R. Sasilan: Assistant Commissioner of Elections
Today we are opening new living quarters for our Election Commission’s man-in-charge in Batticaloa. I am so glad because R. Sasilan is a man I am proud of. He stands up for what is right without fear or favor. When a minister distributed gifts in elections some years ago, he confiscated a gift pack and filed a complaint with the police. The police, as often happens, disappeared the evidence. Sasilan sent a report to the Commission and that too disappeared. When I inquired, I was told untruthfully that he never reported it. Sasilan has what it takes to be a good officer. His experience also shows the challenges of office: fear of and the need to please the political authorities who recently just ahead of elections transferred new GAs to key electoral districts.
Our franchise is safeguarded by people like Sasilan. May these quarters give comfort to those who come to live here, safeguarding our franchise instead of to promote themselves by service to political authorities.
SLAS: SL Administrative Service or SL Association of Schemers?
Sasilan’s experience shows the triple challenges faced by election officials: impunity (on which I have written much and will not touch on here), political pressure, and threats to distributed power. As for political pressure, as you know the COVID curfews were mysteriously announced lifted on 19 April to clear the way for elections, a day after Defence-Secretary Kamal Gunaratne stated firmly that until COVID is curbed, curfew cannot be lifted. Now the 100 limit on political meetings is increased. The relevant gazette is delayed. Science services political authority.
When the Colombo Returning Office had a Facebook post calling a Presidential candidate the son of a donkey, an inquiry was held. The inquiry was scheduled for 5 pm, I left the Commission after 5:30 pm when the meeting was not convened. The delay was that one officer was drunk. They met very late and declared that the RO had a new telephone, he was reading someone else’s post, his finger slipped on the polished screen, and that got posted as his. Not even a child would believe what the SLAS officers and an IT expert proffered as an excuse. I perceived a need not to find anything against a fellow SLAS officer. After the elections, the man retired and sought nomination from the ruling party. Impunity!
Today we have a situation where an RO was brought at the last minute to a big district. Gifts given for those without work under COVID came to the Kachcheri. These went to an MP who distributed them as if they are from him. There is a photo from his Facebook where his youth leader gives the package from a GS office. The furniture stock marks identify the office. An inquiry had to be launched.
SLAS officers were the inquirers. The pickup from the Disaster Management Service was tracked by the GPS showing that the vehicle running charts are cooked up. It had stopped at a home for long periods where the contributions were offloaded on the relevant days (13-19 April). It had not gone to the Divisional Secretary’s office as claimed. The GA/District Secretary claimed he had given the goods to an Additional GA with correct instructions and certified that the distribution was perfectly done. The Additional GA claimed he had distributed the goods as instructed by the GA. The Accountant of the Divisional Secretariat where the gifts were claimed to have been given, testified that nothing was given there. The beneficiary list given by the GA’s office was clearly cooked up and duplicated pages with beneficiary signatures not matching the signatory’s names.
The inquirers did not dare to question the driver who asked him to go to the unauthorized places. They claimed to lack the capacity to ask the alleged beneficiaries who they were told the donor is. They claimed to lack the capacity to check the Facebook photo claiming the goods were from an MP. No one asked the GA how he certified distribution as he instructed.
The SLAS inquiry team cleared the GA claiming there was no evidence against him (although he certified that the distribution was properly done) and that he had handed over everything properly to the Additional GA. The Inquirers did not want to let down a political corrupt RO on whose reputation the electoral system hangs.
Democracy in Danger: Threat to Distributing Power
Our franchise is in danger. One source is the SLAS itself whose structure upholds authority and impunity. The other is rolling back devolution of powers from which we have all benefitted, including the Election Commission where three members have replaced the one Commissioner. This permits greater role for dissent and alternative voices. I will focus on the distribution of power for lack of time.
Imagine Sri Lanka is one electorate. The majority will win most of the seats. It is in recognizing that different peoples have different needs to articulate, that we have several electorates to send different representatives knowing the needs of each electorate. Similarly, we have multi-member seats to allow, say Muslims to be able to return a Muslim MP in a Tamil majority electorate. The Provincial Councils are a boon to truly representative democracy. What has happened to them is like what happened to a friend’s Volkswagen Beetle when I went with him to a mechanic’s. The foot board was rusty. The mechanic kicked it hard and broke it. Then he said, “See. It needs fixing.”
Likewise, the Provincial Councils have problems. We need to fix them without breaking them.
In my LLRC testimony, I argued for a united but federal Sri Lanka. I have three daughters and a son. They are all equally my children and equally loved. But the girls have different shared bedrooms in our house because their needs are different. Under one roof we are one family but with different living quarters. The arrangement does not make my son with his own bedroom unequal to my daughters.
Indeed the arrangement gives them greater freedom to lead fuller lives, one room with boy toys and comics and the others with dolls, wall posters, and a library with books like Pride and Prejudice. Giving us, Tamil people, different space where we can give expression and life to our peculiar needs is not separation but true happy integration.
Let me also paraphrase another family-based argument that my daughter who worked for Dr. Jehan Perera heard from him. If I were to have a voting system among my children every time we go out as a family, the three girls would outvote my son and we would always end up shopping or eating at a restaurant. My son, who would prefer Casuarina Beach, would get outvoted. In time, he would want to break off from the family and go to the beach with his friends. Majority vote would lead to separation but sharing leads to integration.
That is, the wishes of the majority cannot be forced on minorities in the name of democracy and must be mediated through a federal arrangement. Yes, a good society must allow those who wish to be different to be different.
Women also are a minority in terms of power. They have different needs and sensibilities. Getting some 95% male Parliament to be their representative is not democracy. The Mannar Women’s Development Federation has said “Give one of your votes to a woman.” I endorse this. As they say, women’s rule uplifts our democracy.
There is some confusion, however. At the Presidential Elections, when MWDF urged you to vote for at least one woman, you could choose any of the female candidates. Now, however, in the Parliamentary elections, you must first choose a party, whatever it may be, and then vote for a woman from that same party. If you chose a woman from a party that you did not choose, your vote will be spoilt.
We must give choices to everyone in how our lives are run. Women especially must have a greater choice in running their lives. Vote for at least one woman from your party.
*Text of speech on 5 July, 2020 at the Election Commission’s Grand Opening of the New Quarters Building, Saravana Road, Kallady, Batticaloa