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Sunday, 22 November 2015

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Harin-Chathura cold war hots up

Maithri promotes Cabinet self regulation:

MR aide faces corruption charges:

SLFP internal feud continues :

Telecommunications and Digital Infrastructure Minister Harin Fernando was livid early this week as he got to know that UNP MP Chathura Senaratne, the son of Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, visited his ministry in search of some documents pertaining to alleged deals done by the Minister.

Senaratne, despite his links with the SLFP, he contested the last Parliamentary election on the UNP ticket and got elected to Parliament from the Gampaha district. In the run up to the last Presidential election, he was a stalwart of the Pivithuru Hetak National Movement, led by Parliamentarian Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera.

Chathura rose to fame a few months before the Parliamentary election this year, when he challenged former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to defeat him from the Beliatta seat. Although Chathura's challenge was akin to David challenging Goliath, the statement went viral on social media and the young politician instantly became a known character among the country's political circles.

Those who made Fernando aware of Chathura's moves told the Minister that a Secretary of the Deputy Minister of the same ministry assisted the Parliamentarian. The Deputy Minister of Fernando's Ministry is Tharanath Basnayake, a young Parliamentarian of the UPFA who received a portfolio from President Maithripala Sirisena. Fernando received information that the Secretary of his Deputy Minister was previously affiliated with Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa.

President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and others at the budget tea party

Fernando first raised this matter at a press conference he addressed in Colombo on Tuesday, the day before the Cabinet meeting. Although he did not explicitly mention Chathura Senaratne's name, he left enough room for reporters to speculate that it was Rajitha Senaratne's son.

The cold war between the Senaratnes and Fernando started after the latter appeared in two television talk shows immediately after the Avant Garde controversy. During the talk shows, Fernando said there was no real basis to point fingers at Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Thilak Marapana over the Avant Garde issue as their statements were based on the observations of the Attorney General. Throughout the debates he maintained that the conduct of the private security firm or its owners could not be justified.

Feud

However, the statements made by Fernando, earned the ire of Minister Senaratne, a vociferous critique of Avant Garde company. That was the beginning of the feud between Fernando and the Senaratnes, which reached new heights at the Cabinet meeting.

Speaking at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning, Fernando hit out at "conspirators" within the ruling camp trying to sabotage the understanding between the UNP and the SLFP for petty political gains.

The Minister said some ministers of the cabinet, including Senaratne, unfairly criticized hm for defending the government's position on the Avant Garde issue during television debates.

"I never tried to defend the conduct of the security firm. I always stood by the government's position on the matter. I said the President and the Prime Minister would make a final decision on the security company. I also explained the legal background pertaining to the matter. But, the next day, the Cabinet Minister criticized me. He dubbed me as a person who goes to night clubs," Fernando said, directing his criticism at Health Minister Senaratne who was not present at the Cabinet meeting as he was abroad.

"I am a father of two and I have a good family life. It is unfair to criticize me as a person who goes to night clubs," the Cabinet Minister added, saying that he was the first to challenge the Rajapaksa rule when he stepped down from Parliament to be the UNP's Chief Ministerial candidate at the Uva Provincial Council election, last year.

He said former Law and Order Minister Thilak Marapana's resignation, which clearly showed the government's commitment to good governance, was overshadowed by "media shows" initiated by certain cabinet members who only think about their personal agendas.

"It was the first time a Minister resigned from his portfolio, paving the way for the government to conduct a free and fair probe into a controversial matter. It was a great example of good governance. It also strengthens the credibility of the government in the eyes of the people. But we, unfortunately, failed to capitalize on this situation as a result of the irresponsible behavior shown by some ministers. This madness has to stop," the Cabinet minister asserted.

The Minister also alleged that Minister Senaratne's son barged in to his ministry in search of documents of alleged 'deals'. He urged the President and the Prime Minister to inquire into the matter and take action against responsible parties.

"I have brought all my files to the Cabinet meeting today. I am ready to hand over them to the President and the Prime Minister. I have nothing to hide," the young Cabinet Minister said, showing disappointment over the behavior of the UNP Parliamentarian.

Meanwhile, Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake criticized a statement made by Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva against the new government and its policies.

"The Transport Minister had said good governance did not exist in the new government. He had also said the President would form an SLFP government. Such statements are damaging to the unity between the two main parties," Dissanayake said.

