Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Gammanpila’s proposal for ‘grading system’ for Ministers timely

 

SPECIAL REPORT : Part 367

Published

  

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) is a constituent of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led coalition. The PHU is represented in the Cabinet of ministers by its leader and Attorney-at-Law, Udaya Gammanpila. One-time Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight Gammanpila secured recognition for the breakaway faction, PHU, on Oct 14, 2020, two months after the last general election. The Election Commission altogether recognised six political parties, including the PHU. They were registered in terms of the powers vested in the Commission, under Section 7(4) and (5) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, No. 01 of 1981.

The JHU contested its first general election, in April 2004, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. The JHU secured nine seats. After switching sides, on multiple occasions, it is now a constituent of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the main Opposition party in the Parliament. The former JHU representative in the cabinet, Patali Champika Ranawaka, now spearheads ‘hathalisthunwani senankaya’ (43rd Division) – a political movement meant to challenge the incumbent government.

Ranawaka, who had served the cabinets of Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, quit the JHU, in early Dec 2020, four months after the last general election.

In the run-up to the general election, in August 2020, Patali Champika Ranawaka’s one-time JHU colleague, PHU leader, Gammanpila, called for a system to grade ministers. Minister Gammanpila asserted that a grading system was required to ensure the proper functioning of the Cabinet of ministers.

Let me reproduce what lawyer Gammanpila said, in Sinhala, on July 14, 2020:

“The people believe a Cabinet of ministers, capable of serving under the leadership of hard-working President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, will be installed. Ministers must work. People should also know about that. Those unable to work should lose their ministerial portfolios. Therefore, I propose to introduce a grading system for ministers and release of the results every three months. If a minister became the last, in the grading system, for five consecutive times, it means the politician concerned failed to rectify the mistakes. In such a scenario, the minister should either resign or be removed by the President.”

Lawmaker Gammanpila further proposed: “The grading system should be based on handling of capital expenditure, recurrent expenditure, swift handling of problems, faced by the people, cooperation with public servants, timely response to audit queries, filling vacancies, conducting the public day, attending parliamentary sessions, participating in debates relevant to portfolios handled by the respective ministers and responding to media queries. People should propose new recommendations for the proposed grading system.”

At the time lawmaker Gammanpila made the above declaration, he hadn’t been a member of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first Cabinet of ministers, appointed immediately after the 2019 presidential election. On Nov 21, 2019, MP Gammanpila asked President Gotabaya Rajapaksa not to consider him for a Cabinet portfolio as he realized the serious difficulties experienced by the new administration.

Gammanpila, in a brief letter, dated Nov 21, addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, copied to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that 38 former ministers sought Cabinet portfolios in the caretaker government. In addition to them, there were several district leaders expecting Cabinet portfolios, MP Gammanpila said finalising the list of 15 as agreed wouldn’t be an easy task.

Gammanpila added that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s original plan was to name a 10-member caretaker Cabinet. At the end, the new government appointed 16 ministers. Of them, the SLPP received 10 slots.

The remaining six positions were shared among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), receiving two positions, and one each for the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Gammanpila received a Cabinet portfolio in the wake of the last general election. The PHU leader holds the Energy Portfolio and is also the co-cabinet spokesperson.

Since the July 14, 2020 declaration, lawmaker Gammanpila hasn’t referred to the grading system for ministers. His cabinet colleagues hadn’t mentioned the matter Either. Obviously, the divisions it would cause in the government has kept everyone mum.

 Perhaps, there should be a wider grading system, not only for ministers, but for political party leaders, and even those wielding power in other tiers of government, like the Provincial Councils, and local authorities. There shouldn’t be any dispute over PHU leader’s proposal that the grading system he proposed for ministers covered the concerned lawmakers conduct, both in and outside Parliament. However, the need for accountability, on the part of all lawmakers, even for their conduct before they entered Parliament, is of pivotal importance.

 

Prof. Herath responds to Ambanwela

Let me give you an example of how closely a section of the public followed issues at hand. Recently, the writer received a paper cutting of a story headlined, ‘SLC funds amounting to Rs 29 mn in US bank: SLC caught lying before COPE, ‘authored by him. The story published on April 9, 2021 dealt with how COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) Chairman Prof. Chritha Herath pursued inquiries into corruption in the SLC. Along with that paper cutting, the writer also received paper cutting of an interview done by Tharindu Uduwegedera with former Additional Auditor General Lalith Ambanwela for the April 11 edition of ‘Anidda’. The sender, who didn’t identify himself/herself, questioned the integrity of incumbent COPE Chairman on the basis of his conduct as the Secretary to the Media Ministry.

Ambanwela, who was attacked with acid, in May 2002, over an audit investigation in respect of corruption, involving a Central Province Education Director, levelled quite a serious allegation at Prof. Herath. Ambanwela questioned the rationale in making Prof. Herath Chairman of the Parliamentary Watchdog Committee, in spite of him turning a blind eye to specific corrupt activities brought to his notice by the Auditor General’s Department, over a period of time. Ambanwela accused Prof. Herath of not taking action as regards serious cases of corruption at the State Printing Corporation. He much respected retired public servant alleged that Prof. Herath did nothing when the then Chairman of the State Printing Corporation transferred over Rs 40 mn to an account of a relative.

