President wields axe on Susil to instil discipline among Govt. members; but selective action raises more questions  Controversy rages over Trinco oil tank farm deal with India’s LIOC; trade unions to launch protest campaign against the agreement  For months now, it has been apparent even to the casual observer that not all was well within [...]


Bear it, don’t bare it: There’s a price to pay for dissent


  • President wields axe on Susil to instil discipline among Govt. members; but selective action raises more questions
  •  Controversy rages over Trinco oil tank farm deal with India’s LIOC; trade unions to launch protest campaign against the agreement

 For months now, it has been apparent even to the casual observer that not all was well within the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led Government. Various coalition partners such as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Democratic Left Front (DLF) and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) have been at loggerheads with the SLPP over various issues, with Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and MPs of those parties publicly expressing displeasure over certain decisions of the Government and the way the SLPP was treating them.

MPs who speak out: Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Chandima Weerakkody at a ceremony at Galle Face to mark the birth anniversary of former prime minister and Sri Lanka Freedom Party founder SWRD Bandaranaike.

Issues such as the Government’s handling of the spiralling cost of living, the foreign exchange crisis, the fertiliser fiasco, LP gas related explosions and the agreement to sell shares of the Yugadanavi power plant to the United States-based New Fortress Energy have been among the most prominent issues that have caused friction within Government ranks.

As the disputes have dragged on, the SLPPs’ rhetoric has got increasingly tougher, with some ministers daring the coalition partners to leave the Government while others have called for the sacking of Cabinet Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudewa Nanayakkara after they supported fundamental rights petitions filed in the Supreme Court against the Yugadanavi agreement.

Yet it was one of the SLPP’s own who fell under the presidential axe this week, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa used powers accorded to him by the Constitution to sack State Minister Susil Premajayantha. He was the State Minister of Education Reforms, Open Universities and Distance Learning Promotion. He has long been under the pump ever since being dropped as a cabinet minister to a state minister. He had held portfolios like – Education, Petroleum (when there was some adulterated petrol imported and cars had engine trouble) etc. His dismissal on Tuesday came after he made several critical remarks regarding the Government’s conduct.

In October last year, during the adjournment debate on the reports presented by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), Mr Premajayantha severely criticised the way Parliament was being bypassed in drafting laws.

“We have come to this Parliament to draft laws. It is not right for laws to be drafted elsewhere and submitted here for us to raise our hands in favour of them. We didn’t come to this place straight from the montessori, though there might be some people here like that,” Mr. Premajayantha said at the time. He added that the voters did not elect people like him to become “mere signal poles.”

That speech did not sit well with some in the Government. It was, however, remarks that Mr Premajayantha made to a TV journalist at the weekly market (Sathi Pola) at Delkanda in Nugegoda on Sunday, January 2, that ultimately brought about his downfall.

Commenting on the high prices of goods and the fertiliser shortage, Mr Premajayantha said those who took decisions that precipitated the fertiliser crisis must take responsibility for their actions. Among other controversial remarks made that day were that Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage had “failed” in his duties and that the country’s agriculture sector had not suffered such a calamity even during times of foreign invasion.

The comments were given wide coverage across most major television channels and websites. When the Cabinet met the following day, some ministers including Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando raised issue over the comments. The following day, President’s Spokesman Kingsley Rathnayaka announced that Mr Premajayantha had been sacked. The state minister was not officially informed prior to the decision and learned about his firing over the media.

Explaining his decision while addressing a public event in Siyambalanduwa on Friday, President Rajapaksa said if a state minister publicly claims the Government had failed, he was admitting he himself was a failure. Stressing on the need to abide by collective responsibility, the President claimed that if one minister accused another, it only showed the inefficiency of the person levelling the accusation. “Don’t blame someone else to save your own skin.”

Mr Premajayantha’s dismissal was seen by some as a direct warning to others within the Government to refrain from making comments that would be interpreted as criticising Government policy. Yet this seems to have had little impact. Addressing a public event in Matale the same day that Mr Premajayantha was removed, former President and SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena said that sacking one minister won’t help the Government to cover up what was happening within.

