by Harim Peiris
The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, on various legal grounds. With oral arguments finishing with the Attorney General’s submission early this week and only written rebuttals accepted thereafter, the determination of the Court is likely to be communicated to Parliament within the week. However, this article does not seek to examine the various legal issues being argued before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, but rather to examine the political dynamics which enabled the Government to engage in this complete overhaul of Sri Lanka’s state structures.
The proposed 20th Amendment seeks nothing less than the creation of an elected leader with all the powers of an absolute monarch, baring the need to be periodically re-elected. Sri Lanka is clearly nostalgic for its days of pre-colonial absolute monarchy. In fact, our 1978 constitution with its proposed 20th Amendment would be more centralizing than ancient Ceylon’s pre-colonial monarchies, set in another day and age, which had feudal structures with powerful nobles. In contrast the 20th Amendment will reestablish, a Prime Minister with no powers and Cabinet and state ministers with even less powers. The President will in essence appoint everybody, decide on every matter and would be beyond legal challenge, even on fundamental rights. The central argument of the government is that the 20th Amendment merely takes the country back to where it was with the 1978 Constitution and accordingly there is no problem. However, the reality is that the anti-democratic features of the 1978 Constitution and especially that of its overbearing executive presidency were so apparent that every president elected since 1994 has pledged to reform it and its lack of inclusion and democratic space, alienated large swathes of the population, from Sinhala rural youth to the Tamil community.
The UNP as the great enabler of the 20th Amendment
The UNP or rather its essential leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the great enabler of the 20th Amendment. Firstly, his steadfast refusal to cede the presidential nomination until days before the November presidential elections and then subsequently in the run up to the August parliamentary elections, scuttling the efforts to have a unified opposition alliance, so dented the political credibility of the opposition, that what would have been a close defeat, along the lines of the February 2018 local government election results, led instead to a complete route and a constitution changing two third majority in parliament for the SLPP.
The parliamentary elections resulted in the end of the United National Party (UNP), as a serious, national political entity, losing to its successor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), by a resounding and unequivocal margin of 10 to 1, in the popular vote. The SJB garnering 2.7 million votes and fifty-four Members of Parliament, while the UNP got a little less than one tenth of that at about 250,000 votes country wide and going from being the largest party in parliament, to no district representation and a single national list seat, on which it cannot agree as to who would be the nominee. The refusal of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, even at this late stage, to gracefully leave the field when the umpire has ruled him out and the third umpire has also concurred after review and perhaps busy himself with some international commitments, or an elder statesman’s role, for which he is eminently suited, has meant that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has struggled to unify the opposition and create and present a cohesive and united opposition to the government. Resulting in the Rajapakse Administration indulging in significant political overreach in its proposed 20th Amendment.
The real political dynamics in the country are worse, from an opposition standpoint. What currently exists is a unified government and a divided opposition which enables government inflexibility and rigidity, even in the midst of some internal dissent. An internal dissent regarding the 20th Amendment exists from some very Sinhala nationalist sources, including Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, which stated that if its views expressed and the resultant recommendations of the Government committee, on which it leader served and which examined the 20th Amendment were ignored, it would not hold itself responsible for the political consequences.
The SJB needs to broaden
The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa did incredibly well under difficult circumstances, post the presidential election to annihilate the UNP at the ensuing general elections held recently and essentially capture the party in all but name, symbol and head office, none of which are the essence of politics. Sajith Premadasa’s great strengths are similar to that of his late father’s; the common touch, a strong grassroots appeal, a good sense of the Sinhala polity and boundless energy, all of which were lacking in the old UNP and hence his appeal within that party and its allies. However, those skills were complemented by the UNP’s entrenched strengths, such as extensive media interests of the Wickremesinghe / Wijewardena clan, considerable financial support from the Colombo business community as well as political allies within and good relationships with the international community. The SJB as a new party and the chief opposition alliance needs to create this network and extend its outreach to the different segments of society, so that in their disquiet of the Rajapakse Administration’s policies, the SJB is seen as an effective check and balance as well as a viable and credible future alternative government. The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa needs his own equivalent of “Eliya” and “Viyath Maga”, except resolutely civilian and absolutely inclusive and pluralistic.
The opposition to the 20th Amendment has been fairly spontaneous and widespread. From the Retired Judges Association, to Government Auditors, from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Sri Lankan civil society, from the Bar Association to young lawyers, a record number of plaints were filed against the said Amendment. However, the SJB has not quite been able to harness all this raw energy against the amendment and to hugely increase the political costs of the same to the Government. All political indicators are that some slightly amended version of the 20th Amendment will soon become the law of the land. The only hope is that in its adventurism and political overreach of the 20th Amendment, the subsequent and ultimate objective of a new constitution will likely be denied the SLPP, notwithstanding its super majority in parliament.
