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The Killing of History:  The Vietnam War

John Pilger

ONE of the most hyped “events” of American television, The Vietnam War, has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, “They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam war in an entirely new way”.
In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism”, Burns’ “entirely new” Vietnam war is presented as “epic, historic work”. Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.
Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans”.  Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.
I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings”.
The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.
There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans — it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences
In the series’ press release in Britain — the BBC will show it — there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. “We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying.  How very post-modern.

The blood never dries
All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century: from The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter to Rambo and, in so doing, has legitimised subsequent wars of aggression.  The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy”. Cue Bob Dylan: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”
I thought about the “decency” and “good faith” when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off Napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as “termites”.

Quang Ngai: 50,000 people slaughtered
In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers “killings”). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an “American tragedy” (Newsweek).  In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American “free fire zones”. Mass homicide. This was not news.
To the north, in Quang Tri province, more bombs were dropped than in all of Germany during the Second World War. Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has caused more than 40,000 deaths in mostly “South Vietnam”, the country America claimed to “save” and, with France, conceived as a singularly imperial ruse.
The “meaning” of the Vietnam war is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the levelling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.

Extermination
Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.”
Nothing has changed. When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations on 19 September – a body established to spare humanity the “scourge of war” – he declared he was “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea and its 25 million people. His audience gasped, but Trump’s language was not unusual.
His rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, had boasted she was prepared to “totally obliterate” Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people. This is the American Way; only the euphemisms are missing now.
Returning to the US, I am struck by the silence and the absence of an opposition – on the streets, in journalism and the arts, as if dissent once tolerated in the “mainstream” has regressed to a dissidence: a metaphoric underground.

The streets of Manhattan in the 1980s
Where are the ghosts of the great anti-war demonstrations that took over Washington in the 1970s? Where is the equivalent of the Freeze Movement that filled the streets of Manhattan in the 1980s, demanding that President Reagan withdraw battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe?
The sheer energy and moral persistence of these great movements largely succeeded; by 1987 Reagan had negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that effectively ended the Cold War.
Today, according to secret Nato documents obtained by the German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zetung, this vital treaty is likely to be abandoned as “nuclear targeting planning is increased”. The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned against “repeating the worst mistakes of the Cold War … All the good treaties on disarmament and arms control from Gorbachev and Reagan are in acute peril. Europe is threatened again with becoming a military training ground for nuclear weapons. We must raise our voice against this.”
But not in America. The thousands who turned out for Senator Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” in last year’s presidential campaign are collectively mute on these dangers. That most of America’s violence across the world has been perpetrated not by Republicans, or mutants like Trump, but by liberal Democrats, remains a taboo.
Barack Obama provided the apotheosis, with seven simultaneous wars, a presidential record, including the destruction of Libya as a modern state. Obama’s overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government has had the desired effect: the massing of American-led NATO forces on Russia’s western borderland through which the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011 signalled the transfer of the majority of America’s naval and air forces to Asia and the Pacific for no purpose other than to confront and provoke China. The Nobel Peace Laureate’s worldwide campaign of assassinations is arguably the most extensive campaign of terrorism since 9/11.
What is known in the US as “the left” has effectively allied with the darkest recesses of institutional power, notably the Pentagon and the CIA, to see off a peace deal between Trump and Vladimir Putin and to reinstate Russia as an enemy, on the basis of no evidence of its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Historic shift of power in Washington
The true scandal is the insidious assumption of power by sinister war-making vested interests for which no American voted.  The rapid ascendancy of the Pentagon and the surveillance agencies under Obama represented an historic shift of power in Washington. Daniel Ellsberg rightly called it a coup. The three generals running Trump are its witness.
All of this fails to penetrate those “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics”, as Luciana Bohne noted memorably. Commodified and market-tested, “diversity” is the new liberal brand, not the class people serve regardless of their gender and skin colour: not the responsibility of all to stop a barbaric war to end all wars.
“How did it fucken come to this?” says Michael Moore in his Broadway show, Terms of My Surrender, a vaudeville for the disaffected set against a backdrop of Trump as Big Brother.
I admired Moore’s film, Roger & Me, about the economic and social devastation of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and Sicko, his investigation into the corruption of healthcare in America.
The night I saw his show, his happy-clappy audience cheered his reassurance that “we are the majority!” and calls to “impeach Trump, a liar and a fascist!” His message seemed to be that had you held your nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, life would be predictable again.
He may be right. Instead of merely abusing the world, as Trump does, the Great Obliterator might have attacked Iran and lobbed missiles at Putin, whom she likened to Hitler: a particular profanity given the 27 million Russians who died in Hitler’s invasion.
“Listen up,” said Moore, “putting aside what our governments do, Americans are really loved by the world!”
There was a silence.

