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When grit prevails over disability

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Wheelchair tennis 

His life didn’t flash before his eyes when the mine exploded under his feet. The only thought that crossed his mind was a sense of regret at his tour of duty coming to an abrupt end while his work was left undone. It was the year 2008 and in another year the war would be over. However, Lasantha Ranaweera didn’t know that. He was in the thick of it, having turned down multiple training opportunities so he could witness the end of the war. But while returning to base in Periyamadu, in the wee hours of May 18, 2008, which happened to be Vesak Poya day, he stepped on the mine. His leg was amputated, but it didn’t snuff out his spirit. Ranaweera went on to become a wheelchair tennis pro. This is his story and that of his comrades.

By Sajitha Prematunge

Pics by Kamal Wanniarachchi

When Jagath Welikala went to the airport on the request of Sri Lanka Tennis Association, presumably to pick up a tennis player, a Brit lugging a wheelchair, instead of a tennis racket, was the last thing the veteran tennis coach expected. Englishman Mark Bullock arrived in Sri Lanka in 2002 to introduce a special kind of sport; wheelchair tennis.

The programme kicked off with 50 all military amputees. The number was later cut down to 20. Welikala was elected to coach the team and Australian coach Kathy Fahim conducted a two-week crash course in wheelchair tennis. “Then I simply followed it up,” said Welikala. By mid-September the same year, a four-member team won the D Division in the Thailand Open 2002. Bullock, then the International Tennis Federation, Wheelchair Tennis Development Officer, facilitated Welikala’s one-month training in the Netherlands with world’s number one coach at the time, Aad Zwan. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) donated three wheelchairs and funded Australian and New Zealand wheelchair tournaments.

Two received ‘wild card’ entries into the Para Olympics 2004 in Athens, Greece. The SLTA team also won the Indian Open 2007, Australian B Division 2004, New Zealand B Division 2004, Belgium Open 2016, Malaysian Open 2017, Thailand Open 2017, Taipei Open 2018 and World Cup qualifiers 2018, held in Malaysia, along the way. Over the years, the Sri Lankan team has beaten US, Spainish, German, Italian, Slovakian Moroccan, Israeli, Swiss, Argentinian, Croatian, Russian, Canadian, Malaysian, Thai and Japanese players during World Cup matches. Their winning streak culminated in Lasantha Ranaweera and Suresh Dharmasena winning the bronze at the 3rd Asian Games, Indonesia in 2018.

War injuries break people, consequently, Welikala often had to double as a counsellor to the soldier-tennis players training under him. “But, all, after they became a part of the programme, wound up married.” This, no doubt, stands testimony to the success of the programme. “There’s a definite improvement in psychology.” Welikala ventured that, in a way it is therapeutic. “It’s something to look forward to in life.” But more importantly, Welikala points out that they are not friendless. “They are rated international and have friends all over the world.”

Welikala’s own achievements include being elected a member of Coaches’ Commission for the term between 2010 and 2012 and placed second best coach of the year. He started coaching regular tennis in 1985. Now he is the only Sri Lankan coach who specializes in wheelchair tennis, having trained 40 players so far. What’s unique about the Sri Lankan wheelchair tennis programme is that the players are all amputees, wounded in action, competing with players, most of who have been disabled by birth or childhood and have been playing wheelchair tennis for many decades, in A-grade wheelchairs.

“Back when we started, we didn’t have proper equipment. All the wheelchairs were locally assembled, until ITF donated the first three wheelchairs,” said Welikala. The team recently received three Malaysian-made wheelchairs at the cost of Rs. 500,000 each, courtesy of SLTA. “A state-of-the-art wheelchair would cost somewhere around three million. With that kind of equipment players can play well into their 50s,” said Lasantha Ranaweera.

The 36 -year-old, originally from Makandura enlisted in August 2003 and was assigned to Gajaba Regiment. After stepping on a landmine, his leg was amputated on May 19, 2008. From Anuradhapura he was brought to Colombo, where he recuperated for three months. Ranaweera spent four more months in Ranaviru Sevana and returned to service at his regiment. He spent two years with the sports team, during which he tried every sport available for an amputee like him, from basketball, badminton, table tennis, archery to the 24 kilometre marathon. Considering the zeal with which he applied himself to sport, it is quite surprising that he has not played any sport prior to his amputation.

