Wednesday 7th April, 2021
Never a dull day in Sri Lanka, where controversies crop up so rapidly that nobody can keep track of them. The latest issue is the government’s contention that the removal of Chief Justice (CJ) Mohan Peiris, in January 2015, was unconstitutional. Justice Minister Ali Sabry himself said so in answer to a question raised by a government MP, in Parliament, on Monday. He promised to take remedial action after consulting Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Why has this issue been catapulted to centre stage all of a sudden?
It is being argued in some quarters that the ruling party propagandists engineer controversies, from time to time, to prevent their opponents from flogging an issue hard and long enough to turn public opinion against the government.
It is a supreme irony that Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose presidency Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake was removed as CJ in 2013 amidst protests and Mohan Peiris appointed to that post, and Maithripala Sirisena, who used his presidential powers in 2015 to defenestrate Peiris and reinstate Bandaranayake as the CJ, are now together in the SLPP coalition. One may recall that Sirisena, as a senior member of the Rajapaksa Cabinet voted for the impeachment of Dr. Bandaranayake, in Parliament.
Opinion is divided on the removal of CJ Bandaranayake. The Rajapaksa government should have refrained from resorting to such a course of action for the sake of democracy, which is underpinned by the principle of separation of powers. Intoxicated with power, it was no respecter of democracy.
The UNP’s arguments against the impeachment of CJ Bandaranayake were compelling; the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), which probed her, refused to allow her witnesses and failed to specify what the due process was. Most of all, the UNP said the Rajapaksa government had bungled its impeachment project; the resolution passed in a hurry to impeach the CJ sought and secured parliamentary approval for the appointment of the PSC, which probed her; it did not specifically seek approval for her removal, according to the Order Paper, the then UNP MP Lakshman Kiriella told the House.
But if the impeachment process had been flawed and the removal of CJ Bandaranayake wrong, as argued by the UNP and some legal experts, a proper way to right the wrong would have been for President Sirisena to have Parliament undo what it had done. The yahapalana government, which mustered a two-thirds majority for the 19th Amendment, could have accomplished that task easily. Instead, President Sirisena chose to override Parliament. Sadly, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka egged him on to do what he did, unmindful of the politico-legal consequences of his arbitrary action.
President Sirisena’s line of reasoning was that Dr. Bandaranayake had been removed from office wrongfully in January 2013, and the post of CJ had therefore not fallen vacant. He declared the appointment of Peiris as the CJ null and void ab initio, and reinstated Dr. Bandaranayake, who retired soon afterwards. Sri Lanka had three CJs on three consecutive days—Peiris, Bandaranayake and her successor K. Sripavan!
A person has recently been arrested for posing as a President’s Counsel. But, strangely, the yahapalana government, which claimed that Peiris had functioned as the CJ ‘illegally’ and removed him unceremoniously, stopped short of taking any action against him for having been in that post for two years. If it is true that his appointment was invalid, as Sirisena and the UNP claimed, then it follows therefrom that everything he did as the CJ lacked legality. Peiris drew the CJ’s salary, enjoyed the perks of office, functioned as the Chairman of the Judges’ Institute of Sri Lanka, heard cases, gave judgments and signed vital documents. Why didn’t the yahapalana government take any action against Peiris and/or the person who appointed him CJ? Sirisena and his erstwhile yahapalana chums owe an explanation.
Interestingly, the implication of Justice Minister Sabry’s statement at issue is that Sirisena, as the President, violated the Constitution by removing CJ Peiris. If so, action will have to be taken against Sirisena. The SLPP ought to explain why it is keeping Sirisena within its ranks.
If the current Parliament resolves that the government’s contention that the removal of CJ Peiris, in January 2015, was unconstitutional is valid, then it will follow from such a resolution that the reinstatement of Dr. Bandaranayake as the CJ in January 2015 was not legal, and, worse, doubts may even be cast on the legality of the appointment of her successor as well in that if Peiris had not been removed, his term would not have come to an end in mid-January 2015. It will be interesting to see how legal luminaries look at this issue.
One need not be surprised if the government does not proceed beyond the Justice Minister’s statement on the removal of CJ Peiris. Troubled by many problems including intraparty rivalries and clashes and the prospect of the SLFP breaking away in case of action being taken against Sirisena over his failure in 2019, as the President, to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks, the government obviously does not need another issue to contend with.
Warning shot from Darley Road
Thursday 6th May, 2021
The SLFP, which fears that legal action will be taken against its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena, over the Easter Sunday carnage, has fired a shot across the SLPP’s bow, in the form of a veiled threat to go it alone at future elections. Its trepidation is understandable. Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando have already been indicted for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court as they failed to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite several prescient warnings.
