Monday, September 13, 2010

Our death chant for democracy

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene | The Sunday Times

There were passing antics on display this week over the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. One considerably amusing spectacle was the unholy difficulty with which apparent supporters of this perverse amendment stuttered and stammered over their positions or the lack thereof.

For instance, we had the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem embarking on a defensively convoluted explanation of why his party is switching political hats, which hearkened back to his schooldays. His pious if not quite vain hope that the independence of the judiciary will be safeguarded could only evoke ironic chuckles.

Unconvincing actors and pathetic explanations

Then we had the (erstwhile?) leftist Vasudeva Nanayakkara who cut a somewhat more pathetic picture than most when he endeavoured to explain that he was against the contents of the 18th Amendment but was anyway supporting the government due to his fear that the administration will be overthrown by unpatriotic forces. Would it not have been far more honest to have simply declared that they are supporting the 18th Amendment out of sheer self interest?

Apart from these unconvincing actors, we had External Affairs Minister GL Peiris surpassing his usual inanities when he proclaimed that the 18th Amendment will lead to a strengthening of the franchise. And the less said of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the better. This party apparently saw nothing incongruous in their firm declaration that the constitutional commissions should be independent despite the reality that the 18th Amendment actually destroys any vestiges of such independence.

All this is nothing new. We have seen such ‘patriotic’ treachery in the past. And history has always recorded this fact, even if the gains appear to be all to the contrary in the immediate present. There is no doubt that those who supported this death chant for democracy in Sri Lanka, will also have to rue this fact later.

When institutions die…

However, this column is preoccupied with a more pressing question than the antics of hypocritical politicians. The passing of the 18th Amendment brings to the fore, a curious but fundamental question. When liberties are taken away and when democratic institutions die, is it even worse than human beings dying? This is the query that came to my mind when writing to a colleague and friend this Wednesday. His immediate answer, that when institutions die living people end up living as if they are dead, touched a raw nerve.

Let us take some time to ponder this question. In the eighties, people of both the majority and the minority communities died in their thousands both in the North/East as well as the South, broadly speaking. State repression was at an all time high under the heavy hand of the United National Party. Yet there was vigour in opposition and not necessarily political opposition.

The media played a significant role as an opinion maker in compelling even the most grandiose politician to rethink certain strategies. There was intellectual opposition coming from community movements and protest groups comprising of academics, lawyers, activists and trade unionists among others, most often operating out of their homes and working with the bare minimum of financial resources.

The strength of apolitical voices

These voices did not belong to commercialized professional outfits with sprawling offices located in Colombo’s elite residential areas. Their moral authority came from the fact that they did not toe the line of any particular political party and therefore, when they spoke people as well as politicians listened. Most importantly, despite the terror of the eighties there were the courts.

Using a so called referendum to undermine the franchise by then President JR Jayewardene, the stoning of the houses of ‘politically unpopular’ judges and the abuse directed at them is now part of recorded history. Jayewardene, it must be recalled was thought to be positively Machiavellian until Mahinda Rajapaksa came along and stood this received wisdom quite upon its head.

But the point is that the judiciary (largely as a whole) kept their integrity intact during that period. A constituency of public opinion recognized the core importance of constitutional institutions in general and an independent judiciary in particular. This faith was kept alive and enabled judges to stand up against aggressive political authority, sometimes in the most dangerous of moments. Liberties lie in the hearts of people

Yet do we have this same faith today? In the sphere of public debate, we even hear dismissal of the very idea of liberal democracy. China is being touted as the role model where economic development has trumped personal liberties and political freedoms. Is this what this country, earlier referred to as one of South Asia’s oldest democracies, really aiming at?

The fact that academics, professionals, lawyers and law students protested this week against the 18th Amendment was encouraging. Far more voices should rise against the veritable dying of our constitutional institutions. We need a public constituency in support of the independence of the judiciary. Even if a judicial officer attempts to be independent, what stands between that individual and swift executive vengeance?

An appellate court judge deciding weighty issues of constitutional law or a High Court judge deciding an issue of the liberties of this country’s former Army Commander will face this same dilemma. Much of the deterioration today is due to the infamies practised unconscionably by former Chief Justice Sarath Silva during his ten year term but it is time enough and more we stopped lamenting the past.

The line advanced by some that ordinary people are not interested in the Constitution but are occupied only with filling their stomachs is so simplistic as to be virtually laughable. Such painfully superficial advocates should be reminded of Judge Learned Hand’s beautiful appeal that liberties lie in the hearts of the people and when that hope dies, no Constitution and no law can save it.

