The drafting of the new constitution to replace the 1978 constitution has begun even before the 20th Amendment has been through the committee stage in Parliament. The Special Experts Committee to Draft a New Constitution headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva has been allocated offices in the BMICH, and three senior officers of the Ministry of Justice have been appointed to the Secretariat of the Committee. Sittings of the committee have already commenced with meetings being held every Friday. Two formal weekly meetings have already been held.
The other members of the committee are President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, President’s Counsel Sanjeewa Jayawardena, President’s Counsel Naveen Marapana, Prof. Nazeema Kamardeen, Dr. A. Sarveswaran, President’s Counsel Samantha Ratwatte, Prof.Wasantha Senevirathne and Prof.G.H.Peiris. The fact that this Committee has commenced work would have been headline news in normal circumstances but it has been completely overshadowed by the latest Covid-19 outbreak.
For that matter, Covid-19 has drowned out the noise generated over the 20th Amendment as well. The government can be seen to be taking a very cautious approach to this Covid-19 cluster with whole villages and individual establishments being shut down at the slightest suspicion that an infected person may have visited the place concerned. Quite a number of false alarms have been reported but the government is proceeding on the basis that it’s better to be safe than sorry. There seems to be little doubt that the government agencies concerned will be able to get over this latest Covid crisis as well.
Even though yahapalana theorists have raised a mighty caterwaul of protest claiming that the 20th Amendment will give rise to authoritarian rule, the 20A only restores the constitutional provisions that existed before the 19th Amendment, which essentially means that after the 20th Amendment, the President will have the approximately the same power that past Presidents J.R.Jayewardene, R.Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and even Maithripala Sirisena had. Even though the 19th Amendment removed some of the powers of the President, the yahapalana President Sirisena continued to enjoy those powers through other means and it’s only the incumbent President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who has had to bear the full brunt of the 19th Amendment.
Yahapalana sleight of hand
One significant way in which the 19th Amendment sought to truncate the President’s powers was by establishing the Constitutional Council which would have the final say in making appointments to important state positions. After the establishment of the Constitutional Council, the President cannot appoint members and Chairmen of Commissions set up by the 19th Amendment such as the Public Service Commission, National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and several other such commissions without the individuals to be appointed being recommended by the Constitutional Council. Likewise when it came to the appointment of Judges to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General and Inspector-General of Police and other such high state positions, any person appointed by the President to such positions had to be approved by the Constitutional Council. Thus either way, it’s the Constitutional Council that has the final say in making such appointments and not the President.
Even though these provisions in the 19th Amendment were supposed to limit the powers of the President, they did not limit President Sirisena’s or the yahapalana government’s powers because the yahapalana political parties working in concert divided up the parliamentary government and the parliamentary opposition among themselves and established a complete hegemony over the Constitutional Council. It goes without saying that if the political backers and promoters of the President have complete and total control over the Constitutional Council, it’s the same as the President exercising those powers and that was the situation during the Sirisena Presidency. President Sirisena’s political setup enjoyed the same powers over high appointments that the political setups of his predecessors did.
Another way in which the 19th Amendment sought to limit the powers of the President was by not allowing the President to hold any ministerial portfolios. Hence the pre-19th Amendment Article 44(2) of the Constitution which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister was repealed. Even though the 19th Amendment never expressly said that the President could not hold a portfolio, the repeal of Article 44(2) was supposed to mean that despite the fact that even under the 19th Amendment, the President continued to be the Head of the Government and the Head of the Cabinet he could not hold a ministerial portfolio. President Sirisena was not affected by this limitation because a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment allowed him not only to assign to himself the subjects and functions of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment so long as he holds the Office of President but also to determine the Ministries to be in his charge for that purpose. So all that President Sirisena had to do was to decide upfront which ministries he wanted. All Presidents do in fact decide upfront which ministries he would hold, so President Sirisena despite the 19th Amendment was able to do what all his predecessors did in this regard.
The genuine changes
To be fair, there were in fact a few genuine ways in which President Sirisena’s powers differed from those of his predecessors. The first and foremost of these was that the tenure of the presidency was shortened from six years to five years by changes made to Article 30(2). This was a genuine change and the 20th Amendment seeks to retain this without alteration. Another genuine change was the effective removal of presidential immunity by the 19th Amendment by means of changes made to Article 35(1) of the Constitution. Article 35(1) as amended by the 19th Amendment states that no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity, provided that this shall not be construed as restricting the right of any person to make a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court under Article 126 against the Attorney-General, in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, in his official capacity.
