Sunday, September 05, 2010

"Sri Lankan Govt. shows no intention of easing anti-media policies" - CPJ Asia Coordinator

Interviewed by Udara Soysa | The Sunday Leader

Bob Dietz, the Asia Programme Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in an interview with The Sunday Leader stated that Sri Lanka’s media policy is an embarrassment to the entire nation.

He was highly critical of the role of Attorney General Mohan Peiris. The lack of government response to Sandhya Eknaligoda’s call for help in dealing with the disappearance of her husband Prageeth is more than unconscionable. Expressing concerns also about cyber censorship, he stated the CPJ deplores “the crude shutting down of websites, which is evidence of surveillance of email traffic.”

Q: How do you see the current trends of media freedom in Sri Lanka?

A: We don’t see much of a ‘peace benefit’ for the media now that the war has ended. The administration seems intent on stifling criticism, there have been no prosecutions in any of the attacks on journalists or media institutions since President Rajapaksa has been in high office, the situation looks pretty much as it did during the worst of the civil conflict.

The lack of government response to Sandhya Eknaligoda’s call for help in dealing with the disappearance of her husband Prageeth is more than unconscionable — at this point it is a simply craven on the part of the authorities from President Rajapaksa down to the district police level. It’s shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the entire nation. I personally single out Attorney General Mohan Peiris for this — when CPJ met with him in February, we asked him to at least extend some consolation, if not actual assistance, to Sandhya.

He gave us a sympathetic response, but he has done nothing. As with the rest of the government and the civil service, she and her two sons have not had one word of condolence, let alone explanation. AG Peiris’s hardhearted response is a personal moral failure on his part as much as it is a failure on the part of the government in which he serves. I understand he is in line to become a Supreme Court justice. Sri Lanka will be a poorer place if that comes to pass.

Q: What do you think of the recent attack on Siyatha TV station?

A: That attack, which we denounced, seems politically tied – a way for anti-Fonseka people to strike back at the owners of the station and the rest of its network. It doesn’t seem linked to the station’s editorial position, but rather to its owners’ political ties, particularly in the recent presidential election.

Q: How do you see the situation of law and order in the country?

A: The conflict has ended, terrorist attacks are a thing of the past. But for CPJ’s concerns, we see an intimidated media. There are still scores of exiled journalists — not, by any means, all of them Tamil — fearful of returning home, fearing they could be attacked or victimised like some of their colleagues. The government has refused to address that, and it seems from their inactivity that they are actually happy with the situation.

Q: What are your concerns about internet censorship in the country?

A: We see the crude shutting down of websites, evidence of surveillance of email traffic. But the real threat to governments in many other countries — the move to other digital platforms, mobile phones and the like — is the next challenge. They are all scuffling to find a way of stifling that way of communicating. Sri Lanka isn’t there yet, but we have to assume that will be the next step.

Q: What is your biggest concern regarding Sri Lanka?

A: For Sri Lanka’s media, that they remain under the same threat they did while the country was mired in conflict. This government shows no intention of easing its anti-media policies. Its hard line response to criticism threatens to drive away from the international community. It seems like its desire to remain in power — and stifling the media is a big part of that tactic — will over ride any commitment to democratic rule.

Q: What are the positive developments you see in Sri Lanka?

A: The media, despite the pressure on it, continues to present some form of a reality check. But it is under a tremendous amount of pressure, and I worry about its survival.

Q: What is your request to the Sri Lankan authorities?

A: End your anti-media policies, welcome back exiled journalists and, extend protection to those that need protection.

© The Sunday Leader

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Constitutional Dictatorship : Reaping the war dividend

By Kumar David | The Sunday Island

It may seem exaggerated to suggest that the repeal of presidential term-limits is tantamount to a big bold step towards cementing a dictatorship in this country. I have heard it said: "Though the change is undesirable, well, what does it matter? If the present incumbent is unpopular he will be defeated next time, if popular he will win and that’s not entirely unfair". This misses the point.