— Counterpunch.org

Comment

John Pilger

ONE of the most hyped “events” of American television, The Vietnam War, has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, “They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam war in an entirely new way”.
In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism”, Burns’ “entirely new” Vietnam war is presented as “epic, historic work”. Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.
Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans”.  Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.
I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings”.
The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.
There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans — it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences
In the series’ press release in Britain — the BBC will show it — there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. “We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying.  How very post-modern.

The blood never dries
All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century: from The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter to Rambo and, in so doing, has legitimised subsequent wars of aggression.  The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy”. Cue Bob Dylan: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”
I thought about the “decency” and “good faith” when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off Napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as “termites”.

Quang Ngai: 50,000 people slaughtered
In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers “killings”). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an “American tragedy” (Newsweek).  In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American “free fire zones”. Mass homicide. This was not news.
To the north, in Quang Tri province, more bombs were dropped than in all of Germany during the Second World War. Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has caused more than 40,000 deaths in mostly “South Vietnam”, the country America claimed to “save” and, with France, conceived as a singularly imperial ruse.
The “meaning” of the Vietnam war is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the levelling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American.

Extermination
Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.”
Nothing has changed. When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations on 19 September – a body established to spare humanity the “scourge of war” – he declared he was “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea and its 25 million people. His audience gasped, but Trump’s language was not unusual.
His rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, had boasted she was prepared to “totally obliterate” Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people. This is the American Way; only the euphemisms are missing now.
Returning to the US, I am struck by the silence and the absence of an opposition – on the streets, in journalism and the arts, as if dissent once tolerated in the “mainstream” has regressed to a dissidence: a metaphoric underground.

The streets of Manhattan in the 1980s
Where are the ghosts of the great anti-war demonstrations that took over Washington in the 1970s? Where is the equivalent of the Freeze Movement that filled the streets of Manhattan in the 1980s, demanding that President Reagan withdraw battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe?
The sheer energy and moral persistence of these great movements largely succeeded; by 1987 Reagan had negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that effectively ended the Cold War.
Today, according to secret Nato documents obtained by the German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zetung, this vital treaty is likely to be abandoned as “nuclear targeting planning is increased”. The German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned against “repeating the worst mistakes of the Cold War … All the good treaties on disarmament and arms control from Gorbachev and Reagan are in acute peril. Europe is threatened again with becoming a military training ground for nuclear weapons. We must raise our voice against this.”
But not in America. The thousands who turned out for Senator Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” in last year’s presidential campaign are collectively mute on these dangers. That most of America’s violence across the world has been perpetrated not by Republicans, or mutants like Trump, but by liberal Democrats, remains a taboo.
Barack Obama provided the apotheosis, with seven simultaneous wars, a presidential record, including the destruction of Libya as a modern state. Obama’s overthrow of Ukraine’s elected government has had the desired effect: the massing of American-led NATO forces on Russia’s western borderland through which the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011 signalled the transfer of the majority of America’s naval and air forces to Asia and the Pacific for no purpose other than to confront and provoke China. The Nobel Peace Laureate’s worldwide campaign of assassinations is arguably the most extensive campaign of terrorism since 9/11.
What is known in the US as “the left” has effectively allied with the darkest recesses of institutional power, notably the Pentagon and the CIA, to see off a peace deal between Trump and Vladimir Putin and to reinstate Russia as an enemy, on the basis of no evidence of its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Historic shift of power in Washington
The true scandal is the insidious assumption of power by sinister war-making vested interests for which no American voted.  The rapid ascendancy of the Pentagon and the surveillance agencies under Obama represented an historic shift of power in Washington. Daniel Ellsberg rightly called it a coup. The three generals running Trump are its witness.
All of this fails to penetrate those “liberal brains pickled in the formaldehyde of identity politics”, as Luciana Bohne noted memorably. Commodified and market-tested, “diversity” is the new liberal brand, not the class people serve regardless of their gender and skin colour: not the responsibility of all to stop a barbaric war to end all wars.
“How did it fucken come to this?” says Michael Moore in his Broadway show, Terms of My Surrender, a vaudeville for the disaffected set against a backdrop of Trump as Big Brother.
I admired Moore’s film, Roger & Me, about the economic and social devastation of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and Sicko, his investigation into the corruption of healthcare in America.
The night I saw his show, his happy-clappy audience cheered his reassurance that “we are the majority!” and calls to “impeach Trump, a liar and a fascist!” His message seemed to be that had you held your nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, life would be predictable again.
He may be right. Instead of merely abusing the world, as Trump does, the Great Obliterator might have attacked Iran and lobbed missiles at Putin, whom she likened to Hitler: a particular profanity given the 27 million Russians who died in Hitler’s invasion.
“Listen up,” said Moore, “putting aside what our governments do, Americans are really loved by the world!”
There was a silence.

