SJB manifesto sidesteps constitutional reform
by C.A. Chandraprema
The chapter on constitutional reform in Sajith Premadasa’s presidential election manifesto should have got even more attention than it did, but at the time it was released about two weeks before the presidential poll, rival candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s citizenship issue and Ven. Ududumbara Kashyapa Thera’s fast unto death over the MCC affair had pushed everything else into the background and it was unlikely that an esoteric subject like constitutional reform would come to the people’s attention in a major way. This time, Sajith’s parliamentary election manifesto has ducked the issue of constitutional reform altogether. That denotes a certain kind of politics.
Constitutional reform is one of the main platforms on which this election is being fought because the SLPP has been openly asking for a two thirds majority in order to effect constitutional reform. Sajith Premadasa’s presidential election manifesto was a complete and total capitulation to the TNA constitutional agenda. The absence of any constitutional proposals in the parliamentary election manifesto is obviously because the TNA is contesting separately and the SJB will not get any TNA votes at the parliamentary election. It’s frightening to see a main political party or at least the main faction of a mainline political party having a constitutional reform agenda predicated on winning votes. When votes are on offer, constitutional reform appears. When no votes are on offer constitutional reform disappears from the agenda.
Bartering constitutional reform for votes
President R.Premadasa made the same mistake of bartering constitutional reform for votes when he reduced the district cut off point in the proportional representation system from 12.5% to five percent in order to obtain the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress at the presidential election of 1988. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was signed into law just 48 hours before the Presidential poll on 19 December 1988. The damage this has done to the UNP itself and the country is incalculable. This made narrow minded ethnic politics possible in this country and has eroded the UNP’s minority vote base. Today the SJB is making the same mistake once again and this time, the repercussions will be even more serious because what is being bartered for votes is the very structure of the Sri Lankan state.
The need for constitutional reform is not an academic exercise. It’s a necessity. No political party other than the SLPP will be able to rule this country effectively without constitutional reform. The 19th Amendment has created a permanent state of war between the President and the Prime Minister. Today, things seem quite normal because the President is the brother of the Prime Minister in an extraordinarily close knit family which also has well established working arrangements among family members in politics. If Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been defeated at the presidential election and Sajith Premadasa had won, Sajith would by now be at war with Ranil Wickremesinghe.
After the 19th Amendment, the president cannot hold any ministry. Yet under Article 30(1) the president is the Head of the State, the Head of the Executive and of the Government, and under Article 42(3) he is also the Head of the Cabinet. Though he is the head of the Cabinet, he cannot hold any portfolio. The Constitution after the 19th Amendment does not expressly say that the President cannot hold any portfolio. What happened is that the 19th Amendment repealed the old Article 44(2) 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. Under the 19th Amendment, the President and PM have to share authority over the appointment of the cabinet.
According to Article 43(1) the President can in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation to be necessary, determine the number of Ministers in the Cabinet and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers. But when appointing MPs as Ministers, Article 43(2) requires the President to act only on the advice of the Prime Minister. Article 43(3) states that the President may at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers. However due to Article 43(2), even when acting under Article 43(3), it appears that the President has to seek the PM’s views if he is going to change the assignment of subjects to any individual Minister. The 19th Amendment created a situation where the President, Prime Minister and even the Speaker of Parliament were left holding parts of executive power. The Speaker presides over the Constitutional Council which has a role to play in making appointments to important state positions.
The 19th Amendment has also given the Prime Minister a kind of security of tenure. Under article 42(4) the President appoints as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament who is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament. Once appointed, the President according to the provisions of article 46(2) cannot remove the Prime Minister from office. The only way in which the PM can be removed is if he resigns or ceases to be a Member of Parliament. Because things look normal now, most people would be lulled into underestimating the disruptive effect of such provisions. What has saved the day are the working arrangements that has always existed within the Rajapaksa family. That will not be easily replicated anywhere else and constitutional reform should be a priority for all political parties not just the SLPP. In fact it could be argued that in an immediate sense, the SLPP is the political party that needs constitutional reform least.
The single most dangerous provision in the 19th Amendment is the complete prohibition on dissolving Parliament before the lapse of four and a half years unless a resolution is passed by parliament with a two thirds majority calling for an early dissolution. Now the President cannot dissolve Parliament at his own discretion until the lapse of four and a half years, and neither can parliament be dissolved in the event of repeated defeats of the budget, repeated defeats of the statement of government policy or the repeated passage of no confidence motions against the government. This in a situation where the system of elections more often than not produces a winner without a clear majority in parliament. Except on two occasions in the past three decades, governments have had to be cobbled together after a parliamentary election.
In 2001, when the parliamentary government cobbled together in that fashion by President Chandrika Kumaratunga began to fall apart, the President dissolved parliament and after the ensuring election, the UNP obtained the most number of seats and cobbled together a new government. This process ensured that the country did not descend into anarchy as the parliamentary government lost the ability to govern. Today that safety mechanism has been removed. If at some point into a government, its parliamentary majority falls apart, the President is required to somehow cobble together a majority and continue till the completion of four and a half years – an impossible task.
There are many housekeeping issues in the 19th Amendment that need to be sorted out as well. If anyone asks a member of the Elections Commission whether they are responsible to Parliament in the discharge of their duties, they wouldn’t know. Article 41B(6) states that the Election Commission is not responsible and answerable to Parliament while Article 104B(3) says it is responsible and answerable to Parliament. If this goes before the Supreme Court, the only way that the SC will be able to decide between Article 41B(6) and Article 104B(3) is perhaps by tossing a coin! Everyone has heard of the situation where the membership of the Elections Commission is three and the quorum is also three but if the Chairman is absent, the remaining members can elect a Chairman and hold a meeting.
There are means of removing members of the independent commissions in the event of misconduct. Even in the case of the members of the Judicial Services Commission, which is made up of the Chief Justice and the two most senior Judges of the Supreme Court, Article 111E(6) states that the President may, with the approval of the Constitutional Council, and for cause assigned, remove from office any member of the Commission. A similar provision exists for the removal of the members of the Police Commission. The way that members of the Elections Commission can be removed is through an order of the President made after an address of Parliament supported by a majority of the total number of Members of Parliament including those not present.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.