Tuesday 4th August, 2020
The Attorney General’s Department has caused quite a stir; it says it can seek the assistance of the armed forces to execute arrest warrants in case the police fail to do so. Deputy Solicitor General Dileepa Peiris made a statement to that effect, at a media briefing, on Friday, as we reported yesterday. The consternation of the state prosecutor and his staff is understandable. The police, more often than not, run around like headless chickens when arrest warrants are issued while suspects are absconding. But they promptly arrest ordinary people who happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Tainted Negombo Prison Superintendent Anuruddha Sampayo, whose arrest the Negombo Magistrate’s Court ordered was at large for several days before surrendering to the police. If the CID cannot arrest an ordinary suspect like a prison officer until he surrenders, how can we expect it to deal with terrorists? No wonder Zahran and his fellow terrorists prepared and executed their plans with ease.
The military has already been tasked with performing police duties. The traffic police have manifestly failed to bring order out of chaos on roads. What they practise is traffic control and not traffic management, and they believe in the imposition of fines on errant motorists rather than making timely interventions to prevent transgressions that cause accidents. Their incompetence and the attendant mayhem prompted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to order that the Military Police be deployed to help the police make roads less chaotic. Now, there is the presence of both traffic police and military police on roads, but congestion is far from over.
There may be situations where the police need the assistance of the armed forces to make arrests, given the power of the netherworld of crime and narcotics. The police had their work cut out in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, last year, and the security forces moved in to raid terrorist hideouts and neutralise threats effectively. But it defies understanding why the military should be deployed when the police fail to carry out their duties and functions under normal circumstances. The CID should be ashamed of its failure to trace the absconding prison officer.
It is not seldom that politicians shield offenders, preventing the police from arresting them. In March, the Colombo Fort Chief Magistrate issued warrants for the arrest of 10 suspects wanted in connection with the Treasury bond scams. The police arrested only one of them and others went into hiding. It was obvious that the CID did not want to go the whole hog to trace the rest due to political pressure. Subsequently, the suspects surrendered to court. Not even an entire army division would have been able to arrest the suspects with political connections.
The Colombo Municipal Council is full of shirkers paid with public funds. They do not clean drains or maintain public spaces. The military is deployed to do their work while they are paid for doing nothing. Municipal workers are responsible for keeping cities and towns clean, but workers have to be hired to remove election posters, cutouts, etc., and the public has to foot the bill.
The keenness of the AG’s Department to have arrest warrants executed expeditiously is to be appreciated, but the solution to the problem of dereliction of duty on the part of the police is not to deploy the military to do constabulary duties. What are the police there for if their work is to be outsourced? The solution, we believe, is to take punitive action against the police officers who fail to carry out court orders. The AG’s Department can report such errant officers to the National Police Commission, or courts themselves can take action against them. It is unfair to keep flogging the willing horse––the security forces.
Numbers, power and brains
Wednesday 23rd September, 2020
The SLPP juggernaut is bearing down on democracy. The 20th Amendment (20A) Bill was presented to Parliament, yesterday, amidst protests from the Opposition benches. The government has 150 MPs on its side, and is confident that they will vote for the Bill en bloc. Some of them are disgruntled because they have been left out of the Cabinet but they are likely to be appointed ministers when the Bill is passed and the Cabinet expanded.
The Old Fox would guffaw in his grave if he could see those who once condemned his Constitution and called him a dictator going all out to enhance the powers of the executive presidency; 20A would make him green with envy. What a political dog and pony show they put on, under UNP governments (1978-1994), to have the masses believe that the executive presidency was a scourge that had to be removed forthwith! They even undertook to abolish it, contested presidential elections and obtained mandates for doing that, but they reneged on their pledges. Most of the protesting SJB MPs were ardent supporters of the executive presidency while UNP leaders were wielding it and abusing its powers. There has been a role reversal.
Following the 2015 regime change, many thought that the former leaders, who later formed the SLPP, had learnt from their blunders. It looked as if the collective pratfall they suffered had had the desired impact on them, and they had realised the need to act with restraint, upholding democratic values. But, today, they are practising the very obverse of what they preached during their Opposition days. Power has gone to their heads. Those who were intoxicated with power while in the yahapalana government have taken up the cudgels for the people’s democratic rights. This is why we keep saying, ‘Mole thiyanakota bale ne, bale thiyanakota mole ne’—‘when one has brains one has no power’, and when one has power one has no brains.