Amend Cabinet decision on new Rajagiriya – Nawala Canal bridge
The Cabinet, at its meeting held on 09.11.2020 granted approval for the construction of a new bridge across the Rajagiriya-Nawala Canal (Kolonnawa Canal), connecting Angampitiya Road, at Ethul kotte, and School Lane, at Nawala.
As a resident of Nawala, I would like to make two proposals in this regard. One is to reconsider the suitability of the proposed link between School Lane and Angampitiya Road to connect Nawala with Ethul Kotte. The second is to make an additional link between Narahenpita and Nawala, by constructing a new bridge across the Kinda Canal, which flows past the Wall-Tile Showroom on the Nawala-Narahenpita Road and the McDonald’s outlet at Rajagiriya. This will provide a direct access from Narahenpita to Ethul Kotte, and at the same time avoiding congestion on Kirimandala Mawatha and Parliament Road, during peak hours.
The decision to construct a bridge, linking Nawala and Ethul Kotte, is commendable, but the selection of the site for the bridge needs reconsideration. Once Ethul Kotte is linked with Nawala, through Angampitiya Road, and School Lane, one would expect a substantial increase in the volume of traffic on these two roads. Located on School Lane is the Janadhipathi Balika Vidyalaya, a popular girls’ school in the area. Even at present, the area around School Lane has heavy traffic comprising mostly school vans and other vehicles bringing children to and from this school, in the mornings and afternoons. Linking School Lane with Ethul Kotte will make this traffic situation worse, causing congestion.
A better option is to connect Ethul Kotte with Nawala, by constructing a bridge, linking New Jayaweera Mawatha in Ethul Kotte, with Koswatta Road, in Nawala. A by-lane, branching off from the Koswatta Road leading up to the canal, at an appropriate location, could be used for this purpose. On this link, only a short distance of roadway about 250 m, needs to be developed, whereas the School Lane extension needs development of at least 700 m of roadway. Earlier, motorists used Koswatta Road as a shortcut to access Parliament Road. Now, turning right, at the Parliament Road junction, is not permitted, and hence, there isn’t much traffic on this road at present.
One advantage of extending the Koswatta Road, to Ethul Kotte is that it could be linked in the other direction, with Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, on the Narahenpita side, providing a direct route for motorists coming along Thimbirigasyaya Road to go to Ethul Kotte. With this link, it will be possible for traffic to avoid both Parliament Road and Chandra de Silva Mawatha, Nugegoda, the only two access roads to Kotte, from Colombo, available at present.
To complete this access, it is necessary to construct a bridge across Kinda Canal, linking Galpotta Road with Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, after extending both roadways up to the canal. This area is still not developed, except for a reservation made for a playground on the Nawala side. A new roadway, which is only about half a km distance, is necessary, and this could be built without any problem linking these two roadways. Galpotta Road could be linked with Koswatta Road via Ratanajothi Mawatha, which crosses the Rajagiriya–Nawala Road, at Koswatta Junction.
The construction of these two new bridges, one across Kolonnawa Canal and the other across Kinda Canal, will provide a direct route from Colombo to Ethul Kotte, via Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, Galpotta Road, Koswatta Road and New Jayaweera Mawatha. This link will reduce congestion, at present experienced on Kirimandala Road and Parliament Road.
Dr JANAKA RATNASIRI
A tribute to my mother-in-law
My mother-in-law, Mandrani Gunasekera, nee Malwatta, passed away peacefully in our home a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements were complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation, and the resultant weekend curfew in Colombo.
It is a privilege for me to reflect on my mother-in-law and her role in our lives. Vocationally, she was a practitioner of one of the noblest professions on earth, that of being a teacher, with the responsibility of educating and molding young lives. First in the public-school system, then overseas, and finally in Colombo’s leading international schools. As someone who topped her batch at the Peradeniya University, teaching was an unusual and perhaps unglamourous choice, but it demonstrated her commitment to the service of others.
In private life, she, was a mother to two daughters, one of whom is my wife, and their strength of character are a tribute to her. Her four grandchildren, including my two sons, are, I am sure, left in no doubt, that their mothers were raised in the home of a teacher, with a strong commitment to both education and discipline. I saw first-hand, that my mum-in- law, was an enabler and facilitator, guiding and molding her family. Her eldest grand-daughter, Thisuni Welihinde’s wedding late last year, was a milestone for her and we were never sure who was more excited, the bride or her grandmother.
