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 Appointing CC is President's prerogative


D.E.W. Gunasekera

'APRC not needed to
implement 13th Amendment'

The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) should go well beyond the 13th Amendment and should rightfully yield proposals that could be a basis for talks says Constitutional Affairs and National Integration Minister, D.E.W. Gunasekera. The veteran Communist said that he currently endeavoured to strengthen the 17th Amendment by reconvening the select committee that went into its anomalies so that the new process would pave the way for a stronger Constitutional Council than what was originally envisaged. Gunasekera said the select committee would be reconvened next week and said the independent commissions too would be redesigned at the committee level.

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: The delay in appointing the Constitutional Council goes to the very heart of the government's as well as the President's commitment to good governance. What is causing this inordinate delay in its reconstitution?

A: There is a backdrop to the current impasse. It came to a sudden end when the 10 member council had one member's term coming to an end. That also happened to be the nominee of the minority parties.

That vacancy remained unfilled. The Speaker sought consensus to resolve this and failed. This was because the TNA and the JHU objected to the JVP' participation in the process to select a minority party nominee on the basis that the JVP was part of the Freedom Alliance, despite having crossed over to the opposition by then.

While there was sheer lack of consensus on this issue, the period of the Constitutional Council itself expired. In the meantime, all the independent commissions too completed their terms. That's when everything collapsed.

However, soon the government and the opposition reached an understanding on the need to go into the 17th Amendment in detail as it was a hasty piece of flawed legislation that needed serious amendment. We were heading from one crisis to another. We resolved to address the lacuna. For example, the Speaker cannot convene the Constitutional Council without all 10 members being present. Just eight members or so would not be enough. Such anomalies had to be addressed.

That's when we went into a Select Committee headed by me. Soon afterwards, the UNP went into a crisis and opposed Karu Jayasuriya attending the sessions as a UNP delegate as he had crossed over. As a compromise, I suggested to the UNP to make fresh nominations to the Select Committee to prevent our purpose from getting defeated.

Subsequently we met without the UNP, which in my opinion was futile. After all, it is the main opposition political party and in order to obtain a two third majority, it is important that we have all these parties reaching a consensus formula.

Next, while the UNP grappled with its internal crises, the JVP and the TNA resolved their dispute and nominated Former Auditor General S.C. Mayadunne as the minority political parties' nominee.

The President brought me under pressure to recommence the select committee process but the UNP was still refusing to nominate new members.

The UNP after that, sent some amendments which I consider a positive step. I intend reconvening the select committee next week.

My position is that irrespective of the other process which is about reactivating the CC through the President, this select committee process must continue.  As for why the President has so far not reconstituted the CC, only he can answer that. After all, it is his prerogative.

Q: When the Select Committee process recommences next week, will the UNP participate?

A: I have just sent out letters calling for participation by all parties represented in parliament. Now that the UNP had sent some amendments on how to improve the flawed constitutional amendment, I believe it is an indication of a wish to participate. Other parties including the government are very interested in recommencing the process.

Q: There is general consensus among the minority political parties with regard to the appointment of Former Auditor General, S.C. Mayadunne to the CC. In turn, he has now expressed his willingness to resign from his consultancy to the two parliamentary watchdog committees if appointed to the CC.  Why is the government dragging its feet still?

A: If he quits the consultancy to COPE and COPA, there should be no problem in appointing him. He is a public servant with integrity and is not a member of a political party to our knowledge.

The issue is that the CC appoints all top people in public service. Mr. Mayadunne cannot work for one institution while serving in the CC which also appoints the head to the said institution. That would seem improper. In short, if he gives up the parliamentary consultancy, there should be nothing to prevent him being appointed.

Q: There were recent news reports about Labour Minister Mervyn Silva being appointed to the Constitutional Council. Is there any truth to this?

A: There was only speculation. It is up to the President to appoint someone of his choice as presidential appointee.

