By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development
When I raise this question, one may wonder why I raise this question 64 years after Sinhala was made the Official Language of Sri Lanka by the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956. The people in the country, including the people in the North and the East, the politicians and the political parties in the South may believe that Sinhala is the Official Language of Sri Lanka applicable throughout the country. But the Tamil political parties in the North and the East and the Muslim political parties know that it is not the case. It is they who got this done extending support to Ranasinghe Premadasa to win the 1988 Presidential Election against Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
I was prompted to do this study on the operation of the Official Language Policy in Sri Lanka on my own experience that I gathered from my communications with some public officials in the Eastern Province. In December 2019, I sent a lengthy letter in Sinhala to the Commissioner General of Lands with copies to the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa complaining about a grave injustice done to a Tamil national in the East by the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa by depriving him of his right to his land contrary to law. On receipt of my complaint the Commissioner General of Lands convened a meeting of all concerned parties including the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretary of Batticaloa in January 2020 and directed them to grant relief to the affected person. Ignoring the direction of the Commissioner General of Lands, the Divisional Secretary of Manmunai North and the District Secretariat of Batticaloa sent me their responses in Tamil. Prior to that also they had responded in Tamil some letters that I sent to them in English on the same issue. On the other hand, I found that they had responded in Sinhala to all the letters that they had received from the Commissioner General of Lands.
In 2017, I visited the Uhana Divisional Secretariat in the Ampara District to conduct an educational programme on law and human rights for the staff of the Divisional Secretariat and the general public in the area. There a participant, an soldier, raised a grievance that he had faced. On an inquiry about a state land that belongs to him from the land office at Central Camp he had got a letter in Tamil. As he did not know Tamil he had to go in search of a translator and pay him Rs. 100 and get the letter translated into Sinhala. That is the plight most of the Sinhala people in the North and thee East are facing today.
According to the Constitution, today, Sinhala is not the Official Language of Sri Lanka, it is only an Official Language, one of the two National Languages of Sri Lanka, the language of administration, used for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the seven Provinces where the majority of population speak and use Sinhala for transacting business in and with public institutions. Sinhala is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.
As all the public institutions in the seven Provinces – Parliament, Provincial Councils, Local Authorities, Government Departments and Courts use Sinhala to conduct business and to maintain records, and the people can receive communications from and to communicate and transact business with public officials in these areas in the country they assume that Sinhala is the official language of the whole country.
Sinhala remained the Official Language of Sri Lanka continuously for 32 years from 1956 to December 17, 1988. Dr. Colvin R de Silva, who is said to have opposed the Official Languages Act in 1956, saying that one language would result in two countries and two languages in one country, did not think it necessary to change the official language policy of the country when he introduced the 1972 Constitution.
The provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution are as follows:
S. 7. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official
Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956.
S. 8 (1). The use of the Tamil language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language
(Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
The language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided by the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
When President J. R. Jayewardene introduced the 1978 Constitution creating Executive Presidency, he did not change the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution. At the time he introduced the 1978 Constitution, he adopted the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1972 Constitution.
The following are the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.
Art. 18. The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
Art. 19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.
Art. 22 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka provided that the Tamil Language shall also be used as the language of administration for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
This is nothing but giving effect to the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, No. 28 of 1958.
By Article 22 (1) JR ensured that Sinhala shall remain the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka including the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Art. 24 (1) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka and accordingly their records and proceedings shall be in the Official Language; Provided that the language of the courts exercising original jurisdiction in the Northern and Eastern Provinces shall also be Tamil and their records and proceedings shall be in Tamil.
Through 1978 Constitution, JR constitutionally guaranteed that: (a) Sinhala shall be the Official Language of Sri Lanka; (b) The Official Language shall be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka; (c) The Official Language shall be the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka.
At the time JR adopted the 1978 Constitution Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi or the Federal Party was the biggest Opposition political party in Parliament with 17 MPs and A. Amirthalingam was the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
Although Leftist political parties and the SLFP were critical of the Executive Presidency and opposed it, there was not much opposition or public protests on the part of the Tamil political parties against the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution. When the Official Languages Act was introduced in Parliament in 1956, there were huge protests and civil disobedience campaigns organized by Tamil political parties against it. Probably they may have realized by then that the language rights of the Tamil speaking people have been adequately provided for by the provisions relating to the Official Language in the 1978 Constitution.
