By Uditha Jayasinghe
President Maithripala Sirisena yesterday expressed stern views regarding the 19th Amendment, describing it as a “curse” on the country and insisting abolishing it should be done before the Presidential elections or that must be the first task undertaken by the new President.
President Sirisena, addressing media heads in Colombo, was repentant of his role in getting Parliamentary approval for both the 18th and 19th Amendments.
He was, however, more critical of the 19th Amendment, and claimed he was not aware of the full legal complications it could create when it was passed. He argued that the 19th Amendment reduced the power of the Executive and severely reduced the capacity to create cohesive and long-term policies.
“Before the Presidential elections or after it, regardless of who wins, the best thing they can do is abolish the 19th Amendment. Otherwise there will be two governments. One government in the Presidential Secretariat and one government at Temple Trees. This was created by the 19th Amendment. If not the new government will also have no opportunity to establish stability. I say this for the people and the country,” he said.
The President also slammed the landmark legislation as being drafted to “please NGOs”, and at one point said “political ignoramuses” had drafted it, referring to United National Party (UNP) MP Jayampathy Wickramaratne and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M. A. Sumanthiran by name.
“Even I accept there is political instability in the country, and this was completely created by the 19th Amendment. I worked very hard to get the 19th Amendment passed. It was formulated to remove the Executive powers and give it to Parliament, but when the draft went before the Supreme Court, many of those clauses were rejected. Those who formulated the 19th Amendment did not achieve what they wished from it. Even though some Executive powers were taken away, they have not resulted in better governance,” he said.
The President drew examples from the Public Services Commission (PSC) and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to bolster his statements, pointing out that the limits on the powers of the PSC had not been set, leaving it the right to take decisions on the lowest to the highest grade of public servants. Similarly, Sirisena contended that the HRC had overstepped its mandate by sending details of complaints made by people who had been mistreated while being detained in custody to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) without prior approval in 2017.
“The 19th Amendment created two leaders for this country. The Prime Minister two days ago said two drivers cannot manoeuvre one vehicle. One driver was given a licence by 6.2 million people but another person received a licence from Parliament and sat in the front seat. So, obviously the vehicle cannot stay on the road. The driver who received a licence from the people should be allowed to drive the vehicle.”
Sirisena called for the UNP, TNA, JVP and Parliamentarians loyal to Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to come together and abolish the 19th Amendment.
The President then touched upon his potential candidacy in the upcoming election and said that no decision had been made. He also denied reports that he had considered holding a referendum to ask people to decide if they wanted a Parliamentary election before Presidential polls.
“Many people are discussing the Presidential elections that will be held in four months. I believe the election will be held appropriately but that is the duty of the Elections Commission Chairman. As for candidates, no political party has made a decision yet, there is only speculation. Different people say different things but to my knowledge, these are all untrue. It is no secret that there are internal issues within all the main political parties; these problems have escalated to unprecedented levels as of late. The Opposition says the Government is unstable and in turmoil but things are no different with the Opposition; they are also battling diverse views amongst their stakeholders.”
President Sirisena noted that he had encountered many crossroads and turning points in his 52-year political career and as such viewed the upcoming Presidential polls as another crossroad to be traversed. He stressed that he would take a decision on the Presidential candidacy only after consulting the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and in accordance with the party’s wishes.
“Since no political party has named their candidate, the SLFP is also not in a hurry. We are conducting political activities as usual.”
Sirisena also reiterated his displeasure with the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), insisting it should not hinder seven cases to be taken up before the Supreme Court on 17 July. He criticised Parliament for not heeding the letter sent by the Attorney General, and opined that both the public and the international community would pay more attention to the credibility of the Supreme Court, the report of the Presidential Committee, and CID investigations over the PSC. The President also said he has not been summoned before the PSC and would not go even if he were requested to be present.
“The PSC is nothing more than a drama that is scripted, rehearsed and produced every evening at Temple Trees, and they perform it in Parliament the next day,” he said.
The President also denied he had spent excessive public funds on his foreign visits, recalling he had never taken more than 10 officials with him. He also argued all his visits were only on invitation basis and his meetings with world leaders, including Chinese and Russians Presidents, were to bolster Sri Lanka’s relations with these countries and promote the nation’s reputation overseas. He cited the recent visit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as beneficial for Sri Lanka as it improved confidence in the security situation and helped the tourism industry.
President Sirisena said he had discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin on how US sanctions were hurting Sri Lanka, especially in procuring and maintaining defence equipment. He recalled that Sri Lanka has a credit line with Russia to purchase equipment, which was used during the War, and maintaining these purchases had become difficult after the US tightened sanctions.
“About six months ago, they sent a list of Russian companies which were sanctioned. Russia has been a long-standing friend. They supplied us with aircraft and military equipment during the War, and they continue to help with maintenance. There are also credit lines from Russia. These are not new ones.»
President Sirisena said he was against agreements like SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) which the Government is considering signing with the US. He was also opposing a proposed Visiting Forces Agreement. President Sirisena said he had opposed the agreement in Cabinet.