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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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GL: Colombo Port City Bill received AG’s sanction

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…SC scheduled to commence hearing petitions today

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris says that the proposed Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill is consistent with the Constitution. Prof. Peiris, who is also the Education Minister, insists the Bill received the sanction of the Attorney General.

Prof. Peiris explained to the media the circumstances under which the incumbent government had initiated the proposed Bill. He did so having briefed Ven. Dr. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thera as regards the current political developments, at the Sri Dharmaloka Maha Viharaya, Rukmale, Pannipitiya, on Saturday (17).

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently presented the Colombo Port City EC Bill to the Cabinet of ministers. The 76-page Bill provides for the establishment of an EC authorised to grant registrations, licences, authorisations, and other approvals to carry on businesses and other activities in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to be established within the Colombo Port City.

Responding to government member Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s bombshell accusations that the proposed Bill when enacted in parliament would transform newly reclaimed land adjacent to the Galle Face Green to sovereign Chinese territory, Prof. Peiris emphasized the responsibility on the part of the President in respect of the implementation of the project. Declaring that even an amendment couldn’t be moved without specific approval of the President, Prof. Peiris said all reports pertaining to financial matters, too, should be submitted to the President.

The former law professor also challenged those opposed to the proposed Bill claiming that the police and the military would be excluded from performing duties in the reclaimed land. One-time External Affairs Minister insisted that the police and the military enjoyed the right to exercise powers in terms of the country’s law in case of violations.

The minister said that the government was keen to create an environment conducive for foreign direct investment. However, those who now decried the Colombo Port City EC Bill conveniently forgot the formation of the ‘Greater Colombo Economic Commission’ (GCEC) under a new draconian Bill introduced by the then President J.R. Jayewardene.

Prof. Peiris said unlike JRJ’s Bill, the one proposed by the incumbent government adhered to the Constitution hence the approval from the Attorney General.

Prof. Peiris alleged that the JRJ’s Act paved the way for GCEC to take decisions pertaining to newly formed Export processing Zones (EPZ) and basically conduct its affairs outside the purview of the parliament. Claiming that those who exercised the required powers could transfer funds to and from accounts and anyone violating the secrecy faced jail terms, Prof. Peiris stressed that even the judiciary couldn’t intervene in some matters pertaining to this particular Act introduced in 1978.

According to Prof. Peiris, in 1992, the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa further strengthened the law by depriving the public an opportunity to obtain a restraining order from a court in respect of the all-powerful Commission.

Prof. Peiris accused the UNP and its breakaway faction, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and other interested parties of propagating lies against the project as part of their overall political strategy. The minister acknowledged that the UNP was among those who moved the Supreme Court against the proposed Bill.

Since former Justice Minister Rajapakse strongly condemned the proposed Bill at a hastily arranged media briefing at Abayaramaya under the auspices of Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda thera, several Ministers and State Ministers, Keheliya Ranbukwelle, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Prof. G. L. Peiris, Namal Rajapaksa, Ajith Nivard Cabraal responded to their colleague on behalf of the government.

A five-member bench of the Supreme Court will begin hearing the petitions today (19).

Among those who filed cases against the proposed Bill were President of the Bar Association Saliya Pieris, PC, former lawmaker Wasantha Samarasinghe on behalf of the JVP, civil society activists, Gamini Viyangoda and K.W. Janaranjana on behalf of Purawesi  Balaya and the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

Viyangoda questioned the government’s motive in depriving the public ample time and space to challenge the constitutionality of the Bill.

Purawesi Balaya spokesperson said that the disputed Bill had been placed on the Order Paper of Parliament on the 8th of April 2021, at a time when the sittings of the Supreme Court were suspended for the vacation. In terms of the Constitution any citizen seeking to challenge a Bill on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the Constitution has to do so within one week of being placed on the Order Paper of Parliament, which in this instance is the 15 th of April 2021. The petitioner said between the 8 th April 2021 and 15 th April 2021, there were the weekend and three public holidays intervening, thereby giving any citizen seeking to challenge the Bill, only two working days to obtain legal advice and representation.

Those who complained bitterly over urgent Bills exercised the same strategy as regards the controversial Bill, the civil society activist said. Responding to another query, Viyangoda said that if the government was confident the Bill didn’t violate the Constitution, it could have been properly discussed at their parliamentary group meeting before being presented to the cabinet of ministers.

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Wijeyadasa, under heavy flak over opposition to China project, says ready to face consequences

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by Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, yesterday (18) told The Island that he stood by the accusations he made in respect of the proposed Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill.

The former Justice Minister emphasised that he had expressed concerns publicly regarding the planned project after carefully examining the proposed Bill.

“In spite of a spate of statements issued by various government spokespersons, I’m confident of the legal process scheduled to begin today (19). The entire country should be concerned over the government move made at the behest of China.”

