Saturday, July 22, 2017

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Ward system in local polls: A first step towards reducing corruption


 
Ward system based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting will certainly do some good towards cleansing Sri Lankan politics as it is now the time for the much maligned PR system to go out. If PR system cannot be completely discarded with, at least a mixed system could be a good starting point.

By Gamini Abeywardane

There are strong signs that much postponed Local government elections are to be held at last. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have indicated that these elections could be held by December or January.

However, going by developments since the expiry of the term of the local government bodies, those in the opposition seem to be quite skeptical about these promises. For them it’s a case of seeing is believing and nothing short of official declaration of elections will convince them. 
Amidst protests by the Joint Opposition (JO), government postponed these elections citing the delay in delimitation of wards and electoral reforms as reasons. Meanwhile, critics mainly from the JO have been saying that the real reason for the postponement was the government’s inability to face elections due to growing unpopularity among masses. They were agitating that elections should be held under the old system without waiting for electoral reforms.

All political parties have looked at the issue in the way that is most advantageous to them.  With the current wave of problems it is natural that the governing parties will find it difficult to face any elections. Out of the two governing parties the, SLFP which is suffering from a major internal split will have the biggest difficulty when it comes to facing elections.
Most of the former members of the local bodies are with Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP and they seem to believe that they have the biggest electoral advantage whatever political party they may contest the elections from.

Most of those former members also have the necessary financial clout to fight elections and it would definitely be in their advantage, if the elections are to be held under the existing PR system. That is the very reason they have been fighting their tooth and nail for obtaining early elections without waiting for electoral reforms.
In this background the efforts by the government to postpone these elections are quite understandable. If they wish to continue doing so it is not impossible for them to find another loophole in the electoral system to further postpone the elections.

However, in a democracy there is a limit to postponing such elections and sooner or later they have to be held and that is probably a factor that has influenced both President and Prime Minister to hint that LG elections would be held by December or January.
Meanwhile, delimitation report has already been submitted and the proposed legislation reforming the current electoral system is also before the parliament. What has been proposed is a mix of 40 percent Proportional Representation (PR) and 60 percent first-past-the-post (FPP) system. And there are also proposals to increase women’s participation up to 25 percent.

Ward system based on the first-past-the-post (FPP) voting will certainly do some good towards cleansing Sri Lankan politics as it is now the time for the much maligned PR system to go out. If PR system cannot be completely discarded with, at least a mixed system could be a good starting point.
PR system has been frowned upon and criticized by many as it has often destroyed even the unity among members of the same political party. Its inherent confrontational nature has on many occasions led to infighting, assault and even murder.

PR also has merits
Despite criticism PR also has its own merits although demerits have outweighed merits according to our own national experience. It gives value to each vote as opposed to winner-takes- all situations often found in the FPP system. That is why it is often preferred by minority groups and small political parties.

On the other hand in local elections the ward system will provide the good candidates a better chance of getting elected as election will mostly depend on one’s reputation in his or her locality. The question of throwing money and winning votes will not arise because good men with little or no money will also be able to contest and win since even house to house campaign is possible in a ward which is generally a small area.
Another negative aspect of the current system that has been often highlighted by many people is the disadvantage of not having a particular member to address the issues of a given locality because under the PR system the entire district is considered as one electorate.

 The PR system also gives corrupt candidates who are unpopular in their own locality the opportunity to win votes from the rest of the district by throwing money. Thus, the system facilitates the easy entry of undesirable elements that have no education, but enough funds to spend.
These are some of the reasons that triggered the call for reintroduction of the ward system in local government elections based on first-past-the-post voting.

While it is morally wrong and undemocratic to restrict the voting rights of the people, a government that came into power on a promise of changing the electoral system has a greater responsibility to hold elections on the modified system.
Moreover, if the intention of the government is to cleanse the electorate as promised and ensure that better quality representatives are elected to the local bodies, there should not be any intentional delay in holding elections. And if elections are to be held by the end of the year as currently speculated they should be held on a mix of PR and first-past-the-post systems.

Controlling corruption
This could be the starting point to reduce corruption which now has taken alarming proportions. The PR system makes it mandatory for anyone contesting even local elections to spend a huge sum of money for the campaign. Thus, the system encourages anyone so elected to earn money through undue means or to give political favoures to supporters who have financed the election campaign enabling them to make more money.

Increasing female representation also will indirectly help to bring down corruption as women tend to corrupt less compared to men. They are also likely to spend less for their election campaigns while their presence in the councils will also influence the men who are in majority to behave well.
While the ward system will give the people a better opportunity to eliminate those who are corrupt and unsuitable the first opportunity for selecting good men lies with the political parties that nominate them.

