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Peter Hill saga    The prorogation option...  Rebellions, leaders and...


 Government takes wing for the happy holidays

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti and Arthur Wamanan

While the country stares at a bleak new year with escalating prices and a war at everyone's door step, many of those at the helm of affairs, true to style spent the holiday season away from home while some even opting to herald the new year from a different land.

Austerity and leading by example may sound good from political platforms, but come festive season, Sri Lankan political leaders oozing with 'patriotism' flee their motherland as if the devils are chasing behind them and comfort is found only in some foreign land.

At least 20 ministers are still overseas with some of them expected to return to Sri Lanka only close to the singular parliament session scheduled for January 2008 to extend the state of emergency. Parliament meets on January 8.

Among the many high flyers are key ministers including Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Chief Government Whip, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.

Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister, Karu Jayasuriya will return home on January 2 while Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, Keheliya Rambukwella is due to return today.

 With Nepalese friends

Leader of the House and Minister of Healthcare and Nutrition, Nimal Siripala de Silva who left for Nepal on an official tour is expected this week, having spent Christmas with Nepalese friends who invited him to extend his visit and have a week's holiday.

Minister of Sports and Public Recreation, Gamini Lokuge is on a two month long holiday in the UK and US while Chief Government Whip and Minister of Highways and Road Development, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle is currently in London and due back on January 2.

Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama with a penchant for travel returned from China last week only to embark on a scheduled trip elsewhere.

Among those who took wing for an official purpose was Minister of Trade, Marketing Development, Co-operatives and Consumer Affairs, Bandula Gunewardena. He is scheduled to return this week from Singapore.

Frequent flyer

Another frequent flyer, Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda returned from India last week to take wing to another destination. He is expected this week.

Among those who managed a well-earned overseas holiday since the day after the budget was Minister Agricultural Development and Agrarian Services Development, Maithripala Sirisena. He has just returned to Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Construction and Engineering Services Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is currently in the United States.

Housing and Common Amenities Minister, Ferial Ashraff took off to Islamabad on December 28 to participate in the funeral of slain former Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Some on pilgrimage

Meanwhile, Special Projects Minister, Mahinda Wijesekera too is overseas and is due back on January 8. Likewise, Minister of Export Development and International Trade, Prof. G. L Peiris is also overseas and will return home only on January 9. Deputy Minister of Fisheries, Neomal Perera too is currently overseas and expected to return this week.

Among those who went overseas are two who were on a pilgrimage. Petroleum and Petroleum Resources Development Minister, A. H. M. Fowzie and Non Cabinet Minister of Export Development, Segu Issadeen were in Saudi Arabia on Haj pilgrimage. Issadeen who returned from Mecca took off to China on the same day.

Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga too just returned to Colombo after a holiday overseas 

Though not a minister but powerful government politician and Presidential Advisor, Basil Rajapakse as expected took wing to the United States. He will be back just days before January 8, when the House meets for the first time in the new year.

Several others who were away post budget and during Christmas have returned home. 


Peter Hill saga

Leave the national carrier out of petty politics

The purpose of this short article is to examine a few governance issues revolving around Emirates' decision to decline some seats to the President and his entourage resulting in the work permit of Peter Hill being cancelled by the Government of Sri Lanka.

The issue briefly is that CEO, SriLankan Airlines, Peter Hill has declined to grant seats to accommodate President Rajapakse (on a private visit) and the government's angry response was to withdraw the work permit of the CEO and probably taking steps to remove him. This happened during the peak tourist season where SriLankan had to decide whether to off load first class and business class passengers to accommodate the President and his entourage.  

In a democracy, the utmost principle is the rule of law. There cannot be any one above the law;  be it the president or any one else. No sensible person  will even make a request to unseat or off load first class passengers to accommodate another person. If such a request is made, the chief executive officer of any competitive airline has to look after the interest of the  carrier and not the VVIPs who decided to travel in the flight.

