by C.A. Chandraprema
That the 20th Amendment was passed does not come as a surprise. That some opposition MPs voted with the government also does not come as a surprise and neither does the fact that the unity of the governing coalition held during the voting despite the sparring between constituent sections of the government that had been going on for weeks over some provisions of the Amendment. What was surprising however was the manner in which some constitutional shibboleths of the past went into oblivion silently and almost unnoticed. The carcasses of several constitutional holy cows of the past can literally be seen lying dead on the streets.
When the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was first Gazetted as a Bill, this writer stated that some of the changes envisaged in that Amendment were urgent and could not wait until a new Constitution was drafted. Foremost among these was the abolition of the Constitutional Council which had the final say in making important appointments to high state positions like the Attorney General, the IGP and the Judges of the higher judiciary as well as the bodies like the Elections Commission, the Public Services Commission, and the Police Commission. Even after a presidential election and a parliamentary election, and the complete rout of the yahapalana political parties, five of the eight remaining members of the Constitutional Council (after the resignation of one member and the defeat of yet another member at the parliamentary elections) were yahapalanites who would have the final say in making all important state appointments until October 2021.
Getting rid of this Constitutional Council was what imbued the 20th Amendment with urgency. Yet this was one of the most cherished holy cows of the yahapalana camp. The 20th Amendment gave rise to a great deal of controversy and discussion, but one of the matters that was almost never mentioned was the abolition of the Constitutional Council. Back in 2001, when the 17th Amendment was introduced, it was all about the Constitutional Council and the need to take the power to make important state appointments out of the hands of the President and to give it not to Parliament and not to any elected representative of the people, but to unelected persons nominated by the political parties in Parliament. The first Constitutional Council created by the 17th Amendment had only three Parliamentarians but had seven outsiders.
The tautological absurdity of taking the power to make appointments to important state positions away from the President and away from Parliament and giving it to outsiders who however were appointed by the political parties in Parliament was lost on the proponents of the 17th Amendment – so firmly held was the view that elected politicians should not have a say in making important appointments to state positions. The prejudice seemed to be against elected representatives of the people. So long as you were not an elected representative it did not matter even if the members of the Constitutional Council were hangers on and nominees of political parties! When the 19th Amendment reintroduced the Constitutional Council in 2015, the proportion of parliamentarians to outsiders was reversed and it had seven Parliamentarians and only three outsiders, thanks to the furious resistance of the UPFA and its allies. If the yahapalanites had had their way, the Constitutional Council established by the 19th amendment would also have had only three Parliamentarians as against seven unelected outsiders.
When the 20th Amendment finally did away with the Constitutional Council that was introduced by the 19th Amendment, this yahapalana holy cow went into oblivion silently, and unnoticed. Even the remaining yahapalanites in Parliament did not agitate for its retention or even mention it by name during the weeks of public debate over the 20th Amendment. If they did mention the Constitutional Council, the media did not pick it up. What sealed the fate of the whole concept of the Constitutional Council was the manner in which the yahapalana political parties divided up the positions in the government and the opposition among themselves and stuffed the Constitutional Council full of yahapalanites without a single member to represent the real opposition in the country. The entire concept of the Constitutional Council was perverted and destroyed so completely, that not a single yahapalanite stood up to defend the Constitutional Council and to agitate for its continuation.
Even Karu Jayasuriya who Chaired the yahapalana Constitutional Council in his capacity as the Speaker and who obviously reveled in that role, did seem not come to the defence of the Constitutional Council in a major way, choosing instead according to some news reports, to oppose the 20th Amendment on the slogan of preventing dual citizens from becoming elected representatives of the people. Thus died a misconceived institution. On the one hand we talk of democracy and free and a fair elections, but try to argue that somehow, those who are democratically elected to positions of power should not be trusted with making appointments to important state positions and the power to make such appointments should as far as possible be given to unelected persons. Hopefully this is the last we hear of harebrained mechanisms like the Constitutional Council.
The defence portfolio issue
The other urgent matter that needed to be cleared up by the 20th Amendment was whether the President could hold the defence portfolio or not. The 19th Amendment had sought to bar the President from holding any portfolio by the repeal of the old Article 44(2) which said that the President may assign to himself any subject or function and shall remain in charge of any subject or function not assigned to any Minister. President Sirisena was allowed to hold the defence portfolio and the environmental portfolio by means of a transitional provision in the 19th Amendment. The repeal of old Article 44(2) and this transitional provision was supposed to imply that the President could not hold any portfolio, not even the defence portfolio even though the President was a member and the head of the Cabinet and Article 4 of the Constitution said that the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President.
