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Midweek Review

National Voters’ Day celebration amidst economic chaos, deepening political uncertainty

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EC Chairman Punchihewa handing over their proposals to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the Galadari Hotel. The President Rajapaksa, in spite of contesting the last presidential election on the SLPP ticket, is not a member of that political party.(Pic courtesy PMD)

Poor response from political parties

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Nimal Punchihewa, soft spoken Chairman of the Election Commission (EC), didn’t mince his words when he underscored the loss of public confidence as well as overall disappointment in the electoral system last week. Punchihewa stressed the need for far reaching changes in the electoral system while reiterating the EC’s proposals meant to improve and discipline utterly corrupt and wasteful electoral processes. The continuing failure on the part of Parliament to address the grievances of the electorate would be catastrophic and may pose a threat to political stability, he warned.

Attorney-at-Law Punchihewa said so at the ‘National Celebration of Voters’ held at the Galadari Hotel, Colombo, on March 11, the first such event since the establishment of the independent EC in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

The House enacted the 19th Amendment, in early 2015, with an overwhelming 2/3 majority. However, the present five-member EC, headed by Punchihewa, came into being in Dec 2020 in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in October of the same year, repealing the trouble ridden 19th Amendment, especially when it came to members of so-called independent commissions, some of whom behaved as if they were a law unto themselves. At least one lawyer, in one such commission had the audacity to attack the Opposition in a partisan way outside his ambit.

Punchihewa, one-time public servant and civil society activist, explained the remedial measures that could be taken to address deficiencies and limitations in the electoral system.

The EC Chairman also discussed the need for punitive measures against offending lawmakers, regardless of their standing in society and the contentious issue of campaign funding. The EC Chief pointed out how both external and internal elements could influence political parties through campaign funding.

Punchihewa, who had served the previous EC, too, cannot be unaware of the way then US Secretary of State John Kerry’s boastful public declaration in 2016 how they funded Sri Lanka’s Opposition at the 2015 national elections (presidential and parliamentary polls in January and August, 2015, respectively) and similar stunts in several other countries.

The EC never inquired into the matter of the US interference in Lankan polls after openly boasting of it, even though the issue was raised both in and outside Parliament. The writer personally raised the US interference with the previous three- member EC, headed by Mahinda Deshapriya, but the outfit always side-stepped the issue. Even the European Union Election Observation Mission sidestepped the issue when the matter was raised at a media briefing held at the Colombo Hilton.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) and Punchihewa’s predecessor, Mahinda Deshapriya, were among those in the audience. Deshapriya now serves as the Chairman of the Delimitation Committee. The EC attracted criticism during Deshapriya’s tenure as the outfit’s Chairman with the controversial recognition of the now main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) in early 2020 being one of the major controversies. The breakaway UNP faction won 54 seats, including seven National List slots at the expense of the UNP at the Aug 2020 general election. The UNP was reduced to just one National List member that was also filled months, after the lapsing of the stipulated time, to fill National List slots.

Punchihewa dealt with the EC’s one-year progress since its appointment in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and the way forward for a better democracy after Saman Sri Ratnayake, Commissioner General of the Election Commission, greeted the invitees. Reference was made to the absence of Opposition Leader and leader of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Sajith Premadasa. SJB members were not seen though the UNP Chairman and former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, attended the event.

Punchihewa, one-time EC’s Director General, Legal, emphasised the urgent need to introduce, what he called, quite a lot of amendments to existing laws to achieve the desired results. Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, was among the invitees. Perhaps, the EC should have invited Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne, whose officers have, over the years, exposed how lawmakers, Secretaries to the Ministries, senior officials and some sections of the public sector, caused the revenue losses to the government, running into billions of rupees.

Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena recently acknowledged, at the Public Petitions Committee, the failure on their part to implement recommendations of parliamentary watchdog committees. Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Prof. Charitha Herath, too, has on several occasions pointed out lapses in the law contributed to the deterioration of public finances. But, the powers that be have chosen to turn a blind eye.

In a way, Punchihewa’s statement is nothing but condemnation of the utterly corrupt political party system that has ruined the country. But, the EC should also work closely with the Auditor General, if the Commission is seriously interested in, the much-touted ‘system change.’ Corruption has become a way of public life with the Parliament, responsible for enactment of new laws and ensuring financial discipline, has pathetically failed in its responsibilities. The situation is so bad and appears to be out of control, the Parliament has become a mere spectator as the parliamentary system of governance continues to promote waste, corruption and irregularities by not taking remedial measures. The reports issued by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Finance (COPF) reveal corruption at every level.

