As a schoolboy many, many moons ago, I remember reading a collection of essays by that superb American satirist and columnist Art Buchwald. It was titled “Then I told the President”. Having listened to President Sirisena’s Independence Day speech, one wonders whether there is any purpose in telling Sri Lanka’s current President anything, anything at [...]


Then they told the President


As a schoolboy many, many moons ago, I remember reading a collection of essays by that superb American satirist and columnist Art Buchwald. It was titled “Then I told the President”.

Having listened to President Sirisena’s Independence Day speech, one wonders whether there is any purpose in telling Sri Lanka’s current President anything, anything at all, unless it is about broken promises and insatiable thirst to sit in the presidential seat for another term.

“Not fit for purpose” is a phrase that describes people and institutions that are of little value — that do not serve the purpose for which the individuals are appointed or the institutions are established.

Has nobody told the President that there is an essential difference between a speech made to commemorate a historic occasion such as the day on which a country emerged from colonial rule into the glow of independence and a political speech castigating one’s enemies, two of them who had been stabbed in the back– metaphorically speaking — in the climb to political power?

A person who cannot make that fundamental distinction and is unable to distinguish a national occasion from some common or garden-type political platform is not fit for purpose, especially to lead (or perhaps mislead) the country to which he was erroneously elected by a people who had placed enormous faith in the policies which he promised to implement.

For all his madness, if one might call it that, US President Trump is trying to achieve what he promised he would do — that is to make “America First” and great again, though his way to greatness seems littered with dubious means and acts along the way, frequently sacrificing officials he himself appointed to office.

Surely a person who claims to have been in politics for several decades must have heard or read speeches by previous leaders of Sri Lanka on such historically important occasions as the day it became free, whatever the shortcomings and the pretty mess political leaders and their parties made of that freedom.

A leader who is ready to reduce such an occasion to the level of a political bun-fight in the presence of an invited foreign guest is not shaming the country but the leader who sought to belittle the occasion.

It is true that the Galle Face Green has historically been the venue of political rallies. It has seen political leaders from the left and the right slinging mud at each other, some of that mud clinging to the clothes of the throwers themselves.

But that seemed to matter little. Politics attracts mud. Hurling mud at political opponents has always been an essential part of politics. Even in a more sober political environment as the UK where one of the bitterest battles is being fought today, both inside and outside parliament over Brexit, it is done with much propriety, decency and respect for the rules that govern parliamentary procedure.

Just the other day the House of Commons debated and voted on several amendments to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan that was earlier defeated in the House.

But nobody wrenched the Speaker’s chair from its moorings or came with chilli powder dissolved in water to throw at the other side, or after a few ‘shots’ from the parliament bar.

Now if President Sirisena wished to use the same Galle Face Green to hurl himself at his political opponents, he reduced a dignified occasion to the level of verbal thuggery that he condemns when it is used by others.

President Sirisena has, in the four years he has been in office, travelled around the world carrying family baggage so many times that he has already outstripped every other Sri Lanka President we have had.

One would have expected him to have learnt some lessons from these expensive visits at the taxpayers’ expense. But other than praising the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, for his indefatigable efforts to eliminate drug lords and dealers and the commodity they sell, which Sirisena has recommended to the world, one knows little of what was achieved from these visits. Nor are we told of his great achievements by that outfit called the President’s Media Division which seems to struggle to compose a grammatically-correct and readable piece of official prose. Plastering the place with photographs does not explain what was achieved.

It is a pity that we no longer see family photographs, like the ones that once adorned websites with Daham Sirisena seated at the UNGA sessions in New York or shaking hands with world leaders.

Unlike Buchwald’s admonitions to America’s then president, I doubt there is much use in telling President Sirisena about protocol or what to tell the world on our Independence Day.

But had he read Queen Elizabeth’s Independence Day message, our president would have learnt how to address the nation however short the Queen’s message was.

One of President JR Jayewardene’s famous sayings was that some of our politicians, like the Bourbons of France, learnt nothing and forgot nothing. I am not certain that our current president has read about the Bourbons of France. It would be highly enlightening if he did so.

Not enough turning the Independence Day stage into a political platform, the President saw it fit to carry across his diatribe to parliament where some MP had accused him of not attending parliament at least once in three months.

Personally I think that was an unnecessary allegation. After all he is the head of state (not to mention Defence Minister, Environment Minister, Law and Order Minister and what not) and he must travel the world to see that it is in order like our parliament which is suspended frequently for 10 minutes or more to restore order.

As we now know, President Sirisena who oversaw the military offensive in the last couple of weeks of the anti-LTTE war, has decided to fight on several fronts. The most recent is his battle with the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya-led Constitutional Council and the Human Rights Commission.

He seems to have no use for these bodies which appear to ignore his orders and his nominees to the judiciary and other places. He seems to suggest that the Constitutional Council ignores what might be the most important criterion- seniority.

That, of course, leaves Sirisena with his guard down. The other day I heard somebody ask whether the President’s nominee for Chief Justice — Nalin Perera –however suitable, was the senior-most judge available to fill the post.

Now, that I do not know. I don’t spend my time ticking off calendars and keep tabs on some people’s age to see whether they are eligible or not to hold office. But if there are persons who do that and raise a cry when rules and tradition are broken, then I am willing to accept as fact what the man has said until he is proven wrong.

It is not often that I find President Sirisena’s comments acceptable or valid. But this time round, the President claims that the national government the UNP is hoping to come up with is hardly a national government.

Adding some straggler from a virtually non-existent party to the current UNP does not make it a national government. It reminds me of GSP plus.

As one is prompted to say a solitary swallow does not a summer make.  A single Muslim MP does not make a national government, unless national has acquired a new meaning in recent days.

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