8 Sep 2010

New powers for Sri Lanka president

As Sri Lanka’s president is given sweeping new powers, the man behind critical posters which have compared him to Hitler has been arrested as Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller reports.

New powers for Sri Lanka president

Sri Lanka’s parliament has approved constitutional reforms which will enable President Mahinda Rajapakse to seek a third term and will give him sweeping powers over formerly independent institutions.

The constitutional amendment will enable him to appoint key officials to the judiciary, the police, the electoral commssion and the central bank.

The 225-member parliament voted 161-17 in support of the 18th amendment.

While the president’s party and its allies do not themselves command the parliamentary majority necessary to automatically pass the bill into law, it has been widely alleged in Sri Lanka that parliamentarians were either bribed or intimidated into pushing the bill through.

“It has been widely alleged in Sri Lanka that parliamentarians were either bribed or intimidated into pushing the bill through.” Jonathan Miller

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional changes did not require approval by referendum.

In presenting the 18th Amendment to parliament today, Prime Minister Dissanayake Jayaratne said there was nothing undemocratic with the proposals.

Those opposed to the amendment say key democratic insitutions are being turned from servants of the people into instruments of state.

“Anyone with an interest in constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka will be very, very worried by this,” says Asanga Welikala, a constitutional lawyer with the Center for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka.

“Six year presidential terms – now carrying on forever – the removal of checks and balances, blanket immunity… this consolidation of presidential power is a very disturbing development.”

Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group said: “Today is a black day for Sri Lankan democracy.”

“The Amendment further entrenches the already near-total powers of president.

“These changes will deepen the cancer of impunity and the politicisation of all government institutions.”

Country faces ‘danger’

Despite the stifling of the political opposition and the intimidation of journalists and critics of the government, there have been howls of protest in Sri Lanka itself over what is perceived – in some circles – as an assault on democracy and good governance.

The Ceylon Federation of Labour, an independent trades union, warned starkly: “It is time that all democratic forces wake up to the danger the country faces.”

A Tamil MP talked of “the death of democracy” during today’s parliamentary debate.

Many oppostion MPs walked out in protest. Demonstrators belonging to the opposition United National Party burned an effigy of the president.

Protest poster comparing President Rajapakse to Adolf Hitler

Protest poster comparing President Rajapakse to Adolf Hitler.

The owner of a Colombo press which printed two posters of the president – one of which portrays him as Hitler, with the strapline “He is a dictator” in Sinhala, has been arrested.

Mr Jayampathy Bulathsinhala was arrested along with his wife and two brothers and eight other workers at his plant.

The other members of his family and employees were released after interrogation at Colombo’s Mirihana police station but Mr Bulathsinhala continues to be held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which provides for 14 days’ detention without charge.

The 64-year-old president was re-elected in January and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its allies secured a large majority in parliament not long afterwards. (The next presidential election won’t be until 2016).

Protest poster of President Rajapakse put up in Columbo

Like Sinhala kings of old, the president has established a Rajapakse dynasty. He appointed himself minister of finance, minister of planning, minister of highways, ports and aviation and minister of defence.

He also appointed his unelected brother Gotabaya defence secretary and put him in charge of all three arms of the military, the coast guard, the police and foreign and domestic intelligence.

Gotabaya Rajapakse was the architect of the final assault on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Mahinda’s elder brother Basil is special adviser to the president, economic dvelopment minister and the head of the investment promotion board.

Both Basil and Mahinda Rajapakse’s son, Namal, won parliamentary seats in April.

Mahinda’s oldest brother Chamal, formerly a cabinet minister, is speaker of parliament, while his son, Shashindra is chief minister of Uva Province.

The 18th Amendment entrenches the Rajapakse clan in power.

It will now be harder than ever to unseat him. “It doesn’t bode well,” a spokesperson from Amnesty International told me.

“But what worries us most from a human rights point of view, is how the amendment removes the safeguards on executive authoritiy.”

In a stroke, 18-A –as it’s known – nullifies and supercedes previous amendments, thus abolishing virtually all checks and balances on the presidency.

It gives the president the power to appoint the Chief Justice and judges in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.

He can appoint the Attorney General and the Auditor General.

He will have the power to appoint chairmen and members of formerly independent commissions, among them, the Election Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption.

The president will have the power to remove anyone who exhibits any tendencies that are not those expected of a Rajapakse loyalist. Jonathan Miller

The president will have the power to remove anyone on these commissions who exhibits any tendencies that are not those expected of a Rajapakse loyalist.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has broken promises made to his people on the conclusion of the war last year; promises to share and devolve power and to unite his nation.

He has also broken his election promises. Just five years ago he explicitly and unequivocally committed himself to abolishing Sri Lanka’s executive presidency.

Today, his power is absolute.