Meanwhile, those SLPP members who have raised issue over Government conduct in the recent past say they will continue to do so. Galle District MP Chandima Weerakkody, also a former cabinet minister who was left out said he did not know on what basis Mr Premajayantha was removed. “We hold a responsibility to the people and the Government to communicate the hardships faced by the people to the highest ranks of the Government. We are playing that role effectively and this is not something that can be controlled in a democracy.”

According to him, it is up to the Government higher-ups to call MPs who raised concerns for a discussion and to brief them if their concerns are wrong. “If we are right, it is up to them to take steps to rectify the shortcomings.”

As of now, public opinion towards the Government is extremely negative, censoring those who speak out, instead of rectifying the shortcomings, will not help either the Government or the people.

Though the Government came to power promising that professionals, the learned and the educated would be consulted and their advice taken into account when making decisions, this has not been done, leading to the current situation faced by the country.

Mr Weerakkody said he would continue to raise his voice on behalf of those who elected him. “As people’s representatives, we have the responsibility to voice their aspirations. If I don’t raise their concerns, who is there to address the aspirations of those who voted for me?”

National Heritage, Performing Arts and Rural Arts Promotion State Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka said he had not seen Mr Premajayantha’s statement at the Delkanda market. As such, he noted it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the statement. Nevertheless, he was sorry about the outcome. “This is a democracy where different ideas and ideologies should be entertained. The President is a learned person, though he is new to politics while the Prime Minister is a seasoned politician. I don’t think they need be bothered by such statements.”

While malicious statements made with the intentions of carrying out character assassinations or fermenting hatred should not be entertained, the Government needs to honour other opinions. “We are at the crossroads. We should put aside politics and get everyone to come together, even the Opposition, and allow them to present solutions to this crisis. We can then select the best solution. If we go down, it will not be just the Government or the Rajapaksas or the party that will go down, but the entire country.”

While the President has the right to sack any minister, it would have been better for both the President and Mr Premajayantha if the President had called the latter for a meeting and asked for his resignation, former minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said. “Given that Susil is a very senior politician who has done a lot for the party and the country, I feel it would have been better for all.”

Mr Yapa too argued that trying to express concerns of the people should not be interpreted as criticism of the Government. For example, many ministers and MPs have had certain reservations regarding the Government’s abrupt agrochemicals policy. These reservations were raised with the Government and publicly as well. Concerns were also raised regarding the way the economy was being managed.

“These are not criticisms. It is completely wrong if the party takes it that way. As senior politicians, we have a right to tell the Government when they are wrong.”

Mr Yapa had been in politics with the SLFP since the age of 25, putting in the work over 10-15 difficult years to develop the SLFP at a time when the United National Party (UNP) ruled the country virtually unchallenged. He had to travel around various electorates to ensure the SLFP’s electoral victory in 1994. The SLPP, meanwhile, emerged as an offshoot of the SLFP. As such, Mr Yapa considers the SLFP and the SLPP to be one party.

“We have spent our youth to develop the party and ensure a new generation of politicians to come up. We were loyal to the SLFP and the SLPP and never crossed over to the UNP. So it is painful for me when certain Government policies lead to those at the grassroots level to become disgruntled.”

He also rejected the argument made by some in the Government that seniors such as himself were speaking out because they were unhappy about not being given Cabinet posts. “We don’t expect positions. If the Government does not want us, that is fine. But we are party stalwarts. We want the Government to discuss these issues faced at the grassroots level, take a step back and address those concerns” said Mr. Yapa who chaired the parliamentary select committee that controversially recommended the sacking of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

Until President Gotabaya Rajapaksa prorogued Parliament last month, Mr Yapa served as Chairman of the Committee on Public Finance (COPF). Following the prorogation, the COPF and many other parliamentary committees including the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) now stand dissolved.

There has been wide speculation that one reason for the prorogation was that some in the Government were unhappy over the conduct of the chairpersons of these committees. The COPE was chaired by Prof. Charitha Herath while COPA was chaired by Prof. Tissa Vitharana. Though all three chairpersons were Government MPs, they had won plaudits even from the Opposition for the way they led these committees.

The exposés made by the committees, though, were seen as embarrassing to the Government, and even the chairpersons of the committees earlier told the Sunday Times they had heard reports that one reason for the prorogation was to replace them.

