By G K Nathan –
Sri Lanka will face another couple of days of drama before Sri Lankans exercise their democratic rights to decide, whether they wish to regain the democracy they had under “Westminster parliamentary system of government” since Independence in 1948 or approve the continuation of the “Presidential system of government” under the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He passed the 18th amendment and laid the foundation to stay in power for life by overriding the current limit of two to unlimited terms of presidency. The other key candidate at this election is Maithripala Sirisena, former cabinet minister and Secretary General of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he resigned from the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and contesting as the “common opposition consensus candidate” supported by: divided SLFP as both candidates are from the SLFP; the United National Party (UNP), the main opposition in the parliament; Tamil National Alliance (TNA), represents the majority of Tamils from the North East Sri Lanka; Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC), both parties represent the majority of Island wide Muslim population; Hill country Tamils have a number of political parties which are divided between the two candidates and in addition, there are a number of minor parties. Both key candidates have declined to make any commitment to recognition of minority Nations’ political rights or implement rights granted in the Sri Lanka constitution under the 13th Amendment. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been in power for 10 years and has been an impediment to sharing of powers, so far. The current situation in Sri Lanka shows that re-elected President will go about establishing dynastic rule, while the country will face more challenges from the International community. Current President thinks that China will come to his help, if history is any lesion, when “Middle East Spring” took place against the Head of Governments, most of them were friendly with China, it failed go to their help. If President Maithripala Sirisena is elected, what he can implement will depend on what level of support is given to him in the Parliament is unknown, but has made a commitment to scrap the Presidential system of government and give power back to the Parliament and to the peoples in the country; this announcement gives hope to all the Nations within the country, which is the reason why all minority Nations have lend their support to Maithripala Sirisena. Taking note of the views of people with respect to presidential system of government, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is making statements about changes that he proposes to bring about, if he is re-elected once again. Past is any record, he failed to honour the promises made on scrapping the Presidential system of government for the last ten years, even though had two-third majority in his second term of Presidency. On the contrary President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set the scene for anyone to become a President of Sri Lanka for life and he is standing first in the queue, as the contestant in this election. The majority of voters have to answer whether to keep the Presidential system of government leading to family dynasty or revert back to Parliamentary system of government to give the power back to people at the election on 8th January 2015, which will give the people, the choice to whom to vote.
Presidential System of Government
J R Jayewardene of the UNP, the lifelong politicians and the “wily old fox” came to power at the ripe old age of 71 years; after waiting for more than three decades aspiring to reach the highest office in the land. He won the Westminster-based parliamentary election in 1977 with a huge majority, supported by large majority of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims voters who wanted a change, from the inefficient and ineffective preceding SLFP governments. Unfortunately, J R Jayewardene exploited the unexpected huge victory to setup a system of government to keep all powers in the hands of the President with proclamation of 1978 constitution, but limited the presidency to two six year terms. Once again Sri Lankan politicians lost the opportunity to accommodate all peoples of Sri Lanka, recognizing the differences of multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious peoples as like in many large and small countries in the world for example: our immediate neighbour India, Commonwealth country Canada, Belgium, Switzerland etc. J R Jayewardene, little he realised that years following his proclamation of Presidential system of government that proposal will be used to setup the path to dynastic rule in 2015, which has been demonstrated by current President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The 1978 constitution setup two institutions; both were directly elected by peoples the President of Sri Lanka and the Parliament, but the overarching power shifted to the President. The President as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, head of the Cabinet, appoints the prime minister and all ministers, and could dissolve the parliament after end of first year of the parliamentary term of six years; the absolute power shifted from the Parliament to the President; Parliament became subservient to the President, as demonstrated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The 1978 constitution totally failed to accommodate the rights of different Nations within the country, which led to rising of military conflict between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demanding their rights as a Nation and Sri Lanka armed forces, which led to India’s military intervention followed by political persuasion in 1987, towards the end of J R Jayawardene’s presidency to devolve power based on India’s quasi-federal system, which is not best suited for Sri Lanka with two Nations, like in Belgium and Canada; emulating these two countries one large and one small in area, but size of population of about 11 and 20 million, respectively would have been ideal. India’s intervention resulted in the 13th amendment “to the constitution which resulted in accepting Tamil as an official language together with Sinhala and English as a link Language, and devolved political power to all nine Provincial Councils ”. The key to resolution of long standing conflict is the devolution of political power, beside language ights.
Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga of the SLFP was elected as the President of Sri Lanka in August 1994, after 17 years of UNP rule, which consolidated power in the hands of majority Nation. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s attempt to revert back to Westminster style of parliamentary system could not be passed without two-third majority in the Parliament, because the UNP which was in power for previous 17 years and later in the opposition refused to support the changes. During her second term, the 17th constitutional amendment of 2001 was introduced and was unanimously accepted by the Parliament to reduce certain powers of the Presidency by “making provisions for the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions: Public, Election, Police, Bribery or Corruption, Finance and Delimitation” to play a role in the democratisation and decentralization of presidential administrative powers, which give some hope for justice to the people, but minority rights remained unresolved. After the end of two terms as President Ms Chandrika Kumaratunga step aside in November 2005 and at least she made attempts to bring a resolution to the Sinhala-Tamil conflict, but left it unfinished.
President Rajapaksa Won the War, at What Cost?
Mahinda Rajapaksa of the SLFP was elected as the President in November 2005 with 50.29% of the total votes, because the LTTE called upon the people of North East to boycott the Presidential election, which helped Mahinda Rajapaksa to get elected as the President with narrowest of margin and he turned out to be the nemesis of the LTTE. President Mahinda Rajapaksa too promised to abolish the Presidential system of government and he conveniently ignored the promise, though he had two-third majority in his second term as of Presidency. The first unpardonable and act under his Presidency was to illegally ignore the 17th amendment by manipulating the powers of the Parliament and appointments were made by himself, which the Parliament rubber stamped. Having set the scene to grab power from subservient parliament, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and his sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as the Defence Secretary, unleashed a full scale war was against the LTTE and the Tamil people, as they were to some extent, undistinguishable from the “tigers”. The siblings ignored the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) signed between the former UNP Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the LTTE, which was initiated by the International community, led by the USA, EU, Japan etc and their appeal to end the military conflict felt on deaf ears. The second unpardonable act was President Mahinda Rajapaksa unilaterally abrogated the CFA agreement between the former UNP Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) and the LTTE in January 2008. The patterns of ignoring: constitutional practices, promises, agreements or understanding with foreign governments etc have become the norm under this administration. Sri Lanka armed forces emerged victorious and the war ended in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa referred to the war as against “Tamil terrorists” conducted with “zero civilian casualties”. Proliferation of war news and pictures in the International media about atrocities committed at the war zone, explicit satellite imagery of the war zone made available by International organizations and repeated call by International community to stop the one sided war and pursue peaceful resolution of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict, led to the United Nation Secretary General (UNSG) setting up two expert panels to examine what happened during the war in Sri Lanka. Revelation from these two panels pointed out that 40,000 to 70,000 deaths could have occurred during the final stages of the conflict, based on the evidence available to the panels. Findings debunked President Rajapaksa’s claim of “zero civilian casualties” and to conclusion that both combatants breached International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Laws and set the scene for the International intervention which remains unfinished.
