Wednesday 9th September, 2020
The government is all out to steamroller its 20th Amendment (20A) through. The JVP has fired a shot across the SLPP’s bow. It has told the media that it will go flat out to foil the government’s move to secure the passage of the proposed amendment. The SJB has threatened to move the Supreme Court against 20A. Among the SLPP leaders defending 20A, which seeks a reversion to status quo ante, are some grandees who claimed, during the J. R. Jayewardene and R. Premadasa governments that the overconcentration of power in the presidency was disastrous.
Former MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, one of the architects of the 19th Amendment (19A), in an article we published yesterday pointed out that 20A affected people’s fundamental rights and, therefore, it had to be approved by the people at a referendum besides being passed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
Government apologists seem to think that the Attorney General (AG) can determine the constitutionality or otherwise of Bills to be presented to Parliament. They maintain that 20A does not require a referendum because the AG has said so. There have been instances where the AG got it all wrong as regards Bills and presidential orders and was left with egg on his face. When President Maithripala Sirisena ordered the dissolution of Parliament, in 2018, having failed to grab power, the then AG defended the presidential action before the Supreme Court, which, however, declared it unconstitutional. In 2017, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya informed Parliament that the AG had given the nod to changing the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill at the committee stage. That Bill was stuffed with sections sans judicial sanction to postpone the PC polls indefinitely. The AG obviously blundered and democracy suffered. Unfortunately, there is no constitutional provision for post-enactment judicial review of laws. The Court of Appeal, on Monday, allowed SLPP MP Premalal Jayasekera, sentenced to death, to attend Parliament, although the AG had informed the Prisons Chief that Jayasekera could not do so. The AG’s opinion on 20A, therefore, should not go unchallenged. Only the Supreme Court is empowered to interpret the Constitution.
Our position is that 19A should be changed instead of being abolished so that the country will benefit from the salutary features thereof. The President should be able to hold the Defence portfolio because he is responsible for national security. But the moves to reduce the powers of the Auditor General, replace the Constitutional Council with a Parliamentary Council and abolish the National Procurement Commission are deplorable. 20A also seeks to vest in the executive presidency too much of power, and the proposed constitutional provision for preventing people from filing fundamental right cases against presidential actions is nothing but draconian.
The SLPP worthies who are backing 20A are followers of Machiavelli, who encouraged leaders to act out of expediency rather than principle in furthering their interests and not to hesitate to renege on promises. The JVP has acted similarly as regards the Constitution. In the late 1980s, it destroyed many lives and state assets worth billions of rupees in a bid to scuttle the 13th Amendment (13A), which created the Provincial Council system. It unleashed mindless terror to topple two UNP governments during that period, albeit in vain, but the 20th Amendment it proposed, a few years ago, did not seek to abolish 13A. The UNP, which created the executive presidency, and its breakaway group now want this institution abolished as they have failed to win it for the last 26 years or so. It is a case of sour grapes. The leftists in the SLPP called the existing Constitution a curse when JRJ introduced it, due to excessive executive powers vested in the presidency, but, today, they are backing 20A.
The JVP has said Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena pledged to abolish the executive presidency before securing it but did not fulfil their promises. Sri Lanka’s post-Independence political history is replete with such broken promises and duplicity on the part of political leaders.
Article 9 of the Constitution says ‘the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place’. One cannot help wondering why no constitutional recognition has been given to the ism that the State, governments and political leaders actually give the foremost place, albeit unofficially—Machiavellianism, or a cynical tendency to advance one’s own interests by manipulating others.
A bouquet for LRH surgeons
Thursday 1st Octoberr, 2020
Respected surgeon Prof. A. H. Sheriffdeen, recently took up with the President of the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka a complaint against the Lady Ridgeway Hospital (LRH) about an alleged delay in performing an operation on a child with a ruptured appendix. He faulted a paediatric surgeon. Now, he has found that there was no lapse on the part of the surgeon concerned and admitted that he fired from the hip. (Please, see his letter published on the opposite page, today.) Inquiries we made with the help of some independent medical experts, upon receiving Prof. Sheriffdeen’s response, also confirmed that the LRH surgeon had performed his duty diligently; the child received timely surgical care, made an uneventful recovery and left hospital five days later. All’s well that ends well.