This was a matter that needed to be cleared up urgently one way or another without waiting for the new Constitution which could take up to another year or more. The 20th Amendment sought to clear this up by reinstating the old Article 44(2). The restoration of the President’s power to hold portfolios was passed without any controversy or anybody seeming even to notice it. In the past, reducing the powers of the Presidency was the pivot around which the entire constitutional reform exercise revolved. The attempt to block the President from holding ministerial portfolios was a measure taken to reduce the power of the presidency introduced by the 19th Amendment. The absurdity of designating the President as the head of State, head of the government, head of the Executive, head of the Cabinet and then trying to prohibit the holder of that office from holding a ministerial portfolio was lost on the drafters of the 19th Amendment. Now this inconsistency too has been put right by the 20th Amendment. Thus the two most urgent provisions in the 20th Amendment have been passed with little or no controversy or even discussion. The former yahapalana hegemons who are now in the opposition in fact did not really defend the specific provisions of the 19th Amendment. They only expressed opposition to the 20th Amendment as a whole.
The vital elements in Article 70(1)
Another important issue that needed to be corrected even though it was not perhaps as urgent as the previously mentioned issues was the prohibition brought by the 19th Amendment on the dissolution of Parliament before the lapse of four and half years from the date of its first meeting, unless Parliament passes a resolution requesting dissolution with a two thirds majority. The rectification of this issue was not considered to be as urgent as the two issues mentioned earlier only because the present government has an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Had a government with only a slim majority in Parliament been in power, this issue would have been right at the top of the priority list. When the 19th Amendment repealed and replaced old article 70(1), the provisions that existed from the inception of the 1978 Constitution providing for the dissolution of Parliament in the event of the defeat of the government at a vote on the budget, or the statement of government policy or a no-confidence motion, were also dropped.
Thus, the Article 70(1) introduced by the 19th Amendment constituted a total prohibition on the dissolution of Parliament until the lapse of four and a half years quite irrespective of whether the government in power had enough support in Parliament to get the budget or a statement of government policy passed and to survive a no-confidence motion. What the 20th Amendment sought to do was to repeal the 19th Amendment’s Article 70(1) and to replace it with the pre-19th Amendment Article 70(1). In making this switch, only one aspect of the pre-19th Amendment Article 70(1) came to the attention of the Supreme Court. That was the period of one year during which the President could not dissolve Parliament if the previous Parliament had been dissolved by the President at his discretion.
The Supreme Court quoting a previous SC determination stated that if this period during which the President is barred from dissolving Parliament is too long, it may be contended that the President’s power of dissolution which operates as a check to sustain the balance of power is denuded of its efficacy. But, if we strike middle ground, the balance of power itself being the overall objective, and decide on a period of two years and six months, that sufficiently addresses concerns with regard to this provision and it could be passed with only a two thirds majority in Parliament and will not require a referendum. Now after the 20th Amendment, the President can dissolve Parliament after two and a half years instead of the one year period in the old article 70(1) which existed before the 19th Amendment. This however was not the issue with regard to the post 19th Amendment Article 70(1). It would not have mattered even if the period during which the President could not dissolve Parliament was retained at four and a half years if the President’s power to dissolve Parliament in the event the parliamentary government loses a budget, a vote of no confidence, or a statement of government policy was restored. The 20th Amendment has restored the President’s ability to dissolve parliament if the Parliamentary government is showing signs of collapse by being unable to get a budget passed or to survive a no confidence motion etc. and that’s what really matters.
SC on the provisions that raised controversy
The provisions relating to Urgent Bills which were to be reintroduced into the Constitution by the 20th Amendment raised some controversy. When the Cabinet is of the view that a particular Bill is urgent in the national interest and makes an endorsement to that effect, the President shall require the special determination of the Supreme Court on the
consistency or inconsistency of any provisions of the Bill by a reference addressed to the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court should make its determination in twenty-four hours or such longer period not exceeding three days as the President may specify. Petitioners against the 20th Amendment contended that this provision impacts on the People’s judicial power as well as legislative power and that the restrictive time period set out not only hinders but also unfairly curtails the exercise of judicial power. Furthermore they claimed that giving the Executive discretion in deciding the time period within which the determination should be made encroaches into the judicial power of the Courts.
The Supreme Court’s reaction to such contentions was to observe that the 20th Amendment Bill amends Article 123 of the Constitution by the insertion of a new paragraph which states that if the Supreme Court entertains a doubt whether the Bill or any provision thereof is inconsistent with the Constitution, it shall be deemed to have been determined that the Bill or such provision of the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution. The required nature of the determination is thereby limited to the expression of “entertaining a doubt” rather than a specific determination on the Constitutionality of the Bill or any of its provisions. As for the President fixing the timeframe within which the SC has to respond, the SC observed that Article 129(1) of the Constitution also empowers the President to refer a question to the Supreme Court to obtain its opinion within a time specified by the President.
Therefore, empowering the Executive to set a time period within which a Court should provide its determination per se does not infringe on the Sovereignty of the People. The SC further observed that the relevant provision does not exclude or prohibit an interested party intervening in proceedings relating to a hearing on such Bill. Furthermore the provision concerned makes it mandatory that such Bill be submitted to judicial review through the prescribed process. Therefore the provisions relating to urgent Bills in the 20th Amendment does not require a referendum and can be passed with a two thirds majority in Parliament.