The event at Galadari could have been held without high tea as well as wholly unnecessary dance performances at a time the vast majority of voters, regardless of the candidate and the party they voted for at the last presidential and parliamentary elections in Nov 2019 and Aug 2020, respectively, were struggling to make ends meet.

Although 15 political parties/groups represented the current Parliament, only a few were present on the occasion. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as well as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) were very conspicuous by their absence. General Secretary of the Democratic Left Front and Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, in spite of breaking ranks with the government over the SLPP’s economic policy, sat with SLPP leaders whereas his rebellious former ministerial colleagues, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila too were notable absentees. Nanayakkara along with Weerawansa and Gammanpila backed the fundamental rights petitions against the Yugadanavi deal (sale of 40 percent of Treasury owned shares of the power station to the US-based New Fortress Energy along with the controversial move to hand over a monopolistic position on supplying of LNG). The Supreme Court, however, dismissed the petitions. The SC didn’t give an order but stated the submissions were considered and leave to proceed refused. The SC didn’t give reasons at all though the case was heard for several days. When making submissions AG Rajaratnam said that the court should maintain harmony with the executive.

It would be pertinent to recall the devastating accident at an insecticide plant in India in the 80s.

On December 3, 1984, about 45 tonness of the dangerous gas methyl isocyanate escaped from an insecticide plant that was owned by the Indian subsidiary of the American firm Union Carbide Corporation. The gas drifted over the densely populated neighbourhoods around the plant, killing thousands of people immediately and creating panic as tens of thousands of others attempted to flee the area. The final death toll was estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000. Some half a million survivors suffered respiratory problems, eye irritation or blindness, and other maladies, resulting from exposure to the toxic gas; many were awarded compensation of a few hundred dollars

(Britannica). And for some inexplicable reasons the Indian Supreme Court upheld that pittance of a compensation package! Indian Chief Justice at the time P.N. Bhagawati, when he came to Sri Lanka as a champion of peace about a decade ago, a cheeky Lankan journalist asked him about that controversial decision of the Indian Supreme Court and he got virtually tongue tied and avoided answering the question.

A House in turmoil

Can political chaos be addressed through electoral reforms and constitutional amendments? Has the EC really examined the current crisis and how political uncertainty, in addition to waste, corruption and irregularities, contributed to the overall deterioration of the country’s financial status and unprecedented instability.

A few hours after the end of the National Voters’ day celebration, the government announced an inevitable increase in diesel and petrol prices. It would be pertinent to mention that India, too, now exercise the right to intervene here by way of revising fuel prices. Lanka India Oil Company (LIOC) that set up base here in 2003, is affiliated to Indian Oil Corporation Limited that comes under the purview of its Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

One-time distinguished career diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri, who had served the Indian High Commission in Colombo during the volatile1984-1988 period when Indian-trained terrorists waged war against Sri Lanka, is India’s Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas and Housing and Urban Affairs. Rightly or wrongly he was then suspected to be involved in much more than diplomacy by especially those who saw how he and his wife lobbied certain key journalists behind the scene and the clout they wielded.

On March 10, the day LIOC announced staggering price increases in petrol and diesel that caused turmoil here, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi Milinda Moragoda met Minister Puri. The meeting took place at the Ministry of Urban Affairs in New Delhi. Let me reproduce a statement verbatim issued by the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi following the meeting between Moragoda and Puri: “At the outset, High Commissioner Moragoda thanked Minister Puri for the assistance that India has provided to Sri Lanka as envisaged under the four-pillars of cooperation, agreed during the visit of Sri Lankan Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa to India in December last year, in particular the USD 500 million line of credit to purchase petroleum products. Additional assistance, too, has been provided by India to enhance Sri Lanka’s petroleum stocks.

“High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda also briefed Minister Puri on the challenges that Sri Lanka is currently facing as regards to the supply and distribution of petroleum products and their impact on the Country’s energy sector. The High Commissioner and the Minister discussed modalities through which India and Sri Lanka could further expand cooperation in the petroleum sector to help overcome the present crisis.

The discussion also focused on a range of issues pertaining to the energy sector, including ways and means through which Sri Lanka could establish long-term strategic ties in the petroleum, oil, gas and related logistics sectors.”

