Saturday 5th September, 2020
The 20th Amendment (20A) bill is now in the public domain. The Attorney General is of the view that it requires only a two-thirds majority in Parliament for enactment. The government has 150 MPs on its side, and the passage of 20A is only a matter of time. Reflected in this constitutional amendment is the strategic thinking of the present dispensation.
It was thought, before last month’s general election, that 20A would be a slightly amended version of 19A as there was a need to help the President wriggle out of the constitutional straitjacket he found himself in. But 19A has been eviscerated. Only the five-year presidential term and the two-term limit seem to have been retained.
The general consensus is that 19A contains some salutary features, which must be retained although it was intended to keep the Rajapaksa family at bay, strip President Maithripala Sirisena of some executive powers and vest them in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The number of terms a President could serve was limited to two to prevent former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting a presidential election again. Dual citizens were banned from entering Parliament or running for President because the yahapalana leaders wanted to prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa from seeking political office. Namal Rajapaksa was their obvious target when the minimum age limit for contesting a presidential election was raised to 35.
Wickremesinghe and Sirisena did everything in their power to ruin the political future of the Rajapaksas, but their plan went pear-shaped, and the boot is now on the other foot. Wickremesinghe is in the political wilderness; Sirisena, who left the SLFP as a powerful minister of the Rajapaksa government to contest the presidential election successfully, in 2015, having failed to realise his prime ministerial dream, is now playing second fiddle to the Rajapaksas, as an ordinary MP.
Dual citizens will be able to contest elections, and the minimum age for presidential candidates will be 30 if 20A is enacted. The path has been cleared for the Rajapaksa family.
The Constitutional Council (CC) is to be replaced with a Parliamentary Council (PC) under 20A. True, the CC functioned as a rubber stamp for the yahapalana government and was responsible for some controversial appointments which should not have been made. But the incumbent government could have changed the CC to make it more effective. What 20A proposes to set up is another rubber stamp council; the President will have the power to make all key appointments to the Election Commission, the judiciary, etc. Fear is being expressed in some quarters that the Auditor General’s Department will end up being an appendage of the government.
The government will be able to appoint any number of ministers if 20A is enacted, and this will help lure Opposition MPs into joining its ranks. A jumbo Cabinet will serve the purpose of only self-seeking politicians craving power and positions. Ideally, the Cabinet should not have more than 15 members. The number of ministers must not exceed 30 under any circumstances.
Worryingly, legal experts have pointed out that there is no provision in 20A for fundamental rights (FR) cases to be filed against the omissions and commissions on the part of the President. At present, FR cases can be filed against the Attorney General over presidential actions, but if 20A becomes law in its present form, people who feel that their fundamental rights have been violated by the President will not be able to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Instead, they will have to settle for going to the Appeal Court. The constitutional provision for FR cases anent presidential actions should be retained.
Overall, President Rajapaksa has done well despite 19A, which is annoyingly restrictive in some respects, and earned praise even from his critics. He certainly needs some more constitutional leeway to be able to live up to the expectations of the people who elected him and deserves the Defence portfolio among other things, as we have argued in previous comments. But 20A seeks to vest in the presidency excessive powers, and it in its present form is likely to cast him in an unfavourable light.
Framing a Constitution or amending it is a solemn task which requires sincerity and foresight, which the drafters of 19A sadly lacked; they played politics with it at the behest of their political masters. The architects of 20A have failed to be different. The yahapalana government went to one extreme, and the SLPP administration is set to go to the other. We are afraid that 20A will have a corrosive effect on the brake system of the SLPP juggernaut, causing it to go careening down the hill.
One can only hope that the government will heed concerns being expressed about 20A and consider watering it down instead of seeking a reversion to the status quo ante.
April carnage and murky waters
Wednesday 21st April, 2021
A series of near-simultaneous terrorist bombings shocked the country on this day, two years ago. More than 250 persons including children perished in the attacks, which also left hundreds of others injured. It is equally shocking that no one has yet been punished for those heinous crimes and the masterminds behind the attacks have not been identified. The government would have the public believe that an extremist preacher named Naufer masterminded the attacks, but there is no credible evidence to prove its claim. True, Naufer indoctrinated the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) cadres and had some influence over Zahran, who led the suicide bombers, but he, too, is believed to have had a handler.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has unearthed some valuable information about the incidents, but much more remains to be done. It has held the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the yahapalana government responsible for the serious security lapses that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike with ease. It has also recommended legal action against several police and intelligence officers who failed to act on repeated warnings. It should have named the members of the yahapalana Cabinet and recommended that they also be prosecuted.
Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith must have struck a responsive chord with all right-thinking Sri Lankans, on Monday, when he said, some political deals that helped the government secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the 20th Amendment may have influenced the outcome of the Easter Sunday carnage probe. ‘He that has an ill name’ is said to be half-hanged; the present-day leaders have earned notoriety for political horse-trading, and it is only natural that they stand accused of having cut secret deals with those with alleged links to the Easter Sunday terrorists.
The government is in a dilemma. Pressure is mounting on it to initiate legal action against Sirisena. The SLFP is likely to pull out of the ruling SLPP coalition if Sirisena is prosecuted; such a breakaway will threaten the stability of the government to a considerable extent and, therefore, the SLPP is not in a position to throw Sirisena to the wolves. How will the government wriggle out of this catch-22 situation?
Legal action can be instituted, on the basis of the PCoI findings and recommendations, against those whose dereliction of duty and criminal negligence helped the NTJ terrorists destroy so many lives, but the country will not be safe unless the real masterminds behind the attacks are traced and dealt with. The PCoI has not dug deep enough in this regard as can be seen from the perfunctory manner in which it has treated the alleged foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The bulky PCoI report has only eight pages on this vital issue, and the views of key witnesses who suspect a foreign hand have been rejected as mere ipse dixits. These witnesses, according to the PCoI report, are Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, former President Maithripala Sirisena, former Minister Rauff Hakeem, former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, former Governor Asath Salley, Mujeebur Rahuman, MP, former Director SIS SDIG Nilantha Jayawardene, former Commandant of the STF SDIG M. R. Latiff, former Chief of Defence Staff Admiral (retd.) Ravindra Wijegunaratne, Senior DIG/CID, Ravi Senevirathne (retired) and former CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera. So, if a fresh probe gets underway to identify the terror masterminds, the aforesaid witnesses will be able to furnish more information.
The Easter Sunday carnage should be investigated from all angles. The PCoI report says Zahran’s original plan was to attack the Kandy Perahera, but it was advanced due to the detection of explosives in Wanathawilluwa, international factors such as the IS losing ground in Syria and Iraq, and Zahran’s fear that he might be apprehended. It needs to be found out whether there was an attempt to use the NTJ terror to trigger a backlash against the Muslim community and drive the Muslims, especially those in the strategically important Eastern Province, into the hands of the separatists, or other such elements bent on destabilising the country.
The Grim Reaper in overdrive
Tuesday 20th April, 2021
April is the cruellest month, one may say with apologies to T. S. Eliot, on seeing the increase in fatal road accidents during the festive season in this country. During the last five days alone, 52 lives have been lost in road mishaps, and about 670 persons have suffered injuries, according to the police. In fact, the number of deaths due to road accidents averages eight a day, and road fatalities receive media attention only when there happens to be an uptick therein. Not even coronavirus carries off that many—for now, at least.
With an average of 38,000 crashes that cause about 3,000 deaths and 8,000 serious injuries annually, Sri Lanka has the worst road fatality rate among its immediate neighbours in South Asia, a World Bank study has revealed, as we pointed out in a recent comment.
Why this unfortunate situation has come about is known to the authorities tasked with ensuring road safety. The traffic police have identified 25 causes of road accidents, prominent among them being reckless driving, negligence, indiscipline, drivers’ lack of knowledge of road rules and regulations, fatigue, human error, driving under the influence of liquor and drugs, pedestrians’ disregard for road rules and safety measures, poor conditions of vehicles and road infrastructural defects. Other causative factors, identified by independent experts, are an exponential increase in the number of vehicles, irregularities in the process of issuing driving/riding licences and lapses on the part of the traffic police themselves.
Given the sheer number of causes of road mishaps, a multi-pronged strategy and a long-term, holistic approach are needed to tackle them. But it may be possible to contain the problem to a considerable extent if steps are taken urgently to deal with reckless driving, indiscipline, driving under the influence of liquor and drugs, and road infrastructural defects. Last month’s tragic bus accident in Passara shook the country, it killed 14 passengers. The driver of the ill-fated vehicle was responsible for the mishap, but it could have been prevented if the Road Development Authority had cared to remove a boulder that had rolled onto the road, blocking part of it, or at least put up speed breakers and warning signs near the bottleneck. Such issues can be sorted out immediately.
