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Super powers of 20th Amendment do not negate need to dialogue

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By Jehan Perera

The passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution has taken place at a time of unprecedented crisis in the country. The sudden surge in Covid spread is deeply traumatizing to people who had grown complacent that this was a problem that afflicted foreign countries. It is important that the government should retain public confidence with regard to Covid control as confidence in the government is a prerequisite to meeting other national challenges. One such is the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The United States has made clear its unhappiness with Sri Lanka’s growing economic dependence on China and has offered its support for a more sustainable and transparent development process. It is to be hoped that the passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution will now permit the government leadership to focus its attention on the multiple crises that besiege the country.

For the past months since it surfaced as a draft, the government leadership had been giving it priority attention to garnering support for the legislation in the face of mounting challenges. Despite securing an enormous majority of seats in parliament, and only five short of an outright 2/3 majority required for constitutional change there were times when the challenge seemed too big to accomplish. The peculiar feature of the 20th Amendment was that it called on the parliamentarians to voluntarily give up their existing powers as a collective and entrust it to the presidency. The unexpectedly forthright critique of the 20th Amendment by top ranking religious clergy and by prestigious associations such as the Bar Association created a momentary doubt about the prospects of the government obtaining the 2/3 majority.

The doubts about the passage of the amendment increased further when an internal critique also simultaneously emerged from within the ruling party. If the government had failed to obtain the 2/3 majority to pass the 20th Amendment due to an internal revolt by some of its members, the situation that would have arisen might have been like that which existed between the years 2015-19. During that period the coalition government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena who headed the SLFP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who headed the UNP failed to collaborate with each other which led to governmental drift and a failure to resolve problems. The continuing public support to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is on account of his reputation for being decisive. It is also necessary that his team takes decisions that are in the best interests of the country.

 

PERSONALISED DECISIONS

The 19th Amendment which was the most significant legislation prior to the 20th, and which obtained near unanimous assent in parliament, reduced presidential powers and shared them with other state institutions. As a result of equalizing powers within the executive branch of government between the president and prime minister, it paved the way for conflict between the president and prime minister. This led to the irresponsible neglect of national security, which neither the president nor prime minister taking full responsibility for it, which culminated in the atrocious security breach on Easter Sunday 2019. The massive victory obtained by the present government, which mirrored the defeat suffered by the previous government, can be attributed to the failure of the power sharing scheme presented by the 19th Amendment.

The passage of the 20th Amendment has almost completely rolled back the power sharing arrangements of the 19th Amendment and will ensure the reality of a decisive government that is unfettered by checks and balances. This amendment will give back to the presidency almost all of the powers that were vested in it by the 1978 constitution in its original formulation. It might be recalled that the architect of that constitution, former President J R Jayewardene once described it as giving the president the power to be free from the “whims and fancies of parliament” as he put it. President Jayewardene sought cohesive and strong powers to take the decisions that had to be taken for the long term gain of the country. However, it would be prudent to remember that the super powers that he assumed to himself were not able to stop and indeed contributed to the events of 1983 and the armed conflict and subsequently also the resurgence of JVP violence.

Armed with the powers that the 1978 constitution originally envisaged, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to seek to directly implement development and problem solving activities in the country. The president has already showed his impatience with existing systems by going on surprise visits to government institutions and trying to put things right. He has also stated that his verbal orders should be considered by government officials to be actionable in the same way as written circulars. He has also appointed a plethora of retired military personnel to senior position in the public administration. There will, however, be dangers to be guarded against. Mixing civilians systems of administration with military systems is unlikely to work effectively. Military systems are essentially top-down with orders being expected to be followed without question.

 

PROBLEMSOLVING VISION

By way of contrast, civilian systems are consultative, as civilian issues need to accommodate a diversity of perspectives and multiple interests. The system of checks and balances evolved out of the experience of power being utilized to satisfy narrow interests rather than broader interests. There are many challenges that the government has to take up including the escalating Covid spread, which is now emerging as community transmission, and its impact on the poor and marginalized, economic hardships that affect the majority of people, the mounting foreign debt and threats to national sovereignty resulting from this and repatriation of our migrant workers. In the face of these unprecedented crises both government and opposition parliamentarians need to dialogue before decisions are made and those with proven competence from professional fields are made part of this dialogue.

