Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Celebrating parliamentary democracy Sri Lankan way




By Shamindra Ferdinando

Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha, (UPFA, National List MP), recently declared that out of 225 MPs less than 50 actively participated in parliamentary work.

 Parliament comprises 196 elected members and 29 appointed on the often abused National List.

 Musthapha didn’t mince his words when he asserted that the vast majority of members were there only to enjoy a range of perks and privileges available to them.

 The current parliament comprises 106 members elected on the UNP ticket, one on the SLMC ticket (some SLMC members were elected on the UNP ticket), 95 UPFA, 16 Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and six JVP. Of the 95 elected on the UPFA ticket, 55 members, including former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, functions as an independent group, dubbed the Joint Opposition (JO).

 UPFA member Musthapha, representing the SLFP group in parliament, loyal to President Maithripala Sirisena, emphasized that it was the responsibility of the electorate to ensure efficient, educated and active men and women represented them in parliament. The minister took up the position that the electorate should take up the responsibility for the men and women elected to parliament.

 The SLFPer was responding to Sirasa Pathikada host Bandula Jayasekera on Sept. 25, 2017. Asked whether Minister Mustapha was satisfied with the performance of female members of the current parliament, the politician emphasized that less than 50 men and women members functioned responsibly in parliament.

 Musthapha said that some members were there to have cake. Obviously, Mustapha considered himself an active parliamentarian, one among the less than 50 strong group.

The SLFPer urged the electorate not to choose handsome men and beautiful women, sportsmen et al to serve them.

 Parliamentary attendance has been shocking with members routinely skipping sessions. In May last year, during a vote on a supplementary estimate was taken it was revealed that out of the 225 members, only 62 were present. Some of those who had been missing were at a posh cinema on the invitation of Deputy Speaker Tilanga Sumathipala for the screening of a new film Paththini.

 Sri Lanka’s celebration of 70 years of parliamentary democracy, on Oct 3, should be examined against the backdrop of Musthapha’s damning statement regarding the conduct of his colleagues. Controversial declaration, in response to Jayasekera’s query, is nothing but an indictment of those who had neglected their responsibilities in spite of receiving a range of perks and privileges at the taxpayers’ expense.

 Each Member of parliament is entitled to a pension at the conclusion of just one term in parliament and also enjoys the right to accommodate spouses, children and other relatives on their staff. Members also receive special benefits. Puttalam District MP Milroy Fernando secured the release of his wife convicted of murder with President Rajapaksa’s intervention. The then President released the woman on the international’s women’s day. Among those released with her were two Indian women arrested on a heroin smuggling charge.

JRJ pardoned Gonawela Sunil after he was convicted of abducting and raping the daughter of a doctor from Ward Place. Premadasa pardoned several terrorists and even convicted ones, including Maradana bomber Daniels.

 Musthapha also claimed that politicians were the most selfish category of people in Sri Lanka.

A special session was held yesterday (Oct. 3) to mark the 70th anniversary of Parliament. President Maithripala Sirisena participated at the session amidst simmering political turmoil over the recent passage of the Provincial Council (Amendment) Bill at the expense of the Supreme Court ruling. The JO has flayed Speaker Karu Jayasuriya over what veteran MP Dinesh Gunawardena called shameless way the Bill was endorsed in parliament with a two-thirds majority.

 The decision of former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva to file a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court, citing as respondents Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya, Speaker Jayasuriya and head of the National Elections Commission (NEC) Mahinda Deshapriya, challenging the Provincial Council Election (Amendment) Act, highlighted the developing crisis. There had never been a previous instance of a former CJ filing a fundamental rights petition against the passage of a Bill. Obviously, political parties and civil society should examine the developing situation in the wake of Speaker Jayasuriya declaration that Sri Lanka was able to continue parliamentary democracy for 70 years in spite of many obstacles, including two failed military coup attempts in 1960, youth unrest in 1971, 1989 and the 30-year-old war.

