The 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution is now done and dusted and given the comfortable majority, though technically not the required two thirds by a whisker, it has all the support it needs for comfortable passage. Since its gazetting on Friday, a period of two weeks must elapse before it can be included in the parliamentary order paper. A legal challenge can also be mounted against it in the short term. But given the scale of the massive victories scored by the incumbent government, both at the presidential election last November and the more recent parliamentary elections, there will be little fire and thunder in whatever resistance is attempted.
Ever since the parliamentary election and the massive and unexpected two thirds majority it brought President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country has been treated to a litany of how horrible the 19th Amendment was and more than an earful on everything that was wrong with it. But none of the pundits who have expounded long and loud against the amendment has explained why, if this were so, all but one of them (Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera) voted for it. Their lack of eloquence on this subject is truly deafening. True, despite the two third majority that the UPFA and its fellow-travelers enjoyed in the 2010 parliament, the stunning defeat of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 left the whole caboodle of them in total disarray. This left ample room for the winner to take all and that’s exactly what happened.
Such was the situation when the 2015 election result was declared that the new President Maithripala Sirisena was able to instal a minority government under Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe despite the fact that Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne was yet in office. So also the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, albeit for a day, before Justice K. Sripavan (who incidentally administered the oath of office of the new president as his predecessor was in the dog house) was appointed. The defeated president, who sought a third term in an endeavour that went sour, metaphorically placed the SLFP leadership crown on his successor’s head. No political or legal challenges were mounted and the winning side, flushed with a perhaps unexpected victory, did exactly as they pleased. And how!
The 19th Amendment certainly was not enacted for the good of the country. It was done to suit the needs and wishes of those who won the election as too many of our laws have been and will be in the future. However, 19A was not without some virtue with the best known plus factors including the restoration of the two-term limit on the presidency, which Mahinda Rajapaksa removed by virtue of a two thirds majority (necessary for constitutional changes) he did not win in the country but engineered through defections. Events proved that to be his undoing, but he to his eternal credit, was able to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. He refused to lie down and die as most would have given his situation. Like the proverbial tortoise, he withdrew into his shell during the aftermath of his defeat, to return vigorously to battle as the tide began to turn. Mercifully the two-term limit will remain under the new order. We don’t know whether there is an intention of going back to the previous age qualification of presidential contenders which was in 19A, obviously with Namal Rajapaksa in mind. It is no longer a necessity for a Rajapaksa dynasty as the years have since rolled by. Let us not forget that Namal himself voted for that amendment just as much as his father voted for 19A.
The Right to Information Act has also been applauded as a major achievement of the 19th Amendment. This too will remain, the people have been told. That is cause for applause although the Act itself was not used as effectively as it might have given the appalling state of governance in the country. Opponents of the proposed 20A are on record saying that several major democratic gains achieved through a mechanism of checks and balances like the independent commissions, are being done away with. There is no argument that President J.R. Jayewardene, intoxicated with the five sixth parliamentary majority he won in 1977, crafted the 1978 constitution to make himself the uncrowned head of Sri Lanka. He was fond of saying there was nothing he could not do except to make a man a woman or vice versa. He didn’t try to undertake that mission impossible although he did try to have two Members of Parliament representing Kalawana! But even that constitution, providing for the executive presidency in the manner of de Gaulle’s as many say, made fundamental rights justiciable. To give the devil his due, that was an enormous democratic gain.
In terms of the draft amendment, we are going to have a Parliamentary Council, instead of the Constitutional Council introduced by 19A. But this too, just like the other one. will be packed with politicians who are not exactly a breed that has endeared itself to the people. But the people themselves keep electing undesirables as we have seen over the years; and party hierarchies keep anointing them with their tickets regardless of loud (and useless) professions on their desire for good governance that has eluded us through the 42 years when we have had as many as 19 amendments to our constitution with the 20th in the pipeline. A correspondent, of Sri Lankan descent living in Washington, writing to this issue of our newspaper says that the American constitution written over 230 years ago has just 4,543 words and 27 amendments to date. Amen.
C4, Grease Yaka and Trojan horse
Monday 25th September, 2023
Channel 4’s recent programme on the Easter Sunday attacks may have made the Rajapaksas squirm and landed President Ranil Wickremesinghe in an awkward position, but former President Maithripala Sirisena has become an unintended beneficiary thereof. It could not have come at a better time for him; he has had to pay Rs 100 million as compensation to the families of the Easter Sunday terror victims, as per a court order, and the government is coming under increasing pressure to ensure that he faces criminal action for his failure to prevent the 2019 terrorist bombings, which took place when he was the President and Minister of Defence.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, has recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena. He is now at the mercy of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who can have him prosecuted anytime. He has therefore opted to hold out an olive branch to Wickremesinghe, whom he wronged very badly during the latter stages of the Yahapalana rule, and indicated his willingness to support the UNP; he has gone to the extent of ousting his sidekick, Dayasiri Jayasekera, as the SLFP General Secretary for opposing moves being made to bring the UNP and the SLFP together again.
