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Campaign expenditure: How JRJ Constitution paved way for corruption

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…continuing need for finger painting with indelible ink and ‘silent period’ questioned, EC reminded of risks taken by media

Text and pics by Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of Election Commission Attorney-at-Law Nimal Punchihewa on Tuesday (16) explained how the 1978 Constitution had abolished specific laws meant to ensure financial integrity of lawmakers. In terms of the pre-1978 laws, those who had acted in violation of them not only lost their parliamentary seats but civic rights, as well, Punchihewa, one-time member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, said. Punchihewa cited several examples while pointing out even the losers faced punitive measures in case of transgressions. However, the 1978 Constitution had changed the situation overnight.

 Punchihewa made the above observations at a workshop arranged by the Election Commission at its Rajagiriya Secretariat where senior lecturer Tudor Weerasinghe, Asoka Dias, Director MTV/MBC, Ariyananda Dombagahawatte, Chief Editor, Irida Lankadeepa, and Saman Sri Ratnayaka, Commissioner General of Elections, discussed the role of the media in the coverage of national election process and related matters. The opening remarks were made by Channa P de Silva, Director, research and policy planning.

 Punchihewa compared the powers enjoyed by his Commission and that of India as he explained the weakness of the EC here. Punchihewa pointed out EC in Sri Lanka lacked the power to reject even a candidate who had been found guilty by court in respect of a bribery charge.  “Therefore, we have no option but to accept nominations handed over by such persons,” he said.

Punchihewa succeeded Mahinda Deshapriya as the Chairman of EC after the last general election, in Aug 2020.

Having flayed a section of the media for pursuing agendas inimical to free and fair election process, Punchihewa emphasized the responsibility, on the part of both print and electronic media, to ensure what he called a level playing field. The media should never be a cat’s paw of racketeers. The lawyer discussed the coverage of elections in terms of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments while asserting both the print and electronic media failed to live up to expectations of those who desired neutrality on their part.

Emphasizing that any elected government should follow the basic principle that it was only the caretaker andcertainly not the proprietor, lawyer Punchihewa said that the democracy depended on free and fair elections. However, the absence of incidents on the day of the election didn’t mean a free and fair election, Punchihewa said, urging the media to respond courageously to challenging situations. Referring to Sri Lanka’s international commitments, lawyer Punchihewa said that the country couldn’t afford not to adhere to agreements, including ICCPR accepted over the years.

Pointing out that the law prevented lawmakers from engaging in business with the government, Attorney-at-Law Punchihewa mentioned two cases of members of Parliament losing their seats. Albert de Silva lost the Galle seat he won at the 1977 general election after one-time Prime Minister Wijayananada Dhanayake filed an election petition over the former having a government license to deal in kerosene, Punchihewa said. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, too, lost his seat on the same grounds though he was immediately accommodated on the UNP National List.

Punchihewa categorized the 1981 Jaffna District Development Council polls, the 1982 referendum, and the 1999 Wayamba Provincial Council poll as having had the worst abuses in Sri Lanka’s electoral history.

Citing a Supreme Court ruling in respect of a case filed against the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga putting off a scheduled election, lawyer Punchihewa said that even the President couldn’t interfere with the people’s right to exercise their franchise.

The  EC Chairman also referred to another court ruling in respect of the Army preventing those living in LTTE controlled areas from entering the ‘cleared’ area to vote at the 2001 general election to underscore the privileged status of voters to exercise their franchise under any circumstances.

 The Island

 drew the attention of EC Chairman Punchihewa to his failure to act in spite of the inordinate delay in the UNP not filling its solitary National List slot, privileged status given to ex-lawmakers to contest presidential election thereby causing a sharp increase in public expenditure (the EC was reminded its former Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya on record as having said that the cost of the 2019 presidential poll went up to Rs 8 bn from 4 bn due to doubling of the number of contestants), the Election Department/Election Commission and Parliament turning a blind eye to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) ordering Northern electorate not to vote at the 2005 presidential election and recognition of the LTTE, in late 1989, as a registered political party. 

 We also sought an explanation from the EC as regards the responsibility on its part as well as that of the Parliament. The meeting was also told how the two largest political parties, represented in Parliament, the SLPP and the SJB, with 145 and 54 lawmakers, respectively, happened to be unknown political parties. The EC owed an explanation as to how registered political parties were re-registered under controversial circumstances in spite of tough measures to prevent registration of new political parties, The Island pointed out.