The Government increased fuel prices at midnight on March 11 following LIOC price revisions on Feb 06, 24 and March 10 that resulted in the sharpest difference in retail price of a litre of petrol and diesel at LIOC and Ceypetco service stations, Rs 92 and Rs 77, respectively. The bottom line is that Sri Lanka’s pricing formula is in the hands of India.

That is the unpalatable truth. Obviously, there is no mechanism to ensure that upward or downward revisions of fuel prices are decided through consultations. Instead, a foreign power can take that decision on our behalf. In other words, Sri Lanka’s Energy Minister is actually former High Commission staffer Puri.

How can EC ensure political parties do not follow agendas inimical to Sri Lanka’s national interests? Recent high profile but unsubstantiated accusations that had been directed at Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa over him pursuing a pro-American agenda are a matter for concern.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa removed Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) leader Wimal Weerawansa and Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila from Industries and Energy portfolios, respectively, following their clash with Basil Rajapaksa, who is also the founder of the SLPP. The political turmoil has taken a new turn with the SJB stepping up attacks on Basil Rajapaksa in Parliament.

The Opposition repeatedly questioned Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena over Basil Rajapaksa remaining mum in Parliament over the rapid deterioration of the economy. The failure on the part of political parties represented in Parliament to reach a consensus on national response to the current crisis is evidenced by the plight of the electorate. Instead, a sharply divided government has allowed the deterioration by refusing to take remedial measures.

The Opposition has sought to exploit the situation to its advantage whereas a section of the parliamentarians, including some of those accommodated on the SLPP National List, angered the top SLPP leadership by presenting an alternative set of proposals meant to restore the devastated economy.

The EC cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the utter chaos in Parliament and outside for want of a national response at a time of unprecedented crisis.

EC on key issues

The EC comprised five persons, namely Nimal Punchihewa, S.B. Divaratne, K.P.P. Pathirana, M.M. Mohammed and P.S.M. Charles, the only lady in the outfit. The EC has made representations to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reforms as well as the nine-member Committee, headed by Romesh de Silva, PC. The EC representations dealt with electoral reforms and constitutional reforms, respectively. The writer would like to briefly discuss the touchy issue of the need to reduce the number of registered political parties and the proposal to recall those who pursue strategies contrary to the pledges they made at the election and in the printed manifestos of the respective political parties.

Having asserted that the country cannot afford to continue with 76 registered political parties, the EC has proposed ways and means to reduce that number. Examination of EC’s proposals submitted to the PSC and Romesh de Silva’s committee proves how unsatisfying the current situation is.

A sensible Parliament will certainly give serious consideration to EC’s proposals. Nothing can be as important as the proposal to recall lawmakers if they stepped out of line. Will leaders of political parties have the strength to accept the proposal to establish a mechanism to remove MPs?

The recent dismissal of charges in respect of the Treasury bond scam perpetrated on March 29, 2016, by the Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar due to the flawed indictments raised many eyebrows. Yahapalana Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake has been among those who benefited as a result of the AG’s lapse. The indictments had been filed during Dappula de Livera, PC’s tenure as the AG. Sanjay Rajaratnam succeeded de Livera in May last year.

The Trial-at-Bar comprising Damith Thotawatte (Chairman), Manjula Thilakaratne and M. Izzadeen by a majority decision dismissed the relevant charges.

Can anyone explain the circumstances under which the indictment had been filed against the Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) contrary to the Public Property Act? The AG’s Department cannot be unaware that in terms of the Public Property Act indictments can be filed only against individuals.

The Trial-at-Bar ruling should be examined against the backdrop of the AG and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) withdrawing as much as over 50 cases since the last presidential election, in addition to the cases dismissed by various courts.

The AG as well as the CIABOC owed explanation as to how so many cases failed to achieve desired results or were withdrawn under controversial circumstances. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and the civil society should raise these issues. Can BASL and civil society remain silent as the situation continues to deteriorate?



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Midweek Review

How Lanka ended up receiving humanitarian assistance from an Indian state

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UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and PM’s Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayake join CWC leader Senthil Thondaman and FM Prof. G.L. Peiris at a brief ceremony at the Colombo harbour where Indian HC Baglay handed over humanitarian assistance from Tamil Nadu (pic courtesy Indian HC)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The May 09 ‘operation’, whose father is yet unknown, meant to save Mahinda Rajapaksa’s premiership, has tarnished the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the police as well as the armed forces.

The controversial Temple Trees project not only caused irreparable damage to the ruling coalition, it paved the way for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to regain the premiership for the sixth time, incredibly with just one seat in the 225-member Parliament.

