President ready for talks with striking unions, IMF deal likely tomorrowView(s):
- Unions expect positive response from Govt., seek an interim solution
- IUSF leader Wasantha Muadlige holds talks with Jaffna University student leaders, who present demands similar to those of LTTE
- UNHRC oral update on Lanka in June; periodic review brings bouquets and brickbats
By Our Political Editor
Last Wednesday’s strike by some 47 member unions of the Professionals’ Trade Union Alliance (PTUA) did cripple some sectors badly. The worst hit were the schools countrywide followed by services at state-run hospitals and Railways.
Though it did not affect the people directly, there were disruptions at the Colombo Port, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and in District Secretariats where Development Officers and Agricultural Officers were among those who struck work.
This in essence is how the strike action played out. Behind-the-scenes developments during this week’s work stoppage raise serious questions over their efficacy at a repeat. One is the move by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) that called off the strike at 8 a.m. on Thursday morning.
It has now transpired that the association has been engaged in a dialogue at the highest levels of the government. So much so, GMOA leaders met President Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss amendments to the existing Inland Revenue Act, and incorporate proposals forwarded by professional groups including the GMOA. In fact, the GMOA had earlier written to President Wickremesinghe on March 13 on the subject too. A string of decisions had been made.
It was only on March 13 that Presidential Secretary Saman Ekanayake replied to the letter to President Wickremesinghe. He confirmed that:
- Attaching the decisions taken at the meeting held on March 13.
- The President had directed him (Ekanayake) to inform the GMOA that he wishes to continue the dialogue with the trade unions to resolve the issues raised by the GMOA and other trade unions.
- The President is of the view that through constructive consultation process, we should be able to submit a viable proposal to the IMF at its first Review Meeting which will be held in a few months.
- The President will be meeting the GMOA and other trade unions for further discussions in due course.
The letter has been addressed to Dr. Darshana Sirisena, the GMOA President and copied to Dr Haritha Aluthge, its secretary.
The significance of President Wickremesinghe’s response, sent through Secretary Ekanayake, is the endorsement to call upon the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during a Review Meeting to revise the taxes that have been imposed. Of course, such a move would take time. At first, the IMF Board would have to approve the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of US$ 2.9 billion when it meets tomorrow. Such an approval is now a certainty and will pave the way for other multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to advance funds — a move regarded as a feather in the cap of President Wickremesinghe.
At a meeting of the Professionals’ Trade Union Alliance (PTUA) on March 15, the GMOA had tabled a copy of Presidential Secretary Ekanayake’s letter. Thereafter, PTUA Convenor Kasun Gamage wrote to Mr. Ekanayake on March 16, just a day after the strike. The letter said: “Request for an early appointment to discuss ways of amending the present Inland Revenue Act, incorporating proposals forwarded by the professional groups including the GMOA:
“I write with reference to your letter dated 14.03.2023 on the above heading, which was tabled at the Professionals’ Trade Union Alliance (PTUA) meeting on 15th March 2023, by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA).
“We the Professionals’ Trade Union Alliance (PTUA) wish to express our gratitude that the Hon. President has agreed to meet the PTUA at an early date to discuss and resolve our concerns regarding the injustice resulting from the Inland Revenue Act.
“However, while appreciating this recognition of the justice of our demands, we wish to categorically state that the PTUA does not agree with Point 1 of the annexure, as we are unable and unwilling to postpone redress of our just demands for six months, given the huge difficulties faced by our members. Furthermore, we reiterate that Point 4 regarding an allowance in the fourth quarter of 2023 is also too little too late.
“Hence, we agree to a meeting which is free of pre-conditions such as the above and look forward to a speedy and equitable resolution of this national crisis.
“We hereby request that this meeting is held on or before 22nd March 2023, given the urgency of the problem. Unfortunately, if we are not provided with this opportunity within this timeframe, we may be compelled to resort to stronger trade union action.”
