Officials who have failed to get the axe; New faces and portfolios The dilemma of the Opposition as Ranil returns to Parliament Core group may announce tough measures ahead of UNHRC Sept. sessions     A motley collection of tractors, earth movers, vans and buses carried the main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MPs last [...]


President mulls Cabinet reshuffle


  • Officials who have failed to get the axe; New faces and portfolios
  • The dilemma of the Opposition as Ranil returns to Parliament
  • Core group may announce tough measures ahead of UNHRC Sept. sessions


Main Opposition SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa is seen going in a Mini Cooper vehicle during the protest against the fuel price hike, prompting questions about the rationale of the protest. Pix by Akila Jayawardena


A motley collection of tractors, earth movers, vans and buses carried the main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MPs last Tuesday from their office to Parliament to protest the steep rise in fuel prices.

A reporter asked their leader and Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa “are you not wasting fuel on these vehicles?” An embarrassed Premadasa exhorted angrily that “this protest is for people who can understand.”  He may be right. Like the reporter, there were hundreds in the SJB countrywide who were confused. This is not only by their MPs foregoing their rides in luxury Pajeros or Prados but also other forms of protests they launched. They were asking each other for the rationale.

When Sajith’s father, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa was in Parliament, the protest over a fuel price hike in 1973 was different. It was a ride in bullock carts for UNP MPs from the residence of J.R. Jayewardene in Ward Place to the old Parliament near the Galle Face Green. As a Reporter, I was assigned to cover this event which had a theme – how the fuel price hike then would compel people to travel in bullock carts. There were some humorous moments too. Then UNP member for Kesbewa, Dharmasena Attygalle, a witty Ayurvedic physician, drove the cart in which Jayewardene, the then Leader of the Opposition, travelled. He used the stick on the bull so much and thrust his leg at the rear many a time. The bull let off a mixture of grass and water processed in the stomach. Attygalle had to change his white sarong, turned light green in parts, before entering Parliament. Earlier, a bull tied at Braemar, the Jayewardene residence, escaped. A search party had to go out and the schedules were somewhat upset.

Besides the motorised project, the SJB also resorted to two other measures. One is a vote of no confidence on Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila and the other is the launch of a slogan – Deng Sapada.  Why they focused only on Minister Gammanpila when it was the government that was responsible for the price hike? To use his own words, Gammanpila declared that he executed the increase after “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister Namal Rajapaksa had endorsed the move.”

In fact, he said, it had been signed by Premier Rajapaksa who is Minister of Finance. Is Premadasa’s course of action clearly a “soft approach” aimed at not offending other important personalities in the government? It will only help all alliance MPs to rally together to defend Minister Gammanpila and thus prevent a government defeat in Parliament. Moreover, the price hike was not a decision reached solely by Minister Gammanpila though in the aftermath he dabbled in irrelevant issues to embarrass others like Basil Rajapaksa. Just days earlier, the SJB parliamentary group, heeding a wish from Premadasa, expressed a vote of confidence in him. As revealed earlier, he is privy to intelligence reports about the conduct of his party stalwarts and members. Why other SJB members agreed to fix the blame on just one minister leaving all others out is not clear and not explained. It is like punishing a bus conductor when fares are increased.

Next is the slogan Deng Sapada (or meaning are you now happy) It was a slogan borrowed from Mahinda Rajapaksa. When he was President, he ridiculed those who voted the previous yahapalana government at various platforms when harsh measures were imposed on the public. When this slogan is repeated by SJB members, what they have failed to realize is something serious. It is not directed at the government. Like Rajapaksa’s oft repeated remarks then, it is directed at the people, the members of the public. Does it not amount to pouring salt water in their wounds? The slight is particularly on those who voted in favour of the ruling alliance. Is this how the SJB wants to win hearts and minds? Even if one does not attribute motives for it, the ruling alliance did help Premadasa by flying down urgently needed drugs from the United States when he was hit by COVID-19. He has now recovered. At least personally, as it would be the case, he is most grateful to the ruling alliance leaders for that help as well as others. He is also grateful for the inquiries the leaders made personally after he recovered.