Making the President subject to fundamental rights litigation basically makes it possible to challenge any action that the President takes. In fact the 19th Amendment specifically stated that the Supreme Court shall have no jurisdiction to pronounce upon the exercise of the powers of the President only when it comes to declaring war and peace – which establishes that the Supreme Court can pronounce judgments on virtually everything else other than that one exception. President Sirisena was subject to this provision during his tenure and this was a genuine change made by the 19th Amendment. But it’s an unusual, and arguably counter-productive change. Even under the 1972 Constitution, the ceremonial President was designated the head of the Executive who was required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 23 of the 1972 Constitution stated that while any person holds office as president, no civil or criminal proceedings shall be instituted or continued against him in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him in his official or private capacity.
If one takes the Ceylon Constitution Order in Council of 1946, the Executive power was exercised on behalf of the British crown by the Governor-General who was required by convention as mentioned in Article 4(2) of that Constitution to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Even though the Governor General was the representative of a titular head of state, even he was protected from litigation with the proviso that no act or omission on the part of the Governor-General shall be called in question in any court of law. We see the same protection accorded to the President of India. Article
53(1) of the Indian constitution says that the executive power of the Indian Union shall be vested in the President. Article 77(1) states that all executive action of the Government of India shall be expressed to be taken in the name of the President. Article 74(1) requires the Indian President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers and the question whether any, and if so what, advice was tendered by Ministers to the President cannot be inquired into in any court. Under Article 77(2) of the Indian constitution, orders and other instruments made and executed in the name of the President shall not be called in question on the ground that it is not an order or instrument made or executed by the President.
Thus we see that in the 1946 Ceylon Constitution Order in Council, the first Republican Constitution of 1972 and the second Republican Constitution of 1978, and even in the Indian Constitution, the actions of the head of the executive had always been given immunity from litigation. If the actions of the executive can be subject to litigation, then it can be argued that the final arbiter if not the wielder of executive power will be the judiciary and not the executive. The immunity of the President from suit was removed on the argument of limiting the President’s executive power. That gives the impression that before the 19th Amendment was passed there were no limits on the President’s executive power.
President never had unlimited power
Two Supreme Court cases presided over by former Chief Justice Sarath N.Silva indicate otherwise. The 2006 landmark judgment in Nallaratnam Singarasa vs the Attorney General stated as follows:
“The President exercises the executive power of the People and is empowered to act for the Republic under Customary International Law and enter into treaties and accede to international covenants However,… such acts cannot be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law. This limitation is imposed since the President is not the repository of the legislative power of the People…. such a treaty or a covenant has to be implemented by the exercise of legislative power by Parliament and where found to be necessary by the People at a Referendum to have internal effect…where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a Covenant which is “inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law”… such act of the President would not bind the Republic qua state….”
Then there was the famous Waters Edge judgment of 2008 (Sugathapala Mendis and Another vs Chandrika Kumaratunga and Others) where it was stated as follows:
“The principle that those charged with upholding the Constitution – be it a police officer of the lowest rank or the President – are to do so in a way that does not “violate the Doctrine of Public Trust” by state action/inaction is a basic tenet of the Constitution which upholds the legitimacy of Government and the Sovereignty of the People. The “Public Trust Doctrine” is based on the concept that the powers held by organs of government are, in fact, powers that originate with the People, and are entrusted to the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary only as a means of exercising governance and with the sole objective that such powers will be exercised in good faith for the benefit of the People of Sri Lanka. Public power is not for personal gain or favour, but always to be used to optimize the benefit of the People. To do otherwise would be to betray the trust reposed by the People within whom, in terms of the Constitution, the Sovereignty reposes. Power exercised contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine would be an abuse of such power and in contravention of the Rule of Law.”
The Water’s Edge judgment also quoted a previous 1998 judgment by Justice Mark Fernando, Karunathilaka v Dissanayake which stated as follows: “The immunity conferred by Article 35 is neither absolute not perpetual….Article 35 only prohibits the institution (or continuation) of legal proceedings against the President while in office; it imposes no bar whatsoever on proceedings against him when he is no longer in office…To hold otherwise would suggest that the President is, in essence, above the law and beyond the reach of its restrictions. Such a monarchical/dictatorial position is at variance with (1) the Democratic Socialist Republic that the preamble of the Constitution defines Sri Lanka to be, and (ii) the spirit implicit in the Constitution that sovereignty reposes in the People and not in any single person.”
Keeping yahapalana overkill in check
All these cases were heard long before the 19th Amendment. Thus the proviso to article 35(1) introduced by the 19th amendment enabling fundamental rights cases to be filed against the AG over actions taken by the President was clearly a case of yahapalana overkill. The removal of this proviso and the restoration of the pre-19th Amendment Article 35 does not turn the President into an autocrat. It just provides the executive branch of the government the leeway to exercise the powers vested in the executive. While it’s true that former presidents in Sri Lanka have been accused of being authoritarian, the same accusation has been levelled at former Prime Ministers like Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. Much the same thing was said about Mrs. Indira Gandhi as well.