The Island raised the issue at hand with Prof. Herath, who strongly denied Ambanwela’s accusation. Prof. Herath said: “I didn’t keep quiet about revelations made by the Auditor General’s Department. Within a week after COPE brought the matter to my notice, the Chairman concerned was removed. The then COPE Chairman Dew Gunasekera was informed of the action taken. Further information can be obtained from former COPE Chairman Gunasekera.”

 Prof. Herath said that he deeply regretted the unsubstantiated accusations made by Ambanwela. Prof. Herath, in a twitter message, issued in Sinhala, denied Ambanwela’s claims. Prof. Herath’s swift response to the retired public servant’s accusations should be appreciated. A person with questionable past cannot, under any circumstances, chair COPE or COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) or PFC (Public Finance Committee).

Regardless of Prof. Herath’s denial of Ambanwela’s accusation, let me briefly discuss how the latter explained political interference, in relation to the audit process. Ambanwela’s explanation, given in response to Tharindu Uduwegedera’s query, should be examined against the backdrop of lawmaker Gammanpila’s once proposed grading system for ministers. Successive governments had done precious little to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities.

Alleging that some politicians participated in COPE and COPA proceedings with a view to dilute the Watchdog Committee’s reports, Ambanwela claimed that some represented the interests of those promoting various deals. Ambanwela cited the deal on leasing out a building owned by Upali Jayasinghe (former actress Sabitha Perera’s husband) at No 288, Rajagiriya-Kotte, Jayewardenepura Road, as a notorious example to prove politicians/governments colluding with business interests. Ambanwela made a no-nonsense assessment of the deal as the senior AG Department official who handled that particular inquiry.

The Auditor General’s Department report on the building deal, prepared by Ambanwela has been submitted to the COPA before the finalisation of the controversial agreement. Ambanwela, in the course of COPA proceedings, chaired by the then Chairman Lasantha Alagiyawanna warned Agriculture Ministry Secretary B. Wijeratne not to sign the agreement until COPA addressed the issue at hand. Ambanwela had warned of dire consequences if the Agriculture Ministry went ahead with the agreement. Ambanwela quoted the then lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake (JVP National List) as having said that the proposed agreement was a serious case of corruption. However, when Ambanwela urged Alagiyawanna, who represented the SLFP, not to finalize the deal, the lawmaker asserted such a decision couldn’t be taken as the Cabinet of ministers already had approved it.

Ambanwela revealed that in spite of him being an official, he had no qualms in declaring in the audit report pertaining to the Jayasinghe building deal that it was a decision taken by the Cabinet of Ministers without critical analysis. If Lasantha Alagiyawanna, in his capacity as COPA Chairman, made the right intervention, losses could have been avoided. The total value of the deal was over Rs.1.3 bn.

COPE, COPA and PFC reports issued since the last parliamentary election proved, without uncertainty, that successive governments ruined the national economy. The country would have been in a far stronger position to face the Covid-19 challenge if successive governments ensured financial discipline. If one examines all reports issued by the above-mentioned Watchdog Committees, all governments, including the incumbent administration failed pathetically to follow laid down procedures, thereby causing massive losses to the national economy.

 

Evaluating an administration

The last presidential election was conducted in Nov 2019. The parliamentary election followed in August 2020. The electorate overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP, in both instances, with the SLPP securing a staggering 145 seats – just five short of a two-thirds majority. Without doubt, the SLPP’s performance is the best since the introduction of the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The UNP obtained 5/6 of the seats at the 1977 general election under the first-past-the-post system. As lawmaker Gammanpila called for public proposals as regards a grading system for ministers, perhaps it would be pertinent to rank governments/political parties on the basis of points scored by ministers and members of Parliament in terms of a grading system. In other words, a proper grading system should reflect genuine public opinion.

Let me examine the conduct of Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge in the wake of Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena’s May Day declaration of Piliyandala as an isolated police area due to the growing Covid-19 threat there. Within hours, Lokuge got the isolation order removed. Subsequent to his intervention, the isolation order was restricted to just five grama sevaka areas.

One-time UNP Minister Lokuge switched his allegiance to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. Since then, he remained with the UPFA/SLPP and received the Transport portfolio, following the last general election.

Minister Lokuge got away with his high handed actions. Lokuge jeopardized the government counter measures against the spread of Covid-19 purely for parochial reasons and, in spite of widespread condemnation, he continued to defend his right to intervene on behalf of the Piliyandala electorate. The deployment of police in Covid-19 protective gear to carry away those in public places, not wearing face masks and other violations, on the basis they posed a threat to the community, seemed silly when the likes of Minister Lokuge walked freely about even after some of his staff tested positive.