Even at the time J. R. Jayewardene was compelled to bring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution setting up Provincial Councils in 1987, he did not amend the provisions relating to the Official Language in Articles 18, 22 (1) and 24 (1) in the 1978 Constitution, although he added two new sub-Articles to facilitate the functioning of the newly set up Provincial Councils in the North and the East.
Art. 18 (2). Tamil shall also be an official language.
18 (3). English shall be the link language.
Tamil was also made an official language so that the Provincial Councils proposed to be set up in the North and the East could conduct their official functions in Tamil without any hindrance. It did not relegate the status given to Sinhala as the Official Language of the whole country.
But all these were changed by Ranasinghe Premadasa to get the support of Tamil and Muslim political parties in the North and the East to win the Presidential Election held in December 1988.
The 1988 Presidential Election was held on December 19, 1988. Two days prior to the Presidential Election, on December 17, 1988 Premadasa got two Amendments – the 15th and the 16th Amendments to the Constitution – enacted. With the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, President Premadasa brought about far-reaching changes in the hitherto existing Official Language policy in the country as shown below:
After the 16th Amendment to the Constitution:
Although nominally Sinhala is The Official Language, in effect it is no longer The Official Language of the country, it is only an Official Language in the sense that it is the language of administration in seven provinces;
It is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.
One can say that constitutionally Tamil is the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka as there is no limitation imposed on its application as in the case of Sinhala.
The Proviso to Article 22 (1) could result in the creation of minority linguistic ethnic units at the Divisional Secretariat level using languages different from the language of administration in the province as the language of administration for such area.
Even Arabic may be used as the language of administration for some of such areas like Kattankudy/Saindamaruthu. Already there have been disputes between the Tamil and Muslim communities in Kalmunai each community demanding a separate Divisional Secretariats for themselves.
The 16th Amendment:
a. disabled the Official Languages Act, No. 33 of 1956 and made it ineffective;
b. removed Sinhala from the pedestal that it had occupied all this time as the Official Language of Sri Lanka;
c. relegated Sinhala from being the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka to the language of administration in the seven Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;
d. raised Tamil from being the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka without any restrictions imposed on it as in the case of Sinhala;
e. replaced the use of national languages with English, thereby strengthening the position of communalist politicians to continue their exploitation of poverty and ignorance of their people enabling them to obtain documents from and conduct communications with all public institutions throughout the country in English;
f. instead of promoting national harmony through facilitating communications among public institutions in different areas in the country in national languages, promoted division among people by promoting English as the means of communication among provincial councils and local authorities using different languages as the language of administration.
g. relegated Sinhala from being the language of courts throughout Sri Lanka with their records and proceedings maintained in Sinhala to the language of courts in the 7 Provinces of Sri Lanka other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces;
h. in relation to laws and subordinate legislation enacted by Parliament, removed the requirement that Sinhala text shall prevail in the event of any inconsistency between Sinhala and Tamil or English texts;
i. removed the requirement of persons seeking admission to the Public Service, Judicial Service, Provincial Public Service, Local Government Service or any public institution being examined through the medium of either of the National Languages – Sinhala or Tamil;
Now an applicant has the choice of deciding the language he is to be examined. It may be English or even Arabic.
In fact, this has been brought for the purpose of opening the public service to those students of International Schools who receive their education in English medium and who do not know either Sinhala or Tamil.
j. removed the requirement of persons joining the Public Service acquiring a sufficient knowledge of the official language within a reasonable time after admission to such service;
Now, there is no requirement for any public servant in the North and the East to acquire any knowledge of the Sinhala language; he has only to acquire knowledge of the language as is reasonably necessary for the discharge of his duties – that is Tamil.
k. Removed the requirement of publishing all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by any public institution, Provincial Council or a local authority in both National Languages;
l. Required all public institutions other than Provincial Councils or local authorities to publish all such documents in Sinhala and Tamil together with a translation thereof in English;
m. Required the Provincial Councils and local authorities to publish all Orders, Proclamations, rules, by-laws, regulations and notifications made or issued under any written law by them and all other official documents including circulars and forms issued or used by such body or local authority, in the language of administration in the areas in which they function, together with a with a translation thereof in English.
