Editorial/Opinion

Prez ponders over phantom limb

The cracks within the Sri Lanka Podujana Permuna (SLPP) in general and the Rajapaksa clan in particular are becoming more conspicuous by the day with time running out for the “Joint Opposition” to declare its presidential candidate.
Already, numerous media channels have reported that former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa loyalists within the SLPP have begun their final battle to get him declared the presidential candidate by SLPP’s patriarch – former President and incumbent Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa camp is of the view that although the Rajapaksa family has “unofficially” decided on Gotabaya, Mahinda’s decision to adopt a “wait and see” approach is jeopardising the SLPP chance of gaining the “first-mover” advantage in the run up to the presidential polls.
It is also learnt that some are disturbed by the fact that certain elements within the SLPP are promoting the eldest of the Rajapaksas’ – MP Chamal Rajapaksa – as a moderate, acceptable-to-all candidate from the SLPP, charging that Mahinda’s silence on declaring the party candidacy in public has led to this uncertainty.
It is learnt that former President Rajapaksa has however stated on many occasions that the majority of voters and supporters he comes across want Gotabaya for reasons best known to the clan.
In fact, moderates such as MP John Seneviratne too have expressed concern pointing out that not announcing the presidential candidate had jeopardised the Opposition’s chance of winning the race.
However, a recent remark Rajapaksa had jokingly made at a meeting with editors and journalists held last Wednesday (27) has further added impetus to the fears of Gotabaya loyalists.
During the gathering, Rajapaksa categorically denied that former Minister Basil Rajapaksa would contest, adding that the inner circle of the SLPP had not yet fully finalised the candidacy of Gotabaya.
“We had a small family gathering but that (presidential candidacy) was never discussed. Don’t families meet up? That is the biggest allegation against me. ‘Sahodara samagama’. No decision was taken to field Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They said it’s Basil. Some said it’s Gota, some others said it’s Chamal. A lot of rumours. Basil ultimately said he wouldn’t contest,” Rajapaksa said, adding, “I am still searching for the winning horse. Even the United National Party (UNP) hasn’t decided as yet. We will decide accordingly.”

SLFP in a soup
In addition, it is learnt that the SLPP’s silence has further angered its newly-found ally and the mother party from which it split – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
It is now a public secret that despite all three leaders (i.e. Mahinda Rajapaksa, incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe) announcing to their inner circles that they would support the move to abolish the executive presidency with the passage of the 20th Amendment promoted by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), at least in principle, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe personally favour the retention of the same.
It is learnt that the very reason Sirisena broke his fragile ties with Wickremesinghe was the former’s belief that Rajapaksa would support him as presidential candidate under the proposed SLFP-SLPP grand alliance, which led to the swearing in of Rajapaksa as premier on 26 October as the head of the 51-day Government.
In fact, both the incumbent SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara and former party secretary MP Duminda Dissanayake have stated in public on numerous occasions that Rajapaksa had not yet recanted his promise made to Sirisena. As such the SLPP must unequivocally and unconditionally support Sirisena, SLFP leaders have asserted.
It is also learnt that one of the main factors Rajapaksa is unwilling to publicly name the SLPP candidate is that the seats of all “Joint Opposition” MPs are in jeopardy from the moment he does so.
The last time the issue of “JO” MPs’ seats came up in Parliament, Sirisena, through his Party General Secretary, issued a letter to the Speaker stating that all such questionable MPs still held the membership of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and laid the matter to rest.

By hook or crook

This context has led the Gotabaya Rajapaksa camp to discuss and come to the position that the candidacy has to be obtained either by hook or by crook. Many had pointed out that it was unfair for former President Rajapaksa to mete out such step-motherly treatment to Gotabaya in a situation where the SLPP has a supposedly sure chance of winning, as Mahinda too underwent a similar quandary in the run up to the 2005 presidential election.
In the run up to the 2005 presidential polls, then UPFA Leader and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga almost refused to name Rajapaksa as the candidate and was on the verge of nominating her brother Anura Bandaranaike – the only member of the Bandaranaike family that did not end up as a head of state – as SLFP presidential candidate.
Similar to the present case of Sirisena, why Bandaranaike wanted to promote Anura was that she had plans of reintroducing the non-executive presidency (NEP) and thus become the executive prime minister (EPM) one day.
It is learnt that at the time, Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who was a close confidante of both Bandaranaike and Rajapaksa and had rendered yeoman service in forging the grand UPFA coalition between the SLFP and the SLFP, gave assurances to Bandaranaike in no uncertain terms that in the event Rajapaksa became President, he would agree to appoint Bandaranaike as EPM.
In fact, it is said that when Rajapaksa was asked to give the same assurance in writing, he had stated that he would give even ten letters instead of one. However, when Rajapaksa was elected at the presidential election on 18 November, he did not heed Bandaranaike and waited till 22 December 2005 when Bandaranaike’s presidency ended and fixed his swearing-in for the next day 19 November, which led to the nine-year Rajapaksa regime. Such are the powers of the executive presidency.