So, it is important to have some guidelines and a proper selection criterion when preparing nomination lists and, if the political parties are genuine about cleansing the system, they should begin the process by nominating the most suitable candidates.  Code of Ethics for Nominations’ prepared and presented by PAFFREL and accepted by all political parties can provide some guidelines in this regard.
Our political leaders have to admit that if corrupt members are elected a greater part of the responsibility should go to the political parties that nominate them. The voters alone cannot fight corruption if political parties continue to nominate corrupt men as their candidates and ask the people to vote for them.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

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Depoliticization: An alternative to privatization


 
Amidst recurrent protests all over the country which are almost a daily occurrence, the question arises whether it will be possible for the government to undertake these vital reforms, especially, if they are going to take the neo-liberal path of privatization
 
By Gamini Abeywardane
Along with constitutional and social reforms promised by the national unity government are all important economic reforms. They are necessary for the country to face the future successfully in the context of current global and regional developments. One important aspect of economic reforms is the need for converting the loss making state-owned enterprises (SOEs) into either profitable or some sort of manageable institutions reducing the colossal burden on the state coffers.
Amidst recurrent protests all over the country which are almost a daily occurrence, the question arises whether it will be possible for the government to undertake these vital reforms, especially, if they are going to take the neo-liberal path of privatization. Some institutions like the SriLankan Airline can be privatized without much issues but privatization in more socially sensitive areas in the current context could lead to massive protests offering much leverage to the forces which are waiting to topple this government.

In the government itself, there are divergent views on how to reform these enterprises. The UNP is generally known to be in favour of privatization while the SLFP is more cautious about privatizing the state ventures particularly those which are strategically important.
However, the SLFP in a major deviation from its traditional philosophy has emphasized the relevancy of public private partnerships. One of the resolutions adopted at its last convention said “Regarding loss making institutions, the SLFP’s position was that they should be restructured, but the government should have a majority stake when it came to public-private partnerships managing these institutions.”

A model where the state keeps a majority stake is favoured in some countries in consideration of certain social goals – such as energy security, economic development or job creation – to be as important as profit.

Poor corporate governance

In this context full privatization will be difficult especially in strategic sectors like energy, utilities, mining and infrastructure. However, SOEs in Sri Lanka have a reputation for poor corporate governance, lagging business performance and being half as efficient as their private counterparts.
The roots of the problems are many. SOEs almost always juggle multiple or even conflicting financial and social objectives, such as keeping electricity tariffs below the market price.

Finding talented people to work at SOEs is also a difficult task as the brightest and best tend to go to the private sector, where pay is often higher. Meanwhile, political appointments to managerial positions exacerbate the issue by limiting the autonomy of the SOEs.
In the face of these difficulties the best alternative will be to try and make them viable while they are under the state control. The task is really difficult because if they are to be made business oriented and viable, first of all the politicization which is the root cause of the failure of these institutions should be removed.

De-politicizing these institutions is not possible without removing the political control of these entities. The state control inevitably leads to political control which means priority is given to finding employment for those who are politically or personally connected to the politicians who are running these institutions.

Efficiency and competency which are necessary ingredients to make profit are hardly the norm in these institutions and political control thus becomes the greatest discouragement to the good and the competent employees. Meanwhile, the trade unions which are close to the politicians are also given priority over others and often they too have some say when it comes to day-to-day affairs of these institutions.
With these political priorities profit making naturally becomes the most difficult task in these entities and the idea of profit comes up only once a year when the treasury has to pump in funds to make up for the loss. To make things worse even annual reports are not prepared in time in most of these institutions even to find out what has really gone wrong.

This is definitely an indictment on the ability of the governments to run business. If you look at the past such instances are many. The bus services that were once running at profit under the private companies in the fifties became loss making entities when they were nationalized and placed under the Ceylon Transport Board. Profit making plantations became financially nonviable entities when they were taken over by the government.  Losses were so heavy, after many years the government had to restructure the plantations and give them to the private sector for management under long term leases.
Then there are other government owned businesses such as the Electricity Board, Railways, Petroleum Corporation and so on which could easily become cash cows under proper management, but which are causing huge losses under governmental control.

Even the state institutions which are not making losses are not making the type of profits that they should make.  This means that there are no adequate returns from the assets owned by these institutions when compared to the private sector.
Earning sufficient income for a growing population is a challenge for any government and the situation becomes worse when the country’s resources are not effectively utilized. That is why it is not advisable for any country to continue to own loss making entities for long. Treasury absorption of the losses means indirectly passing the burden on to the people and this unfortunately is not understood by the majority of them.

Public private partnership is a fine idea. But no private investor will buy a stake in a loss making entity, so the way to do it would be first to initiate the process of restructuring such institutions. But, unfortunately restructuring is often misunderstood as a first step towards privatization and therefore heavily resisted by the workers.
Temasek model

One way out would be to find a mechanism to depoliticize the management of these loss making institutions while they remain as state entities. A number of such enterprises have already been placed under the Ministry of Public Enterprises Development and it has also been reported that the government had looked at the possibility of forming a government investment company modeled on Singapore’s Temasek Holdings to manage state owned enterprises.  

