by Malinda Seneviratne
It’s a Covid19-dominated week. Well, what week in the last nine months or so has not been dominated by the deadly virus, one may ask. This is true. The numbers pertaining to what is now called ‘The Second Wave’ are far more alarming than those we saw during the initial stages of the outbreak.Covid-19 may not be here forever, but it certainly is going to be around for quite a while. The experts have put together a strategy and various institutions are engaged in doing their parts in combating the pandemic. While there are containment measures being put in place whenever a cluster is identified, there’s no indication of an island-wide lockdown being imposed. Protection protocols are now well known by one and all. They are imposed in various degrees of strictness by all institutions, public and private. Lapses there were, are and will be. This is to be expected and this is unfortunate because all the good work of authorities working tirelessly and at great risk can be undone by one errant individual or a relaxing of protection regimes by any institution.
That’s Covid. Covid or no Covid, as the Opposition has often enough argued, the economy must function. Obviously, this throws sand in the wheels of the Opposition’s oft-expressed horror about constitutional reform. The fact of the matter is that parliamentarians are required to make laws, not administer Covid tests.
So let’s move to the ‘usual’ matters of the week. Last week court absolved the then President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and the Director General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of any wrongdoing over the much publicized sil-redi case. This week, former Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan was granted bail by the Batticaloa Magistrate’s Court. Pillayan was arrested on October 11, 2015, more than five years ago. No trial. Hold on to that.
Now we have various people complaining about LTTE cadres being held without trial. Among them are NGO personalities, representatives of various countries and UN agencies and political commentators. None of them saw anything wrong about Pillayan being held for so long. Was it because it was their friends (the Yahapalanists) during whose watch he was put behind bars? Is it then about friends and not about principles?
They appear to have abandoned the LTTE suspects (political prisoners, they call them) and have Hejaaz Hizbullah as their pinup boy of the moment. Hizbullah is being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. His case has not come up for trial. He could be held for years. Just like Pillayan. If one applied the principle, ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ then one has to be seriously worried about sloth in the judicial system which makes it possible for anyone to be held indefinitely (five years in the case of Pillayan, more than 10 in the case of LTTE cadres and who knows until when in the case of Hizbullah?).
Interestingly, the horror-stricken alluded to above have been and still are comfy in making out that accusation amounts to guilt. The Sri Lankan security forces have been berated over their heads for more than a decade with this twisted club. They don’t seem to realize that the same instrument can be used on Hizbullah.
Interestingly, the twist works in the other direction as well. If accusation does not amount to guilt (as those defending the Sri Lankan security forces often claim) then the patently nasty treatment of Hizbullah is out of order. Out of order too is a government that does not insist that this is unfair. Out of order also on account of the long and unexpected delay on the part of the prosecution with respect to Hizbullah.
This week, we also saw former President, Maithripala Sirisena in the news. He does cut a sorry figure considering that his newsworthiness is solely dependent on appearances at the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday attacks. Yahapalanists who were crowing that the 19th Amendment effectively clipped the executive wings of the president and made the Prime Minister (that’s Ranil Wickremesinghe) all powerful, ought to defend Sirisena, but they don’t. Neither do they blame Ranil Wickremesinghe. Easter Sunday is an egg laid by some unknown hen, as far as they are concerned.
Speaking of the Easter Sunday attacks, what really happened to that parliamentary committee on national security appointed by the previous government? A sectoral oversight committee on National Security submitted a report ‘for (the) formulation and implementation of relevant laws required to ensure national security that will eliminate “New Terrorism” and extremism by strengthening friendship among races and religions.’ That’s what’s on the title page of over 300 paged report. It was presented to Parliament on February 19th, 2020, days before Parliament was dissolved and the curtain officially fell on the Yahapalana circus.
The committee was chaired by Malith Jayathilake and included Shehan Semasinghe, Vijitha Herath, Weerakumara Dissanayake, Buddhika Pathirana, M.S. Thowfeek, Palitha Thevarapperuma, S Viyalanderan, Dharmalingam Siddarthan, A A Wijethunga, M.A. Sumanthiran, Chandima Gamage, Kavinda Jayawardane, Mayantha Dissanayake, Bandula Bandarigoda, Muhammad Ibrahim Mansoon and Ashu Marasinghe.