Let the protesting Opposition MPs be told that they, too, are guilty of having raped democracy. They, as members of the yahapalana government, unflinchingly steamrollered bad Bills through. The Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill of 2017 is a case in point. They stuffed it with sections sans judicial sanction, at the committee stage, to postpone the PC polls indefinitely and secured its passage. It is their arrogance and blunders that enabled the SLPP to win a two-thirds majority at the last general election hands down. Their ugly past and hypocrisy will make it difficult for them to drum up public support for their campaign against 20A, as we argued in a previous comment.
The Executive President, directly elected by the people, should have enough powers to carry out his duties and functions, but the sky is not the limit. He should be able to hold the Defence portfolio as he is responsible for safeguarding national security. The 19th Amendment reduced the Executive President to a virtual figurehead so that the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could reign supreme. The 20A seeks to make the President extremely powerful so that the PM will be powerless again. Both these extremes must be avoided and a via media found. One can only hope that the government will listen to reason and agree to amend the Bill.
There is much more to democracy than parliamentary majorities. If all laws ratified with two-thirds majorities are to be considered legitimate and acceptable, then one cannot find fault with the 1978 Constitution, which was passed with a five-sixth majority in the House; similarly, the SLPP leaders should stop complaining about 19A, which all MPs save one voted for in 2015.
Meanwhile, one may recall that the Enabling Act (1933), which paved the way for Hitler’s dictatorship, was also backed by the German lawmakers overwhelmingly. Only the Chairman of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels, had the courage to oppose that draconian law. If only others had emulated him.
‘Diyawanna Post Office’
Tuesday 22nd September, 2020
Former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has warned that the proposed 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, if passed, will reduce Parliament to a mere post office. One cannot but agree with him that 20A seeks to strengthen the position of the President at the expense of Parliament, and everything possible should be done to prevent its passage in its present form.
However, it is doubtful whether the Opposition and the civil society outfits backing it will be able to drum up enough public support for their campaign against 20A by merely highlighting what is likely to befall the legislature, for people do not care whether Parliament will be reduced to a post office or not; such is their disillusionment with the national legislature. Parliament has not lived up to the expectations of the public. While people are struggling to find turmeric, which is in short supply, due to a ban the government has imposed on spice imports, among other things, to save foreign exchange, it has been reported that the MPs will be given duty free vehicle permits soon.
When the Prime Minister and the President happen to represent different political parties, the former becomes more powerful than the latter owing to flaws in the present Constitution. This, we have seen thrice since the introduction of the presidential system of government, in 1978. Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga emerged stronger than President D. B. Wijetunge, in 1994. They, however, cooperated. But the country found itself in chaos when the Prime Ministers and the Presidents came from different political parties.
From 2001 to 2004, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) undermined the position of President Chandrika Kumaratunga (PA). He went so far as to sign a disastrous ceasefire agreement with the LTTE without the President’s knowledge. The 2001 regime change also led to the divestiture of some state-owned cash cows such as Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. The LTTE consolidated its power and made preparations for its final war.
The country suffered again when the Prime Minister became more powerful than the President, in 2015, owing to the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution. PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena were at loggerheads. The President’s position became so weak that the then Speaker Jayasuriya refused to carry out presidential orders during an abortive constitutional coup in 2018. The biggest ever financial crime—the bond scam—was committed while the legislature was stronger than the Executive. Then came the Easter Sunday bombings, which snuffed out more than 250 lives and left hundreds of others injured besides dealing a body blow to the economy. What has transpired so far before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing those terror strikes shows that national security was in the hands of a bunch of total misfits from 2015 to 2019. It was only natural that the people wanted a strong President to bring order out of chaos and elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
We do not argue that the people’s lot improves when the PM happens to play second fiddle to the President. The point we are trying to make is that even the PMs who could act independently succumbed to the arrogance of power and bulldozed their way through, giving the lie to the claim that the interests of the people are better served when Parliament is strengthened.