In 1974, the Singapore government established Temasek Holdings to own and manage state-owned enterprises and 36 companies directly managed by the government were placed under its control. Today, Temasek is one of the largest SOEs which is quite similar to a private corporation.
Temasek is registered under the Companies Act and therefore is subject to all requirements applicable to private businesses. It behaves like an active investor guided by a strategy to maximize long-term returns. It should be noted that the government refrains from interfering in Temasek’s business decisions.

The state-owned enterprises under Temasek operate fully as for-profit commercial entities, on the same lines as private sector companies. They do not receive any subsidies or preferential treatment from the government.
The success of Temasek model has also inspired Chinese leaders who also had the problem of loss making state enterprises. Simply privatizing these entities remains out of the question for China’s leaders. But, there were alternatives, and Singapore provided one and over the years China has achieved tremendous success in reforming their SOEs.

A model that has been well tested in Singapore and successfully adopted in China cannot be bad for Sri Lanka. In a situation where privatizing is difficult the best alternative for Sri Lanka would be to adopt this model in a suitable way first and to go for public private partnerships when the SOEs are developed enough to attract private sector partners.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

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Hurdles on new Constitution: Referendum the best way out


 
The idea of having a referendum on a new Constitution has been much favoured by almost all the stakeholders. At the initial stages some argued that a mere two thirds majority in the parliament was sufficient for the promulgation of a new Constitution while others insisted that a referendum was a must
By Gamini Abeywardane
Adoption of a new Constitution acceptable to all communities which will also resolve the northern issue, one of the main electoral promises of the Yahapalana government has now come across a new stumbling block. The chief monks of the three Nikayas have unanimously decided that there is no need for a new Constitution.
The need for a new Constitution arose primarily because there is general consensus among the political parties that the current executive presidential system has failed to resolve major issues in the country. The need for furtherance of democracy became obvious after changing a much entrenched and almost authoritarian regime in 2015 while justice to the minority communities and resolution of the ethnic conflict are also expected through a new Constitution.

Anti-democratic and authoritarian trends that were visible during J R Jayewardene and R Premadasa regimes created much dislike for the system among the people preparing the ground for Chandrika Kumaratunga to make an electoral promise in 1994 to abolish the executive presidency. However, the promise was never kept during her presidency due to various reasons.

Thereafter, Mahinda Rajapaksa too made a similar electoral promise in 2005, but instead of abolishing the executive presidency he replaced the 17th amendment with the 18th amendment which gave him almost authoritarian powers. These developments led to a stronger call for abolition of the executive presidency and it became one of the main electoral promises of the United National Front (UNF) in 2015.
Soon after the new government came into power the nineteenth amendment was prepared and passed in a hurry mainly with the idea of facilitating the functioning of the unity government consisting of the two main political parties. Drafting of an entirely a new Constitution resolving the ethnic issue and changing the electoral system was postponed with the idea of coming up with a proper document after necessary consultations with political parties, professionals, intellectuals and a broader section of the population.

Meantime, developing a new Constitution was expected to happen along with the national reconciliation programme launched by the new government as the Constitution also has a major role in bringing about reconciliation among communities. The process to make a new Constitution was launched in this background and six reports were compiled covering different aspects of the Constitution at the end of public consultations which took several months.
Those proposals are now before the Steering Committee of the parliament responsible for drafting a new Constitution. Based on these documents a final draft has to be prepared for parliament to debate and discuss. Even such a document will be only a base document for making of a new Constitution and thus there is a long way for the process to go.

During this process various ideas have come up for discussion and the proposal for having a secular Constitution like in India is one of them. Some may hate the idea, but in a liberal discussion there cannot be taboo topics. These are ideas which have to be tolerated in a democratic society and there is a vast difference between discussing something and implementing it.
It’s only a proposal and both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have made it clear that the foremost place given to Buddhism under the present constitution would not be changed and therefore there is no reason to panic over it. Similarly, it has been made abundantly clear that the unitary nature of the Constitution would not be changed despite substantial devolution of power to the provinces.

Thus, it is both premature and irrelevant for anyone to oppose the idea of a new Constitution because it will affect the status of Buddhism or the unitary nature of the state. Thus, the position taken by the prelates of the three Nikayas, it appears, is based on inadequate information and it is not correct to pass a final judgment on a future Constitution without knowing what it is going to be.
Whenever the subject of devolution was taken up for discussion it has been natural for some sections of the society to oppose it. However, the electoral promises given by the current unity government should be viewed differently as they were supported by all the political parties including the JVP and the civil society groups that came together to defeat the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

Referendum

While the political spectrum is full of disagreements over the provisions and the nature of a future Constitution, now the very idea of drafting a new Constitution itself has been opposed by the Buddhist monks of the three nikayas making it even more difficult for the constitutional process to go forward. The best solution to this problem would be to get the approval of the people at a referendum before promulgating a new Constitution.