In my opinion, I don't think the President would nominate Mervyn Silva What I do believe in is that Mervyn Silva has an uncanny ability to make news and loves keeping the media focus even though not always in a positive light.  This time I think he has successfully given the media a de-rope and sent them all reeling!

Q: The delay in reconstituting the CC is causing a series of problems with regard to urgent top public sector appointments. There are many like the Attorney General, Secretary General of Parliament, IGP and Supreme Court judges to be appointed. Why is the government blind to this aspect?

A: This is true. This is why, while one process has got stalled, we are trying to amend the constitutional amendment fully so that the role of the CC would be absolutely strengthened.

I repeat, it is the President's prerogative to appoint the CC and I can't comment on that. But in the absence of the CC being appointed, we are going ahead with a practical process to strengthen the 17th Amendment which is vital.

We should realise that this amendment, though thoroughly flawed, was brought in the best interests of the public. Just look at the public service at present. There are one million public servants in the country. How can just five commissioners do justice to them?  It is humanly impossible.

The proposed amendments will redesign the committees in a realistic way. For example, the PSC should be handling only the top most appointments. There should be delegation of powers.

The Select Committee summoned those who served the independent commissions to give evidence on how to improve these bodies. They all accepted that it was an ill-conceived, hasty piece of legislation that needed to be strengthened in order to serve the spirit in which it was conceived.  Hence the important amendments we hope to introduce.

Q: How soon do you intend moving these amendments to modify the 17th Amendment?

A: As quickly as possible. But it requires a two third majority and I keep striving to reach that parliamentary consensus. If all parties cooperate on the subject matter, then there should be no problem. Then the CC will be stronger than before.

I want this done fast. I don't want to look a fool as chairman of the Select Committee. If the government and the opposition both desire some results, there will be something really positive. Or else I will resign.

Q: The 17th Amendment by now is a part of the constitution. Following the President's reluctance to appoint the CC, the JVP has pledged to take the campaign to the streets. Meanwhile the OPA has called it the President's constitutional obligation to give expression to the 17th Amendment by appointing the CC. Do you agree with the OPA's contention that it is an impeachable offence not to appoint the CC?

A: These are only slogans. They have little value except from platforms. The JVP has suddenly woken up from its deep slumber. Now that they are out of the government, they are out to launch a fresh campaign and this issue was there, luckily for them.

Q: The President has suddenly proposed the power sharing envisaged by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as the solution to the ethnic conflict. In your opinion can a 20-year-old remedy still be a solution to the festering wound?

A: I submitted a Cabinet Paper as Minister of Constitutional Affairs to the very first cabinet meeting held by President Mahinda Rajapakse. This was in relation to language and in the context of the 13th Amendment.

Previously, language came under the Ministry of Public Administration. My position was that the language policy had remained unimplemented despite the 13th Amendment becoming crystallized here. My position was that language remains the root cause of the national question as well.

Frontiers will get further widened. I also feel that the bilingual policy is important to the rest of the country as much as it is to the northeast. The reason is that 10% of the population in each district excepting Hambantota, belong to minority communities.

 I have made Tamil compulsory for the public service. For so long we have neglected the country's second language. This is an issue that should have been addressed at the dawn of independence in 1948. There would have been no problems if that were done. I am happy that I had the opportunity to correct a historical wrong through policy and practice at least now.

The new entrants to the public service must study the second language. The next step is to introduce it to the schools. We now require competent Tamil teachers. I am inundated with requests for Tamil teachers by various institutions. Some 7,000 new public servants followed Tamil language classes. In the past, Tamil public servants were studying Sinhala.

To encourage, I have introduced substantial increments and lump sump payments. Even minor employees get the same rewards proportionate to their grading in the service.

Every five years, there is a further increment paid to maintain proficiency.

One of the key initiatives was to put up the Institute of Language Education Training which will be declared open in April. There will be 6,000 rooms for residential students. This will cater to the need of translators and interpreters in some way. There is a big crisis in the public sector due to lack of bilingual officers. Soon we will have nobody left when the seniors leave service.

