Colombo, Elections, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The Commissioner of Elections: A close friend’s critique

One evening we boisterously debated on the conduct of the last Presidential Elections. Some blamed the President and supporters, some Ranil Wickremesinghe / Sarath Fonseka and supporters, R. Samapanthan and Somawansa Ameresinghe and others posthumously bashed Velupillai Prabhakaran for the “sin” he committed in November 2005. Also, Dayananda Dishanayake received enough criticism.

Dayanada Dishanyake whom we call ‘Dissa Malli’ is my close friend for 40 years. He was DRO Laggala-Pallegama where he brushed with death during the 1971- JVP insurgency. JVP came for him but he was with me in Matale. The vociferous JVP criticism of him now may be ‘delayed revenge’!  He was DRO- Haputale when I invited him to join the Elections Department to facilitate my release to be the Additional GA, Polonnaruwa. Like when vows are made to God Kataragama we had to give a “rupeta rupe” (“image to image”) to the Commissioner of Elections (CE) when leaving the Department. Dishanayake was the “rupe” I offered!

After the debate I went to sleep with reeling thoughts and boggled mind as to who deserved these blames.

Friends! Now I switch off from present and revert 40 years on my memory lane.

I am inside the Batticaloa fortress in the Election Office, where I was the Assistant Commissioner of Parliamentary Elections (ACPE) in 1970. I see familiar faces like Jeevaratnam, my Election Clerk, Thambipillai and Seller, two clerks in my Election Office, young Dawn Balthazar the Sinhala typist.

The chubby peon Nallathamy brings me a letter from the CE.

Office of the Commissioner of Elections

33, Horton Place
PO Box No 814


Dear Fernando,

Parliamentary General Elections: 2010

Parliament has been dissolved today. Nominations have been fixed for 26.2. 2010 and polling will be 8-4-2010. Now we really have to get down to another deadly election.

It is comforting that with our recent experiences we can surmise what would happen at the forthcoming election. Nevertheless, the greater part of the risk lies ahead. Unfortunately, some of the risky challenges are already looped by potential candidates, their security personnel and underworld thugs.

At the nomination, tippexed Nomination Papers will not be submitted by District Leaders, unless political parties have not learnt from past lessons. They might have and hence we need not worry.

Lower level of supervision of poll cards distribution will ensure postal peons delivering them to grabbers; not the intended recipients. Since the grabbers love “such intended recipients” not voting, minimum supervision of the poll card operation is appreciated.

Security of ballot papers need no planning as it could prevent impersonation. But it is necessary to secure ballot papers after counting because finding them in drains or cemeteries may provoke Opposition politicians to bother the Venerable Mahanayake Theros who do not have legal provision to intervene.

Like in 2005 some may complain of not registering their names. Try to find legal and procedural excuses if your officers have deleted names of eligible electors. Whether the public knew or not there is legal remedy for these issues through courts.

Ensure that the postal voting operation is hijacked by politically motivated Military/ Police or other state / corporation officers, insisting marked ballot papers be shown to them to satisfy that their choices have gained preferences, in the absence of polling agents who will be chased away. If everything is politicized and criminalized why not the election process?

You will appreciate that we in the Department of Elections should not obstruct those motivated public servants obtaining official perks, such as double and treble promotions when their supportive candidates form a government. Please remember the Election Law prohibits favoring “treatment,” but not the “national tradition of treating.”

Preparing ballot boxes that can be pilfered, transport arrangements  ensuring “plundering of ballot boxes” on way to your office after the poll, are the outputs expected by politicians, orchestrated by the defeated only after polls.

Making counting arrangements to permit government politicians access to counting halls along with their thugs or bodyguards to terrify opposing counting agents in a more transparent manner than at the Presidential Election will be worked out by political parties. “Computer jilmarting” which is unknown to me has to be studied by you to take precautions. As many pro-government politicians declare, all their actions are to safeguard Sri Lanka’s sovereignty – a pious act against international conspiracies. Therefore, I do not understand how we could oppose such.

After elections, ensure that the result sheets from sub counting halls are not shared with monitors who club with preferred political parties. Law does not provide for sharing them with Monitors and everything we do should be legal.