The result of the next and all future elections that the present incumbent contests after fixing the constitutional amendment is not in doubt. Voices crying out from experiences of unrestrained abuse of power and unchecked electoral malpractice portend the future. Removing presidential term-limits is the necessary and sufficient condition for this game plan. Stop thinking law, think politics!

The unfolding reality

Once the rules are changed to allow additional presidential terms the rest is simple. A regime with the unique election rigging skills and repressive know-how of the incumbents will have no difficulty fixing the outcome of future electoral exercises. Ensuring the removal of term-limits is the sine-qua-non; thereafter securing the desired outcome in perpetuity is well honed. Repression, crushing of dissent, silencing critics and intimidating the media will be an ancillary function in the years leading up to the next election. That is to say tomorrow will be like yesterday but on a fortissimo scale. The public and the opposition must grasp the deadly danger facing the country right now. I must repeat myself; this is not about relaxing term-limits it is about preparing to use the jackboot.

This constitutional amendment is the key to unlocking the whole chain. If it goes through there may never be a free presidential election again until after the day sometime in the future when direct intervention by the people reverses the setback. Here we come Manila 1986! Here we come Timisoara and Bucharest December 1989! Sans a democratic way people invite leaders to depart in the way Marcos and Ceausescu were asked to quit. The repeal of presidential term-limits in Lanka will have profound and long lasting implications and the way back will have to be the people’s power road. Relaxing term-limits look like just another constitutional exercise, actually it is a watershed. It is a decisive event after which the residues of democracy, such as they are, will be fatally crippled.

Unseemly haste

The newspapers at this time of writing say that the proposed changes will be rushed through the cabinet of ministers by the end of August, taken to the courts for an OK straight away, and brought to parliament on about September 8. When you read these lines the timeframe of this indecent haste will be clearer, but the question is why does an amendment to the constitution have to charge forward at the speed of an Olympic sprint? Constitutional changes need to be debated in public and there has to be an extended period of consultation with all stakeholders, which means the whole people. The APRC has been plodding along for years but its recommendations make no mention of extending term limits, in fact it envisages the end of the presidential system. So why is the government in a mad rush to prove that cynics like me, who said from day-one, that the APC/APRC exercise was a farce, that the regime set it up as a cosmetic exercise to quieten local and foreign critics, and that the report will end up in the dustbin, so apodictically correct? The answer is simple political cunning!

In hindsight people have woken to the reality that the APRC exercise was vapid drama, a confidence scam pulled by the regime. I do concede that notwithstanding these phony intentions (not of the APRC but the regime) the exertions of some committees did produce useful documents, especially the Expert Committee Majority Report, but that’s a separate matter. The indecent trashing of the APRC and plunging in a diametrically opposite direction personifies an emperor without his loin cloth.

The Rajapaksa regime is hell-bent on preempting matters before public opposition builds up and clearly it has doubts whether its deals with somersaulting SLMC turncoats and Tamil crossover knaves will hold up indefinitely. If these are not the real motives for haste, then there must be other behind the scenes deceptions that the public is not privy to. For example did big money cross under the table?

However, the overriding motive for haste I believe is to stall the consolidation of internal opposition within the SLFP itself, both at the leadership level and in the rank and file. Given the opportunity, the SLFP will turn against the amendments. Contrary to the opinion of some big mouths, people are not worried about the price of chilies only, they are concerned about political issues as well; otherwise why bother with Lessons Learnt etc Commission at all?

I am also curious about the Socialist Alliance (LSSP, CP, DLF and two middle of the road parties), a tail of the UPFA. Will the SA parliamentarians vote against the government and lose ministries and numerous other choice privileges? I don’t think so; these people know where their bread is buttered. The curious thing then is why go on a rampage, chests puffed, bellowing opposition to term-limit extension? Did they not know all along that they would stick their tails between their legs and beat a retreat when Mahinda read them the riot act? Nevertheless, I will give my comrades the benefit of the doubt for now; let us wait a few more days and see if the SA dares to say ‘No’ loud and clear – abstention is hogwash. I for one would owe them a big apology for writing this paragraph if they stand firm. It is an apology that I am yearning to have to make!

