a shaman being received by the Speaker, a group of ministers and some Opposition MPs at the parliament complex, where he distributed some herbal concoction touted as a cure for COVID-19. Even some doctors and scientists leapt to his defence when he came under fire for duping the public by claiming that a goddess had revealed the ‘cure’. Worse, a national university went so far as to grant ethical clearance for his product! Among the promoters of his potion was no less a person than the Health Minister, who contracted COVID-19 despite having ingested the concoction and performing what may be called a pot-dropping ritual to neutralise coronavirus.

It is generally thought that only crazy dictators such as Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Bokassa and Idi Amin let witchcraft take precedence over statecraft. Papa Doc of Haiti publicly cast a voodoo spell on the then US President John F. Kennedy, claiming that the latter would not live long. The assassination of Kennedy, which obviously had nothing to do with voodoo, helped the Haitian dictator frighten his people into submission even more effectively; his son Baby Doc followed suit. (The duo’s ascent to power would not have been possible without US backing!) There are, however, other countries where occultism holds sway, Sri Lanka being a case in point.

Influence that seers exert on superstitious politicians and even parliamentary affairs came to light during a vote of condolence on former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara in Parliament, the other day. SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella boasted that in 2004 the then UNP-led Opposition had enlisted the support of an astrologer to have Lokubandara elected Speaker though the UNP did not have a majority in the House. The JHU, which had fallen out with the Kumaratunga government, would have backed Lokubandara anyway, and stars certainly had nothing to do with his election as the Speaker.

The 2015 regime change occurred because the Rajapaksa government followed astrological advice and opted for a snap presidential election. Political leaders’ dependency on occult practitioners was clearly seen in the early 1990s, when a group of UNP rebels joined forces with the Opposition to move an impeachment motion against the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who did not leave any stone unturned in his efforts to defeat his enemies. The Opposition MPs said that the President had hired a famous kattadiya, who had some charmed oil applied on their seats to make them switch their allegiance to him. Not to be outdone, they took phials of lard oil into the House and applied it on their seats to neutralise the effect of the President’s oil!

A fish is said to rot from the head down. When political leaders and some scientists promote the occult, it is well-nigh impossible to rid the country of superstitious beliefs and practices that cause harm to the public. Perhaps, it is these irresponsible characters who deserve caning.

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Editorial

Judges in the dock

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Friday 5th March, 2021

Judges do not take kindly to utterances that amount to contempt of court. They go all out to make the offenders concerned regret having made such statements. This, we have seen both here and overseas. But there are situations where judges themselves get into hot water for their unguarded remarks that irk the public beyond measure. Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde is under heavy fire for having asked an accused rapist if the latter would marry his victim, a schoolgirl, to avoid jail. Bobde’s suggestion is a textbook example of adding insult to injury.

Women’s rights activists in India have launched a signature campaign, urging Chief Justice Bobde to resign. Their protest is gathering momentum, and consternation is understandable; India has a very high rate of rape. They accuse their Chief Justice of having proposed something that is tantamount to condemning the victim to a lifetime of rape at the hands of her tormentor.

One cannot but agree with the protesting Indian women. It is doubtful whether any rape victim in her proper senses will ever want to spend the rest of her life with her tormentor. As for the aforesaid Indian girl, her rapist even threatened to burn her alive and kill her brother if she made a complaint against him. How can a girl live with such a monster? If the desperado had been allowed to get away with his brutal crime by marrying the victim, that would have set a very bad precedent. Such leniency would have rendered Indian women even more vulnerable. That would also have sent the wrong message to desperate men that they can marry women they dream of simply by sexually assaulting them!

What the Indian CJ should be asked is how he would have reacted if the victim had been his own daughter; would he have accepted the rapist as his son-in-law?

Callous disregard for rape victims’ feelings is apparently universal. It is reported from even supposedly enlightened societies that pride themselves on respecting women’s rights. CJ Bobde’s predicament reminds us of a Canadian Federal Judge—Robin Camp—who had to resign in 2017 for having asked a 19-year-old rape victim why she had not kept her legs together to prevent rape. Adding insult to injury, he told her ‘sex and pain sometimes go together.’ What a revelation!

