Kath Noble

A view from somewhere near Kilinochchi

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 25, 2013

Reflections on the first election to the Northern Provincial Council

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACampaigning for the Northern Provincial Council was so miserable that I decided to spend election day as far away from politicians as possible.

Both the UPFA and the TNA disappointed. Two months ago, I wrote a piece saying how bright the future would be if the totally useless discourse of patriots versus traitors could be done away with, as seemed to be happening with the TNA having nominated Justice Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate and the UPFA talking of putting forward Daya Master. But within days of publication, the UPFA had done a u-turn and declared that no former members of the LTTE would be included in its list, leaving it free to equate the TNA with the LTTE and argue that a TNA victory was bound to lead to the establishment of a separate state.

The TNA behaved no better, doing its best to restore the links with the LTTE that it had so successfully severed during the nomination process, with Justice Wigneswaran going to the extent of calling Prabhakaran a hero – very heroic, wasn’t it, shooting people who weren’t willing to die shielding him from defeat?

As I watched television the night before the election, almost every other sentence referred to the LTTE.

Yet there is no such organisation in Sri Lanka today.

What can be found are Tamils, and they are worse off as a community than they were three decades ago. The LTTE failed them, whether they realise it or not, and it is up to those of us who care about the country to ensure that the TNA does not do the same.

I am hopeful, but the election campaign was a reminder of how dangerous politics can be.

With that in mind, I spent election day trying to understand what life is like for the people who suffered the most in the war.

Because it is this same group who will suffer if the TNA cannot sustain the peace.

A couple of around the same age as my parents welcomed me for the weekend in their home a few miles outside Kilinochchi.

They don’t yet have a house, but they have managed to put together a fairly decent makeshift structure from whatever they could find or were given. They have built dry walls from the bricks of their old home around a new wooden frame, and covered it with a roof of tin sheets, palm leaves and plastic. Inside there are three ‘areas’ – a space roughly four foot by ten foot for cooking on an open fire, around ten foot by ten foot arranged as a ‘living room’ and six foot by ten foot for sleeping. (During my stay, much to my embarrassment, they slept in the ‘kitchen’.)

In their four acre property they have a well, which needs to be repaired but is still offering up water, albeit not of a very enticing colour. Anyway, we drank from it. They don’t yet have a proper toilet either, so we also carried water from the well to another makeshift but quite reasonable arrangement some distance away in the bush.

They are still waiting for help with basic infrastructure, but their situation is not desperate.

Incongruously, they already have electricity, and a television and a fridge and various other ‘luxuries’ provided by their children, who have lived near Colombo for years.

This support from relatives is vital, since they have very little income. They make a ‘living’ by running a vegetable shop in the Kilinochchi market, but I saw for myself that there is not enough custom to sustain all of the traders. How they are going to continue even this poor existence as they age further and are unable to cycle the quite considerable distance into town on a daily basis, I don’t know. They hope to clear their land and start cultivation when the rains come next month, but that too is no life for the elderly, and all of the youth of the area are busy looking for opportunities to get out.

Starting to build their lives again at 70 years of age is a pretty appalling prospect.

In terms of basic infrastructure, many of their neighbours are better off, with numerous newly constructed houses to be seen in the surrounding area.

Almost everybody seems to have received bicycles and household items from NGOs.

Some have also been given farming equipment and animals.

It is interesting to note that while the husband believes that the reason they have not yet received many of these things is that allocations are being made according to the number of members in the family, the wife feels that they are being discriminated against by their local government official, curiously enough for not having given their children to the LTTE.

They voted for EPDP.

A friend of mine living abroad wanted me to ask them why they support a party that according to allegations made to the American Embassy ran or runs prostitution rings for the Army. I told him that these people have never heard of Wikileaks – the source of the story. They don’t know English and they had never used the internet before I helped them to have a chat with one of their sons over Skype.

For me, such questions are tantamount to harassment.

Neither he nor I paid more than a brief visit to the Vanni when it was under the control of the LTTE. We did not experience the fighting up close. And we did not live in Manik Farm.

These people went through all of that.

Anyway, in those days, the TNA was supporting the LTTE, which is proven to have done much worse.

The suggestion seemed rather intolerant, and indicative of the politics of people like us who are generally quite ungrounded in the various realities of Sri Lanka.

It was a real pleasure to see the old couple go out to vote on Saturday, and to talk to many others who found time in their days to do the same. The mood in Kilinochchi seemed upbeat, as indeed it had on Friday and did again on Sunday. People went about their business as usual after voting.

The Government must be congratulated for accepting the inevitability of a TNA victory and ensuring that election day passed more or less without incident. In Kilinochchi, the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections reported that thugs attacked one of its monitors who objected to food being given to voters by EPDP, but otherwise there was very little to complain about. Of course something like 90% of the posters on view in Kilinochchi were for the SLFP, plus another 5% for EPDP and only 1% for the TNA. But that just goes to show how useless it is to ruin the environment and spend money that generally has to be earned via untoward activities trying to win over the public with posters. The result in Kilinochchi was almost the exact opposite – the TNA received 82% of the vote and got three councillors elected, while the UPFA received 17% of the vote and got one councillor elected.

There were more serious incidents elsewhere in the Northern Province, but even they compared favourably with the norm in Sri Lanka and with the experience in the other two provinces that went to the polls on Saturday.

The result itself, combined with the high turnout – 73% in Kilinochchi – did more to demonstrate the return to normalcy than any of the Government’s rather silly propaganda.

Indeed, I was very happy to note on my way from Colombo that no member of the Security Forces attempted to find out where I was going or what I was doing – as they should have understood long ago, this only reinforces the feeling that they have something to hide.

The Omantai checkpoint was a symbol of the disunity of the country.

The major problem in Kilinochchi would seem to be the shortage of business, largely due to the fact that the entire population was displaced and in the process lost everything they owned.

That is why land is so important – it is the only capital that people have, and very few of them are in a position to buy anything other than the ‘essentials’ that it produces. Acquisition by the Security Forces for their quite bewildering array of camps in the North is bound to be a major source of ongoing conflict so long as no reasonable alternatives are found by means of a genuinely consultative process. This should also include some effort to assess the environmental impact, since the camps must at the very least place an additional burden on water supplies in what is a relatively dry area. The impact on the livelihoods of the people affected by them must also be considered.

The TNA position on the military presence in the North is clearly ridiculous – they insist on a return to pre-1983 levels – but the Government should understand that it is in its best interests to settle the issue once and for all.

Even they can’t possibly believe that all of the land they are occupying is genuinely needed.

Not far from where I spent the weekend, the Security Forces have set up a training camp – an assault course is visible from the road. Obviously that need not be in the outskirts of Kilinochchi.

(Incidentally, the only minor road to be paved in the area leads right up to the gate.)

But land alone is not enough, and the TNA must immediately get going on its promised comprehensive plan for the development of the Northern economy. The UPFA did not get much beyond transportation, which is useful but certainly not sufficient – at the moment, it is mostly used to transport goods from the rest of the country into the North and people from the North out.

Fortunately, Justice Wigneswaran and his colleagues will soon realise that they have no future as politicians if they can’t persuade Tamils to continue living with them.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Sweeping thugs under the rug

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 31, 2013

Why campaigns for justice have to be honest if they are to be successful

Khuram ShaikhAn awful lot of effort is being put into bringing the killers of Khuram Shaikh to trial. The British aid worker died in Tangalle in December 2011, having been set upon by a group of men at a party in the hotel in which he was staying. His girlfriend was raped.

Of course the people who did it should be punished. His brother is doing what is both right and natural in using every opportunity to press the Government to move ahead with the investigation. And his MP, Simon Danczuk, should be congratulated for taking his job as a representative of the British people seriously – in addition to speaking and writing about the case, he has now visited Sri Lanka a number of times, most recently last week as a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation.

It is also virtually guaranteed that they are correct in thinking that without this pressure, very little would happen. The main suspect is the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha – a member of the UPFA.

