Saturday, 4 August 2018

Contradictory stand on PC polls, new Constitution baffle electorate

TNA leaders differ:



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Whatever the differences between the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, and the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), there is consensus on postponing the scheduled Provincial Council polls, regardless of consequences. Obviously, they are following a political strategy meant to derail the PC polls scheduled to take place later this year and next year (altogether polls in six provinces on a staggered basis) before the 2019 presidential and the 2020 parliamentary polls.

The TNA consists of TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) and EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front) and the major partner ITAK (Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi).

Veteran lawmaker Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, on behalf of the ITAK-led TNA, on Friday (July 13), brought forth a new and certainly unrealistic demand when he met with Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. S Jaishankar’s successor was on his first official visit to Colombo where he met President Maithripla Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in addition to Sampanthan, the leader of the Opposition.

Among those present at Sampanthan - Gokhale meeting were Jaffna District MP M. A. Sumanthiran (ITAK) and MP Selvam Adaikkalanathan (TELO), Indian Ambassador in Colombo Taranjit Singh Sandhu and Deputy Indian HC Arindam Bagchi.

Sampanthan demanded that a new Constitution be enacted before the next Provincial Councils polls. Sampanthan sought India’s support for the new Constitution.

The following is the text of the TNA statement that dealt with the Sampanthan-Gokhale meet: "The TNA leader further stated that the chances of mustering a two-thirds majority, in Parliament, is possible and therefore the new Constitution must be adopted before the end of the year, and we cannot simply afford to miss this opportunity. We want a solution, within a united, undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka, and this longstanding national question must be addressed through a new Constitution. The New Constitution must enable the people to exercise power over day-to-day matters pertaining to their lives. The features mentioned in the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement must be incorporated in the new Constitution."

The last line was a clear reference to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in November 1987

Sampanthan also requested the Foreign Secretary Gokhale to encourage the Indian investors to invest in Sri Lanka, especially in the North and East. The Trincomalee District MP pointed out that the foreign investments could boost the economic status of the people and also will increase more job opportunities in the North and East, especially among the youth.

On the issue of refugees returning from India, the Indian Foreign Secretary conveyed that the Government of India was willing to give any support in assisting the returnees.

The TNA statement, released Friday night, didn’t indicate Gokhale’s reaction to his demand to stay the PC polls until the enactment of a new Constitution. The experienced Indian diplomat must have realized the mean TNA strategy meant to sabotage the PC polls, unless New Delhi, too, is part of that project, a possibility that cannot be ruled out immediately.

However, the unprecedented Sampanthan’s call to suspend PC polls, pending enactment of the proposed new Constitution, as envisaged by the Geneva-based United National Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in 2016, contradicted party spokesman Sumanthiran, who recently demanded PC polls without further delay.

Before commenting further, it would be pertinent to examine the relevant section of Jaffna District MP Sumanthiran’s July 6 statement in parliament. Our parliamentary correspondent Saman Indrajith quoted Sumanthiran as having said: "Terms of office of the three provincial councils came to an end in October 2017, and whereas no elections for the three said provincial councils have been conducted to date owing to the fact that the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act was amended in order to introduce reforms to the electoral process and whereas three more provincial councils will end their respective terms of office by October 2018. No election to any Provincial Council can be held due to the fact that the electoral reforms are not yet complete. An urgent priority has arisen to complete the electoral reforms so that the franchise of the people of the several provinces is not denied any further. We urge the government to complete the electoral reforms to the Provincial Councils election laws immediately without any further delay. And, if it is not possible to complete the said reforms within the next two months, we urge that the Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act No. 17 of 2017 be repealed immediately so that elections to the provincial councils can be held without any further postponement."

Did Sampanthan change the TNA’s stand after Sumanthiran demanded tangible measures to hold PC polls without further postponement? The writer sought an explanation from the TNA last Saturday (July 14) whether Sampanthan consulted TNA constituents as regards the latest demand and the possibility of the TNA consulting Tamil-speaking lawmakers, regarding the same, ahead of presentation of the next budget in Nov. 2018. The TNA told the writer: "Sampanthan is the TNA leader so his views represent all parties within the TNA." In response to the second query, the TNA said: "Yes. Most certainly as the TNA wants the new Constitution at the earliest."

Contradictory TNA statements on PC polls made on July 6 and 13, in parliament, and at a meeting with an Indian delegation, respectively, should be examined against the backdrop of outgoing US Ambassador Atul Keshap’s assertion that a new Constitution could help Sri Lanka attract foreign investments. Plainly, a new Constitution is being touted as panacea for all problems.