— Counterpunch.org


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NEW YORK TIMES REPORT CLAIMS
Hackers working for North Korea are located in India

Scroll.in

NEARLY a fifth of North Korea’s cyber attacks originate from India, a cyber security firm alleges. North Korea is often seen to be one of the most isolated countries in the present world. Yet, in one matter, the country is hyper connected: cyber warfare. Crossing e-swords with the West, the country has launched a string of attacks on government as well as private sector infrastructure.
Curiously, there is an India angle in this conflict: North Korea launches few cyber attacks from its own soil. Instead it uses foreign computers. In India’s cases, often hackers are physically stationed in the country, launching cyber attacks on behalf of North Korea, reported the New York Times on OCT. 15, 2017. (www. nytimes.com/2017/10/15/ world/asia /north-korea- hacking-cyber -sony.html).

Building capacity
NEARLY a fifth of North Korea’s cyber attacks originate from India, a cyber security firm alleges. North Korea is often seen to be one of the most isolated countries in the present world. Yet, in one matter, the country is hyper connected: cyber warfare. Crossing e-swords with the West, the country has launched a string of attacks on government as well as private sector infrastructure.
Curiously, there is an India angle in this conflict: North Korea launches few cyber attacks from its own soil. Instead it uses foreign computers. In India’s cases, often hackers are physically stationed in the country, launching cyber attacks on behalf of North Korea, reported the New York Times on OCT. 15, 2017. (www. nytimes.com/2017/10/15/ world/asia /north-korea- hacking-cyber -sony.html). On its part, the United States as well as South Korea have been using cyber warfare in order to try and hack the North’s nuclear as well as missile programme. However, the United States is stymied by the North’s outdated infrastructure and the fact that that most of its attacks actually originate from abroad – the largest base being India.

Hack in India
The New York Times reports cites a cyber security firm called Recorded Future to estimate that nearly a fifth of North Korea’s attacks originate from India. A report by the firm says:
“It is clear that North Korea has a broad physical and virtual presence in India. Characterised by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs as a relationship of ‘friendship, cooperation, and understanding’, the data we analysed supports the reports of increasingly close diplomatic and trade relationship between India and North Korea.
Patterns of activity suggest that North Korea may have students in at least seven universities around the country and may be working with several research institutes and government departments.”
The report, however, goes on to suggest that India might also be a victim, with Recorded Future detecting activity targeting the Indian Space Research Organisation’s National Remote Sensing Centre and the Indian National Metallurgical Laboratory. However, the report concluded that it “could not confirm malicious behavior” in this regard.
While India does maintain diplomatic ties with North Korea, as it grows closer to the United States, New Delhi has downgraded relations with Kim Jong-Un’s regime. The Modi government recently supported a United Nations move to ban all trade with North Korea.

Comment

Scroll.in

NEARLY a fifth of North Korea’s cyber attacks originate from India, a cyber security firm alleges. North Korea is often seen to be one of the most isolated countries in the present world. Yet, in one matter, the country is hyper connected: cyber warfare. Crossing e-swords with the West, the country has launched a string of attacks on government as well as private sector infrastructure.
Curiously, there is an India angle in this conflict: North Korea launches few cyber attacks from its own soil. Instead it uses foreign computers. In India’s cases, often hackers are physically stationed in the country, launching cyber attacks on behalf of North Korea, reported the New York Times on OCT. 15, 2017. (www. nytimes.com/2017/10/15/ world/asia /north-korea- hacking-cyber -sony.html).