Responding to Dissanayake, de Silva said he never made such a statement. The Transport Minister said media reports had quoted him out of context and distorted his statement.

Political games

At this point, Minister Harin Fernando said he even had a video clip of the speech made by the Transport Minister.

"We too can play various political games but we have realized the importance of the MOU signed between the UNP and the SLFP. But we cannot see the same commitment from some members of the cabinet," he asserted.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, intervening in the argument, said members of the government should understand their duties and act in a responsible manner.

"We all have a responsibility to protect the government. We have embarked on comprehensive political reforms. Therefore, every member of the government should support this process," the Prime Minister said adding that members of the government should not forget their primary responsibilities.

Meanwhile, some ministers raised concerns on "cabinet secrets" being leaked to media.

To address this problem, Minister Talatha Athukorala said cabinet members should not be allowed to bring their mobile phones to cabinet meetings.

Responding to that claim, President Maithripala Sirisena said the best solution was "self-regulation" among members of the cabinet.

" There is no point in holding meetings if we cannot act in a responsible manner. It is the responsibility of cabinet members to protect the confidentiality of our meetings," the President stressed.

It is against this backdrop that the Cabinet paper on the abolition of Executive Presidency, presented by the President, was unanimously passed by ministers.

The ministers approved two Cabinet Papers submitted by President Sirisena aiming at abolishing the Executive Presidency and changing the existing electoral system.

in line with his pledge in the common opposition's election Manifesto last January, the President said he would take measures to abolish Executive Presidency as it posed a threat to the country's freedom and democracy.

The cabinet papers, presented by him, proposed the abolition of the Executive Presidency, entrusting executive powers to Parliament, the amending of the Preferential Representative system of election and introducing a more democratic system of elections.

The Cabinet decided to appoint a Ministerial Sub Committee, with the participation of the Prime Minister, to study the matter and the sub committee should submit a report to the Cabinet within two weeks Thereafter officials of the Legal Draftsman's Department will prepare the draft legislation.

The President expressed hopes that the Cabinet sub committee would take into account the ideas and views of other political parties and people's representatives interested in the subject, before submitting the report.

There is still a dialogue on the 'extent' of constitutional reforms. While some parties are pushing for a partial abolition of Executive Presidency, civil society members, who strongly backed President Sirisena at the Presidential election in January, are pushing for a total abolition.

They also opine that the government should introduce a new constitution, comprehensively rectifying the loopholes in the present constitution. As exclusively reported in the Sunday Observer last week, a committee, headed by Parliamentarian Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, has already been appointed to take measures with regard to constitutional amendments. Among its members are senior lawyer Suren Fernando and Additional Secretary (Legal) to the Prime Minister Bimba Thilakaratne.

Prof. Suri Ratnapala, a veteran in the field of legal studies, is likely to be the government's chief consultant when formulating the new constitution.

Prof. Ratnapala, who was in Sri Lanka for a brief visit last month, held several rounds of discussions with the top rung leadership of the government on the matter. During the discussion, Professor Ratnapala, who is currently based in Australia, has agreed to take up the task.

Referendum

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Dr. Wickramaratne maintained that the committee headed by him would only act as a body of experts, without stepping on the toes of the legislature.

"My role has two dimensions. I will have to function as a member of the legislature which will formulate and pass the new constitution. At the same time, I will have to head the body of experts providing legal and technical assistance. So, I will have to wear two cloaks at the same time," Dr. Wickremaratne, a leading constitutional lawyer and a national list MP, said.

Many political observers believe that comprehensive constitutional amendments - or the proposed new constitution - will require a referendum. They also express hopes that the reform process will reach completion before September, 2017, as the MOU signed between the two main parties was only valid for a period of two years.

It is fair to believe that former Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon's ruling on the 'aborted' 3rd amendment to the constitution, in 1981, will come into play during the process of formulating and passing comprehensive constitutional reforms.

Former President J.R. Jayewardene's government attempted to pass a third amendment to the constitution when Abeyrathne Pilapitiya, MP for Kalawana, lost his position as the result of an election petition filed against his Parliamentary seat. Following this development, a By-election had to be held in terms of Article 161 (b) (i) of the Constitution and Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party became a Member of Parliament as the duly elected MP for the Kalawana seat.