He joined the SLTA wheelchair tennis team in 2011 and by 2013 he was in such fine form that he was able to bring home a medal on his first tour, coming third in Thai Open doubles. He has played seven Thai and nine Malaysian tournaments. Ranaweera placed eighth in the World Cup 2016 held in Japan. He has beaten every other local player in the game, although he is the third highest ranking Sri Lankan in ITF ranking.

Ranaweera admits that he couldn’t have come this far if it weren’t for the support of his family. He was married in 2007. But due to complications resulting from the blast the Ranaweeras could not have kids for 12 years. “It was a huge sacrifice on my wife’s part to stick around. But with treatment, it finally paid off. She always knew I’d make a name for myself in sports, so she was always encouraging.” Today Ranaweera is happy that the others finished the war for him, so his now one-year-old kid could live in peace.

After the war we had to face a more formidable enemy, this time in the form of a pandemic. As in any other field, COVID-19 has been a huge setback for these wheelchair tennis players. The longer they remain idle and the less tournaments they play, the higher the risk that other playing opponents may overtake them in the ITF ranking. “Training is not the issue, we need more tournaments, we need to travel,” pointed out Welikala. “If we don’t do tours, our ranking goes down,” added Ranaweera. “Age is irrelevant when it comes to wheelchair tennis,” said amputee Suresh Dharmasena. Take Stéphane Houdet for example, not only do such players have the best of equipment to their advantage, they also play often as possible to keep their ranking up. “Houdet is 49, yet he’s ranked in the ITF top 10. If we can manage at least 17 or 18 tours a year we can stay in the world top 20. This year we’ve played only three so far.”

Thirty-one-year-old Dharmasena from Kahatagasdigiliya has been playing Wheelchair Tennis since 2011. Unlike Ranaweera, Dharmasena was wounded during the latter part of the war. Dharmasena enlisted in July 2007 and was assigned to the Artillery Regiment. At the height of war, he was stationed in Puthukkudiyiruppu. It was February 21, 2009. Civilians were fleeing the war zone in droves, for two days, by boat across the Chalai lagoon, when the LTTE infiltrated the area and opened fire. Most were killed or injured. Dharmasena and others were pulling the wounded out when they were hit by mortar. Dharmasena was able to jump out of the way, which saved his life, but he fell on an anti-personnel mine.

“When four of your friends are down with various wounds, ranging in degrees of seriousness, and another lying dead a few feet away, your own predicament tends to escape you. Violence becomes mundane in war.” Wise words for a still young soldier. He was patched up at a makeshift hospital, but he knew that his foot was badly damaged all the way to the boot line. It had to be amputated. Dark thoughts of never being able to marry, have kids and make a family did cross his mind but had to be kept at bay for the sake of his family. After recuperating for four months at the Ranaviru Senvana, Dharmasena was fitted with a prosthetic. A month of training later, he was stationed at Panagoda Camp.

“I’ve always liked sports,” said Dharmasena, on the merits of which he got into the army. “After the amputation I used to watch kids in the village play volleyball.” Before his injury volleyball was his forte. Watching them, Dharmasena remembers being dejected at the prospect of never being able to play again. It was Brigadier Shiran Abeysekara who suggested that Dharmasena try his hand at wheelchair tennis. He joined the SLTA wheelchair tennis team in October 2011. “It looks easier than it is, but it uses only the upper body and on the first day your hand starts to blister. Any civilian would have quit. But the Army had my back. The word ‘can’t’ is not in the Army dictionary.” Wheelchair tennis, backed by the discipline that was inculcated in him by the Army, presented him with something he couldn’t refuse – the idea that he was not an invalid, that he could play any sport. He trained well into the night, woke up early and trained some more, till his ITF ranking shot up to Sri Lanka’s highest.