Building capacity
NEARLY a fifth of North Korea’s cyber attacks originate from India, a cyber security firm alleges. North Korea is often seen to be one of the most isolated countries in the present world. Yet, in one matter, the country is hyper connected: cyber warfare. Crossing e-swords with the West, the country has launched a string of attacks on government as well as private sector infrastructure.
Curiously, there is an India angle in this conflict: North Korea launches few cyber attacks from its own soil. Instead it uses foreign computers. In India’s cases, often hackers are physically stationed in the country, launching cyber attacks on behalf of North Korea, reported the New York Times on OCT. 15, 2017. (www. nytimes.com/2017/10/15/ world/asia /north-korea- hacking-cyber -sony.html). On its part, the United States as well as South Korea have been using cyber warfare in order to try and hack the North’s nuclear as well as missile programme. However, the United States is stymied by the North’s outdated infrastructure and the fact that that most of its attacks actually originate from abroad – the largest base being India.

Hack in India
The New York Times reports cites a cyber security firm called Recorded Future to estimate that nearly a fifth of North Korea’s attacks originate from India. A report by the firm says:
“It is clear that North Korea has a broad physical and virtual presence in India. Characterised by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs as a relationship of ‘friendship, cooperation, and understanding’, the data we analysed supports the reports of increasingly close diplomatic and trade relationship between India and North Korea.
Patterns of activity suggest that North Korea may have students in at least seven universities around the country and may be working with several research institutes and government departments.”
The report, however, goes on to suggest that India might also be a victim, with Recorded Future detecting activity targeting the Indian Space Research Organisation’s National Remote Sensing Centre and the Indian National Metallurgical Laboratory. However, the report concluded that it “could not confirm malicious behavior” in this regard.
While India does maintain diplomatic ties with North Korea, as it grows closer to the United States, New Delhi has downgraded relations with Kim Jong-Un’s regime. The Modi government recently supported a United Nations move to ban all trade with North Korea.


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Sri Lanka: Too soon for constitutional change

Jehan Perera in Colombo

THE RELEASE of the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report on constitutional reform gave the hope that it would be the government’s priority in the coming months. This calculation was buttressed by the government’s repeated postponement of local government elections which became extended to the postponement of provincial council elections also.  The problem facing the government is that any local election would pit the coalition partners against each other, possibly to the detriment of their alliance.  This led to speculation that the government would go into a referendum on a new constitution on the basis that this would be the best way to reunify the government alliance.  It was argued that a referendum would impel all parties that supported the candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of 2015 to get together again as a unified force to win the referendum.
However, it now seems more likely that the long postponed local government elections will take place prior to the referendum.  The report of the Steering Committee on constitutional reforms has not yet reached the stage of being a draft of the new constitution.  At the present time it is only a set of principles and proposals that are 26 pages in length.  It is not written with the requisite degree of detail and specificity to be a draft constitution.  This is also immediately visible in the fact that the Steering Committee report is unsigned.  It is still far from being a consensus document which can be seen by the fact that the eight annexes to the 26 page Steering Committee report from eight political parties amounts to 65 pages in length.
A perusal of the set of 9 documents that comprise the Steering Committee report with annexes would reveal that political parties are still far from reaching agreement on many of the principles of the new constitution.  Although the Steering Committee report asserts there is general consensus that the Executive Presidency as it exists today should be abolished, most of the political parties want it to continue albeit with reforms.  Although the Steering Committee report proposes an alternative formulation of the unitary state, most of the political parties are in disagreement with it.  These parties include the SLFP, headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and co-partner with the UNP in the government which takes a stand that is contrary to the Steering Committee report on both these issues.

Avoid alienation
The government has announced that the Steering Committee will meet once again on October 19 to discuss its report and annexes.  The government has also set aside three days beginning October 30 to discuss these matters in parliament.  There is anticipation that these deliberations will yield a sufficient consensus for the constitutional drafters to get on with the task of preparing a draft constitution.  This is likely to take several months.  This process is unlikely to be completed by January next year when the local government elections are most likely to take place according to the Election Commissioner.  It is unlikely that the constitutional drafters on the government side will wish to bring the outcome of constitutional discussions to the public attention until after the local government elections.
Constitutional reform is highly charged for both political actors and the general population.  It is liable to be distorted and misinterpreted.  The mere fact that the government is engaging in constitutional reform in the context of international pressures on it due to war time excesses has enabled the opposition to attack the government.  The opposition has claimed that the government’s reforms are meant to surrender to the demands of the international community and to pave the handing over of war heroes to international tribunals.  The opposition has been claiming that constitutional reform is meant to appease the international community rather than to protect the national interest.  

