By Susitha Fernando
S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, one of the three members of the Election Commission of Sri Lanka, which played a vital role in the recently concluded elections, agreed to discuss some of the questionable areas relating to the commission’s role. An engineer and academic by profession, Hoole serves as a professor of electrical engineering at Michigan State University. A brave fighter for truth and justice and social activist Prof. Hoole responded to questions posed by the Daily Mirror in his usual open and candid style. Excerpts:
Q Many have viewed this Presidential Election as the most free and fair election with less violence. Do you agree? As a member of the Election Commission are you proud of this view?
It is the freest and fairest I have seen and I’m proud of the EC staff for that. But there is room for improvement and that space closes when everyone congratulates us despite the shortcomings. We are like the emperor without clothes, blind to our nudity.
Oddly, the result accurately captured the real vote. Our staff is good at ensuring that the technicalities are right, the polls were opened on time, the counting was right etc.
Our monitors, except the European Community mission, assume incorrectly that observing the technicalities qualifies them to pronounce an election is free and fair. I described the widespread pre-election violence and intimidation against Muslims to observer Damaso G. Magbual, ANFREL Chairman,when he congratulated us on holding a free and fair election. He responded “That is not cheating. That is election propaganda.” Observers should not excuse abominable practices.
Elections were marred by a lot of pre-poll cheating. One, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (GR’s) lawyer Ali Sabry in a video with our complaints unit tells Muslims that GR has practically won the election, Muslims must take ownership of the victory by voting for him, and if not, they will be smashed up. We lack the guts to prosecute the new President’s Counsel.
Two, Karuna Amman is caught on video saying Muslims need to be controlled and put down, GR is the man to do that, and that is why he is working with him. Further, when I passed on this complaint reported to me about this stirring of the communal pot, someone from either the Commission or the Police, told the press that I am the complainant – violating the privacy of complainants and spreading fake news.
Many, therefore, surely did not go to vote out of fear. But now because of the overwhelming support that GR received from the Sinhalese, I am confident that, despite the atmosphere of fear created, the overall result would not have changed. That is why, although the elections were neither free nor fair the overall result was trustworthy. That is why I certified the result with my two colleagues.
We didn’t see the system with real data till 16.11.2019. LSF ran the system. Unknown people were in the control room. Who will pay for changes? The Commission is yet to be informed of the mistakes. The programme is written in Python and we’re not capable of taking over and examining if everything is as it should be. This is like our mistake at Wennapuwa from the Local Government Election where the extra candidate who was returned is yet to be removed and the country is yet to be told
Q We saw one of the most ethnically-divided polling results in Sri Lankan history during this election. Even before election day, we heard some ethnically divisive statements being made and shared even by some responsible personnel. How was the election contested on dangerous ethnic cards?
“The intelligentsia in this country has collapsed. No one challenges this collapse. The courts are not standing up as they should,” says my brother Rajan. This is what the public thinks but dares not say.
Q The dual citizenship and renouncing of US-citizenship by Gotabaya Rajapaksa became a debated issue,especially in the run-up to elections. It could have affected voting as well. The Elections Commissioner is said to have stated that he didn’t check the national ID or passport of any document of the candidate, but only took affidavits. Shouldn’t the Election Commission and its Chairman play a more responsible role on this important issue?
Yes, but first, there is no Election Commissioner, no Head of Commission, no Chief of Commission. We are three members of whom one is Chairman. Calling the Chairman Commissioner undermines the Nineteenth Amendment,which is a good achievement of the outgoing administration.
Our Acts tie up our hands in being active. A while ago, I made inquiries at the US embassy about GR’s citizenship and was told they could respond only to an official request from the Commission. I put it to the Commission, where my request was refused with the response being GR wasn’t a candidate yet.
Subsequently GR, Ali Sabry, and another came uninvited to the Commission. Only the three members were present. Without a request from us,GR placed on the desk a letter from the US Embassy purporting to say his US citizenship had been relinquished, a cancelled US passport, and a Sri Lankan dual-citizenship certificate. My two fellow members handled the documents, but briefly. I noticed issues with dual citizenship that potentially make GR stateless. The Court of Appeal should have settled that issue.
A lot followed. Media friends said that Deshapriya had communicated to GR’s camp not to worry and that only I am a problem and he could handle it. I was disturbed because I thought he was putting my life in danger. I asked him in Mr. Abeysekere’s presence, and he denied it. Ali Sabry released a subsequent secretly recorded private conversation with Deshapriya. In that my name came up, and Deshapriya seems to confirm that citizenship documents had been given to us. If so, that was at another meeting.
I thought citizenship is serious enough to raise on nominations day as an objection from me, but was advised by my two colleagues and lawyer friends that others would object, hence I should keep myself dissociated from such objections to examine those objections when they are filed. I was assured that typed up objections were circulating. However, no objections were raised. The affidavit you refer to is a statement in the nomination paper that swears there are no impediments to the nominee’s candidature. That covers citizenship.
Q Both pre- and post-election, the chairman was complaining about the conduct of certain media. He punished state TV ITN but said he had no authority over private media. Is this the truth and could private media or any other institution do as it pleases?
