History of constitutional amendments


Part V

Today, the Galle Face protesters demand a constitutional amendment stating that it is a crucial need for the country’s political stability. But what is a constitutional amendment? Also, what is a constitution? What is the role of a constitution in Sri Lanka?

Looking back at the recent political history of Sri Lanka, we learned that there had been demands to make changes in the constitution a couple of times before, which may suggest that the constitution which was a creation of the colonial rulers, is not fully-localised and fitting to Sri Lanka and does not address the needs of the locals.

 To know more about this, we contacted an expert on this subject, Kaushalya Abeywickrama, who is a journalist, author, and researcher on Political Communication. She is also a woman and child rights activist, a motivational speaker, and a life coach. She holds two postgraduate degrees in Mass Communication, and Conflict, Peace, and Development Studies.

“Studying the constitutions of the world, one can understand that people and governments have taken necessary measures to amend them, according to their timely needs”, started Abeywickrama.

 “It was the same in Sri Lanka too. From a monarchy to an executive presidency system, Sri Lanka’s constitution evolved, adjusting and refashioning according to the needs of the time.”

John Doyle in his book, A sketch of the Constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom, writes about the monarchy system that was in Sri Lanka prior to 1815. The power of the king was supreme and unlimited. The king was responsible to maintain law and order in the country. He made decisions about the war when necessary. The lives of his subjects were solely his responsibility. The monarchy followed the traditions of the Kandyan Kingdom. It was the tradition to discuss with the Kandyan chieftains and Buddhist monks before implementing laws and regulations. The king’s powers were exercised by many of the king’s officials who served for him.

In 1815 the Sinhala monarchy was abolished by the British and they signed a treaty. Afterward, the country was ruled by the British Crown.

She explained that the people were displeased by the iron rule of the British and the result was the Great Rebellion, which is also known as the Udarata Maha Karalla in 1818. This resulted in the British taking measures to amend the Kandyan Treaty. This new amendment was publicised on 12 November 1818 according to which, the legislator of British Ceylon with all supreme powers was the British monarch and his representative was the governor.

British Marshall Law failed

“In the book Lankawe Andukrama Wikashanaya, W. A. Abeysinghe analyses the constitutions of Ceylon from 1818 to 1832, and he writes that the ruling system imposed by the British in Sri Lanka from 1815 to 1832 can be identified as a government that followed a strict rule and implemented martial law to rule the country, which for them was a colony that they were free to exploit as much as possible.”

Abeywickrama said that their sole objective was to make the best use of the resources of the island to strengthen their economy and use Ceylon as a good profitable market to sell their products. To continue this exploitation of resources, the British did not hesitate to implement harsh rules and regulations through a strict military regime.

However, despite the fact that the income they generated from Ceylon was handsome, their expenses were higher and became unbearable at one point. As a solution, the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission was formed. The establishment of both the Legislature and the Executive Council was one of the primary functions of this Commission.

Colebrooke-Cameron Reform Commission

– Chairman – Governor

– Legislative Council 15                

– Executive Council (Senior Government Officials)

– Colonial Secretary

– Army Commanding Officer

– Attorney General

– Treasurer

– Accountant

The 15 members of the Legislature were appointed by the Governor under this Reform Commission and all the Bills presented by the Governor were passed without any hindrance. The Executive Council was also a nominal executive.

 This was because it was the duty of the Governor to consult the Executive Council, but whether he accepts it or not was at the discretion of the Governor. The six unofficial members of the Legislative Council were appointed as; three Europeans, one Sinhalese, one Tamil, and one Burgher. Thus, the origins of racism in Sri Lanka were traced back to the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms.

This reform commission lasted until 1910.

“By the 20th century, the rise of the local bourgeoisie can be noted. Until then, the constitutional reform campaigns led by Europeans had passed into the hands of the local bourgeoisie, and in 1907 the Low Country Planters’ Association and later the National Union were formed,” said Abeywickrama.

Crow-McCallum Reforms

As a result of these campaigns, the Crow-McCallum Reform was formed. It increased the number of official members of the Legislative Assembly to 11 and the number of unofficial members to 10. But the locals were not satisfied as the powers of the Governor had not changed.

Manning Reforms

Accordingly, the Manning Reforms in 1920 increased the number of members of the Legislature to 37. Of these, 14 were official members and 23 were unofficial members.

Abeywickrama explained that these reforms did not change the powers of the Governor either, and unfortunately, by then the aim of the British rulers had been fulfilled; until then, the Sinhala and Tamil communities who had been campaigning together were divided due to differences of opinion and they had also submitted separate proposals for constitutional reforms.

The second Manning Constitution

The result was the formation of the Second Manning Constitution in 1923. It had 12 official and 37 unofficial members, bringing the total number of members to 49, with the Governor presiding over the Legislative Assembly only on special occasions. Although the powers of the Governor were limited, the legislature did not have full legislative powers. As the Manning Constitution proved to be a failure, the Donoughmore Constitution was formed.

The Donoughmore Commission presented five major proposals.

– Granting of universal suffrage

– Establishment of a State Council

– Establishment of an Executive Committee System

– Maintaining the main functions of the government under three public officers

– Amendments to the powers of the Governor

Donoughmore Constitutional Reform

Hugh Clifford Manning, who was appointed Governor in 1925, understood that the Manning Constitution is a weak and unsuccessful system. Hence, in August 1927, a new Commission headed by Donoughmore arrived at Ceylon.

The task of this commission was to submit a report to amend the Manning Devonshire system of government. Accordingly, the reforms were submitted in 1928. On October 10, 1929, the Secretary-General of the Colonies added amendments to the Donoughmore Reform Report. It received 19 votes in favour and 17 votes against and the Constitution was passed by a majority of only two votes.

Donoughmore Constitution

– Members – 61

– Eight Minorities under Regional Representation Vote – 50

– Members by Nomenclature – 8

– Executive Officers – 3

– Secretary of State

– Secretary of Finance

– Legal Secretary

An executive committee system was introduced under the Donoughmore Constitution. Accordingly, seven committees were appointed.

– Committee on Home Affairs

– Agriculture and Land Committee

– Local Government Committee

– Health Committee

– Committee on Labour, Industry, and Commerce

– Committee on Education

– The Committee on Posts and Public Affairs

These seven committees had an equal number of members and each committee had a chairman. Executive functions were also divided into 10 divisions, seven of which were handed over to Sri Lankan officials and three divisions to three government officials. The State Council, established by the Constitution of Donoughmore, was dissolved on December 7, 1935, ending its five-year term.

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy