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Sri Lanka Perspectives: May 2018; By Col. R. Hariharan VSM (Retd.)

Image Courtesy: Onlanka

Article No. 036/2018

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, June 2018 | www.security-risks.com

Abolition of executive presidency 

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s action to introduce a private member’s bill in parliament to abolish the existing executive presidential system, through the 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution, has once again triggered heated debate in Sri Lanka politics. Ever since President J R Jayawardane became the first executive president on February 04, 1978 armed with unlimited powers and little accountability, executive presidency had courted controversy. It became the opposition hobby horse in the run up to every election.

However, successive president’s after getting elected, never abolished or reformed the system. Obviously, because it gave them unlimited political powers on, without the checks and balances. President Ranasinghe Premadasa used his powers to crush the JVP. And President Mahinda Rajapaksa used his power to shelve the peace process and use the army to wipe out the LTTE, ending the separatist dream of an independent Tamil Eelam. In the process, he muzzled free press, stifled civil society, curbed fundamental rights and threatened the opposition. So it was not surprising that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance zeroed on the reform of executive presidential system as a cornerstone of their election campaign.

On assuming office in 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena included reform of the presidential system reform as an important element of his 100-day agenda. The national unity government successfully passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of 1978 to remove President Rajapaka’s 18th Amendment that lifted the two term limit for holding presidential office. In fact, President Sirisena in his address to the newly elected parliament on September 8, 2015 called the passing of 19th Amendment “a fulfilment of one of my key promises. It is the responsibility of this Parliament, where you are now seated, to take the final decision over the existence or the nature of the Executive Presidency.”

In spite of such proclaimed intention, both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe have not been able to make good of their promise on executive presidency. There is lack of unanimity on the future of executive presidency, particularly in the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Reform of the presidential system forms part of the draft constitution, which is still to be finalised. An exasperated President Sirisena is firing broadsides on his coalition partner and PM Wickremesinghe is counselling his party men to keep their cool is indicative of the precarious state of the coalition now. In short, the coalition of conviction has turned into a coalition of convenience.

In this murky political scene, JVP’s 20A bill would only throw yet another spanner in the works. FM Sarath Fonseka, Minister for sustainable development, probably reflected the general mood within the coalition, when he said that under the prevailing political conditions abolishing the executive presidency under the 20A might be harmful to the country. The 16 SLFP MPs who voted for the no confidence motion against the PM also have decided against the 20A. The Joint Opposition took a decision to oppose the 20A at a meeting chaired by former president Rajapaksa. The meeting attended by other opposition party leaders including Prof GL Peiris of the pro-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) also decided to press President Sirisena to go for a snap general election indicating its gamesmanship to take advantage of the political confusion. However, President Sirisena can take comfort that the bill on 20Amendment when it comes for voting would not able to muster the support of the 5/6th members in parliament required for success.

Remembering the war dead

Tamils in Sri Lanka observed May 18 as Remembrance Day to mourn thousands of civilians who lost their lives in Mullivaikal on the last day of the Eelam War. Once again the commemoration of the Mullivaikal dead raised the passions of Sinhala nationalists, who questioned the propriety of it, while Tamil separatists tried to revive Eelam separatism. This year, the Northern provincial council organized the celebrations at Mullivaikal under its wing, on the orders of Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran. At the massive commemoration about 10,000 people, including Jaffna University students on bikes, are said to have participated. All school principals of Northern Province were requested to observe a moment of silence in memory of the dead and fly the provincial flag at half-mast. LTTE supporters seemed to have taken over the function and played songs of Eelam struggle. After Vijitha Kesavan, who lost both her parents in the war, lit the flame the Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran spoke.

He described as half-baked the present attempts to deliver alternate solutions, instead of sustainable solutions, regarding war crimes as an attempt to demoralize the people who were seeking justice. He said every May 18 should be observed as Genocide Day and the international community should set up a strategy mechanism to ensure justice and ensure a sustainable political solution for Tamils. He also appealed to them to designate the Tamil experience as a mass disaster and offer recompense. Significantly the leaders of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) did not speak at the function; however they attended the functions held elsewhere. However, it was interesting to note that the government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said there was “nothing wrong in having events to commemorate those who died during the final phase of war in Northern Province…They are also our children” which drew a lot of flak from hardliners.

China-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement

A Reuters report quoted Sri Lanka’s chief trade negotiator K J Weerasinghe as saying Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was facing hurdles as China was not ready to agree to Colombo’s insistence on the right to review the FTA after ten years in operation. Ministerial level discussions on FTA have not been held since March 2017, because China wanted to remove the review class. Sri Lanka wants the review clause as it would allow some changes in the terms of FTA, if it was found hurting local businesses.

[Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Military intelligence officer, is a member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute. The views expressed in the article are of the author. 

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