1953 style Hartal on the horizon


Even the elders among us would have some difficulty in recalling a time when there was as much antagonism between a government and the trade unions as we see today. The May Day rallies tomorrow will be emotionally charged affairs given the tensions that have been unleashed. What we are seeing now is a case of the trade unions consciously bringing pressure on the government on matters pertaining to state policy. The last trade union action that we experienced, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation strike, had nothing to do with any demands such as wages or work conditions - it was all about matters of policy. The CPC unions put forward three demands – abandoning the plan to lease out the Trincomalee oil tank farm to India, the modernization of the Sapugaskanda refinery and turning over the oil tanks in the Hambantota port to the CPC. These are policy matters into which trade unions have not ventured at this level before.

The CPC strike ended with the Prime Minister having pledged not to lease out the Trincomalee oil tank farm to India. The letter issued by the Prime Minister’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake to the Convenor of the CPC Trade Unions Collective was quite vague, but for the purposes of the trade unions, it was adequate. There were three undertakings given by the Prime Minister. The first was that the Prime Minister was due to enter into a ‘political understanding’ with India about certain development projects but the trade unions would have to be consulted before any binding agreements are entered into.  A discussion is to be arranged between the trade unions and the Ministerial Committee dealing with the privatization of the Hambantota harbour to discuss handing over the oil tanks in Hambantota to the CPC. The proposal to modernize the Sapugaskanda oil refinery will be put to the Cabinet Subcommittee on Economic Affairs by the Petroleum Minister. The first thing to note in this letter is that the trade unions have not been unreasonable in their negotiations with the Prime Minister.

The unions have not been demanding the whole pound of flesh all at once. They have accepted that due process has to be followed which is why they have agreed to discuss the oil tanks in the Hambantota port with the Ministerial Committee dealing with that subject. They have also agreed to wait patiently till the Petroleum Minister puts the proposal for the modernization of the Sapugaskanda oil refinery to the Cabinet Subcommittee on Economic Affairs. Most importantly, they also acknowledged the Prime Minister’s right to enter into any ‘political understanding’ with India over development projects but the trade unions will have to be consulted before any legally binding agreements are to be entered into. With regard to this, the term used in Sinhala is ‘yuthu ve’ which does not allow for any deviation from the pledge given by the Prime Minister – is he is going to privatize the Trincomalee oil tank farm, the trade unions will have to be consulted.   

So there is no doubt that the CPC trade unions have won their demand. Furthermore, they are unlikely to back off on this matter as what is at stake is the very existence of the CPC. Over the tenure of several past governments, the CPC has watched their assets being privatized one by one and the unions have obviously come to the conclusion that this trend must stop. The main factor that is fuelling that unrest is the glaring example that LIOC provides to the futility of some of the privatizations that the UNP in particular seems obsessed with carrying out. Giving the Indian Oil Company the right to import and distribute fuel has not been of any tangible benefit to Sri Lanka except for the fact that the LIOC controlled petrol sheds have been spruced up a bit. The only thing that has happened is that huge profits that would otherwise have accrued to the CPC have been given to the IOC for a paltry one-off payment when the last UNP government was in power.

In the meantime, the MOU that was signed by Minister Malik Samarawickrema and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has given rise to much anxiety in Sri Lanka because nobody yet knows the contents of the agreement that was signed. The best scenario will be if this is just a face saving exercise for the benefit of the Indian government which has made a mighty hash of their intervention in Sri Lanka, with their own acolytes in Colombo conceding more to the Chinese than was ever conceded by the Rajapaksas. If RW has conceded anything more than that, we are going to see fireworks in the coming weeks.

Garbage issue resurfaces

The CPC unions can hardly be blamed for their determination to prevent any further privatizations of that sort. True to form the government reacted in a typically boorish and foolhardy manner to the CPC strike threatening to appoint Minister Sarath Fonseka to a special position to quell such strikes. The special position that was proposed for Fonseka ranged from something like the overall commander of the armed forces and police to the head of a special committee to oversee essential services. This was a direct threat made to the trade unions. The comments made by Fonseka acknowledging that the President had in fact asked him to take over the armed forces and that trade unions were getting out of hand did not help. If the government expected the mention of Fonseka’s name to intimidate the trade unions, it seems to have had exactly the opposite effect. Last Friday, the GMOA announced that there will be a work stoppage across several sectors after May Day over the SAITM issue and if the government fails to respond positively to this combined strike, they will respond by going in for an indefinite strike later.

The situation that is building up is that of a civil disobedience campaign reminiscent of the hartal of 1953. The difference of course being that the 1953 hartal was over a proposed cut in the rice ration - an economic issue - whereas the one that is looming now is entirely on policy matters. Just as last week’s CPC strike was on policy matters, the GMOA led cross sector ‘hartal’ style trade union action is also over a policy matter relating to private medial education. How the government meets this challenge will be interesting to watch. One thing that is certain is that they are not going to win this match by unleashing Fonseka on the trade unions.