 Eight years after the successful conclusion of the war, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, Sri Lanka is at crossroads with sharp differences over ongoing attempts to introduce a new constitution. The constitutional making process is in turmoil with even the ruling coalition members, the UNP and the SLFP, unable to reach an understanding on some crucial matters. The JO, too, has been divided with the National Freedom Front (NFF) withdrawing from the constitution making process in the wake of the top JO leadership turning down a NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa’s request to it to quit the process.

 Parliament cannot ignore the developing crisis as failure to address contentious issues will certainly cause chaos. President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday (Sept. 29) claimed that he hadn’t yet seen a copy of the interim committee report on the new draft constitution which was presented to parliament on Sept. 21. Addressing a group of monks, President Sirisena reassured the nation that he had received an assurance from constitutional affairs expert, UNP National List MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, that the interim report didn’t undermine Sri Lanka’s unitary status or sought to abolish privilege status of Buddhism. President Sirisena said he asked Dr. Jayampathy whether he was telling the truth.

President Sirisena’s claim has underscored the pathetic failure of the current system.

 Dr. Wickramaratne last Sunday (Oct. 1) responded to President Sirisena’s statement when the issue was brought up by The Island at a special media briefing called by the government to explain the ongoing constitution making process.

 How can the executive head of a government, deprived of an opportunity to study the most vital document placed before parliament since the introduction of the 1978 constitution, be justified under any circumstances.  

 Parliament, as well as senior SLFPers engaged in the constitutional making process cannot remain silent in the wake of President Sirisena’s accusation. They should explain the lapse on their part to consult President Sirisena or face the consequences.

The crisis over constitution making process should be studied against the backdrop of Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling for a new constitution.

Let me reproduce verbatim what UN Human Rights Commissioner, Zeid-Hussein, stated in his June 28, 2016 address, in Geneva:

* Significant momentum has been achieved in the process of constitutional reform. On 10 March 2016, Parliament adopted a resolution establishing a constitutional assembly to draft and approve a new constitution or amendments by the end of 2016, which would then be put to a referendum in 2017. The drafting process has benefited from an inclusive public consultation process overseen by a Public Representations Committee that received submissions and held district level consultations in the first quarter of 2016.

 * From a human rights perspective, the constitutional reform process presents an important opportunity to rectify structural deficiencies that contributed to human rights violations and abuses in the past and reinforce guarantees of non-recurrence. These could include a more comprehensive Bill of Rights, stronger institutional checks and balances, enhanced constitutional review, improved guarantees for the independence of the judiciary, effective individual complaints mechanisms and greater direct enforceability of international human rights treaty. Also, as demonstrated by other countries’ experience, is the strengthening of civilian oversight over the military in the form of multiple oversight and accountability mechanisms over defence policy, discipline and promotion, budgeting and procurement. The new Constitution will also be important in facilitating the establishment of the transitional justice mechanisms envisaged by the Government, for instance the criminalization of international crimes in national law or allowing for the involvement of international judicial personnel. At the same time, the High Commissioner hopes that the political process of adopting constitutional changes will not involve tradeoffs and compromises on core issues of accountability, transitional justice and human rights (emphasis mine).

As current parliament celebrated 70 years of parliamentary democracy, the former Jordanian diplomat Zeid-Hussein has reminded us again that tradeoffs and compromises, on core issues of accountability, transitional justice and human rights, weren’t acceptable to the international community.

Political parties and civil society should make a genuine and honest attempt to examine the entire gamut of issues, both pre/post-conflict, and address them without playing politics at the expense of the vast majority of people trying to make ends meet.

Sri Lanka survived two southern insurgencies spearheaded by the JVP and the 30-year war, caused by neighbour India adding fuel to the fire by training and arming Tamil extremists to launch a guerrilla war initially. Sri Lanka crushed the two JVP uprisings in April 1971, and 1987-1990 with the execution of its leader Rohana Wijeweera after being captured and tortured. Wijeweera was executed in Nov 1989. War against the LTTE was brought to an end with the killing of its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009.

