To Hell & Back between 19A and 20A

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 26 2020
Columns To Hell & Back  between 19A and 20A

By Shivanthi Ranasinghe

Exactly two years to this date then President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. The unsuspecting Wickremesinghe received his letter of termination at around 7p.m. whilst attending a function in Galle. While he was still digesting the contents of the letter, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as the new Premier. The change of partners was sudden and no one (except a closed group) had even an inclination of it. 

Yet, by and large people were not perturbed by this sudden turn of events. Some were even jubilant. The Chief Prelate of the Gangaramaya Temple drily observed, “People are not upset. Even I slept better than normal.” Considering Wickremesinghe’s relationship with the temple, this utterly unsympathetic remark underscored his unpopularity in the country. 

The Yahapalana Government had all but received its marching orders at the Local Government Elections held in February that year. That was the catalyst that got Sirisena to bury the hatchet and run back to Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

However, 52 days later the Supreme Court ruled Wickremesinghe’s sacking as unconstitutional. Sirisena was forced to take him back. He did so but gave Wickremesinghe a public verbal trashing. As Sirisena exhausted himself berating him, Wickremesinghe sat glumly through it without uttering a word in his defence or protest. All UNP parliamentarians, except one, sat just as sulkily and silently through the whole unpleasantness. 

Schadenfreude 

The only one who gleefully listened to Sirisena’s harangue was Sajith Premadasa. With undisguised delight he watched his leader’s discomfort. Though he was UNP’s deputy leader, he somehow absolved himself from all of Sirisena’s accusations and seemed even to be in agreement with him. His reaction was strange when he supported Wickremesinghe’s return. 

Later, as the Presidential Candidate Premadasa strived to distance himself from the UNP’s decisions taken as the Yahapalana Government’s controlling partner. Clearly he did not agree with his leader’s thinking. In fact, before making peace with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena approached him a number of times to take over the premiership. This indicates that Sirisena thought Premadasa to be sympathetic to the woes he was having with Wickremesinghe. At the time though Premadasa was unwilling to do more than sympathise. 

Just four days ago, the root of all Sirisena’s troubles - the 19th Amendment - was uprooted from the Parliament. Between 26 October, 2018 (when Sirisena terminated Wickremesinghe from premiership) and 22 October, 2020 (when the 19th Amendment was binned) the country went to hell and back. 

When the 52-day Government ended, the biggest calamity suffered by the country was still the Central Bank bond scams in 2015 and 2016. However, within four months of Wickremesinghe’s return to Premiership, deemed legal by the Supreme Court but unfit by the people, the biggest terrorist attack on Sri Lankan soil took place. 

Realisation dawns

Sirisena’s entire presidency was made a mockery by the contentious 19th Amendment. Ironically, it was Sirisena who personally canvassed for it. When it was passed with just one vote against, he was so proud to have clipped his own executive powers. The gravity of his actions dawned on him much later. 

He soon found that the IGP he appointed was unproductive and worse, an embarrassment. Unable to terminate him because the IGP was protected by the 19th Amendment. Sirisena’s attempts to bribe Pujith Jayasundara with an ambassadorship failed. Thus, he was forced to continue with Jayasundara as the IGP. The only thing he could do was to studiously ignore Jayasundara. He found Jayasundara so loathsome that he even forbade him into National Security Council meetings. Still Jayasundara obstinately remained as IGP and there was nothing Sirisena could do about it. 

2018 LG Elections

The February 2018 Local Government Elections clearly indicated the angry mood of the public. The Yahapalana Government had messed up the economy. Military officers were persecuted while hardcore ex-LTTE still clinging to the macabre ideology were treated as victims. Despite the Yahapalana Government’s proclamations, it was obvious that we had not won the West, but were rather under their subjugation. 

Sirisena fared far worse than Wickremesinghe at the Local Government Elections. Still, Sirisena’s instincts pointed the accusing finger at Wickremesinghe. However, the very Constitutional Amendment that Sirisena was so proud of was the very one that reinstated Wickremesinghe. Just as with Jayasundara, he was stuck with Wickremesinghe. The only thing Sirisena could do was what he did to Jayasundara - keep Wickremesinghe out of sight. Thus, he too was kept out of crucial meetings like the National Security Council sessions. 

