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ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s 21st amendment to the constitution is an eyewash that has not stripped the office of the executive president of any of its powers as promised, opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) legislator M A Sumanthiran said.

Speaking in parliament during the second reading of the 2023 budget on Tuesday November 22, Sumanthiran said the 21st amendment allows the president to hold any number of ministerial portfolios, contrary to assurances made that it would serve as a check on the excesses of Sri Lanka’s all powerful executive presidency.

“This amendment was just an eyewash. It really did not make anything independent in this country. Nor did it strip the presidency of any executive powers,” said the MP.

The Jaffna district opposition lawmaker said that, since 2010, he has opposed the president – who is not an MP – holding the finance portfolio.

“When a person who is not a member of this house presents the budget, it seriously curtails this house’s ability to be in total control of public finance as the constitution stipulates in article 148,” he said.

Article 148 of Sri Lanka’s constitution reads: “Parliament shall have full control over public finance. No tax, rate or any other levy shall be imposed by any local authority or any other public authority, except by or under the authority of a law passed by parliament or of any existing law.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s holding the finance portfolio, said Sumanthiran, exposes the lie that the 21st amendment would be doing away with the 20th amendment and would be a return to the 19th amendment.

The 21st amendment, passed with 179 votes in a 225-member assembly, largely sought to do away with the previous major constitutional amendment, the controversial 20th amendment brought by the two-thirds majority government of Sri Lanka’s ousted ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The 20th had removed many of the checks and balances established by the 19th amendment, widely regarded to be one of Sri Lanka’s most progressive attempts at reform. President Wickremesinghe was then prime minister under then President Maithripala Sirisena, whose Yahapalana Government fulfilled an election pledge by introducing the 19th amendment aimed at curtailing the powers of the office of the president.

“Under the 19th amendment, the president could not hold any ministry, not even the ministry of defence. For the tenure of that president at that time – personal to him, to Hon Maithripala Sirisena, three named ministries were permitted in the transitional provision. Thereafter the president could not hold any ministries. But now the president can hold any number of ministries. In fact, he can hold all the ministries,” said Sumanthiran.

“This is another occasion in which we can expose that lie to the country, that some reform was made, that executive powers curtailed through the 21st amendment. No, no such thing was done,” he added.

Sumanthiran voted against the 21st amendment bill, despite the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) deciding to vote for the bill.

“Even the one positive thing that is being touted is the reestablishment of the constitutional council. That too we pointed out is a political body. It’s not the council of the 17th amendment. More members are from this house, which makes it political. And that body is tasked with appointing, amongst others, independent commissions,” the MP said.

Sumanthiran referred to a fresh controversy regarding a widely questioned move by the chairman of the police commission who had allegedly welcomed former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa when he returned to Sri Lanka after a private visit to the US. Opposition lawmakers and others have accused Basil Rajapaksa of being responsible for Sri Lanka’s present economic woes, and thousands of people took to the streets demanding his resignation along with that of his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“The last couple of days we found how this supposed independent commission chairman has behaved. We saw the national police commission chairman going to the VIP lounge to receive a person who was chased out of this country for fraud, for large scale corruption. And who else but the chairman of the national police commission is there bowing to and welcoming him back,” said Sumanthiran.

“A few days before that, we heard the chairman of the office of missing persons saying that only a few people went missing and that all of them are missing abroad. That very office was established to investigate missing persons. And the government commissions – there are many – all of them have reported that over 20,000 have gone missing. That’s a conservative number. The chairman of the office appointed to this supposedly independent office says nobody has gone missing,” said the MP.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, said Sumanthiran, had explained the commission chairman’s remark as him not understanding the government’s prioritisation of reconciliation efforts.

“That creates another problem. Why should an independent commission chairman know what the government’s priorities are if he’s independent? Why should he comply with what the government wants to do? The government may not want to do that tomorrow. The government changes its mind day to day. But if this is an independent office, he has been tasked by law to investigate these tens of thousands of disappearances in the country and this is what he says. (Colombo/Nov22/2022)

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