Given this backdrop of the use of constitutional amendments to illegally prolong power, it is clear that if a new constitution is passed in 2017, the government could claim another five years
by Chandre Dharmawardana
( October 23, 2017, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) When a pot of water heats up, small bubbles form, then bigger bubbles form, and convection currents begin to cause much agitation, increase of entropy and turbulence; the water is ready to undergo a dramatic “phase transition”. Water becomes steam. Social systems too, when highly stressed show increasing social turmoil, disruption and corruption. The normal course of justice is thwarted and those who control the purse begin to loot it.
If we go by the news reports, then Sri Lanka is in a state close to such a phase transition. President Maithripala Sirisena has enough executive powers to take action and cool the pot. But, instead, an additional factor of conflict has been introduced – an attempt to change the rule book enabling devolution of the purse to satisfy those inside and outside the country. Surely, given this cyber age where even a colony on the moon can be run from Cape Canaveral, devolution is a thing of the past. And yet, fake histories are put forward to justify such transfer of the power to loot the people by those who have traditionally looted them right in their so-called “traditional homelands”.
Preposterous claims are made justifying the fault lines of battles fiercely fought only just recently. A 3rd Century BCE king, Devaanam Piya Tissa, becomes a “Tamil king” in the narrative of a fiercely racist leader who demands that “Tamils marry only Tamils” to preserve their racial purity, harking back to the Tamil-Sinhala race riots of 1939 precipitated by similar utterances of G. G. Ponnambalam, who claimed that the Sinhalese were a mongrel race. The Tamil leaders need regional autonomy to enforce such rules of “racial purity”, even while their land is imminently threatened by the rise of sea level due to global warming. They need their part of the booty and their payback for facilitating the capture of the purse into the hands of a new set of thieves.
On the other hand, many have pointed out that the priority should be to resolving civil discontent that is threatening not only the government but every citizen’s well being. Many have questioned the need for re-writing the constitution at this hour. The first concern of a man falling into a fire cannot be a re-writing of the regulations for the fire brigade. The external pressure for the change of constitution put in by the US, UK and others working with a powerful diaspora, has been sharply questioned by Lord Naseby in the British House of Lords, affirming what jurists like Sir Desmond de Silva and others had already asserted. So, if the government wishes to abandon these divisive projects, it only has to capture the moment.
And yet, the rewriting of the constitution seems to be so important to the government that the Prime Minister attacked newspaper editors in public for reporting the opposition of the Mahanayakes to the attempt to change the constitution!
Is there a hidden meaning behind all this?
The answer to this puzzle is probably seen in the predicament faced by the UNP, the SLFP split into two, and even the JVP, TNA and the joint opposition. An ex-finance minster accused of unprecedented financial scandals is still treated as one of their VIPs seen in the company of the prime minster himself. He cannot be stripped of his status and thrown out because he may become embittered and reveal all. While many investigations are made, and many arrests are made, no one can be inculpated as everyone has skeletons to hide. Most politicians in power, from the highest ranks of the president and the prime minster to the lowest backbencher know that they cannot face the public and win an election. Hence, any means of avoiding elections would be a God send. Such a “magic wand” had already been used at least twice in this country. It was the SLFP-Leftist coalition of Sirima Bandaranaike which introduced a new republican constitution in 1972, declaring Sri Lanka to be a “Democratic Socialist Republic”. Unfortunately, democracy had been suppressed in a country under a quasi-permanent state of emergency since 1971. The Tamil Nationalists in the North had become increasingly violent, and met with unimaginative state repression. Mismanaged agricultural policies had produced food shortages in sharp contrast to that of a previous government. The death of Dudley Senanayake in 1973 and the depth of national mourning were the warnings that elections if held in two years will kick the government out. The emergency had been used to delay local elections and by-elections. It was then that the Sirimavo Government claimed a right to two additional years beyond 1975 under the new constitution! A five-year mandate became a seven-year hold on power. The undermining of the normal course of law and constitutional integrity was justified as the “ends justify the means” narrative of Left politics.
The JR Jayewardene government that replaced the Sirimavo government had no ideology other than the free-market tenet of getting rich, and staying in power by hook or crook. Its economists preached that market economics will optimize everything and prosperity will trickle down. Give the robber barons a free hand! Unfortunately, while a few got unbelievably rich in a very short time, most people became increasingly poor. Misguided but murderous youth uprisings in the south, terrorism in the North, and horrific state reprisals became a frequent feature.
JRJ’s government did not want to face elections. JRJ had introduced a new constitution with an executive president in 1978, and a 4th amendment in Dec. 1982 extending the life of the parliament to six years, and a sixth amendment in 1983. All this eroded the credibility of the parliament and established a pattern where constitutional amendments became a tool for the prolongation of unpopular governments. In 2013 Mahinda Rajapaksa proposed amendments so that there would be no limit on how often a President could be re-elected. That drafted amendment had addressed National issues of power devolution and also proposed to repeal land and Police powers vested with the Provincial Councils. The President did not understand that his family rule without accountability had discredited his government sufficiently to allow his enemies to hatch intrigue directly within his cabinet.
Given this backdrop of the use of constitutional amendments to illegally prolong power, it is clear that if a new constitution is passed in 2017, the government could claim another five years from then on, as the requirement for general elections in 2020 laid down by the previous constitution becomes caduc. This means the bond scams, highway construction scams, coal tender scams, and other myriads of commission scams, organic biofilm scams and other agricultural scams promoted by SEMS, the black-market sale of duty-free luxury vehicles, etc., etc., can go on unhindered. The current set of MPs, presidential advisers and other henchmen will continue to enjoy the perks of office, hardly ever attending parliament or having any need to go to their electorates. Instead, they will be on regular trips to foreign capitals when the diplomatic cocktail rounds become too boring. By 2022, many MPs will have become unbelievably rich, with wealth stacked in secret bank accounts in tax havens like Panama and Dubai. At that point they don’t need to contest elections as they would have acquired Green Cards with access to the land of Donald Trump. That is why a new constitution is needed by them and if maximum devolution is the price to pay, so be it. If even the word unitary has to be removed and replaced by a less clear “Orumitta” adjective, so be it!
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