The idea of having a referendum on a new Constitution has been much favoured by almost all the stakeholders. At the initial stages some argued that a mere two thirds majority in the parliament was sufficient for the promulgation of a new Constitution while others insisted that a referendum was a must.
Initially it was none other than the Leader of the Opposition and TNA leader R Samapanthan who strongly backed the idea of an islandwide referendum. He said the sovereignty is vested with the people and hence it was essential to get the people’s support. He elaborated his position by saying “There can be a new Constitution for the country only if it is approved by the people of the country.”

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also endorsed this saying that the leader of the TNA accepted that the support of the majority community was essential to enact a new Constitution.  Across the board there had been general agreement among parties represented in parliament that a referendum was necessary.
However, some sections of the SLFP who are part of the government have opposed the idea on the ground it is risky to go for a referendum at this stage and it is sensible to think of only the amendments that would not require the approval of people at a referendum. Some have expressed doubts as to whether it is a genuine position or a lame excuse to continue with the current form of executive presidency.

The provision for referenda which was introduced for the first time in our country by the 1978 Constitution is believed to be an enhancement on the degree of democracy that existed up to that time. In a representative democracy elected members legislate on behalf of the people. However when it comes to a matter of utmost national importance a referendum enables the people to get involved directly and approve or disapprove it.

Following the statement made by the prelates of the three nikayas the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has once again urged the Government to go for a referendum and place the issue of the new Constitution before the people. TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran, who came up with this suggestion in Parliament, said the Government should go for a referendum and place before the people, its proposals for the new Constitution so that they could voice their opinion.
Both Sampanthan and Sumanthiran are right in favouring the idea of a referendum because even if everything is agreed upon in parliament some parties are likely to challenge the constitutional bill in the Supreme Court on the basis that it is not possible to amend or replace some of the sections of the current Constitution without a referendum. A court ruling in favour of such a petition would be a definite disadvantage for the proponents of such a Constitution.

The country has already tested two homemade Constitutions, but none of them has succeeded in resolving the vexed national issue. Both these documents were drafted to suit the needs of the governments at the time, hurriedly passed in parliament and therefore lacked adequate public discussion or general approbation of the people.
This is going to be independent Sri Lanka’s fourth Constitution and now it is time for the country to agree on a permanent document.  Sufficient public discussion and extensive involvement of all political parties in Parliament are a sine qua non if we are to come up with the right document. 

A referendum will be the best way to ensure such public debate and discussion while any piece of legislation directly approved by the people in that manner will have the legitimacy that is needed to create some sense of permanency for such a document in the minds of the people.

With ample support from the minorities and the international community this government got the biggest ever mandate to draft a new Constitution and it would be anti-democratic to abandon it at the behest of various groups that have never backed a positive change in the past. The idea of a new Constitution should be abandoned only if people reject it at a referendum and not because some groups oppose it.

 

Monday, July 3, 2017

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Private medical education, the core issue and not SAITM


 
As it is, there seem to be no agreement over this issue while at the very centre is the concept of private medical education in the country, although the GMOA is expressly not saying so. When observing these developments the fundamental question that would arise in the mind of any reasonable man is whether the GMOA and the medical students are opposing SAITM or the very idea of private medical education.
 
By Gamini Abeywardane
The SAITM issue has come to the forefront of the political debate again pushing many other issues to a side. While the student groups and the GMOA who have been fighting against the SAITM have asked for its complete abolition and nationalization of the Neville Fernando Hospital, the government maintains that it would not nationalize the hospital, but take over it and run along the lines of Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital. Meanwhile, arrangements are under way to gazette the minimum standards for private medical education in the country.
As it is, there seem to be no agreement over this issue while at the very centre is the concept of private medical education in the country, although the GMOA is expressly not saying so. When observing these developments the fundamental question that would arise in the mind of any reasonable man is whether the GMOA and the medical students are opposing SAITM or the very idea of private medical education.

Private medical education is quite an accepted thing everywhere in the world. Some of the best medical schools in the world are private institutions, but governments in respective countries monitor them with strict standards. Therefore, what is needed here too is a proper monitoring regime for higher education with strict standards for medical education. Such high standards should apply to all higher education institutions in the country, be they private or state controlled.
It is a well-known fact that standards are different even among the state universities. The critics say that the standards in some of the medical faculties that have been started later are lower when compared to the pioneering ones like Colombo and Peradeniya universities. Therefore, a stringent system of uniform standards will help to upgrade the general standards in all such medical faculties.

Private sector higher education is quite popular and has a growing demand in the country.  Currently, they have degree programmes practically in every field including all branches of engineering; law and allied medical sciences and often they are affiliated to reputed foreign universities. Most of the products of these institutions have ready employment opportunities while a large number of them go for higher education abroad finally migrating to more developed countries.