Power crisis

In the midst of the political stalemate, its cascading effects are felt across the economy with the power crisis continuing to wreak havoc upon ordinary man’s life.
At a meeting held last Thursday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the UPFA had to take the blame as the portfolio had been held for the last four years by SLFP ministers before UNP’s Ravi Karunanayake took over the hot seat.
“During the last four years, this was held by the SLFP and they only applied stitches and not long-term solutions for the power crisis. However, we cannot wash our hands of it. As the Government, we need to assume responsibility,” said the Premiere.
“We were supposed to get three LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) plants from India, China, and Japan. However, the inability to implement them on time has led us to this crisis. Why wasn’t solar power given more attention? By giving jobs in the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) only we cannot arrest the situation!” asserted Wickremesinghe.

Budget blues

Meanwhile, last Thursday, the UNP got a rude awakening when the expenditure heads of two ministries –namely the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Provincial Councils, and Local Government – were defeated.
The Opposition called a division on Minister Patali Champika’s Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development where the Government obtained just 24 votes and being defeated by a majority of 14.
Minister Vajira Abeywrdena’s Ministry of Home Affairs, Provincial Councils, and Local Government polled only 23 in favour whilst 38 votes were cast against, defeating it with a margin of 15 votes.
Following the unseen defeat which the opposition rank and file had been planning for days, Deputy Government Whip Prof. Ashu Marasinghe stepped down last Friday and it is believed that a change would likely be made in the Chief Government Whip post after the conclusion of the 2019 Budget proceedings and Parliament reconvenes after New Year holidays.
Meanwhile, the final third reading vote on the 2019 Budget has now become a topic of discussion between the SLFP and SLPP as well.
The two parties that are engaged in exploring possibilities of forming a political alliance is now focused on the final Budget vote with the SLPP breathing down the necks of Sirisena and the SLFP, demanding that the latter should openly vote against the UNF Government’s Budget.
The SLFP MPs in Parliament abstained from casting their votes during the second reading vote on the Budget on a presidential directive earlier this month.
However, the SLPP has called on the SLFP to vote against the Budget at the final vote, since the proposed alliance between the two parties was being formed as a force against the UNF policies.
UPFA MP Dullas Alahapperuma said that the President needed to convey a meeting of the UPFA parliamentary group and make a final decision on the stance to be adopted at the final Budget vote that would have to be adhered to by the SLFP MPs as well.
Be that as it may, some of the SLFP MPs are holding separate discussions on the matter since they believe the SLPP seems to be demanding a lot and falling short on delivery where the SLFP leadership, President Sirisena is concerned.

Birthday bash

Following the successful inauguration of the $ 4 billion refinery project last Sunday, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe held a much-lauded event for kids with special needs at the Temple Trees. Wickremesinghe’s birthday bash for VIPs was held the next day (25), where a host of politicians, diplomats, public servants, and business tycoons joined in.
“The Prime Minister is the only Sri Lankan politician to muster over 500,000 votes in the country’s history, the only individual to hold the office of Prime Minister for five terms, and the only leader with a university degree. He is driving Sri Lanka forward in the fight against corruption and fraud,” stated Minister Lakshman Kiriella.
However, UNP reformists such as Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa as well as several other legislators, supportive of his ascendance to leadership, were notable absentees at this gala event.

Souring relations

Further worsening Sri Lanka’s governance record in the eyes of the international community and taking the country into a new low in foreign relations, President Sirisena this week slammed United Nations Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet and Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador A.L.A. Azeez, postulated that he would not allow any move that would violate the country’s Constitution and independence at the whims and fancies of the international community or any other persons.
The President commented on recommendations of UN Office of the High Commissioner Head of Human Rights’ (OHCHR) to set up a commission to ensure the release of lands held by Sri Lanka armed forces in the formerly war-torn North and East, asserting there was absolutely no need for such external commission, charging that the recommendation was based on fabricated information given by West-leaning NGOs (non-governmental organisations).
Lambasting Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Geneva A.L.A. Azeez’s conduct, Sirisena asserted that the diplomat allegedly agreed to review Sri Lanka’s situation within a two-year timeframe without consulting the Foreign Affairs Ministry and/or the Foreign Secretary, charging this as a betrayal of Sri Lanka armed forces, the Government, and the people of the Sri Lanka.
However, during last Thursday’s gathering of UNP MPs Leader of the House Minister Lakshman Kiriella charged that President Sirisena had agreed to the two-year timeframe with the UNP Government.
“President Sirisena launched a major onslaught against us over the Geneva debacle. It is strange that he had forgotten that he gave us freehand to control it for a period of two years,” exclaimed the Minister.
However, SLFP’s Mahinda Samarasinghe’s statement that no soldier can be presented before the International Criminal Court (ICC) because of Wickremesinghe’s prudential decision of not being a signatory to the Rome Statue during the 2002-04 Government, was highly commended.
Meanwhile, a UNP legal expert pointed out that the President had mixed up the UNHRC report with the Resolution, stating that Sri Lanka had not signed the report.