 

There is also the question of problem solving vision. With the passage of the 20th Amendment the presidency will wield enormous powers. Unless presidential leadership is utilized to resolve long standing issues made unresolvable by partisan politics such as the ethnic conflict and politicization of the public service, this will be another lost opportunity among many lost opportunities. A modern state that incorporates a nationally designed reconciliation process in which equal citizenship and inclusive development leaves out no section or part of the country needs to be the goal. A significant number of parliamentarians representing ethnic and minority parties, voted in favour of the 20th Amendment. If not for the support of ethnic minority parliamentarians who broke ranks from their party leaderships to give their support to the government a 2/3rd majority required for constitutional change may not have been a reality.

The drafting of a new constitution for which the government has called for public representations offers an opportunity to ensure values that will have the support of all sections of ethnic and religious communities living in Sri Lanka. Attempts at formulating a new constitution have been long drawn and not finalized in the recent past. The current attempt should not suffer the same fate in respect of the time taken and the failure to present a final draft due to divergent political responses. Especially in a plural society, such as Sri Lanka’s, dialogue and inclusion are more likely to lead to sustainable solutions than imposed solutions. Although such a process can take more time, it is essential for democratic problem solving with all stakeholders being made part of the solution. It is useful to recall the president’s pledge shortly after he took his oaths, that he was the president of all Sri Lankans and not only those who voted for him. It is also useful to recall President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s motto of the 3 Cs, consultation, compromise and consensus. These are two visionary statements of two presidents that will stand the test of time.

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Scholar, Advisor, Innovator and Great Friend

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by AUSTIN FERNANDO

Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, son of Queen’s Counsel NE Weerasooria, studied at Royal College, and entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and won Harvard Memorial Prize and the Governor General’s Prize. He graduated in Law from Peradeniya, with First-Class Honours, and was later called to the Bar, as an Advocate.

I have known and associated with Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria in different capacities. First, I knew him as a pioneer Law Educator at Vidyodaya University. His students at Vidyodaya, and later even at the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, recall how he lectured, without even a short note in hand, attracting students’ attention, and enthusiasm. Additionally, he focused on teaching Commercial, Administrative, and Constitutional laws, and published texts in Sinhala, one on the Law of Contracts, another on Commercial Law.

His vast knowledge as an author was exhibited, mostly in Banking Law. Some of his publications were on Australian banking systems. Later, he delved into Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, which produced a monumental work and a Treatise on Sri Lankan Statute Law and Judicial Decisions on Buddhist Temples and Temporalities.

His book ‘The Law Governing Public Administration in Sri Lanka,’ is a text that must be read by all public administrators and politicians. Whilst at Monash University, he wrote ‘Links between Sri Lanka and Australia: A Book about Sri Lankans (Ceylonese) in Australia’, dealing with Sri Lanka- Australia links.

With President JR Jayewardene in Office, Wickrema was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation– a completely different role for him in public service. Working with him was also a novel experience and challenge for officers too, since he pushed them to the deep end to make quick, practical, non-traditional, sometimes unsavoury decisions for the benefit of the public.

He was the innovator of Integrated Rural Development Projects, for which he harnessed foreign assistance, and a performer, evaluator, programmer, and institution builder, proven by the establishment of Secretariats for Women, Children, Fertilizer, Nutrition, Population under his Ministry.

Sri Lanka Planning Service was made a professional service in 1985, for which the initiatives and support given by Wickrema were substantial. Accordingly, planners were made responsible for planning to achieve the goals of the respective institutions, formulate policies, strategies, and evaluate the development projects and programmes.

Wickrema was responsible for enhancing human resources among cadres through foreign exposures, which culminated with some officers obtaining post-graduate degrees, some even PhDs, and reaching apex ranks in public services, i.e. Secretaries of Ministries.

