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Unsung heroes

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The people of Galle are proud of a duo, a father and a son, who served the Police with distinction. Edwin Goonetilleke was Chief Inspector in charge of the Colombo Pettah Police station during the 1915 riots, at the height of the British Raj with the ‘shoot at sight’ order in force, under martial law. With five sub-Inspectors and 850 policemen under him, he was one of the original indigenous officers. In 1925, he had to retire prematurely at the age of 42, due to an accident at a gambling den in Horana.

Like his father, Tyrrel Goonatilleke joined the police as an Inspector and retired as the Deputy Inspector General Criminal Investigation Department, having served the police with distinction for 41 years. He was involved in the investigation of many celebrated cases in Sri Lanka, which included the Bandaranaike assassination case and the coup d’etat in 1962. In 1976, He was awarded the Sri Lanka Police medal for Merit. Many encomia came his way, as an honest and efficient officer who never used brute force in his investigations. His reputation in the country was unblemished. (Tyrrel was a friend of Ruhunu Puthra!)

 

***

During the 1971 insurrection, a popular inspector of Police, Inspector Thomas, was killed by a JVP sniper’s bullet, which hit him on his forehead. Ordinary folk mourned his death. They said that he was a really good-hearted inspector who never harassed people or took bribes and who was above board, adding that only the criminals feared him.

 

***

T. B. Werapitiya captained the Trinity College cricket team and later the university team and still later was selected as a member of the record-breaking All Ceylon team captained by Bertram Russell Heyn that toured South India in 1947. At the time he was teaching at Mahinda College and when the news broke that he had been selected, we, as Mahindians, were proud! Later, he gave up teaching to join the police, retiring as a DIG. In 1977, he was returned to the Patha Dumbara seat in Parliament with a majority of 10,497 votes and appointed as the Minister of Internal Security. At the time the intrepid DIG was a living legend in the police force.

When he was the Director, Police Training School, applications were called for several vacancies in the police for Sub-Inspectors. Many young men applied and those eligible were called for interviews. One of the youngsters failed the physical test because he was half-an-inch short of the required height. This young man was from a politically powerful family and the next day he brought a letter from no less a person than the Prime Minister himself, asking Sydney de Zoysa to reconsider his decision. Without a word Sydney went to the place where applicants’ height was measured, placed the PM’s letter on the ground, and asked the young man who had brought it to stand on the letter. “Sorry, my friend,” said Sydney when the young man had done as he was bid, “you are still half an inch too short. Now, get the hell out of here.”

Robert Marrs, the Principal of the University College, had given him an appropriate two liner testimonial thus:

“With him trouble,

Without him more trouble,

No doubt he was aptly named

‘No-Nonsense Sydney’.”

 

***

Temporary toilets numbering 1,800 were to be constructed in the billets housing the thousands of police officers who would be reporting for duty in connection with the Papal visit to Sri Lanka. Quotations were called from registered government contractors for this purpose. The caption at the top of the form calling for the quotations read as follows: “Construction of 1,800 temporary toilets in connection with the visit of his Holiness the Pope.”

One of the contractors who received the form, telephoned the DIG (Logistics) H. N. G. B. Kotakadeniya and asked: “Sir, I have just received your letter and the form, but I would like a clarification from you as I feel that you have made a mistake in the number of toilets indicated in your letter. In it you have mentioned 1,800 toilets. Sir, why does the Pope need 1,800 toilets? He is going to stay here for only 24 hours!

 

***

On the last day, before a High Court judge’s retirement, he thanked all those who had helped him to mete out justice, adding that he would never forget the smart salute of his Court Sergeant.

Speaking of Court Sergeants, a maintenance case was being heard by a young Magistrate, a man of charming manner. The petitioner was an attractive village woman, and she testified from the witness-box. The learned Magistrate began questioning her to clarify certain matters, and the woman completely carried away by the young nadukara hamuduruwo’s friendly and gentle manner, began indulging in a pleasant chit-chat with him. Those at the Bar Table sniggered audibly, and loud titters went round the court. The Court Sergeant, a strict disciplinarian, could stand it no longer. He jumped to his feet, and in a stentorian voice shouted: “Silence in Court!” Then approaching the Bench he told the Magistrate in a severe tone: “Sir, this may be a maintenance case but the maintenance of the dignity of this court is more important.”

