By Asiri Fernando
The role of the Presidential Task Forces (PTFs) has been misinterpreted by some and there is no provision to bring public officials under the control of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence (MOD), said Maj. Gen. (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne.
The statement by the Secretary to the MOD comes in the wake of strong concern and criticism expressed by politicians, legal experts and civil society activists that the powers assigned to the PTFs were overreaching and may infringe of the independence of the public service.
Former Government whip and oppression parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella expressed concern last week that the PTFs were unconstitutional and stated that control over the public service lays rightfully with the Public Services Commission.
Speaking at the press briefing held yesterday, Gunaratne stressed that as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, he has not been empowered to bring under his control public officials, other than those at the MOD, nor did he wish to do so. He explained that the PTFs in question only exist to get the assistance of the public officials to ensure the National Security of the country.
“For example, the Prisons Department is under the Justice Ministry, I give leadership to the PTF, however I do not issue orders or commands to the Prisons Department, we make requests via the Justice Ministry and we receive cooperation through the Ministry, we work in consultation and cordially,” Gunaratne said.
Gunaratne downplayed concerns about the composition of the Presidential Task Force on Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, arguing that subject matter experts and State officials of the Eastern Province including the Governor work closely in consultation to identify and secure archaeological sites in the province which belong to each community through the PTF.
“We are sensitive not to create issues between communities or on religious grounds, our first priority is to create the climate for the archaeological department to carry out their duties without any interference. They are tasked with identifying all sites of archaeological importance and get the sites surveyed with the assistance of the survey department,” Gunaratne explained.
Once the sites are identified and surveyed, the PTF plans to deploy Police and personnel from the Civil Security Department to protect the sites, he said, pointing out that the process of identification, survey and securing will be done in stages.
“If we stand by while our heritage is pilfered and if ‘sandakadapahanas and Muragal’ (religious artefacts) are removed and used by some to wash cloths on, then it is a great injustice we do to our ancestors,” Gunaratne charged.
“We need to secure our country’s heritage and protect it for our future generations, that’s why the President established this Task Force following a request made by the Buddhist Sunga. We don’t limit this protection to Buddhist and archaeological sites, we will protect sites of all communities, may they be Hindu, Islamic or another religion,” Gunaratne stated.
Minority groups and diplomats have expressed concern regarding the lack of community representation in the PTF on archaeological sites in the Eastern Province, pointing out that the PTF’s composition did not reflect all the communities of the province.