Instances of rape victims suffering many indignities at the hands of lawyers abound in this country so much so that many girls and women, who suffer sexual assault, choose to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this issue has gone unaddressed much to the benefit of rapists.

The female lawmakers in the current Parliament have sunk their political differences and come forward to safeguard the rights of Sri Lankan women, we are told. They have reportedly requested the Speaker to appoint a special Select Committee to address gender-based offences against women. Female local government members have also launched a similar initiative. They complain of harassment in their councils, where their male counterparts do not even allow them to speak freely. These female politicians can rest assured that they have the unstinted support of all right-thinking citizens. After all, women account for more than one half the country’s population. It is they who toil in factories, on estates and in West Asian deserts to help keep the national economy afloat. At least 50 percent of seats in Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions should be allocated for women.

The members of the women’s caucus in Parliament ought to campaign for ensuring that women who become victims of rape, etc., are treated humanely in courts. Ideally, there should be separate courts to hear such cases. They are sure to have the ear of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has evinced a keen interest in giving the existing legal system a radical shake-up. They will also be able to convince President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the pressing need to hear rape cases expeditiously with the rights of the victims being protected.

We hope that the brave Indian women who have taken on their CJ will succeed in their endeavour.

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Editorial

A strange case of distrust?

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Thursday 4th March, 2021

The Presidential Secretariat has reportedly told Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, that 22 volumes of the final report submitted by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks cannot be released as they contain sensitive information pertaining to national security. So, the AG has been left with no alternative but to divine what is in these 22 volumes which he cannot do without.

The argument that the state prosecutor should be denied access to some volumes of the report at issue for reasons of national security, in our book, does not hold water. In fact, we consider it an affront to the dignity of the AG. Is it that the State cannot repose trust in its own AG as regards national security?

The AG knows how to handle sensitive information, doesn’t he? On the other hand, there was no such thing as national security, so to speak, during the period covered by the presidential commission probe, and that was the reason why the NTJ terrorists were able to snuff out so many lives with ease. After all, that was what the SLPP kept telling us when it was in the Opposition. Luckily, the LTTE did not try to make a comeback during the yahapalana government. There were no regular National Security Council (NSC) meetings, and those who were responsible for safeguarding national security were all at sea so much so that they did not take seriously warnings of impending terror attacks which could have been prevented. Even some outsiders were privy to what transpired at the NSC meetings, which they were allowed to attend because they were close to the then President Maithripala Sirisena! The state intelligence outfits were in total disarray with their key officers facing a political witch-hunt. The CID was doing full-time political work to all intents and purposes, and the Terrorism Investigation Division was accused of conspiring to kill the President! So, how come any information about what happened during that period is considered too sensitive to be divulged even to the AG?

What the AG is required to do anent the cases he files is not akin to keyhole surgery; he has to see the whole picture before filing action. He should be able to ascertain whether the facts, on the basis of which legal action is to be instituted against those named in the report, can be backed by irrefutable evidence if the cases he is going to file are to have a solid foundation. He and his legal team need to study all volumes of the commission report if they are to know where they stand.

The AG has to build strong cases to prove that the accused are guilty. Unless all information contained in the PCoI report is studied properly, the cases to be filed may not stand up to judicial scrutiny. The defence may be able to drive a coach and horses through them. One can only hope that no surreptitious attempt is being made to open an escape route for the high-profile government members who are likely to be hauled up before courts for their serious lapses that made the Easter Sunday carnage possible.

The AG, we repeat, should be given unhindered access to the PCoI report so that he will be able to proceed with prosecutions properly.

The government finds itself in a dilemma. Unless it takes action against the former leaders and their bureaucratic lackeys for their failure to prevent the terror attacks, it is likely to face a considerable electoral setback, come the next election, but at the same time, it is not in a position to go the whole hog to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice; it runs the risk of suffering a split in the event of former President Sirisena being prosecuted for security failures that led to the Easter Sunday tragedy, on his watch. The SLFP has already indicated that it might pull out of the SLPP coalition in such an eventuality. But nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of justice. An oft-quoted legal maxim is ‘Fiat Justitia, ruat caelum’, or ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’. As regards, the Easter Sunday attacks, one may say, ‘Let justice be done though governments fall.”

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