The draft Interim Report of the Steering Committee (SC) of the Constitutional Assembly (CA), was taken up for debate this week. Many MPs participated in the 5-day debate, which ends on Nov.8. Following are excerpts of some of the speeches. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: This is another step the Govt of national unity is taking, [...]


Big guns fire, seeking middle ground on a new constitution

Constitutional Assembly debate on the interim reports

The draft Interim Report of the Steering Committee (SC) of the Constitutional Assembly (CA), was taken up for debate this week. Many MPs participated in the 5-day debate, which ends on Nov.8.

Following are excerpts of some of the speeches.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe:
This is another step the Govt of national unity is taking, to fulfil the promise made in January 2015 to bring about a new Constitution for the country. What is anticipated is the introduction of a new Constitution that would enable all Sri Lanka to live in unity and equality, putting aside ethnic, religious, and class differences.

We must use this opportunity to broaden democracy and bring about stability to the country. This is a historic opportunity for the country
The SC appointed 6 Subcommittees to make recommendations in the areas of Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Finance, Law and Order, Public Service and Centre-Periphery Relations. The subjects that did not come under the purview of those Subcommittees were taken by the SC. We have taken the initiative and made some progress in the process of making the new Constitution. We did it with the consent of all parties in Parliament.

The SC’s Interim Report being debated is based on recommendations from various parties. This is not a draft for a new Constitution. There are various suggestions, alternate views and recommendations included in the Report. We have provided opportunity for each and every MP to express his/her views on this Report.

We intend to discuss this with the Mahanayake Theras and other religious leaders. This should also be thoroughly discussed in the public domain. This process would go on till the next Sinhala New Year. Thereafter, we would discuss this as parties again. We would take into consideration the opinions of the general public. Only after that, the draft agreed by all parties would be presented to the CA again, and if it is not approved, this CA too would be dissolved. If it passes with a simple majority, it would be presented in Parliament. If it passes with a two-third majority, then it would be presented to the Cabinet of Ministers. Only after that, the final draft would be presented in Parliament again. On that occasion, a decision with regard to the new Constitution could be taken. If need be, we could go for a referendum. This cannot be done in haste. We need to discuss these matters at length. For the first time, all parties have come together. They may have diverse opinions and views, but they are here together for a common task. That is what is important.

We should make use of this opportunity to go forward. Going forward does not mean we would agree with every recommendation. We could iron out differences through discussions.

Leader of the Opposition & Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Rajavarothiam Sampanthan:

This is a very important debate, a historic debate. Our first Constitution was the Soulbury Constitution enacted by the British, under which we obtained independence.

The second Constitution was the 1972 Constitution, the first Republican Constitution. The third Constitution was the second Republican Constitution in 1978. These latter two Constitutions were enacted by the party and the Govt in power, and not on the basis of a consensus.

The current process is based on a Resolution of Parliament; Parliament has been converted into a CA; there is a Committee of the whole Parliament; there is an SC comprising MPs of all political parties; there have been 6 multi-party Subcommittees appointed, which have submitted their reports; a team of experts have assisted the process. There have been public consultations and public representations have been received. All these have taken place. There is a marked difference between the procedures being adopted now and the procedures which prevailed when the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions were enacted. All this takes place almost 40 years after the enactment of the second Republican Constitution. All these steps add to the credibility and the legitimacy of the process.

After wide consultation and consensus, the Constitution will have to be enacted and adopted by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and approved by the people at a Referendum. It will reflect the exercise of the sovereignty of the people, by the people to the fullest degree. The supreme law of the land would have been made by the people and would command the respect and recognition of all the people; its credibility and legitimacy shall be unassailable.

It is for the first time in the history of this country that such an exercise is being undertaken, the totality of the people being involved. The Constitution, the supreme law of the country, will be framed so as to ensure and guarantee an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka, belonging to all the people of Sri Lanka. This Constitution is being made to ensure that the country remains undivided and indivisible for all time, and that the country proceeds on a path of development and progress. The objective of the Constitution is to create a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka, so as to achieve its fullest potential for the benefit of all the people in the country.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multilingual plural society. The proposals envisage that Democracy and the Franchise co-exist in harmony without distortion and that, pluralism receives meaningful respect and recognition.

Hambantota District MP & former President Mahinda Rajapaksa:

We are taking up this debate for discussion at a time when the country is facing many issues. The elections to Provincial Councils have been postponed, the high cost of living is spiraling out of control and there are various other issues. The process of framing a new Constitution began about 20 months ago. We joined this process with a genuine interest. It was my Govt that brought about the greatest contribution to bring stability and development in the north, and we began the process to bring about a political settlement to this issue. We came forward with honesty. It is the United National Party (UNP) that has not been honest in its dealings. When former President Chandrika Kumaratunga brought a new Constitution, the UNP set it on fire inside this Chamber. We have not done any such things. We have not behaved in this manner. When the proposals of all the parties were being sought, we also participated in the process. We did have our suspicions about the process, but we still participated in it.

The new Govt gave an undertaking to abolish the Executive Presidency and brought in the 19th Amendment. I think the people can see the dishonesty in this Govt also. It is disappointing that many of our proposals are not included in the SC Report. I have been looking at the manner in which the debate is being conducted. All those who claim to be from the Govt and the Opposition are all those who conspired to bring about the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Govt, but the real Opposition which is the Joint Opposition (JO) Group MPs, has not been given an equal opportunity.

