IPU in quandary over Fonseka


It’s election time again in the country with polls to 65 local government institutions being held on July 23. This not the second leg of the LG polls but merely the completion of the first leg of the election. The polls in many LG institutions were postponed due to litigation and the number and wide distribution of the litigation postponements shows the extent of the crisis. Hardly a district was left unaffected.

The district wise breakdown of the litigation affected LG bodies is as follows.   Colombo - 3, Gampaha – 2, Kalutara - 1, Kandy - 3, Matale - 2, Nuwara Eliya - 1, Galle - 3, Matara - 1, Jaffna - 16, Kilinochchi - 3, Ampara - 2, Trincomalee - 4, Kurunegala - 4, Puttalam - 4, Anuradhapura - 3, Polonnaruwa - 2, Moneragala - 2, Ratnapura - 4, Kegalle - 3, Mullaitivu -1.

The litigation is due to political rivals trying to knock one another out of the race even before the election. There have always been election petitions and litigation pertaining to elections, but never on the present scale. Clearly, electoral reform is becoming a must. After the infighting that they witnessed among members of their own party at the last LG polls, the president as well as ministers like Dullas Alahapperuma declared that this would be the last election to be held under the proportional representation system. That ‘last election’ however is a long drawn affair, being held in several stages and the agony is consequently prolonged.

The intra-party clashes that so disgusted the president and other ministers have started again and the dirty linen of the ruling coalition is being washed in public.  Everybody was suddenly reminded that it was election time again due to an eruption of violence in Kaduwela. Wimal Weerawansa got a call at about 4.00am last Thursday informing him that their Kaduwela Municipal Council candidate Buddhika Jayavilal’s house had just been sprayed with bullets.  The culprits were believed to be thugs in the employ of G.H.Buddhadasa, the Former Chairman of the Kaduwela Pradeshiya Sabha. Today we see the spectacle of a government minister openly accusing the head of a ruling party controlled LG institution of rank corruption and thuggery, even before the opposition accuses the government of the same. The opposition is not left with a role except to say loud amen’s each time the government contestants hurl accusations at one another.

All this is due to the proportional representation system where it’s a Darwinian one against all and all against one struggle even within the same party.  The signs are that this second part of the first leg of the LG elections is going to be another reminder to the powers that be that the electoral system needs drastic reform.

Delayed closing of door

The Friday before last, Ranil Wickremesinghe met Karu Jayasuriya, Mangala Samaraweera, Tissa Attnayake, John Amaratunga, and Ravi Karunanayake at the opposition leader’s office and one of the decisions taken was to appoint organizers to all vacant electorates before August 1 and to establish all party branches in the electorates by the end of this year.  By the end of January 2012, they were to have all electoral organizations (asana balamandalayas) set up.  The question however is that the UNP will complete even the appointment of electoral organizers only after the present leg of the local government elections are over.  The formation of party branches will take place also only after the elections.  Then what kind of importance does the UNP attach to the 65 LG institutions going to the poll in less than three weeks? If they had any intention of actually fighting this election, they would have filled vacancies among electoral organizers and formed party branch organizations long before the LG elections came up.

As things stand, it looks as if the UNP’s candidates will be left to fend for themselves as best as they can and the UNP will close the stable door only after waiting patiently for the horse to bolt.  It is difficult to see the sense in forming party branches just after an election, with a considerable time left for the next election. Besides, there is the fact that the UNP will be going into the second part of the first leg of the LG elections in a situation of disarray and the resulting electoral debacle will have a very bad effect on the formation of party branches.  Apart from this formation of branches after the elections are over, there is also the question of RW going for a long overseas jaunt just as the LG election campaign is heating up. Who is the leader of a political party who would go on a junket on the eve of an election? (As an aside, we have to say that this is a rhetorical question this columnist asks in relation to the UNP just before every election!)

Gayantha’s rally   

As far as the present phase of the LG elections is concerned, the only positive thing that has happened is Gayantha Karunatilleke’s rally in Elpitiya. After a very long time, the UNP managed to put up a good show. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that this successful event was held in RW’s absence.  The Elpitiya event was not just a another meeting and a procession but a response to a challenge by Galle district UPFA strongman Nishantha Muthuhettigama who had challenged the UNP to hold any political event south of the Bentara river if they dare. Muthuhettigama is the only politician in this country that anybody knows of who has had his head examined on the orders of a court. However if the UNP had timidly allowed his threats to pass, other UPFA politicians who are quite sane may also have joined in.

Gayantha Karunatilleke the UNP’s Elptiya organizer and the sole parliamentarian in the Galle district, is not generally a confrontational type and his challenger is known to be unpredictable and could potentially be dangerous. Gayantha should be commended for taking on the challenge, and it gives the UNP’s LG election campaign (such of it that exists) a badly needed boost.  The Elpitiya show was by far the best the UNP has put up in recent times and appears to be a clear sign that it is Sajith’s group that has the allegiance of the UNP rank and file. In the old days, for a UNP event to draw a crowd, the party leader had to be present on the scene. But now, for an event to be successful, the leader has to be absent.  The sad part however is that there is no one in the UNP to do a similar thing to Mervyn Silva. It’s true that Silva was taken to task by the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse over the Peliyagoda fish market issue. But being chastised and restrained by your own side is not the same as being publicly humiliated by the other side. 