With Wickremesinghe at the helm of the government parliamentary group, the UNP has begun playing an active role in the administration, though the party didn’t have any members in Parliament, other than its leader. However, Wickremesinghe has brought a selected group of UNPers into the administration while causing a division in the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) by winning over two of its vociferous members, namely Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara.

Having repeatedly accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of direct complicity in the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, both received ministerial portfolios from the President. Wickremsinghe is in the process of consolidating his position.

There cannot be a better example to highlight Wickremesinghe’s strategy meant to resurrect his party than involving two former ministers Vajira Abeywardena, incumbent Chairman of the party, and Sagala Ratnayake, in the delegation that received urgently needed food assistance from India.

Sri Lanka delegation received the assistance, standing next to Tan Binh 99, the Panama registered general cargo ship, at the Colombo harbour.

The following is the text of the statement issued by Eldos Mathew Punnoose, Head – Press, Information and Development Cooperation, as regards the handing over of humanitarian assistance at the Colombo harbour: “High Commissioner Gopal Baglay handed over a large consignment of humanitarian assistance worth more than SLR 2 billion from the people of India to Foreign Minister Prof. G.L Peiris, in Colombo, on 22 May 2022. The handing over function was attended by Minister for Ports and Shipping, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena, Sagala Ratnayaka, Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister, Senthil Thondaman, Leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Food Commissioner Mrs. J. Krishnamurthy, among senior officials, and others.

The consignment consists of 9,000 MT of rice, 50 MT of milk powder and more than 25 MT of drugs and other medical supplies. It was flagged off from Chennai port by Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Thiru M.K Stalin on 18 May 2022. This is also the first consignment under a larger USD 16 million commitment of 40,000 MT of rice, 500 MT of milk powder and medicines by the state Government of Tamil Nadu.

Handed over materials shall be distributed among vulnerable and needy sections in various parts of Sri Lanka including Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Provinces by Government of Sri Lanka in the coming days.

More humanitarian consignments and other forms of assistance from India shall follow. Multi-pronged endeavour by both the Government and the people of India underlines the importance attached to Sri Lanka and reflects their concerns for the well-being of its people. Support extended to Sri Lanka ranges from economic assistance worth around USD 3.5 billion, supply of vaccines, testing kits, close to 1000 MT of liquid oxygen to combat COVID-19, immediate response by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard to mitigate marine disasters, etc.”

Sri Lanka’s utterly irresponsible political leadership has achieved the unthinkable. The country has been reduced to such a pathetic state, it has ended up receiving food assistance from the state government of Tamil Nadu. Sri Lanka should be ashamed of having to receive food assistance from an Indian state, 13 years after having proudly defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) considered impossible by many a pundit and against the wishes of the haughty West. Can that be the root of the unprecedented problems? Perhaps one day the truth will unravel through the work of an outfit, like WikiLeaks, on how Hawala or Undial underground cash transfer systems so successfully dried up foreign exchange flows into the country, leaving it unable to find even a few million dollars to clear an urgently needed shipment of cooking gas or lifesaving drugs. However much the deep state is entrenched in Western democracies with the open help of their ‘independent’ media controlled by the military-industrial complex, there are still plenty of people with clear consciences who want to do justice to the world.

R.K. Radhakrishnan, writing to India’s national magazine Frontline described the Tamil Nadu gesture as ‘a province in a developing country extending its assistance to another country.’ That line is sufficient to comprehend Sri Lanka’s plight. In spite of initial disagreement between Tamil Nadu and the Central Government of India regarding the humanitarian assistance offered by TN Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, they reached consensus on the matter. Four days before the despicable Temple Trees project, borne out of frustration caused by the government’s inability to end the sieges at Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat by so- called peaceful protesters, triggered mayhem in Sri Lanka. They were anything but peaceful by the way they tried to storm President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pengiriwatte, Mirihana, in late March.

Then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, struggling to save his premiership, wrote to CM Stalin: “I wish to thank you and the Tamil Nadu government on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, for viewing the country’s crisis from a humanitarian standpoint, rather than a problem concerning another country.”

Six days later Mahinda Rajapaksa was compelled to quit the premiership. The war-winning President and his family were compelled to take refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command after having abandoned Temple Trees, Kollupitiya, the nerve centre of the disastrous May 09 project, fearing a fate similar to that which met Libya’s Gadhafi, where, too, the truth was turned on its head.