In this backdrop, the entry into Parliament of United National Party (UNP) leader and onetime Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, becomes increasingly significant. True, the UNP was wiped off the electoral map at the last parliamentary elections. True they won only two per cent of the votes cast. True that Wickremesinghe lost his own seat. Yet, by becoming the only bonus seat UNP Member of Parliament last Wednesday, he has shown, he is an unbelievably valuable catalyst for many reasons. One is that he overshadowed Premadasa with his maiden speech after taking his oaths by raising issues which he or the SJB had not. Even some of Wickremesinghe’s detractors were surprised. That laid bare the reality that the SJB opposition albeit Sajith would have to give up the “soft approach” and be more aggressive even if it offends his powerful friends in the ruling alliance. First to a brief account of Wickremesinghe’s noteworthy speech that gives one an idea:

“The Presidential Task Force to control COVID-19 has completely failed. If we listen to the Health Minister’s speech, we can understand what has been done by the Task Force from the time it was set up. What are we doing? We cannot move forward with them. There has been an increase in COVID-19 victims. According to our Constitution, the responsibility should be with the Cabinet and Parliament. Why isn’t the Cabinet given this power? According to our constitution the responsibility should be with the cabinet and the parliament. Why is not the cabinet given this power? Cabinet has that power already. According to article 03,04 and 43 of the Constitution, the government can only be controlled by the Cabinet, The Prime Minister and Ministers are also here at the parliament.

“‘You (Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa) should take responsibility. If you are wrong, we can come here and shout or at least hoist posters. The only question is why this matter not being handed over to the cabinet. The World Health Organization has a special advisory group of experts; however, it is not here in Sri Lanka. There is only a committee, that too have been handed over to a department head. The Commander of the Army is a department head. How can he carry out these activities? Ministries, Secretaries can be given orders only by Ministers or the Cabinet. Then the secretaries’ direct orders to the department heads according to minister’s orders or according to the situation. Why aren’t these powers exercised?

“We call you to take the leadership and use the power given by the constitution. Others cannot do it; we can do something at the Parliament by taking about that. In any democratic government there are three groups, the political authority – that is the cabinet. The President, Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers represent it.  Civil power- that is civilian governance, ‘the Ministries secretaries and other state employees are included in it. Third is the Military; they send soldiers to war. What is happening today is that the country is governed by obtaining military power.

“This cannot be done. This is wrong. What is happening is that not only COVID – 19, we see that the Army Commander is speaking at the Board of Investment discussion which should have been graced by the finance minister or the relevant State Minister. When people witnessed it even the ones who took part in the discussion left. I have no issues with the Commander of the Army. He is a person I have associated with as well as he has helped me. However, this task cannot be done by him. We are going towards militarization. If you take responsibility, it is okay, because people have given their votes to you, we cannot argue about that. However, we blame you for not using power and allowing partial or full militarization by giving power to them. Prime Minister (Mahinda Rajapaksa) we would like to have a debate regarding the matter, also call for a Parliamentary debate on the constitutional issue and democracy of the parliament to discuss these matters. Even though we are politically opposing you, according to the constitution the Cabinet should take the decisions. We can criticize those actions, bring no confidence motions, or come and sit here. But if that is not done this parliament is not functioning. Therefore, I call for a debate about giving up on cabinet powers, inaction, violation of the constitution as well as destroying the mandate given by people. I hope the other parliament friends too would agree to that.”

The speech gave a strong hint at the trajectory of Wickremesinghe’s entry to Parliament. He has touched the hearts of an influential section of the ruling alliance represented in Parliament. That includes Premier Rajapaksa too. He has been underscoring their concerns in his speech.  Wickremesinghe has made a strong case for an enhanced and constitutional role for the Premier, the Cabinet and even the MPs would have to play – a fact which could not have been articulated in Parliament by anyone from the government side. That would publicly lay bare a division within them. In effect Wickremesinghe is calling for a return to more parliamentary democracy with much less military involvement. Thus, he has advocated the cause of Premier Rajapaksa and those with him in Parliament including many cabinet ministers.

