3 June, 2023


Government Regains Forward Momentum 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

It was the post-presidential election period that began in January this year that saw dramatic changes in the polity. The fear of government backed death squads and mob violence was totally eradicated to the relief of political dissidents and ethnic minorities who had been under threat. These positive changes at the ground level were accompanied by the major political reform of the 19th Amendment which divested the presidency of much of its arbitrary power and strengthened the system of checks and balances. However, in the aftermath of the general election in August a sense of stagnancy in government became pronounced. For the past three months in particular there had been a sense of drift in the government. The main slogans centering on good governance that had propelled it to victory at two successive elections held in January and August appeared to be in abeyance.

In addition, in the past few weeks the polity became focused on infighting between members of the government on issues of corruption and conflict of interest. There was no change in the country that could capture the popular imagination except for the government’s co-sponsoring of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. On the one hand this eased the tensions that Sri Lanka had with the Western countries and paved the way for its return to their economic fold. But this agreement was a double edged sword as it was also attacked by the political opposition as being a betrayal of those who had fought against the LTTE. The visit of US Ambassador the UN, Samantha Power, to Sri Lanka at this time when the world is focused on what is happening in the Islamic countries and Europe is an indication that Sri Lanka is being given a special status and may even obtain extraordinary US support as a result. Ambassador Power is known as a close confidante of US President Barack Obama.

In this context there have been two developments that have given the government a new impetus. One is the announcement of the budget which has made concessions to the masses of people. Those living on the margins cannot appreciate long term investments which will bring them economic benefits in the longer term. The reduction in the price of basic foodstuffs and cooking gas will give an immediate boost to their purchasing power. It can also politically stabilize the government and create the space for it to take more controversial political decisions, such as necessitated by the co-sponsoring of the Geneva resolution which calls for a plethora of political reforms.

Fast Process 

The government’s announcement that it will be going in for constitutional reform is also likely to generate positive sentiment amongst the people. In its announcement the government has highlighted the need to abolish the executive presidency and to change the electoral system. Both of these propositions are generally accepted by the general population. Although a more long term view would note that the problem of centralized government existed even before the promulgation of the present constitution in 1978, most people see the presidency as the root of the over-centralization of power that took place in the country and got worse as time passed. The second reform that is sought is that of the electoral system which is presently based on the proportional system of voting with large districts as electorate.

Such a focus on constitutional reform can reassure those who voted for the government on the basis of its promises of good governance. They have been disappointed that the government has not been following up with zeal and punishing those whom it has accused of corruption and impunity. The problem for the government is that the Rule of Law to which it is committed is a slow process as it calls on the prosecutors to first build up a strong case which is backed by concrete evidence. Experience from other countries shows that anti corruption cases against those who are powerful in the polity can take a long time. In countries such as Philippines and Indonesia which had authoritarian and corrupt governments for long periods, it took many years before the money stolen in a corrupt manner was located and brought back. Not all the money could be brought back. In addition criminal cases where the legal right of defense is available to those accused can take a long time. This same phenomenon is also likely to occur in cases of war crimes and human rights violations. Countries such as Indonesia and Cambodia took as long as a decade to four decades for prosecutions to be completed.

In contrast to the long time frame of legal prosecution the government leadership has chosen a short time frame of six months within which they hope to complete the task of constitutional reform. In implementing constitutional change the government leadership appears to be banking on the fact that it enjoys a 2/3 majority in parliament due to the formation of the National Unity government. This government is jointly led by President Maithripala Sirisena who heads the SLFP and by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who heads the UNP. The teaming up of these two political parties, which have traditionally been bitter rivals, is unprecedented. The uniqueness of the present time may suggest that the maximum use be made of this opportunity.