Since violent incidents inside Counting Halls during the Presidential Election have not been reported in time to the Police, Returning Officers, Monitors, you or me by the affected, in comparison to the purported numbers of cases, I will request Party Secretaries to hereafter take appropriate timely action, rather than to cry for spilt milk.

Everything done illegally by government politicians for their electoral benefit should be appreciated and hence meticulous planning, checking and rechecking on work and promoting positive arrangements obstructing them must be deprecated. Switch off your thinking and planning buds right now and be nonchalant.

Remember that we will be in very close touch with politicians and their retinues, the colleagues in the Public Service and the public who opted to be extremely politicized. Lack of application of the election laws and constitutional provisions, eroded tact, roughness to anti-establishment, extra fairness to the powers that may be, partiality to those who will in your opinion come to power will be important ingredients in conducting a good election in your District.

I need not ask you to do your best to me and the Department or to the election process because I know you will always give your best to the persons who threaten you the worst, because you love your family more than democratic rights and Rule of Law.

If at anytime you require any advice or assistance from the Head Office please get in touch immediately, if you know where I am or my deputies are. Telephones are faster than letters. Some web site operators knew better than I did where I was on the day of the last presidential election. In case if you cannot contact me on my mobile or land lines, please call such web administrator and ask for my contacts. They should help.

With kind regards and best wishes to see you in office after the election, not warded in a hospital, permitting you to enjoy the Sinhala/ Hindu New Year with the stuff that will be filling all CWE retail stores in the island, because this is election time.

Commissioner of Elections

Having read the letter I was exasperated. This cannot be from EF Dias Abeysinghe. Issuing date was questionable though the address was his. There was no signature to find the authencity of the letter.  The letter was demanding my succumbing to all election ills. It was not highlighting the independent, legal and unimpeded managerial responsibilities of an election. Usually his advice was as coming from a father to son, but this appeared to be underworld thug’s origination. CE was a gentleman to the teeth. Someone has invariably pulled my leg.

I shouted “No, this is not from him, I am deceived.” and was awake.

I switched back to the present. I was convinced I had dreamt due to my sub-conscious struggling with the arguments during the debate. Why did the debate create an indelible mark to bother me with dreams? I realized the reason within minutes. It was due to a signed true letter I received from the CE in 1970. I fished it from my bundles of old documents after a few days. It read:

My No: PE.3/6/21

Office of the Commissioner of Elections
33, Horton Place
PO Box No 814
Colombo 7.


Dear Fernando,

Parliamentary General Elections: 1970

Parliament has been dissolved today. Nominations have been fixed for 23.4. 70. and polling will be 27.5.70. Now we really have to get down to it.

It is comforting to feel that as a result of our forward planning quite a fair amount of preliminary work has been done already; but the greater part of the actual exercise now lies ahead. Nomination Day arrangements, careful checking of the writing of poll cards, security of ballot papers, indelible ink, clippers, registers etc the many aspects of the postal voting operation, checking on ballot boxes, transport arrangements, counting arrangements, etc. all remain to be worked out. Nothing can be overlooked in an election, so meticulous planning, checking and rechecking on work and arrangements, etc. are essential. Go ahead with your thinking and planning right now.

Remember too that we will be in very close touch with politicians, colleagues in the Public Service and the public in the months ahead. Knowledge of your work, your tact, good humour and attitudes of fairness and neutrality will be important ingredients in making a good election in your District.

I do not need to ask you to do your best because I know you will always give of it. If at anytime you require any advice or assistance from anyone in the Head Office please do get in touch at once- telephones are faster than letters.

With kind regards and best wishes,

Yours sincerely

Sgd: E.F. Dias Abeysinghe

I wonder whether the above letter suits the present day ACPEs if Dishanayake addresses them. The standards among politicians, public servants, the Department, Police, public etc have deteriorated so much he cannot send a sobered informal letter like the immediately above. It will be worse with his successors. This is the reality.

This article is not to make humor out of Dishanayake. This is a heartaching lament against deterioration and resulting demoralization that had taken place in the conduct of elections. It is not a reflection on the incumbent government politicians alone. Other politicians were similarly culpable when they were in power. All politicians will do it in the future too. This is not lamenting for the past and present; it is lamenting for the future too.

