The Sunday Leader

19th Amendment: Where To From Here?

By Lionel Guruge

With the passing of the 19th Amendment, the nation witnessed a turning point for Sri Lankan politics. The journey, started by pioneering thinker N. M. Perera in 1978 as envisioned in his speeches, has now reached its pinnacle with the passing of this bill. There are many stakeholders both great and small that should be shown gratitude and respect for making this herculean task a success.

The passing of this Amendment must be seen as a success for all those involved, instead of focusing on singular parties that may or may not have been more instrumental than others at this juncture. Never in recent Sri Lankan political history has there been such a heated debate over a topic before, and it was especially rewarding to observe how actively and passionately Ministers and politicians alike partook in this reform process all the way through to the third reading and Committee stage. 212 votes were cast in favour of this amendment, and was the first time such a broad discussion was conducted since the passing of the 17th Amendment in 1978. However, now that the Amendment has been passed, many more factors have to be taken into consideration.

 

The Sri Lankan Constitution and Policy Reformation

Bills and Amendments are brought to the floor and passed in Parliament ever so often. During this period, there might be increased public debate and various opinions from all parties involved; however the noise subsides and the debates recede once the bill is passed. What is more concerning is the lack of awareness surrounding these bills; a bill may state the establishment of a certain committee, but to regulating transparency when electing members to these committees are not focal points after the bill passes in parliament, which is upsetting because much of its force and effectiveness is lost in the implementation stages.

This is quite evident when looking at the status of the NMDRA bill passed earlier this year; as suspected, there was significant upheaval as to the constituents of the bill and more time was given for recommendations to be added, but since its passing there has been no monitoring of its implementation. What is of importance at junctures such as this is the way in which citizens of the nation, especially experts and academics in the field take action with regards to its implementation.

The 19th Amendment will now establish independent commissions, but how the members of these commissions will be selected, how it will be regulated, how transparency will be given due consideration, and how success will be measured are all areas that need to be given serious thought. Another factor that needs an equal measure of consideration is the finances allocated for the implementation of these policies, which if done incorrectly and without strict regulation, the development of this nation will face a sever drawbacks. Therefore, there is a need to build a mechanism by which the regulation of these policies are monitored in Sri Lanka.

The time of passive observance has drawn to an end; this was quite evident in the incredible effort put in by various civil society collectives and individuals into the passing of the 19th Amendment; however, the mere passing of Amendments and bills is simply not enough anymore. There must be continued perseverance from citizens from the birth of a legislation till its implementation. Only then can citizens be considered proactive participants in democracy and good governance.

Included into the list of individuals that need to be commended during the ordeal of passing the 19th Amendment is Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although this might seem paradoxical, his decision to allow the voice of the people to reign superior to his personal agenda shows a certain respect for democracy. It is worth mentioning that he had the opportunity to prevent the 19th Amendment from ever seeing the light of day, but instead he stopped short of such an action and such a decision must be commended. Also, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarantunga’s involvement in the civil society movement is another commendable action. Such civil society movements must now redirect their focus into the passing and following through of the 20th Amendment as well, which will bring about much needed reform in the Sri Lankan electoral system.

 

Maithripala Sirisena and the 19th Amendment

The President Maithripala Sirisena exhibited impressive leadership qualities by passing the 19th Amendment and thereby abiding by the promise he gave to his voters. The arguably exhausting hours he spent in Parliament on the day the bill was put into a vote, the careful negotiations and the consideration given to its recommendations are all factors that prove his dedication to see this Amendment through till the end.

No other President that enjoyed executive powers has worked so hard to curb his own powers before. However it is worth mentioning that if the Draft Constitution of 2000 was given the place it deserved in Sri Lankan politics in that time, none of the effort put into the 19th Amendment today would have been necessary. If there had not been such heavy resistance from opposing parties for the passing of that draft Constitution, the citizens of the Nation would have been enjoying a freedom and sense of democracy far more developed than the limits of the 19th Amendment by now.