But what is everybody else doing?

The British government is pretending to think that this incident suggests that Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for foreigners, having incorporated it into their travel advisory in an extremely dubious manner. It says, ‘Organised and armed gangs are known to operate in Sri Lanka and have been responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence. While there is no evidence to suggest that British nationals are at particular risk, gangs have been known to operate in tourist areas. A British national was killed during a violent attack by a gang in a tourist resort in December 2011.’

All of these sentences are factually accurate, but they don’t go together – Khuram Shaikh died because he got between some drunkards and a woman, as happens on a regular basis throughout the world, including in Britain.

What is specific to Sri Lanka is that when they have political connections, they expect to get away with it.

This is what the British government would say if it were genuinely interested in justice.

It is what the international media should say too.

The case has generated significant coverage, particularly in British newspapers. They are most concerned about what they describe as the extraordinary delay in the prosecution of Sampath Chandra Pushpa Vidanapathirana and his associates – 18 months on, proceedings have yet to get underway in the High Court.

Actually, this is completely normal in Sri Lanka. But nowhere do journalists attempt to put the incident in the proper context.

Last week, a short film on the murder of Khuram Shaikh was published by The New Yorker. Mysteriously, it spent most of the 15 minutes suggesting that his parents are racists, on the basis that they didn’t attend his brother’s marriage to a white woman, while his family have avoided telling them that Khuram Shaikh spent his last minutes trying to defend his girlfriend – another white woman. Surely there are better ways to raise such issues than exposing people who have lost a child to violence!

In the brief interlude in which it touched on the actual case, the documentary implied that cover-ups are a result of the war victory, whereas Sri Lankans know very well that this is hardly a recent phenomenon, even if it has been getting worse under Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Why worry about these details? Why not just be happy that the Government is being forced by all this attention to take action against at least one set of thugs?

Well, dishonesty begets dishonesty.

The Government is really quite stupid. It should have realised from the beginning that doing nothing was not an option, given that Khuram Shaikh was British.

But now that it has understood the situation, it is certain that the trial will go ahead eventually. What is not at all sure is whether the perpetrators will be found guilty, what sentences they will be given, under what conditions these will be served and whether they will at some point be given pardons – the traditional method of getting out of such fixes.

Finally, this is also what is going to happen with regard to war crimes.

When the Government realises that it is going to be impossible to avoid the issue altogether, it will decide which handful of incidents are the least problematic for it to look into, a few scapegoats will be identified and prosecutions will commence. If they are lucky, the accused may even be offered some kind of compensation for the inconvenience.

This is not justice.

Nor does it help to ensure that exactly the same fate doesn’t befall somebody else.

At some point, the international community will either get distracted or profess to be satisfied with what is bound to be an unsatisfactory outcome if the real nature of the problem is not exposed, and that will be the end of the matter.

In this way, something can actually be worse than nothing.

Khuram Shaikh’s case is the tip of a huge iceberg – politics in Sri Lanka is riddled with thugs, and the Government’s tolerance of their antics is legendary. Keeping up with developments in Kelaniya alone is enough to drive a person to despair. Most recently, we have been informed that former DIG Vaas Gunawardena extorted several million rupees from Mervyn Silva’s parliamentary secretary – who is apparently at the top of the Police hit list of drug traffickers – to refrain from pursuing him on drugs and firearms charges. Meanwhile, still ongoing is the investigation into the murder of Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawala, allegedly by the same parliamentary secretary’s nephew, using a gun supplied by his uncle. Mervyn Silva’s coordinating secretary is also alleged to have been involved.

Surrounded by such characters, no wonder the man is so keen to attack journalists!

And like almost all Sri Lankan politicians, he is as at home in the UNP as in the SLFP, having served as an MP under Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremasinghe as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What politicians and their hangers-on get up to in the North and East is rarely even brought to our attention.

This is the proper context to the murder of Khuram Shaikh, without which there is no hope of doing anything more than encouraging thugs to check the passports of the people they are thinking of beating up to be sure that they are not British.

He deserves a better legacy, and that is not the responsibility of his family.

This article was published in The Island on 31st July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The way forward

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 24, 2013

On the potential of the upcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council

WigneswaramFor the first time in a long while, I feel hopeful about the future of Sri Lanka. Everybody accepts that the main challenge at this juncture is reconciliation – uniting the country in spirit now that it has finally been united in body. And despite the many appalling failures of the Government – together with the complete inability of the Opposition to make any impact whatsoever on even absolutely mundane issues – there is suddenly reason to feel positive.

The Northern Provincial Council election is going ahead.

It is of course a reflection of the dismal state of post-war Sri Lanka that this very basic democratic requirement should be considered an achievement. Still, after months of frenzied campaigning by Sinhalese extremists, the fact that candidates are being nominated and preparations made is a huge relief.

Denying residents of the North the right to elect their representatives as people living elsewhere in the country do as a matter of course would have given the Tamil separatist project a tremendous boost.

This is no doubt what parties like the JHU want, since there would be no point to their existence if Sri Lankans could get along. Udaya Gammanpila somehow managed to keep a straight face while announcing that the JHU is boycotting the Northern Provincial Council election, as if there were any practical difference between contesting and not contesting when nobody in the North is going to vote for them. If Sri Lanka were to become a genuinely inclusive society, there would have to be a lot more such theoretical boycotts by the JHU.

Even more important than the poll itself are the personalities emerging, in particular Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and Daya Master.

The Government is yet to declare its Chief Ministerial candidate, but the hype in recent weeks has all been about Daya Master rather than Douglas Devananda. If it were planning on fielding Douglas Devananda, the Government could and should have given him the key role in its Uthuru Wasanthaya development programme from the beginning – he might have had some kind of a chance that way. Instead, the President chose to forget EPDP’s contribution to the defeat of the LTTE and put his brother in charge. The future of the Rajapaksas – or more charitably that of the SLFP – was considered more important.

Although this would appear to be tough luck for Douglas Devananda, he really only has himself to blame. He should have distanced himself from the Government long ago, at least to the extent that the SLMC has done by contesting elections alone.

I think that it would be no bad thing for Daya Master to lead the UPFA campaign. Anyway, his participation on the Government side puts an end to the old divide of Sri Lanka’s ‘War on Terror’. This is different to the experience in the East with Pillayan and Karuna, since they broke away from the LTTE and helped the Government to finish the war. Daya Master, KP and Thamilini, who are all now said to back the UPFA, were part of the LTTE until the final showdown.

Given the destructive nature of the ‘patriots versus traitors’ discourse in Sri Lanka, having the LTTE’s senior leaders represent the Government is very healthy. Fingers crossed that when the UPFA declares its list of candidates this week these characters all figure prominently.

Last week’s announcement by the TNA of Justice C.V. Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate was already great news.

Finally, the party has understood the need to make a break with the past, nominating somebody with no connections – or even a vague hint of sympathy – with the LTTE.

My fear with regard to the Northern Provincial Council election – other than the distinct possibility of it never taking place – was that the TNA would be pushed by the Government’s desire to make devolution as meaningless as possible to do exactly what people who oppose the 13th Amendment suspect is their real objective and use the platform to push for separation. The more difficult the Government makes it for elected representatives to implement their plans – by failing to sanction funds, blocking initiatives via the Governor and so on – the less involved they will be in governance and the less stake they will have in reconciliation and building a Sri Lankan identity.

Obviously the answer is for the Government to behave sensibly, but we know from experience that it usually doesn’t.

We also know that Tamils will regard interference with the functioning of the administration in Jaffna as discrimination, even if it is actually motivated by a general eagerness to centralise. In the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame them.

Justice C.V. Wigneswaran clearly can’t solve all of these problems by himself, but his nomination is an indication that the TNA wants to at least try to find a way to work with the Government.

I wrote a piece after last year’s election to the Eastern Provincial Council looking forward to the prospect of an administration run by the TNA in the North, on the basis that the Government has become far too comfortable in power. Thanks to the ongoing woes of the UNP – which is yet to grasp the very simple concept that image matters in politics – the Government doesn’t need to bother about what people think of its actions. It runs the country exactly as it pleases, controlling all of the elected bodies and enjoying a special majority in Parliament.