Nobody has questioned the quality or standards of the degrees awarded by these institutions while these graduates seem to have better employment prospects even locally when compared to some of the products of our state universities because of their better knowledge of English, IT, exposure and work attitudes.
Despite extensive growth of private sector higher education during the last several decades we have been struggling to launch even one proper private medical school in our country. Every attempt to do so has been scuttled by the GMOA and the medical students on grounds of poor standards. If the standards are poor they can be improved as the country has enough facilities and infrastructure to do so.

Another ground for opposition has been the entry qualifications and the admission criteria. The minimum qualification for university education is technically three ordinary passes at the GCE (AL) examination and it is difficult to raise it for medical education. The reason is there is quite a number of our students who gain entry into medical faculties abroad with such minimum qualifications and come back after graduation and enter the medical profession here through the ERPM (Formerly ACT 16) examination.

Some of those doctors have become brilliant professionals and occupy some of the important positions in our health system. That shows the quality of the final product cannot be determined only by the entry qualifications. With proper opportunities and determination anyone can progress later in life and that probably is a fundamental right that should not be violated.
International schools

The increasing presence of international schools in the country also provides a strong case for private medical education in the country. It is no secret that there are several hundreds of international schools and the number is growing fast because of the huge demand for English education. These schools have become a part of the national education system and it is unreasonable to continue to deny them opportunities for higher education in medicine.

The demand for international schools grew over the last three decades because the state through its network of schools have failed to provide the country with readily employable school leavers with proper skills such as English language, IT and other aptitudes which are vital in the modern environment. The opportunities in some of the well run government and denominational schools in the cities where these skills are imparted are not available to those who are not connected to those school networks and the international schools were the natural answer to the problem.
Now there are international schools in every province and unlike in the past those who attend these schools are not from the elite families. Therefore, the government has the responsibility to give them equal opportunities and the habit of treating them as aliens who should go for higher education abroad eventually settling down in a foreign land should stop.

Then there are brilliant students from the urban schools who fail to gain entry into state medical faculties even after obtaining high grades at the GCE (AL) exam because they are behind the required marks by a few points while their peers from the rural areas get in with much lower grades because of the system of standardization currently in force.
All hopes of such students to enter the medical profession are dashed despite many years of hard work unless their parents have enough money to send them abroad for such higher education. Despite hardships many parents do that sometimes by raising the necessary funds through sale of valuable family assets and the total amount of money the country loses annually for foreign medical education is a colossal sum.   

This category would include sons and daughters of some of the eminent medical specialists who are based in Colombo or in other big cities. Some of them may be from rural beginnings, but their professional advancement requires them to live in a city and send their children to popular schools closer to where they live. And many of those children like to follow the footsteps of their parents and dream of entering medical profession, but it’s not easy to enter a state medical faculty from a Colombo school.
Fear of competition

It is understandable that medical students fear that entry of private medical school graduates could become a threat to their comfortable future. Currently they get free education at the expense of the people of this country and are sure of a placement in a government hospital once they pass out as doctors. Naturally they will not like competition from any new sources either in the government hospitals or in private practice.

There are many aspects to this issue and right to private higher education is something that needs to be recognized and when it comes to medical education there has to be stringent quality standards and the state has a huge role in supervising it. The answer to the current problem lies not in abolishing private medical education, but in upgrading its standards with adequate involvement of the state and the medical council.
The first medical school in the country was started by the British as far back as 1870 in Colombo and our medical profession owes its origin to British medical schools particularly the universities of London and Oxford. Good many of doctors still go to the UK for their training and their qualifications are still highly revered among the medical profession. That is one side of the story, yet even if one of those reputed British universities want to come and set up a medical faculty here there bound to be massive opposition in the current situation.

 The GMOA, particularly the senior consultants in it, should look at this issue impartially and try to mete out justice to all. The future dignity of the profession will depend on the manner they handle this issue and they should not leave room for the ordinary man to think that their actions are motivated by factors such as professional jealousy and protectionism.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

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Let not SAITM, garbage and dengue issues go out of hand


 
Assault on the students may have been too harsh, but the question remains as to whether a legally elected government can just wait when a gang of students forcibly enters into a state department, chases its staff out and totally disrupts the work. Whoever is against SAITM has the right to protest against it in a legitimate way without trespassing into government buildings or disrupting public life

By Gamini Abeywardane

Collapse of Meethotamulla garbage mount two months ago was not only a disaster by itself, but also a harbinger of many more misfortunes to come. Two months down the line as the clamour over it subsided, a new issue of garbage has begun sending shock waves across the political spectrum – this time it’s over the inability of the authorities to ensure efficient garbage collection in Colombo and some parts of its suburbs.
While the government is trying hard to resolve the issue, the situation has become worse with high incidence of dengue which now has taken epidemic proportions resulting in many deaths and severe shortage of hospital beds. Accumulation of garbage in various points in the city is not due to any collection or transport issue, but because of the lack of a place to dump them even temporarily.