The person holding the title and functions of head of the government can be as authoritarian or as liberal as he or she is inclined to be. In fact it may be argued by some that Prime Ministers have even greater potential and incentive to be authoritarian because no Prime Minister in the world seems to have term limits whereas almost all presidential systems do have term limits. Even the 20th Amendment will retain the two term limit for the President. Lee Kuan Yew was a Prime Minister but he too was accused of being authoritarian. It just so happens that Presidents tend to attract more charges of authoritarianism than Prime Ministers even though everyone knows at the back of their minds that Prime Ministers who are heads of government can be as every bit as authoritarian as any President holding the position of head of government.
It’s interesting to speculate on why this is so. Is it because the President sits and does his work in grand isolation whereas the Prime Minister sits in Parliament with everyone else and is available to be heckled and booed at? Is it because the President once elected, is very difficult to remove whereas the Prime Minister (at least theoretically) can be thrown out at any moment through a Parliamentary revolt? It has to be noted that under the presidential system introduced by the 1978 Constitution, the President cannot rule without the support of Parliament. In 2001, at a time when President Chandrika Kumaratunga possessed all the powers of J.R. Jayewardene’s presidency, her party lost a parliamentary election and lost her majority in Parliament. She gave all powers to the newly elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasnghe and took a back seat for a while. Despite all the hype about authoritarian Presidents, the fact is that both Presidential heads of government and Prime Ministerial heads of government that this country has had in the past, have been completely dependent on Parliamentary majorities to govern. No President can override Parliament even under the pre-19th Amendment 1978 Constitution.
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JVP Select Committee member alleges Indian hand in Easter Sunday blasts
Party leaders in parliament have asked the government several times to table it in the House but the government has not yet done so. We heard the media spokesperson of the Attorney General stating on TV that the Attorney General too has not yet received the report. Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith says that he too has not received a copy yet. The President is keeping the most important commission report of his life to himself. We believe that people have the right to know what’s in it and it should be released. There is a yet-to-be-identified force behind the Easter attacks.
by Saman Indrajith
JVP Central Committee and Politburo member and former Kalutara District MP, Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, says that it was India’s Research and Analysis Wing who masterminded the Easter Sunday terror attacks and there was no substantial evidence to prove any ISIS link to the Zahran Hashim’s group that carried out the attack.
The final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday attacks should clear this situation. If not, the government cannot escape the blame of a cover-up, Dr Jayatissa said in an interview with The Sunday Island.
Q: The final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday attacks was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. While the government keeps on saying that it would be released, the opposition keeps on demanding to see it. You were a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that investigated the issue. The PCoI took a longer time than PSC to complete the investigation. Do you think that PCoI report may at least identify those truly responsible for the heinous crime that killed 268 and wounded more than 500?
The report yet to be released is that of the most important PCoI that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had appointed. It is the most important because the Easter Sunday carnage was the event that brought him to politics. He was not looking to come into active politics before that. That incident helped them to come to power. They came to power promising to probe the Easter Sunday terror attacks and punish those responsible. There had been lot of difficulties and limits to the PSC probe. Those now in the SLPP were then in the United Opposition and they boycotted the PSC. They created many obstructions. They even shouted that we should not summon intelligence and military officers saying that our action would result in exposing those officers’ identities and put them in danger.
But the PCoI did not have such limits. They summoned more officers of both intelligence agencies and security establishments and some of them later gave TV interviews too. However, in our investigation we identified who had failed to prevent the terror attack and why and how such extremist groups came into existence in this country. We think that a PCoI should do better than a PSC because all intelligence officers, CID and Terrorist Investigation Division officers, came before the PCoI and testified. We hope that the PCoI report will expose who was actually behind the terror attacks other than Zahran and his colleagues who exploded themselves. Otherwise the report will not have anything new.
This report would be different and unique only if it exposes who were really behind Zahran’s group. The PCoI report was handed over to President Rajapaksa on Feb 1. Thereafter three cabinet meetings have been held but yet the report has not been placed before the Cabinet. We do not accept the excuse that it’s too large a report to be submitted to the Cabinet. That’s a lame excuse.
Party leaders in parliament have asked the government several times to table it in the House but the government has not yet done so. We heard the media spokesperson of the Attorney General stating on TV that the Attorney General too has not yet received the report. Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith says that he too has not received a copy yet. The president is keeping the most important commission report of his life to himself. We believe that people have the right to know what’s in it and it should be released. There is a yet-to-be-identified force behind the Easter attacks.
We heard former CID Senior DIG Ravi Seneviratne saying in his testimony that there must be someone above Zahran Hashim who masterminded the attack. SSP Shani Abeysekera was the Director CID at the time of the Easter Sunday attack and was also the first officer tasked with conducting the investigations. He has said that Zahran was not the mastermind because the leader of a terrorist group has never been a suicide bomber blasting himself in any terrorist attack anywhere in the world. So the President is bound by the responsibility of revealing the true mastermind in this incident.