 The JVP, the LTTE and the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization) killed nearly 50 members of parliament.

 Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike however was the first member of parliament to die at the hands of an assassin, Talduwe Somarama thera on Sept 26, 1959. The assassin was hanged on July 7, 1962. Bandaranaike’s assassination paved the way for his widow  Sirimavo’s entry into politics. Over the years, LTTE assassinations resulted in many widows entering politics. The last to enter parliament following her husband’s assassination was Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle. Vijayakala Maheswaran, who had entered parliament in 2010 in the wake of her husband UNP MP T. Maheswaran’s assassination in January 2008, is under fire for intervening on behalf of a person sentenced to death for Vidya killing.

 As we celebrated 70 years of parliamentary democracy, the country should remember them in a meaningful way. Then, there had been allegations directed at the previous SLFP-led administration in respect of the assassination of TNA MP Nadarajah Raviraj on the morning of Nov 10, 2006. The killing that took place, about a year into the Rajapaksa presidency, drew international condemnation. The then administration was accused of killing attorney-at-law Raviraj and his police bodyguard Sergeant Lakshman Lokuwella. Although G.G. (Kumar) Ponnambalam Jr. never had the opportunity to represent parliament, his assassination, on January 5, 2000, during CBK’s presidency, dealt a massive blow to parliamentary democracy. Outspoken lawyer and leader of All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Ponnambalam contested Jaffna district at the 1977 parliamentary election, as an independent, after the TULF declined to accommodate him on its nomination list. Ponnambalam made another unsuccessful bid to enter parliament, from the Colombo electoral district, at the Aug 1994 polls.

 Today, the JVP that had been responsible for many deaths, including those members of parliament assassinated during the second insurgency, as well as former Indian sponsored terrorist groups, TELO, PLOTE and EPRLF represented parliament. The JVP entered parliament in 1994. Today, the party has been split into three with Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Wimal Weerawansa and Kumar Gunaratnam (Noel Mudalige) heading them.

 The JVP carried out a grenade attack on a UNP parliamentary group within parliament on the morning of Aug 18, 1987. Matara District MP Keerthi Abeywickrema died in the grenade explosion, though the intended targets, president JRJ and PM Ranasinghe Premadasa survived. Had they perished, the outcome of the second insurgency could have been different. Would democracy have survived if the UNP succumbed to JVP terror, amidst turmoil in the country over the deployment of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, in accordance with an agreement forced on Sri Lanka?

Indian intervention here transformed low level northern conflict to a war that at one point threatened to destroy the entire country. India’s creation the LTTE killed members of parliament and former members of parliament with impunity. The last politician to die in an LTTE suicide attack was MP and Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle. The LTTE assassinated him on April 6, 2008, at Weliweriya, at a time the Army was still struggling on the Vanni front.

The LTTE also assassinated Indian lawmaker and former PM Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, over a year after the Indian Army pulled out of Sri Lanka. Gandhi’s widow, Sonia entered active politics 1997.

The military brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009.

PLOTE Member of Parliament, Dharmalingham Siddarthan is on record as having alleged that the TELO of killing his father, Jaffna District TULF MP Dharmalingham, and colleague, Jaffna District MP Alalasundaram in Aug 1985. Siddarthan alleged India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) ordered Jaffna assassinations to weaken the party. Siddarthan alleged that RAW wanted two more Jaffna MPs assassinated though the assassins didn’t carry out the order. Siddarthan dealt with RAW-led assassinations in a comprehensive interview with the writer, way back in 1997.

Interestingly, today, the TELO, PLOTE and EPRLF are coalition members of the TNA, led by Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) that fully cooperated with the LTTE, until the very end of the eelam war IV.