The fact that a couple of odd characters like Muthuhettigama and his Gampaha district counterpart Mervyn Silva engages in this kind of unsavoury histrionics does not make a government autocratic or dictatorial, but it makes for very bad press and pollutes the atmosphere like a bad smell. There are certain things that no government should hesitate to meet head on – such as attempts by politically motivated trade unions to disrupt public life by radical political parties to upset the fragile peace that has been achieved in the north.  It would even be right for the government to officially declare certain areas out of bounds for certain political parties if they are seen to be disruptive of the public peace.

The JVP’s activities in the universities, trade unions and in the north are hardly aimed at maintaining the public peace.  The public peace should always take precedence over the right of any political party to engage in politics.  Preventing the JVP from operating in the Northern Province is quite in order in the view of the present columnist.  They have been getting people to stand at street corners with photographs of persons said to be missing and asking for their return. The missing persons could be persons who were in the LTTE or who have fled overseas and the government obviously has no way of bringing them back. Such agitation is disruptive.  What takes precedence in the north is the public peace and not political freedom. Therefore even physically restraining the JVP from entering the Northern Province is a very essential exercise.  

The UNP however is a different matter altogether.  Clearly, the UNP’s activities in the universities, among trade unions and in the north are not of the same nature as that of the JVP. There is always a difference between a radical fringe group and a mainline political party.  You can’t have second tier government politicians in the districts telling the UNP that they can’t hold a meeting or a protest. And indeed in an area like Galle, which does not have post conflict issues like in the north, nobody can tell even the JVP not to engage in political activity.  The government should ensure a completely free environment for opposition political parties in non-sensitive areas so as to be able to impose restrictions with some justification where such are necessary to maintain the public peace.

IPU takes cautious line

The Saturday before last, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Tissa Attanayake and Ravi Karunanayake went to see Sarath Fonseka in jail and RW told SF among other things that he (RW) will be in Washington to attend the sessions of the International Democratic Union, and that while he is there he will be meeting with officials of the US State Department as well, and that he will be informing them of the injustice done to him.  It has now become routine for the UNP to inform the jailed Sarath Fonseka from time to time about who they have informed of his predicament. Very often the people they talk to are those who are already aware of Fonseka’s matter.  While he is in Washington, RW will once again tell US State Department officials who have heard it all before, about Fonseka, but how that will in any way help to get him out of jail, is unclear.

It is now over a year since representations were made to the Inter Parliamentary Union about Fonseka’s case and they have not yet given him even a reference number. His case is still in the confidential procedure stage and no public resolution has still been passed.  The procedure of the IPU with regard to complaints received about the human rights of parliamentarians is that it will be dealt with confidentially in the first instance and in cases where the dialogue with the countries concerned have been found to be unsatisfactory or when the abuses are of a serious nature, a public report will be made.  The fact that a public report has not yet been made about the Fonseka case may perhaps indicate that the IPU is in a quandary about the case.

Despite the fact that no public report has been made on the issue, the IPU has already sent Australian lawyer Mark Trowell to Sri Lanka to observe the Fonseka trials.  According to the procedure laid out, the IPU would send an observer to the country concerned only if it is warranted by a) the complexity of the case, b) the limited information on file, and c) due to a lack of cooperation from the country concerned. In Sri Lanka however an observer came without any of the above criteria applying. The Fonseka cases are all cut and dry and not convoluted re-openings of old cases. The IPU seems to be in a quandary as to what to do with this case. SF was convicted and jailed over a case pertaining to army procurements where his son in law was the supplier.

Everybody in this country knows that even if Fonseka got caught with his hands in the till, that is only small change when it comes to the grand larceny practiced by many politicians past and present.  But the IPU can’t tell the government to prosecute the sharks without jailing minnows. If he has been caught doing what he shouldn’t do, the IPU cannot ask for SF to be let off because that would lead to a precedent where politicians in all countries will appeal to the IPU to get corruption cases against them terminated. This is a situation that the IPU obviously wants to avoid because in any country, the term ‘corruption’ is always associated with politicians and officials of governments and if the IPU intervenes in such cases, no country will be able to take action against corruption. Almost invariably, the politician facing corruption charges will be those in the opposition because it is unlikely that government politicians will be prosecuted for corruption and other issues while in power.

So the IPU appears to be stuck. They can’t simply drop the SF case because of fears that it would give the government undue encouragement in fixing Fonseka; neither can they make any public statement for fear of turning the IPU into a body that gives immunity from prosecution to politicians. It is not only the Fonseka case that the IPU has on its plate from Sri Lanka. There are several cases involving the assassination of MPs Joseph Pararajasingham, T.Maheswaran, K.Sivanesan, N.Raviraj, and D.M.Dassanayake. The public reports put out by the IPU may not necessarily help sloganeering in Sri Lanka and this is a matter that the opposition has to be mindful about.  For example, the slogan heard most often at N. Raviraj’s highly politicised funeral was "Ghatakaya satakaya" meaning that the wearer of a shawl was the killer.

