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20A root of many evils: Lakshman Kiriella

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by Saman Indrajith

The independence of the public service has deteriorated with the Executive Presidency becoming more powerful after the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, says Chief Opposition Whip Kandy District SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella.

In an interview with the Sunday Island, Kiriella said that the 17th Amendment was introduced to set up several independent commissions. “This was reversed by the 18th Amendment but was subsequently restored by the 19th Amendment and the independent commissions began to function again giving both the police and the public service the strength to execute their duties independently.

“Soon after that it was noticed by all that the judiciary, police and public service were gradually finding their independence. However all that has been reversed by the 20th Amendment, which consolidated all powers with the Executive Presidency. This is the main problem in our society today. We have capable judges, police officers and public officials, but their independence has been taken away. This was the reason we have witnessed many officials resigning from their posts,” Kiriella said.

“The spree of resignations by top officials has been endless and worrying, but also encouraging because it is a sign that officials want to do what is right and not simply follow the ruler’s diktat,” he said.

Even the European Union delegation that visited the country recently to review the GSP Plus had observed that the incumbent government was turning back one by one the democratic achievements gained for the people by the 19th Amendment.

“We introduced 19A which brought about democratic values as well as further ensuring the rights of the people. Powers that had been concentrated around the presidency were delegated to the PM, parliament, cabinet and the constitutional council. The country was set on the path of democracy by the changes in 19A. Soon after this government came to power, they did away with it and consolidated all powers around the executive presidency once again. This is the mother of all ills and problems people are facing today.”

19A had ensured the protection of human rights and upheld principles of rule of law. “We as a nation are bound to ensure the protection of human rights outlined in the conventions and treaties that have been ratified and we have signed. That is an international obligation. After doing away with the 19A, a situation has been created depriving people of those rights. Before the 20th Amendment the appointments to the top posts had been done by the constitutional council. The council we have now has no powers to reject any nomination and proposes its own. This is a sad situation.”

Q: You were Leader of the House under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. When Sajith Premadasa became the Opposition Leader he chose you as the Chief Opposition Whip. How could you win the trust of both leaders who have so many differences of opinion?

A:

I count 33 years in parliament politics. I am a lawyer too. I am conversant with Standing Orders of Parliament and parliamentary traditions. That might be the reason for their choice to select me to hold those top most posts in both sides of the well of the House.

Q: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has admitted that he made mistakes in governance. Would you like to comment?

A:

This is again has its origin in the 20th Amendment. Why has this happened? Because he amassed all power in his hands. All the powers of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, parliament and the Constitutional Council have been taken over by the President. There is no team spirit. Everything is decided by a single person and that could lead to failures and disasters.

When the 19th Amendment was brought to Parliament, I was the Leader of the House. We had only 45 MPs in the UNP. But we could persuade the opposition that we were trying to go in the right direction to obtain their support to get two thirds of the votes to pass the amendment. But when this government brought in the 20th Amendment they did not ask the opinion of the opposition. Even we did not know what it would be until we came to parliament. A country cannot be run in that manner.

Q: The President also spoke of a new Constitution. What is the opposition’s standpoint on this?

A:

We do not think that the most urgent problem in our society at this time is a new constitution. Look at the way the government is preparing the draft. Usually a new constitution is prepared by a council representing parties in parliament. That could have been done by a parliamentary select committee. Who is making the new constitution? A bunch of lawyers who appeared for the cases against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have been given the task of preparing a new Constitution. It is as if a private contract. There is no single word or debate in parliament in this regard. When we brought the 19th Amendment we discussed its content with all parties in parliament. A group of lawyers have been tasked to make a new constitution for the country.

Q: There are statements by some ministers about elections. Most of them mean provincial council election. Are you ready for that?

A:

There is no governance in the country. There is no price control. People have lost the democratic powers and privileges they had before this government came to power. The government on the other hand has not fulfilled the promises it made to get the votes. In a democratic system, the usual practice is to have an election, either provincial, local government, presidential or general, at least every two years. That is how the constitutions of many countries operate. It is same in India. Now nearly two years have passed since this president came to power. We challenge the government to hold an election if possible to see the way people reject them. When I heard the President’s recent speech I did not think they would go for an election even next year.

