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‘Abolishing provincial councils is like playing with fire’ : Maithripala Sirisena



Former President Maithripala Sirisena gave an interview to India’s The Hindu newspaper recently. Given below are some excerpts of the interview that appeared on 30 December 2020.

Q: You say you are open to two options ahead of the provincial council elections when they are held. Some within the government want the provincial councils abolished, while the Prime Minister asked officials to expedite arrangements. Some others want the elections held after the proposed new Constitution is out. How do you view these contradictory positions within the government?


We have had the provincial council system for over 30 years now. We haven’t seriously evaluated if they have been successful in serving the purpose they were supposed to. The government should analyse if the councils have actually served our people. I believe there are some amendments needed in the provincial council system. One of the main problems is that of the total allocations to the provincial councils annually, only 25 % or so goes into the actual development of the provinces. Nearly 75 % goes towards salaries, vehicles, telephone and electricity bills. There is an excessive number of employees in the provincial councils.

When the central government pumps in money into the provincial councils, it is done as an investment for the development of the country. However, the return on such investment has been less. So we need to reduce wasteful expenditure, perhaps by reducing the number of councillors and employees, in order to increase the return on investment. There are differences within the government, and it is upto the government to decide on the right course of action.

From a development perspective, I think a set up at the district-level, like a District Development Board, would work better than the provincial councils, given the fact that we are a small country. You can set up a development board at the district level, comprising members of Parliament representing the district, chairpersons and mayors of local government authorities. For a big country like India, a provincial system is good, but we are a country of 21 million.

Q: So how would you respond to those within government, calling for the abolition of provincial councils established pursuant to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution?

The 13th Amendment is a product of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The Provincial Councils Act is a product of the 13th Amendment. So, I know it is not that easy to abolish provincial councils. India could get a little upset with us if we completely do away with the 13th Amendment. In our region, the friendship with India is very important to Sri Lanka. The friendship between the two countries is of utmost importance and should be strengthened by all governments. Abolishing provincial councils is like playing with fire.

At the same time, the 30 year-experience of running provincial councils has not yielded desired results in terms of developing all parts of the country. That is why it is important that we arrive at a compromise with understanding. As I mentioned, creation of the provincial councils was an investment, we have been keeping them going for 30 years, and when they don’t yield the benefits that were expected in terms of development, people and the government should take a fair decision.

Q: You keep referring to democracy. In your recent speech too, you spoke of many governments sliding towards authoritarianism, where rights of minorities are under threat. How do you see the Sri Lankan context in that respect?


As a majority ethnic group, it is our responsibility to seriously think about the minorities who form part of this country all the time. It is a fact that in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese are the majority. Bearing that in mind, we must ensure Tamils, Muslims and Burghers have equal rights as minorities.

For example, take the issue of mandatory cremation of victims of Covid-19. Muslims must be given the right to bury their relatives who succumbed to it. The WHO [World Health Organization] says it is possible to bury. As a former Minister of Health, I stand by the opinion of the WHO.

You cannot develop the country when the sentiments of minority communities are hurt. We have to ensure that democracy and economic development are shared equally by all ethnic groups in this country.

Buddhist philosophy offers us ample guidance on the principle of equality. There were hundreds of religions and languages in India when the Buddha was born. Although there were hundreds of religions and languages, the Buddha, when he began preaching the religion, had no problem with any other religion or community. He continued preaching without any conflict with other religions.

You spoke about the importance of the friendship between India and Sri Lanka. When you came to power in 2015, you vowed to follow a neutral foreign policy, and reset relations with many partners. How do you evaluate the foreign policy choices of this government?

It appears to me that the government has a good relationship with India. I am happy about that. The principle of non-aligned foreign policy was introduced to then Ceylon by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of my party, in 1956. I believe all governments that come to power in Sri Lanka should stick to a non-aligned foreign policy.

Q: Do you have any regrets about your time in office?

I believe the people of Sri Lanka still enjoy the freedoms and the democracy that I won for them. The Right to Information Act passed during my term was a historic move. The powers given to the independent commissions and the people were significant. I pursued a 360 degree-friendship foreign policy. I pursued strong friendship with all countries — US, China, Russia, India, Japan, Pakistan.

It is not easy to be the President of a country [laughs]. I could balance everything only because of my over 50 years’ experience in politics. I am happy with what I did, they were done with good intentions. I have some regrets about the things I could not do. The internal strife within the government held me back from delivering on some things.

No leader ever goes home after his time in office after completing all that he intended to. When a parent passes away, a lot of children worry that they could have cared more about their parents. Similarly, when a really patriotic leader leaves office, he leaves with the feeling that he couldn’t do enough for the country. I am also like that.

Q: Anything you did that you regret?


