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  Politics  


 

 

Executive proves his mettle against gullible opposition

Wednesday last would go down in the annals of Sri Lankan history as a red-letter day as parliament sans the main opposition UNP voted in the controversial 18th amendment to the constitution.

The nonchalant President Mahinda Rajapaksa was keeping tabs on the proceedings in parliament as the 18th amendment became law, with an overwhelming majority despite protests by the opposition, on the road leading to the parliamentary complex.
The 18th amendment to the constitution bestowed upon the incumbent of the Executive, sweeping powers without any hindrance, hitherto exercised by the President only on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council.

The Constitutional Council had been the main thrust envisaged by the 17th amendment to the constitution that was approved by Parliament almost unanimously.
The 18th amendment to the constitution, presented on Wednesday, sought to repeal the 17th amendment and thereby the Constitutional Council.

Unprecedented move
Parliament took this unprecedented move on Wednesday on the belief that the executive would not move on a tangent to usurp all the power that accompany the office of the President to make it a constitutional monarchy.
The President, addressing the editors and heads of media institutions last week, defended his right to introduce the 18th amendment in a bid to expedite development work and other related work of the government that were impeded by the 17th amendment to the constitution, which lacked clarity.
Yet in another meeting on Tuesday, he pointed out that the second term of the President is considered the end of the tenure of the executive and the executive was burdened with putting an extra effort in the discharge of his duties.

‘This happened to former Presidents J R Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga as well,” President Rajapaksa emphasised, hinting that he did not want be a victim of circumstances.
At the meeting with the editors, the president almost had a smooth passage, with the editors not making a significant impact or not expressing their concerns on behalf of the people.
Except for one or two pertinent questions, it was almost ‘a one-way traffic situation’ one participant quipped after the meeting, but the President was successful in his endeavour to convince the scribes on his move to amend the constitution.

The assessment would have been that there was no noteworthy disenchantment among the top notches of the media on the proposed reforms. That itself was a relief to the government in the face of threats posed by the Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the main opposition United National Party (UNP).
The JVP protest campaign on Tuesday saw large crowds gathering against the enactment of the 18th amendment while the UNP moved to hold a sathyagraha - a sit-down protest in the precincts of Parliament, where some opposition parliamentarians tore the document containing the 18th amendment to shreds.

Abolition of Presidency
At a separate press conference held at the parliamentary complex, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe responded to the President. He said the UNP never supported the 18th amendment at any stage of the discussions that preceded the government’s move to come up with this shoddy piece of legislation aimed at removing the restrictions placed on the constitution on the number of occasions an individual could contest the Presidency.

The President had told the media heads earlier that the 18th amendment is a composite piece of legislations that incorporated the views of the opposition as well. The President also denied at the meeting that he ever contemplated on the abolition of the Presidency through the ‘Mahinda Chintana’ or otherwise.
Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa further galvanised the position taken by the President, stating that the government had chartered the destiny of the country in tune with the “Mahinda Chinthana Idiridekma” and said the document says it all.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, however, was on a collision course with the government. He said that this would go down in the history as an amendment to the constitution that has been passed through the House by illegal means without proper authority and mandate for the government.
He and TNA (Tamil National Alliance) parliamentarian M Sumanthiran took up the position that in terms of the 13th amendment to the constitution any amendment to the constitution should be gazetted and then go before Provincial council for debate before the same being taken up for debate in Parliament.
Wickremesinghe said that it ultra vires not only the provisions of the constitution but also the parliamentary standing orders.

This could be considered as a sound argument put forward by the Opposition, but it was the pointed view of the government that it has precedence since the 17th amendment was passed through the House without placing the same before Provincial Councils for discussion.
Parliament, however, chose to go along with the latter contention and decided to present it before the House as scheduled.

The bill to amend the constitution was presented to the House by Prime Minister D M Jayaratne on Wednesday morning while huge crowds demonstrated on the ceremonial approach to Parliament and elsewhere in the country in support of the 18th amendment to the constitution.
The Prime Minister, addressing Parliament, said the protest launched by the Opposition Leader was a half-hearted one implying that Ranil Wickremesinghe was indirectly supporting the 18th amendment to the constitution.