In an interesting turn of events, On January 15th 1981, Abeyratne Pilapitiya resigned as the Member of Parliament for Kalawana. He held that seat not because he had been elected in 1977, but because he had been nominated to fill the vacancy caused by his losing the seat after he was absent from Parliament without leave for three months. He had absented himself deliberately, as he was about to be disqualified by the Courts after the hearing of an election petition.

With this development, there were two MPs for Kalawana electorate. One was Sarath Muttetuwegama who won the by-election and became the MP of the seat.

The other one was Abeyrathne Pilapitiya, who was re-appointed to Parliament by the President to fill his own vacancy.

This situation required a Constitutional Amendment - the 'Third amendment' proposed by the Jayewardene government - to allow the Kalawana seat to have two Members. At this point, the Supreme Court, headed by Neville Samarakoon, put a damper on President Jayewardena's plans. The Supreme Court ruled that the third amendment to the constitution required not just a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but also a Referendum, since it affected the franchise and the composition of the legislature

It is in this context that many political observers believe the national unity government, which technically has a two third majority in Parliament, will have to resort to a referendum after passing constitutional reforms in Parliament.

Fireworks

A day before the President presented two cabinet papers on the abolition of Executive Presidency and electoral reforms, the Central Committee of the SLFP met at the President's personal residence at Paget Road, Colombo.

All Central Committee members of the party were informed in writing, by its General Secretary Minister Duminda Dissanayake, to be present at the meeting as the party wanted to discuss some urgent matters including the Local Government election and constitutional reforms.

Taking disciplinary action against party members who criticize the party and its leadership was a key topic at the SLFP Central Committee meeting last Tuesday. As the Central Committee dealt with a highly contentious matter, the meeting, chaired by the President, was full of fireworks.

Several senior members of the Central Committee raised serious concerns over recent remarks made by Parliamentarians Vidura Wicramaranayake and Lohan Ratwatte.

Wickramanayake, the son of former Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickramanayake, said the SLFP would not have secured more than 35 seats had the party contested the last Parliamentary election under President Sirisena's leadership. Wickremanayake's criticism, needless to say, was directed at the President who is also the SLFP Chairman.

Ratwatte, addressing a recent public meeting in Kandy, said the party would suffer a certain defeat if the President decided to lead the party's campaign for the forthcoming Local Government election. Ratwatte's statement earned the ire of many top rung SLFP members supporting President Sirisena.

Local polls

When the matter was taken up at Tuesday's Central Committee meeting, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, a supporter of the President, said a group was trying to create a division in the party.

"Recently, there was a meeting in the Kurunegala district. Some of our Local Government members also took part in the meeting. At this meeting, they had criticized the party and had discussed the possibility of fielding a separate team at the local government election, Jayasekera revealed, stirring what seemed to be a hornet's nest.

Kalutara District MP Kumara Welgama, at this point, stood up to raise his objections against Jayasekera's statement.

"Sir, I too was present at that meeting and nothing of that sort was discussed. We only discussed the former President's birthday celebration in Anuradhapura as he is a Patron and a former leader of our party," Welgama told the President. It looked as if Welgama's explanation satisfied President Sirisena who was chairing the meeting.But Jayasekera, interrupting Welgama, said he had credible information to prove that they had discussions about contesting separately at the local government election. Irritated by this comment, Welgama slammed the Cabinet minister saying the latter wanted to create divisions in the party by slinging mud at other senior members.

"I am a genuine SLFPer. Madam Bandaranaike offered me the electoral organizer post. I am not someone like you who kept jumping from one political party to another," Welgama lashed out at Jayasekera.

"You want to throw us out of the party. You want to create divisions in the SLFP. But that's not easy. I've been in this party for more than 30 years," Welgama added.

Although Jayasekera attempted to respond to Welgama's claims, the President stopped him, knowing the argument was becoming heated.

Then the President started addressing the Central Committee meeting and he said he was aware that some elements in the party were working against him.

"I have never left the party. I was always an SLFPer. Some organizers tell their supporters that they don't accept my leadership. When organizers make such remarks, will the village-level voters ever vote for the party? Why are they treating me like this? Is it because I am not from the elite?" the President asked the Central Committee members who silently listened to their party Chairman's brief but emotional speech. After his speech, the Central Committee approved the special Cabinet Paper aimed at abolishing the Executive Presidency and transferring the remaining powers of the Executive Presidency to Parliament. It was conveyed to them that the abolition of Executive Presidency will come into effect after the incumbent President's first term in office.

