UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after being sworn-in as the Prime Minister, for the sixth time, assumed duties at the Prime Minister’s Office last Friday. The Prime Minister visited the Buddha Shrine room at the Prime Minister’s Office and offered flowers. As he was coming out after concluding religious activities an old employee at the PM’s Office came and greeted the new Premier and wished him well.

The Prime Minister accepted his well-wishes with a smile and told the employee; “It will take a few more months for the country to have a good time. Let’s work together by giving up Vesak holidays.”

During his first visit to the office, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe summoned Secretary to the Prime Minister SamanEkanayake and Special Assistant Sandra Perera to obtain an expenditure report of the Prime Minister’s Office.

After going through the expenses record, the Prime Minister instructed to reduce the number of employees and the number of vehicles used and to reduce the expenses of the Prime Minister’s Office by 50%.

On the instructions of the Prime Minister, PM’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake took measures to return employees absorbed to thePrime Minister’s Office cadre, from other government agencies, back to those institutions and also returned the vehicles to the relevant institutions.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on his first day at work appointed a special committee to seek proposals to provide relief to the people by eliminating the shortages of essential goods and services.

Accordingly, UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena and General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara were appointed to discuss with the relevant sections and seek proposals to provide essential food items to the people without any shortage.

UNP Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardena was tasked with obtaining information on how to alleviate the medicine shortage, while UNP Assistant Leader Akila Viraj Kariyawasam was tasked with investigating and reporting on the fertiliser crisis.

Party’s National Organiser Sagala Ratnayake was given the responsibility of finding solutions to fuel related issues.

The special committee is expected to identify the real issues faced by all stakeholders in the relevant fields, obtain their suggestions and report directly to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on the real situation in the country.

They met on Saturday and Sunday and discussed with the relevant sections and presented all the information to the PM. On Saturday, Wickremesinghe also met representatives of the Asian Development Bank as well as the World Bank.

The Prime Minister briefed the President on all daily activities. A discussion was held between the Prime Minister and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last Sunday night.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena had already informed the Prime Minister that a Deputy Speaker would be appointed as the first duty on the day when Parliament convenes. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met the President and informed him that it was appropriate to appoint a woman to the post of Deputy Speaker. The President also agreed and informed the Prime Minister that he would hold discussions with the SLPP Parliamentarians.

The Prime Minister also held discussions with representatives of 10 independent parties in Parliament on Monday and also held several discussions with SLFP MPs. All these activities were coordinated by the Party Chairman Vajira Abeywardena.

Over the past week, Opposition MPs have been discussing with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe the forming of a new Cabinet. Members of the SLPP, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya continued to talk to the Prime Minister about this. One came and inquired about the Ministry of Health and another about the Ministry of Finance.

“As it is, we have to give more than 100 ministerial posts,” Abeywardena said following these discussions. The PM laughed and said, “We said the Cabinet is only 20 including the President and the Prime Minister.”

Prime Minister immediately responded to letters sent by SJB MPs Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara and Champika Ranawaka, taking their proposals into consideration and the MPs commended the swift responses. It was decided to nominate four SJB members to the Cabinet. Wickremesinghe asked UNP Chairman and Deputy Leader to handle the matter.

The President and the Prime Minister then met the SLPP, the SLFP and Leaders of the Independent Parliamentary Group at President House on Wednesday night. Before starting the discussion, the Prime Minister said, “Let’s start this discussion with 20 ministerial posts. The people of the country are going through a lot of hardships so we have to make a sacrifice. Even those who take up ministerial posts will not get ministerial salaries and privileges.”

Following the final decision on the Cabinet posts, it was decided to appoint the Cabinet before next Monday.

Accordingly, nine more MPs were sworn in as Cabinet Ministers on Friday morning. They took oaths before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House in Colombo.

The new Cabinet Ministers include; Nimal Siripala de Silva – Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation, Susil Premajayanth – Minister of Education, Keheliya Rambukwella – Minister of Health, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe – Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, Harin Fernando – Minister of Tourism and Lands, Ramesh Pathirana – Minister of Plantation Industry, Manusha Nanayakkara – Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment, Nalin Fernando – Minister of Trade, Commerce and Food Security and Tiran Alles – Minister of Public Security.

This is in addition to four other Cabinet Ministers appointed on the 14 May which included Prof. G.L. Peiris – Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena – Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government, Prasanna Ranatunga – Minister of Urban Development and Housing and Kanchana Wijesekara – Minister of Power and Energy.

Meanwhile, it is speculated that PM Wickremesinghe will take responsibilities as Finance Minister, in the event former Minister Ali Sabry declines to accept the portfolio.

Other than Wickremesinghe, names of Dr. Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne were also doing rounds as possible contenders for the post.

However, Dr. Harsha de Silva said he is ready to take on the role of Chairman of Committee on Public Finance (COPF), stating that his joining the Cabinet as an ‘independent MP’ will only worsen the political crisis.

This is given the deadlock in creating an All-Party Government to resolve current economic crisis in the country, as well as to give leadership to prepare an All Party Economic Revival Plan as a Parliamentary proposal that is approved by the majority, he said.

