proves his mettle against gullible opposition
Wednesday last would go down in the annals of Sri Lankan
history as a red-letter day as parliament sans the main
opposition UNP voted in the controversial 18th amendment to
The nonchalant President Mahinda Rajapaksa was keeping
tabs on the proceedings in parliament as the 18th amendment
became law, with an overwhelming majority despite protests
by the opposition, on the road leading to the parliamentary
The 18th amendment to the constitution bestowed upon the
incumbent of the Executive, sweeping powers without any
hindrance, hitherto exercised by the President only on the
recommendations of the Constitutional Council.
The Constitutional Council had been the main thrust
envisaged by the 17th amendment to the constitution that was
approved by Parliament almost unanimously.
The 18th amendment to the constitution, presented on
Wednesday, sought to repeal the 17th amendment and thereby
the Constitutional Council.
Parliament took this unprecedented move on Wednesday on the
belief that the executive would not move on a tangent to
usurp all the power that accompany the office of the
President to make it a constitutional monarchy.
The President, addressing the editors and heads of media
institutions last week, defended his right to introduce the
18th amendment in a bid to expedite development work and
other related work of the government that were impeded by
the 17th amendment to the constitution, which lacked
Yet in another meeting on Tuesday, he pointed out that the
second term of the President is considered the end of the
tenure of the executive and the executive was burdened with
putting an extra effort in the discharge of his duties.
‘This happened to former Presidents J R Jayewardene and
Chandrika Kumaratunga as well,” President Rajapaksa
emphasised, hinting that he did not want be a victim of
At the meeting with the editors, the president almost had a
smooth passage, with the editors not making a significant
impact or not expressing their concerns on behalf of the
Except for one or two pertinent questions, it was almost ‘a
one-way traffic situation’ one participant quipped after the
meeting, but the President was successful in his endeavour
to convince the scribes on his move to amend the
The assessment would have been that there was no
noteworthy disenchantment among the top notches of the media
on the proposed reforms. That itself was a relief to the
government in the face of threats posed by the Jantha
Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the main opposition United
National Party (UNP).
The JVP protest campaign on Tuesday saw large crowds
gathering against the enactment of the 18th amendment while
the UNP moved to hold a sathyagraha - a sit-down protest in
the precincts of Parliament, where some opposition
parliamentarians tore the document containing the 18th
amendment to shreds.
Abolition of Presidency
At a separate press conference held at the parliamentary
complex, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe responded to
the President. He said the UNP never supported the 18th
amendment at any stage of the discussions that preceded the
government’s move to come up with this shoddy piece of
legislation aimed at removing the restrictions placed on the
constitution on the number of occasions an individual could
contest the Presidency.
The President had told the media heads earlier that the
18th amendment is a composite piece of legislations that
incorporated the views of the opposition as well. The
President also denied at the meeting that he ever
contemplated on the abolition of the Presidency through the
‘Mahinda Chintana’ or otherwise.
Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa further
galvanised the position taken by the President, stating that
the government had chartered the destiny of the country in
tune with the “Mahinda Chinthana Idiridekma” and said the
document says it all.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, however, was on a collision course
with the government. He said that this would go down in the
history as an amendment to the constitution that has been
passed through the House by illegal means without proper
authority and mandate for the government.
He and TNA (Tamil National Alliance) parliamentarian M
Sumanthiran took up the position that in terms of the 13th
amendment to the constitution any amendment to the
constitution should be gazetted and then go before
Provincial council for debate before the same being taken up
for debate in Parliament.
Wickremesinghe said that it ultra vires not only the
provisions of the constitution but also the parliamentary
This could be considered as a sound argument put forward
by the Opposition, but it was the pointed view of the
government that it has precedence since the 17th amendment
was passed through the House without placing the same before
Provincial Councils for discussion.
Parliament, however, chose to go along with the latter
contention and decided to present it before the House as
The bill to amend the constitution was presented to the
House by Prime Minister D M Jayaratne on Wednesday morning
while huge crowds demonstrated on the ceremonial approach to
Parliament and elsewhere in the country in support of the
18th amendment to the constitution.
The Prime Minister, addressing Parliament, said the protest
launched by the Opposition Leader was a half-hearted one
implying that Ranil Wickremesinghe was indirectly supporting
the 18th amendment to the constitution.
While all these political hullabaloos were afoot, the Bar
Association of Sri Lanka took a much principled step to tell
the government to allow public debate on the bill without
rushing it through the House of Parliament as an urgent
bill. The Bar Association appointed a constitutional
committee headed by President’s Counsel Faiz Musthapa to go
into any constitutional changes by the government even
before the 18th amendment to the constitution was
In the interim report, it was stated that it would not be
prudent to rush through the 18th amendment as an urgent
The Constitutional Committee has already formulated some
recommendations based on the proposals made by renowned
lawyers such as S L Gunasekera and Palitha Kumarasinghe and
a few more.
Senior lawyer S L Gunasekra told this column, in his private
capacity, that he has no regrets for the demise of the 17th
amendment to the constitution – a ‘shoddy piece of
legislation’, allegedly fathered by Professor G L Peiris.