The SLMC’s decision to go into a coalition with the UPFA in the East enabled the Government to keep believing that it could rule unchallenged forever, although it may be rethinking that assumption now that its members are refusing to participate in sittings in protest at what they describe as the high-handedness of the Chief Minister and the Governor.

In the North, there will be absolutely no space for doubt.

That will also be very healthy – authoritarianism isn’t good for anybody.

It is much too soon to say whether these encouraging developments will translate into lasting change, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect otherwise. The impeachment of the Chief Justice demonstrated that anything can happen in post-war Sri Lanka – the Government is ready to go to any lengths to get its way and the Opposition won’t really bother to object. Still, given all the country has been through in recent months, I feel that even the slightest indication of progress must be welcomed enthusiastically.

This article was published in The Island on 24th July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The wilderness of the Western Province

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 23, 2013

What Mervyn Silva has to teach us about the role of thugs in politics in Sri Lanka   

hasitha madawela killingLast week, I discussed the campaign of a tiny fraction of the majority community against Muslims, and the way in which the Government is creating space for them by neglecting sensitive issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam.

Some people claim that groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya are only defending the interests of Sinhalese. If not for their ‘activism’, we are asked to believe, Buddhists would soon have to meditate in secret or risk having their heads chopped off on Galle Face Green (while being force-fed slightly overpriced meat products through the slit in the uncomfortably warm piece of black cloth that they would be compelled to don over their sarees or sarongs!).

This is obviously unbelievably foolish. Not only can they not see that at the moment in Sri Lanka their community is not in any danger whatsoever, they also fail to think ahead to what would happen if the hatred that they are encouraging boiled over into a riot. Saying that they would not participate is not enough. Their arguments may persuade others to take the law into their own hands, and they have a responsibility to take an equally strong stand against that. Violence is clearly inherently bad, but it also has an impact on how people understand the situation in the country. Sinhalese would feel responsible as a community if any such thing were to happen – and others would hold them responsible too – so that raising even legitimate grievances would be virtually impossible thereafter.

If they thought that garnering support to defeat the LTTE was difficult, let them imagine how hard it would have been if there had been a repeat of Black July. Also, let them remember how Black July led to increased support for the LTTE (including actual foreign conspiracies, not just the ones that the Government now routinely invents to divert attention from criticism of its actions!).

Even the perception of a threat can be enough to encourage young people to turn to militancy.

This has to be avoided at all costs. Even members of the 75% of the population of Sri Lanka that are Sinhalese who for some mysterious reason think that Muslims are on the verge of taking over should understand the implications of violence between communities.

Let those who speak up in support of monks who lead mobs think again. Let them look at the way in which such people behave and ask themselves whether this is really how we should go about resolving disputes.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can mull over another important question.

I said that the Government is encouraging communal violence by neglecting sensitive issues, but we have come to a point where it is no longer clear that this is an oversight.

Many ‘oversights’ are actually deliberate.

Consider Mervyn Silva.

Literally hundreds of articles have been written by people from across the political spectrum condemning the actions of this man. There is virtual consensus. Even ardent supporters of the Government have called for his removal, on the grounds that he is a thug.

The latest incident is the shooting of Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawela on January 5th.

On January 8th, one of Silva’s organisers from Kelaniya was arrested at the airport as he was attempting to leave the country. The Police also charged several other people and recovered from them a number of guns, including what is suspected to be the murder weapon. They say that it was provided by Silva’s coordinating secretary, who is also the main suspect’s uncle. The following day, a raid on the SLFP office in Kelaniya discovered swords and a hand grenade.

Madawela’s colleagues in the Pradeshiya Sabha have since accused Silva of masterminding the killing.

On January 11th, he resigned from his position as the SLFP’s organiser for Kelaniya, but we know from past experience that this doesn’t mean anything.

After the infamous case of the Samurdhi officer who was tied to a tree as a punishment for not attending a dengue eradication programme in Kelaniya, Silva was sacked from his post as Deputy Minister of Highways and suspended from the SLFP. Trade unions protested and this was an easy way to get them to stop. The SLFP then conducted an ‘inquiry’, which found that it was all a misunderstanding and the Samurdhi officer had actually volunteered to be humiliated, despite video evidence to the contrary (never mind common sense!). Within a month, Silva had returned to the Cabinet with a promotion as Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs.

Given that he has not yet been relieved of that position, we must assume that the Government believes that crimes involving trees are more serious than those in which bullets have been used.

We had already understood the Government’s position on knife crimes, since nothing much was done about the various stabbings of staff of the Rupavahini Corporation after they took Silva hostage for assaulting the News Director.

After so many incidents, this cannot be an ‘oversight’.

We can only conclude that the Government needs Mervyn Silva.

Indeed, the man demonstrated his utility during the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since it was reported that the crowds who gathered in support of the Parliamentary Select Committee were also from Kelaniya. They roamed the streets with iron rods and sticks, intimidating people who came to join the march organised by Shirani Bandaranayake’s lawyers.

Kelaniya has become the place to go for thugs.

Of course the interconnection of violence and politics is hardly new, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done about it.

In the case of Mervyn Silva, the country may eventually get lucky. The Sunday Leader alleges that Hasitha Madawela’s killing was the result of a kind of falling out among thieves. It says that a group from the Pradeshiya Sabha got into a dispute with Silva last month after another of Silva’s aides was abducted and told the authorities about a whole range of illegal activities going on in Kelaniya. They felt that Silva was going to abandon them.

Let us hope so, and let us hope that the Government in turn decides to abandon Mervyn Silva.

This may be a systemic problem, but targeting an individual can still be useful in sending a signal that change is coming.

We must also hope that change doesn’t come in the same form as it did for Hasitha Madawela. The Sunday Leader claims that he was one of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha members who was involved in the attack on the Sirasa media network, for which he was arrested but later released without charge. If the legal process had been allowed to run its course, he might still be alive.

While it is extremely tempting not to worry about the deaths of people who attack journalists, we should remember that lawlessness doesn’t tend to be so discriminating.

Contempt for the rule of law is at the bottom of many of the problems that Sri Lanka is facing today.

Since the Government is constantly strengthening its grip on the institutions that are supposed to tackle lawlessness, it is easy to become disheartened.

I must say that when I saw yet another posse of monks laying siege to a clothing store in Maharagama at the weekend, I didn’t feel very optimistic. This time it was not the Bodu Bala Sena or the Sinhala Ravaya but a group calling itself the Budhu Hiru (most likely the same handful of very foolish people under a different banner!).

We await with bated breath their explanation of what appalling national calamity they have averted.

Waiting for the Government to intervene in such matters may be almost equally as foolish, so Buddhists who don’t like to see their religious leaders shouting and running amok in the streets must get together with representatives of the minority communities to resolve contentious issues like the allegations of interference in the Law College Entrance Exam before they can be misappropriated by such people.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 23rd January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Letting the extremists in again

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 16, 2013

On the Government’s responsibility to reduce intercommunal tensions and prevent violence

bodu bala senaThe execution of migrant worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia touched the hearts of people around the world. That a girl of 17, left to care for a baby, in addition to being charged with the supervision of the other children of the household, plus the cooking and cleaning, should be punished – let alone beheaded – for what could well have been an accident, was appalling.

Equally distressing was the careless attitude of the Government. Appeals were made to the king, but it was negotiations with the family on blood money that were needed. Were they even attempted? And how is it that diplomats were so little in touch with her case that a minister claimed in a statement made after her death that she would be released very soon? The extra time that she got as a result of her appeal was due to the efforts of the Asian Human Rights Commission, an NGO based in Singapore, which raised the funds to pay for a lawyer. Would she have been convicted if the embassy had provided her with legal assistance as soon as she was arrested?

