Interviews

Debating draft 20th Amendment | Minority parties weigh in

By Sarah Hannan

The proposed draft of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution will be presented at Parliament for debate on 22 September and the Government and Opposition allies are now noticing the pros and cons of the draft, with mixed views being aired at party meetings and media briefings.

Below are excerpts of The Sunday Morning’s interviews with party representatives who have formed alliances with the Government as well as the Opposition on the proposed 20th Amendment.

19A should stand with revisions

Democratic People’s Front and Tamil Progressive Alliance Leader  Mano Ganesan

What is the Tamil Progressive Alliance’s (TPA) stance on the 20th Amendment?

Before we go into the rest of your questions, let me establish the fact that the Tamil Progressive Alliance is now working closely with the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which is a political party that Sajith Premadasa, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rishard Bathiudeen, Rauff Hakeem, and myself established to build a stronger Opposition to the governing party.

We are all equal representatives of the SJB. Therefore, I am sure that it is quite clear we too oppose the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and propose that the 19th Amendment needs to stand with a few revisions.

The way we view this is that it isn’t the 20th Amendment, but in fact it is the 18 Plus to the 18th Amendment.

There are many areas on which we disagree regarding the 20th Amendment and when it is presented in Parliament, we will do our best to oppose it.

So you agree that the 19th Amendment should stand?

Of course. It seems as if the country is forgetting that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was brought in to decentralise the power that used to be more on the authoritarian side. The proposed 20th Amendment is seen as a step back from the 19th Amendment, which was the hard work of many scholars like the Late Sobhitha Thera, civil society, political activists, and political parties that helped draft it.

As the Leader of the SJB, Sajith Premadasa rightfully suggested that we should be looking at a 19 Plus and not a 20th Amendment.

Should the 20th Amendment come into effect? How will it affect the sovereignty of the people?

Sri Lankan sovereignty, which we are proud about, should not be divided as Tamil sovereign rights, Sinhala sovereign rights, etc. We, as Sri Lankans who were born in this land, have sole sovereign rights as citizens to enjoy the freedom to live in this country.

That means we will not bow down to foreign forces or be tools for such entities to disturb the peace that we have achieved.

We need to establish the Sri Lankan identity and not have division based on religion or ethnicity. No matter the religion and ethnicity, everyone that is born to this country has the democratic right over matters of this country.

Therefore, anything that will threaten that sovereignty should be discussed. That is one of the key aspects we are opposing in the 20th Amendment which would allow people with dual nationalities to enter Parliament.

That person will not have sole loyalty towards the country or its people, as the oaths they take on foreign soil to establish citizenship overrules the birth country’s constitution.

Therefore, this move that the present Government is trying to make, under their “One Country, One Law” theme, raises matters that need to be discussed.

The theme looks perfectly fine, but when one reads the contents of it, they will have various questions, as there are adversaries in this country who are going to take on crucial positions that will impact the governing system of the country.

These potential adversaries are in fact dual citizens who are under oath to the US law, and their legal obligations will be to uphold the US law.

This matter is beyond politics, and the people of this country should also be given an opportunity to express their views over the constitutional changes that are to take effect.


Will work with govt. to address issues

Ceylon Workers Congress Vice President Senthil Thondaman

What is Ceylon Workers’ Congress’ (CWC) stance on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution?

As a political party that has formed an alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led Government, the CWC will vote in favour of the 20th Amendment.

However, we will also study the draft 20th Amendment to the Constitution to understand whether any of the ethnicities or religious minorities would have their rights suppressed. We would work closely with the Government to iron out any of the clauses that would implicate and damage the Sri Lankan identity.

As long as the minorities’ rights are preserved, we will support the new constitutional amendment.

We are positive that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a clear vision for the development of this country and we, as his Government’s allies, should support his decisions and assist him to correct the course.

He wants to implement one law across the country, and we believe that when he says it will be one law for all, that means whatever the rights the majority would get, the minorities would also be afforded.

Do you think the 20th Amendment would affect the sovereignty of the country?

Even before the 19th Amendment, this was in practice where people with dual citizenship were allowed to run for office, and none of them interfered in the country’s governing system or decisions that were made.

The whole law of dual citizens not being permitted to run for office was strictly implemented in 2015 during the Yahapalana tenure.

The trust we have towards the present leaders of the country is concrete, as they are decisive in their decision making, and so far, their loyalty towards uplifting the country has not been a question.

The Opposition parties are all talking on assumptions; we cannot come to conclusions based on assumptions, asserting that there would be an impact over the sovereignty of the nation. If it was something that was completely new that was to be implemented, then we would have so many queries, but this was already in practice up until 2015.

In that backdrop, do you think the 13th Amendment too should be revoked?

My understanding is that it is easier when you have local government institutions to manage grassroots-level issues. For instance, for a grama niladhari (GN) division nowadays, there is a Samurdhi officer, a development officer, and then the grama niladhari who attends to various administrative issues of the respective GN division.