War dividends

Peace Dividend refers to the improvements in the economic situation that follows the end of a war and the benefits that post war quietude brings; more economic activity and confidence, tourist arrivals, enhanced investment and post-war reconstruction. The end of war also brings a War Dividend; exultation that glorifies the supreme leader, militarization of society – Join the forces and retire an ambassador! – repression and fear of the impunity with which state power is wielded against the citizen. I always maintained throughout the war that if the Tamils were crushed rather than reaching out to a negotiated settlement, Lanka will reap this war dividend in fulsome measure; and so it has come to pass.

The psychological pressures and political balances created by the overwhelming victory of the state over the LTTE is the backdrop without which this march to dictatorship would have been impossible. When military victory comes in an ethnic (race, language, religion) war, then public acquiescence of even the worst features of the victor regime ensues. This state of public apathy makes the subsequent fight against creeping dictatorship more difficult, but that’s no reason for diminished effort; rather it should motivate redoubled effort till wider sections of the populace wake up.

Is it too late?

Is it possible even now at this fifty-ninth minute to force the government to retreat from this diabolical venture? It is possible but it depends on fomenting an internal crisis within the SLFP and on the mobilisation of a unified and determined opposition campaign. Many high personages in the SLFP leadership are aghast at these moves and have left it to insipid newcomers like GL to play knock-kneed centre forward for Rajapaksa’s sales team. I have heard from Socialist Alliance (SA) leaders of SLFP highfliers who have approached them and begged to push hard against presidential term-extension, pleading that they (the SLFP lot) were too afraid to speak up. The less said about their vertebral columns the better but there is a fair possibility that if the SA takes a strong stand it will embolden internal forces of dissent within the SLFP and deter more crossovers from the ranks of the opposition. Strongly expressed dissent within the SLFP can upset Rajapaksa’s apple cart. Therefore this is an important moment when the metal of the SLFP and SA leadership is going to be tested.

While the regime is in indecent haste to push through the amendments, unfortunately the opposition is showing pretty little energy in mobilising against it. The UNP is flatfooted, embroiled in its own squabbles; therefore the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of the JVP. The JVP regrettably has limited experience, except in two election campaigns, in working collectively with other organisations and political parties. It is also inflexible in collective team work and across the board coordination. This time however the impending disaster is too serious for these games. The mood in all the left and democratic organisations is for urgent united action; the demand is that the JVP must participate and play a role commensurate with its size and influence. With the UNP flat on its belly the JVP must help coordinate a joint opposition response without losing a moment.

© The Sunday Island

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

18th Amendment: Constitutional consolidation on Sinhala chauvinism

By Vikramabahu Karunaratne | Lakbima News

Hitherto, the left in general considered the UNP to be the party of the pro imperialist, conservative bourgeois. Hence the breakaway party led by the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranayke was accepted as the party of liberal nationalist capitalism. People were made to accept that the western colonial traditions were protected by the UNP, whilst the SLFP stood for local traditions. Even Sajith Premadasa insists that the UNP is not a party of the Colombo 7 elite, implying that such an opinion exists in society. This widespread belief is used by the present leaders of the SLFP, the Mahinda crowd, to attract the rural Sinhala middle classes and also to cover up the regime’s total subjugation to the neo liberal policies of global capitalism. I have tried to explain in this column, in the past, the changes that have taken place in imperialism. The latter, defined by Lenin and others before the First World War, has developed on to become present day global capitalism. These are qualitative changes and very significant in relation to the struggle of the masses.

We cannot talk of American or Yankee imperialism today as we used to do in our undergraduate days. The economic, political hegemony that the US had has been replaced firstly by G8 and then by G20. The multilateral organisations, WB/IMF/ WTO have substantial supervisory powers and their significant role was very evident during the last period. They were instrumental in controlling the competitive trends among the global powers during the worst part of the economic crisis. No longer is the image of US imperialism, with a tall white man in a three piece suit and a top hat, valid for the regime controlled by Obama. He is black enough to be classified with the ex-colonial masses, and in fact he could be a Muslim. As far as the masses in the Indian subcontinent are considered, imperial looking Sonia is easily identifiable as an oppressor!

