We are happy to carry today an open letter to the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardene, by an eminent group of academics, professionals and civil society activists. This deals with many questions agitating the minds of ordinary people on the roll out of the ongoing Covid-19 vaccination program of the government. They have raised many matters of concern to everybody – how efficiently and fairly is the program is being carried out and also why, as is too often the case in our country, politicians have been allowed to muscle their way into the process to help their friends and supporters to the detriment of the majority. Also favours have been done to the rich, powerful and influential, something that is not uncommon in this country of ours for as long as anybody can remember.
The questions fired are undoubtedly tough and whether Dr. Gunawardene personally, the Health Department, Ministry or the Government itself will quickly respond to them remains to be seen. Indisputably the pandemic has presented this country as well as the wider world with challenges unprecedented in living memory. Some countries have dealt with them better than others and in this era of instant communication, people everywhere have been able to inform themselves of how well or badly the world is handling the pandemic. Initially this country did quite well dealing with the problem and, as is too often our wont, boasted about our achievement. No doubt the existence of a long established public health system countrywide helped us. Also our front line health workers and others contributed much. But it was not long before much more than the proverbial spot of dung polluted the pot of milk and we are today reaping the consequences of many acts of omission and commission.
The various television news bulletins that reach most homes in this country every day have shown us wild scenes of disorder at various vaccination centers as this long running Covid drama continues. Some of the episodes we have seen, such as policemen clad in PPE (personal protective equipment) physically carrying/dragging non-mask wearers and travel restriction offenders to buses to haul them off to police stations, are ridiculous by any standard. These people were not resisting arrest. Whether the police were playing to television cameras we do not know. But it looked to those viewing the pictures that the victims would have willingly walked into the buses if they were directed to do so. Maybe those concerned wanted to convey the message that those defying health guidelines and other restrictions will be roughly handled.
There is no escaping the fact that a large segment of the population defied the various restrictions and guidelines imposed fueling the flames of increased infection. The entire country is paying the price for that. Our politicians too did what was best for themselves regardless of consequences for the country as a whole. That began with holding the last election, easing restrictions during the New Year holiday period against good advice from experts ostensibly to gather some cheap popularity by not killing the holiday spirit for two years in a row. Undoubtedly special interest lobbies would have influenced this decision. More recently, Covid control considerations were subordinated to securing the passage on the Port City legislation. Nobody will or can dispute that the government is walking a tightrope balancing the health and economic interests of the people. We all know that a substantial section of our population, notably daily wage earners, are in a tight bind with current restrictions preventing them from eking out their precarious livings. There has been some government (read taxpayer) funded assistance and more has been promised, but financial as well as administrative constraints have affected efficient delivery. As in the case or Samurdhi, many undeserving families not entitled to the benefit collect while those in genuine need are left out in the cold.
Since the first phase of the vaccination process began over a year ago, there have been repeated assurances from authorities including the Army Commander in his capacity of Head of the Covid Task Force, senior health officials and the Minister and State Ministers responsible that adequate vaccines are being procured and there was no reason to fear shortages. It must be said in fairness that the explosion of infections and deaths in India, affected contracted supplies of vaccines manufactured there. But there appears to have been complacency that the problem will sort itself out and delivered stocks physically available here were not properly managed. The whole country was privy to ugly scenes such as that of the Moratuwa Mayor’s odious attempt to intimidate a woman Medical Officer of Health (MOH) in charge of a vaccination center to give preferences to bearers of tokens issued by himself while ordinary people languished in long queues. The police looked on as the doctor courageously held her ground while the loud mouthed politician dropped the name of a powerful politician who he alleged was doing likewise to claim parity for himself. He was eventually arrested and placed in remand though not paraded in handcuffs before television cameras unlike many others produced in court.
Undoubtedly the authors of the statement including respected personalities like Prof. Savitri Goonesekera and many more depended on material in the public domain to fire their battery of tough questions. These deserve answers and hopefully they will be forthcoming sooner rather than later. Admittedly the health sector is facing a massive challenge to which it has responded magnificently. The always vocal GMOA which aligned itself politically at recent elections has a lot of egg on its face having been unable to explain away some of its actions, notably arrangements for its members and their families to jump the vaccination queue. Undoubtedly they as medical officers deserve some preference. So do nurses and many others now demanding parity. But kissing goes by favour.