When it came to Dual Citizenship, Petitioners against the 20th Amendment contended that the removal of this disqualification infringes Articles 1 and 3 of the Constitution. They contended that persons who hold a dual citizenship have split loyalties. When they pledge allegiance to two sovereign nations, their capacity to take decisions with the sole idea of protecting and preserving the Sovereignty of one country would be compromised; specially, in situations of conflict of interests between the two countries. Such situations can always arise in many areas of concern including, commerce, trade, defence and in addition on bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations when both countries become relevant parties.
The Attorney-General’s contention was that even a dual citizen has the right to be treated equally and enjoys all the rights of a person who is a citizen of Sri Lanka, only. He further stated that Article 26(2) and (3) of the Constitution prohibit making any distinction on the manner on which citizenship was acquired, Citizens by descent and citizens by registration will have same rights. It was further contended that under the provisions of the Citizenship Act it is only a person who had had been a citizen of Sri Lanka who could gain the dual citizenship. The AG argued that the Petitioners’ claim of “split loyalties” and “conflicts of interests” are mere surmise and conjecture. The SC was of the view that a decision on the inconsistency or consistency with a Constitutional provision cannot be based on surmise and conjecture and further that in the exercise of jurisdiction in relation to an amendment to the Constitution, does not extend to consideration of the desirability of a provision or to delve into policy matters. The SC’s sole consideration would be the constitutionality of the provision.
Only one really important provision of the 20th Amendment was shot down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it would require a referendum in addition to a two thirds majority in Parliament. This was the restoration of the immunity of the President from suit as it existed before the 19th Amendment. The Supreme Court held that the removal of the existing right guaranteed through the Constitution to the People to invoke the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 126 in relation to acts of the President is inconsistent with Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution and therefore would require a referendum in addition to a two thirds majority in Parliament.
Innocence and guilt in accusation and punditry
by Malinda Seneviratne
It’s a Covid19-dominated week. Well, what week in the last nine months or so has not been dominated by the deadly virus, one may ask. This is true. The numbers pertaining to what is now called ‘The Second Wave’ are far more alarming than those we saw during the initial stages of the outbreak.Covid-19 may not be here forever, but it certainly is going to be around for quite a while. The experts have put together a strategy and various institutions are engaged in doing their parts in combating the pandemic. While there are containment measures being put in place whenever a cluster is identified, there’s no indication of an island-wide lockdown being imposed. Protection protocols are now well known by one and all. They are imposed in various degrees of strictness by all institutions, public and private. Lapses there were, are and will be. This is to be expected and this is unfortunate because all the good work of authorities working tirelessly and at great risk can be undone by one errant individual or a relaxing of protection regimes by any institution.
That’s Covid. Covid or no Covid, as the Opposition has often enough argued, the economy must function. Obviously, this throws sand in the wheels of the Opposition’s oft-expressed horror about constitutional reform. The fact of the matter is that parliamentarians are required to make laws, not administer Covid tests.
So let’s move to the ‘usual’ matters of the week. Last week court absolved the then President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and the Director General, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of any wrongdoing over the much publicized sil-redi case. This week, former Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan was granted bail by the Batticaloa Magistrate’s Court. Pillayan was arrested on October 11, 2015, more than five years ago. No trial. Hold on to that.
Now we have various people complaining about LTTE cadres being held without trial. Among them are NGO personalities, representatives of various countries and UN agencies and political commentators. None of them saw anything wrong about Pillayan being held for so long. Was it because it was their friends (the Yahapalanists) during whose watch he was put behind bars? Is it then about friends and not about principles?
They appear to have abandoned the LTTE suspects (political prisoners, they call them) and have Hejaaz Hizbullah as their pinup boy of the moment. Hizbullah is being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. His case has not come up for trial. He could be held for years. Just like Pillayan. If one applied the principle, ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ then one has to be seriously worried about sloth in the judicial system which makes it possible for anyone to be held indefinitely (five years in the case of Pillayan, more than 10 in the case of LTTE cadres and who knows until when in the case of Hizbullah?).
Interestingly, the horror-stricken alluded to above have been and still are comfy in making out that accusation amounts to guilt. The Sri Lankan security forces have been berated over their heads for more than a decade with this twisted club. They don’t seem to realize that the same instrument can be used on Hizbullah.
Interestingly, the twist works in the other direction as well. If accusation does not amount to guilt (as those defending the Sri Lankan security forces often claim) then the patently nasty treatment of Hizbullah is out of order. Out of order too is a government that does not insist that this is unfair. Out of order also on account of the long and unexpected delay on the part of the prosecution with respect to Hizbullah.
This week, we also saw former President, Maithripala Sirisena in the news. He does cut a sorry figure considering that his newsworthiness is solely dependent on appearances at the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday attacks. Yahapalanists who were crowing that the 19th Amendment effectively clipped the executive wings of the president and made the Prime Minister (that’s Ranil Wickremesinghe) all powerful, ought to defend Sirisena, but they don’t. Neither do they blame Ranil Wickremesinghe. Easter Sunday is an egg laid by some unknown hen, as far as they are concerned.
