government on Wednesday rushed through Parliament
legislation known as the Revival of Underperforming
and Underutilised Assets Bill - also referred to as
the ‘Business Takeover Bill - amidst some protests
but sans any great drama.
The Bill was passed by a majority of 76 votes but
the opposition was understandably furious alleging
that the new laws were aimed at victimising
political opponents and rendering the business
community compliant with the ruling party’s agenda
through an unspoken threat of takeover.
A major issue came up for discussion was the listing
of Sevanagala Sugar Company as a state controlled
entity. The venture is owned by Daya Gamage who is
the United National Party (UNP) strongman in the
Ampara district. The company was making handsome
profits in recent years.
While Gamage went public
with his woes, Opposition Leader Ranil
Wickremasinghe held a discussion with President
Mahinda Rajapaksa requesting him to remove the sugar
producer from the takeover list. The President, who
also met with business leaders, was however
The government defended its decision to takeover the
Sevanagala Sugar Company stating that the company
was operating outside its license. It also defended
its decision to annex a handful of other profit
making ventures citing various other reasons such as
the non-payment of taxes.
It was also pointed out that many government
enterprises - Sri Lankan Airlines, Mihin Air and the
Ceylon Electricity Board among them were incurring
losses amounting to billions of rupees. Hence the
argument that loss making institutions should be
taken over by the state did not ring true.
Another major complaint was that the Bill was fast
tracked through Parliament in double quick time
hardly making allowances for any discussion or
debate. Even the mahanayake theras advised the
government against this calling for more time to
deliberate on the new laws.
The political implications of the Bill are now
emerging: it is clear that for his second term in
office, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is keen on
fashioning a unique course - even if it may at times
appear to be at odds with the thinking of some of
those in his own United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
If the manner, in which, the President handled the
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra assassination caused
some consternation for senior politicians in the Sri
Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), last week’s events
relating to the new laws perturbed other allies in
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which in the past has
taken the moral high ground on many issues on which
it had its policies and principles, was unhappy with
the new laws and asked that they be studied further
instead of rushing them through Parliament. At
voting time, JHU MPs were absent.
The Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) did not publicly
criticise the bill in any way, but it was clear that
the party did not wish to be seen as supporting the
bill. Instead of taking a stand on the issue, the
JNP led by the usually omnipresent Minister Wimal
Weerawansa, was also absent at the time of voting.
These are interesting developments because both the
JHU and the JNP are seen as being more nationalist
minded parties among the coalition partners of the
UPFA. Yet, it is these two parties which appear to
oppose the state takeover of private enterprisers -
an ideological paradox!
If it is assumed that these parties are indeed
not ideologically opposed to the new laws, then
their decision to withdraw from Parliament at voting
time can only mean that they have grave concerns
about the centralising of power within the UPFA
among a selected inner circle.
From an opposition perspective, they were completely
flummoxed by the astute political manoeuvring that
went into passing these laws. They were unaware of
the impending legislation and when it was announced
as an ‘urgent Bill in the national interest’, it was
simply too late.
The Bill had already been referred to the Supreme
Court which determined that its provisions were not
inconsistent with the Constitution. That meant, a
simple majority in Parliament would suffice for its
passage through the legislature.
All that the opposition could do in the
circumstances was to file several fundamental rights
applications - again in the Supreme Court. When the
Bill was brought before Parliament, it took up the
position that therefore it could not be debated, but
this was overruled by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.
In the end, despite a heated debate in Parliament,
the Bill sailed through. Sadly for the opposition,
it lacked the capacity to launch any form of
meaningful protest against the new laws, even
allowing for the fact that the legislation was
hurried through, with hardly a warning.
It will be recalled that only a few months ago, the
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was able to muster
enough support to thwart a Bill that proposed the
setting up of a private sector pension scheme. In
this instance however, the JVP, riddled with
divisions, was reduced to being a silent spectator.
The UNP’s protests came in the form of what has now
become ‘usual’ for the party: its media briefing.
While these receive their due amount of sound bytes,
they do not fire the imagination of the masses - and
are not a potent weapon in dealing with a government
with a steamroller majority.
For old timers in the UNP who remember the party’s
heyday while in the opposition-in the mid-seventies
under J.R. Jayewardene, when Satyagraha was the
order of the day, this must be a sad reflection of
its current state of impotence.
The energies of the party stalwarts being already
spent on fighting internal battles and leadership
disputes, the ‘grand old party’ couldn’t even muster
a ‘tooting horn’ campaign or a ‘coconut smashing’
protest let alone organise a mass scale sit in or a
general strike; such was its state of apathy.
The events last week therefore could signal a strong
government’s intentions of doing exactly what it
wants to do, in terms of laws, policies and
political strategy. Many well intentioned
governments such as J.R. Jayewardene’s in the late
seventies have begun this way, but have floundered
That though is not because the government itself was
evil but because of the opposition of the day was
too weak and ineffective to counter some of the more
questionable actions of the then ruling party. Last
week’s events may suggest that this aspect of our
history could well repeat itself.