 Prabhakaran formed the TNA in late 2001 to represent its interests in parliament and the group faithfully served its master and made every effort to save the monster as the armed forces relentlessly pursued him on the Vanni east front. Thanks to President Rajapaksa’s resolute political leadership, Sri Lanka sustained the offensive until Prabhakaran was killed.

Parliament never took any notice of a damning European Union report that blamed the TNA of securing the lion’s share of seats in the Northern and Eastern electoral districts at the April 2004 general with direct assistance of the LTTE. Parliament was not bothered. TULF leader V. Anandasangaree’s attempts to bring the EU report to the government’s attention, through statements given to The Island were in vain. The Colombo-based NGO community, too, turned a blind eye to the EU report though the writer, on several occasions raised the issue. The Rajapaksa administration hadn’t been interested in inquiring into the TNA-LTTE partnership. The Election Department, too, acted as if it wasn’t concerned. Parliament or the Election Department (now called the National Election Secretariat established in accordance with the 19 Amendment to the Constitution) never discussed the EU report.

Since late 2001, TNA nominations, in respect of parliamentary polls, had to be cleared by the LTTE. The situation remained the same even after Batticaloa-Ampara cadres, led by one-time LTTE commander Karuna, quit the organization in early 2004. During eelam war IV, President Rajapaksa accommodated Karuna on the National List and subsequently made him Minister of National Integration. Karuna received the ministerial appointment two months before the conclusion of the war.

The PLOTE almost succeeded in assassinating Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in early Nov 1988. Had the PLOTE succeeded, Indian trained terrorists would have received the notoriety for killing politicians from three SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries. Today, India had conveniently forgotten what its murderous foreign policy resulted in the region plunging into turmoil. No less a person than former Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor J.N. Dixit in his memoirs Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha launched in 2004 acknowledged Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka as one of the two foreign policy blunders committed by Indira Gandhi.

President Maithripala Sirisena, too, has been targeted by the LTTE at least on three occasions. In a strange twist of events, the TNA, that once represented the LTTE’s interest in parliament, threw its weight behind the UNP-backed common candidate Sirisena at the January 2015 presidential polls. It was a calculated move to facilitate the Western powers-led project meant to introduce a new Constitution, in the guise of addressing accountability issues.

Parliament should also examine the circumstances under which the TNA, while being in parliament, ordered the Tamil community, in Nov 2005, not to exercise their franchise in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa or Ranil Wickremesinghe. The directive issued on behalf of the LTTE was clearly meant to deprive Wickremesinghe of the Tamil vote. The LTTE-TNA combine, thus ensured Rajapaksa’s victory, in a move calculated to plunge the country into an all-out war. The LTTE-TNA achieved their objective but the government turned the tables on the LTTE.

The Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Gotabhaya and Basil, Lt. Gen. Fonseka, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke and intelligence services, under the overall leadership of Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendavitharana, brought the LTTE to its knees within three years. In January, 2010, the then, US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, in a confidential diplomatic cable to, State Department, called the Rajapaksa brothers and Gen. Fonseka war criminals. Thanks to Wikileaks, the world had been made aware how the US, clandestinely worked hard to form a coalition to back Fonseka’s candidature at the January 2010 presidential polls, while calling him a war criminal.

Parliament was never unanimous in its support for a military campaign. There had been efforts, both in and outside parliament, to undermine the military campaign. During the war, scurrilous attempts were made to defeat the budget. The project was meant to bring the war to an end, thereby save the LTTE. Once, SLFP heavyweight Dallus Alahapperuma claimed, at an UPFA media briefing, that some members were even offered foreign prostitutes in a bid to influence them.

The controversial circumstances under which the Provincial Council Election (Amendment) Act came into being late last month underscored the need to examine the role of parliament. Those who had wielded power abused parliament to achieve their political objectives. Impeachment of Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake, at the behest of President Rajapaksa, certainly discredited parliament. Introduction of the 18 Amendment to pave the way for Rajapaksa to contest the presidential poll a third time in January 2015, dealt a heavy blow to parliamentary democracy. Messrs Dew Gunasekera and Prof. Rajiva Wijesinhe were the only MPs who had the backbone not to vote for the 18 Amendment. All those SLFPers, including President Maithripala Sirisena, voted for the 18 Amendment that subsequently contributed to Rajapaksa’s eventual downfall.

