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General election: GTF discourages voters from backing major parties…

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…warns of authoritarian rule

The UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF), which has been working closely with Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has urged the Tamils to vote for those only contesting the northern and eastern regions. In addition to the TNA, the Thamizhi Makkal Tesiya Kootani or the Tamil People’’s National Alliance led by former Northern Province CM C.V. Wigneswaran are in the fray in the former war zones.

 The GTF, in a statement issued yesterday said: “First and foremost, ensure that people appreciate the significance of this election and the power of their vote – every vote matters. Second, no vote should be wasted on the multitude of independent groups and those representing countrywide parties, as these could only dilute the strength of the Tamil representation for future political engagements. Overly unrealistic agenda and an inward-looking insular political strategy is not the most suited in the present circumstances. The question for the Tamil voters is among the parties that represent Tamil national interest, which party and candidates are the best suited to navigate Tamil politics through the turbulent times ahead.”

  The GTF urged all citizens of Sri Lanka, including those from Tamil and Muslim communities, to view the election with long-term perspective and exercise their franchise prudently and responsibly. Otherwise, the price of apathy could be too high.

 The GTF alleged the election was being held amidst authoritarian presidential rule through decrees and task forces, key civilian functions entrusted to serving and retired military officers (some of whom credibly implicated in serious human rights violations), an atmosphere of intimidation and fear leading to media self-censorship and silencing of civil society activists, and insecurity among the minority communities.

 The GTF said: “It is in this atmosphere that Rajapaksas are seeking 2/3rd majority to change the constitution, in particular, to abolish the 19th Amendment. It is not difficult to contemplate where this will lead to – executive power without checks and balances, marginalisation of Parliament and Judiciary, and key institutions made irrelevant. In such a quasi-democracy, rule of law and human rights will become expendable, and impunity will reign. The argument that a strong leader with unconstrained power is a must for development and prosperity is phony and self-serving.”

 The GTF statement: “The last two attempts at constitution making (1972 and 1978), where the political parties that drove the process had 2/3rd majority, were disastrous, and their effects are still crippling the country. Democratic fundamentals and the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious character of the state were severely compromised to satisfy the power greed of the rulers. There is no indication that politics or statesmanship will be any different this time. In fact, if history is a guide, the outcome could be worse than what was achieved during the last two attempts. It is crucial, therefore, that all citizens should unite in denying the present rulers unfettered freedom for constitution making, rather ensure that only a widely consulted and compromised charter will be possible.

 “While a functioning democracy with checks and balances are important for all citizens, it is so paramount for the minority communities. When the fangs of the majoritarian state unfairly target minority communities, even the theoretical possibility of legal recourse can be significant. So, it is vital that Tamil, Muslim and Christian communities study their electoral options and act wisely.

 “Eleven years after the end of war, re-evaluating political circumstances and electoral possibilities is a must for the Tamil community. Gaining a respectable and secure status in the country is still a dream and there are many disappointments to contend with – no tangible outcomes on constitutional and accountability fronts, lack of momentum in returning to normalcy for the war-affected, and lingering concerns about protecting identity of the Tamil majority North-East. However, it is also undeniable that during the last five years there was notable relief for the Tamil people due to de-escalation of the military stranglehold in the North-East and people enjoyed some normalcy and freedom which included the right to memorialize the war-dead. How much of these could be lost due to the electoral outcomes is one important question to consider.

 “The Tamil political leadership during the last decade has earned some positive marks on the national politics of the country – its role in the 2018 constitutional crisis being one notable example. A far-sighted political approach has somewhat weakened the apprehensions and animosities existed between the Tamil and other communities. Further, the Tamil nationalistic politics in Sri Lanka is viewed in the major capitals of the world as a far more progressive one than what it used to be. These fundamental building blocks are crucial for future political settlements, and need to be further strengthened, not weakened, as Tamil struggle moves on.

 “Tamils in Sri Lanka is a significantly weakened community today – the population is relatively small with reduced electoral strength, and its educational and economic performances are among the worst in the country. Meeting political aspirations, though overwhelmingly the dominant issue for Tamils, is one of many objectives for the rest of the country. While the Tamil community should never take its eyes off from achieving political outcomes, it is no longer tenable that it be approached in a sequential manner, i.e. – ‘political resolution first, economic development later’. It is crucial that the Tamil political leadership become more cognizant of this reality and take necessary initiatives in this direction.

 “The Sri Lankan political leadership’s intransigence in accommodating the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community, made the Tamils look to the international community and India, with hope and expectation. While this is an integral part of the Tamil political struggle and need to be strengthened and leveraged to the maximum, this cannot substitute an effective political and civil society engagement with all communities in the country. This, too, needs to be a factor when Tamils consider their political choices.