An elder brother’s lament

Chamal Rajapaksa, 80, possibly serving his last term as a lawmaker, recently faulted younger brother and twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa for continuing in politics even after completing two presidential terms. The elder Rajapaksa attributed the current crisis to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continuation in active politics. Chamal Rajapaksa said that politicians should be prepared to give up power. Otherwise, they have to be prepared to face situations like this if they were greedy for power. The one time Speaker was commenting on his brother’s dilemma in the wake of him losing the premiership. Chamal Rajapaksa said: “Ranil Wickremesinghe is very lucky. In 2015, Wickremesinghe was able to secure premiership in spite of not enjoying a parliamentary majority. Now, the UNP leader secured the premiership without another MP in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is lucky and the country too is fortunate that we have him to take up the mantle of leadership despite all his shortcomings of the past, when all other politicians are playing their petty tricks to grab power while the country was literally going up in flames.

But, can Chamal Rajapaksa absolve himself of his share of responsibility for the crisis that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to leave his brothers, Chamal and Basil as well as nephews, Namal and Shashendra, out of the Cabinet of Ministers. President Rajapaksa, himself is under pressure to do away with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that gave him dictatorial powers. The abolition of the 20th Amendment enacted in Oct 2020 is part of the overall agreement sought by some of those who accepted ministerial portfolios in the current dispensation. Both PM Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, will push hard for the abolition of the 20th Amendment.

Before commenting further on ongoing moves to introduce the 21st Amendment at the expense of the 20A, it would be pertinent to examine Chamal Rajapaksa’s role as the Speaker (April 22, 2010-June 26, 2015) especially against the backdrop of his criticism of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s conduct. Chamal Rajapaksa, who has represented the Hambantota electoral district since 1989, continuously has declared that his brother Mahinda should have called it a day after completing two presidential terms (2005-2010 and 2010-2015).

Having said so, lawmaker Chamal Rajapaksa owed an explanation as regards his role in the enactment of the 18 A to the Constitution at the expense of the 19 A. During Chamal Rajapaksa’s tenure as the Speaker, the Parliament passed the controversial 18th Amendment Bill on Sept. 8, 2010, with 161 MPs voting for and 17 against the Bill. The following are some of its key points:

(a) The President can seek re-election any number of times (earlier it was limited to two;

(b) The ten-member Constitutional Council replaced with a five-member Parliamentary Council;

(c) Independent commissions are brought under the authority of the President; and,

(d) The 18th Amendment enabled the President to attend Parliament once in three months and entitles him to all the privileges, immunities and powers of an MP other than the entitlement to vote. In short, it is all about arming the President with absolute power.

The 18th Amendment was meant to empower Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chamal Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Speaker, oversaw the operation. The impeachment of Shirani Bandaranayake, the 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, and her removal by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013 should be examined against the backdrop of enactment of the 18th Amendment. Chamal Rajapaksa served as the Speaker at the time Justice Bandaranaike was removed. She was accused of several charges, including financial impropriety and interfering in legal cases, all of which she categorically denied. But her husband was found guilty by courts over his shady dealings.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa ensured the implementation of the then UPFA government’s strategy. Having served as a minister till April this year and played a critical role in the manipulation of Parliament, it wouldn’t be fair to find fault with Mahinda Rajapaksa solely for being power hungry.

Chamal Rajapaksa also made reference to Wickremesinghe receiving the premiership in 2015 following the presidential election, in spite of not having at least a simple majority in Parliament. Chamal Rajapaksa appeared to have conveniently forgotten that he continued as the Speaker even after Wickremesinghe was appointed PM after having unceremoniously discarded the late D.M. Jayaratne. The UPFA leadership didn’t even bother to ask Jayaratne before reaching consensus with President Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Wickremesinghe over the premiership following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shock defeat at the January 2015 Presidential election held ahead of schedule on the advice of an astrologer. Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran perpetrated Treasury bond scams in Feb 2015 and March 2016 in connivance with then Premier Wickremesinghe-led government.

The UNP-led government also betrayed the war-winning Sri Lanka military at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Chamal Rajapaksa absolutely had no issue in continuing as the Speaker until June 26, 2015 when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament to save the UNP. The dissolution of the House was meant to prevent the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) from submitting its report on the first Treasury bond scam to the House. Now again Chamal Rajapaksa has accepted Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier. Maithripala Sirisena, who sacked Wickremesinghe in late Oct 2018 and then offered him the premiership back within two months following judicial intervention and the primary beneficiary of Oct 2018 constitutional coup Mahinda Rajapaksa, are also in the same parliamentary group now headed by Wickremesinghe.

