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Sri Lanka opposition speaks out on rule of law

June 07, 2011
Sri Lanka’s main opposition which contributed to the systematic breakdown of rule of law and limiting the freedoms of the people, has spoken out against the growing lawlessness and attacks on unarmed sections of the population.

Deputy leader of the main opposition United National Party Karu Jayasuriya said goons connected to the state ruling administration have attacked unarmed people on several occasions recently including its own party members, in full view of the police.


“A good example is the pictures published by the media, showing the goons who were waiting to assault a rally organized against the proposed Pension Bill which the government tried to force upon the private sector,” Jayasuriya said in a statement.

“The media disclosed that these goons had the protection of some politicians of the ruling party.”

The so-called pension bill is a law that the state proposed to impose on the people with no prior consultation, which ultimately resulted in the killing of a factory worker by police in a protest.

In Sri Lanka the process of lawmaking itself is arbitrary with no white papers and public discussion. Sometimes laws are rushed to parliament as ‘urgent’ bills.

Analysts say this process has been tolerated by the people partly due to frivolous criticism from opposition lawmakers, who even oppose policies that give liberty to the people.

Institutions of liberty
Critics say after independence from British rule, the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which ruled the country have systematically dismantled institutions of liberty that protected public servants who acted justly towards the people.

In 1972 a new constitution abolished the civil service commission giving ministers the power to appoint, transfer and take disciplinary action against ‘permanent’ secretaries to government ministries, exposing them to arbitrary decisions of rulers.

A 1978 constitution made it worse by concentrating the absolute authority on the president, removing all protection that public servants had to act justly by the people under a rule of law.

Sri Lanka inherited the institution of permanent secretary from Britain, whose citizens had devised ways to make civil administration act under a rule of law so that they will have freedom from arbitrary acts of rulers.

“By interference into the system in 1972 and 1978 what happened was not just mere politicization into the civil service but in fact, the abandonment of the supremacy of the law itself,” writes human rights lawyer Basil Fernando.

“The British civil service was grounded on the foundations of the rule of law. The British civil service, like the entirety of the British system is based on the conception of the rule of law which is well grounded within that country.

The rule of law is not limited to just the judiciary or courts, but to the entire working of a system of government that people appoint to dispense justice or govern them.

Sri Lanka’s current administration recently nullified an amendment to the constitution that sought to protect public officials and give freedom to the people by appointing a series of independent commissions.

Unarmed Minorities

Ironically the unarmed members of the UNP were attacked by goons on independence day this year, while police looked on.

Critics have said that over the years Sri Lanka has drifted from a liberal democracy to a arbitrary fascist rule, including violence against unarmed minorities, be it ethnic or political.

“It is obvious that these goons operate with the knowledge of the government, otherwise it is impossible for these gangs to move freely, without being noticed not only by the baton carrying anti-riot police, but an ordinary policeman,” Jayasuriya said.

“The police are compelled to turn a blind eye to these goons, since the political power has become more powerful than the common law of the country.”

His words echoed those of opposition politicians of yesteryear. In 1977 after winning a landslide, UNP members attacked supporters of the defeated Sri Lanka Freedom Party which was reduced to a small minority in parliament.

“The police and authority generally looked on generally benevolently, sometimes helplessly, often even assisting actively,” Colvin R de Silva, a leftist parliamentarian and lawyer wrote in 1978.

“The kinship with Fascism, of the display of thuggery and violence was unmistakable.”

In 1983, under the UNP’s watch, Tamil civilians were attacked in another parallel with Germany.

De Silva was an architect of the 1972 constitution which not only started the destruction of the civil service but also abolished a constitutional guarantee of equality to minorities.

Sri Lanka’s current constitution has no absolute guarantees of equality to prevent oppressive laws being passed.

In 1956 Sri Lanka passed the so-called ‘Sinhala only’ law despite the existence of section 29 in the then constitution which prohibited such law.

Since independence sections of citizens have taken up arms against the state three times; sections of the Tamil minority once and the Sinhalese majority twice.

Economic Freedom
European economists, particularly from Austria who studied their neigbhour closely have pointed out that the German fascism was partly the result of socialist oriented state planning that destroyed the economy, making people yearn for a strong leader.

The UNP in 1978 gave substantial economic freedom to the people, loosening exchange control, ending licensing, dismantling monopolies given to state enterprises and import duty protection given to ‘domestic production’ firms run by business interests close to rulers.

However civil liberties were systematically undermined in the following decades. Critics say police instead of protecting the people, started to protect rulers and started investigating opposition figures and the media, in classic Gestapo style.

Until now rule of law has not figured much in Sri Lanka’s political discourse, though there has been opposition to what is termed ‘executive presidency’.

But people in many countries have managed to enjoy freedom under presidency, by protecting the civil administration.

Politicians usually agitate for short term subsidies and engage in baiting ruling party lawmakers who abandoned deceptive promises made when they were in opposition.

But small civil society organizations such as Friday Forum, Citizens Movement for Good Governance, Lawyers for Democracy as well as individual retired public servants and private sector executives have started to speak on the issue.



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