 

***

“A young man from Galle got married to a girl from Kelaniya, and several of his friends from his hometown travelled to Kelaniya for the wedding. Lunch time was fast approaching but there was no sign of ‘appetizers’ being served. So, the bridegroom’s party explored the possibility of having a drink outside, and were informed by a waiter that there was a ‘joint’ selling illicit liquor nearby.

The wedding guests, in their posh lounge suits and ties, were enjoying their drink at this illicit joint, when a police party led by a young Sub-Inspector, swooped down on the place. For a moment the SI thought he had raided the wrong place, when he saw this fashionably dressed crowd. But finding it was the right place, after all, he told the wedding guests: “I will give you damn fools just five minutes to finish your drinks and get the hell out of this place!” It was good public police PR. This accommodating young Sub-Inspector must be quite a senior officer now, and no doubt a popular one.

 

***

No situation is so harsh or grim that it does not have the lighter or human side. During those traumatic days of violence and curfews, an elderly taxi driver of Galle went to Colombo on a hire, and having dropped his client, he was pelting back to Galle to beat the curfew, when he was stopped by two traffic cops on a motorbike. One of them began upbraiding the driver for speeding, and pulling out his notebook, was about to take down the man’s name, address, vehicle number, etc…, when the other cop had taken a good look at the driver, he told his colleague, “Just a minute machan, put that book away.”

Then, turning to the taxi-driver, he had said in a very mild and polite tone: “Uncle, you should not drive so fast. You know, the way you were speeding, we should charge you, but we won’t Uncle. I studied at a school in Galle, a place where there was no drinking water for us students. During the school interval we would all come into ‘your premises to drink water at your well. You were the only person living in the neighbourhood who had the kindness to allow us to do so. Everybody else chased us away. I shall never forget it. So, carry on uncle, but drive carefully.”

 

***

More than three decades ago there was this Tamil duo stationed in the South. One was an attractive young lady working at a Southern Courts Complex. She hailed from a village in Jaffna. A handsome young Sub-Inspector of Police, who by a strange coincidence, hailed from the adjoining village, was attached to a police station close to Galle. His official duties took him often to the court where the girl worked, and it wasn’t long before they met and struck up a warm friendship; everybody said that they were a perfectly matched pair, and awaited the inevitable outcome with anticipation.

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year was round the corner, and both being Hindus, the boy and girl went to their respective villages as tradition demanded, with the girl inviting the young SI to visit her home and talk things over with her widowed mother. So, soon after New Year’s Day, the young swain went to the girl’s home. The first thing the old lady asked him was what village he came from, and when he told her, the old lady’s eyes goggled with horror, for everybody in the boy’s village belonged to a certain ‘caste’. “Get out, get out,” she screeched, all but picking up the broom. Dejected and heart-broken, the young man retraced his steps. When he returned to his station in the South, he was a changed man. Gone was the fun-loving, devil-may-care youth everybody knew and loved. Instead, here was this brooding, uncommunicative, melancholic recluse.

The late Neil de Alwis was MP for Baddegama at this time, and he knew this police officer, and like everybody else, had the greatest affection for him. When he heard about the change in the SI, he promptly went to see him, and had an intimate chat with him. No doubt confirmed bachelor Neil must have shown the young officer the tremendous advantages of bachelorhood (which we too realise, alas, too late!) for the young man cast off his melancholy and once again become the happy youth everybody knew.

Unable to stand the pain of seeing him and knowing she could never be his, the girl applied for a transfer to a distant town. At the farewell party given her by her colleagues, she broke down and sobbed that the moment he left her home in Jaffna, that fateful day, her mother had washed the floor of the entire house and sprinkled turmeric water all over to get rid of the ‘pollution’ caused by the man entering it.

 

***

The driver and the conductor of the Deniyaya bound CTB bus from Galle were all out to earn easy money. They had five or six parcels of two bottles of arrack each, which were kept under the seats in advance, giving the impression that they belonged to the passengers. The duo would then drop these parcels at several pre-arranged places along the way. A smart Inspector of Police, one day stopped this bus and asked the passengers to get off with their belongings. The Police then found these parcels and took necessary action.



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Implementing 13A: Some thoughts

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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.

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Aiyo, Sirisena

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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!

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Harassment of women in politics on the rise

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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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