I think our guidelines need to be obeyed by all. Otherwise why issue them? I also believe we can ask the TRC to withdraw the frequency licence of errant broadcasters.We weakened ourselves when Deshapriya signed orders in the name of the Commission without our knowledge. I reliably know that in an interview Deshapriya has accused Mr. Abeysekere and me of leaving all the work to him. He is a workaholic and wants things done instantly even late at night. I do not see the hurry to jump the gun in our absence
I suspect this hurry is what led him to de-accredit the observer group CaFFE and issue orders to the ITN in the name of the Commission without our knowledge. When this came to light, he had to rescind both directives. The long-term damage is that when there is a real directive from the Commission as a whole, those not wishing to be bound by us ask “How do we know it is really from the Commission?” This has been part of the problem with controlling ITN. The private media say ‘if you do not control ITN, do not try it with us.’
There are other problems too. The frequencies are of high monetary value, but are routinely renewed for a mere annual Rs. 1 lakh. They should be auctioned. Political patronage prevents those responsible from tackling this.
I thought citizenship is serious enough to raise on nominations day as an objection from me, but was advised by my two colleagues and lawyer friends that others would object, hence I should keep myself dissociated from such objections to examine those objections when they are filed
Q The Muslim voters travelling from Puttalam to Mannar were attacked. They were held in Mannar until the evening depriving them of their basic right. They were attacked again on their return. What happened?
There was a focused attempt to keep Muslims away from the polls. The law allows us to have special polling stations for those under threat, but my request was turned down. I warned that Muslims would be attacked. I was ignored. Muslims going to vote were fired at. They persisted in voting. Returning they were held up. I found a few buses near Chettikulam, filled with crying children and passengers who were scared and hungry. I offered to escort them using my police guard. I was refused saying the police were holding them on the orders of the Chairman and Senior SP. The route I took through Thanthirimale is too dangerous and required their escort, the Police said. I offered to go through Madawachchiya. I emphasised that they were free people and could not be held up. The Police said that they would leave at 5pm when 40 more buses turned up. I said our people are always late. The police agreed to take them in 10 minutes and asked me to proceed. I did and learned that they had taken hours before leaving and went through Madawachchiya and were assaulted by Sinhalese mobs. It was the punishment for voting.
It is sad we refused them special poll-stations despite the Act allowing us to do so. We promised them STF guard enroute to the polls. Fat lot of good it did.
Q This was not the first time Muslims from Puttalam went in buses to Mannar. If there was an issue why didn’t the Election Commission foresee and make necessary facilities for them to vote in Puttalam itself?
It is the increased racism. Sad we ignored so many warnings and refused special polling stations as provided in the law.
Q There have been concerns that EC doesn’t have sufficient IT experts. It’s strange that in this digital age an important institution like the EC is running without IT experts. What areas of the Commission should be developed, at least to be sufficiently armed with technology?
A problem associated with this is the government salary-structure. Our scales do not allow the payments required.
But more pressing are our personnel and governance issues. The regional assistant and deputy commissioners have severe issues with the Chairman and had got a commitment from him to leave after the presidential election. He now wants to remain longer. I am told that about 4-5 key staffers from the Head Office would leave soon. What would that do to the General Elections?
Q Social media seemed to be playing a major role during election campaigns and it was active specially during the ‘silence period’ as well. Is there a need to control social media?
There is, but not with an outright ban, which would be a ban on free speech.
We need to be serious first about punishments. Our GA/RO Colombo has called Sajith Premadasa the son of a donkey and a lot more in his Facebook posts and we let it pass. When in our other 24 districts voters left out of our registers were often zero and rarely exceeding 5, in Colombo it was 2400 where minorities were deleted. Let’s put right first what we can and then worry about other important things. E.g., there is subtlety in our sending up Karuna Amman for prosecution, but not Sabry or Mahinda Rajapaksa for his atrocious claim on 80% of postal votes.
Our Acts tie up our hands in being active. A while ago, I made inquiries at the US embassy about GR’s citizenship and was told they could respond only to an official request from the Commission
Q Both European Union and Commonwealth Election observers have highlighted the importance of making Sri Lanka more inclusive and to respect different ethnicities. What role has the EC in this area?
The Chairman rightly speaks of the need for national empathy for minorities. Yet I hear at the Commission premises cruel jokes about Muslims being cheats who will vote again if allowed to return to Puttalam, of a particular Muslim staffer who drinks being a good Muslim, and so called jokes about a Muslim girl Faathima wearing a miniskirt being asked if she has changed her name to Fatima, a double-barrelled shot at Christians as well.
Our country is so racist and at once confident that we are liberal and modern that we need leadership from the top to dig our way out of this morass.
Q Any other comment you wish to make?
This time we computerised processing. It was done free for us by Lanka Software Foundation. While thanking them, I have several questions to pose. We didn’t see the system with real data till 16.11.2019. LSF ran the system. Unknown people were in the control room. Who will pay for changes? The Commission is yet to be informed of the mistakes. The programme is written in Python and we’re not capable of taking over and examining if everything is as it should be. This is like our mistake at Wennapuwa from the Local Government Election where the extra candidate who was returned is yet to be removed and the country is yet to be told.