The saga of Sri Lanka’s new Constitution

The saga of Sri Lanka’s new Constitution

Meera Srinivasan

-UPDATED: JULY 23, 2017

Return to frontpageSpeaking at a book launch last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the draft of Sri Lanka’s new Constitution would be ready by January 2018, yet again shifting the deadline for the challenging task his government took up after coming to power in 2015. As per earlier assurances, the government should have already debated the draft Constitution in Parliament by now, and prepared for a referendum after a likely two-thirds majority. But even as the government tried fast-tracking the process, a section of the country’s influential Buddhist clergy said there was no need for a new Constitution.

The government was quick to counter that. Senior Minister and Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said they would go ahead with drafting the new Constitution as per the mandate they got in the 2015 elections. President Maithripala Sirisena, meanwhile, assured the chief prelates that the government would keep them posted on the draft. Going by the public statements made by the President and the Prime Minister, it appears that the leaders are committed to their promise – a new Constitution that brings an end to the executive Presidency and, among other reforms, enables a comprehensive political solution to the Tamil question through enduring power devolution. However, the pace of the ongoing efforts and the recurring political pressure from within the government raise some difficult questions for the leaders.

The pressure is partly to do with the complex arrangement of a “national unity” government, with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the rival United National Party (UNP) cohabiting it. With a section of SLFP MPs reportedly threatening to join former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who now sits in the opposition, the insecurities within both the party and the government appear to be growing. The UNP, on the other hand, is apparently focussing on its version of economic development, with PM Wickremesinghe even announcing a new round of liberalisation.
Two-year extension

There seems to be a widely-shared understanding that this government should look ahead faster than it needs to look behind. That is what the March UN resolution in Geneva, co-sponsored by the U.S., Sri Lanka and other countries, seemed to indicate when it gave the country a two-year extension to fulfil its commitments on accountability. The Tamil leadership, too, willingly emphasised Constitutional reform over accountability, drawing high praise from the international community for its constructive cooperation with the government. As the formal exercise of Constitution making, through six sub-committees, a steering committee and a Constitutional Assembly, saw a lull, President Sirisena sought to break the deadlock by initiating tripartite talks, led by him, with the Prime Minister and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Opposition party. As far as the people are concerned, there is little information in the public domain as to where these initiatives currently stand.

At the same time, the Tamil leaders’ patience is evidently waning. Amid severe criticism from sections of its support base in the north, the TNA has begun articulating its frustration with the government loud and clear. During a meeting with Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was in Colombo recently, TNA leader R. Sampanthan said: “The UNP and the SLFP must put their petty political agendas aside and come together to lead the Constitution-making process to a success.” Whether the national leaders and their parties share his concern should be rather clear in the next few months.

Our right to new Constitution

V Thirunavukkarasu (Former MemberMonday, July 24, 2017

The Venerable Mahanayake Theras of the Buddhist Chapters suddenly met in Kandy on July 4 under the leadership of the Asgiriya Chapter Mahanayaka Most Venerable Warakagoda Gnanaratna Thera. The purpose is to stall the ongoing Constitution-making process which is already more or less halfway through. First of all, the million dollar question is as to why such a concern on their part arose after nearly one and a half years, and not at the beginning of the process.
As is well known, the National Unity Government, with the two traditional arch rivals happily joining hands for the first time in the country’s long term interest, secured the people’s mandate to form the National Unity Government, inter alia, to enact and operate a new Constitution. Hence, it is irrevocably incumbent on the Government to carry out the sovereign people’s mandate, and there shouldn’t be any hindrance from any quarter in this respect. Of course, all sections of the people of all races and religions have had the opportunity to present their views and ideas from the time the Public Representations Committee headed by a political leader and Attorney-at-law Lal Wijenaike started functioning at the inception. What has to be borne in mind by one and all is that the people’s mandate cannot be jettisoned.
Executive Presidency
Now, it is common knowledge that the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had pledged in 2005 to abolish the Executive Presidency, reneged on that pledge. On the contrary, having gone halfway through his second term, he got the infamous 18th Amendment passed in Parliament to remove the mandatory two-term limit to seek election to the Presidency, insatiably aspiring to become the first third term President, but of course it misfired thanks to the will of the people which is the most paramount factor.
Presently, of course, he is a Member of Parliament as well as the foremost leader of the Joint Opposition (JO) representing the dissident wing of the UPFA, including the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the National Freedom Front (NFF) and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) led by Parliamentarians Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila respectively. The notorious propaganda of the JO is that (a) Federalism has all but been conceded, putting paid to the Unitary State system, and (b) that the foremost place given to Buddhism is being compromised. Such a bizarre misleading propaganda is nothing but an insult to their own intelligence, besides taking the sovereign people for fools.
National Unity Government
Well, the National Unity Government appeared somewhat taken aback by the sudden moves of the Buddhist Chapters which might well erode the Government’s 2015 mandate to take the country along the path of peace and reconciliation, to fast-track economic development for democracy to thrive, so that people of all races and religions could live in peace and amity.
In the meantime, President Maithripala Sirisena has met with the Mahanayake Theras in Kandy and assured them that there will be due consultations with them once the final draft of the Constitution is ready. Of course, the Mahanayake Theras can have their say even at this stage of the Constitution-making processes, but at the end of the day, the National Unity Government should boldly act in accordance with the people’s mandate handed down at the two elections in 2015. What is of most paramount importance is that there should be no question of pandering to the whims and fancies of any segment, apparently driven by a hidden hand.
Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam pact
It is quite appropriate in this connection quote a journalist of yore of no mean repute, Tarzie Vitachchi, from his book titled ‘Emergency ’58’. Here is what he said on the question of the price paid for pandering:
“When a Government, however popular, begins to pander to racial or religious emotionalism, merely because it is the loudest of the raucous demands made on it, and then meddles in the administration and enforcement of law and order for the benefits of its favourites, or win the plaudits of a crowd, however hysterical it may be, catastrophe is certain.”
What is historically relevant to remember in this connection is the situation that led to Bandaranaike’s unilateral abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact in 1958, that is well-nigh six decades ago. Chelvanayakam had consciously accepted the pact, knowing well that it was a halfway house, even though some of his confidants had their own reservations.
The fact that Bandaranaike found himself meekly abrogating the B-C pact due to extraneous pressure especially from the Buddhist clergy, is history, and a real tragedy; for had the BC pact been fully implemented sans any obstructions, the chequered problem could well have been well and truly finally resolved as the years went by, and there would certainly have been no war and the colossal destruction of life, limb and property.
Let lessons be learnt. Let wisdom prevail. Better late than never.
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