Ven. So­bitha Thera’s goals un­der­mined by Con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT / NEWS - By Javid Yusuf

On Fri­day, mid­night, Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena (MS) is­sued a gazette no­ti­fi­ca­tion pur­port­ing to dis­solve Par­lia­ment and call­ing for gen­eral elec­tions. This no­ti­fi­ca­tion fol­lows one week af­ter he pur­ported to re­move Ranil Wick­remesinghe (RW) from the of­fice of Prime Min­is­ter, re­plac­ing him with Mahinda Ra­japaksa.

Both ac­tions of the Pres­i­dent are clearly in con­tra­ven­tion of the let­ter and spirit of the Con­sti­tu­tion and, more par­tic­u­larly, the 19th Amend­ment. The Pres­i­dent spent the whole day in Par­lia­ment, when the 19th Amend­ment was dis­cussed and used his per­sua­sive pow­ers to en­sure that 224 MPs voted for its pas­sage.

Clearly, there­fore, the Pres­i­dent knew the in­ten­tion with which the 19th Amend­ment was moved, even if he may be ex­cused for not know­ing its le­gal pro­vi­sions. By his ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the leg­isla­tive process that led to the adop­tion of the 19th Amend­ment, he was morally com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment­ing it, both in let­ter and spirit.

His act of pur­port­ing to re­move Wick­remesinghe on Oc­to­ber 26 and his sub­se­quent ac­tions, as well his pro­nounce­ments have plunged the coun­try into un­cer­tainty, and im­pacted neg­a­tively on the strug­gling econ­omy. If we pause to take note, we ob­serve that:

He sought to re­place Wick­remesinghe and the UNP with Mahinda Ra­japaksa and his sup­port­ers against whom he had made a host of se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions dur­ing and af­ter his Pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. He had pur­ported to re­move Wick­remesinghe with­out in­form­ing him and while the lat­ter was away from Colombo, in Galle.

He had pro­rogued Par­lia­ment and used the de­lay to en­tice par­lia­men­tar­i­ans with the of­fer of min­is­te­rial port­fo­lios, to cross over. It is sig­nif­i­cant that the few who did cross over, all ac­cepted min­is­te­rial po­si­tions, thus prov­ing they did so only with this ob­jec­tive and not based on any prin­ci­ples.

De­spite re­peated and con­fi­dent pre­dic­tions that he had the num­bers to sup­port him in Par­lia­ment, it was clear by his dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment on November 9 that he did not have the ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment to sup­port his ac­tions.

The Pres­i­dent has sought to ‘do the dirty’ on Wick­remesinghe by of­fer­ing the Pre­mier­ship at dif­fer­ent times to Karu Jaya­suriya, Sa­jith Pre­madasa and Ran­jith Mad­duma Ban­dara, but found that th­ese three in­di­vid­u­als were made of sterner stuff and would not be en­ticed by the lure of of­fice, at the ex­pense of their party leader.

Ac­cord­ing to SLFP Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Ro­hana Lak­sh­man Piyadasa, at the SLFP Cen­tral Com­mit­tee (CC) meet­ing held a day be­fore the pur­ported dis­so­lu­tion of Par­lia­ment, the Pres­i­dent had give­nan as­sur­ance that he would not dis­solve Par­lia­ment be­fore the end of its five-year ten­ure. This as­sur­ance be­came all the more sig­nif­i­cant in the light of Ra­japaksa stay­ing away from the SLFP CC meet­ing, de­spite re­ceiv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend in his ca­pac­ity as a pa­tron of the SLFP. It is also clear that the SLFP sec­tion of Pres­i­dent Sirisena’s sup­port­ers do not want an im­me­di­ate dis­so­lu­tion and a gen­eral elec­tion, while the Po­hot­tuwa party mem­bers have been push­ing for early gen­eral elec­tions and fi­nally, it is their point of view that has pre­vailed. The Pres­i­dent, who has been com­plain­ing that he is un­able to rein in Wick­remesinghe and his sup­port­ers in Cabi­net, may soon have to sing a sim­i­lar song vis-avis Ra­japaksa and his sup­port­ers, if cur­rent in­di­ca­tions are any­thing to go by. Last week, in a news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ment, the Min­istry of Fi­nance de­scribed the re­duc­tion of prices an­nounced by the Govern­ment as a re­vival of the 'Mahinda Chinthanaya'. No men­tion is made of the man­i­festo of the Pres­i­dent called the 'Maithri Palanaya'.

It is un­for­tu­nate that the Pres­i­dent had em­barked on a course of ac­tion that has cre­ated un­cer­tainty in the coun­try, with­out ex­plor­ing other op­tions that do not ad­versely im­pact the coun­try. The main thrust of his griev­ance is that he could not work with Wick­remesinghe, which could have been ad­dressed within the frame­work of the Con­sti­tu­tion, with­out caus­ing in­sta­bil­ity in the coun­try.