Sirisena however has got one thing right. He has said an international probe into the Easter Sunday attacks will be fraught with the risk of adversely affecting Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and therefore what is needed is a thorough domestic investigation with foreign assistance and not a full-fledged international probe as such.
It is not possible that Channel 4 (C4) and those who are said to be behind its programme at issue are driven by a genuine desire to have justice served for the Easter Sunday carnage victims, for they had no qualms about backing Tiger terror, which claimed many more lives than the Easter Sunday attacks. Their real intention seems to be creating a precedent for international probes in Sri Lanka in a bid to achieve their goal of having a UN investigation conducted into alleged war crimes against the Sri Lankan military; C4 has craftily woven war crimes allegations into its programme on the Easter carnage. They have succeeded in making even the ardent opponents of the ongoing campaign for an international war crimes probe against Sri Lanka support their plan, albeit unwittingly.
The government however must not be allowed to use the possibility of the country having to face a UN war crimes probe, in case of an international investigation being held into the Easter Sunday attacks, to justify its unwillingness to have the carnage investigated afresh. Pressure must be amped up on it to launch a credible domestic probe into the Easter Sunday tragedy that shook the world. The Catholic Church and other campaigners for justice have had to call for an international probe because the unpardonable delay on the part of the government to complete the ongoing police investigations into the carnage, and implement the PCoI recommendations fully, is widely viewed as proof of a grand cover-up.
Sri Lankan politicians are adept at political escapism. They are as slippery as the so-called Grease Yaka (a naked voyeur or burglar, covered in grease, moving about at night), and capable of escaping capture when they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Otherwise, by now, most of them would have been behind bars for their crimes. It is thanks to their escape artistry skills that they have avoided prosecution for their serious lapses that enabled the National Thowheed Jamaat terrorists to carry out the Easter Sunday attacks with ease. They have artfully turned the C4 programme to their advantage!
Sirisena has attempted another escape stunt amidst pressure mounting on the government to have criminal proceedings instituted against him in keeping with the PCoI recommendations. He has used the C4 allegations to assail the validity of the PCoI probe and recommendations; his call for a fresh investigation with international assistance is aimed at further delaying the legal and judicial processes pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage.
When the PCoI final report became public in 2021, we argued that ideally a fresh probe had to be held based thereon, or if the government chose to implement its recommendations it had to do so expeditiously. If a thorough investigation had been launched at that time, it would have been possible to get at the truth and have justice served many moons ago. At least, the PCoI recommendations should have been implemented fully. Instead, the Rajapaksas opted to let the grass grow under their feet and thereby unwittingly helped bolster the claim that they were attempting a cover-up because they had a hand in the terror attacks. An ill repute is said to influence judgments.
How we must play the game
We are all familiar with the famous lines of American sportswriter Grantland Rice that “When the Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes not if you won or lost but how you played the game.” Well as far as we Sri Lankans are concerned, we played the game abysmally badly last Sunday when we took on India at the Asia Cup final under overcast conditions at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo.
The lines quoted above, of course, refers to sportsmanship. We were by no means unsporting and have never been so in the international sporting arena. Where we fell flat on our faces was how badly our team played last week to be scuttled out for a mere 50 runs in 15.2 overs to be trounced by 10 wickets.
The records show that this is not our worst ever performance in the white ball game. In 2012, a team that included greats like Mahela Jayawardena, Kumar Sangakkara, Tilakaratne Dilshan and Angelo Mathews was bowled out for a mere 43 runs in 20.1 overs in South Africa. Given that the most recent defeat came days after a nail-biting victory over Pakistan a few days earlier, it was doubly devastating for Lankan fans who paid an unusually high price – not set by us but by Pakistan hosting the tournament – to witness a debacle.
We have to face the fact that our cricket fans are champion cheer leaders when things go right and are quite the reverse when they go wrong as happened in the game against India last week. However, they are not guilty of torching players’ homes as had happened elsewhere. Allegations like match fixing, without a shred of evidence, abounded over the social media and there were demands that Dasun Shanaka who led our team be replaced as captain.
There is no debate that the cricket administration in the country has in recent year sunk to their lowest depths. This is an admitted fact and some halfhearted attempts have been made over the past decades to correct this situation. Gone are the days when people like Robert Senanayake, the younger son of the late Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, ran the affairs of the then Board of Control of Cricket in then Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka Cricket).
But even then, old timers may remember, when two of the selectors (both good cricketers) picked themselves for the team. Political interventions in cricket have both been for the good like Mr. Gamini Dissanayake winning us the right to play Test cricket and much more and for the bad of which less said the better.
