Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Political stability stressed ahead of Geneva sessions


by Shamindra Ferdinando

International Cooperation State Minister Susil Premajayantha considers the 19th Amendment to the Constitution as posing quite a challenge to the incumbent government. The 19th Amendment, enacted in 2015, caused unprecedented political chaos and was nothing but an absolute hindrance to the implementation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision, attorney-at-law Premajayantha said, urging the electorate to be mindful of their responsibility at the forthcoming parliamentary polls.

State Minister Premajayantha, in an interview with The Island, on Monday, Feb 10, discussed a range of issues, including proposed bilateral agreements with the US, the Geneva process, deterioration of parliamentary standards, and the possible outcome of the parliamentary polls, expected to be held in late April 2020.

Having served as the General Secretary of the SLFP-led UPFA for 11 years, the veteran in coalition politics firmly believes they should contest the general election under the flower bud (pohottuwa) symbol of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), regardless of whatever the arrangements discussed and consensus reached in the run-up to the Nov 16, 2019 presidential poll.

There couldn’t be any issue over exploiting unprecedented success achieved by ‘pohottuwa’ at the Local Government polls, in early 2018, and the presidential poll, in Nov 2019.

Responding to another query, State Minister Premajayantha emphasized the importance in restoring political stability. Declaring they would quite comfortably secure a simply majority in parliament at the forthcoming poll, Premajayantha explained their efforts to build on the success achieved at the Local Government and presidential polls. A smiling Premajayantha said that if the SLPP-led coalition managed to retain 6.9 mn votes polled by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential also at the forthcoming general election, they could secure 126 seats. Therefore, the ultimate objective should be to push for a two-thirds majority required to do away with the 19th Amendment, or introduce necessary changes.

When The Island pointed out that there were some opposed to the SLPP move, the Colombo District lawmaker said that decision makers should be realistic. Can anyone justify a call to change the ‘flower bud’ symbol, having won two major elections, in 2018 and 2019? Premajanatha asked, urging all those concerned to examine ground realities.

Susil, too, favours pohottuwa

Premajayantha said: "I have been with the SLFP for a long time, and represented the party at different levels, - Local Government, Provincial Council and Parliament. Having successfully contested the Kotte Urban Council, in 1991, under the ‘hand’ symbol, I entered the Western Provincial Council, under the ‘Chair’ symbol. I Entered parliament, for the first time, in 2000, under the ‘betel leaf’ symbol, and in subsequent general elections, too, in 2004, 2010 and 2015, I contested under the betel leaf."

However, the current political situation required the grouping to review strategies at the crucial forthcoming general election, State Minister Premajayantha said, underscoring the pivotal importance in achieving overall objectives than addressing personal issues. "We are certainly not in a position to play politics with strategy. If we squander this opportunity, the country will have to pay a very heavy price," lawmaker Premajayantha said. "Don’t forget one of the key aims is to repeal the 19th Amendment or bring in changes. That depends on us securing a two-thirds majority in parliament," Premajayantha said.

According to him, there couldn’t be any dispute over the clear advantage in contesting on the SLPP ticket under ‘lotus bud’ symbol.

The veteran politician emphasized the pivotal importance in having stability in parliament as a section of the international community pressed the country over accountability issues. Lawmaker Premajayantha asserted that the yahapalana administration should not have co-sponsored a resolution in the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in respect of accountability issues. Pointing out that there couldn’t have been a previous instance of a country moving a resolution against her own war-winning armed forces, under any circumstances, lawmaker Premajayantha said Sri Lanka was continuously under pressure to adhere to the controversial resolution. When The Island pointed out that Premajayantha, in his capacity as a member of the yahapalana cabinet of ministers, couldn’t absolve himself of the responsibility for the Geneva resolution, State Minister Premajayantha emphasized the UNP acted on its own. In spite of the SLFP being part of the government and represented in the cabinet, co-sponsorship of the Geneva resolution hadn’t been discussed at the cabinet or in parliament.

Following the 2015 August parliamentary poll, President Maithripala Sirisena, in spite of the UNP perpetrating the first mega Treasury bond scam, in late Feb 2015, joined the UNP-led government.

Fonseka’s revelation

The SLFPer hadn’t been the first lawmaker to claim that Geneva wasn’t taken up at all at the yahapalana cabinet, or discussed in parliament. In fact, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was the first to say so, in late 2018, in response to a query raised by the writer at a media briefing.

Lawmaker Fonseka’s admission that the cabinet had never discussed Sri Lanka’s response to alleged war crimes allegations highlighted the culpability on the part of the National Unity Government for deliberately denying the armed forces a proper defence.

