19A targeted political opponents, not people’s well-being - Minister Johnston Fernando | Sunday Observer

19A targeted political opponents, not people’s well-being - Minister Johnston Fernando

13 September, 2020

Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said the SJB or the UNP has no moral right to talk of the independence of the judiciary. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said the audio clips of some SJB MPs have proved how they connived with the Police officers to imprison their political opponents and the Maha Sangha.

The Minister said the people gave a two-thirds majority to the Government to change the present Constitution and introduce a new one. He said “first we would only abolish the 19A. The question as to who voted for the 19A or who did not is irrelevant. What is important is the public mandate. The 19A targeted the Rajapaksas, and not the well-being of the people. The sole purpose was to remove the powers vested with the then President Maithripala Sirisena and vest it in the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, the people rejected it.”

Q: How do you view the SJB walking out of the Chamber, protesting against SLPP Ratnapura district MP Premalal Jayasekara taking oaths?

A. Rather than protesting against MP Jayasekera taking oaths, the SJB should have faced the debate on the Central Bank annual report. They strategically made use of Premalal Jayasekara’s case and walked out of the Chamber as they could not face the debate on the Central Bank report. The SJB need not protest against Jayasekara taking oaths. There are two court rulings on Jayasekara. One has convicted him, against which MP Jayasekara has appealed. Both rulings have been given by the Court. When the death penalty was given to Jayasekara, the SJB said the judiciary was independent, but when he comes to Parliament to take his oaths, they say the opposite. This shows their double standard. They think the present Government will also act like them. Our Government acts very independently.

Q: The SJB parliamentary group has unanimously decided to defeat the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Is there any basis for this?

A. What can they do except oppose the 20A? They need to play the role of the Opposition. The people have discarded them. This is the ground reality. The people decided to send the UNP led Yahapalana Government home even before they completed four and a half years of their tenure although they were voted to office with a resounding mandate. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is manipulated by others, he doesn’t have any leadership qualities. He does what Rajtha, Champika and Harin ask him to do. Nobody in the SJB listens to Premadasa. Video clips show that when SJB MPs attempted to walk out of the Chamber to protest against MP Jayasekara taking oaths, Sajith Premadasa stood up and asked his MPs not to go. But they all left the Chamber ignoring his request. Similar to Ranil Wickremesinghe being stranded, Sajith Premadasa has been entrapped.

Q: Opposition lawmakers ask why Government parliamentarians now want to abolish the 19th Amendment whereas they supported it in Parliament except for the then UPFA MP Sarath Weerasekara and the Speaker. Your comment on this?

A. The issue before us is who raised their hands in support of the 19A. At the last General Election campaign, we pledged to abolish the 19A, and the people voted for that. We requested the people to give us a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Opposition said the Government would not be able to secure a two-thirds majority and even some of our members said we would only win 125 to 130 seats. However, the people gave a two-thirds majority to the Government to change the present Constitution and introduce a new one. First we would only abolish the 19A. It is irrelevant who voted for the 19A or who did not. What is important is the public mandate.

Q: The Opposition attempts to portray that the 20A would pave the way for authoritarian rule and deprive the people’s democratic rights. Your comments?

A. These are the same slogans put forward by the Opposition to defeat the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. These slogans are not valid in today’s context. Under the 19A, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did what he wanted to do, while President Maithripala Sirisena was unable to do anything and had become a prisoner of conscience. When the independent commissions were set up, they appointed their henchmen as members. Although they wanted to show the world that the Commissions were independent, they were not independent at all.

The majority of the members were those who represented various NGOs and who had been in the forefront to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. Invisible dictatorship prevailed in those Commissions. The then President Maithripala Sirisena could not appoint even the most senior Police officer as the IGP. Therefore, the people decided to change the situation. Any undue or new powers will not be given to the President by the 20A. He would exercise the same powers exercised by his predecessors before 2015. During the short tenure of his rule, all the decisions taken by President Rajapaksa so far are people friendly.

Q: SJB has raised concern over the independence of the judiciary citing the case of SLPP MP Premalal Jayasekara taking oaths in Parliament. Your comments?

A. The SJB or the UNP has no right to talk of the independence of the judiciary. The audio clips of some SJB MPs have clearly proved how they connived with the Police officers to imprison their political opponents and the Maha Sangha.

Q: The SLFP has said that it has become a decisive factor to pass the 20A adding that if 14 SLFP MPs refrain from voting, the Government cannot secure a two-thirds majority. Is it correct?

A. It is not important whether the SLFP would support or not. We are a Government elected by the people with an overwhelming majority. The people gave us a two-thirds majority to implement our policies, and we have stated that we would abolish the 19A and bring in a new Constitution. I believe all would stand together to implement this public will. We extended our support to the former Government to pass the 19A to make the necessary changes in the country. Otherwise, they would have said that the Opposition didn’t allow them to implement their programs.