With 30 tours behind him and between 40 to 50 trophies stacked away back at home, Dharmasena readily admits that he couldn’t have done it without his wife. It takes courage for a traditional Sri Lankan woman to accept a disabled person for husband. And Dharmasena’s wife, Samurdika, did it with grace, maintaining that she would marry no other, until the in-laws had to budge. “Now they can’t do without me,” snickers Dharmasena. Like the typical traditional Sri Lankan wife, she makes a vow every time he is to play a tournament. However, she also makes it a point to go over each match, why he lost, the opponent’s weak points and notes it all down with the expertise of a seasoned coach. Whenever he is to face the same opponent again, they pore over this ‘playbook’, just so to know how to defeat his opponent’. And after a win she never fails to welcome him back home with much fanfare.

Gamini Dissanayake, aged 42, is the only remaining player out of the original 50. He took part in the two-week training course conducted by Kathy Fahim at the inception of the programme. Originally from Ampara, Dissanayake commutes daily from home in Awissawella for training. As the other players, Dissanayake could not have devoted such time and energy without the unstinting support of his family. Dissanayake has three kids; a 16 -year-old daughter and two sons, 14 and 11 years old.

He joined the Army in 1996 and was wounded in action in 2000, when he stepped on a mine in Muhamalai.

 

Dissanayake has played wheelchair tennis for 15 years. He said tennis had helped him to overcome his injury, both physically and psychologically.

Dharmasena said that his titles were many including SSC Open 2010, AITA Open Wheelchair Tennis Tournament 2011, Westende Wheelchair Tournament 2016, Malaysia Open 2016, Labuan Open 2018, Sri Lanka Open in the years 2013, 2018 and 2020 in singles and BII Indonesia Open 2011, AITA Open Wheelchair Tennis Tournament 2011, Westende Wheelchair Tournament 2016, Labuan Open 2018, Sri Lankan Open in the years 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, SSC Open in the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2017 in doubles and bronze in World Cup 2012. He has some 130 trophies attesting to his formidability.

Ranaweera and Dharmasena look forward to the next Paralympics, slated for August 2021, and the Asian Games in 2022. Dissanayake hopeS to retire after the Paralympics and Asian Games. This is the last generation of wheelchair tennis players that the military might produce. Dharmasena is concerned about what will happen to the sport after they retire. He hopes that someone would come forward to provide food and lodging to children from remote corners of the country, interested in picking the game up. Because unlike them, who were provided for by the ASrmy, children from low income households may not be able to afford the equipment.

In fact, SLTA has already launched a low key programme to track down potential talent. “Until the end of the war, we had a steady influx of players, through the intervention of the Army,” said SLTA Director Administration, Gayanga Weerasekara. Since the war ended, there have been no disabled willing to take up the sport. Now the SLTA is venturing into remote areas and orphanages in search of talent. “If anyone’s interested call up SLTA,” said Weerasekara. “People with any kind of disability could take up the sport.” He explained that internationally the sport is categorized according to the disability and as such, there is a lot of scope for aspiring wheelchair tennis players. Weerasekara said that they were actively looking for funding and that they have been lucky so far, to have received funding from companies such as the Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT). He is also hopeful that the new Sports Minister, Namal Rajapaksa would support the sport.

Weerasekara pointed out that players like Ranaweera, Dharmasena and Dissanayake would have wasted years of youth in some Army camp office and later been dependent on a pension, had they not discovered the sport. “We were able to provide them with a whole new career. Grand slam players are paid in dollars.” Weerasekara explained that wheelchair tennis provides endless opportunities for disabled children. “There is a certain therapeutic aspect to wheelchair tennis, that disabled children can benefit from. For example, it is an outdoor game. It is a very social game, too when it comes to doubles.

Weerasekara said that the local players had not known anything about the sport before their injuries as opposed to most international players who are disabled by birth or at a young age. Moreover, due to funding issues they had not been able to do as many tours as they needed. “Under such circumstances, it is to their credit that they were able to qualify for world events such as the Paralympics. These players have sacrificed their limbs for this country, and the least anyone could do is sponsor them,” said Weerasekara, inviting any interested party to sponsor the players.

