Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s open foray into politics took place last Wednesday in the form of ‘Eliya’ a new organization that was ceremonially launched at the Golden Rose hall in Boraleasgaluwa. Its launch was in the form of a seminar on the proposed new constitution. The panel of speakers included Gota himself who introduced the new organization to the audience and spoke on why it opposes the proposed new constititution.
Ven. Prof. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera, Dr Dayan Jayatilleke, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, Dr Seetha Arambepola, Rev. Fr. Wimal Tirimanne, Tamara Kunanayagam, Lawyer Rushdi Habib, and Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne were among the speakers at this event. The large hall at the Golden Rose which is bigger than the main ballrooms of most top end city hotels was packed by 5.00 pm with standing room only before the event began.
Two smaller rooms had been organized on the upper floors of the building with large TV screens so that those who could not be accommodated in the main hall could still follow the event in comfort. Some of those who arrived late watched the event on the screens placed in the foyer. This included parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa.
After the doors of the main hall had been closed and about an hour into the event, there had been a scuffle outside with people trying to get in and Udaya Gammanpila had to talk them into going upstairs because there wasn’t even standing room in the main hall. He had shown them Namal watching the proceedings in the foyer on a screen and convinced them that the main hall could not accommodate any more. This writer was present on this occasion and to say that it was well attended is an understatement.
The turnout was all the more surprising because this event was held on a working day and scheduled to start at 5.00 pm at the peak of the evening rush hour. Getting to the location from Colombo was no easy task.
Before the event began, there was much amusement among its organizers at an email sent by this writer to some members of the organizing committee. This was a link to the announcement made by a pro-yahapalana website Lanka e News of this event the day before it was held. The website carried a notice featuring the logo of the ‘Eliya’ organization doctored so that the name read as ‘Bada Eliya’. The creative and in fact quite amusing notice published by LeN said that Gota had abandoned what they called the ‘Vipath Maga’ (a reference to the Viyath Maga organization of professionals) and started ‘Bada Eliya’.
The notice went on to say that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa known as ‘moda Gota’ in the USA was a Colonel who had run away from the war and that the purpose of this new organization is to make him the head of state in this country. It stated that the assorted murderers and scoundrels of the ‘deplorable decade’ had got together to form this new organization because there was no enthusiasm among the general public for Viyath Maga. (Which however is not true. Viyath Maga held its first annual general meeting at the same location and the attendance was as impressive as the turnout for Eliya despite the fact that Viyath Maga is an organization restricted only to professionals whereas ‘Eliya’ is a mass organization.) Udaya Gammanpila to whom this writer had emailed the link to the LeN notice quipped “It’s ‘Eliya’ for Gota and the anti-government forces, but ‘Bada-Eliya’ for yahapalanaya!” The next presidential election is due before December 9, 2019 and any kind of new activity is deemed to be a result of political parties and individuals gearing up for it.
The recent celebration of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unbroken 40 years in parliament was seen as his bid for the presidency in 2019 and President Sirisena’s objections (by proxy) to the abolition of the executive presidency is also seen as an expression of his own intention to run for President again. There are mixed signals in this regard. Last week President Sirisena had told the SLFP group he leads that he has no intention of contesting the next presidential elections. He has said similar things before, one example being the pledge he gave at Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha thera’s funeral that he will abolish the executive presidency. Yet it was just days ago that the SLFP group that he leads formally conveyed to the Constitutional Assembly that their party is against the abolition of the executive presidency.
This is a period in which everyone is weighing their options. President Sirisena may in fact stand down if the UNP is not willing to back him a second time. In any case, the mere fact that he made even an offhand comment to the effect that he has no intention of contesting again may have sent a wave of panic through the SLFP group he leads. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s stubborn refusal to toe the government line on some matters was interpreted as his own bid to become the presidential candidate of an opposition coalition. Indeed between now and the last quarter of 2019 when the next presidential election will be called, any kind of activity by an even moderately popular person will be interpreted as a bid for the presidency and that fact that Gota has come out for the first time, openly talking politics will fuel a great deal of speculation.
