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Editorial

20A and volte-face

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Tuesday 15th September, 2020

Nobody has accepted responsibility for drafting the 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution. This ‘fatherless’ Bill has become a huge embarrassment to the SLPP government, which may have thought that securing its passage would be a walk in the park. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been left holding the baby. The government has decided to review 20A, we are told. It is putting the cart before the horse. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed a committee to study 20A and submit a report thereon to him fast. The Bill should have been reviewed before being gazetted.

Interestingly, those who ganged up to oust President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2015, and went all out to destroy him politically thereafter, albeit in vain, are now bemoaning what they call an attempt to reduce him to the level of a peon. They are quoting the late Ranasinghe Premadasa, who, as the Prime Minister in the J. R. Jayewardene government, famously said that he was as powerless as a peon. However, our Constitution is such that the PM becomes more powerful than the Executive President to all intents and purposes when they happen to be elected from different parties. From 2001 to 2004, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe undermined President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who finally got rid of him by dissolving Parliament. After the 2015 regime change, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe lorded it over President Maithripala Sirisena, and the 19th Amendment (19A) helped him consolidate his power further. 19A stripped the President of the power to sack the PM and dissolve Parliament until the expiration of four and a half years of the term of a government.

The PM is more powerful than the President, at present, although they come from the same party; prior to the introduction of 19A, it would have been the other way around. Had the President and the PM been political rivals elected from different parties, they would have been at each other’s jugular by now just like Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. Fortunately, they are from the same party and, above all, members of a family known for its unity.

The proposed 20A seeks to strip the PM of some powers and strengthen the position of the President again, and the Opposition is trying to make this out to be an attempt to make Mahinda as powerless as a peon. They are obviously trying to pit Mahinda against Gotabaya and cause dissension within the ranks of the SLPP.

President Rajapaksa is ready to submit a fresh draft of 20A, according to a report we published yesterday. This is welcome news. He could have bulldozed his way through, given the SLPP’s steamroller majority in Parliament. After all, the Cabinet approved 20A in its present form. But he has decided against going ahead with it and agreed to take dissenting views on board. His critics have accused him of having dictatorial tendencies, which, they claimed, had driven him to have 20A crafted. He has countered adverse criticism by opting to have 20A reviewed.

Flexibility is not a sign of weakness. If the JRJ government had not contemptuously rejected opposing views out of hand, the existing Constitution would not have been seriously flawed and full of amendments; 19A has some flaws, which should be rectified, but 20A in its present form is not the solution.

The Opposition has agreed in principle that the President should be able to hold the defence portfolio, and the government would have been able to enlist its support to change 19A. Instead, it sought to discard 19A lock, stock, and barrel so as to do away with the limit on the number of Cabinet ministers, reduce the powers of the Auditor General, abolish the National Procurement Commission, replace the Constitutional Council with a Parliamentary Council and vest the power of making all key appointments in vital state institutions in the President.

It is hoped that the review committee will rid 20A of its draconian features and make it acceptable to those who are concerned about democracy.



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Editorial

Defeat bid to protect the corrupt

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Wednesday 5th October, 2022

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has proved once again that probity is anathema to it. Its leaders have engineered the exclusion of dissident SLPP MPs Prof. Charitha Herath and Prof. Tissa Vitharana from the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), and the COPA (Committee on Public Accounts), respectively. Never do they baulk at anything to cover up their corrupt deals, safeguard their interests, and protect crooks.

When President Ranil Wickremesinghe prorogued Parliament in July, causing the COPE, the COPA, and other parliamentary committees to be dissolved, it was clear that the government would get rid of Prof. Herath and Prof. Vitharana; they had got under the skins of the SLPP leaders by carrying out their duties and functions conscientiously and taking on the corrupt who had caused huge losses to the state coffers. They are among the few legislators who have striven to fight corruption and restore public faith in the national legislature. They were able to kindle some hope in the resentful people, who have turned against Parliament. Dissident SLPP MP Dullas Alahapperuma was spot on when he told Parliament yesterday that the people were so angry that they cursed all 225 MPs.

SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva deserves credit for having resigned from the COPE and asked the government to appoint Prof. Herath to the committee. This is a clever move on the part of the Opposition, and how the SLPP will seek to counter it remains to be seen. The SLPP has so much to cover up that it may not soften its stand.