Q: Some Opposition lawmakers have raised concern on the ‘immunity of President from suit’ as proposed in the 20A. The Education Minister Prof.G.L. Peiris has clarified that it is not for the President’s benefit but to provide an uninterrupted service to people. Could you explain?

A. They talk about the Constitution introduced by its ‘godfather’ the late President J.R.Jayewardene in 1978. Most of those who make a big hue and cry today were not in Parliament during the time of J.R.Jayewardene. This Constitution has survived since 1978. When Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the President, the then UNP Government brought the 17th Amendment in 2001 as Ranil Wickremesinghe was not in a position to come to power. However, with Wickremesinghe’s inability to become the President, they once again changed the Constitution after Maithripala Sirisena became President by introducing the 19A.

Former Presidents, J.R.Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa functioned under this Constitution. There is no validity in these arguments by the SJB. This Constitution is the UNP’s brainchild. They brought amendments to the Constitution as they were unable to consolidate power. The net result is, the very same Constitution would remain intact until a new Constitution is introduced.

Q: The SJB has decided to form a ‘broad coalition’ against the Government’s move to introduce 20A which they say will create an all-powerful Presidency and take the power away from Parliament. Your comments?

A. Earlier too, the SJB formed a broad coalition and asserted that Sajith Premadasa was the only candidate who can defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa. However, Sajith Premadasa was defeated at the Presidential election by 1.7 million votes. Then they said they cannot contest the General Election with Ranil Wickremesinghe, and formed their own political party, the SJB. However, the people rejected the SJB. Hence, the SJB is not in a position to form another political alliance. The people have discarded them. The then UNP could not secure a majority in Parliament at the General Election held six months after the 2015 Presidential Election. They could secure only 106 seats in Parliament. However, the SLPP secured a two-thirds majority at the General Election held eight months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office. I would like to tell the SJB that we will bring back their own Constitution which was cherished by their two former leaders, J.R.Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Q: Some Government lawmakers say that the ulterior motive of 19A was to target the members of the Rajapaksa family and that it was not for the well-being of the country or the people. Are you of the same view?

A. Yes, the 19A targeted the Rajapaksas and was not for the well-being of the people. Its sole purpose was to craftily remove the powers vested with the then President Maithripala Sirisena and vest it on the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, the people rejected it, and before the expiry of three years in office, the former Yahapalana Government was defeated at the Pradeshiya Sabha election. If not for the 19A the former Government would have been toppled soon after the Pradeshiya Sabha election, and they would have had to go for an election.

By introducing the 19A, they formulated a system not to hold elections. The people, however, decided they needed the services of the Rajapaksas and elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. They also gave the highest number of preferential votes to Namal Rajapaksa in the Hambantota district and also elected Chamal Rajapaksa showing that they are with the Rajapaksas. They are aware that it is the Rajapaksa family which can develop and provide security to the country.

Q: Do the constituent parties of the Government hold different opinions on the proposed 20A?

A. Of course there could be different opinions but we all contested the election under the SLPP banner. The people gave a two-thirds majority to implement the Government’s National Policy framework, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”. Whatever the different opinions, we have to go together and respect the people’s mandate. Nobody can shirk his responsibility. We are confident we can pass 20A in Parliament with a two-thirds majority. At present, some Opposition MPs have requested to join the Government. Some have told me personally that they wished to join the Government. They say there is no point in being in the Opposition as the SJB will not be able to capture power for years to come. These MPs want an opportunity to work for their people.

Q: What are the initiatives taken to develop the highways sector?

A. As outlined in the President’s ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’, we have decided to develop 100,000 Kms of road network and construct several new expressways. The intention is to ease traffic congestion. In this regard almost 90 percent of the decisions have already been taken. Even during the lockdown we made several decisions to develop the road network. We promised the people a Government that will work for its people. We have already commenced to develop 10,000 Kms of the road network, and intend to complete the construction of 100,000 Kms of the road network before five years. Our target is a modern road network in the country. At present there is huge traffic congestion in Colombo and the suburbs and other major cities in the districts. We have already taken alternative measures to ease the traffic congestion in Colombo and suburbs. An elevated road will be constructed from the Kelani Bridge up to Kaduwela. We will conduct a feasibility study to construct similar elevated roads from Dehiwela to Panadura via the sea. Otherwise, we have to spend a huge amount of money to encroach lands.

On the instructions of the President, a bridge will be constructed at Nawala to ease traffic congestion in that area. We have also planned to construct an elevated road from Rajagiriya to Wellawatta. A program has also been formulated to produce disciplined drivers. As instructed by the President and the Prime Minister, the Highways Ministry will implement a massive program within the next four years. Trees will be planted on either side of the road to have a green environment. A similar concept will be introduced to the expressways as well.