UNP and SJB hold separate talks to form new alliances for polls
- Nimal Lanza names ‘Alliance One’ as his group; claims support of over 40 MPs for President
- SJB holds talks with 13-member Dullas group, which is seeking premiership
- As President pushes for full implementation of 13A, TNA writes to him, outlining power-sharing promises
By Our Political Editor
Days earlier, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa held an important round of talks with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) breakaway faction led by Dullas Allahapperuma and G.L. Peiris among others. The SJB is on the verge of forming an alliance with the 13-member breakaway group. For the SLPP breakaway faction, the major gain will be the support it is expected to extend for Premadasa’s candidature at a presidential election. In return, the immediate benefit for the 13 would be their ability to contest on the SJB ticket. Both will oppose the SLPP. The SJB has also won over Chandima Weerakkody, a former Deputy Speaker, by making him the organiser for the Habaraduwa electorate in the Galle District.
Another alliance is also being formed by the United National Party (UNP) whose leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is the head of the SLPP government. This week, Nimal Lanza, Negombo District parliamentarian, named the grouping as Alliance number one. It has its office at Lake Road, Rajagiriya. Lanza is now on a two-week trip to Australia. The aim of this alliance is for a tie-up with the UNP and like-minded parties. Before his departure, Lanza said that matters relating to the alliance would be handled by four persons during his absence. They are Susil Premjayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Nalin Fernando and Lasantha Alagiyawanna. He claims that over 40 parliamentarians are backing the new alliance and more would join. They too are opposed to the SLPP. If the assertions of numbers are correct, then the enlarged SJB and the UNP-Lanza group tie-up would become the two formidable factions at a future election.
Even if it is not hectic, the UNP is also making its own arrangements. On Thursday, its Working Committee, the main policy-making body, met at the party headquarters, Sri Kotha. Party General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara said it was decided to hold the 56th annual convention on September 10. The venue has now been changed to the large parking lot at D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha near Lake House. He said that a draft of the party’s new constitution was also presented at the meeting and was approved. Final approval will come at the annual convention. The new party constitution, he explained, would take into consideration the system changes sought by the party members and even during last year’s protests (aragalaya) would be factored in. Among other matters, the constitution will spell out how to appoint members to the Working Committee, the Executive Committee and the powers vested in them. Another significant feature will be the provision to enable the conduct of meetings online.
Though the SLPP has remained a strong group, the advent of President Ranil Wickremesinghe has now seen a significant section including Cabinet ministers supporting him. The SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa, who had the majority backing, has seen the numbers dwindle with insiders saying it is now not more than 21 at the most. Further rivalry manifested after it became known that President Wickremesinghe was preparing to enforce the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and adopting measures to further strengthen it. The SJB-Allahapperuma talks, sources with the former said, are to be “concluded soon.” “We propose to have the signing of an accord within four to five weeks, the sources added.
Of course, there are other critical issues that must be resolved. That would include the wish expressed by the 13-member group that their leader Dullas Allahapperuma be appointed Prime Minister and the number of ministerial positions the group would receive if they won a majority at a parliamentary poll. On the minus side for the group of 13 has been their inability to form a new political party.
Those talks, no doubt, would be tough for both sides. One is reminded of the election of a President by Parliament on July 20 last year. Premadasa was a frontline candidate together with Ranil Wickremesinghe, Dullas Allahapperuma and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s (JVP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Just ahead of the vote, Premadasa withdrew his candidature in favour of Allahapperuma. On Thursday, SJB parliamentarian S.M. Marikkar told a news conference that his grouping would be broadened to make it stronger but did not give details. Other than this aspect, the prospects of an unknown number of SJB parliamentarians re-joining the UNP is also not being ruled out.
The Dullas Allahapperuma group comprises G.L. Peiris, Dilan Perera, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Charitha Herath, Channa Jayasumana, K. P. S. Kumarasiri, Dr. Gunapala Ratnasekara, Udayana Kirindigoda, Dr. Upul Galappatti, Dr. Thilak Rajapaksa, Wasantha Yapa, and Lalith Ellawala.
