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SLPP sweeps the board How will it sweep Sri Lanka?



by Rajan Philips

There is no other way to describe it. The SLPP has won a stunning victory. It won 128 out of 196 elected seats and added 17 more from the National List for a total of 145. The shortfall of five seats for the coveted two-thirds majority is now laughably insignificant. What is significant is the district level sweep in seven of the nine provinces, barring of course the north and east outliers. The SLPP led in every district in the seven provinces, polling more than 70% of the vote in five districts, between 60% and 70% in eight districts, and between 50% and 60% in further five districts. Only in Digamadulla, the lone district the SLPP won outside the seven provinces, it polled 33%.

No party polled more than 50% of the vote in any of the seven districts in the northern and eastern provinces. The TNA alliance led in five of them, all four in the north and only Batticaloa in the east, but polling under 35% in all of them. The SJB led in only one district in the whole island, in Trincomalee in the Eastern Province, registering 40% of the vote. Its progenitor, the UNP, the oldest party in the fray, was totally shut out. It won zero out of the 196 elected seats, polling a pathetic 2.15% of the national vote. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ravi Karunanayake were both eliminated right in their Royal College backyards in Colombo. Unheard of in a proportional representation election.

Adding more insult than healing to the injury, the UNP has been given a solitary spot on the National List. The spot should go to neither RW nor RK, who are now defeated candidates. Whoever gets it will have a matching companion in parliament in the lone elected SLFP MP from Jaffna! The final tinkling of Chandrika bangles!! For the record, Maithripala Sirisena topped the list in Polonnaruwa, but under the auspices of the SLPP. Now in their death throes, the two progenitors, the UNP and the SLFP, do send warnings to their new avatars, the SLPP and SJB. Winners beware of the impermanence of political power!

UNP implosion

In contrast to its district level sweep, at the aggregate level the SLPP has only maintained the total vote it won at the presidential election in November. In fact, it polled slightly lower: from 6,924,255 to 6,853,698. The huge margin of its current victory, from 52.25% in 2019 to 59.89% now, seems entirely due to the implosion of the UNP vote. The UNP won five million votes in the 2015 parliamentary election and 5.5 million in the 2019 presidential election. On Wednesday, the SJB polled 2,771,980, and the UNP a paltry 249,435, for a combined total of just over three million votes. A drop of over two million votes from the last parliamentary and presidential elections. These votes did not go anywhere, but may have stayed at home, given the drop in voter participation last Wednesday. The official voter turnout is not known, but has been reported to be around 70%. Although this is a reasonably high rate in the COVID-19 situation, it is significantly lower than what were registered earlier – nearly 84% in the November presidential election, 81% in the 2015 presidential election, and 78% in the 2015 parliamentary election.

As for the seat count in parliament, the UNP/SJB’s seat count dropped from 105 seats in 2015 to 55 seats last week, while the UPFA/SLPP seat count increased by the same margin, from 95 seats in 2015 to 145 seats. Politically, the UNP drag has had a downward effect on both the JVP and the TNA, although both have been spared of the ignominy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He kept them waiting for five years on the long leash of his promises. Now they return to parliament rather depleted, and hopefully not too dispirited. And to a parliament minus Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The JVP/NPP will have only three MPs in the new parliament, down from six earlier. Verité Research has ranked four of the six JVP MPs in the last parliament among the top five MPs for their work ethic. But that was not duly noted by the supposedly politically savvy Sri Lankan voter. The JVP polled over half a million votes in the 2015 parliamentary election and close to three quarters of a million in the 2018 LG election. It has since fallen down, to 418,553 in the November presidential election, and a slightly higher 445,958 on Wednesday. It has nominally overtaken the old UNP, but a handful of more JVP MPs would have made a difference to the JVP and to the functioning of parliament.

The TNA has a shown similarly declining trajectory in the north and east. From nearly 570,000 votes and 16 seats in the 2015 parliamentary election the TNA (ITAK) alliance has gone down to under 350,000 votes and nine seats. It won three seats in the Jaffna District, three in the Vanni including Mannar and Mullaitivu, and three more in all of the Eastern Province – two in Batticaloa, one in Trincomalee (the Trinco City represented by the TNA leader R. Sampanthan) and none in Ampara or Digamadulla. The TNA’s shrinking vote base and the now established plurality of representation in the Eastern Province hardly augurs well for the mantra of remerging the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The TNA now has other Tamil rivals to contend with in the new parliament, besides the EPDP with whom it has established a good working relationship. It may even get along well with (Colonel) Karuna’s Party (TMVP) from the East, but it will have to watch its back for sniping from behind from Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam who returns to parliament for the first time after leaving the TNA in 2010, and CV Wigneswaran the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province. Mr. Wigneswaran might be the oldest new Member of Parliament in history, and it may not be too interesting to see what he might accomplish as a backbencher in parliament after being an irresponsible underachiever as Provincial Chief Minister.

The message from the Jaffna District is unsurprisingly mixed. Although the TNA won only three of the allotted seats in the district, it won eight of the ten electoral districts within the Peninsula, along with Kilinochchi outside it. Of the two electoral districts the TNA lost, one went to the pro-Rajapaksa EPDP (in Kayts, the seat formerly held by pioneer separatist V. Navaratnam) and the other was won by the SLFP (in Udupiddy, formerly held by the TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam). Neither Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress nor Wigneswaran’s new Tamil front won any of the ten electoral districts in Jaffna, nor did they win anything outside the Peninsula. The voter turnout in Jaffna was relatively low (under 65%) and the people would seem to have voted more out of their familiarity with the leading candidates than for any specific platform. Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran won their seats thanks to proportional representation. It is unlikely, however, that they would be proportionately restrained in their parliamentary rhetoric.

Gota’s Victory

Looking outside the Peninsula, Wednesday’s election victory can be seen as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political coming of age. The victory at the November presidential election was generally attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political stock among the Sinhalese and his campaign charms. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen as the younger apprentice brought along by his older brother for the country’s highest job. Not anymore. Gotabaya Rajapaksa owns the new victory and there is no IOU from him to the Prime Minister, or to the SLPP. The reverse was the case in November. This election was the people’s verdict on the first six months of his presidency, and a reflection of their assessment of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

The victory has enhanced the power of the President, and has invested in him an enormous amount of political capital. The question is what additional powers and political capital are there to be harnessed through never ending constitutional changes? Even if constitutional changes are deemed urgent and necessary, the President will add to his prestige and political capital if he could facilitate a set of changes that are also acceptable to a majority of the opposition MPs, and enable their passage with broad support from both sides of the parliamentary divide. On the other hand, if constitutional changes that are designed to be acceptable only to government MPs are forced through by a narrow two-thirds government majority, such passage will invariably create bitterness and bickering not only in parliament but also among the broader communities. It will also diminish presidential prestige and run down his political capital.

More importantly, is the current and unprecedented situation of continuing COVID-19 uncertainty and economic hardships the appropriate time for embarking on a fundamental constitutional overhaul? It would only distract the government from the more urgent priorities and disenchant the people who have given the President a massive victory. Regardless of political preferences, the people are hoping to see COVID-19 under control, their jobs protected as far as possible, and at least minimum redress to those who cannot keep their jobs. In these circumstances, people are not excited about the separation of powers between the President and Parliament and abstract assertions on behalf of their sovereignty. The newly elected parliament and the new cabinet must reflect the people’s current priorities. The President can facilitate both. He has all the powers he needs to do that.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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