By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“When it is laid down as a maxim, that a king can do no wrong, it places him in a state of similar security with that of idiots and persons insane, and responsibility is out of the question with respect to himself” – Thomas Paine, ‘Rights of Man’
It is what it is. The 20th Amendment is a bill tailor-made for the Rajapaksa family.
Like the brand new Weeraketiya exit on the Southern Highway.
The Weeraketiya exit was not in the Southern Highway’s original plan or blueprint. It was constructed, reportedly at a ‘risky bent’, in three days, with no environmental impact assessment (The Morning – 20.3.2020). That exit has only one reason to exist, to make it easier and faster for the Rajapaksa family to get to their ancestral pile in Medamulana.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to turn Sri Lanka into a country that works. The conditionality in small print said a country that works for the Rajapaksas. That promise is being kept. From the Weeraketiya exit to the proposed 20th Amendment, Sri Lanka is now a country working overtime for the benefit of the Rajapaksas family.
If passed in its current form, the 20th Amendment will enable the Rajapaksas to gather into their collective fists every tendril of power, and to bequeath that power seamlessly from brother to brother and uncle to nephew. The 20th Amendment not only renders President Gotabaya omnipotent; it also opens the door to a President Basil and a President Namal who will be equally omnipotent.
What is really surprising about the 20th Amendment is that anyone is surprised by it. Given what the Rajapaksas are, given their commitment to familial rule and dynastic succession, what other kind of amendment could they have created?
20th Amendment will return Sri Lanka to where she was constitutionally after the passage of the 18th Amendment.
It gives the president a free hand to appoint members of the nominally independent commissions, the upper judiciary, the Judicial Services Commission, heads of the police and the armed forces, the Attorney General, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Secretary General of the Parliament. It places the president above the law. It bestows on the president all the powers of a parliamentarian (other than the right to vote) allowing him to interfere in the work of the legislature at will. It permits the president to appoint as many cabinet and state ministers as there are parliamentarians. It enables the president to fast track bills considered to be in urgent national interest; the Supreme Court will have to give its determination anytime between 24 hours and three days, as the president wills.
The similarity between the 18th Amendment and the proposed 20th Amendment may extend to their trajectories as well. The 18th Amendment was proposed in April 2010, soon after the Rajapaksas won the parliamentary election with a near two-thirds majority. A massive outcry ensued. In May 2010, the siblings backtracked, promising not to enact the 18th Amendment. The promise was believed.
But that seeming concession to public opinion was a mere sleight of hand. The Rajapaksas opened secret negotiations with Opposition to ensure the necessary numbers. The horse-trading netted the SLMC as well as seven UNP parliamentarians and one TNA parliamentarian. Once they had the numbers, the Rajapaksas introduced the 18th Amendment as an urgent bill. The Supreme Court was asked to give its determination in a day and did so. The UNP boycotted the vote. In just a week, the 18th Amendment became the law of the land.
A similar process seems to be underway currently. Faced with resistance from its own ranks, the siblings are pretending to relent; the president has promised to present a new draft while the PM has appointed a committee to study the existing one. Meanwhile, the Rajapaksas are said to be negotiating with the SLMC, maybe others. If negotiations are successful, the siblings will bypass SLPP dissenters, who will fall in line anyway. The letter sent by the SLPP General Secretary to all SLPP parliamentarians warning against making statements contrary to the government’s positions and threatening disciplinary action indicates how the Rajapaksas will deal with any naysayers within their own ranks.
In 2010, Rauf Hakeem said though ‘uneasy’ about the way the 18th Amendment was being rushed through, he will back it and join the government: “unless you are able to influence policy, just shouting from the rooftops, bringing pressure by simply shouting hoarse, is not going to bring relief to people” (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11219149). He became a minister, but instead of relief, the Muslims were subjected to a long hate campaign, culminating in the Aluthgama riots. That history too may repeat itself, if the 20th Amendment becomes a reality.
Slash and burn governance
A politically enabled and protected wind of devastation is ripping through Sri Lanka’s nature reserves. From Sinharaja and Anawilundawa to Rathmale and Udawalawa, forests are being burnt, mangroves destroyed and wetlands filled. This is no accident but the inevitable outcome of the regime’s anti-environmentalist approach to economics (of the Trump-Bolsonaro variety).
The dismissive (who needs oxygen?) attitude towards nature is replicated in politics as well. Slash and burn is what the 20th Amendment proposes to do to democracy, accountability and transparency.
The scrapping of Clause 104GG will render the Election Commission toothless.
If the 20th Amendment becomes law, the Elections Commission will not have the power to give orders to public officials or media institutions in order to stop the abuse of state power and resources. Elections will once again become crassly unfree, unfair and violent affairs, as they were before the 19th Amendment.
During the 2011 LG elections, the Deputy Elections Commissioner explained, “With the passage of the 18th Amendment, the Commissioner no longer had constitutional powers to appoint a competent authority to ensure balanced media coverage” (Daily Mirror – 5.10.2011). That will be the reality again, if the 20th Amendment is through. The largely peaceful and fair elections we experienced in the last five years will become things of memory.