With outbreak of dengue there is stiff public protest against dumping garbage close to residential areas. Promises by politicians to recycle such garbage within a short period are no longer acceptable to people mainly because authorities have failed to keep to their promises in the past.

With nearly 70,000 suspected cases of dengue claiming over 100 lives during the last six months of the year, garbage collection too seems to be in the centre of the whole issue. While the government is facing this monumental problem, the issue over South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) took a new turn with protesting students forcibly entering the headquarters of the health ministry on Wednesday. They occupied four floors of the building and sent the staff out totally disrupting the work and asking for a meeting with the health minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne.
This unhealthy development warranted the authorities to call in police and STF personnel to control the situation and the ensuing confrontation resulted in injuries to 96 people including six police personnel. Protesting against the assault on students the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) launched a strike paralyzing the work in most hospitals.

The GMOA said that decision to launch an indefinite strike was taken for two reasons, firstly for protesting against the brutal attack on university students who protested at the Health Ministry and secondly for not extending the tenure of Professor Carlo Fonseka as the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), a decision taken by Health Minister.
Assault on the students may have been too harsh, but the question remains as to whether a legally elected government can just wait when a gang of students forcibly enters into a state department, chases its staff out and totally disrupts the work. Whoever is against SAITM has the right to protest against it in a legitimate way without trespassing into government buildings or disrupting public life

Irrespective of the cause they fight for protestors have no right to disrupt the work of a government department and destroy its property. Moreover, if this kind of nonsense is tolerated it will become fashionable for any trade union to take the law into their hands and invade any state or private institution disrupting their work and such behaviour is not tolerated anywhere in the world.
The GMOA or any other organization has no moral right to defend this kind of illegal action by the student protestors. For a strike by a trade union to be legal, it should be for a valid cause connected to their trade. Although the SAITM issue is connected to the medical profession this particular criminal action by the students – trespass, damaging state property and obstructing the work of government servants is not connected to a trade union right. Then it has to be equally illegal to launch a strike in defence of an illegal action.

The other reason the GMOA has cited for the strike action is also far beyond their lawful trade union rights. It is a lawful right of the minister of health to extend or not extend the tenure of the chairman of the SLMC after he has completed the period for which he has been appointed. Nobody has a right to force the minister to extend the tenure or to reappoint him for another term for which there is a different procedure.
The sudden nature of the strike is another thing that may raise issues. The GMOA says that they had warned that there could be a strike at any time, but whether such general warning could be taken as notice for a particular strike is questionable. Ideally there has to be separate and sufficient notice before each strike.

Timing of the GMOA strike

The worse aspect of the whole strike drama is its timing. All hospitals in the country both government and private are full of dengue patients and there is a severe shortage of space as well as medical personnel and on moral grounds this may be the worse time to launch such a strike. Doctors who are supposed to be members of a noble profession should be well aware of these ethical issues.
If SAITM’s standards are not adequate they can be upgraded and formulating and implementing proper standards for medical education is the responsibility of the government and the SLMC. Undermining the whole idea of private medical education under the guise of protesting against SAITM should not be tolerated.

Private medical education
Private medical education has grown extensively in many countries that were far behind Sri Lanka in overall education standards a few decades ago and the worst is that a large number of students from our country join medical schools in these countries annually resulting in a massive loss of foreign exchange to the country. 

Despite phenomenal growth in the private sector medical care with many modern hospitals coming up throughout the country, we are lagging far behind in private sector medical education. This happened because the first such attempt in the eighties had to be abandoned in the face of mounting student protests and no genuine effort was made to venture into this area for several years thereafter.

This lacuna is quite evident when one looks at the phenomenal growth of private sector higher education in other fields including engineering. The growing demand for private sector education is quite clear from the number of international schools operating in the country at present. 
The SLMC is a pivotal institution in this whole exercise and it is well known that its current board headed by Prof. Carlo Fonseka has not been quite helpful in amicably resolving this matter and has refused to recognize the SAITM graduates despite Court of Appeal direction to do so. They have already appealed against the Court of Appeal order. 

It is natural for the GMOA to try their best to keep Prof. Carlo Fonseka in the seat so that they can continue to block the entry of SAITM graduates into the medical profession. Thus the ulterior motive behind the GMOA strike is more than clear and the government should decide whether it is going to leave the fate of the private medical education in the hands of few people in the GMOA. 

