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

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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?

A:

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?

A:

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?

A:

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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SL hopeful of getting first stock of Covid-19 jab within weeks

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by Suresh Perera

The first consignment of 200,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19 is expected to reach Sri Lanka by the end of January or early February, a senior health official said.

The stock of the newly developed US vaccine, now being administered in many countries across the globe, will be channeled to Colombo through the World Health Organization (WHO), he noted.

The WHO has agreed to provide around 4.2 million qualified vaccines to Sri Lanka to inoculate about 20 percent of the population.

“We are optimistic that the vaccination pledged by Pfizer/BioNTech will be the first lot to arrive so that we will able to initiate the Covid-19 inoculation campaign at least by next month (February)”, the high-ranking official said.

Though March was initially looked at to kick-start the vaccination drive, the possibility of it happening earlier is on the cards with access to the jab now virtually in sight, he noted.

“The sooner the vaccinations are administered, the better”, the official remarked, referring to the surging pandemic, which has so far killed 247 patients and infected 50,901 in Sri Lanka.

Asked about the Chinese and Indian products, he opined that it will possibly take time as the accepted practice is that all drugs have to be registered with three different regulatory bodies and approved by at least five referral countries before they are used in Sri Lanka.

“We have to work according to WHO guidelines”, he commented.

“We are comfortable with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as it has already been approved by the US Food & Drugs Administration, TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) of Australia and regulators in Japan and Singapore among others”, he said.

The vaccine has been given the green light by regulators in the UK, US, EU and more than 40 other countries.

BioNTech said it had shipped almost 33m doses of the vaccine so far from six manufacturing sites in the US and Europe.

“We had originally pledged to make 1.3bn doses in 2021 but now intend to provide as many as 2bn”, BioNTech said in a statement.

The Sri Lankan government has informed the WHO that it has initiated the process of improving cold chain requirements for the storage of doses ahead of inoculation.

With the country laying the groundwork to receive the Covid-19 vaccines, infrastructure facilities are being improved to accommodate the stocks, which have to be stored at a temperature of 2-8 degrees Celsius.

At hospital level, they will have to stored at minus level temperature, if the need arises.

The WHO says that at present there are more than 50 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in trials.

“We are working in collaboration with scientists, business, and global health organizations through the ACT Accelerator to speed up the pandemic response. When a safe and effective vaccine is found, COVAX (led by WHO, GAVI and CEPI) will facilitate the equitable access and distribution of these vaccines to protect people in all countries”, the world body said on its website.

“People most at risk will be prioritized. While we work towards rolling out a safe and effective vaccine fairly, we must continue the essential public health actions to suppress transmission and reduce mortality”, it stressed.

In a bid to stem the deadly Covid-19 surge, Sri Lanka is also exploring the possibility of importing the Oxford-AstraZeneca product from the United Kingdom or the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia.

The Sinovac vaccine manufactured in China and the Indian AztraZeneca are also being looked at, officials said.

Beijing has responded positively to a request by President Rajapaksa to Chinese President Xi Jinping for assistance in accessing the vaccine developed by China to curb the coronavirus threat.

International media reports spoke of nine million people in China already receiving the jabs. The vaccines were being used in 10 countries including Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia.

According to Army Commander, Gen. Shavendra Silva, who heads the National Operation Center for Prevention of Covid-19, all options on the table are being considered to procure a proven global vaccine to set in motion the inoculation initiative in Sri Lanka.

Lalith Weeratunga, senior Adviser to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who heads a committee on the procurement of the vaccines, will oversee the coordination process of importing the jabs to Sri Lanka. Medical expertise towards this end will come from Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe, Secretary to the Health Ministry, Dr. Asela Gunawardena, Director-General of Health Services, Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, Secretary to the State Ministry of Primary Health Care, Epidemics, and COVID Disease Control and Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, President of the GMOA amongst others.

Meanwhile, a group of corporates headed by Brandix Lanka Limited has pledged Rs. 7 billion (US$ 50 million) to the government to procure vaccines against Covid-19.

Brandix Lanka Chairman Ashroff Omar has already discussed the modalities of the financial commitment with State Minister Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle and senior health officials.

On an understanding reached, priority will be accorded to Brandix employees in administering the first doses of the vaccines procured with the funds provided by the corporate for this purpose.

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State Minister wants SD&CC to make profits and contribute towards the economy

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A discussion on streamlining the operations of the State Development and Constructions Corporation (SD&CC) and turn it around into a profit-making institution to contribute towards the country’s economy was held on Wednesday.

State Minister for Rural Roads and Other Infrastructure, Nimal Lanza, chaired the meeting at the institution in Ratmalana.

