Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) National List nominee, Attorney-at-law Shiral Lakthilaka, teamed up with the editor of Anidda, Attorney-at-law K.W. Janaranjana, on August 9, 2020, on Derana ‘Aluth Parlimenthuwa’ to target the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution. They took on former President of the Sri Lanka Bar Association (BASL) U.R. de Silva PC, and Attorney-law-Kanishka Vitharana.
The writer participated in the live two-hour discussion, anchored by Attorney-at-law Sanka Amarjith. The programme dealt with 19th and 20th Amendments.
During the debate, both De Silva and Vitharana acknowledged the need to amend the proposed draft 20th Amendment. The former President of the BASL revealed that Justice Minister Ali Sabry PC accepted the need to retain Article 53 of the Constitution which required Ministers to take an oath against separatism. De Silva said so in response to the writer seeking an explanation why such a dangerous lapse was allowed to slip through by the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna).
The writer pointed out even the treacherous yahapalana administration, that betrayed the war-winning armed forces, in Geneva, in Oct 2015, didn’t let through something so obvious.
The National Joint Committee (NJC), in a statement issued on Sept. 6, 2020, raised the issue in respect of Article 53 of the Constitution. The NJC said: “We are astonished at the decision of the Government to amend Article 53 of the Constitution which mandatorily requires Ministers to take the oath against supporting and promoting a separate state, (i.e. the 7th Schedule introduced by the sixth amendment) and by restricting it to the original oath prescribed in the fourth schedule. Article 61D of the proposed amendment; too, require the public officers to take the fourth schedule oath that existed in the original Constitution and not the oath prescribed in the seventh schedule introduced by the sixth amendment.”
The NJC also emphasized the urgent need to repeal the 13th and 16th Amendments. The Sept. 6 statement was the second issued by the NJC, on the same matter.
The writer, on Sept, 10, 2020, raised serious concerns expressed by the National Joint Committee (NJC), Federation of National Organizations (FNO) and Manohara de Silva, PC, at the post-cabinet media briefing, at the Government Information Department. The media received an assurance from Co-cabinet spokesperson and Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) Leader Udaya Gammanpila that the government would definitely look into concerns expressed by nationalist groups and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Myanmar Prof. Nanlin de Silva.
Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella and other co-cabinet spokesperson Dr. Ramesh Pathirana did not comment on the matter. Prof. De Silva strongly criticized some sections of the 20th Amendment. The academic, in a statement sent to The Island, alleged that the media didn’t provide sufficient coverage to his concerns.
SJB et al exploit 20 A
The continuing controversy over the 20th Amendment drastically changed the political situation. Unexpected opposition from even those who campaigned against the yahapalana administration, throughout its rule, really unsettled the SLPP. The badly depleted Opposition received a tremendous boost, by way of the 20th Amendment, replete with obvious flaws. The main Opposition SJB swiftly exploited the situation to its advantage.
Lakthilaka, who had been an advisor to the then President Maithripala Sirisena, before switching allegiance to the SJB, expertly demolished the draft 20th Amendment. The prominent civil society activist, however, repeatedly emphasized that he solidly stood for the presidential system of governance though he strongly disliked, what he termed, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s move to secure dictatorial powers for himself, at the expense of the Parliament.
The writer asked those who backed the 19th Amendment whether the public demanded an elected President, deprived of the right to hold a defence portfolio? Having pointed out that the draft 20th Amendment accommodated some key features in the 19th Amendment, such as five-year terms for both the President and Parliament and two-term limit for a person to hold presidency, the writer reiterated concerns expressed by those who backed Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP at the Nov. 2019 presidential and Aug 2020 general election, respectively.
Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera, on behalf of the FNO, on Sept. 09, 2020, requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to review the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Dr. Amarasekera requested the President not to abolish Article 53 of the Constitution and raised matters related to the formulation of a new Constitution.
The FNO asked the SLPP government to establish a mechanism to (1) accept public proposals as regards a new Constitution (11) suspend Provincial Council polls until the enactment of the new Constitution and (111) far reaching alterations to the proposed 20th Amendment approved by the Attorney General before the Government Printer issued the relevant gazette.
The FNO also called for rectification of technical and wrongful policy decisions, in addition to members of the cabinet given an opportunity to provide comments, in writing. Having rectified mistakes, the government would have to amend the draft 20th Amendment and re-gazette it, Dr. Amarasekera told the writer.
