Sri Lanka's parliament voted on January 11 to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. This enabled President Mahinda Rajapaksa to dismiss her and appoint a new chief justice, Mohan Peiris.
Bandaranayake was appointed as chief justice by Rajapaksa in May 2011. However, she antagonised him by ruling that a new law was unconstitutional.
This law is aimed at setting up a new government body, known as Divi Neguma (a Sinhalese phrase meaning “raise the island”), which is supposed to promote economic development and social welfare.
This organisation, controlled by the central government, will take over many of the powers of Sri Lanka’s provincial governments. Most provincial governments, under the control of Rajapaksa supporters and allies, agreed to cede their powers to the centre.
However, no election had been held in the predominantly Tamil northern province, which is under military rule. The Rajapaksa-appointed governor of the province, a retired military officer, agreed to cede the powers to the central government. But Bandaranayake ruled that this was invalid because only an elected provincial government could do so.
Bandaranyake’s removal led to protests by lawyers and others concerned that the government was trying to gain complete control of the judiciary.
The sacking of the chief justice is yet another indication of the dictatorial nature of the Rajapaksa government. Repressive laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act enable detention without trial. Journalists and others critical of the government have been murdered or disappeared.
The most severe repression continues to be suffered by Tamils in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. But the repressive practices developed for use against the Tamils are increasingly being applied in the predominantly Sinhalese south.
Vickramabahu Karunaratne, the general secretary of the New Socialist Party (NSSP), said: “This regime is based on Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism and its real form was tempered in Tamil areas.
“It is in the north that the regime experimented with its fascist-styled repressive apparatus. Now it is ready to give a taste of it to the plebeian masses in the south as well.”
While supporting the campaign against the removal of the chief justice, Karunaratne noted that some of those now criticising the Rajapaksa government as undemocratic had supported its war against the Tamil people. An example is the Peoples Liberation Front, which claims to be Marxist but is actually a Sinhalese chauvinist group.