SLPP Group to Finalise Amendments as Protests Against 20A Mount

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 26 2020
Ceylon Politics SLPP Group to Finalise Amendments as Protests Against 20A Mount

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a pre-recorded statement at the High Level Meeting to Commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, on Monday (21) said; “We expect the United Nations to place due emphasis on non-interference in domestic affairs of other States. At a time when the world is facing a common and an unrivalled threat, the ‘United Nations We Need,’ I am certain, will place due emphasis on the sovereign equality of States, respect for territorial integrity and non-interference in their domestic affairs.”

The President said, he firmly believes that partnerships fostered between Member States and the UN continues at their best when no country is held hostage to the interests of a few. 

UN Member States agreed in June 2019 that the UN will mark its 75th anniversary with a one-day, high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly on Monday, 21 September 2020 on the theme, 'The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism.'

President of the 75th Session of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, made the opening statement at the meeting, where leaders and delegates of 180 countries made their representations.

“The world is plagued by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, which has jeopardised our economies, health systems and indeed our societies, just within a few months,” President Rajapaksa observed.  

Sri Lanka was able to successfully face the challenge of COVID-19 through a proactive intervention. We established the National Action Committee for Preventing COVID-19 even before the first patient was detected in Sri Lanka. Our approach synchronised the military, health as well as civilian authorities of national and regional levels.

Sri Lanka’s recovery rate stands at over 90 per cent, well above the global recovery rate. Our success story owes much to our reliance upon ‘tracing and quarantine,’ which was our greatest strength, the President stressed. 

“Sri Lanka is hopeful that we of the United Nations would rededicate ourselves in efforts to strengthen this great institution to ensure the future we want. We owe our peoples and future generations no less,” he said.

Rajapaksa Government has continuously expressed its willingness to pull-out from any international organisation that they feel as exerting undue pressure on internal matters of the country.

Increasing protest against 20A

Justice Minister M.U.M. Ali Sabry PC on Tuesday (22), tabled the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill in Parliament, amidst protests by Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Parliamentarians.

The SJB MPs, led by Opposition Leader, Sajith Premadasa, were seen wearing black armlets and badges stating ‘No to 20’ in red on their attires. Some of the MPs were holding placards which read ‘Hitler after 20 (20n pasu Hitler)’, ‘20 is great but the country is finished (20 marai rata hamarai)’ and ‘Defeat the illegitimate 20 (Opapathika 20 paradawamu)’, among others.

Making a statement, Premadasa alleged that yesterday was the darkest day in the history of the Sri Lankan Parliament. 

Some SJB MPs were seen coming to the well of the House and then Government MPs too, came down and in return shouted ‘Yes to 20’.

Raising a Point of Order while the noise was continuing, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe stressed that 6.9 million people gave their mandate to the Government to pass the 20th Amendment and to present a new Constitution after that. 

“How can Premadasa forget the past this quick? When he was in the Government, they, together with the then Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya suspended Standing Orders to pass a No-Confidence Motion. That was how you behaved. How could you allege that we are the dictators? The people gave us the mandate for this and we will fulfil our Election promise by passing the 20th Amendment,” he asserted and added: “The Opposition has selected the wrong ground and means to protest. We have presented the Bill now. So, you can go before Court or secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament and defeat the Bill. Without doing any of that, you just shout here and create a drama to disrupt Sittings. You are wasting public money.”

While the protest was going on, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena continued the proceedings after making several unfruitful requests to SJB MPs to go back to their seats.

Serjeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando and his Deputy Kushan Jayaratne were seen standing before the Mace, protecting it from the protesting MPs in the well.

While the protest was going on, SJB MP Harin Fernando was seen walking from member-to-member, carrying a placard in black, rolled like a torch. He also had a blue lighter in his hand.   

Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena moved a number of Orders under the Special Commodity Levy Act for the scheduled debate. But SJB members refused to go back to their seats and continued their protest in the well in front of the Speaker's chair.

