SRI LANKA: The last debate on the constitution 

Basil Fernando

Sri Lanka has turned out to be a land of many quarrels but no debates. Often quarrels turns into violence, sometimes murder and even worst. And the violence itself leads to new quarrels and the circle goes on. Sadly however, hardly anything ever turns into a debate. Debate has become a lost art and no one even seems to remember what it is.

Take for example the question of the constitution. Among the debates of any nation, those on the constitutions would receive the highest place. Not so in Sri Lanka. No one any longer debates the constitution.

The last debate on the constitution was on the 17 amendment. There were many who argued for it and they did so long a long time. Interestingly, no one argued against it. The government’s argument was that it was good piece of legislation but that there were some defects in it. To cure the defect, the government killed the amendment itself; very much like cutting off the arm to save a finger.

In fact, in that last debate on the constitution, the government preferred to bluff rather than to debate. The real problem of the 17th Amendment was that it tried to impose limitations on the power of executive president. The limitations were on his powers to appoint whomever he wished to important positions in the civil service. The government did not agree with having any such limitations and did not wish to debate it. The government made the decision unilaterally and merely created some pretexts for doing do so.

The problem for the government was that it decided that it was not possible to debate on the need to have checks and balances. It was not possible to say that this was a wrong principle. In fact, the government position was that was a wrong principle as far as the government was concerned. The government believes that having no limits to its power is a better principle for governance and that it is impossible to govern Sri Lanka with while trying to abide by the checks and balances principle. Thus, the government believed that this principle was wrong, at least, for Sri Lanka. It had to be abandoned.

However, this was not something that could be said openly as there is almost a universal belief that the principle of having ‘checks and balances’ is right. To say otherwise, would be tantamount to saying that the law of gravity is incorrect. To debate over the issue of the 17th Amendment was counterproductive. Thus, the only way out was bluff. And that was what the government did.

This example explains the reason as to why there are no longer any debates about the constitution in Sri Lanka. Debates involve principles and there cannot be a debate to reject all the principles on which constitutionalism is based. If one wants to rule in a way that rejects all these principles, then there is no point in debating. Besides, it would be counterproductive to say that our government believes that all principles relating to constitutional law is wrong.

The way out is to create a smokescreen. To have lots of quarrels going on and when you have the monopoly of the media it is easy to do that. The very style of the media in recent years has changed in order to trivialize everything. Trivialization is an essential component of creating quarrels and quarrels are quite an easy way of trivializing any issue.

To have ‘no principles’ is the very meaning of trivialization. From having shouting matches to some ‘jokes’ to tickle the audience is what the public get as their daily diet now. There are experts in the job now to keep the show going on.

Soon there will be some major changes in the constitution. However, such changes will not be preceded by any debates. As the proposed amendment is for displacement of limits relating to the president’s power a debate will only create problems for the achievement of the government’s plans. Indeed the proposed plan cannot be justified on the basis of principles relating to constitutional law. This change will also take place in the midst of some quarrels instead.

This constitutional change will also be introduced as a triviality, though its implications to the country are momentous.

What will this debate-shy society leave as a heritage for future generations?

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-085-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Institutional reform,