Proposed transfer of executive powers

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) is pushing for the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The BASL wants Premier Wickremesinghe to demonstrate as early as possible his ability to establish a consensus among the political parties in Parliament and endeavour to build a representative Government of National Unity to implement a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) in the public interest.

The BASL insists on a clear timeline to introduce critical constitutional amendments proposed by the outfit, including the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution and the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

The National Joint Committee (NJC) is concerned about the BASL’s strategy. The nationalist outfit believes the SJB and the BASL are working on a similar agenda to do away with the Executive Presidency without changing the current electoral system or repealing the 13th Amendment.

If the ongoing joint high profile project to introduce 21 A to the Constitution succeeds, the UNP leader will receive powers at the expense of the Executive Presidency. Having received an overwhelming mandate at the last presidential election in Nov 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands to lose executive powers to Wickremesinghe who accepted the challenging task of rebuilding the devastated national economy.

Those who launched the ‘Gogotahome’ campaign remained skeptical about the SLPP’s commitment to introduce the 21 A. They believe the architects of the 20 A would do whatever possible to sabotage efforts to do away with the executive presidency. They believe the SLPP founder Basil Rajapkasa, who still wields power over the party apparatus reeling under accusations pertaining to unprovoked attacks on the public demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

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Midweek Review

Flowers in Bloom

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By Lynn Ockersz

Though made somewhat anxious,

By the numberless crises in the Isle,

That have brought their elders down,

The youngsters clad in speckless white,

And heading for a make-or-break exam,

Are the only resplendent flowers,

In an otherwise benighted land,

But their Social Science Paper,

Is bound to give them some laughs,

For, though patriots, they are told,

Fought the good fight decades ago,

And rid the land of enslaving shackles,

All whom they have as current leaders,

Are fickle creatures of malleable material,

For whom pelf and power are all that matter.

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Midweek Review

Ranil takes premiership amidst BASL bid for all party-consensus

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A smiling Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe reacts to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after receiving the premiership. Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the President looks on. Mrs Maithri Wickremesinghe was present at the brief ceremony at the President’s House, Fort last Thursday evening (pic courtesy PMD)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Retired Supreme Court Justice Rohini Marasinghe, in her current capacity as the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), directed the police to provide adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister while protecting the freedom of speech and assembly through necessary and proportionate measures.

Justice Marasinghe, who received the appointment in Dec, last year, would never have believed she would be compelled to issue such a statement.

The HRCSL statement, issued on April 26, 2022, over a month after the eruption of violent protests at the private residence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at Pengiriwatta, Mirihana, that lasted for several hours, didn’t name the President and the Prime Minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa quit Temple Trees on May 10, less than 24 hours after he announced his resignation, in the wake of unprovoked violence directed at those demanding the resignation of both the President and the Prime Minister and the so-called peaceful protesters who lay siege to his official residence Temple Trees virtually making, him a prisoner therein.

The first protest, targeting President Rajapaksa, was held at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, on March 31, 2022. What began as a peaceful protest in the vicinity, quickly turned violent after the crowds made attempts to advance towards the President’s private home. The deployment of the Army, in support of the beleaguered police, failed to bring the situation under control.

Protesters set ablaze several vehicles, including two buses that brought Police and Army reinforcements to the scene of the unprecedented confrontation. Therefore, it would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances, Justice Marasinghe called for sufficient protection for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, over two weeks after the launch of the protest campaign, in front of the Presidential Secretariat, on April 09, 2022.

Perhaps, the HRCSL should have also advised the Army, as well as the Special Task Force (STF), regarding adequate protection for the President and the Prime Minister. The Army and the STF play an integral role in the protection of key leaders. The HRCSL cannot be unaware of the involvement of the Army and the STF in the protection of the President and the Prime Minister.

Justice Marasinghe called for ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ to meet the threat on the two leaders as those who had been demanding their resignation stepped up the campaign.

The HRCSL consists of five Commissioners, namely Justice Rohini Marasinghe (Chairperson), Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara and Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan. The President constituted the HRCSL in terms of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Dec. 2020. Justice Marasinghe and Ven. Kalupahana Piyarathana Thera were brought in Dec. 2021 in the wake of the resignation of HRCSL Chairman Jagath Balasuriya and NGO, guru Harsha Kumara Navaratne taking up the post of Sri Lanka High Commissioner to Canada.

