The Political Column
2nd July 2000
Preparing to devolve
By our Political Correspondent
|The ruling PA and the main opposition
UNP have reached broad consensus on outstanding issues such as state land,
unit of devolution and the nature of the state to solve the ethnic problem
plaguing the country for nearly two decades.
They also reached agreement to set up an independent elections commission aimed at minimizing or eliminating malpractice.
On Monday and Wednesday, the two delegations discussed matters for nearly six hours and made much headway in reaching agreement in these crucial areas
As far as the state land is concerned , both delegations agreed to adopt a give-and-take policy with the regions. Accordingly , all land will be held in the name of the Republic of Sri Lanka, the objective being the centre and the regions to divide the lands among themselves to ensure less disputes between the two institutions. However , forests, plantations and inter-regional irrigation schemes will come under the authority of the regions. This arrangement will enable the respective regions to allocate land for regional projects and other activities such as colonisation and agricultural utilization.
The unit will be the existing provinces except for the North and the East which will form into one unit for a five year administrative period. After the lapse of five years referendum will be held in the East to decide whether the people there would like to remain merged with the North. Until such referendum is held, all parties will be invited to administer the two province under an interim council. The LTTE too, would be invited but on the condition that it renounces violence.
On Monday when the two delegations headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met at Temple Trees, the paper tabled by constitutional expert K. N. Choksy on the setting up of an independent election commission was taken up for discussion.
The paper was earlier reviewed by a subcommittee chaired by Minister G.L. Peiris and comprising Minister M. H. M. Ashraff and Batty Weerakoon and UNPers Karu Jayasuriya, K. N. Choksy, Tyronne Fernando and Mahinda Samarasinghe, The paper was adopted with modifications suggested by the PA
Accordingly , the present Commissioner of Elections will be replaced by an Election Commission consisting five members who will hold office for six years. The Commissioner will enjoy the same protection against removal. The removal will be possible only through a parliamentary motion.
The main objective of the commission is to ensure free and fair polls and for this purpose a Chief Executive Officer under the title of Commissioner General of Election will be appointed.
The Commissioner General of Elections and the Department of Election should function under the control and the directions give by the Election Commissioner.
The conduct of all future election would be undertaken by the Commission and it is empowered during the period of an election to deploy police personnel to maintain law and order.
These police personnel so far as the election duties are concerned would come under the purview of the commission. The Police Ordinance will be amended accordingly to give legal effect to this matter.
Thereafter , the two delegation considered Chapter 1 of the draft constitution, dealing with the state , sovereignty and the people.
President Kumaratunga was keen at this meeting that this chapter should be finalized because it contained the basic framework of the constitution.
It is this chapter which created a major controversy in the drafting of the constitution.
While the pro-Sinhala parties were vigorously advocating the retention of the concept of a unitary state as contained in Article 2 of the present constitution, Tamil parties are insisting on the description of the Republic of Sri Lanka as a Union of Region- but Sinhala hard-liners are opposed to this.
The President told the UNP delegation a final decision on the Chapter should be taken as she wanted to brief the Tamil parties on the outcome at next week's talks before the new constitution was tabled in parliament.
The UNP suggested that they would like to present a draft of Chapter 1 for consideration. The task was entrusted to Mr. Choksy.
The draft Chapter 1 was discussed at length at the meeting and both parties described it as an excellent via media that would satisfy the demands of both Sinhala and Tamil parties. The draft was discussed at length and adopted.
Mr. Choksy had a hectic time in preparing Chapter 1. He faced the daunting task of pleasing both the Sinhala and Tamil parties, He prepared an explanatory note to clear their doubts. The note said while the majority community was concerned about the maintenance of territorial integrity of the country, the Tamil parties were anxious to see ample devolution was entrenched in the constitution. He had made every possible attempt to avoid controversial terms such as "unitary state", "union of regions" and indissoluble and indivisible.
The draft Chapter 1 recognizes that the Republic consists of the Centre and the Regions. It has also recognized that the legislative and the executive powers of the Republic are distributed between the Centre and Regions, while ensuring the maintenance of the unity and territorial integrity of the Republic in the devolving exercise.
Accordingly, the State will be known as the Republic of Sri Lanka in which the sovereign, legislative, executive and judicial powers of the people shall be exercised by the Central Government and the Regions as provided by the constitution.
The territory of the Republic shall comprise the capital territory, the regions, the territorial waters and air space.
The legislative powers of the people shall be exercised by parliament and by the people at a referendum and by the Regional councils to their respective extents provided by the constitution. The executive powers of the people shall be exercised by the President of the Republic on the advice of the Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers and by the Governors of the Region. The judicial powers of the people shall be exercised by the courts, tribunals and institutions created and established and recognized by the constitution or by the law.
In matters relating to privileges, immunities and powers of parliament and its members, the judicial power of the people may be exercised by parliament according to the law.
The fundamental rights of the people which are declared and recognized by the Constitution shall be secured and advanced by all organs of the government and shall not be denied or restricted. The state shall foster a Sri Lankan identity among its citizens by recognizing the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual character of the Sri Lankan society.
