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Editorial

A new Constitution?

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Friday 16th October, 2020

Some religious dignitaries have called upon the government to abandon its 20th Amendment (20A) project and introduce a new Constitution, instead. The present Constitution is seriously flawed; the 20A has stirred a controversy, and in its present form contains some questionable provisions. (We refrain from commenting on the observations and remedies prescribed in the Supreme Court determination, which has been leaked to the media, and wait until it is officially presented to Parliament to make known our views thereon.) The concerns of the prelates should be appreciated, but the promulgation of a new Constitution is beyond the realms of possibility, and the 19th Amendment (19A) has to be straightened up urgently.

The President must be able to hold the defence portfolio. The Constitution says, “The President shall be a member of the Cabinet of Ministers and shall be the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers”, but prevents him/her from being a minister! This contradiction has resulted from the emasculation of the executive presidency, under the yahapalana government to strengthen the position of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa finds himself in a constitutional straitjacket. The main plank of his presidential election campaign was national security, which is also his long suit. He should be able to hold the defence portfolio, and 19A has to be amended for this purpose.

There are other flaws in 19A and the yahapalana leaders’ conduct aggravated and magnified them. The Constitutional Council (CC) was reduced to a mere appendage of the UNP-led government. When Pujith Jayasundera was appointed the IGP, we questioned the CC’s wisdom, arguing that SDIG S. M. Wickramasinghe was better suited for the job. Jayasundera has recently admitted before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday blasts that he was at his official residence, of all places, on the day of terrorist bombings although he had received intelligence about the impending attacks! The police under him did precious little to neutralise Zahran’s NTJ even after finding the main training facility of the terrorist outfit, in Puttalam. The independence of some civil society members in the CC was also in question; one of them has been receiving funds from some western powers including the US known for meddling with the internal affairs of this country. As for the vital appointments in the state sector, the government did as the CC said and the CC did as PM Wickremesinghe said. Wickremesinghe was the puppeteer, and the CC the puppet. But the proposed Parliamentary Council with the incumbent PM as the puppeteer is certainly not the answer.

The proponents of 20A argue that the people rejected 19A by defeating those who introduced it, at the last three elections. This argument is tenable. It can also be argued that people rejected the 18th Amendment (18A) by defeating those who had brought it in, at the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2015. Therefore, how can the incorporation into 20A provisions akin to those in 18A be justified?

The promulgation of a new Constitution is a will-o’-the-wisp. All attempts to repeal the 1978 Constitution have gone pear-shaped all these years mainly due to the issue of devolution of power. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s draft Constitution fell through, in 2000, because she failed to secure the support of her rivals as well as some of her allies for what came to be dubbed the devolution package, which envisaged Regional Councils with more powers than the Provincial Councils (PCs). The yahapalana government also baulked at the question of devolution of power. Mountains, which had been in labour for about four years, finally delivered a stillborn mouse. The present dispensation consists of two schools of thought as regards devolution—one for the 13 Amendment, and the other against any form of devolution. The TNA and its foreign allies are demanding that more powers be devolved to the provinces; if their demand is granted there will be federalism in all but name.

The UNP, the SLFP/UPFA, the JVP and the TNA got together and postponed the PC polls indefinitely by enacting the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Act of 2017 in the most deplorable manner and have thereby proved that the PCs are useless, albeit unwittingly. So, the incumbent government does not want to address the issue of devolution lest it should open up a Pandora’s Box of in the process although it pretends to be keen to write a new Constitution.

What the new government should have done was to rid the 19A of its flaws to give the President some constitutional leeway among other things. If it had taken that route, it may have been able to secure the passage of its constitutional amendment unanimously in Parliament, and concentrate on the economic front without shielding destroyers of forests, supporters of terror and other such political dregs in return for their votes in Parliament to maintain its two-thirds majority.

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Editorial

Learn from the past

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Saturday 31st October, 2020

 

The 20th Amendment (20A) has become law. Yesterday, we carried a picture of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena signing it into law. The government is now like a juggernaut with a weak brake system, careening downhill. The Opposition, which had nine of its MPs voting with the government for 20A has decided to take disciplinary action against them. In fact, it wants to see the back of them, but expelling them from Parliament may not be an easy task, given a Supreme Court order which has stood crossovers in good stead.

What we are currently witnessing is a replay of the situation following the formation of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in early 2010, as we argued in a previous comment; that regime mustered a two-thirds majority and bought off more than a dozen Opposition MPs. The UNP, which had 60 MPs in that Parliament was left with only 44 in the end owing to crossovers. But that government sank like the Titanic, in January 2015, despite its steamroller majority and the popularity of its President. Massive majorities do not necessarily translate into the stability of governments.