 “The Tamil community faces monumental challenges today. The Rajapaksas-led political ‘movement’ does not have many parallels in Sri Lanka’s history. It relies entirely on Sinhala-Buddhist vote and highly insensitive to the concerns and aspirations of the minority communities. No commitment to accountability and reconciliation (withdrew from co-sponsorship of UNHRC resolution), increased militarisation of civil functions (military officers for every village in the North-East), and the appointment of all-Sinhala task force to ‘preserve the historical heritage of Sri Lanka’ in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province are a few examples. More ominous is the possibility of losing some of the fundamental reforms such as power devolution under 13th Amendment and the parity status for Tamil language. A major economic contraction Sri Lanka is expected to undergo could lead to intensifying authoritarianism and militarisation, and in all likelihood the minority communities will be used as scapegoats for the wrong doings of the powerful.

 “The period ahead will test the capability of the Tamil political leadership. Forming effective partnerships with the elected representatives from all minority communities and with those from the majority community with progressive views could be critical, so is fostering effective engagement strategies with the international community and India. If Rajapaksas are denied 2/3rd majority, such coalitions would be particularly powerful in preventing the constitution being amended on their own right. Perhaps the better strategy for the Tamil community could be protecting its hard-won gains, while exploring opportunities for furthering its community interests.

” Despite the fundamental weaknesses in Sri Lanka’s democracy, the country is often viewed favourably by the international community because it unfailingly conducts elections which are viewed largely as free and fair. In such circumstances, voting is fundamental and in fact the most powerful tool available to effect political, social and economic transformations in the country. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) appeals to every citizen of Sri Lanka, and the Tamil people in particular, to cast their precious votes and cast it wisely, keeping the long-term interest of the country and their political, economic and democratic rights in mind.”

 

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20A passed at first reading stage amidst protests from SJB

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By Saman Indrajith

 

The 20th Amendment Bill was passed yesterday in Parliament at the first reading stage amidst protests from the SJB.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry presented the Bill to the House.

SJB members who were wearing black armbands and badges with ‘No to 20’ printed on them shouted. They held placards denouncing the 20th Amendment.

 Some SJB MPs were seen coming from their desks to the Well of the House, and then the government MPs too came down and shouted, ‘Yes to 20’.

Serjeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando and his deputy Kushan Jayaratne were seen standing before the Mace

 Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardane moved a number of Orders under the Special Commodity Levy Act for debate.

Seconding the move, Samurdhi, Household Economy, Micro Finance, Self-Employment, Business Development and Underutilised State Resources Development State Minister Shehan Semasinghe said that the Opposition should have raised their concerns elsewhere.

“They can now go before court and express their concerns. They have one more option. That is to secure a two-third majority in Parliament and defeat the Bill. Without doing any of them they shout here to disrupt sittings and thereby waste public funds. We remember how they behaved when they were in power; they brought in several no-confidence motions. They did so after suspending the Standing Orders of the House. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya suspended Standing Orders to allow JVP MP Vijitha Herath to move a motion. We do not act in such undemocratic manner. People have given us a mandate to do away with the 19th Amendment. We act according to that mandate.”

SJB Kegalle District MP Kabir Hashim:

There are two groups in this House. One group ruled this country for 20 years. We were in power for five years.

If they say that they need more powers to develop this country that is a joke.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa said the TV camera was not focussed on MP Hashim.

SJB MPs shouted demanding that the camera be focussed on him

MP Hashim:

If this is the manner the government ensuring the rights of MPs before the 20th Amendment, what will happen to us after it becomes law?

MP Hashim:

Have you been able to bring down the price of a single commodity after coming to power? When you came to power in 1994 you promised to abolish the executive presidency, and do away with the open economic policies. You did not do so. Mahinda Rajapaksa too came to power on the same promises. But his government did not honour thems. Today, we are staging this protest to save the powers of the Prime Minister not for our sake. Do you remember the Subha and Yasa story. A palace guard and the king exchanged their places for the fun of it. But the guard did not give back the throne to the king. He remained in the position and even killed the King. The same will happen here when the 20th Amendment is passed.

Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage:

This is a government of the people. We will not do anything against people’s aspirations. We uphold democracy. During the times when you were in the government you did not hold elections. There are many MPs in the opposition today who want to join our government. By this morning there were 17 opposition MPs who wanted to join us. We will get 20 MPs from the Opposition to secure the passage of this Bill. You do not worry about saving the powers of the Prime Minister. We will see to that. You passed the 19th Amendment to prevent the Rajapaksas from coming to power. The Opposition paints a dismal picture of the 20th Amendment. Former Minister Hashim laments about the prices of commodities. Tell me the price of a coconut. Tell me. You cannot because you do not know. You do not know because you are living in luxury away from people.  Today a coconut is Rs 70 in the market. You are not with the people that is why you lost the election.

