Govt Likely to Moot Amendments to Port City Bill to Avoid Referendum
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met the Ministers, Members of Parliament and the staff members of his office at the Presidential Secretariat on 19 April marking the commencement of duties following the dawn of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.
Speaking at the event, the President said that everyone should act with a positive attitude, determination and commitment to fulfil the aspirations of the people by overcoming challenges.
President Rajapaksa, who extended wishes to the Ministers and the staff members for a prosperous Sinhala and Tamil New Year, also engaged in cordial conversation with them.
The President and the others also participated in a tea party hosted by the Secretary to the President.
Several Ministers, MPs, Secretary to the President P.B. Jayasundera, Principal Adviser to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Additional Secretary (Administration and Operations) Retired Major General K.B. Egodawele, Private Secretary to the President Sugeeshwara Bandara and other senior officials of the Presidential Secretariat and Government officials were also present on the occasion.
Meanwhile, legislators in the country appeared to have started the New Year on a different scale. When the House convened after New Year break, they were still in Avurudu mode as the Chamber and Lobby turned into a place where they engaged in tug-o-war and pillow fights – this time without pillows.
MPs of both the Government and the Opposition observed a minute’s silence in the Parliament Chamber on 21 April to commemorate those who lost their lives and were injured in the Easter Sunday Terror Attacks on 21 April 2019, at the request of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Following a special statement by the Premier at the commencement of Sittings on 21 April, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena granted permission for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims. All MPs present in the Chamber observed one minute’s silence.
The SJB MPs were clad in black while Government MPs attended Sittings in their usual attire.
The Premier in his statement said, that all those responsible for the terror attacks will be brought to justice and the Government has taken all possible measures to prevent such a tragedy in the future.
Speaking further, Premier Rajapaksa said, although the Government does not wish to intervene in the judicial process, they are ready to provide any assistance required for its success, considering it as the utmost duty of the Government.
Premier Rajapaksa said the matter has already been referred to the Attorney General based on the report and other documents prepared governing the information revealed by Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into Easter Sunday terror attacks.
“The President has also facilitated the CID and the Terrorism Investigation Division in addition to the Commission for the purpose of carrying out investigations independently. We are confident that at the end of the investigation, the respective Departments will take legal action in the future,” he assured.
Later, intense arguments between Government and Opposition ranks came to near fisticuffs compelling the Speaker to suspend the Sittings for 10 minutes.
This verbal duel between legislators occurred when the Opposition claimed they should be given a chance to open the debate on the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into political victimisation from 2015 to November 2019.
Strong words were exchanged between Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena and Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella as both the Government and the Opposition wanted to move the adjournment debate on the report.
After Kiriella’s and Gunawardena’s argument, MPs from both sides started to berate each other. Kiriella said, it was the Opposition that requested the debate on the report first. Therefore, the Opposition should be given the chance to move the debate, he said.
In response, Gunawardena said: “You made the same statement several times during the Party Leaders’ meeting. After rounds of arguments, an agreement was reached that we present the Motion and start the debate. If you don’t want that we can move the Government’s business. We said that clearly to you. Please behave as a responsible person.”
Kiriella: “It was we who requested for a debate. MP Sarath Fonseka has submitted the Adjournment Motion already. Therefore, it is we who should start the debate.”
The Speaker: “You all reached an agreement to move that Motion from the Government side. That is all.”
Kiriella: “As the Speaker, you should be fair to everyone.”
Speaker: “You reached an agreement. I can do nothing about that.”
The Opposition went on saying that according to Parliamentary traditions those who requested a debate should be given the opportunity to commence it.
Gunawardena then requested the Speaker to move the floor for the next item on the agenda, claiming that the Opposition was trying to waste time.
While Gunawardena was claiming that a final agreement was reached regarding the matter, Kiriella repeatedly said that they did not reach such an agreement.
“What we said was the Speaker should take the final decision.”
At this juncture, SJB MP Rauff Hakeem said, if the Speaker allowed the Government to commence the debate, it would set a bad precedent.
Gunawardena: “You do not have any shame at all. The Government should move the debate as the Government members were politically victimised during the Yahapalana Government. How can you speak like this now? We are the ones who were victimised by you. Have some shame.”
The Government MPs started to shout in support of Gunawardena and the Opposition MPs did the same in support of Kiriella.
Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando then showed a placard criticising the Opposition. Several Government MPs also followed Fernando and started hoisting placards.
The Speaker instructed Minister of Sports Namal Rajapaksa to move the next item of the day.
When Rajapaksa was speaking, groups of Opposition and Government MPs arrived in the Well and start to argue. The Government MPs had placards mocking the SJB for wearing black attires in the Chamber and blaming them for the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
State Minister Prasanna Ranaweera and SJB MP Harin Fernando was seen having an intense argument. When they were about to escalate to blows, others rushed to prevent it.
Several MPs including Manusha Nanayakkara were seen taking Harin Fernando to a side and trying to calm down the latter. The Government MPs were then seen trying to stop Ranaweera from attacking Fernando.