The SJB has called upon Speaker Abeywardene to make arrangements for its dissidents to sit separately in Parliament. Interestingly, some members of the government are sitting with their Opposition counterparts in the House. So, it will not make any difference whether the SJB dissidents sit separately or not.

Political party leaders, academics et al had better peruse the 20A Act and compare it with what was passed by Parliament on 22 October to see if there are any discrepancies. One may wonder why on earth such an effort should be made because what has been published is a legal document, but we have to learn from our past mistakes. One may recall that it took decades for a provision surreptitiously incorporated into a constitutional amendment to come to light.

In 1988, the J. R. Jayewardene government steamrollered the 14th Amendment (14A) to the Constitution through Parliament, creating the National List (NL), and what became law was different from the Bill ratified by Parliament, according to observations made by some Opposition heavyweights later on. According to veteran leftist, D. E. W. Gunasekara, 14A contains a provision which was not there in the Bill passed by Parliament; it enables outsiders to be become NL MPs and is violative of people’s franchise and sovereignty. When an NL seat falls vacant, the party or the Independent group which is entitled to fill it can appoint any of its members to Parliament. This provision has been used by several governments to catapult outsiders to Parliament. A similar situation is likely to arise under the incumbent dispensation as well.

There was also a controversy over a provision in the 19th Amendment, pertaining to the formation of National Governments. Former Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, once pointed out a discrepancy between what was presented to Parliament for its approval and the Act in that regard. Unfortunately, his objections went unheeded. The problem with undemocratic practices is that they are as contagious as COVID-19.

The only antidote to the practice of making bad laws is to have a constitutional provision for the post enactment judicial review of legislation. People, whose legislative power Parliament exercises, must be able to subject laws to judicial scrutiny anytime and have them amended or abolished.

We hope that the Opposition will care to go through 20A afresh carefully and ensure that it is the same as what Parliament passed with a two-thirds majority recently. Anything is possible in this country.

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Editorial

Traps and duplicity

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Friday 30th October, 2020

Smaller states located in strategic locations in the world are in the same predicament as poor damsels in rough neighbourhoods; they suffer abuse at the hands of big powers that masquerade as liberators. The US has come forward to liberate Sri Lanka from what it calls a Chinese debt trap!

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come and gone. He uttered some diplomatic sweet little nothings, as it were, in public, but the State Department had delivered its message to Colombo even before he landed here. Couched in diplomatese, it gave Sri Lanka a choice between China and the Western bloc; it can be paraphrased as ‘either you are with us or you are with our enemy’.

Opinion is divided on the much-propagated claim that Sri Lanka finds itself in a Chinese debt trap. The pro-western groups think it is trapped well and truly, and others are convinced otherwise; they maintain that the US and its allies are vilifying China, which poses formidable challenges to the US on all fronts, and has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance.

A trap by any other name is as constricting, one may say with apologies to the Bard. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which the US is keen to sign with Sri Lanka, can also be considered a trap, given its subtext and what is explicit in the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Anyone who believes that the US is driven by altruism to help Sri Lanka is being naïve.

Following talks with Pompeo, the government grandees are behaving like the proverbial mute who gulped down a bitter herbal concoction or kasaya. Discussions with Pompeo have apparently dumbed their tongues. Before the last general election, they had the public believe that they would not sign the MCC compact, which an expert committee appointed by them has said, should not be inked unless it is presented to Parliament and approved with amendments.

Sri Lanka was made to walk into a trap in the early noughties, when the Tokyo Co-Chairs tied an aid pledge (USD 4.5 billion) to progress to be made in peace talks between the then UNP-led government and the LTTE. Lured by the prospect of receiving a huge aid package, that administration compromised national security to keep the LTTE at the negotiating table, but in vain. Even after the LTTE had walked away from talks, the US and other Co-Chairs, to wit, the EU, Japan and Norway, made Sri Lanka stick to a fragile truce, which the LTTE violated with impunity. That peace process, which the LTTE made the most of it to prepare for Eelam War IV, ended in disaster.

Sri Lanka has been caught in a human-rights trap, which the US laid in the form of a country-specific resolution, in Geneva, and cannot extricate itself try as it might. This resolution has been used to besmirch the reputation of high-ranking military officers who were instrumental in defeating terrorism, making this country safe for all communities to live in, and helping rekindle democracy in the North and the East. The US has imposed a travel ban on incumbent Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva and his family, citing unsubstantiated allegations of human rights violations during the final stages of war.

Pompeo gave an evasive answer, on Wednesday, when he was asked to comment on the current status of US action against Lt. Gen. Silva. He said: “It is a legal process in the US. We always continue to review it. We want to make sure we get it technically, factually and legally right.” He has left us baffled. It is before imposing a travel ban that the State Department has to ‘get it technically, factually and legally right’. The act of slapping a travel ban in a hurry and then reviewing it is nothing but unfair.

