Jan 16

From the time the 18th Amendment (18A) was first proposed, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) and several other organizations and individuals expressed their strong opposition to it.  CIMOGG has repeatedly condemned this highly obnoxious addition to our Constitution, not so much for the provision it contained for extending the presidential terms to three, four or more, but for the unrestricted freedom its other provisions would give to the President to appoint servile, self-serving and crooked opportunists to positions of influence and power in both the Executive and the Judiciary so as to enable him to act with absolute impunity to misappropriate and exploit the assets of the People to promote his image and the opulent way of life of those near and dear to him.  Our fears were amply justified by what happened after 18A was passed.  Now, four years later, the voters in this country have decisively rejected the excesses that 18A was instrumental in breeding although most of them may not even have been aware that it was the 18A that they were intrinsically opposing!

For as long we can remember, we have been endlessly cautioned that we were wasting our breath (or ink) in trying to slow down the steadily worsening situation in respect of the Rule of Law and good governance that began long before 18A.  It was dinned into us that an indestructible monolith had been built that was being augmented constantly and safeguarded so comprehensively that no one could seriously contemplate making any impression it, and that the prudent thing to do would be “to go along with the current”.  Our position, on the contrary, was that, although history has shown that dictatorial systems in other countries have often had to be destroyed by bloody internal revolutions or external agencies, this would not work or be necessary in Sri Lanka.  We urged every citizen who was dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs to “keep on chipping away” at the monolith that blocks his way to freedom and justice and that, if enough people kept at it, this monstrous entity would crumble.  Thanks to the courageous efforts of a small group of people and 52% of those who voted on 8 January, the hoped-for disintegration has happened sooner than we expected.

There is no question that Kumar David, erstwhile professor of electrical engineering and presently well-known political commentator, was the first to propose that a trustworthy “common candidate” should be identified and agreed upon by all those in the political opposition, and that this candidate should present a very simple programme to eliminate the Executive Presidency and repeal 18A by restoring the 17th Amendment.  Rev Sobitha Thero was named as the one nationally-respected person who could be expected to be trusted by the vast majority of voters to implement this programme and then hand over power to Parliament without delay.  Subsequently, many known and unknown activists of various persuasions are known to have given freely of their time and energy to help Rev Sobitha to give moral leadership to identify a universally-acceptable substitute.  Finally it was the political know-how and backing of Ranil Wickremasinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rev Ratana Thero and some others that led to the surprise appearance of Maitripala Sirisena to halt the downward spiral to national self-destruction.

The manner of delivery and content of the brief address made by President Sirisena after his swearing-in was a refreshing change from the crude language, bare-faced lies and triumphalist harangues that were broadcast ad nauseam by so many of the kept media before and during the election period.  Listening to his words, we needed a good, hard, self-administered pinch to reassure us that we were not dreaming and that it was a matter for rejoicing that there are still sections of our political community that are capable of civilized politics.  We hope that the example set by Sirisena will serve as a benchmark in assessing the suitability of those who aspire to political office or who have already been elected.  We cannot but shudder to think of the punitive revenge attacks, character assassinations and other reprehensible acts that would undoubtedly have taken place, with the encouragement of those in power, if there had been a different election result.

We express our gratitude to the Elections Commissioner, the Inspector General of Police, the commanders of the armed services, the Attorney General and all those who worked under their directions, and the more responsible media, for ensuring that the will of the People was not thwarted.

We congratulate Sirisena on his epoch-making election as President, and now look forward to his advancing steadily along the “critical path” that is designed to lead to optimum returns for the Country in the shortest possible time.  We doubt whether the 100-day programme is totally achievable within that limited time frame but it is only by having an ambitious target that a substantial improvement over the status quo can be effected.

The main promise in the new President’s manifesto is the undertaking to get rid of the office of Executive President and restore powers to a traditional type of Parliament.  However, in a spirit of caution, we urge the new government to avoid swallowing wholesale the parliamentary model that works fairly well in the UK.  Anyone who follows UK politics knows that the office of the UK Prime Minister is very powerful because it is he who selects all Ministers and high level officials.  His powers are almost on par with those of the present Sri Lankan Presidency, less 18A .  That this kind of excessive concentration of power in one individual can be misused was dramatically exposed in respect of the declaration of war on Iraq by the UK, where Prime Minister Tony Blair kept on pressurizing the reluctant Lord Chancellor to give an official opinion to the effect that the UK had a legally justifiable cause to go to war against Iraq.  In short, there must be effective checks and balances to prevent a Prime Minister from becoming a “de facto” Executive President.  In this context, we note that the 17th Amendment (17A) has several weaknesses which should be removed before it can effectively provide the requisite level of checks and balances.  For example, under 17A, all really important appointments are made by the Cabinet or the President and not by the independent commissions.

Ever since its founding in the year 2002, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) successively tried different approaches to promote interest in the Rule of Law and the creation of a clean administration.  However, we were progressively forced to the conclusion that, as long as our Constitution continued to rely excessively on supposedly effective models from elsewhere, we would always face severe obstacles in this endeavour. A classic red herring is the frequent reference to the success of the strong executive leadership in Singapore and why we, too, should follow a similar pattern of authoritarian governance if we are to emulate the economic success of that country.  It is conveniently forgotten that there have been, and even now are, numerous countries where strong executive systems have failed whereas Singapore was the exception, which was uniquely fortunate in having had an honest politician as its leader right from the time of its independence.  How many of our politicians would we be able to place in the same class as Lee Kwan Yew?

CIMOGG is emphatic that the writing of good Sri Lankan constitution should not be left in the hands of politicians.  We are greatly pleased to note that the Editor of your sister journal THE ISLAND has hit the nail on the head in his editorial of 12 January 2015. He states: “This country has had governments of politicians by politicians for politicians”. This state of affairs was obviously made possible by having constitutions structured by lawyer-politicians for politicians.  This was the very reason why CIMOGG embarked three years ago on the writing of a constitution, from first principles, that put the People’s interests and welfare ahead of those of politicians.  Even if the whole new electoral format proposed by CIMOGG is considered to be too radical for our passive body politic, several new internal mechanisms have been described in the constitution worked out by CIMOGG that could be easily incorporated into a parliamentary form of constitution, which seems to be the favoured option of those who are going to take a decision on this.  There is no room in this article to go into even a few of these mechanisms.  Only a reading of the document would facilitate picking out those mechanisms which could be grafted onto other forms of constitution.  (Note:  A soft copy of the key chapters of the CIMOGG Constitution may be obtained by anyone who furnishes his/her name and e-mail address to – “Subash Ranasinghe”<power2people@gandhiswaraj.com> ).

If a constitution is logically crafted and includes a very clear separation of powers, it would help to choose better People’s representatives, get value for money from the efforts of ts citizens, and also leave little room for the uncontrolled robbery of the Nations’ assets by those in power.  We exhort the public to take a keen interest in the formulation of a new Constitution for Sri Lanka and not allow it to be formulated for the benefit of politicians at the expense of the People.