Sri Lanka’s 20th Amendment – template for dictatorship

Thanavel, Tamil solidarity

As the process for enacting the 20th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution is progressing, it would be useful to explain what is the change that is proposed and why we must oppose it. Like previous amendments; of 1972, 1978 and the 18th amendment, a government with a majority are changing to the constitution in an attempt to retain power but unlike previous attempts, the 20th amendment would finally put an end to democracy, which has been withering away since independence.

The 20th amendment effects can be broadly categorised into three features; the independence of the judiciary, the expansion of presidential power at the expense of parliament and weakening of independent commissions which provide oversight.

The independence of the judiciary is currently guaranteed by the 19th Amendment, where the constitutional council has the authority to appoint judges. The constitutional council is composed of members of parliament from both the governing alliance, the opposition, minor parties and 3 independent experts. This constitutional council will be replaced by a parliamentary council which is composed of only members of parliament and under the direction of the president. The president has the power to appoint senior judges without the input from the parliamentary council, which effectively makes the judiciary subservient to the president. This subservience of the judiciary to the president and the reinstatement of presidential immunity by the 20th Amendment places the president above the law.

The 20th Amendment reverses the limitations placed on the presidency by the 19th Amendment and expands presidential power. President will have the power to unilaterally remove the prime minister, appoint and remove ministers without prime ministerial involvement. With these extra powers the cabinet would be run at the pleasure of the president, as dissenting minsters can easily be replaced with loyalists. Without a strong cabinet the country is effectively ruled at direction of a single individual, the president. Single individual regardless who it is, is not capable of manging the complexity of running a country. The benefit of checks on power is that policy can be opposed, especially if there is a negative impact to the populous, without resorting the armed conflict. Closing off this avenue of expression would lead little option but revolution by the oppressed who only have a small voice in the current system.

Independent commissions are vital to hold the government to account. Without strong independent commissions, Sri Lanka would become the world of George Orwell’s 1984, where the population has no choice to blindly accept government statements regardless of their factual accuracy as there is no alternative source of information. The 20th Amendment weakens a range of commissions; bribery commission, Public service commission, Judicial service commission, Election commission and abolishing the National procurement condition reduces the transparency available for citizens to monitor the government and prevent corruption.

We should oppose this power grab which would result in the effective end to democracy in Sri Lanka. Power held by a single individual and his family will not improve Sri Lanka’s future. Rather it will only strengthen only Rajapaksa dynasty. Major infrastructure projects for the glorification of the Rajapaske family would become more common and mistakes such as Matala international airport would siphon public funds from those in need.

Even though we oppose the enaction of the 20th Amendment, we also are strongly opposed to the current system that does not serve the oppressed communities of Sri Lanka; rural Sinhala workers, Tamils, Muslims and Veda communities. Though there are some parliamentary opposition exist against this amendment, none have given clear idea of what will be the alternative. Right wing UNP just wants to come back to power. Then they will have their own version of dictatorial changes. None of the oppressed sections will not have a say in how their future is decided. People should be allowed to decide how they are governed. Hence, we call for an establishment of constitution assembly through democratic election – which will elect representatives from all constituent parts of the society.

Demand for right to self-determination of the Tamils flows from the rotten conditions and undemocratic measures that they are subjected to. It is one of the fundamental democratic rights of the Tamils and should be granted. Instead new changes are aimed to further restrict the political voice of Tamils, minority sections and anyone who are opposing the Rajapaksa regime. We must wage a decisive battle against these draconian changes. All progressive forces and those wish to oppose Sri Lanka descending into dictatorial period must come forward to unite against current regime. Tamil Solidarity stands firmly for the rights of Tamils including the national rights. These demands are not in any way against the other oppressed sections in Sri Lanka. Instead the fight for Tamil’s rights is inter linked with the fight of all oppressed section to create better conditions for all. Rajapaksa family government is an enemy of all oppressed sections. We must come forward to unite our struggle against it with the view of building our own organisational and political strength to create a better future for all of us. Tamil solidarity will be keen to take part in any discussion and initiatives to bring this united struggle forward.
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