The IPU however made a much more sober analysis about the Raviraj killing at their 188th sessions in Panama several weeks ago. It observed that Raviraj had been killed on November 10, 2006 along with a bodyguard.  The motorcycle the assassins escaped on had been traced, the fact that it had been sold to one Arul by two brokers, one Sinhalese and one Tamil (Ravindran) has been ascertained, The house at which Arul had been living had been found and the landlord, S.T.K.Jayasuriya arrested. Jayasuriya had admitted that Arul was a member of the LTTE. Both Ravindran and Arul had fled to the LTTE controlled areas after the killing. The Scotland Yard team investigating the Raviraj killing had commended the local police for the work done and the traveling bag with the weapon used had been tested for DNA samples to identify the assassins. The CID has been checking the nearly 300,000 IDPs after the war to see whether Arul and Ravindran were hiding among them.

What we see from the above is that the IPU may not readily lend its name to the ``Ghatakaya satakaya’’ slogan.  It is the same when it comes to the T.Maheswaran case where the IPU observes among other things that the assassin has been caught, he has admitted to committing the crime, his parents have confirmed that he was a member of the LTTE, and DNA tests have confirmed his involvement in the shooting and that the case is now being tried. The most negative statement made by the IPU is with regard to the Joseph Pararajasingham case where they express ‘deep disappointment’ that six years after this high profile killing, nothing has been achieved in terms of a breakthrough in the investigation.

From the public reports that they have put out so far, we can see that the IPU has been cautious in its approach to complaints coming from Sri Lanka. Their representative Mark Trowell observed the Fonseka case and went back. He will take up to three months to submit his final report. It is doubtful whether he can say that Fonseka is not being given a fair trial because his trials are high profile affairs in this country. One thing that can be seen from their past reports is that the IPU does not prejudge trials or investigations unless there is an obvious and compelling reason to do so. The UNP has the habit of declaring someone guilty or innocent depending on the political stand taken by that individual.

The present writer was at Lasantha Wickremetunga’s funeral and was told that a certain individual was responsible for the killing. The accusation was made with the greatest confidence and no room was left for doubt. However after the same person left the government and teamed up with the opposition, he was promptly declared innocent. International bodies like the IPU may not necessarily play along with that kind of game.

Scandalous postings

When the JVP politburo met on the June 28, the main topic of discussion was the appointment of former Chief Justice Asoka de Silva as the senior legal advisor to the president.  Vijitha Herath put forward the view that de Silva should have declined the offer of such a position to uphold the respect of the position he once held. Herath held that it was wrong of the president to have made him such an offer and also wrong of de Silva to have accepted it. There is no doubt that expectation of post-retirement jobs by members of the Supreme Court may affect their judgment in favour of the government and that could lead to serious miscarriages of justice and also give the executive arm of the government a hold over the judiciary. This move is also unprecedented and no previous chief justice appointed under the 1978 constitution is known to have had a retirement job given to him by the government. It is therefore remarkable that there has not been a bigger outcry over this matter.

While de Silva was still the chief justice, he publicly criticized the attorney general’s department’s decision to withdraw the case against Chandana Kathriarachchi causing much embarrassment to those concerned.  What he said was that it was wrong for the Attorney General to have withdrawn the case instead of allowing it to continue and allowing the judge to make the decision whether the charges could be upheld.  But now the very CJ who criticized the AG, has done something that cannot be justified at all and it is the AG who gets the last laugh in all this.

Another such instance cited by the JVP politburo was the appointment of former IGP Mahinda Balasuriya as an Ambassador after his resignation from the police force. Tilvin Silva says that Balasuriya did not resign but retired and his retirement was made to look like a resignation in order to defuse the situation that arose after the Katunayake shooting and that such deliberate play acting to mislead and dupe the public cannot be taken lightly. It is on that basis that the JVP opposes a retirement position for Balasuriya. There are however many ways of looking at this.  The only wrong thing that took place in Katunayake was the shooting and if the shooting took place without an order from above, Balasuriya can hardly be blamed for that, especially when two officers are in remand for the unauthorized shooting.   

However, baton charging the protestors was fully justified in the opinion of the present columnist given the fact that it was the protestors who attacked the police. The whole agitation by the trade unions over the pension issue was taken much too far. A campaign that should have been at the letter writing and picketing stage was taken to the final level of riot with no justification whatsoever. A riot may have been justified if the pension scheme was on the verge of being passed by parliament and the workers were unclear about how it would affect them.  But it is the view of the present writer that politically motivated trade union leaders deliberately misled the workers, provoking riots.  The heat was generated by the allegation that the government was going to take a part of the EPF money belonging to workers and fob them off with a paltry monthly pension.

However this cannot be done without amending the EPF Act and there were no provisions in the draft pension fund bill amending the EPF Act.  There is no such thing as amending an Act through implication or innuendo. An amendment has to be done explicitly. In the absence of any explicit amendment to the EPF act, what the trade union leaders did was politically motivated agitation and it is they who are squarely responsible for the death that occurred in Katunayake – not Mahinda Balasuriya.

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