Constitutional amendment includes free hand to appoint justices and police chiefs
Asia regional correspondent
Sri Lanka’s political pendulum is swinging toward a strong, centralized state in the grip of an executive president with sweeping authoritarian powers, fulfilling a goal of the Rajapaksas, the South Asian nation’s most influential political clan.
The government of the ruling Rajapaksa siblings — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa — has now set the stage for an imperial presidency. It did so by introducing a constitutional amendment in parliament, where the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the brothers’ political vehicle, enjoys an invincible majority.
The amendment, which would be the 20th, seeks to enshrine absolute presidential powers, complete with legal immunity for the hawkish Gotabaya, the younger of the two, during his term in office. The change would also free Gotabaya of existing parliamentary checks on executive authority and reduce the role of the prime minister to that of a rubber stamp for presidential decisions.
Other clauses would give the executive president a free hand to appoint the chief justice and judges of the Supreme Court and other high courts; he would also choose the police chief.
In addition, the amendment paves the way for a Sri Lankan who has dual nationality to be a parliamentarian. This would enable Basil Rajapaksa, another sibling and U.S. national, to become a lawmaker and a minister in the Rajapaksa administration.
Rajapaksa allies argue that an all-powerful executive echoes the political mood in the country, where the brothers have tapped into an ultranationalist, majoritarian sentiment to win two decisive electoral victories, in November’s presidential balloting and in August parliamentary elections.
The SLPP won the backing of the Sinhala-Buddhists, the country’s majority ethnic community, with a campaign for a centralized government anchored by a strongman president to succeed a right-of-center administration that was divisive, dysfunctional and prone to backstabbing to settle political scores.
“The people have given [Gotabaya] a huge mandate, and after that are we to clip his wings so that he can’t do the job?” asked Gamini Lakshman Peiris, education minister and head of the ruling SLPP. “Is it right that we do not empower the president as that is what the people wanted?”
Peiris was asking his rhetorical questions last week during a news conference.
His jabs came ahead of a Supreme Court session that will hear 39 petitions filed by opponents of the 20th amendment. Since the nation’s legislative and judicial systems do not accept any court challenges on laws passed by parliament, most of the petitioners — ranging from opposition lawmakers to political activists — are rushing to push the justices to rule that the amendment needs to be approved by a national referendum, in addition to it needing to win a two-thirds majority in the 225-member parliament.
Lawyers expect the judges to examine the amendment’s potential to undermine entrenched clauses in the constitution that protect the sovereignty of the people. “The problem with the 20th amendment,” said Sudarshana Gunawardena, a Sri Lankan human rights lawyer, “is that certain clauses give the president powers, such as when to dissolve the parliament, that will affect the people’s sovereignty. The court may also take note of the concerns expressed by a group of retired judges and the Bar Association [of Sri Lanka] about the amendment because they are knowledgeable about constitutional matters.”
History favors the Rajapaksas. Previous amendments to the 1978 constitution have not been subject to a national referendum. Parliament’s makeup also favors the brothers, whose political juggernaut has given the SLPP 145 seats. The party is confident of attracting five more votes from smaller parties to meet the two-thirds threshold.
Sri Lankans have had a taste of Rajapaksa political dominance before, during elder-brother Mahinda’s nearly 10-year presidency, which ended with his shock defeat in January 2015. That decade was marked by an authoritarian character and by the brothers presiding over an administration that saw government troops defeat the Tamil Tiger separatist, ending a nearly 30-year ethnic war. The tough-talking Gotabaya served as Mahinda’s defense secretary during the term.
The proposed amendment has generated a heated debate in the mainstream media, led by liberal and progressive-minded academics, legal experts and civil society activists. They have expressed alarm at the country regressing 40 years, to a period that gave Sri Lankans their first taste of the 1978 charter — a blueprint for an elected autocrat written by Sri Lanka’s first executive president, Junius Richard Jayewardene.
“It appears that the framework of 20A has sought inspirations from wrong constitutional models, at home and abroad, that are devoid of any democratic normative content,” wrote Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former professor of political science at the Colombo University. “The lessons that seem to have been learned are all partisan, narrow-minded, politically shortsighted, and therefore, wrong ones.”
In taking this route, the Rajapaksas are expected to face questions from India over the 13th amendment, which New Delhi shaped during the early stages of the Tamil separatist struggle. That amendment secured devolution of power and established provincial councils, enabling the Tamils, Sri Lanka’s largest minority who live in the north and eastern provinces, to elect regional leaders.
“By further entrenching powers in the executive president, 20A undermines democracy in a major way, and by omission or commission it will undermine 13A,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, a senior sociology lecturer at Jaffna University in northern Sri Lanka. “Minorities already took a stand about their concerns of rising authoritarianism by their massive number of votes against the president at the November elections.”