Constitutional provisions to accommodate defeated candidates in parliament, through their respective National Lists, too, contributed to the deterioration of the standards. Once, President Kumaratunga named Mervyn Silva’s wife as a National List MP while Mervyn contested the general election. Then the defeated candidate was accommodated through the National List slot of his wife.

As Sri Lanka celebrated 70 years of parliamentary democracy, provision to make National List appointments had been challenged in the Supreme Court by attorney-at-law and public litigation activist, Nagananda Kodituwakku. Kodituwakku has challenged the appointment of defeated candidates on the basis of what he called an Amendment smuggled in by President JRJ in contravention of what was decided by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), headed by the then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa.

 Minister Musthapha’s declaration that less than 50 MPs actually participated in parliamentary proceedings should be examined against the backdrop of perks and privileges afforded to them. Over the years, MPs had been allowed to sell super luxury vehicles, imported on duty free permits, provided by the parliament (members of current parliament received duty free exemptions up to Rs 30 mn each), but thanks to lawyer Nagananda Kodituwakku cleverly using the Right to Information (RTI) introduced by the government, the massive abuse of duty free vehicle permit scheme is in public domain. Kodituwakku made available all data pertaining to MPs receiving massive tax exemptions to The Island. Although all MPs hadn’t sold their vehicles, a sizable number did so and their identities are in the public domain. In fact, Kodituwakku had moved the Supreme Court against the CIABOC over its failure to take action as soon as vehicle abuse was brought to its notice over a year ago.

Political parties should examine allegations directed at its members regardless of their standing in the society. The number of MPs facing corruption charges is astonishing though their respective parties conveniently turn a blind eye to this pathetic situation. In addition to serious accusations, faced by members of the previous administration, the Central Bank-Perpetual Treasuries Ltd bond scams revealed dubious conduct of several members of the UNP. The revelation, before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI), the circumstances under which former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake penthouse rent was paid by the owner of PTL, Arjuna Aloysius, shocked the country. Aloysius’ decision not to give evidence before the CoI made matters worse, though the CoI admitted the entrepreneur exercised his right. There have been allegations in respect of some UNP MPs of the COPE that investigated alleged bond scams. The fact that PTL CEO Kasun Palisena’s admission that Aloysius deceived COPE should not be ignored by parliament. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s name transpired in last Monday’s proceedings when former CB Governor Arjuna Mahendran was questioned. Names of UNP Chairman and Minister Kabir Hashim, Minister Malik Samarawickrema and MP Ravi Karunanayake, too, had transpired, thus compelling parliament to examine the issue further.

 As the government proudly celebrated 70 years of parliamentary democracy it would be pertinent to inquire into what lapses on the part of parliament, such as failure to ensure the government responded to questions raised by Opposition members.

Parliament should be mindful of the fact that the JO has declared war on Speaker Jayasuriya over the passage of Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act.

 The JHU’s entry into parliament following April 2004 general election can be considered a significant development. The JHU secured nine seats in its first attempt. Although, all of its candidates had been Buddhist monks at that time, over the years, the party suffered due to various conflicts. Today, JHU senior, Ven. Athureliye Rathana thera, having been appointed on the UNP National List, functions as an independent member whereas another JHU stalwart Udaya Gammanpila ended up with the JO loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

 Let me end this piece by reminding a case involving UNP MP. UNPer Range Bandara, formerly of the police and another person (Jagath Kumara Liyanage) were recently acquitted following a lengthy case in respect of a fraudulent transaction allegedly committed in 2002. Bandara is certainly not the only beneficiary.