Thursday 20th August, 2020
The new Parliament is scheduled to have its inaugural sitting today. The legislature has been in a state of suspended animation for nearly six months, but nobody missed anything, not even the live telecast of its stormy sittings; many people watched the Nat Geo Animal Fight Club, instead. But being political animals, people voted very enthusiastically at the recently concluded general election without caring two hoots about health risks. They love elections. A cynic says in a social media post that New Zealand postponed a general election because of the second wave of COVID-19, and Sri Lanka postponed the second wave of COVID-19 because of a general election!
The composition of the new Parliament reminds us of a popular children’s game—Hora Police or Cops and Robbers. There has been a role reversal. Those who played cops and embarked on a knightly mission, during the yahapalana government, to catch the lawbreakers among their predecessors have become robbers, and those they pursued tally-hoing are now ensconced in the government benches. We are now watching Hora Police – Season II.
Worryingly, two of the newly elected MPs will come to Parliament in prison vehicles, today. (There are many others who deserve Black Maria rides.) Premalal Jayasekera (SLPP) has been sentenced to death over a murder. Chandrakanthan Pillayan (TMVP) has been charged with killing a Tamil politician. Their presence will take the gloss off today’s ceremonial sitting. Curiously, people had no qualms about voting for those on the wrong side of the law. One may argue that Sri Lanka’s record is better than India’s where the presence of lawbreakers among lawmakers is concerned; more than 40 per cent of Indian MPs face criminal charges, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms. But this does not make the trend here any less disturbing.
The biggest challenge before the new government is to present a budget, spelling out how it intends to steer the economy, which is like a storm-battered schooner with tattered sails. Sobering economic reality is bound to dawn on the new dispensation before long. Let the public be warned that the interval in hell, as it were, they have been enjoying all these months, will be over soon. The government is all out to increase its revenue; its desperation knows no bounds.
Meanwhile, State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera (of the chili powder fame), has done something commendable—for once. He has reportedly ordered that his ministry be shifted from the World Trade Centre, Colombo 01, to the state-owned Ape Gama complex so that Rs. 8 million currently paid as monthly rent can be saved. This example is worthy of emulation. Likewise, the MPs should be urged to help the country overcome its foreign exchange woes, which have led to import restrictions. They should say no to duty free vehicle permits. After all, they would have us believe that they are even ready to die for the country.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have said the cleaning of buses is the point where the process of developing the bus service should commence. One cannot agree with him more. The need for a radical attitudinal change on the part of the bus operators cannot be overemphasised. Another prerequisite for improving the public transport sector is making the members of Parliament travel by bus or train, and see for themselves the suffering commuters undergo in silence. The MPs should be asked to emulate their counterparts in Sweden, where even the Speaker of Parliament has to travel in buses and trains; only the Prime Minister of that country is entitled to an official car.
We do not expect most election pledges of the SLPP to be fulfilled. (The promise given was a necessity of the past and the word broken is a necessity of the present – Machiavelli.) We are not so naïve as to hope that the bond racketeers will be made to pay for their sins. We also do not expect the pro-government crooks that have crawled out of the woodwork to be kept on a tight leash. Why hope against hope?
Instead, we will consider Sri Lankans really lucky if one of the bond scammers smooching with the government is not appointed the next Central Bank Governor, and roads in Colombo and Kandy are not closed for car races, where Lamborghinis zoom past people who are struggling to dull the pangs of badagini.
Let’s enjoy the circus where laughs are raised at our expense.
The 20th Amendment
There has been no credible explanation of why the government has remained as coy, as it remains to be to this day, about the authorship of the 20th Amendment. When first asked about it, Prof. GL Pieris, Chairman of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and cabinet minister fended the question saying there were many contributors. He then attempted to close the matter saying the cabinet took “full responsibility” for it. We do not need a law professor and former vice-chancellor widely acclaimed as a legal pundit to say that. If the cabinet had passed it, and it had done so before Pieris spoke, it is quite obvious that the cabinet must accept responsibility and the matter needs no further elaboration. Now Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, the cabinet spokesman, has said (at last week’s cabinet news briefing) that the president had authorized it. Even a school kid studying basic civics knows that ever since the JRJ Constitution was enacted in 1978, the president is both Head of State and Head of Government and he presides over cabinet meetings. Thus he is part of the collective cabinet responsibility. Are we to understand from the latest contribution to the question that although Justice Minister Ali Sabry presented the draft amendment to cabinet, it was the president who gave it to him and presumably asked him to present it?
These maters, no doubt, will be canvassed in parliament when the already gazetted amendment is presented to it. Given the dust this matter has already raised, with criticism coming not only from the opposition but also from sections of the government and those who helped it to come to power, the country has been told that there will be some changes to the draft presented. What these are has not yet been clearly spelled out. They will presumably be introduced at the committee stage of proceedings in parliament. This is a practice that those who are now in power roundly condemned when used by their predecessors. We have heard a lot about various provisions being “smuggled in” during the committee stage discussion of bills before parliament denying those who may choose to mount challenges on the legality of legislation in the pipeline the opportunity of doing so. There can also be no proper study of what is being done if any government resorts to such questionable practices. The Constitution, after all, is the basic law of the land and it is incumbent on those governing the country to have the widest possible discussion on any proposed changes. Committee stage amendments just will not do.
