The ninth Parliament was formally opened by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday and all but handful of the 225 new MPs have now taken their oaths. The UNP remains divided about who will take its single slot. Veteran senior John Amaratunga has staked a claim while others believe that the position should be reserved for the yet-to-be-appointed new leader. There is a very public tussle going on for the prize between two well known Buddhist monks of the Apey Janabala Pakshaya (Our People’s Force Party) with a third layman lurking on the wings. The party’s secretary who had nominated himself for the place has disappeared and is not to be found. Social media was abuzz a few days ago with a Youtube recording of this monk alleging that he was running away from a kind of thuggery that would have done the underworld proud. Where the saga will end remains to be seen. A couple of other newly elected MPs, including one with a High Court death sentence hanging over him, were ‘no shows’ but one new MP arrived with a prison escort from jail where he is remanded on a murder charge. As a party leader, Pillayan as he was known in his LTTE days, made a speech congratulating the new speaker. He said he was able to be present for the inaugural session in the face of great difficulties. He had learned that the process would have to be repeated every single time for him to attend future sessions and he wanted the speaker to protect his privileges.
Readers may recollect a previous occasion when the secretary of a left wing political formation nominated himself for the single national list position won by his group. This group, comprising remnants of the old left wiped out by JRJ’s 1977 landslide, had unanimously agreed that the highly respected and accomplished Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva should take the slot. But he was terminally ill at the time and could not take his oaths. Colvin’s passing left the place vacant for several months before the party secretary of the day nominated himself for the vacancy. This is the way the game is played in what is formally proclaimed as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. We have set out this background in the context of the reality that membership of Parliament confers on both the elected and unelected MPs pay, perks and benefits of a sort that is clearly unaffordable in a country like ours. That, plus the illegitimate earnings easily possible, obviously attracts undesirables. Older readers might remember a cartoon by W.R. Wijesoma at the time the Sirima Bandaranaike government hosted the Non-Aligned Conference in Colombo in 1976. A group of visiting delegates were depicted at the entrance of their posh hotel watching the opulent limousines drawing up under the porch; one tell the other: “It’s hard to believe that this is a poor developing country.” That applies also to benefits heaped on our legislators forgetting what is made on the ‘fringe.’
Now that the government is committed to abolishing 19A and drafting a new constitution including changing the system of elections, the time is right for seriously considering whether we need as many as 25 National List MPs in our 225-member legislature. Time was when our Parliament had 101 members, 95 elected and six appointed to “represent unrepresented interests.” These included the (disgracefully) disenfranchised plantation Tamils, Burghers, Malays and the then remaining British interests in the country. Both Mr. S. Thondaman (Snr.) of the Ceylon Workers Congress and his bete noir, Abdul Azeez of the Democratic Workers Congress held these positions depending on who formed the government. But today’s 25-strong National List is absolutely unconscionable. It was stated that its purpose was to bring persons of repute and ability to Parliament but we can offhand think of only the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar who filled that bill. After the 2015 general election President Sirisena appointed a clutch of defeated MPs on the National List. He attempted to justify those appointments claiming that the SLFP from which party he defected, despite fielding them as candidates, had worked hard to ensure their defeat. What is galling about the National List is that it confers patronage opportunities to party leaders who did themselves no credit in choosing many of the candidates run by both sides at the last election.
There is a public demand that at least this time round, the powers-that-be dispense with the practice of distributing duty free vehicle permits to legislators. It is too early yet for any public pronouncement on this subject to made by those who matter right now. Given the size of the mandate and the flush of victory still on their faces, making enemies of your parliamentarians by making unpopular pronouncements makes no sense whatever. But that decision must be taken when the time is right. Doing the right thing entails many pitfalls, as President Premadasa learned when the impeachment motion hit him. That was a time hew set bloodhound on MPs selling their duty free vehicles on ‘open’ papers. Given the kind of customs duty charged on imported vehicles, we do not need to labour over what these permits are worth. The people are very well aware of the kind of bucks that have been made hawking them. Apart from legislators, various others ranging from higher level public servants, university teachers, government doctors and many more benefit from this confetti thrown around with gay abandon for a very long time regardless of the hardships ordinary people suffer on a daily basis. The inevitable covid virus-related economic downturn is yet to hit the nation’s solar plexus as hard as it will. When that time comes, it will present an opportunity for our leaders to demonstrate their caliber by themselves making the sacrifices they will ask of those who voted them into office.
