Sunday, January 17, 2021

It will take a lot to bury 2020, but let’s give thanks for being alive

The year 2020 was eminently forgettable and that has very little to do with politics. The obvious need not be stated. As for the political, we had parliamentary elections and the passage of the 20th Amendment. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna effectively consolidated its hold on power, securing close to a two-thirds majority. The UNP (official) was routed and the UNP (in new garb, i.e. the SJB) was a distant second.

The new parliamentary configuration resulted in the 20th Amendment being passed. Of course there were objections. Court was petitioned. The Attorney General promised that certain articles would be amended at the ‘Committee Stage’ and the court ruled, except with regard to just a single article, that if this was done a special majority (two-thirds) would suffice. Clarity in the structure of governance, sorely compromised by the 19th Amendment, was restored. Most of the powers clipped from the office of the president by the 19th Amendment (in order to strengthen the then prime minister, appointed in contravention of all established procedure and at the time not even enjoying a parliamentary majority), were restored. The dangers are obvious but that’s something that the Opposition cannot complain about.

So, in effect, 2020 was a ‘pohottuwa’ year. The Opposition, in disarray, did make a few noises towards the end of the year thanks to Covid-19 and little else. The Opposition could not even hold on to the worrisome incident at the Mahara prison where 11 persons died and over 100 were wounded. It was distracted by the controversial ‘Dhammika Syrup’. The UNP is yet to name someone to the national list slot that came its way. The JVP has gone silent. The strongest party in the Opposition, the SJB, seems to be readying for a cold war for party leadership.

Patali Champika Ranawaka launched a separate political project called ‘The Group of 43.’ Ranawaka, who left the Jathika Hela Urumaya, was named one of six Deputy Chairmen of the SJB which technically dilutes his position in the party. He is not even the Deputy Leader (there is no such post, at present). Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary of the UNP and recently appointed as the General Secretary of the SJB, claimed ‘Sajith Premadasa will be the common candidate of the Opposition.’ There’s a long way to go before parties nominate presidential candidates but if Attanayake’s predictions come true, Ranawaka’s obvious political ambitions would take a hit. It is unlikely that he would let himself be shoved to the sidelines. Interesting times ahead, therefore.

With the two major elections done and dusted following a rousing victory for the SLPP in the local government elections (February 2018) which in fact gave that party its initial momentum, only the provincial councils are left to be fought over.

The PCs have been dissolved for several years now. The administrative apparatus remains and of course Governors who are from time to time appointed, removed and replaced. Illegally constituted though they are, the PCs remain part of the overall governance structure. They are constitutional by habit, if you will. Have they served any purpose, though? They have certainly helped the career politicians, many of whom have seen PCs as stepping stones to Parliament. A lot happens at the provincial level, especially with regard to education and health, but as we’ve seen over the past three years or so, all you need for effective delivery of services is decentralization of administration. It is not as efficient as could be, but in the very least things are no worse than when the PCs were fully functional.

Anyway, whether or not to hold PC elections is a political decision. The Government is currently mulling comprehensive constitutional reform which could take the form of a fresh constitution. The future of the 13th Amendment is at stake here.

Perhaps this is why the likes of Dayasiri Jayasekera and former president Maithripala Sirisena have made some noise on the subject (Note: the SJB, the JVP, the UNP and not even the TNA has uttered a single worry-word in this regard).

Dayasiri Jayasekera, State Minister and General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), while acknowledging that the electoral system should be amended has stated that any decision regarding PCs should be first discussed with India. That’s strange because India didn’t keep her part of the deal in the Indo-Lanka Accord signed in July 1987. It was, in the first place an Indo-Indo Accord; drafted by India, signed by Rajiv Gandhi who saw it as ‘the beginning of the Bhutanization of Sri Lanka’ and by J.R.Jayewardene (under duress) to secure India’s interests. Sri Lanka was only interested in getting the LTTE disarmed. India undertook to do it but did not.

Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP and former President, in an interview with ‘The Hindu’ told Meera Srinivasan that ‘abolishing PCs [would be like] playing with fire.’ That comment was taken as the headline. Sirisena, to his credit, wasn’t at all gungho about PCs, a point that ‘The Hindu’ has played down for obvious reasons. Sirisena clearly expressed disappointment with the PCs and proposes decentralization through ‘District Development Boards.’ It is only when Srinivasan pushed him on ‘abolition’ that Sirisena, slipped to diplospeak, alluding to (non-existent) ‘friendship’ between the two countries, speculating that ‘India could get a little upset’ and quickly upping it to the headline-possible, ‘abolishing PCs is like playing with fire.’

The Government, meanwhile, has decided that PC elections will not be held soon. That’s not good news to politicians looking to move up. The so-called lower ranks do play a role in the larger political game, but then again the next test, so to speak, is several years away. Postponement of elections is not a good thing. The previous government paid a heavy price in this regard. This government could too, unless abolition is being seriously contemplated. That would require a constitutional amendment where the two-thirds might be harder to secure than it was in the passage of the 20th Amendment.

Sirisena, in that same interview, has stated bravely that the SLFP is planning a rejuvenation program. He complains about SLFPers being treated like second-class citizens by the SLPP, forgetting that such is the fate of any small party aligning itself with one that is larger, more popular and far better organized. Srinivasan interjects the SLFP’s numbers (14), but doesn’t state the obvious that it is highly unlikely that the SLFP would have got so many members in had it gone alone in August 2020. Sirisena’s comments about the SLPP-SLFP alliance is a sad whine. If, for example, the 13 who contested under the lotus bud symbol were asked to choose one party over the other, the majority are likely to ditch Sirisena and the SLFP. The SLFP is ready to go alone, Sirisena says. The SLFP did go alone just three years ago (Local Government Elections) and was well and truly creamed. There’s nothing to indicate a mass migration of people from the SLPP (or any other party for that matter) to the SLFP.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has discussed the matter of constitutional reform and concluded that it would call for a mechanism formulated with the involvement of the international community. The party has already drafted a 21-page proposal to the experts’ committee appointed to draft a new constitution. It is reported that this draft includes suggestions to formulate new laws pertaining to certain aspects such as education, law, land tenure, health, agriculture and irrigation on the Northern and Eastern Provinces. 13A+, so to speak, is what the TNA’s proposal would be, certainly not support for abolition or a shift to a district-based system of devolution/decentralization as the SLFP seems to be inclined towards.

The SLFP is not the only party that’s in crisis. Developments in the Northern Province indicates that internal disagreement has cost the TNA. The elections of the Mayor of Jaffna by the Municipal Council following the budget being defeated twice resulted in Wishvalingam Manivannan of the EPDP with 21 votes edging out the TNA’s Arnold Emmanuel who got 20 votes. On the same day, the TNA candidate for the post of Chairman, Nallur Pradeshiya Sabha, Koomaraswamy Mathusuthan (8 votes) was pipped by Padmanathan Mayuran, the candidate filled by the TNPF, a party led by Ganendran Ponnambalam.

These losses do indicate that Tamil people are to some degree disenchanted with the TNA and may look for leadership elsewhere. That, however, would be later. These squabbles notwithstanding, it is likely that all Tamil political parties will resist any moves to abolish the 13th Amendment. They are also likely to welcome any move in any multilateral forum that had the potential to embarrass or wound the present government.

The most thorny issue at hand of course is that of how to dispose the bodies of people who have died on account of Covid-19. At present the Government has ruled out burials on account of infection worries. This has irked many Muslims, here and abroad, who see this as a racially motivated position. A Muslim organization based in the UK is to sue the Government. The BBC has put a spin on the story. Par for the course, one might say. It all points to one thing: all roads lead to Geneva when the government in power is not to the liking of Europe and North American governments.