Right now there is very little to be said for the administration and the method of its election. Suffice it be said that Muttiah Muralitharan, our all time great bowler, once said that he could contest any seat in the whole of the country and get elected but it was doubtful that he would get a single vote in a Cricket Board election!
Some on the Interim Boards have been led by unexceptionable people who accepted office not because they hankered for position but because they wanted to do what they could for the game and the country they loved. We’ve had reputed banker, Rienzie Wijetillake, who ran a tight ship and team managers of the calibre of Michael Tissera. There were others like well like Hemaka Amarasuriya and Vijaya Malalasekera. The other side of the coin does not bear examination.
The squad for the 2023 event that will get underway in three weeks’ time is not out yet and we shall know what is to be this time around in a couple of days. On Tuesday, the selectors had met other key stakeholders of the sport and had decided to replace Dasun Shanaka as captain. On Wednesday Dasun visited the High Performance Center at the Premadasa Stadium and had told fellow players that he was quitting. Then he went to Maitland Place for a meeting with the selectors at noon and found that they had made a complete about turn. What prompted the selectors to overturn their original decision? Were there sound cricketing reasons or were they pushed to make the change?
There has been a lot of pressure, inevitably aggravated by out dismal performance on Sunday that the captain, who on his current batting form does not seem to merit a place in the team, must be changed. But as the head coach, Chris Silverwood, said after the recent debacle: “There is much more to being the captain than just scoring runs. Dasun is a very good captain. He is respected by everyone in the dressing room. He understands the players and shows them a lot of love and support and that love and support is returned.”
That’s quite a mouthful. Together with the ground reality that changing the captain at this late stage carries its own considerable downside risk, sensible people will endorse the selectors volte face in going back on their instant reaction to the debacle in the India match. The fans too must realize that lady luck plays a big part in sporting matters. If we had lost the toss and India had chosen to bat as she well might have, events may have rolled in a different direction. However that be, let us give our lads a chance and wish them the very best in India next month. That’s how the game should be played.
Of that nasty set-to
Saturday 23rd September, 2023
Sri Lankan political leaders are known to exude piety from every pore and make it a point to be on their best behaviour when they appear in public. Clad immaculately in white, they speak in a measured tone, pretending that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths and quoting from various religious texts. Perhaps, during parliamentary debates, the Dhammapada is more quoted than the Constitution, or Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice. But these self-righteous worthies show their true colours when they fly into fits of rage. We saw them in action the other day.
Thursday’s parliamentary proceedings descended into a slanging match, with SJB MP and former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and ex-President Maithripala Sirisena trading allegations and insults liberally. The nasty set-to erupted when Fonseka accused Sirisena of having let the Easter Sunday carnage happen despite intelligence warnings in 2019, when the latter was the President.
He got Sirisena’s goat. Springing to his feet, an otherwise mild-mannered Sirisena launched into a tirade against Fonseka, and the duo got down and dirty. They slung mud at each other, presumably in the hope that some would stick, and what we witnessed in the House was like a barney in a shebeen.
Fonseka did not mince his words when he accused Sirisena and ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of having masterminded the Easter Sunday terror attacks with an eye to the last presidential election (2019). He claimed Sirisena had left the country in time for the terror attacks, which, he said, benefited Gotabaya politically and electorally. Sirisena shot back, with guns blazing, letting out a stream of invectives, and in a bid to question the credibility of Fonseka’s assertions, he said Fonseka, as the Army Commander, had failed to protect the Army Headquarters against the LTTE.
Referring to the 2006 LTTE suicide attack inside the Army Headquarters, Colombo, he described how Fonseka had been rushed to hospital in a very serious condition. His speech, replete with gory details of Fonseka’s wounds, was antithetical to civility. Such being the manner in which political leaders try to settle political scores and silence their opponents during parliamentary debates, why election campaigns where they go all out to retain or regain power turn out to be bloody is not difficult to understand.
The irony of Thursday’s venomous exchange between Sirisena and Fonseka may not have been lost on keen political observers. They were comrades in arms in the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, where Sirisena, who was the Opposition’s common candidate, came from behind to beat the then sitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Fonseka showed praise on Sirisena, and urged the public to vote for the latter to usher in good governance and have their lot improved. He played a pivotal role in the opposition alliance, which made Sirisena’s victory possible against tremendous odds. Sirisena hailed Fonseka as the best warrior Sri Lanka had ever produced and promoted him to the rank of Field Marshal amidst tut-tuts from the discerning public, who questioned the newly-elected President’s wisdom of creating such a high rank.
Thus, Fonseka, who was instrumental in having Sirisena elected President, cannot absolve himself of the blame for the latter’s serious lapses, including those which led to the Easter Sunday attacks, in 2019. Sirisena will have to explain why he elevated to the rank of Field Marshal someone who, he says, could not even protect the heavily-guarded Army Headquarters against the LTTE. They are apparently labouring under the mistaken belief that they can go on duping the public with their claims and counterclaims.
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