Eliya questions process of constitution making
A leaflet in Sinhala distributed to participants during the launch of Eliya explained why the new organization had decided to make the proposed new constitution the focal point of their inauguration. The leaflet stated that the organization regards the process of constitutional change started by the government with the utmost suspicion because this government has a track record of misusing executive and legislative power, and that the numbers they have artificially built up in the legislature by misusing executive power has been used as a tool to ride rough shod over public opinion. It explained that in August last year, the Office of Missing Persons Act was rammed through parliament without giving the opposition more than a few minutes to debate it.
Explaining what this Office of Missing Persons Act is, the Eliya leaflet said that despite the innocuous name, this is not some harmless body formed to look for missing persons but an investigative body that has the power to accept funding from overseas and even from foreign governments. That it has the power to search any Sri Lankan military or police installation at will; to summon witnesses and to seize any document or thing as evidence and to admit as evidence anything it deems relevant even in contravention of the Evidence Ordinance. It said that the OMP was established as a part of the implementation of the resolution of October 2015 that the yahapalana government and the foreign powers that backed the 2015 January ‘regime change’ project collaborated in getting passed in the UN Human Rights Council.
It stated that the government was engaged in an attempt at remolding the entire Sri Lankan state in accordance with this UNHRC resolution for which purpose the yahapalana government was brazenly abusing executive and legislative power with the fullest cooperation of the foreign powers concerned. The Eliya leaflet stated that this abuse of power has spilled over from politics into economics and commerce as well as can be seen in the way the Hambantota harbour was privatized without the relevant agreement being taken up for debate in parliament despite repeated requests by the opposition.
Eliya charged that last month the yahapalana government stood the law making process in parliament on its head when they changed the entire system of local government elections by bringing amendments to a Bill at the committee stage in parliament. The leaflet explained that a Bill had been before parliament to make some technical amendments to the local government elections law suggested by the Chairman of the Elections Commission. This Bill had been gazetted and presented to parliament in the proper manner but then at the committee stage of the Bill, after the second reading had been passed, the government had brought forward a plethora of totally new amendments to change the entire electoral system. The accepted practice is that at the committee stage of a Bill, only minor amendments to facilitate the passage of the Bill would be introduced if necessary.
In this instance however, amendments that completely changes the scope and character of the Bill under consideration was introduced at the committee stage and the Joint Opposition was not given time to even read the new amendments introduced with the yahapalana partners in the government and the opposition collaborating in ramming it through parliament. Even the procedure whereby the constitutionality of Bills can be scrutinized by the Supreme Court was subverted in the process. The leaflet said that we have now to deal with a government that has mastered the art of circumvention, dissimulation and outright fraud in the law making process. Taking yet another example, Eliya pointed out that after the 19th Amendment was passed in 2015, the yahapalana government claimed that this new Amendment had reduced the powers of the presidency by making the executive President responsible to parliament.
The actual fact however was that from the very inception of the 1978 constitution, the President had always been responsible to Parliament under Article 42. What the 19th Amendment did was to repeal this Article 42 and to reintroduce it as Article 33A without changing a word or a comma and then claim to have made the President responsible to Parliament! The Eliya leaflet stated that such a constitutional fraud had never been perpetrated on the people of any country in the world by an elected government. Eliya pointed out that given such a background, even though the government has not yet put out a draft of the proposed constitution, it would be a fatal mistake not to discuss the proposed changes to the constitution and that this government has displayed a propensity to get anything that is against public opinion rammed through parliament without a debate.
It also pointed out that even though a complete draft of the proposed constitution has not yet been published, several official documents of the Constitutional Assembly have already been published giving clear indication of what the contents of the new constitution will be. On the basis of these proposals, it is possible to form an idea of what the new constitution will look like and given the likelihood that in getting this constitution passed, the government will adopt the same procedure it adopted with regard to the OMP Act, the privatization of the Hambantota Port and in changing the local government electoral system, the Eliya leaflet contended that it is vital that public opinion be created about what the contents of the new constitution should or shouldn’t be.
