The Government’s Provincial Council conundrum

By Lankathilaka

 

• Latest US State Department report points to alleged human rights abuses

• Is ASP Perera the victim of a political witch hunt?

• The Government’s war with conservationists continues unabated

 

 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with an unassailable logic in mind, appears to have determined to rely on an indigenous or a more homegrown system to devolve power to the provinces.

The sentiments expressed by the President during the dialogue he held with villagers in Pitabaddera in the Matara district have a deeper meaning and distinctly underscores the fact that he was not amenable or agreeable in any form to the dictates of the giants in the region. It is a clear indication that devolution of power to the provinces is a business assigned to the Centre rather than to external forces. Devolution with an indigenous flavour or “I do it my way “ appears to be the philosophy envisaged for now.

PC elections and separatist agenda

This could be the only way out for the President right now amid growing opposition from the Buddhist clergy against holding the Provincial Council election which has been described as part of a separatist agenda in operation. The President at one point contemplated holding the PC elections somewhere in June, a promise to garner the Indian vote for the UNHRC resolution. But now, all that is history and the enthusiasm too appears to have escaped his mind. Now that there is no set date for the PC elections everybody is saying “it may be” held by the end of this year due to a legal snag.  It was also the reason for which the Yahapalanaya government which was in power was blamed for not holding elections on time.

The President can buy time on the premise that the fate of the Provincial Councils or devolution is a   matter connected to the new constitution. Everybody including the Buddhist clergy is eagerly awaiting a new constitution with an accompaniment of a nationalist flavour and affording all possible status to Buddhism which in any case holds the foremost position in the present Jayewardene constitution.

The draft of the new constitution will be first tabled as a blueprint for further discussion.  Nevertheless, what everybody has to bear in mind is that several attempts to introduce a new constitution including the abolition of the Presidency fell apart while the Jayewardene constitution, with much patchwork around it, held sway for over forty years.

Though devolution of power is considered vital to resolve the ethnic question, the President in particular is perturbed by the fact that other interested parties were trying to achieve their geopolitical needs by introducing separatism under the guise of devolution.

India not to lose diplomatic space

Analysts wonder whether the President was taking swipes at India for acting like a distant cousin when India’s support was most needed. India has its reason to act in a manner best suited for them, though it has hurt the feelings of Sri Lanka. The Hindu newspaper in an editorial defended India’s position soon after Sri Lanka had to face defeat last week at the UNHRC in Geneva. ‘When pragmatism and principle were needed in equal measure, the Centre seems to have chosen abstention as an easy way out’, states the editorial.

Under the caption “Tactical abstention: On the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka” it goes on to state that India was keen not to lose diplomatic space to persuade Sri Lanka on devolution for Tamils.

Extracts from the editorial are as follows:

‘By abstaining from the vote on the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, India has signalled its unwillingness to upset its neighbour. At the same time, it does not want to be seen as ignoring Sri Lanka’s reluctance to meet the political aspirations of the Tamils or endorsing the country’s stubborn refusal to ensure any sort of accountability for its war-time past. It may be easy for the political opposition to dismiss India’s abstention as showing an intent to shield Sri Lanka from a credible investigation into allegations of war crimes. A more reasonable assessment would be that India seems to have utilised the opportunity to preserve its diplomatic space and to contain the pervasive influence of China over Sri Lanka even while maintaining its support for the Tamil minority to achieve equality, justice, dignity and peace. India has not been comfortable with externally mandated investigative mechanisms. Even when it voted in 2012 in favour of a credible investigation into human rights, India had got the resolution to incorporate the need for Sri Lanka’s ‘concurrence’ to any assistance that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights may offer in such a probe. In this session and just ahead of the vote, India stressed both meaningful devolution to meet Tamil aspirations and the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka — aspects that it believes are not an ‘either-or’ choice’.

Rejecting devolution of power

It is regrettable to note that though India talks about meaningful devolution to solve the ethnic question, most Sinhalese ultranationalists are potently stooped towards rejecting devolution of power on the pretext that this would serve as a springboard for separatism. This subliminal perception is common among almost all political parties that hold sway in the South.

Since Independence, these political parties wittingly or unwittingly have contributed to the mayhem created in the country for nearly thirty years virtually because of the ethnic question.

The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact and the Dudley- Chelvanayakam pact were instances where the country was allowed to show genuine interest to devolve power for the sake of uniting the country under one banner. But alas, on both these occasions Sinhalese political leaders feared the fallout that was to follow where the Sinhalese majority rallied against the leaders who were trying their best to work for the wellbeing of the people.

China extended its cooperation

In this backdrop, many leaders missed out on opportunities for which they dedicated themselves and endured with a genuine effort of projecting Sri Lanka as a model for ethnic harmony. The more Sinhalese centric politics led the country down the political precipice with golden opportunities missed.

In this background comes the UNHRC resolution which was all about democracy and Human Rights and how it has been dispensed throughout the years of conflict and thereafter.

India had a difficult choice before her.  On the one hand she has to balance the commitment towards the Tamil people living in the north and the east of Sri Lanka and on the other has to bear in mind the Tamil Nadu factor where the periphery could uproot the Centre.

On the other hand, China extended its cooperation more to Sri Lanka for which President Rajapaksa expressed his gratitude to the Chinese President Xi Jinping in a telephone conversation.

Stressing that China and Sri Lanka are strategic cooperative partners who enjoy sincere mutual assistance and ever-lasting friendship, Xi said China will never forget Sri Lanka’s valuable support for the restoration of its lawful seat in the United Nations.

President Rajapaksa while thanking China for its valuable support, said he is willing to collaborate closely with China to firmly support each other’s positions on issues concerning their respective core interests and safeguard their common interests.