Ideal scenario
The repeated postponement of local government elections has given rise to a belief that the government has lost much of its popularity and that the opposition is strong.  This impression is given credence by the fact that people are ever willing to complain against the government for its failure to transform the economy into a high performance one in which the cost of living is reduced, salaries are increased and exciting new job opportunities are created.  This has enabled the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to project itself as a strong force that can capture state power in a few years if not topple the government immediately.  The prevalence of strikes by various trade union groups is attributed to the strength of the Joint Opposition which is seen as having a hand in every trouble for the government.
The ideal scenario for the government would be to use the opportunity presented by the local government elections to dispel this negative image.  The government will go into these elections as rival political parties represented by the United National Front (UNP and allies) and United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP and allies).  They will be contesting each other, which is the situation that they tried to avoid by postponing the local government elections.  However, their main opponent, the Joint Opposition will not be in an advantageous situation either.  The main party of the Joint Opposition will be the newly formed SLPP which comprises SLFP members loyal to the former president as its main component.  The new party will be hard pressed to break the monopoly the UNP and SLFP have long enjoyed.

Comment

Jehan Perera in Colombo

THE RELEASE of the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report on constitutional reform gave the hope that it would be the government’s priority in the coming months. This calculation was buttressed by the government’s repeated postponement of local government elections which became extended to the postponement of provincial council elections also.  The problem facing the government is that any local election would pit the coalition partners against each other, possibly to the detriment of their alliance.  This led to speculation that the government would go into a referendum on a new constitution on the basis that this would be the best way to reunify the government alliance.  It was argued that a referendum would impel all parties that supported the candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of 2015 to get together again as a unified force to win the referendum.
However, it now seems more likely that the long postponed local government elections will take place prior to the referendum.  The report of the Steering Committee on constitutional reforms has not yet reached the stage of being a draft of the new constitution.  At the present time it is only a set of principles and proposals that are 26 pages in length.  It is not written with the requisite degree of detail and specificity to be a draft constitution.  This is also immediately visible in the fact that the Steering Committee report is unsigned.  It is still far from being a consensus document which can be seen by the fact that the eight annexes to the 26 page Steering Committee report from eight political parties amounts to 65 pages in length.
A perusal of the set of 9 documents that comprise the Steering Committee report with annexes would reveal that political parties are still far from reaching agreement on many of the principles of the new constitution.  Although the Steering Committee report asserts there is general consensus that the Executive Presidency as it exists today should be abolished, most of the political parties want it to continue albeit with reforms.  Although the Steering Committee report proposes an alternative formulation of the unitary state, most of the political parties are in disagreement with it.  These parties include the SLFP, headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and co-partner with the UNP in the government which takes a stand that is contrary to the Steering Committee report on both these issues.

Avoid alienation
The government has announced that the Steering Committee will meet once again on October 19 to discuss its report and annexes.  The government has also set aside three days beginning October 30 to discuss these matters in parliament.  There is anticipation that these deliberations will yield a sufficient consensus for the constitutional drafters to get on with the task of preparing a draft constitution.  This is likely to take several months.  This process is unlikely to be completed by January next year when the local government elections are most likely to take place according to the Election Commissioner.  It is unlikely that the constitutional drafters on the government side will wish to bring the outcome of constitutional discussions to the public attention until after the local government elections.
Constitutional reform is highly charged for both political actors and the general population.  It is liable to be distorted and misinterpreted.  The mere fact that the government is engaging in constitutional reform in the context of international pressures on it due to war time excesses has enabled the opposition to attack the government.  The opposition has claimed that the government’s reforms are meant to surrender to the demands of the international community and to pave the handing over of war heroes to international tribunals.  The opposition has been claiming that constitutional reform is meant to appease the international community rather than to protect the national interest.  

Ideal scenario
The repeated postponement of local government elections has given rise to a belief that the government has lost much of its popularity and that the opposition is strong.  This impression is given credence by the fact that people are ever willing to complain against the government for its failure to transform the economy into a high performance one in which the cost of living is reduced, salaries are increased and exciting new job opportunities are created.  This has enabled the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to project itself as a strong force that can capture state power in a few years if not topple the government immediately.  The prevalence of strikes by various trade union groups is attributed to the strength of the Joint Opposition which is seen as having a hand in every trouble for the government.
The ideal scenario for the government would be to use the opportunity presented by the local government elections to dispel this negative image.  The government will go into these elections as rival political parties represented by the United National Front (UNP and allies) and United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP and allies).  They will be contesting each other, which is the situation that they tried to avoid by postponing the local government elections.  However, their main opponent, the Joint Opposition will not be in an advantageous situation either.  The main party of the Joint Opposition will be the newly formed SLPP which comprises SLFP members loyal to the former president as its main component.  The new party will be hard pressed to break the monopoly the UNP and SLFP have long enjoyed.


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