Speaking of the Easter Sunday attacks, what really happened to that parliamentary committee on national security appointed by the previous government? A sectoral oversight committee on National Security submitted a report ‘for (the) formulation and implementation of relevant laws required to ensure national security that will eliminate “New Terrorism” and extremism by strengthening friendship among races and religions.’ That’s what’s on the title page of over 300 paged report. It was presented to Parliament on February 19th, 2020, days before Parliament was dissolved and the curtain officially fell on the Yahapalana circus.
The committee was chaired by Malith Jayathilake and included Shehan Semasinghe, Vijitha Herath, Weerakumara Dissanayake, Buddhika Pathirana, M.S. Thowfeek, Palitha Thevarapperuma, S Viyalanderan, Dharmalingam Siddarthan, A A Wijethunga, M.A. Sumanthiran, Chandima Gamage, Kavinda Jayawardane, Mayantha Dissanayake, Bandula Bandarigoda, Muhammad Ibrahim Mansoon and Ashu Marasinghe.
Some of the above are still members of the current Parliament. Regardless, it is a comprehensive report with what appears to be pragmatic measures. The President and his party repeatedly said that national security is a ‘Number One Priority’. The report covers important areas such as education, attire that makes identification impossible, national security policy, amendment of immigration and emigration laws to be in line with new national and international developments, media (print, electronic and social), amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, empowerment of Muslim civil society, non-governmental organizations, amendment of the Waqf Act, stopping the registration of political parties that are based on ethnicity and religion, issuance of national identity cards that affirm a Sri Lankan identity, establishment of a ministry for religious affairs that includes all faith-communities, the conduct of religious schools and centers, guidelines for the use of religious iconography, and Halal certification, Why can’t this report be taken as a base document to formulate relevant acts with ‘national security’ as the desired outcome?
The leaders of the political coalition who pushed for this committee are silent. The government is silent. The silence obviously doesn’t sit well with sections of all ethnic and religious communities that are wary of extremism and suspect that politicians are hedging bets with narrow political objectives in mind.
The government is also cagey on the issue of burials, i.e. the disposal of the bodies of Muslims who have succumbed to Covid19. The Government has not spoken in one voice on this matter. No decision to allow burials, Cabinet Spokesperson and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. It will be allowed, opined Chamal Rajapaksa. A Muslim organization said ‘Justice Minister Ali Sabry said it will be allowed.’ Sabry did bring it up in cabinet, but no such decision was taken. The President has insisted that response to Covid-19 is framed by the advice given by health professionals. Well, the health professionals can give a clear determination on the matter without twiddling thumbs and indulging in navel-gazing. They will have to take into consideration the science which informed the decisions taken by other countries. For the record, almost all countries have sanctioned burials. If issues of water contamination are worrisome, then a way to circumvent the problem can be found, not just for Muslims who died of Covid-19 but in the case of anyone from any community whose family prefers internment to cremation.
The sooner the better. Faith is a personal thing, yes. Faith sparks emotion, more than reason. Fears need to be taken into consideration. Science needs to drive decision-making. Above all, the thinking needs to be logical and moreover communicated clearly, without ambiguity or convoluted arguments. The onus is on the government.
Let’s give the budget some play here. Once again, Harsha de Silva of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya had to bat for the Opposition with regard to foreign policy. Perhaps this is because he was associated with that ministry during the previous regime; Mangala Samaraweera, the subject minister, although he hasn’t retired his mouth, has retired or at least taken a break from parliamentary politics.
De Silva claims that the government has a confused foreign policy. Dinesh Gunawardena didn’t do himself any favors by alluding to the non-aligned concept. De Silva pounced on it. However, the degree and choice of alignment in a complex international system was spelled out recently by the President when he met the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: a) friendly relations with all nations, b) China has been a long-time friend, c) nothing will be done to jeopardize India’s national security concerns, d) investment welcome more than aid. The President didn’t speak on foreign policy during the budget debate obviously, but the position should have been emphasized.
That said, what are De Silva’s credentials when it comes to foreign policy? Back in the day he spoke of ‘economic diplomacy’. It translated into ‘whatever Uncle Sam says.’ However, the Brexit Moment, so to speak, brought this theory and application crashing to the ground. His former boss said ‘We will look East.’ As though he had been sleeping for twenty years!
De Silva claims that diplomacy is about honesty, sincerity, civility and responsibility. That’s a fairytale if ever there was one. In any case, such things were non-existent in the foreign policy doctrine of the previous regime. Servility on the other hand was observed as though it was an article of faith. If his party had got it all right, how come nothing tangible resulted?