The constitutional tinkering comes as the Rajapaksa administration struggles to breathe life into the anemic economy it inherited. On Monday, Moody’s Investors Service made the Rajapaksas’ job more difficult by downgrading Sri Lanka’s ratings two notches, to Caa1, from B2. The global ratings agency pointed to wide budget deficits and external pressures from ballooning foreign debts.
Moody’s already considered Sri Lanakan government debt speculative and high risk before the downgrade.
The $88 billion economy, drained of income by the pandemic, is expected to shrink by 0.5% this year after growing 2.3% in 2019, its worst showing in nearly two decades. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt is $55 billion. “Combined with slower nominal GDP growth and a weaker exchange rate, the government’s debt burden will rise to around 100% of GDP, above the Caa-rated media of 86% of GDP,” Moody’s wrote.
The Rajapaksas’ allies argue that turning around the economy requires a strong president. “Foreign investors ask us if Sri Lanka has a 10-year plan and if it can guarantee 10 years of political stability and policy consistency,” Anura Fernando, general secretary of Viyathmaga, a network of professionals shaping Gotabaya’s policies, told Nikkei Asia. “We need one strong person making executive decisions as a way to build confidence and make Sri Lanka attractive for foreign investors.”
Local businesses share a similar sentiment in the wake of the “chaos and policy inconsistency” of the previous government. “A strong president and policy stability has worked thrice before after the ‘78 constitution,” said a well-connected business insider. “Those years we saw steady growth and foreign capital flowed in. It does where there is stability and opportunity. … That is a fact.”
Gotabaya is not waiting for the amendment. Frustrated by bureaucratic red tape that has come in the way of his plans for efficiency, he launched a broadside against officials who refused to act on his orders.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has directed the officials to treat all verbal orders issued for the common good of the people as circulars to be implemented,” the president’s office said in a statement. “Those who neglect this will face stern action.” (Nikkei Asia)
Current wave of COVID-19:
AG asks police to probe alleged negligence of Brandix, others
Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC, has called for an immediate investigation into circumstances that led to the coronavirus eruption at the Brandix apparel manufacturing facility at Minuwangoda early this month.
AG’s Coordinating Officer State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne told The Island that a progress report had been called by or before Nov 13.
The AG stepped in amidst Opposition political parties, both in and outside Parliament questioning the failure on the part of health authorities to establish how the eruption had taken place.
Instructions were issued yesterday (27) when the AG summoned DIG Ajith Rohana, a senior officer in charge of the police Legal Division. The State Counsel said that the AG wanted the Brandix management, its agents and government servants probed as regards their negligence and carelessness.
Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera recently told The Island that they were yet to ascertain the cause of the current wave. Health Secretary retired Maj. Gen. Sujeewa Munasinghe said they had probed several leads and were now close to bringing the inquiry into successful conclusion.
Both Dr. Samaraweera and Head of the National COVID-19 Task Force Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva have said the 39-year-old Brandix employee who was the first to be tested positive is not the patient zero as regards the garment cluster.
The AG intervened in the absence of a police investigation into various accusations regarding the second wave with the number of positive cases rapidly nearing 9,000.
Brandix, in response to The Island queries, has assured that it followed health guidelines when 341 workers attached to its facility in India and their families were repatriated in three batches. The company said that it would fully cooperate with government authorities inquiring into the outbreak.
The Opposition lambasted the government for the deteriorating situation during last Friday’s debate on the epidemic now threatening to overwhelm the health facilities.
JHU spokesman Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe yesterday said that a comprehensive inquiry was needed to establish the truth. (SF)
An Open Letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:
Don’t try to sign agreements in secret
Issued by the Sri Lanka
We, the members of the Sri Lanka Study Circle in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement – the largest organised grouping of Nations after the UN – that initiated a UN General Assembly Resolution in 1971 which was unanimously adopted by the entire World to make forever the Indian Ocean a zone of peace within which area no Nuclear weapons whatsoever would be permitted are a bit confused about the status of your visit to Sri Lanka due to a lack of transparency.
Initially, your embassy in Colombo, when questioned about rumours of a possible visit by you to our country, denied those rumours. Several days later, the embassy made an announcement that you would be visiting our country for a day.
We surmise therefore that you are visiting our country, not at our invitation but at your request, at a time when the ugly head of COVID is raising its head once again due to, what appears to be, the criminal negligence of a Company funded and mentored by your Government.
We must express our dismay and protest that the forerunners to your visit have dampened the spirit and purpose of your visit by flagrantly violating the basic health guidelines, required to be followed by all entering our country, to bring under control the pandemic which has caused thus far the deaths of 218000 people in your country.
We trust that you and your entourage would subject yourself to the mandatory health checks, especially travelling from India which ranks number two, next to your country, in the number of COVID related deaths.
We note that your visit has been preceded by many communiques appearing in the media.
