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Sri Lanka Rajapaksa clan presses for imperial presidency

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Constitutional amendment includes free hand to appoint justices and police chiefs

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR,

Asia regional correspondent

COLOMBO —

Sri Lanka’s political pendulum is swinging toward a strong, centralized state in the grip of an executive president with sweeping authoritarian powers, fulfilling a goal of the Rajapaksas, the South Asian nation’s most influential political clan.

The government of the ruling Rajapaksa siblings — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — has now set the stage for an imperial presidency. It did so by introducing a constitutional amendment in parliament, where the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the brothers’ political vehicle, enjoys an invincible majority.

The amendment, which would be the 20th, seeks to enshrine absolute presidential powers, complete with legal immunity for the hawkish Gotabaya, the younger of the two, during his term in office. The change would also free Gotabaya of existing parliamentary checks on executive authority and reduce the role of the prime minister to that of a rubber stamp for presidential decisions.

Other clauses would give the executive president a free hand to appoint the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court and other high courts; he would also choose the police chief.

In addition, the amendment paves the way for a Sri Lankan who has dual nationality to be a parliamentarian. This would enable Basil Rajapaksa, another sibling and U.S. national, to become a lawmaker and a minister in the Rajapaksa administration.

Rajapaksa allies argue that an all-powerful executive echoes the political mood in the country, where the brothers have tapped into an ultranationalist, majoritarian sentiment to win two decisive electoral victories, in November’s presidential balloting and in August parliamentary elections.

The SLPP won the backing of the Sinhala-Buddhists, the country’s majority ethnic community, with a campaign for a centralized government anchored by a strongman president to succeed a right-of-center administration that was divisive, dysfunctional and prone to backstabbing to settle political scores.

“The people have given [Gotabaya] a huge mandate, and after that are we to clip his wings so that he can’t do the job?” asked Gamini Lakshman Peiris, education minister and head of the ruling SLPP. “Is it right that we do not empower the president as that is what the people wanted?”

Peiris was asking his rhetorical questions last week during a news conference.

His jabs came ahead of a Supreme Court session that will hear 39 petitions filed by opponents of the 20th amendment. Since the nation’s legislative and judicial systems do not accept any court challenges on laws passed by parliament, most of the petitioners — ranging from opposition lawmakers to political activists — are rushing to push the justices to rule that the amendment needs to be approved by a national referendum, in addition to it needing to win a two-thirds majority in the 225-member parliament.

Lawyers expect the judges to examine the amendment’s potential to undermine entrenched clauses in the constitution that protect the sovereignty of the people. “The problem with the 20th amendment,” said Sudarshana Gunawardena, a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer, “is that certain clauses give the president powers, such as when to dissolve the parliament, that will affect the people’s sovereignty. The court may also take note of the concerns expressed by a group of retired judges and the Bar Association [of Sri Lanka] about the amendment because they are knowledgeable about constitutional matters.”

History favors the Rajapaksas. Previous amendments to the 1978 constitution have not been subject to a national referendum. Parliament’s makeup also favors the brothers, whose political juggernaut has given the SLPP 145 seats. The party is confident of attracting five more votes from smaller parties to meet the two-thirds threshold.

Sri Lankans have had a taste of Rajapaksa political dominance before, during elder-brother Mahinda’s nearly 10-year presidency, which ended with his shock defeat in January 2015. That decade was marked by an authoritarian character and by the brothers presiding over an administration that saw government troops defeat the Tamil Tiger separatist, ending a nearly 30-year ethnic war. The tough-talking Gotabaya served as Mahinda’s defense secretary during the term.

The proposed amendment has generated a heated debate in the mainstream media, led by liberal and progressive-minded academics, legal experts and civil society activists. They have expressed alarm at the country regressing 40 years, to a period that gave Sri Lankans their first taste of the 1978 charter — a blueprint for an elected autocrat written by Sri Lanka’s first executive president, Junius Richard Jayewardene.

“It appears that the framework of 20A has sought inspirations from wrong constitutional models, at home and abroad, that are devoid of any democratic normative content,” wrote Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former professor of political science at the Colombo University. “The lessons that seem to have been learned are all partisan, narrow-minded, politically shortsighted, and therefore, wrong ones.”

In taking this route, the Rajapaksas are expected to face questions from India over the 13th amendment, which New Delhi shaped during the early stages of the Tamil separatist struggle. That amendment secured devolution of power and established provincial councils, enabling the Tamils, Sri Lanka’s largest minority who live in the north and eastern provinces, to elect regional leaders.

“By further entrenching powers in the executive president, 20A undermines democracy in a major way, and by omission or commission it will undermine 13A,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, a senior sociology lecturer at Jaffna University in northern Sri Lanka. “Minorities already took a stand about their concerns of rising authoritarianism by their massive number of votes against the president at the November elections.”