Industry Minister Wimal Weerawansa raising a point of order said that MPs could not demand that the camera be focussed on them. “Whenever there is a protest in the House, the camera should focus either on the Speaker or the Mace. That is the procedure. It was introduced by the former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa:

We register our opposition and frustration over the 20th Amendment. This amendment has provisions that will erode democratic values.

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Speaker berates opposition for resorting to harangue at question time

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By Saman Indrajith

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena yesterday (22) reprimanded the Opposition MPs for wasting the time of the House. He said that MPs should not make speeches when raising questions listed in the Order Paper because only one hour had been allotted for the question time.

He said so when Ratnapura District SJB MP Hesha Withanage raised supplementary questions and made a lengthy speech.

Withanage demanded to know from the Prime Minister the number of Cabinet ministers in governments since 1978.

Responding on behalf of the Prime Minister Chief of the Government Whip Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said that there had been nine parliaments since 1978 and there had been different numbers of Cabinet ministers in those government. He said that the first parliament in 1978 had 25 cabinet ministers and the second parliament in 1989 had 21 cabinet ministers. The third parliament in 1994 had 23 cabinet and 31 deputy ministers with a total of 54. The fourth parliament of 2000 had 42 cabinet and 36 deputy ministers with a total of 78. The Fifth Parliament of 2001 had 25 cabinet, 27 non-cabinet and eight deputy ministers with a total of 60. The sixth parliament of 2004 had 31 cabinet, three non-cabinet and 31 deputy ministers with a total of 65. The seventh parliament of 2010 had 37 cabinet 39 deputy ministers with a total of 76 ministers. The eighth parliament of 2015 had 45 cabinet and 38 state ministers making a total of 87 ministers. The eighth parliament of 2019 had 16 cabinet and 38 state ministers with a total of 54. The ninth parliament of 2020 has 27 cabinet and 40 state ministers with a total of 67.

The first and second parliaments of 1978 and 1989 had one female cabinet minister each. Third parliament of 1994 had three cabinet and five deputy female ministers with a total eight female members. The Fourth parliament of 2000 had four female cabinet ministers. The fifth parliament of 2001 had only one female cabinet minister. The sixth parliament of 2004 had three female cabinet ministers. The seventh parliament of 2010 had two female cabinet ministers and one female deputy minister post making it three female ministers. The eighth parliament of 2015 had a total number of six female ministerial posts – two cabinet, two state and two deputy posts.  The eighth parliament of 2019 had one female cabinet minister. The ninth parliament of 2020 has one female cabinet minister and two female state ministers with a total of three.

The highest percentage of female ministers was in 1994 with 13.04% and the lowest was in 2020 with 3.7 percent, Minister Fernando said.

Responding to the question the percentage of female ministers in the present government, Minister Fernando said it was 3.6. He said the figure was the same as the percentage of female representation in Parliament.

When the time came for the supplementary questions, MP Withanage said that if the funds spent on the number of Cabinet ministers since 1978 had been spent for the development, the country would have been in a better position. Then he lamented that the percentage of female members in parliament did not tally with the population’s female percentage. Thereafter, he said that under the previous government a ceiling on the number of Cabinet ministers had been imposed and the incumbent government was planning to remove it. He asked how the government would justify the proposed increase in the number of ministers.

Speaker Abeywardena intervened and said the MPs could not be allowed to make speeches making use of time allocated for questions. “You should ask only supplementary question. This cannot be permitted. We have to give consideration to the time. We move on to the next item in the order paper.”

S.M. Marikkar raising a point of order said that the government Cabinet, state and deputy ministerial posts to serve their people. The Opposition MPs had only one opportunity and that was by raising the people’s questions. “That is our right. Do not deprive us of our right,” MP Marikkar said.

The Speaker said that his concern too was to ensure the MPs’ rights and for that purpose time had to be managed.

Minister Fernando said that MP Withanage had not raised a single supplementary question and made a speech instead and, therefore, if the latter could raise a specific question the government was ready to answer them.

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20A challenged in SC

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A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by Indika Gallage, a lawyer, yesterday, challenging the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. The petitioner has requested the Court to declare that a referendum and a two-thirds majority in Parliament are needed for the passage of the 20th Amendment.

Gallage has made the Attorney General the respondent. The petition claims that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution violates Articles 01, 03, 04 (d,) 12.1, 14 (1) g, 27 (2) and 27 (3.)

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