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Editorial

Mahinda’s comeback

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Monday 10th August, 2020

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Prime Minister again, yesterday. Mahinda’s dramatic comeback, five years after his downfall, reminds us of the Oscar-winning, Hollywood super flick, The Revenant. In January 2015, he was left for politically dead upon being beaten by a dark horse in the presidential race. His rivals celebrated his defenestration, as it were, bragging that they had hung (not hanged) him on a window of his Tangalle residence, where he climbed to a windowsill to address a crowd of supporters after his defeat. Many of his trusted lieutenants deserted him and joined the yahapalana government for political expediency and/or for fear of being arrested for their past misdeeds. Mahinda was determined to make a comeback.

Mahinda’s political journey full of twists and turns and trials and tribulations has been a fascinating one. He first became an MP in 1970 and lost his seat in 1977. He re-entered Parliament in 1989 and went on to become the Opposition Leader in 2001 and Prime Minister in 2004 before being elected the President in 2005. After his defeat in 2015, he became an MP again and subsequently the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister in quick succession.

The 19th Amendment was introduced to curtail the executive powers of President Maithripala Sirisena and strengthen the position of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It has, in fact, put the Executive President in a constitutional straitjacket; he cannot even hold a ministerial post despite being the head of the Cabinet and the government. Ironically, Wickremesinghe, who became the de facto head of state through constitutional manipulations, has lost his parliamentary seat, and PM Rajapaksa, whom the architects of the 19th Amendment sought to banish from politics by introducing a presidential term limit, is today more powerful than the President to all intents and purposes.

Having defeated Mahinda in the presidential race with the help of the UNP, President Sirisena queered the pitch for him when he tried to enter Parliament as the Prime Minister in 2015. Sirisena also prevented Mahinda from becoming the Opposition Leader, initially. The former, however, began playing his cards well after mid-2018; he pulled out of the UNP-led government and sided with Mahinda. Today, Sirisena is under Mahinda again!

What really worked for the SLPP was the Mahinda-Gotabaya combination. They, however, would not have been able to turn the tables on their political opponents without the backing of their young brother Basil, who was instrumental in founding the SLPP, of which he is the chief strategist.

It was the Treasury bond scams in 2015 and 2016 that sealed the fate of the UNP-led yahapalana government and made Mahinda’s rise in politics easy. The Committee on Public Enterprises, headed by JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti went out of its way to omit the name of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from its report, and the presidential bond probe commission did likewise. But we argued, in this space, that the case against those responsible for the biggest ever financial crime in the country would be heard in the people’s court, and the public would punish the perpetrators. Most of those who tried to cover up the bond scams and defended former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran have been rejected by the people at the recently-concluded general election. Ranil, Ravi Karunanayake, Ajith P. Perera, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Sujeewa Senasinghe are among them. The JVP, which was seen to be cohabiting with the UNP, has lost three out of its six seats in the last Parliament.

It is being argued in some quarters that the UNP’s split made the general election a walk in the park for the SLPP. But one may argue that if Sajith Premadasa and his followers had contested on the UNP ticket under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, they would not have been able to obtain 55 seats; the Sajith faction managed to secure those seats because it had left the UNP, which is having the millstone of bond scams around its neck. The Easter Sunday carnage came as a double whammy for the UNP. President Sirisena was also blamed for neglecting national security and ignoring intelligence warnings of the terror attacks, but he avoided defeat by throwing in his lot with the SLPP.

The new government is not without contradictions. Gotabaya does not suffer fools gladly; Mahinda does. The former stands for a radical change, but most members of the SLPP parliamentary group headed by the PM do not. Those who ruined the previous Rajapaksa government have crawled out of the woodwork. Above all, coalition politics are always problematic. This time around, the Rajapaksa government will not be able to give ministerial posts to all ambitious elements within its ranks to appease them.

Had any other party captured power in Parliament, we would have had the President and the Prime Minister fighting and conspiring to bring down each other. A similar situation would have arisen even if anyone other than a member of the Rajapaksa family had become the Prime Minister from the SLPP. One can only hope that the two brothers will cooperate without succumbing to pressure from the competing power centres within the government camp.

 

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Editorial

Puttalam land grab: Dig deep

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Thursday 24th September, 2020

An attempt is apparently being made to sweep the issue of land encroachment and forest clearing at Aruwakkalu under the rug. Encroachers cleared a vast extent of land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation, in Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, in a bid to sell it, early this month. The area affected by encroachment is a part of land encompassing about 4,500 acres leased by the state. The original lessee was Thawakkal and the second one Holcim. The responsibility for ensuring the safety of state property under threat lies with Siam City Cement (Lanka) Ltd. (SCCL), the current lessee.

