There has been a sudden change of approach at the highest levels of Government to the issue of constitutional reforms, something that has been on the backburner for some time and not without its share of controversy. It is a welcome change. The proposed reforms, staggered as they were to be, were causing ripples within the coalition of ruling parties as well as the Opposition and discerning sections of the citizenry.
Several reasons have been attributed for this change. The rumblings within the Government, especially from the Old Left parties and disgruntled MPs who feel they have been sidelined to make way for a new political order must have had some effect; but the Government was confident that it could compensate for any minuses with pluses from Opposition MPs wanting power, place and perks. Many in the ruling coalition made it known that they found it difficult to live with the fact that they who wanted the Executive Presidency abolished were now going to raise their hands for its permanency. Compromising on principles comes easy to politicians, but there is some honour left.
That apart, a range of problems has arisen in recent times for the Government and its leaders cannot be unaware of the wide-scale accusations that a dynastic culture is being cultivated quite glaringly. This avalanche of criticism coupled with increasing setbacks to the country's economy due to the Western powers 'ganging up' against Sri Lanka would surely have triggered some re-think among a set of fairly seasoned politicians at the helm.
Thus it was a somewhat pleasant surprise last weekend when it was announced that the President and the Leader of the Opposition had met and decided to confer on constitutional reforms aimed primarily at ending the Executive Presidency. Critics say that each was trying to pull the chestnuts out of the other's fire under the cover of bi-partisanship; the President wanting to shore up his flagging image as a democrat not a despot, and the Opposition Leader trying to ward off an internal revolt that like the Left's Revolution, is still negotiating the bend.The discussions that opened this week have a popular theme to it; the abolition of the Executive Presidency with the introduction of an Executive Prime-Ministership. Such an idea was toyed with by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's predecessor as well, but she could not get down to implementing it. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin did and is now the all-powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still running the country with an iron-fist.
We have said it over and again, that a Prime-Ministership can be as autocratic or inefficient as a Presidency, depending on who handles the job; but that the former is a better option because at least the job of Head of State and Head of Government gets bifurcated into two separate posts held by two persons reducing the concentration of so much power in one individual.
A further good sign is that the smaller parties have also been brought into this exercise in what is seemingly a national endeavour to find broad consensus on the apex laws that will govern this country in the future.And yet, one must wait and see how these talks proceed. But the Government must be complimented for listening to reason and being wise in having a wider consultative process in framing new laws for this country.
Good governance has now become a global issue, and the Government has invited international attention to it. It allowed the so-called International Community (IC) -- a euphemism for the Western powers to meddle in the country's internal affairs mainly by its own inaction as well as what we called the hara-kiri diplomacy of recent times.The Government allowed things to 'go too far' and has only itself to blame for the mess it has not only got into, but got the poor workers and struggling entrepreneurs into. The United States now wants to review our labour laws. That is an issue by itself, but what of the European Union (EU) demands that we refused to comply with, thereby losing Rs. 56 billion of export concessions to Europe. One of the demands is to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment. No doubt, the Government felt it infra-dig to give a guarantee on that; or was it that the Government does not want to give any guarantees on that anyway - even to the stakeholders?
The Government insists that Sri Lanka a sovereign country and should not be asked to give 'assurances' to any other sovereign entity. Without getting into the question of whether the Government was correct in not giving these assurances at the expense of Rs. 56 billion of export earnings, it is worth looking at the other 'conditions' that the EU wanted assurances on.
Some of them revolve around provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act relating to the powers of the Defence Minister to issue detention orders (Section 9), which cannot be questioned in a court (S10); restrict movements (S11); a gargantuan provision prohibiting publication (S14); an innocuous procedural provision regarding trials (S15); confessions to police officers (S16); and immunity to an officer acting in good faith (S26) which is problematic in normal situations anyway. The Supreme Court has already gone into some of these issues and there is sufficient international case law for all these points. The EU is not asking for the repeal of these laws entirely either, just that they be compatible with international covenants. The need is for Sri Lanka to strike a balance between national security and individual or collective liberties now that the war against the LTTE is over.
Is it not the time to move back into a normal situation from the 'emergency' mindset of four decades (actually since 1971) instead of just doing away with one or two emergency regulations of lesser importance? No one is asking that it be done in 24 hours. They want the planned amendment to the Civil Procedure Code to give the suspect the right to see a lawyer immediately after arrest. Is that good or bad? They want the 17th Amendment implemented. Good or bad? To enable complaints to go to the UN Human Rights Commission and implement its decisions. Good or bad? To invite various UN Committees; to report cases of disappearances; provide a list of LTTE combatants in custody; and adopt the National Human Rights Action Plan. Good or bad?
Nobody expects the Government to have an 'open door' policy for these nosey-parkers to come and make a bad situation worse. On the other hand, is it the sheer incompetence of those in power to meet these allegations the problem or that the Government wishes to keep the state of emergency forever? Or is it both. The Government has permitted the IMF in; now the US to review our labour laws; but not the EU, not the UN. Many years ago there were accusations (by the NGOs and the Tamil expat lobby fronting for the LTTE) that the Sri Lanka Army was recruiting child-soldiers. The UN special rapporteur Olara Otunnu was welcomed. There was backstage lobbying with Gracia Machelle in Mozambique. Mr. Otunnu gave a stinging report about LTTE child-soldiers and cleared the Sri Lanka Army once and for all.