Though the letter contains a threat of further action if the unions, like the GMOA, are not provided with an opportunity to meet the President, it makes clear that they are seeking to resort to a negotiation process. At least until that time, major strike action is not expected. On Friday, a PTUA delegation met Presidential Secretary Ekanayake for a preliminary discussion. It included representatives of the GMOA as well.
Secretary Ekanayake is learnt to have explained that the demand of the unions to revise taxes would take as much as six months. The PTUA took up the position that until then, there should be an interim settlement. However, government leaders are of the view that such a settlement is not possible without risking the existing arrangement with the IMF. Ekanayake disclosed at the meeting that an official team has already been tasked to carry out a study on the impact of reducing taxes or reducing other taxation without damaging the sources of revenue to the state. He said that President Wickremesinghe would be apprised of the outcome of the meeting and an early date would be obtained to discuss matters further.
Whatever the positions of the trade union alliance were, Wednesday’s strike affected the people badly. Thousands of patients, including those who turned up for their regular clinics, at Outdoor Patient Departments (OPD) or collect their monthly quota of medicines were turned away on Wednesday.
At the Colombo National Hospital, there were patients who had come from areas such as Kalutara, Gampaha and Avissawella. Some had spent Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for their transport. Some of them were told to return the following week or two weeks later.
“I was told to call over at the hospital for a checkup after an operation was performed on me a month back. But I have been told to return in two weeks. I have to wait until then to see if the operation was successful,” Anula Manage from Matugama said. The unions, however, claimed that their work stoppage was a success. Here is a cross-section of the views.
Teacher Services Union General Secretary Mahinda Jayasinghe: “Teachers’ strike held on Wednesday, March 15 was a success. We were able to give a message to the Government by conducting this strike. After calling off the one-day strike on Wednesday, we wrote to the Ministry of education seeking eight demands.
“Though the professionals carry out the protests on the tax policy (PAYE tax), we are protesting over multiple reasons. Some of our demands are to urge the Government to settle our salary anomalies or else provide a Rs 20,000 allowance until that is given, provide promotions, reduce the interest on bank loans, ensure the nutrition of schoolchildren, and reduce school maintenance expenditures forced on parents.
“We are currently planning our future moves. According to circumstances we would decide whether we would engage the protest along with the Professionals’ Trade Union Alliance.”
Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers Union Joint secretary Isuru Kasthuriratne: “The CEB engineers took sick leave on Wednesday, March 15 to support the Professionals’ Trade Union Alliance’s trade union actions against the new tax policy.
“Apart from that we are also showing our displeasure at attempts by the Minister and a group of Ministry officials to restructure the CEB without our knowledge. They have not even discussed with us the restructuring. Therefore, we are carrying out a work-to-rule campaign from March 14 to 21. Our work-to-rule union action is still ongoing, yet we are not escalating our action as we expect to have smooth discussions with the President during next week.”
Federation of University Teachers Association President Shyama Banneheka: “Our islandwide strike was successful, we are continuing our strike islandwide. We are expecting a positive response from the Government next week. We would resume academic activities if the Government gave a positive response.”
In schools, most of the term tests were postponed while thousands of students themselves stayed away as teachers had told them in advance that they would not be turning up at school on the following day.
More than 90 percent of the teachers did not attend schools. As a result, some of the schools were not even opened for the day.
At universities, too, academic activities were disrupted as lecturers kept off their duties along with the non-academic staff. Postal services were brought to a standstill with no distribution of letters while most post offices too were closed. More than 90 percent of the workers in the postal section had stayed away from work. At several government offices, too, people who called over were turned away on the grounds that there were no officers to attend to their work. The trade union action had a bearing on foreigners in many ways. Some of them who had booked train tickets were made aware of the strike only when they turned up at the station.
