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qrcode.30309543Chapter 7 of my book on this subject dealt with the Donoughmore Constitution and its workings. The State Council it had set up achieved a lot but by the forties the Sri Lankan political leadership wanted more. Since, unlike in India, there had been loyal service to the British war effort by Ceylonese political elite, as represented by the Board of Ministers, a commission led by Lord Soulbury was sent to Ceylon to commence discussions on self-government during the war. The ensuring achievement of Independence and the power of the Prime Minister under the Soulbury Constitution was the subject of Chapter 8.

It was D S Senanayake who during the Second World War presided over the negotiations towards independence. Though initially only a larger measure of self-government was being considered by the commission, the logic of history and the imminent independence of India prompted Britain to agree to the request for independence.

The new Constitution, under which Ceylon became independent in February 1948, abolished the State Council, which had encouraged a sense of responsibility regarding government in all members of the legislature. It introduced instead an oppositional system that was based almost entirely on the British cabinet system. After the parliament was elected, the person who commanded the confidence of a majority of the members of parliament was appointed prime minister, and he then appointed a cabinet to exercise executive power.

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qrcode.30245058Chapter 6 of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka dealt with the introduction of Universal Franchise to Sri Lanka, and the beginning of   Representative Government. This happened through the Donoughmore Constitution, which gave Sri Lankans a much greater say in government than in any other colony which was not composed largely of European settlers.

The main grievance of Ceylonese politicians with regard to the Manning-Devonshire Constitution had been that while the Legislative Council, in theory, had authority over the government through its financial and legislative powers,  it had no executive powers. The two representatives in the Executive Council, without responsibility for any specific area, could not really influence governmental action.

In response to these grievances, Britain sent another commission at the end of that decade to draw up a new constitution. In the 1920s, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, along with at least some members of the cabinet and parliament was keen on reforms in the colonies. The Donoughmore Constitution, as it was known after the Chairman of the Commission, Lord Donoughmore, moved in radical new directions. It introduced universal suffrage, which was opposed by most Sri Lankan politicians such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan, James Pieris, E.W. Perera, D. B. Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayake and S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. Only two minor politicians, one of whom was the Labour Party leader, A. E. Goonesinha, spoke in its favour.

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Last week the Marga Institute held a discussion on several sets of proposals that had been forwarded to the Parliamentary Select Committee looking into ‘Political and Constitutional Measures to Empower the People of Sri Lanka to Live as One Nation’. After much animated discussion, it was decided to work with the set of proposals put forward by Vasantha Senanayake, and a couple of groups have been established to flesh these out.

Senanayake is perhaps the brightest of the young Members elected newly in 2010, a factor noticed by several embassies that have sent him on delegations of young Members to visit their countries. These proposals sprang from his work with the One Text Initiative which had seen him spearhead a group of Parliamentarians, representing government as well as different opposition parties, who had interacted with members of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, both Sinhalese and Tamil, in Britain. They had sent a report on their visit to the President, though there has been no response to the interesting ideas and suggestions they put forward.

Vasantha had worked together with a group of young professionals to put forward the proposals which included some startlingly innovative ideas. Perhaps the most important of them is not however new, because it was one of the principal elements on which three recent documents on constitutional reform agreed, namely those of the Liberal Party, the UNP and the group led by Rev Sobitha. This was the need to get rid of the present system of elections, and I think it would be useful to return to this now, since the last set of elections to Provincial Councils made crystal clear – again – how destructive the current system is.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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