Any changes to 13th Amendment put off until at least next year while nationalist forces breathe fire Minister’s plan to cut 70,000 trees grounded, but Hakeem complains of subtle move to uproot his party tree Since state takeover beginning in the post 1971 insurgency period, most tea plantations have been running at colossal losses mainly [...]


Rajapaksa regime bows to India and world community


  • Any changes to 13th Amendment put off until at least next year while nationalist forces breathe fire
  • Minister’s plan to cut 70,000 trees grounded, but Hakeem complains of subtle move to uproot his party tree

Since state takeover beginning in the post 1971 insurgency period, most tea plantations have been running at colossal losses mainly due to seething corruption and mismanagement. That the industry once brought name and fame to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, is well known. Equally well known now is how some of the men tasked to run these properties became fat cats acquiring lucrative private businesses.

There is little money for the Government to run these ventures today. The flagship of successive governments that controlled the tea gardens, the State Plantations Corporation owes its employees Rs 1.74 billion in debt as provident fund, trust fund benefits and gratuity. In some cases, once highly productive tea estates, parts of tea land have been blocked out to workers to pluck and sell green leaf as a consolation measure. The SPC’s operational losses have run into billions with the Treasury pumping more money to give life to a sector that is dying whilst simultaneously invigorating the fat cats and their flourishing private empire.

A novel idea to raise more money to keep the plantations afloat, at least for a while, came from Dayasritha Tissera, Minister of State Resources and Enterprise Development. He proposed at Thursday’s weekly meeting of ministers that some 70,000 trees from the plantations be felled for timber. He wanted the State Timber Corporation (STC) to market them and raise funds urgently required. The number of trees in the plantations has been very much larger. Some rich varieties which had high timber value have already been felled and sold illicitly. They include Ebony, Mahogany, Toona, Teak and Halmilla. Other cheaper varieties have been cut down periodically to fire boilers that cure the green leaves into manufactured tea.

Tissera’s recommendation came up for discussion by ministers at Thursday’s weekly meeting of the Cabinet — ostensibly the highest policy-making body in the country. Water Supply and Drainage Minister Dinesh Gunawardena warned that such mass scale uprooting of trees could cause colossal environmental problems. Consequently, water resources could become scarce in the denuded areas, he pointed out. He made a strong case against the move and the ministers decided to refer Tissera’s request for careful scrutiny by a Cabinet sub-committee.

Even before it came up at the Cabinet on Thursday, Tissera’s recommendation has been the subject of public discussion after media disclosures about his plans. It is relevant to point out, in the national interest, the absence of any mechanism to whet or evaluate recommendations of such nature by ministers. This is before the Cabinet of ministers, the final authority that makes collective decisions for the Government, examines them. In this instance, a state arm dealing with environmental matters could have been called upon to make a prior study. The other of course is the common sense factor which would warrant a study on whether or not the national wealth of a country should be destroyed for reasons of being cash strapped. Only a few proposals that reach the public domain raise these issues.

Tuesday’s rally at Maharagama by the National Collective to Abolish the Provincial Councils system. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatta

There are of course many others that may have been approved or are pending approval and the number is unknown.
Other than that, the recommendation to cut down trees in the tea plantation sector also resonated in a different way at Thursday’s ministerial meeting. “This is also an attempt to uproot the tree, the symbol of our party. If they cut down trees, new ones could be planted. There is no such relief for us,” intoned Rauff Hakeem, Minister of Justice and leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). After the business of the day had ended, ministers had taken up for discussion a supplementary memorandum titled “Exercise of Conscience of Members of Provincial Councils and Local Authorities”. It was submitted by Local Government and Provincial Council Minister A.L.M. Athaullah. In other words, it was to allow a conscience vote for Provincial Councillors and members of local authorities on key issues.

Athaullah said, “At a time when constitutional and political issues of importance are being actively discussed to pave the way for decisions which will have a long term impact on the country’s basic constitutional structures, there is a growing body of opinion that members of elected bodies should have greater independence of decision-making in respect of these vital issues.