These questions have to be answered. While the remittances of workers in the Middle East are so important to the Sri Lankan economy, the Government must have the capacity to deal with the problems that they will inevitably encounter.

However, there is an even more important and pressing job to be done at home, in tackling communalism.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that Rizana was a Muslim.

These days, Sinhalese extremists are so keen to advance their campaign against Muslims that the execution of a Buddhist in a Muslim country would have become yet another of their ‘grievances’. They would have been out on the streets protesting, perhaps even burning an effigy of the Prophet Mohammed. There would have been posters and emails and a whole lot of ugly words.

It wouldn’t have mattered that Muslim countries consistently back the Government on matters equally close to their hearts, with regard to Tamils.

This is part of Sri Lanka’s post-war mess.

In the last year or so, these people have been increasingly active. We have seen the emergence of several very unpleasant websites, in Sinhala and English, dedicated to vilifying Muslims. And they are constantly on the look-out for new ways to draw the majority into their communalism. Recently, they have been talking about the ‘tax’ Sinhalese have to pay towards the construction of mosques as a result of the money some businesses spend on halal certificates, with absolutely no concern for the fact that the funds are likely used only to administer the system and that this is anyway an incidental cost for manufacturers, and one that they only bother to pay if they feel that they can sell enough of their products to the mere 9% of the Sri Lankan population that are Muslims. In other words, it is a non-issue.

But extremists are never ones to let facts get in the way of their preconceived notions. They are now urging Sinhalese to boycott shops and companies owned by Muslims, in an attempt to establish some kind of commercial apartheid.

More seriously, there have also been attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques, notably in Anuradhapura in June 2011 and in Dambulla in April 2012.

There was a time not long ago when the JHU was the vanguard of Sinhalese extremism. Its leaders were the ones who talked of sending Muslims ‘back’ to Saudi Arabia and other such nonsense.

But it would seem that something changed with the party’s success in the 2004 elections, when it secured nine seats in Parliament under Chandrika Kumaratunga, subsequently entering into an alliance with the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The need to interact in even a very flawed democratic framework had an impact, if not on the views of its leaders then on their understanding of what can be done about them in a country like Sri Lanka, and some of the least moderate of the JHU’s members broke away.

Groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya came up.

The Ven Akmeemana Dayaratne, who leads the Sinhala Ravaya, inadvertently became one of the JHU’s MPs in 2004, as the fourth man on its list in the Colombo district, when the party forced the third man to resign his seat on discovering that he had become a bit too attached to the SLFP. The leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, the Ven Galagodatthe Gnanasara Thero, was also in the JHU at that time.

No doubt the slight moderation of the JHU was not their only motivation for moving away from the party. They seem to be at least as interested in boosting their own profiles, in particular in competition with the Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero, whose humble beginnings in a tiny temple (actually a converted house) in Matara would not be easily accepted by monks from the orthodox Siyam Nikaya with thousands of acres vested in their temples by the kings of yore.

Having broken away, they need to show their strength. Yet their supporters are actually very few in number.

That is what the Anuradhapura and Dambulla attacks were about.

The monks who led the mobs on those occasions were making a point. They wanted to chase Muslims away, but with as many people watching as possible, since their objective was to demonstrate to Sinhalese that they are the people who can deliver.

What is crucial to note is that the Government encourages this behaviour.

Violence shouldn’t bring the perpetrators anything other than prosecution and imprisonment, but nowadays it is the easy way to get what you want.

In Dambulla, the Ven Inamulawe Sri Sumangala Thero could have negotiated the relocation of the mosque away from the sacred area. The temple has plenty of land to offer, and Muslims were not implacably opposed to moving. Yet that would have required discussions that could have gone on for weeks. He got what he wanted within a matter of hours when he stormed the mosque, ably supported by the Sinhala Ravaya. The Prime Minister declared that the mosque was illegal and would be removed forthwith. (Fortunately his enthusiasm to reward the mob did not endure – it is reported that more reasonable leaders subsequently managed to resolve the matter amicably.)

The Government is now doing exactly the same thing in response to protests about the Law College Entrance Exam.

Various people questioned the results when they were announced last month. According to news reports, while in almost every year until 2010 less than ten Muslims qualified, in 2011 the number was 51 and in 2012 it was 78. The three toppers were Muslims, as were 28 of the first 50. This naturally raised suspicions, since it was in 2010 that Rauff Hakeem took over as the Minister of Justice. It was alleged that he was involved in leaking the question paper, using Muslims who serve as English-Tamil translators. Equally naturally, Rauff Hakeem denied it, saying that responsibility for admissions to the Law College lies with the Council for Legal Education rather than with his Ministry, while the Entrance Exam is conducted by the Department of Examinations, but it is hardly surprising that this did not dispel all doubts.

Politicians regularly interfere in such matters, so there was no need to treat it as a communal issue. The only special feature of this scandal, if the allegations are proven, is that it was uncovered because those involved belonged to just one community.

What was needed was a credible investigation.

But although the Government immediately took action when a leak was alleged in the O Level, resulting in the arrest of five people, including a tuition master and an official from the Department of Examinations, it ignored the Law College Entrance case. This is despite the fact that unlike the O Level, the Law College Entrance is a competitive examination, meaning that one person’s success necessarily means the failure of another, which makes it a much more controversial issue.

It was only when the Bodu Bala Sena stormed the Law College that anything was done. The Principal immediately decided to suspend registrations.

People thus got the message that it pays to be violent.

Even more important is the space that this kind of response opens up for extremists.

As things stand, the vast majority of Sinhalese are not at all interested in the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya, or indeed in the JHU. They are content to live peacefully with Muslims, and they have no intention of acting on any prejudices they may have developed. They don’t read the disgusting websites that such people maintain, and they have not been roused by the shouting about halal certificates and other such red herrings. They are not stupid.

But their common sense cannot be taken as given forever.

The relationship between Sinhalese and Muslims is far more sensitive than the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils, due to the more obvious cultural differences.

Having just concluded a generation long conflict, the Government should understand the danger.

The Government has a tremendous responsibility to stop the further growth of Sinhalese extremism, yet it actively helps in the creation of ‘grievances’, and it consistently allows communalists to do as they please, even when this includes violence.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that there are as yet no comparable groups among Muslims.

When Rizana Nafeek was executed, they could also have taken it as a reason to protest against Sinhalese. They could have argued that the Government didn’t bother with her precisely because she was a Muslim, while it is an administration that is interested only in Buddhists. They would have been wrong, but there is no reason to expect one set of extremists to be smarter than any other.

The sad truth is that the girl died because she was poor.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 16th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Slaves to slogans

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 29, 2012

A few thoughts on the UNP’s criticism of flood relief efforts

sajithAs I concluded last week, it is the failure of the Opposition that has put Sri Lanka into its current mess. This political system requires competition between the two main parties, since it is only fear of being thrown out of office that limits the behaviour of the Government. When the Opposition is weak, the Government doesn’t take it as an opportunity to solve the long-term problems of the nation, free from the compulsions of electoral politics – it focuses on its own future and how it can further strengthen its grip on power. It becomes dictatorial.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has been defeated so many times that his name must surely be entered in the Guinness Book of Records. People don’t like his policies, and he refuses to change them.

His economic agenda is no more popular than his conflict resolution strategy. Indeed, they are very similar. He wants to hand over responsibility for the well-being of the Sri Lankan people and the resources that belong to them to unelected individuals with a record of exploitation.

My point was that the country seems to be doomed to undergo more spectacles like the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since the Opposition is apparently determined to remain ineffective. Eighteen years in any position should be enough. But the UNP has agreed to give Ranil another six as its leader, guaranteeing his grip on the party until well after the next presidential and parliamentary elections. (Anybody who thinks that Ranil would run the country more democratically than Mahinda Rajapaksa is an idiot – wearing a suit and tie doesn’t make him a ‘gentleman politician’!)

One really begins to wonder whether there is anybody in the UNP who is up to the job. Several of its politicians have been agitating for reforms in the party, but their campaign has now been going on for more than half a decade without any results.

