The singing of the national anthem became a matter of controversy last year at the National Independence Day celebration when it was sung only in Sinhala and not in both the official languages as it had been sung in the previous years in keeping with the national reconciliation process. The singing of the national anthem in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages is in accordance with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011 when he was president.
The issue of remembering the past has been a source of division within the country. The destruction of a memorial within the premises of the University of Jaffna in early January threatened to escalate to serious conflict. However, immediate remedial action taken by the Vice Chancellor of the university helped to defuse the situation created by this action. He apologized for what had happened and laid a foundation stone for the reconstruction of the monument.
The government’s intention to replace the present constitution with a new constitution offers the possibility of developing a framework of governance that could address the conflicts between the ethnic and religious communities that have marred the post-independence progress of Sri Lanka. Under colonial rule Sri Lanka was at the top of Asia’s economies and described as the “Switzerland of the East.” However, the inability to forge a unified polity, and ensure a feeling of equal belonging and participation in national policymaking, led to decades of conflict. Politicians over the past seven decades have to take responsibility for the current state of decline. Even today, with the three decade long civil war ended more than 11 years, Sri Lanka has yet to find a consensual solution to its ethnic and religious conflicts.
One of the pledges of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been to provide a new constitution to the country. In giving leadership to the passage of the 20th Amendment, and securing the necessary 2/3 majority in parliament, the president demonstrated that the government has the ability to honour this pledge of a new constitution. The government’s decision to extend the deadline for the submission of constitutional proposals by the general public to December 31 of this year is to be welcomed. This is an indication of the responsiveness of the government to the difficulties that people have been facing to gather together for discussion on the issue due the spread of the Covid virus.
From the time the first Covid death was reported in Sri Lanka in March this year, the government’s policy has been to cremate Covid victims. This has been a source of unusual controversy as it goes against both science and religion. Islam in particular requires the burial of all human beings who die regardless of the circumstances of death. The World Health Organisation’s Covid guidelines permit burial of Covid victims. However, the government continues to take the position that Covid burial is not permissible due to the threat to the health and safety of the larger population as it leads to the possibility of groundwater contamination.
The rushed passage of the 20th Amendment by the requisite 2/3 majority in parliament reinforces the dominance of the presidency in the governance of the country. There was unprecedented criticisms of the 20th Amendment by sections of the religious clergy and civil society. The National Peace Council voiced its concern about the passage of the 20th Amendment as it reduced the system of checks and balances, and vitiated the independence of key state institutions which are the pillars of parliamentary democracy. If not for the support of ethnic minority parliamentarians who broke ranks from their party leaderships a 2/3rd majority required for constitutional change may not have been a reality.
There has been an unprecedented public outcry against the draft 20th Amendment which is presently being subjected to judicial scrutiny. Some of the most respected civic organisations in the country, including religious clergy, trade unions, the State Auditors Association and the Bar Association have expressed their serious objections to the proposed constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, the government appears determined to strengthen the presidency at the cost of other institutions. The government’s public position has been that the presidency needs to be provided with the necessary powers and immunities to proceed with the urgent task of developing the country. The National Peace Council urges the government to reconsider its position.
The proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution has been approved by the cabinet of ministers and put before the general public prior to being debated in parliament. This far reaching constitutional change seeks to centralize power in the institution of the Executive Presidency with the justification of ensuring stability in the country and safeguarding national sovereignty. In terms of the amendment, the President can remove the Prime Minister, a member of the cabinet, any other minister or a Deputy Minister and authority to dissolve Parliament after completion of sittings for a period of one year. This massive transfer of power to the Presidency has been justified to the electorate as stemming from the inability of the previous government to govern effectively under the 19th Amendment to the constitution.
The recently concluded general election has given the ruling party and its allies the 2/3 majority they sought in parliament. The hopes of the general population are high. The National Peace Council congratulates the government on achieving a victory never achieved before in Sri Lanka under the proportional electoral system and even considered impossible. With great power comes great responsibility and we hope that the duo of president and parliament will deliver this to the people so that this victory sets the stage for an era of magnanimous politics. It is our hope that the opposition works in cooperation with the government but also be a check and balance and be outspoken when necessary. In particular we want to see that the rights of all people are respected through good governance measures that are implemented rather than being misinterpreted for partisan purposes.
The week of July 23 marks the 37th year of one of the darkest periods of Sri Lanka’s history. Beginning on this day and continuing for a week there were riots that targeted the Tamils living in the capital city of Colombo and elsewhere where they lived as a minority that led to death and destruction. The Sri Lankan state failed in its duty to protect its citizens. At the personal level the events of that day changed the course of life of many irreversibly and also the history of Sri Lanka. The loss spanned life, property, memories and material treasures that constitute personal histories in the lives of families. In national terms, the communal divide became further entrenched which may have been the cause for the rise of Tamil armed struggle to a mass scale with systematic international intervention soon following.