Several Pitfalls 

On the other hand, if too much stress is placed on the partnership it is possible it may collapse and bring down the government. This was the fate of a previous government headed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. When the draft constitutional bill of 2000 was rejected in parliament, her government collapsed. Therefore the stakes are high with regard to the success of the constitutional reform project. There could be several pitfalls ahead. To begin with, the executive presidency is not universally rejected. It is the one electoral institution in which the entire country will vote as a single electorate. Whether voters are in the North, South, East or West, they all have to vote for one set of rival candidates. This provides an invaluable focus for national unity in a country which is divided on ethnic, religious and regional lines. By way of contrast in parliamentary elections, voters will vote only for candidates from their area. They will not be considering the candidates in other areas. This means their perspective will be limited to their own region and will not embrace the country as a whole, unlike in the case of election of the president.

The creation of a new constitution will also bring up the issue of devolution of power and of inter-ethnic power sharing. These have been highly contentious issues in the past that brought down governments by generating uncontrollable nationalist sentiments on all sides of the ethnic and religious divides. So far there has been little or no discussion about a post-war political settlement. The formation of a new constitution can lead to this discussion coming to the fore again. The hope will be an elite consensus between the president and prime minister who represent the two major political parties, and the leaders of the small parties that represent the different ethnic and religious minorities, which transforms itself into a sustainable political solution.

On the positive side it appears that the government’s plans to engage in constitutional reform enjoy the support of the small parties also. The TNA, SLMC and JVP have not come out strongly to criticize the government of having made its announcement of constitutional change. They have not criticized either the process or the short time frame of six months. This may suggest that there is an informal agreement amongst themselves regarding the forthcoming constitutional changes. What binds them all together is their commitment to good governance, the linchpin of which is accountability, ascertaining the true state of affairs and engaging in reform. This is what is lacking in the wider world today, where those who make decisions are not held responsible for what they do. The visiting US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power made it known that the United States supports Sri Lanka because it is a positive example of a country in which good governance has a broad support from all sections of the polity and is therefore sustainable.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    We do not need a new constitution at this time when the nation is trying to recover from a corrupt unjust regime of many years duration.
    It will take too long and create animosities and confusion.
    We have had enough constitutions to last many lifetimes.
    Best remedy is to modify what we have with consensus, and carry on.

    • 1

      The constitution is the basis upon which the role of government is defined. In our case we have had too many amendments resulting in a veritable mess causing much confusion in interpretation and room for abuse of power. A resetting of this by new constitution, provided it is drafted with care, would solve this problem.

  • 1

    any political reform or constitutional change should come gradually. It is only a few months that this government came to power. Please give them some time to do some thing,…They are marching towards some solid reform… some changes have been taken place.. justice is freed, police is freed from one family control, law and order is in place, Tamil people feel lit bit relieved, most Tamil prisoners are freed….
    Now time to do some economic reforms…
    attract more tourists…
    find more employment for youth..
    train some professionals in all field..
    develop some small and large scale industries..
    nearly 1 millions Lankan in Eu…take measures to get maximum use of them…let them invest in SL..
    so many more projects have be done …gradually these should be done…

  • 3


    In this paper you tell us that the path of good governance undertaken by the incumbent is true and strong. I along with many people who comment on CT disagree. Just like the Rajapaksa brothers laying waste the best chance Sri Lanka had since independence to bring about true reconciliation and rid the country of all the ills that blighted the political systems, the so called Yahapalanaya mob are also hastening to amass personal wealth to the exclusion to all that what the people aspired to. Yes we all know the wheels of justice will take eons to move especially when well padded corrupt past politicians are concerned. But how about the present goings on, example; aiding and abetting with the corrupt turn of events by My3 himself with the SLT case where his own brother is the main wheeler dealing actor.

    If you ask me this yahapalanaya turned yamapalanaya is a good indicator that we Sri Lankans are corrupt to the core and the claim that Sri Lanka is an ardent follower of principles enshrined in the precepts of Buddha is a farce.

    • 2

      Quote from Bastiat, “the Law”: “Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain — and since labor is pain in itself — it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.”

      Do not expect Buddhism, or any other religion for that matter, to halt corruption. It is part of the human condition to have corruption. If we accept this then we can know that our duty is to minimize corruption and not aim for the impossible and eliminate it.

