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Governor,Chief Minister and the northern imbroglio

17 December 2013 05:18 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council is presently entangled in an intricate imbroglio. The newly elected chief minister CV Wigneswaran of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is at loggerheads with G. A. Chandrasiri the Governor appointed for the Province by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This titanic clash between the former Supreme Court Judge and the retired Army Major-General has virtually paralysed the Northern Provincial Council besides raising Constitutional issues of a controversial nature.

Though the highly personalised nature of the on going tussle may convey an impression that it is a case of Chandrasiri vs. Wigneswaran, the problem goes far beyond personal relations. It is at one level an institutional trial of strength between the posts of Governor and Chief Minister.It could also be interpreted as a tussle between centripetal and centrifugal forces. At another related level it is a public manifestation of the continuing cold war between the Government of President Rajapaksa and the Tamil National Alliance. It is also possible that the current imbroglio is a symptom of a deceptive proxy war waged by extremist Tamil Diaspora elements against the Provincial Council system itself and that Wigneswaran has wittingly or unwittingly allowed himself to be converted as its cutting edge.

The TNA in general and CV Wigneswaran in particular have sought to paint a picture in which Governor Chandrasiri is portrayed as the villain of the piece. A few like TNA spokesperson Suresh Premachandran charge that the Governor is backed by the President himself. Despite the TNA attempt to lay all blame on the Government and Governor, a fair scrutiny of the situation would reveal that the TNA cannot be entirely absolved of blame in this matter. Recent events indicate that the TNA could and should have handled the issue with greater finesse and resolved the problem instead of aggravating it. Moreover the political integrity of the TNA too is questionable in this matter.

The TNA takes delight in describing General Chandrasiri as a military governor. Chief Minister Wigneswaran has referred to him in media interviews as the “military official serving as Governor of the Northern Province”. TNA leaders continue to denigrate Chandrasiri as a “military governor”in public fora and demand that he be removed and a civilian governor appointed.

Is the stance adopted by the TNA in this correct? Chandrasiri is a retired Major-General but after retirement has he not acquired civilian status? It does not seem to be fair to keep referring to him as a “military governor” in derogatory fashion and seek replacement on those grounds alone. Precedents have been established where retired officers from the armed forces have been appointed to top posts. Former Army chief Sepala Attygalle and ex-Navy chief Rajan Kadirgamar have served as Ministry secretaries. Several retired Generals and commanders have served as ambassadors and High Commissioners. Retired generals Nalin Seneviratne and Asoka Jayawardene functioned as Governors of the temporarily merged “North-eastern’’ province. None of them has been referred to as “military secretary”or “military envoy” or “military governor”. So why is TNA targeting only Chandrasiri on these lines?

If it is the TNA’s contention that a military general is always a military man and not a civilian and therefore should not be entrusted with governance of any kind then that position too amounts to political hypocrisy. The governor of a province is only an appointee of the all-powerful Executive President. The very same TNA that ardently opposes Chandrasiri as a “military governor” had no qualms in endorsing and supporting the candidacy of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka as President in 2010.The TNA took up the position that Fonseka was now a civilian after retirement and exhorted the Tamil people to vote for the ex –military chief as President. Now the very same TNA objects to Chandrasiri holding lesser office as governor. Apparently sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander!
Another error is the TNA assumption that a civilian being appointed would pave the way for close cooperation between the Governor and Council/Chief minister. This assumption seems to conclude that a civilian is preferable to a retired military person at all times regardless of the individual merits of the appointee.If that were so would the TNA be ready to accept “civilians” like Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, Prof. Nalin de Silva or lawyer SL Gunasekara as Northern Governors?
Apart from these blatant double standards there is also the question of prejudice and pre-judgement without giving Chandrasiri reasonable time to prove his bona fides. Notwithstanding his military background, Chandrasiri has proved to be a capable administrator with an impressive track record. Being an ex-military man, he has been able to instil a sense of discipline into officials and keep to deadlines. He has handled problems and resolved them creditably. Whatever the TNA may say there is no doubt that Chandrasiri is hugely popular with his civilian staff. Several NGO personnel who have interacted with him also speak highly of him. It is therefore a moot point as to why the TNA has adopted a hostile approach right from the start towards Chandrasiri instead of seeking ways and means to work with him. Although events have now moved in a different direction an opportunity may have been lost where Governor Chandrasiri would have cooperated positively with the council if the TNA had given the Governor a fair chance.