After a while, the Speaker announced that sittings would be suspended for 10 minutes.
Later, SLPP MP Janaka Tissakuttiarachchi and Harin Fernando fought in the ground floor of Parliament, near MPs’ entrance.
The Speaker, on the following day (22) informed the House that a seven-member committee will be appointed to investigate the fights.
The Speaker said, seven senior MPs will be appointed as committee members and further action regarding the incidents will be taken once they give their recommendations and insights.
He said: “I do not think any MP would approve of such incidents in this Parliament. What happened on Wednesday (21) was very unfortunate and tragic. It brought shame on all of us. We have to protect the dignity of Parliament. That is why I expect to appoint a committee to investigate those incidents.”
SC considers petitions
The perusal of the 19 Special Determination Petitions as well as the two Intervenient Petitions, filed in support of them, against the Colombo Port City Economic Commission (CPCEC) Bill, along with the 11 Intervenient Petitions filed in support of the Bill were heard before the SC during the week.
The five-Judge Bench comprising Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, Justices Buwaneka Aluvihare, Murdu Fernando, Priyantha Jayawardene and Janak de Silva instructed Attorney General Dappula de Livera to convey the Government’s stance, on the mooted Bill, to Court on Friday (23).
Additional Solicitor General Farhana Jameel appearing on behalf of the AG told the Court that most of the points that had been raised by the petitioners against the Draft Bill would be included as amendments to the Bill in Parliament ahead of its ratification.
She informed Court that a comprehensive statement on the proposed amendments to be included in the Bill has already been submitted to the AG by the President’s Secretary and that she was ready to produce it in Court.
Later, Jameel began to explain in detail each of the amendments that would be included in the Bill by the Government.
During the course of her submission the Chief Justice regularly intervened to pose questions to Jameel and pressed for clarifications in this connection.
Besides the Chief Justice, Justices Buwaneka Aluvihare, Priyantha Jayawardene and Janak de Silva also repeatedly questioned Jameel regarding the points raised by her during her submission.
Later, the Chief Justice intervened and advised Jameel not to waste more time of the Bench by striving to explain the amendments one by one.
He urged the AG to produce written submissions to the Bench on the instructions that he had received in this regard from the President instead of submitting the letter sent by the President’s Secretary to de Livera.
The Chief Justice then ordered further proceedings to be resumed on Friday morning and remarked that limited time could be allocated for either a lawyer or two lawyers each for those that had filed the SDPs in opposition to the Draft Bill and those that had filed Intervenient Petitions in favour of the proposed Bill when the hearing restarts.
President’s Counsel Kushan de Alwis made submissions to Court on behalf of the Intervenient Petition filed by SLPP General Secretary National List MP Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam.
President’s Counsel Sanjeewa Jayawardene represented the Intervenient Petition filed by Secretary to the Ministry of Finance S.R. Attygalle
Opposition to May Day ban
The Media, quoting SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena had reported that the SLFP has decided to hold a separate May Day Rally in Colombo.
Accordingly, the former President said the Central Committee of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had decided for a separate May Day Rally. On Monday (19), SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera speaking to reporters said the SLFP will hold its own May Day Rally at the SLFP head office in Battaramulla.
“We will invite all parties in the alliance including the leaders of the SLPP,” he added. “SLFP will send a representative to the SLPP May Day Rally,” he noted.
When the Media queried whether there is a split in the SLPP following Sirisena’s statement on the May Day rally, Co-Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said that there is a solid understanding among the alliance members of the SLPP.
Rambukwella said that while there may be some misunderstandings and disagreements, eventually an agreement is reached.
He said that some alliance members wanting to hold separate May Day rallies is not an issue.
He said that even in the past political parties who were part of other alliances had staged separate May Day rallies.
When an election was held they came together on one stage, he noted.
However, all May Day Rallies and events were cancelled following discussions held between Party Leaders and the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO), Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said on 20 April.
He said, discussions had been held between him, as the Head of the NOCPCO, Director General Health Services (DGHS), Dr. Asela Gunawardana and Party leaders, during which the threat of a coronavirus spread precipitated by such gatherings was discussed and a decision taken to not have May Day Rallies or events to commemorate International Labour Day.
However, the JVP said that they will celebrate May Day despite the Army Commander’s statement.
JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the Government has made the decision to cancel May Day Rallies based on political issues rather than health reasons.
He added that the idea that all party leaders agreed to cancel May Day rallies was false and said the JVP had not agreed to such a decision.
There is still time for May Day, Dissanayake said and there is time to change their decisions depending on the state of the pandemic in the country. However, he said for now, the JVP has decided to have their celebrations.
He said, last year the JVP cancelled their May Day celebrations due to COVID-19. However, Dissanayake said now the country has opened up despite COVID-19 and many other public gatherings have taken place, including the President’s Gama Samaga Pilisandarak programme.
JVP Politburo member Sunil Handunnetti said on Tuesday (20) that it is clear that this decision was made because of the political pressure the Government itself is facing and the fact that they are unable to organise their own May Day rally.
