Will Rajapaksas Take the Risk of Hurting Indian Sentiments?
|By Gagani Weerakoon|
Commencing duties in the New Year President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met the Ministers, Members of Parliament and his staff at the Presidential Secretariat on Friday (1). Mingling with the gathering, President Rajapaksa said that it is necessary to work with optimism, determination and commitment to achieve the aspirations of the people while being conscious about the challenges ahead of us.
Extending his warm wishes to the Ministers, MPs and his staff, the President was engaged in cordial discussion with them. Secretary to the President P. B. Jayasundera administered the oath by his staff marking the commencement of official duties by public servants in the year 2021.
The entire public service should be sincerely committed to an efficient and effective public service as per the “Saubhagyaye Dekma” policy framework, Secretary to the President stated. The country is moving towards professional leadership. Dr. Jayasundera said the President hoped for a public service that would fulfil the aspirations of the people under “New Normal” situation that has evolved following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Despite severe financial difficulties, Sri Lanka’s is the only Government in the world that had paid salaries and allowances to over 1.5 million public servants and over 600,000 retirees on time without any deductions”, the Secretary pointed out.
The Government led by President Rajapaksa is committed to protecting the public servant. The Secretary to the President emphasised that it is the responsibility of all public servants to commit themselves to render the best of their service to the country.
Principal Adviser to President Lalith Weeratunga, Director General (Administration) Retired Major General K.B. Egodawele, Private Secretary to the President Sugeeshwara Bandara and officials of the Presidential Secretariat were also present on this occasion.
The Government has decided to postpone the Provincial Council election in view of the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
The decision to postpone the Provincial Council election was taken at a meeting of the party leaders representing the ruling party held at the Presidential Secretariat yesterday afternoon presided over by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The issue of whether the Provincial Council elections will be held soon was discussed at the meeting and considering the COVID-19 situation and at the request of the Maha Sangha, it was decided to postpone the Provincial Council election.
Speaking to Media, ruling party leaders assured that the Provincial Council system introduced by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution will not be scrapped as some parties have speculated and the elections for the Provincial Councils will be held at an appropriate time.
Minister S.M. Chandrasena stated that the Provincial Council election has been postponed temporarily and Minister Gamini Lokuge said that attention is also being paid to holding the election under a new electoral system.
State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara said the representatives of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party were also present at the party leaders’ meeting and that the President, the Prime Minister and former Minister Basil Rajapaksa had also drawn their attention to their party’s issues.
Meanwhile, the National Elections Commission says that the method of holding the election will be decided after the problems in the Provincial Council Elections Act are resolved.
The Chairman of the National Election Commission Nimal Punchihewa stated that the issues regarding the Act should be resolved through Parliament.
Meanwhile, the Provincial Council election will cost approximately Rs 4 billion, he said.
The Buddha Sasana Task Force, issuing a communiqué last Sunday endorsed by a group representing the Maha Sangha including Most Ven. Dr. Iththapane Dhammalankara Thera has commended the Government for appointing an expert committee to draft a fresh Constitution while expressing its concern over the potential decision to conduct the Provincial Council elections.
Holding Provincial Council elections would bring forth destructive consequences, the Buddha Sasana Task Force said in the communiqué.
The move of the Government to elect a fresh set of Provincial Councils for the next five years while the report of the expert committee is due to be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers within the next three months, raises doubts among the people regarding the sincerity of the Government’s intentions to bring about constitutional change, it adds.
Conducting the Provincial Council elections and passing related laws should be halted until such time the report on the expert committee is presented, the Task Force recommends.
The Provincial Council system introduced through the 13th Amendment had weakened the Local government system in the country and spread separatism and caused disharmony among different communities, the Task Force points out.
The Buddha Sasana Taskforce strongly requested the Government to disallow certain politicians to cripple the system of governance in the country, while they hand out perks and privileges to their relatives and friends to abuse and misuse public funds.
At this juncture, the Government is in a tight spot with factions who supported Rajapaksas back into power heavily agitating that the Provincial Councils are a complete redundancy as it has so far been a costly white elephant. However, this will definitely hurt the sentiments of India as the Provincial Council system was their baby. Rajapaksas who once had to leave power by upsetting the neighbouring big brother, will most certainly think twice about repeating the same mistake.
Meanwhile, former President Maithripala Sirisena in a recent interview with the Hindu Newspaper elaborated as to why it would be difficult to get rid of Provincial Councils.