In support of a Constitution embodying justice

The 18th Amendment exposes the Constitution of 1978 as the utterly perverse constitutional document that it is. The bandages temporarily put on this constitutional obscenity by the 17th Amendment have now been stripped away and we cannot shut our eyes to this fact. This ‘basic law’ should be rejected by a growing constituency of public opinion as unjust. It should be replaced by a Constitution embodying a fairer contract between the rulers and the people.

This country could perhaps recover from the deaths of its people through a process of mourning and reconciliation. But can we say the same when institutional democracy dies? Where is the recovery then?

The Sunday Times

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Sri Lanka to establish 25 naval camps in North and East

Colombo Page

Sri Lanka defence authorities have taken measures to establish 25 naval camps along the coast of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The aim of these camps is to curb any terrorism raising its head again using Indian Ocean to smuggle lethal weapons and personnel, defense sources said.

The camps will be established at strategically important places and they will be operated as one network, sources further said.

Sri Lanka Navy has taken measures to add six Israel made Dvora Fast Attack Crafts to its fleet. Sea surveillance has also been upgraded.

Meanwhile, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe visited the Eastern Naval Area yesterday and inspected the naval establishments and training activities in the Eastern Naval Command.

The Navy Commander also visited SLNS Walagamba, Naval Deployment at Pulmoddai and Mullaitivu Radar Station and reviewed their administrative and operational readiness.

© Colombo Page

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Editors deplore Minister's threat

Lakbima News

The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka comprising all newspaper editors yesterday released the following statement:

"The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka unreservedly condemns the statement made recently by reinstated Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva who reportedly stated at a function held in Kelaniya on Thursday 9th September that ‘journalists should not write in a way which would ultimately force them to be hanged.’

“When you look at some of these people who write about me and scold me I personally know their background is not good,” he had said.

Considering the history of abuse and serial attempts at intimidation of the media by the Deputy Minister, The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka view the comments made as totally unwarranted and unbecoming of a Government Deputy Minister.

The Guild would normally dismiss these comments as those of a political maverick, but his history of violent abuse of media institutions and personnel which have been followed by damage to property and physical harm to individuals is reason for concern. The most recent humiliation of a public servant and his subsequent exoneration by a so-called party disciplinary inquiry instead of the matter being put to a court of law enhances The Guild’s concern that there is no attempt to restrain the Deputy Minister.

If any individual holding political office or otherwise is aggrieved by anything written by any journalist, there is ample legal recourse available and aggrieved persons can also use the self-regulatory mechanism of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka as a forum to air their grievances and compel erring journalistic publications to make amends.

However to state that journalists who do not write the truth ‘would be hanged’ is a very serious abhorrent and damnable statement that cannot go unchallenged in the circumstances.

The Editors’ Guild calls upon the President to rectify the situation by ensuring that threats of this nature are not issued against media personnel, or anyone engaged in the pursuit of their chosen profession, and the Deputy Minister chastised for uttering such threatening statements."

© Lakbima News

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Then they reigned happily ever after…

By Tisaranee Gunasekara | The Sunday Leader

Today there was total confusion in Sri Rajapaksistan (formerly Sri Lanka) when thousands and thousands of people changed their name to “Rajapaksa” to get into Parliament or even get a job…

Hospital authorities report that all new born babies are being named Rajapaksa by their parents (also called Rajapaksa)….

The police and the courts are having trouble with most victims and offenders being called Rajapaksa, said Inspector Rajapaksa…. Emerging reports indicate that the Mahanayake Theros and the Bishops have changed their names to Rajapaksa….

Ranil Wickremesinghe of Cinnamon Watta C7 will henceforth be known as Ranil Rajapaksasinghe”
(A 2007 anonymous e-mail titled “Aiyo Rajapaksa”)

The President celebrated the emergence of Rajapaksa Dynastic Rule with a portentous gesture. He reinstated Mervyn Silva as Deputy Minister. That obnoxiously insensitive step signalled the President’s willingness to violate any legal or moral code to assist a loyal henchman. Under dynastic rule, faithful courtiers prosper, even when they break the law. The triumphant return of Mervyn Silva demonstrates that unquestioning obedience and adoring servility are sine-qua-non for survival and prosperity in Rajapaksa-land.