UN-OHCHR misrepresented

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet charged that a senior Sri Lankan official and an envoy of Sirisena “seriously misrepresented” her discussion of the recent UN Human Rights Office report on Sri Lanka with a government delegation attending the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 20 March.
“Monday’s article in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror newspaper cited a member of the Government delegation, Northern Province Governor Dr. Suren Raghaven, claiming the High Commissioner ‘admitted that certain facts incorporated in the UNHRC report against Sri Lanka could not be condoned whatsoever’. It also said he claimed she had advised two of her senior officials who attended the meeting ‘to be more responsible and cautious hereafter’.”
“Neither of these claims are true,” Bachelet said. “Either the newspaper misunderstood the Governor, or the Governor misunderstood – or misquoted – me.”
The High Commissioner said she stands behind the report and the oral statement she made when presenting it to the Human Rights Council, and that she believes it fairly and objectively reflects the situation in Sri Lanka.
“I am deeply disappointed by the spin that has been put on my discussion with the Sri Lankan Government delegation,” she said, noting that other news outlets in Sri Lanka were also continuing to significantly misrepresent the Human Rights Council process in Geneva.
In line with normal practice, the UN Human Rights Office report – which had been requested by the 47-member-state Human Rights Council – was shared with the Sri Lankan Government before its publication. The Government’s views were taken into account when finalising the report and a delegation of senior UN human rights officials discussed its contents with a wide range of Government officials during a visit to Sri Lanka in February.
The High Commissioner said she and her Office remained committed to assisting the Government and people of Sri Lanka to implement the Human Rights Council’s Resolutions 30/1 (2015) and 34/1 (2017). And last week, the Human Rights Council, in another Resolution (40/1) gave the Government two more years to deliver fully on the set of commitments it originally accepted four years ago.
Bachelet said the Sri Lankan Government should now refocus its efforts on fulfilling its obligation to provide justice and accountability for the grave human rights violations and abuses that took place during the conflict that ended in 2009, and honour its commitments to establish the truth about what happened and to promote reconciliation.

Law and order

In spite of the independence of the judiciary post-19th Amendment, many point out that there had been serious lapses in law and order and rule of law.
One of Sri Lanka’s forerunners of human rights – the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) – lamenting over the serious crisis of the state charged that the President’s alleged influence into the law enforcement apparatuses tantamount to destabilising the legal system in a very serious manner.
A well-functioning legal system can be measured by its response to daily crimes and complaints. This is a much better test in fact, rather than a country’s constitution (in Sri Lanka’s case, the 1978 Constitution still remains a major barrier to the functioning of a legal system), or statutes, or judicial presence, all of which are often portrayed as an indicator of a good system.
Citing crimes and incidents such as the release of the VIP suspects involved in the hit and run incident that led to the death of the Borella OIC and the case of Karannagoda vs. CID, the AHRC lamented that the accusation of no less than the President allegedly influencing the law apparatuses on these issues need a clear answer from the President or his office, as it amounts to the head of state destabilising the legal system in a very serious manner.
All the above incidents point to a serious crisis of the state. A crisis of the state is far more consequential than an economic or social crisis. A well-functioning state is essential for any possibility of resolving other crises.
However, the country’s media and others are largely silent on these issues. Living inside a sinking ship, they listen to the political speeches of how prosperity and economic progress was brought to the country. Each day proves the folly of this situation, but there is hardly any attempt to correct it.
In 2009, the AHRC published a book entitled, “Sri Lanka’s Legal System as The Phantom Limb”. Phantom limb refers to the belief of an amputee that his lost limbs still exist. They complain of pain in those missing limbs. In Sri Lanka’s current legal system, continuing the rituals and filing fundamental applications is simply addressing a phantom limb that does not even exist. The only way forward is to recognise the limb is missing, and then move ahead!