Where would Minister Lokuge be if he was subjected to a proper grading system? In quite a revealing interview with Panuka Rajapaksa, of Hiru TV, on Sunday (9), the Minister reiterated his callous response to the growing Covid threat. Declaring his right to intervene, the Colombo District lawmaker faulted officials responsible for implementing Covid-19 counter measures. The Minister blamed it all on the DGHS. Thanks to a section of the media, particularly Hiru TV, the public are fully aware of how Piliyandala strongman Lokuge, and those under his political command, brought the entire government into disrepute. Unfortunately, the government refrained from taking remedial measures. Perhaps, the SLPP didn’t want to admit how irresponsible its senior members are. The DGHS never explained how his isolation order on Piliyandala/Kesbewa was unceremoniously removed by Minister Lokuge through his clout. The Minister’s actions, and the failure on the part of the government to take tangible measures to protect residents of Piliyandala/Kesbewa, proved beyond doubt the government still played politics with the issue at hand.

Having cancelled May Day rallies, citing the Covid-19 threat, the government succumbed to Minister Lukuge’s, what can be termed as, reckless politics. There is no harm in calling the same politics of Idiocy. However, Lokuge’s reckless behaviour should be studied, also taking into consideration the highly contentious decision to allow Indians into the country, both on holiday and for quarantine purposes, until the Covid-19 situation here took an extremely dangerous turn. The government announced plans to block Indians crossing the maritime boundary while allowing visitors through the Bandaranaike International Airport. What did the government expect to achieve by much publicised religious ceremonies in support of Covid-19 fight, especially in the wake of the likes of Minister Lokuge jeopardizing the overall effort?

 Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Health Minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi and other big shots, who set an extremely bad example by consuming ‘Dhammika Peniya’, depicted as a tonic prepared with the intervention of the Gods, issued instructions to members of Parliament as regards the Covid-19 counter measures. Close on the heels of the Speaker’s instructions for members to adhere with health guidelines, both in and outside Parliament, the government acknowledged the tonic touted as a miracle cure, is not so. The Health Minister and all her parliamentary colleagues who shared Kali amma’s tonic in Parliament should be ashamed of themselves. Their actions provided tacit approval for the ‘Dhammika Peniya.’

Perhaps the Energy Minister and co-cabinet spokesperson should grade those who accepted the miracle tonic of fraudster Dhammika Bandara of Hettimulla, Kegalle.

Throwing pots, containing what faith healer Eliyantha White called miracle water, by Minister Wanniarachchi, as well as her colleagues Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga, late last year didn’t have the promised impact. White, who claims to have mystic powers with many VIP clients, including foreigners, got Wanniarachchi to smash a pot, containing his special water, into the Kalu Ganga to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, footage on the social media showed.

At the time of White’s intervention, the number of infections was over 11,000 and 22 deaths.

Gamnmanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga  were both filmed throwing pots into the Kelani River at two different locations. White also dropped a pot containing his own miracle water.

Now, the number of infections is at over 125,000 cases and over 800 deaths. The government engaged in some quite ludicrous projects as the situation deteriorated. Those responsible for the overall government effort against the rampaging epidemic never ensured a proper investigation into the second Covid-19 eruption. Did they suppress the investigation even after outgoing Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, ordered no holds barred investigation into what he called the ‘Brandix cluster,’?

Livera issued specific instructions on Oct 27, 2000, in the wake of a 39-year-old female worker, at the Minuwangoda Brandix facility, being detected on Oct 4, 2020, as the first detected in a random test as the origin of the second wave of COVID-19 after almost five months since the countrywide curfew was lifted. Later, an attempt was made to fault Ukrainians for the second eruption. In their haste to suppress the investigation, a group of Ukrainian personnel, here on the invitation of the Air Force, to inspect AN 32 transport aircraft, too, was falsely implicated. What happened to the criminal investigation sought by AG de Livera?

The deterioration of the national economy is not an overnight development. Careful examination of Watchdog Committee reports, pertaining to state institutions, revealed how unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence over the years deteriorated the national economy to such an extent, the country is facing unprecedented challenges. The Covid-19 crisis, in a way, has come in good stead for those responsible to blame it on the raging pandemic.

 Why isn’t the government pursuing a criminal case against those responsible for the swindle, costing over a billion rupees to the state in the leasing of the Jayasinghe building? Is it because of another hidden deal between government and Opposition politicians? Is it because the same political mastermind behind the bond scams was also behind the Jayasinghe building lease deal?

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

House seeks public views on ‘the role of an MP and aspirations of the people’

 

SPECIAL REPORT : Part 366

Published

  

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MP, at the inauguration of a three-day capacity building programme for the Staff of Secy Gen of Parliament, at CITRUS Hotel, Waskaduwa, in early March 2016. The USAID funded the programme meant to promote much touted good governance. Training of parliament staff was part of an overall project worth Rs 1.92 bn.

By Shamindra
Ferdinando

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy is in deepening turmoil. Political parties are in disarray, with the country’s two major political parties – the United National Party (UNP) reduced to just one (National List) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) 14 (one National List/13 on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ticket), respectively. Leaderships of those parties have caused so much damage to their parliamentary groups, over the years, that both are unlikely to recover for a long time.

Unfortunately, the SLFP’s offshoot the SLPP, and the breakaway UNP faction the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), too, are struggling to cope up with the deteriorating political environment. Overall, the country is in disorder with political parties, beset by internal conflicts, pulling in different directions, whereas the status of the Parliament remains questionable.

Lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s assertion that Parliament is the most corrupt institution in the country cannot be dismissed. The declaration made by President’s Counsel Rajapakse, in response to a query by the writer, at a media briefing, called by him, at the Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF), in June 2019, highlighted the unprecedented crisis. Having made that declaration, as a UNP lawmaker, Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s own political future, as a member of the ruling SLPP, is uncertain today against the backdrop of him moving the Supreme Court against the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill – whatever the court ruling may be. In a way, one-time BASL (Bar Association of Sri Lanka) President Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s plight reflected the growing instability and insecurity, in general, mainly brought on by the unprecedented pandemic, in living memory, but amplified by the unabated immoral political shenanigans.

The whole political setup seems to be in a dilemma. The House couldn’t have picked a better time to launch the second volume of an academic journal, titled ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha’, to discuss a range of topics which dealt with parliamentary matters. The themes are (1) Constitution and Amendments to the Constitution (2) Representative Democracy and the Committee System (3) Legislative Functions of Parliament (4) Parliament and the Endowment of its Citizens (5) Standing Orders, Members’ Conduct and Parliamentary Procedures (6) Electoral System, the Parliament and Public Outreach (7) Parliamentary Reporting and Mass Communications (8) Sustainable Development Goals and the Parliamentary System (9) New Trends in Sri Lankan Women Politics and finally (10) The Role of an MP and Aspirations of the People.

The Communications Department of the Parliament called for submission of articles, in all three languages (3,000 to 5,000 words each), to: journal.slparliament@gmail.com by, or before, May 21, 2021, after having informed the relevant officer, handling the project, on weekdays, on 0112 777328, of their desire to furnish articles.

The writer feels the entire gamut of issues, at hand, can be addressed by dealing with only the final topic: ‘The Role of an MP and aspirations of the People.’ The Communications Department assured those interested in submitting articles that their work would be reviewed by a panel of experts.

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy is at a crossroads, with the SLPP bent on further consolidating executive powers, whereas the other political parties sought to dilute the powers enjoyed by the President. The Role of an MP and aspirations of the people, or any other relevant topic, cannot be discussed unless all stakeholders acknowledge the failure on the part of Parliament to fulfill its two primary obligations. There is no point in denying the fact that Parliament pathetically failed to ensure financial discipline as well as enactment of required laws to combat it. If Parliament achieved its objectives, or at least, made a genuine effort over the years, there wouldn’t have been a need for projects such as ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha.’ Would the expert panel accept the brutal truth?

 

Timely setting up of Communication Department

Can Parliament, as the supreme law-making institution, absolve itself of the responsibility for the deterioration of every sector, through sheer negligence? Thanks to the setting up of a proper Communication Department, the public, to a large extent, gets to know what is going on. The Communication Department, so far, has dealt quite professionally with proceedings of the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) and the Public Finance Committee (PFC) thereby giving the public a clear idea as to what is really going on. The coverage of COPE, COPA and PFC proceedings disclosed a pathetic state of affairs. Waste, corruption irregularities and negligence seem to be the order of the day.

Let me briefly discuss the shocking revelation made by COPE proceedings on Feb 12, 2021, just to underscore the public dilemma. COPE examination of the Education Ministry reveals that the National Child Protection Policy is yet to be implemented though the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has been in existence since 1998. COPA Chairman Prof. Charitha Ratwatte, serving his first term as a National List lawmaker of the SLPP, stressed the need to implement it without further delay.

According to a statement issued by former journalist Shan Wijetunga, Director, Communications Department, COPE directed Education Secretary Prof. Kapila Perera to expedite the process. During the proceedings, the revelation of the failure on the part of the NCPA to furnish its 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 annual reports to Parliament, is also a grave embarrassment. The Education Ministry owed an explanation how NCPA, an institution under its care, brazenly neglected its responsibility. Would you believe the NCPA’s Legal Section comprised just two employees and just one to handle complaints? The COPE placed the number of complaints that hadn’t been addressed, by January 1, 2021, at a staggering 40,668.

Perhaps ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha’ should include an additional topic to address the plight of the hapless children for want of a responsible Parliament. Can Parliament explain how it failed to take remedial measures in respect of NCPA? Let me stress, The Island dealt with the Feb 12 COPE proceedings only. If one examined the entire lot, the public would curse those who had served successive governments over the years. The NCPA/Education Ministry’s failure seems relatively light when compared with the shoddy handling of almost all other key ministries.

Against the backdrop of such poor performances by Parliament, the House itself should examine a high-profile costly project, implemented by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), during previous administration. The USAID was launched in late Nov 2016 with a Rs. 1.92 billion (USD$13 million) partnership with the Parliament of Sri Lanka to strengthen accountability and democratic governance in Sri Lanka.

According to the American aid agency, the three-year Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP) was meant to improve strategic planning and communication within the government and Parliament, enhance public outreach, develop more effective policy reform and implementation processes, and increase political participation of women, and underrepresented groups, in Parliament, and at local levels.

Nearly two years after the conclusion of the project, wouldn’t it be necessary to examine whether the USAID project did any good? Did the USAID project make a tangible change? If not, who benefited from the Rs 1.92 bn project? These questions need answers. Perhaps, the issue can be dealt by some of those who will contribute to ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha.’