There are also sufficient grounds to believe that the TNA notably CV Wigneswaran has engaged in cheap politics on this matter and foiled the possibility of Chandrasiri being replaced by a civilian official. According to informed Government sources close to President Rajapaksa, the governor issue was one where Mahinda had been prepared to replace Chandrasiri with a civilian governor even as the election campaign was in progress. According to these sources, the President realised that the TNA would win the polls and was ready to establish rapport with the chief minister elect.

Apparently the President had stated that it would be politically dicey to appoint a non – Sinhalese as Northern Governor at the present juncture and that he would replace Chandrasiri with a distinguished Sinhala retired civil servant. General Chandrasiri was earmarked as envoy to Australia. The President had “Deshamanya” M.D.D Peiris in mind as his replacement. Peiris had served as secretary to several ministries and also as secretary to the late Prime Minister Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike.

President Rajapaksa had also opined that an abrupt change of the Northern governor could lead to an unnecessary controversy. Therefore, he planned to implement a general reshuffle of four or five governors after the CHOGM summit. The Northern Governor also would be changed as part of this reshuffle. These thoughts of the President had been conveyed unofficially with Mahinda’s knowledge to Wigneswaran by a member of the Cabinet.
Govt. sources allege that CV Wigneswaran after being privy to information that Chandrasiri was to be replaced had exploited that to gain cheap political advantage. He had thereafter stepped up his campaign rhetoric that the “military governor” must be removed. The idea seemed to be that of demonstrating to the Northern constituency that the Govt. had caved into Wigneswaran’s demand. This cheap politicking had irritated the President as it made his task more difficult. Subsequently M.D.D. Peiris also declined on grounds of ill-health.

According to sources President Rajapaksa was again prepared to appoint a civilian as Northern Province Governor. The man he had in mind was lawyer and former North-Western Province Chief Minister Athula Wijesinghe. Even as moves were being initiated in this regard the Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution demanding that the military governor be removed. The President was forced to suspend forward movement on this matter. This was because he felt such a move would be construed as a sign of weakness against the backdrop of the resolution. The resolution proved to be counterproductive

It could be seen therefore that the confrontational approach adopted by Wigneswaran and the Council was not resulting in any positive gain. The TNA however persists with a confrontational approach. The resolution passed by the Council calling for the Governor’s replacement was not binding. But now the TNA seems to be gearing up for a more serious resolution addressing the President and seeking removal of the Governor. The procedure entails the submission of a motion signed by 50% +1 of the Council to the Chairman. Thereafter it has to be debated and passed with a two-thirds majority by the Council.

Constitutional experts and political leaders pointed out a number of flaws in the Indian facilitated 13th amendment to the Constitution and Provincial council scheme. One of the glaring defects diminishing devolution was the role and powers of the Governor. There is no doubt that the Governor does have the discretion to exercise certain powers affecting the chief minister and council if he desired. This is likely to cause friction between the Governor and the chief minister. However such eventualities have been averted so far in the functioning of other Provincial councils. But a major crisis is now looming large on the Northern political horizon.
The current crisis has its genesis in the protracted election campaign period that preceded the Northern provincial polls held on September 21st 2013.The TNA accused the Northern Governor Chandrasiri of aiding and abetting the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA)in election propaganda. It pointed out that the Governor who should be impartial in matters like these was adopting a partisan, pro-govt. approach.

The situation took a turn for the worse when the TNA’s chief ministerial candidate Wigneswaran began launching frontal attacks against the former army general. Wigneswaran described the retired Major-General as a “military governor” and demanded that he be removed and a “civilian”be appointed in his stead. Wigneswaran and other TNA leaders also criticised the presence and role of the armed forces in Jaffna. Calls for removal of military governor and reduction of military presence became a familiar refrain on TNA platforms during the campaign.

Elections saw the TNA sweeping the polls and gaining 30 of the 38 seats in the Northern Provincial Council.Wigneswaran himself recorded an impressive 132,000 preferential votes. Given the bitterness evinced against Gen.Chandrasiri during the election campaign it appeared that the Chief Minister and Governor were destined for a period of uneasy cohabitation.

The Chief Minister Elect was constrained to meet the Governor in person and receive the official appointment letter from Chandrasiri.The media described the meeting as cordial and constructive. Photographs showed Wigneswaran shaking hands firmly with Chandrasiri and receiving the letter from his hands. Pictures also showed both conversing amicably while seated comfortably on sofas. It appeared that election related tensions were over and that both sides were settling down for cohabitation.