Some of the above are still members of the current Parliament. Regardless, it is a comprehensive report with what appears to be pragmatic measures. The President and his party repeatedly said that national security is a ‘Number One Priority’. The report covers important areas such as education, attire that makes identification impossible, national security policy, amendment of immigration and emigration laws to be in line with new national and international developments, media (print, electronic and social), amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, empowerment of Muslim civil society, non-governmental organizations, amendment of the Waqf Act, stopping the registration of political parties that are based on ethnicity and religion, issuance of national identity cards that affirm a Sri Lankan identity, establishment of a ministry for religious affairs that includes all faith-communities, the conduct of religious schools and centers, guidelines for the use of religious iconography, and Halal certification, Why can’t this report be taken as a base document to formulate relevant acts with ‘national security’ as the desired outcome?
The leaders of the political coalition who pushed for this committee are silent. The government is silent. The silence obviously doesn’t sit well with sections of all ethnic and religious communities that are wary of extremism and suspect that politicians are hedging bets with narrow political objectives in mind.
The government is also cagey on the issue of burials, i.e. the disposal of the bodies of Muslims who have succumbed to Covid19. The Government has not spoken in one voice on this matter. No decision to allow burials, Cabinet Spokesperson and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. It will be allowed, opined Chamal Rajapaksa. A Muslim organization said ‘Justice Minister Ali Sabry said it will be allowed.’ Sabry did bring it up in cabinet, but no such decision was taken. The President has insisted that response to Covid-19 is framed by the advice given by health professionals. Well, the health professionals can give a clear determination on the matter without twiddling thumbs and indulging in navel-gazing. They will have to take into consideration the science which informed the decisions taken by other countries. For the record, almost all countries have sanctioned burials. If issues of water contamination are worrisome, then a way to circumvent the problem can be found, not just for Muslims who died of Covid-19 but in the case of anyone from any community whose family prefers internment to cremation.
The sooner the better. Faith is a personal thing, yes. Faith sparks emotion, more than reason. Fears need to be taken into consideration. Science needs to drive decision-making. Above all, the thinking needs to be logical and moreover communicated clearly, without ambiguity or convoluted arguments. The onus is on the government.
Let’s give the budget some play here. Once again, Harsha de Silva of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya had to bat for the Opposition with regard to foreign policy. Perhaps this is because he was associated with that ministry during the previous regime; Mangala Samaraweera, the subject minister, although he hasn’t retired his mouth, has retired or at least taken a break from parliamentary politics.
De Silva claims that the government has a confused foreign policy. Dinesh Gunawardena didn’t do himself any favors by alluding to the non-aligned concept. De Silva pounced on it. However, the degree and choice of alignment in a complex international system was spelled out recently by the President when he met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: a) friendly relations with all nations, b) China has been a long-time friend, c) nothing will be done to jeopardize India’s national security concerns, d) investment welcome more than aid. The President didn’t speak on foreign policy during the budget debate obviously, but the position should have been emphasized.
That said, what are De Silva’s credentials when it comes to foreign policy? Back in the day he spoke of ‘economic diplomacy’. It translated into ‘whatever Uncle Sam says.’ However, the Brexit Moment, so to speak, brought this theory and application crashing to the ground. His former boss said ‘We will look East.’ As though he had been sleeping for twenty years!
De Silva claims that diplomacy is about honesty, sincerity, civility and responsibility. That’s a fairytale if ever there was one. In any case, such things were non-existent in the foreign policy doctrine of the previous regime. Servility on the other hand was observed as though it was an article of faith. If his party had got it all right, how come nothing tangible resulted?
De Silva speaks of servility replacing meritocracy and ability. Servility or loyalty (if one wants to be polite) does seem to be a key factor in diplomatic appointments/promotions. The Yahapalana Government was no different (which is not an excuse for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime to follow suit). De Silva knows about the appointments of J.C. Weliamuna, Lal Wickramatunge, A.S.P. Liyanage and Lalith Allahakoone among others, as well as rubbishing seniority within the service in promotions. He knows how sovereignty was compromised by Mangala Samaraweera via co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1. Amazing how one’s skills, knowledge, competence and capacity to govern seem to increase -as soon one leaves the government and sits in the Opposition. He knows how low-ranking US civil servants were offered VIP treatment violating all established protocol. Maybe he believes it is ‘civility.’An FB comment on De Silva is applicable to many in the Opposition including those currently in the Government who once sat on that side of the House: ‘Amazing how one’s skills, knowledge, competence and capacity to govern seem to increase -as soon one leaves the government and sits in the Opposition.’ And this is another comment that says a lot about diplomacy in general: ‘Sri Lanka’s ambassadors have no mandate to serve the host nations interests. They have a duty to uphold ours. There is nothing diplomatically great about begging and pleading big bullies to keep us on their friends lists. His lack of reference to Sri Lanka’s ties with any nation which doesn’t conform to capitalist models is evidence that for de Silva a diplomatic win is only a win with the West. All other victories are not worth talking about. This is also how Colombo liberals think.’In other matters that might have gone under the radar, Russia has pledged to improve ties with Sri Lanka. Sarath Weerasekera, who got the most number of preferential votes from the Colombo District has been sworn in as the Minister of Public Security. More importantly, two ministries have been brought under the purview of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He will now handle the subjects of Defense and Technology. Perhaps the President has decided it is time to get things moving without allowing Covid-19 to bog him down. A response system has been put in place, as mentioned above. People with decent track records are in charge. He obviously trusts their judgment. They will no doubt do the best they can given constraints of a) resources, b) the need to balance response with economic and social imperatives, c) the as yet unknown factors of how the virus behaves. The President can and should take a break. His leadership is required elsewhere now. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.
