Rising above differences | Daily News

Rising above differences

President Maithripala Siriesna and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Indian PM’s visit to Sri Lanka. Picture by Sudath Silva
President Maithripala Siriesna and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Indian PM’s visit to Sri Lanka. Picture by Sudath Silva

Differences of opinion between President Maithripala Sirisena and the United National Front (UNF) led government came to the fore last week, overshadowing the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the fallout from the Easter Sunday bomb attacks continues to cast a shadow over the political landscape of the country.

Premier Modi was recently re-elected with a rousing mandate for a second term, winning a clear majority of 303 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, a result attributed to his personal popularity as well as that of his Bharathiya Janatha party, pushing its traditional rival, the Indian National Congress to a distant second place with only 52 seats. Much was made of the fact that Modi’s first overseas visit after his election victory was to Sri Lanka, although it lasted only four hours.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit was concluded without a hiccup as government leaders came together for the occasion, rising above their differences. Despite his tight schedule, the visiting Premier met with Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan in addition to having discussions with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the latter occurring while the two leaders travelled from the airport to Colombo.

However, what set the political scene alight were the sittings of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) inquiring into the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. The PSC had become a flashpoint even before any sittings could be conducted with President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Joint Opposition (JO) initially agreeing to such a committee and then withdrawing from it, objecting to officers handling security issues being questioned by the committee.

However, the United National Party (UNP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the TNA have been equally insistent that the sittings of the PSC should continue, a stance strongly supported by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

The sittings of the PSC began with the testimony of State Intelligence Services Chief, retired Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Sisira Mendis. Mendis confirmed to the committee that no meetings of the National Security Council had been held since February.

Social media platforms

Mendis’s testimony was initially broadcast live but this was halted later. However, video clips of his evidence went viral on social media platforms as the proceedings are open to the media. It was later announced that Mendis, who retired as a DIG in 2011, has submitted his resignation citing health reasons. Many noted that as too much of a coincidence.

Mendis’s testimony was followed by those of Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera who has been sent on compulsory leave and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando who resigned in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. Their testimonies also attracted wide public attention as they highlighted the workings of the government.

Jayasundera stated in his evidence that following the attacks, he was requested by President Sirisena to resign and that if he did not do so he was likely to be found guilty of negligence and lose his rights to a pension allowance on retirement. He also stated that if he did resign, he was informed that an ambassadorial posting could be made available.

Fernando’s testimony indicated that although he was the Secretary of Defence, he had little access to President Sirisena. Fernando made a comparison with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa stating that he was an ‘unofficial Defence Minister’ while Fernando himself was as helpless Defence Secretary.

Fernando’s resignation was publicly called for by President Sirisena following the attacks when Fernando made comments to the media, saying that while it was known that there would be attacks, it was not thought that the scale of the attacks would be of this magnitude.

The continuation of the PSC and the public airing of its proceedings which were freely available on social media even if they were not telecast live elicited a reaction from President Sirisena, who called for an emergency Cabinet meeting last Friday.

At the meeting, President Sirisena is reported to have expressed concerns about the conduct of the PSC, stating that the summoning of officers entrusted with managing the country’s security and questioning them publicly on their modus operandi was detrimental to the nation’s interests.

President Sirisena is also reported to have observed that the PSC proceedings would affect court proceedings regarding five cases in connection with the terrorist attack and pledged not to allow serving intelligence officers to testify before the PSC.

The latter course of action would bring the President into direct conflict with the PSC. The PSC comes within the purview of Parliament and is not within the President’s control. Parliament alone, by a majority decision, can take decisions regarding the conduct of the PSC.

Executive and the Legislature

If officers of the government are summoned before the PSC, they are required to attend. If the President directs them otherwise and they choose not to attend because of a presidential directive, they could be charged with contempt of Parliament. It would be the officers summoned before the PSC who would be at the receiving end of the tug-of-war between the Executive and the Legislature.

The JVP has hit back at the President for wanting to curtail the activities of the PSC. “The people have a right to know who was responsible for the breach of security and preventing them from obtaining that information is a violation of their right to information,” JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said, adding that what the President should do is to admit his shortcomings and rectify them.

The prudence of President Sirisena wanting to embark on a collision course with the Parliament in what is an election year with presidential polls less than six months away is questionable. He last attempted to do so in October last year, when he sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa in that position. He also dissolved Parliament.

That gamble failed because Rajapaksa failed to demonstrate majority support in Parliament and also because the Supreme Court ruled that the dissolution of Parliament was unconstitutional. Those manoeuvres, designed at appeasing the JO, cost the President a considerable amount of public goodwill.

However, at the emergency Cabinet meeting, it appears that the President indicated that if Parliament and the PSC did not wish to follow his advice, he would take measures on his own to make life difficult for the government. He would not participate in Cabinet meetings and would refuse to swear in ministers, the President reportedly indicated.

President Sirisena did swear in three acting ministers for portfolios that were rendered vacant by the resignation of Muslim ministers a week ago. They were Lucky Jayawardena (City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education), Buddhika Pathirana (Industry, Commerce, Resettlement of Displaced Persons, Cooperative Development, Skills Development and Vocational Training) and Anoma Gamage (Highways, Road Development and Petroleum Resources Development).

However, no Cabinet meeting was held this week, suggesting that the President was keen to pursue a course of action that would cause the government to rethink its strategy. The lack of a cabinet meeting led to claims from opposition parties that the government had ceased to function.

“There will be no cabinet meetings until the PSC is called off. The UNP, the JVP and the TNA say that the PSC should continue. The only solution to this standoff is going for an early general election after dissolving the parliament by way of a resolution passed in Parliament with a two-thirds majority,” Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman G. L. Peiris suggested.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara acknowledged that the differences of opinion between the President and the government were widening due to lack of Cabinet meetings but claimed that the purpose of the PSC was to tarnish President Sirisena’s image. “The sole aim of the Select Committee is to sling mud at President Sirisena. All its questioning is directed at embarrassing the President,” Jayasekara told a media briefing.

Presidential election

Jayasekara was among a group of SLFP parliamentarians who handed over a memorandum to the President last week urging him to contest the upcoming presidential elections as the party’s candidate. During his recent visit to India to attend the inauguration of Prime Minister Modi, the President was asked about his intentions of running for office again. His reply was a non-committal “I haven’t decided yet”.

This week, President Sirisena also received the report of the committee appointed by him to investigate the Easter Sunday attacks. The committee, comprising of retired Supreme Court Justice Vijith Malalgoda, former IGP N. K. Ilangakoon and former Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order, Padamasiri Jayamanne presented their report to the President on Monday. The President has said that the report would be made public. It would be interesting to compare the findings of this committee with evidence unfolding at the PSC.

Within both the government and the opposition, there is also concern that the mass resignation of Muslim ministers will have adverse consequences. The government fears it will lead to the alienation of the Muslim community and push moderate Muslims towards extremism while the opposition fears that the move could boomerang on them politically at an election.

The current state of flux and frustration within the government is likely to continue in the months to come. Slowly but surely, the presidential election is approaching and a resolution of the present impasse is likely only after the polls only because all strategies adopted by all parties are likely to be with one eye on the election.


 

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