You say you are open to two options ahead of the Provincial Council elections when they are held. Some within the Government want the Provincial Councils abolished, while the Prime Minister asked officials to expedite arrangements. Some others want the elections held after the proposed new Constitution is out. How do you view these contradictory positions within the Government?
A: We have had the Provincial Council system for over 30 years now. We haven’t seriously evaluated if they have been successful in serving the purpose they were supposed to do. The Government should analyse if the Councils have actually served our people. I believe there are some amendments needed to the Provincial Council system. One of the main problems is that of the total allocations to the Provincial Councils annually, only
25 % or so goes into the actual development of the provinces. Nearly 75 % goes towards salaries, vehicles, telephone and electricity bills. There is an excessive number of employees in the Provincial Councils.
When the Central Government pumps in money into the Provincial Councils, it is done as an investment for the development of the country. However, the return on such investment has been less. So, we need to reduce wasteful expenditure, perhaps by reducing the number of Councillors and employees, in order to increase the return on investment. There are differences within the Government, and it is up to the Government to decide on the right course of action.
From a development perspective, I think a set up at the district level, like a District Development Board, would work better than the Provincial Councils, given the fact that we are a small country. You can set up a Development Board at the district level, comprising Members of Parliament representing the district, Chairpersons and Mayors of Local Government Authorities. For a big country like India, a Provincial system is good, but we are a country of 21 million.
How can this arrangement ensure power devolution? You have been pro-devolution, but some others calling for abolition of Provincial Councils are opposed to power sharing?
A: We must empower the District Development Board; that should be the solution. We have to reduce wasteful expenditure, and at the same time empower local administrative bodies. Decentralising power through these District Development Boards can bring about a compromise.
Our experience has shown that even in the provincial system, it is the Chief Minister’s district alone that gets all the benefits. Not other districts in the province. They serve their districts in the hope of entering Parliament one day. Even today, in the actual workings of the Provincial Council system, it is the districts that matter.
On principle, I believe in power sharing and devolution. In the areas where the war was fought, the incidence of poverty is very high even today. There is friction between the Provincial Councils and the National Government, and that is not good. It doesn’t help serve the people.
So, how would you respond to those within the Government, calling for the abolition of Provincial Councils established pursuant to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution?
A: The 13th Amendment is a product of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The Provincial Councils Act is a product of the 13th Amendment. So, I know it is not that easy to abolish Provincial Councils. India could get a little upset with us if we completely do away with the 13th Amendment. In our region, the friendship with India is very important to Sri Lanka. The friendship between the two countries is of utmost importance and should be strengthened by all Governments. Abolishing Provincial Councils is like playing with fire.
At the same time, the 30-year-experience of running Provincial Councils has not yielded desired results in terms of developing all parts of the country. That is why it is important that we arrive at a compromise with understanding. As I mentioned, creation of the Provincial Councils was an investment, we have been keeping them going for 30 years, and when they don’t yield the benefits that were expected in terms of development, people and the Government should take a fair decision.
After nine months the first batch of tourists arrived in the country last Monday. That was through the Mattala Airport.
Some 185 Ukraine nationals were on that batch and it was the first such group that arrived as part of the pilot project that had been drawn up to bring down visitors to Sri Lanka since the shutdown of airports. The entire process of bringing down tourists had been planned a few months beforehand.
It was Minister Prasanna Ranatunga who had been involved in this exercise at the behest of the President, PM and ex-Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Prasanna had discussed for months regarding this pilot project with the health authorities. He also had held talks with those involved in the tourism field. He then had spoken to officers in Airports.
The Minister had also specifically looked into issues that could crop up due to the bringing down of tourists in batches. He then looked for solutions as well. Afterwards Ranatunga had briefed the President, PM and Basil. Last Sunday in the afternoon the President rang up Prasanna. The President had initially inquired about the readiness of the Ministry to welcome the tourists. Prasanna then replied in the positive.
The President then ordered the Minister not to allow any locals to mingle with the foreigners under any circumstance. The President said he had also briefed the Army Commander as well in this regard. Prasanna then responded saying that no room would be left for the public to come into contact with the visitors.
On early Monday morning Ranatunga left for Mattala to look into the readiness of the airport officers to welcome the first group of tourists and he was accompanied by State Minister D.V. Chanaka. Prasanna then addressed the airport officers and advised them not to allow any media groups or any others to mingle with the tourists at the airport premises. He advised them to follow health protocols to the letter. The first plane touched down at the airport at precisely 2.08 p.m. Chanaka then opined that if by any chance any of the tourists were to test positive to COVID-19, that would be a boost to the bankrupt Opposition here.