Financial accountability is slated to become another victim of the current slash and burn approach to governance. The 20th Amendment places the public services commission, police commission, and the offices of the president, prime minister and cabinet ministers beyond the purview of the Auditor General. Similarly, companies in which the state is a majority shareholders as well as corporations will be exempted from government audit. According to a piece by Namini Wijedasa, the list of 120 entities freed from government audit would include Sri Lankan Airlines, Lanka Coal Company, Litro Gas, LECO, Sri Lanka Insurance and Lanka Hospitals.
In plain words, the Rajapaksas and their kith and kin will be able spend public funds as they will, with no proper oversight. If this is not an open sesame for waste and corruption, what is it?
The emperor is not naked because someone gulled him into baring himself. The emperor is naked because he wants to be naked.
With two-thirds in hand, the time for civility is almost over
Chamal Rajapaksa is reported telling the police, “We are not asking anyone not to hit. What you should do is to learn the way to hit” (Lanka News Web – 12.9.2020). Let us not forget that Rajapaksa is the state minister for defence.
State Minister Sanath Nishantha (whose brother has been officially identified as responsible for the devastation in Anawilundawa) is on record stating that on the issue of Anawilundawa he takes the part of the people and not the law – demonstrating that for those of the regime, obeying the law in not mandatory but optional. In the meantime, Mangala Samaraweera was summoned to the Matara police station to give a statement about a speech he made claiming that Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala-Buddhist country. Under what law is that statement illegal?
Ian Kershaw reports that the standard reaction of a non-Jew to the Kristalnacht was, “I think the entire thing is mad, but I am not bothering myself with it” (Hitler – Hubris). Will we too try to opt out of the unfolding reality because it seems too insane – until that insane reality clamps its murderous jaws on us?
President Basil and President Namal – Are we ready?
The proposed 20th Amendment will return Sri Lanka to a system of monarchical presidency, centred not around a political party (as President Jayewardene’s was) but around a single family. The powers that will come to Gotabaya Rajapaksa today will someday belong to Basil Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa.
Those who believe in Gotabaya Rajapaksa and are happy to see him limitlessly empowered should ask themselves whether they are ready for a Sri Lanka that is ruled by an equally omnipotent President Basil or a President Namal?
There is a reason that much of the SLPP opposition to the proposed 20th Amendment is over the dual citizenship clause. These non-Rajapaksa SLPP leaders understand that this clause is tailor-made to ensure that PM Mahinda is succeeded by PM Basil and President Gotabaya is succeeded by President Basil, followed by President Namal. If the dual citizenship clause becomes law, those non-Rajapaksa SLPPers nursing prime ministerial or presidential ambitions will find themselves facing a blank wall. A ministership would be the most they could aspire to. Behind their bleats against the 20th Amendment lies their comprehension of this bleak future.
“In dictatorships, politics centres on an interplay between two key actors: leaders and elites. These actors engage in a constant struggle for power, driven by a desire for political influence,” writes Erica Frantz and Natasha Ezrow in The politics of dictatorship: Institutions and Outcomes in Authoritarian Regimes.
Sri Lanka is governed neither by a political party nor by a professional military but by a single family. In the familial authoritarian regime of the Rajapaksas, the key actors are brothers and nephews, fathers and sons. The real turf wars are waged within the family. But these contestations take place within the confines of familial unity against non-familial actors be they of the opposition or one’s own party. For the Rajapaksas, blood is thicker than political affiliations or ideology.
Keeping power in familial hands serves a key practical purpose as well. It minimises the danger of an internal revolt against the regime by political or military elites.
That is why the proposed 20th Amendment will render the premiership totally powerless. Disempowering the post of the PM is not a move against Mahinda Rajapaksa. After all older brother Mahinda will make his voice heard in younger brother Gotabaya’s ears, with or without formal power.
Rendering the post of PM powerless is a measure of protection, in case the family is compelled by circumstances to bestow the premiership on an outsider, as a stop-gap measure. If the 20th Amendment becomes law, such a premier will be a mere cipher and will not have the power or the authority to challenge Rajapaksa primacy in any serious sense. His role will be to warm that seat until the next Rajapaksa is ready to step in.
After all, are we to believe that the 20th Amendment was presented to the cabinet and gazetted, without Mahinda Rajapaksa being fully aware of its contents?
Trying to fight the 20th Amendment by siding with PM Mahinda against President Gotabaya will be as much of an exercise in delusion as trying to use Melania against Donald Trump. The interests of these actors are not identical; yet, despite their very real differences, they are united in keeping non-familial opposition at bay.
In 2010, there was uncertainty about who would succeed Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was a key reason for the removal of the term limit provision. That question has now being resolved, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa succeeding Mahinda Rajapaksa. Since President Gotabaya’s only child is not in politics, his successor would be brother Basil (thus the pivotal importance of removing the dual-citizenship clause). Since Basil Rajapaksa’s children are not in politics, his successor would be nephew Namal.
Primogeniture – the succession to the whole state by the eldest son – was a Western practice. In the East, brothers were as likely as sons to take over. The Rajapaksa succession contest had been resolved in a way that is more organic to the Orient. The proposed 20th Amendment is the constitutional seal on that familial deal.