14 August 2020

What of the 13th, 19th, Circular 5/2001 and MCC Compact?

Election results meet aspirations, exceed them and sometimes fall way short of the expected. The winners are naturally euphoric. The also-rans struggle to explain defeat, cling to consolation-straws and put on a brave front. Such behavior is timeless.  

Next up is naming the cabinet. The run-up is made of airing CVs. It’s all about what ‘our man/woman’ did or the need to be fair to constituencies. That’s a headache for those tasked to make the decisions. If it’s about making sure no district is shortchanged, for example, that’s 25 slots filled immediately. If ethnic/religious communities have to be accommodated, the ‘available slots’ quickly evaporate. Should seniors be preferred to juniors? How about constituent parties? Should a certain number be reserved for those who got in through the national list? It’s not a happy headache, clearly.

What’s usually forgotten by the voter is that his/her task is to elect representatives. Naming a cabinet is someone else’s job. It’s not possible, in this instance for example, to satisfy the ministerial hopes of all the MPs representing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its allies. The number is 150. How then can the desires/demands of some 6.9 million voters be satisfied when it comes to naming the cabinet, one could legitimately ask.  

Merits and demerits can of course be discussed. We can talk about the logic or lack thereof in the manner in which institutions have been gazetted under the various ministries. The credentials of one can be compared with those of another. Why not him/her for that ministry? Is he/she really better than he/she who was left out? Such are the questions that can be and are being asked.  All good. All healthy. Politicians should be asked such questions. They should be kept on their toes.

All of it will subside soon, I expect. The despondent are pacified one way or another. The government’s detractors will extract some joy from all this. That’s healthy too, considering the hiding they got. Some consolation is better than nothing. It remains to be seen, however, if the disgruntled will calculate the marginal benefits of shifting loyalties to be greater than the marginal losses of remaining in the government. Their loyalty will be tested if and when a vote is taken on constitutional amendments.

Parliament is about legislation. Enacting laws. Amendments. Two documents cry out for review, obviously, the 13th and 19th Amendments. The 13th is dead. It was illegally enacted and its legitimacy was based solely on its affirmation through provincial council elections. Well, that’s a dead duck if ever there was one. Elections have been postponed. Years have passed. No one has protested, not even the born-again democrats, part-time human rights warriors, the rent-a-signature petitioners, candle-light ladies and funded-voices.

Of course Tamil nationalists, have, as they routinely do, alluded to ‘India.’ ‘It’s something promised to India,’ they are fond of saying. Well, India is not Sri Lanka and Indians are not Sri Lankans. If it’s about solutions to a Sri Lankan problem and if Sri Lankans are not interested, then it’s off the table. India stuffed the 13th down the throat of a meek J.R. Jayewardene and a spineless United National Party (Gamani Jayasuriya was the exception, he resigned). India, let us not forget, then reneged on the Indo-Lanka Accord, failing to disarm the LTTE. 

 Sri Lanka owes India nothing in relation to that agreement. However, elected representatives do owe the people a lot. One is peace. Another is inter-communal harmony. Devolution clearly is off simply because it was offered as a solution to ‘a problem’ that was mis-articulated, because grievances were inflated and aspirations clearly at odds with sovereignty, territorial integrity and would have made reconciliation impossible. Other mechanisms for real problems need to be found. The 13th Amendment is in the way. It has to go.

The 19th. One of the positives of the 19th Amendment was the repeal of the atrocious 18th Amendment. The re-imposition of term limits was good. Limiting of cabinet size was good. Including the ‘national government’ caveat to make a mockery of the ceiling on the number of cabinet ministers was bad. Many articles in that amendment were politically motivated to serve the yahapalana coalition and to trip the opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa (he voted for the 19th, but that’s another story). The articles related to the composition of the Constitutional Council were atrocious. It was politician-heavy and upset the balance of power between president and parliament. The president, let us not forget, is elected by voters from all over the island. He/she gets a national mandate while parliamentarians get a green light from the particular district only (with national list MPs beholden to just their respective party leaders).

We could still have independent institutions provided that there’s sensible caveats relating to the composition of the Constitutional Council. Term limits can remain. The powers of the president could be restored if not for anything but the absolute mess that power-sharing courtesy the 19th Amendment yielded. Passing the ball was the name of the game. The Easter Sunday tragedy was a bloody by-product.

The 19th was made to weaken the state. Given threats from within and without to the nation with regard to sovereignty, national security, protection of resources and sustainable livelihoods, we need a constitution that makes for a strong state and clarity in governance, both of which were severely compromised by the 19th. The 19th needs a visit to the chopping-board.

Circular 5/2001 is a litmus test. The previous cabinet wanted it repealed. The easing of regulations related to sand mining was a disastrous move. It was done in the name of facilitating construction. ‘Development’ is an easy excuse to open avenues that lead to environmental disasters. Circular 5/2001 (related to ‘other state lands’) can be removed but at a massive cost to the nation. Nationalists cannot approve anything that paves the way for wanton destruction of forest cover. Simply put, at the end of the day those who raised their hands to such moves can and probably will be hoofed out of office. We can get new parliamentarians and a new president. However, it will take centuries to recover what they destroyed.

In the end, the buck stops with the President. If cabinet ministers and state ministers step out of line, it is up to Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rein them in. Incompetence should not be tolerated. The corrupt should be shown the door. If things are shoved under the carpet, it will be Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP that will trip and fall flat.  

Once the cabinet drama is done, we will enter the season of governance. The numbers are favorable. Going strictly by promises made, it is not unfair to expect the real deal, implementation of mandate.

If it’s about sovereignty, prosperity, national security and such, then something needs to be done about 13th, 19th and Circular 5/2001. And the MCC Compact too, let’s not forget that either!



This article was published in the DAILY MIRROR (August 13, 2020)