Ranatunga said that the tourists are being brought down to the country while strictly following the health guidelines. SriLankan Airlines Vice Chairman Rajiv Sooriyaarachchi wondered whether the tourist cluster could emerge through the exercise of bringing down foreigners as claimed by MP Patali. Prasanna said that there would not be any other joy than the emergence of such a cluster for the Opposition. Prasanna explained that the foreigners would not be allowed to move about until PCR tests are conducted on them and till they are proved to be negative to COVID-19.
The Minister then had spoken regularly to the Army Commander on the measures that should be taken to prevent locals from coming into contact with the tourists. He also looked into the hotel facilities as well. By the evening of 29 December the PCR results done on the tourists had been received. It said that out of 180, three had tested positive. Then he rang the health officers and advised them to take preventive measures. By the morning of 30 December details of this had also been released to the Media as well. Then a journalist had inquired from the Minister whether the pilot project would be stopped due to this. But, Ranatunga shot back saying that as they had put in place contingency plans there was no need to stop the exercise in its tracks.
Burning matter of cremation
Some Muslim persons are meeting Ministers and Government officials these days to find a solution for the matter of compulsory cremation of COVID-19 victims. Their request is allow burying COVID-19 victims.
Prime Minister’s Coordinating Secretary Kumarasiri Hettige last week met several Muslim Organisations to discuss the matter. The organisations requested Hettige to arrange a meeting with the Prime Minister regarding the matter.
They said that it would be commendable if they receive permission to bury their people who died by COVID-19.
Please, try to discuss this matter with higher authorities. We also need to meet the Prime Minister to discuss about this too, one Muslim businessman requested.
Hettige replied that both the President and the Prime Minister are studying the matter in depth at the moment.
“This is not a time to take decisions by a single hand. The Prime Minister held several rounds of discussions about this matter with experts on the subject during last few days. He says that this is a matter which should be looked in with a humane angle too. Now, the committees appointed to look into the matter are considering all the relevant factors thoroughly. Therefore, I request you all not to take this as a matter of religion or ethnic. A solution would be provided based on scientific factors. We should not let the harmony and peace of this country disturbed based on this,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Anunayake Thera of the Malwatte Chapter, Venerable Dimbulkumbure Wimaladhamma Thera said until the committee of experts submits their report, all COVID-19 dead should be cremated.
He says the idea that people can take to the streets and demand permission for COVID-19 dead to be buried cannot be approved.
A dilemma has arisen as to whether it is suitable to bury bodies infected with the Covid-19 virus. The Thera said that it is the responsibility of the Government to provide an immediate solution for it.
As experts have expressed their opinion that burying bodies, which are infected with the Covid-19, is risky, until a permanent conclusion is drawn regarding this, the best thing to do, the Anunayake Thera said, is to cremate the bodies.
He added that one law should prevail within the country, and no race or religion can, based on any political agenda, act beyond this law.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of the Asigirya Chapter, Chief Incumbent of the Asigirya Pirivena, Venerable Narampanawe Ananda Thera said that there is a political hand in action behind all these protests.
“There is a risk of a clash of opinions, which is being religiously created, on whether bodies of Covid-19 infected persons should be buried or cremated, spreading faster than the coronavirus itself within society,” he noted.
When the Covid-19 pandemic initially arrived in this country, the Monk said that devotees of Islam did not object to cremating bodies but now because politics has crept into this issue a number of crises are being created.
While Muslims are protesting in various areas against cremating COVID-19 infected bodies of Muslims, Sinhala Buddhists are raising their voice saying that the entire country should be subject to one law and engaging in demonstrations. Ven. Ananda Thera added that in the future persons from the religions of Christianity and Hinduism too could join in these protests and emphasised that such divisions could be obstructions to the forward journey of the country.
In a background where the behaviour of the corona virus is changing daily, and while health sectors have pointed out that at this moment the best thing to do is cremate the bodies of individuals infected with the virus, protesting and acting against it cannot be tolerated, the Monk said.
He emphasised that creating agitation among Muslim devotees, against cremating bodies of Muslims, is a political campaign that is being carried out and it is not suitable to create racial or religious difference in this country due to COVID-19 dead bodies.
Ranil pens a book
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spent the past week engaging in writing a book on South and Asia Pacific politics. He had some kind of a break due to most of the party activists and ex-MPs having left for their home towns to spend the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Taking advantage of the hiatus he decided to complete the remaining work on his book. However, some party activists still decided to visit the party Leader’s Colombo 3 residence and be engaged in conversation with him. They mostly talked about the present political situation as well as the future political course of the UNP.