“The practical effect of a series of authoritative decisions by the Supreme Court over the years has been to confer on members of elected bodies, including Parliament, extensive discretion in this regard, at times contrary to directions by the hierarchy of their respective parties, without jeopardy in respect of their tenure. Whilst these decisions have become largely entrenched, there have been divergent trends in courts exercising original jurisdiction, giving rise to some degree of uncertainty. It is therefore, desirable that a clear principle, applicable across the board, be established by legislative intervention.

“It is relevant to note that, at the level of Pradeshiya Sabhas and other local authorities, the ‘first past the post’ system of elections (as opposed to the proportional representation system) has been restored, while suggestions with regard to the basis of the electoral system in general are under consideration.

“An initiative is therefore, timely to consider whether legislation should be enacted to enable members of provincial councils, Pradeshiya Sabhas and other local authorities to decide on a course of action and, if necessary, to change their party allegiance on grounds of conscience in relation to vital public issues, without exposure to the risk of their seats being declared vacant in consequence of expulsion by the political party to which they belonged.

“If this change is to be effected, some statutory provisions applicable to these bodies will require appropriate amendment. The principal statutory provisions which will need to be examined in this context, include the proviso to section 63(1) of the Provincial Councils elections Act, No 2 of 1988 and section 10A of the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance which governs members of the Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and the Pradeshiya Sabhas.

“No amendment of the Constitution is contemplated in this regard. The position regarding Members of Parliament, in so far as this issue is concerned, is governed by provision contained in Article 99(13) of the Constitution. These provisions, it is envisaged, will remain intact….”

Athaullah sought the approval of ministers to instruct the Legal Draftsman to prepare the draft legislation to give effect to his proposal. Outraged was Athaullah’s one-time SLMC colleague, Minister Rauff Hakeem. It was to see a verbal exchange between Hakeem and President Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was after Rajapaksa had explained that Minister Athaullah’s recommendation should be viewed with an open mind. It was only last week two SLMC members in the North Western Provincial Council voted in favour of changes to the 13th Amendment. The duo — Rizwi Jowharshah and Abdeen Yehiya — had earlier spoken in the Council against the changes and claimed they were intimidated at voting time. Hakeem ordered their suspension from the party membership. In the coming weeks, the SLMC is planning to move a resolution in the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) urging the Government not to make any changes to the 13th Amendment.

“Sir, I will have to explain that this is also an attempt to destroy trees,” Hakeem told Rajapaksa at the ministerial meeting. He argued that such a recommendation should have been first discussed at a party leader’s meeting. Rajapaksa was to observe that this would be an answer to dictatorial leaders. Shot back Hakeem “which party does not have a dictatorial leader?”

Hakeem was to complain that the “public who have given those PC and local council members a mandate” would ask why such measures have been taken. “What is the integrity of the party,” he queried. He also said the proposed amendments would infringe on Article 3 of the Constitution, an entrenched clause, which guaranteed to people, among others, “fundamental rights and the franchise.”
National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a supporter of the 13th Amendment, said the proposed amendments by his colleague Athaullah were good. However, he said after a provincial council or local authority member casts his or her “conscience” vote, they should resign their positions and contest again. That is to obtain a mandate from their voters. Housing and Construction Minister Wimal Weerawansa said if there was a consensus on the recommendation, there was no issue. He argued that it should be approved. The new laws would only affect those who wanted to cross over to the opposition, he added. Also backing the recommendations was Petroleum Industries Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. After the heated debate over the amendments to existing laws, a new approach was to be taken by President Rajapaksa. In the light of opposition by a partner of the UPFA, i.e. the SLMC, he directed that the matter be raised at a party’s leaders meeting first or in the alternative be withdrawn altogether. Rajapaksa is showing some moderation, at least on issues raised by partners in his Government, in the recent weeks. The last occasion was the ministerial meeting on June 13 when he chose to drop one of two changes to the 13th Amendment. They were to come as an ‘Urgent Bill’. This related to changing the requirement that all PCs approve draft laws (on the Provincial Council List) to one of approval by a majority. Though it was decided to introduce an ‘Urgent Bill’ to prevent one or more PCs from merging, the Government has now backtracked clearly in the wake of stiff opposition from India.