We hate to train our editorial guns on the state-run hospitals, but the alleged delay and the respected guru’s complaint brought us to have the good paediatric surgeon in our cross hairs. Thankfully, we fired only a warning shot as it were; no names were named. The special mention we made of the good work of the LRH and its doctors, especially the Little Hearts Project, which is the jewel in the LRH’s crown, was intended to prevent damage being caused to the reputation of the premier institution. We are sorry that our news item and the editorial comment have caused pain of mind to the good surgeon, who has also come under attack by the social media piranhas known for their feeding frenzy.
The LRH is turning 125, and Dr. B. J. C. Perera, a well-known consultant paediatrician and teacher, pays a glowing tribute to it, in an article published in this newspaper, today. We join him in offering a bouquet to the LRH staff, especially the surgeon, whose feelings we have hurt, and his colleagues, who have rightly circled the wagons.
Govt.’s concern about environment
The government has cancelled the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, which the yahapalana government was planning to implement with Japanese funds. Among the five reasons the Cabinet has given for its decision to scrap the project is its concern for the environment!
The Cabinet has also said that according to the original plan, light rail vehicles were to operate alongside the existing conventional rail tracks. Such systems are in operation in other countries, but here an LRT system is needed to cater to the conurbations of Colombo, which are not linked to the city by railway. A separate project is needed to develop the existing tracks so that trains can travel faster.
Interestingly, the Cabinet says that if a light rail track is to be built on concrete pillars, as proposed by the previous administration, the project will cause severe environmental damage. We are baffled. When the Southern Expressway was built, some members of the then Rajapaksa government said it should have been constructed on pillars. One of them was Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who is a member of the present Cabinet as well.
Is the government really concerned about what it calls the adverse environmental impact of the aborted LRT project? We have our doubts, for the current rulers have allowed a road to be built through some parts of the Sinharaja rainforest. Environmentalists are protesting against an alleged move to build another road to Horton Plains, which is already under threat owing to a large number of vehicles entering it via two roads. A government politician’s brother recently destroyed a mangrove forest in Puttalam to build a prawn farm. Having absconded, he got bail after surrendering to courts. The police are dragging their feet on an investigation into the destruction of a part of a forest on a state land in Aruwakkalu. The culprits are at large because they have political connections. A backhoe used for clearing the forest was driven away while the police were present at the scene. This machine can be easily traced and the land-grabbers arrested. But no action has been taken. So much for the government’s concern for the environment!
20A: Govt.’s Catch-22
Wednesday 30th September, 2020
The government may not have anticipated so much of resistance to its 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, much less seen serious flaws therein. Otherwise, it would not have jumped in with both feet. Perhaps, the mammoth mandate it received at the last general election may have blinded it to reality, and its euphoria may have lulled it into thinking that its opponents were too weak to put up a fight.
Someone should have cautioned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In his inaugural address to the nation, in Anuradhapura, on 18 Nov. 2019, the President said he was the Defence Minister although according to the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution, only the MPs can hold ministerial posts. It took some time for the President to come to terms with that fact.
The government is impervious to rational argument. Some constitutional experts have pointed out serious flaws in 20A, and their arguments are tenable. Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama is of the view that the government is in a dilemma over its attempt to get rid of the Constitutional Council (CC). He says that Section 41 of 20A seeks to amend Article 154R (in Chapter XVIIA of the Constitution), which provides for a Finance Commission (FC). The FC recommends the allocation of funds from the annual budget for the provinces and consists of five members including three appointed by the President on the recommendations of the CC; 20A seeks to delete the reference to the CC in Article 154R. Article 154G of the Constitution states that no Bill for the amendment or the repeal of any provision in Chapter XVIIA [or the Ninth Schedule] shall become law unless the President refers it to every Provincial Council for its views thereon before it is placed on the Order Paper of Parliament. The Provincial Councils have not been elected, and Dr. Jayawickrama contends that the government has violated the constitutionally stipulated procedure by placing 20A on the Order Paper. The government can withdraw the 20A Bill and place it on the Order Paper anew after deleting Section 41, but it will not be able to scrap the CC as long as Article 154R remains, Dr. Jayawickrama maintains. Thus, the government finds itself in a Catch-22 situation.