This has resulted in the denial of the rights of tens of thousands of Sinhala speaking people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka from conducting communications with Provincial administrations and local authorities in their national language and placing them in great difficulty, compelling them to transact their communications with public institutions in Tamil, a language they are not conversant with.
The availability of English translation will not help the ordinary people, whether Tamil or Sinhala speaking. It has been done at the request of and for the benefit of the leaders of Tamil and Muslim political parties who continue to hoodwink the masses of the helpless Tamil speaking people with their false slogans of winning the rights of Tamil speaking people, while they themselves enjoy all the privileges conducting all their transactions in English.
Sri Lanka’s external relations amidst power rivalries
By Neville Ladduwahetty
“Relationship Not Normal, Can’t Be…”: S Jaishankar On India-China Ties
As reported by a NDTV Staff Writer (13 Aug, 2022}, “External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Friday said that India-China relations cannot be normal unless border situation is and added that if China disturbs the peace and tranquility in border areas, it will impact the relations further”. In view of the fact that the relations between India and China are dependent on the “peace and tranquility” in the border areas means that Sri Lanka’s relations with either at any time has to be complex; a fact that is bound to affect the pursuit of Sri Lanka’s own self-interests.
The latest manifestation of this rivalry relates to the convolutions undergone by Sri Lanka with regard to China’s Yuan Wang 5 (YW5), described by some as a tracking vessel and by others as a research and survey vessel, docking at the Hambantota Port. Sri Lanka under the former Presidency gave permission for the YW5 to dock at Hambantota. Under the present Presidency Sri Lanka wanted the arrival to be deferred following concerns expressed by India relating to their security. The latest report is that Sri Lanka has granted permission for entry based on a brief by the Sri Lankan Embassy in China that “the country will face dire economic consequences if the ship’s visit is not allowed” (Daily Mirror, August 13, 2022). The report adds that the decision was also based on the fact that India and the US “failed to give ‘concrete reasons’ for why they opposed its arrival”.
An earlier manifestation of this rivalry was in connection with an Asian Development Bank- funded solar power project in the Island of Delft. International Tenders were called by the ADB and the contract was awarded to a Chinese Company because their bid was the lowest. India objected to the project on grounds of security and the project was abandoned with Sri Lanka continuing to deliver diesel to operate the generators and provide power to the people of Delft. In this instance, Sri Lanka failed to ask India to provide “concrete reasons” for their security concerns. Instead, Sri Lanka caved in and abandoned the project at a cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.
The reason for doing so was offered by a former Mandarin of the Foreign Ministry who stated that during construction China could plant devices that would impact on the security of India. The fact that Chinese contractors are engaged in various parts of Sri Lanka thus giving them ample opportunities to plant devices anywhere seems to have escaped his wisdom. Furthermore, the fact that YW5 with its reported capabilities could carry out whatever tracking it wanted without any formal permission from outside Sri Lanka’s territorial waters should have been sufficient grounds to inform India that its concerns do not have a “concrete” basis from the outset. Why Sri Lanka did not challenge India’s concerns in the case of the solar project reflects a onetime policy of “India first” at any cost to Sri Lanka’s own self-interest.
LACK of CONSISTANCY in POLICY
It is crystal clear from the two examples cited above, that there is a lack of consistency in the manner Sri Lanka addresses issues relating to major powers; a fact made more complex in a background of power rivalry. The question is whether lack of consistency is due to lack of a clear policy or a deliberately adopted strategy that is sufficiently fluid to enable whoever is in power to address each issue according to his/her imperatives. The former was the practice adopted in the past. For instance, Sri Lanka’s stated policy when it came to External Relations was Non-Aligned. In fact, Sri Lanka was a key member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with India and other mostly ex-colonial countries.
However, under the former Presidency this long held policy changed because the global context of a bi-polar world had changed, warranting a reevaluation of the Non-Aligned policy. Consequently, the stated policy adopted by him was one of Neutrality which he stated during his acceptance speech delivered in Anuradhapura. This policy was transformed to Neutral and Non-Aligned by the Foreign Ministry and its Secretary went further stating that the policy was “India first”. This lack of consistency is not at all helpful in Sri Lanka’s relations with nations in general, and lacks clarity and when it comes to issues amidst power rivalries.
