Samaraweera says no money to cope with periodic strike threats for salary hikes; refuses to endorse ‘unsolicited proposals’ Ruling parties preparing for presidential election; Maithripala and Ranil launch campaigns; Rajitha Senaratne also making moves Dispute over PC polls, top officials resign from Speaker’s committee; JO says Govt. trying to delay elections Meka kondey pana nethi [...]


Govt.’s conduct comes in for self-criticism


Samaraweera says no money to cope with periodic strike threats for salary hikes; refuses to endorse ‘unsolicited proposals’

Ruling parties preparing for presidential election; Maithripala and Ranil launch campaigns; Rajitha Senaratne also making moves

Dispute over PC polls, top officials resign from Speaker’s committee; JO says Govt. trying to delay elections

Meka kondey pana nethi duruwala aanduwak or this is a weak, backboneless government, or so the Sri Lankans would think.

Those words were not from a fiery opposition politician waxing eloquent at a public rally. It came from a senior member of the ruling coalition — Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He made the criticism at last Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. These remarks underscored the reality that more than three and half years into office, ministers were functioning as ‘governments within a government’ with little or no regard for ‘collective responsibility’ and uniformity.

Just days earlier, Special Assignments Minister Sarath Amunugama and Health Minister cum official government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne, became the government’s trouble shooters. This was after railway engine drivers, guards, station masters and controllers threatened to go on a two-day strike. Their main demand was to redress promised salary anomalies which were three months overdue. The strike was to begin at midnight on Monday (July 30). That would have paralysed train services, the mode of transport particularly for a vast number of those employed in the state sector.

The two ministers held a meeting with trade union representatives of the four groups in the railway. Their anxiety to avert a strike prompted them to assure that their demands would be placed before the Cabinet the next day. The planned 48-hour strike was called off.

Minister Amunugama had sent in a cabinet memorandum which sought to address the anomalies. In essence, that meant additional financial commitments to the government. An angry Samaraweera reacted. For him, such requests were endemic. Was the government going to yield every time a trade union threatens strike action? Are the financial resources of the country adequate to cope with periodic strike threats for pay increases from many other unions? He was emphatic that it was not possible. That was why he believed on complaints that the Government was weak and had no backbone. There is plenty of wisdom in what he said. He is unequivocally voicing a concern expressed by opposition parties and even a larger section of the public.

That there is hesitation even to do the right thing is well known. An official decision has been made to enforce the death penalty on those who are reportedly directing drug smuggling operations from their prison cells. No thought has been given to how this is possible. Is it not the humongous corruption at the prisons? It is no secret that money can buy anything inside a prison, except the release of a convict. Drugs are circulated and mobile phones are freely used. Special food for convicts is smuggled in. So is liquor. Similarly, corruption in the Police and other law enforcement agencies (including prisons) is why the drug trade has proliferated to such high levels. Elsewhere in this newspaper, an investigation into the flourishing drug trade reveals startling details. Hanging a prisoner convicted to death will make little or no difference. The government appears allergic to deal with corrupt activity if it feels there are no political connotations involving its perceived enemies. Most resources have been diverted there. More so with the elections around.

In what the State media described as an era similar to that of Parakramabahu, President Maithripala Sirisena this week set in operation some 180 projects to revive the Polonnaruwa district. Some analysts see it as a preparation for the next presidential election. The President is seen on an exercise path soon after opening it.

This indecisiveness is also reflected by trade union and student protests in Colombo almost every week. The message the government wants to deliver by remaining silent is that protests are an essential component of democracy. In the process, the Government has lost sight of another important aspect. Like Abraham Lincoln declared in his Gettysburg address – Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people. However, a large number people are put into immense inconvenience. Roads are blocked and traffic is held up. Bus services cannot operate. The government, private establishments and banks cannot do business.  Then Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake proudly boasted that he would seclude an area for such protests saving the public from difficulties, but such a simple matter was not attended to. Thus, the greater good of the larger number of people has been completely ignored purportedly to demonstrate democracy in motion. Is this because no one is in control of the issues that affect the day-to-day lives of the public?

Contrary to lofty claims by government leaders, who paint a rosy picture about a burgeoning economy, frequently advertising coming attractions, things look gloomy. This is why Samaraweera had to turn down ad hoc financial commitments. Nevertheless, he had to ask his Treasury officials to formulate a virtual ‘sunshine budget’. This is notwithstanding their concerns of dwindling revenue, rising debts and a serious balance of payments situation. Here again, it is with the upcoming elections in mind.

Samaraweera found himself in an unenviable position at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. Minister Senaratne also complained that from 2015 to 2016 he had placed 48 proposals for approval. They were being stalled by those at the External Resources Division (ERD) and those at the Treasury, he alleged. Three years have lapsed and no action has been forthcoming, he claimed. He was strongly critical of Treasury officials.

The Finance Minister dropped a bombshell. He said all these were based on “unsolicited” proposals. It was his position that such proposals should not be entertained. It seems strange that Minister Senaratne chose to pursue “unsolicited” proposals, which are in reality ones not sought or thought by the government but promoted by outside parties with vested interests. That there are vast financial gains in the form of commissions on such proposals is no secret. He was a strong critic of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration for going ahead with a string of “unsolicited” proposals. They included the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port development project.

Samaraweera put his foot down saying it was his view that none of the “unsolicited” proposals should be accepted. When Minister Senaratne wanted to know how many such proposals have been approved by the Treasury so far, the Finance Minister replied there was none. Angry at the accusations made against Finance Ministry officials, Samaraweera declared “they are the best set of officials I have been working with in my thirty year political career.” At this point, the attention of ministers turned to a five-member Committee, tasked at a previous cabinet meeting, to examine “unsolicited proposals.”

It was headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It transpired that a report had been forwarded by this committee. However, it had been signed only by Premier Wickremesinghe and Minister Malik Samarawickrema, who are just two members. This saw an angry Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka declaring that he had not been informed of occasions when the Committee met. It is on record that when the now non-existent Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM), chaired by Premier Wickremesinghe functioned, Minister Samarawickrema had obtained approval for many projects that were “unsolicited.” There were also other ministers who differed from Minister Samaraweera on his Ministry not accepting any such proposal. “I can cite two instances from many I know. One is a proposal to convert the ten acre plot of land where the Bambalapitiya Flats are situated into a massive condominium complex on a proposal by a developer two years ago. Another is the allocation of a large extent of land for a project by a Thai company at Milleniya in the Bandaragama area,” said a source speaking on grounds of anonymity.

There were also other rumblings at the Cabinet last Tuesday. Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa spoke of how he sought to obtain details of ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka’ (a United National Party project) and was told to “go and ask the Prime Minister.” Under the theme of the ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka’, the government says it is “driving its forces to the production economy in order to achieve the medium-term targets such as per capita income of USD 5,000, one million new jobs, doubling exports and more than five percent continuous GDP growth.”

Megapolis and Western Development Minister Ranawaka again complained of government housing loans laying down conditions which were beyond the means of would-be applicants. He pointed out that they were made eligible for those between the ages of 25 and 40 and who drew salaries between Rs 100,000 and Rs 150,000. He sought a review of the matter since none had drawn loans under the scheme so far. With provincial and presidential polls ahead, the enforcement of these measures, needless to say, are vote catching.

A clamour for Provincial Council elections has not obscured any activity over a presidential poll that is to follow. In an obvious move that suggests his candidature, President Maithripala Sirisena has embarked on a programme to declare open a string of development projects under Pibidenu Polonnaruwa, (Blooming Polonnaruwa), his home district under a six billion rupee programme. He has said similar projects would be extended to other districts too. The remarks come amidst wild speculation that he may call a presidential election in January next year or just thereafter. Constitutional provisions enable him to do so after January 8, when the President’s current term reaches four years. He has already asked SLFP seniors to organise their propaganda machinery. There were other sections who also speculated that a parliamentary poll first cannot be ruled out. However, these are not firm and the official position is yet to emerge.

