Constitutional reform takes centre-stage
Apart from some important bilateral agreements and diplomatic
sweet-talk, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Sri Lanka
was significant to both countries from a defence point of view.
The visit came amid Pakistan’s repeated attempts to sell its JF-17
combat aircraft to Sri Lanka. It was widely speculated among political
and diplomatic circles that the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to Sri
Lanka was aimed at clinching a final deal in this regard, among other
However, no official announcement was made by any party confirming
the deal although some sections of international media reported the
story, linking it to the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to Colombo.
Pakistan’s JF-17 pitch
The JF-17 (or CAC FC-1 Xiaolong) is a lightweight, single-engine,
multi-role combat aircraft developed jointly by the Pakistan
Aeronautical Complex (PAC) and the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) of
China. The JF-17 can be used for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack
and aircraft interception. Its designation ‘JF-17’ by Pakistan is short
for ‘Joint Fighter-17’, while the designation and name ‘FC-1 Xiaolong’
by China means ‘Fighter China-1 Fierce Dragon’.
The JF-17 was primarily developed at a cost of US$500 million, shared
equally between China and Pakistan, to meet the Pakistani Air Force’s
requirement for an affordable, modern, multi-role combat aircraft as a
replacement for its large fleet of Dassault Mirage III/5 fighters,
Nanchang A-5 bombers, and Chengdu F-7 interceptors.
On the other hand, Pakistan sees it as having great potential among
less wealthy nations as a cost-effective and competitive alternative to
more expensive Western-made aircraft.
That was one reason why Pakistan was pitching this aircraft to the
Sri Lankan Air Force, which was in need of a state-of-the-art, but cost
The Sri Lanka Air Force is currently looking to buy 18 to 24 new
fighter jets to replace its obsolete fleet of Chinese, license-built,
MIG-21 by 2017.
Although the war ended over 6 years ago, the Air Force decided to
upgrade its fighter fleet in a bid to strengthen the country’s military
Jane’s Defence magazine last month reported that SLAF Commander Air
Marshal Gagan Bulathsinhala visited Pakistan in mid-November to hold
talks with the Pakistani authorities on the matter.
During the visit, it said, Pakistan showcased the JF-17 to the
visiting Sri Lankan Air Force Commander. Immediately after the visit,
Bulathsinhala was invited to send an evaluation team of technicians and
pilots to PAC’s Kamra plant near Islamabad, where the JF-17 is produced.
While the discussions between Sri Lanka and Pakistan were underway,
another key player came into the equation. That was none other than Sri
Lanka’s all-influential neighbour India wanting to sell its Tejas Light
Combat Aircraft to Sri Lanka, outwitting Pakistan. For a moment, it
looked as if Sri Lanka was caught up in the “aircraft battle” between
India and Pakistan.
Tejas is a single-seat, single-jet engine, multi-role light fighter
developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. It is a tailless, compound
delta wing design powered by a single engine.
It came from the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program, which began in
the 1980s to replace India’s aging MiG-21 fighters. Later, the LCA,
which was under development for nearly three decades, was officially
named ‘Tejas’, meaning ‘radiant’.
However, there were some concerns about the Indian project. It came
under severe criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of
India – the Indian government’s principal oversight body. The CAG, in
March, last year, pointed out that LCA’s Mark-I version had 53
‘significant shortfalls’ which had reduced its operational capabilities
as well as survivability.
Not only that, IAF would be ‘constrained’ to induct the fighter LCA
without availability of a trainer model, thereby “adversely impacting
pilot training”, the audit body said in a report tabled in the Indian
Parliament, last year.
The CAG noted that it was due to the delay in the manufacture and
supply of LCA that IAF had to go for alternative temporary measures such
as upgrading its MIG BIS, MiG-29, Jaguar, and Mirage aircraft at a cost
of Rs 20,037 crore and revise the phasing out of MiG-21s.
“LCA Mark-I, which achieved Initial Operational Clearance (December,
2013) has significant shortfalls - 53 permanent waivers/concessions - in
meeting ASR (Air Staff Requirements) as a result of which it will have
reduced operational capabilities and reduced survivability, thereby
limiting its operational employability when inducted into IAF
squadrons,” the report said.
Listing the shortcomings, the auditing body said that the LCA Mark- I
fails to meet the electronic warfare capabilities sought by IAF as the
Self-Protection Jammer could not be fitted on the aircraft due to space
Also, it said that the Radar Warning Receiver/Counter Measure
Dispensing System fitted on the aircraft had raised performance concerns
which are yet to be overcome as at January this year.
SL first buyer?
