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Editorial

The Colombo Port City

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However hard the government tries to claim that it won a famous victory in getting through the legislature the controversial Colombo Port City Bill, now an Act of Parliament following its certification last week by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the fact remains that the Supreme Court (SC) found as many as 25 of its 74 clauses in conflict with the constitution. This is more than a third of the Bill that was originally presented and has been described as a “stinging rebuke” by critics. The SC held that many of the clauses, if not amended, required a two thirds majority of the House for their enactment; and there were others that required both the special majority plus the people’s consent at a referendum. It goes unsaid that the government will under no circumstances wade into a referendum. If we by some miracle have one, people will not bother about any Port City question that is put. They will vote on whether they do or do not want the incumbent government to remain in office. That is reason enough for any government to avoid referendums like the plague.

As promised, the impugned clauses were amended in line with SC guidelines to pass muster. After that, there was no need for the two thirds majority – which the government failed to get by a single vote – or any referendum. Readers will remember the one referendum we had was when the J.R. Jayewardene government asked the people to vote for either the ‘pot’ or the ‘lamp’ to indicate whether they consented to extend the massive mandate JRJ won in 1977. He asked for authority to continue to hold, without an election, the five sixths majority he won in that unprecedented landslide. That was in 1982 and the then incumbent Parliament got six more years without an election. There were numerous allegations that the referendum was rigged but nothing was proved. But it was as clear as daylight to anybody with eyes to see that the prohibition on the display of symbols was flagrantly violated.

It is true that JRJ applied some whitewash over this highly undemocratic act of canceling an election. He did that by requiring sitting ruling party MPs who could not carry their constituencies when he sought re-election (actually a misnomer as we will presently explain) in 1982 and the referendum that followed some weeks later. The misnomer is that he was not elected president in 1977. He was elected prime minister and was later “deemed” president by his 1978 constitution creating the executive presidency. Even in the whitewashing, there was dilution. Then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel was exempted from facing a by-election and moved from Devinuwara to Bulathsinhala and no by-election was held at Panadura, out of the fear of Dr. Neville Fernando elected on the UNP ticket in 1977, who later resigned from Parliament following differences of opinion with the president.

We have been told by government MPs that there was a miscount in the parliamentary voting on the Bill and an inquiry of whether this was so would be held. Although there were different tallies, none of them hit the magic 150 number which constitutes the two thirds majority in the 225-member legislature. Voting in Parliament is now electronic and not physical. Gone are the days of voice votes of ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’, MPs standing at their seats for physical counts, or the calling of names where a vote by name is called for. Mr. Dhammika Kitulgoda, a former Secretary General of Parliament had been appointed as inquirer into this matter but had not begun his inquiry as this is being written. However the government’s Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) was called to investigate and a report, not yet published or publicized, had been presented. Readers will agree that if the finding was in favour of the government contention, this would not have been the case.

We run in this issue a call by Mr. Chandra Jayaratne, a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce who headed the CTC Eagle Insurance Company when the Ceylon Tobacco Company was in the insurance business, calling for the creation of an Independent Parliamentary Counsel in this country. This institution exists in the United Kingdom and Australia and Jayaratne, a civil society activist sees the Port City Bill (now Act) as a good reason for Sri Lanka too setting up such an institution to carry out the duties now undertaken by the Legal Draftsman. The people of this country will join him is asking how a Bill, with more than a third of its clauses in variance with the Constitution, could have in the first place been gazetted and then presented to Parliament with such defects. It presumably went through the Legal Draftsman, Attorney General, Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet before it came to Parliament. In fact the state-controlled Daily News reported over a month ago that AG had informed the Secretary to the President that “provisions of the Bill are not inconsistent with the Constitution. The Bill is not subject to any prohibitions or restrictions imposed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and may be enacted by Parliament.” Thereafter when the various unconstitutional defects were being pointed by counsel supporting the 19 petitions before the SC, a series of intended amendments were presented.

We are all familiar with the police arresting suspects on Friday evenings so that they can be held in custody until Monday morning without being produced before a Magistrate. The Port City Bill was presented to Parliament in the middle of the New Year holiday season limiting the time-frame open for citizen to challenge it. Nevertheless 19 petitions were filed and considered by a five-judge bench of the SC that made a unanimous determination. Whether the creation of the institution promoted by Jayaratne will make any difference to mala fide acts of governments seeking political advantages, we doubt. Perhaps the Port City will make a difference to the economy of our country. But that is no excuse for attempting to push through legislation that is bad in law.



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Editorial

When shamelessness becomes a virtue

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Wednesday 16th June, 2021

Prof. Sasanka Perera has, in a hard-hitting column published in the Midweek Review section, today, castigates all political potentates who do not have an iota of shame and are ready to stoop to anything morally reprehensible to further their own interests. His consternation is understandable, and his astringent criticism will surely strike a responsive chord with the discerning public outraged at widespread bribery and corruption, the plunder of state funds, the abuse of power and the culture of impunity.