Constitution promulgators’ credibility questioned
Rev. Fr. Vimal Tirimanne who addressed the audience stated that there were issues about the legitimacy of the mandate for a new constitution and the credibility of the agents who want to draft a new constitution for this country. He pointed out that in 1972 and 1978, the constitution was changed by governments that had a huge mandate but that in contrast, the present government had been elected with a slim majority and that in his opinion this did not constitute a mandate to carry out such drastic change in our country. Fr Tirimanne stated that he too is a member of a minority community because he is a Roman Catholic and that it was clear that the majority of the votes received by President Maithripala Sirisena was from the minority communities in the North and East and elsewhere and queried whether the majority group backed President Sirisena and that this is a question that cannot be avoided.
Furthermore he said that President Sirisena had clearly stated in his manifesto that he will not amend any provisions in the existing constitution which will require a referendum. Then at the August 2015 parliamentary elections, no party received a clear majority to form a government. Fr. Tirimmane stated that the happenings since January 2015 in this country bring the credibility of those who want to usher in a new constitution into question. When the incumbent Prime Minister (D.M.Jayaratne) had a clear cut majority in parliament, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed PM with 46 MPs in a Parliament of 225 and that such a thing has not been heard of anywhere in the world. Furthermore, defeated candidates were brought into parliament through the back door.
He also stated that local government and provincial council elections are being indefinitely postponed with flimsy, ridiculous excuses and the President repeatedly says that this government will continue till 2020 no matter what – implying thus that they would remain in power whether they have a majority in parliament or not and he wanted to know whether these are the people who are going to draft a new constitution for Sri Lanka?
Attorney at Law Rushdi Habib stated that we seem to be moving from a unitary state to a federal state and that in such a situation it is important to study the implications that such change will have for the peaceful coexistence among communities. He stated that he had been to the USA recently to study constitutions and that federalism is seen as a way of bringing separate entities under one banner. In this instance however, he pointed out that a unitary state is to be divided up into federal units. He stated that he had seen the proposals to amend the constitution and queried whether by putting forward a proposal to amend Article 9 (which gives foremost place to Buddhism) anyone can really expect reconciliation to take place in this country. He stated that the mere suggestion itself is counter productive.
He also pointed out that by devolving police and land powers and abolishing the concurrent list and giving all such powers to the provincial councils, whether there is any guarantee that the rights of the Sinhala and Muslim minorities living in the North and East will be protected. He drew attention to the fact that the Muslims were expelled from the north by the LTTE within 24 hours and that in a backdrop where such incidents have taken place, to create autonomous units which are not subordinate to the sovereign power in the country, would heighten the danger of parts of the country moving away from the state. He stated that the TNA has proposed the merger of the North and East and if a referendum is to held, that it be within the provinces to be merged. He stated that the majority of the Tamil and Muslim people in this country do not live in the North and East but elsewhere and if the North and East goes its separate way, he wanted to know what will happen to the majority of the Tamil and Muslim people living in other parts of the country? He said that the Tamil and Muslim people should oppose this proposed constitution and that they cannot agree to the arrangement being proposed.
He stated that he is a pious Muslim and an independent professional and that by going for a foreign solution imposed upon us, the majority of the Tamils and the Muslims living in the South are being placed in danger by creating Tamil areas, Muslim areas and Sinhala areas and a Tamil police, Muslim police and Sinhala police etc. He stated that they have no issue living in a unitary state and that they don’t want separatism in this country.
Former Ambassador Tamara Kunanayagam said that what began as an agenda to abolish the Executive Presidency was transformed overnight into a full-blown reform of the Constitution and that today, Sri Lanka finds itself under a form of tutelage to the US, with the US Ambassador announcing Washington’s decision to ‘assist’ Sri Lanka draft its Constitution. She stated that ‘Good Governance’, is a neo-liberal project inimical to the national interest and that this term was invented the IMF, World Bank and the US Treasury for the enslavement of third world countries and to make us permanently dependent, facilitating external interference and domination.
Furthermore, Kunanayagam pointedly stated that this so called ‘good governance’ had undermined nation-building wherever it has been implemented, and fuelled identity conflicts especially in multi-ethnic societies with the buzzwords used being ‘rule of law’, ‘democracy’, ‘devolution’, ‘participation’ etc.