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Why the world is counting on a Biden victory

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by Krishantha Prasad Cooray

Next week’s presidential election in the United States of America has become a remarkable event on the world stage. It has exposed the dark underbelly of the American political system and left us all wondering whether America, the world’s oldest modern democracy, is indeed still a democracy at all?

Four years ago, America fell to a strongman. Donald Trump took the national stage with masterful control of the media, hijacking a democratic system, bypassing the traditional scrutiny of presidential candidates by hiding his tax returns, silencing people with non-disclosure agreements and controlling the narrative about his political opponent.

By the measure of an election in any normal democracy, he failed, garnering 2,868,686 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, a margin of 2.23%. To put that margin in a context that Sri Lankans would understand, Ranil Wickremasinghe lost the 2005 presidential election in Sri Lanka by a narrower margin of only 1.86%. However, under the American system, it is the combination of states you win in the Electoral College that counts, not the number of votes, and Donald Trump became president as a result.

For decades, the battle for the right to vote has been a feature of American politics. Politicians and judges they have appointed frequently succeed in preventing minority groups, young voters or others from voting, and have found ways to have their ballots excluded from the final tally. On more than one occasion, the politicized American Supreme Court has sided with these efforts, further divorcing the American political system from what we in Sri Lanka understand as democracy.

Indeed, we can take pride in our own system. For all the political turmoil that our country has suffered in 72 years as an independent democracy, no one barring the LTTE has ever tried to deny the franchise to any Sri Lankan constituency or to prevent them from voting. More importantly, it would be unthinkable for Sri Lankan courts to even entertain a case seeking to deny the vote to any group of Sri Lankans.

But what is still unthinkable in little Sri Lanka is now the stated path to victory for Donald Trump’s re-election in America. A president who came to power on a technicality is now seeking to unleash a torrent of technicalities to cling on to power. His acolytes are sabotaging the postal service to scuttle the postal vote, rushing to courts across the country to seek rulings preventing votes from being counted, shutting down polling places in urban areas to make it more difficult for poor people to vote, and adopting a flurry of similar strategies not to increase their own vote count, but to reduce the number of votes counted for their opponent.

To those of us who treasure democracy and the institutions that defend it, there is solace to be found in the fact that Donald Trump is the first incumbent American President running for reelection who has not been endorsed by living former Presidents in his own party. Lifelong institutionalists in his Republican party, from former Speaker Paul Ryan to the late Senator John McCain, disavowed him. McCain went so far as to request that Trump not be allowed to attend his funeral.

Hundreds of retired senior military, intelligence and law enforcement officials in America have spoken out not just to oppose Donald Trump but to warn that his re-election would pose a grave threat to the national security and integrity of the United States of America.

What America has seen in the last four years is that when strongmen bluster their way into high office on a façade of glitzy propaganda and magical promises, the reality is that they will spend their time in office making excuses as to why they could not get anything done, and insisting that the only way they can deliver what they promised is if they are allowed more time in office. Meanwhile, they chafe at the democratic and institutional safeguards designed to ensure that our rulers are accountable to their people and serve at their mercy.

With Trump’s failure to deliver on his promises, and his catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is reason to hope that his defeat will make way for healing America and making its institutions stronger than they were before Trump began his assault. There is a lot of healing to be done.

Ever since World War II, America has marketed itself as the poster-child for democracy on the world stage, even though the fairness of its electoral system has lagged objectively behind those of several other established democracies like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.

Despite America’s wide inequalities, it is the country’s evolution that is most romantic. Before being elected President, as an opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln explained that America’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that all men are equal, was not a statement of fact but an aspiration to strive for. The concept of equality, Lincoln said, is one that must be “constantly looked to, constantly laboured for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colours, everywhere.”

Indeed, the American tradition has been to own up to its country’s dark history and aspire to do better. Whether slavery, the treatment of native Americans or other ethnic and religious minorities, the country has openly and gradually strived to evolve into a less racist and xenophobic, and more inclusive and equal nation, all under the glaring eye of one of the most searing and merciless news media environments in the world.

America’s claim to moral authority around the world has come from reconciling its roots in inequality, slavery and other heinous crimes, owning up to them, accepting its present shortcomings, and actively striving to grow with its founding values, while espousing those same values abroad. Democracies that have shared those values or even overtaken America in their implementation have found in the USA a strong and staunch ally who will stand up to autocratic bullying.

