By Rasika Hemamali-2017-07-19
Lal Wijenayaka, Chairman of Public Consultation Committee on Constitutional Reforms says people voted against the past regime on 8 January 2015 to abolish the Executive Presidency and reinstate democracy. “That was the promise endorsed by the people of both the North and the South,” he said in an interview.
?Some say the country does not need a new Constitution. How do you see the necessity for a new Constitution at this moment?
A: The incidents that took place in the recent past highlight the need for a new Constitution. Soon after the 1978 Constitution was passed, there was a huge outcry to amend it. No one can deny that fact. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga promised to amend the Constitution, but she did not do so even though she was elected to power twice. The basis of the demand was against authoritarianism.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised that he would bring sweeping reforms to the Constitution, but he did not do so even though he was elected to power twice. He not only went back on his word, but went a step further by enhancing the powers of the Executive President through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. He took over the powers of the independent commissions. The Attorney General’s Department was also taken over by the President. The limit on the number of terms a candidate can contest for President also removed. The 18th Amendment created a President with all powers. The voice against that power was broad based.
?Do we need constitutional reforms only to abolish the Executive Presidency?
A: Law and order collapsed drastically over the past decade. Public employees were tied to trees. About 100 suspects died in Police custody. No case was taken to Courts. The media was attacked. They did not criticize the government out of fear. At least 20 unarmed prisoners were killed. None of these issues were looked into.
The Constitution is the tool that safeguards people from State powers. It denotes how the Executive and Legislature can use powers and sets limits to the powers. That safeguards people’s rights.
We cannot violate the Constitution. We saw that the Constitution was not helping people. That is why people voted against the past regime on 8 January 2015. They were confident that the Executive Presidency would be abolished and that democracy would be reinstated. That was the promise endorsed by the people of both the North and the South alike. We must understand it. People voted for national reconciliation.
?Can‘t we achieve that aim by amending the existing Constitution?
A: No, we can’t. Everything has collapsed under this Constitution. The manner in which the Chief Justice was impeached shows that there was no law and order in the country. The verdicts of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal were ignored by the government. The likes of Wimal Weerawansa were the judges who heard the case against the Chief Justice. We need a new Constitution to change that context. We cannot democratize this country and bring reconciliation by simply amending the Constitution.
We have failed to build a Sri Lankan identity even after 69 years of independence. We need a new Constitution for that. The Constitutions drafted in 1948, 1972, and 1978 were not endorsed by the people. We must consult the public and carry out an opinion survey prior to drafting a new Constitution.
?Some argue that the government does not have two-thirds majority in order to draft a new Constitution.
A: The Constitution is drafted in public and we will have to go for a referendum eventually. People will reject it if they do not want it. We have diverse views and they must be considered. Finally, the Constitution must be passed in Parliament with two-thirds majority. After that, it must be passed by a referendum. We must not be afraid of people’s sovereignty with regard to this issue.
On 16 March 2015, Parliament unanimously decided to convert the House of 225 MPs into a Constitutional Council. Although some say they are against it now, all of them gave consent to it then. The Constitutional Council appointed an all-party Operational Committee with 20 MPs to draft the Constitution. It is chaired by the Prime Minister.
Joint Opposition members Bandula Gunawardana, Dinesh Gunawardana, the Muslim Congress’s Rauff Hakeem, and the Tamil National Alliance’s Rajavarothiam Sampanthan were also in it.
The Operational Committee decided to study the subjects and six committees were appointed for that. The Chairman of the Financial Committee is Bandula Gunawardana. Although they express strange views outside, all parties have joined this process. The six committees have submitted six very good reports. At the present time, these are being debated.
There are certain consensuses, but they are not perfect. All parties are being consulted.
?It is alleged that the committee headed by Lal Wijenayaka is of the opinion that Sri Lanka is a secular State.
A: No one has taken a decision on a secular State, but the President and the Prime Minister promised not to amend the Article 9 which gives prominence to Buddhism. Some say the State must be secular. Such opinions must also be considered, but expressing such an idea does not necessarily mean that it has already been implemented.
?The Buddhist monks of the three Nikayas held a congress and ruled the country would not need a new Constitution.
A: The view of the Mahanayaka Theras must also be considered. They have the freedom to say what they wish, but people have the sovereignty and the rule is based on it. That is not individual or group based. The statement is important because it was made by the chief prelates, but they could have discussed it with the President and the Prime Minister.
Their statement was based on media reports. Many of the politicians are opportunists. All said the Article 8 should be intact.
The Constitution will be drafted after consulting the general public. The first draft is done by the Operational Committee and it will be made available to the public. There is no reason to be afraid of it.
?As you are part of the Public Consultation Committee, haven‘t you cited revolutionary proposals like the State must be secular?
A: The task of the Public Consultation Committee was to meet people and obtain their views on the constitutional reforms. They will be informed to the Operational Committee with the recommendations of the Public Consultation Committee. We have sought public opinion on 20 subjects. We set forth the public views together with our recommendations. All the committee members have not agreed yet. The recommendations are cited with the name of the committee member who has endorsed it. A few people are of the opinion that the State must be secular, but the view of the majority was that the present situation should be maintained. All these views are included in this report. The Constitutional Council may take a decision on it.
Nothing will change if people do not approve this in a referendum. Certain people are misquoting our report with the aim of misleading the general public.