Responding to another query, the Colombo district MP urged political parties represented in Parliament to study the Bill with an open mind. The proposed law should be examined taking into consideration the previous UNP-led government transferring control of the strategic Hambantota port to China on a 99-year-lease and China is also in control of a terminal in the Colombo port for 35 years.

The MP said that he was ready to face the consequences of his decision to take a contrary view as regards the Chinese project. Those who had been benefited by the mega China funded project would shamelessly back it, lawmaker Dr. Rajapakse maintained, recollecting how members of parliament backed the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement brokered by Norway, shielded Treasury bond thieves et al.

Those who moved the Supreme Court against the proposed Bill included the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, MP Rajapakse said. The former Minister claimed that unprecedented tax exemptions provided to the businesses coming up in the newly reclaimed land adjacent to the Galle Face Green would pose a severe threat to the national economy.

The MP said that he didn’t personally have anything against China or any other country, but strongly believed in political and economic independence of the country. Therefore, the right-thinking lawmakers couldn’t under any circumstances vote for the proposed Bill as it was, the former Minister said.

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Hiding in obscure corner of India, Myanmar’s ousted lawmakers plotting to dethrone military junta

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BY S VENKAT NARAYAN

Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI:

Roughly a dozen ousted Myanmar lawmakers, who fled to India after the February 1 military coup, are now busy plotting to dethrone the generals.

In a spartan hillside room in India furnished only with a thin sleeping mat, one of the Myanmar Members of Parliament (MPs) spends much of his days attentively listening to Zoom conference calls and tapping away messages on his smartphone.

The short, soft-spoken man is among the handful of ousted Myanmar MPs who have fled across the border to India’s remote north-eastern region after the military coup and the lethal crackdown on dissent.

Two of the lawmakers and a Myanmar politician spoke to a Reuters reporter. They are involved with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw or CRPH, a body of ousted lawmakers that is attempting to re-establish the civilian government and displace the military.

The three said the group is supporting demonstrations, helping distribute funds to supporters and holding negotiations with multiple entities to quickly form a civilian administration nationwide. They asked not to be named for fear of reprisals against their families back home.

Most of the ousted lawmakers are from deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) that overwhelmingly won a November 2020 election, which the military has annulled.

The coup has been met with a fierce pro-democracy movement and tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country, despite the crackdown.

Security forces have killed over 700 people, and more than 3,000 have been detained, including more than 150 lawmakers and members of the former government. Mobile and wireless internet services have been shut down.

The fear of detention and inability to rebuild a civilian government without internet connectivity has driven some Myanmar lawmakers involved in the resistance to work from India, the two MPs elected to Myanmar’s Parliament said.

“There is no time,” one of them, who is from the country’s western Chin state, told Reuters. “People are dying in our country.”

A spokesman for Myanmar’s military did not answer calls seeking comment. The junta has accused the CRPH of treason. The group is working to set up a national unity government to challenge the military’s authority.

Since fleeing to India around two weeks ago, the lawmaker said he had been holding regular discussions with colleagues to set up a parallel administration in Chin state, under directions from the CRPH.

The process is complex, involving building consensus between elected representatives, political parties, ethnic armed groups, civil society bodies and civil disobedience movement leaders, the two lawmakers and the politician said.

The CRPH is also keen on opening communications with India, where at least 1,800 people from Myanmar are already sheltering. It will seek New Delhi’s blessings for the parallel government it is attempting to form, the politician said.

“We can’t rely on China, Thailand and other neighbouring countries,” he said. “The only country where refugees are being welcomed is India”.

India’s External Affairs Ministry did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

This week, NLD lawmakers from Myanmar’s northern Sagaing region held an online conference call, but only 26 out of 49 representatives dialled in, according to the second MP who attended the meeting from India.

“We don’t know where the rest are,” the federal lawmaker said. Two party officials were now trying to track down their missing colleagues.

Some of the fiercest resistance to the junta has come from Sagaing. In the last two months, around 2,000 families involved in the civil disobedience movement in one part of the region have been given financial assistance of around 17 million Kyat ($12,143), the lawmaker from Sagaing said.

The presence and activities of escapee Myanmar lawmakers could pose a diplomatic quandary to India, particularly given New Delhi’s close ties with the Myanmar military rulers.

But India’s position on the Myanmar crisis itself appears to have somewhat shifted in recent weeks. This has also been acknowledged by some CRPH representatives.

At an United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meeting on April 10, Indian diplomat K. Nagaraj Naidu said New Delhi is pushing for a return to democracy in Myanmar. “The first, and most immediate step, in this regard is the release of detained leaders,” Naidu said.

However, India is concerned around internal divisions within the CRPH that could hobble its functioning, a source with knowledge of New Delhi’s thinking said.

The politician involved with the CRPH said he is hopeful that India will engage with the group.

“If democracy wins in Myanmar, it is also a win for India,” he said.

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