BY GAGANI WEERAKOON
President Maithripala Sirisena appeared to have stirred the hornets’ nest by suggesting a top military post to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who is also a Cabinet minister in Maithri-Ranil Unity Government of Yahalapanaya. While factual clarity of this ‘suggestion’ remain unconfirmed with various members of the same Cabinet issuing contradictory remarks, it is clear that Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s official statement made in his capacity as the Cabinet Spokesman led to all hell break loose. Even though, many opinions have been already expressed on the matter, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is more experienced in governance than President Sirisena by serving in the same office on two previous occasions, remains silent or rather has not issued any statement on the issue. This also leads to question the clarity of the suggestion vis-a-vis the said appointment.
President Sirisena who was under apparent influence of certain ministers who demanded that government take tough action against ‘unruly’ trade unions (TUs) had proposed a special Subcommittee headed by Minister Fonseka to make recommendations on how best to deal with emergency situations triggered by incidents such as disruption of the power supply, port activities and fuel distribution.
The idea was mooted against the backdrop of the disruption caused to fuel distribution by petroleum workers launching an indefinite duration strike against the move to lease the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm to an Indian Oil Company. The strike was called off on Monday night after an assurance given by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who left for India for talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.
The strike, unlike any other strike launched by other professionals such as doctors, where only middle and lower middle class people are affected, was effectively felt by members of the government bureaucracy as well as all ministers alike, thus highlighting the need to bring trade union activities under strict scrutiny.
Ironically, this suggestion to appoint a body headed by a military top brass who is alleged to have a track record of maintaining discipline, came at a time all political parties were showering their ‘love’ for the working class ahead of gauging their own political power, based on the headcount at the May Day rallies. Also, the proposal comes at a time where the Prime Minister reiterating about allocating different locations for students and workers to hold demonstrations, protests and sathyagrahas against the government.
Though, blown out of proportion by his Cabinet Spokesman Minister Senaratne who seemed to have given a more serious political connotation to what seemed to have been a mere jovial gesture by President Sirisena, the suggestion to appoint Fonseka to the post was most certainly not welcomed by many. This, was due to him not having a perfectly untainted track record and the lack of trust on his conduct when entrusted with powers.
This is, however, not the first instance where Minister Senaratne as the Cabinet Spokesman, put the government or the President in an awkward position by his mischievous comments. This also may not be the last, where he would twist his personal opinion as the President’s, the Prime Minister’s or the government’s. While, the President is said to go for a Cabinet reshuffle, many expressed the need of him considering a replacement, given that there are two (Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena) who held the position previously with composure and sense of responsibility.
Apart from these, the law in the country does not provide for a retired military officer to be called to the top post in the military and also a person who is already in politics to be called for active service. These were more or less the same reasons which resulted in putting Fonseka behind the bars in 2010.
Also, his appointment as an MP while being decorated as a Field Marshal, who enjoys a privilege of being in lifetime service, also was challenged in courts. While the FR Petition filed in the Supreme Court by the Director of the Centre for Policy Alternative (CPA) challenging Fonseka’s appointment as an MP from the UNP was put away with him taking UNP membership, the Writ Petition filed by retired Army Major and former Southern Provincial Councillor Ajith Prasanna challenging the appointment of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as a Member of Parliament is still pending.
The petitioner had sought an order in the nature of a Writ of Quo Warranto declaring that the then Democratic Party Leader Field Marshal Fonseka is disqualified and not entitled to be elected as a Member of Parliament of the United National Party and thus not entitled to hold office as a Member of Parliament.
Quo Warranto (By what warrant?) is a prerogative Writ for the person to whom it is directed to show what authority he has for exercising some right or power he claims to hold.
Delegating executive powers
Even though, it is clear that President Sirisena’s intention was to create a Cabinet Subcommittee to coordinate uninterrupted essential services during a crisis time, the question on the necessity of the existence of such remains at a time when military services in country are already equipped with necessary expertise.
Sri Lanka Military, especially the Army, like in any standard Army in the world, is in possession of special units consisting of experts of certain areas, especially on essential services, to be in position when in needed in a crisis situation.
For instance, an expert group consisting electrical engineers and others are prepared to be called for duty at a time of a power crisis. This was evident in the 1996 power crisis, where the country faced the worst ever blackout due to a strike by CEB workers.
It was this special unit within the military that came forward in restoring power generation and distribution at the time.
Likewise, there are other military groups equipped with specialized training in telecommunication, health care or any other essential service. It must be emphasized that these units were created paying attention to all areas that could put the country in a crisis situation; hence there is even an expert group on all relevant areas in sewerage, to put things back in track just in case employees in the said area withdraw from providing services.
It is in this context the President who also happens to be the Commander-in-Chief brings in this proposal to have a different body.
One might also argue in favour of President Sirisena and view this as his willingness to delegate his executive powers to a body headed by a person who is accountable to Parliament.
But why Fonseka and no one else? This may be due to common social image he bears and his military background. It also proves that the worst battle government has to fight against, after defeating the LTTE, is against the Trade Unions.
The need to control trade union activities has erupted with tactics adopted by trade unions in recent times against the government. It was apparent, in the recent times, that trade unions have opted to execute their right to protest on political reasons than on professional grounds. For instance, the strike by the GMOA crippling health services in order to protest against government inking ETCA with India and the very recent strike by petroleum workers against an MoU between two governments on oil tank farms in Trincomalee, were pertaining to matters of governance than on their professional rights.
How petroleum industry should be developed or continued is entirely a State policy and not a trade union matter. If one does not like a government or its policies, such should be dealt with politically and if a government is not qualified it could be toppled through a political move and not by trade union activity.
When the amount of man-hours and productivity to the country’s economy due to numerous protests taking place per day in the country at present are lost is taken into consideration, it is unquestionable that strong action to curb such a menace is needed.
History proves that the government of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, which came to power in 1956 followed same lenient policy towards workers and trade unions when compared to United National Party (UNP) regimes that were in power. Yet, it was trade union actions and strikes that led to crippling the Bandaranaike administration. When there are daily protests it gives the idea to the general public that the government, which commonly accepted as an institution which has ultimate authority, is incapable of exercising its powers to maintain law and order. Today, the government which is again led by an Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Leader is going through the same fate.
While there is a need to have a plan to ensure economy is not hindered while letting people to exercise their rights to a certain extent, the question remains whether the best option is Fonseka.