He added that Sri Lanka hopes to learn from the Chinese Communist Party’s experience in governing the country, and especially looks forward to strengthening exchanges and cooperation on poverty alleviation and the rural vitalization strategy.

How lavish their celebrations

In the meantime, the US State Department issued the Sri Lanka country report for 2020 which further elaborates on the dispensation of human rights in Sri Lanka. Some of the significant issues the Report listed were unlawful killings by the government including torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents and arbitrary arrest and detention by government entities including arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy.  It also highlighted restrictions on free expression and the press, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors. The Police it said, reportedly harassed civilians with impunity. Raising a point on corruption, the Report states that it remained a significant and continuing problem, including at the highest levels of government. It went on to say that international companies frequently reported requests for bribes on matters ranging from customs clearances to government procurement. On the government’s response to findings of alleged alleged human rights abuses by international and non- governmental organisations, it said the government employed bureaucratic obfuscation to inhibit the work of such organizations.

With the Sinhala and Hindu new year just one week away Sri Lankans are preoccupied with preparations for the festivities. For many Sri Lankans it is both a significant and auspicious time in their calendar but the soaring cost of living will determine how lavish their celebrations will be. With news of a potential artificial price hike in chicken ahead of the new year and a kilogram of green gram, a key ingredient in traditional new year food currently priced at an unprecedented 650 rupees, the question of affordability will be paramount on the minds of the consumer.

These concerns have been compounded after it was confirmed that large volumes of coconut oil that was imported for sale have a carcinogenic substance Aflatoxin, in it and that it was to be re -exported. Like green gram, coconut oil is widely used in the preparation of the numerous traditional foods at this time of year and consumers are in a quandary on the one hand whether they will be able to prepare these traditional foods and on the other, the health implications of using coconut oil. From the claims made by health authorities it appears that this substance is found even in other foods, including coconut oil which is produced in Sri Lanka, and that it’s prevalence is not unusual unless it exceeds a prescribed level which is where the Sri Lanka Standards Institute makes its presence felt. What is even more disconcerting is that three bowsers of coconut oil were seized by Police in Marawila and Dambulla and the two bowsers which were seized in Marawila found their way back to the Customs department purportedly at the behest of a bigwig in the legal section of the Sri Lanka police and in contravention of an order given by the Marawila magistrate that it should be kept in the Court premises. Counterpoint reliably learns that the procedure which the Customs department followed in connection with this consignment of oil was no different to what they adopt normally. Reportedly, when a consignment of imported goods arrives in the country it is usually released into the custody of the importer while the quality assurance checks are being carried out.  This eases the congestion in the warehouses of the Customs department and it is also beneficial to the importer who avoids paying a high demurrage fee. However, importers meanwhile are known to release goods which are in their custody even before the results of the quality checks are out. In the case of the coconut oil which is currently under scrutiny, the inquiries that are being carried out should not only determine if the coconut oil that was seized was what was pending re export but also ascertain who was behind the dispatch of the two bowsers that were in the Marawila court house back to the Customs department.  

ASP and his team and to transfer

The saga playing out between State Minister of Coconut, Kithul and Palmyrah Cultivation and Promotion Arundika Fernando and Assistant Superintendent of Police Eric Perera reached new heights after a  letter written by the former to Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera in December last year flooded social media. During media interviews Minister Arundika asserted with certainty that ASP Eric is responsible for leaking the letter in which he requests Mr Weerasekera to conduct an inquiry into a dossier of complaints which he has compiled about the ASP and his team and to transfer him from the Wennapuwa police station.  The complaints are from small time producers of kassippu, a type of hooch in Sri Lanka, who allege that ASP Eric and his team of police officers have used surreptitious ways and means to frame them to prompt litigation against them. According to Minister Arundika, they have reportedly filed cases against the ASP and his team in Court and with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.  

The Minister is magnanimous enough to acknowledge the professionalism of ASP Eric, reportedly a figure for whom there is much acceptance by sections of the local community, but at the same time alleges there have been occasional breaches of conduct by the Officer. There is suspicion that the Minister might be carrying out a political witch hunt against the ASP for the latter not conforming with a request from him to provide relief, which the minister subsequently clarifies as a rehabilitation program, to small time kassippu producers. During a telephone conversation between the two, a recording of which has also been leaked, the ASP is heard standing his ground and saying that all producers of hooch, irrespective of size, should be treated equally. Minister Arundika has waived off allegations that he has been in cohorts with the drug and hooch mafia in his constituency who funded his campaign at the last parliamentary election. His claim is that he used his family wealth for his political activities.  

Clergy and conservationists presented evidence

The government has opened up another sparring front and this time it is with conservationists and environmentalists.  Like the Tamil and Muslim communities who have had to reach out to the international community for their grievances to be heard, more than one hundred petitions from Sri Lanka have flooded the UNESCO headquarters in Paris about the proposed Madhugatte reservoir project in the Sinharajah forest which is a UNESCO world heritage site. After the alarm bells were rung, the Secretary General in Sri Lanka’s UNESCO office Professor Punchinilame Meegaswatte made a public statement that he and others have spoken about the matter with the Minister for Irrigation Chamal Rajapakse and the project will now not go ahead.

Nevertheless, conservationists have asked for and are waiting for this verbal commitment to manifest in writing and will remain skeptical about the genuineness of the undertaking until a written document is forthcoming. The government has now got itself into a situation where it has lost credibility in yet another frontier and this time it is in relation to the environment.  

The government’s claims that there is no deforestation of protected and other lands have come to nought as opposition politicians, the clergy and conservationists have continuously presented it with evidence to the contrary and also very publicly.  The government must take up the challenge and together with these claimants visit these sites where they say there is destruction and set the record straight.

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