SIGIRIYA – THE CITADEL IN THE SKY
From patricide to a palace. From intrigue to ignominy. From paintings to poems. From pleasure gardens to a playboy king. Sigiriya has it all. Archaeology, history, controversy and folklore are entwined and enmeshed in the unfolding of the story of Sigiriya. Sigiriya or ‘Sinhagiri‘ – ‘Lion Rock’ derives its name from the huge rock carved lion located on a small plateau on the Northern side of the rock. Over the decades the top part of this lion has fallen apart and today only the two mammoth front paws are visible forming an entrance between them. The rock itself is the remains of hardened lava which would have pushed through the ground surface causing a volcanic eruption. According to geologists this could have happened over two billion years ago. Around Sigiriya there still can be seen numerous granite boulders which are also remains of the lava that formed Sigiriya. With the recent passing away of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh it may interest readers to know that one of the most famous lava created rocks is in Edinburgh , capital of Scotland. On top of this rock lies the magnificent Edinburgh Castle, built in 1103 In 1831 a British Army Major, Jonathan Forbes while riding on horseback through the country stumbled on Sigiriya which was amongst the jungles and scrub land of the Matale District. And for the first time the Western world, in particular Britain, under whom Ceylon (as it was then known ) was a colony, came to know about Sigiriya. In the 1890’s the first extensive archeological excavation on Sigiriya was done by the Archeological Commissioner, H.C.P. Bell who was appointed by the British Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon. Later on in 1982, full scale archeological excavations to restore Sigiriya began through the Sri Lankan Government funded Cultural Triangle Programme. It was in that year that Sigiriya was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site lists. Also inscribed were The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa and the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. These three sites were the first in Sri Lanka to gain this distinction. However within the pages our own ancient chronical the ‘Culavamsa’, the story of Sigiriya can be traced. Actually the story of Sigiriya commences with the reign of King Dhatusena. Having defeated the Pandyan invaders he was crowned King of Sri Lanka in 549 CE and ruled from Anuradhapura. Despite his fame for developing agriculture and thereby meeting the needs of the people by constructing 18 irrigation tanks, he also performed his kingly duties as a devout Buddhist by erecting the now famous 43 ft tall Avukana statue of Lord Buddha.
Yet, King Dhatusena had a streak of cruelty. Migara the chief of the King’s army was married to King Dhatusena’s favourite daughter. While his mother was King Dhatusena’s sister. In all probability it was due to this family connection that Migara was made the Chief of the Army ( Senapathi ). However for reasons unknown, Migara was extremely cruel to his wife. Being unable to apprehend Migara, King Dhatusena vented his fury on Migara’s mother, his own sister, and ordered her to be burned alive.
From that point onwards, the story of Sigiriya unfolds like a Shakespearian tragedy. Migara’s heart and mind burned within him to take revenge on King Dhatusena. Avenging his mother’s cruel death became a maniacal obsession. And so he planned and plotted and found a ready, willing and able person whom he could inspire and instigate to fulfill this overriding obsession. This person was none other than King Dhatusena’s eldest son, Kasyapa. However Kasyapa though being the eldest son had no right to the throne since his mother was a Non- Royal concubine. Kasyapa knew it. He resented it.
Thus was planned between Migara the Chief of the Army and Kasyapa the King’s son a Royal coup. Fast Forward to 1962- A ‘Royal’ coup also involving a high ranking Army Officer. That was a failed coup. But that as they say is another story! Let’s move on. Migara who had won the fullest confidence of Kasyapa and knew very well how to exploit it arrested King Dhatusena and de-throned him. He then had Kasyapa enthroned as King. This was in 473 CE. The first step in this coup had been completed.
Now for the second. He convinced King Kasyapa that Dhatusena had large amounts of treasure, specially gold hidden in some secret place. Dhatusena was then confronted by the new king Kasyapa, who demanded to know where the hidden treasure was. Dhatusena took his captors to the borders of the Kalawewa which was one of the largest irrigation tanks he had built and taking some water from the tank in his hands, exclaimed that this was the only treasure he had. Infuriated and exasperated King Kasyapa ordered Migara to entomb his father alive into a wall.
According to an alternate story Dhatusena was buried alive on the bund of the Kalawewa. Whichever way the murder took place, Migara had avenged his mother’s murder. Meanwhile Moggallana, the rightful heir to the throne fled to India as he feared that he too would be killed. But the dastardly act of King Kasyapa incurred the ignominy of the people and the venerable monks. Patricide was something that could never have been condoned. It was against the teaching of Lord Buddha. King Kasyapa was a troubled man. The people were against him. The venerable monks were against him. His step-brother brother Mogallana was against him and was collecting an army of invasion. And to add to his misery he was constantly and contemptuously referred to as ” Pithru Ghatathaka Kasyapa.” ( Kasyapa –the paricide ) Abandoning Anuradhapura as his capital he moved to Sigiriya which was once a Buddhist monastery.. Here he built his fortress and his palace which has been called the eighth Wonder of the World. King Kasyapa felt well secured. He had left behind his fears and apprehensions. He now wanted to live in luxury. He lavished his wealth to make into reality his vision of creating a city similar to the mythological ‘Alakamanda’ –the ‘City of the Gods’ which was ruled by Kuvera, the god of plenty and prosperity.