Choosy

The SLFP had another important meeting on Friday evening, after the budget speech, when its All Island Executive Committee met in Colombo under the patronage of the President. The meeting was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institution, after the traditional post-budget tea party in Parliament, hosted by the Speaker. The All Island Executive Committee meeting primarily focused on the local government election which will take place early next year. The President, addressing the meeting, promised that he would turn the SLFP into a victorious party at the local government polls.

He said the party would join hands with progressive political parties at the local government polls to form a strong front.

The President's statement gave a clear indication that the SLFP would not contest separately at the Local Government polls - as speculated by some a few weeks ago.

A senior Parliamentarian of the party who wished to remain anonymous told the Sunday Observer that the party would be 'choosy' about its allies when forming a broad political front targeting the local government polls.

The President also added that electoral reforms would be fast-tracked keeping in mind the time-frame of the election.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga too attended the SLFP's Executive Committee meeting and she was among the party seniors who addressed the gathering. In her brief speech, Kumaratunga said the party should take measures to field members who are ready to be answerable to their electorates when naming candidates for the local government polls.

While the SLFP was preparing for the local government election under tumultuous circumstances, former President Rajapaksa, one of the main actors in the SLFP's internal feud, attended religious events in Anuradhapura and Kandy to mark his 70th birthday.

Notable absentees

The former President, on November 18, attended a Bodhi pooja held at Anuradhapura with the participation of a group of UPFA MPs. Interestingly, UPFA Anuradhapura District Parliamentarians Tissa Karaliyadde and W B Ekanayake were conspicuous by their absence at the Bodhi pooja held at the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura on Wednesday.Karaliyadda and Ekanayake, SLFP chief organisers for Medawachchiya and Anuradhapura West respectively, were considered staunch supporters of Rajapaksa when they contested the recent Parliamentary elections.

When asked about his absence, Karalliyadde said he was not invited by the organizers to attend the function. Other notable absentees at Wednesday's religious ceremony at the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi were North Central Province Health Minister K.H. Nandasena, Provincial Council's SLFP (UPFA) Chief Whip Kalyani Karaliyadde and Provincial Council member Susil Gunawardene as well as Horowpotane SLFP chief organiser M Herath Banda and Kekirawa SLFP Co-organiser Rohan Jayakody

The former President was also in Kandy to pay homage to the tooth relic at Dalada Maligawa. The ex-president met with the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa, Pradeep Nilanga Dela and called on the Anunayake of the Malwatte Chapter, the Ven Niyangoda Vijitha Siri Thera and had a private discussion.

The Venerable Thera spoke to the media afterwards and said that, considering what is now taking place in the country, the former president was now seen to be worthy of merit. The former president also paid a courtesy call on the deputy registrar of Asgiriya Chapter, the Ven Narampanawe Ananda Thera. Even when he was the President, Rajapaksa maintained a close connection with the Dalada Maligawe and the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte- Asgiriya chapters.

Two Passports

However, when the former President celebrated his 70th birthday, one of his close associates found himself in hot water over several scams and financial misappropriations. He is Champika Karunaratne, a former Coordinating Secretary of the former President.

Police received information that Karunaratne, a British national, had misused vehicles, remuneration and other incentives when he was a presidential coordinating secretary. According to investigators, Karunaratne had settled in Sri Lanka after Rajapaksa became the President in 2005.

Police Media Spokesperson, Ruwan Gunasekara said that Karunaratne had allegedly misappropriated over Rs, 10 million during the tenure of the former President. The former Coordinating Secretary was remanded for alleged frauds and corruption.Police found out that he had used two passports and breached the Immigration and Emigration laws of the country many a time.

While being a British national, he had done four jobs in Sri Lanka attached to well known state-sector institutions such as the National Lotteries Board, the State Timber Corporation and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. In addition to that, he had also worked very closely with Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa's team.

Namal Rajapaksa, the son of the former President, played multiple roles under the previous administration. Karunaratne had managed to obtain two passports form Sri Lanka's Immigration and Emigration authorities, violating standard practices.

One of his passports is an official one which he had obtained with the support of a senior official attached to the Temple Trees under the Rajapaksa administration. A top CID souces, speaking to the Sunday Observer, said Karunaratne, who operated without much media fanfare under the previous rule, was linked to several anti-corruption cases currently being investigated by law enforcement authorities.

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