The Sinha Regiment veteran’s disclosure was quite a shock. Fonseka claimed that since he joined the cabinet, in early 2016, the issue had never been discussed with him. Fonseka explained that security matters had been discussed with him before the change of government, in January 2015. Referring to Sri Lanka’s response to war crimes accusations, Fonseka said not a word had been spoken with him about it. Obviously, Fonseka, too, hadn’t taken up the issue for obvious reasons. Fonseka’s Army brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009.

The UNP accommodated Fonseka in the cabinet, in late February 2016, following the demise of National List MP M.K.D.S Gunawardena. The UNP rescued Fonseka after his Democratic Party failed to secure a single seat at the August 2015 parliamentary poll. Fonseka received the Regional Development portfolio.

Can the government justify its failure to explore ways and means of countering war crimes allegations, especially against the backdrop of evidence contrary to the Geneva Resolution unanimously adopted in early October 2015?

It would be pertinent to examine two other statements made by Fonseka’s colleagues, in Nov 2017, (Dayasiri Jayasekera in his capacity as the Cabinet spokesperson) and Aug 2018 (Mahinda Samarasinghe in his capacity as the SLFP spokesperson).

Both Jayasekera and Samarasinghe acknowledged that the cabinet of ministers had not discussed Sri Lanka’s defence nor examined the Geneva Resolution. The revelations made by Lord Naseby on the basis of wartime British High Commission dispatches (January-May 2009), exposed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government of deliberately depriving Sri Lanka a proper defence. Instead of utilizing Naseby’s disclosure, in the House of Lords, in mid Oct 2017, the government struggled to suppress the UK dispatches.

The yahapalana government didn’t want to talk about Geneva. The Island dealt with the governments’ reluctance even to discuss the Geneva issue (War crimes; Cabinet spokesman provoked by query on govt. response to Naseby move, The Island, Nov 16, 2017)

Cabinet spokesman and Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera is on record as having said that a statement made by Lord Naseby, in the House of Lords, would be used by the government appropriately at the right time, though the Cabinet was yet to discuss it. The then Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana gave a similar assurance about a week later though the UNP never intended to honour the promise.

An irate Jayasekera said that the government wouldn’t take up issues pursued by The Island the way the newspaper wanted. It had not been taken up by the Cabinet on the basis it wasn’t considered so grave a matter, the Minister declared. Minister Jayasekera initially asserted that Lord Naseby’s statement wasn’t directly relevant to the Geneva issue.

The writer rejected the Minister’s accusations and pointed out that the government’s opinion on Naseby’s statement was sought as the British Lord had said that a maximum of 7,000-8,000 died on the Vanni front and not 40,000, as alleged by a UN panel, and Sri Lanka never purposely targeted the civilian population. Lord Naseby also pointed out that from the 7,000-8,000, one-fourth were LTTE cadres.

Minister Gayantha Karunatilleke and Military Spokesman Maj. Gen. Roshan Seneviratne refrained from commenting on the issue.

Lanka wants Geneva to

revisit resolution

The Island sought International Cooperation Minister Premajayantha’s views on the recent meeting he, along with Cabinet Minister of Foreign Relations, Dinesh Gunawardena, had with the OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) team in Colombo. The team consisting of Ms Mona Rishmawi, Rory Mungoven, Francesca Marietta and Raghu Menon was here to discuss accountability issues. Lawmaker Premajayantha said that there was no requirement, on the part of the government to amend the Geneva resolution 30/1 under any circumstances as the incumbent administration never accepted it. "There is no point on seeking amendment to a resolution not acceptable to us," attorney-at-law Premajayantha said.

Declaring that the government would proceed on the basis of a new mandate received by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential poll, lawmaker Premajayantha said the UNHRC should revisit the resolution. When The Island pointed out that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government was yet to reveal its official stand on the Geneva process, State Minister Premajayantha said that it would be revealed soon.

Lawmaker Premajayantha alleged that the UNP followed, what he called, a destructive foreign policy. Referring to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) worked out by the UNP, in consultation with foreign powers, in Feb 2002, the SLFPer said that the UNP leadership had no sense of responsibility and simply acted in the interests of a few individuals. Lawmaker Premajayantha explained as to how the Geneva resolution jeopardized national security at every level. State Minister Premajayantha also dealt with the SLSFTA (Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement), finalized in January 2018, under the patronage of the then President Maithripala Sirisena, as well as the 99-year lease on the Hambantota port and proposed agreements on MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

State Minister Premajayantha said that the previous government should have been mindful of various multilateral and bilateral agreements it was getting into.

Asked whether he was aware of President Maithripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the Defence Minister authorized the ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing Agreement) in early 2017, lawmaker Premajayantha claimed that he was not aware of the circumstances that particular agreement was entered into.

