15th June 1997


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Recognising problems

Former Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed
is the longest serving legislator in the
world. An elected member of parliament
for 37 consecutive years, Mr. Hameed in
this interview discusses a wide range
of current issues with our correspondent.

Q: What is the impact on our political future taken up by communal parties?

A: Communal parties are bound to play a role in the politics of our country because the present District Constituency system is fertile soil for communal politics. Earlier under the single member constituency system people rallied round the party candidate and supported him irrespective of his race, religion, caste or colour. They were bound together by the philosophy of the political party. But now with the District Constituency political parties and their philosophy are not the main binding factor. The weight is on race, religion or caste. Under the earlier single member system, franchise was one of the greatest instruments we had for binding people together. Now the electoral system divides people and encourages voting on racial, religious and caste lines.

Q: The District Electoral System was introduced by your government, wasn’t it?

A: Yes. I argued vehemently against the District Constituency in the Cabinet. In fact, I asked what crime Sri Lanka has done to be punished in this manner.

I said that 50 years of achievement in the exercise of the franchise and the graduation of the people in voting for a political party eschewing race, religion and caste, would be reversed with the introduction of the District System. I maintained that this was putting the pendulum back by fifty years. But, unfortunately, I had no support in the Cabinet and among the backbenchers. We had been in power for many years and some of them felt that the District System was an escape from the captive constituency.

Q: What is your opinion on establishment of Regional Councils on racial lines?

A: Regional Councils are established with a view to devolving power and allowing people in the Provinces to manage their affairs as far as possible. Devolution of powers and functions from the centre to the periphery is a result of agitation for greater autonomy. This is a new trend which has gradually gathered momentum during the last 30 years in many countries. Minority ethnic groups normally are concentrated in a part of a country. They are beginning to rediscover their roots. They seek recognition for their language, culture and traditions. Even in developed countries this trend is present. We see the agitation in Scotland and Wales for greater autonomy and appreciation of their language and culture. Our Provincial boundaries have recognised already the distribution of certain population patterns. Therefore when we establish Regional Councils for them we are just recognising the present existing pattern. We are not establishing new boundaries and if new boundaries are to be established on communal lines that too must be examined whether it is absolutely necessary. I think the important thing is to recognise that we have certain problems and to find ways and means to resolving these problems so that our people could enjoy the benefits of economic growth which is fast taking place in the rest of the world.

Q: Has any country overcome ethnic difficulties and differences through economic growth in recent times?

A: I think Malaysia is a good example. I was there last month and I was able to see for myself the vast strides they have made. Malaysia is 55% Malay and 45% Chinese and has been home to bloody racial riots and confrontations. But with the present economic upsurge these divisive tendencies have disappeared. I went to Malaysia 31 years ago to study the working of their Control and Operations Room - an outfit to oversee all development projects in the country and to ensure that every Ministry kept to its targets. I submitted a Paper to Dudley Senanayake who was then Prime Minister on the Operations strategy and since then I have been to Malaysia a number of times, and today it is marching into the 21st Century with courage, hope and vision. Malaysia ‘s example is a beautiful story to demonstrate how really racial tendencies can be overcome if people have economic freedom. In a multiracial community when the economic cake is not big enough for everyone to share, then comparison begins and racialism has a joy ride.

Q: Is a Broadcasting Authority necessary, and did the UNP promote it?