Such inconsistencies should be avoided at all cost. For instance, if the Ministry has a different perspective on external relations to that of the President, the matter should be discussed by the Cabinet of Ministers and a collective decision taken since the Supreme Court has ruled that: “So long as the President remains the Head of the Executive, the exercise of his powers remain supreme or sovereign in the executive field and others to whom such power is given must derive the authority from the President or exercise Executive power vested in the President as a delegate of the President” (S.D. No. 04/2015). Furthermore, under no circumstances should the Secretary have a different opinion to that of the collective decision taken by the Cabinet.
NEED for CONSISTENCY
Though the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) still exists, Non-Aligned as a policy has lost its relevance because the context of a bi-polar world order in which Non-Alignment was relevant no longer exists. Instead, the multi-polar world order that exists today has given nation-states the freedom and license to pursue their self-interests. This situation has enabled India to ignore some of the core principles of Non-Alignment despite being one of its founding members. India developed defence related arrangement with Russia even during the glory days of NAM and continues to do so today. India also trained members of the LTTE to destabilise Sri Lanka and thrust devolution down Sri Lanka’s throat, all in the name of its own self-interests Today, India is actively procuring crude oil from Russia despite being an active member of QUAD with US, Japan and Australia. Sri Lanka too violated principles of the NAM when it supported the U.K. in the Falkland war, as an obligation for the outright grant given by U.K. to construct the Victoria Hydro Power Scheme.
What is evident from the conduct of nation-states is that at the end of the day, pure unbridled self-interest overrides commitment to bilateral or multilateral obligations. This then is the only policy that guides States when it comes to relations with other States, and when it comes to relations with rival powers the choices are hard but in the end, it is balancing priorities. Therefore, whether the stated policy is Neutral, Non-Aligned or even a combination of both, what matters are the decisions taken in respect of Sri Lanka’s relations with other States. Therefore, policies relating to External Relations should be a collective decision taken by the Cabinet, since too much is at stake when decisions are taken by others in the current context of power rivalries. However, since a State has to have a policy as to how it relates to other States, Neutrality is the preferred option since a policy of Non-Alignment is inappropriate in a transformed world order that is undergoing constant change because of rising aspirations of major powers.
Sri Lanka’s lack of consistency in respect of first granting permission for YW 5 to enter the Hambantota Port and later calling for its arrival to be deferred, and finally to reverse back to the original decision should be a lesson to revisit how decisions are taken when it comes to how Sri Lanka handles its external relations with other States regardless of their size and influence, or whether they are States engaged in power rivalry. What this experience has taught is that the decision-making process should be revised. Another lesson to be learnt is to not accept any concerns expressed by States at face value in the process of pursuing Sri Lanka’s self-interests. Instead, to require such States to show cause and “concrete reasons” for their concerns.
In the current context of the world order, the bi-polar world that existed has transformed itself into a multi-polar world, causing the policy of Non-Alignment to lose its relevance even though the Non-Aligned Movement continues to exist. Furthermore, this transformed world order has fostered power rivalries among aspiring States in the process of pursuing their unbridled self-interests; a fact manifested by India’s policy of “strategic autonomy”. How Sri Lanka navigates its own self-interests in such an environment is crucial for its growth and well-being. Therefore, in view of the seriousness of the issues at stake the decision making process when it comes to dealing with States in general and others engaged in power rivalries should be collective decisions by the Cabinet of Ministers backed up by a policy of Neutrality in view of Sri Lanka’s unique strategic location, since it is the only option left standing, because other options such as (1) Non-Alignment with any major centers of power: (2) Alignment with one of the major powers: (3) Bandwagoning: (4) Hedging: (5) Balancing pressures, are all unacceptable.