Pressure is mounting on the government to refrain from shielding Sirisena and ensure that he is also prosecuted. The SLFP seems to fear that the government may throw its leader to the wolves when push comes to shove. There is no love lost between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas; they are only a bunch of strange bedfellows.
A split in the SLPP coalition is the last thing the government wants at this juncture; the SLFP has 14 MPs elected on the SLPP ticket. An SLFP pullout will not bring down the government, but the SLPP will be hard put to muster a two-thirds majority in the House in such an eventuality.
What are the issues that the SLFP is likely to use against the government in case of a split? One could guess the answer to this question from what Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa told the media in Kandy the other day.
Prof. Piyadasa did not mince his words when he said that the biggest scam in recent times—the sugar tax fraud—had happened under the current government. Mentioning the VAT fraud and the bond scams under previous regimes, he emphasised that the sugar tax fraud was the biggest of them all. The SLFP had come forward to address corruption and irregularities under the present dispensation as it did not want the corrupt UNP to make political capital out of them, he added. Claiming that the SLFP was under pressure from its ranks and file to contest future elections alone, he said his party’s goal was to form an SLFP government.
So, the SLFP’s battle plan is now clear. If the SLPP tries to throw Sirisena overboard, the SLFP will not only pull out of the ruling coalition but also launch an all-out political campaign against it. It has already identified the key issues to be flogged, and prominent among them is the mega sugar tax fraud.
Having made use of the bond scams issue to destroy the UNP, which failed to win a single seat at the last general election, Sirisena is apparently planning to mete out the same treatment to the Rajapaksa government; he will use the fraudulent reduction of duty on sugar, among other things, for that purpose, in case the SLPP does not protect his interests. Sirisena may be having some more cards up his sleeve. He may not have used some of the damning information he had ascertained on the present-day rulers, while he was the President, because he did not want to burn bridges; he later joined forces with them. But he may not hesitate to use such information, if any, against them in case of being jettisoned.
Prof. Piyadasa has also told the media that other SLPP constituents are also disgruntled and having meetings to discuss their grievances. One may recall that they met at the SLFP headquarters a few weeks ago. The leaders of some SLPP constituents have likened the situation in the government to what the late Felix Dias Bandaranaike created in the United Front administration (1970-77); he was accused of driving the leftists away, and debilitating the SLFP-led coalition. The SLPP dissenters have stopped short of naming the grandee who, they say, is doing a Felix in the government, but their patience is obviously wearing thin. Perhaps, the SLFP is toying with the idea of forging an alliance with these SLPP constituents one day. This may be a tall order; the SLFP runs the risk of losing some of its MPs to the SLPP if it chooses to vote with its feet. But the government will be weakened both politically and electorally in the event of a split.
There seems to be no end to the problems Sirisena causes to the Rajapaksas, and vice versa!
Of April explosions and warnings
Wednesday 5th May, 2021
April is apparently the cruellest month in this country, as we said in a previous comment, with apologies to T. S. Eliot. In April 1971, the country was plunged into a bloodbath. The Easter Sunday carnage happened in April 2019. The current national health crisis took a turn for the worse in April 2021; the pandemic now snuffs out more lives than it did during its first and second waves. It is also during April that the highest number of lives lost in road accidents is reported year every year.
The Attorney General (AG) has indicted former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando for murder, etc., in the Colombo High Court over their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite having received repeated warnings of possible terror strikes. The matter is best left to the learned judges, but it needs to be added that Jayasundera and Fernando were not alone in failing to prevent the carnage; there were many others, and legal action must be instituted against them as well if justice is seen to be done.
The government must not baulk at allowing legal action to be taken against former President Maithripala Sirisena, named by the Easter Sunday Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) as a person who should take responsibility for negligence and serious security lapses that led to the terror attacks at issue. The PCoI final report specifically says, in its recommendations (p 471), “The Government including President Sirisena and Prime Minister is accountable for the tragedy.” So, all those who were responsible for national security during the yahapalana government and failed to prevent the Easter tragedy must be prosecuted.
The incumbent government is in a spot as regards Sirisena, who is the leader of the SLFP, a major constituent of the ruling SLPP coalition. The SLFP, which has 14 members in the government parliamentary group, has issued a veiled threat that it will break ranks with the SLPP in case of legal action being taken against Sirisena. The SLPP finds itself in a Catch-22 situation, but it must not let its political problems stand in the way of justice, which the families of the Easter Sunday bombing victims, the Catholic Church, and, in short, all right-thinking Sri Lankans are demanding.