 

Why not examine the Rs 1.92 bn

USAID project?

Karu Jayasuriya, who accepted the USAID project, in his capacity as the Speaker, at that time, (with the consent of the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP), owed an explanation as regards how US funding benefited the country. Interestingly, KJ today heads the NMSJ (National Movement for Social Justice), the brainchild of the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha, who spearheaded a political campaign that brought the Mahinda Rajapaksa government down. Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya took over the NMSJ, in the wake of Ven Sobitha’s demise, in early Nov 2015, before giving up the post to pave the way for KJ. The civil society organization NMSJ accommodated KJ in the wake of the former Speaker quitting active politics. But the irony is, it must be noted that NMSJ, too, is involved in anti-government politics to its neck.

‘The Role of an MP and Aspirations of the People,’ the last topic offered by Parliament to those interested in contributing to ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha,’ would be an ideal opportunity to discuss how the political party system mercilessly failed the country. While the vast majority of people struggled to make ends meet, the political class, and their crowd, enjoyed life at the expense of the national economy. Political parties plundered the country with impunity, regardless of the consequences.

The deterioration of parliamentary standards today cannot be compared with any particular post-independence period. That is the undeniable truth. It would be pertinent to mention that lawmakers should be held accountable for massive waste, corruption, irregularities as well as negligence revealed by COPE, COPA, and PFC. Examine how the mega sugar duty scam, perpetrated by the incumbent administration, cost the Treasury dearly. Can the Finance Ministry absolve itself of responsibility, whoever ordered it do so?

Serving Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, recently commented on the role of the judiciary, vis-a-vis the Executive and the Legislature. Both the Executive and the Legislature should take note of the President’s Counsel’s assertion. The courts had quite justly come to be regarded as the sentinel over the powers of the legislature and the executive in Sri Lanka in order to safeguard the rights of the citizen, under the law and the Constitution, the Attorney General Dappula de Livera has said on March 23, at the ceremonial sitting of the Court of Appeal.

The ceremonial sitting was held to welcome, His Lordship Justice Arjuna Obeysekere as the President of the Court of Appeal, Her Ladyship Justice Menaka Wijesundera, their Lordships Justice Nihal Samarakoon, Justice Prasantha de Silva, Justice Mohamed Laffar, Justice Pradeep Kirthisinghe, Justice Sampath Abayakoon and Justice Sampath Wijeratne as Judges of the Court of Appeal.

Just a week after the AG’s extraordinary declaration, at a ceremonial sitting many an eyebrow was raised when he had to intervene in respect of a Colombo High Court ruling, pertaining to two narcotics cases.

The PC moved the Court of Appeal in revision of two bail orders of the Colombo High Court 04 as regards detection of 65 grams and 485 grams of heroin.

Following the AG’s intervention, the Court of Appeal stayed bail being granted to the suspects. The AG intervened after a State Counsel assigned to Court No 04 challenged the granting of bail.

Of the seven High Courts in Colombo, two Courts, namely No 04 and 05, have been assigned the additional task of dealing with bail applications.

Newly appointed Court of Appeal judge Menaka Wijeyasundera issued the stay order pending further investigations. The Attorney General’s Department examined the cases pertaining to bail applications handled by both Colombo High Courts before the intervention was made.

Democracy cannot thrive unless the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary work for a common agenda. The much-touted ‘One Country, One Law’ concept would never be a reality if the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary pulled in different directions, whoever wielded political power. In the absence of a common objective to lift the living standards of the public, in a stable environment, whoever exercised political power, the country will remain in simmering turmoil.

If one genuinely examines the topics acceptable to ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha’ he or she will quickly realize the entire parliamentary system is in a mess. In spite of introducing 20 Amendments to the President JRJ’s dictatorial Constitution enacted in 1978, the very basis of the law is mired in controversy. And in some cases, the role of lawmakers has been questioned.

 

Ranjan’s removal et al

SJB lawmaker Ranjan Ramanayake losing his Gampaha district parliamentary seat, over contempt of court charges, the arrest of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen for allegedly aiding and abetting, Easter Sunday bombers, the CID investigation into a complaint as regards SJB National List lawmaker Diana Gamage’s nationality, controversy over SLPP lawmaker Premalal Jayasekera, sentenced to death over 2015 killing, taking oaths, dismissal of murder charges against Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon, MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pilleyan as well as termination of proceedings by the Attorney General and CIABOC in respect of several other lawmakers highlighted the crisis the country is in.

The fact that the incumbent government enacted the 20th Amendment to the Constitution with the backing of the ACMC, as well as the SLMC, whose leader and Attorney-at-Law Rauff Hakeem has been pictured with Easter Sunday carnage mastermind Zahran Hashim’s brother, Mohammed Rilvan, recuperating in a hospital from injuries he suffered while testing a bomb in 2018, painted a bleak picture. High profile accusations and still unanswered questions raised by SJB lawmakers, Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando pertaining to alleged involvement of some members of the intelligence services in the Easter Sunday carnage, shocked the community. Such accusations should be examined. Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for turning a blind eye to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) recognizing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil (LTTE) as the sole representative of their community. Parliament never bothered to raise this issue with TNA. How come a recognized, political grouping recognized proscribed organization as sole representative of their community. Perhaps, the now banned National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) tried similar tactics, in 2015, when it sought to infiltrate Parliament. The NTJ secured an electoral alliance with the UNP-led political alliance, ahead of the 2015 general election, and was cunning enough to secure a National List place for one of Sri Lanka’s richest traders, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, whose sons, lham and Insath carried out the bombings of the Shangri-La and Cinnamon Grand hotels.