He pointed out that SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena has said that the SLFP will hold their own rally, causing a problem for the Government. In addition, Handunnetti said the Government is facing pressure as a result of the country’s poor economic condition.
Ranil points out differences
Though the UNP leader had gone out of Colombo for the New Year vacation he did not have much of a respite due to him having to spearhead the party’s legal work related to the Colombo Port City Commission Draft Bill. Upon arriving in Colombo the leader met his lawyers and advised them on the submissions that should be made before the Supreme Court.
He then made a long explanation regarding the Draft Bill that had been formulated during the UNP Government. It was lawyer Eraj de Silva who filed the petition on behalf of the UNP. He is the son of PC Romesh de Silva. Though Eraj appeared for the UNP, his father represented the President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera. It is a coincidence, therefore, that both the father and son being rival lawyers in the same trial. The leader having discussed the Port City Draft Bill at length with his lawyers left for Sirikotha to meet the party officials. There details were discussed at length concerning the May Day celebrations this year.
Among those present were members of the party May Day Committee Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijeyawardene, Chairman Vajira Abeywardena, General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara, Deputy Chairman Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Saman Ratnapriya and Shamal Senerath.
Commencing the discussion the party leader said that they should not strive to mark the May Day on a grand scale this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He advised the party members to always consider the well-being of the public and party activists.
Abeywardena said that the public had ignored the instructions given by the health officers and had congregated in large numbers oblivious to following health guidelines at shopping malls situated in places like Maharagama, Nugegoda and Kiribathgoda during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year period.
Though the party had initially reserved the Hyde Park in Colombo to stage its May Day rally they decided to cancel the event as per advice received from the leader. He then ordered Range Bandara to organise a small labour event with the participation of a limited number of people at Sirikotha to mark this year’s May Day.
On the same day in the afternoon Range Bandara informed the leader that during a meeting at the National Centre for the Eradication of COVID-19 Outbreak the health officials had urged the political parties here to cancel all May Day rallies due to an upsurge of the pandemic in the country.
He then said the party had conveyed its decision to abstain from conducting any May Day rallies this year to the Centre. A special meeting took place at Sirikotha chaired by Wickremesinghe last Wednesday (21).
There he pointed out that the party has to intervene and highlight the injustice that is being caused to the public by the Government when dealing with pressing issues.
Several proposals were also mooted concerning the reorganisation work of the party as well as the measures that should be adopted in its bid to take the party to the grassroots level.
The leader instructed all of the think-tanks of the party to get together and form a programme in this regard. Vajira Abeywardene then proposed that any programme should be formulated with the country’s youth in mind and the leader too consented to his suggestion.
The leader then advised the party members to look to stage a youth convention following the May Day celebrations based on health guidelines put in place by the health authorities.
Last Thursday (22) the party activists arrived at the leader’s residence to discuss the country’s present political situation. Sandith Samarasinghe as usual set the ball rolling saying that COVID-19 had begun to ravage India terribly hence Sri Lanka would also face the threat of a third wave of the pandemic if measures are not taken forthwith to combat the spread of the fatal virus. Range Bandara then charged that the country is facing the danger of a third wave of COVID-19 due to the lackadaisical conduct of the present regime.
He alleged that having ignored the measures to tackle the spread of the deadly illness the Government had burnt midnight oil to ratify the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Development Commission Bill. Vajira Abeywardene too added his two cents worth and stated that the Government had got its priorities mixed up in attempting to arbitrarily ratify the controversial Bill without giving sufficient time for the public to engage in a worthy discourse on the merits and demerits of the issue.
He then urged the leader to also air his views concerning the hot button topic. The leader said that he would shortly make a statement on the Bill through the social media platforms. He added that a few Sinhala and English newspapers had also sought interviews from him in this regard and that he would further clarify his position on it and noted that he had already issued a statement to the electronic media.
Ashu Marasinghe then inquired from the leader as to what he had meant by the remark made to the electronic media that the proposed Draft Bill would render the Ministry of Finance barren. He said that if the new Bill is ratified there would be no purpose in having the Finance Ministry as all work would be entrusted to the proposed Commission.
A legal officer then inquired whether the previous UNF Government had also strived to control the Port City through the setting up of a similar Commission as had been alleged by a former UNP member who had now crossed over to another party. The leader said that he had formed a committee to look into the control of the Port City and the accruement of revenue.
He said Thilan Wijesinghe had been appointed to look into the economic side of it. He said an officer from the CBSL had been included to look into the finances aspect. The head of the BOI had been appointed to look into investments, he said.
The leader said that the former AG Yuwanjan Wijayatilake had been included to be in charge of legal affairs. He said that with the input of all he and Yuwanjan had drawn up an Act and noted that it had been named as the Colombo Financial City Draft Bill by the former AG. In the meantime a few SJB MPs rang up Wickremesinghe to seek his views on how they should make their remarks concerning the PCol report on the Easter Sunday carnage and the Port City Draft Bill in Parliament. The leader then advised them on how they should air their views on the issues to be raised in Parliament.