Political hullabaloos
While all these political hullabaloos were afoot, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka took a much principled step to tell the government to allow public debate on the bill without rushing it through the House of Parliament as an urgent bill. The Bar Association appointed a constitutional committee headed by President’s Counsel Faiz Musthapa to go into any constitutional changes by the government even before the 18th amendment to the constitution was conceptualised.
In the interim report, it was stated that it would not be prudent to rush through the 18th amendment as an urgent bill.
The Constitutional Committee has already formulated some recommendations based on the proposals made by renowned lawyers such as S L Gunasekera and Palitha Kumarasinghe and a few more.
Senior lawyer S L Gunasekra told this column, in his private capacity, that he has no regrets for the demise of the 17th amendment to the constitution – a ‘shoddy piece of legislation’, allegedly fathered by Professor G L Peiris.

But he expressed his reservations on the move to do away the restrictions placed on the executive on the number of occasions an individual could contest. “It smacks with malice and is patently clear that the government wants to avoid an informed discussion on the matter with some ulterior motive.”
He emphasised that removing restrictions on the Presidency is of absolute danger and it breeds sycophancy.
He believes that the executive presidency should be abolished and until such time the time bar on the number of times an individual could contest should remain intact.

He said that everybody, including former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, made a colossal mess of the governmental system that came into effect since 1978, through the Jayewardene constitution. The entire cabinet voted in favour of Chandrika Kumaratunga to gift her one and a half acres of land at her retirement and said that sycophancy could pose a bigger danger to the country than terrorism. It was breeding from the days of Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike from the time she received two-thirds majority in 1970.
S L Gunasekara, who has earned respect among his colleagues as a forthright lawyer who expresses his views quite openly, also had a word of appreciation for President Rajapaksa.
Gunasekara said the President is a fine politician who gave political leadership to the war against the LTTE, adding that Rajapaksa proved his mettle as a versatile politician when he organised the ‘Padayatara’ during the hey days of the UNP. However, he maintains the position that the amendment to 31(2) will not do any good for the country.

Legal impediments
Nevertheless, Wednesday was a day to be reckoned with for President Rajapaksa as the legal disabilities and impediments, aimed at retarding the progress, had been removed for once and for all.
In Parliament, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa delivered a heart-rending speech when he said that every representative of the people should have the right to vote according to his or her conscience.
“The constitution sought to impose a disability on a person who gets elected with the consent of the majority of the people whereas it has no barrier imposed on any body to contest any number of times who have been rejected by the people. This I suppose is unfair by the people,” he declared defending the government’s right to amend the constitution removing the legal barriers placed on the executive.

TNA parliamentarian M Sumanthiran responded in equal force and with clarity. He quoted Professor of Law and present External Affairs Minister G L Peiris, referring to his book on administrative law.
Sumanthiran said that every law student studying administrative law essentially read what Professor Peiris has written on page 309. It states inter alia that while parliament enacts laws, the judiciary is the arm that checks whether there is any abuse of such law, in the same breath quoting Professor Peiris he said that every law should have its own limitations which otherwise would breed dictatorship, Sumanthiran, a brilliant lawyer in the making, summed up with finesse.

Tragedy of whole episode
The tragedy of the whole episode is the UNP’s failure to be in parliament and put up an opposition based on their arguments, as to why they consider the 18th amendment would affect democracy and franchise, which would be recorded in the Hansard for the posterity.
Some political analysts are, however, of the view that this was a strategy adopted by party leader Wickremesinghe to prevent further damage to the party.
“May be that his thinking is right, the six members who crossed over would have enticed some more and more senior party men to cross–over if they were in Parliament,” he explained.
The UNP instead chose to demonstrate on the road leading to the Parliamentary complex. The UNP, led by its leaders, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa marched from the UNP headquarters ‘Sirikotha’ in Pitakotte towards Parliament, but they were stopped at the ‘Bangala’ junction in Pitakotte by police where Wickremesinghe made a critical speech, opposing the 18th amendment to the constitution.

Wickremesinghe’s disposition as the UNP leader, however, baffled many as to why he was not putting up a strong opposition to the government in the face of insults hurled by many senior ministers.
“May be Wickremesinghe is aware of what exactly they think of the government move though they voted with the government,” one political analyst pointed out.
Nevertheless, the most disconcerting factor among the UNP members today is his refusal to hold a group meeting just prior to their protest march in Pitakotte on Wednesday.
Saying that it was not the time to hold such meetings, Wickremesinghe summarily rejected a letter signed by more than 28 members requesting him to summon the parliamentary group meeting that morning.

Preventing further erosion
The group of members, who gathered in Sajith Premadasa’s room at ‘Sirikotha’, were wondering as to how many people would support the government to wade through the 18th amendment to the constitution.
They first had a head count but were not sure how many would cross over.
In a bid to instill some sort of confidence and prevent further erosion of the party, the group adopted a resolution which would dispel doubts in the minds of many UNP members.
Accordingly, they resolved to propose Ranil Wickremesinghe as the senior leader of the party while Sajith Premadasa to be the leader and Karu Jayasuriya to remain in his substantive position as the deputy leader.
Their plan, however, died a natural death when Wickremesinghe, may be sensing some trouble brewing within the precincts of Sirikotha, refused to hold the meeting.

Parliamentarians Kabir Hashim and Talata Atukorala handed over the letter requesting the urgent group meeting but the proposal was rejected, alas to their amusement and dissatisfaction.
Some think that the move by Sajith Premadasa and others would have been in consequent to a news item in the vernacular media that there is a plan afoot to make Ravi Karunanayake, who has run out of favour with most of the UNP members, as the assistant leader of the party.
This raised the hornets nest in some quarters of the UNP, but Sajith Premadasa, who could have been affected the most if this appointment was made, remained unmoved until such time an opportunity begged at him to make his intentions known to the people.

The debate on the 18th amendment among the political circles and the society though it was brief, provided him the necessary climate for this, so much so, at one stage he announced that he was ready to take over the leadership of the party.

His claim was, however, bitterly contested in some forums since some UNP members were questioning the role played by Sajith Premadasa more recently.
They were obsessed with the argument that those who crossed over are the members, who supported Sajith Premadasa’s cause and in particular wanted him to become the UNP leader.
On the other hand, they query as to why Sajith Premadasa could not prevent them from crossing over and whether his appeal to the UNP members to refrain form supporting the government was just a mere eye wash to save his skin from a political onslaught against him.
In that context, they argue whether there could be of any difference even if Sajith Premadasa is elected the leader of the party.

Besides, these rumblings in the UNP, many party members have a word of appreciation for Ranjit Madduma Bandara who stood ground and supported the opposition view as a policy.
Madduma Bandara, in particular, was under pressure from influential politicians that he should support the government given the raw deal he was in for a long time owing to differences with the leader.
Range Bandara is another member, who was poised to cross the aisle of parliament, but for many his decision to stick with the opposition was a sigh of relief -- especially for UNP members, who thought it would be a betrayal to switch allegiance from time to time.
Be that as it may, the talk of the town was the stand taken by Upeksha Swarnamali popularly known as ‘Paba’ who crossed over to the government after being with the UNP for the initial protest on Tuesday.
Some websites suggested that she was coerced into this position, while some UNP parliamentarians including Rosy Senanayake offered her help to get over the problems that she was allegedly in due to unavoidable circumstances.

Rosy wanted to take her to the Women-in-Need to obtain necessary counselling for her to make a firm commitment according to her convictions. However, lately she decided to take a firm stand and back the government.
It was none other than UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, who first introduced Upeksha Swarnamali to politics. This was after she became an active player during the presidential elections, where she threw her weight behind the former army commander and common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka.
There were many stories circulating in the public domain about Upeksha Swarnamali and others, who crossed over to the government from the UNP.

The story doing the political rounds is that all who crossed over to the government from the UNP, including Lakshman Seneviratne and Earl Gunasekara, had a gala party the previous night at the residence of an influential person with several politicians attending.
Although there were doubts about the behaviour of Lakshman Seneviratne, nobody believed that he would cross over given his credentials and the loyalty to the UNP.
Seneviratne’s late father Captain C P J Seneviratne was a die-hard UNP member who was a pillar of strength to the UNP during the time of former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.
In a way it was a loss to the UNP but what is more important for the dissident UNP members are to remain in the party and fight back for their rights.