The Parliament, as the lawmaking institution, should undertake a genuine examination of its shortcomings. The House should discuss ‘ The Role of an MP and Aspirations of the People’ the last topic offered by ‘Parlimenthu Sara Sanhitha’ as part of the overall efforts to streamline the parliamentary process.

The political process, adopted in respect of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Amendments, revealed that such politically motivated strategies wouldn’t work. Those seeking to enact a new Constitution should realize that the passage of a new Law, only on the basis of a two-thirds parliamentary majority, wouldn’t ensure the much desired political stability, especially in the face of the daunting Covid-19 challenge. All four above mentioned Amendments were introduced as part of a political strategy, pursued by those in power at the time of the enactment.

Some of those who voted in early 2015 for the 19th Amendment, depicted as the panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills in 2020 backed the 20th brought in at the expense of the previously enacted Amendment. Beleaguered former President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena excused himself from voting for the 20th Amendment last Oct, whereas his MPs did. The SLPP has no qualms in securing the passage of the 20th Amendment with the backing of the SLMC and the ACMC, having lambasted them in the run up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 general election.

Those exercising parliamentary powers and privileges should realize that real power can be achieved through genuine consensus. Political tools, such as urgent bills, will only serve limited purposes and even if succeeded in depriving the Opposition, the civil society and the media from playing their classic role, there cannot be certainty in the final outcome. Parliament should take note of the BASL statement, dated April 15, issued by BASL Secretary, Rajeev Amarasuriya, in respect of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission. Let me produce the relevant section verbatim. It stated: “On the 8th of April 2021, just fifteen (15) calendar days after the publication of the Bill in the Gazette, the Bill was placed on the Order Paper of Parliament. In terms of the Constitution, a citizen intending to challenge the constitutionality of a Bill has to do so within one week from the Bill being placed on the Order Paper of Parliament.

The Executive Committee of the BASL is extremely concerned about the limited time given for scrutiny and discussion of this important Bill, as well as the timing of placing the Bill on the Order Paper of Parliament, which was after the suspension of sittings of the Supreme Court, a time when many members of the legal profession are unavailable. Furthermore, the period of one (1) week within which such a Bill could be challenged before the Supreme Court to determine its constitutionality, included not only the weekend but also three public holidays. Thus, the members of the public have been deprived of a meaningful opportunity to scrutinize the Bill and to discuss its merits.”

The way Parliament handled the 2015 and 2016 Treasury bond scams and the shocking revelation that some lawmakers, on both sides, received donations from the disgraced Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) tarnished the image of the House beyond salvation. Having funded a high profile good governance project, the USAID totally turned a blind eye to the Treasury bond scams! So, we will end this with the warning written by Virgil more than 2000 years ago; “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Colombo Port City: Who can be entrusted with safeguarding Sri Lanka’s interests?

 SPECIAL REPORT : Part 365

Published

  

By Shamindra Ferdinando

 

SLPP National List lawmaker Gevindu Cumaratunga, on Sunday (25) raised three issues in respect of the controversial Bill, titled ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission’, that had been challenged in the Supreme Court.

Addressing the media at the Sri Sambuddhajayanthi Mandiraya, lawmaker Cumaratunga expressed concerns over (I) the composition of the proposed Economic Commission (EC) with the focus on the President being the sole authority in deciding its members, (ii) authority over the newly reclaimed land, adjacent to the Galle Face Green, and finally (iii) automatic approval granted to those making applications for projects through the EC.

Cumaratunga called the briefing in the wake of Friday’s (23) conclusion of hearing of petitions filed by those opposed to the project on the basis the Bill, as whole, is inconsistent with many provisions of the Constitution. There were also several intervenient petitions defending the Bill. These petitions were heard before a five-judge-bench comprising Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, Justice Buwaneka Aluwihare, Justice Priyantha Jayawardena, Justice Murdhu Fernando, and Justice Janak de Silva.

 Cumaratunga, in addition to being an SLPP lawmaker, also expressed views on the Bill in his capacity as the Chairman of the nationalist civil society pressure group Yuthukama. Yuthukama is represented in the current Parliament by two lawmakers – Cumaratunga and Anupa Pium Pasqual who entered Parliament from the Kalutara district.

At the commencement of the briefing, the MP appealed to the media to ensure priority to the Port City issue though they could raise any other matter pertaining to simmering controversy over the Easter Sunday carnage, the Covid-19 rampage, and the developments since the Presidential Political Victimisation Commission handed over its report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Dec 8, 2020. 

Having compared the proposed Bill, with two concept papers submitted during the previous UNP-led administration, and the current, on Sept 09, 2019 and June 16, 2020, respectively, lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the failure on the part of those who prepared the Bill, at issue, to take into consideration the salient points therein.