Late EF Dias Abeysinghe would have cried his eye balls out had he seen the plight of Dishanayake. We as old Election Department hands cry for Dishanayake and he too must be crying for his pathetic situation. His wife Soma may be knowing it best. Only the wrong doers and cartoonists must be enjoying Dishanayake’s shame, ridicule, and heartburn, publicly accepted tension and planned immediate retirement and regaining mental comfort to withdraw his immediate retirement, desperation and helplessness. We do not.

I only hope the public servants from Dishanayake downwards who carry forward the election process would stand by the Rule of Law and not uphold wrong doers and crown those who erode rights, legality, just and democracy. Dishanayake has a great opportunity to perform in this last attempt and permanently retire, keeping his head above shoulders. He can say “Enough is enough” and do it correctly.

If he does not, the public may yell “Enough is enough of you Dayananda Dishanayake” and his departure will be termed as a good turn for democracy. To avoid such, others – i.e. electors, politicians, law and order enforcing authorities, monitors – have to contribute to his success.

Being critical is easy, but CE’s job is not an easy one man show.


[Editors note: Austin Fernando was a former Secretary of Defence in Sri Lanka. An interview with Austin about his published memoirs can be viewed here.]

  • justitia

    How about allowing election observers and disallowing anyone other than candidates and/or their accredited agents inside counting centres to observe the process of counting of ballots?
    And, strictly prohibiting anyone other than the election staff and polling agents of candidates insde polling stations.

  • AJ Perera

    An absolutely legitimate and appropriate summary “Being critical is easy, but CE’s job is not an easy one man show.”

    Nevertheless, the EC has a bigger, singular responsibility that he needs to handle singlehandedly. That is making a choice between following two, as I see it. (a) If he is confident he has at least a fair chance of conducting a neutral election, he should stick it out, undeterred by the criticisms. Or, (b) having had one firsthand experience, if he has any reason to believe that there will be (or if there already is) undue pressure to subordinate him to influence the elections (by threat to person, family etc as has been rumored), then he has a greater responsibility to Democracy and the Country, much bigger than the responsibility he has to his person or family. We demand such sacrifice from foot-soldiers – to lay down their lives and their family responsibility for the good of the country. So, it is not unfair to ask the EC to pointblank refuse to subordinate his services to the administration, irrespective of what that means to his person or family, if there is a threat to the neutrality of the elections.

    We count on his integrity to assure us that he will make the decision based on his sincere assessment, and will not fail the country on the responsibility he solely carries at this election that will fashion the country’s future for a long time to come. To that extent, it is a one-man responsibility, even if not a one man show!

  • Kusal Perera

    Well, well Austin, you’ve said most I wanted to write about and in a much better and in a very readable, subtle way. THANK YOU.
    Organising elections and conducting it free and fair is no JOKE in this Dharmadweepa, Not with so many players, actors and script writers who design the run up and the outcome of elections, where the CE can not remain or leave at his own discretion, but got to continue, with others who decide how his election work should be. Yes, I pity him too at his ripe old age of 68 plus.
    – Kusal

  • BogusName

    We, in Uva, are proud of Dayananda Dishanayake, but at this moment I feel he has made a mistake in agreeing to conduct the Parliamentary Elections.

    His face was eloquent testimony of the agonies he suffered. The fact is that the Presidential Elections must be considered a “non-election”. The Elections Commissioner had tried his best and failed. His resignation from the end of January ought to have been final.

    There are already nagging claims that pecuniary rewards were forced on him.

    I wish you a happy retirement in Uduwara, Hali-Ela

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Mr. Austin Fernando,
    I hope the political parties and their candidates will campaign on issues and abide by the laws of the country and give the besieged election commissioner the respect he has earned under extremely difficult conditions.

    I just now listened to your interview with Sanjana. Your analysis of the situation is commendable for its objectivity. Sri Lanka is fortunate for your service as a Secretary of Defence even for a short period. I also like to thank you for being honest to say that no party will stay in power or come to power if it acceded to all what the LTTE wanted as a political solution. Your statement reminded me of statements made to me by Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe and Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali twelve years apart. On Feb 4, 1985 when I suggested to him that the UNP with more than two-thirds majority in Parliament pass a federal constitution. He said, “That would be political suicide. (Lalith and I competed in the hurdles at the 1952 Public Schools Tarbet Cup competition, which he won. His secretary Upali Gooneratne, the Ceylon record holder in the 100yds who used to practice at my school grounds in Jaffna when he was in charge of the Jaffna Prison).

