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20A and dual citizen



The 20th Amendment to the J.R. Jayewardene 1978 Constitution was done and dusted on Thursday night with the Gotabaya-Mahinda Rajapaksa government comfortably clearing the two thirds majority barrier. Since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election as the country’s seventh executive president in November 2019, nothing kicked up as much controversy as the 20th Amendment which the government was clearly intent on enacting despite, in our view, the far more important challenge of Covid-19 confronting our country and its people today. “First things first,” we said in this space last week, least expecting the powers- that-be to elevate the Covid nightmare above 20A on the national priority list. And so it sadly was, although the virus was spreading far too fast for comfort necessitating more and more stringent restriction in many parts of this island, particularly in the Western Province.

Government propagandists worked overtime to sock home the message that the president and the government elected some months after Gotabaya’s decisive victory had received a massive mandate and were fully entitled to press on with 20A. Although the present rulers came very close to getting what Junius Rex, the old fox who drafted the 1978 constitution, had calculated to be a never-attainable two thirds majority, they ignored the fact that neither President Rajapaksa nor his government said anything about a 20th Amendment in the manifestos they presented the country. There is not an iota of doubt that the people were very well aware that those who are now in office were ironclad in their ex post facto opposition to the 19th Amendment – despite all but one of them voting for its enactment. While it was clearly stated that the incumbents will bring a new constitution, the voters were never told that a 20th Amendment would be presented and passed in an almighty hurry. Claiming a massive mandate for doing what was accomplished last week was clearly not in order.

The 1978 constitution that established the proportional representation system of elections in place of the previous first-past-the-post Westminster model the country had followed since Independence, sought in vain to impose an anti-defection deterrent. It attempted to to ensure that MPs elected on party lists would lose their seats if they chose to defect. But this endeavor has proved to be a dismal failure. We’ve had a great many defections since then, with the numbers growing last week, but no single lawmaker who changed sides has lost his or her parliamentary seat. The less said the better about inducements and/or considerations that influenced switching allegiance. The people well know that there are no free lunches and many of the defectors have fed well, nay very well, at the trough. One of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) members who voted for 20A was quoted in a newspaper saying she didn’t take even a cent for what she did. It sounded better in the original Sinhala – “sathayakwath gaththey ne, puluwan nam oppu karanna.” (I didn’t take even a cent, prove it if you can). Explaining her vote on the floor of the House on Friday, this National List lady said that she, like Antonio in Julius Caesar, “loved her country more” (than she loved her party)

This newcomer to politics was the so-called ‘owner’ of the SJB which was among the recognized political parties in the books of the Election Commission. When Sajith Premadasa and his supporters broke away from the green party, they acquired the SJB label to enable them to field their candidate list as a party at the last election. We do not know what the arrangement was, but Ms. Diana Gamage was included in the SJB National List after the election. Digressing from the thrust of this commentary, let us say here that the dozens of unknown or barely known political parties cluttering the Election Commission’s ‘recognized party’ register should be cleaned out as they have been and will be continue to be used for political expedience. The new system of elections promised in the next constitution, which the president says will be in place for his second election anniversary (November 2021), could ensure this.

To return to the subject under discussion, the dual citizen provision in 20A merits special mention. Nobody would dispute that particular provision in 19A clearly targeted the Rajapaksas – specifically Gotabaya and Basil, who were citizen of both Sri Lanka and the USA. It was clearly venal in intent. While Gotabaya renounced his US citizenship to run for president, braving a welter of legal challenges against his candidature and suffering many campaign disadvantages over the risk factor (would his candidature be annulled?), Basil Rajapaksa did not do so. Among the stalwarts of the SLPP-led alliance publicly denouncing doing away with the 19A provisions on dual citizen are three party leader-ministers, Vasudeva Nananayakkara,Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. They are now on record saying that they were voting for 20A, including the dual citizen provision, on the basis of an assurance by the president that the new constitution to be enacted by November 2021 will retain the 19A prohibitions on dual citizen.

The unanswered question that remains hanging in the air is why a year-long window favoring dual citizen is being kept open if the prohibitions will be reimposed in the new constitution next year. Has any assurance been given that this opening will not be used? No answer was forthcoming during the 20A parliamentary debate. We believe that dual citizen should not only be prevented from running at presidential and national election but also not be permitted, with foreign allegiance, to assume any high public office in this country. Disgracefully, the authors of 19A during their previous tenure in government, started the rot by appointing dual citizen as ambassadors. The icing on the cake was appointing a Singapore citizen as Central Bank governor. He is now a fugitive of the bond scam investigation.

