Editorial/Opinion

Constitutional reforms: 13A returns to the limelight

  • Group of Buddhist monks write to President on the ills of 13th and 16th Amendments
  • Indian HC expresses stance on full implementation of 13A; hosts Cabinet Ministers for dinner
  • Opposition Leader and SJB to rally against repealing of 19th Amendment
  • Karu pushed out of UNPleadership race; Ruwan becomes popular choice for leadership

Last week saw the Government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa securing the funds required to carry out the governing of the country for the remaining four months of the year.

While work on the 2021 budget proposals has already commenced, the Rs. 1.7 trillion Vote on Account (VoA) was passed in Parliament last Friday (28).

The Government’s sights are now fully set on the proposed amendments to the Constitution.

The ball is definitely now rolling on the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Justice Ministry has decided to appoint a panel of experts to draft the proposed new constitution.

Accordingly, the expert’s panel is to be appointed in the near future.

Following approval granted by the Cabinet of Ministers to repeal the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and introduce the 20th Amendment, a cabinet subcommittee, consisting of five ministers, including Minister of Justice M. Ali Sabry PC, was appointed for this matter.

The main function of this subcommittee is to make submissions to the Cabinet on points to be included in the 20th Amendment.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution will finally be formulated by the Legal Draftsman.

Meanwhile, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, has announced plans to launch a common struggle along with civil organisations and political parties, against the Government’s move to repeal the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

SJB seniors Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Eran Wickramaratne, Dr. Harsha de Silva, and Shiral Lakthilaka made this announcement at a joint press conference.

Premadasa is to take the lead in launching this agitation campaign.

“We shall discuss with all sessions on Friday and then we will launch continuous protests against the move to repeal the 19th Amendment,” Dr. Senaratne has said at the news conference.

“The 19th Amendment was enacted with the consent of all parties in 2015. We discussed every clause of it in 2015. Accordingly, the Opposition was allowed to state their case. Everyone came into an agreement and the 19th Amendment was passed just before midnight in April 2015,” he had said. “Clauses of this piece of legislation gave a hearing to all the cries of many sections that were heard for years.

We actually curtailed the powers of the executive presidency and set up independent commissions to depoliticise the Police, judiciary, and the public service.”

Discussion back on 13A

While the focus on the proposed constitutional amendments has been on the 19th Amendment, discussions are now emerging on another constitutional amendment that has caused much controversy in the country including an insurrection in the late 1980s.

It is none other than the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that was brought about as an offspring of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord that established the provincial council (PC) system in Sri Lanka.

While there have been many whispers in political circles about the Government’s consideration of repealing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the matter was last week brought to the limelight with a letter signed by a group of monks under the Buddhasasana Task Force Board (Buddhasasana Kaaryasadhaka Mandalaya) letterhead.

In the letter dated Tuesday (25) and addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Buddhasasana Task Force Board, situated at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress on Bauddhaloka Mawatha, has urged the Head of State to take stock of several issues before moving forward with the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

The letter has noted that the people have given a mandate to the President and Government to introduce a new constitution in place of the existing Constitution that has caused much chaos and confusion.

“It has been reported through government communications that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is to be abolished with a new 20th Amendment to the Constitution,” the letter has stated in Sinhala.

“The chaos faced at present is not only due to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The proportional representation system, along with the 13th and 16th Amendments, as well as other such amendments to the Constitution, have contributed to this situation. This has caused a grave threat to the country’s unitary state, public peace, territorial integrity, and national security,” the letter has gone on to explain.

“It has been reported that there are plans to hold the provincial council elections shortly. The country’s administration has been carried out without the provincial councils during the past three years.

Apart from the unbearable cost shouldered by Sri Lanka to maintain these provincial councils, it is also a threat on the country’s governance.

Although a provincial council structure could be maintained, it needs to be restructured. The area under the purview of a Northern Province Chief Minister could have its own police force according to Clause 9 (1) of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Also, Sub clause (2) of the same clause states that the approval of the provincial council should be sought in the event a piece of land in the respective province is to be offered to a citizen or for the purpose of religious establishment. The historical and archaeological sites have also been included in the provincial councils list. The 16th Amendment to the Constitution has resulted in the Sinhalese language not being accepted as the state language in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The 13th Amendment has also paved the way for the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces,” the letter has stated.

Attention has also been drawn to the fact that the PCs have the mandate to enforce laws pertaining to law and order in the respective provinces over and above the laws implemented by Parliament.

The letter has also drawn attention to the statements made in Parliament during the inaugural sessions of the Ninth Parliament by MPs C.V. Wigneswaran and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and noted that the nationalist comments made by them is indicative of the threat faced by the country’s unitary state in the near future.

