Celebrating Ups and Downs | Daily News

Celebrating Ups and Downs

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

The Good Governance Government, which came to power after the Parliamentary election on August 17 last year, celebrates its first anniversary in less than two weeks.

However, it is all too evident that the government cannot drown itself in a celebratory mood as it is yet to overcome many challenges on many a front. Mainly, the government has to salvage the country from the current economic mire, which is a direct result of the previous government’s extravagant spending and ill-planned projects.

Although the government attempted to resolve the issue by increasing taxes, it has created more problems for the current administration. Even though the two major stakeholder of the government, the UNP and the SLFP, were on the same page about the matter, the process hit another snag yesterday when Supreme Court decreed that due procedure, had not been followed, when presenting the VAT Amendment Bill to Parliament. This situation has compelled the government to find a fresh way-out to proceed with the move and increase its revenue.

Accountability

On the other hand, the government has had to deal with some serious challenges on the reconciliation and accountability front. When it co-sponsored the resolution presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last year, the government pledged to take comprehensive steps to ensure reconciliation and accountability. However, nearly12 months later, the government is yet to unveil its detailed plan for accountability, which is dubbed by many as a “hybrid” mechanism.


Hirunika Premachandra

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration appointed a 11-member Consultation Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms, under the Prime Minister’s Office, to hold a series of meetings throughout the island, seeking public opinion on steps towards reconciliation. The task force, appointed in January, is part of the government’s grand plan for ethnic and religious reconciliation.

An important figure who met the government’s task force for reconciliation was Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran. After his statement to the task force, Vigneswaran told the Hindu newspaper that what he understood was that once the government informed the UNHRC in Geneva in March next year that political settlement of the Tamil question was in the offing, the international community would not bother about Sri Lanka.

He commented further on the matter when he addressed the Tamil People’s Council over the weekend. The Northern Province Chief Minister is the Co-Chairman of the Tamil People’s Council which has adopted a ‘harder’ approach on the issue of accountability.

“Accountability for war crimes allegedly committed during the last phase of the Eelam War must be established, before the Sri Lankan Government formulates a new constitution to address the basic political question,” Vigneswaran said, addressing the Council.

“I heard from someone involved in the constitution-making exercise, that the government was planning to brush accountability under the carpet by showing the international community before the September session of the UN Human Rights Council, that it was seriously working on a new constitution to address the political grievances of the Tamils. The plan is to get the new constitution passed by the March session of the UNHRC,” he added.

“By doing so, the government hoped that it could divert its attention from the accountability issue and urge the Tamils to look to the future rather than look back at the past. It is essential for any Sinhalese-dominated government in Sri Lanka not to be seen letting down the predominantly Sinhalese armed forces,” Vignewaran had said, at the meeting, according to a report carried in the New Indian Express report.

While the Northern Province Chief Minister is beating the Tamil ultra-nationalist drum, the pro-Rajapaksa camp too is attempting its best to hamper the reconciliation process of the government. As much as the Northern Province Chief Minister is reliant on Tamil nationalism, the Rajapaksa group is dependent on Sinhala nationalism, as a political strategy.

Rabble-rousing

When the Rajapaksa group launched its ‘Paada Yatra’ campaign last week, one of their main demands was to abandon the government’s plan for an accountability mechanism. It also expressed strong opposition to the process of formulating a new constitution, dubbing it a “death trap”. These slogans, needless to say, can gain momentum among traditional Sinhala-Buddhist voters at the grassroots level and can boomerang on the ruling alliance, at some point. While dealing with Vigneswaran’s ultra-nationalism in the North, the government will also have to ‘manage’ Rajapaksa’s rabble-rousing in the South.

At the same time, the government has come under pressure from international stakeholders to deliver on its promises on reforms, accountability and reconciliation. The international crisis groups are of the opinion that the government’s ‘words’ on meaningful reforms are yet to translate into action.