Q: Investigators are of the opinion that the Easter Sunday attacks had the support of a foreign force. Do you also think so?
I saw on TV last week MP Dilan Perera, who is a senior of the SLFP and a former minister, stating that there was direct or indirect involvement of India behind the Easter Sunday attacks. I consider it a serious statement. If a government MP says that India was behind the attacks, then there should be some basis for his statement. Apart from that, there is other information promoting the same suspicion being discussed in society. There are reasons for that. It was Indian intelligence who provided the first piece of comprehensive information about the attack weeks prior to that incident. Their information said that the Indian High Commission in Colombo was also one of the targets.
Yet it was revealed at the PSC that the Indian High Commission never asked for additional security despite the threat. It was also revealed at the PSC that no additional security has been accorded to the Indian Defense Secretary who had suddenly visited Sri Lanka for a one-day visit on April 08, 2019. Those who were involved in this attack had not been to Middle Eastern or other countries where ISIS had a presence. They had only been to India. In addition, Zahran’s group did not have an armoury. There was a stock of weapons that was found at Wanathavillu. A detonator with the least capacity had been used for the test explosion of a motorcycle at Kattankudy four days before the Easter Sunday attacks.
It was a weapon that had been taken away in Oct, 2018 from Vavunathivu that was later used to shoot at Kabir Hashim’s secretary at Kegalle in March 2019, five months later. That shows that the Zahran’s group did not have explosives or firearms in large quantity as it is in the case of a terror group. Even after the terror attacks, the CID or any other security agency has not been able to find any armoury belonging to them until now. Even in the PCoI facts had been revealed about the hotel rooms and banquet halls that had been hired by the Zahran’s group but no revelations about any weapons or explosives. So a group which possesses very little fire power carries out terrorist attacks exploding eight very powerful bombs resulting in such a loss. Then there should be another force behind them to supply what was used. In the subsequent Sainthamaruthu attack, 16 persons were killed. Pualsthini Rajendran alias Sarah Jasmine, who survived that attack, fled to India by a boat from Mannar. However, we have not yet seen the Sri Lankan government asking from India to extradite her despite the fact that she has lot of important information.
Indian National Security Advisor Ajith Doval visited this country and then its foreign minister Jaishankar visited Sri Lanka but not on any of those occasions had our government asked India to hand over Sarah to our investigators. President Rajapaksa soon after his election visited India. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa conducted many zoom and video call conferences with his Indian counterpart Modi. We can also see the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo playing a very influential political role. But we have not seen the Lankan government asking India to hand over Sarah to our investigators. Not even the PCoI asked for her.
As we know, Zahran’s wife had told the PCoI that Sarah knew more about the dealings of the Zahran group than she because Sarah was the wife of the suicide bomber who had attacked the St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya. When this question was posed to Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera recently, he replied that before asking for the extradition, we must make sure that Sarah was still alive and DNA testing on Sarah was still being done. That is not true because giving evidence before the PCoI on July 21, 2020 the then Ampara SSP Samantha Wijesekera testified that they conducted DNA tests on those who had been killed at Sainthamaruthu but Sarah was not among the dead.
Sarah’s mother giving evidence before PCoI stated on July 25, 2020 that Sarah did not die but fled. There is no need to conduct DNA or delay. The Public Security Minister’s position is only a part of a campaign to cover up for Sarah who knows India’s involvement. It is further established when former Minister Dilan Perera clearly stated that India was behind the Easter Sunday attacks.
Q: None who attended the PSC mentioned any Indian involvement. Testimony of some of those who gave evidence before the PSC was taken in camera. Has anyone testified before the PSC of any Indian involvement?
No. It is Dilan Perera’s recent statement on TV that said so clearly in public. But anyone can guess that an Islamic outfit of the size and capabilities of Zahran’s group alone cannot organize a series of terror attacks of this nature. They had the backing of a force which had access to high powered explosives, intelligence and technology. It is up to the President or the PCoI to reveal the real perpetrators. If the upcoming report too says that there were security lapses because of the rivalry between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithriapala Sirisena, and that Hemasiri Fernando and Pujith Jayasundera could not prevent the attacks even with information in their hands, then it is clear that the government wants to protect the real culprits of this crime.
Q: Suppose that theory of Indian connection is true. Then how could it be viewed against what we are seeing today in politics where Indian involvements in the Colombo port and many other places in the country have raised many concerns?
Actually this incident has more political repercussions than military or security issues. From 2008 to 2015 China established its presence in the Indian Ocean. It acquired Port City, CICT terminal, six acres of land next to the Colombo Harbour and involved itself in development projects. China included Sri Lanka in its One Belt One Road program. This raised concerns of not only India but also of the US. They wanted to send Mahinda Rajapaksa home and did so. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself told Port unionists that it was India that sent him home in 2015. However, his successor Wickremesinghe-Sirisena government too did not deliver the expected results. That was why India got its intelligence to mastermind the Easter Sunday attacks.