“Therefore, a new constitution that rectifies all these issues needs to be introduced,” the group of Buddhist monks have noted.

According to them, attempting to rectify only the chaos caused by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution would not suffice, given the imminent dangers faced due to the 13th and 16th Amendments.

“All amendments to the Constitution need to be expedited. Failure to do so will be to disregard the mandate received by the country. The people of Sri Lanka have given a two-thirds majority to the Government with the intention of immediate rectification of the regulations that have been enforced due to pressure from external forces. Postponing such action would be unfair to the general public,” the letter has further stated.

“We believe that the Government’s idea of first rectifying the 19th Amendment while delaying the much needed amendments for later should not be carried out. Immediate steps need to be taken to cancel the regulations that have been forcefully included in the Constitution. If the provincial council elections are held before carrying out these amendments, attempts to amend the 13th Amendment would definitely fail,” the letter has added.

Focus on PC polls

Government lawmakers however maintain that they would consider the 13th Amendment that introduced the system of PCs, which are now defunct due to a delayed poll.

“The 13th Amendment was not something that we requested. It was forcibly given to us by India,” State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs Sarath Weerasekera had said.

He had observed that an assessment is being carried out into PCs to examine its contribution to the administration in the past.

Meanwhile, over 72% of the allocations made to the Public Services, Provincial Councils, and Local Government Ministry would be spent on the recurrent expenditure that has accumulated since January this year, Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said.

He told The Sunday Morning that in the absence of the PC polls, the governors were given the opportunity to continue work, and since no allocations were made since January, a huge sum of recurrent expenditure had accumulated.

However, when asked whether the Government was preparing for the provincial council elections, Minister Rambukwella said the Government hadn’t taken any decision yet.

At present, all nine provincial councils are not functioning as their terms of office expired.

The term of office of the Southern PC ended on 10 April while the Western PC’s term ended on 21 April; the term of office of the Sabaragamuwa PC ended on 26 September 2017, while the Eastern PC’s term ended on 30 September 2017, and the North Central PC’s ended on 1 October 2017.

The terms of the Central, North Western, and Northern PCs ended in September 2018, while the term of office of the Uva PC ended on 8 September last year.

India’s stance

While the discussion on the 13th Amendment and the future of the PCs rages on, India, which played a key role in the implementation of the piece of legislation as well as the administrative structure mentioned, is closely monitoring the proposed constitutional amendments.

In making any move, the Government, led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, would have to be mindful of the need to be tactful as well as diplomatic in broaching the topic of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, given its close link to Sri Lanka’s neighbour as well as regional superpower.

Meanwhile, Indian High Commissioner Gopal Bagley last week met with several political leaders and groups.

The High Commissioner last week met with members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the Opposition Leader of Parliament, and Speaker of Parliament.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution had figured during the discussion between the Indian High Commission and the TNA delegation.

“A TNA delegation called on the High Commissioner today (21) during which the latter congratulated the TNA for their performance at the recent general elections,” the Indian High Commission in Colombo Tweeted last week after the meeting with the TNA.

“The High Commissioner reiterated India’s longstanding position on peace and reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment,” the Tweet further stated.

High Commissioner Bagley also hosted a dinner for Cabinet Ministers last Wednesday (26).

Eighteen Cabinet Ministers had participated in the dinner and among them were Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, Transport Minister Gamini Lokuge, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, Power Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardana, Plantation Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, and Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

A senior member of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) last week opined that the 13th Amendment and the PC system were introduced to the country as a solution to the civil war.

“Now that the war is over and the country is united, there is no necessity for a provincial council system,” the senior member said.

As for whether or not the 13th Amendment will also be repealed during the proposed constitutional amendments, the senior member remained noncommittal.

The close ties between Sri Lanka and India following President Rajapaksa’s ascension to power will definitely be put to the test in the event the Government decides to take on the controversial piece of legislation.

SLFP studying the Constitution

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is to appoint a committee to make recommendations to the proposed amendments to the Constitution.

SLFP National Organiser, State Minister Duminda Dissanayake said that the committee will be appointed in the next few days.

“A committee will be appointed by the party to evaluate the proposed constitutional amendments. We are planning on making the appointment within the next few days.”

He said the committee will submit proposals to the Government on the constitutional amendments.

“We already have one of the senior members, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, in the Cabinet-appointed committee to draft the amendments. Once the Government releases the amendments, we will make our own proposals and hand them over to the Government,” Dissanayake said.

