With Champika Becoming Insignificant in SJB, Who Did Sajith Turn to for Support?
|By Gagani Weerakoon|
Many in political circles were keeping an eye on the meeting between the President and the SLFP Parliamentary Group led by former President Maithripala Sirisena as tension between the two parties was brewing for weeks.
A special discussion between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and representatives of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was held at the Presidential Secretariat on Monday (26).
A request had been made previously to give the opportunity for the party Chairman, former President Maithripala Sirisena and all 14 MPs in Parliament to participate in the discussion, on behalf of the party.
The SLFP to discuss the issues agreed upon when forming the alliance with the ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna as well as the issues faced by the SLFP Local Government members and electoral organisers.
Following the discussions, General Secretary of the SLFP, State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara said the two and a half hour discussion with President Rajapaksa ended successfully.
Former President Maithripala Sirisena, Minister of Labour Nimal Siripala de Silva, Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera, and National Organiser State Minister Duminda Dissanayake also participated in the discussion.
The SLFP members stated that the discussion ended positively and the President responded positively to their demands. They also stated that they would continue to contribute to strengthen the Government.
Jayasekara said President Rajapaksa’s attention has been drawn to the contribution of the SLFP to the future programme of the Government and the preparation of a special programme regarding future actions.
He said the President was briefed on the injustices done to the SLFP representatives of the Local Government bodies and the organisers of the constituencies by some Government Ministers and MPs.
“We, as a party, especially at the local level made a huge commitment to elect the President and form this Government, but after that the Government has disregarded the local representatives, who helped to strengthen the Government and is continuing to sideline the SLFP members, especially the Local Government representatives,” the State Minister said.
“We have also discussed with the President on amendments to the new Constitution and the electoral system, teacher salary anomalies, Educational Reform Programmes, and the current issues regarding chemical fertilisers and organic fertilisers,” Jayasekara said.
He said the President agreed to implement and follow through on the decisions taken at the discussion and promised to amend the electoral system.
The General Secretary said the President responded positively to their concerns and the discussions were successful. He added that the party hopes to hold discussions with the SLPP next.
SLPP General Secretary, Sagara Kariyawasam on the same day came before Media to assert that some members of the SLFP harbour the notion that the SLFP was the main party of the SLPP-SLFP alliance.
He said although the SLFP was the main party in previous alliances and was deemed powerful at that time that was not the case anymore. The SLPP was the main party in the current alliance, he said.
Kariyawasam said although experienced SLFP members understand that the SLPP was the main party in the alliance, certain others failed to understand that.
He added that although other political parties of the alliance were not required to be submissive to the SLPP which is the main party, their opinions should be compatible to that of the SLPP in terms of appointments and other factors.
Kariyawasam said although a few members of the SLFP were of the opinion that the SLPP Government has meted out step-motherly treatment to their party, the majority of the members were not of that view.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa spent the last week facing several tense and unexpected events.The news of the sudden demise of R. Rajamahendran, head of Capital Maharaja, reached Premadasa early morning on Sunday. He was shocked by the news because he felt it was the death of a family member. Rajamahendran and his family had a decades-long relationship. Premadasa had known about the Rajamahendran family since his childhood. As soon as he heard of the death, he went to Rajamahendran’s house and stayed there for a long time. He also went to Borella Cemetery where the funeral was held and stayed there until the funeral was over.
“He helped President Premadasa a lot. There was a close relationship between the two. He had been helping me since the day I came into politics. He carried me in his hands when I was a toddler,” Sajith told friends who attended the funeral.
Even though, MP Champika Ranawaka has already established the 43 Group at district level, it does not appear to have been contributing to any of the activities of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. The leaders of SJB also do not take any notice in this regard too and now many assume that they are not bothered about Ranawaka’s activities, as he is left alone and has no say in party matters.
Meanwhile, rumours have been circulating in recent days that Kumara Welgama is about to start a separate journey. This received a lot of publicity from many anti-SJB Media outlets.
Many thought Welgama was getting ready for another political pole vault. Welgama met a special person on Friday evening amidst these speculations.
That was Sajith Premadasa. The discussion between Premadasa and Welgama was decisive because of the rumours that were spreading.
But something completely different happened during the discussion. The long discussion between the two centred around building SJB and launching an attack on the Government. Accordingly, with the blessings of Sajith, Welgama will take the anti-Government campaign throughout the country in the future.