The sudden medical strike is yet another blow on the government which is surrounded by many issues – the SAITM issue, dengue outbreak, the garbage problem and racial tension against Muslims. Some of these are long standing issues and the failure to resolve them within a reasonable time does not augur well for the Yahapalana government in whom people placed much hope. Whatever the real difficulties may be any further delay to resolve these festering issues will result in a situation where people will lose confidence in the system while the country will increasingly become non governable.
Most of the protesting students have boycotted lectures during the last several months and the increasing frustration could result in worse behaviour by these students in the future. This could provide the golden opportunity to the Inter University Students Federation and other destructive elements to enlist more full time members and expand their movements. If timely action is not taken to stem these developments this could become a worse headache for the government in the future.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

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Acts of racism: A slur on reconciliation

 
 
 


By Gamini Abeywardane
The need to curb acts of communal violence including attacks on places of business establishments belonging to Muslims came up for discussion before the cabinet of ministers this week.
Following the cabinet meeting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a special statement said that the Government would bring in new laws to stop religious and ethnic violence, if needed. He said this would be done in line with the policy of the current government and the pledge given by President Maithripala Sirisena when he was elected to office in 2015.

That was a direct reference to the policy of reconciliation, an idea that received wide support from all communities at the time the new government was voted into power. Communal violence of any form would be quite contrary to the idea of reconciliation which is a sine qua non for the economic development of the country.
He said that the police have been asked to take action against those who have attacked Islamic places of worship and business establishments belonging to Muslims, and also to arrest those who are engaged in religious and ethnic violence.  
If we are to stop repetition of the incidents that culminated in a bitter ethnic war which put our country behind by several decades economically, it is important to stem this type of tendencies right now. Bodu Bala Sena and various such organizations have been accused of incidents of arson and mayhem particularly against the Muslim community. These organizations have denied any involvement in these incidents, but it is up to the law enforcement authorities to find the real culprits whoever they are and take strict action against them.

The genesis of these organisations lie in the post war euphoria and the attitudes developed along with that. Buoyed by war victory those with communal inclinations would have thought that we have taught a lesson to the Tamils and shouldn’t we now teach a lesson to the Muslims as well.
 
They were blissfully ignorant that despite the presence of Islamic terrorist groups like IS, Hamas or Al Qaeda, elsewhere in the world, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been a peaceful lot traditionally concentrating on trading while younger generations have moved into higher education as well.

One thing that is clear is that after end of the war the country has been free of terrorism while in most other countries including Britain, the US and France there have been devastating acts of terrorism undermining day to day life as well as discouraging tourism and investment.

After many years of war and terrorism we are starving for foreign investments while tourism has just begun to pick registering satisfactory levels of growth over the last few years. Despite many other issues, both political and economic, one positive thing in or country is absence of terrorism and the prevailing peace.

In this context any person or organization that engages in any acts leading to destruction of that peace will be indirectly helping to breed terrorism and in the long run will be working for destruction of our country. Therefore, despite whatever claims of patriotism, people who act in a way to destroy amity among communities will be an obstacle in the way of reconciliation as well as the progress of the country.

Whenever accusations are levelled against these extremist elements in the south for their racist acts, they in turn make similar accusations against racists in the north and call for legal action against them as well.
Quite strangely Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) despite their characteristic differences seem to have much in common. This became clear some time ago when some draft legislation was prepared by the government to ban hate speech. Both groups argued that the proposed legislation would be contrary to freedom of speech.

The two anti-hate speech draft bills presented in Parliament at that time sought to amend the Penal code and the Criminal Procedure Code criminalising by interpretation anything said that could allegedly instigate communal violence and disharmony.

BBS lodged an official protest at the Human Rights Commission against these proposed laws on the ground they violated freedom of expression recognised by the constitution. TNA had reportedly called for the withdrawal of the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, placed on the Order Paper, citing that its provisions were identical to those of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Whatever is their opinion on this matter one thing that is clear is that both parties seem to represent some extreme views to suit their own politics. Right thinking people however, believe that such hate speech that instigate violence and create religious, racial or communal disharmony should not be allowed in a modern civilised society. We in our country have enough examples of such speech leading to violence in distant past as well as in recent times.

Freedom of speech like every other freedom recognised by law should have exceptions. The best example is that just because we enjoy freedom of speech and expression, the law does not allow one to use it in a way that will defame or harm the reputation of another person or use abusive language to cause mental harm to another.

Although in our country hate speech has not yet been banned many countries in the world including the US, most of Europe, India, South Africa and Singapore have done so. Such legislation is of paramount importance to ensure peace and harmony particularly in multi-religious and multi-racial countries like ours.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly states that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law".
Realising the importance of peaceful co-existence among different ethnic groups for the future economic development of the country the new government immediately after coming into power placed much emphasis on reconciliation. A special unit functioning under the guidance of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has been working towards achieving these goals and the reemergence of communal and racial violence can be the biggest impediment to this exercise.

In this back ground anti-hate speech laws become much relevant as we are getting ready to find a lasting solution to our ethnic issue through constitutional means.  After all having a peaceful country is far more important than having all sorts of freedoms that would destroy such peace.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

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Will the sticky issue of executive presidency block the new constitution?


