20A: D-day Thursday

  • India, China, and US pour attention on Sri Lanka 
  • 20A heats up, creating chaos at group meeting 
  • Only changes given to SC to be amended in 20A 
  • Religious leaders express concerns over 20A 

Amidst the unfolding drama over the 20th Amendment Bill, Sri Lanka has managed to capture the attention of three foreign countries – China, India, and the US. 

Following a virtual bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few weeks back, where discussions focused on bilateral relations and the Indian-funded projects in Sri Lanka, the attention of the Chinese also focused on the island nation. 

It is as a result of this attention and prominence placed by the Chinese on Sri Lanka in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Yang Jiechi led a delegation of Chinese officials to Sri Lanka the previous week. 

During the brief visit, Jiechi held discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on the 9th.

The Chinese Embassy tweeted a few days after Jiechi’s visit that “a $ 500 million concessional loan” has been requested by the Finance Ministry from a “China financial institute” and that it was under negotiation. This loan negotiation is in addition to Beijing’s $ 90 million grant to Sri Lanka, announced soon after Jiechi’s visit. 

State Minister of Money, Capital Markets, and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal had said the Government will use the $ 500 million loan from the China Development Bank (CDB) for budgetary support. 

According to Cabraal, this would be in addition to the $ 500 million loan obtained earlier this year and the agreement for the fresh loan would be signed between the Finance Ministry and the CDB. 

Soon after the Chinese delegation left the shores of Sri Lanka, news of an impending visit of a senior US state official hit the stands. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on 28 October and during his visit, is expected to hold discussions with President Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. 

An advance team from the US is expected to arrive in the country to lay the groundwork for Pompeo’s visit. Members of the advance team will be required to undergo PCR tests. 

Given Sri Lanka’s geographical positioning in the Indian Ocean, the focus on the island nation by the Chinese has undoubtedly got the Indians and the Americans all trying their best to push their respective interests in Sri Lanka. 

The cold war between US and China that has seen the former blacklisting many Chinese companies engaged in projects in the South East and South Asian regions, along with travel restrictions imposed on some senior members of the Chinese Communist Party, shows the possibility of being extended to the shores of Sri Lanka.

However, President Rajapaksa has clearly outlined the country’s non-aligned, friendly foreign policy that gives no space for external interference and it would now be put to the test. 

Bathiudeena drama 

Another non-20th Amendment political development that unfolded last week was the Police chase for former Minister and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Leader Rishad Bathiudeen. 

The “Rishad-Police” drama started with the Attorney General (AG) directing the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to arrest Bathiudeen over the alleged misappropriation of public funds. 

However, with the Magistrate refusing to issue an arrest warrant, saying there was no need for one, the CID deployed several teams to take Bathiudeen into custody. 

However, even by Friday (16), the Police had failed to arrest Bathiudeen, as he could not be found. 

Bathiudeen meanwhile filed a writ application at the Court of Appeal through his lawyers on Thursday (15), seeking a court order to prevent his arrest. 

Then Minister of Industry and Commerce Bathiudeen, Project Director Mohamed Yaseen Samsudeen, and Project Accountant Alagarathnam Manoranjan are accused of violating Article 82(1) of the Presidential Elections Act No. 15 of 1981 by misappropriating public funds amounting to Rs. 9.5 million. 

They had allegedly misused 222 buses belonging to the state-owned Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) to transport internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Puttalam to the Silavathurai Polling Division in Mannar during the 2019 presidential election. 

The Fort Magistrate last week imposed a travel ban on Bathiudeen on the request of the CID. 

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), of which the ACMC is a coalition partner, has condemned ongoing attempts to arrest Bathiudeen, calling the move politically motivated.  

SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, issuing a press release, stated that Bathiudeen, as the then Minister for Industry and Resettlement, had obtained written permission from the Ministry’s Project Office to obtain funding to hire buses from the SLTB to transport displaced persons from Negombo to Mannar, to exercise their vote at the last presidential election.   

“Furthermore, the Chairman of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya had given written authorisation to the Chairman of the SLTB to make the necessary arrangements to transport the displaced persons,” Madduma Bandara had said, pointing out that the Project Management Unit of the Ministry had made the necessary payments for the service after the election was over.  

“The Government is making baseless allegations regarding Rishad Bathiudeen and have begun a staged drama by arresting a police officer who was assigned to protect him and by taking into custody firearms which were issued by the State for his security. They are displaying these to the media and trying to mislead the public,” the SJB General Secretary had said. 

