Amid confusion, ministers agree on only one change to the Constitution, other proposals to be discussed by PSC  India on alert, TNA delegation to meet Manmohan and Sonia; Special Envoy to be appointed The Government took a step backward on Thursday from stripping two major provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Instead, it [...]


Fireworks at Cabinet meeting on 13 A


  • Amid confusion, ministers agree on only one change to the Constitution, other proposals to be discussed by PSC
  •  India on alert, TNA delegation to meet Manmohan and Sonia; Special Envoy to be appointed

The Government took a step backward on Thursday from stripping two major provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Instead, it chose to go ahead with only one change after a stormy weekly ministerial meeting. Some ministers hurled strong insults and accusations against one another. As it reached a crescendo, on three different occasions, President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to warn his ministers not to leak anything to the media. Even the names of some newspapers were mentioned in the melee.

Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe visiting the tragedy-struck Maggona area before he visited Balapitiya where alert security officers prevented a mob attack on him. Pic by Sarath Siriwardene

Now, the Government will move a 19th Amendment to the Constitution as an “Urgent Bill” and pass it with a two-thirds majority. It will seek to repeal Article 154 A (3) that allows “two or three adjoining provinces to form one administrative unit with one elected Provincial Council, one Chief Minister and one Board of Ministers.” The revocation will come before elections are held to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in September this year.

The move appears designed to allay fears in some influential quarters of the UPFA Government. A Northern Provincial Council elected in September, they are worried, could merge with the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) if the constitutional provision is allowed to remain. In the EPC the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), which holds seven seats, has helped retain a UPFA-backed administration. The UPFA also has only seven seats. However, two more members of Minister A.L.M. Athaullah’s National Congress also back the UPFA. In a scenario where the SLMC pulls out and joins with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which has 11 seats in the 37-member Council (with UNP 11) – TNA is a likely winner if it contests the northern polls — the two minority parties will together be the majority to form an administration and “remain in an unassailable position,” UPFA stalwarts say. Thus, they contend, they would not only wield power in the two Provincial Councils but also create the prospect of a merger. This is particularly when the merged Northern and Eastern Provinces have been separated as two distinct units through a Supreme Court ruling on October 16, 2006.
A second constitutional amendment relating to “distribution of legislative powers between Parliament and the Provincial Councils” has been put on hold. In terms of this provision (Article 154 G), “No Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List shall become law” unless approval of every Provincial Council is obtained.

A change to make it possible for a majority of PCs to approve such legislation was sought through an amendment. As revealed last week the two amendments were drafted by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, who is a professor of law. In addition to this matter, the question of Police and Land powers for PCs and other related issues are to be studied by a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House, will move a motion on Tuesday for the appointment of this Committee. “Whether the TNA participates or not, we must go ahead with the PSC,” Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena told ministers. All political parties have been asked to forward the names of their nominees to serve in the Committee. Most in the opposition are unlikely.

Watching the developments in Sri Lanka closely is neighbouring India. A delegation from the TNA is due in New Delhi for meetings in the coming week with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi. India’s High Commissioner-designate S.K. Sinha who was due to arrive in Colombo tomorrow has been asked to stay behind to be on hand for the visit. India has repeatedly urged Sri Lanka not to make any “unilateral” changes in the 13th Amendment, a by-product of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. The last appeal was when Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid telephoned his Sri Lankan counterpart Peiris last month. Heightening Indian concerns, diplomatic sources say, has prompted Premier Singh to consider appointing a Special Envoy to be in charge of matters arising from the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987. The move, contrary to claims in some quarters of “unilateral retaliatory” measures against Sri Lanka by India, will mean New Delhi would continue to engage the Rajapaksa administration.

