Fresh civil society project launched ahead of Aug 2020 polls
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 325
Former lawmaker Mangala Samaraweera at an event oganized by new civil society grouping Freedom :People’s Collective at the Town Hall on July 8 (pic by Thushara Atapattu)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Former lawmaker Mangala Pinsiri Samaraweera’s presence at a recent event, at the New Town Hall, where the newly formed civil society grouping, ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’, vowed to derail President Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government’s bid to do away with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, should be examined against the backdrop of Samaraweera quitting the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) ahead of the August 5, 2020 parliamentary polls.
Samaraweera pulled out of the contest after obtaining nomination from the SJB’s Matara District list in the second week of June.
Samaraweera sat in the first row of seats. Samaraweera, who held top ministerial portfolios in the governments of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (PA), Mahinda Rajapakasa (UPFA) and Maithripala Sirisena, was the only former lawmaker in the audience. On stage, among others activists, was former Jaffna District parliamentarian, M.A. Sumanthiran, who is also the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman.
Having deserted the SJB, Samaraweera has obviously thrown his weight behind the new political movement.
Some sections of the society, and the powers that be, tend to be suspicious, always, of some sections of civil society activists’ intentions. However, there is nothing secret about ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ primary objective. Consisting of prominent civil society activists, ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ declared in July 8, that it would campaign to thwart the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) project to rescind the 19th Amendment. The grouping warned of dire consequences, in case the government was allowed to succeed. The government also received the backing of some civil society groups and, in return, accommodated them on the SLPP nomination lists, as well as the National List, at the forthcoming general election.
Professor of Sinhala, Sarath Wijesooriya (National Movement for Social Justice), Gamini Viyangoda (Purawesi Balaya), Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, and Manu Tissera, rallied public support for the project. In addition to them, Attorney-at-Law Javid Yusuf, an outspoken member of the Constitutional Council, delivered a brief but highly critical statement, perhaps not in keeping with his status as a member of the all-important Constitutional Council. Yusuf, one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador, in Riyadh, strongly opposed the SLPP move. Yusuf is one of the three civil society members, in the Constitutional Council, chaired by ex-Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. In spite of the dissolution of parliament, on March 2, 2020, the Constitutional Council functions. Yusuf claimed that there would be disastrous consequences if the SLPP was rewarded by voters with a 2/3 majority, in parliament, and the 19th Amendment was done away with. Over 200 voted for the new law, enacted in 2015, that restricted a President from seeking a third term. The 19th Amendment also introduced far reaching other changes.
Having covered the event, the writer, a few days later, sought an explanation from Viyangoda as regards the project. Viyangoda said: "Freedom is the foremost legacy of modern democracy. That freedom is likely to be threatened, we suspect, going by the intentions of the present ruling political leadership. Democracy, as we perceive, is institutes, rule of law and accountability, not just holding elections. All three conditions, mentioned above, will be in danger if the 19th Amendment is done away with to pave the way for an authoritarian presidential system. This would even go further than the 18th, we suspect. No, we will not be working with any political party for this election. But we ask the voter to choose one party in the pro-democracy camp, namely, Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), Sajith Premadasa (SJB), Anura Kumara Dissanayake (Jana Balavegaya) and the TNA, to strengthen the next Parliament with democratic forces. We ask voters to also choose most suitable persons, corruption-free, etc., from whatever group. This time we are not insisting on any particular party or person, but on a camp."
Viyangoda urged the electorate to vote for those candidates seriously committed to a democratic constitution, democratic institutions and democratic traditions.
Strangely those who talk so much about democracy, and the rule of law, seem to have no qualms about the yahapalana lot having robbed the country’s Central Bank, in broad daylight, and virtually ensured the easy escape of the chief culprit the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, personally hand-picked by PM Wickremesinghe for the job, despite that man not even being a citizen of this country.
Former Minister Mangala Samaraweera has clearly joined the latest project. Having served the cabinets of ministers during the tenures of Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa, Samaraweera was kicked out of the cabinet, in January 2007. An irate Samaraweera formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana) Wing, which merged with the United National Party, in 2010. Samaraweera seems to be confident he could influence political developments through ‘civil society’ actions. Can the SJB, UNP, JVP and TNA deprive the SLPP a two-thirds majority in the next parliament? Securing two-thirds is certainly an uphill task, even if the civil society didn’t undertake a special operation to derail the highly ambitious project. Since the introduction of the PR system, two-thirds hadn’t been achieved by any political party, or coalition. The best was the UNP and the UPFA obtaining simple majorities at the 1989 and 2010 general elections, respectively.
Victor Ivan wants Mangala to play revolutionary role
Former Ravaya editor, Victor Ivan, in a piece in the Ravaya on June 21, 2020, explained the circumstances leading to Samaraweera taking an unprecedented path, having served parliament since 1989. According to the former JVPer, Samaraweera had summoned a meeting to discuss the situation after having signed nominations to contest the parliamentary polls, on the SJB ticket. Among the few participants at the discussion were two economists (they weren’t named), Victor Ivan and two Central Committee members of civil society group Punarudaya. There had been general consensus as the continuing crisis, in Sri Lanka, couldn’t be brought under control, a collapse of political and economic systems were inevitable.