A: The necessity for an independent Media commission was discussed extensively by the All Party Conference over which I presided for about 10 months. Minister Ashraff, Dr. Thiruchelvam and Mr. Choksy too participated in this debate. The Paper we prepared did not have some of the ugly features the ill-fated Broadcasting Authority Bill had. Our Report was referred by President Wijetunge to a Committee and Mr. Tyrone Fernando who was Minister of Information brought a Cabinet Paper based on the Committee’s Report. I objected to some of the provisions that were envisaged in the Cabinet Paper and Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe who was Prime Minister then requested Mr. Tyrone Fernando to withdraw the Cabinet Paper and refer it to the Prime Minister’s Sub Committee for consideration. I think Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe had a number of meetings but nothing was finalised because Parliament was dissolved. I believe some sort of Commission on Standards is necessary to ensure there is no racial, religious or political bias in the reporting. The first Broadcasting Authority Bill we have was passed in 1982, but now the electronic media is popular in the country. It seeks to be as current as the print media in reporting. Television has an immediate impact on the audience because people see it. A large number of our population do not read but watch Television and get appraised of various issues. The Rupavahini and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation do not respect political impartiality. What the government now seeks to do is to make the free electronic media to toe its line. What is required now is some authority to ensure that the Rupavahini and the SLBC and the free electronic media report in a fair balanced manner without political, racial or religious bias.

Q: What is your main objection to the aborted Bill?

A:. Personally for me I see the provision to license the media as a subtle measure to control its freedom. In many countries there is no licensing. If you take the United Kingdom, the licences are auctioned once in 5 years and anybody can tender. This does not mean that the highest bidder gets the licence automatically. Here again, a number of factors are considered. Specially about the winner’s ability to perform the task, whether he has organisational back-up to undertake such a huge responsibility. If we are to licence annually, no organisation then would want to invest huge amounts in training an army of personnel and in building up a suitable library.

Q: The Charter recommended by Government and Opposition MPs. What is your comment?

A: Yes, I have heard that MPs on both sides of the House are interested in having a Charter on free media. I have seen the request being signed and circulated. But I believe this can be done much more speedily if some of the government MPs who are firmly committed to a free media also would take it up with the government and ask for necessary action.

Q: Your comments on the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Bill?

A: We must be happy that today there is provision in our Constitution to challenge any Bill or any provision of a Bill that conflicts with the Constitution. This provision was introduced by the United National Party in 1978. This provision acts as a check on governments rushing through hasty legislation. There is always the possibility in a Parliamentary system of government for the ruling party to bring bills sometimes to deal with particular situations. Earlier we had the Senate which was able to at least debate a Bill in a calmer climate. It used to be said that when Bills go from Parliament to the Senate or Upper House that it is a Bill from "Philip Drunk to Philip Sober".

The 1972 Republican Constitution had shortcomings and in the 1978 Constitution we tried as far as possible to rectify such situations and this provision is one of them. From 1978 to 1996, seven Bills have been required to be passed with a Special Majority and nine Bills had been required to be passed with a Special Majority and be endorsed by a Referendum. Out of these only on one occasion a Referendum has been held and that is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which provided for the extension of the life of Parliament. Parliamentary decision was endorsed by the Referendum. On all other occasions a Referendum was not held.

The government can always bring another Bill and we would always challenge it if we found that there are provisions in the Bill which makes serious encroachments to media freedom, but I am sure the government will not want to face another disaster. If the government brings a new Bill we could certainly consider it.

Q: What was the procedure followed before the 1978 Constitution?

A: The Republican Constitution of 1972 provided for a Constitutional Court. The President appointed a panel of 5 Judges and 3 constituted the Court to hear objections to any proposed legislation.

Q: What are the other main shortcomings in the Republican Constitution that were rectified by the 1978 Constitution?

A: There was no provision to debate the Emergency in the 1972 Constitution. Emergency was declared and Parliament had no power to debate it. This was a serious shortcoming. There would be always excesses during an Emergency as there have been. If Parliament cannot debate, then excesses and abuses go unchallenged and emergency becomes almost a dictatorship. People just become helpless and voiceless.

The 1978 Constitution provided for the emergency to be debated every month and passed by Parliament. This is one of the surest ways of safeguarding against a government making use of the dictatorship to put out the lights of democracy. Today as you notice, various abuses and excesses are raised during the emergency debate, and these criticisms apply as a check on those who exercise power. Furthermore, another great safeguard this provision provides is that if a government turns dictator, it cannot continue without summoning Parliament. This provision is a fortress against any attempt to establish a dictatorship.