On the other hand, the creation of such an office also signals the fact that New Delhi has elevated the Sri Lankan issue to be important enough to deserve special attention. The Congress Government is said to be in touch with the main opposition parties in this regard too. This is much the same as the practice in the United States where successive Presidents have appointed special envoys for Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries. The name of a senior retired Indian diplomat is being mentioned as the likely Special Envoy. He is Hardeep Singh Puri, until recently India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations. Puri, who once served as Political Officer in the Indian High Commission in Colombo when the late J.R. Jayewardene was the President, is said to be close to Premier Singh.
The UPFA Government’s “on again, off again” aggressive campaign over constitutional changes reached a new “compromise” turn during a three-and-half-hour meeting of ministers on Thursday. Brimming with confidence, President Rajapaksa was sometimes aggressive, sometimes humorous and at other times assertive.

The move to go ahead with only one amendment and not more, he cautioned, should not be misconstrued as due to the lack of a two thirds majority. “If we are short of two thirds, I know how to get it. Let it be known that I am doing this because I want to hear the views of all who are represented in this cabinet,” he said. At another point, he declared that he had already appointed a Commission to study and report to him on the creation of a new province. The Sunday Times learnt that is to be carved out largely from parts of the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu Districts and adjoining areas. On a humorous note during the discussion, he turned to Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka and declared “now don’t start running to the UNP and have talks again.”

At the weekly ministerial meeting last Thursday, the official business in the agenda had ended. Immediately thereafter, the ministers got down to the issue of changes to the 13th Amendment. It was Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House, who set the ball rolling. “We in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are fully for the changes envisaged. It would only help those with another hidden agenda if the existing provisions remain,” he said. He added that he would move in Parliament next week for the appointment of a PSC. Minister Dinesh Gunawardena followed by declaring that his party, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), was also in favour. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka also spoke in favour of the amendments and explained the position of his party, Jathika Hela Urumaya. Minister Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF), said the constitutional changes were welcome since they were in keeping with the Mahinda Chinthana Idiri Dekma (Mahinda’s thoughts – the way forward). The document, an update of Rajapaksa’s manifesto during the 2005 presidential elections, spells out policy objectives.

Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, was the first to offer a dissenting view. He said his party was strongly opposed to rushing through amendments and urged that all matters be placed before a Parliamentary Select Committee. He said the SLMC was unable to support the amendments and offered reasons for it. Minister Susil Premajayantha, General Secretary of the UPFA, was supportive of the changes. He said that whatever legislative changes were made, issues in local administrations would not go away altogether.

A.L.M. Athaullah, Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils, posed a pointed question at his onetime party colleague, Hakeem. “Were you in favour of the merger of the North and East,” he queried. Hakeem replied, “We opposed it the way it was done.” In the light of his expressing opposition to the constitutional amendments, Hakeem fielded a number of questions. Equally strong in their counter-arguments were Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka. Minister Felix Perera cited a statement issued by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Sri Lanka. The CBCSL in the statement issued by its President, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and Secretary General Bishop Valence Mendis, said: “What is needed is the proper study and careful consideration of all factors along with a broad-based consultation of the different political parties and civil society groups before any changes are to be made.”

However, he urged that the amendments be studied carefully since “otherwise there would be problems.”
Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Minister of National Languages and Social Integration cautioned that if the amendments were carried through in Parliament, the opportunity for peace in the country would be lost.

Weerawansa: The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was formed by the late M.H.M. Ashraff because of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. It ceded a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Minister Hakeem has lost sight of it.
Hakeem: He (late Ashraff) was conscious of the separatist threat. There is no point talking about this now.

Minister Basil Rajapaksa declared that the Northern Provincial Council elections were being held in keeping with the mandate the Government has received. Supporting the amendments, he stressed that “we have to protect Parliament.” Since External Affairs Minister Peiris was absent, President Rajapaksa turned to Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and asked him to explain how matters are being viewed by the international community. Samarasinghe said the Government had promised to conduct Northern Provincial Council elections at different forums. This included the March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He said “I am an SLFPer. I abide by the decisions my party takes and will support it fully.” Samarasinghe criticised the TNA as being “separatist” and charged that its motives were to “consolidate power.”