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Neuro-science that underlies Buddhist philosophy

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Dr Channa Ratnatunga

Buddhist philosophy does not mention the Brain, only the mind or citta. It does not mean that the organ i.e. the brain was unknown at the time. Recorded in the Maha-Vagga, ’the book of Discipline’ of the Tripitaka, one Jeevaka Kohombacha a reputed physician was trephining the skull, presumably to drain blood accumulated within the skull. He would have known how it could affect brain/mind function.

In the Western front, it was Galen who was thought to be the 1st to attempt changing the existent opinion, in 200AD; he held that it was the brain and not the heart that was the seat of ‘intelligence’.

We have now moved on far beyond. I thought it appropriate to place Buddhist philosophy on a more scientific footing by correlating it with current Neuro-biology of Neuroscience. The data is both subjective and objective as a science.

‘The Reptilian Brain ’

A portion of the brain of all vertebrates, becoming more prominent in mammals, more than birds and reptiles is the reptilian brain. It is now described as the Limbic system. It deals with a whole lot of reflexes which deals with survival. For a species, the typical instinctual behaviours are involved with it: flight-fight reaction, aggression, dominance, territoriality and ritual displays. In mammals, specially the higher groups, which include Chimpanzees, Gorillas and man, it subscribes to most emotional responses for survival, procreation and other basic needs of fulfillment i.e. of thirst and hunger. Links through the hormones and the autonomic nervous system, permits fulfillment of the different roles it is responsible for.

Structurally they are constituted by the sensorial input through the Thalamus (other than smell), Hippocampus, Amygdala, hypo-thalamus and the Cingulate Gyrus of the Brain (see diagram) below.

All emotional responses, are kept controlled by the pre-frontal cortex often described as ‘the leader of the Orchestra’.

Hence inbuilt into all of us by millennia of selection are reflexes for survival. Social anthropology teaches us that security of survival is enhanced by belonging to a society. After all, we are inbuilt to be, a social animal. Dominance in the society, needs suppression of competition to get the cream of both the spoils for; food and procreation. Both Tribalism and a hierarchy, is born and needs to be sustained. Anger, greed, theft, promiscuity and other ill-gotten traits are hence a part of our inbuilt armamentarium. Most are inherited by being installed on our limbic system (in the human brain). The degree of pre frontal lobe control to keep checked these primitive urges is what Buddhist philosophy is all about.

Current studies of neuroscience, using; functional MRI and other imaging and electrical recording procedures have shown that Mindful Meditation enlarges the prefrontal cortex (i.e. more cells, synapses in this area) of the brain. Mindfulness skills are now recognized in the west, as premium in many areas of human endeavour. In fact, it is hailed as the ‘way to go for evolution for the human kind!

As long as we have the Limbic system installed for survival, we will continue to volitionally (think, speak and act) behave to survive, permitting the karmic energy to be formed. Maybe the survival apparatus was installed to maintain sentient life-forms in the universe, a part of nature (could even be a natural law i.e. like gravitation). The Buddha discovered it and showed a way to avoid it, so securing avoidance of karmic generation.

With this background permit me to speculate on the philosophy we have tried to give a more solid scientific background.

The ultimate truth of human existence, we all seek: the ultimate reality, has to be within Nature, bound by laws, known and; as yet unknown that govern it.

Nature as we know it consists of the physical universe as we know it, the dark matter we are not yet familiar with, energy and dark energy associated with it and the sentient life forms that inhabit, so far in at least on our planet.

Science so far has not made inroads into the nature of sentient life forms, other than to define their detailed physical structure, the nature of their behaviour, their evolution by natural selection (Darwin). It is not known what forces form life forms; why they grow? Why the varied circumstances of their individual existence; what their designated purpose is and where they go after death. Into this vacuum, walks religion!