For instance, Alan Keenan, the Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst, said, in June this year, that progress on implementing the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution has been slow and often grudging, and that there are growing doubts about the government’s political will and ability to see the complex process through.

“Unfortunately, the entire programme risks collapse unless new energy, focus and resources are brought to bear. A weakening economy and slow going on most other fronts have led to waning support from the key constituencies that brought the government to power – Tamils, Muslims and reform-minded Sinhalese. Belief in the possibility of meaningful progress is fading across the board,” he said.

“First, the government lacks technical capacity and trained personnel on key issues. Second, there is no unified strategy for advancing reforms – with the SLFP split between Sirisena’s wing and supporters of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and often at odds with the UNP, particularly on economic policy. Third, the administration has not mounted a coherent public relations campaign to sell its successes and build support for the more politically controversial aspects of its programme, including transitional justice,” Keenan added, commenting on the national unity government’s efforts towards meaningful reforms.

Divisions

Another key challenge for the government, at this juncture, is to get every member of the ruling coalition on the same page about its comprehensive reforms process. When the ruling coalition, led by President Maithripala Sirisena campaigned for the last Presidential election, they pushed for the total abolition of the Executive Presidency. It drew strong support from the electorate, and the President, after coming to power, has reiterated his commitment to fully abolish the Executive Presidency. The majority of UNP Parliamentarians too, have expressed their willingness to fully abolish Executive Presidency and return to a Westminster system.

However, the SLFP, led by the President, has a different view on the matter. Its seniors, namely S.B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera, have clearly stated that the party wants to retain the Executive Presidency. On the surface, it looks as if there is a difference of opinion between the President and the party seniors over the abolition of Executive Presidency. However, the SLFP, as a party, has already told media that it will present a proposal to the committee formulating the new constitution to retain the Executive Presidency. The SLFP’s position on the matter has come as a disappointment of sorts to those who campaigned for good governance before the last Presidential election.

However, it is important to admit that the government has already achieved remarkable progress when it comes to freedom and democracy. Under the new government, Sri Lanka improved from 165th position to 141st in the world media freedom index and it was a clear indication of the democratic space enjoyed by citizens-at-large. State-orchestrated attacks on journalists and white van abductions have come to an end, and civilians in the North have been given access to their lands. The government has shown that it is willing to listen to the citizens’ collective on controversial matters and the appointment of Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy as the Central Bank Governor is a clear manifestation of that policy.

However, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has a long way to go. Both parties have already agreed that they will work together for five years and it ensures political stability to proceed with the promised reforms. But, it is also important to ensure that the key stakeholders of the government have ‘political will’ to facilitate meaningful reforms, without their individual agendas standing in the way. It seems that this is one of the key challenges to the ‘Good Governance Government’, at this juncture.

SLFP

When the SLFP Central Committee met on Thursday night at the President’s House, the majority of the Committee members insisted that the party should take action against the rebel group. The Central Committee meeting took place a few days after the Joint Opposition’s ‘Paada Yatra’ and the majority of members were livid at the conduct of the rebel group.

They first discussed the matter of several Local Government representatives of the party burning the letters sent to them by the party headquarters, calling for interviews to assess their suitability to contest on the SLFP ticket at the Local Government election. The Central Committee members said on no uncertain terms that burning the official letters sent by the party headquarters was a grave insult to the SLFP.

At this point, the party unanimously decided to initiate tough action against them. The Central Committee assigned the party’s Disciplinary Committee to take necessary action in this regard.

Meanwhile, a group of Central Committee members highlighted a statement by Puttalam district MP Sanath Nishantha saying that the latter did not accept the leadership of party Chairman, President Maithripala Sirisena.

Nishantha had reportedly launched a verbal barrage against President Sirisena during a recent television show and its footage was widely shared on social media platforms.

The Central Committee then unanimously decided to initiate immediate disciplinary action against MP Nisantha on the basis that there was sufficient evidence to prove that he had rejected President Maithripala Sirisena’s leadership. The Parliamentarian’s party membership was suspended ahead of a disciplinary inquiry into his conduct.