Mr Yapa does not intend to accept the post of COPF chairman if he were offered it again, nor the chairmanship of any other committee. “These are all-party committees and their chairpersons cannot work in a partisan manner. I feel that there has to be some displeasure regarding the three of us. I will serve as a member of any committee if they appoint me. But even if there has been a slight misunderstanding regarding us, it would not be proper to canvas for such a position.”

While the intention of any Government is to do better, the country’s situation rests on the economic situation. If the economy continues to suffer, dissension will start among the people. If the price of goods shoot up further and shortages continue, the wrath of the people will only increase. Senior politicians are trying to tell the Government how to avoid this, so they can take steps to make people happy. One must not take it as going against the Government, Mr Yapa remarked. Doing nothing will create a vacuum for another group to step in. This will only end up hurting the party and the Government.

Those who have supported the removal of Mr Premajayantha and are calling for action against others who air dissenting views in public contend that Government MPs must safeguard collective responsibility and only raise their concerns behind closed doors. Highways Minister and Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando said as much when questioned by journalists whether ministers were not allowed to have a “backbone” in the Government to question certain decisions. “The backbone is for speaking within the Government,” he said.

Mr Yapa disagrees. “I don’t agree with the argument that we should keep it within the ranks. It is our constitutional right to raise these issues. This is not to help any other party. If they can’t understand that, it is their problem, not ours.”

Controversy over oil tank farm deal

As controversy surrounding Mr Premajayantha’s dismissal continues, the Government on Thursday announced the signing of the agreement with the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) to develop the Trincomalee oil tank farm. The agreement was signed by three parties — the Government of Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the LIOC. Accordingly, the 2003 lease agreement regarding the Trincomalee oil tanks has been terminated and the tank complex will now be divided between three institutions for 50 years. The CPC will hold 24 tanks, whilst Trinco Petroleum Terminal Company (TPTC) will hold 61 tanks and LIOC will hold 14 tanks.

TPTC is a subsidiary of the CPC, which owns 51% of the new company’s shares while LIOC owns 49%, the Energy Ministry said. The TPTC’s Director Board consists of four members appointed by the CPC and three by the LIOC. The Chairman of the new company is also appointed by the CPC.

The new agreements will be presented to the Cabinet on January 10 and to Parliament on January 18, the first day it reconvenes for the new year. These agreements will be posted on the official website of the CPC on 11 January, the Energy Ministry said.

The fact that the agreement was signed before it was presented to the Cabinet for approval raises eyebrows, especially given that Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila has been among the most vocal critics of the Yugadanavi agreement, which he insists was not shown to the Cabinet. If the minister finds issue with the Yugadanavi agreement not being shown to the Cabinet, how is he fine with the Trincomalee oil tank farm agreement being shown to the Cabinet after being signed? Is the Cabinet merely supposed to rubber stamp the agreement?

Some trade unions within the CPC and other sectors such as ports and the power sector have come out strongly against the agreement, along with several civil society organisations. The Jathik Bhikkhu Peramuna has already signed a fundamental rights petition with the Supreme Court challenging the agreement.

Mr Gammanpila claimed he had already held four rounds of talks with trade unions to discuss the situation with the oil tank farm and agreements to develop them. “I even held a public debate with them on TV, but some of these unions are controlled by various political parties and they will act on instructions of these parties no matter what we say.”

While trade union held discussions with the Energy Minister on the subject, the Cabinet Papers the minister presented were in complete opposition to what had been discussed with the unions, charged Asoka Ranwala, President of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) aligned Petroleum General Employees Union.

Mr Ranwala, who is also convener of the Trade Union Collective to Protect Petroleum Resources, claimed Mr Gammanpila, who had worked hard with trade unions to defeat the attempt made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to “hand the oil tanks to India on a platter,” was now trying to do the same thing.

“He went to the extent of saying this is among the greatest betrayals the country has faced since the 1815 Kandyan Convention and the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord. This is a commercial agreement that will also threaten our sovereignty, he alleged.

Unions will formally launch their campaign against the agreement by holding a protest in Trincomalee town on Thursday. A seminar on the agreement’s negative impact on the country will also be held at the auditorium of the Trincomalee Municipal Council the same day.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to India looks set to be delayed after the “Vibrant Gujarat” summit due to be held from January 10 to 12 was postponed owing to a surge in COVID-19 numbers in the country.

