By Kamal Nissanka –
17th Death Anniversary of Dr Chanaka Amaratunga
The seventeenth death anniversary of Dr Chanaka Amaratunga , founder leader of the Liberal Party falls on 1st of August.. He died under tragic circumstances 1996. Among his contributions to constitutional reform debate in Sri Lanka the idea of independent commissions is of great importance though he was not among us to see the passing of the 17th amendment to the constitution in October 2001 without any serious division in the parliament of Sri Lanka.
The 18th amendment to the constitution achieved two goals on the part of the incumbent President namely abolition of the constitutional council , related commissions and the lifting of the limits of contesting the presidential election by a president who enjoyed two terms of presidency..
The constitutional council and related commissions enshrined in the 17th amendment to the constitution was basically initiated by United National Party and Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) with the help of government members of parliament under former President Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga. So the passing of the 17th amendment was unique because it was the first time since the introduction of the 1978 constitution that an amendment was passed in parliament without having a two third majority to the government party. There were lots of shortcomings regarding practical operations of the 17 amendment. This was because of lack of understanding of constitutional theory on the part of the framers of this amendment. Some might have thought that the new amendment would bring a kind of a reduction of power in the hands of former President Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga. Yet the spirit shown in the introduction of the 17th amendment by the former president and members of parliament both government of the day and opposition should be commendable without any hesitation.
The idea of a the 17th amendment to the constitution to bring relief and justice to the citizens through independent commissions was a brain child of late Dr Chanaka Amaratunga, a hard-line constitutional reform activist and the founder leader of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka. However by the time of passing the 17 amendment in October 2001,Chanaka was not among us as he had passed away in August 1, 1996 under tragic circumstances.
The Liberal Party in its initial stage was criticizing former President Mr. Junius Richard Jayawardene’s policies of governance as authoritative. Chanaka with a group of activists protested against the referendum of 1981 which resulted in the continuation of the five sixth majority won by the United National Party in 1977 under first past post system of elections. Liberal Party’s association with Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and with the loose eight party alliances before the 1988 Presidential Elections and later Chanaka’s contributions with late Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam, Leader of All Ceylon Tamil Congress to frame the election manifesto of Mrs. Bandaranaike reflected the liberal essence of democracy, power sharing and human rights.
However his chances to enter parliamenht through national list of the SLFP were remote as SLFP suffered defeat at the 1989 general elections.
Former President Mr.Ranasinghe Premadasa who always stood for equal rights for minorities from the beginning of his political carrier and later in Colombo central electorate was elected to the presidency in 1988. His introduction of “All Party Conference” to bring about constitutional change was commendable and many political parties and social groups represented the conference and expressed their views of political reform until his tragic demise.
The Liberal Party under Chanaka initially introduced the idea of independent commissions to the All Party Conference .which composed other political parties including the UNP. The party has the documentary evidence to prove this fact. However to support this view I would produce an extract from a speech made by Dr. Chanaka Amaratunga in an International conference held in Portugal. The conference was organized by International Academy of Development of Freedom, in Sintra, Portugal. The theme of the conference was “After the Fall of Socialism –The Rise of Freedom “. Dr Chanaka Amaratunga’s title was “After the fall of Socialism – The Rise of Freedom: An Asian View. The lecture had been delivered on 3rd of May, 1991.
“Although liberal democratic process have considerable room for improvement in Sri Lanka and although I would certainly not described the Government of President R.Premadasa as a liberal government ,it is certainly true that the prospects for an open and pluralistic society in Sri Lanka look brighter now than they have for the last 13 years. The All Party Conference has now become an almost perment body devotion to the initiation of constitutional and political reform. . A constitutional amendment, the seventeenth amendment to the constitution which significantly strengthens the current chapter in the constitution on fundamental rights has been introduced, which was largely the work of Liberal Party at All Party Conference. This is the first occasion that in Sri Lanka’s constitutional history that a constitutional amendment is introduced on the initiative of oppositional parties. The Liberal Party has been appointed to the Human Rights Committee, Devolution Committee and Media Committee of the All Party Conference and draft Human Rights Commission bill and Media Commission bill which will be placed before parliament are largely the work of liberals” (Page 26, After the Fall of Socialism-Rise of Freedom “-1991- Printed and Published by Clio Artes Graficas, Lda, Sintra, Portugal).
Chanaka was a visionary and his objective in politics was to form a true liberal democratic Sri Lanka. He saw that the concentration of power in one individual would affect the all areas of social fabric. Abolition of commissions, dilution or revocation of 13th amendment and granting of further opportunities to a president to contest presidential elections who already wielded power for two terms are undoubtedly steps towards authoritarian rule which the liberals and democrats of this island should vehemently oppose.
*Kamal Nissanka is the Secretary General, of the Liberal Party of Si Lanka