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17th Amendment: Opposition takes the fight to the government


Nimal Siripala, Anura Kumara,
K.N. Choksy and Dilan Perera

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti Our Lobby Correspondent

The legislature is a place where members agree to disagree, but Sri Lanka does not only boast of the world's largest cabinet but also a legislature where only dissention rules.

Now there is a government that is suddenly over enthusiastic about the 13th Amendment but stoically refusing to appoint the Constitutional Council as per provisions of the 17th Amendment and treading dangerous ground.

The opposition UNP of course wants both the 13th and 17th Amendments to be implemented to the letter. The JVP passionately opposes the 13th and threatens drastic action over the non-implementation of the 17th. The TNA swears that the 13th Amendment was a draconian piece of legislation that violated Tamil rights then as it does now while the JHU soft peddles both.

Contradictions

It is this mass of contradictions that dominated last week's debate with parties bitterly clashing on the Constitutional Council issue. Guns fired early Tuesday with JVP's Anura Dissanayake accusing the government of adopting contradictory positions.

"Minister Fernandopulle insists on a difficulty in appointing Former Auditor General, S. C. Mayadunne to the post while the President swears by the Select Committee to resolve the issue. Can you at least speak in one voice," demanded Dissanayake.

The MP thundered that it was a sham and a deliberate act by the government to prevent the public institutions from being depoliticised through the reconstitution of the Constitutional Council.

Dissanayake was also adamant that the matter was best resolved inside parliament and not any other forum. "This is law and it already exists. Now give expression to it," he demanded.

Adding to Anura Dissanayake's comments was Opposition and UNP Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. His position was that there was a Supreme Court determination on the 17th Amendment and that gave parliament the mandate to implement it. "There should not be any delay, especially when an overwhelming majority of the House had supported it and civic groups and the public demanded this piece of legislation," declared Wickremesinghe.

Violation of the constitution

Aiding the argument, UNP front liner, K. N. Choksy argued that the non-implementation of the amendment amounted to a serious violation of the constitution. "It is part of the law and it needs to be implemented. All other arguments are secondary and a violation of the constitution. A country's supreme law has certain ramifications," noted the legal luminary.

But Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva defended the government. There is no end to this debate. The President has stated his position clearly and that's that.  We will have to wait for the Select Committee to come out with its recommendations," he said, volte-face.

This activated UNP's Lakshman Kiriella who jumped to his feet to accuse the government of deliberately skirting the issue and evading the appointment of the CC. "You do this on purpose and if you must know, it is nothing less than an impeachable offence. The government is treading dangerous ground with this one," he breathed.

Likewise, Wednesday's debate on the extension of emergency had its volatile moments. Making the traditional statement after moving the motion to extend emergency was Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva.

He said that the Mt. Lavinia bus bomb proved that bombs do not discriminate and that they simply kill. "People are now on the alert. That's how the impact was minimised. Civilians must play an active role," he lauded.

No use talking

The burly Minister said that the LTTE has mastered the art of disrespecting places of worship, and the latest was the attack on St. Sebastian's Church in Jaffna. "They don't respect anything that the civilised world would hold dear. They conscript children and use pregnant women as human bombs. What talks with this lot?" he demanded to know.

Next he read out the facts - often a contentious issue when the monthly scores are added up. According to the Minister, during the month of February, 80 civilians have been killed while 201 were injured. Similarly, 104 military personnel were killed and 822 injured during the same period.

He was firm that the LTTE had to be militarily destroyed to allow civilians to breathe freely. "It was portrayed as 'mission impossible.' But it is possible. Now people know that this target would be achieved. It's not too far off," he promised. 

UNP's regular, emergency debate opener, Lakshman Seneviratne had a different argument. He wanted to know why the government that loves to promote the war and pay lip service to honouring and watching the interests of the armed forces was penalising decorated officers.

"The ugly saga of a senior army officer taking the Army Commander to court for violating his fundamental rights is proof that gallant officers are not only disrespected but also forced to hand over retirement papers. He is not alone, there are others who receive equally bad treatment and that's a new brand of Api Wenuwen Api," sniped Seneviratne.

Vilified

The MP, himself a former volunteer SLAF pilot alleged that these were the heroic men whose success was celebrated with fanfare when Toppigala was captured. "Today they are vilified and forced out. How is this tolerated," he demanded.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama was next, and he also launched a severe criticism on the LTTE.

