The 1978 Constitution changed the country's formal name from the Republic of Sri Lanka to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and established a presidential form of government similar to that operating in France under the Fifth Republic. The document contains 172 articles divided into 24 chapters. Like the 1972 constitution, it recognizes the special status of the Buddhist religion (assuring it, again, "foremost place" while guaranteeing the freedom of other religious communities). It differs from its predecessor, however, in granting "national" status to the Tamil as well as Sinhala language although only Sinhala is recognized as the "official" language. The language provisions permit the use of Tamil in administrative business in Northern and Eastern provinces and allow applicants for government employment to use either Tamil or Sinhala in the examination process (though knowledge of Sinhala might be required subsequent to induction into the civil service). In February 1983, Jayewardene announced that English would be recognized as a third national language.
The Constitution recognizes and guarantees a broad range of fundamental rights including: freedom of thought and conscience; religious freedom; freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, or caste; freedom of speech; basic legal protection including freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention; freedom to engage in any lawful occupation; and freedom of movement and travel. These rights are guaranteed to stateless persons resident in Sri Lanka for ten years following promulgation of the Constitution. Exercise of the fundamental rights, however, can be restricted in situations where national security is at risk or when the otherwise legal actions of persons (such as speech or publication) detract from racial or religious harmony or endanger "public health and morality."
The Constitution contains a section devoted to directive principles of state policy. These encompass a broad range of policy goals, including the establishment of a "democratic socialist society" and a just distribution of wealth; economic development; and the raising of cultural and educational standards. The directive principles also include a commitment to decentralizing the country's administration and promoting national unity by eliminating all forms of discrimination. The duties of citizens (including the fostering of national unity) are also enumerated.
Amendment of the Constitution requires the vote of two-thirds of Parliament. In addition, measures that affect "the independent, unitary, and democratic nature of the state," the Buddhist religion, fundamental rights, or the length of the term of office of president or Parliament must be approved by a popular referendum. Bills judged "inconsistent with the Constitution" cannot become law unless two-thirds of Parliament approve, but such bills can be repealed by a simple majority vote.
With its five-sixths majority in Parliament following the July 1977 general election, the UNP government of Jayewardene was able to pass a number of controversial constitutional amendments over the objections of the opposition. Some political commentators have suggested that such measures as the Fourth Amendment (December 1982), which extended the life of Parliament for six years, or the Sixth Amendment (August 1983), which obliged members of Parliament to renounce support for separatism, were designed not to strengthen democratic institutions but to prolong the UNP's monopoly of power.
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