Enforcement of 13th Amendment
A matter for priority attention, before an election, is President Wickremesinghe’s move to enforce the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Besides further empowering the Provincial Councils, he wants to adopt measures to streamline them further. These measures were spelt out by him last week in Parliament. Among other matters, he wants to ensure that parliamentarians too can contest PC elections. On Thursday, he addressed Governors of provinces and re-iterated his plans. The Presidential Media Division (PMD) said that his aim was to optimise the working of the local councils, provincial councils, and the central government sectors, whilst curbing financial inefficiencies.
The PMD said: “President Wickremesinghe instructed officials to collaborate with Provincial Governors and Chief Secretaries to draft a comprehensive report on this matter within a month. These consultations are intended to ensure a well-rounded perspective before formulating the new approach.
“These assertions were made during a recent meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, where President Wickremesinghe engaged with Provincial Governors and Chief Secretaries. The purpose of this event was to deliberate on the forthcoming administrative procedures associated with the provincial council system.”
The President said, “I have recommended the formulation of a novel system within a month’s time, following consultations with the Provincial Chief Secretaries. This step is crucial since the provincial councils are presently non-operational and bereft of ministers. Consequently, you, the Provincial Governors, hold complete governing authority within the current provincial council system. The previous year posed considerable challenges for us, an experience I believe we need not relive. As we strive to tackle the economic predicaments of the nation, our efforts must also encompass the restoration of the country’s governance structure. Of notable significance is that grassroots services are overseen by the provincial councils, while district-level services fall under the purview of the central government. It’s essential that these undertakings progress harmoniously, without competing, as we endeavor to offer these services jointly….”
The Presidential Secretariat has received representations from all political parties represented in Parliament except the National People’s Power led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The main opposition SJB has not spelt out its viewpoints and only called for the conduct of PC elections in a one-page letter. The Presidential Secretariat is considering it officially as a response.
Tamil National Alliance spokesperson Abraham Sumanthiran said yesterday, “Early this week, our party sent the letter signed by our leader R. Sampanthan to President Wickremesinghe on our stand about the 13th Amendment. We have called for the full implementation of the amendment which is in the Constitution and to hold Provincial Council elections without further delay.
“The 13th Amendment was passed in Parliament. The Parliament has done its job and the amendment is part of the Constitution now. It is up to the Executive to implement it now. Proposals submitted by former Chief Minister of North and MP C.V. Wigneswaran of Thamil Makkal Kootani envisage an “Interim Council Board” for PCs until the elections are held. The 13th Amendment itself has provisions to enable the passage of statutes even when an elected Provincial Council is non-functional. The Governor of a Province has to report to the President that a situation has arisen in which the administration of the province cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution (Article 154L). Thereupon, the President by Proclamation assumes to himself all or any of the powers vested in, or exercisable by the Governor or any other body. He also declares that the powers of the Provincial Council shall be exercisable by or under the authority of Parliament.
“Parliament is empowered to confer on the President the power of that Provincial Council to make statutes and to delegate the power so conferred to an authority specified by the President. (Article 154M). That authority could be a Board of Advisors appointed by the President for that Province. In our view, such a Board must comprise one representative of each of the recognised political parties active in the provinces, and which unequivocally have called for the full Implementation of the 13th Amendment.”
Sumanthiran added: “We don’t know what the government’s position is in this regard since it is he [Wigneswaran] who claimed that President is keen on such ideas. Even though we do not accept it, we will not oppose it as well. The interim arrangement provisions were included in the amendment until a mechanism for police powers is formulated before setting up PCs. However, at that time LTTE pulled out from engaging. The other reason could be to institute such a mechanism in an instance where the Governor informs the President of administrative breakdown in the province. The two provisions do not warrant the current situation and current contexts are different,”
The position of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a key stakeholder, was articulated in an August 14-dated letter written to President Wickremesinghe by its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. It said:
“POLITICAL ASPIRATIONS OF THE TAMIL PEOPLE FOR POWER SHARING
“Since Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948, the Tamil People have been demanding meaningful power sharing from all the successive governments that came to power. At least since 1956, at every election, the Tamil People have granted a mandate for a federal arrangement to achieve this. Once, in 1977, they even called for a separate state.