Q: The President too has accepted that an election should be held but the Attorney General has opined that an election cannot be held for the provincial council under the previous system of elections.

A:

Elections could be held according to the previous system. There is only one clause against it. It could be brought to parliament in the form of an amendment to activate the previous system of holding elections. Such amendment could give powers to the representative election method known to people. If the government brings such an amendment we would support it. In that manner the government could hold elections without postponing them.

Q: The president says that there had been shortcomings because he lacked experience in politics. Yet you say that he has all the powers. How could one fail if he has all the powers?

A:

In politics you need experience. The President has a genuine desire to develop the country. We accept that. Yet in politics the desire or need alone would not bring about results. You need experience. One cannot run a country just because you have all the powers. You have to learn work with others with team spirit. Army officers were appointed to the top posts while leaving out many capable and qualified civil officials. This is country is used to a civil administration, not military.

Q: The president promises to eliminate corruption. Is that possible?

A:

He has not been able to prove that by action. How can one could expect him to eliminate corruption? Haven’t you seen the way they have released many who had been accused of frauds and corruption in the recent past? So many cases have been withdrawn by the prosecutors themselves. Those who had been accused of many corrupt deals were released one by one in an unprecedented manner.

Q: People complain of the prices increases of essentials. Do you think that the SJB would have been able to control such a situation if it were in power?

A:

In a market economy, the prices are decided by the market. That is the truth. A government however could manage the price controls by using various strategies. For example, during the times of our government we had a cost of living committee which met regularly. That committee kept an eye on the market. Whenever there was a shortage of any commodity in the market it permitted imports. Suppose there is a rice shortage and the rice millers and businessmen try to jack up the prices. We import rice so that there would not be any price increase. The government should actively engaged in that process. You cannot control prices in the market by appointing an army officer to do the job. Today businessmen and traders decide the prices. The government should involve itself in managing this situation.



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SL defenceless, warn experts

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New COVID variants

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Due to the lax testing at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), there is a strong possibility that any new variant of COVID-19 entering the country, College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President, Ravi Kumudesh told The Island yesterday commenting on the detection of a new coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa.

Even a travel ban would be useless unless the country enhances its testing and surveillance capacities, Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh said that PCR tests were not conducted on passengers on arrival and that it was likely that even those not fully vaccinated were entering the country. “Gene sequencing in respect of those infected with COVID inside the country was at a minimal level, and therefore, there is no way we can find out whether a new variant has entered the country until it is too late.

“There are two state-of-the-art labs in the BIA but no tests are done there. We are not ready, at all. Several nations are imposing travel bans on travellers from South Africa and the region. Perhaps, we should follow suit. However, the fact that we don’t test those coming in means that even a travel ban might be useless,” he said.

Kumudesh added that the number of PCR tests conducted had dropped to such a low level that reagents used in some labs for PCR testing are now nearing the expiry dates. The attitude of health officials at the airport is such that everyone operates on the basis that testing of passengers is not important.

Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya yesterday said the detection of the new South African variant was potentially very bad news for all countries, and certainly for Sri Lanka.

“We still don’t have sufficient data on this, but I am very worried. It was only discovered a few days ago, but the scanty evidence strongly indicates that this new variant is driving a rapid increase in infections in S Africa. Only 100 cases have been confirmed officially, but reports indicate it may be 90% of new cases since Wed in Johannusburg,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said that his best guess was that three out of four South Africans had been infected by COVID during the pandemic. Thus, a large number of them had acquired natural immunity. Moreover, 25% of others have been vaccinated.

“So this rapid spread despite a lot of immunity is very disturbing. This really points to this new variant—B1.1.529—being both more infectious and also significantly immune resistant. Something that also matches with its particular mutations,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said he was not surprised at the emergence of the new variant because contrary to many experts who drink the kool-aid, there is no scientific basis to think SARS-CoV-2 had matured in its evolution. It might still have a lot of potential to evolve greater immune evasion and virulence, and that we should act on that basis.