The constitutional tinkering comes as the Rajapaksa administration struggles to breathe life into the anemic economy it inherited. On Monday, Moody’s Investors Service made the Rajapaksas’ job more difficult by downgrading Sri Lanka’s ratings two notches, to Caa1, from B2. The global ratings agency pointed to wide budget deficits and external pressures from ballooning foreign debts.

Moody’s already considered Sri Lanakan government debt speculative and high risk before the downgrade.

The $88 billion economy, drained of income by the pandemic, is expected to shrink by 0.5% this year after growing 2.3% in 2019, its worst showing in nearly two decades. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt is $55 billion. “Combined with slower nominal GDP growth and a weaker exchange rate, the government’s debt burden will rise to around 100% of GDP, above the Caa-rated media of 86% of GDP,” Moody’s wrote.

The Rajapaksas’ allies argue that turning around the economy requires a strong president. “Foreign investors ask us if Sri Lanka has a 10-year plan and if it can guarantee 10 years of political stability and policy consistency,” Anura Fernando, general secretary of Viyathmaga, a network of professionals shaping Gotabaya’s policies, told Nikkei Asia. “We need one strong person making executive decisions as a way to build confidence and make Sri Lanka attractive for foreign investors.”

Local businesses share a similar sentiment in the wake of the “chaos and policy inconsistency” of the previous government. “A strong president and policy stability has worked thrice before after the ‘78 constitution,” said a well-connected business insider. “Those years we saw steady growth and foreign capital flowed in. It does where there is stability and opportunity. … That is a fact.”

Gotabaya is not waiting for the amendment. Frustrated by bureaucratic red tape that has come in the way of his plans for efficiency, he launched a broadside against officials who refused to act on his orders.

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has directed the officials to treat all verbal orders issued for the common good of the people as circulars to be implemented,” the president’s office said in a statement. “Those who neglect this will face stern action.” (Nikkei Asia)



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Toxic coconut oil scare trigger public wave of fear over aflatoxins in foodstuffs

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People now wary of buying certain products

By Suresh Perera

In the backdrop of a top official of Sri Lanka’s key standards body coming under heavy flak over her controversial claim that several other consumer commodities also contain toxic substances, public apprehension has shifted to many other products in the market following a wave of fear triggered over cancer-causing free radicals in foodstuffs, industry players said.

The Trade Ministry has already initiated a disciplinary inquiry into the assertion by Dr. Siddhika Senaratne, the Director-General of the Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI), that aflatoxins are also found in certain other food items sold to the public.

Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi found on agricultural crops.

As the SLSI scientist’s remarks during a television talk show ignited an uproar following the seizure of imported stocks of contaminated coconut oil, industry officials said that customers are now wary of purchasing certain food products as the social media, rightly or wrongly, painted a frightening picture, they said.

A committee will be appointed to examine Dr. Senaratne’s statement to ascertain the validity or otherwise of her claim of the presence of aflatoxins in some food products in the marketplace, authoritative sources said.

Though the Director-General didn’t identify any of the “toxic products” she claimed were being sold to consumers, her statement unleashed a cycle of fear and uncertainty as consumers, influenced largely by social media reports and hearsay, viewed many brands with suspicion, the sources noted.

However, there has been no credible scientific evidence so far to prove that products identified on social media contain carcinogenic properties, they said.

Dr. Senaratne’s contention was that identifying products with toxic substances could lead to the collapse of some local industries. The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) has been informed to take up the issue with the relevant manufacturers for remedial action, she said.

It is no secret that many mills use copra with fungus to extract coconut oil. The perishable copra is dried outdoors but there is no proper cleaning of the fungi, which are common under tropical and sub-tropical conditions, before the oil is extracted, industry officials said.

Has it been established whether the shiny wax coating used on apples as an oxygen barrier to preserve freshness, particularly in consignments imported from China, belong to the safe food grade material?, they asked.

In the case of apples imported to Sri Lanka from the USA, the whole process of orchard to point of landing take many weeks. It is true that fruits are stored in cold rooms to preserve quality and slow the aging process by regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. However, the question arises whether there are accredited processes to monitor the agro chemical and other toxic levels in imported apples and other varieties of fruits before permitting the stocks to be released to the local market, they noted.

Hoppers are a staple of Sri Lankan cuisine, but it’s common knowledge that many wayside eateries introduce plaster of paris (a quick-setting gypsum plaster consisting of a fine white powder known as calcium sulfate hemihydrate) to the batter to keep them fresh and crispy, the officials asserted.

“This is because customers insist on freshly baked hoppers and as a result, those that have gone flat cannot be sold”, they said.

Cleanliness of eateries is being monitored to some extent, but are there any quality checks for toxicity on the food served to customers?, they queried.

After the contaminated coconut oil scandal surfaced, people are reluctant to even buy traditional oil-based sweetmeats from the marketplace, they further said.

Unlike earlier years, there is a slump in sweetmeat sales, a supermarket official said. “Customers are wary about toxic coconut oil in the market”.