According to Madduma Bandara, Bathiudeen was only doing what was expected of him as the Minister for Industry and Resettlement, and charged that the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is yet to settle Rs. 145 million in dues to the SLTB for services during the said election.  

20A heats up 

Apart from the Bathiudeen drama, political circles are eagerly awaiting the parliamentary sessions scheduled for this week. 

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena is expected to read out the observations of the Supreme Court that have been sent to him regarding the 20th Amendment Bill. 

The Bill would then have to be taken up for debate with the necessary changes to the Amendment being made at the committee stage of the parliamentary debate. 

The parliamentary party leaders on Friday (16) decided to debate the 20th Amendment in Parliament on Wednesday (21) and Thursday (22).

However, the 20th Amendment Bill has created quite a rift within the governing party ranks. The past few weeks saw several governing party parliamentarians as well as nationalist organisations affiliated to the Government making public statements against certain clauses in the proposed piece of legislation. 

They also expressed disappointment at the lack of a proper dialogue on the 20th Amendment. 

It is in the backdrop that a meeting of the governing party parliamentarians was organised on 9 October evening at Temple Trees convened by Prime Minister Rajapaksa to discuss the 20th Amendment. 

The meeting was aimed at discussing the contents of the 20th Amendment, but it ended up in pandemonium.

President Rajapaksa had headed the meeting and former President Maithripala Sirisena as well as Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs had also attended it.

The meeting that had commenced around 4 p.m. had lasted for over two-and-a-half hours and concluded at 6.30 p.m. 

Explaining difficulties 

At the outset of the meeting, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman, Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris had explained the difficulties in removing certain officials like the Attorney General (AG) and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) due to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. 

He had explained that the need for introducing the 20th Amendment while abolishing the 19th Amendment was important, as the country had been governed by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through various cabinet subcommittees during the previous Government under President Sirisena. 

However, objections were raised against Prof. Peiris’ reasoning with a ruling party member noting that the removal of the AG and the IGP was not connected with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. 

The MP had pointed out that then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had moved a motion in Parliament which had allowed the then Government to remove the AG and the IGP at any moment by passing a resolution in Parliament with a majority vote under Act No. 5 of 2002.     

However, the President had intervened and objected to the statement. 

Meanwhile, briefing them on matters relating to government auditing, Justice Minister Ali Sabry had noted that such auditing is useless. 

Citing examples from auditing in Malaysia and India, Sabry had explained that auditing by the Government has not brought any tangible benefits to the country. 

Chaotic meeting 

It is learnt that the President had not agreed with the statements made by MP Gevindu Kumaratunga related to the clauses in the 20th Amendment. 

Kumaratunga had urged the head of the meeting to permit him to express his views on the 20th Amendment, as they are the people who shaped public opinion to bring the Government into power and helped Rajapaksa assume the presidency. 

He had complained that persons in air-conditioned rooms, who had not done anything towards bringing the “Pohottuwa” into power, were now trying to mislead the governing party.   

The President had said: “There is nothing to discuss. I am the Executive President of this country, elected by a massive mandate of 6.9 million people to change the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and develop the country. Therefore, don’t hinder my work unnecessarily.” 

The President, during the meeting, had clearly indicated who was calling the shots. 

It is learnt that the President had also objected when Minister Wimal Weerawansa had inquired as to why the parliamentary group was summoned for a meeting if their suggestions were not required.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa had then intervened and had requested the President to allow party leaders to express their views. 

However, the President had not agreed with the Prime Minister’s request, stating that he had received the people’s mandate to work and he could not do so with the 19th Amendment. 

Thereafter, speaking on behalf of the SLFP, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva had noted the need to implement the 20th Amendment. 

Responding promptly, Minister Weerawansa had criticised de Silva before the President, saying: “This man, Nimal, is a crook and a coward.” Weerawansa had said that it was de Silva who had walked up to him in Parliament and expressed his concerns about the 20th Amendment and commended him (Weerawansa) for publicly raising objections over some of the contents in the proposed piece of legislation. 

“Mr. President, many leaders in this country have been wronged by such rogues. Therefore, it is better for you to be careful,” Weerawansa had charged. 

Thereafter, speaking on behalf of the President, Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi had reiterated the need of abolishing the 19th Amendment, as it was enacted in Parliament to take political revenge from opponents. 

Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara had expressed his concerns over the 20th Amendment despite disruptions.

Nanayakkara had vehemently criticised Justice Minister Sabry’s submissions on government auditing amidst obstructions by some ruling party backbenchers at the meeting.      

