New Constitution faces tough hurdles

By Easwaran Rutnam

The process to draft a new constitution is facing great hurdles, but the Government says it is determined to move ahead and ensure the opportunity at hand is not lost.

The Secretariat of the Constitutional Assembly (Parliament) said that a date had not yet been set to debate the experts’ report on the draft Constitution.

Parliamentarian Dr. Jayampathy Wickremeratne, a member of the Management Committee of the Secretariat of the Constitutional Assembly, told The Sunday Morning that the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly will need to fix the date for the debate.

“Earlier we debated the interim report and six sub-committee reports. Then most parliamentarians and the President sought a legal draft constitution. So, the Experts Committee submitted the legal draft recently. It is not the Constitutional Bill, but a very basic draft. It now has to be debated, and hopefully, we will draft the final report after that. A draft constitution will need to be annexed to the final report,” he said.

A first-time opportunity

Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella said now that the Experts’ Report was submitted to the Constitutional Assembly, it must meet and discuss it section by section.

However, the Joint Opposition and some sections of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have already raised concerns over the proposals in the Experts’ Report.

Kiriella, however, told The Sunday Morning that the understanding was that a draft report be submitted to Parliament, and for Parliament to then decide the next step.

He insisted that the opportunity at hand must not be missed purely on minor matters, especially since Tamil parties have joined the process to draft a new constitution.

“When Sirimavo Bandaranaike drafted a new constitution, Tamil parties boycotted it. And even when President J.R. Jayewardene introduced a new constitution, Tamil parties opposed it. This is the first time in which Tamil parties actively participated in formulating the proposals. We should not miss this opportunity,” he said.

After winning the 1970 elections, Sirimavo Bandaranaike introduced a new constitution resulting in Ceylon being renamed Sri Lanka and being declared a republic.

The Tamils, however, refused to be part of the process to draft a new constitution. This was because, after her 1960 election victory, she declared a state of emergency following a civil disobedience campaign by part of the Tamil population who were outraged by her decision to drop English as an official language and her order to conduct all government business in Sinhala. This they considered a highly discriminatory act and an attempt to deny Tamils access to all official posts and the law.

In 1978, then President J.R. Jayewardene introduced a new constitution which was also not supported by the Tamils. The 1978 Constitution still stands, but has been amended since then.

Need to settle major concerns

United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Parliamentarian Keheliya Rambukwella, however, noted that there are concerns among the Sinhalese community about the decision taken by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to support the current process to draft a new constitution.

He said the concerns arose from some TNA MPs saying the Tamils want separation.

“When Kiriella says the Tamils are now supporting the process to draft a new constitution, unlike before, obviously there will be concerns as some will feel that the reason the TNA is supporting the process is because they want separation, and the new Constitution might give them that,” Rambukwella told The Sunday Morning.

Rambukwella said that the issues surrounding the new Constitution are very sensitive and parliamentarians, especially the TNA, must be very careful in what they say.

When asked if the SLFP, which he is still a member of, will in the end support a new constitution or simply reject it purely because some hard line Sinhalese oppose it, Rambukwella said that the SLFP will discuss the proposals and not just shoot it down.

He also insisted that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a hard line pro-Sinhalese, pro-Buddhist leader as some assume.
Rambukwella said that Rajapaksa has been given that image as a result of the manner in which some hard line pro-Sinhalese, pro-Buddhist Joint Opposition parliamentarians speak.

He said that most parties who are part of the Joint Opposition support ample devolution of powers to the provinces.
Rambukwella is one of the main players in the Joint Opposition and he says that at all meetings there is often a variety of opinions expressed, but the end result is that the stand taken is not as hard line as some assume.

A former minister said that having the support of Rajapaksa for the new Constitution was crucial, as his views would be embraced by the public.

“Mahinda is such a popular figure in the South that if he says this is what we are agreeing to and not this, the people will accept what he says. But with the UNP, most people feel Ranil Wickremesinghe is not genuine,” he added.

Proposed changes to new Constitution

The draft by the experts, among other changes, proposes to replace Article 9 of the 1978 Constitution, but most parties are opposed to making any changes to Article 9.

Article 9 of the 1978 Constitution notes that the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e). Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) provide all citizens the freedom to adopt, practice and teach any religion of their choice.

The draft report of the experts submitted to Parliament proposes in Article 8 that Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and 14(1)(e).

Alternatively, it proposes that the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while treating all religions and beliefs with honour and dignity, and without discrimination, and guaranteeing to all persons the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The report also proposes some powers be devolved to the provinces, including police powers.

On the provincial councils, Article 237 notes that Parliament may by law, (subject to the approval of such law at a referendum of the people of each of the provinces concerned) provide for two or three adjoining provinces to form one administrative unit with one elected provincial council, one governor, one chief minister, and one board of ministers, and for the manner of determining whether such provinces should continue to be administered as one administrative unit or whether each such province should constitute a separate administrative unit with its own provincial council, and a separate governor, chief minister, and board of ministers.

Article 277 proposes that the Provincial Police be headed by a provincial police commissioner who shall be of the rank of senior deputy inspector general, appointed by the National Police Commission on a recommendation made by the respective chief minister from among those who the National Police Commission represents to the chief minister as being available to hold the position of provincial police commissioner.