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3rd October 1999

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Constitution close to the heart of people

By Mallika Wanigasundara

The National Joint Committee has organised a seminar for Saturday, October 9 at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute to discuss the Constitutional proposals presented by the Sinhala Commission. Representatives of a large number of political parties have been invited to participate. Among them are the PA, the UNP, the MEP and almost all minority Tamil parties.

They include Minister of Justice G. L. Peiris, Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickemesinghe, Dinesh Gunawardene (MEP), R. Sambandan (TULF), S. Thondaman (CWC), Douglas Devananda (EPDP) and leaders of other Tamil parties including N. Sri Kanth, D. Sridarthan, and K. Premachandran.

"It is upto these participants to criticise these proposals and help the government to draft a constitution suitable for this country," said Secretary NJC, Dr. Piyasena Dissanayake.

Among the distinguished invitees are a former judge of the Supreme Court, leading constitutional experts and political commentators, some of whom will make special addresses. Participants can speak either in Sinhala or English.

"Constitutional proposals presented by both the Government and the Opposition are purely political in aim, satisfying narrow political purposes, and often selfishly fashioned for political gain," said Dr. Dissanayake. "It has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that if the task of Constitution making is left to political parties alone, the product would not be in the interest of the nation," he added.

"President Chandrika Kumaratunga has said that the Sinhala organisations criticise the government's proposals but never make any alternate proposals. The Sinhala Commission took up this challenge, and drafted the present set of proposals which they think is suitable for this country", Dr Dissanayake said.

"We have taken into account the history, cultural background, and aspirations of the average citizen of this country. We have paid special attention to the political ethos of the people, which has stood the test of time, and made possible a contented life until the arrival of the colonial powers."

"It is the view of the Sinhala Commission and those in sympathy with it, that a constitution to be meaningful has to be close to the hearts of the people, their needs and it should be in consonance with their pulse. A constitution cannot work if the majority of people are opposed to it."

"What our rulers have been doing since Independence is to borrow blindly western models, which are for the most part alien to the thinking of the vast mass of people," Dr. Dissanayake said.

It is now quite clear that constitutions have to evolve out of the traditions and experience of a people for them to be a success. We have made some valuable suggestions, and it is upto the participants to make use of this opportunity to evaluate the proposals."

Among the proposals are the following:

1. The country should adopt a modified version of the Committee system of governance, which existed under the Donoughmore system. It had to be adapted to meet modern needs and aspirations.

The Sinhala Commission thinks that the party system which has led to futile confrontational politics should be eventually abandoned. This, it believes cannot happen overnight, but eventually will. It would lead to governance free of confrontation and for the common good. Members of Parliament would have the opportunity to play a more effective role in government, according to their consciences, despite party affiliations.

"We are encouraged by the fact that our proposals have received approval from many quarters, in some instances unexpected. The late Neelan Tiruchelvam, Minister A. H. M. Ashraff and Rauf Hakeem, Deputy Chairman of Committees have expressed their approval of this recommendation," Dr. Dissanayake said.

2. Commissions should be appointed for decision-making on matters such as Defence, Foreign Affairs, economic policies, cultural affairs etc.

3. The President should not be an all-powerful Executive President. Nor should he/she be a ceremonial figurehead. He/she should have restricted functions. The President should be elected from among nominees outside Parliament by a majority in Parliament, for a single term only of six years.

4. There should be a Public Service and Police Commissions and an independent Elections Commission. Their members should be appointed by the President, but with the prior approval of Parliament.

5. A Code of Conduct for Ministers, politicians and public servants should be incorporated into the constitution.

6. Appointment of a Commission to which citizens could make complaints on abuse and misuse of power.

7. Ordinary litigants have to make two appeals - first to the Appeal Court and then to the Supreme Court. Only businessmen are exempted from making two appeals, and this is discriminatory. The Appeal Court should be abolished and all citizens be allowed to make appeals only to the Supreme Court.

8. International Treaties and agreements should not have automatic application. They should be implemented only after approval by Parliament.

9. A National Planning Commission should be set up and an overall National Plan drawn up.

10. The Proportional Representational system should be replaced by the first-past-the-post system, with modifications.

The following are the members of the Sinhala Commission"

S W Walpita (Chairman), A. D. T. M. P. Tennakone, Prof. A. V. de S. Indraratne, P D Uduwela, Prof. (Ms) Lily de Silva, and Professor P. A. de Silva..

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