And, post-18th Amendment, we are in Rajapaksa-land. Had the 18th Amendment removed presidential term-limits without enhancing presidential powers (via the negation of the 17th Amendment) or had it enhanced presidential powers but retained presidential term-limits, the damage done to Lankan democracy would not have been terminal. But the two juxtaposed cannot but ensure – and indeed are meant to ensure – that future Lankan elections will have a preordained conclusion. The Ruling Party will always win, because the 18th Amendment not only destroys the autonomy of the Elections Commissioner by giving the President the right to hire and fire him; it also emasculates the position, thereby enabling the Ruling Party to abuse state property, including the state media, at will. Elections in which the rulers always win, officially, are a staple in many countries, from Zimbabwe to Myanmar; with the 18th Amendment we too join that distinguished throng.

This momentous defeat would not have been possible without the fatal injuries inflicted on the independence of the judiciary by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She hand-picked Sarath Silva and made him Chief Justice, in order to debase the role of the judiciary from independent arbiter and protector of the law, the constitution and citizens’ rights into an advocate and enforcer for the executive. Silva eventually double crossed her and was double crossed in turn by the man whose political fortunes he saved and promoted, at two critical junctures. By then the anti-democratic vision of the former president had come into fruition, even though its fruits became the property of her successor (such as getting the 18th Amendment through sans a referendum). A country in which the legislature and the judiciary are subserviently dependent on the executive, the public service is supine and the media is threatened, elections alone cannot ensure democracy. In fact, in such a country elections will be parodies, democratic illusions to mask and justify tyranny.


The Rajapaksas are superlative at language rules. At his recent meeting with media heads, the President reportedly opined that the removal of term limits will dilute presidential powers! Either dilute has opposite meanings in the normal lexicon and the Rajapaksa lexicon or the President is too cognitively challenged to realise that increase is not decrease. Rajapaksa also stated that the replacement of the powerful Constitutional Council with the toothless Parliamentary Council – tasked solely with offering opinions to the President which he is at complete liberty to ignore – will ‘ensure the supremacy of parliament in a better way’ (Ada Derana).

By the same (Rajapaksa) logic, would the absolving of Mervyn Silva for the crime of tying a Samurdhi official to a tree amount to justice being done ‘in a better way’? It is certainly the Rajapaksa Way, as we, Lankan citizens turned Rajapaksa subjects, will realise, ere long.Last week, the police arrested the wife and the two brothers of a printer who, on the orders of the UNP, printed a not entirely apocryphal poster of Mahinda Rajapaksa with a Hitlerian visage — because the printer could not be caught. Arresting family members for the supposed crimes of a man was the norm in absolutist-monarchic times, as was the tying of supposed miscreants to trees. When presidents turn themselves into de facto absolutist-monarchs, it is but natural for monarchical values and practices to return, with a vengeance.

Compliance with the Rajapaksas is the only way to avoid trouble and prosper in the Rajapaksa-land. And our political class is learning fast, as the shameless conduct of the UNP defectors and the supine surrender of the ‘old left’ demonstrate. The SLFP, having ceded its rights, will settle down to obey with alacrity every whim of every Rajapaksa. Using stealth and deception, the Rajapaksas will continue their process of constitutional metamorphosis, one anti-democratic amendment at a time, thus evading both public scrutiny and the referendum a new constitution will require.

Ideally the UNP and the JVP should work together to resist this descent into tyranny via anti-democratic constitutional amendments. Unfortunately, the UNP will remain immersed in its leadership squabble, which, incidentally, helped ease the passage of the 18th Amendment. In reaction, the JVP may become more sectarian. The opposition will follow the UPFA in making itself irrelevant politically, leaving the Rajapaksas as the sole arbiters of Lankan destiny.
Without the chronic disunity and incapacity of the German opposition, the Nazis may not have succeeded in destroying Weimer democracy from within. And a portion of the blame accrues to the German people, for surrendering their political rights and moral inhibitions, in return for Nazi promises to make Germany great (and those promises did work, phenomenally, for a while). Still the main culprits are not the German Left or the Right but the Nazis, who, having come into power democratically and entrenched themselves in power electorally, moved inexorably to destroy democracy from within.

