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EC Chief: Time not opportune for election; interim administration need of the hour

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Chairman of the Election Commission (EC) Nimal Punchihewa says extremely violent public reaction to Monday’s mob attacks, on those who had been demanding the resignation of the government for over a month, is a grave warning to political parties, represented in Parliament.

In a brief interview with The Island, Attorney-at-Law Punchihewa emphasised the urgent need for political, electoral and constitutional reforms to address the issues at hand.

One-time member of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), Punchihewa stressed Parliament had to fulfill its mandatory obligations.

“Financial discipline and enactment of laws are of pivotal importance. Such measures cannot be delayed further against the backdrop of widespread of violence against lawmakers. Parliament needs to take tangible measures to restore public confidence in democracy,” Punchihewa said.

Punchihewa insisted that violence couldn’t be condoned under any circumstances. Referring to acts of violence, including the setting fire to the Jaffna library on May 31 1981, and the July 1983 riots, Punchihewa said that political parties represented in Parliament should act decisively now, or face the consequences.

Asked to comment on organised attacks on the houses some lawmakers, representing the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the killing of Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale, at Nittambuwa, Punchihewa said that those who had instigated violence against the protesting public had never expected such a violent reaction.

Countrywide protests reflected the public mood, Punchihewa said. Those who wielded political power never realised the transformation of utter public despair, over the economic fallout, to anger, he added. Had they realised the real crisis, the government wouldn’t have allowed unprovoked attacks on protesting public, he said.

The EC Chairman noted that even if Temple Trees had planned Monday’s meeting, it should have been cancelled in view of the declaration of a State of Emergency. Political parties should take measures as quickly as possible to bring in the much-delayed reforms, Punchihewa said, underscoring the need for transparency in campaign financing and introduction of a recalling system as practiced in many countries.

Responding to another query, Punchihewa said that the EC strongly believed the time was not opportune for a general election, and even before Monday’s calamity a general election wouldn’t have been feasible. Therefore, there should be a consensus on an all-party interim mechanism to govern the country, and tangible measures had to be adopted to address economic woes with a recovery plan being put in place before an election could be conducted, Punchihewa said.

It was regrettable that public opinion had turned against the political party system soon after the celebration of the 90th anniversary of universal franchise, the EC Chief said, recalling how a group of youth representing the Galle Face protesters had explained to EC members their stand on the current political situation. They had spoken on behalf of the voiceless who really experienced the rapid economic decline due to a combination of reasons-ranging from poor economic management to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The EC chief said that perhaps the EC should explore ways and means of working with the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to address the issues at hand. There was no point in denying the fact the political party system was in crisis.

Punchihewa pointed out that there had been several proposals from political parties as well as other groups, including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) for resolving the crisis, and a consensus had to be reached on them fast. All stakeholders had to be flexible and ready to improve and modify proposals on the table as the country experienced the worst ever economic crisis that now threatened to disrupt supply chains, he added.

Punchihewa pointed out that no less a person than Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena had recently warned of a possible food shortage. That statement made in his capacity as the Speaker should be examined along with Finance Minister Al Sabry, PC’s confession in Parliament soon after his return from Washington, where Sri Lanka appealed for immediate IMF intervention.

According to Punchihewa, the EC had submitted its proposals to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well as Romesh de Silva, PC outfit that recently finalized the draft constitution. Punchihewa said that all those concerned should act fast. The BASL could play a significant role in the overall process to restore political stability, Punchihewa said, warning further delay in consensus among political parties both ion and outside parliament would encourage lawlessness.

EC Chairman said that club-wielding youth checking vehicles on Monday in many parts of the country underscored hitherto unknown danger.



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Weerawansa’s wife sentenced to RI

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Lawyers appearing for Shashi Weerawansa, MP Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, yesterday (27) appealed against a Colombo Magistrate’s Court decision to sentence their client to two years rigorous imprisonment.Colombo Chief Magistrate, Buddhika Sri Ragala found her guilty of submitting forged documents to obtain a diplomatic passport circa 2010. The Colombo Magistrate’s Court also imposed a fine of Rs. 100,000 on Mrs. Weerawansa. If the fine is not paid she will have to serve an extra six months.

Additional Magistrate Harshana Kekunawala announced that the appeal would be called for consideration on 30 May.The case against Mrs. Weerawansa was filed by the CID after a complaint was lodged on 23 January 2015 by Chaminda Perera, a resident of Battaramulla.