Did HRCSL make an assessment before Justice Marasinghe issued instructions to the police? The HRCSL intervened in the wake of the erection of a new protest site, opposite Temple Trees, as the government struggled to cope up with an unprecedented political-economic-social crisis that brought the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to its knees.

The writer, over the last weekend, sought a clarification from Justice Marasinghe. The HRCSL Chief said that instructions were issued as access to the residences of the President and the Prime Minister had been blocked. The HRCSL was also informed of possible threats to their lives, Justice Marasinghe said, adding that the issue at hand should be examined on the basis of equal protection of the law.

In spite of HRCSL’s instructions, the police, and at least an influential section of the SLPP government, appeared to have been caught napping. Was it due to the fear of the wrath of the HRCSL or they being under the so-called international community spotlight? In fact, the law enforcement authorities had contributed to the rapid deterioration of the situation to such an extent that mobs took control of roads. Had the police top brass realized the gravity of the situation, in the first week of May, they would have definitely advised the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa not to summon several hundreds of his supporters to Temple Trees. The failure on the part of the police to advise the ousted Premier was nothing but a monumental blunder.

In fact, the police appeared to have been part of a political project meant to dismantle those who had been protesting against the government, while laying siege to both Temple Trees and the Presidential Secretariat. The operation was meant to regain control. Therefore, a primary objective was to silence those who had been asking Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, too, has been of that view, in the wake of about one-third of the SLPP parliamentary group demanding Premier Rajapaksa’s resignation to pave the way for an all-party interim administration.

PM, family take refuge in SLN base

Just two weeks after HRCSL asked the police to ensure protection of the President and the Prime Minister through ‘necessary and proportionate measures’ the latter had to move out of Temple Trees, under heavy security escort. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to authorize the deployment of SLAF assets to evacuate the ex-Prime Minister and some members of the family. They took refuge at the strategic Eastern Naval Command premises, Trincomalee.

By then, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, the ousted PM’s second son and Chief of Staff and his wife, Nitheesha Jayasekera, had left the country. Interestingly, Yoshitha left for Singapore at 12.50 am on May 09 on Singapore Airlines flight SQ 469 several hours before SLPP activists started arriving at Temple Trees.

Yoshitha Rajapaksa couldn’t have been unaware of the meticulous plans underway to bring in hundreds of supporters from all parts of the country to Temple Trees where the Prime Minister was to address them. Those who believed Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was to announce his resignation were proved wrong. Instead, lawmaker Johnston Fernando and the then Premier Rajapaksa created an environment conducive for an ‘operation’ to evict those who had been protesting against the Prime Minister and the President. The operation boomeranged. The end result was the Prime Minister having to take refuge in the Trincomalee Navy base.

Two days later, the Fort Magistrate’s Court issued a travel ban on Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP Namal Rajapaksa and 16 others. They are Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Johnston Fernando, Sanjeewa Edirimanne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanchana Jayaratne (Pavitra Wanniarachchi’s husband), Sampath Athukorala, Mahinda Kahandagama, Renuka Perera, Nishantha Abeysinghe, Amitha Abeywickrama, Pushpalal Kumarasinghe, Dilip Fernando and Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon. The Senior DIG had been present at the time, SLPP goons broke through the police line, near the Galle Face hotel, to demolish the Galle Face protest camp.

The Magistrate also imposed a travel ban on seven others who had been wounded during the violence on the fateful Monday or were eye-witnesses to the attacks.

President of the Colombo High Court Lawyers’ Association Lakshman Perera told the writer that the Attorney General‘s Department moved the Fort Magistrate’s court amidst preparations made by his outfit to move the court. Speaking on behalf of the Association, Perera underscored the pivotal importance of ensuring the safety and security of all, regardless of whatever the accusations directed at them.

For how long would the ex-Premier have to live under the protection of the Navy? In response to media queries, Defence Secretary retired General Kamal Gunaratne told a hastily arranged press conference, at the Battaramulla Defence Complex, that as a former head of State Mahinda Rajapaksa was entitled to required security. When would the ex-PM be able to move freely as protests demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation continue amidst traffic disruptions on main roads, especially over shortage of cooking gas? The situation remains extremely dicey.

Politically-motivated mobs destroyed many properties belonging to the Rajapaksa family. Mobs set ablaze the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home at Medamulana, Hambantota, and did not even spare the memorial built for their parents also at Medamulana, while the former Premier’s home in Kurunegala, too, was destroyed.

Properties belonging to elder brother, Chamal Rajapaksa and his son, Shashendra were also destroyed.