The Rajapaksa Brothers have managed to wound Lankan democracy, possibly fatally, thanks to innumerable sins of omission and commission by everyone of us. The UNP and the Opposition are certainly culpable, especially for losing the winnable battle over the 18th Amendment. We, the People, cannot disclaim responsibility either because the Rajapaksa process of subverting democracy from within is being partly sustained by our witting or unwitting consent (The Tamils made the same choice vis-à-vis the LTTE/ Pirapaharan). But the primary culpability must be located in the Rajapaksa Province. From the inception of the Rajapaksa Presidency, the Brothers worked, consciously and deliberately, to undermine Lankan democracy and achieve their familial and dynastic ambitions. In the Rajapaksa future, political disempowerment of all but the Ruling Family will coexist with economic repletion for the wealthy and well-connected and economic deprivation for the have-nots. The consent of the Sinhala majority for this iniquitous system will be obtained by feeding their ‘national-pride’, by intoxicating them with the belief that, as members of the victorious and dominant ethnic group, they are privileged and special, despite economic deprivation. Tamils will be compelled to abandon political demands in return for a modicum of normalcy and a sliver of economic improvement. The Rajapaksa utopia will be our common dystopia.

© The Sunday Island

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Sri Lanka: Treachery what is Left of thy name

Cartoon courtesy of Lakbima News

By Kumar David | The Sunday Island

The German Communists and Social Democrats have been eviscerated by history for not seeing that the rise of Hitler marked a tectonic shift in the history of Europe, if not the world. They failed to stop it, but they could have by determined, united and timely action in the first years of the 1930s. But my god nobody has ever accused the German Left of positive collaboration in the rise of fascism! When LSSP, CP and DLF parliamentarians support Rajapaksa’s naked grab for power, their sin is more odious than the German Left’s transgression by omission. Theirs is a crime of commission; they join the retinue of the pallbearers of democracy.

At the end of last week it appeared that my worst fears, expressed previously in these columns, may turn out to be unfounded. The LSSP’s Politburo and the DLF’s Central Committee decided not to vote in favour of the 18th Amendment and called upon the CP to join hands and stand firm. To their infamy the three figureheads (DEW, Tissa and Vasu) turned double-agents and resolved to support the executive’s grab for total power. They meekly aligned with Mahinda in defiance of their own party instructions.

Portfolios, perks and sinecures matter, stabbing parties and principles in the back is no obstacle. When before long the bayonets of the state begin to spill blood on the streets of Sri Lanka the curses of the people will come down on the heads of collaborators of all hues.

The political impact of 18A

Bourgeois democracy has been relentlessly buffeted ever since independence, the executive presidency is one of the darkest infringements of the sovereignty of the people, but nothing is as black as the future that 18A portends. A Rubicon has been crossed; the democratic system as we have known it for six decades, albeit dented and bruised, is finished. Mark my words and I do not speak lightly, we have passed into an ominous new world whose full import will unfold in time. The way back will be tortuous, perhaps bloody, and demand the direct intervention of the people. Experiences with many crooked elections forewarn us that the ballot-box of the future will be raped and debased. The Left leaders and dozens of party functionaries who enjoy official vehicles, salaries and benefits paid out of state coffers had no qualms about throwing their lot in with the artisans of future fascism.

The impact of 18A is three-fold; lifting presidential term limits, excision of the Constitutional Council and substitution of a lame duck parliamentary committee empowered to make toothless observations, and thirdly the emasculation of the Elections Commission and Commissioner. These have been dissected in articles and forums in recent weeks as the government speeds its soiled underwear through cabinet, courts and parliament, so I can safely omit summarising their individual thrust towards totalitarian power. Instead I will make just one overview observation. Everything is streamed to a single objective; all the provisions of 18A are targeted to bring absolute power into the hands of the executive president. In fact 18A is the prelude; the real game-plan comes afterwards, stage-managing future presidential elections to keep the incumbent and his family at the helm forever. Then like Marcos, Musharraf or Ceausescu, change can come only by the direct intervention of the people; 18A is the precursor to violence and conflict. The regime’s necessary complement on the streets, to this constitutional strategy in the chambers, will be, will have to be, repression; repression naked, brutal and direct. Such is the gravity of September 2010, an inexorable consequence of May 2009.

This calls for a brief aside. You may love or hate the LTTE, no matter, the point I am making in passing and have been making for some years is well summarised by a quote from this column in September 2008 – and I stand by every word of it.

"My most forceful assertion is on constitutional matters: if the LTTE is wiped out let us forget about federalism, deep devolution, autonomy and such pie in the sky. All of this came on the agenda only because of the military balance; remove the military threat and it will disappear from the radar screen. The victorious Sinhala mood, the hard-line character of the regime, the enhanced power of extremists in society and government, and Mr Rajapaksa’s own non-pluralist penchant, will ensure this. Agreed, state controlled or quisling politicians will be appointed or ‘elected’ to Tamil districts and they will be able to bargain for concessions on economic and social issues. This is a sub game not to be confused with the main game of devolution and constitution making. Furthermore, a military triumph will embolden the state to broader and greater repression and abuse of power in the South".