Minister John Seneviratne related the story of two private member’s motions in Parliament. Both were to create different organisations to attend to the needs of students through libraries. He said the official view was that the two motions in question required the approval of all the Provincial Councils since there were references to them. “How can we not change it,” he asked. Hakeem was to say that instead of a constitutional amendment, which was cosmetic, it was possible to change the Provincial Councils Act and thus prevent PC mergers if it was felt necessary. Minister Naveen Dissanayake intervened to ask “if it is cosmetic, why are you opposing it?”

Minister and LSSP leader Tissa Vitharana who once chaired a PSC that examined Tamil grievances was not in favour of the amendments. Others who strongly opposed the proposed amendments were Minister and Communist Party leader D.E.W. Gunasekera and Minister Rajitha Senaratna. The latter held a news conference on Friday to say he would oppose any changes to the 13th Amendment. “Even if I lose my portfolio, I will not change my stance regarding the protection of minority rights and devolution of powers. The 13th Amendment should remain intact,” he said. Heated exchanges ensued between Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Rajitha Senaratna, D.E.W. Gunasekera on the one side and Wimal Weerawansa on the other. It came after Weerawansa noted that people who were saying things now were earlier opposed to the war. Nanayakkara turned to Weerawansa and charged “Megollo apiwath meruwa,” (they even killed us).

It was not the LTTE that was after them. Senaratna chipped into say “Magey oluwey thawama yakada keli hatarak thiyenwa” (there are still four pieces of shrapnel on my head.) An angry Weerawansa retorted that he had nothing to do with those actions of his former party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). He shot back that “you are from that other group called PRA or People’s Revolutionary Army who also carried out attacks.” During the 1987 rebellion by the JVP, a group called the PRA known to be backed by then Government cadres were used as a counter force. Minister Gunasekera exchanged some strong words with his colleague Weerawansa. “You (meaning the JVP in which he was a member) came to kill me in 1989. You all are destroying this country,” he said pointing his finger across the table at Weerawansa.

Hakeem charged at one point that “the majority is imposing its will on the minority.” He was to counter Minister Ranawaka for reportedly saying there was no provision in the Indian Constitution for merger of devolved units. He said a new State, in terms of the Indian Constitution, could be formed by separation of territory from any State or by uniting two or more states. He also claimed that the TNA could be convinced to join the reconciliation process.

President Rajapaksa rejected a call by Weerawansa to go ahead with the amendments since he had won the mandate of the people. “I will hear the views of all,” he said. Then he struck a stentorian note to declare, “I know what is happening. They are raising anti-Sinhala cries. They are creating hatred. As long as I am there, I will not allow anything to happen. I am doing this for the future generation and not for my own benefit.” Both Ministers Weerawansa and Ranawaka wanted a postponement of the NPC polls if finality could not be reached on all changes to the 13th Amendment. Weerawansa even called for the conduct of a referendum. “Hondai, Hondai Api Balamu,” (Good, good, let us see) replied Rajapaksa. With that note, the meeting of ministers ended.

They had deliberated for well over 135 minutes on constitutional issues. It became clear there was some form of consensus to expunge from the Constitution provisions that allowed a merger of one or more Provincial Councils. This is notwithstanding the position of the SLMC that if it was found necessary, it could be done by amending the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987. Even that view was construed as tacit support for a change. Yet, ministers who took part in the weekly cabinet meeting were not sure how the decisions would be finally formulated. Other than the various views expressed, there was some confusion. As a result, some of them were telephoning journalists to find out what official spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella had said at Thursday’s news briefing. Another minister believed it was his understanding that two amendments to the Constitution had been approved. The confusion was clearly the result of an almost abrupt adjournment.