Sandith Samarasinghe commenced the proceedings by saying that the year just ended had proved to be a miserable one for both the country and its citizens.
Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene opined that 2020 would go down in history as the year which forced the people to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that due to the severity of the pandemic the world economy too had crumbled. Prof. Ashu Marasinghe said that the vaccines that had been trialled as a cure for the illness had largely proved to be unsuccessful.
The UNP Leader then pointed out that the WHO too has not yet approved most of the vaccines that are being trialled by some countries. He said, Sri Lanka would have to be wary with regard to the new forms of this virus, especially the one that has been detected in the UK. Acting General Secretary Shamal Senerath then charged that the present Government had taken a haphazard decision to bring down tourists from Ukraine when that country has already been listed among the countries worst hit by COVID-19 in Europe. He warned bringing down tourists from Ukraine would be courting with disaster and could well lead to a cluster.
Former Parliamentarian Palitha Range Bandara alleged that former SL Envoy to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga was behind the racket in bringing down tourists from Ukraine. Wijewardene then intervened and urged the Government to pay their attention to the ongoing tour of South Africa by the national cricket team. He said South Africa too had detected a new form of the virus and requested the Government to keep tabs on the tour.
Former Minister Vajira Abeywardena said that presently there is a big dispute within the Government ranks on the suitability to stage the long delayed Provincial Council elections.
He, however, noted that SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa had been openly agitating to go ahead with the PC Poll. The party Leader then mentioned that despite whatever decision is taken by the Government with regard to Polls, the UNP should always look into the well-being of the masses. Range Bandara then reminded everyone present that it had been only when UNP had been in power that the economy of the masses had improved.
Afterwards everyone discussed on ways and means of steering the party on a brand new political course commencing from early January in the New Year. They also agreed that to fulfil that task a new set of office-bearers would have to be appointed. Several activists who had deserted the party in the recent past talked with the party Leader regarding how to politically resuscitate the UNP.
Especially prominent among these people were ex-MPs Ravi Karunanayake and Navin Dissanayake. Range Bandara said that had the previous UNF regime been able to make a success of the supplying of tabs to students then present day children would not have to climb water tanks or towers to receive signals on their cell phones to continue with their studies. Sandith Samarasinghe then expressed his reservations whether the New Year would prove to be prosperous for the public. He however, sincerely hoped that the lot of the people would improve during 2021. The party Leader then explained that certain States in the US and certain counties in UK still continue to be battered by this pandemic. He then questioned how certain segments of the society could celebrate the dawn of the New Year when some people still continue to be in a lockdown in certain parts of the country.
Finally he conveyed his warmest wishes for a COVID-free New Year to all Sri Lankans before they all left having completed their deliberations.
Champika under SJB radar
It is said that the conduct of ex-JHU General Secretary and former Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka had come in for sharp criticism from several SJB seniors. Ranawaka had recently ditched his old party, JHU, with the intention of joining the SJB bandwagon.
These SJB seniors had discussed how Ranawaka has attempted to brazenly charter his own political journey when all party leaders of the SJB had consented to mount a joint front against the present regime. A raging discussion is also taking place within the SJB as to how the former Minister had recently avoided taking part in several anti-Government protests organised by the party while having formed a new group called 43 Commandment without briefing either the SJB Leader or his party.
It had also been discussed that the former JHU activist had roped in Shiral Lakthileka towards this exercise and it has been revealed that even some of the closest contacts of Ranawaka are unaware of the new group that had been formed by the ex-Minister.
Meanwhile, the SJB Media unit convened under MP Rajitha Senaratne at the Opposition Leader’s Office last Wednesday. Among those present were Private Secretary to the Opposition Leader Ravi Jayawardene, Parliament Affairs Secretary Abeyratne and Erananda Hettiarachchi. At the time, a decision had been taken to set aside a specific area within the Opposition Leader’s Office towards the Media activities.
At this discussion it was decided to brief party MPs thoroughly regarding how best they should represent the party whenever its MPs are due to take part in political discussions especially on TV. It was decided to prep SJB MPs well before they could take part in such political debates in the New Year. Senaratne said another task of the Media unit would be to prep SJB MPs who are slated to take part in Parliament debates as well. He said supplying of data and information to SJB MPs would be their main priority.
It was also decided to launch a programme on social Media as well aimed at further solidifying the party propaganda network as well as on how best to reply criticism directed at the party by their political rivals. The Media unit also decided to carry out a review of the Media groups here as well while it was decided that the Media unit should convene at the Opposition Leader’s Office each Tuesday.