It has also barred any regional council or administration from advocating, attempting or promoting any separation of any regions or a part of the Republic by direct or indirect methods. Any alterations to the boundaries has also been prohibited and no regional council will be entitled to change its name. However a regional council could make representations to the Central Government on the alteration of its boundaries to change its name or the formation of any region by the separation of the territory from any region or by unifying two or more regions or parts of regions or by unifying any territory with parts of any region.
Soon after Wednesday's talks, UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe thought that it would be better to apprise his party on the outcome of the meeting. He invited UNP MPs Dharmadasa Banda, W.J.M. Lokubandara, Rohan Abeygoonasekara, Renuka Herath, Imitiaz Bakeer Marker, Vajira Abeywardena, Gamini Atukorala, Mahinda Samarasinghe, M.H.Mohamed, Tyrone Fernando and Mano Wijeratne for a discussion.
Mr. Wickremasinghe describing the functions of the North-East interim council said it would consist of a chief minister and two deputy chief ministers and would have a membership equivalent to the number of members in the North-East council.
He said both the UNP and the PA agreed to provide ample safeguards to the Sinhalese and Muslims in the North-East, by requiring a double majority for matters concerning these two communities.
He said if a matter concerning the Sinhalese was to be decided, it should first get the majority of the council and then should get the majority of the Sinhala members to make the decision effective. The same principle applies to the Muslims. This meant the council could not implement any decision concerning the minorities without a double majority, he said.
He also explained to them how the two parties resolved the land issue with both the Centre and the Region having a say.
On the proposed independent elections commission, Mr. Wickremasinghe said it would consist of five members with the President appointing three members and the and the opposition leader two. In the case of expulsion or removal of a member, there should be a unanimity among the other four members. But Mr. Wickremasinghe said that in a stalemate situation, a simple majority would do. But Imitiaz Bakeer Maker pointed out that it should not be the case. He said there should be unanimity among the members for such removal.
Mano Wijeratne said the composition of the commission should have two nominees of the government, two nominees of the opposition and an independent member. But Mr. Wickremasinghe indicated that he had already agreed to the proposal and that they could not go back on that. Thereafter the UNP also discussed the mater of state land and the lands vested with the region.
Mr.Wickremasinghe said the President had agreed to send these proposals to the LTTE. The President said if the LTTE wanted to go for a political solution, the government would take the joint paper prepared by the PA and the UNP as the basis for its discussion. If the LTTE refused to discuss the paper, the President said she would then table it before parliament.
Mr. Wickremasinghe said the interim council would consist of a number equivalent to the North-East provincial council in membership and one-third of them would be Sinhalese and Muslims.
At this stage, Mr. Lokubandara asked how many LTTEers would be nominated to the council. Mr.Wickremasinghe said it would depend on LTTE's response to the government proposals. If they agreed, a majority would go to the LTTE.
In a related development, Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim met two prominent Buddhist prelates - Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayake Thera and Ven. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera - at the Maharagama Dharamayatanaya. Mr. Solheim's objective was to explain the role of the Norwegian government in the Sri Lankan peace process. He was here in Sri Lanka to study the final draft of the PA-UNP agreement to work out a peace plan with the LTTE>
Mr.Solheim said Norway was involved in the facilitation process at the request of the Sri Lanka government. He showed letters sent by the government to substantiate his claim and said Norway had no intention of interfering in Sri Lanka's internal affairs.
Ven. Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayake Thera said the Sinhala Buddhists were not against the presence of nay foreigners in the country but they were intrigued by the role played by Oslo.
He told Mr. Solheim that Sri Lankans were capable of solving the problem on their own without international mediation.
The Mahanayake Thera said the Sri Lankan culture had been developed by the influence of the Sinhalese and any solution or reforms should safeguard the rights of the 14 million Sinhalese who were a minority in the world population.
If steps were not taken to get the approval of the people for any solution, the Mahanayake warned there would be serious implications.
It appears that a section of the Maha Sangha is becoming agitated over the PA-UNP agreement on the proposed reforms. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera on Wednesday appealed to all Sinhala MPs to refrain from voting in favour of the proposed constitutional amendments.
Addressing a news conference, Ven. Sobitha Thera said: "You are elected to parliament by the votes of the Sinhala people. So you are ethically bound not to support any demand which betrays the birthright of the Sinhalese people".
The venerable Thera said the devolution package which faced much public contempt was being prepared under the influence of foreign powers such as the Norwegian government.
He claimed the proposed North-East interim council the government and the opposition were trying to set up was based on the proposal put forward by opposition leader Mr. Wickremasinghe during his presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, Norway's special peace envoy E. Solheim also met PA and UNP members before he left for India. He told the Indian High Commissioner here that he was prepared to deliver the government's devolution package to the LTTE which has rejected it saying it fell short of Tamil aspirations.
In this backdrop, will Mr. Solheim be able to influence the LTTE? What will happen to an interim council sans the LTTE? Will tabling of the new constitution in parliament bring the desired results? These are the questions that cry for answers.
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