Understandably, the briefing for the media, scheduled for 2.30 pm was put off for 3 p.m and was later held only at 3.30 p.m. That was to give time for Rambukwella to obtain a correct brief from President Rajapaksa and Cabinet Secretariat officials. He told the media, “a decision was taken to do away with the provision for the merger of (two or more) Provincial Councils. Regarding the other amendments, a Parliamentary Select Committee will be appointed after a discussion with the Speaker on Tuesday….” He said the Select Committee would undertake its work within a specific time frame. “I clearly say that the Government has no plans to postpone the NPC elections in September,” he added.

Rambukwella also spelt out the official position in respect of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He said “there have been various arguments. One is to rectify the wrong done in the past by two leaders (Sri Lanka’s President J.R. Jayewardene and India’s Rajiv Gandhi). For 25 to 30 years there have been no changes. This is a country where you can pass through several provinces in a short time. You will be seeing persons with different Police uniforms (if Police powers are to stay). People have died because of the 13th Amendment. Just because there is pressure from some countries, we cannot keep this (in our Constitution). The Government has decided to definitely bring certain amendments.” These remarks, recorded on tape, shows that even before a PSC had examined the issue, the Government’s official spokesperson is saying they have “decided to definitely bring certain amendments.” Of course, if this is also just another gaffe from Minister Rambukwella, known too well for them, there is no issue. If it is not, it reveals that the Government has already decided on what to do no matter what the proposed PSC will say.

The SLMC early this week forwarded to President Rajapaksa a one-page letter together with 11 pages of different documents. Signed by leader Rauff Hakeem and Secretary General M.T. Hassen Ali, the letter said the party’s parliamentary group had decided “not to support the move to amend the Constitution.” It cited a December 2012 resolution unanimously adopted by the Delegate’s Conference “to oppose any move aimed at weakening or undermining the Provincial Council system.” Besides the two page text of the resolution, the annexures included notes addressed by Minister Hakeem to the Cabinet on the two main constitutional amendments proposed by Minister Peiris. His draft amendment as well as a note to the cabinet appeared in these columns last week. Similar notes on the amendments have also been sent to the Cabinet Secretariat by Ministers Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Tissa Vitharana. They have, however, not been circulated yet.

Hakeem has taken exception to his ministerial colleague Peiris’ preamble that the impending amendment, coming as an “Urgent Bill,” “relates to an aspect of distribution of legislative powers between Parliament and the Provincial Councils.” He has said that his memorandum, however, “does not provide any rationale” for amending the provision in question. He notes that this provision operates as “a vital safeguard” against interference by Parliament. He argues that Parliament “can impose a law on an unwilling Provincial Council only if there is a broad national consensus in the form of a two thirds majority.”

In this backdrop, the Government has once again decided that it will go ahead with the Registration of Electors (Special Provisions) Bill. It is primarily aimed at allowing citizens who are internally displaced in the North to have their names in a Supplementary Voters Register for the NPC polls. Provision has also been made for similar cases in the Eastern Province. Party leaders will decide when they meet the Speaker on Tuesday to fix a date, possibly in the coming week, for the Committee Stage of the “Urgent Bill.” Hakeem met members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on the subject on Friday to inform them that the Government would go ahead. Mahinda Deshapriya, Commissioner General of Elections told the Sunday Times “the time limit is still enough for us to formulate a Supplementary Voters Register for the Northern Provincial Council elections.”

The proposed Parliamentary Select Committee that will study changes to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (with the exception of the merger issue) is not expected to see the presence of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, however, parried a question by saying “I need to consult my party.” He confirmed the TNA had been invited to serve in the PSC. However, he said the move to make changes to the 13th Amendment is a “totally unwarranted step.” He said “the Government’s actions, in my view, is not well thought out and not adequately considered. They are only placating some extremist elements. There is no consultation with the people or civil society groups. I strongly urge the Government to abandon the present move.”

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) is also unlikely to nominate its representatives though a high ranking source said “the matter would have to be decided after the party leaders meet the Speaker.”