But he expressed his reservations on the move to do away
the restrictions placed on the executive on the number of
occasions an individual could contest. “It smacks with
malice and is patently clear that the government wants to
avoid an informed discussion on the matter with some
He emphasised that removing restrictions on the Presidency
is of absolute danger and it breeds sycophancy.
He believes that the executive presidency should be
abolished and until such time the time bar on the number of
times an individual could contest should remain intact.
He said that everybody, including former President
Chandrika Kumaratunga, made a colossal mess of the
governmental system that came into effect since 1978,
through the Jayewardene constitution. The entire cabinet
voted in favour of Chandrika Kumaratunga to gift her one and
a half acres of land at her retirement and said that
sycophancy could pose a bigger danger to the country than
terrorism. It was breeding from the days of Mrs Sirima
Bandaranaike from the time she received two-thirds majority
S L Gunasekara, who has earned respect among his colleagues
as a forthright lawyer who expresses his views quite openly,
also had a word of appreciation for President Rajapaksa.
Gunasekara said the President is a fine politician who gave
political leadership to the war against the LTTE, adding
that Rajapaksa proved his mettle as a versatile politician
when he organised the ‘Padayatara’ during the hey days of
the UNP. However, he maintains the position that the
amendment to 31(2) will not do any good for the country.
Nevertheless, Wednesday was a day to be reckoned with for
President Rajapaksa as the legal disabilities and
impediments, aimed at retarding the progress, had been
removed for once and for all.
In Parliament, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa
delivered a heart-rending speech when he said that every
representative of the people should have the right to vote
according to his or her conscience.
“The constitution sought to impose a disability on a person
who gets elected with the consent of the majority of the
people whereas it has no barrier imposed on any body to
contest any number of times who have been rejected by the
people. This I suppose is unfair by the people,” he declared
defending the government’s right to amend the constitution
removing the legal barriers placed on the executive.
TNA parliamentarian M Sumanthiran responded in equal
force and with clarity. He quoted Professor of Law and
present External Affairs Minister G L Peiris, referring to
his book on administrative law.
Sumanthiran said that every law student studying
administrative law essentially read what Professor Peiris
has written on page 309. It states inter alia that while
parliament enacts laws, the judiciary is the arm that checks
whether there is any abuse of such law, in the same breath
quoting Professor Peiris he said that every law should have
its own limitations which otherwise would breed
dictatorship, Sumanthiran, a brilliant lawyer in the making,
summed up with finesse.
Tragedy of whole episode
The tragedy of the whole episode is the UNP’s failure to be
in parliament and put up an opposition based on their
arguments, as to why they consider the 18th amendment would
affect democracy and franchise, which would be recorded in
the Hansard for the posterity.
Some political analysts are, however, of the view that this
was a strategy adopted by party leader Wickremesinghe to
prevent further damage to the party.
“May be that his thinking is right, the six members who
crossed over would have enticed some more and more senior
party men to cross–over if they were in Parliament,” he
The UNP instead chose to demonstrate on the road leading to
the Parliamentary complex. The UNP, led by its leaders,
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa
marched from the UNP headquarters ‘Sirikotha’ in Pitakotte
towards Parliament, but they were stopped at the ‘Bangala’
junction in Pitakotte by police where Wickremesinghe made a
critical speech, opposing the 18th amendment to the
Wickremesinghe’s disposition as the UNP leader, however,
baffled many as to why he was not putting up a strong
opposition to the government in the face of insults hurled
by many senior ministers.
“May be Wickremesinghe is aware of what exactly they think
of the government move though they voted with the
government,” one political analyst pointed out.
Nevertheless, the most disconcerting factor among the UNP
members today is his refusal to hold a group meeting just
prior to their protest march in Pitakotte on Wednesday.
Saying that it was not the time to hold such meetings,
Wickremesinghe summarily rejected a letter signed by more
than 28 members requesting him to summon the parliamentary
group meeting that morning.
Preventing further erosion
The group of members, who gathered in Sajith Premadasa’s
room at ‘Sirikotha’, were wondering as to how many people
would support the government to wade through the 18th
amendment to the constitution.
They first had a head count but were not sure how many would
In a bid to instill some sort of confidence and prevent
further erosion of the party, the group adopted a resolution
which would dispel doubts in the minds of many UNP members.
Accordingly, they resolved to propose Ranil Wickremesinghe
as the senior leader of the party while Sajith Premadasa to
be the leader and Karu Jayasuriya to remain in his
substantive position as the deputy leader.
Their plan, however, died a natural death when
Wickremesinghe, may be sensing some trouble brewing within
the precincts of Sirikotha, refused to hold the meeting.
Parliamentarians Kabir Hashim and Talata Atukorala handed
over the letter requesting the urgent group meeting but the
proposal was rejected, alas to their amusement and
Some think that the move by Sajith Premadasa and others
would have been in consequent to a news item in the
vernacular media that there is a plan afoot to make Ravi
Karunanayake, who has run out of favour with most of the UNP
members, as the assistant leader of the party.
