Since we proudly celebrated the eighty-fifth anniversary of Sri Lankan democracy in 2016, there has been a coup, first to replace a Prime Minister commanding a working majority in Parliament with another who could not muster a majority, followed by a move to dissolve parliament unconstitutionally. Even though Parliament and the Judiciary stood firm, these moves damaged Srilanka badly. The Economist’s Intelligence Unit downgraded Sri Lanka into the category of “failing democracies” in the sordid company of 55 states among the 165 countries it ranked.
Democracy goes hand in hand with minority rights. The Sinhalese as a people must recognize that unless Tamils and Muslims are fully recognized as Srilankans, democracy will evade all of us. New moves to pardon Gnanasara Thero, that archvillain of Srilankan communalism, send shivers down the spines of minorities. As Colombo Telegraph reports, Buddha Sasana Minister Gamini Jayawickrama Perera while forecasting a presidential pardon for the villainous Thero come Independence Day, also forwarded supporting documents from Ramanna Nikaya, Diyawadana Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dela of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagi Dharma Maha Sangha Sabha, Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Nikaya, and the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter of the Siam Nikaya.
All Sinhalese Buddhists should ask, “Are these men fit to lead the Buddhist faithful?” All minorities should ask, “What kind of independence will we be celebrating on 4 February when a man who torments us is released because, as the BBS put it, he is a national treasure?”
Colombo Telegraph quotes International Crisis Group’s Alan Keenan: “If even a self-proclaimed liberal and reformist government, with Mangala Samaraweera, Mano Ganesan and Harsha de Silva in Cabinet, allow Gnanasara to be pardoned without serious resistance, Sri Lanka seems fated to suffer more violence and tension and instability in the years ahead.” This would be what the President wants if he pardons the man.
Our Election Commission is meant to be a bulwark against moves to undermine democracy and let loose dangerous men who target minorities. Tamils and Muslims stood shoulder to shoulder in 2015 in resisting the dismantling of the rule of law. Thwarted badly in dismissing a legitimately elected parliament prematurely, the Executive seems ready to manipulate the elections by pandering to the communalist gallery. That requires breaking all commitments of protection to minorities, and engendering dark communalist forces among minorities.
So? The President appoints M.L.A.M. Hizbullah as the Governor of the Eastern Province which urgently needs the Tamil and Muslims to come together after divisions were promoted during the war years. Hizbullah failed to win a seat under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s patronage in 2015, switched sides to Sirisena and was made an MP on the nominated list. His followers somehow have to win next time.
As reported by Colombo Tiday Hizbullah has boasted of his taking over Hindu Kali temple lands for a Muslim fish market. That recording being in Tamil, a translation:
“That land was owned by a Hindu temple. There were so many problems in seizing that land. If I had failed to obtain that temple land they [the Hindus] might have built a Kovil at Ottamaavadi Town. Muslims must not forget my service in that issue. At that time former MP HON. Durairaajasinham fought with me opposing my attempts of obtaining the land. But I seized the land by misusing the power which I had as the President of District Development Committee. I took over the Kovil land and handed it over to the Ottamaavady Mosque. I am the one who allocated funds to build the market on that Kovil land and shared the shops with our Muslim people from the market which I built.”
No wonder that there was a total Hartal organized for the 25th against the appointment of this governor. I had to visit Katanakudi and Batticaloa during 23-24 Jan. and was privy to seeing personally how the shut-down was complete even in Muslim towns like Eravur as I passed through. An earlier attempt at a boycott was a failure because the police went about warning traders not to close. News reports say that theatre owner Ravipillai Mohan of the UNP did it properly this time and the police are looking for him.
With the Eastern Provincial Council closed and the Governor running it, will the elections due this year be fair? Doubtful, going by how powerful the three ministers from the East are. In the Parliamentary Elections of Aug. 2015 Hizbullah had a Women’s Grand Conference where each participant was given a bag with food packets, a mug and other souvenirs. Election Officials intervened, and took one of the bags being distributed as evidence. A complaint was lodged with the police and the bag given to them. In the absence of any police action, Sinhalese election officials (who are more effective with the police than Tamil officials in our democracy) from Colombo intervened and a case was filed. The police blithely reported in writing to the Election Official who had personally given the evidence to them, that there was no evidence that treats were distributed. The matter ended there!
