1 October, 2020

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The Difficult Questions The President & The Polity Need To Answer 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

The dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe following the withdrawal of the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena from the government alliance has become yet another source of instability within the polity. It has also caused international ripples with the governments of many countries publicly expressing their concerns and the UK issuing a travel advisory to its citizens to be careful when traveling to Sri Lanka in the near future. Therefore the sooner this crisis is resolved the better it will be for the country. It is to be hoped that all parties concerned will act with restraint. The desire to corner the other and utterly defeat it can be a cause for further instability that outlives the present crisis.

The main issue at stake is the transfer of power from one government to another and this needs to be done in conformity with the Rule of Law or else the longer term consequences can be catastrophic. In his first address to the nation after the change of government, President Maithripala Sirisena explained his motivation in sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He spoke of corruption, an assassination plot against him and the sale of national assets to foreign parties, among others. These were all serious issues. But he did not mention the issue that was considered the elephant in the room during their period of cohabitation. This was contentious issue, to which the answer is still far from clear, as to who would be the presidential candidate on the government side.

It is now generally believed that President Sirisena is not interested to adhere to his one-time promise to be a single term president. The increasingly contentious relationship between the president and prime minister, and their two respective parties, the SLFP and UNP, made it unlikely that either UNP voters or UNP leaders would have wanted him to be the beneficiary of their votes once again. But if contesting the presidency is his ambition, then President Sirisena will have a challenging task ahead. He will need to restore the confidence of the people that he has acted wisely and in conformity with the Rule of Law which exists to ensure social peace and justice.

Constitutional Crisis 

In his speech justifying his action in sacking Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the president gave much emphasis and spent most of his time in elaborating on his abhorrence of corruption. However, he failed to explain why he had appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister when he had accused him of abuse of power, violation of human rights and corruption in the past. During the past three years, during which time President Sirisena has been head of state, and chairs the meetings of the cabinet, the former president and his close asssociates were regularly assailed for having engaged in corruption, abuse of power and violation of human rights during their period of supremacy in the country. Some of the former president’s close family members had corruption cases filed against them in the courts of law and even had to spend time in remand custody. These cases are likely to get stalled if not thrown out in the present circumstances.

It is worthy of note, and remembrance, that President Sirisena was elected in 2015 by the votes of people who rejected corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations that had reached excessive proportions and had made Sri Lanka a virtual pariah state in the eyes of the international community. Just a week before he sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka had obtained first place in the world for being the best country to visit, on account of its enjoyment of democratic freedoms among others. Chief amongst those who campaigned for presidential candidate Sirisena at those elections was Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. But on Friday last week, even as the courts of law closed for the weekend, and no immediate recourse to them was possible, he appointed his former nemesis as the prime minister and thereafter sacked the man who had campaigned for him.

Dr Asanga Welikala who teaches law at Edinburgh University has analysed the events on Friday evening in the following manner-“Indeed, the whole set of circumstances suggest not the way a change of government ought to occur in a democracy, but the sharp practices associated with a constitutional coup, which is likely to lead to a constitutional crisis. It is a constitutional coup because the serving Prime Minister has not legally ceased to function in office before a new Prime Minister has been appointed. And it will lead to an unprecedented constitutional crisis because there are now two competing Prime Ministers and their parties jostling for power, authority, and legitimacy at the very heart of the state.”

Although most Sri Lankans are unlikely to be able to express themselves in this analytical and concise manner, they seem to have imbibed its essence in much the same way. Many of those who are supporters of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and admire him for his leadership and what he did to defeat the LTTE, do not agree with the way he became prime minister. This was the case in Colombo, Badulla and Negombo from which I got first hand anecdotal reports.

In the North and East of the country, which experienced the three decade long war, there is also concern that the promises made by the government in terms of return of land, release of detainees and finding of missing persons and reform of the constitution will not happen. Over the past three years the people there have been complaining that the changes are too slow and they want them speeded up. A few weeks ago, President Sirisena pledged that all civilian-owned land in the North and East that is under military occupation would be returned by the end of the year. The president was even specific that it would be December 31 when all land was returned. But there is now doubt that this promise will be delivered on.

