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.
An appeal to Japan
Thursday 29th September, 2022
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have had several productive meetings in Japan and received assurances of more Japanese assistance. This is certainly good news amidst reports of doom and gloom. There is something even more uplifting; Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi has said, at a meeting with President Wickremesinghe, that Sri Lanka should handle development finance in a transparent and fair manner in conformity with international rules and standards. His statement has struck a responsive chord with all Sri Lankans, whose leaders have enriched themselves by stealing public funds and carrying out crooked deals, and ruined the economy.
Japan has been a true friend of Sri Lanka, which has tremendously benefited from the former’s munificence. There is hardly any sector here, which has not gained from generous Japanese assistance. Japan has thrown a lifeline to Sri Lanka, again; it has undertaken to help the latter with external debt restructuring, which is a prerequisite for IMF assistance.
It is being argued in some quarters that Japan is trying to further the interests of the strategic forum, QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), as a member thereof, by intervening to enable Sri Lanka to manage its debt, sort out its economy and lessen its dependence on China. It has also been claimed that two other QUAD members, India and the US, are also actively involved in helping straighten up Sri Lanka’s ailing economy as part of their strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region. However, there is reason to believe that Japan would have helped Sri Lanka anyway. There have been instances where Japan even went out of its way to help Sri Lanka financially. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, Japan had to curtail development assistance due to domestic economic compulsions, but it ensured that Sri Lanka would not be affected by its decision; it expedited the process of granting aid to Sri Lanka by having relevant agreements signed in Colombo instead of Tokyo ahead of the implementation of its decision. But the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government with Mahinda as the PM had no qualms about antagonising Japan by cancelling a Japanese-funded light rail transit project on some flimsy pretext. So much for its gratitude!
Let it be repeated that Sri Lankans should be grateful to Japan for its generosity, which has stood them in good stead. But Japan has to do something more to enable this country to come out of the present crisis. Japan should help eliminate bribery and corruption here. It is now public knowledge that a few moons ago, a Japanese diplomat made a complaint to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself that a Cabinet minister had asked for a bribe from a Japanese company. When Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa raised the issue in Parliament, demanding an explanation, President Rajapaksa asked Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to resign pending an inquiry. But before a proper investigation got underway, President Rajapaksa had to resign, and his successor, Wickremesinghe, true to form, appointed a committee, which exonerated the minister, who was then reappointed to the Cabinet. Silva’s reappointment was a slap in the face of Japan! The silence of the Japanese government over the issue has made some Sri Lankans wonder whether its diplomat made a false allegation.
Sri Lankans hold Japan in high esteem for its zero tolerance of bribery and corruption and its unwavering commitment to upholding accountability in everything it does. They fervently hope that the Japanese government will call for a thorough probe into its diplomat’s complaint at issue, which has been swept under the carpet at this end. That is the best way to ensure that development finance will be handled in a transparent and fair manner here. There will be no hope for this country unless the corrupt elements in the garb of politicians and public officials are weeded out. One can only hope that Japan, India, the US, the EU, the IMF, the World Bank and all other nations and international organisations, which Sri Lanka is now dependent on to turn its economy around, will bring pressure to bear on the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government to put robust mechanisms in place to fight bribery and corruption.
Wednesday 28th September, 2022
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime has received a stern rebuke from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) for suppressing the people’s democratic rights. But it is doubtful whether the HRCSL will be able to knock any sense into a bunch of politicians intoxicated with power and determined to bulldoze their way through.
The government is running around like a headless chicken while the economic crisis is worsening. It is busy appointing ministers and setting up committees! It is all at sea. Public anger is rising, and the Opposition parties are all out to tap it to compass their ends.
Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has recently called the SLPP dissident group a three-headed donkey. This term, in our book, suits the government better, for the current administration consists of the SLPP, the UNP, and some crossovers from the Opposition. None of them are capable of steering the country out of the present crisis. No wonder the government has failed to live up to the people’s expectations and is resorting to strongarm tactics to neutralise protests against it. The invocation of archaic laws, among other things, to suppress the people’s right to protest is an unmistakable sign of the government’s desperation, which obviously knows no bounds.
The HRCSL has said in no uncertain terms that the Official Secrets Act cannot be used to declare High Security Zones (HSZs), which violate the people’s fundamental rights. A crumbling government is like a dead man walking; it poses a grave danger to society, for it never baulks at anything to consolidate its hold on power, as could be seen from Saturday’s brutal police attack on a group of protesters in Colombo. The country is fast becoming a police state.
The HRCSL has urged the government to withdraw the gazette declaring the HSZs and ‘take measures to ensure that national laws are following the accepted international and national human rights norms and standards and to preclude declarations that violate those norms and standards’. It is only wishful thinking that the government will heed the HRCSL’s wise counsel unless sufficient pressure is brought to bear on it to do so.