Wigneswaran then caused a stir by stating that he would not take oaths before the Governor or President.This was echoed by several other newly elected councillors who said they would be sworn in by TNA party leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan.Saner counsel prevailed and Wigneswaran subsequently took his oaths before President Rajapaksa both as chief minister and as a provincial minister. This was seen as a calculated snub to Chandrasiri.Wigneswaran also reiterated in media interviews that his priorities were “the reduction of military presence in the North and the removal of the military official currently serving as the Governor of the Northern Province’’.

Then came the inaugural session of the Northern Provincial Council at Kaithadi in Jaffna. The Chief Minister received the Governor ceremonially and escorted him to his seat. Despite this initial display of goodwill the Chief Minister in what seemed an unnecessarily provocative gesture took on the governor directly in his inaugural address. He reportedly said “The people do not want a military official serving as Governor of Northern Province.They want a senior civil servant”. Apparently the Governor was taken aback when this gauntlet was flung down.

Subsequently, TNA stalwarts made much of this act by Wigneswaran and praised him to the skies for it. A TNA Parliamentarian addressing a Tamil Diaspora audience in a North American city extolled Wigneswaran’s virtues by referring to this incident. He said in Tamil. ‘’We  have a great Chief Minister. I will relate an anecdote to illustrate his calibre. Justice Wigneswaran welcomed  Governor Chandrasiri and escorted him to his seat but later while speaking said to the Governor’s face that a military official serving as Governor was unacceptable and had to be removed’’. The Tamil expatriates lapped it up eagerly and broke into thunderous applause for what was projected as an example of Wigneswaran’s courage.

There are many problems and issues affecting the people of the Northern province requiring urgent attention by the new Provincial administration. Yet the Chief Minister and TNA devoted their energies primarily to the issue of replacing the ‘’military’’ Governor with a civilian.TNA leader R.Sampanthan wrote to President Rajapaksa about it. He also met Presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The TNA also passed a resolution at the Provincial Council calling for the removal of the present Governor.
The dispute worsened with what appeared to be retaliatory measures by Governor Chandrasiri. The former military official seemed determined to demonstrate that he would not be browbeaten by TNA opposition and that as the Executive President’s representative it was the Governor who held the whip hand notwithstanding an elected council or Chief Minister.

Soon the TNA started complaining via the media that the Northern Governor was not cooperating with the Chief Minister and the Council. It was alleged that the Provincial Council staff was adhering to instructions given by the Governor alone and ignoring directives issued by the Chief Minister. The Chief Minister then wanted the chief secretary to the Northern provincial council removed on the basis that she was not heeding orders by the Chief Minister. Incidentally, the chief secretary Ms. R.Vijayalakshmi is the grand daughter of former Speaker of the State council and respected elder statesman Sir Waithilingam Duraiswamy.TNA also accuses the Govt. of not sending copies of relevant documents pertaining to the Northern Council to the Chief Minister. It also says the CM is kept in the dark about many developments relating to the Council.

There were other allegations against the Governor too. One was that the Chief Minister’s secretary had been transferred out and another appointed without Wigneswaran being consulted. The Provincial fisheries minister found three secretaries being appointed and removed within short notice. It was emphatically alleged that the Governor was acting unilaterally and appointing, removing and transferring personnel without the concurrence or advice of the Chief Minister as required constitutionally. A case in point being the recent appointment of Pujitha Jayasundara as Northern Provincial Police DIG. The TNA does not object to DIG Jayasundara on a personal basis but protests at the procedure adopted where the Chief Minister’s advice and concurrence were neither sought nor obtained.
The TNA also charges that no action has been taken so far by the Government to either remove the Governor or chief secretary despite repeated entreaties. Letters sent to President Rajapaksa many weeks ago have not received responses. Personal meetings with Presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga also have not yielded any positive results so far  the TNA  states.The media also reported that Wigneswaran had received a letter from the Presidential secretariat to the effect that the chief minister should help implement on going  projects related to ‘’Mahinda chinthanaya’’ in the North.This too was criticised by the TNA.
Ill-will between the chief minister and the powers that be  kept on continuing.District coordinating committees have been set up to oversee planning, organising, direction, staffing, reviewing, monitoring and budgeting functions of development administration in the  districts and Province. The new chief minister was nominated as co-chair of all five Northern district committees. He was however to co-chair the Jaffna and Kilinochchi district committees with cabinet minister and Jaffna district MP Douglas Devananda.In the Wanni districts of Mannar, Mullaitheevu and Vavuniya he was to co-chair the committees with cabinet minister and Wanni MP Rishad Badhiutheen. Wigneswaran refused to be co-chair.

