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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 46, New Delhi, October 31, 2020

Sri Lanka: A lessened democracy | Apratim Mukarji

Saturday 31 October 2020, by Apratim Mukarji

Late in October 2020, Sri Lanka’s all-powerful Executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his eldest brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa together brought about a constitutional amendment which seeks to remove a recent handicap that was constitutionally placed on the presidential powers. Their move has since led to a turmoil in the country with significant sections of the population opposing it constitutionally.

 The oldest democracy in South Asia, Sri Lanka has travelled through decades of heavily flawed practices of democracy. Originally conceived as a Westminster type of parliamentary democracy in which Parliament was conceived as the supreme receptor and executor of constitutionally guaranteed rights, the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community, manoeuvred to corrupt the system by introducing various amendments to the original constitution from time to time. The deepest damages to the ideal of parliamentary democracy occurred during the premiership of J. R. Jayewardene who managed to promote himself from the prime minister’s chair to that of an unprecedented executive president’s within a year of his election. The presidents since then, including some of the original opponents of the executive presidential system, have jealously added to the powers of the office and played havoc with rules and regulations at will.

  However, back in 2015 a halt was called to this merry trend which had by then converted Sri Lanka into a completely bruised democracy with little traces of democracy. That year proved to be exceptional on several counts. In a move to gather together all the political and social opponents of the Rajapaksas who had ruled the country with an iron hand for the previous ten years (2005-2015), a coalition of very unlikely partners---in which the two historically inimical political parties came to be together---and put up a presidential candidate who had defected from the party led and dominated by the Rajapaksa clan, an act which was till then undetected, and succeeded in its design. This coalition government, led by President Maithripla Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, however, fell apart, and in 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa successfully defeated the ruling coalition’s candidate and became president. One of his first tasks was to appoint Mahinda Rajpaksa as his prime minister. Together, the two brothers set about on a course which has now culminated in the adoption of the 20th. Amendment to the Constitution.

  However, the international community and the Tamils and Christians in the country have put up a stiff resistance to this move and even approached the Supreme Court to halt the process which, they feel, is ultra vires the Constitution. The court has allowed the amendment to be placed on the Constitution but with a rider that four points in it need to be either corrected or put for a popular referendum.

  It is now time for us to appreciate what kind of damage the amendment can do to the ideals and practices of democratic rights. For help, we turn to Democracy Index, a U.K.-based democracy-watcher. Democracy Index tells us that democracy in a strict sense is a very rare entity and lists only twenty-five democracies as “fully functional democracies” out of the 193 member-states in the United Nations. Of this total number of 193, only 166 are sovereign states of whom 164 are members in the world organisation. Sri Lanka is one of these sovereign states.

  However, it will be of interest to see how Democracy Index measures this island-nation’s status as a democracy after the Sri Lankan Parliament’s adoption of the 20th. Amendment to the Constitution which happened on October 22. We have already seen that this change in the country’s democracy has been carried out in the face of a stiff and bourgeoning resistance from the opposition parties, academics, political activists and the minority communities, especially the Tamils and the Christians. A third point to emphasize is that the watchdog applies as many as 60 indicators to measure a country’s level of democracy; obviously an exhaustive analysis is carried out in each case.

   The United States and other Western democracies have already publicly protested this move by the incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and advised a reversal without delay. We have seen that some opposition parties and organisations representing minority communities have challenged the amendment in the Supreme Court. In its verdict delivered on October 20, the apex court has allowed the amendment to be implemented but only after the government holds a referendum among the people. A referendum would not be necessary if the changes suggested by the Supreme Court Bench are carried out by the government in the meantime.

   While the oldest democracy in the world has been prompt in criticizing and opposing the amendment, the largest democracy has been remarkably discreet, its focus being trained on the question of granting regional autonomy to the ethnic Tamils of the north-east. As we all know, New Delhi has been very punctilious in this regard, in fact never shifting from its target ever since the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord which required the Sri Lankan government to do the needful in this regard. Just as New Delhi has stuck to its demand, Colombo has equally steadfastly refused to do so. But the friendship between the two neighbours, despite the glaring inequality in their respective strength, has only gained in strength ever since the Narendra Modi government fine-tuned its policy toward this neighbour. All of this, we are being told, is because of China’s growing influence (which is admittedly very malevolent for us) must be fought and that is possible only through not opening our mouth about Sri Lanka’s abominable human rights record.

   So much care taken not to hurt Lankan sentiments has ultimately produced a non-starter; Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a statement issued after his telephonic talk (on September 27) with Modi, forgot to mention the 13th. Amendment which, New Delhi let slip perhaps through inadvertence, was indeed India’s main point of concern. The Sri Lankan counterpart also forgot to mention that it was the Indian Prime Minister who called him to discuss matters of mutual interest. On the other hand, Rajapaksa dwelt happily on his brother’s government’s superb (the praise having been showered by no less than the World Health Organisation) handling of the coronavirus pandemic, economic development, geopolitics in the region, economy, defence and tourism. No mention of the Tamil cause! Some forgetfulness, no doubt.

   Levity aside, the independent observers in the country have been determinedly carrying out their campaign against the amendment. Academic Jayadeva Uyangoda called the government’s move “a very wrong approach to constitution-making.” Writing in Sri Lanka Briefs, he said, “The proposed 20th. Amendment has several major defects. One of its key faults is that its sponsors and framers have chosen a very wrong approach to constitution-making.” (Sept. 28, 2020)

    Elaborating on his arguments, he wrote that there were several reasons why this approach was wrong. The first was the refusal to learn constructive lessons from the past constitutional reform experiments. The lessons that seemed to have been learned were all the wrong ones.

   The second was that the framers of the 20A were not “animated” by the larger democratic interests of the political community which the Sri Lankan people constituted collectively. Instead, the primary motivating factor seemed to be “political self-interest.”

   The third was that the proposed amendment was “totally devoid” of the democratic normative framework relevant to Sri Lankan society and its own progressive modernist legacies of “constitutionalism.” Instead, in disinheriting the progressive legacies of Lankan society’s modern political and social life, it hd built itself on one or two “dreadful and destructive” experiments of constitution-making in the recent past.

    Uyangoda warned that any popular mandate for a new constitution should not be interpreted as license to undermine or remove the democratic checks and balances in the exercise if political power. “Th eventual political cost of ignoring the minority demands for political equality and equal citizenship rights in a constitutional scheme can be quite high. It will create a condition of unending ethnic tension in society as well between the state and the minorities,” he added.

   The Rajapaksas appear to lend little credence to fears of a re-ignition of Tamil militancy and an eventual separatist movement as not only far-fetched but also firmly out of the realm of possibility. They feel that the backbone of the major minority community has been broken forever and that Tamils will never again go again for military adventurism. They may not be far off the mark.

(Author: Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and is available at mukarjiapratim[at]

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