This raised the hornets nest in some quarters of the UNP,
but Sajith Premadasa, who could have been affected the most
if this appointment was made, remained unmoved until such
time an opportunity begged at him to make his intentions
known to the people.
The debate on the 18th amendment among the political
circles and the society though it was brief, provided him
the necessary climate for this, so much so, at one stage he
announced that he was ready to take over the leadership of
His claim was, however, bitterly contested in some forums
since some UNP members were questioning the role played by
Sajith Premadasa more recently.
They were obsessed with the argument that those who crossed
over are the members, who supported Sajith Premadasa’s cause
and in particular wanted him to become the UNP leader.
On the other hand, they query as to why Sajith Premadasa
could not prevent them from crossing over and whether his
appeal to the UNP members to refrain form supporting the
government was just a mere eye wash to save his skin from a
political onslaught against him.
In that context, they argue whether there could be of any
difference even if Sajith Premadasa is elected the leader of
Besides, these rumblings in the UNP, many party members
have a word of appreciation for Ranjit Madduma Bandara who
stood ground and supported the opposition view as a policy.
Madduma Bandara, in particular, was under pressure from
influential politicians that he should support the
government given the raw deal he was in for a long time
owing to differences with the leader.
Range Bandara is another member, who was poised to cross the
aisle of parliament, but for many his decision to stick with
the opposition was a sigh of relief -- especially for UNP
members, who thought it would be a betrayal to switch
allegiance from time to time.
Be that as it may, the talk of the town was the stand taken
by Upeksha Swarnamali popularly known as ‘Paba’ who crossed
over to the government after being with the UNP for the
initial protest on Tuesday.
Some websites suggested that she was coerced into this
position, while some UNP parliamentarians including Rosy
Senanayake offered her help to get over the problems that
she was allegedly in due to unavoidable circumstances.
Rosy wanted to take her to the Women-in-Need to obtain
necessary counselling for her to make a firm commitment
according to her convictions. However, lately she decided to
take a firm stand and back the government.
It was none other than UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya,
who first introduced Upeksha Swarnamali to politics. This
was after she became an active player during the
presidential elections, where she threw her weight behind
the former army commander and common opposition candidate
There were many stories circulating in the public domain
about Upeksha Swarnamali and others, who crossed over to the
government from the UNP.
The story doing the political rounds is that all who
crossed over to the government from the UNP, including
Lakshman Seneviratne and Earl Gunasekara, had a gala party
the previous night at the residence of an influential person
with several politicians attending.
Although there were doubts about the behaviour of Lakshman
Seneviratne, nobody believed that he would cross over given
his credentials and the loyalty to the UNP.
Seneviratne’s late father Captain C P J Seneviratne was a
die-hard UNP member who was a pillar of strength to the UNP
during the time of former Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.
In a way it was a loss to the UNP but what is more important
for the dissident UNP members are to remain in the party and
fight back for their rights.
But, now it is a lost battle for Seneviratne who was
rated as a talented debater and a seasoned political
campaigner. By crossing over as to what Seneviratne could
achieve among UPFA heavy weights is yet to be seen, on the
other hand can he make a foray to the UPFA votes in the
Badulla district is yet another question that has to be
considered by him seriously.
On Thursday, Seneviratne made a chopper ride to his
constituency Mahiyangana to be greeted by his close
supporters and appeared on the Independent Television Net
work to explain the circumstances that compelled him to
Besides these, the stand taken by the five parliamentarians,
representing the traditional left is a damning indictment on
After having bitterly criticised the move at the outset
the members, representing the left made a move that is
diametrically opposed to the views expressed by them on the
amendments to extend their support to the government. The
left parties, without batting an eyelid, extended their
support to the government to further strengthen the 1978
constitution fathered by former President J R Jayewardene.
The irony is that the resentment they had over the 1978
constitution from the time it was promulgated had been
diluted and watered down within a span of few weeks.
Their existence in the government had taken precedence over
all other issues, including their hallowed policies and
principles, that they preached since 1935.
The fait accompli is that, whether we like it or not, the
18th amendment to the constitution has become law and that
we have to live with it, the rest of our life.
On Wednesday evening, a jubilant President thanked the
government parliamentary group when he met the Prime
Minister and the rest of the Cabinet at the weekly meeting.
The President implied that he could have garnered more
support for the bill but was having a second thought.
Meanwhile, it was reported that a senior UNP member was
ready to barter his vote for a powerful ministry but the
government was not in a mood to concede anything to the
opposition for just a mere vote because they had already
secured the numbers by the time when he offered his support.
The member concerned is back in the UNP fold and is
opposing the government’s move in a big way.
What is more disturbing to the UNPers is the move, allegedly
by the government, to fix UNP top rung member Mangala
Samaraweera for the incriminating poster that had been
printed by a printer at Delkanda.
Investigations are underway and there were anxious moments
among UNP circles on Friday as to whether Samaraweera would
be called upon by police to explain.
Samaraweera, however, seems to be more committed to his
conviction and was ready to face come what may.