During his speech addressing the nation as well as his speech in Parliament, President Sirisena spent a considerable amount of time in retrospect, reflecting on the mistakes of the former government. However, with a coalition government in power, perhaps the best course of action is not to keep dwelling in the shadows of the past but take initiative to move forward to remedy these mistakes, as he did with the passing of the 19th Amendment. Also, one important focus the President seems to have overlooked is on the 13th Amendment. In his address to the Nation,

President Sirisena conducted his speech exclusively in Sinhalese and with no translation in Tamil, thereby giving no due standing to the second official language of Sri Lanka. This is of concern especially considering that there was heavy support from the Tamil population for him during the elections and to disregard the need to broadcast this crucial speech in Tamil seemed insensitive to the needs of the Tamil population. However, it was heartening to notice that his address in Parliament regarding his thoughts on the 19th Amendment before it was passed had taken this into consideration and provided Tamil subtitles underneath his address; a move that would have proven far more effective if used in his address to the Nation.

In staying with the spirit of language policies it is worth spending some time on Parliament policies as well, specifically the Hansard report. The Hansard reports are penned down only in the language that is spoken by the politician at that time, and no translation is offered therewith. Though it has not crossed many people’s minds, the Hansard report can be considered a very useful tool in bridging the gap between the North and South. The needs of the people in the North are not transmitted to the people in south and vice versa, because the needs that are presented by their respective ministers in Parliament are not translated. This is why even if delayed, a translated version of the Hansard report should be available to the public, so that they may be more in tune with the issues facing all citizens.

Similarly, if Provincial Council discussions in the North are made available or given more airspace in Sinhala media news outlets instead of the room given to extremist sentiments of a handful of civil society, the media will be perpetuating a more knowledgeable and sensitive population. Therefore with regards to language policy, President Sirisena has still a fair distance to tread, and he is now presented with the perfect opportunity to take such significant strides towards reconciliation.

At the Central Committee stage debate held on the 28th, Dinesh Gunawardene made a very salient point in this regard; his decision to postpone the proceedings of the Central Committee due to his call for the Amendment to be provided in the official languages of Sri Lanka bear witness to his good leadership qualities. His proclaiming is a triumph for language rights in Sri Lanka, and such sentiments must be echoed around the nation.

It is rather disheartening to note that there is no Ministry for Languages today in Sri Lanka. It is quite baffling to think that a nation that recovered from a long drawn out conflict has not understood the gravity of the need to have an institution that will promote language equality and foster reconciliation through cultural diversity. It is a fervent hope that the current government would establish a plan of action to remedy this and reinstate the Ministry that was dismantled.

The next challenge facing President Sirisena is strengthening the internal mechanism of his political party. As the chairman of the SLFP, the President has embarked on a mission to win over the party members of SLFP in the Hambantota, Galle, Kurunegala and Kandy regions and has directly stated his preference for an SLFP victory in the upcoming elections. If this is to occur, his greatest obstacle will be to strengthen the internal democratic mechanism within SLFP which is currently in disarray. Especially with regards to appointing leaders, his goal must be to strengthen provincial leadership from the bottom up and to create active participants in leadership.

The budget and financial records of the party should be made transparent, and the President must portray exemplary democratic leadership qualities by appointing members to committees such as the Central Committee and Executive Committee based on merit and not on personal preferences, and such merits must be made available unlike his decision previously to appoint 5 new members to the Central Committee with no transparency as to their qualifications. If he performs in this manner, he will by example lead the rest of his Ministers in Parliament and be held in high regard as a true leader.

A certain level of discrepancy has also developed within the current government to a point where one side of the government is unaware of what the other side of government is doing, especially with regards to establishing the Financial Crimes Commission and summoning the former President to the Bribery Commission, the inconsistency between the President and the Cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister was quite apparent. A perfect summary to this situation was given by Gatabe Nayaka Thero when he brought this non uniformity into question by stating that it seems like there is more than one President in power.

When a coalition government is in power, members of that government must leave their individual gains aside for the benefit of the people; if not, only the citizens will stand to lose the most from this quagmire. Both the President and the cabinet Ministers must be well aware of their individual responsibilities and work in unison for the country.

A point of commemoration must be given to the President for his initiative to reinstate the singing of the National Anthem in both official languages of Sri Lanka. What is remaining now in this regard is to foster a better understanding of this topic in society.

However, President Sirisena must also pay special attention to the inconsistency of the Provincial politics of Sri Lanka. As stated in the 13th Amendment, the Concurrent List must be abided and there must be uniform treatment and powers vested for all Provincial Councils; whereas the current status quo favours central government service whilst provincial level government service is ill-treated.