On top of this cross sector strike threat made by the GMOA, another bombshell that dropped unexpectedly on the government is the suspension of the order made by the Kesbewa Magistrate earlier allowing 350 tonnes of garbage from Colombo to be dumped in Karadiyana in Piliyandala daily. This means the Colombo Municipal Council will once again be scouting around for a place to dump garbage and the furious protests by residents will resume. Being stuck between a rock and a hard place assumes a new meaning with the dilemma facing the government on the garbage issue. On the one hand attempts to dump garbage at alternative sites brings the residents of those areas out onto the streets. Then when the collection of garbage falls behind and piles of garbage accumulate on the streets of Colombo due to the lack of places to dump garbage, the residents of those areas rise up in protest. This garbage issue is much worse than any challenge that the government faces from the trade unions.

The problems posed by the trade unions can actually be solved in a matter of minutes by simply giving into their demands. When one thinks about it, none of the policy changes demanded by the trade unions will endanger the existence of the government if granted. Not being able to provide ‘propitiatory offerings’ to the Indians will put the government in a spot but the Indians themselves would have faced similar situations in their own country and they would have no option but to accept that the Colombo government is unable to deliver due to domestic pressures. Furthermore, the need to propitiate the Indians had assumed urgency because of what the government has been trying to cede to the Chinese. However the way things are going it seems unlikely that even the Chinese will get what has been pledged to them by the government; so the government in fact may be able to reduce the pressure on themselves by simply giving into the demands of the unions. The garbage problem however is not that easy to solve.

The government is damned if they collect the garbage and damned is they don’t. If they collect the garbage there will be protests when they try to dump the garbage thus collected. If they don’t collect the garbage due to the lack of places to dump the collected garbage, the residents of the city will rise up in protest. On Friday, when parliament met to debate the gazette notification declaring garbage removal to be an essential service and making any action taken to stop or interrupt the collection or disposal of garbage a punishable offence, one of the surprises was that the TNA which so far has not shown any interest in any matter outside the north and east, spoke about the Meetotamulla tragedy and the garbage disposal problem. R.Sampanthan opened the adjournment debate. He was followed by M.A. Sumanthiran who said that 10 years ago, he had appeared for Vasudeva Nanayakkara and several other CMC members in a fundamental rights case which was filed after the Meetotamulla garbage dump spontaneously caught fire.

The Supreme Court had gone into the matter thoroughly and looked at practices in other countries and urged the authorities to invite persons with expertise in converting garbage into energy. One day, a potential investor from Russia in recycling garbage had presented himself before the Supreme Court and said that he has decided to flee this country as soon as possible because his life had been threatened - such was the power of the garbage mafia. Sumanthiran said that ultimately the FR case itself had to be terminated because the petitioners could not agree among themselves and he was receiving conflicting instructions. He said that in this country politics had descended into garbage. He said that all developed countries have had to deal with the issue of garbage disposal and this is neither a new issue nor un-resolvable.

In the middle of all the gloom the govt. was facing, one significant victory was the defeat of the resolution that had been presented to the European parliament against the granting of GSP+ to Sri Lanka. The fact that the resolution against Sri Lanka has been defeated does not mean that we have got GSP+ yet, but it does mean that SL has cleared an obstacle that could have derailed the entire application. The resolution against Sri Lanka observed that in February 2010 GSP+ preferences to Sri Lanka were suspended due to serious breaches in the application of UN human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the ILO core labour conventions. The resolution acknowledged that since January 2015, the government of Sri Lanka has taken some positive steps towards improving human rights, including its decision to co-sponsor Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 in October 2015.

IPU chief’s hallucinations

However the resolution stated that the government’s reform efforts, including those that directly relate to the GSP+ criteria, have not yet delivered on their aim of complying with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Furthermore, the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka of 10 February 2017 had concluded that the measures taken by Sri Lanka since October 2015 have been ‘inadequate to ensure real progress’ and that the fulfillment of commitments has been ‘worryingly slow’ and that the process of repealing and replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not yet been accomplished; and that if a new Act replaces the PTA it must not include a broad definition of ‘terrorism-related’ offences and must limit the risk of forced confessions through torture. In addition to this, the ILO Committee of Experts had identified a number of shortcomings in relation to ILO Conventions 87 and 98, including the insufficiencies of the Industrial Disputes Amendment Act 56 of 1999, which is the only existing legislation that relates to ILO Convention 87.

