Last Wednesday, January 10, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera used his broom to do a spot of spring cleaning and to clear the Lankan household of the cobwebs that had long clogged the nation’s march to becoming a modern state. Boldly he used the powers at his command to brush away the tangled web of hypocrisy [...]


The issue: A woman’s right to drink the wine of equality


Last Wednesday, January 10, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera used his broom to do a spot of spring cleaning and to clear the Lankan household of the cobwebs that had long clogged the nation’s march to becoming a modern state. Boldly he used the powers at his command to brush away the tangled web of hypocrisy and deceit that had been weaved for long and which had taken over the unused rooms of the law and also had ruled unchallenged in the unused attic of the Lankan mind.

FINANCE MINISTER MANGALA: Revokes archaic law which bars women from exercising the same right as men

The issue was the right of the Lankan woman not merely to buy a drink but more importantly her untrammeled right to drink the wine of equality as guaranteed in the Constitution. Not forgetting, of course, her right to work at a place which manufactures or sells liquor.
With one swish of his brush and with one stroke of his pen he sentenced to oblivion the archaic law which placed restrictions on a woman’s right to purchase a legally sold product irrespective in what tavern it was sold at or work in a place where it is brewed or sold – a right all men of Lanka have had throughout the years.

Obviously the archaic law conflicts, does it not, with Article 12(1) of the Constitution which states that ‘all persons are equal before the law, and are entitled to the equal protection of the law’. And also with Article 12(2) which states that ‘no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of sex.

Samaraweera used his power to revoke Gazette 666 which owes its origins to a law in 1979 which in turn owes its origins to a law in 1955 which in turn seems to stem from a law in 1911 and which obviously owes its final origins to the prudish era of Britain’s Victoria where Victorian England frowned on the naked legs of grand pianos and ordered it to be covered up in frills lest it showed too much of leg for the puritans to bear.

But Mangala’s refreshing breath of liberal air vigorously blown to cleanse Lanka of her hypocritical mustiness was as short lived as was the cheer of those who raised their glasses to toast him for his efforts to give women equal rights as enshrined in the constitution. Like those who raised a toast had to gulp down their wine in a hurry bottoms up in one swig before the doors closed on the equality rights, so was Mangala forced to revoke the Gazette notification when this Tuesday the President ordered him to revoke his revoking order and obtained cabinet approval for his decision.

But human rights activists have demonstrated they are not willing to swallow it lying down and plans are already afoot to petition the Supreme Court to give its determination whether the revoking order on Mangala’s original revoking order giving women the equal right to buy, sell, drink their favourite tipple or work in a place that manufactures or sells liquor conflicts with Article 12 of the constitution.

The question the Supreme Court will have to decide is whether a woman has a right to order an alcoholic drink or buy a bottle or whether she has to have a man by her side to order one for her? Whether a woman has the right to work at a place that manufactures alcohol or sells it even though a man has no prohibition whatsoever to work or sell in such a legally established place. And consider the fundamental right of the women of Lanka to equality of the sexes is absolute or whether it’s a qualified right, even though the present Excise Commissioner is a woman and a Supreme Court precedent exists which has established the right of a woman to own a liquor licence.

And two questions the people will have to ask themselves are:

1. Whether the President has once again been wrongly advised to order revocation of Mangala’s revoking Gazette even as the President was evidently led up the garden by his surrounding advisers when last week, ill advised, he sought an opinion from the Supreme Court as to whether he can serve one year more as President only to receive last Sunday supreme egg on his face when told by the five-judge bench that he could not, that his term was five years and not six: and

2. Even as the nation readies itself to celebrate in two week’s time the 70th year of independence on February 4, whether this country has only succeeded in shuffling off the yoke of colonialism but still remains shackled to Victorian England’s prudish, puritanical, hypocritical mentality where preaching virtues and denouncing sin are considered the most practical and easiest way to qualify for sainthood in the eyes of one’s fellowmen and fellow women?

Will the ‘pick pocketed’ groom storm out from the marriage?

As a hurt President makes dramatic exit from Cabinet meeting this week, the query: Will the ‘shot gun wedding’ last the year?
It was certainly not the best of starts to the New Year or to the beginning of his fourth year reign for President Sirisena. The omens were there and it portended the worst of times to come for the marriage of convenience he had entered into three years ago to rescue the nation from the iron grip of a dictatorial fist.