In a tweet, Dr. de Silva said, “Even though it is unknown to many, the COPF is the most powerful committee in Parliament; with wide powers to discharge the Constitutional provision 148 that gives ‘full control’ of public finance. I feel I can play a bigger role here than in a government that lacks legitimacy. I am being criticised by some for not taking up ‘Cabinet’ responsibility. Be realistic that the Sri Lankan economic crisis is a toxic combination of economics and politics. The resolution depends on both and my joining Cabinet as an ‘independent MP’ will only worsen the political crisis.”

Ironic competitors

SLPP MP Ajith Rajapakse was elected as the new Deputy Speaker, following a secret ballot, by a majority of 31 votes.

He was proposed by Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris, and seconded by SLPP MP Samanpriya Herath.

The Opposition proposed SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna for the post. Her name was nominated by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and was seconded by Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella.

Wimal Weerawansa, on behalf of the 10 coalition parties that became independent in Parliament recently, urged the House to come up with one name for the post. SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena and MP Chandima Weerakkody also expressed similar sentiments. They said that this election was being held at a huge expense and therefore to suggest only one name without opting for a secret ballot. The MPs said that they would make the votes invalid in protest over making the appointment of the Deputy Speaker a soap opera while the pubic openly rejects Parliament.

SJB MPs Chaminda Wijesiri, Nalin Bandara, Mujibur Rahuman and several other MPs noted,

“Wijerathna is the most suitable person for this post. The Prime Minister also said that a female MP should be appointed. That is why we proposed her name. She is a renowned lady, a child rights activist and an active member of the House.”

MP Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle also said that Wijerathna was suitable for the post.

Following the arguments, the Speaker announced that unless one of the proposed names may consider withdrawing, a vote has to be called for.

Accordingly, a secret ballot was taken in Parliament and 109 votes were cast in favour of Ajith Rajapakse and 78 favouring Rohini Kumari Wijerathna. There were 23 invalid votes and 13 Members of Parliament were recorded as absent.

Deputy Speaker of the Ninth Parliament Ranjith Siyambalapitiya recently resigned from his position and was subsequently re-elected to the post.  Siyambalapitiya submitted his resignation again on 6 May, following wide public criticism.

After the results were announced, Wijerathna wished Rajapakse saying that may the latter be able to act impartially in the House.

“When I was subjected to verbal sexual harassment back then, Rajapakse was chairing the sittings. It is sad that a woman cannot hold main positions in Parliament even now. The Constitution states that gender equality must be ensured. But this Parliament is yet to adhere to that. Rajapaksa family instructed to defeat me because I spoke against their corruption. I thank all the MPs who voted for me. The Prime Minister also proposed to appoint a female MP as the Deputy Speaker. His proposal was defeated. This is the first defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe after he accepted the post of PM. He will experience lots of failures in the future. It is clear that Rajapaksa family is still carrying out their agendas without respecting the people’s wishes,” she said.

Parliament bemoans property damages

The Parliament week was entirely spent on lamenting the property damages caused to the SLPP members. There were cross fires as well with several SLPP members and former government allies directly and indirectly suggesting the 9 May riots were instigated by their short-sighted, ignorant colleagues, while, the SLPP members were trying to frame the JVP for country wide riots.

While insisting the 9 May attack was State terrorism, MP Udaya Gammanpila on Tuesday (17) called for the arrest of all politicians who instigated the attack on peaceful GotaGoGama protesters to restore public faith in law and order.

Speaking in Parliament, Gammanpila extended his condolences to the family of MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala who was killed in Nittambuwa and MPs whose properties were damaged during the unrest.

“We have to condemn all kinds of terrorism equally. The attack on GotaGoGama protesters was State terrorism. Those who attacked the protesters were summoned by government MPs. They instigated the supporters of the former Prime Minister to carry out the attack. They met at Temple Trees and went to Galle Face from there. If this is not State terrorism, what else can it be?” he queried.

“Why was the Government unable to understand that a conflict would arise when pro-government and anti- government forces collide? There was plenty of time and opportunities to stop pro-government forces that were advancing from Temple Trees. But the Police did not do anything. They let the attack to take place. Who gave instructions for this? The military and the Police were inactive during the attack. Who is responsible for that? Is that a part of State terrorism? These are the question we must ask.”

Meanwhile, MP Wimal Weerawansa also said in Parliament that the attack on GotaGoGama protesters was premeditated.

The Parliament took up the matter on Tuesday, a day after IGP C.D. Wickramaratne informed the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) that a number of arrests would be made in connection with the attack on anti-Government protesters by SLPP supporters opposite Temple Trees and Galle Face within the next two days.

This was during a meeting between President and Deputy President of the BASL and the IGP and Senior officers of the CID at the Police Headquarters on 16 May, upon the IGP’s invitation. President of the BASL, Saliya Pieris PC pointed out to the IGP and the senior officers of the CID the importance of maintaining public confidence in the investigations by taking prompt and effective action. BASL Secretary Isuru Balapatabendi said based on the statements made by the said officials in regard to the progress of the investigations, there is nothing to complain about the process adding that the BASL would however monitor the same.