On Tuesday, SCCL published a newspaper advertisement, claiming that at an ‘emergency meeting,’ presided over by Forest Conservation Minister C. B. Rathnayake, an ‘urgent course of action’ had been agreed upon by ‘all stakeholders’ to address an incident of encroachment and forest clearing in a long-term leased land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation’. Were the environmental groups, that exposed the incident, present at that meeting? They are also stakeholders, aren’t they? The SCCL also listed some measures it had undertaken to adopt to prevent the encroachment of the state property. It has only made a virtue of necessity. Will it explain why it did not care to take such action earlier?

The Minister under whose purview the Cement Corporation land at issue comes is Wimal Weerawansa, who holds the Industries portfolio. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa goes all the way from Colombo to Deniyaya to inquire into complaints of threats to the Sinharaja rainforest, which is under Rathnayake’s ministry, and Rathnayake goes all the way from Colombo to Puttalam to inspect the Cement Corporation land, which is under Weerawansa’s ministry!

The Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation cannot chair a meeting to discuss a vital issue concerning a Cement Corporation property simply because there is a dry zone forest on it. No sooner had the incident of encroachment and forest clearing in Aruwakkalu been reported than Minister Weerawansa rushed a team of Cement Corporation officials there; they conducted an investigation and took up the issue with the police, the Divisional Secretary and the SCCL. In fact, the presence of any politician was not required there, at all, and the matter should have been left entirely to the senior officials representing the lessor (the Cement Corporation).

Grama Niladaris (GNs) are required to submit reports to Divisional Secretaries, every two weeks, and mention therein the instances of encroachment of state land, etc., if any. Land grabbing and forest clearing have gone on, for years, at Aruwakkalu, and why haven’t the GNs concerned reported such illegal activities to the District Secretaries or the police? GNs spring into action only when ordinary people happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Villagers are hauled up before courts for felling jak trees on their own properties, without permits, but organised racketeers are free to grab state lands, which they clear and sell with impunity.

Those who grabbed part of the Cement Corporation land at Aruwakkalu, cut down trees and set them on fire, have gone scot-free to all intents and purposes. They would not have been able to do so without help from the ruling party politicians in the area. The government must have them arrested and prosecuted under the Offences against Public Property Act without further delay. That is the only way it can prove that its politicians had no hand in the land racket. The police must be made to explain why they have failed to arrest the culprits.

Legal action must also be taken against the serious lapses on the part of the lessee, for they led to the encroachment of state land and forest clearing. The SCCL has said, in its advertisement, that on some previous occasions it had brought the issue of encroachment of the Cement Corporation land to the notice of ‘relevant authorities’, which it has not named. Can it prove that it reported land encroachment to the police or the Cement Corporation?

The lease agreement at issue has no termination clause, we are told. Such agreements are money-spinners for venal politicians and bureaucrats responsible for signing them. The Thawakkal deal was struck under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the 1990s. (Most of the self-righteous SLPP heavyweights were powerful ministers in that administration.)

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Editorial

Numbers, power and brains

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Wednesday 23rd September, 2020

The SLPP juggernaut is bearing down on democracy. The 20th Amendment (20A) Bill was presented to Parliament, yesterday, amidst protests from the Opposition benches. The government has 150 MPs on its side, and is confident that they will vote for the Bill en bloc. Some of them are disgruntled because they have been left out of the Cabinet but they are likely to be appointed ministers when the Bill is passed and the Cabinet expanded.

The Old Fox would guffaw in his grave if he could see those who once condemned his Constitution and called him a dictator going all out to enhance the powers of the executive presidency; 20A would make him green with envy. What a political dog and pony show they put on, under UNP governments (1978-1994), to have the masses believe that the executive presidency was a scourge that had to be removed forthwith! They even undertook to abolish it, contested presidential elections and obtained mandates for doing that, but they reneged on their pledges. Most of the protesting SJB MPs were ardent supporters of the executive presidency while UNP leaders were wielding it and abusing its powers. There has been a role reversal.

Following the 2015 regime change, many thought that the former leaders, who later formed the SLPP, had learnt from their blunders. It looked as if the collective pratfall they suffered had had the desired impact on them, and they had realised the need to act with restraint, upholding democratic values. But, today, they are practising the very obverse of what they preached during their Opposition days. Power has gone to their heads. Those who were intoxicated with power while in the yahapalana government have taken up the cudgels for the people’s democratic rights. This is why we keep saying, ‘Mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne’—‘when one has brains one has no power’, and when one has power one has no brains.