In fact, unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, successfully propagated for want of a clear strategy, on Sri Lanka’s part, during the previous Rajapaksa administration, paved the way for Western powers and India to ‘impose’ enactment of a new Constitution a ‘condition’ to address post-war national reconciliation. That is the undeniable truth. Nationalist groups, such as the National Joint Committee (NJC), opposed to Western intervention here, are still struggling to cope up with the growing challenge due to the Joint Opposition (JO), loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, lacking a clear strategy.

In spite of setbacks, the new Constitution making process is moving ahead, slowly. The situation would have been different had those exercising power refrained from perpetrating massive treasury bond scams involving primary dealer Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in February 2015 and March 2016. There is absolutely no doubt that the Constitutional making process has been seriously undermined by the treasury bond scams which caused deterioration of relationship between President Sirisena and the UNP and the massive countryside electoral debacle at the February 2018 Local Government polls.

TNA chief meets retd Thai General

Before meeting Gokhale at the High Commission, the TNA team met Thai Prime Minister, retired General Prayuth Chan-ocha, at the Shangri-La, the latest five-star hotel opened in Colombo, situated at the former Sri Lanka Army headquarters grounds.

Briefing the Thai General on the steps taken by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s bid to address the national question, Sampanthan said that the TNA wanted a peaceful solution through a new Constitution on the basis of equality and self-respect. Sampanthan also declared the TNA’s support to the government to achieve such power-sharing arrangements.

However, the TNA chief did not refer to the demand to put off PC polls until the enactment of a new Constitution, an issue he discussed with Gokhale.

At a time the government has directed a high profile offensive, targeting wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Sri Lanka Army, against the backdrop of him declaring his readiness to contest the 2019 presidential polls, if named by his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, it would be pertinent to discuss how General Prayuth Chan-ocha grabbed power in May 2014. Obviously, yahapalana government and its proponents seemed to have conveniently forgotten that Thailand lacked a democratically elected government and is unlikely to have an elected administration in the near future.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha heads the National Council for Peace and Order (Thai junta) that rules Thailand, since May 2014, comprising Chan-ocha’s associates. The junta replaced democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra government. Within days after the coup, King Bhumibol Adulyadei legitimized the military action, thereby facilitating his country’s diplomatic relations with foreign governments.

Over four years, after the May 2014 coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha remains in power with the US still remaining the military strongman’s key ally. In spite of the US strongly condemning the military coup, following several months of deepening political turmoil, the two countries remain committed to military alliance, with large scale annual exercises. Concerns expressed in some circles, both local political elements as well as Colombo-based Western diplomats of military-style ‘government’ in case Gotabhaya Rajapaksa secured presidency, should be examined against their response to the leader of the Thai junta. Sampanthan has no qualms in seeking General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s intervention to secure more Thai private sector investments, while appreciating Thailand setting up a sugar factory in northern Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka media, in its coverage of General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s visit, refrained from at least referring to Thailand having a junta at the expense of a democratically elected government. However, a joint press release, issued at the conclusion of the two-day visit, recognized the visiting dignitary as General. The statement, while reaffirming their commitment to further strengthen the existing ties to a higher level of strategic economic partnership, recalled President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to Thailand in November 2015.

Mano talks sense

The TNA has stepped up pressure on the government/Sri Lanka over the proposed new Constitution at every forum. In late January 2018, Sampanthan demanded the enactment of a new Constitution when he met Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In spite of being the Opposition Leader, Sampanthan stayed clear of contentious issues leaving the Joint Opposition to pursue those matters whereas he concentrated on the ‘national problem.’ Sampanthan, though repeatedly taking up the issue with the international community on behalf of the TNA, seems reluctant to reach a consensus on the same with other Tamil lawmakers representing other political parties. In fact, there is friction between the top TNA leadership and Northern Province Chief Minister, retired Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran. Recently, Wigneswaran declared that he had no objection to the postponement of the elections to his provincial council provided that his term of office was extended up to the point of the next polls. Certainly, it is an interesting suggestion. Wigneswaran revealed his position, before Sumanthiran, in parliament, demanded PC polls as scheduled while Sampanthan took an entirely different stand in his first official talks with the Indian Foreign Secretary.

Colombo District MP Mano Ganesan, in an interview with Nimal Abeysinghe of Ravaya explained the current status of the much-hyped constitutional making process, widely regarded by yahapalana leaders as panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills. National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages Minister Ganesan didn’t mince his words when he ruled out the possibility of enacting a new Constitution under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in the interview carried in the July 15, 2018 edition of Ravaya.