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Mountain in labour?



Friday 4th December, 2020

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday attacks is reportedly in the process of winding up, following two extensions of its term; everyone is eagerly awaiting its findings, conclusions and recommendations. There will not be enough time for some of the key witnesses whose statements have already been recorded by the police to appear before the commission, according to media reports. The commission must be having a valid reason for this, but it would have been better if all of them had been cross-examined thoroughly and more information elicited from them.

Besides the PCoI probe, several other investigations got underway into the Easter Sunday carnage. Little has been heard about them. What has become of them?

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, addressing the media yesterday, urged the government to ensure that all probes into the Easter Sunday carnage would be conducted properly and nothing swept under the carpet. He said the authorities concerned should have the courage to find out who had been behind the attacks. Reminding the government of its pledge to have the terrorist bombings probed thoroughly, the Cardinal said that unless its promise was fulfilled, they would have to think of an alternative. He can rest assured that all Sri Lankans who abhor terrorism are on his side.

The Cardinal’s call for identifying those behind the bombings is of crucial import. He has made this call on previous occasions as well. He is not alone in believing that the terror strikes were part of an international conspiracy. Maithripala Sirisena, who was the President and Defence Minister at the time of the carnage, did not mince his words when he said before the PCoI, the other day, that there had been a foreign hand behind the bombings. Among those who insist that there was an external involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks are former SDIG CID Ravi Seneviratne and SLMC Leader and former Minister Rauff Hakeem, MP.

Strangely, the focus of none of the investigations into the bombings has been on the alleged foreign hand. Investigators seem to be wary of looking at the Easter Sunday attacks from this particular angle.

No probe into the Easter Sunday carnage can be considered complete unless the alleged foreign involvement therein is investigated fully. The focus of the probes into the Easter Sunday terror has been on identifying those who failed to stop the attacks. The blame for the country’s failure to prevent them should be apportioned to all yahapalana leaders, the police and intelligence agencies. They did not heed repeated foreign intelligence warnings of imminent terror attacks. They are now blaming one another, but it was their collective failure that enabled the NTJ to strike with ease. One may argue that all of them should be prosecuted. But that will not help neutralise threats to the country if the real mastermind of the attacks is not identified.

We have seen various probes under successive governments, but not much came of most of them. Worse, some Presidents ‘swallowed’ the probe reports submitted to them. The public who bore the cost of those investigations has been left in the dark. Some of those investigations which dragged on for months were like the proverbial mountain which went into labour and delivered a mouse. As for the ongoing probes into the Easter Sunday attacks, it is hoped that we will not be left with a tiny rodent again.

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Recent judgments: Some queries



Thursday 3rd December 2020

Any judicial decision is always acceptable to only one party to a legal dispute; the winner hails it, claiming justice has been served, and the loser frowns on it and grumbles. That is the way the cookie crumbles. The judiciary, however, is not infallible, in any country, and concerns that the public expresses about its decisions should be heeded. In fact, judgments can be discussed and even criticised by the public but without causing affronts to the dignity of the judiciary and/or its members.

It is only natural that judgments in high-profile cases come under public scrutiny, and various views are expressed thereon. SJB MP Hesha Withanage, in Parliament, on Wednesday, raised a question about the judicial decisions that have attracted a lot of public attention of late. Referring to the recent judgments, given in favour of certain government politicians and their associates, he asked Minister of Justice Ali Sabry why other cases could not be similarly disposed for the benefit of the public so that the remand prisons would not be overcrowded. If all cases had been heard expeditiously, the unfortunate situation in the trouble-torn Mahara Prison, where hundreds of remandees are being held, would not have arisen, MP Withanage said. He was obviously viewing the issue from a political angle, and trying to embarrass the government, but his query may have struck a responsive chord with many people. He also provided the public, albeit unwittingly, with an opportunity to know the other side of the story.

Fielding Withanage’s query, Justice Minister Sabry said the anthropause caused by the prevailing pandemic had created a situation where court cases could not be heard, and, therefore, the Justice Ministry had requested the Judicial Services Commission to expedite the process of delivering judgments in the cases in which hearing had already been concluded. More than 70 judgments had been delivered recently, and the ones the Opposition was referring to were only a few among them, the Minister said, insisting that the government did not interfere with the judicial process.