That in essence defines the political status quo of the opposition in Parliament today. Whilst the SJB leader, Premadasa and his members are taking a “softer” approach which is “non offensive” towards the executive, the sole UNP member (Wickremesinghe) is the voice of the voiceless in the legislature. That too for those who can but will not speak and stir a hornet’s nest. In the light of this, there indeed is a vacuum too. One cannot expect checks and balances in the absence of a robust opposition.

Barely 24 hours after Wickremesinghe entered Parliament, there were signs that there will be more activity. The principal strategist of the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa returned to Colombo on Thursday morning from Los Angeles. He heads the Presidential Task Force and will soon be sworn in as a Member of Parliament. Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Nimal Lanza and a group of officials were present at the Bandaranaike International Airport to receive him. His return is in the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa making a detailed study about the performance of ministers as well as top officials in the past months. He is expected to consult Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, now billed to receive a key portfolio, in this regard. Highly placed sources said the move is a prelude to a Cabinet re-shuffle. Ministers who did not pull their weight are likely to be axed or given ‘less important’ positions. Besides poor performance, some ministers have also been tainted with serious allegations of corruption and misconduct. There is also to be new ministries. A government source said Basil Rajapaksa’s primary role upon becoming a minister was to formulate relief measures for the people hit badly by living costs. In this regard, a look at revising the recently increased fuel prices is not ruled out.

Among the main issues that have weighed against the government domestically is the mishandling of measures to counter COVID-19 pandemic resulting in higher deaths and afflictions, the mishandling of vaccines against COVID-19, the adverse impact of the ban on import of chemical fertilizer and the debilitating effect the periodic lockdowns have had on poorer sections of society. A disturbing feature, when the lockdown was lifted for three days this week was the large crowds that had formed queues outside pawn shops. Many claimed they had no money for their livelihood. There were also a few who went from the pawn shop to liquor outlets.  A relief package is expected to be a primary task to be vested with Basil Rajapaksa as a cabinet minister. In that role he is bound to face some extraordinarily strong challenges.

On the foreign front, where again prompt action is required, concerns are mounting. This is particularly in the light of the inability of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cope with them. Hard on the heels of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution in March, has come a resolution before the US Congress. As a prelude, it is now being examined by the Foreign Relations Committee. It was followed with the European Parliament adopting a resolution. Besides the UNHRC, the two other resolutions contain almost the same elements of the one adopted in Geneva. However, the EU carries the warning of a withdrawal of GSP plus tariffs.

Whilst one of the government’s financial wizards, State Minister Nivard Cabraal, loftily makes out that the GSP plus would not have an extreme debilitating effect as action is being taken by the government, to look beyond this preferential regime by building resilience among exporters and overall economy, he fails to even hint at the concerted action envisaged towards this end. Not surprisingly. It was he who remarked after the fuel price hike that fuel costs were higher in the United States. His remarks seem to be simple rhetoric which some new MPs would have thought twice before saying. That would be Greek for them. The withdrawal of the GSP plus would mean that Sri Lanka would need to trade in the open market, for which there is no mechanism in place. It is the SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) which largely drive the country’s economy that would be jeopardised in the loss of GSP plus. In that context, it is difficult to comprehend how a new trade relationship with the EU without GSP plus could be successfully forged as upheld by Cabraal. This is particularly exacerbated with the negative

fallout globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some actions of the government gave western nations, particularly those backing the HRC resolution, to pause initially. The reasons were many. They included the release of former Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Director Shani Abeysekera, the offer to review the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in keeping with the European Union’s demand to allow the GSP plus tariffs to continue as well as Thursday’s release of 96 persons including 16 suspected Tiger guerrillas who were held for long periods. These measures were viewed by western diplomats as a “thawing of the government’s stance.” According to a western diplomat in Colombo, “if these were positive signals, we are now doubtful. They are continuing to take wrong measures that are not only worrying but also goes against them,” said a western diplomat.

