Sri Lankan president vows to alter constitution as new parliament takes office

Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, First lLady Ioma Rajapaksa and Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena arrive at parliament to present the new government's policy statement. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 August 2020

Sri Lankan president vows to alter constitution as new parliament takes office

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka is going to roll back the 19th amendment to the constitution, which curtails presidential powers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said while addressing legislators during the inaugural session of the parliament on Thursday. His address follows a landslide electoral victory of the Rajapaksa family-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP).
The SLPP, led by incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, won over 59 percent of the Aug. 5 vote, or 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The win consolidated the Rajapaksa family’s control on the country’s politics. The party is only seven seats short of having the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution.
“The basis of the success of a democratic state is its constitution. Our constitution, which has been amended 19 times since its inception in 1978, has many ambiguities and uncertainties, presently resulting in confusion. As the people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment, our first task will be to remove the 19th amendment to the constitution. After that, all of us will get together to formulate a new constitution suitable for the country,” Rajapaksa said in his address.
While the 19th amendment, introduced in 2015, strengthened the role of parliament, the SLPP during its electoral campaign has vowed to push for constitutional changes to increase the executive authority of the presidency.
“An unstable parliament that cannot take firm decisions and that succumbs to extremist influences very often is not suitable for a country,” the president said as he also indicated plans to change the country’s electoral system.
“While introducing a new constitution, it is essential to make changes to the current electoral system. While retaining the salutary aspects of the proportional representation system, these changes will be made to ensure the stability of the parliament and people’s direct representation,” Rajapaksa said.
Rights activists see the planned changes to the constitution as an attempt to further empower the SLPP and the Rajapaksa brothers’ mainly Buddhist, Sinhalese-speaking electorate.

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Ruling party led by president’s brother only seven seats short of having two-thirds majority required to amend constitution.

“His government will bring in a constitution that will validate not only the Sinhalese language but that will make Sri Lanka essentially a Buddhist state. That means the little progress made on treating minorities fairly in this country will be slashed,” human rights activist Shreen Saroor told Arab News.
According to international lobbyist Muheed Jeeran, the president’s promise “will impress the so-called nationalists,” but he would do better by focusing on his vision of building a prosperous nation rather than “wasting time on majoritarianism.”
Sri Lanka’s economy is currently grappling with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which continues to stall tourism across the island country of 21 million people. Huge foreign debt only adds to the woes. At the end of 2019, the country’s external debt stood at $55.9 billion, which is 67 percent of its gross domestic product.
While right activists have sounded alarm over the planned constitutional changes, parliamentarian and former Minister of National Co-existence Mano Gansesan told Arab News that it is too early to rush to conclusions as it looks like the government will only remove some “incompatible clauses” of the 19th amendment and introduce new ones.


French police target extremist networks after teacher’s beheading

Updated 46 min 27 sec ago

French police target extremist networks after teacher’s beheading

  • President Emmanuel Macron: Extremists should not be allowed sleep soundly in our country
  • French teachers have long complained of tensions around religion and identity spilling over into the classroom

PARIS: French police on Monday launched a series of raids targeting extremist networks three days after the beheading of a history teacher who had shown his pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

The operation came a day after tens of thousands of people took part in rallies countrywide to honor history teacher Samuel Paty and defend freedom of expression.

Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin said “dozens” of individuals were being probed for suspected radicalization.

While they were “not necessarily linked” to Paty’s killing, the government aimed to send a message that there would be “not a minute’s respite for enemies of the Republic,” he added.

Darmanin said the government would also tighten the noose on NGOs with suspected links to extremist networks.

“Fear is about to change sides,” President Emmanuel Macron told a meeting of key ministers Sunday to discuss a response to the attack.

“Extremists should not be allowed sleep soundly in our country,” he said.

Paty, 47, was attacked on his way home from the junior high school where he taught in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Paris.

A photo of the teacher and a message confessing to his murder was found on the mobile phone of his killer, an 18-year-old Chechen man Abdullakh Anzorov, who was shot dead by police.

The grisly killing has drawn parallels with the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, where 12 people, including cartoonists, were gunned down for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Paty had shown his civics class one of the controversial cartoons.

According to his school, Paty had given Muslim children the option to leave the classroom before he showed the cartoon in a lesson on free speech, saying he did not want their feelings hurt.

The lesson sparked a furor nonetheless and Paty and his school received threats.

Eleven people are being held over his murder, including a known radical and the father of one of Paty’s pupils, who had launched an online campaign against the teacher.

Darmanin accused the two men of having issued a “fatwa” against Paty, using the term for an edict that was famously used to describe the 1989 death sentence handed down against writer Salman Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Anzorov’s family arrived in France from the predominantly Muslim Russian republic of Chechnya when he was six.

Locals in the Normandy town of Evreux where he lived described him as a loner who had become increasingly religious in recent years.

Police are trying to establish whether he acted alone.

Four members of his family are being held for questioning.

In scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, when over a million people marched through Paris to defend press freedom, people again gathered at the central Place de la Republique on Sunday to express their horror over Paty’s death.

Some in the crowd chanted “I am Samuel,” echoing the 2015 “I am Charlie” rallying call for free speech.

French teachers have long complained of tensions around religion and identity spilling over into the classroom.

The government has vowed to step up security at schools when pupils return after half-term.

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who laid a wreath outside Paty’s school on Monday, called for “wartime legislation” to combat the terror threat.

Le Pen, who has announced she will make a third bid for the French presidency in 2022, called for an “immediate” moratorium on immigration and for all foreigners on terror watchlists to be deported.

Paty’s beheading was the second knife attack since a trial started last month over the Charlie Hebdo killings.

The magazine republished the cartoons in the run-up to the trial, and last month a young Pakistani man wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the publication’s old office.