Mr Rajapaksa will miss the opportunity to have a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the event. Mr Modi was supposed to inaugurate the event on January 10.

Susil Premajayantha

Premajayantha says as a people’s representative, he is duty bound to point out Govt.’s faults

Having served as a cabinet minister in various Governments since 2000, sacked state minister Susil Premajayantha told the Sunday Times he had no interest in serving as a state minister in the current Government. “I accepted the post because I was interested in education reform. I believe we should reform our education in line with the 21st Century.”

Over the past three months, however, the country’s situation started to go from bad to worse as the LP gas issue, kerosene shortage, foreign exchange crisis, fertiliser crisis, shortages of essential items and resulting high prices led to more and more misery being heaped on the people. Yet there were no meaningful group meetings of the Government’s parliamentary group during these times to discuss these issues.

“As representatives of the people, it is up to us to point these issues out,” Mr Premajayantha stressed, but lamented that this was seen by some within the party as attacking the Government.

Regarding the comments he made in Parliament regarding how the legislature was being bypassed when drafting new laws, the MP pointed out that even the drafting of the proposed new Constitution was being done by legal experts from outside Parliament. “Drafting laws is the duty of the legislature. Technical support, however, can be obtained from outside. This has been the practice since the 1972 Republican Constitution. Even under Yahapalanaya, a Parliamentary Select Committee was appointed and six sub committees, with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe chairing all committee meetings. I pointed this out. I have not criticised Government policy.”

Meanwhile, senior party members such as Mr Premajayantha were continuously sidelined in parliamentary debates. Those who knew the subject were allocated far shorter times during the debates while those who did not know what they were talking about but were good at slinging mud and carrying out character assassinations were given far more time to speak.

One most recent example was the recent Budget debate when the head of expenditure of the Justice Ministry was taken up. “Usually, it is the MPs who are also lawyers who get the most time and opportunity to speak in this debate since they are well versed in the subject. But during the last budget debate, only a few lawyers spoke at the Committee Stage. A lot of time was given to certain non-lawyers, whose only qualification to speak about the subject was that they are the accused in various court cases.”

Mr Premajayantha also scoffed at claims that his recent TV interview at the Delkanda market was a staged attempt to hit out at the Government. He said that for the past 45 years, since his childhood days, he had been a frequent visitor to the market to buy provisions. “I played a big part in obtaining the land to which the market shifted around 2012. It was on my visit there last Sunday that a media person who was visiting and interviewing people about the prices of goods saw me and asked me a question about the high prices of chillies, which were being sold at Rs. 1200 a kilo. I told him that this was the result of the non-application of fertiliser and pesticides, pointing out that the people were suffering.”

The senior politician and former General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is perplexed as to what those who criticised him for his comments wanted him to say in such a situation. “I only pointed out what happened. Am I to remain quiet or say that everything is fine? What would people who were nearby think if I had said such a thing?”

He said some people “with limited knowledge” who “don’t understand the pulse of the people,” had clamoured afterwards to criticise him over the comments and seek his removal. “We are living in an era of slaves. To run a Government, you need people with integrity, knowledge and professionalism. If you look at the CVs of many ministers and MPs, you will know how few are properly qualified to hold their jobs.”

One of the main reasons for the current crisis is that the Government has not properly utilised the country’s public service, he opined. While the public service has very good officers, the practice has been to put political appointees to lead them. “How many ministry secretaries have resigned in recent months? All of them have been appointed from outside. They must take the blame for what has happened.”

Since his removal, the MP has gone back to his legal practice. He had been in active practice from 1985 to 1995 prior to entering politics. He had practised law from time to time even after entering politics. “I was in courts even on the day prior to them asking me to accept the state minister post, so this is nothing new to me.”

Mr Premajayantha had bought two lottery tickets that day at the Delkanda Market and afterwards compared his sacking to winning the lottery. All the publicity he had received since then has been good for him as a politician, he claimed.

Some within the SLPP have called for further action against the former state minister. He believes any further action will only be better for him.

“As someone who understands the pulse of the people, I was merely conveying what they thought,” Mr Premajayantha stated. “It is unfortunate that there are those (within the Government) who do not understand that pulse.”


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