But, now it is a lost battle for Seneviratne who was rated as a talented debater and a seasoned political campaigner. By crossing over as to what Seneviratne could achieve among UPFA heavy weights is yet to be seen, on the other hand can he make a foray to the UPFA votes in the Badulla district is yet another question that has to be considered by him seriously.
On Thursday, Seneviratne made a chopper ride to his constituency Mahiyangana to be greeted by his close supporters and appeared on the Independent Television Net work to explain the circumstances that compelled him to crossover.
Besides these, the stand taken by the five parliamentarians, representing the traditional left is a damning indictment on them.

After having bitterly criticised the move at the outset the members, representing the left made a move that is diametrically opposed to the views expressed by them on the amendments to extend their support to the government. The left parties, without batting an eyelid, extended their support to the government to further strengthen the 1978 constitution fathered by former President J R Jayewardene.
The irony is that the resentment they had over the 1978 constitution from the time it was promulgated had been diluted and watered down within a span of few weeks.
Their existence in the government had taken precedence over all other issues, including their hallowed policies and principles, that they preached since 1935.
The fait accompli is that, whether we like it or not, the 18th amendment to the constitution has become law and that we have to live with it, the rest of our life.

On Wednesday evening, a jubilant President thanked the government parliamentary group when he met the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet at the weekly meeting.
The President implied that he could have garnered more support for the bill but was having a second thought. Meanwhile, it was reported that a senior UNP member was ready to barter his vote for a powerful ministry but the government was not in a mood to concede anything to the opposition for just a mere vote because they had already secured the numbers by the time when he offered his support.

The member concerned is back in the UNP fold and is opposing the government’s move in a big way.
What is more disturbing to the UNPers is the move, allegedly by the government, to fix UNP top rung member Mangala Samaraweera for the incriminating poster that had been printed by a printer at Delkanda.
Investigations are underway and there were anxious moments among UNP circles on Friday as to whether Samaraweera would be called upon by police to explain.
Samaraweera, however, seems to be more committed to his conviction and was ready to face come what may.


Kidnap that shook Sri Lanka, India and US
As a diversion, I wish to tell you a kidnap story I covered 26 years ago.
My memory was kindled by a ‘confession’ Traditional Industry and Small Enterprise Development Minister Doughlas Devananda made to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on September 3.
He apologised to the people for the mistakes he had committed during the militant phase of his life.
The kidnap of the Allen couple in 1984 shook Sri Lanka, India and US. That was the time Sri Lanka inducted Israeli intelligence agents and US facilitated it.
Tamil people were annoyed with US and its external intelligence agency, the CIA. Militant groups were highly critical of US-funded development projects and the Americans working in them. They branded all US workers as CIA agents.

An American firm, Ruhling Company of Ohio, was involved in a water supply project in Point Pedro and Chavakahcheri. A newly married couple - Stanley Bryson Allen, 30, an engineer, and Mary Elizabeth Allen, 28 - were working in that project from the latter part of 1983. They lived in a modern bungalow on Beach Road, Gurunagar, Jaffna.
The EPRLF intelligence unit Makkal Ayvup Pirivu’s (MAP) was suspicious about them.
They spied on the Allens and informed the EPRLF leaders residing in Chennai that they were CIA agents.
The leadership, comprising Pathmanabha, Douglas Devananda, Suresh Premachandran, Mani and Ramesh among others, hatched a plan to win their organisation international attention.
The plan was to kidnap the Allen couple and demand a huge ransom and the release of their cadres in prison in return for their release.

They timed that for US Vice-President George Bush’s visit to India, fixed to start on May 12, 1984.
The EPRLF’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was given the task of executing the scheme.
PLA commander Douglas Devananda ordered his cadres in Jaffna to do the job. The Jaffna branch sent a group of youngsters around 7pm on Thursday, May 10 to find out whether the couple was alone.
The youngsters told the Allens that they were collecting money for a library.
Stanley indicated his willingness to contribute, and asked them to come back the next day.
Two hours later, after the young couple retired to bed, a group of five armed men - Rex, Mohan, Kumar, Indran and Rogan - entered the house through the back door, pushed the servants into a room and locked them up.
They warned the servants not to shout and they knocked on the bedroom door. Stanley opened it. Mary stood behind him.