The civil society group emphasized that it would be a mistake to bring in amendments at the committee stage as it could create a situation, similar to that of the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The FNO also requested the following provisions altered: (1) do away with the proposal in the 20th Amendment to reduce the number of days from 14 to seven available for the public in respect of enactment of urgent bills (ii) abolish provisions relating to the enactment of urgent bills as successive administrations abused them (iii) rescind the proposal to amend Article 53 of the Constitution which required members of Parliament to take an oath against supporting and promoting a separate State (iv) remove proposal to allow dual citizens to enter Parliament. In addition, it urged the government to extend that law to cover the Governor of the Central Bank, Attorney General, IGP, Auditor General, Service Commanders, Judges of the Supreme Court, and Secretaries to Ministries and (v) abolish the move to do away with the National Audit Commission and also to ensure that no state institution is exempted from audits.
The FNO appreciated the SLPP decision to retain the two-term limits on the presidency as well as the five-year terms for both the President and the Parliament.
BASL, PM steps in
Interventions made by nationalist organizations didn’t receive sufficient coverage in both the print and electronic media. Some sections of the media conveniently refrained from reporting their concerns.
Amidst growing opposition to the much touted 20A, because of its glaring flaws, the BASL, on Sept. 11, 2020, appointed a special 14-member committee, headed by Nihal Jayamanne PC, to inquire into the 20th Amendment. Secretary to the BASL, Rajeev Amarasuriya, in a statement, explained that the Jayamanne committee would also address law’s delays and other related matters undermining the administration of justice. The committee also comprises Ikram Mohamed PC, M.M. Zuhair PC, L.M.K. Arulanandam PC, Prasantha Lal de Alwis PC, Nihal Jayawardene PC, Nalin Ladduwahetty PC, Maithri Wickramasinghe PC, Uditha Egalahewa PC, Anura Medagoda PC, Mohan Weerakoon PC, S.T. Jayanaga PC, Priyal Wijayaweera PC, and Maurapada Gunawansha,PC. Ravi Algama and Shantha Jayawardena are its convenors.
Among the group, M.M. Zuhair is the only former Member of Parliament. Zuhair represented the People’s Alliance (PA) as a National List member, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. It wouldn’t be too hard to reach a consensus on required amendments to the proposed 20th Amendment.
The current political leadership, the Opposition and the BASL, should take into consideration concerns raised not only by nationalist groups but those who backed the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, in early 2015. Having made the UNP project to dilute powers of the President, by way of the 19th Amendment, a reality, SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena, as a candidate at the 2020 general election, campaigned for the abolition of the same.
Let us hope that the Executive Committee of the BASL and the Bar Council act on recommendations made by Jayamanne’s committee. The BASL announcement made it clear that the 20th Amendment is a flawed document, though the Attorney General cleared it, in terms of the Constitution. The AG asserted that the 20th Amendment could be adopted by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, sans a referendum.
Regardless of that, in addition to the Opposition, and some sections of the civil society, the government, too, realized the rapidly developing crisis, caused by the draft 20th Amendment.
Despite having secured a historic near two-third majority last month, the SLPP self-inflicted a major injury by way of the draft 20th Amendment. Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to name a nine-member group, consisting of SLPP lawmakers,to examine the draft 20th Amendment, is also evidence that in its current form the draft is a flawed document. The Premier’s Office made the announcement on Sept. 12.
The Premier’s team comprises SLPP Chairman and Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, Justice Minister Ali Sabry PC, PHU leader and Energy Minister and Attorney-at-law Udaya Gammanpila, Labour Minister and Attorney-at-law Nimal Siripala de Silva, Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leader and Industry and Commerce Minister Wimal Weerawansa, Education Reforms, Promotion of Open Universities and Distance Learning State Minister and Attorney-at-law Susil Premajayantha, State Media Minister Sathasivam Viyalendran, MP Dilan Perera and MP and Attorney-at-law Premanath C. Dolawatte.
Nimal Siripala de Silva represents the SLFP whereas the appointment of Viyalendran, a former Tamil National Alliance lawmaker, is significant.
Premier Rajapaksa called for the report by Sept 15, according to his office. However, Minister Weerawansa, on Saturday (12), said that examination led to the SLPP paying a huge price for not being tactful in handling the 20th Amendment. However, the SLPP’s readiness to address the concerns, raised by various parties, should be appreciated and recognized as a positive development to openly accept shortcomings, when pointed out.
Prez Gotabaya’s response
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on Friday (11), assured Manohara de Silva, PC, and SLPP National List member Gevindu Cumaratunga, of his readiness to submit a fresh draft by rescinding the controversial current draft of the 20th Amendment. The President’s Counsel, and the MP, met the President, on behalf of the National Joint Committee (NJC) and civil society group Yuthukama. The assurance was given in the wake of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, assuring SLPP coalition partners a new draft would be presented in Parliament. The Premier’s move was revealed by Minister Wimal Weerawansa, at a public rally he addressed, at Avissawella, an on Saturday (12).