This week, Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe sought a meeting with President Rajapaksa to discuss matters related to the NPC polls. He has told the President in a letter that the 17th Amendment to the Constitution should be restored “by repealing relevant provisions of the 18th Amendment.” He has also called for “the immediate replacement of the Governor of the Northern Province. Instead, of a retired military officer, a civilian accepted by all parties should be appointed.” He has also asked President Rajapaksa to invite a team from the Commonwealth to observe the elections “from the day of nominations to a week after the declaration of results.”
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) said yesterday that it would not take part in the PSC. “It is only aimed at rousing communal passions,” its leader Somawansa Amerasinghe told the Sunday Times.

Another Parliamentary Select Committee is due to be appointed to go into the private member’s resolution by the Jathika Hela Urumaya to abrogate the 13th Amendment. The resolution will be placed in the Parliament Order Book on Tuesday (June 18). Thereafter, it will be forwarded to the Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils for study and report. During a meeting with a JHU delegation, President Rajapaksa said he had already devoted attention to two of the five point compromise the JHU would make at the Committee Stage to its resolution. That leaves only three and not two as revealed last week. They are (1) withdrawal of Police powers, (2) Withdrawal of land powers, and (3) Empowering the Central Government to issue directives to the Provincial Councils. The JHU says this is similar to provisions in the Indian Constitution where the centre is empowered to issue directives to the states. Rajapaksa has told JHU that he would be willing to consider allowing a free vote for UPFA MPs and told their delegation “you have to garner the other votes for a two-thirds majority.”

JHU Provincial Council Minister Udaya Gammanpila said yesterday that the JHU delegation’s meeting with UNP leader Wickremesinghe and other party officials went on “a cordial note.” Besides the JHU’s resolution, he said, they also discussed the UNP’s draft document for a new Constitution. “Though there are policy differences, my party has named me and the UNP’s Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha to continue our dialogue,” he said. This was the first time a JHU delegation has walked into Siri Kotha, UNP’s headquarters in Kotte, he pointed out.

Meanwhile, the NFF is continuing its campaign to call for a halt to NPC polls. Contrary to expectations of two million signatures, it has obtained over a million. Minister Weerawansa who addressed a meeting of his party supporters this week said the petition calling upon President Rajapaksa to call off the NPC polls would still be handed over. He said the party had sought a meeting with the President. Among the signatories to the petition are 20 disabled soldiers who came on wheelchairs and Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva. He was the naval rating who tried to assault then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with the butt of a 303 rifle on July 30, 1987 during a guard of honour outside the Janadipathi Mandiraya (President’s House). The late Gandhi was in Colombo to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which among other matters, led to the creation of Provincial Councils.

Events in the recent weeks have placed the Government in a paradoxical situation. Vaas Gunawardena, a Deputy Inspector General of Police, has been remanded for an alleged contract killing. The century old Police Department has prided itself as the guardians of the law to protect the citizens. Yet the Government could argue there was no interference in the course of justice.

Sunil Abeysinghe, the Homagama District Judge has been arrested by officials of the Commission to Investigate Bribery and Corruption for allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs 300,000. When he is produced in Courts, a brothel owner and his supporters were among those who prevented the media from covering the event. Here again, the Government could argue it did not interfere.
Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe visited Balapitiya to condole with the fisher families who have lost their loved ones due to strong winds last week. Even before the visit, a wheeler-dealer politician who now claims to be an expert in foreign relations, warned the opposition politicians on television not to step into his domain. Wickremesinghe escaped a mob attack only because of the alertness of his personal security detail and the conscientious police officers deployed in the area. Some UPFA politicians appear to have created their own separate territory where those in the opposition could face death if they visit.

All this is happening at a time when ministers are discussing changes to the constitution, among other matters, to centralise an already politicised Police force. Some of the unprecedented events show the breakdown in law and order and the rapid erosion of public confidence. This situation needs as much priority attention, if not more, as changes which the Government believes are necessary to the 13th Amendment. Otherwise, it will only vitiate claims that Sri Lanka is still a democracy and the Wonder of Asia.

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