Isn’t there a better COPE chief in SLPP?

One of the three watchdog committees of  Sri Lanka’s Parliament, the Committee On Public Enterprises (COPE), has been hit by a wave of resignations since Monday (18), following the appointment of Rohitha Abeygunawardena as its chairman. 
By yesterday noon, 11 members – almost all  from the Opposition and dissidents of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – had tendered their resignation. 
Eran Wickramaratne, S.M.Marikkar and Hesha Withanage from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Anura Kumara Dissanayake from the National People’s Power (NPP), Shanakiyan Rasamanickam of the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi and Dayasiri Jayasekara, Gamini Waleboda, Professor Charitha Herath, Duminda Dissanayake, Wasantha Yapa Bandara and Dilan Perera from the SLPP dissident group were the MPs who so resigned.

Some of the lawmakers have clearly stated that they have taken this step to protest against the appointment of Kalutara District SLPP Parliamentarian who they have said have been accused of various misdeeds. 
Wickramaratne said in his resignation letter that no credible action had been taken on those who were found to have been complicit in corrupt practices or mismanagement despite the COPE reports submitted to the parliament time and time again.
He also took issue with the appointment of Rohitha Abeygunawardena as the COPE chairman, despite the previous government adopting a practice of appointing an Opposition member to chair the committee. In addition, without mentioning Abeygunawardena’s name, he stated that it is dissatisfying that members who have been appointed to COPE have allegations against their conduct, particularly on financial transactions and that this also contributes to the citizen’s loss of confidence in Parliament. 


However, Dayasiri Jayasekara who took to X- the formally Twitter - had stated that he cannot work with a chairman against whom several allegations have been raised. “It is unfortunate that the SLPP has failed to learn from the ‘Aragalaya’ and respect the people,” he said. He was of the opinion that to instruct State Officials to avoid corruption, the committees in Parliament must also be free of corruption. 
The JVP/NPP Leader Dissanayake in addition to the allegations against Abeygunawardena referred to the level of reputation the latter has earned from the public as reason of his resignation from the Committee. 

Since the 31-member COPE is being appointed reflecting the party composition in the House, the ruling party has always had an edge over other parties to appoint the chairman of the committee. Hence, it is obvious that the current chairman has been appointed according to the wishes of the leaders of the SLPP. 
Since the Committee members who have tendered their resignations have cited allegations against Abeygunawardena, the party might argue that those allegations have not been proved in a court of law. Previously, Premalal Jayasekara and Prasanna Ranatunga – two SLPP MPs who had been convicted of murder and extortion - were allowed by the party and the Parliament to sit and vote in the House, on the ground that they have appealed against their convictions. 
Despite a mass resignation of members, the COPE on Wednesday met for the first time under the chairmanship of Abeygunawardena. Although it was a legally valid meeting as there was no quorum issue created by the mass resignation by the Opposition MPs, problems of public recognition and legitimacy of the Committee might arise in the future, if the Opposition MPs continued to keep away from the Committee and if the ruling party continued to ignore the Opposition’s absence.  
The JVP leader told Parliament on Wednesday while announcing his resignation from the COPE that the government leaders through the appointment of Abeygunawardena had thrown a challenge to the Opposition who earlier wanted the resignation of the Committee’s immediate past Chairman Professor Ranjith Bandara over an incident during one of its sittings. 

Inappropriate hand signal

Professor Bandara was accused in November last year by the Opposition MPs for giving what they said was an inappropriate hand signal to a member of the Committee while the latter was posing a question to an official of the Sri Lanka Cricket which was under investigation on that day. Dissanayake said the government by implication has told the Opposition “If you don’t want professor Bandara (who was a senior lecturer in economics and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Colombo), we will appoint Rohith Abeygunawardena.”
However, given the responses by the SLPP parliamentarians in the recent past to the actions by the government that led to the current bankruptcy of the country, one might be prompted to question what the difference between Abeygunawardena and the so-called intellectual MPs of the SLPP is. They all endorsed and publicly defended those actions, despite the Supreme Court finding a few leaders of the party guilty of the economic calamity of the country. On the same basis, one could question the rationale behind opposing Abeygunawardena and accepting the so-called intellectuals of the SLPP being appointed as the Chairman of the COPE. 
Yes, in a way, one can find a difference between Abeygunawardena and the others – one sometimes cannot get down to the nitty-gritty of an economic or financial issue or explain how they work while the others can. It is like comparing Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe dealing with the International Monetary Fund (IMF); one can understand and explain what is going on in jargon while the other cannot. Nevertheless, since March 2022, both have been executing what was planned by the IMF, using the same officials and the international financial and legal advisors appointed by Rajapaksa during the last few weeks of his tenure.  

Current economic crisis

Four main commissions and omissions by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government contributed to the current economic crisis and the bankruptcy of the country. They were the huge tax cut in 2019, the ban on chemical fertilizer imports, artificially fixing the dollar value at Rs. 203 and the delay in seeking IMF assistance. These four were cited in the Supreme Court ruling in the recent bankruptcy case as well.
What was the response of Abeygunawardena and the others of the SLPP to the huge tax cut by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 which deprived the Treasury of over Rs. 650 billion annually? All in the SLPP endorsed and praised it. Dr. Bandual Gunawardena who is said to be an economist and the Cabinet Spokesman of those days told the media that the government expected to earn more tax income by targeting a large group of people with low taxes and expressed hope that all sectors of Sri Lanka will rise again with these tax cuts.  Abeygunawardena too would have told the same had he been the Cabinet Spokesman then. 
It was surprising to note even the SLPP MPs elected from the rural farming districts those who owned farmlands and the so-called economists in the SLPP did not dare to point out to the government that turning agriculture into organic farming overnight is impossible. All did what Abeygunawardena did. 
Similarly, no so-called intellectuals of the SLPP even whispered against fixing the dollar value artificially which cost the Central Bank over a staggering $5.5 billion, as revealed by the members of the Monetary Board at a COPE meeting last year. Nor did they want to subscribe to the suggestions by some Opposition politicians and independent experts to seek an IMF bailout package before March 2022 when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa finally decided to approach the international lender. 
This is not an approval of the appointment of Abeygunawardena as the Chairman of the COPE. The writer’s understanding is that he is not a good fit for the job. The point here is that the so-called intellectuals are no different so long as they have the sense of self-respect to act according to their conscience in these committees.  On the other hand, these committees, as Eran Wickramaratne pointed out, have not so far produced results as no follow-up actions are being taken against those who robbed public funds or to recover plundered assets, after the deliberations of these committees.  


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