Rising 200 meters from ground level the summit provides a 360 degree panoramic view of the adjacent jungles. Here was a unique harmony between nature and human imagination. It was also of strategic importance because any enemy army moving in, can be detected and defensive measures taken.
As any of today’s visitors enter through the Western gate what greets the eye are the royal gardens, interspersed with pools and fountains. These gardens were meant to be a type of pleasure park for the exclusive use of the royal family to relax. They extend for a few hundred meters from the base of the rock. And now begins the climb to the summit, which is not for the faint hearted as we shall see later. The massive brick stairways leads in a zig- zag to the Mirror Wall. Let us pause here for a while. According to one source the Mirror Wall was made from a special plaster comprising fine lime, egg white and honey. It was then buffed with bee’s wax to give a brilliant luster. In King Kasyapa’s time it was so well polished that the King could clearly see his refection as he walked by. Was it a sign of his vanity ? After all here was his palace which he believed to be similar to ‘The City of Gods’. And as the King was he not like Kuvera? If indeed it was his vanity he felt justified. Passing the Mirror Wall is a platform. No matter how intrepid you are it is better to pause awhile and take some deep breaths. More challenges lie ahead. There is a narrow metal staircase which leads to the frescoes. It is best to stop here and admire these semi-naked doe-eyed beautiful women. They are like heavenly nymphs (apsaras). There is much conjecture as to whom they depicted. Were they the King’s many wives, or members of the play-boy King’s Royal harem ? It is claimed that he had over 500 damsels selected for their sensuous beauty.
Having passed these damsels perhaps with some regret, one comes to the most difficult part of the climb. There is a narrow steel stairway on the exposed side of the rock. It is best not to look down below on the lush green scrubland. You may get a bout of acrophobia! And so we come to the summit and you can breathe a great sigh of relief not only for overcoming the challenge of climbing but also gazing at the magnificent landscape that stretches as far as eye can see.
This terraced summit is approximately 1.6 ha in extent. Here can be seen a number of water tanks, baths and the remains of the Royal Palace. There is also a stone slab like a seat which may have been the remains of a throne. There is also a 27 m x 21 m rock hewn water tank which was a water storage tank. The hydraulic systems, the landscaping, the terraces, all of these indicate unique creative skills and technologies. Sigiriya is said to be one of the finest examples of urban planning of the first millennium.
But we now need to get back to the Mirror Wall for there is a story to relate. On this Mirror Wall there can be seen graffiti in the form of poems written in Sinhala, Sanskrit and Tamil. According to historians and archeologists these graffiti were written long after Sigiriya was abandoned and converted once more into a Buddhist monastery. And then the question arises as to why these monks allowed visitors to enter and write poems on the Mirror Wall , many of which were love poems ? For example –
“Wet, cool dew drops Fragrant with perfume from flowers, Came the gentle breeze, jasmine and water lily Dance in the spring sunshine. Side- long glances of the golden hued ladies stab into my thoughts. Heaven itself cannot take my mind, As it has been captivated by one lass Among the five hundred I have seen.”
It must be noted that these graffiti is of great interest to scholars as it reveals the development of the Sinhala language and script.
But the saga of Sigiriya does not end. Once more the cold steel hand of intrigue and betrayal appears. And this time too it is Migara’s hand. And once more it is anger. And once more it is revenge. This time the victim is King Kasyapa. Annoyed that King Kasyapa did not permit him to conduct a large religious festival Migara secretly switched his loyalty from King Kasyapa to his half brother Moggallana who was in India waiting for an opportunity to return to Sri Lanka and regain the crown that was rightfully his.
Migara’s secret changing of loyalty was Moggallana’s cue to return. On hearing of this new but not unexpected threat King Kasyapa riding his Royal elephant and confident of his army, led by Migara, went into battle. This, despite his soothsayers warning him that it was not the auspicious time for war. At some point, his elephant sensing a swamp close at hand turned to get on to firmer ground. To Migara this was an opportunity sent by the gods. He ordered the army to retreat.
The army fled. King Kasyapa was now alone and abandoned . He knew that his end was near. Rather than being killed in battle he drew out his dagger placed it on his neck and slit his throat. It was in the year 495 CE. He had ruled for 18 years. Moggallana the victorious was not unmindful of his duties. He still respected his half brother and accorded him a Royal cremation. It is believed that the place was at Pidururangala. It is a few km away from Sigiriya and is also like Sigiriya formed by volcanic activity.
Implementing 13A: Some thoughts
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.
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!
Harassment of women in politics on the rise
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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