MS sits empty-handed

SLFP Leader, former President, and incumbent MP Maithripala Sirisena has been left in the lurch with senior members of the Government now dismissing claims that Sirisena was to be appointed as Deputy Prime Minister following the proposed constitutional amendment.

SLPP Chairman, Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last week cleared the air about the position that would be offered to Sirisena.

“There is no such discussion within the Government as of now to this effect,” he had said at a news briefing.

Prof. Peiris had added that, to his knowledge, not even a discussion has taken place within the Government thus far on the matter.

“I cannot say what will happen later. But those can be considered when formulating a constitution.”

Meanwhile, Minister Gamini Lokuge also said at a news conference, when questioned about the “senior government” post to be offered to the former President, that there was no agreement reached within the Government on appointing Sirisena as Deputy Prime Minister following the proposed constitutional amendments.

“This has to be asked by that party. There’s no such decision in our party. During election time, various statements are made. Some say they will receive this portfolio and that portfolio and now after elections, these have become issues. People say various stories during elections to secure votes,” Lokuge had told the media.

Meanwhile, State Minister for Batik, Handloom, and Local Apparel Products Dayasiri Jayasekara dismissed rumours about the post of Deputy Prime Minister.

“The title of Deputy Prime Minister was fabricated by the media. I can assure you that there is no such title that is on offer in the present Government,” he stated.

“The media seems to be giving wind to rumours; then they decide to question us to turn these into factual statements.”

He added: “We are looking at constitutional amendments at present and that will be discussed and debated in Parliament.”

Meanwhile, officers from the Police Unit of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday attacks visited Sirisena’s Colombo residence last Wednesday and recorded a near-nine-hour statement.

Wimal’s drunken relative

The maiden speech made by former Northern Province Chief Minister MP C.V. Wigenswaran at the inaugural sessions of the Ninth Parliament stirred up a hornet’s nest, especially among the rank and file of the SLPP.

In his maiden speech, Wigneswaran raised the issues faced by the people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and called for the recognition of the Tamil people’s rights.

Wigneswaran observed that the Tamil people have a right to self-determination.

He also made a reference in Sinhala, “kala kala de pala pala de” (what goes around comes around).

Wigneswaran’s statement caused much concern over the Sinhala nationalist movements in the country where questions were raised as to why representatives of the movements in the House failed to respond to the Tamil politician’s comments.

National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader and Minister Wimal Weerawansa in response had said that the people in the North are now systematically rejecting the nationalist politics carried out by the likes of Wigneswaran and R. Sampanthan, which is evident by the results of the recently concluded general election.

Weerawansa had noted that panicked by this outcome, Wigneswaran was trying to portray himself as a bigger hero than Sampanthan in Parliament.

The Minister had further said that he remained silent without creating a stir in the House since it was similar to “an attack on a drunken individual misbehaving at a wedding resulting in a disturbance at the function”.

Weerawansa had made this statement last Sunday (23) during a public gathering in Homagama.

“20 August was the day of the inaugural sittings of the Ninth Parliament. When a drunken relative starts to wax eloquent about himself at a wedding, should the other sober relatives attack the man? If the relatives behave in such a manner, what will happen to the wedding? This is how I see Wigneswaran’s behaviour at the inaugural session of Parliament,” the Minister had said.

According to Weerawansa, it is important for people to understand the reason that has compelled the likes of Wigneswaran to behave in this manner.

“The Tamil people in the North are rejecting nationalism. The TNA, that had 16 seats in the last Parliament, has declined to 10 seats. For the first time in history, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party has managed to secure a seat from the Jaffna District,” Weerawansa had further explained.

SJB MPs in contradiction

Wigneswaran’s statement also resulted in two parliamentarians representing the SJB on Thursday (27) making contradictory statements in the House.

SJB MP Manusha Nanayakkara, who raised objection to the statement made by Wigneswaran a week earlier and called for certain lines in the speech to be expunged from the Hansard of Parliament, once again raised the issue and called for the removal of the comments.

Nanayakkara, the previous week, called for these comments to be removed from the Hansard and once again raised the issue on Thursday, saying his request had not been addressed.

However, SJB alliance member MP Rauff Hakeem said in Parliament that every MP should respect freedom of speech.

Karu out, Ruwan in

Meanwhile, the onetime main opposition political party in the country, the United National Party (UNP) remains to be on life support given its failure to resolve the ongoing leadership crisis.

While the party seniors were deliberating the next course of action for the UNP, former Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya announced that he is capable of taking up the challenge to lead the party.

Issuing a special statement last Monday (24), Jayasuriya said that he had informed the UNP leadership and seniors on his preparedness to give leadership to the party.