There is more on this police inaction. In the run up to at the last local government elections on 10.02.2018, a campaign meeting was held going into 11:30 pm. Regulations issued by the Election Commission prohibit meetings after 11:00 pm, campaigning on the streets with a party of 11 or more, etc.. Yet with then Minister Hizbullah and the Deputy Minister Amir Ali on the stage the police took no action. When election officials went personally with the police team assigned to them, the meeting was ended. The man Hizbullah promoted, Ashfer, was elected Katankudi Urban Council Chairman.
However, no case was filed. Why? These Election Commission regulations are all flatulence and no substance. That is because our regulations have no force in law. They are designed to show that the Commission is upholding fairness in elections in full earnest. In reality, novices to elections – that is small and new parties – obey our regulations, while the experienced veterans care but two hoots knowing that no charge can stick.
To experienced parties, even real violations “can be shaped up.” For example, following up on a written complaint, I found Vijeyakala Maheswaran, a Deputy Minister, holding an election rally at a temple during the Local Government Elections. I took photographs and pushed for action. Nothing was done. When I persisted, it was said it was outside the election period. I called for the file and showed it was right in the midst of the election period. The Commission then agreed to forward the file for prosecution. Today, a few months later, nothing has been done. Similarly, the UNP during the local government elections promised Rs. 500 million for Buddhist temples. TELO’s Sivajlingam filed a written complaint. When I raised concern over the inaction, I was told there has to be a written complaint. When I produced a copy of the complaint, I was told that since Buddhism is promised state patronage in our constitution, we need to discuss this further to see if the law that “treating” is an election offence applies to Buddhism. I am publicly calling for these matters to be reopened to ensure that we do not fail even more as a democracy.
The Nineteenth Amendment was in part to ensure that an Election Commission of three took the place of the previous single Commissioner. In my reckoning, the purpose has not been realized and that part of the nineteenth amendment is a failure. For things to be different, the President and Prime Minister must stop calling only for the Chairman for private discussions. There is no earthly reason or hurry why they cannot wait for the Commission of three to meet and speak to them together. As one example, just before the controversial gazette dismissing Parliament and calling for elections, the EC Chairman was suddenly asked to meet the President the night before. UNP MPs believe that he drafted the gazette that came out the next day, saying that the setting of dates in the gazette for nominations, elections, etc. according to the law requires an experienced hand with the Parliamentary Elections Act. Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya on the other hand says the gazette was ready for going to the press when he got to the meeting with the President, and anyone reading the Act can set the dates. I take him at his word but is it not to avoid accusations of partisanship like this against those in charge of elections that we are an Election Commission of three? To keep the Commission above suspicion? Such accusations cannot be sustained if all three of us had been there.
In contrast, I just returned from the Indian Jaffna Consul’s celebration of India’s Republic Day with sumptuous feasting and aesthetic entertainment by a Chav dancing troupe, where the new Sirisena appointee as Northern Governor, Dr. Suren Raghavan was Chief Guest. He is a Tamil Buddhist. So Jaffna people were put off saying he is sucking up.
It is time we Tamils admitted that we were predominantly Buddhist in our Epic Manimehalai Period (3rd -5th century AD) and Buddhist is not always a dirty word. Accordingly many Buddhist monuments claimed as Sinhalese from a period when there was no Sinhalese language would be Tamil.
Raghavan delivered his address in perfect Tamil. He said India is not just our neighbour but a civilization, and the tent for ours. Thanks to India, he said, our freedoms were enhanced through the Thirteenth Amendment. He quoted Socrates to say that in our long journey ahead, we must walk slowly. Ex facie, Raghavan’s seems a good appointment.
Today the East is boiling. A Hindu temple in Nayaaru-Neeraaviadi has been demolished and a Buddhist temple erected. The District Secretary has told court there never was a Buddhist Temple there but the Archaeology Department (which I do not believe because of its role in colonization) says otherwise. Court hearing was to be on the 24th so the Archaeology Department backed up by the Police and a Professor Kapila Gunawardena from Peradeniya, hurriedly constructed the Buddhist Temple on the 23rd, reports the Veerakesari of 24.01.2019. Raghavan can contribute a lot as the Eastern Cauldron boils.
How will it be when elections come this year and Hizbullah as governor wields influence over the police and is in charge of all provincial facilities? Will the Commission have the will to assert the law rather than indulge in cosmetics with sloganeering like “Vote is your Right” although that right seems to yield little tangible benefit when those we elect turn out to have no commitment to democracy?
President Sirisena, many say, tried to cheat in dismissing Parliament and was thwarted by the Courts, but has learnt the ropes since then to cheat without breaking the law in appointing Hizbullah. And where does Raghavan whom I wish well fit in all this?