I take no particular delight in rubbing it into my Sinhalese compatriots that, as surely as night follows day, when state power raises itself above society through victory in a racist civil war, its subsequent transformation into an instrument for the repression of its own people is a lesson that history has demonstrated many times. The psychological setting and balances of power fashioned by the overwhelming victory of the state over the LTTE is the backdrop to today’s march to dictatorship. Triumph in ethnic (race, language, religion) war is an opiate that drugs the masses into adulation of the emperor-dictator and deadens the victor community to the worst excess in the exercise of power by the conqueror-hero. In hindsight this is self-evident, but not many saw it ahead, and before the end of the war fewer still dared warn the nation of this peril. Both the UPFA-Left figureheads and self-proclaimed pro-war ‘progressives’ failed this test. They were unable to rise above merely hurling slogans like "Defeat terrorism!"

These two paragraphs were a necessary digression from my theme: What will Sri Lanka post 18A feel and look like? I have made the point, and it can bear repeating; we are past the last of the somewhat democratic presidential elections as we know them. Others have explained the bias of incumbency and elaborated why all democratic constitutions impose term limits to counteract this bias and protect the sovereignty of the people against the excess of political power. But this is not my point; I am emphasising something else. From past electoral experiences, especially the Wayamba Provincial Council in the 1990s and the 2010 presidential election, the shape of things to come can be foreseen. The abuse of state property, vehicles and funds, misuse of power, repression, all will rise to fever pitch next time. In my reading, 18A is the law-making side for the strangulation of democracy on the political side.

Abstention versus opposition

I have been unsympathetic but willing to compromise with the Left figurehead’s previous assurances that they would abstain from the vote or leave the chamber, but will not vote against the Bill. This now stands exposed as deception to hoodwink the membership. The new poppycock is: "We are opposed to this vile constitutional amendment but we are going to vote for it!" What bipolar disorder or cunning logic inhabits these minds? Such screwball utterances have made the spokesman the national laughing stock of the week.

There is nothing of a progressive nature that can be done through this government and the Rajapaksa regime, but I was prepared to leave differences on this to one side and cooperate on strengthening opposition to 18A. Abstaining or opposing has the effect of reducing the government’s hope for 150 votes. The crucial point of abstention would have been its political impact; that is placing the left at the centre of gravity as opposition to the regime mounted in the future. The figureheads even promised to kick off the campaign by speaking strongly against 18A in the parliamentary debate before abstaining or quitting the chamber, but they have gone full circle: "We oppose it so we vote for it!" By the same logic I guess next time when they vote against a Bill they actually support it. Some dialectics!

In future years when public anger mounts on economic issues and against political repression anyone implicated in the adoption of 18A will be anathema to the people. These figureheads and the greedy state-employed party-functionaries surrounding them will be seen to have enlisted as ground troops for fascism. Indeed a problem the Left faced was that many at the grassroots level were opposed to abstention. I am fresh out of CC meetings where comrades from the districts said: "We hate 18A, we have no bloody confidence in that Rajapaksa, but the problem is our base wants you to stay in post and help with all those little things that MPs can do for poor and desperate people. We need the political leverage, letters and phone calls". The leaders neatly married these pressures with their own personal agendas to justify the sell-out.

Poor Vasu to end his political life on this garbage heap! No wonder the political party now poised to make the largest gains is the JVP; the UNP has gone belly-up and the national opposition has become the JVP. The UPFA-Left has no leg to stand on hereafter and in the hereafter! The SLMC’s cortège has already departed for Kanatte. The field has been left wide open for the JVP. Sinhala racism and the rotten state created the LTTE, then screamed "Terrorist" and split blood. Need I spell out the obvious parallels for Sri Lanka’s future?

© The Sunday Island

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Monday, September 13, 2010

SL military top brass go to China

The Sunday Times

Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has left for China on a week-long visit as the head of a military delegation.

He is accompanied by Army’s Chief of Staff Major General Daya Ratnayake, Navy’s Chief of Staff Rear Admiral D.W.A.S. Dissanayake and Air Force Chief of Staff Air Vice Marshal P.B. Premachandra.

China was one of the main suppliers of military hardware in Sri Lanka’s campaign to defeat the LTTE.

© The Sunday Times

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