Subsequently, there had been another meeting to discuss a strategy, pertaining to the role of the particular civil society grouping, and especially that of Samaraweera in the face of the SLPP trying to consolidate its hold with overwhelming victory at the parliamentary polls. There had been a general consensus of the need to build a strong public project, capable of winning structural adjustments. The discussion covered what Samaraweera’s role should be, with Victor Ivan strongly pushing for Samaraweera to quit the parliamentary polls contest. Ivan urged Samaraweea to play a radical role in the civil society project. However, some of those present asserted that the former minister could play such a role even without wholly quitting the existing political system.
Having listened to different suggestions, Samaraweera decided to quit the SJB to serve, what Ivan called, a public campaign to save the country. Samaraweera pledged to commit himself fully to the latest project. Ivan asserted that the current crisis couldn’t be addressed by corrupt political parties.
Instead of promoting one political party, ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ intends to promote an
Opposition coalition capable of challenging the SLPP expected to win 2020 parliamentary polls comfortably. Their success depends on the denial of a two-thirds majority to the SLPP. For that, whatever the differences among the SJB, UNP, JVP and the TNA, their priority should be to obtain more than 75 seats out of the 225-member parliament. The SLPP is likely to fail in its endeavour to obtain a 2/3 majority. However, in the absence of constitutional means to block crossovers, the winning party can always engineer crossovers. ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ faces the challenge of thwarting crossovers. It wouldn’t be an easy task. Former President Maithripala Sirisena is on record as having said, in the wake of the failed Oct 2018 constitutional coup, that the project failed as lawmakers sought as much as Rs 500 mn each to switch allegiance.
Acknowledging the right of the civil society to engage in a political project, whatever its consequences, President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva challenged Constitutional Council member Attorney-at-Law Javid Yusuf’s claim that the incumbent government would have conducted parliamentary polls as originally scheduled for April 25 regardless of the threat posed by the coronavirus, if not for the timely intervention made by the Election Commission, established in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Civil society members, in the CC, cannot, under any circumstances, play politics, the top lawyer emphasized.
Manohara de Silva, a civil society activist, himself, faulted political parties/groups opposed to such projects for not taking a strong stand. Subsequently, SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris took up this matter on Monday (13) at the weekly briefing at the SLPP party office, at Nelum Mawatha.
Calling the situation very unfortunate, the President’s Counsel said: There is also an ethical issue. Is it proper for a CC member to express a political opinion, in public and, if so, can CJ do the same? CC approves appointment of judges. Shouldn’t they be more independent than judges? All the people Javid sat with are federalists, sharing a common political ideology. The important thing is that an expression of a prejudicial view, in public, can harm the institution’s independence. At a time of an election, is it correct to express an opinion against one political group. Article 41A (5) says that a CC member cannot be a member of a political party. Isn’t he going against the spirit of the law? De Silva asked.
Manohara de Silva added: Javid’s issue is a system error. This is what happens when NGO representatives are appointed to CC, as well as Commissions established in terms of the 19th Amendment. The inclusion of Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole in the Election Commission is another example. There are many more I can cite. All these parties supported this system and now they are embarrassed. All these people benefit from this system, so they are not critical of them. Just imagine Chief Justice and other judges being appointed /recommended by those promoting civil society ideals at the expense of the Sri Lankan State."
Contentious role of
the civil society
Among those present, at the New Town Hall event, were the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, former President of the Bar Association Upul Jayasuriya, and Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing media personality, Prageeth Ekneligoda, and award-winning author and poet Shakthika Sathkumara, who had been arrested and remanded on charges of inciting religious hatred. The Executive Director of the National Peace Council, Dr. Jehan Perera, was also in the audience. In spite of being invited to promote the project, polls monitoring bodies PAFFREL (Rohana Hettiarachchi), CAFFE (Ahamed Manas Makeen) and CMEV (Manjula Gajanayake) refrained from participating for obvious reasons of not wanting to tarnish their status as ostensibly independent polls observers. They, however, received the appreciation of the organizers. Former Ravaya editor K.W. Janaranjana, now the editor of the political weekly Annidda, at the onset of the programme, briefly explained the short, as well as, long term objectives. Polls monitors quite clearly understood the implications of their participation at such a political event, though CC Yusuf felt otherwise. Yusuf’s slip has been showing for quite some time and to be fair, by him, he has never hesitated to respond to a query when the writer sought his views on contentious matters. Yusuf has always been outspoken on controversial matters. The CC needs to examine Yusuf’s matter rationally, without further delay, as ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ stepped up its campaign with the crucial general election just four weeks away.
