Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Sri Lanka has benefited from the traditions of the rule of law and constitutional government that emerged during 150 years of British colonial rule. At least until the early 1970s, these traditions fostered the development of a political system characterized by broad popular participation in the political process, generally strict observance of legal guarantees of human and civil rights, and an orderly succession of elected governments without the intervention, as has occurred in several neighboring states, of the military. By the early 1980s, however, many observers feared for the future of Sri Lanka's democratic institutions. Some observers contended that constitutional government, rather than curbing the arbitrary use of political power, seemed itself to be shaped by aggressively narrow sectarian interests whose manipulation of the constitutional amendment process excluded large numbers of persons from politics and contributed to ethnic polarization and violence.

Historical Perspective, 1802-1978

After the Dutch ceded the island's maritime provinces to the British in 1802, these areas became Britain's first crown colony. The conquest and subjugation of the inland Kingdom of Kandy in 1815-18 brought the entire island under British control. Crown colony status meant that the island's affairs were administered by the Colonial Office in London, rather than by the East India Company that governed India until 1857. Even after the Indian Empire--ruled by a viceroy appointed by the British monarch--was established following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) was not included within its authority. The principal features of government and administration during the first century of British rule were a strong executive--the colonial governor--and a council of official and unofficial members who first served in a solely advisory capacity but were gradually granted legislative powers. An institution of central importance was the Ceylon Civil Service. In the early years, it was staffed primarily by British and other European personnel but then, increasingly and almost exclusively, by Sri Lankans.

A major turning point in the island's political development was implementation in 1931 of comprehensive reforms recommended by a royal commission headed by the Earl of Donoughmore. The most salient feature of the so-called Donoughmore Constitution, which attempted to reconcile British colonial control of the executive with Sri Lankan aspirations for self-government, was adoption of universal adult suffrage. This was, at that time, a bold experiment in representative government. Before 1931, only 4 percent of the male population, defined by property and educational qualifications, could vote. When elections to the legislature were held in 1932, the colony became the first polity in Asia to recognize women's suffrage. (Japan had adult male suffrage in 1925, but universal adult suffrage came only after World War II. The Philippines, an United States colony, achieved it in 1938.)

Toward the close of World War II, a second royal commission, headed by Lord Soulbury, was sent to Sri Lanka in order to consult with local leaders on the drafting of a new constitution. In its general contours, the Soulbury Constitution, approved in 1946, became the basic document of Ceylon's government when the country achieved independence on February 4, 1948. It established a parliamentary system modelled on that of Britain and quite similar to the constitution adopted by India in 1949. Like Britain, unlike India with its federal arrangement of states, independent Ceylon was, and in the later 1980s remained, a unitary state. The constitution established a parliament headed by the British monarch (represented by the governor general) and two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The latter, like the House of Commons in Britain, had the preponderant role in legislation. The majority party or party coalition in the popularly elected House of Representatives designated the prime minister. Executive power, formally vested in the monarch (in the person of his or her representative, the governor general), was in actuality exercised by the prime minister and his or her cabinet.

The second constitution, adopted in 1972, represented an attempt on the part of the SLFP-led United Front coalition, which had been elected in May 1970, to create new political institutions that allegedly reflected indigenous values more perfectly than the 1946 constitution. It abolished the Senate and established a unicameral National State Assembly. The assembly was defined as the embodiment of the power of the state, and provisions in the constitution denied the judiciary the authority to challenge its enactments. In addition, the constitution changed the formal name of the country from Dominion of Ceylon to Republic of Sri Lanka. In a controversial measure, the United Front-dominated assembly gave itself two additional years in power beyond its constitutionally defined five-year term (elections were originally scheduled for 1975). Judicial curbs on the executive were also greatly restricted. Through the exercise of a wide range of emergency and special powers, the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike exercised strict control over the political system.

Aside from the issue of authoritarianism, two extremely controversial aspects of the 1972 constitution were the abandonment of the idea of a secular state, which had been incorporated into the 1946 constitution, and designation of Sinhala as the sole national language. Although the constitution did not make Sri Lanka a Buddhist state, it declared that "the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights secured by Section 18 (i)(d) [religious freedom]." Tamils, a predominately Hindu minority, resented the special status given to Buddhism and the nonrecognition of a role for their language in national life.

In the July 1977 general election, the UNP was swept into power. The new ruling party, led by Jayewardene, won 140 out of 168 seats in the assembly and thus was in a position to initiate substantial revisions of the 1972 constitution. This process it proceeded to undertake by passing the Second Amendment, which established the office of executive president in October 1977. Jayewardene assumed the presidency on February 4, 1978. In November 1977, the UNP and the major opposition parties, with the conspicuous absence of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), convened a select committee to draft further revisions. After conducting a survey on the opinions of various Sri Lankan citizens, it concluded that changes embodied in the Second Amendment were not sufficient to promote substantial reform and recommended that a new constitution be drafted. The new document was adopted by the National State Assembly in mid-August 1978, and went into effect on September 7, 1978. Under its provisions, the legislature chosen in the July 1977 general election was designated the country's new Parliament.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress