On 5 October 2020, I had the pleasure of attending AFRIEL’s program in Moondru Murippu in Vavuniya with the Election Commission to engage youth in politics. The event commemorated AFRIEL’s Seventh Anniversary.
AFRIEL’s Director Ravindra de Silva is truly an internationalist in values. Hailing from Vavuniya he is fluent in Sinhalese and Tamil, and of course English. He had taught Sinhalese at my alma mater St. John’s College Jaffna. His wife Grace En-Tzu Chang from Taiwan who came as an International Observer for the 2013 Northern Provincial Council Elections stayed on and is Manager (Voluntary) at AFRIEL. Her services are invaluable insofar as she makes female youth at AFRIEL feel comfortable. Two hundred and fifty young people came from 15 districts. There were Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. Translations were provided making everyone comfortable.
According to de Silva, youth affiliated to AFRIEL regretted the proposed Twentieth Amendment and the change of direction the country is taking with regard to human rights and the dangerous situation regarding the Amendment. They asked for a forum where they could discuss these matters with elders. So the meeting was organized.
Two Intelligence men turned up. They asked all sorts of questions including why the organizers had not informed the police. The organizers in response asked why they had to inform the police but got no answer. Told that Inspector of Police, Mr. Paramuna, was a speaker, the suspicions of the police did not abate. The two men waited through the meeting. This is a foreboding of what life will be like after the Twentieth Amendment.
The incident brought back horrible memories of 29 May 2011. The Noolaham Foundation archiving books for posterity and research was meeting in Jaffna. The topic was preserving pictures of historic buildings and their architecture that were fast disappearing under development. The army barged into the meeting and disrupted it. We were finally allowed to proceed only with an intelligence officer sitting with us and taking notes and pictures. Prior to leaving, our identity cards were recorded. An unchanging feature in our Tamil experiences is our reluctance to insist on our rights. I as a Board member issued a Press Release. Some UK Board Members were reportedly upset that I made an issue of it and presumably made the relationship with the army difficult for future meetings! My relationship with Noolaham trailed off with that. In Moodru Murippu, the involvement of Sinhalese like de Silva and Ruki Fernando helps to bring out this incident. When we fear, the bullying army gets the upper hand.
Our accepting the police trammeling our rights is like our COVID Curfew. On Sunday 4 October, 2020 M.A. Sumanthiran at a public seminar on the Twentieth Amendment made the statement (as he had done many times earlier) that curfews declared by the President’s media office have no force in law. The strength of these illegal orders is our fear. We obey in terror of the armed forces who then have their unlawful way.
Mr. Paramuna spoke first and went away immediately. Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya spoke in his usually entertaining way. Next was the forum that I chaired. Deshapriya announced that my views on the Twentieth Amendment are known by the fact that I filed a case in the Supreme Court against it. He asked that no questions be therefore asked about it. Nonetheless, there was a question which I ducked by saying it is sub judice – but there really is no bar to discussing my views on the amendment and I did do so to the TV crew that was there and it was aired on prime news that very night.
Similarly Nagananda Kodituwakku told the Commission when he came on 6 Oct. to defend his party’s application for registration that he had filed a preliminary objection with the Chief Justice hearing the petitions requesting that the CJ recuse himself. The grounds were that the CJ had lost all credibility by advising the Sirisena government in 2018 when he was Attorney General that it was all right for him to dissolve Parliament before its four and half years had expired. He was made CJ. As related by Kodituwakku, the CJ at a later break in the hearings had ruled Kodituwakku’s objections out of order but agreed to let him address the Court as a Petitioner although he is suspended from practising law for three years by the Supreme Court as of 18 March 2019. He was found guilty of defaming the former appeal court judge, Vijitha Malalgoda. His being allowed to address his own Petition I presume is not practicing law. That this interesting episode in court has not been (or perhaps rarely) reported shows how emasculated our press is, muzzling itself in fear that there could be a contempt finding. If one looks at popular websites permitting comments, the comments have dried up since 5 August. A chilling self-censorship.