 Responding to criticism of the media directed by EC Chairman Punchihewa, Asoka Dias reminded the risks taken by the media in the performance of their duty. Declaring that the Dec 1999 presidential had been the first national poll that received high profile coverage by state and privately owned media, Dias recollected the Dec 18, 1999 election night suicide bomb attack directed at the then People’s Alliance final rally at the Town Hall.

The LTTE suicide attack claimed the lives of two media persons, namely Indika Paththiniwasam (Sirasa, assistant cameraman) and Anura Priyantha (ITN, assistant cameraman). In addition to them, five media men, including three foreigners, received injuries. A separate suicide attack at Ja-Ela, directed at an UNP rally, also on the same day, claimed the lives of several persons, including retired Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Lakshman Algama.

Dias said Sirasa faced a dilemma whether to report the death of Paththiniwasam before informing his 25-year-old wife. The CID, however, found fault with Sirasa over the delay in reporting the Town Hall blast. Dias said that the ITN, too, would have been in a quandary.  “We were repeatedly asked why Sirasa has not reported the blast immediately”. Dias questioned the rationale behind the CID questioning Sirasa over the delay in reporting the blast.

Dias compared the experience gained by the Sri Lankan media in covering elections under exceptionally difficult circumstances and that of the foreign journalists. Referring to a spate of attacks on the media over the years, Dias asserted that the Sri Lankan media faced far more challenges in covering elections than their foreign counterparts.

Commenting on what Dias called lethargic attitude of political parties, he said that in 2000 Sirasa had offered three free minutes each to political parties contesting the general election. In spite of receiving free air time, Sirasa found it difficult to convince political parties to make use of the opportunity, Dias said.

 Responding to almost doubling of the public expenditure as a result of the number of candidates at the last presidential poll being closer to 40, Dias said that the electorate found it difficult to identify genuine contestants and dummy candidates.

Dias raised a number of questions including one on the usefulness of marking voters fingers with ink to prevent organised impersonation against the backdrop of national identity card or some other official document being made compulsory for voting. The Sirasa representative said that a substantial amount of public money could be saved by doing away with futile marking of little fingers. Dias emphasized the need to revisit the whole process, including the contentious of ‘silent period’ in the run-up to elections as social media platforms, satellite TV et al continued to campaign. According to him, the 48-hour ‘silent period’ was irrelevant due advancements made by the media.

Dias recollected how media openly backed selected candidates in 1902 at the Kotahena local government poll. At the first legislative council election in 1912, two newspapers backed P. Ramanathan (The Ceylonese) and Dr. H. M. Fernando (Morning Leader).

The Island 

pointed out the media had been conveniently silent on some contentious issues. The media largely remained silent when the EU alleged in 2004 the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led TNA, won 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with the LTTE’s support. Another instance of media apathy was war-winning Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka contesting the 2010 Presidential, poll under the Swan symbol, a political party that hadn’t been represented in either local government institutions or provincial councils or Parliament. The Swan alliance contested 2015 (Maithripala Sirisena) and 2019 (Sajith Premadasa) presidential polls though the media never bothered to examine the story behind such political projects.

Tudor Weerasinghe explained how media, too, contributed to the gradual deterioration of public sector institution. Weerasinghe discussed the responsibility on the part of the media to recognize real issues. The failure to do so could be catastrophic, the lecturer said, urging the media to take on institutions instead of targeting individuals. Misdirected criticism of individuals could have a devastating impact on the entire electoral process, Weerasinghe warned. The academic explained how in spite of the change of governments the systems continued much to the dismay of those who expected genuine transformation. According to him, foreign electorates experienced the same dilemma.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s further deteriorated the global balance of power. Referring to the Suez Canal and Cuban missile crises, Weerasinghe pointed out how the West exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union to take unilateral decisions in respect of Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. Weerasinghe discussed how the media exploited situations as part of various political and other strategies regardless of consequences.  According to him, Sri Lankan media is no exception.

At the conclusion, Saman Sri Ratnayaka explained the role of the EC, difficulties and challenges as the electorates continued to expand as the system came under increased pressure. Ratnayake discussed responsibilities and accountability on their part to ensure a level playing field. The Island asked Ratnayake who would take responsibility –the EC or the parliament-for increasing the number of Local Government members from 4,000 to 8,600 at a massive unbearable burden to the taxpayer. The official explained the circumstances leading to the increase. According to him, the parliament took the decision.



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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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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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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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