The Sunday Leader

Reforms At Snail’s Pace

  • Proposed new constitution

by Ashanthi Warunasuirya

The proposed new constitution is being now widely discussed. Recently public opinion was sought on the subject and a report has been prepared by the committee appointed for the task. However, the process is moving at snail’s pace. Moreover, a committee is yet to be appointed to provide recommendations for the 20th amendment.

The constitution is the highest law in a country. Because it affects the entire society, everyone is vigilant of its reforms. It is the same in Sri Lanka as well. Although the reforms have been vastly discussed for a long time, still they were not tabled in parliament.

Against this background, many civil organisations and intellectuals raise the importance of speeding up the process. Following are comments made by prominent figures on the delay and future of the procedure

 

Happy With Current Progress

Brito Fernando, Chairman, Organisation, Families of the Disappeared

The first committee appointed to seek public opinions travelled around the country. Now they have prepared a report on those public opinions and other relevant issues. When carrying out proposed constitutional reforms, this report must be taken into account. However, many raised doubts about the credibility of the report. But relevant parties have already clarified them for the public. The committee has taken into account opinions of interest groups and individuals as well as relevant statistics. That is a positive measure.

The most controversial points in these reforms are the ‘no religion’ clause and the wide devolution of power under the 13th amendment. They have been subjected to lengthy discussions. However, the Sri Lankans do not seem to be too interested in these issues but only a few. That is an unfortunate situation. The government must do what is correct despite criticisms. So we hope that the government will treat all ethnic and religious groups equally by declaring that Sri Lanka has no official religion.

We also expect more progress in human rights with the new constitution. We appreciate the government’s initiative in broadening the scope of human rights with these reforms. We stand by such decisions.

Also I am happy about the progress that the government has made with the constitutional reforms. I would not go for any economic analysis on the matter. We wanted passing legislations ensuring the Right to Information, freedom of speech and justice to the disappeared. They have been achieved to a certain extent by the present government. But they faced severe criticisms due to their weak economic policies and hesitant administrative measures. Still we stand by the government when they take action to ensure democracy in this country.

We expect that the government will do justice by building harmony between the North and South. For many decades, governments in Sri Lanka have lived off racism. However, certain Buddhist monks flamed racial hatred among the people with the help of some Sri Lanka’s governments. So we are urging the present government to move away from such paths and to do justice to the people in this country. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has recently issued a statement criticizing the government’s actions that seek justice to the families of the disappeared. We have to withstand such hostile statements. Whenever the government needs to solve the ethnic conflict genuinely by devolving power and treating everyone equally, we will stand by the government.

With regard to the electoral reforms, it is better to opt for a constituent system. It will minimize the ill effects of the preferential system. However, there must be enough room for minor political parties to represent their views in parliament and other constitutional bodies.

 

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Uniform Agreement Is Necessary

Keerthi Tennakoon, Executive Director, CaFFE

There is a big discussion going on island-wide for a new constitution. It is not a hard thing to bring reforms to a constitution when a government enjoys the majority in parliament. But first of all it must be identified as to whether there is a uniform agreement in the country about the provisions in the reforms. The Sri Lankans accepted the concept of devolution of power. In the same way, they may accept the proposed constitutional reforms as well if they can justify having them under reasonable grounds.

One of the main challenges that the country faces today is to reform the existing electoral system. When the 20th amendment was first brought in for discussion, we witnessed the difficulties thereof. The issue of power devolution has already posed many serious controversies.

Against this background, we must look how we can put these reforms in practice. Meanwhile, some need to abolish the executive presidency as well. However, the executive presidency cannot be abolished unless the government seeks the preference of the citizens through a referendum. For that to take place, main two political forces in the country must unify. However, taking such a unified action is not practical in the present political context since the government now cannot achieve 2/3 majority via a referendum. Therefore, the government must first go for constitutional reforms since they can do that with their majority in the parliament.

On the other hand, the Yahapalana government made several promises during the election periods. One of them is to establish a procurement committee. Both parties must be held accountable for the delay in setting up this important entity. Another is the Audit Bill. But corrupt politicians and bureaucrats have been shrewdly postponing its establishment for some times now.

We will make the public aware of the key issues in the 20th amendment. Next month we will publish a document on the subject.

