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Political pressure to revise 20A remains alive

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By Jehan Perera

It has taken more than a month for the concerns regarding the proposed 20th Amendment that have been expressed by a wide swathe of opposition political parties and non-partisan civil society groups ranging from religious clergy to professional associations to find expression within the ranks of the government parliamentarians. Their silence for so long can only be an indication of the dominance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who will be the primary beneficiary. In terms of the amendment, the President will be empowered to remove the Prime Minister, a member of the cabinet, any other Minister or a Deputy Minister and authority to dissolve Parliament after completion of sittings for a period of one year. This massive transfer of power to the Presidency has been justified to the electorate as stemming from the inability of the previous government to govern effectively under the 19th Amendment to the constitution.

The occasion for the show of dissent came with the seemingly routine release of a suspect detained by the police on suspicion of his involvement in a case but whom the police now claimed no evidence had been found.  But the fact that the case involved the suicide bombing that claimed the lives of over 250 persons on Easter Sunday in 2019 and led to the collapse of the country’s tourism sector gave both the arrest and release a significance beyond the ordinary.  It is a regular occurrence that people are taken into custody if they are suspected of being involved in a crime, but are released if no evidence surfaces against them. In the case of Riyaj Bathiudeen, however, there was always an element of politics in it. He was arrested a year after the bombings and after there had been a change of government that saw his brother’s political alliance lose power.

At the time of his arrest the police claimed that Riyaj Bathiudeen was implicated in the Easter bombing and there was evidence that he had close links with the suicide bombers and had met with one suicide bomber, prior to the attack on April 21. Five other suspects, including lawyer Hejaz Hizbullah who continues to be in detention, were arrested along with him. Even at the time of the arrest, it was surmised that it could have been done with a political motivation of putting pressure on his brother to switch his allegiance to the government. The question is how the evidence that the police claimed was sufficient for an arrest should turn out to be insufficient and why only one person should be released when the others continue to be detained. It is to be noted that the rule of law calls for equity in treatment.

 

CARDINAL’S LEADERSHIP

The most prominent critic of the police reversal has been the Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who lost more than 200 of his adherents who fell victim to the suicide bombings that occurred in two churches within the Colombo diocese.  The Cardinal has been persistent in his demand that there should be truth, accountability and justice to the victims and their families who hope that their tears will not be in vain. The Easter bombing in 2019 was a complicated terrorist activity with many elements to investigate as is evident in the personal testimonies being provided these days to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The Cardinal expressed his dissatisfaction on the release of a key suspect in the case and complained that police itself was contradicting their own statements.  He also indicated that the sudden release could suggest a political deal.

The political deal in question is to ensure that the government will have a 2/3 majority to pass the 20th Amendment.  The Cardinal’s concern about a political deal could be a reflection of the difficulty that the government is encountering in mobilizing the 2/3 majority in parliament required to pass the 20th Amendment into law.  There have been a few government parliamentarians who have had the courage to state that the 20th Amendment is excessive in its attempt to transfer power from parliament to the presidency. The proposed amendment as it currently stands is an emasculation of the protections available to the people and also to other institutions of state available in the constitution.  If even a few government parliamentarians do not vote for the amendment it will fail to achieve the 2/3 mark.  

The release of Riyaj Bathiudeen without satisfactory explanation has provided government parliamentarians with a justification to unite openly against any possibility of a political deal.  In an unprecedented action 100 of them, which amounts to over 2/3 of the government parliamentarians, have signed a statement calling on the President and the Prime Minister to conduct a full investigation on this act by the police and to re-arrest Riyaj Bathiudeen and enforce the law in a proper manner.  While there is no question about Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s commitment to getting to the truth of the Easter bombing and ensuring justice to the victims, the interest of the government parliamentarians is likely to be different.  They have made it clear that they would not wish there to be any possibility of a deal whereby his brother Rishad Bathiudeen’s party joins the government to make the 2/3 majority in parliament easier to reach.

 

REDUCE BURDEN

Faced with pressure from religious and civil society, and now his own parliamentarians, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has hastened to deny that the government has entered into any political deal.  He has stated “I am not prepared to hand over the power of arresting or arbitrarily releasing people to politicians, as happened in the past. I will also take actions to rectify any omissions or mistakes made by the relevant authorities or officials.”  In an attempt to dispel public perceptions that the government was prioritizing a 2/3 majority in parliament to pass the 20th Amendment he said, “I emphasize that our government has not entered into any political deal with Parliamentarian Rishad Badurdeen. I assure my citizens that I will not forsake the trust that they have placed in me and I will most certainly continue to work towards strengthening the built trust.”

The real problem is with the 20th Amendment which is akin to the elephant in the room for the government parliamentarians.  There is a strong demand from the people for a strong government that does not fail to perform like the previous government where the President and Prime Minister undermined each other.  The current government does not suffer from the same constraint as they come from not only the same party and enjoy a 2/3 majority in Parliament, but also the President and Prime Minister are from the same family.  But the proposed amendment is regressive in its focus on empowering the Presidency at the cost of all other state institutions, including parliament, the Prime Minister and ministers, and would reduce them all to a relatively powerless condition.  

President Rajapaksa is held in high esteem by his colleagues in government who would not wish to oppose him and want him to succeed in leading the country to development and national reconciliation.  In handing down its determination on the 20th Amendment Bill, the Supreme Court has ruled that four clauses need a referendum of the people along with a two-thirds majority in parliament unless suitably revised, while the rest can be passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament alone.  Hopefully, the process of revision at the committee stage within parliament will lead to constructive changes in the 20th Amendment so that it does not elevate the Presidency and diminish the other institutions too much and not put too heavy a burden on the Presidency that no single person can carry.

 

 



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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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Opinion

Need in New Year is to heal the divides

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By Jehan Perera

One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future.  The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future.  According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness.  Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest.  There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.

Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police.  They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity.  Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets.  According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit. 

 

JAFFNA VISIT

Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades.  Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere.  Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities.   He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment. 

The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past.  At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do.  When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms.  The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.

At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living.  An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities.  He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families.  He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.

 

UNIFYING THEME

The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together.  Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such.  It was much like the rest of the country.  At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government.  The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government.  At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest. 

The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north.  There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner.  If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate.  It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring.  As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with.  As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.

The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood.  The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation.  The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis.  However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda.  The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE.  Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.

 

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