Washington has earned notoriety for its duplicity anent travel bans related to human rights violations. In 2005, the US denied the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi a visa owing to his alleged involvement in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in his state. The US government insisted that the travel ban on Modi was based on the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ‘makes any government official who was responsible for or directly carried out at any time particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa’. But the White House rolled out the red carpet for Modi after he became the Indian Prime Minister! The US did so because it needed a formidable ally in Asia to support its campaign against China.

As for ‘getting it technically, factually and legally right’, didn’t the US care to consult its own defence expert, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, who was working at the US Embassy in Colombo as its defence attache during Eelam War IV, which ended in 2009? Having studied what had taken place during the war, Smith, attending an international defence seminar, in Colombo, in 2011, dismissed allegations of war crimes levelled against the Sri Lankan military. Forty countries were represented at that event. Is it that the State Department chose to ignore his evidence-based observations and embarked on a diplomatic witch-hunt? It is a shame that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry functionaries did not allow journalists to question Pompeo freely on this issue; they allowed only one journalist to raise questions.

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Editorial

Reaping whirlwind

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Thursday 29th October, 2020

Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera, PC, deserves public plaudits for having directed the police to find out how an explosive transmission of COVID-19 came about, in Minuwangoda, and whose lapses led to the second wave of infections. This country needs more such intrepid public officials.

One can only hope that there will be no political interference with investigations to be conducted. The police already have a lead; some garment factory workers brought here from India are believed to have triggered the Minuwangoda cluster. They ought to find out whether those workers underwent quarantine for 28 days in keeping with the health guidelines. It is alleged that some of them did not complete the mandatory quarantine period due to service exigencies. Records of their quarantine period should be available with the health authorities. One, however, should not be so naïve as to expect that the police will be given a free hand to get to the bottom of it. One also need not be surprised if all documents pertaining to the workers concerned have already disappeared.

Leaders of the yahapalana government are being raked over the coals for having disregarded a warning of possible terrorist attacks and endangered the lives of people last year, when the Easter Sunday bombings snuffed out more than 250 lives and left over 500 others injured. Their lapses are currently under probe by a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The leaders of the incumbent dispensation did not heed medical experts’ warnings of a second wave of COVID-19, and the lives of people are now in danger, as a result. During the first wave of infections, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) issued a dire warning to the government that the worst was yet to come, and called for stringent measures to prevent a resurgence of the disease. It also prepared a comprehensive exit strategy, which The Island has seen, but the government did not give a tinker’s cuss about the good doctors’ warnings, advice and proposals.

The Peliyagoda fish market is the Sri Lankan version of the Wuhan wet market, and the public health officials and all others tasked with battling COVID-19 should have monitored the place closely. They should have swung into action at least after the detection of the garment factory cluster in Minuwangoda. Infections have fanned out from Peliyagoda to all parts of the country. It is hoped that precautions have been taken to prevent a COVID-19 cluster from forming at the Dambulla economic centre, where traders from all over the country converge daily.

It is also possible that the virus spread during the election time, when people gathered at political rallies, throwing caution to the wind, and caused an explosive transmission, later on. The blame for this situation should be apportioned to politicians, the health authorities and the public because all of them lowered their guard and invited trouble. Only the Election Commission (EC) was wise enough to take precautions to prevent the spread of the disease on the polling day.

Head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who talks sense in a measured tone, has urged the countries battling the pandemic not to make COVID-19 a political football. Unfortunately, in this country, the government and the Opposition are busy doing exactly the opposite of what the WHO advocates; a game of football, as it were, passed for a parliamentary debate on COVID-19, the other day, with the Opposition trying to score political points by faulting the government and the latter ridiculing the former. Nothing worthwhile came of the ‘debate’ and a lot of public funds went down the gurgler.

When the government decided to have a general election in August 2019, cynics said that in New Zealand elections had been postponed in view of a possible second wave of COVID-19, and in Sri Lanka the second wave of COVID-19 had been postponed on account of an election. The government now has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the 20th Amendment to boot; the people have COVID-19!

The healthcare system is being overwhelmed to all intents and purposes, and the number of deaths due to COVID-19 is increasing. What we are witnessing looks like the beginning of the worst-case scenario. The economy is on a ventilator, but we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot do without quarantine curfews, which are bound to make an already bad economic situation worse. Everyone’s life is in danger. The government has had to perform a high-wire act, and, therefore, deserves unstinted public support. The need for a truly national effort to beat the virus, and keep the Grim Reaper at bay cannot be overemphasised.

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