He lauded the armed forces and predicted that soon the time would come to transfer political power to the people in the northeast.  'The coming weeks are going to be important in this regard. The international community understands that Sri Lanka is making some vital changes that would change the destiny of the country. The process has begun, and the Batticaloa elections are all about that - an effort to empower the people of the northeast to manage their own affairs," he said.

Bogollagama noted that the March 10 electoral outcome would be a significant step in this direction. "It is a first step in a journey to democratise an area that was terrorised by the LTTE. The Provincial Council elections will be held shortly.  The international community keeps a trained eye on these developments," he added.

But TNA's K. N. Srikantha took the debate back to the 13th Amendment and claimed that it was a travesty of justice given the clamouring of Tamils for political recognition.

He deftly argued that the 20 year old constitutional amendment was dredged up by a desperate government to appease the international community to some measure.

Futile exercise

"The government is under pressure and needs to win the sympathy of the international community. But this is a futile exercise and time will yet again prove it," he opined.

Srikantha had a preposition though. He suggested that if the President is truly courageous and willing to put the country's interest before political survival, he should ask the LTTE to come for talks.

"If the President can call the LTTE for talks, the TNA as a responsible political force is willing to exert political pressure on the LTTE to attend talks. If the government has courage it can do that. If it has courage and commitment, it can put forward a set of credible proposals for discussion," he said.

But a real verbal duel of sorts overshadowed all of this when traditional rivals met to oppose and support India.

JVP front liner, K. D. Lalkantha made the JVP's traditional suspicion and dislike official when he accused India of trying to become a super power by interfering with neighbouring states and dictating terms.

Full of anti Indian sentiment, Lalkantha breathed that India was behind the government's sudden move to fall back on the 13th Amendment. "Already India has crept into many a sector. It has a monopoly on the energy sector. They have millions of business concerns in Sri Lanka, and at this rate they will take over Sri Lanka's premier businesses. The country's identity will simply be lost," he warned, reminding the house of the JVP's famous five indoctrination lessons, the last one being on Indian Expansionism.

Taken apart

 A kind of traditional rivalry between the JVP and the JVP bashing Minister, Dilan Perera, led to Lalkantha's paranoia about India being torn to shreds. The fiery SLFP MP accused the JVP of wanting to put India and Sri Lanka on a collision course. "It is a conspiracy and mistake," Perera said.

Next, he accused the JVP of promoting a boycott of Indian goods. "It is hilarious. India has a tremendous market and would lose nothing if we stop buying their products. But Sri Lankans would be denied products at an affordable price if this happens and in that case, the JVP wants the country to lose," argued he.

On the same topic of boycotting goods from countries that seek to play some role in Sri Lanka, Dilan Perera wanted to know why the JVP did not call for a boycott of Japanese and Norwegian products as well.

Moving to the national issue, he admitted that the 13th Amendment falls short of meeting Tamil aspirations, but noted, the full implementation of it was meant to be only a starting point. "Let's move ahead from there," he invited, claiming that a military agenda alone would not lead the country towards a solution. 

Media freedom redefined

Issues of media freedom often make news and Wednesday's media related story was somewhat different.

It related to the take over of Rivira Publications by two Rajapakse confidants having purchased 49% of the shares in a bid to take over the newspaper's burgeoning debts. Rivira publishes The Nation, The Bottom Line, and Rivira newspapers.

UNP legislator Lakshman Kiriella felt that the latest media suppression tactic was not just to threaten, abduct or kill journalists, carry out arson attacks or wave criminal defamation laws before them but to purchase principle shares of newspaper companies so that slanted government opinion making can take place in organisations other than those under strict government control.

 "This is the icing on the cake. One Nilanka Rajapakse, a real estate broker from London has purchased 49% of shares and the cheque was deposited to the Rivira Media Corporation account at the National Development Bank (NDB) for a thumping Rs. 100 million. The Seylan Millennium Branch issued the cheque bearing No: 574484 under the signature of Sujith Rajapakse for the said amount, sealing the deal. "It is indeed an interesting way to gain control over independent media institutions," Kiriella noted, adding that under the Rajapakse administration, media freedom and coercion tactics needed to be redefined.


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