Not a family concern

It seems clear that Peter Hill as the CEO of SriLankan has considered the best interest of the carrier as a professional, in declining the seats. In a civilised world, he would have been commended for his decision! The airline industry is not a family concern, because it deals with passengers and international travel. In short, the CEO had upheld the rule of law in this instance.

It is very unfortunate that our political leadership and the advisors have failed to understand the positive side of the decision of the CEO of SriLankan. Instead, some vicious individuals must have decided to withdraw the work permit of the CEO and then to hatch a coup to remove him from office. The immaturity of political appointees is well reflected in the attempt to justify this reckless decision.

It is not unusual in Sri Lanka in the present context for high public officials  to justify any erroneous decision, without any challenge,  because people are treated as fools. That itself raises another governance issue as to how those officials are appointed to high positions in public institutions in Sri Lanka. The political appointees have nothing else but to justify any decision to please the appointing authorities. 

The withdrawal of the work permit of the CEO is undoubtedly mala fide and not in the interest of the country.  It is now clear from the pronouncements made by the BOI Chief that the government is seeking the ouster of the SriLankan Chief purportedly "in the public interest." This is an absolute abuse of the concept of public interest amounting to corruption. The private interest of a president or BOI chief cannot be public interest in a democracy.

Investigation

If the President is to attend the son's graduation, obviously he would have had sufficient time to arrange flights in advance. The national carrier should not suffer. The government should have investigated as to how those responsible could not have booked the flights in advance. Mere statements from the political appointees will not suffice.

Finally, the privatisation of SriLankan was in fact a matter of concern for a very long time but we must not confuse the two issues.  Undoubtedly, SriLankan has its own internal problems with the flight attendants etc.  SriLankan as well as the government of Sri Lanka has also failed to address sufficiently the previous unfortunate issue of removing Tamil crew when flying the President from London previously, under the dictation of the security staff of the President.

Given all this background, the government is left with few options to maintain its reputation in the airline industry; firstly to leave the national carrier out of petty politics, at least now, and secondly to admire the courage displayed by Peter Hill.

- J.C. Weliamuna
Attorney-at-Law


The prorogation option and politics of expediency


Wijedasa Rajapakse, Rauf Hakeem 
and Mahinda Rajapakse

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

With the prorogation of parliament imminent, there is no doubt that such an exercise would prove an efficient time buying mechanism to a government that appears to be surviving from day to day, and effectively push some important matters into hibernation.

Highly placed government sources claim that President Mahinda Rajapakse is poised to exercise powers conferred upon him by Article 70 of the Constitution post January 8, and to prorogue parliament for a period of one month.

In effect, all the parliamentary committees, pending bills, dilatory and adjournment motions, questions for oral and written answers and public petitions would lapse immediately. They will require reprocessing which will practically take several months to move from Order Book to Order Paper status.

Collective sigh of relief

Such a decision by the President will make not just the troubled Head of State but also several key government members heave a collective sigh of relief.

Importantly, with the lapse of select committees and watch dog committees such as COPE and PAC, no confidence motions against Ministers Keheliya Rambukwella and Milinda Moragoda, and censure motions on Mahinda Rathnatilake and UNP's Lakshman Seneviratne would also lapse.

This will also cater to the JVP that had been clamouring for the abandoning of the APRC exercise which is aimed at reaching southern consensus through producing viable proposals to end ethnic strife. The committee's performance has been debilitated not just due to the unrepentant opposition by the JVP but also due to the government's lack of reciprocity and reluctance to identify with the APRC's recommendations.

APRC would lapse

In such an event, a prorogation will be a blessing in disguise to the government. It will cause the APRC to naturally lapse, and would require to be reconstituted. While this might not be the ideal course of action for a government that still only pays lip service to power devolution to at least muster some international support, it would also warm the JVP towards the government having thrown the only available lifeline to the UPFA administration on December 14 when it was on the throes of having its third budget defeated. That would spell good for the government's survival for the coming months, though it requires the sacrificing of its singular power sharing effort.