The other main shortcoming in the Republican Constitution was that Fundamental rights were not justiciable. The Constitution spelt out Fundamental Rights in the most impressive and flowery language - and that was about all - because Fundamental Rights were not justiciable. You could see after 1978 the number of cases that have gone before the Supreme Court for violations of Fundamental Rights. This provision is another great safeguard. The State, however powerful it may be, cannot take the law into its own hands. The Supreme Court can provide relief to citizens whose rights are violated.

Q: The accord brokered by Liam Fox. Will the Labour Government take it forward?

A: The agreement brokered by the Conservative Government was welcome but now we have to wait and watch whether Labour would take this initiative forward. Labour has its own problems with Northern Ireland. They are committed to finding a speedy political solution. There the problem is much more delicate and difficult. These arise because the Protestants want to be with UK and the Catholics want to join Ireland. Therefore, they would be sympathetic to our situation, but we cannot expect them to give their immediate attention. It is a new govemment and they have certain urgent measures to be carried through. But personally I believe that our leaders in the government and the opposition should be able to talk to one another on national issues without having to bring in a third country to make them talk. The whole thing looks a bit funny. Why do we need a third party country to make the President and the Leader of the Opposition talk to one another. In the past our political leadership have acted with vision and courage. Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike consulted Hon. Dudley Senanayake when she was negotiating the Srima- Shastri Pact. President Jayewardene invited all political parties to the All Party Conference. President Premadasa had a number of discussions with the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of other political parties present in Parliament during the dark days of the insurgency. A democracy functions well when there is confrontation and compromise. If it is confrontation all the way then democracy loses its usefulness and if it is compromise all the way democracy goes to sleep.

Q: Is the economic performance due to poor management?

A: A government is expected to manage the affairs of a country and to do so in a professional manner. The concept, attitude and outlook of governments have changed drastically during the last 10 years. Governments are losing their past roles of governing and are distancing themselves from managing economic ventures. The current thinking in Washington and all over the world today is that a government must provide the freedom and security and a pragmatic governance, besides making provision for appropriate policies and programmes for development. There are areas where the government has shown results and I don’t say that the government has been unable to achieve anything on the economic front - that would be an unfair statement. But the snail like movement of the economy and the absence of a dominant sense of growth are marked. Unemployment figures are high. The cost of living is completely out of control. The share market has still to demonstrate investor confidence. In my long Parliamentary career I always judged the performance of the economy when I went down to Harispattuwa - my parliamentary constituency - from what the common people said in our discussions. It is also true that you could have a sound economy and a section of the society enjoys the fruits of that economic growth, while a large section of the society faces untold hardship. This scenario is very visible. The rich have grown richer and the poor are growing poorer. If one of course is to judge from some of the palatial buildings that are coming up in various parts of Colombo, and from the never ending fleet of cars, vans and other vehicles that are streaming into the capital in the early hours of the morning, then, of course, one could say that we live in a very prosperous country. If the school vans that come into the cities are owned by the children travelling in them, then certainly we enjoy economic prosperity. But the fact is that 20-30 children are travelling in a hiring van. Our school going children are dressed well and the parents in our country undergo the worst of hardship to provide the children with all the basic facilities so that they could pursue their education. Those who live on monthly wages could hardly save anything. This fact is seen from the fact that the retail trade is absolutely poor. The Retail market is active when people have some funds to spare so that they could do shopping. When a farmer goes into his field in the evening he looks at the movement of birds and the chirping of insects and the clouds in the sky and says it would rain that night, but the Observatory says that there would be winds and no rain. But, it rains at night and the farmer is right. I am guided by the common man’s reactions and response to the economic situation.

There is a gap between our attitude towards economic programmes and progress and postures and positions taken up by the government. The government is still to impress upon local and foreign investors that investments are safe. Strikes have become a common feature and strikes alarm investors. The difference between the UNP and the PA as far as the open economy is concerned is in nuances, and nuances in economics and diplomacy influence final conclusions. Unfortunately, the government does not accept this reality.

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