 

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Problem With Political Will

Gamini Viyangoda, Social Activist

Lal Wijenayake Committee has now handed over the report on public opinion on constitutional reforms. So we believe the administration would find an acceptable solution based on this report. The President has stated recently that there should be a political solution based on the devolution of power in the proposed constitutional reforms. So it must be added to the new constitution.

We hope that the proposed constitution will bring in a better system of power-sharing to solve the national issue.

Regarding the electoral reforms in the 20th amendment, I only know that no final decision has been made whether to bring it in with a separate amendment or to present it with other constitutional reforms. I think, electoral laws should be added to the constitution to give them more prominence.

Unfortunately, everything seems to be moving very slowly. It is not the way that the government had previously stated. That is a problem we see in every aspect of the present government. There are many reasons for that to happen though. Under the previous system, only one person took crucial decisions. He ordered others to execute his decisions. At present, we do not have such dictators. Even though such modes are more effective, they do not serve the democracy. Instead, they provide ample room for corruption and arbitrary actions to take place. To stick to a salient process, takes time. But its outcome is always better. We also see that the government has a weak political will. We see some lapses in leadership level in taking right decisions. All these reasons have slowed the system. It now affects the constitutional reforms. So, it would take some time for these reforms to take hold.

We have discussed these issues with the administration. But still we do not see a proper social dialogue on this subject. The committee has prepared a report on public opinions in this regard. We must see what the people have said.  We will take out next step only after reviewing that report.

 

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A Change Of Tune

Joseph Stalin, Citizens’ Organisation

On January 8, the Yahapalana government was given the mandate to abolish the executive presidency and establish democracy in this country. To bring in the 19th amendment was one of their key promises on the election stage. But the enactment of the 19th amendment and the setting up of independent commissions has not been carried out the way that people expected. The Rajapaksa faction chopped off it in parliament.

There is no debate that the electoral system in Sri Lanka must change. Under the present system, politicians are not accountable to the people. Since an enormous amount of money has to be spent on securing a seat in parliament, most politicians engage in corrupt activities to earn money. So the country needs a mixed system that protects rights of every ethnic group. Already suggestions have been made to form such a system. Moreover, the Tamil minority voted for the Yahapalana government because they wanted a better solution to the ethnic conflict. Therefore, the government must declare a fair solution that benefits all the citizens. For that to take place, we must bring in serious constitutional reforms.

Unfortunately, the government is very slow in delivering its promises. It is the same with the investigations into corrupt activities and criminal allegations against the Rajapaksa regime. Certain recent statements of the government show its lack of a clear policy and a change in tune. Both main political forces are working together in this government. So balancing power is a massive challenge. It seems the government still worries about a possible return of the Rajapaksas. So they seem to be hesitating in taking right actions.

 

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We Need Constitutional Reform 

Saman Rathnapriya , Convenor, People’s Collective Movement

A new constitution is essential. It has now been upheld by both executive and legislative arms of the State. Even the general public now feels need of reforms to find a proper solution for the key problems in the country. During the elections, the government promised the people a new constitution.

But that new constitution must include important features such as a clear solution to the ethnic conflict.

It also should ensure rule of law, fundamental rights and economic development of the country. Besides, it must ensure media freedom as well. We have already handed the government our suggestions for the new constitution.

They previously appointed a committee to get opinions from the public and civil organisations on constitutional reforms. We also submitted our proposals to the committee.

As a trade union and civil society organisation, we have actively taken part in this discussion. Already a group has come forward to draft a proposal for a constitution. So, we think that there is no excuse for any further delay.

Without constitutional reforms, we cannot find proper solutions for some of the serious problems in our society. So the government must take steps to speed up the process.

This should also be presented to society for a serious dialogue. We cannot have a successful constitution without proper discussion. Some countries have adopted their constructions after years of discussion.  This is the most supreme form of law in the country. So it must be treated in that way. As civil society organisation, we are prepared to take this to society for a broader dialogue.

The next important feature in the new constitution should be the electoral reform. At present, there is a suggestion to bring it as a separate bill. However, it must first be presented to people of the country and discussed thoroughly before enacting it. But rather than bringing it as a separate bill, it would be much more suitable if it could be included in the constitutional reforms.

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