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What was said and not said in the President’s Policy Speech

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Gotabaya and his Contenders – 2

by Rajan Philips

What struck me most about the President’s policy speech to parliament last week was its subdued tone. It was more than mildly defensive, but fully free of boast and bluster. The last two years have certainly clouded the aspirational vistas of ‘Saubhagya Dakma’, even though there were two references to it in the speech – one in connection with the Eastern (port) Terminal (now with the Indians), and the other on renewable energy (ostensibly with the Chinese in Jaffna’s isles). Despite its subdued pitch, the President’s speech did not give any indication that his administration is in control of any of the crises he is literally presiding over. From that standpoint, and to the point of today’s title, the speech left many key things unsaid compared to many that were said.

My purpose is also to look at the implications the President’s speech might have for the near-term political paths of his two emerging contenders, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. As I concluded last week, the two contenders have a long way to go in pursuing their claims to power even as the President and his government are running out of road. Will the policy speech help to extend that shortening road for the government? More bluntly, is the speech a good turning point for the government to pull itself out of the hole that it keeps digging? Looked at it another way, what markers are in the speech that the two challengers might use to differentiate themselves not only from the government but also from one another, and to assert their own alternative approaches?

Only speech, no shuffle

When the President prorogued parliament in December, there were two expectations. First, there was going to be a major cabinet reshuffle in which the President will get rid of the old deadwood and bring the best and the brightest of the Viyath Maga stars (whoever that might be) to the front benches of the government. Second, the President will use the resumption of parliament to deliver a new road map and demonstrate to the country that he and his new cabinet will deliver in the next three years what he and his old cabinet could not do in the last two years.

Proroguing has come and gone, parliament has been shut and re-opened, but there is no new cabinet. Only the firing of a backbench State Minister who was a front bench cabinet minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was all the President could accomplish in spite of all the powers he allocated to himself under the 20th Amendment. Especially, the power to fire a Prime Minister and to unmake and make cabinets at will – the power that had been checkmated by the 19th Amendment. The President now has the power he coveted but he cannot carry out his threat to shuffle the cabinet. Because shuffling the cabinet would mean breaking up the government. A break-up will not be enough to bring down the government, but more than enough to chip away the President’s two-thirds majority in parliament. So, the President is stuck with his old cabinet. That may have been a reason for the subdued tone of the speech to parliament. Indeed, in his speech the President beseeched parliamentarians of all hues for their support “to overcome the challenges that the country faces today.”

As for the speech itself, it is not his fault but whoever who wrote the speech harnessed the President to ramble on from start to finish – touching on a range of topics with no thematic order. Rather, in this order: the role of parliament and parliamentarians; the two lost years due to Covid-19; vaccination success – a modest boast; national security – now resolved and apparently forgotten; national reconciliation – of sorts; law & order and judiciary – a sermon of support from a dubious guardian; the (new) constitution – just three sentences; development and infrastructure – ad nauseum; the economy – a rather casual assurance that normalcy is returning; a litany of projects – almost all on irrigation and drinking water; foreign exchange crisis – the biggest problem for everyone, but mentioned as a postscript; education – an honorary lecture on university education; technology – full of digital vistas. Finally, the President’s blessings to his subjects: “Theruwan Saranai!”

There is no need for us to ramble on the speech in the same order, but there are a few pickings for a passing look. On national security, the President bemoaned that “many have forgotten that the key issue facing the people of this country when I became the President in 2019 was national security.” Actually, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has not forgotten anything. Only, the Cardinal remembers differently and constantly reminds the country that it is the President who has forgotten the “key issue” on which he campaigned and won the election. True to form, the President recalled how his government has dealt with ‘underworld terrorism,’ ‘drug terrorism,’ and how he as Defence Secretary finished off the old LTTE terrorism. But there was no mention whatsoever of Easter terrorism or the alleged masterminds behind the Easter Sunday bombings.

