18th Amendment, Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

The Cost of Defying Political Authority

Reams have been written on the two main topics widely discussed in Sri Lanka today. One is the fate of the army commander who chose to defy the authority of the Rajapakse brothers and the other is the 18th amendment that was passed with a large majority in parliament (161 for and 17 against) on September 8, 2010. It gives the president absolute power.

In an article published on the 43rd death anniversary of Che Guevera (October 9th) the writer says Che was not an anarchist but he wanted a strong handed moral government. He felt compelled to obey moral laws; finally sacrificing even his life in the struggle as in the Greek tragedy “Antigone”. “Antigone’s revolt stemmed not from a rejection of authority, but on the contrary from obedience to a moral law, than to an arbitrary edict. Antigone lost her life trying to protect human rights which are really moral rights while defying political authority. Sarath Fonseka is in prison today for defying the authority of the Rajapakse regime. But of course, this is not to say that Fonseka is another innocent, selfless Antigone fighting for human rights. No, and he certainly is not going to be entombed alive!

Defending moral rights and defying political authority would be considered something strange by many in our society today. Many learned people argue: “Denial; of basic civil and political rights is necessary for rapid, economic development. Protecting human rights in an impediment on the road to material development, politics after all is the art of the possible, and what is morally right or wrong is relative. There are no absolute, universal moral laws guiding human beings.” Most people seem to accept this ‘rational’ argument and are not unduly disturbed by a ‘conscience’, not even those who claim to follow the teachings of the Buddha or Jesus Christ.

Sarath Fonseka who was acclaimed a hero a few months ago till he entered the political arena is today a common criminal locked up in a prison cell. While in his case what was right then is wrong today, in the case of ex-terrorists Karuna, Pillayan and KP what was wrong then is right today. It is a pity Prabakaran died fighting. Had he surrendered and offered all that gold he plundered from his people (2 sovereigns from every family) to those in power, he too could have joined Karuna and company. Unfortunately, it was General Fonseka who got hold of that nearly 200 kilograms of gold and he says as an honest officer handed it over to the relevant authorities. Today all that gold seems to have melted into thin air.

There aren’t many people defending Sarath Fonseka’s civil and political rights. It could be through fear of offending the Rajapakse regime or may be they believe like K.Godage and several others that Sarath Fonseka has “reduced himself to zero because of his own unguarded statements and actions”. A man who saved the country from the LTTE and was applauded by the government as the best army commander is today treated as a criminal by the same government. For his angry unguarded statements and the ambitious act of contesting the presidential election, the General is in prison, while Mervyn Silva whose lawless antics the whole nation watched on TV is not only a free man but a minister, being declared innocent by those in power. Do we accept this as justice?

There is no strong protest from the opposition for the obvious reason it has no leader. The leader of the UNP has suddenly started making too many noises on behalf of Sarath Fonseka which makes one wonder what his hidden agenda is. It cannot be in the interest of Sarath Fonseka but in his own self interest.

Many have not cared to read or understand the implications of the 18th amendment.  Some shrug it off saying: “who cares? We are happy with this regime because it has given us peace. For that we are ever grateful and look forward to economic development with this political stability”. Any ordinary person with average intelligence who cares to understand why the 18th amendment is harmful to the country would realise that:

(1) It scraps the 17th amendment and with it all independent commissions, which would have considerably restricted the power of the president. Had the 17th amendment remained intact to be implemented, extending the presidential term would not have mattered very much. By removing the 17th amendment, the 18th amendment has given the president unlimited powers with unlimited terms in office, leading to a dictatorship. Those who argue that the president can be “kicked out” the day the voters decide to do so, take their listeners to be absolute buffaloes. “Kicked out” indeed with all the powers in his hands! The truth they hide is that the president can never be removed through the ballot unless people resort to violence and bullets.

As R M B Senanayake points out ‘Death of democracy is not due to the removal of the presidential term limits, but due to the absolute power given to the president which would deny the country a politically neutral bureaucracy. All public institutions including the judiciary would be firmly controlled by the president almost for ever. No wonder G. Uswatte Arachchi has called the 18th amendment – a rush to elected tyranny.

(2) As the civil rights movement points out, if the president’s term limit is removed his immunity must go too. According to our constitution a president’s immunity is not for life. It is limited to a period of 12 years, and an injured party could seek justice at the end of it. But now the president would have immunity for life, as he cannot be removed by the ballot. Imagine a day when a young Rajapakse takes oath as president at the age of 30 or 35 and remains immune for the rest of his life!

(3) Many have pointed out the manner in which the 17th amendment was repealed and the 18th amendment passed. According to Rohan Edirisinha, well known constitutional expert, a few outside the government even had access to the proposed amendment before it was sent to the Supreme Court. There was no consultation, it was couched in secrecy and rushed through the whole process. Sumanthiran, a Human Rights lawyer and MP, in his parliamentary speech on 08th September, queried: “When and where did this bill originate? Cabinet? Couldn’t be. It has certified that this is urgent in the national interest. Can anything be more laughable than that? Did the cabinet have a copy or even a draft of this Bill? I think not, how can this Bill be ‘urgent in the national interest’ to warrant such indecent haste?”

In spite of this indecent haste many responsible people have condemned the 18th amendment. Among them are: The CRM, Bar Association, Asian Human Rights watch, many academics, intellectuals, journalists and concerned citizens. But their voices went unheeded. The greatest disappointment came from the left group of politicians who voted in favour of the 18th amendment, in order to please the president and preserve their perks. Nineteen LSSP and DLF Politburo and central committee members are reported to have condemned the 18th amendment but the five parliamentarians in an “act of shameless opportunism” voted in favour of the amendment betraying their own parties. Chief among them is Tissa Vitarana, the leader of the LSSP, who is ever so grateful to the president for saving him from oblivion and making him the chairman of the useless APRC, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a close friend of the president voted in favour claiming that he had to do so in order to save the country from Sarath Fonseka and his military men. Without the support of the 5 of them, the government would have crumbled enabling “prisoner” Fonseka to take over power! So much for the leaders we trusted as men of integrity!