Following this, SJB MP Kabir Hashim was given the microphone to speak. While he was speaking, SJB MPs, including Thalatha Atukorale, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Nalin Bandara and Fernando also went close to his seat. Bandara waved a placard stating ‘defeat 20’, while standing behind Hashim’s seat.

“There are two groups in this House. One group which is the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ruled this country for 20 years. Now they are in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. We were in power for five years. They even had a two-thirds majority in Parliament. But what did they do? Now, they are asking for more power. This is just baseless,” he stressed.

At this juncture, Premadasa pointed out that Hashim had not got the television cameras on him. Then, the SJB MPs shouted, demanding that the camera be focused on Hashim.

Hashim: “Why did you take away the camera while I was speaking? It is my privilege and you should not violate that. Give me the camera. If this is the manner the Government ensures the rights of MPs before the 20th Amendment, what will happen to us after it becomes law?”

The Speaker instructed officials to give the camera to Hashim. When the camera focused on Hashim, SJB MPs stood around him, holding placards facing the camera.

Referring to the matter, Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage said the Government maintains democracy. 

“When you were in the Government, you did not hold Elections. There are many MPs in the Opposition who want to join our Government. As of this morning, there are 17 Opposition MPs who are prepared to join us. Let me tell you that we will get 20 MPs from the Opposition to pass this Bill,” he said.

Minister of Industries Wimal Weerawansa said, MPs cannot demand for the cameras to be focused on them. 

“When there is a protest in the House or in the well of the House, cameras should be focused on the Speaker or the Mace. That is the procedure introduced by the former Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara. The Opposition’s demanding for the cameras to be focused on them was to put on a naïve show.”

Meanwhile, special Judge Bench consisting of five Supreme Court (SC) Justices was appointed by Chief Justice (CJ) Jayantha Jayasuriya, to consider the 18 Special Determination (SD) petitions filed against the 20th Amendment Bill submitted to Parliament by the Government.

The Bench, besides CJ Jayasuriya also consists of four other Justices, namely, Buwaneka Aluwihare,  Priyantha Jayawardhana, Vijith K. Malalgoda and Sisira de Abrew.

The SD petitions are slated to be taken up for consideration on 29 September. A total of 18 SD petitions have been filed against the 20th Amendment thus far. A number of six more petitions were filed on 25 September before the SC, challenging the proposed 20th Amendment.

One of the petitions filed on 25 September was by the Young Lawyers Association. In addition to this, another petition was filed by a group of United National Party candidates who had contested the recent Parliamentary Election including Dr. Ajantha Perera, Oshala Herath, Jeran Jegadeesan and Dr. Chandima Wijegunawardena. The General Secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers Union, Sylvester Jayakody, the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, and two citizens namely T.D.B. Wijegunawardena and P.K.R. Perera also filed petitions on 25 September.

Previously, another set of petitions was filed on 24 September by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) General Secretary and Parliamentarian Ranjith Maddumabandara, Tamil National Alliance Leader and MP R. Sampanthan, Anil Kariyawasam, public interest litigation activist Nagananda Kodituwakku, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Attorney-at-Law Indika Gallage, former Governor Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, Transparency International Sri Lanka, human rights activist Shreen Saroor and three civilians named S.C.C. Illangovan, Lihini Fernando and Rasika Lakmal Jayakody.

Attorney General, Dappula De Livera has been cited as the sole respondent of the SD petitions. The petitioners claim that certain provisions of the proposed Bill of the 20th Amendment severely violate the country’s 1978 Constitution. They call for a two-thirds majority of Parliament and a public referendum to pass the Bill. 

The Bill of the 20th Amendment was tabled in Parliament on 22 September, amidst a cacophony of protests from the SJB-led Opposition.

The petitioners have alleged that certain clauses of the proposed Bill flout a number of Fundamental Rights (FR) and other provisions assured by the current Constitution.

The petitioners through each of their petitions have stated that the mooted Bill contains provisions that are seriously prejudicial to the public such as the removal of the provisions allowing for the filing of FR petitions against the President, drastically curtailing the powers vested with the Election Commission to file legal action against the violation of directives issued by the Commission, the preventing of the Presidential Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s Office and State institutions from being audited, and removing the restrictions placed preventing a person with dual citizenship from contesting any future General Election or Presidential Poll.