No changes, will be made to the 13th Amendment until such time the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), which now comprises only of 18 UPFA Ministers and a Deputy, concludes its sittings and makes recommendations. As stated earlier, this is virtually a Government Parliamentary Select Committee. It holds the first meeting on Tuesday. Despite the hysterical hype over these changes, authoritative Government sources said yesterday, there was uncertainty over when such constitutional amendments would become possible. “It will certainly not be in the current year,” these sources said. On Friday, President Rajapaksa signed a proclamation constituting the Northern Provincial Council, as exclusively revealed in these columns last week. He also directed Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya to conduct elections there. Dissolved on Friday midnight were the Central and North Western Provincial Councils. Polls to the three PCs are likely to be held on September 27. Deshapriya is expected to announce the dates for nominations in the coming week. They are expected to be from July 15 to 27 as revealed last week.

The conduct of NPC polls figured somewhat prominently when Economic Development Minister, Basil Rajapaksa held talks with Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi on Friday. For months now, a diplomatic tussle over a visit to New Delhi by Basil Rajapaksa and or one by Khurshid to Colombo had gone on. Sri Lanka sought the visit to explain to Indian leaders the Government’s position with regard to the 13th Amendment. However, the Indian side had on many occasions cited previous commitments and India’s inability to arrange a meeting. Similarly, requests by India’s former High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Ashok Kantha seeking Colombo’s acceptance of a visit by Khurshid was put on hold on the grounds that Sri Lankan leaders had previous commitments. As Indian concerns grew, New Delhi cashed in on the request from Sri Lanka and invited Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa.

He flew to New Delhi on Thursday accompanied by India’s new High Commissioner, Y.K. Sinha. The latter had only presented his credentials to President Rajapaksa on Wednesday and his first mission on Sri Lanka was back on Indian soil. According to External Affairs Ministry sources in Colombo, Rajapaksa also met with a delegation representing fishermen from Tamil Nadu. He heard the different issues raised by them.

Minister Rajapaksa explained to EAM Khurshid that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) had been appointed to examine the changes required in the 13th Amendment, these sources said. They added that Minister Rajapaksa had also explained to New Delhi what he called the Government’s three ‘D’s programme — Demilitarisation, Democratisation and Development. The sources claimed Rajapaksa’s visit was a success since he was able to apprise India about Sri Lanka’s position. Yet there was no formal media briefing or statements from the Sri Lanka side, either in New Delhi or in Colombo.

In marked contrast, India declared it had told Rajapaksa that the PCs were established as a result of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. Hence, New Delhi argued that any changes to those provisions could not be made “unilaterally” without consultation with India. New Delhi wants Sri Lanka to also go beyond the 13th Amendment as ‘promised’ by UPFA leaders.

The message means India is opposed to any change even after the NPC polls. Electronic and print media in New Delhi and other world capitals reported an ‘on camera’ briefing by V. Narayanaswamy, the Tamil Minister from Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu in the Indian Prime Minister’s office. Here is a transcript of the widely televised statement:

“Initially, the Rajapaksa Government gave an assurance that they will fully implement the 13th Amendment. Our Government was very happy about it. Now, of late, we get to know from the Sri Lankan authorities and also Sri Lankan political persons that the Sri Lankan Government is trying to dilute the 13th Amendment. Therefore, at the time the President Rajapaksa met the Honorable Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in Delhi, the Prime Minister made it very clear to him three important points. Number one, the fishermen in Tamil Nadu should not be harassed. Number two, the people who lost their homes — the land, they should be rehabilitated and also the people should be given the rehabilitation as early as possible, the Tamils in Sri Lanka who have been… the war ravaged people. And thirdly, the Prime Minister said that the 13th Amendment should be implemented in toto.