When one looks carefully at the Easter Sunday carnage, which destroyed about 270 lives, and the onset of the current wave of the pandemic, which is killing people at the rate of about 10 a day, one sees that both of them were due to failure on the part of those in authority to heed prescient warnings. Now that legal action has been taken against Jayasundera and Fernando for their failure to act on warnings of the Easter Sunday terror, all those who did not heed repeated warnings of an explosive spread of Covid-19 during the National New Year and thereby caused people to die must also be brought to justice. The Covid-19 morbidity and mortality rates have increased drastically of late because the government higher-ups, the health authorities and others tasked with controlling the pandemic chose to ignore independent health experts’ warnings that there would be an upsurge of infections unless travel restrictions were imposed during the festive season.
Everybody knew the country was sitting on a ticking viral time bomb, as it were, and the government politicians and the health authorities should have taken precautions before and during the New Year to prevent an explosive transmission of the pandemic. Instead, people were allowed to do as they pleased to all intents and purposes. There were avurudu shopping sprees. Huge crowds gathered in Kataragama and Nuwara-Eliya. New Year festivals were also permitted. Those mass gatherings were a recipe for disaster. The government obviously did not want to curtail the freedom of the public during the festive season for political reasons, for travel restrictions and lockdowns are hugely unpopular. Those in authority who did not act on dire warnings from independent experts and triggered the so-called avurudu wave of the pandemic must be severely dealt with.
Criminal negligence, in all its manifestations, must not be allowed to go unpunished.
Pandemic and political virus
Tuesday 4th May, 2021
The worst that could happen to any country, burdened with a bunch of irresponsible politicians thirsting for power, is having to go to the polls during a pandemic. Sri Lanka had to do so last year, and the result was a disastrous surge of Covid-19 infections a few weeks later. That situation came about owing to massive election rallies and other such events where health regulations were blatantly flouted by politicians and their supporters alike.
India has also had elections recently in some states, where political parties, their leaders and supporters did not behave responsibly. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral gamble has not paid off. Instead of scaling down his election campaigns on account of the ever-deepening national health crisis and setting an example to others, he chose to make the BJP juggernaut go full throttle in a bid to score an impressive win. He must be really disappointed.
All eyes were on the West Bengal Assembly polls, where PM Modi’s party got trounced by his worst critic, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Modi must be finding it difficult to stomach defeat, given the colossal amounts of funds, time and energy that went into the BJP election campaign there. Interestingly, although her party, Trinamool Congress, won comfortably, Mamata has lost her seat. Political analysts say she could continue to be the Chief Minister, but will have to face a by-election in six months. However, the fact remains that she has sent the BJP and her bete noire reeling.
Now that the polls are over, the sobering reality must be dawning on PM Modi and his government. Daily cases of Covid-19 have topped 300,000 for 10 straight days or so, in India, with thousands of people dying, daily, many without proper medical care and oxygen. Modi came to power promising the Indians the moon, but his government is now all at sea, unable to help the people the way it should. Whoever would have thought India would be dependent on foreign assistance to overcome a health crisis, on PM Modi’s watch? There are heart-rending appeals from Indians on social media. Some of them are even calling for Modi’s resignation. The BJP government’s efforts to have such posts blocked have come a cropper. The Indian Supreme Court has defended the hapless citizens’ freedom of expression; it declared, on Friday, that no state should clamp down on information if citizens communicated their Covid-related grievances on social media, and promised tough action against those who violated that right. Blessed is a country that has such intrepid judges capable of standing up to powerful rulers and ensuring that people’s rights are respected.
There is no way the BJP and PM Modi can absolve themselves of the blame for the worsening pandemic situation in India. The same goes for their rivals including the Congress and its leaders. They jostled for power, throwing caution to the wind, while people were gasping for oxygen and firewood stocks running out due to an unprecedented number of cremations.
On 27 April, the Madras High Court lashed out at the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the latter’s failure to ensure that the Covid-19 protocol was maintained during election campaigns, and went on to state that the ECI ‘should be put on murder charges for being the most irresponsible institution.’ This harsh remark came close on the heels of the Calcutta High Court lambasting the ECI for not doing enough to make political parties adhere to the Covid-19 protocol. This kind of judicial reaction seems to reflect the public mood. The ECI has moved the Supreme Court against the Madras HC’s remark, which, however, has struck a responsive chord with not only the Indians in agony but also their counterparts elsewhere, especially in this country, where politicians’ irresponsible conduct has endangered the lives of people. The Election Commission of Sri Lanka, in spite of its rhetoric, failed to make the political parties fall in line in the run-up to last year’s general election.
How electioneering boosted the spread of the pandemic may have gone unnoticed in this country probably because not enough random PCR tests were conducted to gauge the social transmission of Covid-19, but the correlation between irresponsible electioneering and the transmission of the virus has become clear in India; it was also seen in the US during the last presidential election.
What really facilitates the spread of the pandemic in any country is its rulers’ callous disregard for public health concerns as well as the sheer stupidity of its citizenry.
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