Fresh hope as Zardari and Krishna boost Colombo ties
  • Dollar-free trade call
  • Dr Jayalath under fire
  • TNA left in the lurch
  • Cader’s case debated
  • Seniors meet Basil

Last week was politically significant to Sri Lanka with two important personalities visiting Colombo for bilateral talks.

Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna preceded the visit by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari who arrived in Sri Lanka on a four-day visit.
India being the closest neighbour and the proponent for a viable settlement for the ethnic question bore much significance to many including the Tamil diaspora outside Sri Lanka.
However, what baffled all was as to what prompted the Indian Minister to cancel the scheduled meeting with the Tamil political parties scheduled for Sunday.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) sources say that it could have been because he was compelled to put off the inauguration of the Indian Consulate in Hambantota till Sunday owing to incriminate climate prevailed over Sri Lanka. The original plan was to visit Hambantota on Friday.
On Sunday, the TNA was told that the meeting was rescheduled for noon from the original time 10am.
The Minister, however, could not make it on time and left for India at 1:30pm local time on Sunday, virtually leaving the TNA on the lurch.

The TNA appears to be in a flat spin over the issue since they were readying for a useful discussion with the Indian Minister on various issues including devolution and resettlement of the displaced.
He met many important political leaders at a reception held at the Taj Samudra Hotel on a casual basis, which did not bear much political significance.
However, Krishna was nudging for a political settlement for the Tamils in the North and the East during his talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The more extremist pro-Sinhalese political entities, led by Wimal Weerawansa and Gunadasa Amaresekara, are reported to have been uncomfortable with Indian Minister’s remarks on devolution.
The government, however, was smart enough to avoid any reference to the 13th amendment to the constitution and thereby talking about an extensive devolution package for the ethnic question.

Stark reminder
While in Colombo, the Indian Minister called upon Pakistan to dismantle the ‘terror machine operating with impunity’ within its territory and bring all the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to speedy justice.
His statement coincided with the second anniversary of the 2008 attack on Mumbai.
He said it was a stark reminder that no cause can ever justify terror, either by state or non-state actors.
India sought peaceful, stable and co-operative relations with Pakistan and it was committed to resolving all outstanding issues through dialogue.

Krishna’s diplomatic disposition could have had cross border effects on the eve of Ali Zardari’s visit to Sri Lanka on bilateral matters and defence cooperation.
Though there was talk of enhanced defence co-operation with Pakistan maybe to the much chagrin of India, nothing surfaced during the visit of the Pakistani President Zardari to Sri Lanka.
In the meantime, India is making diplomatic moves to have its presence in a big way through aid and assisting the resettlement process of the war displaced in a bid to offset the imbalance created by the Chinese presence in the region. On top of this, Sri Lanka forging close ties with Pakistan for defence co-operation means something inimical to India’s interests in the region.

Having elevated India’s status in the global political context by the US President Barack Obama during his recent visit to India, India now plays an important role in the region ensuring democracy and security in the South Asian region. Therefore, any step towards defence co-operation with Pakistan should be viewed in the context of the present regional political atmosphere before embarking on such a project.
India also wants to register its presence in the East, and likely to make necessary arrangements to sign the two-stage 1000mw Sampur coal power project even with conditions set out by Sri Lanka, though there was no specific reference to the matter during the Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka. The joint venture is between the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the National Thermal Power Corporation of India.

Three weeks ago, the Attorney General’s Department was busy studying the draft agreement and the Attorney General forwarded some fresh queries to Delhi for their response. The earlier plan was to sign the agreement during Krishna’s visit to Sri Lanka that was dragging since 2006 due to various reasons.
Soon after President Rajapaksa’s visit to India in June, when the Indian Government pledged a massive US$200 million loan to the cash strapped CEB to undertake required construction work of power transmission lines, the papers on the draft MoU were sent to the AG for his observations.
The draft agreement includes a 500-acre land lease, power purchase agreement, and a Board of Investment joint venture deal which would assure a 25-year tax holiday.
What is interesting to observe is how India is using its diplomatic skills to keep its neighbours under their thumb to ensure their own security in the region.

Different mood
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was in a different mood altogether when he addressed parliament on the invitation of Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.
President Zardari spoke of goodwill between the two countries and outlined the need to improve security and infrastructure.
“Sri Lankans should think of security and infrastructure,” he said.
Simultaneously, he emphasised that it could not be achieved without technology.
President Zardari said that they posses the necessary technology and would be happy to co-operate with Sri Lanka. Addressing parliament, the visiting President also declared that there are no political prisoners in Pakistan.
Speaking further, the President said both countries have a rich cultural heritage and the friendship dates back to thousands of years.
He also proposed that both countries could engage in dollar-free trade in the absence of a common currency, meaning the bartering system.

President Zardari’s speech could be described as a hint that Sri Lanka should develop its own security to face any future security challenges and is a soft diplomatic missive to India.
The President was indirectly encouraging greater defence co-operation between the two countries that could eventually be the bugbear of India.
However, Sri Lanka has to be cautious in view of the present global position India has achieved as an economic giant. At the same time, Sri Lanka could learn lessons from the past, especially the political complexities encountered by the J R Jayewardene regime, owing to his policies slanted towards west.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was at the Bandaranaike International Airport to receive President Asif Ali Zardari, left for the United Kingdom on Sunday after playing host to the visiting President while the visiting President was still in the country.
President Rajapaksa was scheduled to address the Oxford Union on December 2, which was, however, cancelled by the Oxford Union on a unilateral decision taken by them after they came under heavy pressure owing to mounting protests by the Eelam lobbyists in the Europe, which could have been a security threat to the visiting President.

Judicial process
The speech President Zardari made in parliament was good material for Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who cashed in on it to call on the government to immediately release former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who is languishing in jail following a decision by a court martial.
Wickremesinghe said that there are no political prisoners in Pakistan and not even in Myanmar, pushing the government to a tight corner.
But, Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva was quick to respond saying that Fonseka is not a political prisoner and that he had been incarcerated after a due judicial process.
Sarath Fonseka’s case is taking a new turn after the exoneration of Deputy Minister Abdul Cader by the High Court after the Attorney General submitted that he could not maintain charges against Cader in the absence of original documents pertaining to the offence alleged to have committed by him.
The senior counsel appearing for Sarath Fonseka, Nalin Ladduwahetti, cited Abdul Cader’s case and said the same terms should be applicable in Sarath Fonseka’s case.
Abdul Cader, a political turncoat, was acquitted by the High Court recently after the Attorney General maintained that the original documents pertaining to the transaction could not be traced.
Cader was charged for criminal misappropriation of Rs.1 million. He was the minister of cooperatives of the 2001-2003 UNP regime under the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Court ruling
In the meantime, the Supreme Court this week will decide on the important constitutional question whether or not a court martial could be considered a court of law within the meaning of the constitution.
Lawyers argue that only a writ jurisdiction could be exercised against a court martial since it is not a court established under the normal law of the country, but a special institution set up under the military law.
They also argue it is a court within the meaning of the Sri Lankan Constitution then the convicts of such courts should have the right to appeal.
The Supreme Court determination on the matter this week will end speculation whether or not a military court could be considered a court within the meaning of the normal law that entails the disqualification provision specified in the constitution.

The decision either way is likely to benefit Sarath Fonseka.
If the Supreme Court decides that a military court is similar to a normal criminal court then there arises the question whether the proper criminal procedure had been followed when arriving at its decision.
If it is a court of first instance, the due procedure has to be followed in terms of the criminal procedure code. Accordingly, Fonseka will be entitled to bail as in other cases and other convicts.

If the court decides that the ‘military court’ is not a court within the realm of the normal law, the whole matter ends there which means the question whether Sarath Fonseka is entitled to sit and vote in parliament ends there in favour of Fonseka. Legal experts predict that either way it would benefit Sarath Fonseka and the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court will create precedence in the annals of the Sri Lankan legal history.
In the present political context, concerning Sri Lanka what should take precedence over other matters is endurance to heal the wounds and scars of ethnic disharmony that bled the country for 30 long years.
The protests in London and the subsequent cancellation of the President’s address to the Oxford Union shows that the ethnic hatred is high and widespread elsewhere though it appears to have subdued here.
It is now time opportune for the government to address these issues on a priority basis with the help of India so that the present administration would be viewed in different perspective here and elsewhere as who had done the utmost to douse the fires of ethnic hatred.

