Sri Lankan Parliament passes 20A: Here's why Tamils are worried

20A, by giving unprecedented powers to the President, takes away redressal forums from those who are fighting for justice.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
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The Sri Lankan Parliament passed the contentious 20th Amendment to the Constitution with two-thirds majority, with 156 of the 225 parliamentarians voting in favour and 65 against it, on October 22. The Amendment will have far reaching reverberations on the democratic fabric of the island nation, particularly the minorities. 

Leaders from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, an opposition party, wore stickers of gunshot wounds on their chests inside the Parliament to display their protest against the passing of 20A. The 20A, which will bulwark the President’s powers, has been opposed by the Opposition, some sections of the ruling coalition, civil society and even prominent Buddhist monks.

The ruling party, during the debate in the Parliament, argued that 20A was necessary for national security and economic development. They further added that 20A will merely restore powers that the President enjoyed since 1978. The 19th Amendment passed by the previous regime took away the powers by decentralisation.

The 19th Amendment, considered a momentous legislation by activists, granted independence to the judiciary, public service and Election Commission from the President. And by doing that, it devalued the powers of the President and handed them to the Parliament and independent commissions and judiciary.

What key changes does 20A bring in?

- The President can dissolve the Parliament after two-and-a-half years of being elected or pass a resolution with ½ majority 

- The President can remove the Prime Minister 

- Those with dual citizenship can also hold political office.

- It reinstates full legal immunity to the President with no provisions for legal action against the President.

- The President has the authority to sack ministers

- Without consulting the Parliament or the ministers, the President can nominate the Chief Justice

- The three independent commissions —  Election Commission, Public Service Commission and the National Police Commission —  will be dissolved permanently.

-The Constitutional Council (CC) will be replaced by the Parliamentary Council which will have no members from civil society. CC was created to keep at bay any political interference in appointments of heads and members of various commissions. 

- It allows for the President to appoint chairpersons and members of the commissions.

- It has removed the Right to Information Commission constituted by the 19A.

Why are the Tamils, minorities worried about 20A?

20A was met with resistance by all sections representing minorities but the parties representing the Tamils in the north and east were particularly combative. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF) said in Parliament that 20A was concretising Sri Lanka as a ‘Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic state’ and shows “refusal to recognise that Sri Lanka is a plurinational country, and there exist several nations within this country, the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and Muslims”

20A, by giving unprecedented powers to the President, takes away redressal forums from those who are fighting for justice. Activists allege that by giving the President mandate and reach to interfere in all arms of democracy — the Parliament, judiciary, commissions —  it makes the President an omnipotent power, leading to a dictatorial style of governance. 

The checks and balances that the 19 Amendment had ushered in have been done away with and the President is accountable to no one now. Even if fundamental rights are violated, citizens will have no channel for their grievances to be addressed. And this particularly, but not exclusively, impacts the Tamil minority which has been fighting for amends to the gross injustice meted out against the Tamil civilians during and after the civil war. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaska was the Defense Secretary during the last years of the civil war and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa the President. Six members of the Rajapaksa family are in power currently and 20A paves way for another, Basil Rajapaksa, to be part of government. 

Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa have been accused by the Tamil population of engineering and committing several heinous crimes during the civil war and after. With the President’s unparalleled authority even over the judiciary, human rights commissions, any fight for justice will be dealt with a huge blow, fear the Tamils. 

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