The success of any protest campaign hinges on the ability of its organisers to mobilise the public. Those who have taken it upon themselves to spearhead the campaign against 20A are the ones who had 19A tailored to further their political interests and, therefore, failed to convince the public that the powers of Parliament had to be restored to ensure checks and balances and better governance. The incumbent government is craftily using the bunglings of the previous dispensation to bolster its claim that the country needs an extremely powerful President, and 20A is the only way to achieve that end.
The ongoing campaign against 20A is characterised by a severe trust deficit, which the Opposition has failed to overcome. Sri Lankan intelligentsia is divided along party lines, and this has stood in the way of the formation of public opinion on some crucial issues. The government has managed to confine the issue of 20A to the political front, where it is strong. But let the SLPP leaders be urged to learn from their past mistakes and refrain from steamrollering 20A through. They had better remember that they employed the same method to secure the passage of the 18th Amendment but lost power about four years later, in January 2015.
Patriotism, hypocrisy and croc tears
Monday 21st September, 2020
The government has taken on UNHRC Chief Michelle Bachelet for her criticism of the 20th Amendment (20) to the Constitution. It has dismissed her concerns as unfounded. The Opposition seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the rap on the knuckles the government has received in Geneva.
True, 20A in its present form is a draconian Bill, which, if enacted, will jeopardise democracy, but the question is whether the UNHRC is genuinely interested in protecting human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka. The UN human rights arm is a puppet of the western governments that have weaponised human rights, so to speak, to achieve their geo-strategic and economic goals. It did not call for action against terrorism which plagued this country.
It stands to reason that 20A should be attenuated substantially or rejected. But the UNHRC protests will only help the government drum up support at home for the Bill. In fact, the UNHRC is one of the international institutions that, in a manner of speaking, made the SLPP’s stunning electoral win possible. It will be counterproductive for the Opposition to hitch its wagon to the UNHRC or the western members of the international community.
Sri Lanka’s response to the UNHRC chief was not satisfactory. It should have asked her whether she had studied 20A, which she was criticising. For our money, she has not even seen it. One should read and understand the 1978 Constitution, the 17th Amendment, the 18th Amendment and the 19th Amendment before commenting on 20A. The UNHRC head has apparently gone by hearsay.
The government says the people have given it a mandate to do away with 19A. This is as much of a falsehood as the late J. R. Jayewardene’s claim, in 1977, that the people had given the UNP a five-sixths majority to write a Constitution, which he used to suppress democracy and act according to his whims and fancies. People voted overwhelmingly for the SLPP because they were fed up with the yahapalana government, which bungled on all fronts and, above all, compromised national security. There was no need for anyone to topple that administration; it was collapsing. The SLPP regime is misinterpreting its mandate in a bid to bulldoze its way through. Will anyone sane who voted for the SLPP at the last general election ever want the Auditor General’s powers reduced and constitutional safeguards in place to prevent corruption done away with? Who will want a jumbo Cabinet or a President with powers to do anything except making a man a woman and vice versa?
The need is for 20A to be defeated without the help of meddlesome foreign governments, etc., unless it is revised. This is the uphill task before the SJB-led Opposition, which should not play into the hands of the government by trying to internationalise the issue. Its leaders have to stop talking nineteen to the dozen, win over the public and launch an effective campaign against 20A. The SLPP’s strong point is its brand of patriotism, which it markets very effectively to further the interests of its leaders. Proving that the government is not as patriotic as it makes itself out to be and hides its true intentions behind the façade of patriotism is half the battle in making the public realise the need to oppose 20A in its present form.
The SJB has its work cut out to win public trust, given the presence of many undesirables such as the associates of bond scammers within its ranks. But there is one way it could turn the tables on the government. The latter is blowing hot and cold on the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, which it condemned as a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while it was in the Opposition. The SJB can submit a parliamentary motion calling for rejecting the aforesaid compact so that the government leaders will have to back it or be exposed for their hypocrisy. After all, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has declared that he protested against the proposed MCC deal while he was a member of the yahapalana Cabinet and is opposed to it. He should get cracking.
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