It can be assumed that the criticism directed at the LCA project
within India itself discouraged the SLAF leadership – at least to a
certain extent. As a result, the Pakistan-Chinese aircraft became the SL
Air Force’s hot favourite to strengthen its fleet.
Furthermore, the SLAF has much experience with aircraft made in
China. The Chinese origin aircraft already operated by the Air Force
include seven Chengdu F-7 (licence-built MIG-21) fighter jets, nine
Harbin Y-12 turboprop military transports and, one Chengdu F-7 and five
Hongdu JL-8 jet trainers. Additionally, the SLAF ordered two Xian MA 60
transport planes from China’s Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation.
In this context, the JF 17 aircrafts held an edge over Indian
aircrafts and the Sri Lankan authorities have been positively
considering the Pakistani offer.
If Sri Lanka had already arrived at an agreement to buy the JF-17,
that would have made Sri Lanka the first international customer for the
However, the international media has reported that Nigeria, which is
fighting the Boko Haram insurgency, has already decided to buy the
Pakistani fighter. If Nigeria makes the move first, it will be the first
foreign operator of the JF-17.
Although international media has widely reported Sri Lanka’s interest
in the Pakistani fighter, the Sri Lanka Air Force remains tight-lipped.
When asked by local journalists last week whether there was an
agreement to buy Pakistani JF-17 fighter jets, Air Force Spokesman Group
Captain Chandima Alwis said he was “unaware” of any such move.
While the government was busy with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s
official visit to Sri Lanka, it also had to engage in some damage
control work as a result of the controversy created by UNP MP Hirunika
Premachandra over the alleged abduction of a youth in Dematagoda.
Several civil society groups, including some activists who supported
President Sirisena’s candidacy in January, last year, came out strongly
against the incident, calling for the Parliamentarian’s arrest.
Interestingly, some parties affiliated with the so-called ‘joint
opposition’, the UPFA rebel MP faction in Opposition, who strongly
defended the Rajapaksas over the white van allegations, were quick to
lash out against the so-called ‘black Defender abductions’ and demand
that the authorities bring the glamorous Premachandra to book.
Against this backdrop, the Colombo Crimes Division investigating into
the matter sought the Attorney General’s opinion on the arrest of MP
Premachandra over the controversial Amila Priyankara abduction.
The investigation into the alleged abduction took a new turn last
week with a statement given by the daughter of the party supporter who
was at the scene at the time of the abduction. The statement was
forwarded to the AG’s Department by the team handling investigations.
According to the Police, the 11-year-old girl who is the daughter of
the fifth suspect in the case had said she met Hirunika Premachandra
before as well as after the abduction.
The girl who was at the scene at the time of the incident, can be
seen in the CCTV video footage standing by her father, while the
abductee can be seen on camera being forcibly dragged out of the drapery
store in Dematagoda.
The Colombo Crimes Division, on December 31, informed Courts of the
girl’s statement which corroborated Amila Priyankara’s version that he
was taken to the office of the MP before being threatened and released.
The Attorney General’s Department was also informed of the statements
made by the 11-year-old girl and other suspects.
Last week, the AG’s Department requested for the CCTV footage of the
press briefing where Premachandra explained the incident, claiming that
she was merely trying to ‘settle’ a domestic dispute. At the same time,
the Colombo Magistrate’s Court also called for telephone records of the
suspects and other possible suspects at the time the alleged abduction
After carefully analyzing evidence presented on this matter, the
Attorney General’s Department decided to direct the Colombo Crimes
Division to arrest Parliamentarian Premachandra over the abduction. The
Attorney General signed the order to arrest the Parliamentarian on
“There was sufficient evidence to suggest the MP’s involvement in the
incident. In addition to the statements recorded from witnesses and
suspects, the AG department also took into consideration scientific
evidence such as telephone records of the suspects,” a highly placed
source in the Department said.
The source further added that the CCD probing into the matter would
make the arrest without delay based the AG’s recommendation.
Directing the Police to arrest the UNP Parliamentarian was one of the
last official acts by Attorney General Yuwanjan Wijeyathilaka
Wanasundara who retired from service on January 09. The Attorney
General, who was appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in
2012, did not seek a service extension this year.
The son of former Supreme Court judge S.R. Wijayathilake and a past
pupil of Ananda College, Attorney General Yuvanjana Jawaharlal
Wanasundera Wijayatilake, the 28th Attorney General of the country,
enrolled as an Attorney-at-Law of the Supreme Court in August 1979.
He joined the Attorney General’s Department in 1980 as an acting
State Counsel and was later promoted as Senior State Counsel, Deputy
Solicitor General, Additional Solicitor General and Solicitor General.