Dayan Jayatilleka and the Opposition Reset
Hobbes and Locke:
When both the Sinhala Alt-Right and neoliberal Right start attacking you, you know you’re occupying a centrist moral high ground. Appointing Dr Dayan Jayatilleka as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s Senior International Relations Advisor – no Junior Advisor as of yet – portends, I think, a world of possibility, for an Opposition bruised and battered by a quarter-century of self-manslaughter. The appointment as it stands doesn’t really amount to much, unless you place it in its proper context: what we have is a key theoretician, the only theoretician who can pose a credible enough challenge to what the government is doing. I do not necessarily agree with everything he has said and written over the last few months, but I do agree that the Opposition needs a radical reset. And it’s becoming more and more clear that the man best capable of handling the surgery to see that through is Dr Jayatilleka.
The problem with the SJB is that it is acting more and more like a many-headed hydra facing a rapacious but determined behemoth. To match the behemoth, the Opposition must meet it headfirst; it must critique the state’s more questionable actions while matching its better ideals. In three areas it should seek to go beyond the UNP’s paradigm: domestic economics, foreign relations, and the constitution. It’s no coincidence that Dr Jayatilleka’s critique of the government rests on these three areas, and it’s no coincidence that it’s from those vantage points that his critics – from BOTH the Alt-Right and the neoliberal Right – continue to attack and denigrate him. The first strategy must therefore be to purge the Opposition, not in the old authoritarian sense, but in the sense of removing remnants of what Dr Jayatilleka calls Ranilism: that failed neoliberal, anti-Presidential yahapalanist policy.
The yahapalana neoliberal project failed, but not because Sri Lankans are averse to a liberal polity. It all depends on what kind of liberal policies the yahapalana government was trying to dish out. At the centre of its project was a fatal disjuncture between its populist roots and its avowed policy of “liberalising and globalising” (Mangala Samaraweera, Budget Speech 2017). People voted for a social market economy; what they got was anything but. In other words the yahapalanists failed to reconcile the timeless rift between social liberalism (with its emphasis on state interventionism) and economic liberalism (with its emphasis on the rollback of the state). High on principles, and lofty ones, it floundered. For that reason, we cannot go back to 2015. We should not try to do so.
Given this, how should the SJB craft its policies in those areas? On the domestic economic front, the SJB must abandon, totally and considerably, that earlier policy of liberalising and globalising. It must think of production, since the biggest, most persistent problem facing this country’s economy today is its absence of a proper manufacturing base. It cannot hope to achieve this with piecemeal solutions; there must be state intervention, what Dr Dayan calls “a new, New Deal, Rooseveltian-Keynesian.” I am no economist, so I can’t really detail the specifics of this new New Deal. I do know, however, what it should not be: the old UNP-yahapalanist neoliberal paradigm. The new policy must be progressive, state-led though not state-monopolised, and driven by local manufacture.
Of course, in all fairness to Dr Jayatilleka, I should point out that this may not necessarily be what he has in mind or what he advocates. That is why I disagree with him when he ponders the impracticality of import controls, since local production requires “imported inputs, while a middle-class society in an MDG country, cannot sustain itself without imported consumer goods, including essentials.” Far from being a minus point against restrictions, I believe the very fact that we import consumer goods, even for local production, necessitates a cohesive substitution strategy that, while directed by the state, should be phased out.