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.
Whether the announced local elections will be held as scheduled on March 9 remains a question that is wide open. The confusion became more confounded last week with the resignation from the Elections Commission of Mrs. P.S.M. Charles and speculation that its chairman, Attorney Nimal Punchihewa, would also resign. This was subsequently denied by Punchihewa himself but that is not the end of the story. The new Constitutional Council, meeting for the first time with the Speaker in the chair ex-officio decided to reconstitute all the so-called Independent Commissions mandated by the Constitution. This, of course includes the Elections Commission and raises the question of how any changes in its composition can affect the local elections for which nominations have concluded and a date set.
Former Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, who enjoyed wide visibility during his tenure, went on record after Charles’ resignation saying that it will not affect the working of the five-member commission with a quorum defined as three. With four members still in office, the number necessary to make up a quorum is available. When the election day itself was decided, only three members were physically present at the meeting and the consent of the two absent member had been obtained, Punchihewa has said. This has not been denied. But the state-controlled Daily News, in its lead story last Tuesday, quoted Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, a former chairman of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Council, saying that the date of the election must be gazetted in terms of the election law and no gazette had been issued. The date had merely been announced through the media and this was insufficient, he had said.
We do not know whether he was right or not at the time he made the remark or whether there was a subsequent gazette as is probable. Mahanamahewa is on further record saying the names of all five members of the Election Commission were on the gazette calling for nominations and it must be similar with regard to setting a date for the poll. However that be, many would wonder why Mrs. Charles who, having known that the Elections Commission itself was in a “state of flux” (if we may borrow Mahanamahewa’s language), chose to resign at this moment. She, as the country at large well knew that as the Constitutional Council had been constituted, all the Independent Commissions (there are eight of them including the Elections Commission, Human Rights Commission, Police Commission, Public Service Commission etc.) will be reconstituted. So what was the hurry to resign? The terms of all five members of the Elections Commission will soon come to an end.
The Daily News interpreted Charles’ resignation as confirmation of “deep divisions” within the Elections Commission over several issues including the holding of the local elections. It must be remembered that Mrs. Charles is a very senior public official belonging to the special grade of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. She has held high office including Governor of the Northern Province, Director General of Customs, GA Vavuniya when the LTTE held sway and Ministry Secretary. She is a serving SLAS officer. She has resigned in the context of a situation of a government appearing to be afraid, nay terrified, of holding the local elections in the present perilous country conditions. So who can be blamed for suspecting that here is an inspired resignation given that Mrs. Charles herself has publicly given no reasons for her exit.
In this context it may be useful to go back to fairly recent history to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government of the 1970s when there was a conflict between the legislature and the judiciary. Justice Hector Deheragoda, sitting on the new Constitutional Court chaired by Justice T.S. Fernando along with Justice JAL Cooray resigned from the court then adjudicating on the new Press Council Bill, the first matter to be brought before it. The court was sitting in the then House of Representatives with Mr. Sam Wijesinha, the Clerk of the House, as its Registrar. When the proceedings were ongoing, there was a demand in the chamber of the House that the court should be evicted from its premises. Speaker Stanley Tillakaratne made a remark eliciting a response from Justice TS Fernando that interpretation of the Constitution was a matter for the court and not for the speaker. It was amid this furor that Justice Deheragoda tendered his resignation aborting the continuance of the proceedings.
The government keeps tub thumping that the local elections will cost ten billion rupees the country cannot afford in its current economic predicament. The opposition is brimming with confidence that the results of these elections will signal the end of what many in its ranks delight in calling the “Ranil – Rajapaksa” government. The matter is now before court and the last word will probably be its determination. The affidavit filed before court by the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance/Treasury clearly states the financial predicament the government is placed in. While the determination is awaited the angry debate in the political space on whether or not the elections will be held will continue. There is yet no clear sign of countrywide election activity though nominations have been filed by the mainstream and minor parties as well as independent groups. But ominous threats abound of what’s likely to happen if there is no election.
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