Gangs set fire to Green Ecolodge, situated very close to the Sinharaja rain forest. The hotel, situated close to the UNESCO heritage site, is widely believed to be owned by Yoshitha Rajapaksa, who recently warned JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake of legal action against the accusations made in respect of Green Ecolodge. But the JVP instead of backing their accusations regarding that prized eco-property (torched by the politically-motivated mobs early last week) with facts, issued a veiled threat to expose Yoshitha on some other issues if he dared to go to courts. Comrade Nalinda Jayatissa told the media that they would raise his fake qualifications, how he managed to enter the famed British naval college Dartmouth, etc., if he ventured to challenge them in court.

Well organized mobs also looted and set fire to properties of over 50 MPs, mainly of the government, across the country. They and their families were left with only the clothes on their backs.

Politicos under threat

The government should do everything possible to prosecute those responsible for incidents of violence, regardless of their status. Destruction of lawmakers’ properties should be denounced and punitive action taken against all those responsible. Who would take the responsibility for killing SLPP Polonnaruwa District MP Amarakeerthi Atukorale and his police bodyguard at Nittambuwa? The slain MP was on his way home, after attending the Temple Trees meet earlier in the day. Did Atukorale open fire on those who blocked his path? Did his police bodyguard, too, open fire? The post-mortem revealed the MP had been lynched and contrary to initial reports there were no gunshot injuries. The post mortem also set the record straight that the MP didn’t commit suicide with his own weapon as initially claimed by interested parties over the social and mainstream media. Having allowed SLPP goons to go on the rampage, the police pathetically failed to intervene when the public retaliated. Politically-motivated groups obviously took advantage of the situation. At an early stage of the ongoing protest campaign, German Ambassador in Colombo Holger Seubert tweeted: “I’m impressed with how peaceful the proud people of Sri Lanka are exercising their right to freedom of expression. It reminds me of German unification back in 1989 when we experienced how powerful peaceful protests can be. Wishing all parties involved the strength to remain peaceful.”

During the second JVP inspired-insurgency, the then JRJ government issued firearms to members of Parliament. Some lawmakers formed their own death squads. The government accepted extra-judicial killings as part of the overall defence against the JVP/DJV violence perpetrated against the UNP and those connected with that party.

Members of the SLPP raised security issues at a meeting they had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House last Saturday (14). The government shouldn’t expect normalisation of the situation until tangible measures are taken to stabilize the national economy. Lawmakers wouldn’t be safe as long queues for diesel, petrol and cooking gas exist with the vast majority of the electorate struggling to make ends meet. The government should be mindful of interventions made by foreign powers and other external and internal players hell-bent on exploiting the situation to their advantage.

Recent demonstrations near the Parliament compelled the police to close several roads for traffic on May 05 and 06. The police closed the section from Diyatha Uyana junction (Polduwa junction) to Jayanthipura junction and from Jayanthipura junction to the Denzil Kobbekaduwa road to deter mass invasions by well organised demonstrators. The police asserted that closure of the roads were necessary, in spite of the inconvenience caused to the public, to prevent hindrance to lawmakers entering and leaving the parliamentary complex.

The police closed down the same sections of the roads yesterday (17) to facilitate parliamentary proceedings. Trade unions combine and the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) have vowed to lay siege to the Parliament. The warning that had been made several days before the May 09 mayhem should be reviewed. The trade union grouping and the IUSF affiliated to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the breakaway JVP faction, should be mindful of the crises the country is experiencing.

A tragedy

War-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa having to take refuge in the Trincomalee SLN base is a tragedy. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave resolute political leadership to Sri Lanka’s war effort at a time the vast majority of lawmakers felt the LTTE couldn’t be defeated. Therefore, many accepted peace at any cost. They were prepared even to give up Sri Lanka’s unitary status in a bid to reach a consensus with separatist Tamil terrorists mollycoddled by Western powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa had the strength and political acumen to take on the LTTE. The country should never forget how President Rajapaksa, in spite of strong objections from the military, flew into Kebitigollewa on June 15, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of a claymore mine attack on a passenger bus. The blast killed over 60 men, women and children. Having visited the survivors, President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave an assurance that the terrorism would be eradicated. The promise was made two months before the LTTE resumed large-scale offensive action in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful end in May 2009. But, the President, who restored peace, has ended up virtually running for his life and had to seek refuge in a military installation for the time being as post-war policies and strategies take their toll with interested parties taking advantage of the tragedy facing the country.

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