Having said this, all the tribalistic institutions, ceremonies, incantations, etc. that have since developed around a variety of prophets, are at best, a means of keeping man, a social animal, controlled. Society is competitive and to maintain a semblance organization within, laws have to be promulgated. The unknown, have at various times been deified, i.e. the sun, fire, a creator, a destroyer, etc. The Latin saying by Petronius; ‘Timor primus in Orbe, Deos fecit’ (Fear caused Gods first on Earth) has much to say for itself, as does the pithy advice of the Persian philosopher poet Omar-Khayam, referring to the sky and presumably deities, ‘lift not thy hands to it for help, as it rolls impotently on as thou and I’. Security offered by herd behaviour of a tribe, or as offered by supernatural power or being, in trying circumstances is a human need and faith helps. Religion Modern society needs to be re-thought, as to its place.

Returning to the subject of this essay, Newton (Laws of Motion), Einstein (Laws of Gravity), Maxwell (Laws of Electro-Magnetism), the strong and weak force of atomic structure, and others have propounded physical laws for, that govern matter and the known energy forms that exist in the Universe. Based on the accuracy of the application of such laws, man has set foot on the moon. Science prides itself on accuracy and being evidence-based.

If sentient life-forms too are part of nature, the detailed laws have yet to be postulated by science. Unlike the study of matter, a need to understand the ‘nature of existence of life-forms’ has not yet been undertaken by the scientific community. After all, survival and procreation to live on the harsh environment that exists at the time seems to be their only purpose.

To hypothesise, speculatively, could it be that Siddhartha Gautama, by meditative practice of a high order, enlarging his pre-frontal cortex of the brain, broke into ‘the insightful realization of how life forms are governed: it’s laws in nature’.

As evidence-based data has to be adduced for this possibility, I will now place evidence, as to these conclusions, speculative no doubt.

It is claimed that he realised the truth of reincarnation, i.e. rebirth, samsara and the sorrow. We sow and we reap, and the Karmic law will enact Samsara for eons to come.

Rebirth will account for the protean differences that exist in human form, circumstances, talents, life events (Narada Mahathera’s text reproduced in The Island last Poya Day (01 Oct). Stevenson’s1 detailed scientific enquiry on children who could recollect past lives, birth marks attributed to trauma provides anecdotal evidence.

The scientific value of past life regression (PLR) by psychiatrists using hypnosis on selected subjects, Near Death Experiences (NDE) is difficult to assess. For instance, it has been shown that diminished blood flow to the brain as experienced in certain circumstances can simulate NDE.

This leaves the practising Buddhist to focus on meditation to see the veracity of the truth of rebirth. That rebirth is sorrow, I think can be realized, as death in most life forms be it animal or insect, is painful. According to Buddhism, to be born in a human life-form with pre-frontal decision making ability is a great opportunity to negate rebirth and sorrow. This opportunity is yours.

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What’s the Plan?

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We have a new government in Aotearoa; we even have a Sri Lankan born MP! The landslide victory of her party was so marked that some said that even an inanimate object put up as a candidate for the labour party, under Jacinda magic, would have won. Not fair methinks on this young lady who apparently worked her electorate very hard. There is a celebratory dinner to be held for her next month. I look forward to attending that and gleaning a few more facts for my readers. On the other hand I may be banned by the cohorts of her countrymen forming barriers (protective or offensive) around her.

So, the new Government has big plans. Improve the availability of houses, especially for first home buyers since the National Party when they governed allowed foreign investors to buy up multiple properties with small deposits and then making the tenants effectively pay the mortgage, creating a massive shortage of houses. There was also a rather grandiose plan named Kiwibuild that was supposed to “create houses” at low cost and in no time for those who desperately needed them. There is also Child poverty in NZ, believe it or not. Ranging from children not having lunches to take to school, to not having shoes to wear to school and older children leaving school early to work and earn money to support their families. This of course almost exclusively among the Maori and Pacific Islander communities.

