Sri Lanka's religious leaders worry about the 20th amendment to the constitution
by Melani Manel Perera

Christians and Buddhists believe the amendment promotes authoritarianism since it grants more powers to an already powerful executive president, weakens parliament, the role of the prime minister and ministers, curbs the independence of the judiciary, and makes it harder for ordinary citizens to share in the legislative process and stand up to the government.

Colombo (Asia News) – The 20th amendment to the constitution should not go forward; instead a new constitution should be the country’s priority right now, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) said yesterday in a statement.

Sri Lanka’s Christians, like the country’s Buddhists believe that the amendment promotes authoritarianism, since it grants more powers to an already powerful executive president, weakens parliament, the role of the prime minister and ministers, curbs the independence of the judiciary, and makes it harder for ordinary citizens to share in the legislative process and stand up to the government.

Like the 18th Amendment introduced by a previous Rajapaksa Administration, which was repealed by the previous administration through the 19th Amendment, the 20th Amendment gives the president the power to appoint top officials of the judiciary, including the justices of the Supreme Court and Appellate Court judges, the Auditor General, the Attorney General and the Ombudsman.

It also gives the president discretionary authority to appoint members of the Judicial Service Commission, the Public Service Commission, Human Rights Commission and the police Commission, all of which is likely to undermining their independence.

The powers of the Election Commission are reduced and the president has the ultimate discretionary power to appoint the chairperson and the members of the Commission itself.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) is not alone in expressing opposition and great concern over the amendment. The bishops were joined by the National Christian Council (NCC), the Movement of Christian Solidarity (CSM) an ecumenical group, and by individual Christian and Buddhist prelates.

The CSM, along with other groups, went to court, handed out leaflets, organised a prayer meeting and discussions on possible ways to deal with the situation, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to emphasise that concentration of power in an individual without checks and balances does not augur well for a democratic, socialist republic," say CBCSL president, Bishop Winston S. Fernando, and CBCSL secretary, Bishop J.D. Anthony, in the statement issued on Tuesday. 

“A two-thirds majority of members in Parliament based on political parties does not fit our view that rules need not be changed as a result of the vagaries and inconsistencies of individual players.” Instead, we must “identify, elect or appoint suitable persons who will abide by the rules to safeguard the truth, justice, and the well-being of the country.

“It is the bounden duty of the democratically elected Parliament to create wholesome governing structures capable of moving the country forward. The drafters must be able to plug the loopholes that lead to multiple interpretations.”

Finally, "Greater clarity is needed if the constitution is to serve the citizenry, thus the 20th amendment should not proceed, in its entirety; instead a new constitution should be the national priority,” reads the statement of the CBCSL.

The Buddhist fraternity also noted that the 20th Amendment to the constitution rejects the core of democracy, which is one of the progressive elements of humanity, and so should not be enacted. Steps must be taken to draft a new constitution that upholds democracy and the rule of law, said the Amarapura-Ramanna Samagri Maha Sangha Sabhawa said on Monday in Colombo.

In their statement, Venerable Pallekande Rathnasara Thero of Sri Lanka Amarapura Maha Sangha Sabha and Venerable Aththanagane Sasana Rathana Thero of Sri Lanka Ramanna Maha Nikaya note that the proposed amendment is regressive and paves the way for an underdeveloped tribal society, which will seriously hamper the progressive traits of human society such as freedom of thought and action.

“At present, most countries in the world have based their systems of government on the democratic principle that the three branches of the state – i.e. the legislative, the executive and he judiciary – should keep an equilibrium by means of checks and balances. The proposed 20th Amendment threatens democracy by undermining the system of checks and balances,” explain the venerable prelates in the statement.

Other groups have also urged the government to keep 19th Amendment, which promotes the independence of key institutions and responsible governance. They include the National Christian Council, the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka, the Church of Ceylon, Salvation Army, Sri Lanka Baptist Sangamaya, Church of South India, Presbytery of Lanka, Christian Reformed Church, Assemblies of God of Ceylon and the Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

"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 law must be reconsidered,” these Christian organisations say in their statement.

The Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM) also says that Christians cannot agree with the government amendment because it is “anti-God and anti-people”. The CSM has also prepared a 15-minute Ecumenical Prayer Service video in Sinhala to be shared on social media to raise awareness, explaining how bad the 20th amendment is and urging people to oppose it.