 

 

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Ceyleon Solutions launch Sparetime App to turn spare time into income

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Ceyleon Solutions, a leading mobile app solution provider, launched Sparetime (www.sparetime.lk), a special mobile app to make easy money using one’s spare time. This app helps to search for people providing domestic, official or personal services or earn an extra income by providing a wide range of services.

Services such as masonry, plumbing, computer related services, wholesale, distribution, medical & healthcare, teaching, legal, beauticians, cleaning, helping, babysitting and car wash can be either searched or provided using this app as it creates an online platform for such service providers and those who seek their services.

There are two apps compatible to android and apple phones, ‘Sparetime Provider’ for those who provide services and ‘Sparetime User’ for those who seek such services.

“This is an ideal option for those who find it difficult to make ends meet with their salaries. Using this app, they can make use of their spare time effectively to earn extra money. This creates a comprehensive service hub. For an example, a vegetable farmer can find both a whole seller and a transport service provider to transport his goods with just a click. Even students can find part time work for their financial needs”, said Chaminda De Silva, creator and owner of the Sparetime app.

“This app works as a platform for social workers to get together and mobilize people for tasks that they wish to perform. This is a very user friendly app. However, operating instructions can be obtained by calling our hotline 0706355450 or 0706355452. An instructor will come to help you if necessary”, he noted.

Regardless of being a service provider or a user, this app will be ideal. It will also pave the way to gradually reduce the unemployment rate in Sri Lanka and will subsequently contribute to the gross domestic product accelerating economic growth of Sri Lanka.

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“Zahran Hashim and his group were not Muslims; they hijacked the name of Islam to commit these crimes’

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Rishad Bathiudeen tells Parliament

The Muslims never called for separatism. The Muslims have been on the side of the nation for over 1,000 years in Sri Lanka as documented in the book of Dr. Lorna Devaraja titled, ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka – One Thousand Years of Ethnic Harmony’. Even when the Muslims were threatened with eviction or death from the North, they risked their lives and the lives of their loved ones to be on the side of the State, Rishad Bathiudeen, MP, said.

Speaking in English during the fifth day of the debate on the report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks in Parliament on April 7, he said: “Zahran Hashim and his group were not Muslims. They hijacked the name of Islam to commit these crimes. The report in Page 94 confirms that Zahran wanted to build tensions between the Sinhalese and Muslim Communities of Sri Lanka”.

The MP’s speech contained many points and references to matters in the report and events that transpired thereafter.

Some of the points raised by the MP were:

* The State is antagonizing the Muslim community in the manner that Zahran had wanted them to act. The State should not play to the tunes of Zahran. The State should not act in a way that would jeopardize national security. The State has already commenced the process of State sponsored oppression by prohibiting the import of Muslim books and are making plans to ban Niqabs/Burkas and Madrasas.

* The PCoI has exonerated Rishad Bathiudeen from all charges in connection with the Easter attacks. Only two charges remain to be investigated. First one is in relation to the phone call placed by Bathiudeen to then Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake, concerning Ihsan Moinudeen. Secondly, the sale of scrap metal by the Industrial Development Board to Colossus (Pvt) Ltd. Rishad Bathiudeen visited the Bribery Commission on 8th of April, 2021 to request them to investigate the allegation in the report.

 

* The weight placed on the phone call made by Rishad Bathiudeen to General Mahesh Senanayake, was given far higher significance in the report in comparison to the actions of Dayasiri Jayasekara who released six persons from the Hettipola Police Station who were involved in torching and destroying Muslim owned shops and Muslim places of worship. The Commission Report had recommended investigation into the phone call but had not charged Dayasiri on any matter.

 

* The Government cannot have a law banning the Niqab and Burka without also banning medical masks, helmets, sunglasses, etc.

* Restriction of Islamic books being brought into the country is a violation of the Constitution.

* Bathiudeen quoted Page 331 of the Report:‘Reciprocal radicalization is the cycle of radicalization which promotes each other’s radicalized ideologies’. If the Government can keep politicians like Wimal Weerawansa in check, the de-radicalization program will be half completed. He also said that inciting racism will only provoke and radicalize more Muslims.

 * Killing of Fouzul Ameer Mohamed Salley in Kottramulla before his children in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks, was Genocide under Article 2 of the Genocide Convention, and all persons who were inciting racism could be charged for incitement to genocide. Subsequent charges of oppression too can have a detrimental effect on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka must be careful as Sri Lanka is now a party to the Rome Statute and can be held accountable by the International Criminal Court.

 

* It was Azath Salley who indicated during a press conference concerning the criminal activities of Zahran Hashim in 2017, but he is alleged to have connections to the Easter Attacks. This is not fair. The Government is politically victimizing Muslims who are speaking up against the oppressive tactics of the Government.

* The One Country One Law Policy does not mean that Muslim Personal Laws alone should be targeted. Most people believe that Customary Laws should be removed. However, that logic would require the Government to abolish Provincial legislation too, as Provincial legislation is also territorially implemented and not countrywide. Several laws will have to be struck down. However, the right way of interpreting the One Country One Law policy would be to maintain all laws that are consistent with the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

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