Those involved in the latest campaign played a crucial role in the 2015 presidential polls campaign to help Maithripala Sirisena win the presidency. They backed the UNP at the 2015 August parliamentary polls. In spite of repeated interventions, they couldn’t save the yahapalana partnership for want of a common programme. President and SLFP leader Sirisena’s decision to accept the leadership of the party made matters worse, though the real setback was caused by the UNP, by perpetrating the massive Treasury bond scam, in late February 2015. It was followed by a far bigger Treasury bond scam, in late March 2016. In between, the yahapalana lot betrayed the war-winning armed forces in Oct 2015, by way of co-sponsoring a US resolution at the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Instead of facing the electorate, the yahapalana leadership delayed Local Government polls till February 2018 only to suffer a debilitating setback. Yahapalana partners never recovered from the humiliating defeat at the Local Government polls though they through manipulating parliament managed to avoid the Provincial Council polls rout later.
Regardless of yahapalana partners repeated failures finally leading to the devastating 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, the civil society played a significant role in a well-organized counter attack. They promoted Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as the presidential candidate while moving court against presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A deeply rattled SLPP had no option but to get Chamal Rajapaksa to pay his deposit to contest the 2019 Nov polls in case the court verdict went against the former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
But, the Court of Appeal dismissed a case seeking the cancellation of the citizenship of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, clearing the way for him to register as a candidate.
Civil activists, Gamini Viyangoda, and Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara, asked the Court of Appeal to annul Rajapaksa’s citizenship, saying he renounced it in 2003 to become a citizen of the United States and regained it two years later in an irregular manner. The three-judge panel unanimously rejected the case, saying that the case had no merit. The civil society quite rightly exercised their right to take legal recourse. Earlier, those opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entering politics, at the highest level, believed the former Gajaba Regiment veteran could be blocked on the basis of him being a US citizen. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 2015, with the backing of the Joint Opposition was meant to block dual citizens from contesting parliamentary, or presidential polls, though a foreign passport holder could receive the position as Governor, Central Bank of Sri Lanka, and yet another foreign passport holder could be a member of the independent Election Commission.
Recently, EC member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole caused controversy by urging the electorate in Jaffna not to vote for the SLPP, according to a complaint lodged by that party with the EC. Prof. Hoole said that he made no reference to any political party, though strongly endorsed the stand taken by the March 12 movement, comprising civil society organizations, including the PAFFREL, CAFFE and CMEV, not to vote for unscrupulous elements. Perhaps, Yusuf, too, should quit the Constitutional Council, like Samaraweera quitting the SJB, to concentrate fully on the ambitious civil society project. Former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Moscow, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke, last Friday (10), strongly criticized the SLPP project to abolish the 19th Amendment. Jayatilleke, who at one-time declared President Gotabaya Rajapaksa-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa combination was the best for Sri Lanka, flayed the incumbent government, warning of dictatorship unless, what he called, the despicable project was reversed. However, Dr. Jayatilleke is not formally involved with the Freedom-led civil society project though he contributed to that overall operation. Dr. Jayatilleke attacked the SLPP project at the CSR, Maradana.
Fresh initiatives, failures
The civil society alleges that the SLPP, under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would terminate what ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ called the democratic form of government, enjoyed by the people, for over 70 years. The civil society alleged that the SLPP would unceremoniously do away with the 19th Amendment to pave the way for the return of the dreaded executive presidential system, introduced by the UNP government, in 1978, in which current UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was a full-fledged Minister. The grouping is of the view that in spite of the UNP split, those opposed to authoritarian rule can work both in and outside parliament to thwart the government project. Declaring their commitment to uphold democracy, the ‘Freedom: People’s Collective’ stated in its first official document, distributed at New Town Hall on July 8: "…the most crucial political responsibility of the voters of our country at the parliamentary election, on the 5th of August, is to make sure that it will not mark the beginning of the end of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy."
Although former President Maithripala Sirisena had been repeatedly faulted by the civil society for the collapse of the yahapalana arrangement, perhaps the real reason is nothing but the first Treasury bond scam, staged within weeks of coming to power that caused a sharp split in the government. In spite of that, President Sirisena dissolved parliament, in late June 2015, to save the UNP from the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) damning report on the first scam, an even more audacious UNP committed second Treasury bond scam, eight months, after the 2015 August parliamentary polls. Those who talk disparaging of former President Sirisena, never bothered to inquire into the crisis caused by co-sponsoring the Geneva resolution, in Oct 2015, against its own armed forces, on unsubstantiated allegations, and then turning a blind eye to Lord Naseby’s revelations, in Oct 2017, that could have been efficiently used to clear the bogus allegations. The civil society, instead of taking tangible measures to rectify those shortcomings, and mistakes, pursued the same strategies, at the expense of their own project.
Their call to place Defence and Law and Order, under Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, after him having accused his own Army of killing thousands of Tamils, seemed as ridiculous as the TNA voting for the war-winning Army Chief at the 2010 presidential poll. Politics and NGOs, in this country, are obviously dabbled in by many an opportunist and scoundrel. The forthcoming parliamentary poll is no exception.