Also, we have trained 3,000 police personnel at district level. Just let me cite one absurdity. The Jaffna police used to be 100% Sinhalese managed until recently. We have now managed to send at least one Tamil proficient policeman to each of the police stations.

We have also identified 69 AGA divisions as 'bilingual' where language policy is implemented. It has been declared by the President through Gazette declaration as per the provisions of the 16th Amendment.

Another aspect is the teaching of the link language.  It is a huge concern. The management level has crashed due to the lack of English education. Its absence shows at the senior level management. Learning a link language is also about national integration. When one does not know each other's language, there should be a neutral language known to all for communication.

We have managed to teach Tamil to 59 pirivenas including the Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters.

All of the above was explanatory to show an aspect of non-implementation of the 13th Amendment. We need it fully implemented urgently. That's one step in the right direction. For the NE it is necessary. I am happy to note that I was the only opposition MP who voted with the government when the amendment was introduced. Today I consider that I have a right to speak about power devolution and advocate the 13th Amendment as a means to bridging the gap.

I recall asking then President J R Jayewardene as to why he introduced provincial councils to the entire country whereas the need was felt only by the northeast. He said he did not wish to get branded as a traitor caving into the northern demands and wished to make it a uniform structure.

I told him that he opposed a similar exercise when he rejected the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact to which he smilingly replied, 'I am also learning from history." I also believe that even asymmetrical power devolution is alright if that caters to the political needs. Devolution does not separate. That has to be first understood. Devolution in actual fact is an extension of democracy.

Q: But given the level of resistance by Tamil political parties, why attempt full implementation only 20 years later when it is, in your own admission not enough to cater to Tamil political aspirations? It is a well-documented fact that parties such as the TULF rejected outright the 13th Amendment as a 'fraud' committed upon the Tamil people. But now it has been brought through the APRC exercise which was primarily appointed because the previous attempts have obviously failed to cater to the need?

A: I believe the APRC must go beyond the 13th Amendment. It is already there as part of our constitution. What is required is full implementation. For that the APRC is not needed.

Tamil parties have collectively rejected the 13th Amendment as a solution to the conflict. That proved its inadequacy as a solution.

Also, the east just can't be hanging there. Economic and social development need to be urgently addressed. Ordinary people have suffered since the war broke out in 1983. These areas form the poverty belt of the country.

To implement a constitutional amendment that is already in place, the President can hold elections in the east. That's what's happening now. It will be followed by a PC poll in the east.

Q: How can there be full implementation of the constitutional amendment without merging the north and east to begin with?

A: Something is better than nothing. We are currently there. It was by no means a mere white elephant though a lot of people condemned the 13th Amendment as such. That's also why I supported it when the tide was against it. It may have had overlapping areas and weaknesses that needed to be addressed. But it was a vital first step.  Through the PC system, infrastructure development happened at village level. This I know as a fact as a member who earlier represented Kalawana.

The PCs are vital to introduce infrastructure development of an area. East should be given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of development fast.

Q: Does is mean that this is only an interim measure?

A: It is. The President's exact words were, immediate and interim measure.

Q: To fully implement the 13th Amendment, shouldn't the northeast be merged first?

A: No. There is a Supreme Court decision with regard to that. The merger is not part of the law. It was part of the agreement to get the thing moving and announced under emergency power. A court ruling separated the provinces and that should not hinder anything.

Q: Do you also subscribe to the view that the northeastern provinces should be separately administered?

A: As per the terms of the agreement, it is a matter for the people of the northeast to decide. Let them decide to be together or go their separate ways. Let's give them the opportunity to decide their fate by holding elections.

In The Sunday Leaderís interview with WPF Leader, Colombo District Parliamentarian and CMC Convenor, Mano Ganesan published on February 10, 2008, it was reported that the Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) was proposed by UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe due to an oversight.

We regret the error.


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