Bitter lessons
The Wikileaks website, known to be a whistleblower, had described how former British foreign secretary David Milliband had used the Sri Lankan situation to increase his vote base back home.
It also put the war crime charges on the doorstep of the present administration, which could be a sheer embarrassment to the country as a whole, and it reminds everybody the need for a strong mechanism to counter these allegations surfacing in the international political arena.
The country has bitter lessons to learn through trial and error methods and rectify the errors to project a better image of Sri Lanka internationally.
Nobody doubts the bona fides of the President and the government but the question is whether the government is availing itself of proper advice to forge ahead as an emerging and a vibrant democracy in the Asian continent.

Under any situation the endurance of President Rajapaksa should be appreciated when he remarked after the cancellation of the address to the Oxford Union: “I will seek venues in the UK and elsewhere to talk about my future vision for Sri Lanka.”
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and James Langman, president-elect, Oxford Union, met President Rajapaksa following the cancellation of the speech at the Oxford Union to express their regrets for the unforeseen incident that prevented the President from delivering his speech at Oxford.
The tremors of the London protest by the unruly ‘Eelam’ lobby groups were felt in Sri Lanka’s parliament on Thursday when government parliamentarians including several ministers allegedly attempted to manhandle UNP parliamentarian Dr Jayalath Jayawardhana.

They charged that Dr Jayawardhana led the protests against the President in London.
In the parliament lobby too, there had been unpleasant incidents when several government parliamentarians hurled insults at Dr Jayawardhana.
Eventually, he and several UNP members lodged a complaint with the Speaker over the matter.
Dr Jayawardhana explained matters to the Speaker who promised to inquire into the incidents that took place within and outside the well of parliament.

Several Ministers surrounded Jayawardhana in a bid to attack him. However, several UNP parliamentarians intervened to avert a possible exchange of blows.
The UNP later held a press conference at its headquarters to denounce the attack on one of its members.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the UNP was not in any way involved in such protests and said Dr Jayawardhana was in Rome when the President arrived in London.
He said that the government had created a bad precedence by attacking parliamentarians.
It was started with attacking journalists and now it has been extended to parliamentarians as well, the leader of the opposition stated.

He also reminded how a parliamentarian threw a bottle of water at him since they could not meet argument through a similar response.
He also said that if there is an issue in focus, they could resolve it through democratic means through discussion and debate and not by resorting to violence.
“If this continues it will develop into a crisis,” he added.

Acute imbalance
Dr Jayawardhana at this point of time showing a blood-splattered wound on his arm said he was subjected to bodily harm by some politicians.
Many in the private gallery of parliament including schoolchildren were removed following this incident and the Speaker suspended sittings for nearly 25 minutes.
Lobby correspondents and other observers were aghast by the behaviour of chief government whip Dinesh Gunawardene, given his credentials as a politician who commanded respect among others in the past.
The turmoil and conflict which had embraced the Sri Lankan society today could have been derived from the political system in force from 1978 where power centres around a single individual.
Many experts, political and legal, see that there is an acute imbalance in the system so created due to lack of proper checks and balances and proper separation of powers among the institutions came in to being following the 1978 Constitution.

Hence, in the present state of affairs it is important to note the submissions made by eminent judge Christy Weeramantry who appeared before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, headed by former Attorney General C R de Silva.
Judge Weeramantry said: “In 1978, when President Jayewardene sought to introduce the presidential system I realised in the light of the studies that I have done the proposed constitutional structure opened up possibilities for authoritarian rule through the violation of the principle of separation of powers and the departure from the basic tenets which had thus far protected the liberty of the subject in Sri Lanka.”
At a meeting with President Jayewardene, Judge Weeramantry pointed out that the presidential power under the system was so great as to place democratic principles in danger.

He also had pointed out that President Jayewardene had created a serious concentration of presidential power with serious implications for the future.
However, Judge Weeramantry was not successful in convincing the former president to pursue him to desist from the course of action.