The Committee also agreed to entrust the Disciplinary Committee with the task of identifying those who insulted the party and its leadership during the ‘Paada Yatra’ protest march, launched by the Joint Opposition. A senior Parliamentarian of the party said the inquiry would cover those who hooted outside the party headquarters on the final day of the ‘Paada Yatra’.

However, it is interesting to see if the UPFA rebel group will cooperate with the party’s disciplinary process. MP Sanath Nishantha told reporters on Sunday that he would not accept the party’s Central Committee decision, indicating that he would not cooperate with the Disciplinary Committee’s proceedings. MP Dilum Amunugama, another member of the rebel group, said they would go to court if the party decided to suspend their membership. These remarks have widened the gap between the two warring groups of the SLFP.

Responding to the rebel group’s remarks, Minister Chandima Weerakkody, a stalwart of the SLFP, told our sister paper, the Sunday Observer, on Saturday that the Disciplinary Committee could initiate ex-parte action against dissidents if they did not cooperate with the process.

“The SLFP Central Committee is resolute that it has to maintain party discipline at all cost and a special disciplinary committee will look into cases of violation of discipline,” the Minister said, indicating that the party had taken the issue of dissidents quite seriously.

“If anyone wants to take legal action there has to be a basis for it. People can’t resort to legal action without a valid reason. The judiciary is independent. Any person is free to go before Courts and seek relief. However, wrongdoers will not be protected by the judiciary,” he said.

Hirunika

Parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra, no stranger to news, found herself in hot water, last year, over the alleged abduction of a youth employed at a shop in Dematagoda. The abduction was allegedly carried out by Premachandra’s bodyguards and it was alleged that the youth was forcibly taken away in a black Defender jeep registered under Premachandra’s name.

The youth, after being released from his enforced detention, lodged a complaint with the Police against the 29-year-old Parliamentarian and her bodyguards. After his abduction, he was taken to Premachandra where he claims she threatened him stating that he could be ‘lifted’ again if necessary.

Premachandra, a lawyer by profession, was quick to deny the allegations. She said she was at a function at the Colombo Municipal Council where President Sirisena was also in attendance.

But a few days later, the Parliamentarian changed her position saying she had only tried to intervene in a personal dispute to prevent the breakup of a family. However, Premachandra vehemently denied the claim that she threatened the youth, saying instead that she had only advised him against having an extra-marital relationship.

A few weeks later, the Police, based on the advice of the Attorney General’s Department, arrested Premachandra under the charges of aiding and abetting the abduction, wrongful confinement and intimidation of the youth.

The Police arrested the Parliamentarian at her Havelock Town apartment. She was driven off in a Police jeep to the CCD office at Dematagoda before her statement was recorded and was produced before Additional Magistrate Mohamed Mihail at Hulftsdorp. She was granted bail of Rs. 200,000 each of two sureties. She was released on bail a few hours after the arrest and this decision came under fire from many circles on social media platforms, at that point.

In an interesting turn of events, the Attorney General, last week, filed indictments in the Colombo High Court against Premachandra and eight others for their alleged involvement in the abduction.

Apart from the abduction charges, the nine accused have been charged on 29 counts including threatening, assaulting and intimidating the victim, Amila Priyankara, after the alleged abduction.

The accused who were indicted are; MP Hirunika Premachandra, Kelum Niranjana, Kasun Malinda, Ruwan Pushpakumara, Mohammed Rizwan, Pasindu Sanjeewa, P.S. Abeysiriwardena and Jeganadacal. The eight accused, aside from Premachandra were the security officers and supporters of Premachandra.

The AG department’s move to indict Premachandra was welcomed by many good governance activists as it showed that the law enforcement mechanism was independent to great degree. Strengthening of the country’s law enforcement mechanism to take action against wrong-doers, irrespective of their political allegiance and loyalties, can be construed as another ‘victory’ achieved by the government, over the past 16 months. 


 

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