Under the President’s ‘Vision of Prosperity’ concept, the SD&CC will be entrusted with future development work. It will be tasked with the development of 100,000km of roadways and rural bridge projects aimed at replacing old bridges and vine bridges.

Established in 1971, the SD&CC has contributed towards many government development projects, including building roads, bridges, irrigation, water supply, precast concrete products, road signs and other construction activities.

The State Minister said the physical and human resources of the institution should be properly managed and action taken to make it a profitable institution by minimizing the cost of the projects implemented.

He said the company should work towards achieving high efficiency by submitting new plans based on the recommendations of its officials.

Lanza instructed the officials to pay more attention to the high priority and profitable sectors in the implementation of various projects and to submit new plans and proposals for the development of the institution and the implementation of new projects expeditiously.

R. W. R. Pemasiri, Secretary to the Ministry of Highways and D. P. M. Chandana, Chairman, State Development and Construction Corporation, were also present.

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Senior ASG Sarath Jayamanne retires after 32 years as a top prosecutor

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Senior Additional Solicitor General Sarath Jayamanne, PC, retires from service on January 16 after 32 years as a prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Department.

As a counsel, he figured in the prosecution of many landmark cases including the Hokandara murder, Katuneriya double murder, Tony Martin case, Kobeigane beauty queen case, Murder of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya and Mirusivil massacre.

Jayamanne also served as the Director-General of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) at one time.

He is a lecturer in Evidence and Criminal Procedure at the Sri Lanka Law College, Faculty of Law University of Colombo and the Open University of Sri Lanka. The many top positions he has held in the public service reflects his versatility as a legal luminary.

Jayamanne has a Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Oxford, as well as a Bachelors in Science from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He was also the recipient of the prestigious Chevening and the Fulbright scholarships.

Many people are familiar with evidence relating to DNA, telephone and voice recordings in criminal trials. However, what remains largely unknown is that it was Jayamanne who was instrumental in introducing them to Sri Lanka, and making them a part of evidence led at trials.

With his background in both maths and science as well as law, he is known to look at every case from every angle. He has therefore been able to conclusively establish how a crime was committed, and why an accused is guilty by recreating the crime in the mind of the Trial Judge.

He has thus earned the reputation of being the master of cases involving circumstantial evidence, i.e. cases where there are no eyewitnesses. He shared his experience and expertise in this regard in his well-received maiden book, “Yali Mawena Aparadayak” (Crime Recreated) in 2015. The book launch was unique as it was done in Jayamanne’s signature style of combining law, arts and science.

Asked how he was at the forefront of conducting controversial and complicated trials, which ended up as landmark cases in Sri Lanka’s legal history, Jayamanne’s humble reply was that it was not because of any influence he had, but simply because he never says ‘no’ to an opportunity. This attitude was put to the test when he was asked to take on the role of Director-General of CIABOC, which he accepted with an open mind.

Within his three-year tenure there, he was able to launch Sri Lanka’s first ever National Action Plan for Combating Bribery and Corruption, which was a result of intense research and dialogue with public servants and the general public across Sri Lanka. This is not only a ‘must-have’ for any nation that wishes to eradicate bribery and corruption, but was also influential in Sri Lanka regaining the GSP+ concession.

This Plan was accompanied by four handbooks on the topics of Integrity, Gift Rules, Conflict of Interest, and Law Reforms (the Plan and the handbooks can be downloaded from the CIABOC website: www.ciaboc.gov.lk).

Jayamanne was the focal point for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is the body tasked with implementing the UN Convention Against Corruption. This period was also used to foster and develop relationships with anti-corruption agencies in nations which have made great strides in the field, as well as create new posts in CIABOC for much-needed investigating officers and prevention officers.

He was also able to spearhead the drafting of a new law to govern Asset Declaration, and a Composite Law covering all areas of bribery and corruption; these are now with the Legal Draftsman’s Department.

Despite having so much on his plate, Jayamanne is an individual who is always willing to teach and impart all he can to society at large. His teaching was not limited to his time as a lecturer, where he taught thousands of students who are now lawyers, and he continues to do even now.

He has conducted numerous lectures for the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and Provincial Bar Associations, as well as the Police, and is a sought-after presenter of online lectures and media interviews.

One can be certain that he will be as much as a catalyst for legal development as he was while in the public service, or even more so.

Jayamanne’s last case before retirement was when he appeared for the Attorney General in the contempt of the Supreme Court case against SJB parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake on Tuesday.

The Supreme Court sentenced Ramanayake to four years of rigorous imprisonment after he was found guilty of contempt of Court under 105/3 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

Asked about his plans after retirement, Jayamanne said that he will continue to be involved in the criminal justice system.

“There are many options”, he added, without elaborating.

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