In effect, the prorogation would nullify much of the hard work put in by parliamentarians serving on various committees as well as parliamentary officials. With that, the government perhaps hopes to enjoy a temporary lull without significant political embarrassment at least at the legislature.

Further, a prorogation will bring in some other political benefits. Post prorogation, each and every committee, be they select, special, consultative or general, have to be reconstituted and then gazetted. 

Whims and fancies

This also means, an opportunity to reconstitute committees according to whims. A government legislator serving on one of the watchdog committees commented that it would be ideal to 'break the backbone' of both COPE and PAC. "They can appoint as chairmen, members who would toe the government's line. In any case, it is only a matter of time," he said.

There is already a belief that backbencher and powerful presidential sibling, Basil Rajapakse will head at least one of the two watchdog committees, with or without a prorogation.

However, there is a dilemma unaddressed. The government is already a minority government and the valid question would be whether such a government would have the right to reconstitute the many committees and especially to appoint government members as their chairmen.

However, both SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem and Wijedasa Rajapakshe do not suffer from any delusions about being re-appointed as PAC and COPE heads. Both parliamentarians are seen as politicians who embarrassed the present administration, more so Rajapakshe who has repeatedly demanded concrete action be taken on the COPE report and the failure to take sufficient action led him to sit in opposition.

But committees are only part of the problem. When reconstituted and gazetted, the problems end there.

The bigger issue concerns the lapsing of bills, motions, petitions and questions that need to be represented to acquire efficacy and to be included in the Order Book.

According to sources from the Bills Department in parliament, most of the bills included in the Order Book have only reached the first and second reading stages. If a prorogation occurs, all of them will have to be re-processed.

"More than causing a delay, a prorogation causes a lot of paper work. As a legal formality following prorogation, each bill needs to be presented once again and the process restarted," an officer from the department explained.

The last time the House was prorogued, the practical factor was that the prorogation caused the lapsing of only a handful of bills. Conversely, if there were many bills that merely required the formalities to conclude, the result would have been the creation of a massive backlog of bills for clearing. It also would have meant the government lacking business to process.

Not gazetted

According to parliamentary sources, many bills though given notice of, have not yet been gazetted. "They are incomplete and cannot be considered fully fledged bills," the source explained. However, there are some 20 other draft bills that are pending their first presentation.

According to a top parliamentary official, it is not just about lapsing committees and bills. It is mostly a question of bills, motions and even questions losing priority. "That is an issue. Legislators are naturally unhappy when motions have to be reprocessed and especially if they were of considered priority and matters that should take precedence," the official explained.

This means, having to give notice of many legislative matters already given due notice of.

According to parliamentary authorities, notice of questions and motions too have to be given notice of according to Section 23 of the Standing Orders of parliament.

Accordingly, after due notice is given they can be permitted to be included in the Order Book out of which items are selected according to priority to be included in the Order Paper, the agenda for each sitting day.

Amidst all this, authorities also state that the PAC report was pending for a full day's debate as there was no agreement on a date yet. "A prorogation would certainly push the PAC report to the dustbin, at least for some time," said PAC member, Wasantha Samarasinghe.

The report presented to parliament on November 29 (Thursday) by PAC Chairman, Rauf Hakeem was a damning indictment on several institutions and their heads for breaching the country's financial regulations and for unrepentant corruption. The report, just like the COPE report did, has not minced words in laying blame where necessary.

Parliamentary traditions

If the President does prorogue parliament after passing emergency on January 8, besides the administrative work that would increase in parliament in re-processing many a bill, motion and query, more focus would be on how the parliamentary committees would be reconstituted. And more so, who would be selected to head the watchdog committees. In 2002, the UNP, in pursuance of the highest parliamentary traditions, appointed two opposition legislators as COPE and PAC chairmen. It is an example best emulated by others. Only if politics of expediency does not take precedence.