The government responded quite wisely by deciding to withdraw the draft 20th Amendment, amidst the Opposition, and those opposed to the SLPP, exploiting the situation to their advantage. The SLPP struggled to cope up with the Opposition attacks as well as criticism directed by several civil society groups.
Polls monitoring group PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections) warned the SLPP that though the coalition secured a nearly two-thirds majority, at the recently concluded general election, it was not empowered to introduce whatever it desired. In a strongly-worded statement, issued on Sept. 13, PAFFREL’s Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi pointed out that the electorate twice endorsed the SLPP’s move to abolish the 19th Amendment. However, the SLPP shouldn’t abuse the people’s mandate to introduce an Amendment merely to suit its agenda, regardless of hostile public sentiment. While recollecting how only UPFA lawmaker Rear Admiral (retd.) Sarath Weerasekera voted against the 19th Amendment in 2015, Hettiarachchi urged members of the 9th Parliament not to do anything they would regret later.
Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), too, expressed serious concern over the proposed 20th Amendment when its Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere recently explained how the proposed law could undermine the monitoring of public spending, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), curtailment of the Election Commission’s powers and operation of RTI (Right to Information) Law.
Obeysekere didn’t mince his words, at a recent media conference at the TISL office, where he declared: “The proposed 20th Amendment also removes the Audit Service Commission and National Procurement Commission, key institutions intended to act as a check on public spending. By removing any mention of the Audit Service Commission, the proposed 20th Amendment effectively renders the National Audit Act obsolete. The National Audit Act provides the Audit Service Commission with considerable powers, including the ability to impose surcharges on public officials, who cause losses to the state. The removal of the Audit Service Commission will invalidate this essential power.
Despite the mandate of the National Procurement Commission not being fully operationalized, the existence of the institution is nonetheless important to ensuring a transparent and accountable procurement structure. Public procurement is a high-risk area for corruption. Whilst recognizing the importance of the President’s own commitment as clearly enunciated in his manifesto to eradicate corruption and promote efficiency, we call on the government to recognize the importance of the institution of an independent procurement commission to realize this commitment.”
The TISL refrained from commenting on other contentious matters, such as the proposed setting up of a five-member Parliamentary Council in place of the highly flawed 10-member Constitutional Council, abolishing limit on the number of cabinet and non-cabinet ministers, doing away with the prohibition on dual citizens to contest parliamentary election, denying the citizens right to file fundamental rights cases against the President, naming the Attorney General as the respondent. Many an eyebrow was raised when the age limit of those seeking the Office of the President were lowered to 30. Some of the provisions in the 20th Amendment disappointed the public. In fact, the proposed 20th Amendment diminished the importance of restoring the President’s right to hold a defence portfolio by resorting to a despicable political agenda. The SLPP could have easily avoided the embarrassing situation if the proposed amendment was at least discussed among members of the cabinet, as well as the parliamentary group. There hadn’t been a genuine effort, within the SLPP, to reach a consensus on the vital amendment. In fact, the SLPP could have easily discussed the matter informally with the parliamentary opposition. The consensus with the Opposition could have been reached, especially against the backdrop of the SLPP retaining three key provisions in the 19th Amendment, namely restriction of the number of presidential terms to two and five-year tenure for the term of the President and the Parliament.
The crisis over the 20th Amendment should be examined also taking into consideration the SLPP MP-elect for the Ratnapura District, Premalal Jayasekera, taking oaths as a Parliamentarian, on Sept, 8, 2020, subsequent to the Court of Appeal taking a stand, contrary to that of the Attorney General. State Minister Sanath Nishantha’s brother Jagath Samantha caused media furore by destroying a part of Ramsar wetlands at Anavilundawa. Former Chairman of Arachchikattuwa Pradeshiya Sabha Jagath Samantha is alleged to have got part of the sanctuary bulldozed to establish a shrimp cultivation centre. This was revealed by a ministerial committee that inquired into destruction of the wetlands. Wildlife and Forest Conservation Minister C.B. Ratnayake, and some of his officials, recently struggled before the media. State Minister Nishantha, having admitted to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when inquired from him about the Anavilundawa incident, however denied responsibility. The State Minister refrained from mentioning his brother being wanted by the police in that regard. The destruction of a part of a historical building, allegedly at the behest of the Kurunegala Mayor Thushara Sampath, also did immense damage to the SLPP, regardless of action taken by the government to save face.
The SLPP needs to review its strategies or prepare to face the consequences. What is really praiseworthy about the line up behind this government are the brave faces among its frontline partners who are willing to call a spade a spade to correct things in the bud as is proved by their willingness to speak out to correct those at the helm for the good of the nation, where necessary, as in the case of 20A, or rape of the environment.
By Shamindra Ferdinando