De Silva speaks of servility replacing meritocracy and ability. Servility or loyalty (if one wants to be polite) does seem to be a key factor in diplomatic appointments/promotions. The Yahapalana Government was no different (which is not an excuse for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime to follow suit). De Silva knows about the appointments of J.C. Weliamuna, Lal Wickramatunge, A.S.P. Liyanage and Lalith Allahakoone among others, as well as rubbishing seniority within the service in promotions. He knows how sovereignty was compromised by Mangala Samaraweera via co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1. Amazing how one’s skills, knowledge, competence and capacity to govern seem to increase -as soon one leaves the government and sits in the Opposition. He knows how low-ranking US civil servants were offered VIP treatment violating all established protocol. Maybe he believes it is ‘civility.’An FB comment on De Silva is applicable to many in the Opposition including those currently in the Government who once sat on that side of the House: ‘Amazing how one’s skills, knowledge, competence and capacity to govern seem to increase -as soon one leaves the government and sits in the Opposition.’ And this is another comment that says a lot about diplomacy in general: ‘Sri Lanka’s ambassadors have no mandate to serve the host nations interests. They have a duty to uphold ours. There is nothing diplomatically great about begging and pleading big bullies to keep us on their friends lists. His lack of reference to Sri Lanka’s ties with any nation which doesn’t conform to capitalist models is evidence that for de Silva a diplomatic win is only a win with the West. All other victories are not worth talking about. This is also how Colombo liberals think.’In other matters that might have gone under the radar, Russia has pledged to improve ties with Sri Lanka. Sarath Weerasekera, who got the most number of preferential votes from the Colombo District has been sworn in as the Minister of Public Security. More importantly, two ministries have been brought under the purview of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He will now handle the subjects of Defense and Technology. Perhaps the President has decided it is time to get things moving without allowing Covid-19 to bog him down. A response system has been put in place, as mentioned above. People with decent track records are in charge. He obviously trusts their judgment. They will no doubt do the best they can given constraints of a) resources, b) the need to balance response with economic and social imperatives, c) the as yet unknown factors of how the virus behaves. The President can and should take a break. His leadership is required elsewhere now. email@example.com.
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
by J. Godwin Perera
“The Burghers were a riotous lot With song and dance and many a ‘shot’ Were drivers, guards in the Cee Gee Ar For higher jobs were below par”
This is only partly true. It was a small segment of Burghers who worked in the CGR and as they would have said ‘did a bloody, damn good job.’ But, there were Burghers and Burghers. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Higher in the social hierarchy were the Planters. Many, having been ruggerites in their colleges, it was an easy jump to the central hills where they were appointed as ‘Sinna Dorays’ (SDs) and later Periya Dorays (PDs) in the tea plantations. They had the endurance and intelligence to rule their kingdoms (‘Thottams’), very, very, successfully. Some ended up as CEOs in the head offices of the agency houses which managed the estates in which they worked.
There were other Burghers who adorned the pages of our nation’s history with outstanding contributions in areas ranging from the academic to sports. In what follows there may be errors and there will be omissions. For both a sincere apology is given.
On February 4, 1948, our Lion flag fluttered proudly in the freedom of newly won Independence. On July 31 of that year the Lion flag fluttered proudly at the London Olympic Stadium when Duncan White skimmed over the hurdles (400M) to claim the Silver medal. It was only 52 years later in 2000, at the Sydney Olympics, that our country won another medal – But that is another story. In fact it’s a story within a story. It was also at the London Olympics that Eddie Gray, the first head of the Ceylon Mounted Police, boxed in the Lightweight Class.
But Eddie Gray has to be remembered with a very sad incident four years later. Early morning on March 21, 1952 our first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake suffered a stroke and fell off his horse while riding on Galle Face Green. Eddie Gray who was also riding on Galle Face Green, was quickly at the PM’s side. He took him to Central Hospital where the ‘Father of the Nation’ passed away on March 22.
In the academic field there are two names which will always be remembered by generations, past, present and future. The first was Edmund Blaze, founder of Kingswood College Kandy, which started as Boy’s High School in 1891 with just 11 pupils. It was Blaze who introduced rugby to schools. The first ever inter-school rugby match was between Kingswood and Trinity on August 11, 1906. Fittingly it ended in a six- all draw. Kingswood was also the first school to introduce rowing. On the Kandy lake? And one of the first to have a cadet platoon.
The second name is that of Prof. E.O.E. Pereira. He was the Founder Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ceylon and quite appropriately referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Engineering Education in Sri Lanka’. He was later appointed Vice- Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. It was Prof E.O.E. who was responsible for moving the Faculty of Engineering from its cramped space in Colombo to a more spacious and salubrious place within the Peradeniya Campus.
Think of authors. Think of Carl Muller. Dismissed from three schools, he ended up at Royal College, barely avoiding dismissal. In later life he blossomed to become a prolific and award winning author. His writings were exuberant, witty, sarcastic with a prominent vein of sexuality. He was best known for his trilogy – Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yakka and Once Upon a Tender Time. The first was published by Penguin Books and won for him the Gratiaen Memorial Prize in 1993.The State bestowed on him the title ‘Kala Keerthi’.
More famous is the Sri Lankan born, Canadian domiciled, multiple award winning, editor, essayist, novelist and filmmaker, Michael Ondaatje. His best known work ‘the English Patient,(1992)’ won him the prestigious Booker Prize. It was out of this prize money that Michael Ondaatje founded the Gratiaen Trust named after his mother Dorris Gratiaen and from this Trust came into being the Annual Gratiaen Award for the best English literary work written by a resident Sri Lankan. And now the curtain rises for that vivacious, attractive, actress, Jacqueline Fernandez, much in demand in Bollywood. She together with another Burgher- Alston Koch starred in the controversial movie ‘According to Matthew’ which was based on the life story of an Anglican priest (his first name was Matthew) who was convicted of murder. Army Commander from November 1966 to September 1967 was Major General B. R. Heyn. He represented Ceylon in cricket and can best be remembered for the One-Day match against the Australians.
