Sri Lanka: Unitary status cannot be challenged for political gain

COLOMBO (The Island/ANN) – People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (Paffrel) points out that compromising the unitary status of the country is in contravention of the Constitution.

Members of parliament couldn’t challenge or undermine the unitary status of the country under any circumstances, Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) told the media at the Center for Society and Religion (CSR), yesterday.

Rohana Hettiarachchi said so in response to The Island query as why both local and foreign polls monitors were mum over Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led five-party grouping demanding abolition of unitary status as a prerequisite for extending its support to either Sajith Premadasa (NDF) or Gotabaya Rajapaksa (SLPP) at the Nov 16 presidential poll.

Abolition of unitary status was among 13 demands put forward by the grouping. Having placed controversial set of proposals before the NDF and the SLPP on Oct 15, the ITAK declared its support for Sajith Premadasa on Nov 04.

The civil society activist asserted that such a course of action was contrary to the Constitution.

The Island also sought an explanation from Rohana Hettiarachchi regarding health minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne’s declaration in Manipay, Jaffna this week that Tamil National Alliance (TNA) lawmakers representing the northern region were granted Rs 300 mn each for development work in their electorates. Dr. Senaratne attributed the government largess to TNA lawmakers being friendly with the government. Rohana Hettiarachchi said that funds had been allocated to lawmakers by successive governments under controversial circumstances. The government couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for taxpayers’ money, the PAFFREL Chief said.

The Island pointed out that the revelation was made in support of Sajith Premadasa’s candidature at the presidential poll.

At the onset of the briefing Sujeewa Gayanath, National Coordinator, Sridharan Sabanayagam, Programme Director and Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director, PAFFREL explained the ground situation. The briefing was called to release its second report on the presidential poll.

According to them 2019 presidential election scheduled for next week was peaceful though there were some incidents. They declared that the postal vote was peaceful though the rejection of 58,601 postal voting applications out of 717,918 was a matter for serious concern. The PAFFREL expressed grave concern over the rejection of applications due to negligence on the part of those entitled for the privilege.

PAFFREL also dealt with abuse of state power, polls-related violence, media as well as the social media. The largest local polls monitoring body complained of the conduct of some sections of the media, particularly television stations. PAFFREL found fault with both private and state-owned television stations for not following the guidelines issued by the Election Commission (EC).

PAFFREL also noted that the UNP led coalition had been at the receiving end of violence much more than its main rival though in the past the main Opposition was the primary target.

Hettiarachcchi said that their effort was meant to facilitate a free and fair election by neutralizing various influencing factors.

Asked by The Island as to why the report conveniently refrained from taking up members of current parliament switching allegiance for their personal benefit and seeking entry into next parliament through the National List, Rohana Hettiarachchi said that they, too, were concerned.

The civil society activist said that they were in the process of working out proposals to tackle the situation. The Island pointed out that neither the two PAFFREL reports released in respect of the presidential election nor those who addressed media made any reference to polls related corruption involving lawmakers.

Rohana Hettiarachchi said that the March 12 Movement was busy working on reforms, including restrictions on campaign spending. The activist acknowledged that accommodation of defeated candidates, too, was a matter for serious concern.

Pointing out that lawmakers switched sides claiming they acted on their conscience, Hettiarachchi pointed out those Opposition members joining the government ranks couldn’t be justified on that basis.

He said that a particular lawmaker who had switched sides on several occasions within two days recently was again making similar moves. When The Island urged the PAFFREL to name the MP, Rohana Hettiarachchi said; "Wasantha Senanayake."

Hettiarachchi said that they would take up that issue before parliamentary elections in early 2020.

Responding to another query by The Island as to how polls monitors planned to prevent foreign interventions, such as US funding 2015 national elections, Rohana Hettiarachchi underscored the need to examine accusations. The Island pointed out that there was no requirement to do so as no less a person than the then US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed the US funding restoration of democracy in Myanmar, Nigeria and Sri Lanka to the tune of USD 585 mn.

Hettiarachchi however said that the US wasn’t the only country interested in Sri Lanka. Making reference to the ongoing controversy over the US seeking to finalize agreement on USD 480 mn Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Rohana Hettiarachchi said that the national political leadership should address that issue.

Asked whether the PAFFREL approved of a section of the civil society grouping attacking the Anura Kumara Dissanayake for helping Gotabaya Rajapaksa by dividing what it called the progressive vote, Hettiarachchi said that the civil society had the right to promote its agenda among the electorate. However, the civil society couldn’t make unfair interventions on behalf of a particular political party.

The NGO grouping that backed Maithripala Sirisena has been divided with the larger section throwing its weight behind NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa.

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