For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Sept 05, 2010 (LBO) – Sri Lanka’s main English weeklies have slammed a proposed change to the country’s constitution as the latest in a long list of moves by rulers to destroy individual liberties and break remaining democratic institutions.
The constitutional change will see the term limits for the President currently set at two being lifted. Earlier this year Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a landslide second term.
But more damagingly, it will also break remaining democratic institutions with the independence of the judiciary and the election office also destroyed, The Sunday Times newspaper said.
“The watchdogs may bark, but the caravan moves on,” the newspaper said in an editorial titled ‘Hail Caesar’.
“That might sum up the credo of the all-powerful Government as it motors along with the proposed constitutional amendments that would, in effect, turn the country’s political establishment on its head in time to come.
“In a sense it is a circus we are watching. Once these amendments are passed, all pretences to an independent public service will disappear…”
The Sunday Island wrote an editorial titled ‘More nonsense’, a reference to the label given to the current widely criticized constitution by a former president who also enjoyed its powers to the hilt.
“It is Sri Lanka’s tragedy that a country that once enjoyed a vigorous democracy, turfing out powerful governments by their ears at periodic elections, has to suffer such indignities as that which is in the making,” lamented The Sunday Island.
The Sunday Times said once the changes are passed “all pretences to an independent public service will disappear” including the “the Judiciary and the Election arms.”
“The real issue therefore, is not whether an Executive President should be given unlimited terms of office should he win but whether he or she ought to enjoy the unlimited powers that are vested in him as Head of Government – and Head of State.”
Sri Lanka’s long slide into arbitrary rule, and the breaking of ‘government’ began decades ago with the end of the institution of ‘permanent secretary’ at ministries.
A ‘republican constitution’ in 1972 abolished a public service commission giving the power to appoint, transfer and discipline ministry secretaries to the cabinet.
“One of the salutary benefits the colonial British left us was an organized Public Service,” the Sunday Times said.
“Those were the days when the politician knew his turf, and the public servant knew where to draw the line.
“There was much give and take, but the 1972 Republican Constitution smashed this ‘separation of powers’ and the legislators gave to themselves all the powers over the public service through the Cabinet and Parliament.”
The widely criticized 1978 constitution worsened arbitrary rule by taking away all the protection senior public servants had to implement rule of law and prevent injustice being committed to ordinary people or themselves.
It gave the power to appoint, transfer and discipline ministry secretaries to the President.
The ‘Government’ that treated people equally under a rule of law was broken and the political administration and arbitrary action or injustice could now permeate to the very bottom of the government.
In Sri Lanka arbitrary rule and unjust action, especially against those who have differing views with the ruling administration is referred to as ‘politicization’.
But others say the breakdown of constitutional governance and just rule of law, started in the mid 1950s with the introduction of a ‘Sinhala only’ law, which discriminated against a Tamil minority.
It violated a basic principle of constitutional governance, that laws should be equal to all the people – despite the existence of such a provision in the then constitution outlawing unjust law – and created a culture of winner-takes-all majority rule.
Since independence Sri Lanka’s citizens have taken up arms against the state three times, the Sinhalese majority twice and the Tamil minority once.
Rather than restraining the state and the rulers, which is the primary objective of a constitution, Sri Lanka’s 1972 and 1978 constitutions progressively went in the reverse direction.
An amendment to the constitution known as the 17th was expected to correct this to some extent by setting up a series of independent commissions and a ‘Constitutional Council’. The 17th amendment has been successfully scuttled.
“[T]he too powerful presidency together with the 17th amendment is a case of two wrongs curiously attempting to approximate a right,” the Lakbimanews, another English weekly, said in an editorial.
“But with both institutions being negatively tampered with in one fell stroke, the blow to democracy would sadly be incalculable.”
“The new constitutional changes create an Executive Presidency Plus,” said the Sunday Leader newspaper in an editorial titled ‘Death of a Nation’, whose former editor was assassinated in broad daylight on a street in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo.
“There is no more pesky Constitutional Council keeping Mahinda from appointing whoever he wants and there are no more term limits to keep the population from re-anointing the President every six years.
“It’s a seamless system. Mahinda appoints the custodians of state TV, the keepers of state funds and the police.
“Then he runs in an election with the shameless backing of state resources, with the power to throw the opposition candidate in jail.”
Added the Sunday Times: “When he contests an election, the President has the Armed Forces and the Police under his belt.
“These amendments extend to the realm of Elections, quite apart from Bribery and Corruption, and the higher echelons of the Judiciary.
“Checks and balances and the separation of powers theories are thrown overboard and a new political culture is being institutionalized.”
The 1972 constitution, which accelerated Sri Lanka’s descent into arbitrary rule, was a product of an administration led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The 1978 constitution was brought by the current opposition United National Party, now led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, widely regarded as the weakest opposition leader in Sri Lanka’s history.
“The UNP (Sri Lanka’s main opposition) must bear a major share of the blame for the unfolding tragedy,” The Sunday Island said.
“It has proved itself to be an inept, impotent and useless opposition with a leader who is more concerned about retaining his own position than about the wellbeing of the party that enabled him to scale the heights of political power.”
The opposition leader has a habit of meeting with the country’s president – under two presidents – and then finding that he has been comprehensively outsmarted and his own members have been wooed by the ruling party to join them or vote their behalf.
The Sunday Leader said Wickremesinghe was the “fourth brother” of the President Rajapaksa. Two of his brothers are ministers and a third a ministry secretary
“Ranil is a sucker for negotiations,” the newspaper said.
“While he was talking to Mahinda, Mahinda took his MPs. If Mahinda is the father of the Constitution, Ranil is most definitely the mother, but the deformed child belongs to us all.”