Let the protesting Opposition MPs be told that they, too, are guilty of having raped democracy. They, as members of the yahapalana government, unflinchingly steamrollered bad Bills through. The Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill of 2017 is a case in point. They stuffed it with sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, to postpone the PC polls indefinitely and secured its passage. It is their arrogance and blunders that enabled the SLPP to win a two-thirds majority at the last general election hands down. Their ugly past and hypocrisy will make it difficult for them to drum up public support for their campaign against 20A, as we argued in a previous comment.

The Executive President, directly elected by the people, should have enough powers to carry out his duties and functions, but the sky is not the limit. He should be able to hold the Defence portfolio as he is responsible for safeguarding national security. The 19th Amendment reduced the Executive President to a virtual figurehead so that the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could reign supreme. The 20A seeks to make the President extremely powerful so that the PM will be powerless again. Both these extremes must be avoided and a via media found. One can only hope that the government will listen to reason and agree to amend the Bill.

There is much more to democracy than parliamentary majorities. If all laws ratified with two-thirds majorities are to be considered legitimate and acceptable, then one cannot find fault with the 1978 Constitution, which was passed with a five-sixth majority in the House; similarly, the SLPP leaders should stop complaining about 19A, which all MPs save one voted for in 2015.

Meanwhile, one may recall that the Enabling Act (1933), which paved the way for Hitler’s dictatorship, was also backed by the German lawmakers overwhelmingly. Only the Chairman of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels, had the courage to oppose that draconian law. If only others had emulated him.

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Editorial

‘Diyawanna Post Office’

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Tuesday 22nd September, 2020

Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has warned that the proposed 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, if passed, will reduce Parliament to a mere post office. One cannot but agree with him that 20A seeks to strengthen the position of the President at the expense of Parliament, and everything possible should be done to prevent its passage in its present form.

However, it is doubtful whether the Opposition and the civil society outfits backing it will be able to drum up enough public support for their campaign against 20A by merely highlighting what is likely to befall the legislature, for people do not care whether Parliament will be reduced to a post office or not; such is their disillusionment with the national legislature. Parliament has not lived up to the expectations of the public. While people are struggling to find turmeric, which is in short supply, due to a ban the government has imposed on spice imports, among other things, to save foreign exchange, it has been reported that the MPs will be given duty free vehicle permits soon.

When the Prime Minister and the President happen to represent different political parties, the former becomes more powerful than the latter owing to flaws in the present Constitution. This, we have seen thrice since the introduction of the presidential system of government, in 1978. Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga emerged stronger than President D. B. Wijetunge, in 1994. They, however, cooperated. But the country found itself in chaos when the Prime Ministers and the Presidents came from different political parties.

From 2001 to 2004, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) undermined the position of President Chandrika Kumaratunga (PA). He went so far as to sign a disastrous ceasefire agreement with the LTTE without the President’s knowledge. The 2001 regime change also led to the divestiture of some state-owned cash cows such as Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. The LTTE consolidated its power and made preparations for its final war.

The country suffered again when the Prime Minister became more powerful than the President, in 2015, owing to the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena were at loggerheads. The President’s position became so weak that the then Speaker Jayasuriya refused to carry out presidential orders during an abortive constitutional coup in 2018. The biggest ever financial crime—the bond scam—was committed while the legislature was stronger than the Executive. Then came the Easter Sunday bombings, which snuffed out more than 250 lives and left hundreds of others injured besides dealing a body blow to the economy. What has transpired so far before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing those terror strikes shows that national security was in the hands of a bunch of total misfits from 2015 to 2019. It was only natural that the people wanted a strong President to bring order out of chaos and elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

We do not argue that the people’s lot improves when the PM happens to play second fiddle to the President. The point we are trying to make is that even the PMs who could act independently succumbed to the arrogance of power and bulldozed their way through, giving the lie to the claim that the interests of the people are better served when Parliament is strengthened.

The success of any protest campaign hinges on the ability of its organisers to mobilise the public. Those who have taken it upon themselves to spearhead the campaign against 20A are the ones who had 19A tailored to further their political interests and, therefore, failed to convince the public that the powers of Parliament had to be restored to ensure checks and balances and better governance. The incumbent government is craftily using the bunglings of the previous dispensation to bolster its claim that the country needs an extremely powerful President, and 20A is the only way to achieve that end.

The ongoing campaign against 20A is characterised by a severe trust deficit, which the Opposition has failed to overcome. Sri Lankan intelligentsia is divided along party lines, and this has stood in the way of the formation of public opinion on some crucial issues. The government has managed to confine the issue of 20A to the political front, where it is strong. But let the SLPP leaders be urged to learn from their past mistakes and refrain from steamrollering 20A through. They had better remember that they employed the same method to secure the passage of the 18th Amendment but lost power about four years later, in January 2015.

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