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Unions predict end of energy sovereignty

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A government decision to allow all privately-owned bunker fuel operators to import and distribute diesel and fuel oil to various industries was a rollback of the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry and another severe blow to energy sovereignty of the country, trade union activist of the SJB Ananda Palitha said yesterday.Earlier, Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera Tweeted that ‘approval was given to all the Private Bunker Fuel Operators to Import and provide Diesel and Fuel Oil requirements of Industries to function their Generators and Machinery. This will ease the burden on CPC and Fuel Stations provided in bulk’.Commenting on the decision, Palitha said that according to the existing law those companies only had the power to import, store and distribute fuel for ships. Those companies did not have the authority to distribute fuel inside the country, Palitha said.

“Only the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) can distribute fuel inside the country. There is a controversy about the licence given to the LIOC as well. If the government wants other companies to import fuel, it needs to change the laws. The Minister does not have the power to make these decisions. A few months ago the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration used to rush Bills that adversely affected the country through Parliament. Now, since they don’t have a majority in parliament, they are using the Cabinet to make decisions that are detrimental to the country’s interests.”

Palitha said that the controversial government move would further weaken the CPC, and that the ultimate aim of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was to make the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) purchase fuel from private distributors. With a weakened CPC and a CEB under the mercy of private companies, the Sri Lankan state would have little control over the country’s energy sector, he warned.

“The CEB already can’t pay the CPC, and therefore how can it pay private companies? It will have to sell its assets. This is another step in the road to fully privatise the energy sector. When this happens no government will be able to control inflation or strategically drive production through fuel and energy tariffs. The people will be at the mercy of businessmen and the government will only be a bystander,” he said.

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Modi government moves to ‘solve’ Katchatheevu issue

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The Narendra Modi government is mulling restoring the traditional rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island of 285 acres, sandwiched between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Bay, with the BJP hoping the move could lift its political fortunes in the southern state.The government will push Sri Lanka to implement “in letter and spirit” the 1974 agreement reached between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then prime ministers of India and Sri Lanka, on the island.This will have to be done by withdrawing the “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976 without questioning Sri Lanka’s “sovereignty” over Katchatheevu, sources aware of the internal discussions in the BJP told the Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald.

Sources added that the discussions were “ongoing” at “various levels” including reaching out to Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka. The recent visit of TN BJP chief K Annamalai to Sri Lanka is also part of the outreach. Many feel the instructions issued in 1976 “superseded the provisions of the legally valid” pact between India and Sri Lanka, thus making Katchatheevu a subject of dispute in the Palk Bay.While the 1974 agreement gave away Katchatheevu, which was part of the territory ruled by the Rajah of Ramanathapuram, to Sri Lanka, the 1976 pact drew the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.

“We cannot disturb the agreement signed in 1974. We are now finding ways and means to implement the agreement in letter and spirit. All we plan is to ask Sri Lanka to invoke Article 6 of the Katchatheevu pact. If Sri Lanka agrees, the issue can be sorted through Exchange of Letters between foreign secretaries of both countries,” a source in the know said.Another source said the time is “ripe” to push forward on the issue. “With fast-changing geopolitical situation in the region, we believe Sri Lanka will slowly come around and accept the rights of our fishermen,” the source said.

“The opinion within the party is that time is ripe to push this cause, with Sri Lanka beginning to realise that India can always be relied upon, given PM Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is pro-India.”

Articles 5 and 6 of the 1974 agreement categorically assert the right to access of the Indian fishermen and pilgrims to Katchatheevu and state that the “vessels of Sri Lanka and India will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein”.

However, fishermen from India were prohibited from fishing in the Sri Lankan territorial waters around Katchatheevu in 1976 following the signing of an agreement on the maritime boundary. The battle for fish in the Palk Bay has often ended in Indian fishermen being attacked by Sri Lankan Navy for “transgressing” into their waters.The BJP, which is yet to make major inroads in Tamil Nadu, feels a “solution” to the long-standing issue will give the party the much-needed momentum ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and provide a chance to get into the Tamil psyche. Political analysts feel that it might also allow the BJP to needle the DMK and the Congress by pointing out that it has restored the rights “surrendered by them,” to Tamil fishermen

Senior journalist and Lanka expert R Bhagwan Singh said: “If BJP succeeds in its efforts, it will certainly help the saffron party in the coming elections.”

But a source said the move will “take time”. “We don’t want to rush and create an impression we are forcing Sri Lanka. We will take it slow. We will take every stakeholder into confidence and reach an amicable settlement with Sri Lanka. All we want to do is restore traditional rights of our fishermen,” the source said.CM Stalin also raised the issue at an event on Thursday, telling Modi that this is the “right time” to retrieve Katchatheevu.

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