Now that the HRCSL has determined that the HSZs have a foundation of sand, the government will have its work cut out to defend itself in courts.
Meanwhile, the JVP has declared that it will launch the next phase of Aragalaya, which is the name given to a leaderless mass protest campaign, which subsequently became politicised. It may be able to hold anti-government protests like the one which the police crushed on Saturday. It has thousands of highly-motivated cadres scattered across the country, and they can be brought to Colombo, from time to time, to stage protests, but there will not be a popular uprising as such unless the people take to the streets of their own volition, the way they did a few moons ago, causing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country.
The government continues to test the people’s patience, which is wearing thin. Crooks have crawled out of the woodwork and are having a field day. They are involved in various corrupt deals, and making a killing at the expense of the people. Those who bankrupted the country and inflicted untold suffering on the public are now using force to suppress the people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.
The people have also been denied their right to vote; the Provincial Council and local government elections have been postponed, and there is no way the public can give vent to their pent-up anger democratically. The government is playing with fire.
At this rate, the day may not be far off when unbearable economic woes, abuse of power, rampant corruption and the suppression of people’s democratic rights triggers a tsunami of public anger, which will be far worse than the July uprising; the HSZs will face the same fate as the country’s littoral pummelled by the Boxing Day killer waves that barrelled across the Indian Ocean, in 2004; no one connected to the government will be safe. The people are driven by anti-politics, and the odds are that even the JVP leaders who have undertaken to play a messianic role may have to head for the hills in such an eventuality.
When ‘future’ starves
Tuesday 27th September, 2022
Doctors have expressed serious concern about an increase in the prevalence of malnutrition among children, and called for remedial action. Their call should be heeded. But some medical professionals who curry favour with the government have sought to pooh-pooh the reports that child malnutrition is on the rise. Claiming that the issue has been blown out of proportion, they have even found fault with the use of internationally accepted yardsticks anent children’s weight, height, etc., in determining the levels of undernutrition and malnutrition here. Commenting on the much-publicised issue of a poor girl bringing coconut kernel to school for lunch, a pro-government doctor has extolled the nutritional properties and health benefits of coconut meat! He went on to say that there was nothing wrong in eating fresh coconut kernel, and, in fact, it was very nutritious and children should be encouraged to consume it! This is what Sri Lankans call a yanne-koheda-malle-pol answer; it was totally irrelevant. The issue is not whether coconut kernel is nutritious but whether it can be used as a substitute for lunch over a period of time. If so, why don’t the doctors defending the government give their children coconut kernel instead of balanced meals? Do they ask their children to take coconut meat to school?
It is unfortunate that some medical practitioners allow their political views to colour their professional opinions on issues of national importance, and have failed to be from the political riff-raff.
There has been a rapid deterioration of nutritional status in this country over the past couple of years, as is known to most Sri Lankans, especially the poor parents struggling to keep the wolf from the door. When inflation soars, people have to reduce food consumption, and nutrition disorders become inevitable. Sri Lanka is among the first five countries with the highest food inflation rates in the world.
Hunger however is not a problem confined to Sri Lanka or the developing world for that matter. It has manifested itself even in some developed countries. An article, Schools in England warn of crisis of ‘heartbreaking’ rise in hungry children, in The Guardian (UK) of 25 Sept., makes a shocking revelation. Quoting headteachers from across England, it says, ‘Children are so hungry that they are eating rubbers or hiding in the playground because they can’t afford lunch …. One school in Lewisham, south-east London, told the charity about a child who was ‘pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox because they did not qualify for free school meals and did not want their friends to know there was no food at home.” The article also quotes Naomi Duncan, the Chief Executive of a charity called ‘Chefs in Schools’, as having said, “Kids are coming in having not eaten anything since lunch the day before. The government has to do something.”
It is hoped that the ruling party politicians and their apologists here will not claim that Sri Lanka is ahead of England as regards child nutrition because in that country children eat rubbers in school but their Sri Lankan counterparts have at least coconut kernel. Given the severity of hunger among schoolchildren in England, it is not difficult to imagine how bad the situation in this country is.
What is reported from England is certainly bad news for Sri Lanka, which is dependent on the munificence of the developed nations such as the UK for food aid. When the rich nations face a food crisis and their children starve, they will be compelled to curtail funds for international aid. Hence the need for the government of Sri Lanka to stop relying entirely on other countries for food aid, and do everything in its power to meet the problem head on lest the situation should worsen. It has to pull out all the stops to increase national food production, and prevent food waste while eliminating wasteful expenditure and channelling funds so saved to children’s welfare programmes.
Children are called the future of the nation, and rightly so, and it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that they do not starve.
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