“India offered its good offices in 1983, which was accepted by the Government of Sri Lanka and consequently the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed on 29th July 1987. Thereafter the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution was introduced, establishing a provincial council system that envisaged devolution of powers to the provinces. But the Amendment was introduced into a unitary constitution and thus has resulted in the centre periodically taking back powers granted, as envisaged, not to speak of the fact that crucial powers over land and Police still remain unimplemented. In November 1987, the Government of India obtained an assurance from President J.R. Jayewardene that these will be rectified. It is against this background that every effort made thereafter moved in the direction of surpassing the 13th Amendment towards a federal structure. Several proposals and commitments warrant mention.
“First, in 1993, the Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committee during President R. Premadasa’s tenure recommended devolution based on the Indian model. It suggested that the Concurrent List be either abolished or that most of the subjects in it be transferred to the Provincial List. It further proposed an Apex Council linking the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils.
“Second, the government proposals for constitutional reforms in 1995 and 1997 under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and the Constitutional Bill of 2000, all proposed extensive devolution of power, and abandoned the unitary state structure.
“Third, in December 2002, talks were held between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in Oslo. At these talks, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka.
“Fourth, in 2006, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed an All Party Representative Committee (APRC), and a committee of experts to formulate proposals for a new constitution. At its inaugural meeting, he said: “We must explore past attempts from the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact onwards…People in their own localities must take charge of their destiny and control their politico-economic environment. Central decision-making that allocates disproportionate resources has been an issue for a considerable time. In addition, it is axiomatic that devolution also needs to address issues relating to identity as well as security and socio-economic advancement, without overreliance on the centre. In this regard, it is also important to address the question of regional minorities…There are many examples from around the world that we may study as we evolve a truly Sri Lankan constitutional framework including our immediate neighbour, India…
“Any solution must be seen as one that stretches to the maximum possible devolution without sacrificing the sovereignty of the country given the background to the conflict.”
“The multi-ethnic expert committee involved in the APRC process, in their main report, proposed an extensive power-sharing arrangement similar to the Constitution Bill of August 2000. The final APRC report meanwhile suggested important improvements to the 13th Amendment including the abolition of the concurrent list.
“Fifthly, a process of Constitutional Reform was undertaken in 2015 under Your Excellency’s premiership, which culminated in Your Excellency submitting in Parliament a Draft Constitution prepared by the Expert Committee with the Second Interim Report. This also went further away from the unitary structure and included meaningful power sharing in crucial areas, including land and Police.
“In addition to the above, the government made certain pledges to fully implement and build on the 13th Amendment to achieve meaningful devolution following the conclusion of the armed conflict in 2009.
“In June 2010, Dr. Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India, made the following statement with regard to Sri Lanka:
“The Prime Minister emphasised that a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement. The President of Sri Lanka reiterated his determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities that would act as a catalyst to create the necessary conditions in which all the people of Sri Lanka could lead their lives in an atmosphere of peace, justice and dignity, consistent with democracy, pluralism, equal opportunity and respect for human rights. “Towards this end, the President expressed his resolve to continue to implement in particular the relevant provisions of the Constitution designed to strengthen national amity and reconciliation through empowerment. In this context, he shared his ideas on conducting a broader dialogue with all parties involved. The Prime Minister of India expressed India’s constructive support for efforts that build peace and reconciliation among all communities in Sri Lanka.”
“This commitment was then repeated in May 2011 when External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris visited New Delhi. A joint press statement with the Minister of External Affairs of India stated:
“…the External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his government’s commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the ongoing dialogue between the government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties. A devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation.”
“This commitment was reiterated once again in Colombo in January 2012. After meeting President Rajapaksa, visiting Indian Minister for External Affairs, Hon. S. M. Krishna speaking at a joint press conference with Minister G.L. Peiris, stated:
“The Government of Sri Lanka has on many occasions conveyed to us its commitment to move towards a political settlement based on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and building on it, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers. We look forward to an expeditious and constructive approach to the dialogue process.”
“On 13th March 2015, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi spoke in the Sri Lankan Parliament and stated:
“Today, my top priority is to make the States in India stronger. I am a firm believer in cooperative federalism. So, we are devolving more power and more resources to the States. And we are making them formal partners in the national decision-making process.”