A march, a tweet, some angst and mild sabre-rattling
by Malinda Seneviratne
If something deserves to be called ‘Event of the Week’ it would be the ‘Pothuvil to Poligandy (P2P) March’ which ended on Sunday, February 7. At the end of the march there were around 2,000 people. Most significantly, it was an event that saw the participation of both Tamils and Muslims. The basic differences in grievances were obviously negated by a felt need to be united against, let’s say, a perceived common enemy, the Government to some, ‘Sinhala Chauvinism’ to others.
It marked also, as D B S Jeyaraj has mentioned in his weekly column, a return of sorts to non-violent protests. Now it is not that all Tamil and Political action was violent. There have been all kinds of non-violent protests even during the conflict. However, this was a sustained, determined and even colorful affirmation of a politics that harked back to a different time. ‘The Satyagraha of 1961,’ is what Jeyaraj was reminded of. There are two interesting statements that are related to this march. First we had the government withdrawing STF security assigned to TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran. Sumanthiran retorted, ‘if something happens to me the Government will be held responsible.’ Now the agitation of the man does seem misplaced considering that he was involved in a five-day march (ok, he may not have be ‘on the moving spot’ all five days, but still! Was he not worried about security? Also, Sumanthiran has openly supported the LTTE, indulged heavily in Eelam-speak as well as celebration of the terrorists. He would do well to reflect on the fate of others who came before who did the very same thing, especially the leader of the TULF, Appapillai Amirthalingam. Amirthalingam spouted rhetoric which was like an endless nutritional feed to extremism. The beast, in his insatiable hunger, at one point did much more than bite the hand that fed it. One hopes that things don’t snowball to a repeat of all that, but Sumanthiran, having seen what happens to hands thrust into fires ought to keep his in his pockets. Nevertheless, withdrawing security granted on a threat perception is an overreaction.The second is a hilarious tweet from the tweet-happiest diplomat in Colombo, Alaina B Teplitz: ‘#Peacefulprotests is an important right in any #democracy and significant, legitimate concerns should be heard. I saw Tamil media coverage of the march from Pottuvil to Point Pedro and wondered why it was not more widely covered by Colombo-based media?’She has a point. The English, Sinhala and Tamil media have different preferences that have little to do with newsworthiness. Perhaps it is all about the target audience; after all there’s a reason why entertainment value has framed reporting and presentation, why sensationalism has become an important driver and so on. This holds for different media houses as well; owners have agendas. Nevertheless, there is a serious problem if matters of political significance are down-played or ignored altogether, one has to question the sense of responsibility of the particular media institutions.On the other hand, we cannot ignore the ‘Season of Vexatious Persecution’ (i.e. the annual human rights circus in Geneva) which is all about whipping things up from December to February. Now it could be a coincidence that P2P was organized at this particular moment, but few will buy it considering the personalities involved and their political history. The Teplitz tweet only serves to add credence to the view that this was just another side show of the above mentioned circus. The tweet also indicates an important fact: Teplitz is running out of slogans. Before we get to that, let’s have a say on the key words — the hash tagged ‘peaceful protests,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘legitimate concerns.’ It is downright laughable for a US diplomat to talk about such things given that country’s absolute rubbishing of such things, domestically and internationally. That aside, there’s the fact that Teplitz has been pained to the point that she has to whine about media coverage. Is it that a pet project directly or indirectly sponsored, planned and executed, didn’t move as many Tamils and Muslims as was envisaged? We didn’t hear Muslim and Tamil leaders complaining about news coverage. Have they deferred that kind of task to Teplitz? If that’s the case, who is the pawn or who are the pawns here? Is it Teplitz? Are they Tamil and Muslim leaders who in their wisdom believe that the best bet to get grievances, real or imagined, sorted and aspirations, reasonable or outrageous, fulfilled is to support the US in securing strategic objectives in Sri Lanka? If such happens (not a certainty, certainly) do they believe they’ll get some crumbs off the table? And what does all this have to say about the agency of Tamil and Muslim citizens? Are they too pawns? Indeed, are all peoples of all communities pawns in games where they are sacrificed at will? Jeyaraj sees in P2P ‘a remarkable show of solidarity and unity’ between the Tamil and Muslim communities. He does exaggerate about the numbers (tens of thousands, he says) and deliberately introduces the ‘Tamil-speaking’ qualifier which Tamil nationalists have often used to rope in rhetorically ‘The Muslims’ to their various political projects. Jeyaraj remembers 1961 but has forgotten the late eighties when M H M Ashraff (in)famously stated that even if Prabhakaran abandons Eelam, he would not. He dialed down the rhetoric over the next decade, but what did Prabhakaran do to the (Tamil-speaking) Muslims, has Jeyaraj forgotten? The LTTE ethnically cleansed the Jaffna Peninsula of Muslims. The LTTE turned one in ten Muslims into refugees, slaughtering dozens, driving them off their homes, seizing properties etc. Muslim leaders cannot pretend to be unaware of that history. Muslim Affairs, if you will, featured in other ways over the week. Recently returned to Parliament, Ven Athureliye Rathana Thero presented a private member’s bill to repeal the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. Justice Minister Ali Sabry who prior to entering Parliament championed the notion ‘One Country, One Law,’ responded by saying ‘steps are being taken to amend the Muslim Laws and that a Cabinet Paper had already been presented in that regard.’Elaborating, Sabry said that the Cabinet Paper sought to amend the minimum marriageable age of Muslim girls to 18, to permit women to act as Kathis and also to make it necessary to get the consent of Muslim women when they get married.That’s it? That makes it ‘One Country, One Law’? Sabry must do a serious rethink on what he says and does and the meaning of the terms he uses (so loosely!).