In addition to the controversial constitution making process, Ganesan discussed how the TNA could help the Northern and Eastern communities by becoming a part of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Democratic People’s Front leader Ganesan, who contested the last parliamentary poll, in August 2015, on the UNP ticket, said that he requested Sampanthan to accept a cabinet portfolio on his outfit’s behalf though his invitation could be also considered as one coming from a government minister. Asserting that a new Constitution is unlikely, Ganesan expressed the belief that the inclusion of the TNA, in the cabinet, could expedite northern and eastern development.

Ganesan pointed out that unless tangible measures were taken expeditiously, the Tamil community wouldn’t be able to secure an acceptable political solution or at least achieve development objectives by the time the government faced the next parliamentary polls, in 2020.

Ganesan expressed the following views in response to Nimal Abeysinghe’s questions: =In spite of the TNA representing the Tamil community, during the last phase of the conflict, it couldn’t achieve long standing political objectives, even a decade after the conclusion of the war. However, the TNA has received relief under yahapalana government compared to the previous Rajapaksa government. The government hadn’t been able to bring the constitutional making process to a successful conclusion well over three years after the change of government in 2015 January.

* Accepting the 20th Amendment promoted by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in principle, Ganesan asserted that it was too early to abolish the executive presidency therefore he opposed the current JVP move. The majority of sitting lawmakers opposed the JVP project therefore there is no likelihood of the 20th mendment receiving parliamentary nod. Ganesan rejected the 20th Amendment, primarily on two key issues (a) minorities cannot give up an opportunity to haggle with presidential candidates, every five years, especially as the national question is yet to be resolved. Abolition of executive presidency will automatically deprive minorities of such opportunities. (b) minorities stand to gain as the entire country is considered one electorate at a presidential election. (c) Implementation of the 13th Amendment depends on the executive president. First executive president JRJ used his executive powers, to secure parliamentary approval for the only Law relating to devolution of power, hence the Democratic People’s Front opposition to abolition of the executive presidency. The DPF backs some dilution of executive powers, though opposed to doing away with executive presidency.

* After the change of government, the media is free to express dissenting views. Unlike the previous Rajapaksa administration, the government has given freedom. Democracy, media freedom, independence of judiciary and police have been restored. There is criticism of this government because of freedom. The media is active and there is public discussion about wrong policies and shortcomings. Ministers and members of the then government remained silent in cabinet and parliament as they feared the then leadership. Journalists fled the country and media institutions were brazenly attacked. In spite of the silence at that time there were far bigger problems at that time though an attempt is being made to undermine this government. The biggest challenge faced by the current government is the massive debt.

* The public and political parties haven’t understood the requirement to devolve powers not only at provincial level but Central Government level as well. The inclusion of the TNA in the cabinet will certainly help devolve powers at the Central Government level though some, strongly opposed to the Democratic People’s Front call, for Sampanthan to accept a cabinet portfolio on behalf of his people. A section of the civil society has failed to understand the push for the TNA to accept cabinet portfolio.

* The pivotal importance of further strengthening the provincial level administration. The need to explore ways and means of fully operationalizing the 13th Amendment while strengthening the Local Government system for the benefit of Tamils living in electoral districts outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Reference was made to the role played by Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) comprising the Democratic People’s Front led by Mano Ganesan, National Union of Workers led by Palani Digambaran and Up-country People’s Front led by V. Radhakrishnan, in the creating of six new Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Nuwara Eliya District.

* Those who wanted to enact a new Constitution have failed in their bid. Ganesan is among those who experienced failure in yahapalana government’s most ambitious project. However, Ganesan would be the most happiest person if his assertion is proved wrong and the government somehow succeeded in enacting a new Constitution before the next national election.

Nimal Abeysinghe quoted Ganesan as having said that he didn’t like to deceive the people therefore his candid assertion was that there was no likelihood of a new Constitution. The outspoken politician was further quoted as having said that the enactment of parliament shouldn’t be considered a government but a national requirement as the process involved the entire parliament, including two members of the Joint Opposition. "It was a national effort though the project ended up in failure. That is the reality. As a result of our failure, the JVP proposed 20th Amendment. The JVP, too, knows, a new Constitution is not a reality."

The Ravaya interview ended with Ganeshan’s really sensible suggestion that a new amendment is needed to the Official Language Clause of the Constitution to ensure parity between Sinhala and Tamil as national languages and that Ganeshan, in his capacity as Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages, intended to propose 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

Let there be consensus among political parties represented in parliament on Ganeshan’s Amendment.

Ongoing political battles shouldn’t hinder Mano Ganeshan valuable suggestion.