There were several tourists who turned up at the Nanu Oya railway station to proceed to Ella by train but were disappointed due to the cancellation of the trains. Among them were those who wanted to have a view of the scenic beauty on their way to Ella. The strike had an impact on other sectors, too. There was a strong message in this. If tourism were to be developed further, there should be normalcy. Otherwise, it could act as a deterrent to tourists visiting Sri Lanka. A propaganda campaign to say all systems are working is of no avail and raises a serious credibility issue for the Government. More so when the strike has had the opposite effect. In the process, the official position that the strike did not affect any sector is laughable and has no basis. On the other hand, telling the people the truth — the damage caused by the strike — would have won more public sympathy and support. Alas, the state publicists were resorting to archaic propaganda methods that are counterproductive. Three-wheel drivers, vegetable vendors and even those selling lunch parcels complained of a loss of income as those who turned up in the city dropped sharply.
There were also other developments of some significance. Here are the highlights:
A nexus between student bodies in Colombo and Jaffna
The Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) was at the Jaffna University trying to win the support of their counterparts there for joint campaigns. The IUSF team from the south was led by convenor Wasantha Mudalige, who was involved in anti-government protests in Colombo earlier. He and his colleagues held talks at the Jaffna campus with their student counterparts.
Jaffna University student leader Kannan tweeted the demands they had placed before Mudalige and his colleagues. They are:
- It should be accepted that the Tamil people, native to the Northern and Eastern provinces are a distinct nation with a distinct language, religion and cultural identity.
- It should be accepted that the combined North East provinces are traditional Tamil homeland.
- Accept that Tamils deserve the right to self-determination.
- It should be accepted that Tamils have the right to self-determination which is inclusive of every race, and thereby Tamils have the right to determine their political destiny.
- Accept that Tamils should be given the opportunity to decide their political destiny through an internationally monitored referendum.
- It should be accepted that justice should be given through the international justice mechanism to the genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and enforced disappearances perpetrated against the Tamils.
- It should be accepted that the occupying army stationed in the Tamil homeland should be withdrawn.
As is clear, the above demands are akin to those promoted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when they launched an armed campaign against the troops. How and why the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) convenor Wasantha Mudalige chose it fit to discuss these issues with their counterparts in Jaffna after the Tiger guerrillas have been defeated 14 years ago is a critical question.
An oral update on Sri Lanka due at UNHRC sessions in Geneva in June
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June will hear an oral update on Sri Lanka and the latest on the outcome of its investigations (by the new Secretariat) into economic crimes that constitute violations of human rights.
This is consequent to resolution 51/1 on reconciliation in Sri Lanka and will be the first verbal update. Already the Council has concluded the Universal Periodic Review on Sri Lanka, with the country receiving both bouquets and brickbats. Here are a few highlights:
The Human Rights Committee concluded its consideration of the sixth periodic report of Sri Lanka on how it implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with Committee Experts commending actions taken to resettle internally displaced persons and raising issues concerning the effectiveness of constitutional reform and impunity for military officers who had allegedly committed or overseen human rights violations.
A Committee Expert noted progress made in settling internally displaced persons. They welcomed that 92 percent of the private land held by the military had been released to legitimate civilian owners.
Another Expert said constitutional reform through the 20th amendment in 2020 undermined the independence of the judiciary and gave the President unfettered control over the appointment of senior judges, members of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and other entities responsible for protecting rights. Since then, the 21st amendment had been adopted in 2022 to re-establish the Constitutional Council and reinstate the former appointment procedure for such positions. How would the State ensure that future constitutional amendments protected of the independence of the judiciary and of other independent human rights institutions?
One Committee Expert said Staff Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, who was convicted of killing eight Tamil villagers in 2000, was released by presidential pardon in 2020. The overreach of executive power was of great concern and fostered impunity for perpetrators of grave offences. What measures were in place to oversee presidential pardons? How would justice for victims of human rights violations be ensured? The promotion of several military officers to senior command positions despite serious allegations of involvement of troops under their command in gross violations of international human rights law was concerning. The State party had even devoted a section of its report justifying the appointment to Chief of Staff Major General Shavendra Silva, the subject of numerous allegations of human rights violations.