He is correct when he says that ‘if the personal laws were to be abolished, all the personal laws such as Muslim Laws, Kandyan law and Thesawalamai Law should be abolished altogether.’ ‘Through a social discussion,’ he adds. There’s been enough social discussion, he knows this. One-country-one-law would certainly call for abolishing all customary laws. His concern seems to be limited to correcting existing laws that privilege Muslim men over Muslim women. That’s not even scratching the surface of the problem though!
Here are a question for Sabry: Are there plans to abolish polygamy (can’t have it for some and not others, no?)? Here’s another: The Special Parliamentary Committee on Extremism appointed by the previous administration presented a report in February 2020 recommending extensive measures with respect to Muslim laws as well as ‘educational’ institutions — have you read it? Are you in agreement? If so, what have you done so far? Are you planning to defer everything to the experts tasked to draft a new constitution? What are those experts doing by the way? When will we see a draft? And finally, what exactly do you understand by ‘One country, one law’? Let’s have some answers, please.
This week also saw Wimal Weerawansa making some news. He openly advocated a prominent and even principal role for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the SLPP leadership. He was taken on by the General Secretary of the SLPP, Sagara Kariyawasam who questioned Wimal’s rights to talk of the SLPP since he’s not a member. Wimal retorted that people in the SLPP talk of other parties. Sagara wondered what Wimal’s fate would be had he and his party contested independently. Wimal pointed out that Sagara, a national list MP, hadn’t even contested.
Light banter at best. Some sections of the Opposition have salivated, naturally. They believe and talk of ‘a rift!’ in the Rajapaksa camp, friction between the brothers (Wimal’s antipathies to Basil being well known).Too early to conclude such of course, but as debating points go, both Wimal and Sagara have scored. What this ‘scoring’ says about the future of the SLPP is of course left to be seen. There’s bound to be differences of opinion in any political coalition. If everyone was on the same page there wouldn’t be a coalition in the first place. You win some, you lose some — this is something that junior or weaker partners know very well (ask Prof Tissa Vitarana of the LSSP).
The so-called ‘smaller parties’ did make a lot of noise regarding the East Container Terminal issue. It seems, as of now, that the ‘big party’ listened. Whether they’ll still have the ‘big ear’ regarding the West Container Terminal is left to be seen. On the other hand, we know the story about the dog and the tail, no offense to canines or tails.
Politicians and political parties are about power and about elections. If, for example, Champika Ranawaka and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, having broken ranks with the UPFA decided to go it alone and not join the UNP-led coalition as they did, where would Ranawaka be today, one might ask. Indeed is it not such questions that persuaded him to resign from the JHU and become a 100% SJBer, one could also ask. There are no elections in sight, but when they do come around, all parties big and small will revisit ‘coalition’ and calculate the impact of decisions (and rhetoric) on electability.
For now, though, noises can and will be made. The likes of Wimal would have to pick their battles and select decibel levels. That said, his point about the distance between president and parliament on account of political sway within the party is valid. It goes without saying that the effectiveness of a program sometimes comes down to parliamentary weight which of course can be deployed best if the executive has a degree of control. The President either doesn’t have it or cannot count on it or imagines he doesn’t need it. He could ask his brothers, both veterans in this respect. That however might mean give-and-take, if we were to believe the notion that the brothers are bound by blood but not about vision.
India, meanwhile, is not happy, going by statements issued regarding the East Container Terminal. India cannot be happy about the ‘Chinese Footprint’ whose size was considerably expanded by the previous government by virtually handing over the Hambantota Port to China. India cannot be happy about energy projects given to the Chinese. India cannot be happy about the scheduled visit by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and MoUs that are said to be signed and/or renewed.
