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The Opposition SJB strives hard to counter 20th Amendment

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by Harim Peiris

The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, on various legal grounds. With oral arguments finishing with the Attorney General’s submission early this week and only written rebuttals accepted thereafter, the determination of the Court is likely to be communicated to Parliament within the week. However, this article does not seek to examine the various legal issues being argued before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, but rather to examine the political dynamics which enabled the Government to engage in this complete overhaul of Sri Lanka’s state structures.

The proposed 20th Amendment seeks nothing less than the creation of an elected leader with all the powers of an absolute monarch, baring the need to be periodically re-elected. Sri Lanka is clearly nostalgic for its days of pre-colonial absolute monarchy. In fact, our 1978 constitution with its proposed 20th Amendment would be more centralizing than ancient Ceylon’s pre-colonial monarchies, set in another day and age, which had feudal structures with powerful nobles. In contrast the 20th Amendment will reestablish, a Prime Minister with no powers and Cabinet and state ministers with even less powers. The President will in essence appoint everybody, decide on every matter and would be beyond legal challenge, even on fundamental rights. The central argument of the government is that the 20th Amendment merely takes the country back to where it was with the 1978 Constitution and accordingly there is no problem. However, the reality is that the anti-democratic features of the 1978 Constitution and especially that of its overbearing executive presidency were so apparent that every president elected since 1994 has pledged to reform it and its lack of inclusion and democratic space, alienated large swathes of the population, from Sinhala rural youth to the Tamil community.

The UNP as the great enabler of the 20th Amendment

The UNP or rather its essential leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the great enabler of the 20th Amendment. Firstly, his steadfast refusal to cede the presidential nomination until days before the November presidential elections and then subsequently in the run up to the August parliamentary elections, scuttling the efforts to have a unified opposition alliance, so dented the political credibility of the opposition, that what would have been a close defeat, along the lines of the February 2018 local government election results, led instead to a complete route and a constitution changing two third majority in parliament for the SLPP.

The parliamentary elections resulted in the end of the United National Party (UNP), as a serious, national political entity, losing to its successor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), by a resounding and unequivocal margin of 10 to 1, in the popular vote. The SJB garnering 2.7 million votes and fifty-four Members of Parliament, while the UNP got a little less than one tenth of that at about 250,000 votes country wide and going from being the largest party in parliament, to no district representation and a single national list seat, on which it cannot agree as to who would be the nominee. The refusal of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, even at this late stage, to gracefully leave the field when the umpire has ruled him out and the third umpire has also concurred after review and perhaps busy himself with some international commitments, or an elder statesman’s role, for which he is eminently suited, has meant that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has struggled to unify the opposition and create and present a cohesive and united opposition to the government. Resulting in the Rajapakse Administration indulging in significant political overreach in its proposed 20th Amendment.

The real political dynamics in the country are worse, from an opposition standpoint. What currently exists is a unified government and a divided opposition which enables government inflexibility and rigidity, even in the midst of some internal dissent. An internal dissent regarding the 20th Amendment exists from some very Sinhala nationalist sources, including Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, which stated that if its views expressed and the resultant recommendations of the Government committee, on which it leader served and which examined the 20th Amendment were ignored, it would not hold itself responsible for the political consequences.

 

The SJB needs to broaden

its outreach

The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa did incredibly well under difficult circumstances, post the presidential election to annihilate the UNP at the ensuing general elections held recently and essentially capture the party in all but name, symbol and head office, none of which are the essence of politics. Sajith Premadasa’s great strengths are similar to that of his late father’s; the common touch, a strong grassroots appeal, a good sense of the Sinhala polity and boundless energy, all of which were lacking in the old UNP and hence his appeal within that party and its allies. However, those skills were complemented by the UNP’s entrenched strengths, such as extensive media interests of the Wickremesinghe / Wijewardena clan, considerable financial support from the Colombo business community as well as political allies within and good relationships with the international community. The SJB as a new party and the chief opposition alliance needs to create this network and extend its outreach to the different segments of society, so that in their disquiet of the Rajapakse Administration’s policies, the SJB is seen as an effective check and balance as well as a viable and credible future alternative government. The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa needs his own equivalent of “Eliya” and “Viyath Maga”, except resolutely civilian and absolutely inclusive and pluralistic.

The opposition to the 20th Amendment has been fairly spontaneous and widespread. From the Retired Judges Association, to Government Auditors, from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Sri Lankan civil society, from the Bar Association to young lawyers, a record number of plaints were filed against the said Amendment. However, the SJB has not quite been able to harness all this raw energy against the amendment and to hugely increase the political costs of the same to the Government. All political indicators are that some slightly amended version of the 20th Amendment will soon become the law of the land. The only hope is that in its adventurism and political overreach of the 20th Amendment, the subsequent and ultimate objective of a new constitution will likely be denied the SLPP, notwithstanding its super majority in parliament.