He observed however that the investigations and relevant actions should be independently carried out by the authorities concerned and would not be interfered with adding that BASL appeared for the case relating to the said incident as an observer.

Meanwhile representations were also made by the BASL to the AG and the IGP on the attacks on the protesters and the violence that followed. 

BASL previously demanded the immediate arrest of all persons who instigated, conspired to unleash violence from the Temple Trees and were involved in assault and violence , irrespective of the positions they hold in the Government or of their family connections and for immediate travel bans be imposed on such persons.

SLPP MPs Sanath Nishantha and Milan Jayathilake were arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) Tuesday evening (17) in connection with the attack on anti-Government protesters by a group of SLPP supporters.

The CID also recorded a statement from Western Province SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon in connection with the incident.

Meanwhile, the CID informed the Speaker of Parliament that statements would be recorded from seven MPs in connection with the attack on peaceful protesters in Galle Face and opposite Temple Trees.

The Attorney General on Monday (16) directed the IGP and CID Director to arrest 22 individuals, including SLPP MPs Johnston Fernando and Sanath Nishantha and produce them in Court as soon as possible, in connection with the attack by SLPP supporters on peaceful anti-Government protesters, if there is reasonable suspicion for doing so.

SLPP MPs Milan Jayathilake, Sanjeeva Ediramanna, Moratuwa Mayor Saman Lal Fernando, Mahinda Kahandagama, Dan Priyasad and Western Province SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon were also among those named in the letter.

SLPP MP Dr. Ramesh Pathirana dropped a bombshell in Parliament on Wednesday (18) claiming Police did not prevent SLPP supporters from attacking peaceful protesters on 9 May, on the instructions of Public Security Ministry Secretary Jagath Alwis and IGP Chandana Wickramaratne.

Dr. Pathirana said they were informed that former Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa would resign and people from many areas flocked to Temple Trees to bid farewell to Rajapaksa.

“I was at Temple Trees on 9 May. We had been informed that former PM would resign. Therefore, I visited Temple Trees with a group of supporters from Galle. Many innocent people who genuinely adore Mahinda Rajapaksa were present to bid farewell. However, several MPs provoked the supporters to attack GotaGoGama. This is the bitter truth and we have to accept that,” he said.

Speaking further, Dr. Pathirana said that when some people, who attended the meeting, were on their way to attack the peaceful protesters he phoned the Western province SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon and requested him to prevent the attack. “SDIG Tennakoon assured me that the Police would prevent the attack. He said the Police had placed road barricades. After that, I went to the President’s House for a meeting. While I was at the President’s House, former MP Ashu Marasinghe called me and said clashes would be inevitable. He requested me to warn the President and to ask for his intervention so as to avoid the imminent tragedy. I then informed the President instantly,” Pathirana added.

However, when the President phoned SDIG Tennakoon he claimed the IGP instructed them not to prevent ‘attackers’ entering Galle Face. “MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake is right. It was the IGP and the Public Security Ministry Secretary who instructed the Police to let the goons attack the peaceful protesters at Galle Face,” he stressed.

“The President then instructed SDIG Tennakoon to prevent the attack. The SDIG had informed the President that IGP Wickramaratne had instructed the Police not to prevent the attacks. The President had then responded, “I am the President and I order you to stop this.” It was after that that the Police used force to disperse the attackers,” Pathirana said.

Dirty games?

A heated situation erupted in Parliament when Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam on Tuesday (17) alleged that Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena stopped him chairing Parliamentary Sittings and invited SLPP MP Shantha Bandara to preside, when he was invited to the chair by the staff.

Raising a Matter of Privilege in the House, Rasmanickam said, when he was invited to chair the Sitting, Gunawardena sent messages to the Secretary General of Parliament asking Bandara to be invited instead of him.

“This is a matter of my privilege. Before you (Shantha Bandara) came to the Chair, a staff member at Serjeant-at-Arms’ Department called me and told me that the Speaker needs to leave his chair and requested me to preside over the Sitting. Following that request, I took the chair.

At that time I saw Gunawardena sending several messages to the Secretary General and then sent a message asking you (Shantha Bandara) to take the chair instead of me. I saw it very clearly. When I inquired, the Secretary General told me ‘Don’t ask me’.  I am a member of the Speaker’s panel. I hope Parliament is an independent institution. This is not an SLPP Parliament. All MPs have equal rights.”

If you do not want me to preside over because I speak against the Government and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘deals’, what is the point of this Parliament? I expect an answer from Gunawardena, he said.

However, Gunawardena refused to make a clarification with regard to Rasamanickam’s query.

“Rasamanickam is saying various things. I am not ready to answer his questions. He has to ask that from the Speaker. He needs to learn,” Gunawardena said.

Bandara who is presiding over the Sitting said that both he and Rasamanickam had received the invitation at the same time and he was given the opportunity as his name was mentioned first as a Senior Member of the Committee of Chairpersons.