“The agreement between Rajiv Gandhi and Jayawardene is an international agreement. It is not an agreement that has been signed within the Sri Lankan Government. If it was signed within the Sri Lankan Government it will not bind India. When it was signed between two sovereign Governments, both the Governments are bound to implement the agreement. In international parlance, when an agreement has been signed internationally by two countries, both the countries are bound by it. Supposing if there is a change of mind in one Government, they should renegotiate with the Government concerned where they entered into the agreement. They cannot unilaterally cancel the agreement.”

Minister Rajapaksa’s talks in New Delhi this week therefore assume much greater significance in the light of the bold Indian assertions. They do throw light on why the Government first went into high gear to change the 13th Amendment and later placed it in the hands of a PSC. More so, when the latter has turned out to be a body made up of only UPFA representatives. Now that India has made public that it does not want any “unilateral” changes, will the process the Sri Lanka Government has set in motion to amend the Constitution until other issues overshadow them go ahead or will it risk a full frontal diplomatic confrontation with India. That indeed would be the challenge for the UPFA.

Externally such a challenge comes at a time when action and “corrective” measures are being taken by the Government in the wake of the US backed second resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. It has officially declared that NPC polls will be held in September. More than 50 additional recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), as exclusively revealed in these columns on June 9, have now been included in the National Action Plan. A separate website has been set up for this plan. Twelve Police Special Task Force (STF) commandos have been arrested in connection with the 2006 murder of five students in Trincomalee. Changes to the 13th Amendment have been put on hold with a much publicised ‘Urgent Bill’ to amend the Constitution virtually forgotten, at least until NPC polls are over. These and other measures are aimed at setting the backdrop for both the visit of United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay in August and the September UNHRC sessions.

With those over, the question for the UPFA will be how constitutional changes thereafter will be viewed by the international community. This is particularly in the light of the UNHRC sessions in March next year. Sri Lanka at that session could be accused of reneging on its promises. There is little doubt that India, which voted with the second US resolution, will publicly support punitive measures against Sri Lanka, in such an event. At least temporarily, by not making changes to the constitution before the NPC polls, the UPFA Government has won a respite– from the so-called international community and India. Hopes of conducting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November in Colombo successfully, and having fuller participation of Heads of Governments have increased. Indian participation at the highest levels is likely though a forerunner would be the ‘smooth conduct’ and outcome of the NPC polls.

The respite notwithstanding, domestic opposition to the 13th Amendment, both from within hardliners in the UPFA and outside, is mounting. Large crowds took part in a public rally in Maharagama last Tuesday. It was organised by the newly formed National Collective to Abolish the Provincial Council System. It was held with tight Police security. Some 25 organisations including the Bodu Bala Sena, Sihala Ravaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya and the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress took part in the event which drew members of the Buddhist clergy from temples countrywide. The others supporting the campaign were Deshiya Surekeeme Jathika Viyaparaya (headed Ven Elle Gunawansa Thera), Deshapremi Bhikshu Peramuna (Ven Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera), Jathika Sanga Sammelenya (Ven Rajawatte Chappa Thera), Desha Hishaishi Jathika Viyaparaya (Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara) and the United Three Wheeler Driver’s Association (Lalith Dharmasekara). Organisers said Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, had promised to be present, but later said he would send a representative. They said that Minister Wimal Weerawansa too had extended his support. The event was streamed live on the Bodu Bala Sena website.

Some of the brief comments made by speakers: Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena : “President Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to keep the independence of this country. Because of this other national groups protected him. He protected this nation. He defeated the terrorists. Nearly 27,000 troops sacrificed their lives and more than that figure were injured. We are suspicious that we will lose the land which was won this way.

“What we are trying to do today is to save this President from that misfortune and help him rule for several more years. We will protect you because you are the one who protects the unity of this country. This government did not have a strong mechanism to defeat the foreign forces. Late President J.R. Jayewardene was made to kneel in front of Rajiv Gandhi because of the terrorism in this country. Now that the terrorists are defeated, why do you have to kneel before anyone? Now, after defeating the terrorist you can rise as a lion and defeat the political forces using the help of the national force. We warn the President not to take advice from the wrong people and fall in trouble. Holding elections in the North and East will only make political forces stronger. Today the war is over. We have to think of starting ways to protect the unity of this country or face problems…..”

Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera, Head of the Bodu Bala Sena: “The provincial council system was forced upon us. Now certain foreign groups and NGOs have started to pry on us and introduce the system to the North where there are Tamil and Muslim nationals. If this power is given to these people it will be very dangerous. Even your children and the next generation will be affected badly by this. So we are telling the President, ministers and foreign forces that we are against the 13th Amendment. This is a Sinhala Buddhist country and others can also live here. If in case they go ahead with it then they will have to introduce these powers to these areas over our dead bodies.”

Patali Champika Ranawaka, Minister of Technology and Research – General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya: “They say that this (Indo-Lanka) Agreement was made with India and if Sri Lanka abrogates it on its own, India will react to it. That day India promised President Jayawerdene that through the agreement it will end terrorism from the country within 72 hours. When the agreement was signed on 29th July 1987 only 679 soldiers were dead in the separatist war but afterwards the number increased to 26,678. It was Tamil Nadu and India’s central government which brought in terrorism. Since they did not keep their promise the agreement was politically cancelled after the 72 hours. If they are threatening us, if (Buddhist) monks are being attacked in Tamil Nadu, if they are damaging our economy and attacking our people; we stayed this long with patience and because we do not engage in ruthless politics like in Tamil Nadu. We should tell India that we lived in this land for thousands of years by creating our own identity, culture and Sanga Sasana. We will live for thousands more with strength. We wish to remind Delhi and Tamil Nadu of this

“They say that India will take back Kachchativu if the agreement is cancelled. We should say that people in our country are patient and also very sympathetic to the national cause. That was why there was terrorism in the country. When the right time comes all the nationals in the country will stand and fight. And the first step for this is the one we are taking here in Maharagama.

“India should remember that when Bajaj three wheelers go in this country, when Airtel is sold and oil is sold through IOC, these are done through our compassion. But still if they are threatening our freedom, unity and government, the people in Sri Lanka are ready to answer those with non-violence…..

Ven. Medagoda Abayathissa Thera, senior lecturer at Sri Jayawardenapura University: “The main question is: do we need provincial councils? In political science they teach three aspects that need to be there to introduce this system to a country. One is that the country should be large. China, India and other such countries are large and so it is hard to manage the country. Another is if there is a natural river, desert or forest that divides the country then it is fine to have the provincial council system. The third reason is if there are groups who fight and cannot stay together.

“In Wellawatte, Maradana and such areas, Sinhala and Tamil people are living together. So we don’t need this system. If we take a look at the money spent on the provincial councils we see that about 75-90% of it was on council buildings, vehicles, fuel costs and salaries. Police power is very dangerous too. There will be state police and provincial police. The DIG who is appointed under the provincial council should work according to what the Chief Minister says. That shows that the provincial police will be politicised…..”

The National Collective plans to hold meetings in other important towns. This will be particularly significant at the North Western (Wayamba) Provincial Council elections. The largest concentration of Army soldiers come from this province. Needless to say it would be equally important in the Central Province where a sizeable volume of voters are plantation workers of recent Indian origin. At the NPC polls, unwittingly for the Government, changes to the 13th Amendment will become the key issue. The UPFA is yet to finalise its list of candidates. Sections of the Government believe EPDP leader Douglas Devananda may be asked to field his own candidates. For the main opposition UNP, which has shown a muted response to the 13th Amendment issue, with no formal statement, the challenges are many.

Hence, four years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, the national debate today is over the future of the 13th Amendment. The UPFA finds itself in an unenviable position. Placating a mounting domestic demand would create a powerful foe. Ignoring the domestic demand during polls time may be politically disastrous. Ironically it is a situation brought about by the UPFA leaders’ lack of foresight or strategy. They have miscalculated their strategy with India and the Western led so-called ‘international community’ and become their captives. Grandiose plans of hosting world leaders have exasperated their plight as having to listen to the dictates of foreign powers. At some point, the tight rope walking may come to a head. That would be their dilemma.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.