Specifically, his contribution to my work when I served as Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya was substantial. He was the guide, mentor, and sometimes savior. His involvement was on behalf of his brother-in-law Minister Gamini Dissanayake. Wickrema was instrumental in planning Nuwara Eliya through the establishment of Nuwara- Eliya Development Commissioners Committee, where I served as Chairman, with professionals as Commissioners. The initial planning was done by the Urban Development Authority.

He was the key organizer of the Spring Festival in Nuwara-Eliya. I remember how he planned the city and revived the Car Racing event, after a lapse of some years. I remember Upali Wijewardena taking part in the first motor car road race. The new Motor-Cross racing event on the newly constructed track was added to the Mahagastota Hill Climb for motor racers. Motor-Cross racing spread to other areas later. He attended these events and enjoyed the great company.

A little-known fact about Wickrema is that the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind (as President) and Sri Lanka Federation of the Blind (as Advisor) still appreciate his services rendered to the blind community, especially in resource mobilization and housing.

He was a person with subtle wit and humour. While teaching, he used this talent, as a student has reminisced, for “easing the pressure and stress of learning.” His lighter vein utterances and behaviour in groups made him a more sought-after teacher, friend, relative, colleague, and boss. His wit and humour depicted by cartoons in political campaigning, (i.e. The Family Tree), left an indelible mark in canvassing votes at the 1977 Elections. It is recycled even today, making Wickrema’s talent eternal.

I am reminded that even regarding efficiency creation he had humorous comments. I remember his “evaluation of the efficiency” of public officers. He used to quip that when asked to produce relevant documentation within two days to send an officer on a foreign scholarship, knowing it would take weeks, he would swear with utmost certainty that the officer would fulfill the requirement within two days. The best litmus test of the efficiency of an officer is the offer of a foreign scholarship! He lamented that such efficiency is lacking to serve the people.

I have a personal regret. Just before I left for India as High Commissioner, he promised to visit me in Delhi with his dear wife Rohini, which he could not fulfill, bidding adieu in weeks. Hence, I missed his company, advice, wit, and humor before departure.

I may say, he was a great student, scholar, academic, educator, public officer, diplomat, social worker, an advisor, innovator, and above all a great friendly human being, who enjoyed life and made others enjoy too, with his friendship, and camaraderie. Sadly, we will miss him forever.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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Ethiopia: War in Tigray

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By Gwynne Dyer

“Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat,” said Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in June 2018, shortly after surviving a grenade attack at a rally in Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa. How was he to know that just thirty months after saying that he would have to stop loving and start killing?

That’s the problem with being a reforming zealot who becomes Prime Minister: you have to deal with some really stubborn people, and sometimes it’s hard to shift them without a resort to force. That’s why Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray state on 4 November, and so far it’s been doing very well.

“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks, finishing the battle in the mountainous areas, and advancing to the fields,” Col. Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on 22 November.

Here we are only less than two weeks later, and the federal government’s troops have already captured Mekelle, a city of half a million people that is Tigray’s capital. It’s not clear how many people were hurt or killed in the fighting, but it went so fast that the butcher’s bill can’t be all that high.

In fact, it has all gone so well that Abiy Ahmed’s soldiers are probably thinking they might be home in time for Christmas. When Col. Dejene talked about “finishing the battle in the mountainous areas and advancing to the fields,” however, he was talking about the nine-tenths of Tigray that has seen no federal government troops at all, or at most a brief glimpse as they passed through.

Tigray is exactly the size of Switzerland, with about the same ratio of mountains to fields (although the mountains are somewhat lower). In other words, it is ideal guerilla territory, and a high proportion of the seven million Tigrayans are rural people who know the land. Moreover, they have long experience in fighting the central government’s troops.

That was the old central government, of course: the Communist dictatorship called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, that murdered the emperor and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1977 to 1991.

Tigrayans were the first ethnic group to rebel against Mengistu’s rule. They are only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most effective of the ethnically-based rebel groups that finally defeated the Derg.

The federal government that took over afterwards, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was formally a multi-ethnic alliance. In practice, however, TPLF cadres controlled most senior posts and prospered greatly as a result – a situation that continued until the EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed prime minister in 2018.