He had noted that he is fully aware of the need to audit state institutions as a member of the parliamentary COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and had asked why there is hesitation to audit the President’s and Prime Minister’s Offices. 

At this moment, several MPs including Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Vidura Wickramanyake, and Tiran Alles had stepped up to express their views amidst objections raised by the President.  

The President had reiterated that the people have given him a mandate and he will act accordingly and there was no need for any more discussions about the matter.

The Prime Minister had then concluded the proceedings.     

It was later learnt that several governing party backbenchers loyal to SLPP Founder and theoretician Basil Rajapaksa had met with him (Basil) several hours before the meeting at Temple Trees on the 20th Amendment. 

While the President had objected to the concerns raised by governing party members over the 20th Amendment, the group of backbenchers who had met with Basil earlier that day had heckled and jeered at the members who had spoken at the meeting. 

Difficult changes 

 Nevertheless, it was last week revealed that proposals made by governing party members to be included in the 20th Amendment Bill will not be included even at the committee stage of the debate in Parliament. 

Justice Minister Sabry has explained to the Cabinet of Ministers last week that only the amendments that had been presented to the Supreme Court through the AG could be subject to changes in the proposed piece of legislation. 

The Minister had further explained that the clauses that would require the holding of a referendum would also be subjected to changes at the committee stage in Parliament. 

The amendments to the 20th Amendment Bill proposed by the likes of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and Gevindu Kumaratunge are therefore, likely to be discarded. 

Wijeyadasa writes again 

Following the pandemonium at the parliamentary group meeting the previous week when discussing the proposed 20th Amendment Bill, former Cabinet Minister SLPP MP Rajapakshe last week wrote a second letter to President Rajapaksa requesting to formulate a new constitution instead of introducing the 20th Amendment. 

Rajapakshe had pointed out that in a situation where the country is facing a severe economic crisis triggered by Covid-19, it was unwise to create a constitutional crisis and fight over it. 

In addition, vehement opposition was also expressed among society against the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and the people who voted for the Government and the President had also become hopeless, he had noted. 

The law veteran had pointed out that he decided to raise his concerns over the 20th Amendment in a 10-page letter, as he and other ministers and MPs weren’t given an opportunity to express their opinions over the proposed Amendment; they were told there was no need to discuss the Amendment and that it would definitely be passed in Parliament by the President irrespective of the outcome of the meeting that was called at Temple Trees on 9 October to discuss the 20th Amendment.

Elaborating further, one-time Justice Minister Rajapakshe had also stated that the two points expressed by Education Minister Prof. G.L. Pieris at the beginning of the meeting were totally wrong.

Accordingly, the points, as explained by Rajapakshe, which were wrongly interpreted by Prof. Pieris, included the inability of the President under the 19th Amendment to remove the IGP and the AG, and to appoint a subcommittee within the Cabinet for economic activities and the holding of its chairmanship by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

The governing party MP had denied any connection between the two points raised by Prof. Pieris to the 19th Amendment. 

Rajapakshe has reiterated the negative aspects of the 20th Amendment under 10 subtopics in the letter. 

The 10 subtopics include: removing of several presidential powers, abolishing of the commissions needed for the country including the audit commission and procurement commission, removing the limitations introduced on the number of cabinet and state and deputy ministers, enabling the president to dissolve Parliament within a year from the inauguration, introducing provisions to present emergency acts, amending the law which disabled a dual citizen to become an MP or the president of the country, removing the Presidential Secretariat and Prime Minister’s Office from the Auditor General’s inspection, repealing the constitutional provisions which made it compulsory to audit an institution in which the State has shares of over 50%, removing the Bribery and Corruption Commission, and removing of the oath in the subsection for not dividing the country, which has already been accepted by the Justice Ministry which said it was a mistake. 

Hitting out

Soon after Rajapakshe’s second letter to the President became public, several senior SLPP members decided to take a stand against Rajapakshe. 

Convening a media conference at the SLPP head office, SLPP Maharagama Organiser Kanthi Kodikara had said that members of the SLPP had made great sacrifices and had even suffered behind bars in order to ensure the party won at the presidential and general elections. 

Also speaking at the news conference, former Mayor of Moratuwa Saman Lal Fernando, who is also the next in line to enter Parliament from the Colombo District, had said that the SLPPers had toiled to assume power to serve the people of the country and not to send people like Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to Parliament to criticise the Government.  

Another candidate from the Colombo District list, Attorney-at-Law Ravindra Jayasinghe, had said it was unjustified for an individual to secure a parliamentary seat through the SLPP and to later act against the party. 