To me, she was always “Ammi” and having lost my own mother when I was very young, I was determined to treat my wife’s mother, as I would my own. After my father- in- law’s death, a decade ago, it was a joy to care for my mother-in- law, in our home. Ammi was retired and lived a life of leisure. Which was a good counter balance to our own lives, which always seemed to be so hectic and rushed. I also learned from my mother -in-law, that being effective did not come from being prominent.
Ammi was also regular at Church, every Sunday, and was also an active member of a mid-week ladies Bible study, and prayer group, who were also her group of friends. They always ended their meetings, with brunch if not lunch. It was special joy that we were able to celebrate her 80th birthday with a “surprise party” at home, with her friends, about six weeks before her passing.
Ammi enjoyed the simple joys of life, and of our home, whether it was meal times, the constant chatter and boisterous behaviour of her two teenage grandsons, our weekend activities or family vacations to most of which she accompanied us. She was also an avid rugby fan, especially of Royal College rugby, since her brother had captained Royal and now her grandson was playing. In fact, she used to attend many matches and the 75th Bradby encounter last year, held in the shadow of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, was her last, to witness her brother honoured on the field with other past captains and her grandson take the field, as a junior player.
This strange Covid-19 pandemic year, and its unprecedented lockdown ,enabled us to spend lots of time together, as family. Our lockdown daily routine, which included lots of sleep and rest, was centered on the daily family lunch, either preceded, or followed by family prayer. Ammi became the most committed and enthusiastic participant in our family mid-day gatherings. It was a great blessing, in disguise, that enabled us to spend the last few months, with noting much else to do, but enjoy each other’s company. While we miss her, we have the hope that she is with our Lord Jesus Christ. Her favourite Bible scripture in Psalm 91, states “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty …. and with long life I will satisfy him and show him, My salvation”.
By Harim Peiris
The Benefits of Homeschooling
COVID-19 has changed our normal activities. What we were used to doing in 2019, is no longer a routine in 2020. In the midst of this pandemic the schools were closed down, and the decision to reopen schools by the Sri Lankan government and the trade unions speaking against it, made me ponder on an alternative.
Education in developing countries have often been a sensitive topic, Parents would leave no stone unturned to put their child to a ‘Big School’. How many of the classrooms in ‘Big Schools’ are capable of making seating arrangements by keeping a distance of one meter in accordance with the COVID-19 regulations?
Online Teaching has been introduced as an alternative, but isn’t there something better than that?
This would be the best time to introduce Homeschooling.
Homeschooling is where parents and guardians teach and groom their children. There are many parents capable of handling children and providing a comfortable atmosphere at home for a child to grow up and learn; there are parents who are skilled in particular trades and crafts, and teaching these to their children at a younger age gives the child an opportunity to be a skilled individual.
Several decades back the role of a Governess played an important role in upbringing children in Sri Lankan households. Many would have read about Helen Keller, a deaf and blind student who went on to be a graduate; she was groomed and taught by her governess Anne Sullivan, who taught her at home, this is a successful example of Homeschooling.
It is an arrogant attitude to scoff that parents groom their children into good citizens without sending them to school. Inferior Schooling and Teaching Methods have been a bane to a child’s psychology and mentally handicapping the confidence of a child. The truth is, schools no longer groom students, they have become Examination Centres, that judge the performance of their students through results.
It will be interesting to look into some of the criticisms made by sceptics on homeschooling. One is the subject knowledge of the parents; let’s be honest, how many of us use Titration in Chemistry in our daily lives, do we even want to try it? How many of us want to know the Chronology of the Kings that ruled the Country, has it ever disturbed us?
On the other hand, Homeschooling does not mean that teachers would no longer be needed, the teacher can play a broader role as a governess or a trainer to fill in the subject gaps that the parents are unable to provide for their child.
Another criticism is that children will not learn to socialise without schools. Isn’t Covid-19 regulations discouraging socialising by asking us to avoid public gatherings and maintaining a distance of 1 meter, isn’t socialising with a bad friend as disastrous as a deadly disease?
It will be interesting to see how the trade unions are going to respond to this if homeschooling becomes successful, as they will be the worst affected. But they could always become good Governesses or Subject Experts and play a guiding role in the homeschooling venture. This country now needs more Florence Nightingales to treat the sick and more Anne Sullivans to groom the kids.
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