Then he had been hailed by the UNP as the saviour of the nation who had dared to risk his life and cross the Rubicon of no return to give leadership to the joint forces of democracy to ensure that its gutty flame that had flared precariously in the gusty winds that blew over the land for ten years and threatened to snuff it out would not be blown forever if the Rajapaksas were to be returned to power.

With the inspirational moral voice of the late Venerable Sobitha Thera imploring him to answer the call of the nation; with the matriarch of the SLFP Chandrika Bandaranaike urging him to surrender his seals of office as the secretary of the party and take leadership of the Lankan Spring, he decided to traverse the unknown path which he knew would lead him to either supreme triumph or eternal rest. At that time, as Chandrika Bandaranaike, later revealed, the UNP leadership did not know that such a plot was being hatched to make Sirisena the torch bearer in the Presidential marathon. Lest the news should leak, it was well kept hidden from UNP ears.
The UNP leader was informed only after Sirisena had confirmed his willingness to accept the challenge. The die had been cast before the prospective bride was told.

No one then had the courage to bait the bear in its own lair. And when the prospect of Sirisena loomed before them as a lamb willing to be led to slaughter at the altar of an invincible President Rajapaksa as he was then considered to be, the sighs of relief expressed by many in the UNP could be audibly heard. Even as they had been happy to accept Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate in the 2010 election, they were delighted to have Sirisena desert his party and put his neck on line before the Rajapaksa locomotive no one believed at that hour, its unstoppable speed could be halted in its tracks.

Had Ranil Wickremesinghe been so confident he could have won the presidency, then why didn’t he? Perhaps, the spectre of defeat may have stayed his hand to enter the fray. However, if he had contested and lost, he would no doubt have once again retired to the opposition benches to reassume his long held role as the Leader of the Opposition, though there was the possibility that he might have had to abdicate his position as the leader of the party, especially after a string of defeats. But he would have been met not with animosity but greeted with the magnanimity of the victorious Rajapaksa, who would have welcomed his decision to contest him as a worthy opponent and to lose as predicted. It would have been a simple case of ‘no hard feelings, all in the game’. But not so with Sirisena.

Had Sirisena lost, he would have met with the full wrath of Rajapaksa. Even now, Rajapaksa makes no bones of his anger over his party secretary’s betrayal at the eleventh hour in secret and plunging the dagger at his back over hoppers the night before. There would have been no SLFP for Sirisena to return to, no UNP to enter. He would have been left stranded in midair, his joint opposition partners having washed their hands off him – for who wants to know a loser – with only the yawn of an open grave staring in his face.

PRESIDENT: Sirisena’s outburst at cabinet

As Maithripala, struggling to hold back the insistent tear, said on the day he announced his candidature on 21st of November 2014, “My wife Jayanthi, my children Charuni, Dahranie and Daham, they all came to me and said: ‘ thaththie, we are prepared to even die, thaththe you take any decision. We have seen the immense strains you have been under as the secretary of the party and as a minister of this government. Thaththe we know what you are thinking when you come home, know what you are thinking when you lie on your bed, know what you are thinking from the way you talk to us. If, the secretary of the party, the Sri Lanka Nidahas Pakshaya that runs this government and a minister of this government can have this mental pressures then it is proof of what mental pressures the innocent people of this country must be suffering under this government”.

In his 35-minute emotional address to the Cabinet on Tuesday which he taped for future record, the President declared: “I left the former government showing my opposition to fraud and corruption, and formed a new government. Is it to continue the same frauds and corruption I ask you? It is true that UNP supporters voted for me, and I owe my gratitude to them.”

“Are the UNP members attacking me to frighten me? Or to chase me out? I do not know whether they are doing these things with a purpose or others leading them to do such things. I walked out that day ignoring the risks I would have to face. Therefore this type of criticism is not something new to me. Some UNP members are going round saying that the Bond Commission was appointed in order to attack the UNP. I appointed the Bond Commission in order to probe the Bond scam. I have no personal issues with anyone.”