And this week offered a look into the thinking of Sajith Premadasa.

Addressing the media on the floods that have afflicted Sri Lanka in recent days, he attacked the Government for its response. The Security Forces had done a good job of rescuing people, he said, but the relief being provided was condemnable. In particular, he questioned the offer of Rs. 5,000 in exchange for ten days of work, which he said amounted to ‘enslaving’ the victims.

Now, I am sure that the affected people could do with rather more than Rs. 5,000. According to the Disaster Management Centre, by Sunday, 35 people had been killed and 22 injured. A total of 44,901 people had been displaced, while 3,136 houses had been destroyed and 7,693 partially damaged. These problems obviously cannot be solved with such a small sum of money, and they are only part of the burden the victims will have to bear – the Disaster Management Centre has not collected data on the impact of the floods on livelihoods. Since the Government regularly wastes a lot more than Rs. 5,000 on totally useless activities, Sajith was right to be critical.

The people of his own district would surely prefer a bit more assistance to a Rs. 4 billion cricket stadium, for instance!

If that amount had been divided among the 66,299 families reported to have been affected by the floods, they would have each received a little over Rs. 60,000.

This is an important argument, but it is not the point that Sajith was making. He was concerned not so much with the amount as with the way in which it is to be provided – in exchange for labour. Apparently, even if the Government gives Rs. 60,000, it must be a gift.

Of course gifts are very nice. But they limit the amount that people can be given.

If the victims each need Rs. 1 million, it would require a genuinely impossible allocation, taking up the budgets of several ministries.

The idea of offering employment in exchange for assistance has already been used to good effect in this year’s drought, with farmers who couldn’t cultivate their fields due to lack of water being paid to rehabilitate local tanks instead.

The Government claims to have spent almost Rs. 5 billion for this purpose. The advantage is that instead of being cast as victims, unable to do anything to help themselves, the affected people were involved in productive work that should contribute to avoiding a repetition of the drought, or at least to reducing its severity.

Farmers will benefit from their own work, and so will the country.

We should remember that natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent. Climate change is a reality, and Sri Lanka is now facing drought and floods on a regular basis.

It is important to be prepared, and I believe that the Disaster Management Centre has done some work in that direction. But the Government should also have a clear and consistent policy on the assistance that it is going to offer to people affected by natural disasters – their fate shouldn’t be decided according to the whims of politicians.

Of course the Government doesn’t like to guarantee anything.

In lieu of such a promise, it has started to push insurance schemes.

Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in the budget speech that farmers who receive chemical fertiliser from the Government at a subsidised rate will now have to pay Rs. 150 per 50 kilo bag towards crop insurance. No doubt the motivation behind this move is not what is best for farmers but how to reduce the cost of the fertiliser subsidy, on which the Government spends more than Rs. 30 billion. Instead of providing bags at Rs. 350, they will be given for Rs. 500. This is not very honest, but perhaps one should not complain too much since the fertiliser subsidy is clearly not the best way to support farmers. (In addition to the now widely accepted impact on the environment, and hence on our health and the economy as a whole, the fertiliser subsidy is totally inefficient. To cultivate one acre, farmers use three bags of chemical fertiliser. These are sold to them for Rs. 350, when the market rate is Rs. 6,500. For the amount that the Government thus has to hand over to the manufacturers to support a single individual – nearly Rs. 20,000 – it could have bought them an indigenous cow! And such an animal would have fertilised as many as 30 acres for several years, without any of the disadvantages of chemical fertiliser. Why is it not done? Because the fertiliser companies are enthusiastic sponsors of a whole range of activities of both officials and academics.)

The problem with ulterior motives is that things don’t generally work out as we expect. One would have to see how easy it is to make a claim, since it is well known that the other major intervention in agricultural markets – purchasing at a minimum price – is largely ineffective, with the Government purposely making it difficult for farmers to take advantage.

Better than insurance schemes, or at least as well as them, would be a guarantee of work in exchange for a minimum income.

My advocacy of this idea is inspired by the experience of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, passed in 2005, which guarantees 15 days of employment at the minimum wage to Indians living in rural areas willing to do manual labour. Despite being plagued by corruption, as most things are in India, it has made a vital contribution to the development of the country.

The situation in rural areas in Sri Lanka is nowhere near as difficult as in India, except perhaps in the former conflict areas, but the country could still think of such a scheme islandwide.

Alternatively, this could also work as a Disaster Recovery Scheme.

It would be the opposite of enslavement, since it would confer on the Sri Lankan people a new right that they do not as yet enjoy, without imposing on them any new duties.

And that is bound to be popular.

Sajith Premadasa had better give it some more thought.

Of course Ranil Wickremasinghe cannot be expected to approve. His neoliberal handbook says that it is only a matter of time before we are all as rich as him, so long as the Government doesn’t try to help the process along.

He must love being in the Opposition!

This article was published in The Island on 28th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The limits of the budget debate

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 17, 2012

What sloganeering misses about the budget and what the budget tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity

chamal rajapaksaParliament has become a place where its members go for a free lunch when they have no better offer. And it would seem that MPs receive plenty of attractive invitations, since most of them are rarely to be seen in the chamber, even for a nap on the comfy recliners the Sri Lankan people have so thoughtfully funded, assuming that their representatives would be spending long hours debating the future of the nation.

The Speaker admitted as much last week. There is no point in holding the budget debate, he said, when the responsible ministers are not present.

In principle, he was quite right. Why bother to ask questions about the allocation for higher education when SB Dissanayake is not there to answer or at least to hear what is being said? Suggestions cannot be taken into account in formulating policy if the person taking the decisions is ignorant that they have even been made. And on the day Chamal Rajapaksa made his statement, only four out of the scheduled twenty-two ministries were represented!

However, practically speaking, we should probably breathe a sigh of relief when ministers stay away.

Consider the Parliamentary Select Committee that has been impeaching the Chief Justice. Ministers enthusiastically attended every one of its sittings. But what did they contribute? When they were not calling Shirani Bandaranayake names, they were justifying a very obviously unjustifiable process on the pathetically simplistic grounds that what Parliament says goes. There was no debate about the decision to require the Chief Justice to reply to more than 1,000 pages of ‘evidence’ literally overnight. It was simply declared by the ministers present. Likewise, once she had walked out of the proceedings in protest at her treatment, there was no debate about calling the ‘witnesses’ they had previously said would not be available for cross-examination. They arrived within minutes, once the coast was clear. And by the following day, the Parliamentary Select Committee had managed to finish its ‘deliberations’ and prepare a lengthy report (including references to cases from as long ago as 1852!) – more work than any of the ministers had done in the previous year.

But what Parliament says goes. And in this case it said that it didn’t care to give the Chief Justice a fair trial according to the principles that Sri Lanka applies to everybody else (including ministers!).

In any case, the budget debate is generally used by MPs not so much for commenting on the Government’s plan for the following year as for presenting what they hope will be a headline-catching soundbite, on whatever subject happens to take their fancy.

And this time was little different.

The Opposition quickly latched onto a catchy slogan. The budget was summed up with the phrase ‘lamborghinis for politicians, badagini for the people’, which no doubt resonates with the middle class in Colombo. However, it is not really accurate. If things were that simple, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be a lot less popular than he is with the masses.

Of course the war victory is important in explaining the support he enjoys among the majority Sinhalese, but it can no longer be the only factor.

We need to understand the secret of his success. For if the President were even somewhat more unpopular, his capacity to use the powers that he has won would be considerably restricted. He would not be able to control Parliament to the extent that he does today.

And then the Chief Justice might just stand a chance.

As the Government’s plan for the following year, no matter how many changes are bound to be made later, when nobody is paying attention, the budget gives us an idea of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appeal.