 

Ranil Wickramasinghe and his role as PM

It is important to mention that Ranil Wickremesinghe has always strived to work according to the needs of the people of Sri Lanka and in this regard he has stood apart from certain other past leaders of the UNP. He also recurrently states the importance of creating a sound people’s government. In this regard he is tasked with the important duty of establishing Constitutional reform and he will need a massive backing from all parties.

As President Sirisena continues the promotion of his work plan in the above mentioned regions, the Prime Minister has journeyed to the Ampara and Badulla Districts to promote his work plan and gain support by UNP members in those regions. This is a sign of good communication between the two leaders. Just as the President, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe is also presented with the need to reform his party internally and set in place an internal democratic mechanism. As such, the same tasks the President is faced with in his political party should be replicated by the Prime Minister with his party. His appointment of personnel into leadership roles in certain institutions as well as the content of his speeches in these past few Parliamentary discussions have not been conducted with much deliberation. Also, the general oppositions’ recommendation to curb the powers given to the Prime Ministers’ post in the 19th Amendment in its early days was not received with much flexibility by Ranil Wickramasinghe, resulting in the Amendment being referred till the third reading of the committee stage. Such procrastination could have been avoided with ease if the Prime Minister accepted this reform when it was presented to him.

 

Responsibilities of the minor parties

It was especially noticeable that the TNA was far more instrumental in working on the 19th Amendment than they have with other referendums in the past with regards to the support they gave for it. However, they must now give more attention to the needs of the people in the North that look to them for assistance. There is a void in the Northern Provincial Councils that fail to serve its population adequately. The laws that concern the people of the North can and should be established by statutes and it doesn’t seem to have occurred yet. The needs of those people are different to the needs of populations in other areas of the nation, and thus the Provincial Councils in that area must have more customized statutes, giving due consideration to the minorities and their rights in those areas as well. If such statutes are brought about, they may even serve as a template for southern Provincial Councils to follow suit.

The Muslim Congress also provided considerable support to the 19th Amendment,. However the decisions they have made in the Northern Districts are questionable. There is evidence to believe that the Muslim Congress in the areas of Vavuniya, Mannar and Ampara have worked specifically to uplift the livelihoods of the Muslim population in that area and haven’t given enough consideration to the Tamil or Sinhala populations.

This is clearly not a sound practice of good governance, and does more to hinder the progress of reconciliation that uplifts it. A greater responsibility is vested with the JVP at this political juncture. However, acute observation of their activities in the past few weeks have revealed an interesting pattern. In the past few political speeches and addresses, JVP members seemed to echo the exact sentiment as the UNP; it seemed as though they were reiterating what the UNP members said without showing individual thought in their decisions as a party. People are now starting to wonder whether the UNP and JVP are working in unison. The JVP must be mindful of the power and responsibility they have as an independent party and show more individual thought in their actions and statements.

Special mention must be given to the abysmal living conditions of Tamil plantation communities in the Uva and Central provinces. The Provincial Councils seemed to have completely overlooked their predicaments; over 250,000 plantation families in the Uva and Central Provinces are yet to receive an address for their lodging, which has resulted in serious consequences.

It is the duty of the Provincial Councils in those regions to bring these matters to the forefront and remedy this by introduction of specific statutes. The TNA has a heavy responsibility in this regard, if not on a national level at least on a Provincial level.

Citizens must not forget the crucial role they play in the overall democratic mechanisms of the country. To have true democracy and upholding of the law, citizens must engage at the grassroots level to help themselves in their daily lives.

We are now presented with a unique opportunity to strengthen democracy throughout the nation, and Civil Society collectives must be especially mindful of this fact.  The role of the media is understated in this regard; media personnel must realize the importance of awakening the citizenry to such realities as they did so when reporting on the 19th Amendment.

If this nation is to develop, it will need the assistance of all the stakeholders involved, from a citizens’ level to the government level. If true unison is shown in all aspects, substantial and admirable change can occur in Sri Lanka.

 

lguruge8@gmail.com

1 Comment for “19th Amendment: Where To From Here?”

  1. sangaralingham

    the country is diverse with different ethnic racial religious linguistic group. there should be someone with responsibility to see things are done right to acheive this

Comments are closed

Photo Gallery

Log in | Designed by Gabfire themes