Jayasuriya stated that, given the current state of confusion and after careful consideration of requests made to him by many parties, he had informed of his capability to take on the challenge of leading the UNP for the betterment of the party and Sri Lanka.

He said that this decision was taken on behalf of the future of the party and Sri Lanka, as well as the just and patriotic people of the country.

He emphasised that he will be “courageously and invincibly” committed to all the duties and responsibilities that need to be fulfilled for the betterment of the motherland. The following day, Tuesday (25), the UNP Working Committee (WC) met at around 3.30 p.m. at the party headquarters, Sirikotha, to discuss the party’s leadership issue.

The meeting concluded after over two hours of deliberations, with the decision that the party leader will be decided early next month.

Accordingly, the WC is to meet during the first week of September.

Also, the WC reached a decision that contenders for the party leadership should either be office bearers of the party or members of the WC.

This decision of the WC resulted in Jayasuriya being sidelined in the leadership race since he holds neither post.

A senior UNP source said that it seems unlikely that Jayasuriya could stake a claim to the post following the WC decision that evening.

“However, the WC will decide on the new UNP Leader at the next WC,” the source said.

The popular choice among a majority of the party membership seems to be UNP Deputy General Secretary Ruwan Wijewardene.

The youth membership of the party has opined that the UNP was in need of a young leader.

“There is no point in handing over the party leadership from a 70-year-old to an 80-year-old. The party needs a young leader who can aggressively push for reforms and see through the restructuring process,” a young UNPer said.

Meanwhile, Wijewardene has said he is prepared to lead the party to victory in the future if the party membership requested him to do so.

He has made this observation addressing a gathering of his supporters in the Gampaha District who met him at his residence in Malwana on Tuesday.

Wijewardene had said the UNP had withstood victory and defeat alike and that the recent general election was not the first time that the party faced a debacle.

“The UNP suffered a debacle in 1970, but it scored a five-sixth majority in Parliament at the landslide victory of 1977. Wrongs should be righted and the party led to victory in the future,” he had said.

Meanwhile, Jayasuriya had also denounced claims by some sections in the UNP that he was not a member of the party. He had stated that he was a member of a party and stressed that he had obtained the membership for the year 2020.

“The statement that the former Speaker is not a member of UNP is false and is an argument that is being made without proper knowledge about the party,” a statement from the former Speaker’s media unit noted.

“Jayasuriya has obtained the lifetime membership of the party under the 1,000m membership drive launched by him together with Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Besides, he applied for the membership of the party as soon as he vacated the post of Constitutional Council Chairman on 21 August 2020. Drawing criteria which was not considered when deciding to field outsiders as presidential candidates will push the party and its membership into the wilderness,” the statement said.

The statement also said Jayasuriya made a comment on Eranga Weliangage before the SJB was formed.

The statement added that Jayasuriya offered to take up the responsibility of resurrecting the UNP following the requests which cannot be turned down.

Meanwhile, it has also been reported that the SJB had invited Jayasuriya to join the party.

UNP-SJB talks

Amidst the UNP’s leadership crisis, the SJB last week gave two options for the UNP to resolve its present crisis.

SJB National Organiser MP Tissa Attanayake said in Kandy last week that the people have expressed their sentiments about the UNP and that the party is now at zero.

“The UNP has only two options. The first is to allow Sajith Premadasa to lead the UNP without laying down any conditions. This will unite the party. The other option is for the UNP to also join the SJB alliance,” Attanayake observed.

He further noted that the SJB stands firm with the UNP local government members who have been sacked by the party for supporting the SJB.

“These local government members supported the SJB since it was formed in line with a decision of the UNP WC. The UNP needs to stop sidelining its members and sacking them, which in turn would further destroy the party,” Attanayake said, adding that legal action will be initiated challenging the expulsion of the UNP local government members from the party.

“We formed the SJB because we knew exactly what the party members as well as the grassroots required from us,” the MP added.

Attanayake also said that discussions in an unofficial capacity are underway to suggest an alliance between the SJB and UNP with a probable suggestion of appointing the Leader of the Opposition at Parliament, Sajith Premadasa, as the Leader of the UNP.

Attanayake noted: “The people’s choice became obvious when the SJB members were elected to Parliament with more votes than the UNP members. Given that Sajith Premadasa is now recognised as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, we only see that it is fitting to give him the opportunity to lead the UNP.”

He reiterated that should the UNP refuse to hand over the leadership to Premadasa, they are willing to form an alliance with the UNP to contest in the impending PC elections.

All these are possibilities and are still being discussed among the members of both the SJB and the UNP, he stressed.

The proposals are yet to be presented to the senior members of the UNP, such as Jayasuriya and incumbent UNP Leader Wickremesinghe.