The statements made by these senior SLPP members are a clear indication that Rajapakshe has earned the wrath of the pro-Rajapaksa SLPPers backing the 20th Amendment Bill.  

SLFP stance 

Meanwhile, former SLFP General Secretary and member of the Central Committee Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa noted that the implementation of the 20th Amendment would drag the country backwards. 

Piyadasa is known to be a close confidante of SLFP Leader Sirisena and he had made these observations during a media discussion in Kandy recently. 

Piyadasa had also noted that most of the agreements reached between the SLFP and SLPP were not honoured by the governing SLPP after the election and that some ministers were sidelining and harassing SLFPers in their electorates. 

Speaking further, he had stated that even Party Leader Sirisena was being subjected to stepmotherly treatment with even his security contingent being reduced. He had added that some members of the Government were of the view that attempts are being made to arrest Sirisena under the Easter Sunday attacks probe.

According to Piyadasa, when governing as an alliance, there should be mutual respect and the lack of it has resulted in many SLFPers being disillusioned with the Government. 

It is also learnt that after the general election, Sirisena had requested for Piyadasa to be appointed to Parliament through the SLPP National List, but SLPP seniors had ignored the request and appointed another member instead. 

Maha Sangha to the fore 

Amidst the continuing debate over the 20th Amendment, last week saw Buddhist, Catholic, and Christian religious leaders weighing in on the proposed piece of legislation. 

The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution rejects the core of democracy, which is one of the progressive elements of humanity, and hence should not be enacted, the Amarapura-Ramanna Samagri Maha Sangha Sabha stated last week. 

Issuing a statement, they noted: “Steps must be taken to draft a new constitution that upholds democracy and rule of law.” 

Following is the statement in full: 

The Amarapura-Ramanna Samagri Maha Sangha Sabha made its position clear on the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and further confirmed that the proposed amendment is regressive and paves the way for an undeveloped tribal society, that will seriously impede progressive characteristics of human society such as freedom of thought and action, and therefore, the Sangha Sabha decided to make a strong emphasis to the Government that they should not pass the proposed 20th Amendment. 

At present, most countries in the world have based their government systems on the democratic principle that the three branches of the state, i.e. the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, should keep the equilibrium by means of checks and balances on each other. In 1978, introducing a new Constitution, Mr. J.R. Jayewardene undermined the system of checks and balances and concentrated unprecedented powers in the executive branch of the government. Since then, a broad discussion took place in the country, and 37 years later, in 2015, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution restored those checks and balances removed by President Jayewardene. The proposed 20th Amendment once again threatens democracy by undermining the system of checks and balances. The end of this process will mark the birth of authoritarianism, arbitrary despotism. 

The Government, in support of the 20th Amendment, emphasises that their effort to bring in the 20th Amendment is to reverse some of the obstacles introduced by the 19th Amendment. However, here we wish to mention that justification put forth by the Government needs deeper scrutiny. The 19th Amendment clearly made some legislation that strengthens the sovereignty of the people. Some of the progressive enactments of the 19th Amendment are as follows: 

  1. Re-introducing the constitutional restriction for two terms for a president by Article 31 (2), which had been removed under the 18th Amendment; 
  2. Restricting foreign citizens from becoming Members of Parliament or President by Article 91 (c) XIII; 
  3. Establishment of a constitutional council to oversee appointments to important positions in public service; 
  4. Establishment of independent commissions by Article 41 (b) VI; 
  5. Subjecting the appointment of judges to superior courts by the President, to the approval of the Constitutional Council by Article 41 C. 

The above facts very clearly show that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is not a regressive reform as the Government claims. However, legal experts have pointed out technical shortcomings in the 19th Amendment; as such, any reform to the Constitution must attempt to redress the prevailing shortcomings and remedial action to address them. Instead, bringing in a new constitutional amendment such as the 20A, will only bring regressive reforms, add negativity and undemocratic features to the present Constitution. Following are some of the regressive elements proposed by the 20th Amendment. 

  1. Although the Parliament holds powers over public finance according to Article 148 of the Constitution, the 20th Amendment proposes to remove the offices of the President and the Prime Minister from the purview of the Auditor General, thus, not subjected to government audit. This contradicts the Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution that specify that people hold the sovereign power of the state; 
  2. The proposed changes to Articles 44, 45, and 47 under the 20th Amendment seem to invalidate the mandate and independence of the Members of Parliament; 
  3. The proposed 20th Amendment seems to subject the public service under direct political authority; 
  4. The proposed 20th Amendment, by Article 103, seems to remove the independent mechanism for elections; 
  5. The proposed 20th Amendment, by Article 109, seems to challenge the independent existence of the judiciary; 
  6. The proposed 20th Amendment, by Article 122, seems to abolish the right of the people to plead justice from the judiciary; 
  7. The proposed 20th Amendment, by Article 153, seems to open space for embezzlement, fraud, and corruption. 