On internally displaced persons, the delegation said a special unit had been established. 2,324 internally displaced persons were currently housed in welfare centres and 13.3 acres of State land were allocated to those families. The President had appointed a committee to classify land as forest land. If security forces wanted to maintain land, a mechanism allowed them to lease it from the owners.
Himalee Arunatilaka, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva and head of the delegation, reported that in October 2022 the Parliament of Sri Lanka passed the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, further strengthening democratic governance, independent oversight of key institutions, the composition of the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions. The 21st amendment stipulated that it was the duty of the Constitutional Council to recommend commission members to the President. Recommendations had to consider gender balance.
The delegation said the Government rejected unsubstantiated accusations against Sri Lankan military officials. No factual or proven allegations of human rights violations existed against Major General Shavendra Silva. Those appointed to Government office were qualified based on experience and expertise. Presidential pardons could be subject to judicial review and some cases were underway in this regard.
In concluding remarks, Ms. Arunatilaka said that since its sixth periodic report, many developments had taken place within Sri Lanka including on gender equality, reconciliation and the adopted 21st amendment to the Constitution. There were still constraints and issues that needed to be addressed, as in all countries, to ensure civil and political rights for all people in Sri Lanka. She reiterated the Government’s commitment to protecting the human rights for all the people of Sri Lanka.
Tania María Abdo Rocholl, Committee Chairperson, in concluding remarks, said the meetings were an important space to address issues including constitutional reform, accountability for serious human rights violations, the independence of the judiciary, internally displaced persons, national religious hatred, and the right to peaceful assembly, amongst others. The Committee sought better cooperation with the Government of Sri Lanka to better implement the Covenant.
The delegation of Sri Lanka was made up of representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Women, The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Public Security, the Department of Prisons, the Office on Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation; and the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Human Rights Committee’s 137th session is being held from February 27 to March 24.
Local council elections
It has become increasingly clear that the local council elections will not be held though the Election Commission has now fixed the date for April 25. Even the conduct of the postal vote has been stymied after Government Printer Gangani Kalpana Liyanage said her department was not in a position to print the ballot papers.
The development comes two weeks after a group of opposition political leaders wrote to EC Chairman Nimal Punchihewa and members of the Election Commission to re-fix the date of elections on a date before today (March 20) “as required by law or the earliest possible date without any further delay.” The signatories were Vijitha Herath, G.L. Peiris, Mano Ganesan, Rishad Bathiuddin, Rauff Hakeem, Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, M.A. Sumanthiran and Dayasiri Jayasekera.
Their letter said: “We write consequent to the order of the Supreme Court on 3rd March 2023, in SC FR 69/2023 restraining the Minister of Finance, the Secretary to the Treasury and others from withholding necessary funds for the conduct of the Local Government Elections that was scheduled to be held on 9th March 2023. The Court has also made a further order to the Government Printer in respect to the printing of ballot papers.
“You gave an undertaking in SC Writ 6/2023 and SC Writ 7/2023 that you will hold the said elections according to law. You are aware that according to the law, the said elections should be held on 19th March 2023. When the Secretary to the Treasury and the Government Printer did not cooperate with you, you filed a motion in the aforesaid two cases seeking the court’s direction on them.
“Now that the Supreme Court has removed the only impediment to holding the elections according to law, it is your imperative duty to conduct the said elections on or before 19th March 2023. We do not see any reason why you should consult the Secretary to the Treasury or anyone else, now that they are bound to comply with the interim order issued by the Supreme Court as aforesaid.”
The main preoccupation for the government leaders in the coming week will be the outcome of the IMF Board meeting. The approval of US$ 2.9 billion Extended Fund Facility (EFF) would be a major morale booster. No doubt, any future strikes could not only be a damper but also highly damaging. No amount of propaganda to the contrary would help if that happened.
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