“The excessive use of power, in denial of democratic rights which I anticipated in 1976 when I first studied the question received strong confirmation in the Mahinda Chinthanaya, which said that the executive presidency in the past had been used to postpone elections, topple elected governments, to disrupt the judiciary, to ban political parties. Suppress demonstrations and lead the country towards a violent culture, to sell state institutions at under-valued prices, to defend criminals and to concessions to unscrupulous businesspersons. Agreements that betrayed the country were entered into by using the powers of the executive presidency.”

This categorical statement that judge Weeramantry made was a strong indictment on the presidential system.
He said that if the presidential power was capable of being used to disrupt the judiciary, to ban political parties and to betray the country, the fundamental principles of democracy were in danger. Then this is the strongest possible reason that it should be subjected to necessary checks and balances.
“It is true President Rajapaksa gave a categorical assurance that he himself would convert the executive presidency into a Trusteeship, which honours the mandate given to parliament, establishing equality before the law, being accountable to the judiciary and not being in conflict with the judiciary. Trusteeship is indeed a noble concept and such an assurance by the President is most honourable and welcome. Yet, it still personal to him and does not have the force of law, however noble the intention behind it. Nor does it bind the future holder of the office.”

To create harmony, judge Weeramantry believes that the confidence of the minorities should be built on a firm foundation with their rights guaranteed and upheld without fear or favour.
As a prerequisite he proposes, “A constitution which shields all citizens from abuse of power and authority and guarantees them against any denial or erosion of their rights, the freedom of information and complete transparency”.
If achieved, he is of the view that it could foster peace and create a united Sri Lanka which will be a model to the rest of the world.

Beliatta budget
In another political development last week, the Beliatta Pradeshiya Sabha, known to be a stronghold of the Rajapaksas, was in the news when the opposition with the help of several ruling party members defeated the annual budget of the Pradeshiya Sabha.
The PS chairman, though said that the budget would be presented for a second time, it is doubtful whether he would be able to muster the necessary vote.
However, there is provision in the present act to pass the budget even if it failed to go through the Pradeshiya Sabha with a majority vote. The PS chairman could use the executive power to pass the budget under the present Local Government Act.

However, with the introduction of the new act that was examined by the Supreme Court for its constitutionality, if the Pradeshiya Sabha failed to pass the budget with a majority, it may face dissolution requiring fresh election or it would come under the administration of a special commissioner appointed by the minister in-charge of local governments.
The defeat at the Beliatta Pradeshiya Sabha, though would not change the status quo, had sent a strong signal to the government that the people are not too happy with the economic and political disposition of the government.

The credit according to the UNP sources goes to none other than Sajith Premadasa who is also the district leader for Hambantota.
Last Tuesday, Premadasa made a valuable contribution on behalf of the UNP in parliament participating in the budget debate where the party leader made it a point to congratulate Premadasa on his fine delivery.
Premadasa, while acknowledging the sentiments expressed by the leader, told him that he was able to add more significance to his achievement by defeating the ruling party in Beliatta.
Beliatta may not be a big problem for the government given the parliamentary power enjoyed by them, but there are several issues at hand concerning the Senior Ministers.

Supervisory role
Several Senior Ministers had a meeting with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa in a bid to sort out the problems arising from these appointments.
Attorney General Mohan Peiris too was present on the occasion to explain the aims behind such appointments but several Ministers including the former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake showed his resentment by saying that here was no legal issue but a political one.
In the mean time, one senior minister has called the line ministry of which he is playing a supervisory role to inquire as to whether he could assume duties, but the reply was in the negative saying that they were still seeking clarification on the matter.
Several Senior Ministers seemed frustrated while the others maintain a stoic silence wandering as to what would be their role.
They were in fact not happy when heard that all “seniors” irrespective of their responsibilities would be housed in one secretariat.
The fate of these ministers were the focus of attention of Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe when he addressed parliament on the budget debate and elsewhere he said the government had sent all the seniors to Vishramapaya (a home dedicated for those in retirement) while sending the people to Apaya – the home of misery.