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Some election reminiscences

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A csynic once remarked that politics in Sri Lanka is ‘Poly tricks’ or ‘Podi tricks’, adding that half of the reputation of a politician was ruined by lies and the other half by the truth.

It was also his view that the gift of the gab and the toothy smile did not make one a politician. Nor does being obscure, inept, ill-educated, clueless, nonentities, verbosity.

Honesty, consistency, ability, hanydwork and commitment appear to be things of the past.

As usual various promises which could never be kept are made at elections.

The world’s first politician is said to have been Christopher Colombus. For, he did not know where he was going and also did not know where he had been. All that, he did at people’s expense.

Prior to 1947, the mode of voting was very simple. Each candidate was allotted a colour and the voting was by dropping the ballot paper into the ballot box bearing the candidate’s colour, The colours much in demand were yellow and red. Yellow, because it evoked a responsive chord amongst a great majority of the voters who were Buddhists. Red was favoured by the leftist parties. In Ruhuna, the Lion of Ruhuna, the late D.M. Rajapaksa, chose the colour brown, the colour of the soil and the staple diet of the poor, kurakkan (finger millet).

From 1947 a voter had to mark the ballot paper with a Cross (x) opposite the symbol of a candidates and drop it into a common ballot box.

In this constituency, the majority of the voters were semi-rustic humble people. And this candidate went from house-to-house canvassing. “I am contesting this seat and my symbol is the lamp. I hope you are voting for me,” he said.

“Of course Mahattaya, need you ask us that? We are certainly voting for you.” “When you get the ballot paper, please make a cross opposite my symbol.”

At the next house too, he introduced himself. “Why the devil should we vote for you? And what have you done for us? We are going to vote for the clock,” they rudely told him.

“Well, that is your privilege. Then in the square opposite my symbol (lamp), in the ballot paper, mark a cross to show that you reject me.”

In 1931, the Anuradhapura seat in the State Council comprised the entire North Central Province. Today, the NCP has been broken up into 10 seats, as the population has increased ten-fold, thanks to the colonisation schemes of the late Father of the Nation, D.S Senanayake. In 1931, one of the contestants for the Anuradhapura Seat was an Englishman named H.R. Freeman, a retired Government Agent who preferred to live with his beloved peasants of the Vanni. Freeman’s election campaign was a novel and even casual one. He did not ever ask a voter directly for his vote. He would walk into a village, and sit on a rock or a tree stump by the road, and when the adoring peasants surrounded him, as they always did, he would tell them in a very matter-of- fact manner, “‘When you get that piece of white paper and put it inside the BLUE box, I go to the Council.” And the villagers would immediately raise their hands to Heaven and cry “Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!” “And if you put the paper into the RED box,” Freeman would continue, “I go to England.” “Apoi, hamuduruwane,” the villagers would wail, “Don’t do that! We will put the paper into your blue box!” The mini-meeting being over, Freeman would pick up his umbrella, and go on to the next ‘meeting’.

In the 1931 General Election to the Ceylon State Council, the Dumbara Seat was contested by the late A. Ratnayake (later President of the Senate), and the late M. B. W. Mediwaka, and their election campaigns were something that peace loving people would like to see today. They appeared on a common platform. How nice if we could revive this sporting and gentlemanly practice today.

During the General Election in 1989, Ranjan Wijayawardena, one of the UNP candidates for the Matara District, arrived at the Matara Textile Industries Centre premises with some of his supporters to hold an unscheduled election meeting. Just then, Mahinda Wijesekera, an SLFP candidate, also arrived at the same venue to have a meeting of his own. The two rival candidates conferred, and decided to have a joint meeting. Wijesekera was the first to speak and outlining and explaining the policies of the SLFP, he appealed to all those who were not going to vote for his party or him, to vote for Ranjan Wijewardena. Ranjan in turn, after explaining the policies of his party, exhorted those who were not voting for him, to vote for Mahinda Wijesekera. At the end of the meeting, the huge crowd that was present gave the two rival candidates a standing ovation for the sportsmanship they had displayed. Incidentally, both candidates were returned to Parliament from the Matara District.

At this time the election fever was hotting up. with even candidates from the same party fighting for the preferencial votes, on which depended their being elected to Parliament. It was in this atmosphere that an election meeting was held at the Mahajana Pola at Galewala in Matale. A candidate was speaking, when he saw a rival candidate from another party coming towards the Pola, about to turn back, on seeing the meeting of the rival group in progress. The speaker stopped speaking and hailed his rival over the loudspeaker. “I say, Mr…, don’t go! Come up here and join me!” The invitation was accepted, and the candidate who was speaking, introduced his rival to the crowd, adding that there would be so many who would not vote for him (the speaker), and appealed to them to vote for his rival. The rival candidate, when he was asked to speak, replied in the same vein, adding that his rival candidate was a very honest man just the sort of man needed in politics.”

Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, the leader of the Communist Party was on his feet, addressing one of his own election meetings, when a man came up to him and whispered something urgently in his ear. Dr. Wickramasinghe stopped his speech abruptly and rushed off the stage and into a waiting car. The message was from his rival candidate, Sarath Wijesinghe, saying that Wijesinghe’s only daughter was seriously ill. After attending to the patient, Dr. Wickremasinghe returned and continued his speech, but not a word did he say about where he had gone, and why. He could have made a tremendous political capital out of it, but, the gentleman that he was, he did not.

