When it comes to the history of Sri Lanka’s government, there are some incidents and facts not
widely known or are known mainly by the older generation of Sri Lankans due to many years passing
since its occurrence. In this article, I am compiling five interesting facts from the history of Sri Lanka’s
governance. It begins 87 years ago.
1. Ministers without Ministries
Before Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon) Independence in 1948, from 1931 to 1947 there were Ministers but
no Ministries under the Donoughmore Constitution. I wonder how the government functioned at this
time without Ministries. A possibility I can see is that there was a group of staff under all Ministers
performing the responsibilities of Ministerial staff.
2. Ministers without Portfolios
Sri Lanka's first Cabinet was appointed 71 years ago on the 14th of October 1947, the day of the first
session of Sri Lanka’s Parliament known then as the House of Representatives. In this Cabinet, there
was a Minister (R.S.S. Gunawardena) without a portfolio. He was also Chief Government Whip who
was unseated via an election petition on the 12th of March 1948. R.S.S. Gunawardena continued to
function in his positions until replacements were made in May 1948. Interestingly his successor A.E.
Goonesinghe also functioned as a Minister without Portfolio and a Chief Government Whip, though he
also got assigned the Minister of State portfolio on the 26th of July that year. I’m interested to know
what these Ministers functions were. Perhaps their work included working on topics not covered in
the other Ministerial portfolios.
3. Parliament with Two Houses
As pointed out above, Parliament was known as the House of Representatives at the time of Sri
Lanka’s independence. The House of Representatives was one of two houses of Parliament, with the
House of Representatives being the Lower House and the Senate of Ceylon being the Upper House.
The House of Representatives at its first sitting had 101 MPs, with 95 elected and six appointed by
the then Governor-General who represented Britain’s monarch. The Senate had 30 members with 15
members being elected by the House of Representatives and 15 nominated by the Governor-General
on the Prime Minister’s advice. The Senate was led by a President and it enabled a system of
accountability towards the House of Representatives. This institution continued until its abolishment
in 1971. I intend to write about the Senate of Ceylon in a future article.
4. The First Speaker Standing Up to the Prime Minister
The first Speaker Francis Molamure is reported to have told Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake to take
his seat. Nihal Seneviratne, former Secretary-General of Parliament revealed in a conversation (video
in link) with political scientist Asoka Obeyesekere that he was told that the first Speaker said to Prime
Minister D.S. Senanayake: “Honourable Prime Minister, I think you are being irrelevant. Please take
your seat.” I hope to see this happen again.
5. Two MPs for Kalawana
Following the 1977 general election, there were two people claiming the seat of Kalawana, a town 106
km from Colombo in the Ratnapura district. The seat was won by Mr. Abeyratne Pilapitiya of the
United National Party (UNP), the party which won the general election. For some reason, it was
challenged by Mr. Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) who
contested against him via an election petition. Mr. Pilapitiya was involved with an accident, and stayed
away from Parliament without requesting leave. As a result of this, he lost his seat which was
believed to be an intentional move on his part. His party then nominated him to fill the vacancy,
changing his position from an elected MP to a nominated MP. In late 1980, the election petition result
in the Supreme Court unseated Mr. Pilapitiya and a by-election was conducted in January 1981 that
elected Mr. Sarath Muttetuwegama.
At about the same time, the government led by then President J.R. Jayewardene brought in a bill, the
Third Amendment to the Constitution that would enable the Kalawana electorate to have two MPs,
one elected and the other nominated. The Supreme Court ruled that this amendment required both a
two-thirds majority and a referendum. Though the bill was passed with a two-thirds majority, a
referendum was not held. This issue was concluded with Mr. Pilapitiya resigning resulting in Mr.
Muttetuwegama taking his seat as the MP for Kalawana. This shows an instance of the judiciary
preventing presidential abuse of power.
I hope you enjoyed these five facts from the history of Sri Lanka’s governance. I’d be interested in
hearing from anyone who remembers any of these happenings, knows more details or has similar
stories they’d like to share.