Based on these observations the resolution stated that the existing human rights violations in Sri Lanka raise concerns about the appropriateness of granting GSP+ status to Sri Lanka. The defeat of this resolution indicates that the EU may be willing to consider granting GSP+ to Sri Lanka despite certain shortcomings and this vote is an indication that they may not insist on the fulfillment of all the 58 conditions they had imposed on the government of Sri Lanka.

Last week, the visiting President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Sabeer Chowdhury, was reported in the local media as having said that Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has provided inspiration to all those who work to strengthen parliamentary democracies in the world and that the steps taken by President Sirisena to dilute the powers of the executive presidency and vest them with parliament is an important step towards strengthening democracy. Chowdhury had also said that in some countries parliaments have been marginalized by executive presidents and in some other countries government terms have been extended through referendums and that Sri Lanka is therefore a beacon of hope for other parliamentary democracies. It is customary for visiting dignitaries to say good things about the countries they visit but what Chowdhury said in Sri Lanka was so off the mark that it has to be commented on especially in view of the importance of the IPU which represents the parliamentarians of all countries. It is to the IPU that parliamentarians turn when faced with injustice.

 At the 2015 January presidential election, the rhetoric was certainly all about abolishing the executive presidency and giving all executive power to parliament. If that pledge had been implemented, certainly Chowdhury’s praise would have been more than warranted. As things stand now however, the presidential election of 2015 represents the biggest electoral fraud in the history of politics in this country. The Joint Opposition should take steps to keep the IPU informed about what really happened in Sri Lanka. Even though President Sirisena was elected on the promise of abolishing the executive presidency, when the 19th Amendment was being drafted, Sirisena with the help of his loyalists, ran circles around the drafters and retained virtually all the powers of the executive presidency. In fact when the first draft of the 19th Amendment was brought to Sririsena, he had barked at Jayampathy Wickremaratne, asking him "mawa pambayek bawata path karannada hadanne?" and he had flatly refused to do away with the executive presidency.

Consequently, the 19th Amendment that was brought to abolish the executive presidency, was the biggest legislative fraud perpetrated on the people. The only substantial thing that it did was to shorten the term of the executive president from six to five years and give some of the powers of the President to make important appointments to state positions, to the Constitutional Council which is made up mostly of parliamentarians. Other than this all the powers of the executive president are completely intact even after the 19A. If it appears that the Prime Minister has assumed a bigger role in running the country, the only reason for that is because President Sirisena does not know whether he is standing or sitting and does not have the capacity to be a president and has voluntarily ceded responsibility for policy formulation and the day to day running of the country to the PM.

 After becoming president, Sirisena has undermined parliament in other ways as well. Due to him having assumed the leadership of the UPFA, the MPs elected under the banner of the UPFA are deemed to be a part of the government even if they happen to be sitting in the opposition. Requests to consider the Joint Opposition an independent group has been consistently turned down by the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who is a member of the UNP. In contrast to his predecessors like Anura Banadaranaike, W.J.M.Lokubandara and Chamal Rajapaksa, Jayasuriya has not placed himself above party politics as the position of Speaker demands. When he was Speaker, Lokubandara accepted the JVP as an independent group in parliament even though they too had been elected under the banner of the UPFA at the 2004 parliamentary election.

Whenever Jayasuriya is requested to recognize the Joint Opposition as an independent group, he asks them to discuss the matter with the UPFA leadership. When has any party given a section of it permission to act independently? As a result of Jayasuriya’s refusal to accept the right of an elected MP to become independent in parliament, the leadership of the opposition has gone to the TNA and the JVP both of which were a part of the yahapalana coalition that got Maithripala Sirisena elected President. So the government and the opposition are made up of members of the yahapalana coalition. Furthermore, the Constitutional Council which is supposed to be made up of representatives of both the government and the opposition is also a 100% yahapalana outfit resulting in a situation where the state officials and so called independent commissions appointed by the Constitutional Council are also dominated by pro-yahapalana appointees.

 At no time since Independence has parliamentary democracy been so comprehensively undermined. Yet the President of the IPU in his ignorance, comes to Sri Lanka and describes this as a beacon of hope for other nations as well! The only reason why the government has not been able have their way is because of stiff resistance from the general public. It is the ordinary people who are now the guardians of democracy in this country.  The extent to which the popularity of this government has declined can be seen in the way Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon resigned from his Central Province ministerial portfolio with minutes of his father being removed from the position of SLFP Dambulla organizer. He just threw it to the winds without even blinking. The Matale organizer of the SLFP Rohana Dissanayake resigned by telling TV crews that he is resigning as of that moment, without even bothering to send a written resignation. In contrast to this, Lakshman Hulugalle has written in his memoirs how in the early 1990s, even his own father in law had abandoned him when he got into the bad books of R.Premadasa. Such was the value of being in the good books of the powers that be at that time.

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