    On May 13, 1997 (the day Jeya Sikuru started.), Mr. Wickremasinghe at Cambridge Place, in the presence of Mr. Tyronne Fernando and Mr. Mahinda Samarasinghe, said, “No political party will agree on a political solution that would remove them from power or that will not bring them back to power.”

    Twenty three years after Lalith, you are saying the same thing. It appears that no party in the South is willing to include in its Manifesto a political structure it would enact when it comes to power, because they do not wish to take the chance of loosing power or not coming back to power. Is it the fear that any political solution put to the people will divide the people and will result in chaos?
    There is a time and space sensitive window for peace that can be achieved only by an innovative political solution to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. Economic resuscitation alone will not bring peace and reconciliation.


    Every single person is aware of DD’s role as EC and that he was forced to do as he was told by the higher ups of this island. The verdict therefore at the PE in January was unfair. It could have gone 49% / 51% this way or that, which would have proved that there was no artificial king in this country.
    It is a great shame that the rights of the people are plundered in this manner and the unsuspecting rural folk think that MR is king.

  • Austin Fernando


    Dear Kusal

    Yes, it is not easy to conduct elections in Sri Lanka. I have worst fears.

    My fear is if the CE who is said to possess the powers of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) has adequately proved that his office cannot conduct free and fair election though he has powers of the IEC. In that event is there any use of fighting for the IEC under 17th Amendment? The candidates, party leaders, Police, public servants, media etc will not listen to the IEC. The IEC head also will lament that he is powerless if they try to implement IEC law.

    The guys who pass legislation are the very same who violate them or cause them to be violated. Therefore, one cannot anticipate any improvements to the IEC even in the next parliament. What an incredible hoax is this?

    Not only the CE in the last paragraph of my article, but the IEC that will be appointed some day will leave with the yell from the public ““Enough is enough of you the members of the IEC!” and their departure will be termed as a good turn for accelerated autocracy and will be the beginning of silent endorsement of non-democratic means to rule!

    Keep your fingers crossed for the day and sing “Don’t cry for me Sri Lanka!”

    Dear Mr. Ethirveerasingam

    My article was to address the current issue in Sri Lanka.

    Re: the comments I made to Sanjana about two years or more back. I still believe that the south will always have power craziness uppermost in their minds. Quite recently I read a paper at an international conference held in Colombo which I wish to summarize having read your comment to understand the political hypocrisy in the south. Hope Groundviews will agree to publish it.

    The power craziness is not limited to the Sinhalese led political groups but even the Tamil led political groups. I should not comment on the only presentation made by a Tamil- i.e. Minister Karuna Amman- at this conference, which showed this hypocrisy even in them. As long as we allow the problem to be solved by political interventions alone this dichotomy cannot be erased.

    Why not the Diaspora, intelligentsia, business leadership, professionals etc start campaigning on equity, fairness, reason, democracy, rights etc to convince the political leaderships to change according to the national requirements? To put these groups together in a situation of “undercutting” bringing great personal or professional benefits will be extremely difficult. It will be difficult like “collecting frogs to a bucket” (“Lahata gembo ekkasu kanava vagai” – A Sinhala idiomatic expression”)

    Austin Fernando

  • jayathilaka

    As long as the election commision is established a free and fair election under the commiioner of election is a none other than a was proved with evidence at the last presidential election as the comisioner of election was just a powerles prisnor of the government .power vested under him can not be executed due to the inflence on him and his weeping indicate that a powerful mechanism is essetial if any body expect a free and fair election in Sri lanka

  • jayathilaka

    In fact the comisioner is forced to pay gratitude to the president who kept him despite his willingness by bearing for whatever the influence had on him by the ruling party as atoken of his gratitude.that is what relly happend in the last presidential election

  • justitia

    This very same Commissioner of Elections – and the then Army Commander Balagalle, were punished (fined) by the supreme court in a fundamental rights case filed by voters of the eastern province for being prevented from voting in the general elections held in December 2001. Thousands were prevented from voting by the army. Now the army is reported to be preventing some candidates from campaigning in the nothern province. The army commander says he is helpless in the matter.
    This commissioner said that he was a sick man in 2001 and pleaded to be allowed to retire. He should have been sent before a medical board then. But this was not done. He now appears to be the only indespensable public servant in sri lanka, but is unable to implement election laws and procedure.
    Nobody cares for his ‘directives’ he complains. This whole election thus will be a big farce and only those with megabucks and megathugs will win – as has been in most elections until now. Austin Fernando’s days of ‘gentlemanly politics’ are over. The ‘manape fight’ is on and people are being injured and vehicles damaged. Police are “helpless” like the army brass.