President Wickremesinghe, in response to anti-government protesters’ demand for a system change, promised to usher in a new political culture, and introduce consensual governance. He also undertook to establish an all-party government to make the political parties represented in Parliament partners in governance. Maybe he was genuinely desirous of doing so, but what we are witnessing today is the very antithesis of his solemn pledge; perhaps, he has not been able to make good on his promise because the SLPP, on whose parliamentary majority he is dependent, does not allow him to do so. The SLPP wants the President to do as it says, and not the other way around. But this does not mean that the President can absolve himself of the blame for the exclusion of Prof. Herath and Prof. Vitharana from the parliamentary watchdog committees they headed in an exemplary manner.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has, in a recent television interview, declared that the SLPP has retained its hold on power; it has a parliamentary majority and had the current President elected. He has told the truth. What he has left unsaid is that Basil Rajapaksa controls the SLPP and the government like ‘Big Brother.’

If the SLPP is allowed to appoint its MPs or its proxies as the Chairmen of the COPE and the COPA, Basil will be able to manipulate the two committees much to the benefit of the crooked elements responsible for ruining public institutions. The Rajapaksas may have expected to do so when they had SLPP MPs, Prof. Hearth and Prof. Vitharana, appointed as COPE and COPA heads, but the latter refused to give in to pressure from the Family, and exposed many corrupt deals. This is not something we can expect of other SLPP MPs who have chosen to shore up the Family rule under a new President, and continue to lick sandals. Hence the need for the reappointment of Prof. Herath and Prof. Vitharana as the Chairmen of the COPE and the COPA, respectively.

The Opposition should be thanked for condemning the government’s shameful action at issue, taking up the cudgels on behalf of the public and doing its utmost to prevent the Rajapaksa family from keeping the COPE and the COPA under its thumb. One hopes and prays that it will succeed in its endeavour. If the government manages to bulldoze its way through and install its stooges as COPE and COPA heads then the Opposition’s representation on the two committees will only help legitimise the SLPP’s sinister efforts to cover up corruption and safeguard the interests of the Family.

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Editorial

Hell and heaven

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Tuesday 4th October, 2022

Piteous appeals of the victims of last week’s fire that destroyed more than 80 shanties at Thotalanga are still heard. The government has promised relief and alternative accommodation for the poor families in distress. One can only hope that it will not renege on its pledge. Politicians’ promises are said to be like the piecrust; they are made to be broken.

The media is losing interest in the Thotalanga fire and its victims. The same is true for the ordinary people, who take refuge in escapism, unable to face the harsh politico-economic reality. No wonder the Lotus Tower (LT) continues to draw large crowds. Some poor people are said to be pinching and scraping to pay for elevator rides to the tower top and enjoy the panoramic view of the city and the hinterland, therefrom. One of them, a woman from Kurunegala, has said she dipped into her child’s piggybank savings to visit the LT, and got her money’s worth! Another person who visited the tower was so thrilled that he said it was like a trip to heaven! Many others are also in seventh heaven, having seen Sri Pada from the LT. Everybody seems to have missed hell (read urban squalor) for the holy mountain peak, high-rises and other such attractions visible from the LT’s observation deck.

Ironically, it is while people are queuing up to visit the Lotus heaven, as it were, that the Thotalanga fire has shed light on the seamy side of urban life in Colombo, where opulence and abject poverty exist cheek by jowl. But it does not seem to have aroused the public conscience at least briefly.

The gutted houses at Thotalanga were unauthorised structures, according to government officials. Successive governments have been blamed for the glaring urban bias in resources allocation for development. The JVP even coined a pithy slogan to highlight this fact and mobilise the rural youth, in the late 1980s—kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri (‘milk for Colombo and melon for the village’). But the majority of city dwellers are in the same predicament as their rural counterparts; slum and shanty dwellers are said to account for about one half of Colombo’s population. This shows that the majority of urban people have not benefited from the much-publicised development programmes.

There have been only half-hearted attempts by governments to arrest the rapid spread of urban poverty. We have seen some densification schemes, which however have not been effective enough to help arrest the expansion of slums and shanty areas. The yuppification of some parts of the city, frequented by the rich, has taken precedence over plans to solve the urban housing problem.

Politicians do not seem keen to tackle urban poverty and the attendant problems, for it is easy for them to manipulate the poor and muster votes. Instead of making a serious effort to alleviate poverty, they have learnt to benefit therefrom electorally.

The problem of urban poverty, which manifests itself in the expansion of slum and shanty areas cannot be solved, once and for all, without structural transformations and a high economy growth, which will not be possible here in the foreseeable future.