On the foreign policy front, relations with India must be patched up immediately, while the anti-China lobby must be discouraged. To be fair by the current regime, notwithstanding the anti-Indian comments of certain Ministers it has more or less attempted to stick to its “India First” policy, even attempting the impossible: the lease-out of the East Coast Terminal to an Indian investor in the teeth of opposition from the government’s own ranks.
I don’t think it feasible or advisable, however, for the regime to have gone to such lengths to prove its India First credentials, and to Dr Dayan’s credit he critiques it extensively as well: it will, he observes, antagonise China, forcing it to try leaving behind a bigger footprint on the country. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s interlude with Tony Blinken makes it clear that Indo-US ties will only strengthen across the board against the China Factor under the new administration in Washington. Sri Lanka simply cannot afford to ignore this, but then it must not use geopolitical imperatives to go overboard when dealing with neighbours.
A clear consensus has arisen, especially among the hardliners in the regime and nationalists within the Opposition, that the ECT deal should not have gone ahead. Dr Dayan is agreed on this point, but to what extent is the Opposition in the SJB also agreed to it? We’re getting mixed signals from Sajith Premadasa’s party. Symbolically enough the tweets and messages congratulating the government vis-à-vis the ECT deal have been, not from any government figure, but from the Opposition. The SJB has mostly tilted between reluctant acquiescence (they were with the UNP when the agreement was drafted, after all) and hysterical rhetoric (Harin Fernando’s claim that the Adanis to whom the ECT was leased will take business from Sri Lanka to a port they have developed in Mundra, a claim that was shown to be untrue by N. Sathya Moorthy in a report on the deal). This is not how it should be.
The ECT deal, however, isn’t all there is to what course Sri Lanka should take regarding its foreign policy. Another issue is Geneva, the UNHRC bomb. Dr Jayatilleka is adamantly of the belief that inasmuch as the government blundered by withdrawing from Resolution 30/1, it was the yahapalana regime’s fault for cosponsoring it in the first place.
This runs counter to elements within the UNP and even SJB that still view Resolution 30/1 as a foreign policy success; Harsha de Silva’s lengthy though well detailed speech in parliament two months ago on the question of the government’s foreign policy did the rounds in every quarter, but then ended up referring to the March 2015 Geneva session on a positive note. Not so, Dr Jayatilleka warned not too long afterwards: any reform-and-reset program in the Opposition must let go of the belief that Resolution 30/1 was a success, and recognise it for the unmitigated disaster it was.
On the constitution front, the way forward for the Opposition seems clear: it must abandon any rhetoric of getting rid of the Executive Presidency. For Dr Jayatilleka, the problem with the 20th Amendment isn’t so much the fact that it restores the Presidency as it is the degree to which it entrenches it. There is a clear difference: the objective of any practical-minded and national Opposition, he implies, must be, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to retain the baby sans the bathwater. Ergo, constitutional reforms must a) not abolish or substantively reduce the powers of the EP, and b) go as far as permissible and practical vis-à-vis devolution of power, within and not beyond the 13th Amendment.
Sri Lanka’s political landscape, as it rests, is occupied by Lockean liberals and Hobbesian sovereigntists. The former are high on ideals, low on execution, while the latter are all for execution, not so much for ideals. To take a middle-ground between these two must be the aim of every self-respecting Opposition, and it seems as though Dr Jayatilleka has, despite my reservations with some of his policy recommendations, got it. We need an alternative to both neoliberal think-tanks and ultranationalist-technocratic fora. I believe the SJB has what it takes to go beyond its neoliberal roots, though I fear I’ll be proven wrong.
The solutions to Sri Lanka’s predicament must come from a left-of-centre, even Marxist, position; I believe in taking the latter course, but I also know what is practical and what is not, at least in Sri Lanka. The SJB does not stand out as a Marxist party, but then nor does the SLPP. Yet it must adroitly escape its neoliberal past, and for that, Dr Jayatilleka’s policy recommendations must be, if not unanimously, then at least considerably endorsed by the upper echelons of the party. I mean not just Sajith Premadasa, but also Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickramaratne, Buddhika Pathirana, Rajitha Senaratne, and Ajith Perera.
These ex-UNPers must realise that the old centre-right neoliberal paradigm no longer works. They must realise, in what they say and what they do, that such a paradigm must never be tried or tested out again. If getting the SJB and its officials to undergo this radical reset is all he does, I believe Dr Jayatilleka will have done his part. To reiterate yet again: there must be a purge, so that the SJB doesn’t end up as GR Lite or, worse, UNP Lite.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com