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Chanaka Amaratunga (1958-1996)

This and the companion piece are shortened and simplified versions of essays by Chanaka Amaratunga which are worth reproducing now, in view of discussions about constitutional reform. They also make the important point that the problems that all agree need resolution are not new. Many of them were inherent in the 1978 constitution and the way it was used by President Jayewardene. 


Others sprang from the manner in which we took over the Westminster system of government without proper attention to modifications that might be appropriate for Sri Lanka. The first past the post electoral system, a Senate that was simply a rubber stamp for the main Chamber of Parliament, the requirement that Ministerial positions be conferred on those whose skills might be inappropriate, all led to reactions during the seventies that complicated the situation further. 

The essays sprang from a Seminar Series on Constitutional Reform initiated by  the Council for Liberal Democracy in November 1987. A collection of distinguished speakers, including Dr Colvin R de Silva, Neelan Thiruchelvam, Prof G L Peiris and H L de Silva, contributed papers. These and the ensuing discussions were edited by Chanaka Amaratunga and published in 1989. An abridged version of this book was published on the 10th anniversary of Chanaka’s death, twenty years after the initial discussions began.


 This essay is a shortened version of Chanaka’s summary of the conclusions of the first few seminars, which were concerned with the role and structure of Parliament. The full text is in ‘Ideas for Constitutional Reform’, International Book House, 1 Kumaran Ratnam Road, Colombo 2, and available also at 151A Dharmapala Mawata, Colombo 7. 


It was agreed that the current Parliament had deteriorated and been greatly devalued in relation to its predecessors. Many thought this was not particular to Parliament under the 1978 constitution, though the situation became worse under that constitution. Devaluation began with the constitution of 1972 when absolute power was concentrated in the National State Assembly (as Parliament was than named). For the first time executive, legislative and even judicial power were concentrated in the legislature. This supreme power of the National State Assembly meant its unrestrained use by the parties that commanded a majority. 

Under the Soulbury Constitution there was demarcation of responsibility between the executive (the cabinet), the legislature (Parliament), and the judiciary. Parliament then, in terms of the need for diversity and checks and balances, consisted of two chambers. Despite the cabinet consisting, according to the British Parliamentary tradition, of members of the two houses of Parliament, some differentiation of functions, as well as greater respect for diversity in Parliament, was maintained. This more balanced approach was overturned by the constitution of 1972, which declared the legislature to be the ‘supreme instrument of state power’. 

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2010
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