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TRUMP AND DEMOCRACY – LESSONS FROM THE USA

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by Nigel Hatch P.C.

President Donald Trump (Trump) will be leaving office as a one term president on January 20 unless he resigns or is impeached for a second time or removed by the 25th Amendment prior to that.

His latest gambit was to incite his supporters to prevent the certification of the victory of President-elect Biden by storming Congress on Jan. 8. The images that flashed across the world of this frenzied mob attack stunned allies and was greeted with amusement by foes. Resultantly the Democrats who now control the House, Senate and the presidency are expected to impeach him for “incitement to insurrection”. Despicable attacks on democratic legislatures have historical antecedents – the Reichstag fire, the bomb flung at the parliamentary group meeting presided by President Jayewardene in 1987 and the 2017 attack on the UK Parliament.

This comes in the aftermath of Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election after his loss to Biden by a majority of over seven million votes, perhaps the largest in US political history with unsubstantiated allegations that the election was “stolen” from him – somewhat reminiscent on a far lesser and certainly more peaceful scale of Gen. Fonseka’s claim that he lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 due to a “computer jilmart”. Several ensuing law suits initiated by Trump failed. His lawyer Guilliani, a once respected Mayor of New York, has reduced himself to a jester.

The overrunning of Congress by his supporters was to prevent the final certification of the Biden victory ordained by the American Constitution. That constitution is unique in the world – the first written constitution, sovereignty vested in the people, an elected executive president, a Bill of Rights and a separation of powers with checks and balances between the branches of government.

Its influence on other constitutions is immense including the Sri Lankan second Republican constitution of 1978. The American commitment to constitutionalism also formed the bedrock of its foreign policy where the virtues of democracy and the rule of law was projected as the triumph of a liberal democracy signifying the “end of history” as there was no superior system known to man. Other nations are judged by the standards of the American system.

But the Trump presidency and the actions of his supporters have exposed the internal stresses of democracy even in the most powerful democratic country in the first world.

Trump’s refusal to accept what the Wall Street Journal editorialized as “the basic bargain of democracy which is to accept the result win or lose” has significant repercussions for democracy worldwide. His initial refusal to allow the incoming administration access to briefings and not yet conceding the election are some manifestations. But there was no excuse for senior Republican Senators McConnell and Graham delaying their acceptance of President-elect Biden’s victory once the legal challenges became manifestly ludicrous.

Part of the problem engendered by Trump is the process of electing a President in the US. It is perhaps the only country in the world where the winner can lose the popular vote but still claim the presidency due to the system of the electoral college which allocates to each State based on its population a number of electors a plurality of which determines the outcome. Thus despite losing the popular vote Bush beat Gore in 2000, and Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Given America’s Federal nature, each State controls the election process overseen by officials who have overt political affiliations to either of the main parties. Candidates are permitted observers at the counting centers and this has generally worked smoothly. Congress ultimately certifies the results of each State or electoral college – but the antitheses of democracy still persists in that the winner can be declared although he has lost the popular vote.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka we have a constitutionally prescribed threshold of the popular vote for a candidate to win, and an election overseen by an election commission. India too has a National Elections Commission which oversees its elections despite being a semi Federal State.

American democracy has been crisis ridden even before Trump – several shutdowns of the Federal administrative system due to gridlock between the president and Congress over budgets, fraught race relations and fierce internal debate over abortion, gay rights, and the ideological predilections of Supreme Court nominees. Attempts at disenfranchising black voters persists in certain areas despite the gains made under President Johnson in the early 1960s.

But arguably Trump exacerbated divisions in America. He took control of the Republican party and infused it with a toxic mix of a one man show and palpable dissembling with no dissenting voices, except Mitt Romney latterly. That he was perhaps the most inarticulate president in recent times beggars belief on his hypnotic ability in this regard. As President with majority support in the Senate (until Georgia) he escaped conviction despite prior impeachment by the lower House for offences which were egregious. He used foreign policy which is a presidential preserve as an extension of his personal political interest.

Partisanship and rancor has increased between the two parties in Congress. One recalls Senator McCain who lost to Obama who embodied bipartisanship. Clearly the Republican party lacks seniors in congress who have a bipartisan approach. For example Senator Ted Cruz urged Trumps supporters to become “revolutionary soldiers” and challenge the election results despite there being no basis. He picked an amenable AG in William Barr and had until recently the unconditional support of the Fox news empire which has raised debate over the power of a largely unregulated media despite libel laws.

In fact in Australia, former PMs’ Rudd and Turnbull, once political adversaries have joined to call for greater oversight of Fox. Trump indiscriminately used the presidential pardon in favour of his supporters or political allies. The extent, if any, to which his family business was enriched is yet to be fully investigated. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed over 300,000 deaths in the US further polarized society.

Trump skilfully tapped into the largely white, disgruntled blue collar electorate who had been marginalized by economic policies of his predecessors. A resurgence of white supremacists and a countervailing black lives matter movement necessitated by institutionalized police discrimination in some areas ensued. The American political ethos under Trump whose rallying slogan was to “make America great again” has been a blend of self styled “patriots” and a wild west frontier mentality with a latent but now overt belief in a citizens right to taking control of government manifested by the assault on Congress.

The latter in particular springs from a misguided perception that as that constitution vested the constituent power in the people in a federal setting, that an assault on the democratic process by a resort to violence was legitimate although it was clearly not. It is highly doubtful that the patriots who fought the revolutionary war for independence against Britain as immortalized in the Mel Gibson movie “Patriot” would identify with what transpired recently.

Trump constantly asserted that as President he had an unfettered right to do as he pleased. But this view did not receive judicial approbation and the Supreme Court in July 2019 rejected his claims that the New York State could not subpoena his financial records.

The constitutional and democratic landscape in America under Trump resonates in many parts of the world including Sri Lanka. America now has to reestablish its credentials as the leading first world democracy. But one thing is clear; in any democracy checks and balances and the rule of law and accountability are paramount. This includes internal debate, even within the ruling party.



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Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul

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The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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