The petitioners have further noted that the proposed Bill seeks to re-introduce the provisions allowing the submission of emergency Bills, which had been got rid of through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution by the previous regime.

They have also informed the apex Court that through the mooted Amendment, the Government has deleted the power vested with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption to probe an incident of bribery or corruption sans a prior complaint and that it also removes the qualifications needed to be appointed as the Auditor General.

The 18 petitioners have also emphasised that the proposed Bill flouts the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as other Articles of the Constitution and therefore they have prayed the SC to deliver a verdict declaring that the said Bill will require a two-thirds majority in the House and a public referendum, ahead of its ratification.

The Cabinet of Ministers granted its approval to the Bill of the 20th Amendment on 2 September and its Extraordinary Gazette Notification was published 24 hours later.

Ready to amend?

It is stated that one of the clauses contained in the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution which sought to grant power to the President to dissolve Parliament after a lapse of 12 months of it being in session, is to be amended to grant the power to the President to undertake that task after a period of two and a half years (30 months).

A Cabinet Minister stated that this decision had been taken by the Government following the convening of its Parliamentary Group meeting under the aegis of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

He noted that a proposal to this effect had been submitted by a Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Parliamentarian and explained that views in both favour of it and against it had been expressed before the group had decided to amend the clause to grant the power to the President to dissolve the House after a period of two and a half years.

The Minister added that this amendment had also been mooted by the committee formed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to review the clauses of the proposed Amendment to the Constitution.

He pointed out that this amendment will be submitted for discussion during the Committee Stage debate on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in the House.

UNP Cold war ends? 

With Ruwan Wijewardena being elected through majority vote as the new Deputy Leader of the UNP, its internal cold war that had raged for some time seems to have ended. Also, most of the party activists and supporters are having hopes of the new Deputy Leader being able to revive the party in conjunction with its Leader. 

“Ruwan has decided to hold talks with party activists ahead of compiling a report on the future course to be undertaken by the party ahead of its submission to the party top brass. Once that report is received by I will also add my views to it before forwarding it for the approval of the Working Committee (WC). 

If more positive proposals are received then those too would be included in it and presently Ruwan is holding talks with several such parties,” UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said at Sirikotha last Thursday. The UNP Leader was then asked whether ex-MPs Navin Dissanayake and Ravi Karunanayake had contacted him and what sort of a decision they will take next. 

The UNP Leader responded: “They have still not spoken to me. I am also unaware as to what moves they will take next. It is the duty of the new Deputy Leader to unite all warring factions and steer the party out of its present plight.” 

During the past week, most of the UNP members were not to be spotted in Colombo. As Ruwan Wijewardena has been summoned  by the Presidential Commission probing last year’s Easter Sunday blasts he was busy being focused on it. Also during this weekend the Deputy Leader is slated to declare open a new party office while activating the party work in the Matara District. Also after being elected to the new post Wijewardena was seen being interviewed by an electronic media outlet and his remarks during that programme had come in for praise from several quarters. 

Also, as the ex-IGP, former Defence Secretary and the ex-head of the SIS had been summoned to give evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing last year’s Easter Sunday terror attacks most are focused on its proceedings. “Although it seems that most of the information coming out of this Commission would be detrimental to those in the previous Government, it would be beneficial to the people and the country to prevent a repeat. Especially the lack of recognition on the part of the ex-President concerning national security is now coming to light. Furthermore through the evidence given by the former IGP and the ex-Defence Secretary it is now clear that the former President should be held directly accountable for the last year’s terror carnage. He has been clearly rattled by it that he had even gone to the extent of issuing media releases on it as well,” this was the view expressed by a member of the UNP legal unit. 

Another remark made by a UNP member that they should not be afraid to air their views openly was accepted by the party leader and the rest. Afterwards the UNP Leader noted that he too has been summoned by the Commission to give evidence on 6 October and promised to reveal more details. 

The Government decided to present the draft Bill of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to Parliament last Tuesday and it was firmly protested by the Opposition. 