The Colombo High Court found Duminda Silva, a former MP, and four of his associates guilty of the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three others. This was during the local election campaign of 2011. The decision of the three-judge High Court trial-at-bar was divided with judges Padmini Ranawaka and Charith Morais deciding on a guilty verdict on the five of the suspects and Judge Shiran Gooneratne acquitting all suspects of all charges. Premachandra is the father of Hirunika Premachandra, the Colombo district former UNP MP. Later, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision.

Earlier, a petition from the government parliamentary group was circulated urging the President to pardon Duminda Silva as reported in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) – October 26, 2020. Last year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa forwarded a memorandum to the Cabinet listing several persons including Duminda Silva be pardoned and cases against others be withdrawn.

The US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Allaina B. Teplitz tweeted that “We welcome the early release of PTA prisoners, but the pardon of Duminda Silva, whose conviction the Supreme Court upheld in 2018, undermines the rule of law. Accountability and equal access to justice are fundamental to the UN Sustainable Development Goals which the government of Sri Lanka has committed.”

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), the representative body of the country’s lawyers termed the pardon “unreasonable and arbitrary” and warned it will result “in the erosion of law and order.” Here are excerpts from what they said:

“It is the right of the public to know whether the said pardon has been granted in accordance with the report of the trial Judges, the opinion of the Attorney General and the recommendation of the Hon. Minister of Justice. As such, the BASL has written to His Excellency the President requesting to make the public aware whether such report, opinion or recommendation do exist and if so whether they in fact recommend or do not recommend such pardon to Duminda Silva. Whilst His Excellency the President has the power and discretion to pardon, such discretion must always be exercised judiciously. Such power must not be exercised arbitrarily and selectively.

The BASL is mindful that in the past too there have been instances where selective pardons have been granted without any material to justify the basis on which the respective prisoners were selected for granting of such pardons, and the BASL has on those occasions strongly taken up the same position which the BASL is now taking up. Any pardon to be granted under Article 34 of the Constitution should be made after a careful analysis of the necessity to grant such a pardon as stipulated in the proviso to Article 34 (1) of the Constitution.

“In the aforesaid circumstances, the BASL has written to His Excellency the President and requested that His Excellency convey to the BASL and to the general public:-

(a)   The basis on which Duminda Silva was selected for the purpose of granting a pardon under Article 34 (1) of the Constitution; (b) The circumstances which were taken into consideration in the granting of such pa(c) The reasons as to why the case of Duminda Silva stands out from others who are currently sentenced;

(b)   Whether a report was called for by His Excellency the President from the Trial      Judges as required by the Proviso to Article 34 (1) prior to granting of the pardon to Duminda Silva and if so the contents of the report;

(c)   Whether the advice of the Attorney General was called for prior to granting of the pardon to Duminda Silva and if so the contents of such advice;

(d)   Whether the recommendation of the Minister of Justice was obtained prior to granting of the pardon to Duminda Silva and if so whether the Minister of Justice made such a recommendation.

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) condemned the “misuse of power granted to the President by the Constitution.” It said that “this flawed precedent on the part of the President has further endangered the future of the country.” The Geneva based Human Rights Council said in a tweet “Presidential pardon of Duminda Silva, a former MP convicted of the murder of a fellow politician, is another example of selective, arbitrary granting of pardons that weaken rule of law and undermines accountability.”