Many files missing - Jayasekara

UNP legislator and PAC member, Dayasiri Jayasekara said that one important step in the right direction would be to send the Inland Revenue chief on compulsory leave pending inquiry.

"Following the arrest of two other officers, Ambepitiya and Jayathilake, Inland Revenue Chief, A. A. Wijepala was quick to take some protective action and sought an order from the Treasury Secretary to put an end to criminal investigations. Now it is learnt that many of the vital files on the VAT scam are missing," said Jayasekara.

Jayasekara alleged that although Ambepitiya and Jayathilake were in custody, both were still being paid their full salary on a directive by Wijepala. "In a country where the law is strictly enforced on innocent and vulnerable people, the very opposite applies to the high and mighty. If a peon robs a mere Rs.50 he will be removed immediately and until the investigaions clear him, he will be deprived of all  dues. But these two get special treatment," he said, adding that public faith would be severely eroded if the credibility of both COPE and PAC are not protected by the government. 

 Investigations impeded - Premachandran

Senior TNA legislator, Suresh Premachandran said that it would be unfortunate to have a prorogation which may pave the way for debilitating both the PAC and COPE.

"Of course it is premature and hypothetical to consider this. But given the cavalier attitude of the government towards the reports submitted to parliament by both committees, anything is possible," he said.

Referring to the PAC, he said that as a result of retaining the same person as the head of the Department of Inland Revenue that impedes investigations, the government would also become suspect, as it appears that the administration was keen to retain the person whose name has got tarnished by the VAT scam.

Prorogation procedure

Under Article 70 of the 1978 Constitution, the president may, from time to time, by proclamation, summon, prorogue and dissolve parliament.

Under Article 70 (3), a proclamation proroguing parliament should fix a date for the next session, not being more than two months after the date of the proclamation.

However, while parliament stands prorogued, the president may by proclamation, do two things.

Firstly, he could summon parliament on an earlier date than what is declared in the proclamation, but not less than three days from the mentioned date.

Secondly, the president can, subject to the provisions of this article, dissolve parliament.

Article 70 (4) states that all matters which, having been duly brought before parliament, have not been disposed of at the time of the prorogation of parliament, may be proceeded with during the next session.

PAC and Standing Orders

Constituted under Standing Order 125 of Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is a 12-member committee. A Committee of Selection nominates the members.

According to the parliamentary rules, the PAC's duty is to examine the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by parliament to meet public expenditure and such other accounts laid before the House as the committee considers fit, along with the reports of the Auditor General. 

Likewise, the committee was expected to report to parliament from time to time on the accounts examined, the finances, procedures, performance and management generally of a department, local authority and on any matter arising therefrom.

The committee may appoint sub committees when it considers such action necessary consisting of its own members to examine and report on all accounts and the finances and management of such departments, local authorities as the committee may direct.

The committee or any of its sub committees shall for the performance of its duties have the power to summon any person and call for and examine any paper, book, record or other document and to have access to stores and property.

COPE and Standing Orders

According to Section 126 of Standing Orders, the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) will consist of 12 members nominated by the Committee of Selection. Its quorum is four members.

The committee will examine the accounts of public corporations and of any business or other undertaking vested under any written law in the government laid before parliament, along with the reports of the Auditor General.

COPE from time to time reports to parliament on the accounts examined, the budgets and annual estimates, the finances, financial procedures, performance and management generally of any public corporation or of any business or other undertaking vested under written law in the government and on any other manner arising therefrom.

COPE can appoint sub committees of its own members to examine and report on all accounts, budgets and annual estimates, the finances and management of such public corporations or of any business or other undertaking vested under any written law in the government as the committee may direct.

COPE or any of this sub committee shall for the performance of its duties have the power to summon before it and question any person and call for and examine any paper, book, record or any other document and to have access to stores and property. 