India speaks of Sri Lanka ‘reneging’ on an MoU. However, India forgets that MoUs are not exactly agreements, signed after crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. They are by definition non-binding and amenable to change. Circumstances can change and changing circumstances have to be taken into account.
If an agreement causes political instability it would be foolish for a government to go ahead with it. If, prior to inking an agreement, one party (India in this case) stands with a country that seems hell bent on bullying Sri Lanka (the USA in this case), then it would be silly for that party to assume that the counterpart be oblivious to such developments. If one party has in the part ‘reneged’ (as India has with respect to the Indo-Lanka Accord which from the get-go was a product of shamelessness bullying and moreover was heavily slanted in India’s favor), then that party should be careful before using the word.
And on the subject of ‘foreign affairs,’ we have Dinesh Gunawardena claiming that Sri Lanka is not afraid of the soon to be tabled resolution in Geneva. There are 47 members in the Human Rights Council (HRC). The Minister of Foreign Affairs cannot be saying ‘the majority are with us.’ The brave words could probably mean ‘we expect this, we know the consequences, we know it’s the work of nations wallowing in a cesspool of bias, we know that they’re hinting at sanctions, we know what the UN itself has found out about the impact of sanctions in other countries, especially Venezuela in recent times, we know there’s talk of taking things to the General Assembly and then the Security Council, we know who our friends are and more importantly who our enemies are, and we know what it takes to secure sovereignty to the extent possible.’ Dinesh Gunawardena might not elaborate in the above manner. After all, he is required to be ‘diplomatic’ although he is not averse to calling a spade a spade. ‘Geneva’ is just over a week from now. A resolution is likely to be tabled. It is likely that it will be passed. Most importantly, it will show us what India’s ‘neighborhood first’ foreign policy is really about.
Black History Month
by Vijaya Chandrasoma
February was recognized as the month to celebrate the history and achievements of the African American people in America by President Gerald Ford in 1976. He called upon Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected achievements of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
Canada also honors Black History Month in February. Other nations, like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Ireland observe Black History Month in October, as a means of memorializing the trials, tribulations and achievements in the tragic history of the African Diaspora.
The precursor to Black History Month in America was the Negro History Week, established in 1926 during the second week of February by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by Carter G. Woodson, African American historian, writer and journalist. Woodson chose the second week of February to honor Negro History Week, to celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and of Frederick Douglass, reformer, abolitionist and statesman, and one of the most remarkable African Americans in history, on February 14. These dates had already been honored separately by African American communities since the 19th century.
Lincoln, of course, is honored by Black Americans for his pivotal role in the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass, an escaped, self-educated slave, became a national leader of the Abolitionist Movement, a statesman famous for his brilliant anti-slavery writings and soaring oratory.
The choice to continue with the use of February to observe and honor Black History by Gerald Ford was based on these earlier decisions of the February birthdays of Lincoln and Douglass. Ironically, African Americans were once again given the short end of the stick by getting the shortest month of the year to celebrate their achievements.
The primary reason for Woodson to establish a week to memorialize and honor the Black American experience was to encourage the teaching of their history in American public schools. At that time, subjects like the history of slavery, evolution and the genocide of an entire race of Native Americans, were not included in the school curricula by the white-dominated, Christian American society. History, as they say, is written by the winners.
Although his efforts were initially met with lukewarm response in the nation’s public school system, Woodson was determined to press on with the need for the teaching and appreciation of black history, to ensure the intellectual survival of the race within American society.
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he (the Hebrew) is a great factor in our civilization”.
The fact that the American Indian left no continuous record was certainly not due to their disregard for the value of their own traditions. Quite the contrary. Native Americans were not allowed to leave a mark on American society because they were regarded as uncivilized savages and eliminated by the European “settlers”.
The very culture of the indigenous peoples emphasized respect, tolerance and non-interference with the traditions of others. Composed of many tribes scattered throughout the country, native Americans generally lived in harmony with nature, with a strong belief that man is inherently good, and must be respected for his decisions and choices. Such a culture, with its traditions of tolerance and compassion, provided an easy prey for the marauding invaders.
The American Indian was decimated by epidemics of disease, military conquest and enslavement. The infamous principle of Manifest Destiny, the 19th century doctrine that the United States is destined – by the Christian God – to expand its dominion throughout the American continent is both justified and inevitable, marked the end of the Indian way of life. The famous invective “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”, coined by General Philip Sheridan in the 1860s, is in currency, in American speech and literature, even today. The few Native Americans who survived the battles of genocide were brutally shunted into reservations or “Americanized”.
The establishment of Negro History Week, which evolved into Black History Month, increased public awareness of the black experience in the United States. Currently courses in Black History abound in the curricula in the nation’s secondary schools and universities. They are considered to be central to the understanding of black oppression and racial profiling which are rampant in the nation to the present day.
