ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s national COVID-19 task force has been a total failure and the prime minister and the cabinet must take over the reins from the army commander who is a mere department head, former prime minister and newly sworn-in MP Ranil Wickremesinghe said.
Warning of creeping militarisation in the country, Wickremesinghe told parliament June 23 morning that constitutionally it is the cabinet and the prime minister that ought to be in charge of Sri Lanka’s epidemic containment efforts.
“The army commander is a department head. Only the cabinet of ministers can issue directives to ministry secretaries, who in turn issue directives to department heads,” said Wickremesinghe.
The United National Party (UNP) leader said that, as per sections 2, 4 and 43 of the constitution, it is the cabinet that runs the government and the responsibility of managing the current situation is vested with the cabinet and the parliament which the cabinet answers to.
“You [prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa] must take charge. If you make a blunder, we can protest and shout right here in parliament – or at least hold placards,” he said, in an apparent tongue-in-cheek reference to main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs who were displaying placards against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanipla moments after Wickremesinghe was sworn in today (23).
“The task force is a total failure. It’s clear when you listen to the health minister’s speech [on the sate of the epidemic situation since the beginning],” said the MP.
Sri Lanka hasn’t even appointed an advisory group of experts but is instead dependent on a single committee which has been assigned to a department head, he said, asking why the prime minister or the cabinet have not been exercising their mandate to manage the crisis.
“In any democracy, there is political authority represented by the president, the prime minister and ministers. There is also the civil authority, from ministry secretaries downwards. Then there is the military. What is happening now is that they’re taking military power and running the country. This cannot be done. It is wrong,” said Wickremesinghe.
“It’s not just COVID anymore,” he added.
Referring to a recent Board of Investment (BOI) investor forum where Army Commander Shavendra Silva was a guest speaker, the former premier said: “The finance minister or state minister should’ve been there. But the army chief also spoke. Some people walked out when they saw that.”
“I have no issues with the army commander. I have closely associated him and he has helped me on many occasions. But this cannot be done. There is an attempt at militarisation,” he added.
Wickremesinghe urged Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the cabinet to take over.
“The people have given you the mandate. There is no arguing that. What we take issue with you is for not using that mandate and instead allowing a partial militarisation and handing that power over to them,” he said.
The UNP leader called for a parliamentary debate on this “constitutional problem”, which he said the UNP’s “friend’s in the opposition” will also welcome.
“We might have political differences, but constitutionally, it is the cabinet that must be making these decisions. We can criticise them; we can move no confidence motions against them; we can even sit here in the lobby in protest. But if that doesn’t happen, that means the parliament has ceased to function,” he said. (Colombo/June23/2021)