The 20th Amendment
There has been no credible explanation of why the government has remained as coy, as it remains to be to this day, about the authorship of the 20th Amendment. When first asked about it, Prof. GL Pieris, Chairman of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and cabinet minister fended the question saying there were many contributors. He then attempted to close the matter saying the cabinet took “full responsibility” for it. We do not need a law professor and former vice-chancellor widely acclaimed as a legal pundit to say that. If the cabinet had passed it, and it had done so before Pieris spoke, it is quite obvious that the cabinet must accept responsibility and the matter needs no further elaboration. Now Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, the cabinet spokesman, has said (at last week’s cabinet news briefing) that the president had authorized it. Even a school kid studying basic civics knows that ever since the JRJ Constitution was enacted in 1978, the president is both Head of State and Head of Government and he presides over cabinet meetings. Thus he is part of the collective cabinet responsibility. Are we to understand from the latest contribution to the question that although Justice Minister Ali Sabry presented the draft amendment to cabinet, it was the president who gave it to him and presumably asked him to present it?
These maters, no doubt, will be canvassed in parliament when the already gazetted amendment is presented to it. Given the dust this matter has already raised, with criticism coming not only from the opposition but also from sections of the government and those who helped it to come to power, the country has been told that there will be some changes to the draft presented. What these are has not yet been clearly spelled out. They will presumably be introduced at the committee stage of proceedings in parliament. This is a practice that those who are now in power roundly condemned when used by their predecessors. We have heard a lot about various provisions being “smuggled in” during the committee stage discussion of bills before parliament denying those who may choose to mount challenges on the legality of legislation in the pipeline the opportunity of doing so. There can also be no proper study of what is being done if any government resorts to such questionable practices. The Constitution, after all, is the basic law of the land and it is incumbent on those governing the country to have the widest possible discussion on any proposed changes. Committee stage amendments just will not do.
All governments, even those with the necessary two thirds majority to make changes in laws at variance with the constitution, have refrained from making any law that would require a referendum. That is something that has been avoided like the plague. Certainly a referendum is something that costs the taxpayer much more than an arm and a leg and must not be lightly resorted to for reason of expense alone. But this is not why governments of all hues have done their damnedest to avoid them. Politicians in office do not wish to go before the people at any cost unless they are compelled to. We have only known one referendum, that of December 1982 when the J.R. Jayewardene government that had in 1977 won a massive mandate with a five sixths majority, wanted the people’s acquiescence to extend the tenure of then then parliament by six more years. We thus had the infamous lamp and pot game, widely condemned as rigged, that permitted Jayewardene who had a few weeks earlier won a presidential election to duck a parliamentary election. It is commonly accepted that his UNP would have been returned if he did go to to the polls, but not with its 1977 majority, especially with the proportional representation system of elections then in place.
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa wished to change the constitutional barrier placing a two term limit on the presidency in order to seek a third term in 2015, the supreme court did not hold that this required a referendum, in terms of the constitutional provision that matters affecting the franchise of the people must obtain the people’s consent at a referendum. Then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake held that abolition of the term limit was an “enhancement” of the franchise rather than a diminishing. It may be argued that enhancing or diminishing would either way be a matter affecting the franchise. But that was not how the court, headed by a judge subsequently impeached by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, saw it. The fact that Rajapaksa lost the 2015 election where he sought the third term, having abbreviated his previous term, is now all water under the bridge.
Government assurances that pluses like the Right to Information law enshrined in the 19th Amendment, which even the ranks of Tuscany must admit had many imperfections, have been widely welcomed. There is no doubt that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government chose to include provisions like dual citizens not being eligible to run for public office clearly targeting the Rajapaksas was venal in intent. Coming from the UNP who anointed several persons who had opted for foreign citizenship as ambassadors to represent this country was rich, to say the least. There is no doubt that there are many flaws in the 20th Amendment that Mr. Sajith Premadasa has promised to scuttle having (together with Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe) scuttled the UNP. We are glad that eminent persons such as Prof. Savitri Goonesekera, in a contribution she had made to our newspaper today, has focused on some of the weakness in the draft 20A. Hopefully the government will accept democratic dissent in the right spirit rather that taking the easier route of having its way after allowing the opposition to have its say.
Saturday 19th September, 2020
A disabled soldier who had lost vision in one eye on the battlefield and became totally blind due to injuries he suffered at the hands of the riot police, during a protest, near the Presidential Secretariat, in Nov. 2017, has moved the Supreme Court, seeking damages. He was one of the protesters who demanded that the disabled military and police personnel who had been compelled to retire before completing 12 years of service due to injuries they suffered, in the line of duty, be given retirement benefits.
The protesting war veterans asked the yahapalana government a very pertinent question: “If the MPs who complete five years in Parliament without risking life and limb are entitled to pension benefits how come we who had to retire owing to battlefield injuries before competing 12 years are denied that right?” We argued editorially that they deserved what they were asking for, and the government had to grant their demands without humiliating them. They are in this predicament because they braved heavy machine gun fire, shelling and walked through minefields to make this country safe, and people belonging to all communities have benefited from their sacrifices. After the war, children resumed schooling without fear of being abducted on the way and turned into cannon fodder, in the North and the East. People have the freedom to elect their representatives in all parts of the country.