Minister Sabry then got on his hobbyhorse; he lashed out at the previous regime for having manipulated the legal process and set up of the Financial Crime Investigation Division, etc., for that purpose. The less said about the Police Department, the better in that it is a mere appendage of the government in power. The same is true of the Attorney General’s Department, but incumbent AG Dappula De Livera deserves praise for trying to make a difference and standing up to the powers that be in carrying out his duties and functions. Unfortunately, he has not received enough support from the legal fraternity, the media, civil society organisations and the Opposition.

It is doubtful whether the discerning public will buy into Minister Sabry’s claim that the present government does not interfere with the legal process. Under the current dispensation, the police have shown their selective efficiency by concluding probes against Opposition politicians double-quick. They have also reopened some old cases where the political enemies of the current adminstration are involved. But they invariably baulk at executing arrest warrants when the suspects happen to be government politicians and those in the good books of the ruling party.

The judiciary is the only branch of government which people repose their trust in, and, therefore, extreme care must be taken to prevent an erosion of public faith therein lest democracy should be further weakened. Hence the need for the Justice Minister to support his claim that more than 70 judgments have been delivered in court cases during the recent past; he ought to release a list of those judicial decisions. That is the least the Justice Ministry can do to clear doubts in the minds of some people about the court cases the Opposition has referred to and defeat attempts being made in some quarters to cast aspersions on the judiciary.

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A crime of utmost savagery



Wednesday 2nd December, 2020

The recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Prof. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, has shocked the civilised world and been rightly condemned as a dastardly act of terrorism. His killers left no clues as to their identities. Iran has blamed the US (which it calls ‘Global Arrogance’) and Israel. Its indignation is understandable.

Those who had Prof. Fakhrizadeh assassinated may have sought to demoralise Iran and scuttle its nuclear programme, but they seem to have only strengthened Tehran’s resolve to achieve its goal. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, no doubt, is an unnervingly frightening proposition, but the question is whether those who are all out to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambitions have cared to set an example by suspending the production of their nukes.

Most of the nuclear capable countries are run by bloodthirsty hawks who have engineered many wars and caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to be killed elsewhere. The world cannot be any more dangerous even if other states acquire nuclear capability. Nukes in the hands of any nation are dangerous. Those who already have huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which are capable of blowing the planet several times over, will be without any moral right to try to prevent others from producing nukes so long as they do not decommission theirs and act responsibly without abusing their military might to dominate and exploit the world.

The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is the goal the world must strive to achieve, but assassinating nuclear scientists is certainly not the way to set about it. Given the present global order, where might is right, for all practical purposes, it is only natural that the countries whose sovereignty and independence are threatened by meddlesome nuclear powers are trying to arm themselves with nukes. Iran is not alone in doing so. One may recall what Charles de Gaulle famously said: “No country without an atomic bomb could properly consider itself independent.”

Gone are the days when the US had the run of the world, so to speak. Now, it has formidable opponents. Try as it may, it cannot frighten China into submission either economically or militarily or otherwise, and Russia is also emerging powerful. The US and China are evenly matched in most respects so much so that the former has had to look for new allies or lackey states to retain its dominance of the international order. Worse, it has had to talk to the Taliban in a bid to wriggle out of the Afghan imbroglio. About a decade or so ago, who would have thought the US would ever negotiate with terrorists?

The world is changing fast, and so are geo-political dynamics and realities. The world history is replete with instances of mighty empires crumbling. The sun finally set on the British empire. Uncle Sam will show a clean pair of heels, given half a chance in Afghanistan, and has failed to humble the ‘Little Rocket Man’, who cocks a snook at Washington, at every turn, from his hermit kingdom. Those who are riding piggyback on the US or other powerful countries and resorting to aggression against their enemies had better be mindful of this reality, and act responsibly.

Iran should be dealt with diplomatically and must not be driven into a corner. Washington should not have withdrawn from the so-called Iran nuclear deal and opted for hostile action. President Donald Trump, who made that mistake, is on his way out, and how his successor, Joe Biden, widely considered a sensible leader, will handle the Iran issue is not clear.

One can only hope that Iran, which has not chosen its enemies wisely, will remain unprovoked in spite of its unbearable loss, desist from retaliation, which may be exactly what its enemies are waiting for, and deny the perpetrators of the dastardly crime of assassinating its much-revered scientist the pleasure of having a casus belli.



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