The chairman of the ruling party told the media this week that the Government has no issue with the Opposition going before the Supreme Court to test the legality of the proposed 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution. The law professor turned politician rests his argument on the Attorney General giving his opinion that 20A [...]


Getting away with murder


The chairman of the ruling party told the media this week that the Government has no issue with the Opposition going before the Supreme Court to test the legality of the proposed 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution. The law professor turned politician rests his argument on the Attorney General giving his opinion that 20A only needed a two-thirds majority of Parliament, which the Government boasts it has.

Coinciding with that claim, a court in Hulftsdorp rejected the AG’s submissions that a Member of Parliament convicted of murder by a competent court of law cannot take his seat in the National Legislature. Every student of law, leave alone a professor, knows that the AG’s opinion is not always the last word in law.

The 20A is attracting some heavy artillery for its sweeping constitutional reforms that will reverse the advances that paved the way for an Executive Presidency ‘with a human face’ at least as a sop to returning to Parliament the driving seat of government.

The ruling party chairman was once the champion of abolishing the Executive Presidency. So much so, he wrote to this newspaper on November 20, 1994 saying; “Today, sixteen years after its introduction, a consensus is emerging across the political spectrum that the parliamentary executive model must be re-introduced. The People’s Alliance Government has received an overwhelming mandate at both parliamentary and presidential elections for the abolition of the Executive Presidency”.

So much for “overwhelming mandates”. He even fixed a date by which this abolition would be implemented – June 15, 1995 to be precise, twenty five years ago. There are no better advocates of a strong Executive Presidency through the 20A today than these political chameleons. It just depends on which side of the political fence they occupy and which of the forked tongues they choose to use.

Meanwhile, the murder convict sitting in Parliament is a rather inauspicious start for a new Government that is hoping to propagate a ‘Saubhagya Dhakma’ as enunciated in the President’s Policy Statement. The international media have started mocking Sri Lankan democracy at work.

Whether a convicted winning candidate could take his seat in the National Legislature was a hot potato. Eventually the hot potato fell back on the lap of the Speaker. He was told the elected candidate can take his oath as an MP with the caveat that whether he can speak in the House being a decision for the Speaker.

With the old saying being that only the Speaker doesn’t speak in Parliament, if a murder convict is permitted to sit in Parliament, at least let him speak.

The issue here is not legal or constitutional, but a moral and political one. The MP was best asked to wait and see if he gets acquitted in appeal even if it takes some time. The former Army commander now MP has referred to his own disqualification to sit as an MP after a conviction by a court of law. He was an Opposition MP then. In 1982 the Tamil United Liberation Front nominated Selvaraj Yogachandran alias ‘Kuttimani’ who was convicted of murder under the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) following a bank robbery to Parliament but he was not permitted to sit in Parliament.

It seems you can get away with murder these days — but only provided you are from the ruling party, and you have that “overwhelming mandate” of the people.

A Great Escape

 The near miss catastrophe of the burning oil tanker off the country’s southeast seas should come as an early warning signal to the concerned authorities.

There was a veneer of calm on the surface but behind the scenes it was anything but, as the vessel turned into a ‘time bomb’ that could have exploded, broken in two and capsized causing irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s marine life, eco-systems, its lagoons and enclosed waterbeds, its tourism and the economy. Fortunately, the bomb did not go off.

Sri Lanka’s acute deficiency in handling such a crisis — a super tanker carrying 170,000 gallons of diesel and millions of gallons of crude oil catching fire in Sri Lankan waters with the possibility of causing a massive oil spill, was clear as the Indian Ocean waters. In the surprising absence of a contingency plan to deal with such accidents, it took a week for the authorities to get their act together and eventually fall back on having to ask India for help. Despite all the brouhaha about Sri Lanka being of such geo-political significance in the world of shipping, and a maritime hub, it had to SOS the Indian Coast Guard.

The tanker crippled at sea for days with a fire on deck and the seepage of oil into the water was waved off with an official version saying it was “stable at sea” and that the oil patch floating in the water was controlled by dropping chemicals.

Behind the scenes, other dramas were being played out. Insurance claims were being worked out, salvage operations were being planned. There was money to be made from the stricken vessel. The vessel remains in Sri Lankan waters despite pleas to get it towed as far away as possible to minimise effects of any potential oil spill. The haggling is about the compensation claims that could be made.

Sri Lanka has an Exclusive Economic Zone beyond its territorial waters and many argued on implementing the anticipatory self-defence principles to dump the vessel in the Bay of Bengal or even far away Antarctica for that matter, but not anywhere near this country’s shores. The oil was not ours, anyway and it needn’t end up washed ashore.

The lessons from the oil spill in Mauritius in July when some 1,000 tons of fuel oil leaked into the waters devastating the picturesque island and the delays in handling that crisis had to be learnt. The compensation has been a pittance. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) set up for such emergencies seems to have been of little help.

Inter-agency arguments did not help. The Navy flexed its muscle to dictate terms, the MEPA (Maritime Environment Protection Agency) played a secondary role and the Merchant Shipping folk who are more familiar with big vessels like the oil tanker were sidelined.

MEPA has now confirmed that environmental damage has in fact been caused by a leakage of oil into the waters. There has been however no calamitous disaster at sea so far and it will now be the mopping up operations and paper work to deal with unless something unforeseen occurs. It is also a reminder that if the Easter Sunday bombings were an act of negligence and dereliction of duty, that post-disaster Presidential Commissions are only post-mortems. Sri Lanka will have to come up to speed to manage such accidents occurring in its waters and beyond, in the future.


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