In consideration of the above, it is quite clear what the country needs now is a new constitution that suits a modern nation to face the challenges and steer the country forward, hence not another amendment to the Constitution that undermines and paralyses aspects of democracy and humanity. 

Therefore, we hereby kindly emphasise to the Government to foster a broad public discourse on a new constitution that suits the country, and ensure that the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is not enacted and conform the same by the Parliament. 

Pallekande Rathanasara Thera, Maha Lekhakadhikari, Sri Lanka Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabhawa, Aththangane Sasana Rathana Thera, Maga Lekhakadhikari, Sri Lanka Ramanna Maha Nikaya 

 No decision says Amarapura 

However, the day after the statement was issued, the Amarapura Nikaya said in a statement that the Sangha Councils of the Amarapura Nikaya had not met and there had not been any discussion on the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution. 

The statement further noted that no comment can be made without studying the 20th Amendment thoroughly. 

Shastrapathi Ganthune Assaji Mahanayake Thera of the Amarapura Nikaya said his personal view is that the Executive should be more powerful than at present. 

 Catholic Bishops weigh in 

The Catholic Bishops Conference last Tuesday (13) also rejected the proposed 20th Amendment, pointing out it fails to safeguard and protect the sovereignty of the people and warned it will not strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy.    

In the wake of the change of Government following the parliamentary elections, the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka stated it’s constrained to share its grave concern to protect the sacredness of the State that transcends the mutable political and governing bodies. 

The statement further read that the 1978 Constitution changed primarily the Westminster-type cabinet democracy to an executive presidency. Since then, 19 amendments have been made, citing various reasons. However, one cannot deny that the main reasons have been to ensure economic growth, national security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the island nation. Apparently, the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution under consideration, does not seem to put forward any other rationale for the move.  

“Whether it is an amendment or the drafting of a new constitution, the sovereignty of the people should always be safeguarded and protected. In all probability, the contents of the 20th Amendment will find its way into the envisioned new constitution. It is imperative then to closely examine the proposed 20th Amendment before it is voted upon in Parliament,” the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka said. 

The statement went on to say that the executive presidency has been the bone of contention since it was created in 1978. All elected presidents since 1994 vowed to abolish the executive presidency with powers vested in it by the 1978 Constitution and transfer power to the democratically elected Parliament, but none had the political will to do so for reasons not unknown to the people, the statement recalled.

The Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka emphasised that concentration of power in an individual without checks and balances does not augur well for a Democratic Socialist Republic. 

“A two-thirds majority of the members in Parliament based on political parties does not necessarily manifest the true conscience of the people. Therefore, let the entire membership of the Parliament appoint an independent constitutional council comprising a majority of men and women of proven integrity from the society, who will take care of drafting a new constitution which ensures transparent democracy, the rule of law, and the equality of all citizens,” it said. 

The Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka further said that it is of the view that rules need not be changed due to the vagaries and inconsistencies of individual players but to identify and elect or appoint suitable persons who will abide by the rules to safeguard truth, justice, and the wellbeing of the country. It is the bounden duty of the democratically elected Parliament to create wholesome governing structures capable of moving this country forward. 

“The drafters must beware to plug the loopholes that lead to multiple interpretations. Greater clarity is needed if the Constitution is to serve the citizenry,” the Catholic Bishops Conference added. 

NCC joins bandwagon 

Meanwhile, the National Christian Council (NCC) of Sri Lanka called on the Government to preserve aspects of the 19th Amendment that promote the independence of institutions and accountable governance. 

In a statement issued on Tuesday (13), the NCC urged the Government to make all the changes to the 20th Amendment available to the public. 

“We call upon the Government to preserve those parts of the 19th Amendment that promote the independence of key institutions and accountable governance. Since one of the main objectives of a constitution is to protect and empower the people vis-a-vis the government, all amendments to the 20th Amendment should be made accessible to the public so that its contents can be considered before the Amendment is debated in Parliament.” 

The NCC voiced its concern over the process and substance of the 20th Amendment. 

“The NCC of Sri Lanka expresses its deep concern about the manner in which the 20th Amendment to the Constitution is sought to be introduced and several substantive provisions of the Amendment itself.”