Mahinda meets members of Maithri Camp as Govt plans a referendum

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2017-02-12

BY GAGANI WEERAKOON

The majority of members of the two main parties of the Unity Government, United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seems to stand on the same ground when it comes to the continuity of the controversial South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), while others who stand poles apart politically and socially were seen coming under one umbrella and sitting on the same stage against the institution.

Though it is questionable under what moral grounds they could stand together in the same camp against SAITM, not only members of the Joint Opposition that caught the eye. Stalwarts of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and its breakaway faction Frontline Socialist Party, which JVP to-date consider as the biggest backstabbing ever, sharing the same venue indeed depicted how important is the matter in hand.

As controversies surrounding the SAITM deepen, President Maithripala Sirisena last morning said he will appoint a committee of experts to consult relevant stakeholders of the private medical school.

The President on his official twitter handle said the expert committee is expected to consult all parties and advise the government on further steps pertaining to SAITM.

This was soon after a special discussion President had with members of the Government Medical Officers' Association (GMOA) and the Sri Lanka Dental Association (SLDA) at the Presidential Secretariat.

During the meeting, the GMOA and the SLDA tabled their proposals regarding the SAITM.

However, the concerns raised by GMOA was also seen reduced to a mere political agenda by government ministers saying if it was President Mahinda Rajapaksa that is still in power, they would have not made such fuss as the GMOA is allegedly backing the Rajapaksa administration and still plotting to topple the current government.

Maithri's call to politicians

Last Thursday President Sirisena flew to Kotagala to join a meeting of members of the Ceylon Workers' Congress where he urged all politicians to fulfil their collective responsibility without trying to create divisions among themselves when serving the public.
He further said that it is not appropriate to make a division among politicians in the process of developing the country and all the politicians must unite to build this country for the betterment of its citizens.

"According to the perspective of the government, all citizens are equal", the President said adding that when taking forward the development strategies of the government, differences between party politics, race or religion should not be a hindrance.

The government will ensure the right of every community to live in a fair and just society. He said the government will provide every required facility for them. "It is the government's objective to free the people from poverty and provide them a better living condition", he said.

He also stated that the government has paid special attention to solve the problems of the people who are living in plantations including those in Nuwara Eliya.

Unity at stake?

Though the President called all politicians to stand together, when it comes to carrying out development activities, the undercurrent of uncertainty on working together, with the United National Party surfaces, from time to time, with such tensions coming to limelight at least on three occasions within last week.

In one, President Sirisena appointed Attorney-at-Law Maithri Gunaratne, who was removed from the post of Chairman Lanka Coal Company (LCC) a week after the exposing sordid coal deals perpetrated at Sri Lanka's expenses, as the Competent Authority of Lanka Mineral Sands Limited.

Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy B.M.S. Batagoda had written to the President and the Minister demanding Maithri Gunaratne's resignation in a sequel to Gunaratne opposing Board attempts to sign an unfavourable deal to import coal.

In a letter dated 15 January Batagoda accused Gunaratne of not taking any action on the Auditor General's report which stated that the Sri Lankan Government had lost at least Rs 4,145 million due to corrupt transactions at Lanka Coal between 2009 and 2016 when importing coal.

More than Gunaratne's appointment, what caught the attention was the removal of the renowned officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service Asoka Pieris, who according to many in the company had tirelessly worked to make the institution a profit making entity.

Recently, with rumours ripe that the Company was to be sold to the private sector, management of the Lanka Minerals was called before the COPE and Peiris, as the Competent Authority appeared for the investigations. The inquiry revealed that Geological Survey and Mines Bureau had refused to issue a mining licence to the Company though a licence had been issued to a private company.

A discussion was held in this regard with the participation of the Secretary to the Ministry of Industries, the Secretary to the Ministry of Environment, the Chairman of Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Asoka Peiris and a council of professors in COPE to prepare a programme to develop the Company.

Accordingly, an agreement had been reached to draw up, within a month, a programme to develop Lanka Mineral Sands Company.

Though it is unclear as to what led to the removal of Pieris from the post, many in political circles believe the recent 'political drama' and tug- of-war between Pieris and Minister Faiszer Musthapha over the Delimitation Committee report may have had some kind of an impact.

