SRI LANKA: Is it a crime to call the President an Ekadhipathiya – ඒකාධිපතියා (Authoritarian ruler)?

by Basil Fernando

On the 19th October 2014 BBC Sinhala Service broadcast, the United National Party Member of Parliament Ranjan Ramanayake, complained that there was a plan to assassinate him due to his participation in a televised debate. On air, he had provided details of the information he had received regarding the alleged assassination plan. Replying to these allegations, Cabinet Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade, Johnston Fernando, said that Ranjan Ramanayake had called the President – who had saved the nation – an ekathipathiya (authoritarian ruler) and that this was the reason for the commotion. Minister Fernando, however, dismissed the allegation of an attempt to assassinate Ramanayake.

The important question is whether it is criminally wrong to have an opinion to the effect that the President is an authoritarian ruler and to express that opinion in public. The impression that Minister Johnston Fernando gave was that to express such an opinion is absolutely wrong and it is not wrong to aggressively retaliate against a person who expresses his or her opinion.

However, there are many others who have held the same opinion and publicly declared their opposition to the authoritarian form of rule that is being implemented in Sri Lanka and called for the need to do everything possible to bring back a democratic way of governance. Most recently, such expressions were expressed at a public meeting held by the “Hela Urumaya” party, which is a party in partnership with the government, and which has attracted large number representatives that hold a wide variety of perspectives within the political spectrum of Sri Lanka. All of those attending the meeting were of the opinion that the present presidential system of government has destroyed Sri Lankan democracy and that this system is kept alive only for the benefit of the person who holds the position of Executive President. They demonstrated their complete opposition to the existing constitutional framework of governance in Sri Lanka by presenting a draft of an amendment to the Constitution, suggesting drastic change to all vital aspects of the Constitution. Strangely enough, President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself did not disagree with the open condemnation of the Constitution; instead, he said that “he, more than any other person, wanted to change this constitution”. He went on to say that he will do so only if, those who are still calling for a separate state will abandon such a claim. Thus, going by his own public claims, the President himself agrees that the Constitution is not compatible with democracy – which, of course, is not a new position. Former President Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaranatunge already promised this in 1994 and President Mahinda Rajapaksa re-affirmed the commitment to abolish it in 2005. There was also the near unanimous opinion of the whole of the Parliament in 2001 when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in order to control the damage done by the 1978 Constitution to the democratic structure of the country.

However, what is pertinent to note is not the correctness, or otherwise, of calling the President an ekadhipathiya (authoritarian ruler), but to safeguard the right of any person to have an opinion to that effect and to be able to freely express it. That is all that the opposition Member of Parliament Ranjan Ramanayake has done. And, according the MP, doing so has provoked a situation in which, as per the information he received, there is now a scheme to assassinate him.

It is also important to note that these incidents are taking place on the eve of a possible election. Will this particular incident be an omen of the type of election that is going to be held? Will those who will face this election with the singular cry – for the abolition of the authoritarian style of governance and its replacement with a democratic style of a Constitution – be treated with the same anger and aggression?

Elections are about opinions. Two or more sets of opinions are placed before the people, and the people are expected to consider these alternative opinions in an environment of peace, and then be able to express their opinions without fear. If such an environment of peace and such a possibility of expressing a vote without fear do not exist in Sri Lanka, then there cannot be a free and fair election.

The question that is placed before the people is to decide, through a free and fair election, whether the President and the current system should be rejected in favour of a democratic scheme of governance or if they should remain as they are. If that question cannot be asked, discussed, and decided upon, without resorting to violence, then talking about the elections will become farcical, in a manner similar to what has already happened to so many other vital aspects of Sri Lankan life.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-088-2014
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Institutional reform, Right to life, Rule of law,