The scoreboard read Donald Bradman caught R. L.. de Kretser bowled B. R. Heyn – 20 runs. A perfect Burgher combination ! Col. F. C. de Saram was the doyen of cricket both as player and coach. Playing for Oxford University he scored 128 against the Australians of which 96 came in boundaries. He captained the Ceylon team from 1949 to 1954. But alas! Like another all time cricketing great, better known as ‘Satha’ ‘FC’ too had a spell in the Welikada jail. This was because he led a coup in 1962. He and his co-conspirators were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. But on appeal to the Privy Council the sentence was overruled. ‘FC’ will be always remembered for cricket. Not the coup. On the subject of cricket mention must be made of another record. The Reid brothers who played for St. Thomas’s College in the 1960s. There were five of them – Claude, Ronnie, Buddie, Barney and Johaan.
Commissioner General of Prisons – C. T. (Cutty ) Jansz was Deputy Commissioner General when the notorious massacre of Tamil political prisoners took place in Welikade on July 1983. He valiantly tried, but could not prevent it. Many years later after retirement as Commissioner General in an interview about execution of prisoners sentenced to death, he stated about the ‘gut wrenching’ experience of having to witness a prisoner being hanged. ‘The whole prison mourns. It becomes a funeral house.’ Moving on to Doctors. There was Dr P. D. Anthonisz the first Ceylonese to obtain both the MRCP and FRCS qualifications. As a member of the Legislative Council he was mainly responsible for the construction of the railway line from Colombo to Matara. The land-mark clock tower in Galle Fort was erected in his memory by a grateful public. Then there was Dr Noel Bartholomeusz who very graciously gifted his Colombo 07 residence to the College of Surgeons of Sri Lanka. In the late 1960s Dr Noel became a surgeon by day and a patient by night. He had to undergo a dialysis procedure for 12 hours, three days a week in his home. This was done by his wife Nora. Next we come to Dr R .L. Spittel – often misspelt as Spittle. He can best be described as a city surgeon, jungle doctor and author. His knowledge of the of the Veddha community about whom he wrote, is unrivalled to this day. Wycherley International School along Bauddhaloka Mawatha was originally Wycherley Nursing home in which Dr R. L. Spittel had his practice. Justices of the Supreme Court – In the post-independence era alone there were six of them. But let’s refer to two. Oswald Leslie de Kretser III has another claim to fame. A species of fish- the mulpulutta kretseri was named after him. The other is Noel Gratien. It was due to his inspiration that the Warden of St Thomas’s – Cannon R. S. de Saram introduced Rugger into the sports curriculum.
Photographers- Dedicated to wild-life photography, Eric Swan while on a photographic safari in Thamankaduwa in the Polonnaruwa district observed a single elephant detached from the herd. The elephant turned and curled its trunk. Eric Swan clicked. It was his last photograph. It was the last moment of his life. The elephant charged killing him on the spot. But let’s not end on a melancholy note. Let’s consider the tasty, savoury, Burgher contribution to our cuisine. There’s Lamprais, and Rich Cake also called Christmas Cake, and Love Cake and Patties and Frickadel (meat balls, similar to cutlets) and Breudher and Milk Wine and yes indeed there’s that delicious sweetmeat served during Sinhala Avuruddha called Kokkis. The Burghers alas ! have left our shores. There are more Burghers in Australia than in Sri Lanka. And yet we know that in every Burgher heart there is a place which will forever be Sri Lanka. Once the vicious tentacles of Covid 19 have been untangled and the second wave has been calmed, they will come. In droves. Let’s greet them and say ‘Ayubowan.’
A budget presented amid celebrations and acquittals
by Malinda Seneviratne
Over the last few weeks there has been a concerted campaign in social media attacking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The ‘Gota Fail Campaign,’ as it was, promoted a strong response questioning the success of the President’s detractors. The campaign was clearly targeting the President’s first anniversary celebrations and the impending reading of the budget. The campaign failed or rather, now that the moment has passed, the campaigners have taken a break.
It was a week marked by celebrations. We had Mahinda Rajapaksa celebrating his 75th birthday. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa completed his first year in office and addressed the nation to mark the occasion. The first budget of the Government that came to power in early August was presented. Secretary to the then President (Mahinda Rajapaksa) Lalith Weeratunga (also the ex officio Chairman of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission) and Anusha Palpita (former Director General, TRC) were acquitted of all charges of misappropriation by the Court of Appeal.
Quite a week, to say the least.
Ranjan Ramanayake, predictably, ridiculed Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘for not standing while presenting the budget.’ Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa rapped Ramanayake on the knuckles for doing so, in a gesture of good grace rarely seen in Parliament.