Already the Supreme Court (SC) has been petitioned by 18 factions but the UNP and the JVP are yet to reveal their stand on it. The UNP Leader said that the party would move the SC against the draft Bill shortly and noted that the entire country was waiting anxiously till a verdict is issued in this connection by the apex Court. 

A UNP legal official noted that the protests staged in the House by the Opposition against the draft Bill though it looked ok on the face of it, it had proved to be only a Media show by at large. Another UNP member told the Leader that what the Opposition ought to have done is to have forced the Government to shelve the Bill and then it could have proved to be a setback to the Government. He too agreed with the member’s sentiments. 

Wickremesinghe noted the importance of absorbing new technology to the party when conducting future protests and demonstrations rather than merely displaying banners and placards. 

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and the SJB were engaged in further enhancing the party reorganisation work in Galle and Matara Districts during the past week. The reorganisation work had been entrusted to SJB MPs its General Secretary Ranjith Maddumabandara, Tissa Attanayake, Harin Fernando, Imithiyaz Bakeer Markar, Gayantha Karunathilake and Buddhika Pathirana. Opposition Leader Sajith was seen visiting most of the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim religious places of worship and meeting priests, and receiving their blessings and meeting the public in those areas. 

A Buddhist monk had inquired from Sajith whether he had spoken to either the UNP Leader or to its new Deputy Leader. Sajith replied that he was yet to meet the new UNP Deputy Leader but assured the Thera that more than 90 per cent of UNP members were presently in the SJB camp. The response for the SJB during its reorganisational work it carried out in the down south had been positive from the public. MP Lakshman Kiriella while travelling in the Habaraduwa electorate stated that the entire 2.7 million votes polled by the SJB at the last election had been cast due to the popularity of the Sajith Premadasa brand name. 

During the two-day programme all SJB MPs had managed to set up some 50 party branch offices in all electorates of the two districts. The next challenge the SJB faced was the presentation of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution to Parliament by the Government last Tuesday. Following secret talks held on the previous day the SJB decided to launch a massive protest against the draft Bill in the House. The decision taken by Sajith, Maddumabandara, Tissa, Harin, Eran, Harsha, Imithiyaz and Marikkar was entrusted to be implemented by Harsha. Harin who, had initiated the SJB protest against allowing a convict to be sworn in as a MP also led the protest against the draft Bill. 

He then took on the task of drawing up banners and placards to oppose the draft Bill alongside wearing black armlets in the chamber. At the time of the presentation of the Bill most of the SJB MPs were seen displaying placards and banners and then they even proceeded to head to the well of the Chamber to protest against the Bill. 

While the SJB shouted that they were opposed to the Bill those from the Government insisted that they were in favour of it. However, some of the Government MPs were heard encouraging the SJB MPs to petition the Court regarding the contents of the Bill as its ratification would spell doom to both people and the country. Opposition Leader Sajith officially urged the Government not to ratify the Bill as it would signal the death knell for democracy in this country. MPs Kabir and Marikkar had inquired from the Government whether they were in favour of reducing the PM to the state of a puppet and there was no reply to it from the Government. 

Chief Opposition Whip Kiriella warned that those who vote in favour of the proposed draft Bill will be cursed by the future generations as it will totally wipe out democratic way of governance and pave the way for the creation of an autocrat. Last Wednesday the Sri Lankan representative to the UN met Opposition Leader Sajith at the Parliament. During this meeting the SJB leader had briefed her regarding his party’s efforts to bring about sustainable development and environmental security to the country besides focusing on bilateral issues. It was also on the same day that the SJB petitioned the SC regarding the draft Bill. The task was handed over to its General Secretary Maddumabandara and Attorney Suren Fernando. 

The SJB parliamentary group meeting was held at 2:00 p.m. at the Parliament Complex last Thursday. During this meeting most of the MPs had expressed their views regarding the reorganisation of the party at grassroots level. They also stated that the protests against the draft Bill should not be confined only to the House but that they should also take it outside the Parliament as well.

By Gagani Weerakoon | Published: 2:00 AM Sep 26 2020

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