The UNP is following suit with a Gamperaliya (transition of villages) for development. Finance Minister Samaraweera, the man who is spearheading it, told a news conference recently that the Treasury would be able to save Rs. 55.89 billion from the recent fuel price hikes and the government has decided to use it for rapid development projects, such as the Gamperaliya which is to begin this month. Reaching out to the villages or the grassroots level to gain voter support through fast tracked development projects is salutary.

However, whether the exercise is too little too late remains a question given the time period before presidential election. There are also some UNP groups which argue that this programme should be in the hands of Sajith Premadasa, since the concept under a different name Gam Udawa was the brainchild of his late father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

In fact, Premadasa was a notable absentee when Minister Samaraweera held a session for UNF (albeit UNP) parliamentarians at the Colombo Hilton to explain details of this new programme. At present, Premadasa spearheads housing development programmes at the village level. Also absent were ministers Ranawaka and Senaratne. It is now certain that the UNP’s candidate for the presidential election would be Premier Wickremesinghe. He attended religious ceremonies in Kataragama last week and flew this week to offer prayers at the shrine of Lord Venkateswara in Tirupathi in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Almost immediately on his return he went to Kilinochchi for some meetings. A small, select UNP group is informally working out the blueprints for a political and media campaign.

The other formidable candidate will be from the ‘Joint Opposition.’ Its de facto leader former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is holding his cards close to his chest as to who the official nominee would be. A confidant said he would first wait until the UNP and pro-Sirisena SLFP candidates are known. This is to avoid criticism that may cause divisions in the party. This week, he told a meeting of ‘JO’ leaders that they should only raise issues related to the opposition at their meetings and not make public announcements to cause embarrassment.

The fact that there are other would-be aspirants, who are slowly making a pitch, was not lost both on President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. One such case is Health Minister Senaratne. This week, there were full page advertisements in newspapers and wide television coverage to what was dubbed as “Crowning of Suwapathi” or chief of the health sector. It was a salutation ceremony held at the Nelum Pokuna arts theatre on Tuesday. The advertisement said Senaratne “was recently appointed as Vice President of the World Health Organisation…”   According to the advertisements, the event was organised by the Ministry of Health, Health Services Trade Union Federation and the World Health Organisation. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were present. Even Razia Pendsey, the WHO representative for Sri Lanka was in attendance.

Firstly, there are no Presidents or Vice Presidents in the WHO. Its administrative head is a Secretary General. Currently the position is held by Teros Adhanon, an Ethiopian politician. He has held this office since 2017. The WHO website (

says “the work of the organisation shall be carried out by: (1) the Health Assembly” and (2) a board of 34 persons designated by as many members in the assembly “taking into account an equitable geographical distribution.” It says that they shall be elected for three years and may be re-elected and should meet at least twice a year.

The website adds “ The functions of the Board shall be: (a) to give effect to the decisions and policies of the Health Assembly; (b) to act as the executive organ of the Health Assembly; (c) to perform any other functions entrusted to it by the Health Assembly; (d) to advise the Health Assembly on questions referred to it by that body and on matters assigned to the Organisation by conventions, agreements and regulations; (e) to submit advice or proposals to the Health Assembly on its own initiative; (f) to prepare the agenda of meetings of the Health Assembly; (g) to submit to the Health Assembly for consideration and approval a general programme of work covering a specific period; (h) to study all questions within its competence; (i) to take emergency measures within the functions and financial resources of the Organization to deal with events requiring immediate action…..,”

The WHO Executive Board’s current Chairman is Brazil’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Maria Nazareth Farani Azevedo. There are five Vice chairpersons. The order is Glenys Beauchamp (Australia), Dr Simon Mfanzile Zwane (eSwatini, the former Swaziland), Dr Paivi Sillanukee (Finland), Dr Rajitha Senaratne (Sri Lanka) and Dr Mohamed Jaber Hwoai al-Taae (Iraq).

Speakers at the “crowning ceremony” did not hide their feelings about Senaratne becoming the President of Sri Lanka. Said Prof. Carlo Fonseka, “Since independence we have had 26 Health Ministers. The first of them was the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The 25th was President Maithripala Sirisena and the 26th is Dr Rajitha Senaratne. The 25th Health Minister, unexpectedly went on to become the Head of State. We have such a history. Therefore I think there is a message to Dr Senaratne. It is first the Health Minister and then the Presidency. That is the trend.  I request Dr Senaratne to consider the concept of first to be ‘Suwapathi’ (chief of health sector) and then ‘Janapathi’ (President).”