Obviously, Mahinda Rajapaksa is no longer the energetic man he used to be. This of course does not necessarily mean he is infirm in mind. He still remains one of the most effective communicators in our tribe of politicians. He’s had his good days and bad ones, like anyone else. He receives praise and blame, which again indicates strong passion, fierce loyalty and, on the part of his detractors, equally intense sentiments which include envy, fear and disgust.
That said, as ‘The Gadfly,’ a regular contributor to the website www.theleader.lk observed, when the post-independence history of this country is written, there will be a special chapter devoted to Mahinda, whereas the likes of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Rajitha Senaratne an Wijedasa Rajapaksha would get, at most, a line or two. Again, depending on who is writing the history, someone might say. However, Mahinda’s’s mark is unmistakable and certainly hard to brush aside.
Some argued that he should have gracefully retired in 2015. Maybe he should have. On the other hand, ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’ is not just a man but a brand and moreover a name that’s etched in the political consciousness of the nation, and, as the August 5 results indicated remembered with gratitude that obliterates memory of his blemishes. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa was captain-designate and Basil Rajapaksa the man chartering course, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the name of the ship (with a tagline, ‘Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’) and ‘MR’ a signature that was on every element of the vessel.
So, let us wish him, belatedly (on account of circumstances), a very happy 75th birthday, good times ahead, good health, continued guidance of his younger brother the President in matters political and restraint in deference to changed times and more importantly the leadership and power that is constitutionally granted to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The budget is still being debated. Predictably Harsha de Silva has come down hard on it. He tweeted, ‘the most boring budget speech in years,’ adding ‘…a weak n inspiring (he probably meant ‘uninspiring’) budget w totally unrealistic revenue figures…a shift towards protectionist n failed ‘Import Substitution Industrialization’ model.’ Having opened the debate for the Opposition, he then tweeted ‘a short edit’: 1. Figures fudged. 2. No stimulus package. 3. About to explode foreign debt issue ignored. 4. Import Substitution Model has failed; need bridges not walls.’
Now de Silva is a fear-mongerer if ever there was one. There was a time when again he was in the Opposition, when he would issue dire predictions of imminent economic collapse almost on a weekly basis. The man had to keep quiet when the UNP regime he was a part of mishandled the economy. He had nothing to say on the Central Bank bond scam.
He might have been thrilled when that regime wagered on the West coming to Sri Lanka’s help, but he didn’t contradict his then leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who, when ‘Brexit’ happened, suddenly said ‘we will look East.’ This after badmouthing China in the run-up to the January 2015 presidential election. We remember Harsha posting selfies with the Port City construction in the background at the time when his party was swearing to put a stop to the project. Finally, his government signed an agreement even less favorable to Sri Lanka. This was to be expected; after all the Yahapalana Government cheered itself while compromising sovereignty by way of Resolution 30/1 in Geneva. Anyway, neither de Silva, Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and pretenders to various political crowns now in the Opposition seem to have cottoned on to the fact that the USA is no longer the big boss in the global economy and that the sun set on the British Empire a long time ago.
Nevertheless, the onus is on the Government to respond to the charge that figures were fudged. As for the revenue plan, we will certainly assess it, realistic or otherwise, as time goes by. The rest is obviously Harsha rattling off received (non) wisdom about things economic.
Stimulus packages hinge on the erroneous premise that the private sector is the one and only engine of growth, where ‘growth’ itself is a concept that is contentious at best in the development discourse and has by and large been rubbished considering what that model has done to the world, the health of the planet and of course the most vulnerable sections in the global population.
Pertinent here, as has been editorially pointed out in www.gammiris.lk is Harsha’s myopia about the Bretton Woods institutions. Here’s a quote:
He (Harsha) does not seem to have gone through Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents, which talks in succinct detail how these institutions operate, particularly in underdeveloping countries. A pity, because Stiglitz took the trouble of writing on Sri Lanka, and more to the point, of cautioning the then administration against hedging its bets on the IMF-World Bank paradigm of, what else, “globalizing and liberalizing.’
Siglitz, interestingly, observed, that if Sri Lanka is to progress, it should start “learning to produce, learning to export, and learning to learn.” Harsha of course can’t think beyond the outdated and erroneous neoliberalism model. The budget has sought to empower local production. This is not the same as import-substitution, though. All framed by Covid-19, one must add.
It must be pointed out that the strategy laid out doesn’t make sense if the banking institutions are not focused on development. The Bretton Woods institutions have always been against development banks. There has been talk of setting up a cooperative bank, but the details are still to be worked out. This was an opportunity to get it down in black and white.
Meanwhile a delegation of the European Union and the Embassies of France, Germany, Italy Netherlands, and Romania issued a statement slamming the government’s trade policy, ‘with an obligatory non-sequitur to human rights,’ again editorially observed by ‘gammiris.’
‘Thanks to the EU’s special Generalized System of Preferences (GSP+), Sri Lanka enjoys competitive, predominantly duty- and quota-free access to the EU market,” they said. Trade, they pointed out, ‘not a one-way street,’ and observe (gravely) that ‘a prolonged import ban is not in line with World Trade Organization regulations.’ They interjected the par-for-the-course HR reference (Resolution 30/1) and said ‘we are concerned.’