The provision of liveable space for the populace is possible only when a city expands outward, inward and upward in a sustainable manner, according to urban planners. This means horizontal spread, infill development (building on spaces among existing structures), and vertical layering or densification. These are occurring in the wrong way, where Colombo and other urban centres in this country are concerned.

The horizontal spread has been haphazard, and the sprawl has been mainly due to an increase in unauthorised structures on river and canal banks, wetlands, railway lands, etc. The expansion of shanties within the city has apparently passed for infill development. As for vertical layering, there has been little progress.

It is high time a proper urban development plan was worked out for Colombo with the help of real experts in the field. Otherwise, far worse fires than the recent one are bound to happen.

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Editorial

Need for Bureau of Rehabilitation

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Monday 3rd October, 2022

Political leaders in this country seldom look before they leap; they do it the other way around, reminding us of the proverbial tippler who plunged head first into a swimming pool, at night, only to realise that it had been emptied for repairs. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has revoked a controversial Gazette he issued recently, designating some areas in the Colombo city and its outskirts as high security zones (HSZs) and imposing restrictions on certain rights and freedoms of the public therein. If only he had cared to examine his order critically before having it implemented.

What possessed the government to invoke the Official Secrets Act No. 32 of 1955, of all archaic laws, to designate the ill-conceived HSZs? Did it seek legal advice before the issuance of the Gazette in question? If so, who vetted it? The lawyer/s who perused and approved it should be sent back to the law school!

One of the main reasons for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s abject failure was his rashness as well as cavalier attitude. He laboured under the delusion that his word had to take precedence over even government circulars. Cynics say the gazettes he issued as the President far outnumbered the audio cassettes released by popular singer H. R. Jothipala. He revoked most of them and cut a pathetic figure in the process. He acted whimsically in making vital decisions and ruined the economy as a result. President Wickremesinghe, a political veteran, was expected to make a difference, but he seems to be following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor.

President Wickremesinghe is now under pressure to withdraw the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill, which has drawn heavy flak from the Opposition, the media and human rights activists. The opponents of the Bill have warned that the SLPP will use it to harass its political rivals. The government has sought to allay their doubts and suspicions, but a regime that has used laws governing official secrets to designate HSZs is capable of anything.

The administration, management, and control of the affairs of the proposed Rehabilitation Bureau are to be vested in a governing council consisting of the Secretaries or Additional Secretaries of Defence, Health, Education, and Rehabilitation, the IGP or a DIG, and a representative of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board.

It is feared that the proposed law, if passed, will be used to send anti-government protesters to rehabilitation centres. The SLPP government has a history of using even quarantine laws to crush protests against it; it had Ceylon Teachers’ Union leader Joseph Stalin and several other key trade unionists bundled off to a faraway quarantine centre on the grounds that they had violated health regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic, last year. It made a mockery of its claim shortly afterwards by releasing all of them as pressure mounted on it to refrain from harassing them. In the late 1980s, we witnessed thousands of anti-government activists being rounded up and trucked to rehabilitation centres, most of which doubled as torture chambers. Thus, the Opposition’s fear that the rehabilitation bureau to be formed will be used as an instrument to suppress democratic dissent is not groundless.

We, however, do not join those who are calling for the withdrawal of the Rehabilitation Bureau Bill. Instead, we wish to suggest an amendment thereto. We believe that there is a pressing need for a rehabilitation bureau not for the members of the public but for the aggressive politicians who are a danger to society. What we beheld at the Galle Face Green on 09 May is a case in point. Hordes of SLPP politicians who set upon the anti-government protesters looked like zombies thirsting for blood. They were drunk and stoned, and hell-bent on destroying anything in their path. Such dangerous elements need to be rehabilitated while those who retaliated by killing an SLPP MP and burning government politicians’ properties must be arrested and prosecuted. Ugly scenes of violence we witnessed in Parliament during the 52-day government, in 2018, can also be adduced to bolster the argument that most politicians need rehabilitation. The SLPP MPs wreaked havoc in the Chamber of Parliament, and even tried to assault the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

So, let President Wickremesinghe be urged to amend the Bill at issue to provide for the establishment of a bureau to rehabilitate politicians, especially the SLPP MPs, local councillors and their goons. After all, no less a person than Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has said all MPs have to be tested for drugs because some of them are allegedly addicted to narcotics. Shouldn’t the government put its house in order first before trying to rehabilitate others?

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