This Administration hardly has any credibility to lecture on human rights, law and order and the judiciary. But these topics somehow found their way into the President’s speech. What was resoundingly left out was any reference to the ‘One Country, One Law’ Task Force. Understandably, the two could not be reconciled in the same speech. But which one of them – one country – one law, or universal justice for all – is the President really committed to? On reconciliation itself, the speech actually fell far short of media expectations that the President was going to include something substantial at the behest of India – a political payback for the forex swap.

Nothing New

There was nothing new or substantial about reconciliation in the speech. The very next day, the TNA leader R. Sampanthan and his colleagues were at the Indian High Commission to hand over their letter addressed to Prime Minister Modi, and pleading for a different swap. Remarkably, and as the Daily Mirror reported, President Rajapaksa is yet to hold talks with the Tamil leadership or elected MPs since his election to office in November 2019. Apparently, in June 2021, a meeting between the President and a TNA delegation was scheduled, but the meeting was cancelled by the President’s office and a new meeting has not been scheduled since.

The speech had three sentences on the new constitution: “Governments since 1994 have, on various occasions, attempted to introduce a new Constitution but to no avail. Therefore, I appointed an Experts Committee, with the approval of the Cabinet, to study this subject in depth, broadly consult public opinion and prepare a preliminary draft for a people-friendly constitution. I hope to submit the recommendations of this Committee to the Cabinet and the Parliament for broad discussion.” We can hardly wait, and it is not clear what the Experts Committee might have produced. Just recommendations, or a whole new draft.

On the economy, foreign exchange crisis and fear of food shortages, the speech offered platitudes, blames and excuses. There were no serious clues about how the government is planning to turn things around, except the claim: “Today we are self-sufficient in turmeric”! There was no mention of IMF at all, or whether the government is going to stick to bilateral swapping until Sri Lanka’s exports suddenly start booming. On organic fertilizer, the President is stubbornly sticking to his belief that the failure of the whole switch is merely because of “a misunderstanding in this regard as our objective and plan were not properly communicated, and some practical issues in introducing the programme were politicized.”

There was deafening silence about the gas cylinder fiasco at home, and the controversial contract with New Fortress Energy, the American company. The President reiterated his goal to achieve Sri Lanka’s carbon neural target by 2050, but there was no mention of any measures for climate adaptation – for dealing with the now familiar recurrent cycles of floods and droughts. T

The speech was also silent about the government’s foreign policy or, more accurately, about the government’s approach to Sri Lanka’s relations with other countries. Sri Lanka has no conflict with any country, but the countries Sri Lanka has to deal with most are in conflict among themselves. More than ever, there is no room for native cunning to play one country against another. What is needed is a balanced approach based on principled self-interest, and there is no indication of it in the policy speech.

Overall, the policy speech of the President is more a puzzle than a road map. The underlying purpose of the government has come to be more about self-preservation than about any national interest. Self-preservation is necessary in politics as in life, but it cannot be the be all and end all of government. As the President enters his third year in office, Sri Lanka is caught in an economic crisis and faces a likely food crisis unlike any time in its modern past, and unlike any other country in Asia. If the policy speech last week is all that the government is capable of mustering as a response to the current crises, then there is little hope for the country from this government and little hope for the self-preservation of the government from the wrath of the people.

The current situation raises the stakes for the President’s contenders, Sajith Premadasa (who wants the government to leave) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (who is ready to lead). For their benefit, the President’s policy speech leaves plenty of markers to stake their own ground. Markers on the economy, food crisis, the constitution, foreign relations, energy contracts, climate adaptability and so on. Specifically on the constitution, what The Island’s editorial said last Wednesday (January 19), after the President’s speech, is prudent thought as we wait for the report of the Experts Committee: “Perhaps, if the 20th Amendment is abolished and the 19th Amendment reintroduced with some changes, we may be able to make do with the existing Constitution.”

(Next Week: The new JVP

Manifestos)



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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