The arch nationalist emphasized the responsibility on the part of the SLPP government to take remedial measures on its own, in respect of the Bill, regardless of the position taken by the Supreme Court. With the country crossroads, in the wake of implementation of the mega project, the government couldn’t, under any circumstances, shirk its responsibility to introduce the required changes, he argued.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to convey its ruling to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

Out of the 145-member SLPP parliamentary group, lawmaker Cumaratunga is the second to express concerns over the Bill. Having fired a broadside at the Bill, Colombo District SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, represented Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Nayaka Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Sri Abhayarama Purana Viharaya and President of the Public Service United Nurses’ Union, Sri Abhayarama, Narahenpita, and Nagashenage Dasun Yasas Sri Nagashena, of 90/12, Gramasanwardana Road, Polwatta, Pannipitiya.

Former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, Dr. Rajapakse’s written submissions in respect of the case filed against the Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Disanayake, and Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, depicted a far more serious picture than lawmaker Cumaratunga’s criticism.

Having found fault with the incumbent administration for placing the responsibility of naming the EC on the President, MP Cumaratunga stressed that the appointing process should be subjected to parliamentary supervision. The lawmaker pointed out the concept papers presented by the previous government and the present, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, underscored the need for the EC to consist of Sri Lankans. Referring to the concept paper presented on June 16, 2020, Cumaratunga said that it proposed the appointment of 10 members, including the Chairman of the EC. The Yuthukama Chief asserted that the issue at hand could be resolved by ensuring the majority of appointments to the EC, depending on the number, be placed under parliamentary supervision whereas the President/the minister in charge of the Port City, too, could make appointments. However, all should be Sri Lankans whereas required foreign experts could be hired for suitable positions, including that of the Director General.

MP Cumaratunga questioned the rationale in giving the sole authority, as regards appointments, to the President, or the minister in charge, in case the government brought the Port City under a particular Ministry.

Cumaratunga pointed out that the Office of the President shouldn’t be the sole decision-making authority, as elections were held every five years. Referring to statements as regards the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) law, introduced by late President J.R. Jayewardene, in 1978, lawmaker Cumaratunga said that over the years there were many amendments to the Constitution. The government member expressed the view that the Bill, at issue, couldn’t be discussed taking into consideration JRJ’s law. The Constitution, the lawmaker emphasized, had undergone far reaching changes with the enactment of the 17th (Oct. 2, 2001) 18th (Sept. 10, 2010) 19th (April 28, 2015) and 20th Amendments (Oct 22, 2020) Amendments. Therefore, the incumbent government couldn’t go back on those Amendments, the MP said, pointing out that the two concept papers submitted in terms of the 19th and 20th Amendments envisaged the EC being subjected to the supervision of the Constitutional Council and the Parliamentary Council, respectively.

The 20th Amendment did away with the 10-member CC thereby passing the responsibility to the five-member Parliamentary Council. MP Cumaratunga explained that in terms of those concept papers mentioned, the officials who should be appointed to the EC. They included Governor, Central Bank, Secretary to the Treasury et al.

 

Parliament shirks its responsibilities

 Before discussing concerns in respect of the Bill, at issue, raised by nearly 20 petitioners, including lawmaker Rajapakse, it would be pertinent to take up the failure on the part of those responsible to ensure financial stability. The country is experiencing severe difficulties for want of financial discipline, at every level, with the Parliament yet to take tangible remedial measures. The revelations made by House parliamentary watchdog committees, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA), as well as the Public Finance Committee (PFC), since the last general election, painted a bleak picture. The situation is so bad, a guarantee that the EC would comprise only Sri Lankan nationals holding responsible positions does not promise a clean administration. It would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lankans, being at the helm of the EC wouldn’t necessarily guarantee safety, security, political stability and uppermost the country’s interest without oversight.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s hard hitting speech in Parliament, last Friday (23), painted a grim picture of the national economy. The JVPer didn’t mince his words when he named those allegedly responsible for massive waste, corruption and irregularities during successive governments.

Dissanayake pointed out how wrongdoers continued to enjoy political power, regardless of their public exposure. Lawmaker Dissanayake’s fiery speech highlighted Sri Lanka’s overall failure to tackle corruption, now, possibly, even threatening the very survival of the country. The JVP leader cited the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, as well as the massive sugar tax scam executed by the present lot. Reference was also made to the payment of a staggering USD 6.5 mn in 2014 to US national Imaad Shah Zuberi, 50, of Indian and Pakistani origins, to lobby the US Government to save Sri Lanka from human rights scrutiny by Washington. The then Rajapaksa government wired a total of USD 6.5 mn to a venture capitalist and political fundraiser who was sentenced recently to 12 years in a federal prison in the US on charges of embezzlement.

According to the US Department of Justice, Sri Lanka hired Zuberi of Arcadia, California, in 2014, to improve the country’s image in the United States, in the wake of investigations undertaken by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council. Of course, in this instance the then government would have turned to a questionable lobbyist out of sheer desperation, like a drowning man clutching at a straw, as the powerful West piqued by the ignominious defeat of the LTTE at the hands of our security forces, which they had always claimed were incapable of defeating it, was and still is out to punish us for defying their mantra. 