What needs to be re­alised is that the man­date given to Pres­i­dent Sirisena on Jan­uary 8, 2015, is not an in­di­vid­ual one, but a man­date given to him and Wick­remesinghe to jointly im­ple­ment an agreed pro­gramme of work. If Pres­i­dent Sirisena found that he could not work with Wick­remesinghe, it was in­cum­bent on him to go back to the peo­ple to ob­tain a fresh man­date, with­out chang­ing part­ners mid­stream and striking an al­liance with those who dis­agreed with the Jan­uary 8, 2015, man­date of the peo­ple.

There is clear Con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sion for the Pres­i­dent to call for Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions af­ter com­plet­ing four years of his term of of­fice and ask for a fresh man­date in al­liance with Ra­japaksa, if he so wished. All he had to do was to be pa­tient and wait for two more months, that is un­til Jan­uary 8, 2019, and then call for a Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion. This would have saved the coun­try un­nec­es­sary tur­bu­lence and, would have been con­sis­tent with Sri Lanka’s in­ter­na­tional im­age as a ro­bust democ­racy.

Thereby, he could have for­mally de­tached him­self from the umbilical cord that tied him to the vision of the late Ven. Madu­luwawe So­bitha Thera, whose ground- break­ing cam­paign for democ­racy and so­cial jus­tice pro­pelled him to the high­est of­fice in the land.

Last Thurs­day evening, the Na­tional Move­ment for So­cial Jus­tice and the Ven. So­bitha Foun­da­tion com­mem­o­rated the death an­niver­sary of the Ven. Thera. Sadly, the commemoration cer­e­mony had to take place at a time when the ef­forts of this great son of Sri Lanka are be­ing un­der­mined.

The true mean­ing of the late Ven. So­bitha’s strug­gles can only be un­der­stood when viewed in the con­text of the times he launched his Na­tional Move­ment for So­cial Jus­tice (MNSJ). Real­is­ing that the coun­try was drift­ing to­wards au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, he gath­ered to­gether like-minded civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists to launch a countrywide cam­paign to put the coun­try back on track.

He be­lieved that, only sys­temic change could en­sure good gov­er­nance, rather than plac­ing ones trust in in­di­vid­u­als, and ad­vo­cated the abol­ish­ing of the Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dency and the flawed elec­toral sys­tems, which he iden­ti­fied as be­ing at the root of the coun­try’s ills. It was the ground­work done by him that helped pro­pel Sirisena, who was de­prived of the PM’s post un­der the pre­vi­ous govern­ment, to be­come the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dent, while solemnly promis­ing to abol­ish the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency and bring about re­forms in the elec­toral laws.

That Pres­i­dent Sirisena has gone back on his pledge to abol­ish the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency is ev­i­dent from his loud si­lence with re­gard to the is­sue, and his luke­warm atti- tude to­wards the Con­sti­tu­tional re­form process. With re­gard to elec­toral re­forms, he has taken no steps to take the process for­ward, not only in con­tra­ven­tion of his pledge to the peo­ple, but to his own party.

When he worked hard to en­sure the pas­sage of the 19th Amend­ment, by en­list­ing the sup­port of the SLFP par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, he promised them he would fol­low it up with the 20th Amend­ment, which would in­cor­po­rate the nec­es­sary elec­toral re­forms. Yet the Pres­i­dent has now cho­sen to call for par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, which will have to be held un­der the pre­vail­ing Pro­por­tion­ate Rep­re­sen­ta­tion sys­tem of elec­tions.

The late Ven. So­bitha’s mis­sion re­mains un­re­alised to­day. At the commemoration cer­e­mony held on Thurs­day, the NMSJ Con­venor, Prof. Sarath Wi­jesuriya, re­vealed that, al­though Pres­i­dent Sirisena had been in­vited, he chose not to at­tend the commemoration cer­e­mony. This was in con­trast to the birth an­niver­sary commemoration of the late Ven. So­bitha Thera, which the Pres­i­dent at­tended, al­though, ac­cord­ing to him, he had not re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion.

Pres­i­dent Sirisena’s de­ci­sion not to at­tend last week’s commemoration cer­e­mony may well be sym­bolic of his dis­tanc­ing him­self from the goals that the Ven. So­bitha Thera strived to achieve, but for the coun­try it may be time to reded­i­cate it­self to work to­wards abol­ish­ing the ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dency and bring­ing about the nec­es­sary elec­toral re­forms.

( javidyusuf@gmail.com)

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