The PLA cadres pulled out their guns and told the Allens to get dressed. Then they bound, gagged, and blindfolded the couple.
The couple were led through the front door to the waiting double cab and pushed into the back seat. They were taken to a hideout.
A young boy went to the Government Agent’s Public Relations Office at the Jaffna Kachcheri at 9am the next day and handed him an envelope. It was marked ‘very urgent.’
Government Agent Devanesan Nesiah found in it a copy of a letter addressed to President Jayewardene.
The letter contained three messages: the People’s Liberation Army had kidnapped the couple because they were CIA agents; the Allens would be released if the Sri Lankan army released the 20 freedom fighters who were in its custody and paid 50 million Sri Lankan rupees worth of gold.
The note gave the names of the people to be released, beginning with Fr Singarayar and followed by Nirmala Nithiyananthan.

The rest were EPRLF activists mostly from the Batticaloa district.
The note said the people and the gold were to be handed over to the Tamil Nadu government.
The third message said that if the Sri Lankan government failed to meet both conditions within 72 hours commencing from noon Friday, the Allens would be killed one by one over an interval of six hours.
The pick-up vehicle in which the couple was taken away was found abandoned at Senthankulam beach near Kankesanthurai, suggesting that the kidnapped pair had been taken to Tamil Nadu.
The US ambassador in Colombo met Foreign Minister A C S Hameed around noon and requested him to take action to save the lives of the young couple.
Hameed assured the ambassador that appropriate action would be taken to safeguard the lives of the two innocent victims.

Hameed summoned Indian High Commissioner Chhatwal to his office and asked him whether the Tamil Nadu government had any hand in the abduction. Chhatwal, a strong critic of the Jayewardene government, told me later that he felt like a sheep.
Hameed telephoned Indian Foreign Minister Narasimha Rao and asked for a clarification about the role Tamil Nadu had played in the kidnapping. Rao told him that the Tamil Nadu had no hand. Hameed asked Rao a very relevant question.

“Do you say the kidnappers asked Sri Lanka to hand over the prisoners and the money to the Tamil Nadu government without even mentioning the matter to someone in authority in Tamil Nadu?”
Athulathmudali called a press conference that evening and accused India of complicity.
India was embarrassed. US Vice-President George Bush was to arrive on a state visit on Saturday, May 12.
The lives of two American citizens were in danger, and Indira Gandhi took personal interest in the matter. She telephoned Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran and told him about the kidnapping and asked him to get the American couple released.
She told him that he must tell the Tamil militant groups that the couple should not be harmed.
The US Consul General in Sri Lanka telephoned M Mohandas, the Inspector General of Police (Intelligence) in Tamil Nadu, at about 11pm that Friday night (May 11, 1984) and appealed to him for help.
Mohandas informed MGR, and he fumed, ‘Muddaalgal, muddaalgal’ (meaning ‘Idiots, idiots”).
He instructed Mohandas to go all out and get the hostages released.
The police raided a house in Chennai and arrested six men and two women sleeping in it.
Among the men were Varatharajah Perumal, Pathmanabha, and Douglas Devananda, the commander of the PLA. The men were taken to a big hotel and grilled.

They denied any knowledge of the matter. Then Mohandas went to the hotel and told them bluntly: “If they are shot you will be shot right here in this room. If they are released you will be released.”
That worked and Douglas Devananda telephoned Jaffna from the hotel room and ordered the Allens’ release.
The Allen couple was released on Saturday night. Blindfolded, they were taken to Jaffna Bishop House and released there.

The US President thanked and congratulated the Indian Prime Minister and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.
The US Embassy officials brought the Allens to Colombo on Sunday, and presented them to the media on Monday, May 14.
The crowded press briefing was held at the USIS (United States Information Service) centre at Flower Road.
Stanley spoke freely and answered the questions frankly.
Mary said they were treated with respect.
Allen episode ended happily.
The couple left for the US.But the episode left Indo-Sri Lankan relations badly frayed.