So as usual, at the Forum we ignored the rogue elephant in the unlit room like the blind men in the dark who imagined the leg of the element to be a tree trunk, the tail a brush, etc. without recognizing the danger they faced from being crushed by the elephant – the Twentieth Amendment which has weakened our democracy and muzzled our press even before it is passed – while we stage dramas about our model democracy.
All these days I had the freedom without fearing removal from the Commission to allege and try to charge the Minister of Justice for violating the laws of the Presidential Elections Act by his threatening violence against Muslims if they failed to vote for then presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If the Twentieth Amendment is passed, I could be immediately removed from the Commission. The amendment therefore takes away a strong pillar of democracy – the independence of the Commission. Likewise, I challenged the dissolution of Parliament and was upheld by the Supreme Court. But after the amendment I could be subject to removal as some rowdies in parliament have threatened to do. In April this year when the Commission was under pressure to hold elections on 25 April, we stood our ground citing national health. After the amendment that independence will not be possible, and the Commission would have its head under the guillotine.
Despite all this, at the forum we stuck to relative trivia, staging the drama to say like Little Jack Horner “What a good boy am I.” We discussed why we allowed Mannar voters to vote in Puttalam, while allowing them to claim benefits like university quotas and job quotas through their Mannar voter-registration, etc. Important issues, yes, but not even close in importance to the vulgar assault on democracy that is underway through the Twentieth Amendment. We need a referendum on the amendment to have a healthy debate.
Appropriately, the English nursery rhyme was composed in satirical reference to the dishonest actions of Thomas Horner in the Tudor period. We like Horner pretend to celebrate democracy while in fact suppressing real issues with our democracy – in fact the 90th anniversary celebration of our diminishing democracy by the EC is now set for April and on the roll to say “what a good boy am I.”
One question was on how AFRIEL’s young people are to enter politics. Politics is certainly a career field in Sri Lanka certainly where corruption is rife. Honest people can do a lot but can the young survive in a parliament where many are corrupt and rarely come to work, and the most vocal ones totally lack integrity.
At the moment as mentioned the Election Commission is examining applications to register new parties – as if we need more when we already have 70 recognized political parties whereas in India there are only 8 national parties, and 52 state parties. We have had 158 applications. As specified in an Act, the Commission should call for applications every January and award recognition if the following conditions are met by the applying group proving it has: i) A policy statement b) A constitution c) An audited account statement d) Four years of activity and e) A Board containing at least one woman. (There are also shorter procedures for those who contested parliamentary or provincial elections).
And what do we see? Cooked up accounts on a large scale because many of the applicants have operated as unrecognized political parties with no accounts or procedures. So we see some specialized accountants who sign off on the accounts for many parties with the same mistakes. In one instance the Audit-Accountant who purportedly signed off on an account said he had never audited that party’s accounts and that the signature is not his. We see meeting minutes being produced to show activities. They bear clear evidence of repeating the minutes of a sample and being repeated for every year. In a few minute books, when we checked with the printer of the book using the production stamp, the book had been printed after the date of the meeting. The Commission was persuaded this time to report forgeries to the police whereas the tradition has been to overlook these and as a result such fraud is repeated the next year in greater numbers. Indeed, the system encourages the policy “If we are not caught we have a lot to gain, and if we are caught we have nothing to lose.” Who will not want to join the rogues in parliament who have benefited so much from this corruption-sustaining system? It is because of this policy that at every election we see the same laws being flouted with no one charged. The Commission has promised to change this. I fear that after we leave office on 12 Nov. 2020 when we finish our 5-year term, it will be back to the same old game, especially when the new Commission is appointed by a government with no commitment to transparency, accountability or truthfulness as is clear from the proposed twentieth amendment which reads as if we are a nation being readied for the robbery of our wealth, of our franchise, and even of our lives.
A ghastly conclusion, So let me end positively. After the forum Grace with her excellent culinary talents, prepared a Sri Lankan feast that I enjoyed as a vegetarian. Chairman Deshapriya had his Vodka with a prawn curry to go with it. Coming from Taiwan, Grace’s table setting had the gracefulness of beauty with elegant size.