Unemployment is also rampant Covid19 is being touted as the excuse but to be frank we were heading for an economic slump before Covid in Aotearoa. This level of unemployment is blamed on the work ethic or lack thereof among the Maori and Pacific Island communities but there is a deeper connotation to this. It was recently found out that the big fishing companies in NZ have been flying in crews for their trawlers from Russia for 25 years! These fishermen fly in during the Russian Winter and crew on the massive sea going trawlers. This was only highlighted because a whole lot of these fisher folk got Covid 19 while in quarantine. The official story is that for 25 years they have been unable to train or find people who can work on these ships from among the people in NZ. If you buy that, I’ll throw the harbour bridge in free!

What is pretty obvious is that big business in NZ is allowed to prosper regardless of the economic implications of them doing so. They are allowed to use and employ foreign sources purely on a profitability basis with no concern for the domestic economy or the strengthening of same. There are lots of semi monopolies, supermarkets being a prime example. All the major supermarkets are owned by two parent companies. Is it a wonder that groceries are so ridiculously expensive in NZ when compared to Australia? Are we denizens of Aotearoa really expected to believe that an oligopolistic enterprise is charging fair prices? Let’s hope the Labour Government with its huge majority that we have just appointed, looks into these matters.

The thing about the traditional Kiwi is that they spend money. They do not save everything to be able to give houses to their children or dowries! Now that they are “trapped” in their islands, they are spending the money they would have used for foreign travel for domestic tourism. They are also spending on improving their houses and property and of course retail therapy. The NZ economy is still not floundering. In fact, it is buzzing, how long that will last is of course the multi-billion-dollar question!

The Pearl doesn’t look that good does it? No income from the housemaids, tourism at a standstill and even the garment factories under fire. The big hotels are closed except for those who have

been able to wrangle a contract to house those being quarantined. I know for a fact the tragedy of the boutique hotels and other mid-sized tourism ventures. All forms of spending must be curtailed, so, the “wheeler” drivers must be destitute. I don’t even want to think about those paying off leases and mortgages.

Now I see many articles to the papers these days. Written by people with qualifications that would take up the first 500 words of the articles I write, and designations that would account for the balance, size of my articles I mean. Some write them like scientific dissertations, other dabble in humour and innuendo, however I have read nothing so far that has any content that shows us a pathway out of the economic morass that the Pearl is in.

Borrowing has its limits and it has connotations that scare the living daylights out of me. Printing money can of course go on and be used to pay wages in the grossly overstaffed Government institutions that are currently closed and distribute largesse to the selected few. If there are any younger readers of what I write, do you know that the Sri Lanka Currency was Rs15 = US$1, when I started working. Can you even believe it? The last time I checked I was not a thousand years old!

How are we going to stop chaos and mayhem hitting the streets? When people cannot feed their families what are they going to do? WHAT IS THE PLAN? If we are going to grow our own food in our back gardens, use our hotels as storage facilities for the produce, re-export and sell off all those ludicrously expensive automobiles that our politicians gad around in, sell our elephants to zoos, find oil off the coast of Mannar or whatever the hell we have to do, shouldn’t we START doing it now?!! Waiting until the proverbial s— hits the fan and then ordering the army out into the streets under martial law may not work O, people of the Pearl.

Maybe, the plan is to fall back on the good old tea industry. Rubber and coconut seem to have been totally decimated. For your information the tea industry that used lay the golden egg has been so mismanaged by brain dead proponents of management theory and with plantations largely handed over to our rival India for management, what else can you expect. The export trade is so fragmented and totally without principals or ethics that any buyer worth his salt has only to fish around among the many exporters to get the rock bottom price for what he wants. Others have used political influence and robbed the funds demarcated for that wonderful institution the Tea Promotion Bureau (a concept far ahead of its time) and built their own family dynasties and brands. That horse or goose is well dead and long buried.

My question to the brand-new government of Aotearoa which has a massive majority in parliament and the not so new Government of Sri Lanka which now has the 20th amendment to the constitution passed, is WHAT IS THE PLAN? It better be good and it better be quick, because the people are going to be very desperate real soon. It is solely down to the leadership and there are no excuses!

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Executive presidency or premiership?