State Minister Premajayantha alleged that the UNP caused a crisis by delaying the Local Government and Provincial Councils polls. Pointing out that the UNP paid a huge price for delaying Local Government polls, leading to the debilitating defeat at the Feb 2018 polls. "The UNP feared to face the electorate. It adopted strategies to put off elections. Parliamentary process was manipulated to have the Provincial Council polls postponed. Today, all nine PCs are placed under Governors appointed by the President. The TNA, too, should take the responsibility for this unfortunate situation."

Failed bid to oust Premier RW

A section of the SLFP-backed Joint Opposition moved a no-faith motion against the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe in early April 2018? The UNP leader survived the move. President Maithripala Sirisena quit the government, in late Oct 2018, after having failed to convince Sajith Premadasa, Karu Jayasuriya and Ranjith Madduma Bandara et al to help oust Wickremesinghe. President Sirisena offered them the premiership in return for their support.

MP Premajayantha was among those who voted for the no-faith motion against Wickremesinghe. Subsequently, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked him from the post of Senior Vice President of the SLFP.

Against the backdrop of the SLPP and the SLFP faulting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution for the current political crisis, The Island asked MP Premajayantha as to why the SLFP voted for the 19th Amendment, in 2015. He said the party acted on the instructions received from the party leader President Maithripala Sirisena. MP Premajayantha was among those who voted for the 19th Amendment. Of the 225-member parliament, Digamadulla District MP Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera was the only lawmaker to vote against it in spite of being repeatedly asked to do so.

The 19th Amendment created two power centres in addition to the Office of the Executive President. If not for the Supreme Court intervention, the 19th Amendment would have caused far more damage, lawmaker Premajayantha said. The original draft was meant to strengthen the Office of the Prime Minister at the expense of the 1978 Constitution. Had the UNP succeeded, powers exercised by the President would have been diluted to such an extent, the Office of the President would have been irrelevant, the State Minister asserted.

State Minister Premajayantha said that the Supreme Court ruling, in Nov 2018, on President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to suspend parliament highlighted the crisis caused by the 19th Amendment. Referring to relevant sections in the Constitution, 33 (2) C and 70 (1), the attorney-at-law explained as to how those sections allowed, what he described as, contrary interpretations. The Supreme Court ruled that the President could not dissolve parliament. The SC move effectively thwarted President Sirisena’s bid to have general elections on January 05, 2020.

MP Premajayantha blamed the Constitutional Council, headed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, for causing further turmoil. Describing the Constitutional Council as a creation of the 19th Amendment, lawmaker Premajayantha discussed how the outfit facilitated the Easter Sunday carnage by naming Pujith Jayasundera as the Inspector General of Police. Jayasundera remained suspended, MP Premajayantha said, pointing out that the 19th Amendment deprived the President the authority to sack Jayasundera.

Asked whether the appointment of disgraced Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran, too, had been cleared by the Constitutional Council, lawmaker Premajayantha said that President Maithripala Sirisena, in spite of serious reservations, made the decision, on a request by Premier Wickremesinghe.

Responding to another query, State Minister Premajayantha admitted that the political situation would have been very much different if the UNP did not perpetrate the 2015 Treasury bond scam. The MP acknowledged that a far bigger Treasury bond scam was perpetrated, in March 2016, even after the President saved the UNP by dissolving parliament on the eve of the presentation of the COPE, report on the first scam. MP Premajantha was a member of the COPE headed by Dew Gunasekera, General Secretary of the Communist Party.

State Minister Premajayantha alleged that imprudent fiscal management jeopardized the national economy, thereby placing a heavy burden on those struggling to make ends meet. Responding to another query, MP Premajayantha said that the SLFP, in spite of being in the government, had no say in decisions making process, pertaining to the economy. A powerful committee comprising a selected few, including Premier Wickremesinghe, Malik Samarawickrema and R. Paskaralingam, handled the economy at the expense of good governance practices, the State Minister alleged. President Sirisena, having realized the crisis caused by the outfit, belatedly acted, and set up a unit though it could not achieve the desired results, MP Premajayantha said.

Lawmaker Premajayantha discussed mismanagement of the national economy, coupled with mega corruption that plunged the country into an unprecedented crisis. Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a clear mandate from the people, at the last presidential poll, to charter a new course for the country. The new President, though not having parliamentary experience was taking tangible measures, and much needed remedial action to overcome the challenges, the State Minister said, acknowledging their responsibility in not allowing the Geneva issue to overwhelm the country. The State Minister said that Sri Lanka wouldn’t get another opportunity to reverse the Geneva process meant to introduce a new Constitution at the expense of the unitary status. Had we allowed the process to continue, Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism, in May 2009 would be in vain, State Minister Premajayantha said. At the conclusion of the interview, MP Premajayantha was asked whether he utilized government bungalows during his political career ‘never’ as a minister though during the tenure as the Chief Minister of the Western Province the facility was used for a period of three months during renovation of his own modest house, built with a loan taken during his days as an employee of the Bank of Ceylon.