“On the occasion of the State Visit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to India, on 29th November 2019, Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi stated as follows:
“We also openly exchanged views on reconciliation in Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa told me about his inclusive political outlook on ethnic harmony. I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th Amendment. India will become a trusted partner for development throughout Sri Lanka including North and East.”
“From all the above, the Government of Sri Lanka has on multiple occasions promised to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But it did not stop there. The promise also included the very specific undertaking to “build upon the 13th Amendment so as to achieve meaningful devolution.”
“We have repeatedly obtained a mandate from the Tamil People in the North and East to work towards a political solution based on a federal structure consonant with the right of self-determination in the areas of our historic habitation. We have consistently placed this as our proposal for constitutional reform.
“In this background, without compromising our stand on a federal structure, we urge Your Excellency to expeditiously implement all the powers granted to the provinces in the constitution, hold the long-delayed provincial council elections and conclude the process of solving the Tamil National Question based on the aspirations of the Tamil People and in consonance with the multiple assurances given by the State as detailed above.”
The first response to President Wickremesinghe’s request for suggestions in respect of 13A came from Wimal Weerawansa. He handed over a ten-point proposal at the meeting of party leaders on July 26. Here are highlights:
- Executive powers to the local council should be de-centralized.
- The powers vested in parliament should not be given up or handed over to secondary institutes.
- A provincial development council consisting of local governmental representatives should be set up to formally integrate local governing bodies to carry out regional development process.
- A chairman and coordinating ministers should be appointed in order to implement the executive powers given to the provincial development council by parliament through laws.
- Provincial and district secretaries should act according to the plans and directions of the provincial development councils.
- To allow the public to play a part in governance as well as to ensure social responsibility of public representatives and officials, “Jana Saba’s” should be established at the provincial level.
- Setting up a Rights Commission at national and provincial levels to ensure equality.
- To minimize the effects of the caste system, social empowerment laws should be strengthened and empowered.
The Presidential Secretariat is now tabulating the proposals of different political parties represented in Parliament. Thereafter, they will go before the Cabinet of Ministers for approval before presentation to Parliament. This, no doubt, will be a strong challenge for both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government.
Customs Chief gives details of items smuggled by MP and his assistant, but no action possible by Speaker
Amost four months after the Director General of Customs testified officially that a Member of Parliament smuggled gold and mobile phones using his official position, no action has been taken against him.
In a three-page letter to the Secretary General of Parliament, Customs Director General P.B.S.C. Nonis said Ali Sabri Raheem smuggled “gold and mobile phones” into Sri Lanka “via the VIP Lounge” at the Bandaranaike International Airport “using parliamentary privilege” to violate the Customs Ordinance. The letter, together with a comprehensive report on all matters relating to the smuggling incident, came at the request of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.
Sabri Raheem (60) is a member of the All Ceylon Makkal (People’s) Congress led by Rishad Bathiuddin. He contested the Puttalam District under the banner of the Muslim National Alliance (MNA) which has been a supporter of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) since he voted for the 20th amendment to the Constitution. He holds a diploma in Business Management and runs an employment agency with an office in Dubai. On May 24 he voted against the resolution moved by the government to oust the Public Utilities Commission Chairman Janaka Ratnayake from office.
“I decided to vote against the motion to remove PUCSL Chairman as both President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime minister Dinesh Gunawardena did not come to my rescue when I was faced with difficulty,” he told Parliament. He was alluding to his detection by Customs. However, July 1 Sabri Raheem voted in favour of the government to pass the Resolution over the Domestic Debt Optimisation to restore sovereign debt sustainability,
The detection of both gold and mobile phones on May 23, sparked angry responses among parliamentarians. One group collected signatures demanding the expulsion of the Puttalam District MP on the grounds that he had disgraced fellow MPs and brought disrepute to Parliament.
The Sunday Times learnt that Speaker Abeywardena then held a discussion on the matter in June. It came amidst a call even from Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa that the smuggler MP should not go unpunished since he had blatantly abused parliamentary privilege. In other cases where Customs detect contraband worth millions of rupees, fines, sometimes very large, are enforced. More often such fines are paid, and the matter ends there. Some instances when they are not paid, court action follows.