The aggrieved President added that “I had never intended to capitalise on the Bond Commission report. The Bond Commission probe had never targeted any particular individual of the UNP, but UNP MPs were now vilifying me.” The President named the UNP MPs who had been openly critical of him, including S.M. Marrikkar, Minister Harin Fernando, State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe, Nalin Bandara, Sidney Jayarathna and Chaminda Wijesiri. Under such circumstances, he said, there was no point in continuing to be in the Yahapalana government.
Though trouble and strife had been simmering for sometime what provoked the ire and brought it to a boil was the presidential reaction to the unprecedented brawl in Parliament on January 10 when JO members stormed the well of the House and, whilst the prime minister was making special statement on the bond issue, began chanting ‘Who’s the robber? The bank robber’.

In an unprecedented move, the Prime Minister played a tit-for-tat game and chanted ‘Who’s the robber?’ to be met by the UNP chorus “Mahinda robber’; and shortly thereafter the Parliamentary chamber erupted in violence as both JO and UNP MPs used their brawn to turn the talking shop into a warring spot and stained its carpets with blood flowing from cut foreheads and broken noses.
It was a scene which UNP deputy minister Dr. Harsha de Silva described in a tweet as “I am told that never in history had there been a brawl in the Chamber like the one just now. I saw Gamini Lokuge start it. Disgraceful. Utter pandemonium in Parliament. Apparently someone threw an object at the PM while he was speaking in the Chamber. Didn’t see who it was. Disgraceful.”

PRIME MINISTER: Patches up differences

A hundred and two miles away as the crow flies, the President was addressing a rally at Anuradhapura on the same day. He told his audience he had been informed of the brawl in Parliament where each other had accused one another of being rogues. It said it reminded him of the times when in a crowded area a man’s pocket is picked by a thief. The victim runs after the pickpocket shouting, ‘hora, hora, thief, thief.’ And the pickpocket in turn shouts ‘hora, hora, thief, and runs after an imaginary thief to put the crowds off the scent.
To the rank and file of the UNP this was an unwarranted attack, a sort of below the belt hit made by the leader of a party. To them it was the unkindest cut.

UNP Colombo MP Marrikkar was first off the mark to launch a direct attack on the President. On Monday, addressing a meeting in Colombo, he said, “the President had let down former president Mahinda Rajapaksa after partaking in a hopper meal with him. The MP charged that the same conspiratorial activity was being mooted to fix the UNP. The President accused us of being thieves. We call him the pickpocket President. We are asking him not to back-stab the UNP like what he did to Mahinda Rajapaksa. The President said the UNP and the joint opposition are calling each other ‘thieves’ but people are aware as to who the real thieves are. He called us pickpocket ‘karayas’. Yes we are pick pocket karayas but the President should not forget that we pick-pocketed him out of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pocket. He should not forget that it was the UNP which made him the President. He is a pickpocket President.”

After the president’s Cabinet outburst, Marrikkar was to back off and tell the media he had been misrepresented and misreported and that he did not refer to President Sirisena as a ‘‘Pickpocket President.”. In a way, that’s correct. All he said in his televised speech was that the UNP had picked Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pocket and stolen the then SLFP Secretary without Mahinda being aware.

He was only saying that the UNP were pickpockets and had stolen Mahinda’s Sirisena wallet. Perhaps Marrikkar may not have realised the real meaning of what he said and that he had only succeeded in scoring an own goal, declaring, unwittingly, to the nation that the party were a gang of artful dodgers, who had come to power by picking the pocket of the former president.

Neither did State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe salvage the situation when he addressed a crowd in Chilaw but added more salt to the wound when he declared that the President was playing politics and should not forget on whose back he had ridden to power. Senasinghe never asked himself and neither did he tell his audience why the UNP had voluntarily come forward to play the role of the mule to give Sirisena a comfortable ride to his destination on its back; and the UNP mule thus must, if only it had the intelligence within to do so, ask itself why it chose to be an ass of burden to enable Sirisena to take it for a ride. Later Senasinghe was to say with all the thuggish bravado at his command, that the UNP has still not resorted to violence but was prepared to do so if the situation so demanded. He said, “Sarath Fonseka and Sujeewa Senasinghe are good thugs and are ready for any game”.