Suppressing the struggle: Education and the Discourse of Class
By Anushka Kahandagamage
Protesters defeated the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime, making the Rajapaksas resign from their positions, premiership and presidency, of the government. After the collapse of the dynasty, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a Rajapaksa puppet, came to power with the support of a distorted majority in Parliament. Having got himself appointed as President, without a people’s mandate, Wickremesinghe began to suppress the struggle—the very struggle that led to his ascendency. Hours after Wickremesinghe took oath as President, at midnight, when the protesters were preparing to disband the major GotaGoGama (GGG) protest site, the military stormed in, violently assaulting some protesters, including women and people with disabilities. The military attacked media reporters, including BBC journalists, and destroyed the structures built on the location, prompting many to go to the GGG site in support of the protesters. A witch hunt would soon unfold, and, today, just weeks after Wickremesinghe came to power, arbitrary arrests are commonplace in Lanka, most recent and prominent, that of the trade union activist Joseph Stalin.
The Classed nature of the Discourse:
The Double Standard
National as well as international activists, academics, journalists, students, condemned the arbitrary violent attack on the GGG site. Social media was swamped with video footage of the attack, and posts, condemning the government’s moves. Many social media posts pointed fingers at the military, which was to be expected. But a notable and recurring theme was the link made between the military’s behaviour and its low education level – “Eighth grade passed Army”. Meanwhile, politicians from the ruling party (and others) publicly condemned the protesters’ actions, even calling them drug addicts (kuddo). The social media discourse targeting the military (low education) and the protesters (drug addicts), although coming from very different places, was steeped in a classed and classist language, and reduced their actions—whether of the protesters’ or of those suppressing the protest —to their level of education or social class.
Yet, there were surprisingly few discussions regarding the education level of the President, who commanded the attack on the protesters. There is no doubt that Wickremesinghe, whose past is linked with horrendous acts of violence, commanded the military to attack GGG. He is also behind the arbitrary arrests of protesters, the very people who placed him in power. While people are aware of Wickremesinghe’s violent tendencies, these inclinations are not discussed in relation to his education level. During the protest, when his house was set on fire, along with his personal library, many condemned the burning of the library, emphasizing the importance of ‘reading’ and ‘knowledge’. Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as an ‘educated’ politician, well-read and knowledgeable about foreign policy and politics. A double standard manifests itself where the violent acts of the military (by no means am I trying to glorify the military) are criticized on the grounds of their ‘low’ education level, while the violence of Wickremesinghe garners little comment.
Violence and Education
There is no essential link between violence and education, rather capitalist structures have conditioned us to associate violence with under privileged groups and lower levels of education. Formal educational structures sustain hierarchies, power and, in our context, neo-liberal market economies. Education socialises the individual in such a way s/he/they come to embody dominant society’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. Educational institutions are particularly efficient in legitimising the current social order since they play a role not only in training workers in the strict sense of providing them with skills to be productive but also in the naturalization of social relations of production. Education thus entrenches the status quo, and, in that sense, is not an innocent space, rather a space where inequality and hierarchies are sustained and reproduced.
We associate ‘low’ educational levels, and underprivilege, with violence, as we are trained to do so by the political-economic structures which glorify the ‘learned’ and ‘wealthy’. While the military should not be glorified, under any circumstances, it should be understood that the soldiers, who attacked the protesters, on the ground, represent the disadvantaged classes, carrying out their ‘duty’ as commanded by a supposedly ‘educated’ President. It is an irony that society sees people who are directly involved in violence as the generators of violence, rather than the decision-makers who perpetrate violence.
Formal educational institutions, driven by capitalist values, serve to produce, reproduce and sustain such hegemonic narratives. Indeed, there is a link between our pathological social condition and our education system. While our mostly market driven education is trapped in narratives of employability, efficiency or productivity—needed to understand a phenomenon beyond what is given—human values and critical thinking remain neglected on the back burner. Under these circumstances, there is a great need for alternative education forms.
Counter narratives and alternative
forms of Education
Education has been crucial to the struggle to depose the dictatorial Rajapaksa regime. In this context, I am referring to the ‘education’ initiatives that have been a key element of the Aragalaya: education on democracy, the constitution, history of struggles, economy and so on. In the GGG site, groups connected to the protest as well as other initiatives organized debates and discussions to raise awareness about economic, political and social issues, to learn about how to utter the correct slogans and how to steer the struggle in the ‘right’ path. In doing so, hundreds of webinars were organized, numerous articles and posts written and videos uploaded. In the GGG main protest site, a library, university, college, and an IT centre were established to support ‘educating’ the people.