Zuberi had promised to make substantial expenditures on lobbying efforts, legal expenses, and media buys, which prompted Sri Lanka to agree to pay Zuberi a total of USD 8.5 million over the course of six months, in 2014. But actual payments amounted to USD 6.5 mn.

Examination of recent statements, issued by the Communication Department of the Parliament, pertaining to proceedings at the COPE, COPA and PFC, chaired by Prof. Charitha Ratwatte, Prof. Tissa Vitharana and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, respectively, revealed the absence of proper scrutiny at any level in all sectors. Let me briefly discuss the shocking disclosure of the happenings at the Football Federation of Sri Lanka at the recently concluded COPE proceedings. The watchdog committee questioned a range of irregularities during the tenure of Attorney-at-Law Manilal Fernando as its President. And, finally, he was forced to quit because of those controversial dealings. The COPE queried how a sum of Euro 40,400 (approximately Rs 6 mn) received from the Italian Football Players’ Association to construct a football ground in his home town, Kalutara, ended up in Fernando’s private account. Prof. Herath’s committee also questioned the misappropriation of a sum of USD 60,000 (nearly Rs 6 million) provided by the Asian Football Federation to conduct competitions, a sum of Rs.10 mn given by a private company to construct 20 houses for tsunami victims and a sum of USD 200,000 donated by the Asian Football Federation.

 It also transpired, during the COPE proceedings, that the current President of the Federation, Anura de Silva, has submitted an affidavit to the court claiming that financial irregularities hadn’t taken place in spite of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) moving the courts. The committee pointed out the seriousness in submitting such an affidavit.

 In addition, it is reported that Anura de Silva now wants to quit from the post of President of the Sri Lanka Football Federation to make way for Manilal’s son to climb to that post!

 Prof. Herath directed both Manilal Fernando and Anura de Silva to appear before COPE on May 06. COPE also dealt with controversial circumstances under which elections to the Football Federation of Sri Lanka was conducted with the Chairman of the Elections Committee as well as two other members given Rs 750,000 and Rs 600,000 each, respectively. The crisis at the Football Federation of Sri Lanka should be examined against the backdrop of the disgraceful conduct of the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) administrations.

Over the past couple of decades, under the watch of successive governments, the financial discipline has deteriorated to such an extent that the national economy is in deepening turmoil. Therefore, the Port City undertaking is a vast challenge that requires the highest consideration and, under any circumstances, the public shouldn’t be duped by the promise that Sri Lankan nationals, holding responsible positions at the helm of the EC, would ensure the best interests of the country.

 

Wijeyadasa isolated

 Contrary to lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse’s high profile stand as regards the Port City project, the SLPP constituents endorsed it. The National Freedom Front (NFF) parliamentary group threw its weight behind the Port City project. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), too, defended the project while those appointed on the SLPP National List, except Yuthukama leader Cumaratunga, refrained from causing any friction. However, Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, who had represented both the SLFP and the UNP cabinets since his entry into parliamentary politics, pursued his agenda.

 Let me verbatim the section headlined ‘Threat to the National Security’ in Dr. Rajapakse’s written submissions to the SC: “The zone has been exempted from the Customs Ordinance. The Customs is debarred from exercising its powers within the Zone and the people in the Zone. There may be importation of prohibited substances, such as drugs, weapons, etc. The South jetty of the Colombo Port is situated, adjoining the said Zone, and it is controlled by the company belonging to the Chinese government.

As the proposed Commission is formed, in the event of any violation or disregard of International Charters and Treaties including, UN Charter, UN Charter for Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity within the said zone, the Sri Lankan State is responsible, not the purported commission.

There is a turmoil situation prevailing in the region, as well as in the World, due to the power struggle between China on one side and India, the USA, Europe, Japan on the other side. This kind of unprecedented facilitation to China would undoubtedly expose the whole country and the whole nation to danger. When presenting Bills of this nature, it is necessary to take geo-political factors into consideration.

In the course of argument, it was submitted that the government of Sri Lanka could not be able either to resist and control the import of any prohibited substance, including weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear, atomic, multi-barrel, etc., as the operation of the Customs Ordinance is excluded. On 21st April, a ship loaded with Uranium, meant to be used for nuclear, which belongs to China, docked at the Hambantota Port by misleading the Authorities. The Government was able to direct it to leave the Port because that power of the government was preserved in the Agreement. But the present Bill does not contain any such safeguard.

One must not forget that the Colombo South Jetty is adjoining the zone. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that the Chinese government will not resort to such devastation, compelling the other super powers to destroy the economy of the country and to expose national security to danger.

The total consideration of the Bill, as a whole is inconsistent to the rudimental principles of our Constitution and it shall be ruled out ab initio.”

 Former Ports and Shipping Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, in a recent interview with the writer over the phone, pointed out how Sri Lanka lost the strategic Hambantota port, to China, in 2017, and was now about to suffer a similar fate as regards the Port City project. Ranatunga recalled how the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration went ahead with the Hambantota project in spite of him giving up the Ports and Shipping portfolio. The country would one day pay a very heavy price for irresponsible actions of politicians and officials, the outspoken defeated UNP candidate, at the 2020 August general election, told the writer.