New face of global capitalism

The system of monopoly capitalism has changed. The economic system of multinational companies has no specific imperial image. The military and political options are secondary. What really matter are the agreements made by the dependent regime with the global financial institutes. The latter has enough managerial powers to press the borrower to take the suggested path by the system. Ethics have changed so much that very often the traditional servile sections in the dependent society are ignored, to tie up with the nouveau rich. Neo liberalism is truly liberal in that context. The search for the westernized elites as the dependable elements in the developing world is virtually over. What the neo liberal capitalist matrix wants, is the man with the power and the eagerness to go along with its path of development. The leader could be conservative, liberal, chauvinist, nationalist, socialist or even Marxist. It does not matter as long as he agrees with the technology transfer and modernization given by the system. So, global capitalism is marching along silently with a benevolent face.

Now, we hear from the IMF mission who came recently that, “Overall economic conditions are improving as expected in the last visit, and the economy is likely to show strong growth this year. External balances are strong, remittance inflows continue at a high rate, tourism prospects continue to improve rapidly and gross reserves remain at comfortable levels. We assess the Central Bank’s recent rate cut as appropriate. With bank lending only slowly beginning to rebound, and economic growth still below potential, we see little sign of emerging demand-driven inflationary pressures, and average inflation for the year as a whole is expected to remain in the single digits... Performance under the programme has been good. End-June performance criteria on domestic budget borrowing, reserve money, and net reserves have been met. With budget revenues increasing and expenditure restraint continuing, fiscal performance so far remains consistent with achieving the government’s full-year deficit target of 8 percent of GDP. Financial sector reforms continue to go forward in line with the programme.” Cheers! Well nothing to worry, Mahinda is doing well. Lankan women even with iron nails in their bodies have remitted money, the workers have not challenged even though their salaries are intolerably law, and the cuts in welfare and increases of taxes are tolerated by the suffering masses. So, Mahinda should continue on this path.

However the mission advised: “First, a fundamental tax reform is needed - and planned - to simplify the existing system, broaden the tax base (including by restricting concessions), spread the tax burden more equitably, and support economic growth, all while boosting the revenue-to-GDP ratio. The resulting fiscal space could allow increased public capital spending on reconstruction and infrastructure as well as social spending to support the vulnerable, but it is clear that the country’s large investment needs cannot be met through the government budget alone. Private sector investment will be needed to play a critical role. To foster this investment, policies will need to be geared toward preserving macroeconomic stability, ensuring external competitiveness, facilitating capital market development, and improving the investment climate, all of which would lay the basis for higher sustainable growth in a post-war environment.” If you are prepared to forget the cliche about the vulnerable, the command is clear: tax the poor more, help the rich and preserve the stability.

We were dependent heavily on these organizations since 1977. In addition to the IMF standby agreement, we are today attached to the World Bank Group’s current Country Assistance Strategy for Sri Lanka, covering the period from July 2008 to June 2012. The CAS supports the government’s 10-year Development Framework, with an annual lending envelope of around US$200 million. Then there are other project agreements. According to their evaluation reports we have done well. But in the last three decades we had in addition to the struggles of the workers for better living, two massive insurrections by both Sinhala and Tamil youth. They were fighting for their land, human rights, culture and traditions - in short for their natural existence. Workers lost jobs and the youth lost everything; the suffering of the masses was unbelievable.

But now the global exploitative matrix has selected their new server. He is pushed to strengthen his power by meddling with the constitution. What is going on is the constitutional consolidation of the regime based on Sinhala chauvinism. With the new legitimacy it will be used against the workers, peasants, fishers and all minorities. Mahinda has done the job better than J.R. Jayewardene; that is the ruling of the global capitalism. JR was not able to fool anybody in the left, but MR, with his past credentials of being a friend of the workers and the left, could drag even Vasu to the guillotine!