The hypocrisy of Europe crying foul over human rights is well known. But why talk of WTO rules here? Just last year Indonesia complained to the WTO over EU restrictions on palm oil imports. Both Germany and France blocked their own exports of crucial personal protective equipment (PPE) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hypocrisy much, eh?
Well, if the EU’s ‘concerns’ (threats?) do translate into action, it would only push Sri Lanka even further into the Chinese circle of influence. Sri Lanka would have no option but to promote domestic production and rebuild as per the demands of the home market.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa completed one year in office. Not given to pomp and pageantry, his first year has been relatively subdued. He promised ‘work’ and ‘systems.’ Covid-19 was an obvious dampener. And yet, in this one year, we saw a mandate overwhelmingly reiterated. We also saw the passage of the 20th amendment which resolved the confusion of the 19th Amendment with respect to who really rules the country. The 19th, let’s recall, as acknowledged by its authors themselves, is full of flaws. The Supreme Court shot it down and the then regime introduced what was almost a fresh document; and in clear contravention of established parliamentary procedure (in the UK, the House of Lords can make changes but only minor ones). Here, there were wholesale changes at the committee stage. In contrast, the 20th it a) retained certain elements of the 19th such as term limits and b) incorporated the observations of the Supreme Court).
The President’s anniversary speech was essentially a rehashed version of his ‘throne speech.’ He didn’t detail the modalities of getting the ‘One-Country, One-Law’ going. He probably should have explained the controversial circular on ‘Other State Lands’ over which he has been getting a lot of flak. It was a no-frills anniversary speech quite in keeping with the personality he has projected or even the person he is seen to be. The proof of everything is in the ‘works’. Work is where he will be judged eventually.
Given the announcement that the Government is planning to introduce a new constitution, the buzz over the 20th seems silly. The Government, of course, could have incorporated the 20th into a new constitution and seek passage in one go.
Covid-19 has framed the president’s first year. He has had to balance coping mechanisms with keeping the economy going. The Opposition, as pointed out in a television discussion on Thursday by Deputy Editor, The Island, Shaminda Ferdinando, was bailed out by Covid-19. Now they have something to talk about, he said. There are charges of mishandling. The rise in numbers is certainly worrying. The Government does have a plan and it is as reasonable as any given multiple constraints.
However, it is certainly ridiculous that so many government officials and healthcare professionals are commenting and contradicting each other on Covid-19. The Government should authorize a single person to do this. Others should obtain from what this person says and not act as though they are epidemiologists. That goes for the opposition and political commentators as well, of course.
In Canada, for example, according to a Sri Lankan who is a long time resident there, ‘there’s a chief medical officer giving daily recaps at the federal level with Prime Minister Trudeau offering a daily non medical brief. At the provincial level, the chief provincial medical officer gives a daily briefing. All financial assistance information is conveyed by Trudeau since it’s all federal at this stage. In Sri Lanka, in contrast, everyone except the Minister of Health is an authority on the pandemic!’
Finally, the court decision on Lalith Weeratunga and Anusha Pelpita. Now they were acquitted not by judges appointed by this government. The charge that the court was politically motivated is therefore silly. In this regard it is pertinent to point out that the President has nominated the six most senior judges for promotion to the Supreme Court. Seniority was spurned out of hand by the much-celebrated Constitutional Council of the previous regime. Friendship and loyalty were rewarded. Good move by the President but one which he ought to apply across the board in the matter of appointments/promotions.
The 62-page verdict notes, ‘There is no dishonest intention with which both accused appellants have acted. They were not actuated by men rea or actus reus. There has been a bona fide exercise of their powers and duties. Neither accused was enriched. Whilst the board authorized a transaction which is protected by law and corporate social responsibility, it is a travesty of justice that only two members of the TRC had to endure the traumatic experience of a selective prosecution at a prolonged trial, causing a senior public servant of long years of meritorious public service humiliation and anguish.’
Intention of course is always assessed subjectively. It’s the act that the court has to assess. The court was of the view that the prosecution failed to establish the ingredients of the offenses laid in the indictment. The court also determined that the circumstances in which the presiding judge came to hear the case created a serious doubt on the impartiality and validity of proceedings adopted. In other words, there was selectivity and deliberate maneuvering to obtain a pre-arranged outcome.
Weeratunga is a seasoned public servant. He probably knows the Establishments Code inside out. He probably knows not only what’s possible and what’s not but all the loopholes that can be used and abused. He was obviously following orders from the top on sil redi, but, as the Court has determined, in a legal manner. He didn’t benefit personally. Neither did Palpita. One can argue that had Mahinda Rajapaksa won in January 2015, whether or not the sil redi issue was a factor, both would have benefited. At the very least they wouldn’t have been subjected to the obvious harassment meted out by overzealous yahapalana operatives (who essentially turned the FCID into a kangaroo court and operated from the Prime Minister’s office). That’s however in the territory of speculation. Courts are not in that business.
The court has ruled. That’s that.
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