‘Education’ was a thread that wove the struggle together. There were (and are) different debates on education at various levels of the struggle where alternative forms of education were discussed, challenging hierarchy and institutionalized education. The protest has opened up a space for people to pursue alternative educational structures and build counter narratives. Unfortunately, most of these efforts ultimately fall, directly or indirectly, in to hegemonic educational structures, where hierarchy and Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are sustained in different forms. Similarly, the activists and academics, among the protesters, who tried to introduce alternative education forms and counter narratives often fell into capitalist hierarchical structures. The majority of the webinars and awareness raising forums were top-down in nature and were held in one language, discriminating against other language groups.
Furthermore, these forums were frequently clogged with ‘experts’ or the kind of academics who preach their opinions to the ‘uneducated.’
In conclusion, existing capitalist educational frameworks train one to discriminate, based on class and educational levels, normalizing certain ways of life and being. For example, it’s fascinating to see how Wickremesinghe was removed from the violence and education discourse while the military was at the centre of it. Alternative forms of education are needed to question and challenge these hierarchies.
(The author is a Doctoral Candidate in School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Prioritising protection of Government over the people
by Jehan Perera
According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the natural condition of mankind was a state of war in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all.” Therefore, it was necessary for them to come to an agreement. The philosopher John Locke called this the social contract. Social contract arguments are that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to the authority of the ruler or magistrate (or to the decision of a majority), in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. Constitutions set out the rules by which societies are governed.
The evolution of constitutional thinking since the 17th century that Hobbes and Locke lived in has been to find ways to regulate the powers of the rulers and protect the people from the rulers. Those who have power need to have checks placed on them. They need to be held accountable. If those who are rulers are not checked or held accountable, they invariably abuse their powers. That power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely has been a truism. Over the past 74 years we have seen that the rulers have used their power indiscriminately some more than others. PTA is an example of a law which was instituted to deal with the Tamil separatist insurgency over 40 years ago, but it still remains-to protect power of the rulers. In the past three years when the rulers of Sri Lanka held virtually absolute power by virtue of the 20th Amendment to the constitution, the situation in the country deteriorated. The country became bankrupt for the first time ever.
The current debate over the 22nd Amendment is to ensure and enlarge the role of civil society to mitigate the powers of the politicians who are rulers. A key question now is with regard to the three civil society representatives who will be in the Constitutional Council. The present formulation of the amendment is that the civil society representatives will have to be acceptable to the majority in parliament (thereby giving the government final say). Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s experience with constitutional reform has been in the direction of further strengthening of the powers of the rulers against the people. The so-called reforms have invariably strengthened the hands of the rulers against the people and justified that it is being done for the sake of the people.
The 1972 Constitution replaced the constitution that the country had inherited from the British colonial rulers. It ensured the independence of the judiciary and of the civil service and also had special protections for human rights and non-discrimination between ethnic communities. However, these protections were removed from the 1972 constitution that sought to empower the ruling politicians on the justification that they embodied the will of the sovereign people. It was argued that the elected politicians were closer to the people than unelected judges and civil servants. But being away from the people makes them non partisan, a value less understood. Judges were sacked when the new constitution came into operation and treated shamefully. The 1978 constitution repeated the activities of the 1972 constitutions. Judges were once again sacked and treated shamefully. At a later point they were even stoned.
It is these cultures we developed that have led to the present crisis of lack of values beyond the economy itself and formed the base for Aragalaya. The 1978 constitution took the centralisation of power in the 1972 constitution even further and centralized it in the office of one person, the executive president. He could now be even above the law, like the kings of old before parliaments that represented the people came into being. The first executive president of Sri Lanka, J R Jayewardene, said that the only power he did not possess was the power to turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man. It is not surprising that with this power going into the hands of the elected rulers, that the abuse of power and corruption should grow without limit. From being a country near the top of Asia at the time of independence, Sri Lanka is today nearer the bottom. The life savings of its people have been halved in half a year and not a single politician has faced a legal accountability process.