© Lakbima News

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksas bared

By Tisaranee Gunasekara | The Sunday Leader

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” — William Pitt the Younger (Speech in the House of Commons – 18.11.1783)

So the Emperor is finally divested of his dazzling patriotic mantle, his vulturous greed for power and grandiose dynastic ambitions bared. The proposed 18th Amendment to the Constitution is quintessentially Rajapaksian: anti-democratic and deceptive, megalomanic and supercilious, rapacious and unctuous. The confluence of its two main components – presidential term-limit removal and negation of the 17th Amendment — would produce a supra-presidency which Mahinda Rajapaksa can hold for life and bequeath to his chosen successor. A virtual monarchy with a reassuringly democratic title – this was the predestined destination of the Rajapaksa project.

The road to tyranny is often paved with indifference on the part of unexceptionable, law-abiding citizens. No perilous turning point happens in a vacuum but is preceded by innumerable official misdeeds, to which society should have reacted with outrage but did not, deeming them unimportant, irrelevant or kosher. The Rajapaksas have come within striking distance of transforming Sri Lanka from a flawed democracy into a dynastic oligarchy because their crimes and abuses have gone largely unchallenged by Lankan society, especially that intellectual-ethical obscenity, the zero-civilian casualty myth (and the incarceration of more than 300,000 Tamils in ‘welfare villages’).

The case of Sarath Fonseka was a dry run for the 18th Amendment. The regime demonised and persecuted Gen. Fonseka and yet, no societal opprobrium ensued. The opposition launched a few desultory protests, but failed to comprehend the gravity of the common threat or to unite to defeat it. Emboldened by this indifference and ineptitude, the rulers imposed a pernicious sentence on Gen. Fonseka, depriving him of his rank, honours and even pension.

It was news for a couple of days while the normally voluble Buddhist monks, business and artistic communities and academia acted deaf-mute. For the Rajapaksas this would have been proof-positive that Lankan society will not react, even in its own defence or enlightened self-interest.

When a society is afflicted with indifference, resistance becomes a non-option. In such bleak psychological landscapes would-be tyrants thrive. Today the Rajapaksas are making a blatant power-grab, motivated by nothing other than greed and ambition, and, yet, where is the outrage? Why aren’t we opposing, to the full democratic measure, this most anti-democratic deed? Is our psychological degradation so complete, we see nothing wrong in Mahinda Rajapaksa being president for life or Namal (or Basil or Gotabaya) Rajapaksa succeeding him? Or have we been deceived by that beguiling lie assiduously spread by Rajapaksa apologists – that the 18th Amendment would not endanger democracy, because the electorate can vote out Mahinda Rajapaksa or his chosen successor, whenever necessary?

L’ affaire Mervyn and the 18th Amendment

Rajapaksa-justice is an oxymoron, as is evidenced by the scandalous exoneration of Mervyn Silva by the SLFP disciplinary committee. This was despite the existence of innumerable visual records in the public domain of Mr. Silva getting the Samurdhi official tied to a tree. The SLFP disciplinary committee claimed that the incident was a mere piece of theatre; an Orwellian self-incriminatory letter was obtained from the hapless victim, indubitably under duress. The entire charade was so specious as to insult the intelligence of even a small child; it demonstrates the contempt with which the Rajapaksas hold the Lankan people, including fellow SLFP leaders.

The conduct of the SLFP disciplinary committee is a prototype of how the 18th Amendment will work, in reality. The electoral removal of President Rajapaksa presupposes the holding of even marginally free and fair elections. Are free and fair elections possible, once the 18th Amendment empowers President Rajapaksa to hire and fire all key officials, including the Election Commissioner and the IGP? On the contrary, the 18th Amendment is tailor-made to prevent free and fair elections.

The proposed Advisory Council is a toothless entity; its sole task is to offer advice which the President may accept or reject, as he sees fit. The President will be empowered to appoint members to ‘independent’ commissions and remove them, thereby devaluing these entities into presidential appendages. This subversion of the independence of the Independent Commissions would enable the total subjugation of the public service, the judiciary and the media to the will of the omnipotent President. The 18th Amendment will further strengthen the presidency at the expense of the legislature, the judiciary and the citizens, thereby exacerbating the imbalance inherent in the system.