 
By Gamini Abeywardane
Two years on, a constitutional solution to the minority issue, one of the electoral promises of the yahapalana government is far from being a reality. The ongoing constitution making process in the parliament has made some progress with regard to the degree of devolution – a sticky issue in the past, while the process has slowed down due to issues not related to devolution.
One such major issue seems to be the abolition of the executive presidency. Since Chandrika Kumaratunga government of 1994, all presidents came to power promising to abolish the executive presidency. But subsequently all of them either abandoned or postponed the issue depending on other political priorities, personal agendas or hunger for power. 
However, the difference this time over, is that the Yahapalana government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe was voted into power on the strength of a broad coalition which included minority parties and the promise of abolishing the executive presidency was one of the key elements in their agenda. Yet, the slow pace of the constitutional process makes one wonder whether the same thing is going to happen this time as well.
The constitution making process that was activated through the parliament first got delayed due to emotive issues like giving the foremost place to Buddhism and the use of the word ‘unitary’ in the constitution. However, subsequently there seem to be some progress even in these seemingly difficult areas.
For example, section 9 of the current constitution gives the foremost place to Buddhism while it also gives due recognition to all other religions and guarantees freedom of thought and religious belief.  There has been general agreement from all quarters including the Tamil and other minority parties to leave these provisions as they are.
Unitary state
Then the other issue was devolving power to the periphery while retaining the unitary nature of the constitution. It has been argued by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that the use of the word ‘unitary’ in the English text of the constitution could lead to wrong judicial interpretations undermining the very idea of devolution of power.  Therefore, they have suggested the use of the Sinhala word ‘Ekeeya’ in the English text as well, so that any future judicial interpretation will have to be made purely on the provisions and the structure of the constitution and not on the basis of one word.
If agreed, these suggestions may overcome some of the unwanted disputes thereby giving more priority to other important aspects such as the abolition of the executive presidency, introduction of a second chamber and the structure of the government in a way that will lead to a permanent solution of the long standing ethnic issue. 
Where devolving power to the periphery is concerned now with the provincial councils already in operation what is needed is to finalise matters with regard to some of the controversial areas like the concurrent list and what sort of police and land powers are to be devolved. Strange enough already there seem to be some agreement on these issues.
Despite the broad principles agreed upon by the political parties that joined together to defeat the previous government and form the yahapalana government, there seem to be no agreement between the SLFP and the UNP over the issue of abolishing the executive presidency. The idea is strongly backed by the JVP and several other small political parties including the Communist Party of Sri Lanka except the Joint Opposition which is likely to oppose any major change in the constitution.
Although there has not been any official stance yet from the SLFP, individually some of the SLFP members of the cabinet have made statements opposing any major constitutional change that will require a referendum. Their argument is that it will not be easy to win such a referendum. But, there are also serious doubts as to whether such stance is just a lame excuse to continue with the executive presidency.
Referendum
Meanwhile, fairly early in the constitutional process the TNA leader R Sampanthan had made it clear that for any constitutional change resolving the ethnic issue to be successful, it should have the approval of the people at a referendum.  
He said the sovereignty is vested with the people and hence it was essential to get the people’s support. He elaborated his position by saying “There can be a new constitution for the country, only if it is approved by the people of the country.”
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also has endorsed this idea saying that the leader of the TNA accepted that the support of the majority community was essential to enact a new constitution.  Across the board there had been general agreement among parties represented in parliament that a referendum was necessary.
The provision for referenda which was introduced for the first time in our country by the 1978 Constitution was believed to be an enhancement on democracy that existed up to that time. In a representative democracy elected members legislate on behalf of the people. But, when it comes to a matter of utmost national importance a referendum enables the people to get involved directly and approve or disapprove it.
However, ironically this provision was used by its architect President J R Jayewardene in 1982 to extend the life of the parliament by another term without holding a general election because he wanted to preserve the two thirds majority he enjoyed at the time. An idea for a referendum never came up thereafter.
Thirty five years later it has surfaced again and the difference this time is that if a referendum is to be held, for the first time it is going to be for its original intended purpose – to decide a matter of great importance to the country. There cannot be anything more important than a Constitution, more so when it is intended to resolve some long standing national issues.
Sampanthan is right in favouring the idea of a referendum because even if everything is agreed upon in parliament some parties are likely to challenge the constitutional bill in the Supreme Court on the basis that it is not possible to amend or replace some of the sections of the current Constitution without a referendum. A court ruling in favour of such a petition would be a definite disadvantage for the proponents of such a Constitution.
The country has already tested two homemade Constitutions but none of them has succeeded in resolving the vexed national issue. Both these documents were drafted to suit the needs of the governments at the time, hurriedly passed in parliament and therefore lacked adequate public discussion or general approbation of the people.
This is going to be independent Sri Lanka’s third Constitution and now it is time for the country to agree on a permanent document.  Sufficient public discussion and extensive involvement of all political parties in Parliament are a sine qua non, if we are to come up with the right document. 
 A referendum will be the best way to ensure such debate and discussion while any piece of legislation directly approved by the people in that manner will have the legitimacy that is needed to give some sense of permanency for such a document in the minds of the people.