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Opinion

Buddhism and all beings’ right to life

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A large majority of human beings deny the right to life of animals and other sentient beings, including insects. Why? (Sentient being is a living being endowed with mind and consciousness). The late Venerable Narada Thera in his book titled, Manual of Buddhism, states as follows- “The tolerance of the Buddha was not only to men and women but to dumb animals as well. For it was the Buddha who banned the sacrifice of poor beasts and admonished the followers to extend their loving kindness (maithree) to all living beings. No man has the right to destroy the life of another living being, even for the sake of one’s stomach, as life is precious to all” He quotes from the Metta Sutta: “Whatever living beings there be, feeble or strong, long, stout or medium, small, large, seen or unseen, those dwelling far and near, those who are born and those who are to be born, may all beings be happy-minded, without exception. Just as a mother would save her own child, at the risk of her own life, even so let him cultivate boundless love towards all beings.”

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi in his book, titled “The Noble Eightfold Path-Way to End Suffering” says: “The positive counterpart to abstaining from taking life, as the Buddha indicates, is the development of kindness and compassion for other beings. The disciple not only avoids destroying life, he dwells with a heart full of sympathy desiring the welfare of all beings. The commitment of non injury and concern for the welfare of others represents the practical application of the second path factor “Right Intention” in the form of goodwill and harmlessness. Abstaining from taking life (Panathipatha Veramani) – Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. The intention of harmlessness, is a thought guide by compassion (karuna) aroused in opposition to cruel, aggressive and violent thoughts. Compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering; a wish to be extended to all living beings. It springs up by considering that all living beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering.”

The Lankavatara Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism states: Quote: “For the sake of love of purity the Bodhisatva should refrain from eating flesh, which is born of semen, blood,etc., for fear of causing fear to living beings; let the Bodhisatva who is disciplining himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh. It is not true that meat is proper food and permissible when the animal was not killed by himself. Meat eating in any form, in any manner and any place, is unconditionally and once for all prohibited”

 

The Surangana Sutra states: “In seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict suffering upon others? How can a Bhikkhu who goes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings? The Buddha forbade Buddhists from engaging in occupations that involve killing of animals, such as Butcher, Fisher, or Animal farmer.”

When it comes to small animals, like rats, and insects, the attitude of the large majority of humans is as if they do not have right to life.

According to Buddhism, they, too, have the right to life as human beings. While some human beings try to prevent cruelty to animals such as elephants, tigers, dogs, etc., I have never heard of any one talking of cruelty to insects. My opinion is that the first precept in Buddhism ( Panathipatha Veramani) applies to all animals, and insects, as well. They too feel pain.

I would like to obtain the observations of other readers of your newspaper on my opinions expressed above.

 

NEIL PERERA

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Opinion

A Cabinet reshuffle needed

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

It looks as if the government did not realise the need to take drastic action to stem the tide of public disapproval. Even the most optimistic, who were overjoyed at the election of a non-politician President, followed by that of a government with an unexpected thumping majority, are sighing in despair! Although part of it is due to avoidable own-goals, there seems to be an extremely effective anti-government campaign directed by an unseen hand. Even when toxins are detected in imported coconut oil, rather than laying the blame on errant importers, attempts are made to tarnish the image of the government. All this is possible because the government seems to lack an effective communication strategy. One wonders whether the government has a lax attitude because the Opposition is blundering.

The fracas in the Parliament on the issue of Ranjan Ramanayaka losing his seat was the best illustration of a misguided Opposition not fit for purpose. Critics may argue that RR was given an unfairly harsh punishment but their criticism lacks moral authority because they opted to be silent when a Buddhist priest was given a much harsher punishment for the same offence: in fact, they were delighted! RR stated publicly that most judges were corrupt and defended his stance at every possible turn. He also refused all opportunities afforded for clarification. In spite of the Attorney General informing a while ago that RR’s seat should be declared vacant, to his credit the Speaker waited till RR’s petition for appeal was dealt with. Even though the facts were obvious, the Leader of the Opposition accused the Speaker of removing RR on the basis of non-attendance for three months, which he had to correct the following day! Those who blamed the SLPP for staging unruly protests in Parliament in October 2018, did the same on behalf of RR. Is this not laughable?

Once and for all, the question of the authority of the President was settled with the passage of the 20th Amendment and it is high time the President made use of his new powers. The most important thing he can and should do is a cabinet reshuffle, a mechanism often adopted by British Prime Ministers by way of a course correction. It need not be a major reshuffle but a minor one involving some ministers who are obviously underperforming. I have written in the past about the Minister of Health who demonstrated gross irresponsibility by partaking of an untested and unlicensed medicinal product. She is also responsible for not implementing the Jennifer Perera committee report on the disposal of bodies of unfortunate victims of Covid-19? Had this been implemented in December, much of the adverse publicity the country received could have been avoided. Perhaps, the voting during the UNHRC resolution also may have been very different. The Minister of Public Security talking of banning some face coverings did not help either. Pity he did not realize he was talking of this at the wrong time; during an epidemic when face coverings may be useful.

The Minister of Trade, who was an effective critic in the Opposition, has turned out to be totally ineffective. Even the government gazette has become a joke due to his actions. Perhaps, it is time for him to take a back-seat and allow someone else to have a go at the rice-mafia. etc. Perhaps, ex-president Sirisena may be given a chance to see whether brotherly love is more effective than the gazette in controlling the prices of rice.

The biggest failure of this government is on the diplomatic front. What most diplomats consider to be the most important diplomatic assignment, the post of High Commissioner to India remains unfilled for almost a year. Whether we like it or not, India is fast gaining the status of a world power, and not having our representative to deal with officials acknowledged to be of top calibre is a shame.

The way the UNHRC resolution was handled showed total incompetence of the highest order. We withdrew but the Ambassador decided to take part; we lost and claimed victory! To cap it all, the Foreign Minister announced in Parliament that the resolution was illegal. All the time sinister forces are at work, relentlessly, to undermine the country and force the separatist agenda on us and if we are not sharp, we may end up in disaster. For reasons best known to themselves, the government failed to utilize fully the good offices of Lord Naseby. Statements made by the Foreign Secretary no doubt irked the Indian and US governments.

For all these reasons, the need of the day is a complete overhaul of our Foreign Affairs set up, starting with the Minister. It is high time we made use of our career diplomats, who are well trained for the job and stop sending political ambassadors. The practice of utilizing ambassadorial posts as parking lots for retired service chiefs is abhorrent, as it gives the false impression that Sri Lanka has a military government in all but name.

There is still a chance for reversal of fortunes, if the President decides to act swiftly after returning from Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. If not, unfortunately, there may not be much left to celebrate!

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Opinion

Alleviating poverty, the Chinese way

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China has released a white paper on poverty alleviation which outlines the success of policies implemented, the methods employed and her desire to share the unique social experiment with other developing countries. Sri Lanka being a friendly international partner of China should make use of this opportunity to study the programme and plan a scheme and send a team to China to learn the activities conducted under the scheme so that Sri Lanka will be able to handle the fight against poverty, successfully.

“China achieved the largest scale battle against extreme poverty, worldwide, as 98.99 million people had been lifted out of absolute poverty, creating a miracle in human history.” These people were living in 128 ,000 villages all over in China. China through a sustained program was able to achieve its poverty reduction targets set out in UN 2030 agenda, 10 years ahead of its schedule.

A quote from a report released by the BBC outlines the success achieved by China.

:” In 1990, there were more than 750 million people in China, living below the international poverty line – about two-thirds of the population. By 2012, that had fallen to fewer than 90 million, and by 2016 – the most recent year for which World Bank figures are available – it had fallen to 7.2 million people (0.5% of the population). So clearly, even in 2016 China was well on the way to reaching its target This suggests that overall, 745 million fewer people were living in extreme poverty in China than were 30 years ago. World Bank figures do not take us to the present day, but the trend is certainly in line with the Chinese government’s announcement. (“Another large country, India, had 22% of its population living below the international poverty line in 2011 (the most recent data available) …:”}

The people living in extreme poverty suffer from the lack of extremely basic amenities, such as food. safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education. It is a fact that those who come under this category are trapped in a vicious circle and for generations they cannot escape the deprivations.

Some of the policies followed by China in achieving the enviable outcome are discussed in the White paper. The most important condition to be fulfilled is the acceptance of the fact that governance of a country starts with the needs of the people and their prosperity is the responsibility of the government. “To achieve success, it is of utmost importance that the leadership have devotion. strong will and determination. and the ruling party and the government assumes their responsibilities to the people. play a leading role, mobilize forces from all quarters and ensure policies are consistent and stable’.

China has provided the poor with the guidance, direction and tools while educating them to have the ambition to emerge from poverty, Through farmers’ night schools, workshops and technical schools create the improvement of skills. The government identifies the economic opportunities in consultation with the people, then provides finances, loans for the selected projects, and strengthens the infra-structure facilities, including the marketing outlets.

While the macro aspects for the poverty alleviation is planned centrally, the activities are executed provincially and locally.

Sri Lankans living under the national poverty line was 4.1% of the population in 2016 (World Data Atlas). The impact of Covid-19 in 2020-21 has dealt a severe blow to the living standards in Sri Lanka and it is assumed that the people living under the poverty line would have reached approximately 8% of the population by 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapakasa has realised this gloomy truth in his interaction with the poor in the villages on his visits to the remote areas in Sri Lanka. I would request him to study the success story of China and to work out a similar NATIONAL programme in consultation with China. In the White Paper, China says that she is ready to share her experience with other countries who desire to reduce the poverty levels. The President should appoint a TASK FORCE of capable and nationalist-minded individuals to steer the program with given targets as PRIORITY VENTURE. If Sri Lanka can plan a comprehensive programme for poverty alleviation and implement with determination under the capable, dedicated and willing leadership of the President, nearly two million Sri Lankans who live below the poverty line will benefit and would start contributing to the growth of the nation productively.

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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