By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, July 29: The debate in the Sri Lankan parliament on Wednesday and Thursday last week on the proposed new constitution for the country, was primarily meant to shore up the flagging electoral prospects of the Tamil National Alliance in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
But it was a weak and fruitless attempt because the debate did not center around the report of the Experts’ Committee giving the various options expressed by a cross-section of people on each of the major aspects of the proposed constitution.
The debate was about the need for a fresh constitution with devolution of power to the provinces, an issue which has been debated at length and frequently since 1994, when Chandrika Kumaratunga became President.
The debate did not elicit a good response from the MPs as the attendance was poor.
Need For Debate
It was the TNA which wanted the debate. It had done badly in the local bodies elections in 2018. It saw a sharp fall in the percentage of votes it got compared to the elections held in 2013 and 2015. This was at least partly due to its failure to bring about a new constitution with a substantial devolution of power to the North-East and other provinces.
This failure was considered unpardonable because the TNA was an ally of the ruling United National Front (UNF) though officially it was in the opposition. Its leaders R.Sampanthan and M.A.Sumanthrian had very good rapport with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The TNA’s failure was being exploited by rival groups led by former Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam.
With Provincial Council elections or the Presidential election, being round the corner, the TNA had to revive at least a discussion on the new constitution in parliament.
But what was discussed in the adjournment debate was not the report of the Steering Committee or the report of the Expert Committee on the draft constitution but the need for devolution and other contentious constitutional issues.
After TNA leader Sampanthan spoke about the dire consequences of not solving the Tamil question through a new constitution, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera recalled how every top political leader of the country from the present to the past had spoken in favor of ethnic harmony, power sharing with the minorities, and devolution of power to the provinces and yet every one of them backed out fearing a political backlash unleashed by a few reactionaries in parliament.
Samaraweera recalled how the ethnic issues has been the main political concern in post-independence Sri Lanka, an issue which had led to cataclysmic events.
“S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (Prime Minister) was assassinated because of his attempts at conciliation with the minorities. The 1962 coup was significantly induced by fear of discrimination against Christians. The war, as our academics and intelligence men have observed, was the direct result of treating minorities as second-class citizens. “
“We all know that if there was any one cause for a rag-tag insurgency becoming a full-blown civil war, it was Black July. Similarly, it cannot be a coincidence that the Easter Sunday bombings took place following the Aluthgama and Digana riots. Although investigations are still underway, there is no reason to think that these riots played a role in radicalizing a few Muslim youth.”
“Despite new constitutions, countless committees and endless debates we still have majoritarianism entrenched in our politics and law. It is our inability to resolve the national question that is at the very center of our failure to make Sri Lanka peaceful and prosperous. Sri Lanka has been in crisis, remains in crisis and will continue to be in crisis until we can create a just and equal Sri Lanka for all Sri Lankans.”
“This House (parliament) knows the solution to this problem. It has always known the solution to this problem. But, more often than not, its members have not had the courage of their convictions to address it. Ever since Independence, all our leaders, including Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse know the actual solution to this problem.”
But the House “has cowered before a small but vocal minority of reactionary forces,” Samaraweera said.
‘And I am sad to say that a truly united Sri Lanka – a Sri Lanka where Muslims don’t fear Buddhists, where Sinhalese don’t fear Tamils, and where Christians can worship in peace – is a cause of mortal danger for certain members of this House.”
In his speech the Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa made it very clear that no change in the constitution should be made by the incumbent government which is to go soon. Constitution making should be left to the government to come, he stressed.
Rajapaksa spoke mostly about the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the mess the 19 th.Amendment had made of it in order not to go for a referendum.
The former President said that he would draft a constitution that would be submitted to the people in a referendum to get the peoples’ approval for it.
Rajapaksa accused the UNF government of misleading his lawmakers by giving them hope about passing the 20th Amendment in order to win support to pass the 19th Amendment, which had reduced the powers of the Executive Presidency.
“When the 19th Amendment was moved in Parliament, the President held that the electoral system will be changed within a few months by bringing another Amendment. On that assurance, we passed the 19th Amendment while expecting the 20th Amendment,” Rajapaksa said.
He charged that the 19th Amendment had failed to clearly identify the powers vested with the Prime Minister and the President.
Criticizing the establishment of a Constitutional Assembly and the Steering Committee to draft a new constitution, Rajapaksa held that the document Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had presented in January will divide the country.
“In January, the Prime Minister moved a document in Parliament, claiming that it is a report from the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. He said that it is not a government report but contains the opinion of experts. We are against that report, which paves the way to breaking the country into nine semi-independent states and establish separate police powers. It also contained provisions preventing the Central government from taking back the powers devolved to the Provincial Councils. There is a rumour this was drafted by MP Sumanthiran and a team of non-governmental organizations during the last two and half years,” Rajapaksa said.
According to Rajapaksa, his proposal, known as the “13 plus”, was the best. The “13 plus” he proposed was not a program that proposed to break the country into nine Provinces but was meant to create a Second Chamber in parliament for the representation of the provinces. It was power-sharing at the Center and not devolution of power to the provinces which will lead to the break-up of the country.