It was a non-violent revolution, conducted not in the streets but in ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Abiy was the ideal candidate: in religion and ethnicity he is Ethiopian everyman, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother. (In person he is Pentecostal Christian, and very devout.)

As a young man Abiy fought in the war against Eritrea; he has served as a senior intelligence official and knows where the bodies are buried; he is well educated and speaks Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya and English fluently. His first and most important job was to prise the fingers of the Tigrayan elite off the levers of government without a civil war.

Unfortunately, Abiy’s approach – merging all the parties based on the various ethnic militias into a single ‘Prosperity Party’ – didn’t work. The resentful TPLF cadres refused to join, and gradually withdrew to their heartland in Tigray. They don’t yet openly advocate secession, but they do point out that they have that right under the current federal constitution.

Whether or not the shooting war began with an unprovoked attack by the Tigrayan militia on the federal army’s base in Mekelle at the start of last month, as Abiy’s spokesmen claim, it was bound to end up here. All Tigray’s cities have now been taken by federal troops, but almost none of the rural areas.

This could be a brilliant victory for the federal troops that puts a swift end to the fighting. It’s more likely to be the result of a decision by the TPLF leadership to skip the conventional battles they were almost bound to lose, and go straight to the long and bloody guerilla war that they might eventually win.

That would mean secession, in the end, for they can never win power back in Addis Ababa. The risk is that if the war goes on long enough, other major ethnic groups may break away from Ethiopia as well. Abiy’s loosening of the tight centralised control that prevailed under the emperor, the Derg and the TPLF has already unleashed ethnic and sectarian violence that has rendered 2 million Ethiopians homeless.

Abiy recently got a PhD in peace and security studies from Addis Ababa University, but he’ll be concentrating on the ‘security’ part for the foreseeable future.

 

 

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Safety Equipment and Procedures and Exploding Fire Extinguishes

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by Capt. G A Fernando MBA

gafplane@sltnet.lk

RCyAF, SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA, SriLankan Airlines

Former SEP instructor/ Examiner Air Lanka

By law the Regulator Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) requires all Airline Crew to annually undergo continuous training and achieving proficiency in Safety Equipment and Procedures (SEP). At the end of the training, also answer a written examination to prove to all and sundry that the particular Flight Crew Member has sufficient SEP knowledge to continue serving in the Cabin or Flight Deck of that Airline, for another year. The SEP questions were relatively easy (no tricks) but each crew member had to score over 80% and carry out mandatory, practical proficiency tests such as operation of aircraft doors and Emergency exits, conduct evacuations, Life Raft operations (in the swimming pool), know the location and use of emergency equipment such as megaphones, Crash Axes, Asbestos Gloves, Emergency Locater Transmitters (ELT’s), the administration of Oxygen, First Aid and use of equipment such as smoke hoods and fire extinguishers to combat Cabin smoke and Fires, The airline is usually delegated to carry out these duties and functions at the behest of the Civil Aviation Authority.

The first year after Air Lanka was established (September 1979), crew members had to go to Singapore Airlines or get the instructors across to Colombo to carry out these checks on behalf of Air Lanka. After about the second year of existence, it was decided that a team SEP instructors/ examiners would be appointed ‘in house’ to carry out this training and mandatory checks. Three of us from the ‘Flight Deck’ crew were appointed to the team. They were First Officer Elmo Jayawardene, Flight Engineer Gerrard Jansz and yours truly. We had, had some experience in crew SEP training in Air Ceylon.

We were sent to the British Airways (BA) Flight Training (Cranebank), UK, during our regular stay overs in London, to undergo refresher training, so that we could incorporate some of the BA curricula in our own (Air Lanka) programs. The then Air Lanka Manager Operations had been an ex BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Captain. As a direct result of our visit to BA, the then airline doctor (Dr Mrs Sherene Wilathgamuwa) was inducted to the SEP team to lecture the ‘troops’ on not only First Aid but also on delivering babies, with limited facilities on board!  I believe that this information has been extremely useful many times during the last 40 years of Air Lanka. This was not taught to us in Air Ceylon. The training curriculum was developed by the SEP team.  