Sri Lanka does not stand to win anything by appeasing those who knowingly or unknowingly play into the hands of the big boys and girls on the global stage. It’s a naduth-haamuduruwange, baduth-hamuduruwange game, after all; a global version of the USA’s play on Sri Lanka with respect to the MCC Compact. It was supposed to be a gift which Sri Lanka didn’t seem to be interested in; so the offer was withdrawn with not so veiled threats of repercussions. It’s just about playing a game skewed against you under rules made by the powerful and amended at will by the same.

The issue of burial has been politicized. The Muslim leaders are guilty of this politicization — when a solution (burial in the Maldives) was proposed, those who take diktat from God and aspire to God’s kingdom suddenly became patriotic, wanting the dead to be buried in ‘The Motherland’. It has been politicized by extremists in the majority community who demand that the Government should not pander to the whims and fancies of the Muslims. The Government has not done itself any favors by doing zilch about necessary changes in accordance with the election promise, ‘One country, one law.’ The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act stands. The unchecked Madrasas still function.

However, it is wrong to dismiss the burial option simply because Muslim leaders have been intransigent, extremist and absolutely racist. It is also wrong to dismiss the dismissal of the burial option because it is espoused by Sinhala Buddhist extremists and chauvinists. Acceptance or rejection has to be based on scientific evidence.

As things stand and as the eminent virologist Dr Malik Peiris has explained, it is highly unlikely that burial is risky in terms of infection. ‘Highly unlikely’ sits this side of ‘absolutely impossible,’ but then again, if strict burial protocols are observed, it is less risky than, say, the possibility of infection in a supermarket by an unidentified carrier. Moreover, there are theoretically hundreds of locations on this island where burial would have no risk whatsoever. Sure, the chest-beating Muslims worried about the afterlife haven’t bothered to look for empty land in all-Muslim areas so they could say ‘if there’s a risk, we’ll take it.’ That’s beside the point.

The question is simple: how should bodies be disposed? The answer, based on scientific evidence, should be expressed by the Government. Experts have been asked to give their recommendations. They’ve had enough time. Their conclusion should be made public. Clearly. Logically. Regardless of who is pleased or displeased. It is a communication problem, in essence. If ‘politics’ HAS to be injected (and we do understand that this is more probable than possible) AND if it’s an issue of allaying the anxieties of one community at the cost of aggravating the anxieties of another community, it has to be sorted out by addressing the full gamut of issues that come under ‘politics of religion.’ For example, if burial is deemed safe and it is felt that this would cause the Sinhalese to suspect that the government is pandering to particular minority, then all relevant and unresolved political issues need to be sorted out. As pointed out in this column previously, the full implementation of the recommendations tabled by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Extremism (February, 2020).

Death-rites cannot wait, though. Politicians and officials are notorious for foot-dragging. Disposal is a ‘Right Now’ issue. The Government can, if it is concerned about political fallout, issue clear statements about what’s being done on other counts as alluded to above.

The disposal issue is likely to be sorted out soon. It won’t stop the USA, UK and other rogue states from beating Sri Lanka down with one or more heavy clubs at their disposal in Geneva in a few weeks time. Those are factors beyond anyone’s control. We saw what Mangala Samaraweera’s appeasement strategy did. Nothing.

In the end, the government can trust only one political entity. The people. Take the hard decisions, explain them and trust the people to understand. Do a lot, not just one thing, for in ‘the lot’ there will be several things that will be applauded. Otherwise, like what happened to the yahapalana gang, the tag ‘anti-people’ will be pinned firmly on the body of the government. Not by NGOs and foreign powers (their pins just won’t stick) but the people!

Writing this on January 1st, I am acutely aware that today is not unlike the 31st day of December, 2020. The world has not changed and change has little or nothing to do with the structure of a calendar.

But let’s say hello to 2021 anyway. Let’s learn to live with Covid-19 until such time we can bury it for good. Let’s learn to live with one another, because we just can’t bury each other.

Malinda Seneviratne
malindasenevi@gmail.com
www.malindawords.blogspot.com.
Source: island.lk

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