  • Oi

    Let’s not forget that Austin Fernando is the man who brokered the infamous Ceasefire Accord on 2002 on behalf of his political master Ranil Wickremasinghe. Austin Fernando now speaks loftily about governance issues, but the bottomline is that there may not have been a free Sri Lanka if the country was divided to accommodate the LTTE’s Eelam demands. He humoured the terrorists at the beck and call of the Norwegians. That makes him a traitor in our eyes, and traitors must not be engaged in civilized conversation, no matter what other credentials and pretensions they might have.

  • Austin Fernando


    Dear Justitia- It is unjust to Dishanyake to be told that he and Gen Balagalle were “punished (fined) by the supreme court in a fundamental rights case filed by voters of the eastern province for being prevented from voting in the general elections held in December 2001.” I think it was a different person who was fined for a wrong done.
    Thank you.
    Dear Oi- There is an English saying “Little knowledge is more dangerous than no knowledge” You have proved it best when you said in your comment “Let’s not forget that Austin Fernando is the man who brokered the infamous Ceasefire Accord on 2002 on behalf of his political master Ranil Wickremasinghe.”

    It is well known that the Norwegians brokered the CFA (even before 2002) and I had no hand in it at all- officially or personally. MR Narayan Swamy has said that the Indians too had a hand in it, re: SLMM provisions. See” India’s covert role in Sri Lanka’s ceasefire” appeared in Indo Asian News Agency (February 2008).As a public officer I implemented parts of the CFA relevant to me, which was reinforcing the mandate received by the UNF Government in December 2001.

    I do not intend answering the issues raised by Oi on governance since Oi does not seem to comment on the issue in question- i.e. Elections. For his/her information I have seven years experience in elections in the Department as an Assistant Commissioner, Returning Officer when I was a GA, engagement by CE to undertake election work during by-elections after leaving the Department and never received any complaint on failed governance- i.e. lack of transparency, accountability, integrity, not bearing responsibility, actions by me against Rule of Law etc.

    I accept that the LTTE is defeated and we have a “terrorism free Sri Lanka” and I congratulate the incumbent government for it. As Ven Iththepane Nayaka Hamuduruvo said yesterday it has not brought in unity in Sri Lanka. It cannot be achieved only by the government, as reiterated in different terms even by the President.

    I must take the issue raised by him/ her on dividing the country consequential to the CFA. I must say it is political gimmick. Is Oi aware that concessions giving more power to LTTE than “given” to LTTE by UNF government were agreed and even implemented seven years before by President Kumaratunga after she signed the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement with Velupillai Prabhakaran, on 9th January 1995?.

    All these political critics were then holding ministerial appointments (i.e. hence bound by collective responsibility) and were accountable for a worse agreement though they criticized the CFA on the grounds of dividing the country, as Oi does here. Oi, please ignore “what other credentials and pretensions they (critics) might have” now!

    At a time when war heroes become traitors overnight, I ignore Oi’s comment that I was a traitor! I say that I am not a traitor and love this country as much as Oi or any other does. I as a member of a team gave my best to keep the country in one unit and not to divide when I was engaged in the implementation of the CFA as a public officer, which unfortunately failed.

    One thing I have to repeat. I do not mind engaging even traitors if its is benefiting Sri Lanka, as done by the incumbent President by engaging terrorists of the past like Karuna Amman, Pillaiyan, Daya Master, George Master, KP and many Diaspora LTTE supporters then. I do not belong to the group that criticizes the President on this count.

    Shutting down space for “civilized conversation” will bring disastrous results and this is a lesson that could be learnt by Oi from an elderly man who had gone through the mill. Therefore, Oi, please engage anyone who will do good to the country. We should not be sixteen year old kids!

    Thank you.
    Austin Fernando