Since 1976, every American president has endorsed a specific theme for Black History Month. President Biden’s theme for 2021 is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity”. He issued an inspiring statement to the nation on February 1. Extracts:
“We have never lived up to the founding principles of this nation that all people are created equal and have the right to be treated equally…
“We know that it is long past time to confront deep racial inequalities and the systemic racism that continues to plague our nation.
“A knee to the neck of justice opened the eyes of millions of Americans and launched a Summer of protest and stirred the nation’s conscience.
“We are also less than a month after the attack on the Capitol by a mob of insurrectionists and white supremacists that we are very much in a battle for the soul of America”.
Biden’s statement acknowledged the recent racial profiling, discrimination and violence against African Americans by Law Enforcement officers, which had reached alarming levels. A series of atrocities, culminating in the brutal murder by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin placing his knee on 46 year-old African American George Floyd’s neck for an excruciating eight minutes and 15 seconds, were viewed with horror by the world on the television screen. Floyd’s pleas for his life, crying he could not breathe and calling for his dead mother, were ignored by Chauvin. None of the officers at the scene made any effort to stop the brutality. By the time an ambulance reached the scene, Floyd was dead.
Floyd’s crime? “Passing counterfeit currency” (a $20 note) to purchase a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store. He was not armed and was cooperative with the police at the time of arrest.
George Floyd’s murder added to the tally of a long list of black Americans who have died at the hands of the police. The gruesome and highly exposed murder of Floyd ignited national and global indignation, resulting in the “Summer of protests that stirred the nation’s conscience”.
The escalation of police violence against often unarmed black men, women and children, gave impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement; it erupted in a series of violent demonstrations last Summer, both in the major cities in the United States and throughout the world.
President Donald Trump has dismissed police brutality as toxic left wing propaganda, and denounced the violence of the post-Floyd, global protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. During the past four years, he has repeatedly debased African American leaders and community. He has tried to justify police violence against the black community. In fact, he has regularly incited police violence against the Black Lives Matter movement as a legitimate weapon to preserve law and order.
Trump began his speech on the first of his Black History Month speeches in February 2017, making a historical event all about himself. He said, “Well, the election, it came out really well. Next time we’ll triple the number (of black votes) or quadruple it. We want to get it over 51, right? At least 51”. A statement which showed that he had no idea of the significance of Black History Month. At an occasion where he should have said a few words about the achievements of the African American community, he was whining at the almost total lack of support he got from the black community at the presidential election. A lack of support which only served to endorse the wisdom of the African American electorate.
New York Times satirist, Andy Borowitz, has an amusing take on Trump’s speech in 2017.
“Before his breakfast meeting to mark Black History Month, Trump told (Education Secretary) DeVos, ‘Betsy, write down what you know about black history so that I can read it at the meeting’. She took out a pen and did it in, like, three minutes. She’s fantastic.
“Impressed by the one-sentence summary that DeVos wrote about Frederick Douglass, Trump said he was now considering Douglass (who died in 1895) for a top White House post.
“Based on what Betsy said about him, we could really use Fred’s energy around here, Trump said”.
When the press reminded him that Douglass was long dead, Trump said, “That’s a nasty thing to say about someone who is doing a great job. This is why the press is failing, and it’s failing, very, very badly”.
This was satire, but, considering Trump’s moronic ignorance of the history of the nation he leads, it could well have been factual.
The achievements of the African American community are too numerous to list here. These milestones are even more remarkable because they have been accomplished in trying conditions and with limited opportunities. In the present century, African Americans have produced in Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player ever; in Tiger Woods the most dominant golfer in history, who changed the game for spectators and players alike; and in Barack Obama, the first black president who led the country from a deep recession to a booming economy with the lowest unemployment rates and continuous economic growth for 72 months. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award. A president who, with his family, has set the standards of decorum and compassion for all those who occupy the White House in the future. Just three, who admittedly have my personal admiration. I have failed to list countless others, the public figures and politicians, the sportsmen and women, the musicians and actors, the poets, writers and journalists…. The list is endless.
And there are many African Americans who are ready and able to carry on these proud traditions to the future. Amanda Gorman, poet, a worthy successor to Maya Angelou, caused a sensation at President Biden’s inauguration with a sparkling rendition of an inspiring and courageous poem. And, of course, Kamala Harris, the first black South Asian and first female vice president in the history of the United States. Just two of many others waiting in the wings.
There are many outstanding achievements of the black community to reflect on during this Black History Month. Unfortunately, the continuing and escalating racism over the past few years should take “pride of place” in our thoughts and efforts, to diminish, if not eliminate, the effects of a second, equally vicious pandemic. Unfortunately, it is most doubtful that a “vaccine” will be found to combat, any time soon, the plague of white supremacy that has bedeviled the nation for over 400 years.