Matters became further complicated when malcontents and dissidents within TNA ranks also sought to exploit the situation and score points over the chief minister. M.K.Sivajilingam of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and K.Sarveswaran of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) submitted a resolution at the Northern provincial council seeking removal of the Governor. Both TELO and EPRLF are constituent parties of the TNA configuration. Initially the resolution stipulated that the replacement should be a Tamil civilian from the Northern Province well-versed in human rights issues. This was objected to by Sinhala and Muslim councillors elected on the UPFA betel symbol. Thereupon the resolution was amended and passed with the references to a ‘’Tamil from the Northern Province’’ being removed.

Then came the event where the Northern provincial council was required to present the Annual Financial Statement and Appropriation statute for the year 2014.This was presented, debated and approved unanimously by the council.CV Wigneswaran in his capacity as chief minister and finance minister delivered a lengthy address where he outlined problems faced by the council.

During the course of his speech the retired Supreme Court judge was harshly critical of the Provincial council system and the role of the Governor. Here are some relevant excerpts.

“The Provincial Council System, it must be noted has been identified by all as a means to devolve power to the periphery. But the Thirteenth Amendment in fact has strengthened the hands of the Executive President and widened his powers.

The Governor is the representative of the Executive President. No appointment is possible within the Province without the approval of the Governor. From the Secretary to the Minor Employees, it is the Governor who holds the whip hand. Even though the law says the appointment of the Chief Secretary shall be by the President with the concurrence of the Chief Minister, the present Chief Secretary was not appointed in conformity with the Law. She did not consider it necessary to resign when the new Administration came in. This applies to other Secretaries too.

In our Northern Provincial Council it is the former Jaffna Commander of the Armed Forces who has now taken on the mantle of the Governor. He naturally goes on unhindered as if the Army is administering the Northern Province. The officials of the Provincial Council therefore fear to cooperate with the Peoples’ Representatives. They shudder to think of the consequences of displeasing a former Northern Commander of the Army and the present Governor.
Added to this we have not been able to present a single Statute to the Council as the Administration lacks the required high level human resources and institutional arrangements. It is by effluxion of time that our present cadre of senior officers got to where they are now. May be political patronage in the case of some cannot be over ruled. But we are unable to expect a high level of efficiency and proficiency in certain quarters. There is no system by which we can induct high level human resources.
Twenty odd years of Military Rule has trained our officers to act parrot like and to do things as they are told to do only. But I do not criticize them. I feel aggrieved. There is a gap in the capacity for governance and development inside and outside the Administration”.

At this stage someone might pose the question as to why we decided to contest the Provincial Council Election if the Thirteenth Amendment lacked teeth and was insufficient. There were two important reasons. Only if we stood for election could we bring out to the notice of the world the feelings and aspirations of the people of the Northern Province and show that the Government was portraying a false picture. In fact at the last Election the people were able to loudly proclaim their disapproval to the Government in power and the presence of the military in the Northern Province.

Secondly without power, without authority in our hands to proclaim insufficiencies in the Thirteenth Amendment at Colloquiums and Seminars made no impact on the Government nor the International Community. But we felt it was better to get ourselves established in authority, experience the short comings in reality and thereafter tell the world what was happening. That exactly is what we are doing now. Rather than to merely say that Thirteenth Amendment is insufficient we feel exposing its shortcomings while established in office would be beneficial for future changes.

It should be understood by all clearly that the present Provincial Council cannot be a vehicle of change for the betterment of the Tamil speaking people of the North and East. It could be converted into a transitional Administration. For 65 years since Independence, the problem of the Tamil speaking people of this country has not been solved. Consecutive Governments of which ever hue were only interested in foisting more and more hardships and calumny on our people.
Thereby turning to the International community appears to be the only alternative open to us”

The tone and content of chief minister Wigneswaran’s speech gives rise to a number of troubling questions. Chief among these is the future of the Northern Council. These issues and the future course of the Governor-Chief Minister dispute would be discussed in detail in a forthcoming article.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at
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