However, the difference in the case of Sabri Raheem is the fact that he used his position as a Member of Parliament, to avoid Customs inspection. This is now officially confirmed by the Director General of Customs. As revealed in the Sunday Times of May 28, he had travelled to Dubai seven times between March and May this year.
Here is the English translation of the official account given to Speaker Abeywardene through the Secretary General of Parliament by Customs Chief Nonis:
Obtaining a detailed report, the incident of parliament member Ali Subri Raheem illegally smuggling gold and mobile phones into Sri Lanka via VIP Lounge of the Katunayake International Airport.
This letter is attached to the letter no LS/TO/53 and letter sent on 2023.06.7.
02. Based on special information received by the Revenue Task force of the Sri Lanka Customs, a confirmation was reached by long-term observation and analysis of air travel information of Member of Parliament (MP) Ali Subri Raheem, the customs according to the provision of their act have inspected the MP on May 23, 2023, at the Katunayake international airport’s VIP lounge. During the inspection, it was observed that 3,397.7 grams of gold were inside his hand luggage. The boxes have been covered. Apart from those, 91 new mobile phones bearing Samsung, Xiaomi, and Redmi brand names too were detected.
03 MP Ali Sabri Raheem’s passport number is D5658824. He arrived from the United Arab Emirates on flight FZ547 of Fly Dubai Airlines on 2023.05.23 around 9.25 am. Customs officers observed the MP’s behaviour and found out that MP Sabri Raheem had first got down from the aircraft with hand luggage in hand. Afterward, he arrived at the Crystal Lounge within the VIP lounge where he was handed over the other luggage by an official of the Airport and Aviation Services.
04. Accordingly, the MP tried to leave the airport without declaring in writing the content in the luggage. The customs officers in accordance with the customs ordinance gave an explanation, detained him and carried out inspections.
05. Accordingly, investigations revealed the gold and the mobile phones. The gold was found in his hand luggage while the 91 mobile phones were found within the two-luggage handed over to him by the official of the Airport and Aviation Services at Crystal Lounge within the VIP Lounge.
06. Apart from that, the customs officials were also able to identify the assistant of MP Sabri Raheem and arrest M.M. Fairoon who travelled to Sri Lanka on passport number (N10396987). He arrived in Sri Lanka via flight FZ547 at the Katunayake Airport. The Customs officers arrested him at the Green Channel and found 19 mobile phones with him. Apart from that the officers had also found a document of declaration for 0828g of gold jewelry submitted to Customs in Dubai.
The gold jewelry items detected in the possession of MP Sabri Raheem were the items declared by A.H.M. Fairoon to Dubai Customs, items which the MP tried to use his parliamentary privileges and pass through the VIP lounge.
The gold slabs which were found in possession of the MP were 2515.9 g, and there was no documentation on obtaining the slabs or any other information related to that. Therefore, investigations confirmed that the MP had tried to smuggle gold and the phones into Sri Lanka at the VIP lounge by using his parliamentary privileges and violating the customs ordinance.
07. After the Customs investigations it was estimated that the total amount of undeclared gold amounts to Rs 74, 096,990 while the value of the 91 mobile phones was Rs 4,288,500. After the Customs investigations were held the gold and the 91 mobile phones were confiscated according to Customs Ordinance, Import Export Control Act’s provisions and regulations of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. The investigation file number is CRTF/2023/44. Apart from that according to clauses 129 and 163 of the Customs Ordinance, Rs 7.4 million fine was imposed on the MP.
08. Accordingly, the MP who holds diplomatic passport D5658824 paid the fine imposed by Customs on the same day. Therefore, Customs released the MP.
09. The items the MP’s assistant, A.H.M Fairoon, who is holding a passport bearing number N10396987, were confiscated according to the Customs Ordinance, the provisions of the Import Export Control Act’s and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Act. Apart from that, Rs 119,305 worth four cartons of foreign cigarettes were also confiscated according to the Tobacco Tax Act. Customs also imposed Rs 100,000 fine according to clauses 129 and 163. After payment of the fine, the assistant too was released.
Director General Customs