All governments, even those with the necessary two thirds majority to make changes in laws at variance with the constitution, have refrained from making any law that would require a referendum. That is something that has been avoided like the plague. Certainly a referendum is something that costs the taxpayer much more than an arm and a leg and must not be lightly resorted to for reason of expense alone. But this is not why governments of all hues have done their damnedest to avoid them. Politicians in office do not wish to go before the people at any cost unless they are compelled to. We have only known one referendum, that of December 1982 when the J.R. Jayewardene government that had in 1977 won a massive mandate with a five sixths majority, wanted the people’s acquiescence to extend the tenure of then then parliament by six more years. We thus had the infamous lamp and pot game, widely condemned as rigged, that permitted Jayewardene who had a few weeks earlier won a presidential election to duck a parliamentary election. It is commonly accepted that his UNP would have been returned if he did go to to the polls, but not with its 1977 majority, especially with the proportional representation system of elections then in place.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa wished to change the constitutional barrier placing a two term limit on the presidency in order to seek a third term in 2015, the supreme court did not hold that this required a referendum, in terms of the constitutional provision that matters affecting the franchise of the people must obtain the people’s consent at a referendum. Then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake held that abolition of the term limit was an “enhancement” of the franchise rather than a diminishing. It may be argued that enhancing or diminishing would either way be a matter affecting the franchise. But that was not how the court, headed by a judge subsequently impeached by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, saw it. The fact that Rajapaksa lost the 2015 election where he sought the third term, having abbreviated his previous term, is now all water under the bridge.
Government assurances that pluses like the Right to Information law enshrined in the 19th Amendment, which even the ranks of Tuscany must admit had many imperfections, have been widely welcomed. There is no doubt that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government chose to include provisions like dual citizens not being eligible to run for public office clearly targeting the Rajapaksas was venal in intent. Coming from the UNP who anointed several persons who had opted for foreign citizenship as ambassadors to represent this country was rich, to say the least. There is no doubt that there are many flaws in the 20th Amendment that Mr. Sajith Premadasa has promised to scuttle having (together with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe) scuttled the UNP. We are glad that eminent persons such as Prof. Savitri Goonesekera, in a contribution she had made to our newspaper today, has focused on some of the weakness in the draft 20A. Hopefully the government will accept democratic dissent in the right spirit rather that taking the easier route of having its way after allowing the opposition to have its say.
Saturday 19th September, 2020
A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.
The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.
During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.
Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.
President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.
The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.
Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.
Terrorists and ‘babies’
Friday 18th September, 2020
What is unfolding before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage reminds us of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Erik Solheim once called the Tiger chief a nonpareil strategist. In fact, during the Vanni war, he sought to discourage the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa from going all out to eliminate the LTTE’s military muscle; he told the latter, at a meeting, that Prabhakaran was blessed with superb strategic thinking and capable of springing huge battlefield surprises for the army. Solheim’s claim did not have the desired impact on Mahinda, who bluntly said he would fight the war to a finish, come what may. Prabhakaran perished several months later, and the war came to an end.
Solheim was not alone in mistakenly believing that Prabhakaran was trying to achieve his goal according to a well-thought-out strategy. They must now be convinced that the LTTE had no such plan, and Prabhakaran should have waited and launched his Eelam War IV under a UNP government. From what former intelligence bigwigs and defence officials have revealed before the aforesaid PCoI so far, it is patently clear that the UNP-led yahapalana government made a big mess of national security from 2015 to 2019, and if the LTTE had been around it would have been able to make the most of the situation.
The UNP government (2001-2004) undermined national security in a similar manner. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicrkremesinghe were at loggerheads during that period. The LTTE made use of a fragile truce to consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the South, take delivery of arms shipments, decimate the military intelligence network in areas under its control, and prepare for war. Prabhakaran, while being trapped in the shallows of Nandikadal, must have rued the day he had engineered UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat in the 2005 presidential race by ordering a polls boycott in the North and the East. If he had not meddled with that electoral contest, the UNP would have captured power and undermined national security big time.
Thanks to the PCoI, especially the probing questions its members and the Attorney General’s Department personnel pose to key witnesses, we know how lightly the yahapalana government took national security and public safety. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were busy fighting each other. Intelligence big guns were playing ping-pong over matters of crucial national importance. They worked in silos and, not to put too fine a point on it, behaved like a bunch of Montessori kids. They did not share foreign intelligence about impending Easter Sunday terror strikes with one another properly. Instead, they wrote letters about it to various others obviously in a bid to pass the buck. The State Intelligence Service (SIS), the President and the Prime Minister did not care a tinker’s cuss about national security, which became nobody’s business. The National Security Council became a joke.
The person who was the Chief of National Intelligence, in 2019, has recently told the PCoI that the SIS chief disconnected a call during a telephone conversation, on 20 April 2020, about the foreign intelligence pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks and never called back. Former President Sirisena has claimed that nobody had told him, prior to the terror strikes, that Zahran was a terrorist. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, he said he knew about a ‘golden horse’ and many other assets of the Rajapaksas, but he now claims that, as the President and Commander-in-Chief, he was not aware that Zahran was a terrorist!
Zahran was a kindergarten tot in the world of terror, compared to Prabhakaran, but national security was neglected to such an extent, during the yahapalana days, that even he could easily carry out a series of suicide blasts, which shook the world. What would have happened if Prabhakaran had been alive, or the LTTE rump had made a serious effort to regroup and make a comeback between Jan. 2015 and Nov. 2019?
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