Unfortunately, shamelessness is a virtue in a moral wasteland. It does not pay to be shameless in societies where morals and ethics are cherished, but it certainly does in this land like no other. An apocryphal story about a Mudliyar and his coconut estate comes to mind; villagers, mostly women, would trespass on his property at dawn and remove all the coconuts that had fallen overnight. Try as he might, he failed to stop this. One of his workers offered to help him, and accomplished in double-quick time what he had undertaken, much to the surprise of the big man, who asked how he had done it, and the latter said he roamed around in the buff, and villagers ran away. Likewise, shamelessness has worked for the members of parliament and other elected representatives as evident from their social positions, privileges, influence and wealth.

The nabobs at the levers of power do everything except fulfilling their election pledges. This, we have witnessed over the past several decades. The MPs of all political hues seldom knuckle down anent their legislative duties and obligations; most of them are notorious for absenteeism among other things, and the Speaker has a hard time, trying to have quorate sittings. But these worthies have all the luck thanks to the fealty of the public to political parties and politicians.

The JVP is the only Opposition party that has torn into the government for having shamelessly ordered vehicles for the MPs while the country is struggling to raise funds for its fight against the pandemic. The ‘comrades’ have called for auctioning the vehicles to be imported and utilising the proceeds for the benefit of the public. Let them be commended for their principled stand, which, however, will not translate into popular support for their cause thanks to the threadbare ideological shibboleths they cling to, as Prof. Perera has rightly pointed out. Unfortunately, other Opposition bigwigs are prevaricating on this vital issue. What the government deserves for being so shameless as to waste public funds on luxury vehicles for the MPs amidst crises on all fronts is a knuckle sandwich, but these worthies are pulling punches.

(The government claims to have cancelled the vehicle imports at issue, but it is doubtful whether anyone will buy into that claim.)

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa says he is opposed to public funds being used to buy vehicles for the MPs. He wants the money spent on the vaccination programme instead. Will the SJB MPs reject the super luxury vehicles to be imported? Such perks will make the members of parliament even in the developed world green with envy. In Sweden, as we have pointed out in a previous comment, only the Prime Minister is given an official vehicle.

Meanwhile, shamelessness seems to beget shamelessness, which has stood the elected in good stead; the vast majority of electors are also without any sense of shame. They shamelessly vote the shameless into office alternately while complaining of being taken to the cleaners by every regime. Thus, this country has governments of the shameless by the shameless for the shameless.

There are, of course, intelligent Sri Lankans who desire a radical departure from the rotten political culture, but they are thought to be hoping against hope. However, in some other countries, people have sought to make a difference by rejecting career politicians and candidates from political families. The frustration of Ukrainians with established political parties and their leaders led to the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian, as their President. The French elected as their President a virtual political unknown, Emmanuel Macron, who recently got slapped by a man during a walkabout, but remained composed. What prevents this country from attempting such experiments is the constancy of the majority of electors’ blind loyalty to the shameless politicians.

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Editorial

Of that mystery boat

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Tuesday 15th June, 2021

Time was when Sri Lanka remained on high alert to prevent the movement of armed groups from Tamil Nadu, a haven for terrorists who brought boatloads of arms and ammunition here. It has now been reported that Tamil Nadu is worrying about such a security threat from this side of the Palk Strait; its police and the Indian Central intelligence agencies have reportedly been placed on the highest alert level following a warning that some armed persons from Sri Lanka are trying to enter India via the sea. Search operations are being conducted in several cities in Tamil Nadu and road blocks have been set up, we are told. Kerala is also reported to have adopted similar measures in view of the threat. However, the identities of the suspected infiltrators are not known, and they had not been intercepted or sighted at the time of going to press.

It is not clear from what has been reported of the security threat at issue whether the armed persons are from a terror group, or any other criminal outfit. Gunrunning and drug smuggling between India and Sri Lanka have been going on despite attempts by the two countries to stop them, but what has prompted Tamil Nadu to go on red alert cannot be a boat carrying weapons or drugs with some armed smugglers aboard; it is believed to be a boatload of armed persons presumably intent on carrying out an attack on Indian soil. This is a very serious situation that warrants a high-level probe here as well.

Sri Lankan underworld figures flee to India when the police close in on them here. Some of them have been arrested in India. Drug dealer and contract killer, Maddumage Lasantha Chandana Perera, alias Angoda Lokka, who fled Sri Lanka, fearing his capture, is believed to have died while hiding in India, last year. But such characters usually do not carry weapons while fleeing in boats; they travel disguised as fishers, and make good their escape in most cases. They have links to their counterparts in India, where they have protection, and therefore do not take the trouble of moving their weapons in boats and run the risk of being captured. Some attempts by the LTTE rump to smuggle explosive devices to this country have been foiled in South India since the end of the Vanni war, but there have been no reports of former Tigers trying to infiltrate India. Drug smugglers also do not carry weapons when they cross the Palk Strait; their operations are far more sophisticated.