The on-going case against family members of SJB MP Rishad Bathiudeen on the suspicious death of a minor who worked as a domestic worker also did not sit well with the SJB.
The SJB said that it would not work with those found guilty of child trafficking, child labour and sexual abuse of children.
“The SJB is a party that works with several political parties such as the SLMC led by Rauff Hakeem and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Rishad Bathiudeen. We have come to an agreement with these parties regarding several issues. As far as they are concerned, there might be internal issues within these parties and they may have their own policies over some aspects,” said MP Eran Wickramaratne.
However, Wickramaratne added that if anyone breaks a policy for which our party stands for, we cannot continue to work with them.
“About the death of a minor at Bathiudeen’s house, the matter should be proved in a court of law. Those who engage in child abuse should be dealt with irrespective of their positions,” he said.
Further, MP Wickramaratne said SJB’s policy condemns all forms of harassment of children.
UNP on KDU Bill
The United National Party (UNP) urged for the Parliamentary Consultative Committees of Defence and Education to convene a meeting and agree on the necessary amendments to the Kotelawala Defence University Bill to ensure the existing institution is retained and academic freedom maintained.
The UNP suggests this instead of concluding the Second Reading of the debate on the same with a vote.
In a statement issued by the party, some key areas of concern which required changes were highlighted, one of them being that this Bill sought to de-establish the General Sir John Kotelawala University, and establish a new institution which would take on the name, the property and the legal liabilities of the previous institution. Therefore, the UNP says that the new University would have no connection with the academic achievements of the existing University.
It also mentioned that this will create a problem for those who have been awarded degrees by the University. The UNP adds that there is also a question mark over whether the new University would be entitled to the high ranking obtained by the present institution.
In terms of legal obligations, the party stated that the laws and charters governing Universities do not give the Minister the right to give instructions to a University.
“In the case of the existing University the majority of the board are officials from the Ministry of Defence. The Minister has the right to give instructions to them. We would like to state that the Minister has not had power to give directions to military academics,” the UNP said.
Thirdly, the party states that a defence University must function within a framework of a University, adding that if higher education instruction is given within the military framework then it is a military academy.
“It is claimed that there are some provisions in this Bill which are contrary to the academic freedom essential for a University. These must be amended. Otherwise the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University will not be accepted as a genuine University. This can also affect its membership in the Commonwealth of Universities,” the UNP expressed its view.
US Ambassador discusses issues
During a round-table discussion held with a few selected Media representatives recently, the outgoing US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina B. Teplitz, has welcomed the release of detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), but has criticised the presidential pardon granted to former MP Duminda Silva.
“In light of the Supreme Court decision, which upheld the conviction of another one of the pardoned prisoners, Duminda Silva, this did not appear to be consistent with SDGs or maintaining of the rule of law. So, we want to continue to engage with the GoSL to ensure that the rights of all citizens are protected and that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is protected,” she said.
When questioned whether she had exceeded her diplomatic mandate by criticising the decision taken by the President of Sri Lanka to pardon a prisoner, who is well within his Constitutional right to pardon prisoners, a right regularly exercised by US Presidents, she said thus: “It is the prerogative of the President of Sri Lanka, just as it is the prerogative of the President of the United States, who have pardon powers, to exercise them. It is also my prerogative as a representative of the United States to express the views and policy concerns of my country. That’s my job, as it is of every other diplomat who is represented here in Sri Lanka. I try to do that, both privately and in public, and ensure that issues that are of concern to us are known and where we stand on those issues.”
She also said, “Not only does the United States consider the promotion of human rights as an important part of our foreign policy but of course as a democratic society, we consider Rule of Law to be an essential pillar of our form of governance. Sri Lanka is also a democracy. It is South Asia’s oldest democracy, which has a long and proud democratic tradition. Rule of Law is a pillar of Sri Lanka’s Government. And its commitment to the people is incredibly important. Ensuring that Rule of Law is strong, that people have equal access to a transparent form of justice is something I would think most Sri Lankans would also want.”
“In the past and of course you’ve heard me say in our previous conversations that Sri Lanka and the United States enjoy the benefit of a very long relationship and a long friendship.
However, the last several years, of course, have been tumultuous. A time has come for both of our countries to take a look at the quality of that relationship and friendship. And I look back and I certainly see that the quality has been good.
“The United States has responded in times of need for Sri Lanka. We have deepened ties between peoples, whether it’s through business or study, or family connections. We’ve really sought to ensure that that relationship is a two-way street. It’s not one-sided. It’s one where both countries and both peoples can gain value from the partnership.