To comment on some of them: You seem to harbour an illusion that your country and ours has a common vision. No, we do not have a common vision; your country is a Capitalist country where the engine of growth is the private sector. Ours, Mr. Pompeo, as per our Constitution and the thinking of our people, is a Socialist State where, in perfect harmony with Buddhist principles, public interest prevails over private interest.
The factors of production like Land are held by the State and not private individuals. That is why MCC goes against the very grain of Sri Lankan thinking, Buddhism and culture and does not have the people’s mandate.
You have ‘advised’ our Government to take necessary and difficult decisions to secure her economic independence. Mr. Chairman MCC, we request you to keep your unsolicited advice to yourself. We are indeed sorry if some members of our country had portrayed themselves to you, as imbeciles. The majority of them are not capable of sagacious and independent thought.
You seem to suggest that some of our donors’ conditions are not transparent and our discriminatory. In fact this is the very criticism the people have levelled against the MCC ; it is very discriminatory and the least transparent. The people of this country have yet to see the draft MCC document in the language they understand, Sinhala and Tamil.
‘US officials warned the Sri Lankan Government who they team up with for their economic partnership’. Mr. Pompeo, if that is a threat you can go to Mars; you could spend your time more profitably over there. We are aware that you were refused an audience with the Pope and we are acutely aware that you have endorsed the torture going on in Guantanamo Bay and that you hold a view that the hell-hole you forcibly occupy there should not be shut down.
It is laughable that you allude to debt diplomacy of some other countries. Does it not make you laugh that the US offers a gift horse – as your acolytes would say- worth 480 Million USD when the US has a sovereign debt of 26 Trillion USD. Amidst this debt from where did you get this pottage and why not use this amount to reduce your own debt?
‘Secretary Pompeo will travel to Colombo to underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.’
Hitherto, your military reach in the Pacific was limited to the South-east Asian Countries because the Pacific ended there. The Indian Ocean was untouched and the littoral states in the Indian Ocean declared the Indian Ocean, a Zone of Peace.
What you are now attempting to do is extend the Pacific Ocean to include the Indian Ocean.
As a first step, you have artificially made two Oceans one, by calling it the Indo-Pacific Ocean. And the second step is to extend the militarisation of the Pacific Ocean to cover the ‘Indian Ocean’ portion of the Indo -Pacific Ocean.
This is where the MCC, the ACSA, the SOFA and the QUAD fit in. This is how, in our opinion, the US would militarily ‘Pivot-to-Asia’
You have the gumption to say ‘free and open’ Indo Pacific Ocean when in the seas around the American Continents you restrict naval activity by applying unilaterally a doctrine, the Monroe doctrine.
Make no bones about it, the Indian Ocean, Mr. Secretary, is a nuclear Free Ocean, and an Ocean of Peace. Sri Lanka is a committed Non-Aligned State and not a Neutral state. Some novices are confused about this.
If you wish to speak with Sri Lanka come in Peace and we shall talk. We shall talk openly and transparently. Do not attempt to sign Agreements in Secret because they do not have the mandate of the People.
CEJ warns of danger to health from lead in paints
By Ifham Nizam
The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) yesterday urged the public to be vigilant about the lead content in consumer items. Dilena Pathragoda, CEJ Managing Director said that most old buildings still had old paint with high lead levels.
Addressing the media at an event to mark the International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week of Action he said that some Sri Lankan companies dump lead contaminated liquid waste into our water ways without following the proper procedures.
CEJ Executive Director Hemantha Withanage said: “In Sri Lanka, lead concentration in paint has been limited by the Consumer Affairs Authority as a result of a case filed by the CEJ in 2011. Accordingly, enamel and floor paints can have only 600ppm of lead while the limit is 90 ppm for emulsion and paints used on children’s products. This law came into effect from January 1, 2013. It is also mandatory to declare on the label if the paint is lead safe.”
Withanage added that it was the consumer’s duty to check for the lead level before purchasing paint. He added that many countries in the region had now reduced the maximum permissible lead level to 90 ppm in all types of paints. It was time to introduce more stringent standards for Sri Lankan paints, he said.
Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause permanent and irreversible brain damage in children, resulting in reduced Intelligence quotient (IQ), reduced attention span, impaired learning ability and increased risk of behavioral problems.
In adults it can affect reproduction, endocrine or the hormone system and the cardiovascular system. Research shows that the main source of lead poisoning is paint. The oil-based paints that are commonly known as enamel paint, floor paint, anti corrosive and lacquer contain high lead levels. These paints are commonly found on walls of preschools and childcare facilities, children play areas, furniture, baby cots and some toys.
In addition, researchers have revealed that lead is found in some imported plastic and rubber toys, stationery, paints on porcelain, cosmetics and artificial jewelry. People working in; e-waste recycling plants, lead-acid battery/ car battery recycling plants, metal smelting, construction and demolition work are highly vulnerable to lead exposure.
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An Open Letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:
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