Today, instead of building relations between people of all communities, this process is driving wedges between the various communities, not only on ethnic basis, but also on religious basis. We must pay attention to these issues. The aim of enacting a new Constitution should be to bring about unity among all communities, not more divisions. Another question is, did this Govt seek a mandate to bring about a new Constitution? No. It did not. When Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike brought the 1972 Constitution, she asked for a mandate from the people at the election held in 1970, and so did President J.R. Jayewardene in 1977. What the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Govt promised was to abolish the Executive Presidency, not to bring in a new Constitution. There are conflicting views before the people now. What is being told to the people is one thing and what is being done now is another thing.

JVP Leader & Chief Opposition Whip Parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake:

The JVP does not believe all the country’s ills will disappear just because a new Constitution is enacted, but we believe it will go some way to bring about equality and social justice in the country. More than the debate inside this House, this process is being dissected outside Parliament. We can see that those who lost power are using this to create hatred and misunderstanding with half-truths. Despite the roar outside, there is only a whimper inside this House by those who are trying to make political mileage out of this.

It is difficult to think, at a time when people have lost faith in the Govt to govern the country properly, they would have faith in the Constitutional-making process it has set in motion. If a Govt that came to power with promises to end corruption, but does not punish the corrupt, a Govt that came to power to safeguard democracy, cracks down on people who protest peacefully, if students are being arrested, then, how can people keep faith in the process. It’s also ironic that, those who today say that President Maithripala Sirisena did not get a mandate to do away with the Executive Presidency, are the very people who worked against him in that election.

There is a common public belief that there must be a new Constitution, and the Govt is duty-bound to listen to them. There is no question, the country does need a new Constitution, The UNP, as usual, is playing ball with this and using this as a ploy to get a feel of the public mood. At least on this issue, the UNP must take a firm stand.

One thing we must realise is that, this process is a great step forward for democracy in the country. This is a very inclusive process. There are several levels of discussion and debate. Unfortunately, some have misrepresented facts and misled people to believe that this debate is being held to pass a new Constitution.

Minister of Transport and Aviation Nimal Siripala De Silva:

We have had several Constitution-making processes in the country, but not had a broad discussion and national consensus on any of them. This time we have taken the first step to building such a consensus. We have asked all political parties to send in their proposals and, in keeping with that, all the parties sent their proposals. This is the initial framework for us to discuss and nothing has been finalized. Some claim that a new Constitution has already been drafted.

This is wrong. There are many opinions on this. Some say there is no need for a new Constitution; others say we need a new one. In President Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto, he said he would not touch any Constitutional Article that could be changed only with the approval at a referendum. What he said in the manifesto is the position of the SLFP.

We must realise that, if we go for a referendum, it will not be on the Constitution, but on the cost of living and SAITM and all kinds of other issues, which means we can lose the referendum. The President has put forward a well thought out manifesto. We in the SLFP have always asked for the electoral system to be changed and those measures have been taken by now. The two important things are devolution of power and we all need to come to a consensus on this. This something we cannot put off any longer. I am someone who was in former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. At that time President Rajapaksa agreed to 13 plus 1. The SLFPs position under this President is also the same. We have scaled down the powers of the President under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Why do we need a presidential system? It is needed to ensure stability in the country. I looked at the proposals of a lot of minority parties and they are all of the view that there must be a President directly elected by the people. The SLFP is not a racist party. We are a party that respects and safeguards all people of this country.

Minister of Megapolis Patalai Champika Ranawaka

Today, all 225 MPs have agreed to work towards a new Constitution. We have had 3 Constitutions before this, but none of them had worked for a broad consensus in this manner. Hence, we can be happy that such an endeavour is being made now. We must also ensure that, if a new Constitution is framed, it must get the support of the majority of the Sinhalese as well as the Tamil people of this country. The Jathika Hela Urumaya that I represent was part of the Constitution-making process, and we have given our proposals to the CA. We have to ensure both stability of the State as well as democracy. We have to strike a balance between stability and democracy. We are for the unitary status of this country, and it is a feature that has been guaranteed from the Soulbury Constitution onwards.

Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply & Drainage, Rauff Hakeem:

I must congratulate the SC for the work it has done and presenting a Report which, to some extent, has managed to bridge the polarised positions among various parties. What is unique in this effort is that, for the first time, the Prime Minister himself is giving committed leadership towards preparing a new Constitution to our country, with the bipartisan participation of all parties. We have given sufficient space for parties not represented in Parliament, as well as civil society groups to make representations, and many shades of opinions have emerged. There is much hope, but it is not going to be an easy task, and will need greater commitment.

Leader of the Joint Opposition Group MP Dinesh Gunawardena:

We are not in agreement with many of the contents of the SC Report and I feel there hasn’t been a broad consensus among the people.

The public does not mean a few people with vested interests or NGOs. We must stick to the unitary status of the country and we cannot have different meanings in different languages on the nature of the State. We will also not allow the foremost place given to Buddhism to be tampered with. We believe in Parliamentary democracy and we will bring forward our proposals. This Govt talks of democracy, but is denying the people the right to exercise their vote. The JO Group represents 54 MPs, but we have been denied proper representation.

Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera:

From whatever angle you look at it, the most burning issue in this country is the ethnic problem. We have an opportunity that the country cannot afford to miss. This moment in history is one we cannot and should not miss. We are all people who are elected by the people of this great country. All the citizens of this country desire a few fundamental things, even extremists, irrespective of which part of the country they live. These include lasting and sustainable peace and to call this land their home, and to be considered by the State as valued citizens, equally. They all long for equal citizenship, dignity and respect, for economic prosperity, equal protection of the law, and none of them want to see the country divided and embroiled in conflict. It has always been the poorest of the poor who have suffered the most in conflicts that the country has experienced in the past 70 years. At least on the 70th anniversary of our independence, we must be able to turn a new page.

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