So, who are the armed persons trying to reach India by boat? Are they members of a foreign terror group using Sri Lanka as a transit point? Some years ago, the Indian intelligence warned of the possibility of such terrorist operations. But what could such a foreign terror outfit achieve by sending a single boatload of armed cadres to India unless its goal is to carry out a one-off attack like the Easter Sunday carnage? Such a mission involves extremely high risks because it requires the movement of terrorists through Sri Lanka, where intelligence outfits have been on high alert since the Easter Sunday attacks, and the Sri Lankan Navy has also gone into overdrive to prevent illegal immigrants from India in view of the pandemic. It is doubtful whether any organised terror group will take unnecessary risks particularly at this juncture.

Sri Lanka’s reaction to the infiltration threat in question was not immediately known. Maybe, an investigation has already got underway here, and information thereof has not been disclosed. Everything possible must be done to get to the bottom of it. One hopes that both India and Sri Lanka will go flat out to catch the armed group, if any, trace the source of threat and do everything in their power to neutralise it forthwith.

The reported security threat to India ought to make the Sri Lankan authorities redouble their counterterror efforts without leaving anything to chance. There could be more to it than meets the eye. The previous government chose to ignore a warning in 2019, and the price the country paid for that blunder was huge.

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Editorial

Govt. vs Govt.

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Monday 14th June, 2021

It never rains but it pours. There is no end in sight to the various shocks the public frequently receives from the government. The Covid-19 pandemic is ripping through the country, destroying scores of lives daily. The inoculation programme is moving at a tardy pace as there is no steady supply of vaccines. Travel restrictions are causing hardships to the public and hurting the economy badly but have not yielded the desired results. The poor are asking for food and farmers fertiliser. Atop all these have come fuel price increases, which are bound to send the cost of living into the stratosphere.

Bakery owners have already decided to increase the prices of certain products. Private bus owners, cab operators and the trishaw fraternity will follow suit, and life will become even more unbearable to most people.

The fuel price hikes have made the ruling SLPP coalition look like MV X-Press Pearl, which had a nitric acid leak on board and was burnt out. A caustic remark made by SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has triggered an explosion aboard the ship of government, as it were. No sooner had Minster of Energy Udaya Gammanpila announced the fuel price increases, claiming that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) was incurring heavy losses due to the world market oil price increases than Kariyawasam fired from the hip; he issued a stinging media statement flaying Gammanpila, and demanding to know whether the price hikes were aimed at bringing the government leaders into disrepute; he even asked Gammanpila to resign.

Kariyawasam sought to have the public believe that Gammanpila had done something high-handed. But we reported a few days ago that the government was planning fuel price increases. However, if one goes by the SLPP General Secretary’s statement, then one may wonder if Gammanpila is so powerful in the government as to revise fuel prices himself? But the truth is otherwise. The Energy Minister alone cannot jack up fuel prices or bring them down without the consent of the President and the Prime Minister. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on Cost of Living also has a say in such matters.

Gammanpila struck back yesterday; he insisted that he had only announced a government decision, and the uncomplimentary remarks Kariyawasam had made in the aforesaid statement applied to both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa! Several ministers have also sought to justify the oil price increases. Curiouser and curiouser! Is it that they are also party to Gammanpila’s ‘conspiracy’ to make the government leaders unpopular?

If the SLPP really thinks Minister Gammanpila alone is responsible for the fuel price hikes, then there is a simple remedy. The government can swiftly undo what he has done. If it thinks it can get away with the price hikes at issue by laying the blame for it at Gammanpila’s door, it is mistaken.

The SLPP General Secretary’s statement flaying Gammanpila is proof of the ruling coalition’s internal problems. The SLPP is apparently doing to its coalition partners what the SLFP, in its wisdom, did to its United Front allies in mid-1970s. Some SLPP leaders are apparently trying to settle political scores with Gammanpila, who is critical of them. A few moons ago, Kariyawasam took on Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who has antagonised some SLPP grandees.

It was only the other day that the government MPs gloated over the SJB’s internal problems and tried to embarrass the Opposition, in Parliament. They expect UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as a National List MP to create a division in the SJB. But the fact remains that the SLPP, which is magnifying others’ problems, is far from united; and a scenario similar to what we witnessed towards the latter stages of the previous Rajapaksa government in 2014 seems to be playing out.

The SLPP seems to think the masses are asses. Otherwise, it will not try to dupe the public into believing that the government had no hand in the fuel price hikes, and Gammanpila arbitrarily effected them unbeknownst to his bosses. Now that it has come to light that the decision to jack up fuel prices was taken by the Cabinet, the entire government must resign in keeping with the SLPP General Secretary’s argument that anyone responsible for placing another economic burden on the pandemic-hit people has to go.

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