On the foreign front, with just two months to go for the next sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Michele Bachelet sounded a warning in a statement she made to the ongoing 47th session of the Human Rights Council. She said: “In Sri Lanka, I am concerned by further Government measures perceived as targeting Muslims, and by the harassment of Tamils, including in the context of commemoration events for those who died at the end of the war. I am concerned that recent appointments to the Office of Missing Persons and Office for Reparations, and steps to discourage investigations into past crimes, are further undermining victims’ trust. Recent counter-terrorism regulations – which include the listing and/or prohibition of more than 300 Tamil and Muslim groups and individuals for alleged support of terrorism – will also not advance reconciliation. Regulations now permit the arbitrary administrative detention of people for up to two years, without trial for the purposes of de-radicalisation. I also note a continuing series of deaths in police custody and in the context of police encounters with alleged criminal gangs. A thorough, prompt and independent investigation should be conducted. We will continue to engage with the Government, and I will update the Council further at the September session, including on progress in implementing the new accountability mandate.”

It is not clear whether the Foreign Ministry has responded to this statement. The observations made by the Human Rights High Commissioner raises a question on whether she has overstepped her mandate. He concerns on appointments to the Office of Missing Persons and Office of Reparations is misplaced as it is a sovereign right of a government to appoint persons they deem fit for the positions. Additionally, she observes that lifting/prohibition of 300 Tamil and Muslim groups and individuals for alleged support of terrorism not advancing reconciliation is yet again beyond her mandate considering security related aspects.Just a day after Bachelet’s statement was made public, the core group of countries – Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi, Montenegro, and the UK – that moved the Human Rights Council Resolution in Geneva issued a statement. The statement said that “we are deeply concerned about the ongoing use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the recent intention to introduce a rehabilitation process lacking adequate judicial oversight.” The statement calls upon the government to co-operate with the Human Rights Council and the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner in relation to resolution 46/1 and stand ready to support this. The core group statement, whether by design or coincidentally comprises similar elements of Bachelet’s statement demonstrating that the two sides are working in tandem on the Sri Lankan issue.

The Sunday Times learnt that the core group is now in consultation with Human Rights High Commissioner Bachelet and among themselves about a joint announcement. A prelude to the September sessions, diplomatic sources said, it would be a set of measures to show their displeasure at non action by Sri Lanka. Such measures, these sources said, may include travel bans but declined to divulge details. “Whatever decisions we take, we want to ensure they are uniform and are endorsed by all,” said these sources. Whether the Foreign Ministry has the capacity, experienced personnel, and a strategy to counter them remains a critical question.

The government’s pre-occupation continues to be the still uncontrollable COOVID 19 pandemic.

The lock down (officially labelled travel restrictions) ended last Monday, a month. Whilst the coming days and weeks will bare the impact of this lockdown statistics during the period highlight worrying factors. Sri Lanka recorded 83,487 new cases from May 22 to June 21.

The detection during the period shows daily average of 2,693 new patients. Sri Lanka has already recorded over 150,000 cases during the third wave started on 15 April.

By June 24, the total cases remained at 154,172 with 2,258 deaths reported in the third wave. The lockdown was again re-imposed for a 30-hour period from June 23 to 4 a.m. June 25 in order to prevent public interactions during the Poson full moon poya day. It is unlikely that the government may go for further restrictions as such measures pose more immediate threats to country’s economy than the longer-term effects by the pandemic. The decision to lift the lockdown was political, weighing economic reasons against health sector concerns. The Health Ministry issued guideline restricting public activities, with tougher restrictions applying for the Western Province in a bid to maintain the balance of running economy as well as containing the Covid spread. In total, by midnight June 24 Sri Lanka recorded 249,926 with 2,862 deaths. Number of active cases was at 32,456 by yesterday.

On Friday night, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a 69-minute address to the nation. Contrary to various forms of speculation – that he would lower fuel prices, make important decisions – there were none. It turned out to be a catalogue of what he has carried out since he assumed the mantle of presidency. The address was pre-recorded in Anuradhapua in the backdrop of Ruwan Weli Seya.

Though President Rajapaksa did not say so, the government’s economic woes continue amidst the uncontrollable COVID-19 pandemic. It will be trouble shooter Basil Rajapaksa turn to put things right. It is not going to be an easy task. The enemy within is more dangerous than the one outside. He has to be on his guard.

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