The government now says a new Constitution will be introduced in six months. We bet our bottom dollar that this pledge will not be fulfilled. As for this undertaking, the biggest hurdle in the path of the SLPP leaders will be the devolution of power. The government is under pressure from the forces that made its victory possible, at the presidential and parliamentary elections, to abolish the 13 Amendment, and, at the same time, India is bringing pressure to bear on it to retain the provincial council system. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s position at a recent virtual meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
One may recall that President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s draft Constitution had to be abandoned, in 2000, mainly due to the controversial devolution model it proposed—the Regional Councils. The yahapalana leaders also tried their hands at writing a new Constitution, but did not proceed beyond the preliminary stages thereof owing to issues concerning the unitary status of the country and the devolution of power.
The government has also said it is ready to go for a referendum. Its position is apparently premised on the assumption that since it polled more than 50% of the valid votes at the presidential and general elections, it will be able to have 20A approved by the people at a referendum. This will be a huge gamble for the government.
The results of a general/presidential election cannot be extrapolated to a referendum. On the other hand, the government cannot rest assured that all those who voted for it at the last two elections will endorse 20A at a referendum. Many of them are apparently disillusioned thanks to the government’s preoccupation with 20A, which contains draconian provisions, and its failure to honour its key promises. The Opposition will have nothing to lose at a referendum, but the government will have its political future at stake.
What the government should have done was to change 19A to enable the President to hold the defence portfolio, and then set about tackling the burning problems the people are faced with; it would have been able to enlist the backing of the SJB for that task. But it, in its wisdom, chose to bite off more than it could chew.
Why tax cops to boost political egos?
Tuesday 29th September, 2020
It is only right that most of the MPs do not deserve police protection. The police are overstretched with 38,000 of its 84,000 personnel providing security to VIPs, according to Minister of Irrigation and State Minister of Interior Security Chamal Rajapaksa. There are no security threats to most politicians, who consider themselves VIPs, and police protection only helps boost their egos. There are others such as judges who need special security. High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was gunned down by an underworld gang, in 2004.
Time was when MPs became targets of terrorist outfits such as the LTTE and the JVP. Both these threats were effectively neutralised. The National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) did not target politicians, and the government is confident that it will not be able to raise its head again. Only the underworld can be considered a threat. But most politicians have not taken on the netherworld of drugs and crime and, therefore, they do not need protection against organised criminal gangs. Some of them allegedly have underworld connections.
It may not be too cynical a view that most of the so-called political VIPs will never be targeted by those who want to destabilise this country, for with them as our representatives we need no enemies. A prerequisite for eliminating crime syndicates is to sever their links with politicians.
It is being argued in some quarters that the deployment of so many police personnel for VIP security is the reason why the crime rate remains high. This is only partly true. Lack of manpower is no doubt a problem for the police, but it is only one of the several reasons why they have failed to combat crime efficiently. Criminals have emerged strong because they are in league with some police officers such as the corrupt ones who have brought the Police Narcotic Bureau into disrepute. If police stations are without enough man power to deal with criminal gangs, they can always ask for help from the Police Headquarters or pass information about criminals on to the special units that specialise in crime-busting ops. Police also steer clear of criminals due to political pressure. It has been revealed before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the Easter Sunday carnage that political pressure prevented the police from taking on the NTJ while it was preparing for terror strikes.
Police stations, however, need more personnel to perform regular tasks such as patrolling the streets, responding to emergencies and conducting investigations. Policemen are generally overworked due to a chronic shortage of man power; they must not be taxed. Therefore, most of the police personnel assigned to protect MPs and other politicians should be relieved of those duties and sent back to their stations forthwith.
Military intelligence has regained its vitality under the current dispensation. It should be able to ascertain information about organised gangs with ease. Its efficiency has become evident from the Covid-19 contact tracing operations. The police have also pulled up their socks under pressure from the Defence Ministry and are carrying out anti-underworld operations much more efficiently than in the past. What the MPs of both sides of the House should do is to call for an all-out war on the underworld to make the country safe for everyone. This is no easy task, but that must be accomplished.
Politicians should be stripped of security and made to feel as vulnerable as the ordinary people who elect and maintain them if they are to realise the need to ensure public safety.
Let the MPs who insist that they need enhanced security, be urged to heed what an intrepid Delhi High Court judge told the Indian politicians, in 2007; he asked the latter not to visit crowded places if they felt threatened. In this country, it is the people who have to be protected against politicians like the SLPP MP, who has been sentenced to death for killing an Opposition activist.
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