The lamborghini-badagini slogan is not really accurate, but it is not completely inaccurate either. As the UNP’s chief economist MP Harsha de Silva pointed out, the budget maintains taxes on food such as milk powder and tins of salmon while exempting racing cars. He called it a budget for the 0.1%, no doubt consciously evoking parallels with the popular campaign of the Occupy Movement in the United States and elsewhere that talks about 1% of the population controlling an ever greater share of the country’s wealth. His point was that only the richest of the rich can afford racing cars, which are now going to be cheaper thanks to the Government’s proposals, while the price of basic food items is of most concern to the poor.

The Treasury issued a totally ridiculous statement in response to this criticism. It seems that it is not lamborghinis but go-karts that are being exempted from tax. Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? People are constantly complaining about the cost of go-karts!

Of course tax exemptions for racing cars of whatever kind are completely misguided.

The proliferation of such random concessions is one of the many things that are wrong with the Government’s tax policy. The more complicated the system, the easier it is to avoid paying one’s dues. At the same time, exemptions mean less revenue for the Government.

Far too little attention is paid to the appallingly low level of tax revenue being collected in Sri Lanka. Taxes amounted to only 12% of GDP in 2011, far below the international benchmarks of 25% for a Middle Income Country and 18% for a Low Income Country, as noted by Anushka Wijesinha in a recent article on the Institute for Policy Studies ‘Talking Economics’ blog. And rather than improving with average incomes, the ratio is getting worse. This is a massive anomaly.

In the absence of sufficient tax revenue, the Government resorts to borrowing, which tends to push the country ever further into debt.

Another huge problem is the extraordinary dependence on indirect taxes, meaning taxes that fall not directly on incomes but indirectly through consumption.

There are two issues here. First, the two forms of taxation are not substitutes. Indirect taxes create inflation, since they add to costs – if a company has to pay taxes on its inputs, it will simply increase the price of its output to compensate. By contrast, direct taxes have no inflationary effect. And so long as the Government spends the money it collects, taxing corporate profits actually increases the level of profits in the economy and thus also the national income. This is counterintuitive, but non-economists should try to understand that this is often the case in economics. Something that is true at the level of an individual is often not true at the level of the economy as a whole. A company might believe that taxes reduce its profits, but it does not exist in a vacuum – the effect of spending by the Government increases economic activity and generates increased profits, albeit not necessarily for that particular company. (This idea should be more easily accepted now, since it was such a fallacy of composition that Keynes pointed out at the time of the Great Depression, saying that if individuals all saved more then aggregate demand would fall, which would mean a lower national income and thus less savings in the aggregate – the ‘paradox of thrift’. The Global Financial Crisis and its aftermath have repopularised his ideas regarding the need for what is now called a ‘fiscal stimulus’ to get out of an economic downturn.)

Secondly, the poor bear more of a burden than the rich when taxes are collected indirectly rather than directly, since consumption forms a larger share of their income. They may spend half of what they earn on food, but it would be physically impossible for Bill Gates to do likewise – even throwing so much food away would be a challenge!

In Sri Lanka, direct taxes constitute only 20% of the total, with the remaining 80% being indirect taxes. This compares extremely badly with other countries.

Totally ignored by just about everybody, the Government is busy making things worse. Last year, when it finally restored income tax liability to public servants, it managed to ensure that this resulted in no overall increase in tax collection by significantly reducing tax rates and doubling the tax-free allowance. And this year it has introduced a whole range of additional concessions, such as reducing the income tax rate for IT professionals to 16%, organic tea exporters to 12% and large scale poultry farmers to 10%. Meanwhile, companies that list on the stock exchange are to be given a three year half tax holiday. And these are just the new measures. Some time ago, the Institute of Policy Studies estimated that concessions offered by the Board of Investment to foreign companies cost Sri Lanka 1% of GDP, in the process of attracting investment that amounts to no more than 1.5% of GDP – and this money would likely have come anyway, since foreign companies openly state that they are not primarily interested in the level of taxation. Soon it will cost the Government more to administer the tax system than it actually collects!

Many of these issues were undoubtedly highlighted by the Presidential Commission on Taxation, which spent about a year working solidly on the issue, submitting its report in October 2010. But Mahinda Rajapaksa has declined to publish it.

When presenting the budget, he highlighted the fact that the Government has not resorted to privatisation, a recruitment freeze in the public sector, cuts in subsidies or neglect of infrastructure development, even though it is short of revenue. But what the President was hiding is that he has nevertheless cut expenditure. Or rather he has prevented expenditure on certain items – education and health in particular – from going up in line with the national income.

Why? Because he wants to meet the fiscal deficit target set by the IMF.

I would argue that there is absolutely no need to follow the advice of the IMF, but even doing so would not have been a problem if Mahinda Rajapaksa had got a grip of tax policy.

All that said, even if we limit ourselves to discussing tax policy, Harsha de Silva’s analysis of the budget is tellingly off the mark.

He wants to abolish taxes on milk powder and tins of salmon, but these are not just a matter of revenue. They are an integral part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s programme for the development of agriculture in Sri Lanka. Backed up by a whole range of other interventions, including through the much criticised (including by me) Divi Neguma, they provide incentives to farmers and fishers to boost production, since they increase the price of imported goods. And they are working.

Sri Lanka has become self-sufficient in rice, maize and black gram, and will soon be in green gram, onion, sugar and milk.

This is a good thing, since the prices of food on the international market are now subject to speculation by financiers, who regard it as just another commodity. They are volatile and increasing at a faster rate than ever before.

It is also one of the reasons why Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular with the Sinhala masses. For he has put a lot of money into rural areas.

Rural areas have also benefited from what I would describe as his other major economic policy – maintaining a large army and putting them to work in all manner of ways. I have written at length against this on political grounds, but economically speaking it has been a key source of growth. And the budget shows that there will be no change in approach. It justifies a significant increase in spending on the police on the basis that they will take on some of the responsibilities that the army handled during the war, while making no proposal to reduce spending on the army.

An addition this year is the plan to establish twenty technical colleges catering to the requirements of jobs in other countries.

Of course there are many other things to be said about the budget, but they will have to be left for another opportunity. For the moment, let us simply realise that things are not as clear cut as Harsha de Silva made out.

The UNP’s problem is that it has no coherent alternative to present to the people. Its policies under Ranil Wickremasinghe were tremendously unpopular, and he does not appear to have changed his mind about them. What is worse, the UNP does not appear to have changed its mind about him. He has been given another six years to accomplish what he could not do in the last eighteen. And the country’s problem is how to keep Mahinda Rajapaksa in check when the Opposition seems so determined to remain ineffective.

Until that question is answered, any debate in Parliament is bound to be a waste of time.

This article was published in The Island on 17th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Overkill

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 5, 2012

One of the many reasons Sri Lanka needs to retain its independent Supreme Court

jaffna protestWe really should have learned by now that suppressing the peaceful activities of young people, however much we disagree with them, never actually works. There are always repercussions.

The Indian police created a massive public outcry a couple of weeks ago when they arrested a 21 year old girl for making a totally innocuous comment on Facebook. Why, she asked, should the city of Mumbai shut down for a day to mark the death of a politician? A friend who ‘liked’ the post was also indicted. They were first accused of ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’, then ‘statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes’. After spending a night in a cell, during which time the cops were presumably scouring their legal textbooks for something a bit less obviously untrue, the students were finally charged with ‘sending false and offensive messages through communication services’.

The objective of the exercise was to let people know that some opinions are simply not acceptable. They will not be allowed to pass, and the response will not come only in the form of words. There will be action too.

Followers of the politician mobilised both official and unofficial agencies to get their point across to Maharashtrians. An angry mob gathered outside the police station in which the girls were being held and goons attacked a hospital owned by one of their relatives.

They counted themselves lucky to be locked up.

Such is the legacy of Bal Thackeray, founder of the Shiv Sena. The man was never so much as Chief Minister, but he was tremendously influential in Maharashtra. And he was even more controversial. A populist in the style of Adolf Hitler, who he sometimes professed to admire, he continually railed against outsiders, and he openly encouraged violence against them. After his first Dusshera rally in Mumbai in 1966, his supporters went off to burn South Indian shops and restaurants, and they never looked back. They were responsible for the first political assassination in the state after Independence too – the 1970 killing of communist party leader and trade unionist MLA Krishna Desai. And in 1974 they murdered Dalit leader Bhagwat Jadhav, announcing yet another target group.