Professor Sarath Wijesuriya of the National Movement for Justice and Equality, described Senaratne as a creative, people-friendly leader. He said that three cabinet positions were most important – health, nutrition and education. Those holding such portfolios should be sensitive to the needs of the people. That was necessary if Sri Lanka were to become a Singapore. It is those people-friendly Cabinet Ministers who become national leaders.

President Sirisena who followed the two professors said, “I was happy about the new posting you received in the WHO as the world had accepted you.  Unfortunately, when the WHO accepted me for a position I did not receive the same reception.   When there was a function to felicitate me at the BMICH in 2013, the former President kept away, though he was invited to speak at the event. Leaders should remain in the hearts of the people and serve the people…..

“The two professors who spoke before made hints. Prof Carlo Fonseka said that late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was the first Health Minister came out from his position and went on to become the Head of State.  He also mentioned that I was the Health Minister and came out from the position and went on to become the President.  I wish him (Senaratne) well. There is reality in what has been hinted. But my question is would that be achieved by leaving the current position or whilst being in that position as Minister. I leave it to Dr Senaratne to think about…..”

Crowning himself with a glorious title and coupling the event together with a nominal office conferred by the WHO that too in geographic rotation, is not something exclusive to Minister Senaratne. In Sri Lanka, such gain and glory have been hallmarks of politicians. Nimal Siripala de Silva, once Health Minister also received a similar position and celebrated it on a wide scale in his home base of Badulla. Many years ago, the United States Embassy in Colombo invited the then Deputy Foreign Minister, the late Tyronne Fernando for a visit to the United States under the International Visitor Programme. His itinerary included a brief call on the then Vice President George H.W. Bush. Upon his return, the US Embassy delivered him a photograph, taken on that occasion by an official cameraman, with Bush’s autograph. Later, during election time, there were full page newspaper advertisements both in English and Sinhala calling upon voters to cast their votes to George Bush’s personal friend. Fortunately, not all ministers want themselves crowned. Otherwise, there would be the crowning of a chief of the agricultural sector annoying the country’s farmers or an education chief laughed at by students and teachers.

Other than these developments, this week also saw some activity on the conduct of Provincial Council elections. A somewhat shocking development has been two resignations from a six-member committee appointed by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to examine issues pertaining to the conduct of Provincial Council elections. They were K. Thavalingam (who chaired the Delimitation Commission) and Mahinda Deshapriya (Chairman of the Election Commission). No details of why they quit are known though the two members had said that they were quitting since there was a “conflict of interest.” Speaker Jayasuriya on July 30 appointed Premier Wickremesinghe to chair this committee. Other members were Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothaym Sampanthan, Sri Lanka Muslin Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Senior Vice President Nimal Siripala de Silva.

An all-party meeting held at ‘Temple Trees’ and chaired by Premier Wickremesinghe on Wednesday ended inconclusively. It was to discuss the electoral system under which the PC elections should be conducted. Both the ‘Joint Opposition’ and the JVP did not take part in the meeting. Another discussion has now been scheduled for Thursday (August 9).

Ministers Rauff Hakeem (SLMC), Rishad Bathiuddin (All Ceylon Makkal Katchi) and Mano Ganeshan (Tamil People’s Alliance) objected to an electoral system where 50 percent of those elected would contest on the ‘first past the post’ basis and the other fifty on the proportional representation system. They were also not in favour of the 60:40 ratio adopted at the February local elections. They argued they favoured the move only on the basis of an appeal by President Sirisena.

Dinesh Gunawardena, ‘Joint Opposition’ parliamentary leader told the Sunday Times, “we learnt that parties backing the Government are abusing each other over which electoral system we should have. It appears that this is a delaying tactic to keep postponing the PC polls. They already know the outcome.”

As the Government dillydallies over which electoral system to be adopted to the PC polls, the clock is ticking by. It would soon be time for presidential election or parliamentary elections by then.


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