Build Upon 

The concerns of the ethnic minorities about the new government formation is not limited to the North and East. This may account for the fact that the leaders of nearly all the ethnic minority parties have continued to stand by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and support his position that he continues to be the legitimate prime minister. They appear to have accepted the position that his sacking was not in conformity with the constitution. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has contested his dismissal, and the appointment of a new prime minister, on the grounds that it does not conform to the 19th Amendment to the constitution. The 19th Amendment specifies that the Prime Minister can only cease to hold office by death, resignation, by ceasing to be a Member of Parliament, or if the government as a whole has lost the confidence of Parliament by a defeat on the throne speech, the budget, or a vote of no-confidence.

Legal opinion is divided on this matter and the final arbiter will necessarily have to be the Supreme Court. The legality of the Prime Minister’s dismissal needs to be resolved by the Supreme Court. Apart from questions of law there is also the question of democratic process. The changing of governments and leaders is part and parcel of democracy. But due process needs to be followed, the constitution must not be not violated and the Rule of Law must prevail when such changes take place. Despite violent conflicts in the past, Sri Lanka can take pride in the fact that transfer of power to successive administrations was achieved through democratic electoral processes.

The practice of democracy requires consultation with the general public and transparency in decision making. The secrecy in which the president’s decision to sack the Prime Minister was made with no transparency so much so that it caught the country’s people, and most of the government, by surprise was not in the spirit of democracy. Parliamentary democracy is a public process not a secret enterprise. Therefore the president’s action in proroguing parliament until November 16 is unacceptable in democratic terms. The discussion that is taking place all over the country, on the streets, in workplaces and in people’s homes, needs to be taken to parliament. The most urgent need is for parliament, as the supreme law making body, to meet and find ways and means to resolve the crisis. The president needs to heed the imperatives of democracy, the need to follow due process and reconsider his decision to prorogue parliament till November 16.

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Latest comments

  • 10
    8

    The difficult question Ranil needs to answer – Why did he remain silent when his leader JR cancelled the 1983 General Election, banned opposition parties, controlled the press and routinely used death squads, torture, and kidnappings?

    Abuse of power has been a routine occurrence in Sri Lanka for decades. The current furore will die down and the unacceptable today will become the accepted tomorrow.

    • 12
      8

      So you are asking Ranil to answer your questions on alleged events that happened 35 YEARS AGO?

      What world are you living in?

      • 1
        0

        JP: The Law is a blind Ass and Constitution making a waste of time and huge distraction from the main problem.
        Ranil and MR turned the Diyawenna Parliament into a ‘Cesspit of Corruption’, while distracting everyone with endless Constitution making and de-limitation reports, along with NGO supporters at numerous conferences with foreign funds and fake Constitutional Xperts. Constitution legalese about minority rights is merely a means to Divide, distraction, rule and loot Lanka .
        Solution is fresh elections WITHOUT current generation of corrupt politicians, who must be banned from contesting, with an age limit of 70 for those in parliament.
        Time for new generation to take over and clean up the mess in the Diyawenna Cesspit nurtured by Bondscam Ranil and his friends MR and Sira.

      • 0
        0

        Rizwan, see my reply below.

    • 1
      3

      Taraki,
      I am not sure what you are saying but one thing is clear from what you say is that the constitution, law and under and justice, robbing this nation are immaterial to this country. The corruption, violating law and order, breaking constitution and political and military coup are always welcomed by Srilankans. This is the correct way to capture power.

    • 1
      0

      Two wrongs does not make a Right. After all we are supposed to have a YAHAPALANAYA government.

    • 0
      3

      Taraki,
      Ranil was a small boy then and did not wield much influence. Not enough to sway JR anyway.