 

Many years ago, and a certain MP noted for his quick temper and impulsive ways sought re-election. One day, while he was going round the electorate, canvassing, a supporter of his rival was rather rude to the MP.

 

The MP gave the man back in kind, and as the verbal exchange became heated, the MP drew back his fist and let his constituent have it on the jaw. Three of the man’s teeth were broken and he immediately went to the police station and made an entry against the MP. The parliamentarian was charged with grievous hurt, and the- case was postponed. Supporters, and especially speakers at the election meetings of the rival candidate, were strictly warned by their party hierarchy not to refer in any way to the incident as the matter was ‘sub judice’. But one irrepressible speaker was not to be put off so easily. Speaking at one of the MP’s rival’s meetings, this man said, “Sahodarawaruni it is nice to be loved by one’s wife. But my wife is overdoing her solicitousness for me. Every time I address a meeting and go home, she promptly grabs me and counts my teeth to see if any are missing!”

Talking of belligerent MPs, there was this not too popular chap who was nominated by his party to a certain seat. On the nomination day, as he returned home from the Kachcheri after handing in his papers, there were the usual wayside receptions and garlands. He was garlanded no less than nine times. The candidate reached his house, and leaping out of his car, grabbed his chief political catcher by the arm, and dragged him inside. Soon the people who had gathered at his house heard a loud altercation and the sound of a few slaps. They rushed into the house to see what the matter was, only to hear the would-be MP shout, Yakko, I gave you money for TEN garlands, and I got only nine!”

In one election, the doughty LSSPer Robert Gunawardena, was challenged by a prominent Buddhist coming from a very famous family which had been in the forefront of the battle for the emancipation of Buddhists and Buddhism from the restrictions placed on them by the British Raj. In his manifesto, this information of his famous family and that fact that he went to Dambadiva (the historical name for India) twice a year on pilgrimage were mentioned as qualifications. At one of his own election meetings, Robert Gunawardena, held up his opponent’s manifesto and said with withering scorn, “Sahodarawaruni, if going to Dambadiva twice a year is a qualification, then my barber is more qualified than this candidate, for that fellow goes to Dambadiva FOUR times a year!” (What Robert did not mention was that his barber was an Indian).

“In the general election of 1965 an SLFP Minister seeking re-election, had got off the stage after his speech, at one of his own election meetings, and surrounded by his cheering supporters, was making his way to his car to go to another meeting. He opened the door of his vehicle, but before he could get in, the huge crowd, surged forward, and the Minister’s hand got wedged in the door.

“Atha Atha!” (hand, hand!), yelled the politico, wincing in pain.

JAYAWEWA!” shouted the crowd, thinking he was referring to the SLFP symbol.

“Na, na, magey atha!” screamed the politico.

“Jayawewa!” roared the crowd….

Led by Somaweera Chandrasiri, the Poet of the Revolution, ‘hitivana kavi’ (impromptu verses) played an integral part at election meetings. Once when Ariyawansa Pathiraja, the famous Sinhala poet, was addressing an election meeting at Kotte, someone whispered to him that people from the enemy camp were recording his speech. Pathiraja immediately stopped his speech, and broke out into an impromptu verse:

 

Jathiya wanasala mage mulu rata holla

Newathath awuth apage chandaya illa

Tape karanawalu mun ayinak alla

Patigatha wenna honda hoowak daapalla

(“They’ve ruined our nation and shaken our country to its foundations. And now, once again they [impertinently] ask for our votes. Apparently they are furtively recording [my speech]. Let’s sound a big hoot they can tape.”) And the crowd responded with a mighty hoot!

About thirty years ago, a prominent local Marxist leader was addressing a public meeting, his theme being the equitable distribution of wealth. As he spoke, a young man in the crowd yelled out, “Everybody knows you are a very rich capitalist, Sahodaraya, so why don’t you set an example by distributing YOUR wealth among the people?”

The Marxist leader put his hand into his pocket, and taking out a ten-cent coin, tossed it to the young man. “I am worth about ten lakhs,” said the Marxist. “The population of this country is about ten million, and if my wealth is distributed among them, each person will get exactly ten cents! And now that you have got your share of my wealth, Sahodaraya allow me to go on with my speech!”

During one of those regular S. de S. Jayasinghe – Colvin R de Silva bouts for the Dehiwala-Galkissa Seat at one General Election, S de S. Jayasinghe speaking at one of his own election meetings said confidently, “I am winning this election, nonawaruni mahathwaruni! For my name begins with ‘Jaya’; Jaya for victory!” Speaking at one of his meeting a few days later,’ Dr. Colvin R. de Silva said, “I am told that my opponent Mr. Jayasinghe is bragging that he is going to be victorious, because his name begins with ‘Jaya’. Yes, Sahodara Sahodariyani! because his name begins with ‘jaya’ he may seem to win at the beginning, but come election day and I shall be the winner, for MY name ENDS with WIN.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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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

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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?

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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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