Open both committees to media - Hakeem

According to PAC Chairman, Rauf Hakeem, it is too early to predict anything. His only wish is for the PAC report to be duly debated and concrete action taken on the findings.

He also said that as stated in parliament, he also hoped that both the PAC and COPE sessions would be opened to the media. 

Commence investigations - Wijedasa

Current Chairman of COPE, Wijedasa Rajapakshe said that there was an obvious lethargy in taking concrete action on the COPE report and called upon the law enforcement authorities to promptly conduct inquiries and commit those who have violated the country's laws to immediate trial.

"Only that will put some discipline into corrupt politicians and officials. Public property and finance are sacred and those who abuse should be penalised," he said.

All involved should be sent on compulsory leave - Samarasinghe

Irrespective of a possible dissolution, the government should act according to the recommendation of both the COPE and PAC reports and take stringent action against wrongdoers, says JVP legislator Wasantha Samarsinghe.

 He said that both reports have demonstrated parliament's commitment to infuse financial discipline and suggested ways and means of doing that. Any failure would create more room for corruption and would prove an indirect incentive to people who have abused their positions, he said. 


Rebellions, leaders and our future

By Jeevan Thiagarajah

This piece was prompted first when listening to listener comments on the radio on 26th morning while the station counted down to 9.20 am. It came on the back of numerous pieces of writing on the tsunami and the pros and cons of what has transpired since 2004.

The Transparency International (TISL) write up threw challenges while the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) piece catalogued facts and figures. There are though larger issues which loom large, one of which is the impact of manmade and natural disasters in a large swath of land in the north and east, vividly captured in this presentation downloaded by Groundview from a UK publication.

At the Development Forum in January of 2007, in an address to the President and attendees the cumulative impact of the disasters referred earlier was stressed as:

 Close upon three decades of civil strife, regional disparities in economic dividends for growth and peace with the impact of the tsunami of 2004, has left the country with deficits in the realm of human security.

 A deficit which has resulted in conflict affected regions becoming isolated from the development framework, the yearning for a return to normalcy to manage expectations from peace and a need to target specific socioeconomic measures for safe land, housing, essential services, development of skills, employment, credit and financing. 

  The government, donors and humanitarian agencies alike have to question whether they have done enough to ease the plight of those who are affected. People surviving from the conflict have been living in substandard temporary shelters in the north and east.

In temporary shelters

To this day there are those who survived the tsunami who have been living in temporary shelters since the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Some day, we may have to admit our failure to provide adequately the most vital of things to the tsunami affected population, just as we did to those affected by the conflict almost 20 years ago. The overall  impact was what was illustrated in the mention of listener views. Likewise TISL was seeking answers.

Adding to our woes is the graphic presentation from published public media reports of killings, abductions and injury to civilians during the period February-December 2007,  a result of derogation from peace and return to war. 

Each of the reports carries a toll on families and surviving members. War crimes loom incessantly at the perpetrators. It should be understood in the context of the year.

In an address at the European Parliament committee sittings on Sri Lanka, the toll was described as: 'War derogates human rights and our country has not been immune. The Ceasefire Agreement was said to have frozen war. It has melted now, garrisoning in places people with terrifying consequences. A focus on human rights must have a focus on human lives.

'Accompanying losses to life, forced displacement, involuntary disappearances, reports of abductions, hostage taking for ransom, conscription, fear of attacks which disrupt day to day life and stringent measures adopted to secure cities and urban life run counter to civil liberties of sections of our populace, which in turn accentuates existing cleavages amongst  stakeholders and  communities.'

The return to war and enhanced security measures lead to many causes for unhappiness. One such narrative comes from a recent journey to Jaffna which had special reason too evidently given suspicion regarding two passengers who had travelled on the first flight.

Journey to Jaffna

It was a bumpy ride to Jaffna and back, which took almost 10 hours to get to Jaffna. We decided to take the 11.00 a.m flight. If we were to take the morning flight (6.45 a.m) we have to be at the airline office by 3.45 a.m. A return ticket is Rs 18,000.