The early days of Air Lanka wasn’t easy. While an operational profit was made, the ‘debt servicing’ put an unbearable strain on the overall profitability. We had neither a designated training department nor proper equipment. Our ‘wet drill’ constituted jumping into the pool in shirts and trousers for the boys and ‘made up’ Sarees without the ‘fall’ for the Girls, wearing life jackets of course. Initially the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Katunayake pool was used and subsequently the pools of the two hotels down Katunayake airport road were used till Air Lanka got its own pool. We didn’t even have a permanently deployed Slide/ Raft either for teaching purposes. It all cost money. I was the Instructor in charge of the ‘wet drill’. In contrast SIA I worked for subsequently, had a pool with a ‘wave maker’ to give a realistic experience. There was no doubt Air Lanka at that point of time was ‘pinching pennies’ where crew SEP training was concerned.

To provide fire fighting experience to the Flight Crews we were forced to use regular Industrial Fire Extinguishing equipment to keep the costs down. That was acceptable since the basic fire fighting principles were the same. The fire fighting part of the training was carried out by the Ground Safety Section Instructors who were mainly ex SLAF types. A few months before, Lalantha one of the Chief Stewards was practicing the use of a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extinguisher on a fire and the extinguisher exploded and flew off his hand, narrowly missing Leone who was just behind him. The on-board extinguishers were much smaller, lighter and more manageable than the industrial ones. A complaint was filed by me, but treated by the ‘Management’ as a one off case! It seemed as if one swallow doesn’t make a summer!  The extinguisher had been certified as serviced. The Administrative Executive in charge of SEP those days was a young man who had a degree in Marine Biology and perhaps was clueless on safety issues and couldn’t champion our cause.  We were all part time Instructors.

The annual recurrent training programme took two days. On one particular day, Chief Stewardess Jayantha and I were the instructors in charge. When it came to the Fire Fighting exercise, we handed over students of our class to the Air Lanka Ground Instructors and proceeded to the parking apron (opposite the Terminal Building), to check out a Lockheed L1011 ‘Tri-Star’ aircraft which was newly leased, by Air Lanka. It was a pre-owned, aircraft that had arrived the day before. Unfortunately, the locations of and the make of emergency equipment in the same type of aircraft (L-1011) differed from airline to airline. Therefore in the name of air safety and standardisation, it was important to resolve matters before the said aircraft saw service on the line on regular revenue flight services. It was a big deal as all Flight Crew had to know by memory as to where the specific locations of safety equipment were, so that when a ‘push’ came to a ‘shove’, no time would be wasted by the crew members involved, looking for these essential items. It could be a matter of life and death.

 I was not too happy sending the participant boys and girls by themselves for fire fighting and had an uneasy feeling. On other hand, our task too was also extremely important. So it was a case of ‘risk management’ and gave in. 

While we were checking out the new addition to our L 1011 Tri-Star fleet, we received a frantic message saying that another water type extinguisher had exploded and the injured had been removed to the Air Force Hospital across the runway to the Northern side.

Jayantha and I rushed to the SLAF Base Hospital in her ‘Mini -moke’ the long way around, up the Airport Road and via the 20th milepost main entrance along the Negombo road and found two crew members injured and in shock. Steward Senaka who had got the wheel shaped handle smack on his face, had injuries in the same shape and Naomal too had some minor injuries. We were assured by the Air Force doctor, Dr Narmasena Wickremasinghe that injuries were not too serious. We stayed there till the arrival of the next of kin who had been informed and went back to Office to meet Mr Wilmot Jayewardena, the Air Lanka Senior Manager Inflight Services.

When Jayantha and I sheepishly walked into his office he gave us the silent treatment initially and then softly declared that being responsible for the wellbeing of the participants, at least one of us Instructors should have been present when fire fighting was going on, even under the supervision of the Ground Safety Instructors. We accepted our mistake and defused the situation. When I look back now I am amazed as to how we coped with such limited resources to keep the National Carrier going. Safety Experts today, recommend that during risky activity, we should trust our ‘gut feeling’. It is usually correct as there is a connection between the brain and the gut resulting in feelings like ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Needless to say the lesson was learnt.  

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