      In the case of Yahapalanaya, it would be naiive to assume that the movement came into power from all that is pure and moral. No doubt they needed money to come so far. No doubt they are sustained by a variety of special interests.

      The question is to what degree. Jehan’s article demonstrates that despite the incidents of corruption so far the heart of Yahapalanaya appears to be in the right place. In time to come they will shed these undesirables and minimize corruption to a level at which the state can function and the people have net benefit.

  • 0

    Feeble minded, confused Jehan PhD has become a “Koolukkum Paadi, Kanchukkum Paadi”. There is turmoil going into the National Government. There are news flashing everywhere that “there is a plot to topple the New King; Here is plot to topple Ranil Mahata; another one coming to topple the entire government”. Jehan PhD is white washing these are as fast acting government.

    Other than Pillaiyan, so far no one arrested for anything. Pillaiyan is arrested under PTA for the reason of reviving LTTE. This is something million times bellow the comedies the New Royals has been cracking all these time. The idiot Sinhala Intellectuals in the government, now have become not being able to make their buffoonish comedy even. The problem of the government is, he is the best witness of the murders the Old Royals did. So before any kind of investigation precipitate in by the pressure of UNHRC and America, , they have a needed to take care of him. For that they have arrested him under PTA and working hard in breaking him in. Unfortunately IC will not talk for him. TNA will not try to bail him out. It appears that the government is going to be fully success in breaking in Pillayan and wiping out a material witness. Pillaiyan is facing a torture that he used to do to the Tamils with the army.

    Jehan PhD is fully happy the way the New Royals using the leftover torture chambers, so he is not touching that subject even after the UN WGEID has announced it in the media conference.

    Tamils have been indifferent to the EP or the PM. “Naaikku Nadu Kadalilaium Nakku thannithaan”.( Dod can only lick the water even in the middle of the ocean). So the Tamils have been indifferent to the forms of the governments the Sinhala Intellectual have been enforcing on them, including the 13a. Jehan PhD knows well the constitution is needed at this time only to remove the EP after another five years. This is the same game Sirimavo played in 1972 and JR played in 1978. The new constitution will put these guys to get the power in a different way after their power lapses in the old one. They will change it in that way only. Further, even the copycat or the Exam cheat Jayampathy professor too have said that constitution will be in the way people wants. That is, there will be no new efforts to restore the lost rights of Tamils. It was the mastermind of the Jayampathy professor to pass the 19th A without a referendum. Now he is fore sighting a road block to give any rights to Tamils. That is “People have to approve it”. Is this anything different from the time we saw from 1948, including, Banda Chelva pact, Dudley – Chelva pact, Indio Lanka accord, Ambassador Blake’s talks of “after wiping out LTTE”…. “The change has to be full” to give any constitutional rights and issue of Tamils have to go to “Peoples’ voting”. But it is not necessary to Divinegumba, 18A 19 A, even now it is raised on 14A. The crooks, Jeyampathy PhD, Jehan PhD flex anything to clear their way and bend everything to block Tamils way! That is why Jehan sees there is a need to whitewash the hidden purpose of the new constitution, but no accountability, or foreign Judges to take part in the investigations, if there will be one. He knows this is a very important part needs to be whitewashed in time and have to nibbed in the bud. That is why he is writing like this. He knows JR did not come to power under EP. He knows well who those people are known as Don Stephen, Solomon Ridgeway West and Attanagalla Queen Sirima. “Although a more long term view would note that the problem of centralized government existed even before the promulgation of the present constitution in 1978, most people see the presidency as the root of the over-centralization of power that took place in the country and got worse as time passed.”. If he is honest would he had written a sentence “Hey guys instead of fooling all the world with another tricky constitutional change, leave the false arrest out and conducted an inquiry of what happened in Mullivaikkal; that is the one can get some hope in the government to Tamils”.

    Jehan PhD is a cunning Pantham thrived well during the brutal attacks of Brother Prince’s war on NGOs. In this oasis he will have a kingdom built and bought couple of Banks in Dubai.

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