“The tumult, of course, stems from politics, from the brutal and unjustifiable terror attacks that took place in Easter 2019 and of course the ongoing pandemic.
“And I did want to say an extended word about some of the pandemic-related support that the United States has provided to Sri Lanka. We have supplied more than $8 million to Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response and recovery. And, of course, many of you would have been tracking the 15 July arrival of more than 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine that came straight from the US national stockpile to Sri Lanka, delivered here through the COVAX mechanism. The vaccines have come at no cost to the people of Sri Lanka, so they are a true donation and in addition to the vaccines we have provided medical equipment and supplies, PPE, ventilators and other support to ensure that Sri Lankan health authorities and people can overcome the challenges posed by this global problem.
“The United States is the largest single country donor to the COVAX vaccine distribution mechanism, and we are continuing to provide support not only through that funding but also with vaccines and other items coming from our own stockpiles and we’re very committed to providing access to these high quality and WHO authorised vaccines. So that’s something that I think is of immediate concern to your readership, but it’s really just the kind of help that we have been consistently providing as a long-term development partner. And you can look back to other periods of stress or trauma in Sri Lanka’s history, whether it’s looking at the immediate aftermath of the Easter attacks when we responded to the Sri Lankan Government’s request for support for the investigation, or back to 2004 looking at the tsunami, or even earlier in trying to address some of the challenging development needs of the country.
“And building on the shared values and strategic interests that our Government has, we hope in the future to increase Sri Lanka’s capacity to foster sustainable and inclusive economic growth, counter terrorism and transnational crime, and to promote the rule of law, transparency and democratic governance.
“So we want to continue the partnership. We remain committed to the prosperity and the rights of all Sri Lankans and we look forward to many more years of partnership going forward.
“With that let me now open the floor for questions”.
Related to the human rights situation and the rule of law situation in Sri Lanka, what I’d like to know is how does the US administration view the situation? Is there a change in its stance? Will there be more engagement with the Sri Lankan Government on the issue? And in what form will that entail?
That’s a very good question and it is an important part of our relationship. As two countries that have democratic political institutions and where we have signed on to international conventions that support human rights and the rule of law. We fundamentally look at Sri Lanka’s human rights commitments as exactly that – Sri Lanka’s commitments to human rights.
Our human rights engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka is about helping Sri Lanka fulfil those commitments to its people, to the world, and making sure that the highest standards of respect, tolerance and human dignity are in fact in place here.
This is completely consistent, of course, with the sustainable development goal, something that President Rajapaksa has pledged to undertake for the country and that the United States also has supported. So, our human rights commitments and engagement here should be understood in that context. This is about Sri Lanka’s journey as much as it’s about the world’s journey to better respect the dignity and rights of every person.
So looking at the context here, of course we continue to talk with the government about challenges to human rights and we note recent actions, for example, the release of prisoners who have been detained. That was a really helpful and welcome step forward and I think that we look forward to the effort to look at more people who have been detained under that legislation, legislation that no longer conforms to international norms and does need to be revised.
There are other challenges out there, of course, and I did note that in light of the Supreme Court ruling in 2008 which had upheld the conviction of another one of the pardoned prisoners, Duminda Silva, that didn’t appear to be consistent with SDG goals or maintaining the rule of law.
So we want to continue to engage with the government to ensure that the rights of all citizens are protected and that Sri Lanka’s prosperity and sovereignty remain protected through adherence to these international commitments.
You had negotiations recently with TNA regarding accountability and reconciliation and a permanent political solution. What is the outcome, and how do you see the accountability and reconciliation programme or the issues in the country at the moment?
Actually, I had a meeting with the TNA, not negotiations. I make a point of meeting with all of the political parties including parties in power and the parties in the Opposition periodically in order to exchange views, so I can understand where they’re coming from and I can share the policies and thoughts from the United States. So, I had a very cordial meeting with the TNA and was able to hear from the leadership there about their concerns related to needed changes in the political process and some of the challenges that people in the North and the East in particular, but island-wide are facing with regard to the economy and concerns, frankly, over preservation of civil liberties here, making sure people are free to demonstrate and making sure that people are free to engage in the political process.
The United States has long supported the human rights, the political rights of all people on this island, no matter what community they might come from or represent or what part of the island they might come from or represent. But we do support a Sri Lanka that remains wholly democratic and is united and strong and sovereign. We don’t think any of those things are incompatible.