STRUGGLES AGAINST JR'S DHARMISHTA SAMAJAYA
Before the 2nd Republican Constitution was introduced in 1978 by Jayewardene, Sri Lanka had a Westminster system of governance. Then, despite the President being the head the State, it was a ceremonial post while the Prime Minister who was the head of the government and the Cabinet wielded the executive powers of the government
With the executive Presidency being introduced, Sri Lanka saw a despotic rule. Although the Constitution contained an Article providing for the President to be responsible to the Parliament, there was no mechanism to stop the President by the Parliament
If you would be able to see your enemies or arch rivals following in your own footsteps after your death, that would be the pinnacle of your life achieved posthumously. The former President Junius Richard Jayewardene commonly known as J.R. might have the similar feeling these days with the sight of the present leaders of the country attempting to further strengthen the Executive Presidency for which he was hated and ridiculed by the same leaders, for decades.
Before t he 2nd Republican Constitution was introduced in 1978 by Jayewardene, Sri Lanka had a Westminster system of governance. Then, despite the President being the head the State, it was a ceremonial post while the Prime Minister who was the head of the government and the Cabinet wielded the executive powers of the government.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister was literally answerable to his actions as well as to those of his government as he had to face the Opposition within the chamber of the Parliament almost every day. And except for the emergency situations his actions and those of the government had to be sanctioned by the Parliament.
That does not mean that administration was pure and totally devoid of highhanded actions. In special circumstances the government even then was able to wreak havoc, as happened during the first JVP insurrection in 1971 when the country first saw thousands of dead bodies burning in “tyre pyres” and floating in rivers.
With the Executive Presidency being introduced, Sri Lanka saw a despotic rule. Although t he Constitution contained an Article providing for the President to be responsible to the Parliament, there was no mechanism to stop the President by the Parliament. Members of Parliament were barred even from criticising him within the House without a substantial motion, the outcome of which is decided by numbers.
The President was entitled to absolute immunity from liability for any act committed in his official as well as personal capacity and the late Sarath Muththetuwegama, the then Communist Party member for Kalawana electorate said in Parliament that even the President’s wife would not be able to file a divorce case or a maintenance case against the President under this provision.
Jayewardene acted like a dictator with this immunity and obtaining undated resignation letters from the ruling party members of Parliament. He even used his powers to hold a referendum t o postpone t he parliamentary election for another term in 1982, in order to continue to maintain the five sixths of power that his party, the United National Party (UNP) had received at the 1977 General Election. And he used the undated resignation letters to oust the MPS who represented the electorates where the UNP was defeated at the referendum.
The hands of the law enforcement authorities were so tied that the referendum and the Presidential Election held in the same year were the most rigged two nationwide polls in the history. History saw for the first time so many ballot papers folded together in ballot boxes. Pistol toting ministers barged into the polling centres with thugs to chase away the polling agents of other political parties before stuffing the ballot boxes.
Thugs were sent from the south to disrupt and rig the first and the only District Development Council (DDC) election in Jaffna in 1981 and in the melee the Jaffna library, one of the biggest in Asia containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts was torched by the thugs without any intervention by the police.
Jayewardene gave a message to the Judiciary in 1984 introducing a new mechanism to impeach the then Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon by appointing a parliamentary select committee to investigate the allegations against the CJ. It is well known that the majority of any parliamentary select committee consists of ruling party MPS. (The CJ had earned the wrath of the President over a speech the latter had made at a public place.) It was the same mechanism that was used to oust the 43rd CJ, Shirani Bandaranayake by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, 2013.
Any law once made by Parliament can only be amended by the Parliament. However, Jayewardene even amended a law using his powers under emergency regulations, without convening the Parliament. The original Provincial Councils Act provided the merger of Northern and Eastern provinces only if the Tamil armed groups surrendered their weapons. With the Indian pressure mounting to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces, President Jayewardene issued a gazette notification on September 2, 1988 amending the relevant section of the said Act.
The Amendment which was brought in while the fighting between the Indian forces and the LTTE was ongoing mainly in the North provided for the President to merge the two provinces if he satisfied that the process of disarming Tamil armed groups has commenced. And six days after this notification the two provinces were merged by the President by a special proclamation.
President Jayewardene deprived former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights for six years through a commission appointed by him, preventing her from contesting the 1982 Presidential Election. And he attempted to manipulate the law by re-appointing Abeyratne Pilapitiya to Parliament as Kalawana MP ignoring the results of a by-election at which Sarath Muththetuwegama had been elected to the same electorate in 1981.
His highhanded action to proscribe the JVP along with another two parties on ridiculous grounds following the 1983 anti-tamil riots led to the 2nd JVP insurrection in 1988/89 which reportedly claimed over 60,000 lives.
Thugs pelted stones at the houses of the Supreme Court judges after they ruled that arresting of Lanka Sama Samaja Party stalwart Vivien Gunawardene during a protest against the occupation of Diego Garcia islands by the US. He justified the inaction by the police during the attack, claiming that the court had allowed protests.
Jayewardene was thus able to meddle in the affairs of all three arms of the governance, executive, legislature and the judiciary as he had been given the powers to do so by the 1978 Constitution. Besides, he had five sixths of parliamentary power. It was he who appointed persons to and removed them from all high posts in these three arms of governance. Thus the entire State machinery was afraid of him.
It was against this backdrop that a huge outcry against the executive Presidency emerged in the 1980s and grew in 1990s. Some of the present leaders of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led government such as Mahinda Rajapaksa, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dinesh Gunawardene, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Bandula Gunawardene as politicians and Dallas Alahapperuma as a journalist were in the forefront in that struggle then.
Later Jayewardene’s UNP itself joined the chorus which led to the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, a process initiated by the JVP during the so-called Parivasa Government under President Chandrika Bandaranaike, in 2001. Without the untiring efforts by the then JVP parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa the 17th Amendment would not have seen the light of the day. The purpose of the Amendment was to prevent at least to some extent a repetition of the authoritarian rule, by curtailing the powers of the President to arbitrarily appoint persons to and remove them from high posts.
The effects of the 17th Amendment was reversed by the 18th Amendment introduced in 2010 by the same group which once fought tooth and nail against the Executive Presidency. Interestingly it was President Jayewardene’s UNP that was later instrumental to bring in the checks against the unbridled powers of the presidency through the 19th Amendment back in 2015, but with the support of the present leaders of the SLPP. The Pendulum is to sway again to the other side with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, with the help of the Jayewardene’s arch adversaries who have forgotten their own yesteryear struggles against JR’S