This is why Trump’s rejection, deriding and snubbing of democratically elected leaders, and his embracing and enabling of dictators and autocrats, and his encouragement of human rights abuses in his own country and overseas have struck such a serious blow to fragile democracies everywhere. The ideologies of countries like Russia and China depend on people losing faith in the idea of democracy and a free press. They could have no greater champion than an American president who insists American elections are rigged and boasts that he helped a foreign prince get away with murdering and disemboweling a journalist.

So when Mike Pompeo came to Sri Lanka, winked that democracies should stick together, and warned that the Chinese Communist Party is preying on Sri Lanka, his words would ring less hollow if his own party were not so feverishly dismantling and delegitimizing the concept of franchise in his own country. Indeed, he would sound more sincere if President Trump had not just months ago been impeached for “preying” on the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine.

Sri Lanka cannot be credibly lectured on human rights and democracy by a country whose government has for the last four years institutionalized the oppression of minorities, forcibly separated refugees from their children, and laboured to engineer the arrest of journalists and jailing of political opponents. When Trump speaks of autocrats like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, he betrays a frustrated envy of these strongmen and how simply they can silence and dispatch their political opponents.

These weaknesses in Trump and his lack of character are the primary reason he is on track to garner far fewer votes than his opponent, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. Unlike Trump, whose manicured public image propelled him to fame on a campaign of fear, hate and race-baiting, Joe Biden is someone who has long been known to Americans and the world.

As a leader on the world stage, Biden has championed support for independent institutions in emerging democracies, especially in making judiciaries independent and distancing law enforcement activities from political pressures. All the while, he has made no secret of the fact that he believes his own country has a long way to go in making its own established institutions more inclusive, fair and just.

There is little doubt that Biden will garner more votes this Tuesday, but his opponent has made no secret of his plan to win through an assault on the franchise more akin to those adopted by leaders of failed states than the President of the world’s largest democracy. He has even tarred the independence of the courts, making no secret of his motives when stacking the Supreme Court with judges he believes will deliver him the presidency a second time.

Dictators, strongmen and autocrats around the world are also watching. In a world where such people cling to power not through overt fascism but by putting on the thinnest guise of democracy, it is mana from heaven for them to see an American President boast of rigging the US Supreme Court to stay in power. If Trump succeeds, they will only be inspired and emboldened to employ similar strategies to stifle the democratic will of their own people. If they see one candidate win millions more votes in America, only to have their victory overturned by a politically stacked court, they will see a blueprint for how they too can cling to power until the end of their days.

When George W. Bush was declared president in 2000 by the Supreme Court stopping the counting of votes in Florida, three key lawyers on his legal team were John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. All three are now Justices on the US Supreme Court, who may soon be asked to choose whether the next President of their country will be their “party man” or the man who won the most votes.

Those Republicans in America who seek to use a politicized Supreme Court to prioritize keeping Trump in power over the founding principles of their nation would do well to examine the events that led to the founding and rise of their own political party. The Republican party in America came together after 1854 by bringing together a growing number of American politicians whose opposition to slavery left them without a party that reflected their political ideology.

As the party and its philosophy garnered traction and it became clearer that a clear majority of Americans were opposed to slavery, it was the opportunistic president James Buchanan and politically motivated Chief Justice Roger Taney who colluded to deliver a 7-2 judgment of the Supreme Court that declared that those of African descent were sub-human and thus must be treated as property all across the United States.

The barbarism of this move and its aftermath played no small role in the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. The question of freedom and who deserved to be free so charged American politics that his opponents tried to kill him before he took office, and soon drove the United States into a civil war. That war was won by those who stood on the principle that freedom and equality were the inalienable rights of all human beings. The world in the 1860s was not remotely as interconnected as it is today. The telephone had not yet been invented, and news traveled across the world no faster than a ship could sail the sea.

Today, the eyes of the world are on the American voters and American institutions. Dictators, strongmen and autocrats around the world have had an easy time of the last four years, finding their actions more legitimized by the United States than chastised, while journalists, rights advocates and those who stand for the rule of law have often found themselves isolated in every corner of the world.

If a Biden electoral victory is suppressed by discounting votes and overruling the will of the American people, the path will be cleared for every ruler who seeks to govern without the consent of those they govern to follow America’s example, and craft policies and institutions that cement their power. Such counties will then join America as politically apartheid states, democracies only in name.



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Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

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

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

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

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Soul

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

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