This is Wanasundera’s 35th year at the Attorney General’s Department.
During his first six years in the Attorney General’s Department,
Wanasundera conducted prosecutions in the High Courts and the
Magistrate’s Courts in Colombo as well as the outstations and also
appeared for the State in criminal appeals before the Court of Criminal
He moved to the department’s Civil Division in 1987 and appeared for
the State and State Corporations and statutory bodies in a wide range of
cases in the District Courts throughout the country.
He also appeared for cases in the Commercial High Court, in the Court
of Appeal in Writ Applications and Civil Appeals and, in the Supreme
Court in Fundamental Rights Applications and in cases where the
constitutionality of Bills and the interpretation of the Constitution
In several leading cases, he appeared in the Court of Appeal and the
Supreme Court as ‘amicus curiae’. He has also represented the State and
State agencies in several important national and international
He was admitted as a Solicitor of England and Wales in 1988 and
obtained his Master of Laws (LLM) degree in Commercial and Corporate Law
from Kings College, London in 1990. He was appointed a President’s
Counsel in June 2007, one and a half years after Rajapaksa became the
During his career in the Attorney General’s Department, Wanasundera
had been involved in the drafting of pleas, advising government
departments and corporations in a variety of matters including local and
international contracts, interpretation of Statutes, disciplinary
matters and dispute resolution.
Wanasundara, since the day he assumed office, had to navigate through
troubled waters. At one point, he was hailed by some political circles
as a hero who aborted an alleged election night coup attempt. Then, he
was severely criticized by members of the ruling coalition for ‘not
expediting’ investigations into top-brass members of the former
government.In his defence, the Attorney General always maintained that
his department only dealt with evidence at hand and preferences of
politicians were not taken into consideration when taking action against
On the other hand, he always ran into numerous issues due to shortage
of human capital.
Informed government sources told the Sunday Observer that the
President had not made any final decision on the new Attorney General.
Although a few names have been short listed, the President is taking his
own time to name the new Attorney General.
Names of Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath, Dayantha Jayasuriya and
Kapila Waidyarathne have been suggested as potential candidates for the
coveted position. At the same time, some sections believe that a senior
lawyer will be parachuted to the position from outside. Speaking to
Asian Mirror website, a senior counsel who is well-informed of the
affairs of the AG’s department said the three candidates from the AG’s
Department were ‘too small’ for the position.
Meanwhile, Sudaha Gamlath, a key candidate for the position, ran into
a fresh issue with Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne over the
former’s role in the habeas corpus case with regard to journalist
Prageeth Eknaligoda’s disappearance.
A war of words broke out between Minister Senaratne and Gamlath over
the AG’s department’s alleged attempts to remove State Counsel Dilip
Pieris from the Eknaligoda case. Pieris represents the Attorney
General’s Department in the case heard before the Homagama Magistrate.
Senaratne alleged that the some senior officials at the AG’s
department were acting in a conspiratorial manner to sabotage the case.
His criticism was mainly directed at Gamlath, one of the senior-most
officials at the Deaprtment.
Senaratne hit out at the Solicitor General in public saying that he
would complain to the President over the conduct of Gamlath. The
Minister claimed that the senior officer of the Attorney General
Department had attempted to interfere with the investigation into
journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s disappearance.
“In addition to this, there have been other allegations against him.
I will discuss the issue with the President,” the Minister was quoted as
telling the media.
Responding to the Minister’s statement on Friday, Gamlath denied the
allegation made by the Minister saying it was a “lie”.
The Solicitor General said that Attorney General Yuwanjan Wijethilake
had wanted him to inquire about the ongoing inquiry from the prosecuting
counsel of the Attorney General’s Department.
Gamlath had said that Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi had
complained to the AG that the prosecution counsel was allegedly “harsh”
in his comment against the Army at the inquiry into the journalist’s
disappearance case and the army had been disturbed by the certain
comments that the prosecution counsel was making.
The Solicitor General said this interaction had been misinterpreted
by the minister when the latter made a public statement on the matter.
It is still not clear whether the Solicitor General’s war of words
will stand in his way in his run up to the AG’s post. However, a sizable
proportion of government members are of the belief that Gamlath should
not be named as the Attorney General mainly due to his track-record
concerning the Avant Garde investigation.
‘Sinha-le’ at Cabinet meeting
Amid these key developments, the Cabinet of Ministers, on Wednesday
(06) held their first meeting for the new year. The meeting, held at the
Presidential Secretariat, was chaired by President Sirisena and Prime
minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also attended the meeting. The President
was extremely busy with his first year anniversary celebration and it
brought a sense of excitement to the Cabinet meeting.