The 18th Amendment will enable the President to make and break careers with total impunity. Would public officials, civil or military, want to antagonise President Rajapaksa by acting justly and independently, when their career prospects and opportunities for post-retirement preferment are completely dependent on him? Particularly when they know how far, fast and hard a man can fall, once he has antagonised the Rajapaksa brothers?

After all, Gen. Fonseka was the third member of the triumvirate which defeated the LTTE, a man whose popularity was second only to the Rajapaksa brothers’, a warrior with a very real following in the Lanka Army, a Sinhala supremacist hero-worshipped by Southern hardliners and the Sangha. Today he is defeated and humiliated, a fallen idol whose fate is of indifference to his erstwhile devotees. The contradictory trajectories and the contrasting fates of Tiger Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) and anti-Tiger Sarath Fonseka indicate how to survive in a Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

The faultline is whether one is with the Rajapaksas or against the Rajapaksas. All other factors, from ethnicity and religion to party affiliations, will avail a citizen nothing if he/she takes that fatal step of opposing the Rajapaksas effectively. For the Rajapaksas, patriotism is ultimately a means to an end, an attractive garb under which their naked power-hunger is concealed. After all, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his years as the leader of opposition, did maintain a near total silence about the Wickremesinghe-Pirapaharan appeasement process and the ensuing Tiger atrocities.

So Sri Lanka is a land polarised between the friends and the enemies of the Ruling Family. In this land, anyone who is willing to play by Rajapaksa rules and submit to Rajapaksa dictates can lead a ‘normal’ life, without experiencing state terror. The North has been bludgeoned into sullen silence; Tamils will be stigmatised and repressed as Tiger supporters if they show signs of democratic dissent. If the 18th Amendment is through and the Rajapaksas entrench themselves, a majority in the South, including most of those who voted against the UPFA, will consent to Dynastic Rule and the loss of basic rights and freedoms, in return for a measure of peace and normalcy. Extreme economic deprivation can shatter this deceptive calm, but a general outburst of discontent may take years to happen.

If the 18th Amendment is through, other constitutional reforms will follow, subverting democratic freedoms in the name of national security. The regime’s political solution to the ethnic problem (if it materialises) will involve less and not more devolution. The Rajapaksas do not want to share power anymore than they want to give it up. Democracy is incompatible with the Rajapaksa project; and in this battle for supremacy, the Rajapaksas seem to be winning.

© The Sunday Leader

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sri Lanka: Oh, what a circus, what a show...

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene | The Sunday Times

There is a certain bitter irony over the weeping and wringing of hands indulged in by some this week in respect of what the draft 18th Amendment to Sri Lanka's Constitution seeks to do to the country's constitutional structures.

In the first instance, the utter consternation that is being expressed over this constitutional amendment is hard to understand in the natural order of things. The 18th Amendment Bill, in all its deeply subversive glory, is only a logical culmination of the deliberate displacing of Sri Lanka's constitutional institutions, (with our blessings as it were), over the past decade.

Early experiments in devaluing democracy

History would record that the first danger signal came in 1999 when the appointment of a Chief Justice by former president Chandrika Kumaratunge weakened public confidence in the apolitical functioning of the courts. Like Pontius Pilate, there are many among us who cannot disclaim responsibility for the undermining of the judiciary during that period, wash their hands desperately as they may.

The 17th Amendment, passed by Parliament in 2001, was the one hope that the country would pull itself back from the brink during that time. Thereafter it was Kumaratunge who was responsible for the first crack in the 17th Amendment by declining to appoint the Chairman of the Elections Commission on her Presidential watch, even though the nomination was made duly and properly by the Constitutional Council. Kumaratunge was unceremoniously tossed out of office by her former (judicial) protégé in 2005.

But emboldened by the easy success of these experiments in devaluing democracy, Kumaratunge's successor, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, went a step further. Brushing aside the mandatory requirement of approval by the Constitutional Council required under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, he made his own appointments to the earlier independent commissions on the police and the public service, the judiciary and the National Human Rights Commission.