Mumbai is now best known for the 26/11 attacks, but there have been many worse atrocities in the city. For example, riots killed several times as many people in 1992 and 1993. And a commission set up by the state government blamed the Shiv Sena for the worst of the crimes – its MLAs even testified that Bal Thackeray had personally called them and ordered them to get Muslims killed.

Analysts have suggested that his frequent obnoxious outbursts were not sincere – unlike Adolf Hitler, he did not really believe what he said, only exploited sentiments that he knew would make him popular. But that is unlikely to be much comfort to the victims.

The Shiv Sena has converted an awful lot of people to its cause over the years, including police officers.

Fortunately, Maharashtra is still part of India. And public anger in the rest of the country at the arrest of the girls had a near immediate effect. Responding to a petition filed in Delhi, the Supreme Court called for an explanation from the state, and the responsible central ministry issued new guidelines on the use of legislation designed to limit freedom of speech.

This is long overdue, since the Indian police are renowned for their eagerness to wilfully misinterpret the law when it happens to suit the powers-that-be.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is busy dispensing with such checks and balances.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice has been proceeding at top speed in the last few days, presumably because the Government has realised that the whole episode is going to be deeply embarrassing and had better be completed as soon as possible. Indeed.

Since we are prevented from commenting on the proceedings in the interests of fair play – ha! – let us simply hope that we do not forget Shirani Bandaranayake the moment she is ejected from her post.

For the Supreme Court has a lot of work to do.

The Sri Lankan defence establishment is renowned for its achievements on the battlefield, but even its supporters agree that it doesn’t always understand how to handle ordinary people.

Its opponents are convinced that it is intent on genocide.

I am reminded of its attempt in 2007 to evict from Colombo all migrants from the North and East. The Government argued that it was very difficult to identify terrorists, so in order to stop bombs going off in the city they had to impose restrictions on Tamils. Numerous measures were generally accepted as reasonable in the circumstances, such as mandatory registration and regular search operations, but then the Government decided to start sending people away. Several hundred Tamils were loaded onto buses in the middle of the night and sent to Vavuniya, on the basis that they had no ‘valid reason’ to be in Colombo. It was appalling discrimination of a kind that was also very unlikely to be of any use in the campaign against the LTTE. Worse, it pushed Tamils further into Prabhakaran’s open arms. Acting on a submission by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Supreme Court put a stop to it, and the Government apologised for what it admitted had been a huge mistake.

This was vital recognition that security matters cannot be exempt from oversight, even during times of war.

In peacetime, such reviews of Government action can and must be intensified. And the Supreme Court must start with the recent attacks on students in Jaffna.

The Government continually tells the world that complaints about militarisation in the peninsula are hugely exaggerated. It says that the military can and must be present throughout the island, and that it is taking steps to reduce the number of personnel in Jaffna. This may well be the case, but statistics are not the only thing that matters. Even a single unit can be a problem if its members do not behave appropriately.

And it is clear that the powers-that-be in Jaffna have no idea about appropriate behaviour.

According to the eyewitness report of MP E Saravanapavan, on the night of November 27th, the Army and Police forced their way into two hostels of the University of Jaffna, claiming that they suspected students of preparing to light lamps to mark the deaths of LTTE cadres on Heroes’ Day. Some of the young people called their parents, and the message got through to the parliamentarian that trouble was brewing. When he arrived at the scene, he found army officers in the process of beating up the editor of Uthayan, who he promptly took to the hospital. The situation calmed down and the crowd dispersed. Then on November 28th, the students reassembled in the campus to protest the crackdown. They sat holding posters, some with their mouths covered with black cloth to imply that they were being gagged. Saravanapavan states that when they moved from the gate in a procession, they were set upon by the Army and Police. Seven students were seriously hurt. Four were arrested.

Opinions vary over whether the students were even marking Heroes’ Day, as the defence establishment asserts, or whether they were simply celebrating the Hindu Festival of Lights, Karthikai Theepam, which happened to fall on the same date this year.

That is hardly the point.

Of course it would be preferable if Jaffna youth broke from practices begun by and associated with the LTTE. Heroes’ Day is not the best time to remember the dead, at least not without proper acknowledgement of how the LTTE contributed to their passing.

But there is absolutely no chance that simply telling young people that they should not do it is going to work.

In a politically charged atmosphere like post-war Jaffna, when the defence establishment issues orders, it only succeeds in further alienating people from the Government. And when its orders are accompanied by the use of force, the result is even worse. Instead of supporting deradicalisation, as is needed to ensure that Nanthi Kadal really was the end of the Tamil insurgency, it is playing into the hands of the extremists, giving them plenty of material to use in their propaganda.

Let us remember that this was about lighting lamps!

If the Government does not recognise that it was wrong to intervene, it needs to be told. The public may already be on the verge of losing its voice due to the sheer number of reasons it is being given to cry out, but this one is just as important as the others.

The youth are a special category in any society, as this country knows only too well.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 5th December 2012. The online version may be accessed here.

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The good news and the bad news

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 7, 2012

On the attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice and the calls for the repeal of the 13th Amendment

The good news is that there is nothing illegal about impeaching the Chief Justice. If one third of MPs sign a petition requesting it and one half approve the petition once it is presented in Parliament, the Constitution says that she has to go.

That’s reassuring isn’t it?

It is what the Government has been claiming, in any case.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that if Mahinda Rajapaksa can remove the Chief Justice for doing nothing more than failing to support him wholeheartedly, tomorrow it may actually be illegal to fail to support him wholeheartedly. For who is to stop him passing a bill to that effect? It won’t be MPs, that’s for sure. They are firmly stuck under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thumb. And the Chief Justice would by then know better than to rule the legislation in violation of the Constitution, since to do so would be to guarantee early retirement.

The matter of proving ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘incapacity’ is totally insignificant in the circumstances, as the administration has demonstrated that it has absolutely no shame.

International scrutiny is laughably ineffective – the Government was perfectly happy to announce the impeachment attempt as its representatives were preparing to defend its record at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where it was bound to attract condemnation.

Indeed, it seemed determined to antagonise its critics, as just days before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had once again raised the prospect of repealing the 13th Amendment.

Let this be a warning to those who look overseas for solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems.

The only opinions that matter are those of voters.

This is good news for the judiciary, since people can relatively easily be persuaded of the importance of the law and judges who apply it judiciously. The attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice has already drawn a forthright and near universal response in the media. Public opinion will eventually follow, and we will soon find out whether or not this will happen in time to save the current incumbent. Let us hope so, whatever we think of Shirani Bandaranayake.

Although the Government hasn’t deigned to explain what she has done to attract its ire, we can assume that it has to do with the Divi Neguma Bill, which I discussed in these columns some months ago.

Curiously enough, the same dispute has also been used to justify the repeal of the 13th Amendment.

The Chief Justice delayed the Divi Neguma Bill by insisting that it first be approved by the provincial councils, since its subject falls in the concurrent list. Hence both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice must go? It is ridiculous. Even supporters of the Divi Neguma Bill must admit that it is not more important than the Constitution.

The bad news for minorities is that it is very difficult to persuade the majority in Sri Lanka of the importance of devolution.

This is ironic, since both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice are means of distributing power away from the President. Everybody accepts that it is dangerous to make one person all powerful. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the now often quoted saying goes. Thus a little power is entrusted to the Chief Justice, and much less is given to the provincial councils. I stress, we are not talking about a lot of power. That still remains with the President.

But the 13th Amendment was a response to war, and people struggle to separate it from the suffering Sri Lanka has undergone in the last three decades.