On top of this, President Sirisena announced the appointment of a Four-Member Committee to investigate Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), which is commonly known as Lake House.

The Committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge Nimal Dissanayake was asked to identify management and administrative deficiencies as well as other shortcomings at Lake House.

Lake House, a subject which directly comes under Minister of Mass Media and Information Gayantha Karunathilaka, is headed by Kavan Ratnayaka, the brother of Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka.

Appointing a panel to investigate ANCL by President Sirisena was a bit alarming as it was common knowledge that it directly reports to the Prime Minister although nominally it is under Media Minister Karunathilaka.

Amidst these developments, SLFP Spokesman, Minister Dilan Perera, says the Central Committee of the party should meet to take a decision on whether the SLFP will continue to remain a partner in the unity government, or not.

Perera, when asked, said the unity government which was initially established to run for a tentative period of two years, by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party, from September 2015 will reach its end in the third quarter of 2017.

Perera said that the General Secretaries of the UNP and the SLFP Kabeer Hashim and Duminda Dissanayake on 21 August 2015 signed the agreement to form a unity government. According to that agreement the unity government completes that two-year period on 21 August this year. As the SLFP, under the leadership of the President, has not yet issued an official statement relating to whether this unity government will continue beyond that date or not, according to the Constitution of the party, the authority to make such a decision rests with the Party Central Committee.

The Minister said the SLFP Central Committee is scheduled to shortly discuss the future of the unity government and conduct a review of the progress or otherwise of the party's objectives during the past two years.

He added that the decision of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party will be announced later.

Referendum on Constitution

Leader of the House, Lakshman Kiriella, revealed in Parliament last week, the intention of the government to conduct a referendum, with the consent of all political parties including the SLFP on the new Constitution.

His statement came in response to being asked by Joint Opposition MP Wimal Weerawansa for explanations relating to statements made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera to the effecthat the government would opt for devolution of powers.

"The Foreign Minister has informed the foreign media that the government would go for a devolution process" Weerawansa said.

Elaborating on the matter Kiriella said government was not in favour of federalism while assuring the House that Parliament's approval would be sought for all aspects of the new Constitution, including the process of power devolution.

"Nothing will be finalized without the approval of the House," the Minister said.

It was in this backdrop that President Sirisena and a group of nearly 50 civil society organizations have agreed that the proposed new Constitution should be subjected to a referendum.

Although either of the parties has not discussed a possible time frame, UNP national list MP and Constitutional expert Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne has assured the gathering at the Presidential Secretariat on Wednesday (8) that the draft Constitution would be handed over to President Sirisena soon.

Meanwhile, President Sirisena has informed Dr. Wickramaratne to hand over the copy within next week.

The group of civil society organizations said that they had reached consensus on a course of action to bring in a new Constitution with the approval of the electorate. The civil society representatives included Ven. Dambara Amila Thera, Ven. Thiniyawala Palitha Thera, Gamini Viyangoda and Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, amongst others.

The meeting between the President and the group lasted for about two hours, the third since the former was elected at the January 2015 poll.

However, the Steering Committee appointed by the Constitutional Assembly chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe hadn't been able to finalize the draft Constitution on the last session held on 5-6 January as originally planned.

The 21-member Steering Committee constituting representatives of all political parties in Parliament, has been deliberating on core subject areas pertaining to the nature of the State, form and structure of government, principles of devolution, religion, electoral reforms and land.

MR meets former MPs

As government is planning on going for a referendum to approve new Constitution, Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa who was holidaying in Puttalam and Kalpitiya met several of his former Cabinet colleagues who left him and joined President Sirisena's camp over the week.

Rajapaksa went to Puttalam with his wife Shiranthi and the three sons for a holiday on an invitation by MP Sanath NIshantha.

During his stay in Puttalam he met several provincial and local government members who pledged their support to Rajapaksa.

"We will come with you for any election, irrespective of which party you are leading," they assured.

Priyankara Jayaratne who recently resigned from his ministerial portfolio and former Deputy Foreign Minister Neomal Fernando were amongst many who came to speak to Rajapaksa on future political moves.

Rajapaksa who stayed over at Dutch Bay Resort in Kalpitiya and went Whale-watching was also presented with many issues fisher folks face in the area, and he promised to bring those issues to the notice of relevant authorities.

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