“Second, because most of the world is following the misguided strategy of just accepting the virus (hey you – USA, UK, Sri Lanka…), the virus has plenty of chances to keep on mutating more because the truth is more of the virus is circulating than ever before. Third, despite a lot of nonsense about how T-cell immunity is going to protect us, there’s really no evidence that either infection or current vaccines and boosters will ever give us long-lasting immunity. We simply don’t know.”

Countries like South Africa, Peru, etc., who had such high levels of infection that much of their population was infected more than once, still continue to suffer new waves of infection.

“So this is bad news for all of us humans on planet earth, but very definitely for us in Sri Lanka. Why? Because based on how our medical establishment and govt authorities think, we will be slow or refuse to put the necessary border controls in to prevent this entering. And when it does enter-which is inevitable if this variant spreads globally–we will be slow to detect its entry, we will refuse to sound the alarm, and we will do everything but actually attempt to stop it. That’s been our track record, so why would it change? Worth noting that if this starts a new wave in Southern Africa, it’s just three to four months after their third wave. So just as immunity starts waning appreciably from natural infection (or vaccines). That gives us a strong hint of what our future holds unless we end this pandemic.”

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Navy deploys lagoon craft at Kurinchankerny until construction of new bridge

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Residents waiting for the boat

Sri Lanka Navy began providing transport facilities at the Kurinchankerny lagoon following the recent tragedy that claimed several lives. This service will continue until the construction of a new bridge at Kurinchankerny, Kinniya in Trincomalee is completed.

This initiative was set in motion following the directives of Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne. The Navy deployed a Lagoon Craft, capable of carrying 25 passengers safely at a time from Thursday (25) under the supervision of the Eastern Naval Command. The lagoon craft will be in service from 7.00 a.m. to 8.00 a.m. and from 12.00 noon to 2.00 p.m. each day. Further, the Navy erected a temporary jetty to allow passengers to board the vessel safely.

A schoolgirl on her way to the ferry
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UN Assistant Secretary General during talks with President pledges to work closely with Sri Lanka

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The United Nations will always work closely with Sri Lanka, said Khaled Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary General for Political, Peacebuilding and Peace Operations. Khiari made these remarks when he met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat, on Thursday (25).

UN Assistant Secretary General Khiari is visiting Sri Lanka as a follow-up to the bilateral meeting with the President and the UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres held in September this year on the sidelines of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly. Khiari conveyed the best wishes of UN Secretary-General Guterres to President Rajapaksa and said that the UN is willing to engage in a constructive and positive engagement with Sri Lanka.

Expressing satisfaction over the President’s affection and interest in the environment, the Assistant Secretary General appreciated Sri Lanka’s commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The President explained that steps are being taken to plant 100,000 mangroves with the assistance of the Navy and actions are being taken to prevent climate change through environmental conservation programmes.

President Rajapaksa expressed gratitude to the UN agencies and donors that have assisted Sri Lanka through the COVAX facility to make the vaccination drive successful and in facing other challenges in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The President pointed out that the government’s development programme implemented in the North and East after the end of the war in 2009 had brought about rapid development. The President recalled his invitation made while participating in the UN General Assembly to the diaspora to work together with all communities after visiting Sri Lanka. The President said that he hoped that the invitation would be met with positive initiatives.

The two sides exchanged views on unity and relations between communities. An environment where all communities can live freely has been made available in Sri Lanka. The President pointed out that the Minister of Justice is from the Muslim community, the Attorney General is from the Tamil community and many of those holding other key posts are of different communities. President Rajapaksa said the government has undertaken a great task in building unity among the communities and therefore, no one should have any doubt in this regard.

Both sides were of the view that education was fundamental to unity among the communities. President Rajapaksa said that the process by which South Africa has been able to end apartheid and move forward will be studied and the lessons that can be learned from it and what can be implemented will be looked into. The President also expressed hope that the United Nations will provide assistance in this regard.

Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Principal Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, and Political Officer at the UN Peace Operations Department’s Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Department Chiaki Ota were also present.

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