Now, picture a situation where these levels of administration are removed and then everything is managed by the central government – the process to solve a matter would take a longer period.

I believe the more administrative officials are overseeing work, the easier it becomes for the Government to develop the country. For instance, if a region is unable to get parliamentary representation from the minority parties but there are enough people living over there, the next level of administrative officials will be at the provincial council level, which is also assisting with the administrative affairs for the central government.

These local government institutions, therefore, should remain and in fact be improved as the population of our country keeps growing. The provincial council is important for minority matters to be discussed and noticed at least on a provincial level by their representatives who get elected to the council.

Minority issues are only prevalent in the Eastern, North Western, and Uva Provinces, and there is no minority issue in the Southern Provincial Council. Because of these local government bodies, the common man’s issues get addressed.


Concerned over government’s ultimate reform

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem

What is the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress’ (SLMC) stance on the 20th Amendment?

The 20th Amendment is aimed at reversing the 19th Amendment, and it cannot be seen as an overall constitutional reform process. The 20th Amendment is a short-term step towards introducing a new Constitution altogether after the amendments are approved.

What should concern everyone are the ultimate reforms that the present Government envisages bringing in. The committee appointed to draft the new Constitution, including the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is broadly talking about the different clauses that would be amended. However, it is an attempt to reverse the 19th Amendment, except for very a few provisions.

The Government has also announced that they will entertain amendments that would be suggested by the other parties to include in the 20th Amendment. We will therefore have to formulate and deduce which clauses would need revisions/amendments from the drafted 20th Amendment.

We will, from the SLMC’s perspective, see how we could contribute towards strengthening the country’s democracy through these amendments.

There are also concerns that certain governing clauses have not been laid out with proper procedures related to the quorum removal of officers.

You can address the issues concerning the lacuna in the 19th Amendment, but whether they are attempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater as the solution, is something that we will have to look at.

So, each clause will need to be closely studied, so that the amendments could be proposed.

There is still time and the Government has not officially presented the new draft Constitution.

It is speculated that the 20th Amendment draft will be presented as is and the amendments will be later entertained, once taken up for debate in Parliament at the next session.

We will have to see how far they would accommodate amendments, after which the SLMC will be able to consider where the consent lies and whether we could intervene in the amendments.

Furthermore, we will ensure that whatever is proposed will not be a reversion of the objectives we brought in with the 19th Amendment.

What are your thoughts on its impact of the sovereignty of Sri Lanka?

It is now clear that the barring of a person entering a general election based on their dual nationality after 2015 was aimed at the Rajapaksa family, and it was a clause that was introduced to deprive certain members of the Rajapaksa family from entering into politics.

What I feel is that the decision to appoint a suitable people’s representative to Parliament should be left to the voter, as that is a democratic right. All these issues can be brought up during the campaign time; why go that extra mile to block them from giving nominations?

Ultimately, if the voter thinks that the people’s representative that they vote for would do any harm when it comes down to the country’s interests, then they would not vote that person in.

Here, you are at the threshold itself, shutting down the person’s right to enter politics. I don’t see it as a democratic move.

However, it has been proven in the case of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had to face similar allegations. Yet, he got a resounding mandate from the entire country. Therefore, in a situation like this, you have to leave it to the voters to choose who would be representing their interests in Parliament.

The person in question could have obtained dual citizenship over a number of reasons, but that does not mean he is unpatriotic. You cannot assume that just because a person gets dual citizenship.

There are so many people of Sri Lankan origin who are living outside the country, but they are patriotic towards the country. However, for rightful reasons, they too have adopted another country’s citizenship and they have not lost their love for Sri Lanka. It is a matter of the symbolic change of statehood and is not a serious lack of patriotism.

So, there were certain clauses in the 19th Amendment that were directed at individuals and personalities rather than principles.

Do you think the “One Law, One Nation” slogan is going to adversely affect the Muslim community?

For all purposes and reasons, there should only be one law in the country and that should be the supreme law of the land that is the Constitution, which is common to everybody.

Within the Constitution, it permits the diversity of the country to be accepted, and there is also a fundamental rights chapter which promotes equality and freedom of association, to name some.

I think many who oppose the present Government’s progress are doing so in a very short-sighted manner, and some are trying to interpret the “One Country, One Law” slogan as if you must totally renounce the diversity.

You cannot have uniformity in a country which is diverse, as diversity is our strength and the laws that are specific to the regions or the religions that are practised in the country are protected by the Constitution, which accepts and allows that diversity to be practised.

You cannot force different communities to embrace an entirely different culture or customs.

For instance, the Kandyan law honours the customs that are practised in the region and it is recognised by the Constitution which allows it to be practised as a regional law.

Similarly, property rights under the Thesawalamai law have special provisions for the communities that live in the Northern Peninsula.

The need for a separate special law has been recognised in order to respect diversity and to maintain some equilibrium in enforcing the law.

Therefore, all these concerns that the opposing parties and entities are raising are very short-sighted.