Almost three decades long armed conflict came to an end, but the reasons for which the armed conflict started between GSL and the minority Tamil Nation remains unresolved to the satisfaction of all Nations. The victorious President Mahinda Rajapaksa stood for re-election for the second term of his Presidency, two years ahead of the expiry of his first term and was elected as President in November 2010 with 57.88% of the popular vote. Following the victory re-elected President Rajapaksa called for the Parliamentary election; though he failed to get the two-third majority to carry out any amendment to the constitution, he cleverly exploited the weakness of the Sri Lankan politicians’ aspirations to be ministers and many of them subsequently acquired wealth for themselves. He succeeded and enticed members from the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and other smaller parties by offering various ministerial positions in the government. Also to keep the members in his own United People Front Alliance (UPFA) happy made many of them as ministers too, the total number of ministers or equivalent approaching half the number of Members of Parliament of 225, which would be a world record? Third unpardonable act was the wish to install himself as the President for Life; the 18th amendment was introduced in the Parliament, which extended two to unlimited terms for Presidency and also proposed the appointment of a parliamentary council that decides the appointment of independent posts like commissioners of election, human rights, Supreme Court judges etc, but such council is subservient to the President, instead of the 17th Amendment which was more independent. The concentration of this amount of power in the hands one person, without any check and balances required in any Parliamentary system of government in the world, laid the foundation for dynastic rule in the country. President Mahinda Rajapaksa exploited the totalitarian power in his hands, by appointing about three dozen of his relatives in position of power in his government, this awakened many right thinking members of Sinhala Nation to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election for third consecutive term of Presidency, which eventually led to finding a common candidate to face President Rajapaksa. While president is trying to establish himself as a President for life, the international community is pursuing him for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity through UN mechanism. Will that prevent him pursuing life term presidency of defeat at the election?
The International community led by the USA pursued both combatants through the United Nation Humanitarian Rights Council (UNHRC) and passed a resolution at the 19th session in 2012, because President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to take initiatives within the country, which met the International standard to establish accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and/or take steps to bring reconciliation between Nations within the country. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken a confrontational path with the International community, continuing to deny what has happened in the country, a similar resolution was passed at the 22nd session in 2013. Running out of patient the UNHRC resolution at the 25th session in 2014 was passed, which called upon the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate both combatants of war in Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, referred to as OISL. The OISL report will be released at the 28th session of UNHRC on 25th March 2015. United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, initiated the OISL process, President Rajapaksa refuses to cooperate with OHCHR, but President and his ministers tried to malign Ms Pillay and questioned her neutrality because she happened to be a Tamil from South Africa. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights set up the investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka with the support of UNSG and the International community. Following Ms Navi Pillay, retirement, Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein took over as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 1 September 2014. The inaugural speech delivered at UNHRC delivered on 8th September 2014, he endorsed the initiatives taken by Ms Navi Pillay on Sri Lanka and strongly supported the OISL initiatives. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reiterated his call to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and GSL to cooperate with the on-going UN investigation of alleged human right abuses.
The following the release of OISL report on 25 March 2015, everyone will know what the cost of war was and who will have to pay for it? If President Mahinda Rajapaksa is re-elected at the Presidential election, his records to date show that he will drag the whole country down with him to protect himself and his family. Recent history against regimes which failed to cooperate with International mechanism or community have not been successful and finally faced ignominious defeat. Probably, the election speech delivered in Jaffna, as often referred to as liberated “Tiger Land” by President Rajapaksa in which he said “the known Devil is better than the unknown Angel ” may have been a premonition to him being a very religious person, himself. President Mahinda Rajapaksa visits various religious places, regularly and visited Sri Venkateshwaran temple in South India after handing over his nomination papers. In his speech he calling himself a “known devil” is very surprising, unless he had vision or inspiration at the Temple? His past political history is known to all the people of Sri Lanka, A few type of acts he pursued to consolidate his position in the current political arena is given in this article, the reader can make their judgment whether it is evil or angelic? One is very clear that he walked the extra distance to establish a dynastic rule in the country, during his second term while continuing deny all the UNHRC findings. To date 26 Members of Parliament of Sri Lanka and many hundreds more from other levels of government have crossed over to the opposition. A big section of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim Nations have declared the support for the “unknown angel”; people are not willing to repeat the same mistake they made with voting for a “known devil” J R Jayewardene in 1977, who took us through pogroms in 1977, 1978, 1983 and set the stage for the emergence of authoritarian rule through Presidential system of government introduced in 1978 and he stayed in power for 11 years without facing the people for a re-election.
Choice is clear, it is between the known DEVIL or the unknown ANGEL, will the “Common Opposition Consensus Candidate”, the Angel become the nemesis of known Devil Mahinda Rajapaksa’s aspiration to establish a dynastic rule of Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka, to usher in true democracy recognizing the rights of all Nations in Sri Lanka?