Does Ranil Wickremesinghe condemn such talk, unbecoming of a party that had upheld the principle of non violence and sworn to follow the precepts of democracy to achieve their political goals? Or have times changed so dramatically that he now condones such ‘Choppey’ thuggish talks from a member of his own party – a minister of State, no less – as a necessary weapon in his arsenal? No word from him is called for to demonstrate his belief. Only his actions against such gung-ho braggarts will do to convince the nation that the UNP is still the party it had once been: a disciplined party of democrats who eschewed all forms of violence, even in speech.

Ranil Wickremesinghe would not have been the Prime Minister today if Maithripala Sirisena had not willingly offered to place his life at risk and challenge Rajapaksa for the presidency. And Sirisena, too, would not have been president today if Wicremesinghe had not extended his support by urging the vast voter base of the UNP to vote Sirisena to presidential office. It’s no longer a case of arguing over whether it’s the presidential egg that gave birth to the prime ministerial egg or whether it’s the prime ministerial egg that spawned the fledgling presidential chick. The nation was blessed three years ago to have both hen and egg simultaneously created by the Lankan public. It will certainly not be in the interest of the nation if, at the sinister urgings and behest of the joint opposition, the people decide to eat both hen and egg together for breakfast.

On January 8, 2015, the people of Lanka were faced with the choice to elect Rajapaksa as the third term president or to vote for Sirisena as president with Ranil as his prime minister. They chose Maithri and Ranil in the belief that the combined abilities of both would lead the nation from the Rajapaksa darkness to Yahapalana light, especially in the field of human rights, of transparency of accountability of government. And to a great extent, though unappreciated by many, the two strange bedfellows have worked together to restore democracy and the rule of law. Both leaders and their cadres must realise that what’s at stake is not their own political future but the wellbeing and future of 22 million of this country. They should not lose sight of that fact.

Today the coalition government has arrived at the crossroads. No doubt the pressure of winning the local government elections has placed great pressure on both sides. But both parties should realise that whoever wins the local elections, much is expected and much needs to be done at a government level. And for good reason, it cannot afford to have a parting of their ways. Though the cracks on the wall have appeared, though the rift is evident and even though a parting of their ways seem imminent, it behoves the leaders, Maithripala and Ranil, to endure their differences for the sake of the nation and see their five year term of office through.

They should not forget an old Aesop fable to paraphrase which runs like this: “Once upon a time two lions of a different rival pride chased after a wildebeest. After much exertion, they succeeded in bringing the wildebeest down. But hardly had they started to take their first bite, both began to fight their sole right to the whole carcass. The brawl lasted for several hours and both lay exhausted. A pack of hyenas that had closely been monitoring the chase, the kill and the fight, and the exhaustion, approached the carcass without fear knowing the two lions were far too gone to give them chase. And dragged the wildebeest carcass to enjoy the spoils of another’s success. As the fatigued lions watched their meat stolen away, one lion turned to the other and said: “Woe betide us, that we should have fought and belabored ourselves only to serve our meat to the hyenas.”

And the moral of the tale: It sometimes happens that one has all the toil and another has all the profit.
For Lanka’s everlasting good, both the President and the Prime Minister should call their hounds to heel and shove aside their internal petty squabbles; and, instead, strive to establish the Yahapalanaya they both declared they would establish on solid ground if they were elected. They should not let room for another, lying in the shadows, waiting for the opportune moment, to rob the nation of its promised dawn and lead this country back to the twilight zone.

Truce talks at the john
Despite news reports that a deeply hurt and enraged president had stormed out of the Cabinet meeting in a huff and a puff, cabinet spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne plugged cabinet leaks made to the media by some ministers and flushed such claims down the drain, saying the President only walked away to answer “a call of nature”.

“He walked out only to answer a call of nature. In fact I, too, followed him, to the washroom”, he told journalists at the weekly cabinet press briefing held on Wednesday. When journalists asked him whether the prime minister had not followed him to persuade the president to bury the hatchet and coax him to return to the cabinet meeting, he said, “no, no, we all went for the same job”.

How nice. Like schoolboys scooting to the college lavatory to have a secret puff, delightful to know the nation’s leaders when uptight will not take it amiss to pass bad blood between the parties and hold peace talks for the common good of the nation even in the presidential secretariat loo.



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