01 November 2018, London
President Sirisena while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 26th, urged the world to look at Sri Lanka with ‘a fresh pair of eyes’ considering the “tremendous progress” made by his government towards reconciliation, restoration of democratic freedom, human rights and the rule of law. He went on to announce, “I am pleased to state that I was able to relinquish these emperor-like excessive powers and transfer them to the Parliament of Sri Lanka, fulfilling the utmost duty of an elected leader.” It is indeed an irony of the highest degree, exactly a month later, on October 26th, President Sirisena unconstitutionally sacked the Prime Minister and then prorogued the Parliament without consulting its Speaker, with the aim to give time ‘to alter the balance of power by unscrupulous means.’
The ‘Good Governance’ coalition that came to power in 2015 had some notable achievements in its first year – enacted the progressive 19th amendment to the constitution, co-sponsored UNHRC resolution, and initiated a constitution making process. The progress however came to a virtual halt during the last two years, with notable reversals such as Presidential intervention in legal processes – culminating in the present constitutional fiasco. It is as though all achievements have been reversed, and more. Undoubtedly, President Sirisena has ensured that he will go into the annals of history, not as a model statesman as touted in 2015, but as the first Sri Lankan leader who instigated a ‘constitutional coup’ by illegally transferring power from a sitting Prime Minister. Much more than a personal tragedy, President Sirisena’s actions are setting a dangerous precedent, with long-term implications for constitutional governance.
Constitutional manipulations for personal and party gains have a long and shameful history in Sri Lanka – extension of Parliamentary term by two years without elections (1975), a referendum to extend the life of Parliament, with its constituents unchanged (1982), and the impeachment of the Chief Justice (2013). Of special relevance to the Tamil community is the refusal to implement the 13th amendment to the constitution (in full) that provided limited autonomy to Provinces (1987) and the demerger of the North East Province without conducting a referendum as effected in the Indo-Sri Lanka accord (2006). Highly politicized judiciary plays no meaningful role in applying the constitution – so glaringly visible by its irrelevance at present. Behind the veneer of democratic traditions, which are usually attributed to nominally uninterrupted election cycles, lies a highly fragile democracy vulnerable to undemocratic and unconstitutional pressures.
The ‘Good Governance’ coalition of 2015, was viewed by many as a means of addressing such structural weaknesses. Its demise and the return to ‘past practices’ have inflicted a strong sense of disappointment and hopelessness among the people who hoped for progressive change. For the Tamil community, which historically has not been accommodated into the constitutional fabric of the country, the hard questions remain – even if the present constitutional exercise succeeds, what are the chances of such an arrangement being faithfully implemented in the future, and what kind of international underwriting would be needed to ensure that is indeed the case.
We are conscious that a decent, democratic and progressive country, respecting the rights and welfare of all its citizens, is key to address the systemic and existential questions faced by the Tamil community. With such considerations in mind, we call upon the people of Sri Lanka and the civil society organisations to take a principled stand against this autocratic act and the Parliamentarians from all sides of politics to remain focussed on the long-term interest of the country, rather than be swayed by individual short-term benefits. The President and the Speaker need to summon the Parliament swiftly, to resolve this crisis democratically and constitutionally. Indeed, Sri Lanka needs to be viewed by the international community with ‘a fresh pair of eyes’, recognising that last week’s debacle was, in effect, ‘suspension of the country’s constitution’, which demands timely-concrete response, commensurate to its gravity.