This immaturity came crashing on Sirisena’s head when the security apparatus failed to use vital information at hand of an impending terrorist attack. At the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, everyone is accusing the other. It is not an inquiry of a national matter of grave significance with professionals at the peak of their career but an endless childish squabbling between irresponsible men. At this point, it is very difficult to determine the responsible party for allowing this tragedy. 

It is very clear that the master minders of the Easter Attack had the advantage of the country’s political instability that then prevailed. This advantage would not have been with the terrorists if General Elections were allowed on 5 January, 2019 as Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa Government planned. The 19th Amendment stood against this pragmatic necessity. 

Interestingly, Maithripala Sirisena abstained from voting and so supported neither the 19th Amendment nor the 20th Amendment. Sajith Premadasa however vociferously opposed the 20th Amendment. 

He wanted the 19th Amendment amended into a 19 plus. By doing so he wanted to protect the commissions though almost all had failed at maintaining their independency. 

Sandya Kumari’s testimony at the PCoI for political victimisation is a case in point. She recounted her ordeal as she was forced to change her clothes and relieve herself without due privacy. The National Police Commission preposterously failed to find fault with the CID officer responsible for this misconduct. Premadasa also vowed to disallow any constitutional changes that will turn a President into a scarecrow or a Premier into a peon. 

He was like a kid at a carnival. He had his special mask on, an arm band and made a media show of his protest. It was entertaining but not worthy of the prestigious position he holds as Opposition Leader. 

Dual citizenship

Though the Government has a clear majority, there were moments when the proposed Amendment did not have the prerequisite two-thirds majority. Some within the Administration had grave concerns on certain clauses. After weeks of discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa they were able to make peace with all but one. It was the clause that would allow dual citizens to hold high positions in the Government. 

Finally, President explained that the 19th Amendment bar on dual citizens as Presidential Elections was specifically aimed at him. As the principle behind this clause was vindictive, this clause must be rejected on principle. The new Constitution that is in the making may rectify this but for the right reasons. 

All but one 

Moved and satisfied by this explanation, all the Government MPs (except Sirisena) voted for the 20th Amendment. Despite the Opposition Leader’s antics, a few of his own MPs voted for the Amendment. Interestingly, the Party was not crushed by the defeat.  

They were still in the carnival mood and clowned with stickers of gunshot images on their chests. They had a blast taking selfies and posting on social media. 

In people’s minds, it was the instability and confusion wrought on by the 19th Amendment that paved the way to the Easter Attack. Therefore, many were disgusted by the Opposition’s attitude. 

It must be noted that those who oppose dual citizens into high positions are the very ones who identified Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President to replace the Yahapalana Government. They worked tirelessly in supporting his candidature and all the way to the presidency notwithstanding the fact that he was a dual citizen. 

Renouncing  American ties

It was only after the 19th Amendment made an issue of it that this strong stance against dual citizens was developed. Otherwise, Gotabaya Rajapaksa might have never renounced his American ties and it would not have bothered anyone. Now however, dual citizenship is equated to Tamil Diaspora and the worry is, in a future date we might end up with an enemy of the State as President. 

A similar situation can be seen with the Provincial Council as well. State Minister Sarath Weerasekera has always stood against it and is firm that this ought to be abolished. His position is seen as patriotic and applauded. Milinda Moragoda too agrees that PCs need to be abolished. However, without giving space for his reasons, his support for the abolishment is automatically seen as an attempt to pave the way for MCCC. 

Likewise when people reject non-citizens from high positions, we are only thinking of the likes of Arjuna Mahendran. We forget the yeoman service rendered to our Nation by Lord Naseby. 

After Lakshman Kadirgamar, no other Foreign Minister had contributed to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty or integrity as Lord Naseby. 

Even as citizens we do not want the likes of Mahendran anywhere in our Administration or country for that matter. 

At the same time, we would be the most foolish if we are to shut the door on those like Lord Naseby on the mere technicality that the individual is not a Sri Lankan citizen. At a time where we would like to reverse brain drain, we need to rethink our attitude towards dual citizens and even others. 

The bottom line is, an amendment or even a Constitution can only do so much to protect the country or our interests. The rest is really up to our intelligence. 

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By Shivanthi Ranasinghe | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 26 2020

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