Weak and faltering opposition

This was the preliminary testing of the waters, so as to speak, in relation to an even greater departure from the constitutional norm. Opposition to these actions was weak and faltering, both from the political parties as well as from the so called watchdogs of society, namely civil society, the academia, the media and professional associations. Lawyers (including a former president of the Bar Association) and retired judges jostled with each other to accept unconstitutional appointments to the commissions.

The main opposition, the United National Party did not take the discarding of the 17th Amendment as a primary rallying point and it was left to one of its senior frontliners, Karu Jayasuriya to hold forth almost singlehandedly on this point. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, (the 17th Amendment's most enthusiastic backer initially), also hemmed and hawed on its proper implementation.

With such a dismal resistance, the stage was set for a more definitive political drama with appointments not being made at all to the National Police Commission, the National Human Rights Commission and the Bribery and Corruption Commission. This process has now culminated in this proposed 18th Amendment Bill and the constitutional entrenching of authoritarianism in its most aggravating and chilling forms.

The point however is that this draft constitutional amendment did not emerge suddenly out of the clear blue sky, as it were. There is a specific history and a specific background to its emergence. So, why should anyone express consternation or dismay at this point? Did we really expect that, after such tremendously successful attacks on constitutional institutions over a long period with nary a whimper of protest or effective stirring of our collectively deadened conscience, the administration would magnanimously wave its magic wand and bring institutional democracy back, out of the immense goodness of its heart when the war ended last year?

Taking naivete to an extreme level

Did we expect that when we cheered the Rajapaksa administration to casually dismissed patterns of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances as collateral damage and abused those who called for accountability from state sponsored executioners, that the authoritarianism would stop there? Did we expect that when we justified assassinations of editors and the beating and hounding of journalists as inevitable or when we jeered when a journalist of Tamil ethnicity was arrested and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment based on one or two articles that he had written on the travails facing the people of the North and East to a little known magazine, that the danger would stop there? This is, if one is being charitable, to take naivete to its most extreme level.

And in this context, the government is not engaging in lessons learnt and reconciliation on the one hand while perpetuating unabashed executive authoritarianism on the other. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is merely a shrewd and successful exercise in deflecting attention away from constitutional reforms that will forever change the nature of our political society.

Tossing away constitutional safeguards like garbage

The draft 18th Amendment tosses away the safeguards of the 17th Amendment in regard to Presidential authoritarianism like so much constitutional garbage. The Constitutional Council which acted as a fetter on Presidential discretion in making appointments to key positions in the judiciary, the public service and important constitutional commissions, is replaced by a veritably toothless five member Parliamentary Council whose observations on the pending appointments may be called for and then thrown into the wastepaper basket.

That by itself, would have been scandalous enough. But the cynics may have been inclined to dismiss such doomsday warnings if the Bill had not coupled these changes with the abolition of the two term restriction contained in Article 31(2) of the Constitution. It is this abolition which takes the 18th Amendment Bill from being scandalous to a new and hitherto unprecedented level of positively dangerous.

Coupled with the immunity that is afforded to an Executive President this Amendment will result in a virtual monarchy. Cosmetic measures such as bringing the President before Parliament are precisely what they are, namely a superficial gloss over the fact that the Presidency would far override Parliament and would be uncontrollable in the worst possible meaning of the term.

Revealing the nature of the monster

With an independent Elections Commission and a Police Commission thrown to the winds, the deletion of the number of terms that an incumbent can contest means that a sitting President will have all the huge state resources at his will, including the state media, police officers and public officers to subvert the results of an election whichever way that he pleases.

It is clear therefore that the nature of the monster as fully revealed cannot be accepted in selective doses, though we may like to or prefer to. In this 18th Amendment Bill, we see the designs of the Rajapaksa Presidency exposed in its most naked and visceral manner. The responsibility of creating the situation that made it possible for such an amendment to be presented in Parliament and for the political context which makes the passing of such an amendment with a two thirds majority, a given, must therefore be ours and ours alone.

There is none among us who could wash his or her hands of the responsibility of ushering in an era of monarchical despotism despite futile wailings at the proverbial eleventh hour.

© The Sunday Times

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