Police deserve praise for taking tough action against drunk drivers. Drunk driving is easy to detect. In most cases, there is no need for even breathalyzer tests. But the problem with narcotic addiction among drivers is that there are no outward signs of impairment. Medical experts inform us that drugs such as cannabis, methylamphetamine and ‘ecstasy’ greatly impair drivers’ ability to control speed and judge distance and hinder coordination. The need for facilities to conduct roadside drug testing to detect narcotic addicts behind the wheel has gone unheeded although many drivers, especially truckers and busmen are hooked on drugs. Bus owners’ associations have been calling for action against drug addicts in the garb of bus crews, but in vain.
Meanwhile, random checks in urban areas to nab drunk drivers have stood suburban liquor bars in good stead because most people patronise these watering holes due to lack of police presence around them. This is something the traffic police should pay attention to. If they step up checks in suburban areas as well, they may be able to net many more drunk drivers, who pose a danger to all road users.
Road accidents are as much of a scourge as the current pandemic; they kill about 1.39 million people around the world annually, according to the World Health Organisation. One is at a loss to understand why there has been no sustained global effort similar to the campaign against COVID-19, to obviate the causes of killer road accidents; this is doubly so for this country where road fatalities outnumber the pandemic-related deaths. It is unfortunate that road traffic deaths get reduced to mere statistics and then forgotten.
It’s sovereignty, stupid!
Monday 19th April, 2021
Sri Lanka’s sovereignty has taken centre stage thanks to the Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) Bill. The Opposition and its allies are all out to scuttle it, claiming that it will severely undermine the country’s sovereignty, which the government vows to protect at any cost. The UNP has joined others in challenging the Bill in the Supreme Court. This, it has done while seeking to justify its decision to appoint its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to Parliament via the National List; he unsuccessfully contested the last general election from the Colombo District.
If the government, the Opposition and their supporters are so concerned about the country’s sovereignty, they must respect the franchise of the people in whom sovereignty resides. Sovereignty and franchise are inseparable. How could the aforesaid politicians reconcile their much-advertised campaign for protecting sovereignty with their endorsement of the practice of appointing as National List MPs unsuccessful candidates and others of their choice in violation of people’s franchise.
The situation took a turn for the worse, under the yahapalana government, which not only appointed a bunch of defeated candidates to Parliament as National List MPs but also made some of them Cabinet ministers! Almost all political parties with parliamentary representation have undermined people’s franchise in this manner. Even the JVP, which never misses an opportunity to take the moral high ground, failed to be different. The lame excuse that political leaders trot out for this blatant violation of franchise is that the law provides for such appointments. If this despicable practice is to be considered acceptable simply because certain bad laws can be interpreted to justify it, then the Executive President should not be faulted for exercising all dictatorial powers the Constitution has vested in him.
Moreover, it has now been revealed that the J. R. Jayewardene government smuggled some sections into the election law to enable the appointment of outsiders to Parliament as National List MPs. The Provincial Council Elections Act was amended in a similar manner in 2017 to postpone the PC polls indefinitely. Questionable practices and actions based on such rotten laws cannot be considered legitimate by any stretch of the imagination.
The National List mechanism, which was devised purportedly to bring in eminent persons as MPs, has in effect empowered political party leaders to violate the people’s franchise with impunity. Therefore, the legal provisions that allow defeated candidates and outsiders to enter Parliament via the National List must be abolished; they are antithetical to democracy and have a corrosive effect on people’s franchise and sovereignty. Strangely, not even those who undertook to usher in good governance, in 2015, cared to get rid of these bad laws.
It is being argued in some quarters that when the seats of appointed MPs fall vacant, only the National List nominees or those whose names appear on district nomination lists should be appointed to Parliament in keeping with Articles 99 and 101 of the Constitution. But we believe that only the National List nominees whose names are made public before parliamentary elections must be brought in as appointed MPs; the appointment of unsuccessful candidates as MPs is an assault on democracy.
Technically, people who vote for a particular political party/independent group also endorse its National List nominees, who arguably attract votes. In 2015, the JVP had, as one of its National List nominees, former Auditor General Sarath Mayadunne. A lot of people must have voted for the JVP to have him in Parliament to fight against corruption effectively. But no sooner had he been sworn in than he resigned, paving the way for the appointment of a defeated JVP candidate. What the JVP did was tantamount to taking the voting public for a ride. Other political parties, too, have done likewise unashamedly.
At present, the National List can be abused to appoint any party member to Parliament, and anyone can obtain the membership of a political party by paying as little as Rs. 10. One may argue that all it takes to render people’s franchise irrelevant is Rs. 10! What moral right do the politicians who unflinchingly make use of bad laws to defy the will of the people have to fight for democracy, sovereignty and franchise?
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