The 22nd Amendment belongs to the family of constitutional amendments that began with the 17th Amendment of 2001. This amendment was agreed to by the then president due to the weakening of the government at that time. The JVP then, as now, the party of the disadvantaged in society, gave the lead. The amendment resulted in the reduction of the power of the president and sharing those powers with parliament, state institutions and with civil society. The idea behind the 17th Amendment was to strengthen the system of checks and balances and thereby promote good governance in the national interest. The 19th Amendment that resembles it was the work of a coalition of parties that had opposed the abuse of power of the rulers they had just deposed through an electoral mandate.
However, the limitation on the powers of the rulers has never been acquiesced by those who would be rulers or belong to their party. The 17th Amendment was overturned in 2010 by the 18th Amendment that gave back to the presidency the powers it had lost plus some more. When this led to an increase in the abuse of powers by the rulers, the successor government brought in the 19th amendment to once again reduce the powers of the presidency. This was in pursuance of the mandate sought at the presidential election of 2015. But once again in 2019, those who formed the next government overruled the 19th Amendment and with the 20th Amendment and gave back to the presidency its lost powers plus some more.
It is under the 20th Amendment which is about to be repealed that the corruption and abuse of power in the country reached its zenith and plunged the people into unprecedented economic hardship and poverty. It is these hardships that gave rise to the Aragalaya, or protest movement, that culminated with the physical storming of government buildings and the forced resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. The shrinking of the middle class who have toiled a lifetime are now falling between the cracks and joining the poor and vulnerable created by the government in less than three years. Yet highlighting the priorities of the rulers, no one of the seem to be thinking of compensating those who have lost their savings, only of compensation of what happened to a few of the rulers and their henchmen during the 2015-2019 period or the Aragalaya period in which the houses of the rulers, much beyond their known sources of wealth and income were burned down.
An Indian political analyst Dr Maya John, has written, “Although the Aragalaya targeted not only individual politicians like the Rajapaksas but also the wider ambit of corrupt political forces – as evident in the parallel slogans of “GotaGoHome” and “225GoHome” – the bulk of people’s energy was overtly focused on dislodging certain individuals from political power; indicating the tendency for the ruling establishment to still hold sway with the ouster of particular politicians. As the well-known Sinhalese proverb goes: inguru deela miris gaththa wage (exchanging ginger for chilli), we have simply got rid of something bad and got something worse in return. So, the Rajapksas have been replaced but the same ruling clique and political system remain intact; in fact, in a more offensive reincarnation.”
The protest movement was a reaction to the social tolerance limits, economic hardships, shortages, queues and steep price rises that in effect halved the general income of the people, with some suffering more than others. But the crackdown on them by the rulers has been both subtle and harsh in the present period. Those who gave it leadership are being picked off one by one, put into jail or being put on bail so that they dare not protest again. The unequal and discriminatory treatment of the protest movement is given the veneer of law which the government would he hoping would get it through the monitoring of the UN Human Rights Council next month and preserve the economic rewards of the EU’s GSP Plus, which is given to country’s that are making a genuine effort to improve the lot of their people, poor people not only the rich.
In 2018, parliamentarians who attempted to stage a constitutional coup (which failed because the judiciary stood firm) sat on the chair of the Speaker of parliament whom they had forcibly chased off. They flung chairs and wrenched microphones out of their sockets. But none of them were punished even when the coup failed. However, those who joined the protest movement and sat in the chair of the president are being houndeds one by one and arrested. A protester who took the beer mug of the deposed president has been arrested. But ministers who are accused of corruption, accused reportedly even by diplomats accredited to the country, and ministers who have been convicted by the courts, sit on, in government. Such unequal and discriminatory treatment is likely to cause the sense of grievance to grow especially when the people are faced with price rises and shortages. They form the basis to cause another Aragalaya.
The current version of the 22nd Amendment which gives the rulers the power to pick the civil society members who will be in the constitutional council is not a sign that the government will heed the voice of the people. In this reluctance to be held accountable and to use power in a just manner, is a recipe for confrontation between the rulers and people in the future in which repression will be the response of the rulers who disregard the people. It may explain why the military budget continues to take first place despite the economic collapse. Unless the people’s voices are represented truly in the parliament and the political processes, which can only come through a fresh set of elections, it is difficult to expect accountability in the system which is a formula for disaster sooner or later.
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