  • 2
    0

    Ranil too made some mistake ..
    He did not punish all wrong doers..
    He must have given ministry of defence for FS.
    To clean all corruption.
    For some reason he did not do that ..
    He did not punish many people have done so many crimes .
    Now he paid the price..
    M&s want to save his life by any means ..
    He want to next election with SLFP votes ..
    But he will never win any election now .
    He will be killed by MR so that MR can become President..
    Soon we will see that.
    China will be happy now..
    Because they defected US in Sri Lanka soil…
    Soon Sri Lanka will be Chinese colony

  • 3
    1

    No, it was a rhetorical question to point out the hypocrisy of all our politicians. Do you know what that is?
    A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked to make a point, rather than to elicit an answer.

  • 6
    0

    As usual a clueless and dishonest argument. As Welikala is at Edinburgh University we must worship him in the same way Jehan Perera claims he is a Phd from harvard. (Dr)

    Dr. Jehan Perera quotes Welikala – “It is a constitutional coup because the serving Prime Minister has not legally ceased to function in office before a new Prime Minister has been appointed.”

    Is he talking about now or 2015 when Ranil did the same thing to DM Jayaratne !

  • 3
    1

    Jegan,
    This is a political coup made by two leaders who lost their support from the people. Mahinda lost his power in 2015 and Sirisena lost his power in 2017. So, both decided that they cannot be in power legally and democratically in 2019/20 elections. The reasons given by Sirisena is absolutely unacceptable and wrong which is obvious to even for a child. The actions he made following appointing his Prime Minister is very clearly prove that it is a coup. Why both afraid to face Parliament, Judiciary and People? Once again its proved the executive presidency is misused by all the Presidents we had throughout the period it came. Unfortunately, people have no power to stop this crisis under this sytem. It is a disaster for Srilanka. It is now up to the young generation to realise the danger of the impact on future generation and liberate the people from these opportunistic criminals.

  • 3
    0

    RW promised a lot and delivered very little. Now let’s see how this mess unfolds. Yahapalanaya 2.0?

  • 2
    2

    All those racists who were in prison are now back thanks to the Rajapaksas and Srisena. We are going to have another round of minority bashing ordered by them.

  • 0
    0

    All the young ones and civil society, in and out of the country, should raise up, and chase out these age old lunatic dudes who are destroying the country, and making so much miseries for all. They are least bothered of us, and only power greedy and want to enjoy it to hilt, and they invent, device and propergate many things for this. Nothing could stop the people’s power, and we should mobilise them, and work on installing a government with high caliber and well educated young people who love the country above their selfish greeds. I had been there, seen it with my owns eyes, heard it with my own ears, and fully experienced it, when the people chased out two of the most corrupt and brutal leaders the world had ever seen. In 1979 in Iran, they called him the Great Aryan King of Kings the Shah. His father and him had an iron grip on Iran for 62 years. Non talked any thing about the king, they were dead scared. Even they didn’t trust their kiths and kin’s for they didn’t know who was the informant of the feared and brutal Savahk – Shah’s secret service. If any descent, Savakh take them, touchure unmercifully, and later in front of the public release them to their families. But on a later date, in a isolated place Savahk pick, take them in helicopter and drop them in one of the deserts, that’s it, they wouldn’t survive even for ten minutes. But, one day, people said enough, spontaneously they poured on streets, non-stop, 24×7, all over the country but Shah’s forces shot and killed hundreds thousands, and couldn’t stop the tide. Then Shah called out to one of his generals called Owize to deal with it. After every Friday prayer from the Masjid of University of Theran, people marched in thousands, Owize ordered the forces to minced the unarmed people alive with tanks, even then thousands of them marched forward.

  • 0
    0

    “The most urgent need is for parliament, as the supreme law making body, to meet and find ways and means to resolve the crisis.”

    However you have to understand the background to the situation:

    There seems to be a lack of trust between the President and former Prime Minister. All manner of schemes that have been going on behind the scenes. One cannot act in a straightforward manner because the other will sabotage them at the last moment, it’s a game of hide and seek. For example in the NCM against Ramil W, you know the sorts of games that went on.

    It’s not democracy at any rate, never has been since 1977.

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