I have argued for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment on too many occasions already, and I struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to do so again, since the level of debate is frankly pathetic. The argument that India foisted it on Sri Lanka so it must be rejected is totally unconvincing. That was then and this is now. Sri Lanka can very well judge the 13th Amendment on its own merits. Just as it can very well re-demarcate its provinces if it wants, rather than complaining that the ones that it has were defined by the British. This is simply a distraction.

The same goes for the alleged waste of money. I am quite sure that everybody reading this article can write a list of at least ten things that cost the Government more than the provincial councils that are definitely more wasteful. Let them first save that money before they start getting rid of institutions that minorities want.

This is what matters. As Mano Ganesan reminded us the other day, all Tamil parties want the 13th Amendment, whether they are in the Government or with the Opposition. The only group that didn’t want it was the undemocratic one that perished with Prabhakaran in Nanthi Kadal. And why did the LTTE not want it? Because Prabhakaran realised that it wasn’t going to bring him a separate state, now or later, and that’s what he was committed to achieving, extremist that he was. The most vociferous in calling for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, ignoring the views of minorities, used to argue that Prabhakaran did not represent them and that people should pay attention to those who were willing to use the ballot box rather than bullets and bombs. It seems that they prefer terrorists after all.

I do not say that the 13th Amendment is the best solution to any problem, just that it must not be abandoned unless the minorities can be persuaded that something else would be an improvement.

But unusually for a post-conflict nation, Sri Lanka has not a reconciliation policy but a policy of antagonism.

The only people with whom the Government is keen on reconciling are those who can help it to remain in power.

Hence the ‘release’ of KP. It is of course highly unusual that official spokesmen cannot agree on whether or not the man the Government abducted from Malaysia is still in custody or not. But the fact is that he is definitely not in jail, as are hundreds of people who participated in a much smaller way in the LTTE’s terror campaign. He is back in Kilinochchi, running an NGO.

Justice does not require his prosecution, but surely it demands an even-handed approach?

(The Government is now promising to bring cases against members of the Security Forces accused of excesses. Why on earth should they suffer more than KP?)

Perhaps this is Plan B.

If Plan A of repealing the 13th Amendment cannot for some reason be implemented, the Government will want to do everything possible to keep control of the provincial councils. It has managed to delay elections in the North for a very impressive three years already, but it may eventually have to call them. It is currently talking about September 2013. Plan B may be to use KP to collect votes for the Government, to supplement the support enjoyed by Douglas Devananda.

This may not be illegal either. But it is probably more bad news than good.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 7th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A one-man show with a one-man agenda

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 25, 2012

Why the search for another non-party ‘common candidate’ is doomed to failure

When launching an initiative in Sri Lanka, it is well known that one should be careful to call it the opposite of what it really is. Worried about infighting? Then be sure to include the word ‘united’ in the title. Concerned that the dubious public image of the leaders may dissuade people from joining up? Then it is inspirational concepts like ‘freedom’ that one needs to reference.

And so it is with the National Movement for Social Justice, whose inaugural rally was held in Colombo last week.

Sarath Fonseka’s latest attempt to resurrect his political career was a flop. Several hundred people came to listen to him speak. But he could not get the support of any established political parties, which is after all what is needed when it comes to winning elections. The organisers didn’t bother to invite the TNA, the JVP was united in ignoring the event, and even the UNP reformists weren’t keen on attending – Sajith Premadasa was convinced from the off that it wasn’t worth the struggle with Ranil Wickremasinghe, while Karu Jayasuriya left it to the last minute to decide to drop out. Even the remnants of the DNA, which Sarath Fonseka himself established, didn’t all show up.

He was left with the United Bhikkhu Front and a few individuals like Sarath N Silva, former Chief Justice, about whom the less said the better, plus assorted NGOs.

As such, Sarath Fonseka proved once and for all that his role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was a one-off. It was an extraordinary contest at an extraordinary moment in the country’s history. Just a few months after the end of the generation-long war, the Army Commander took on his Commander-in-Chief. He will not get another chance.

I am relieved, I must say.

Few people believed Sarath Fonseka’s pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency when he made it the first time around. Indeed, even he didn’t seem totally convinced, so busy as he was making promises.

I certainly didn’t trust him to give up power. For why did he enter politics? Because he was upset at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to allow him to further increase his empire as Army Commander. His plan for the post-war expansion of the Army was rejected by the Government. Critical as I am of Mahinda Rajapaksa, I believe that this decision indicates that he is not as bad as Sarath Fonseka might have been.

While this may not be saying much, it is the choice that Sri Lanka was faced with.

Also, justified or otherwise, Sarath Fonseka was commonly regarded as a guy concerned more with ends than means. Even if this was necessary in the circumstances, which is debatable, surely we can all agree that it is not a desirable trait in a peacetime leader? In peacetime, there can be no discussion about the acceptability of exceptions to the rule of law, although, as we have seen in the last three years, they may still occur in abundance. (Mahinda Rajapaksa is working hard to develop a similar reputation for himself.) But although we do not know for sure who is responsible for many of the worst crimes committed during the war, such as the various attacks on journalists (now totally forgotten, unlike the attempted assassination of Sarath Fonseka, one of the perpetrators of which was sentenced to 35 years rigorous imprisonment this week), I don’t think that there is any chance that Sarath Fonseka is less guilty than Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sarath Fonseka may have changed since then, having lost first an election and then his liberty. But I still believe that there are many people more suited to running the country than him.

I also believe that symbolism is important. Sri Lanka’s president should not be a military man.

Of course there is nothing wrong with people from other fields going into politics after their retirement. Even there is nothing wrong with military men going into politics. But the presidency is different. The president represents the country, to its people and with the rest of the world. Sri Lanka should be giving the impression that it is moving away from the military, not drawing closer to it.

This is a sensitive time, and such matters should be handled sensitively.

It is for the same reason that the proposal being advanced by various people in the last month or so for the Ven Sobitha Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Vihara, to put himself forward as a ‘common candidate’ is also undesirable.

Whether or not one agrees with the analysis of those who took up arms against the State, there is no getting away from the fact that one of their arguments was that the State is irretrievably Sinhala Buddhist in nature. And there is no need to give them another reason to think so.

Also, if the Ven Sobitha Thero were to pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, many people would trust him.

I dare not suggest that they would be anything but wise to do so, which is why I believe that the clergy should keep out of politics altogether.

The clergy are given special treatment in view of their office, and rightly so. Religion is important to the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka, and the leaders of the various faiths play an important role in their lives. They should maintain their honoured position. But when the clergy become politicians this is impossible. Either respect for them diminishes or the democratic functioning of society is undermined. There cannot be any hesitation about criticising elected representatives.

In any case, it is not the Executive President who can abolish the Executive Presidency. That is the task of Parliament.

The real question for those who advocate a ‘common candidate’ is whether or not they can trust the UNP.

I think that last week’s rally gave us a good indication of the future, and it is a future without the National Movement for Social Justice.

The UNP may be divided, but its various factions are clearly agreed on one point – it will be putting up its own candidate for the next presidential election. Ranil Wickremasinghe will of course try to make sure that it is him. After all, he will only have been party leader for a mere 20 years by then! But he won’t have an easy time. Sajith Premadasa is perhaps starting to think that he might make it, while Karu Jayasuriya undoubtedly hasn’t given up hope either.

Sarath Fonseka’s role as the ‘common candidate’ in the 2010 presidential election campaign was only possible because the UNP was sure that it could not win, the vote taking place so soon after the war victory.

And such circumstances are unlikely to be repeated.

Rather than ignoring this reality, people interested in anything more important than Sarath Fonseka’s political career had better shift their focus away from distractions like the National Movement for Social Justice and back to where it is needed.

The established political parties need serious attention. Each one of them is in chaos, with no clearly defined programme and leaders who should have relinquished their positions long ago. They have split or they are in the process of splitting. And with each split they get weaker, leaving Sri Lankan democracy worse off. They should be looking inward, working out how to get themselves and the country out of the mess they are in, not waiting for outsiders to act.

They all have good names. They just need to remember what they mean.

This article was published in The Island on 25th October 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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