During the war veterans’ demonstration in 2017, this newspaper juxtaposed two pictures on its front page; one showed the then President cum Commander-in-chief Maithripala Sirisena raising his hand during a speech at a public event, and the other a row of prosthetic legs the protesting war veterans had placed in front of them. The pictures had the desired impact; Sirisena saw red and complained.
Shabby treatment the armed forces and the police received from the yahapalana government, demoralised them beyond measure. One of the reasons why the intelligence personnel refrained from going beyond the call of duty to neutralise the National Thowheed Jamaath last year may have been their fear of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. What one gathers from some key witness’ evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday Carnage is that they were wary of initiating action. Time was when the state intelligence outfits did not waste time, writing letters or making telephone calls, when they received information about possible terror attacks; they sprang into action and eliminated the threats themselves without leaving that task to others. That was how they kept the urban centres, especially the Colombo city, safe during the final stages of the war.
President Sirisena made a public display of his compassion by pardoning an LTTE cadre who had attempted to kill him, but the disabled soldiers had to grapple with the police and suffer injuries and many indignities in a bid to have themselves heard. Sirisena should have met them and solved their problems instead of allowing the riot police to rough them up.
The police steered clear of Zahran and his fellow terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks as they did not want to incur the wrath of the yahapalana leaders who subjugated national security to political expediency. But they used force against the disabled soldiers who were fighting for the rights of disabled police personnel as well.
Those who won the war and undertook to look after the war veterans are now at the levers of power. They ought to ensure that the grievances of disabled military and police personnel are redressed.
Terrorists and ‘babies’
Friday 18th September, 2020
What is unfolding before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday carnage reminds us of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Erik Solheim once called the Tiger chief a nonpareil strategist. In fact, during the Vanni war, he sought to discourage the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa from going all out to eliminate the LTTE’s military muscle; he told the latter, at a meeting, that Prabhakaran was blessed with superb strategic thinking and capable of springing huge battlefield surprises for the army. Solheim’s claim did not have the desired impact on Mahinda, who bluntly said he would fight the war to a finish, come what may. Prabhakaran perished several months later, and the war came to an end.
Solheim was not alone in mistakenly believing that Prabhakaran was trying to achieve his goal according to a well-thought-out strategy. They must now be convinced that the LTTE had no such plan, and Prabhakaran should have waited and launched his Eelam War IV under a UNP government. From what former intelligence bigwigs and defence officials have revealed before the aforesaid PCoI so far, it is patently clear that the UNP-led yahapalana government made a big mess of national security from 2015 to 2019, and if the LTTE had been around it would have been able to make the most of the situation.
The UNP government (2001-2004) undermined national security in a similar manner. President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wicrkremesinghe were at loggerheads during that period. The LTTE made use of a fragile truce to consolidate its power in the North and the East, infiltrate the South, take delivery of arms shipments, decimate the military intelligence network in areas under its control, and prepare for war. Prabhakaran, while being trapped in the shallows of Nandikadal, must have rued the day he had engineered UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat in the 2005 presidential race by ordering a polls boycott in the North and the East. If he had not meddled with that electoral contest, the UNP would have captured power and undermined national security big time.
Thanks to the PCoI, especially the probing questions its members and the Attorney General’s Department personnel pose to key witnesses, we know how lightly the yahapalana government took national security and public safety. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were busy fighting each other. Intelligence big guns were playing ping-pong over matters of crucial national importance. They worked in silos and, not to put too fine a point on it, behaved like a bunch of Montessori kids. They did not share foreign intelligence about impending Easter Sunday terror strikes with one another properly. Instead, they wrote letters about it to various others obviously in a bid to pass the buck. The State Intelligence Service (SIS), the President and the Prime Minister did not care a tinker’s cuss about national security, which became nobody’s business. The National Security Council became a joke.
The person who was the Chief of National Intelligence, in 2019, has recently told the PCoI that the SIS chief disconnected a call during a telephone conversation, on 20 April 2020, about the foreign intelligence pertaining to the Easter Sunday attacks and never called back. Former President Sirisena has claimed that nobody had told him, prior to the terror strikes, that Zahran was a terrorist. In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, he said he knew about a ‘golden horse’ and many other assets of the Rajapaksas, but he now claims that, as the President and Commander-in-Chief, he was not aware that Zahran was a terrorist!
Zahran was a kindergarten tot in the world of terror, compared to Prabhakaran, but national security was neglected to such an extent, during the yahapalana days, that even he could easily carry out a series of suicide blasts, which shook the world. What would have happened if Prabhakaran had been alive, or the LTTE rump had made a serious effort to regroup and make a comeback between Jan. 2015 and Nov. 2019?
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