The Cabinet meeting this week mainly focussed on the proposed
constitutional process. The President raised concerns over claims made
by some politicians that foreign parties were getting involved in the
formulation of the new constitution. He said some politicians were
making such irresponsible remarks without any proof.
Responding to the President, Minister Rajitha Senaratne said Udaya
Gammanpila was a key person behind this “vicious attempt.”
“Gammanpila is showing there is no difference between him and
Wigneswaran!” Senaratne charged, adding that both politicians had no
qualms about resorting to ‘racism’ to gain political mileage.
At this point, the President assured that he would allow Parliament
to make final decisions on the content of the new constitution. “It is
up to the legislature to finalize this process.
I can assure that everything will be highly transparent,” the
The ‘Sinha-le’ propaganda campaign, which went viral on social media
platforms especially among ultra-nationalist groups, became a hot topic
at the Cabinet meeting. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that
the government should probe into the elements behind the ‘Sinhale’
Although the campaign started with stickers and internet posts, it
reached a new height last week with an unidentified group spraying that
word on the gates and walls of some Muslim houses in the Nugegoda area.
The Minister was aware of this development when he fired cannons at the
‘Sinha-le campaign’ at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
After the Cabinet meeting, Minister Senaratne spoke to Samaraweera
and said one of the Foreign Minister’s ex-coordinating secretaries was
behind the campaign. Samaraweera’s ex-Coordinating Secretary, who has a
strong media background, is a well-known figure among journalistic
circles. However, Samaraweera was reluctant to accept Senaratne’s
allegation. “I know him for so many years. As far as I know, he will not
promote a racist campaign,” the Foreign Minister responded.
In addition to racist propaganda campaigns, the ruling coalition had
a bigger issue to deal with last week. Although the national unity
government pledged to introduce comprehensive constitutional reforms,
the UNP and the SLFP, the two main coalition partners of the government,
were not on the same page about the nature of the constitutional
Some sections of the SLFP supporting President Sirisena had concerns
about fully abolishing the Executive Presidency. However, President
Sirisena said in no uncertain terms that he would fully abolish the
Executive Presidency before the end of his first term in office.
A Party leaders meeting was held in this regard on Wednesday.
At the party leaders meeting, the JVP elaborated on several points
that needed to be taken into consideration before embarking on
MEP Leader and UPFA MP Dinesh Gunawardena vehemently opposed the idea
of amending the constitution saying it was a threat to the national
interests of the country.
It was quite evident that no one took Gunawardena’s comments
seriously, except his political allies in the UPFA dissident faction in
Following the party leaders meeting, a special meeting was held
between the UNP and SLFP seniors to discuss constitutional amendments.
Apart from seniors of the party, constitutional law expert and UNP
National List MP Jayampathy Wickramaratne also attended the meeting.
Minsters S.B. Dissanayake, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Susil Premajayantha
and Faizer Mustapha attended the meeting representing the SLFP.
It was clear from the outset that the SLFP group was trying to delay
the constitutional reform citing “technical issues”. Minister S.B.
Dissanayake made a lengthy speech on the party’s view on the matter. At
one point, it looked as if that the SLFP was not fully in favour of the
idea of abolishing the Executive Presidency in toto.
Probably, the SLFP was cautious about the reform move, assuming the
UNP would take credit for the reform and cash in on it at the Local
Government election. The SLFP resorted to the same tactic when the
ruling coalition attempted to ensure the passage of the 19th Amendment
in Parliament. It was no secret that their attempt resulted in an
eleventh hour dilution of the 19th Amendment.
In response, the UNP group asserted that the government should not
delay the process further as the President pledged to introduce
comprehensive constitutional reform at the last Presidential election.
The UNP strongly argued that the Government should embark on the “reform
process” first and later sort out minor technical issues.
However, there was no solid agreement between the two parties until
the end of the meeting. On Thursday night, there was another party
leaders meeting at the official residence of speaker Karu Jayasuriya and
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also attended it.
The Prime Minister and the UNP asserted that the motion seeking to
convert the legislature into a constitutional assembly should be
presented to Parliament on Saturday and other issues can be discussed
after the commencement of the process.
The Prime Minister informed party leaders that their views will be
taken into consideration during the process of formulating the new
It was after the Prime Minister’s intervention that the two parties
reached an agreement to proceed with the plan and embark on the process.
While the process of constitutional reform can be construed as an
important milestone in the country’s political history, it can also be
assumed that the task will be daunting as the main coalition partners of
the government seem to have different political interests.