No, I am happy with everything I did. I did everything with good intentions. My time in office is historic for the fact that no government-owned rifle ever shot at a citizen. During my time, there were protests every day on the streets, by students, by workers. I had ordered the police and army not to ever resort to shooting. I told them they could take legal action later, but should never fire a single shot, even though the protests gave me a lot of mental agony. That is one of my greatest achievements as a leader.

In my time, I launched five major projects like the anti-drugs campaign, the environment programme, children’s programme, a programme for those suffering from kidney ailments – there are 5,000 new patients every year — and then one to enhance local food production. I am happy about those.

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Pakistan Navy ship arrives in Colombo



Pakistan Navy Ship (PNS) Taimur arrived, at the port of Colombo, on a formal visit, yesterday morning (12). The visiting ship was welcomed by the Sri Lanka Navy, in compliance with naval traditions.The 134m-long ship is commanded by Captain M. Yasir Tahir and it is manned by 169 as the ship’s complement.

The Commanding Officer of PNS Taimur is scheduled to call on Commander Western Naval Area, at the Western Naval Command Headquarters, today. The ship is expected to remain in the island, until 15th August, and the crew of the ship will take part in several programmes, organized by the Sri Lanka Navy, to promote cooperation and goodwill between the two navies.

PNS Taimur is also expected to conduct a naval exercise with the Sri Lanka Navy in western seas on its departure on 15th August.

Meanwhile, PNS Tughril, an identical warship belonging to the Pakistan Navy, arrived in Sri Lanka on an official visit on 13th December 2021 and conducted a successful naval exercise with SLNS Sindurala off the western coast on 16th December. Naval exercises of this nature with regional navies will enable each partner to overcome common maritime challenges in the future, through enhanced cooperation.

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Stalin reads riot act to govt. over proposal to allow schoolchildren to work part time



By Rathindra Kuruwita

The Alliance of Trade Unions and Mass Organisations yesterday warned that the government’s decision to allow schoolchildren, between the ages of 16 and 20, to work part time, would have disastrous consequences.Addressing the media on 11 Aug., General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, Joseph Stalin, said that the government was planning to amend laws, allowing schoolchildren to work in the private sector for 20 hours a week.

“Now, this may look like a progressive idea. A lot of families are

struggling and if another family member can chip in, it would be a great help. I am sure a lot of children feel the same way. It is also true that there may be children who will find great jobs and horn their skills,” he said.However, these proposals have come at a time when education is in crisis and the schools are on the verge of collapse.

“During the last two and a half years, most children have learnt nothing. But children who go to elite schools are doing better. These schools have systems in place, but most others don’t. Children who do not go to tier one schools have suffered and most children who do not go to such elite schools will not find part time work that will prepare them for the jobs of the future,” he said. “It’s not easy to balance school work with vocation training, especially physically intensive work. Most people will drop out and social mobility will further stagnate. Fix the education system first and create a more level playing field,” Stalin said.

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Harsha: Will RW use Emergency to steamroller his economic reforms?



By Saman Indrajith

SJB MP Harsha de Silva yesterday asked President Ranil Wickremesinghe whether the latter was planning to use Emergency powers to suppress the people who might oppose his economic reform agenda.

“It is being asked why the government wants to continue the State of Emergency. The anti-government protesters have gone home. There is no unrest. There are those who say that the President wants to keep the Emergency laws to carry out economic reforms. Does that mean the President will use these laws to scare people into submission if they do not accept his economic reforms? I don’t think people can be intimidated. I want the President to answer this question,” he said.

MP de Silva said that the government did not have public support and that it was obvious that the spectre of the Rajapaksas was haunting the government.

“I agree that Wickremesinghe was appointed constitutionally. We have to work within the Constitution. However, the 134 votes he received on 20 July were not realistic. They have managed to manipulate the Constitution, but the government doesn’t have the support of the people. The problem is can the government win the support of the people,” he said.The SJB lawmaker added that Sri Lanka needed to restructure its debt. However, the country had not even started the process.

“One of the consultants we hired, Lazard, says that we have to start with China because it is new to debt restructuring. But we have not done so. Not only that, we have in fact started a diplomatic issue with China. What’s the front page news today? Can this government solve this sensitive international issue? Can it carry out the necessary economic reforms?” he asked.

MP de Silva said that the government had to work with the people and that it had to be honest with them. The government needed to present a common programme on which an all party government could be established.

“In 2020, we said that the government was on the wrong path and that we needed to seek IMF assistance. The government didn’t listen. We need an all-party programme to go before the IMF and get a decent deal. Today, I present to Parliament an economic recovery plan we have prepared. When we decided to throw our weight behind SLPP MP Dullas Alahapperuma, I was entrusted with the task of making an economic plan. We have run it through experts too. I ask the MPs to look at this and suggest improvements.”

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