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Better option:

by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I have been fascinated by politics all my life though not directly involved in it unlike some others in my family. I have devoted some of the free time COVID-19 pandemic has given me to pondering the merits and demerits of the executive presidency and whether it is less democratic than an executive premiership. For a long time, there has been a clamour for the abolition of the executive presidency, but since the election of President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa opinion seems to have reversed. The SLPP sought a mandate to abolish 19A and, using the unexpected two-third’s majority, it enacted 20A ensuring reversal to an executive presidency.

On gaining Independence we opted to be a dominion with a Governor-General representing the British Crown; he had some room for manipulation although the Prime minister held the reins of power. In 1972, we became a republic, and the prime minister became even more powerful and a titular President was appointed! J. R. Jayewardene changed all this. Elected with a massive majority in 1977, JR metamorphosed from Prime Minister into an executive president. JR started well, pulling the country out of the economic hellhole created by the Sirima Bandaranaike government, but intoxication with unbridled power affected him.

JR brought about this radical change of having an elected Executive President for good reasons and opted for the French presidential system rather than the American system. Some may argue that JR should have gone for the American system because his main argument was that a presidential system which could produce results quicker was more suited to a developing country. In the American system, Cabinet positions are held by non-elected technocrats. Perhaps, like in the US, had we allowed the elected representatives to debate issues in Parliament, formulate laws governing the country and sit on committees overseeing the appointments for senior posts and performing the function of oversight of their work, a greater purpose may have been served. It would also have prevented politics from turning into a money-making business. The President could have chosen experts in various fields with proven track records to run various ministries to usher in rapid development. Perhaps, this is the sort of radical change we need that warrants serious consideration by those who are tasked with the onerous duty of formulating a new constitution.

JR opted for the French system where all the ministers including the prime minister are elected representatives. The phrase some commentators use ‘Prime Minister is reduced to the status of a peon’ is ludicrous and may well stem from the unguarded statement made by Ranasinghe Premadasa, the first non-executive prime minister. Instead of being impatient, he should have worked towards defining the role of the prime minister in the new system. Of course, JR’s ill-judged remark that he could do anything other than changing the gender, albeit in jest, also contributed to the growing suspicions about the presidency.

All executive presidents, elected directly by the voter at tremendous expense, vowed to abolish the executive presidency just to please the voters but none even attempted to do so. But Gota was an exception, never making such a promise. Further, during the short period he had been in office he had behaved very differently to his predecessors. He has shown that he is there to work, not for the glamour of office. Therefore, I would argue that what matters more than the office is the person who occupies it. This imparts even a greater responsibility on the voter to elect the right person.

In any country, either the president or the prime minister would have to be powerful. In the UK, the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’, Boris Johnson holds power and makes all the important decisions. It is only rarely that Parliament acts to change his decisions. Ranil considered himself to be the executive prime minister and set up various units at Temple Trees, and some of them were not lawful. This too highlights my view that it is not the office that matters but who holds the office.

If not for the powerful presidency, we would still have been fighting terrorism. How the Opposition mocked the war efforts is a long-gone memory. The worst possible scenario is where the power is shared, as happened during the ill-fated yahapalana regime. What is transpiring before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks amply illustrates how security of the country was neglected

The passage of 20A is a turning point in the history of our country. By giving the mandate for this to the SLPP, the voters have opted for a presidential system of government and it is my humble opinion that this was almost entirely due to the statesmanlike behaviour of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During his campaign he never attacked his opponents but proved his ability to perform any responsibility he was tasked with. On being elected, he dispensed with glamorous frivolities and got down to hard work. He has faced many challenges with vigour and has been successful so far.

What makes Gota different from all other ‘chief executives’ of Sri Lanka is that he is the first non-politician to hols this coveted position. Perhaps, that is what we needed. I do hope he would set the example for what a good executive president should be so that the electorate would not regret the momentous decision it made. I do hope that he would introduce a new Constitution, which gives due place to technocrats and usher in true reconciliation by ensuring that we obey one law as one nation as well as getting rid of race and faith based political parties which have been the bane of unity. The only purpose these parties have served is sowing the seeds of division and disunity whilst making some leaders rich and powerful.

I do hope Gota would prove that the executive presidency is the better option.

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