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The First Presidential Debate – A National Embarrassment

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News Flash Story

Vijaya Chandrasoma

The first of three scheduled presidential debates was held in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, with Republican contender, incumbent President Trump and Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden taking center stage. The debate was divided into six 15-minute segments, set to include each candidate’s record, Covid19, the Supreme Court, the economy, race relations and violence and the integrity of the election.

Tuesday’s debate was held under the perennial clouds of the scandals involving Donald Trump, the latest one being a New York Times story about the president’s taxes, a mystery that has been guarded more carefully than the gold at Fort Knox. The Times revealed that Trump had paid no federal taxes for 11 of the 15 years before 2015, and had paid just $750 in federal taxes for 2016 and 2017. All the while enjoying the lifestyle of a billionaire. Among the most egregious of tax fraud he is alleged to have committed included a questionable $72.9 million tax refund, and a $70,000 deduction for hair styling – evidently money ill spent.

The Times’ report also revealed Trump’s personal debts amounting to $421 million to unnamed foreign creditors, which will be due and payable in 2022.

The moderator was Chris Wallace, the news anchor of Fox News, renowned for his tough and wide ranging interviews. In spite of working for Fox News, the Trump propaganda machine, Wallace is nationally respected as an impartial journalist.

Wallace did himself no favors at this debate, unable as he was to control Trump’s incessant interruptions and bullying. At times, the debate featuring the leaders of the Free World, moderated by one of the nation’s best, non-partisan Anchors, deteriorated into a shouting match reminiscent of the caterwauling of the fisherwomen in my home town of Hikkaduwa.

The consensus at the end of a painful 90 minutes on Tuesday night was that it was the most chaotic presidential debate in the history of the nation. The TIME magazine headline was “Just Cancel the Last Two Debates. America Has Suffered Enough.” Chris Hayes of MSNBC called it a “Performance of Our National Catastrophe”. Perhaps CNN Anchor Jake Tapper described the debate best: “A hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck”.

The Commission on Presidential Debates is “carefully considering” format changes for future debates, designed to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues. Short of shutting up Trump with a dog muzzle while Biden is speaking, I fear the efforts of the Commission are doomed to failure.

The debate provided many winners and one distinct loser.

The biggest winners were the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and far right, fascist organizations, when Trump refused to denounce them before a TV audience of 73 million viewers, a tacit endorsement of white supremacist terrorism. On September 17, 2020, Trump appointed FBI Director, Christopher Wray warned, under oath before a Senate Committee, that white supremacists posed the single most lethal terrorist threat faced by America today. Trump’s refusal to denounce these terrorist movements has been taken as an endorsement, a call to violence. As Plato said centuries ago, “Your silence gives consent.”

A close second were adversarial nations like Russia, China and Iran, whose ambitions to sow discord and chaos in the United States have met with spectacular success. The Kremlin and Beijing are already mocking the debate, using it as an example of proof that America has relinquished its claim to leadership, and has diminished confidence in the democratic process.

Vice President Biden completed the trifecta, by merely withstanding Trump’s desperate lies and bullying, and remaining calm. He scored brownie points by calling the President of the United States a clown, and for the most memorable line in the debate: “Will you shut up, man?”

The only loss was sustained by the American people.

No comprehensible light was thrown on the policies of the combatants, or their plans for the management of the health, economic and climate crises America faces today. Trump went on his usual rant about how he had created the greatest economy the world has ever seen, which has been slowed by Covid19; he guaranteed, given four more years, that he will take it back to its former glory, that he alone can fix the mess he himself has largely created. Wallace responded with some fact-checking, reminding Trump that President Obama’s last three years in office had higher growth rates and lower unemployment figures than those of Trump’s first three years.

When Trump bragged that he had done a phenomenal job in containing the pandemic, Biden pointed out a few examples of his colossal incompetence, including outrageous and self-serving predictions that the virus will go away, as if by a miracle, in April; that children are immune to the virus; that it can be cured with injections of disinfectant and UV rays; and that the vaccine is around the corner. The nation has to date suffered over seven million infections and 208,000 fatalities; with 200,000 more deaths projected before the end of the year. Dr. Ashish Jha, Harvard Professor of Global Health said last week that our hesitance to take personal protective measures like masks and social distancing, thanks to Trump’s happy talk and mocking of these measures as a sign of weakness, has resulted in at least 150,000 preventable deaths, to date. The virus is spiking in at least 26 states, and shows no sign of abating throughout the nation. Trump continues to downplay the severity of the virus, lying that the US is “rounding the turn” on Covid19, a statement refuted by the nation’s leading epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Trump was asked about his plans to repeal Obamacare, a case which will be heard by his stacked Supreme Court on November 10. When told that the repeal of Obamacare will result in the loss of health insurance for over 20 million people, he lied that he has a replacement health plan “in hand”. The same hand that has been hiding the same mythical replacement plan since 2017.

He was challenged that his new ultra-Christian Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, will play a major role in repealing Roe v. Wade, a landmark Supreme Court decision regarding the Constitutional right of women on reproductive freedom. Trump has long opposed this landmark decision.

There were some important, if frightening, takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:

Trump denied that he had paid only $750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017. He said that he had paid millions in taxes during that period, an assertion which he could easily prove if he would only release his tax returns for the past few years. Strangely, he made no comment about his debt of $421 million to foreign creditors. The danger to the security of a nation when its president carries huge debts to foreign adversaries is incalculable and terrifying.

Trump refused to denounce white supremacist groups, which he has failed to do throughout his presidency. Trump was asked, by both Biden and Wallace, whether he would condemn these groups, specifically the Proud Boys (a far-right white supremacist group, a part of the Trump cult who are regulars at Trump rallies), and warn them to desist from engaging in the racial violence which has recently erupted in many cities. In fact, far from warning them, Trump said “Proud Boys, Stand Back and Stand by”, an exhortation to await his orders to violence. “Stand Back and Stand By” immediately became the new rallying cry of this violent fascist group.

Trump is regarded by white supremacists as a fellow traveler and an important recruiting tool for these terrorist, KKK style groups which have proliferated throughout the nation since Trump’s inauguration. In a style immediately recognizable by those of us who lived in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 1990s, Trump is assembling an extra military force who will wreak violence at his command, if the election goes against him.

Trump refused to take the pledge that he would accept the results of the election, and to keep his supporters in check if the count goes on after November 3. He continued making false statements about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. He is inciting voter intimidation by his far right vigilantes, which is against the law. The FBI has confirmed that white supremacist terrorism provides the greatest threat to law and order since the Civil War. As Trump himself predicted at the end of the debate; “This is not going to end well.”

Sadly, there is little doubt that Trump will be the first president in the history of a once-great nation to refuse to accept the will of the electorate and surrender the White House gracefully, if he loses the election. Trump will pull out all the stops to stay in power, abusing his compliant Supreme Court, and inciting violence by his carefully assembled militia, as if his life depends on it. Which it does, as he will face multiple charges of tax fraud, sexual assault, abuse of power, even treason, the day after he leaves the Oval Office.

Decent Americans have lived the past four years enveloped by a feeling of pervasive helplessness in the face of the racist antics of a narcissistic psychopath. But this feeling is just an illusion. The American voter has the power to Make America Great Again by turning up at the polls on November 3, in what will prove to be the most fraught election in its history. One that will determine the democratic and ideological future of the nation for generations to come.


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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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