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Catholic and Buddhist leaders reject Sri Lankan charter amendment

Prelates call for new constitution amid fears over erosion of democratic rights

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Updated: October 14, 2020 06:47 AM GMT
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Catholic and Buddhist leaders reject Sri Lankan charter amendment

A security officer stands guard at a checkpoint in Divulapitiya on the outskirts of Colombo on Oct. 4. Concerns are growing that an amendment to Sri Lanka's constitution will make the country more authoritarian. (Photo: AFP) 

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Catholic bishops, Buddhist monks and rights bodies have rejected the proposed 20th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka opposed the 20th amendment and called for a new constitution.

"We need to emphasize that concentration of power in an individual without checks and balances does not augur well for a democratic, socialist republic," said the group’s president Bishop Winston S. Fernando and secretary Bishop J.D. Anthony in a statement on Oct. 13.

"Greater clarity is needed if the constitution is to serve the citizenry, thus the 20th amendment should not be proceeded with, in its entirety, and instead a new constitution should be the national priority at the moment."

They said a two-thirds majority in parliament based on political parties does not necessarily manifest the true conscience of the people.

"All elected presidents since 1994 vowed to abolish the executive presidency and transfer power to the democratically elected president, but none had the political will to do so for reasons not known to the people," said the bishops.

The Supreme Court’s decision on the 20th amendment has been submitted to the president and the speaker in parliament. The latter will announce the decision on Oct. 20.

But social media reports have published the Supreme Court's decision even before the speaker’s announcement.

Politicians, lawyers, trade unionists, journalists and ordinary people oppose the 20th amendment, saying it will undermine rule of law and take the country in an authoritarian direction.

The proposed amendment will increase the powers of the executive president, guarantee immunity for the president, reduce the powers of parliament and reduce the independence of the judiciary and statutory bodies through presidential appointments.

Individuals and groups, including the Christian Solidarity Movement, an ecumenical group, filed at least 38 petitions against the proposed amendment in the Supreme Court.

The Amarapura and Ramanna Nikayas made a joint appeal and urged the government to withdraw the 20th amendment, warning that the amendment would seriously undermine democracy and pave the way for authoritarianism.

In a joint statement, the secretaries of the two Nikayas called on the president and the prime minister not to go ahead with the enactment of the 20th amendment and urged all parliamentarians to reject it.

"The proposed 20th amendment rejects the core values of democracy. The bill will be the death knell for democracy in the country and we request that this be withdrawn," Ven. Pallekande Rathanasara Thera told reporters at a press briefing on Oct. 12.

Venerable Aththanage Sasana Rathana Thera said the country needs a new constitution.

"It suits a modern nation to face challenges and steer the country forward, not another amendment that undermines and paralyzes aspects of democracy and humanity," he said.

The Methodist Church of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Baptist Sangamaya, Church of Ceylon, Salvation Army, Church of South India, Presbytery of Lanka, Christian Reformed Church, Assemblies of God of Ceylon and Church of the Foursquare Gospel have requested the government preserve the provisions of the 19th amendment that promote the independence of key institutions and accountable governance.

"The introduction of a weak parliamentary council to replace the Constitutional Council, the abolition of the Audit Commission and the Procurement Commission, the moves to increase the powers of the president, and the reintroduction of provisions to allow the legislature to introduce urgent bills must be reconsidered," the Christian organizations said in a statement on Oct. 13.

Free Media Movement, a media watchdog, said 30 sections of the 20th amendment are contrary to democracy and directly contradict the freedom of expression.

“People elect the president and parliament, but citizens never alienate their rights. Therefore, the citizens have the right to question the violation of their rights by elected representatives. It is an unswerving power that is inalienable," counsel Ermiza Tegal said at a recent forum on "Democracy, Freedom of Expression and the 20th Amendment" held in Colombo.

“In other countries, citizens can complain against the violation of rights even after the act is passed, and it is called post-enactment judicial review. Sri Lankans have never enjoyed this right. Our constitution provides only a minimal time frame to challenge a bill." 

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