In our case we were to be there by 6.45 a.m for the 11 a.m flight.  We were taken to the airport only at 9.30 a.m. Till then, all the passengers were asked to stand outside the office without any shelter or chairs for the travellers. All the passengers are made to stand outside the pavement in front of the office of the airline irrespective of  age. We witnessed three children who were sleeping on their travelling bag as they had to get up early in the morning.

Once we reached the Ratmalana Airport, we were asked to collect our luggage from the lorry and stand in the empty space in the hot sun without any shelter or chairs for three hours outside the luggage checking area by the forces.

Some of us were very tired; so we decided to sit under the Bo-tree only to get shouted at by the airforce personnel.  Here too all the travellers have to go through the ordeal of standing or sitting on the ground for three hours till all the luggage is checked and sent back to the bus. Some had their breakfast while waiting.

On that particular day we noticed that many travellers were very old persons and some had young children from two years to eight years.

Security measures set down could be justified given the country's situation. But the measures taken to provide better facilities for the travelers is not sufficient at all.

Over in Jaffna clearly the events and the day to day experiences of the population is anything but terrifying. There is what one would characterise an assault on the dignity and decency of every day life.

Violent death

Taking a leaf from the region the shock of the violent death of the youngest and first woman prime minister of a Muslim country Benazir Bhutto brought up many issues. She had been preceded in the region by Rajiv Gandhi with whom she had a good relationship as leaders.

Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh escaped death though a novel method of hurling grenades from rooftops was used. Sri Lanka has seen a president, two important political aspirants to the leadership of a party and scores of other leaders dying at the hands of suicide bombers.  JRJ had to roll off a grenade which found its way onto a table while Lalith Athulathmudali was not so lucky, all in parliament!

 While it is easy to label all such assassins as creations or carriers of extremism, it is vital to appreciate how ordinary folk become human bombs. Iraq has seen a surfeit and Pakistan too, as have many of our neighbours and a few more around the world. What are the terrible acts of omission or commission which have driven people to such terrifying violence and resultant losses and destruction?

An unfortunate facet of the working life of this writer has been observations of many of the leaders of South Asia including Benazir. On the last occasion she was the personal guest of Anura Bandaranaike on his completion of 20 years in politics/parliament.

She was groomed from head to toe for public life and office with an unfortunate legacy of tragedies in her family, besmirched further by allegations of mal governance.  An observation in many instances of tragedies and the march of folly of leaders and loss of trust in politics with extremely sad legacies of innumerable losses to lives and destruction to countries.

Universal outrage

There has been universal outrage at Benazir's assassination. Outrage in equal measure should accompany for every person who suffered losses due to war.

As the Anglican Bishop of Colombo ventured to state on July 23 this year,  "war can never be right. The responsibility of democratic leadership then, is to work earnestly and urgently to end war and achieve a just and stable socio-economic order through nonviolent, negotiated means."

"If we can initiate negotiations on our own, then we must do so immediately. If we cannot we must ask for help clearly and purposefully. To claim to know the path ahead and watch the country plunge into a precipice without turning for help is perhaps the most serious breach of democratic trust."

Twenty four years back this writer lost part of his faith in the Ceylon of his forefathers and the Sri Lanka of present when the infamous July '83 broke our back as a nation.

All round us there is a crisis in the confidence on democratic trust. Our leaders here and in the region would imagine laws or tactics or time would blow such ill winds away. It seems not. One is reminded of the steps on a hillock in the capital city in South Africa where Nelson Mandela had stood tall in taking the salute of the armed forces on the inauguration of office of the government following apartheid.

He stood as the president of all South Africans including blacks, afrikanaars and all other citizens of the country. It is an example which many leaders find hard to emulate with the resultant legacies of the tragedies which we witness in our country, our neighbours and in many troubled situations in other continents.  


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