PM to steer the way in struggle for new Constitution | Daily News
[On My watch]

PM to steer the way in struggle for new Constitution

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with President Maithripala Sirisena

January 9 has a new significance in Sri Lanka's political process, being the day the Parliamentary process was initiated to form a Constitutional Assembly of the entire House to draft a new Constitution for this country.

The opinions expressed by political parties, since the resolution for the Constitutional Assembly was moved by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on January 9, and the delays in adoption of the resolution, with amendments, shows it is smooth sailing in the context of underlying and emerging disagreements on aspects of the content of the new Constitution.

What is being unraveled are differences that exist, and are being encouraged, especially on the lines of ethnicity and religion, that will impact on the constitution drafting process. There is a clear necessity to cut through what may be major obstacles ahead in bringing about unity of thinking among the public, and commitment to the process of having a truly democratic constitution, which will be the core political instrument for national unity and progress in the development process of the country.

President Maithripala Sirisena in his statement to Parliament on January 9 calling for constitutional change, made important observations on the task before Parliament and the people today. He reminded the House it was time to bring about reconciliation and build trust among citizens of the country, as failure to do so in the past led to much bloodshed and bitterness in the decades after independence.

Two trends

He identified two trends of political thinking that have divided the people of the South and North, requiring reflection upon, as the process of constitution drafting moves ahead. He stressed the need to reflect on past experiences, in the new efforts at bringing the people of the North and South together, recognizing that people of the South were afraid of the concept of the word "federal" while those in the north similarly feared the word "unitary".

The President recognized that extremists, both in the North and South, are already exploiting these words to their advantage, with no concern for its impact on national unity, and criticized the commitment by some to spread blatant falsehoods and create unrest in the country, to achieve political aims that are different to the goals of the wider population, seen in what they voted for on January 8, and August 17 last year.

Meeting journalists at his Paget Road residence on January 3, President Sirisena showed a good understanding of political history in the post-independence period, especially on the ethnic issue. He saw the advantages in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact signed in July 1957, to establish Regional Councils, and the later Dudley-Chelva Pact of March 1965, which included special provisions for the Tamil Language. The rejection of both these pacts, with campaigning by political extremists on both sides of the divide, especially by those in the UNP in the first instance and the SLFP in the latter case, and the influence of Tamil extremism against both, were seen as developments that led to the serious confrontations that ensued later, causing major divisions in the country. What the President and Prime Minister search for in moves for a new constitution, is to transcend those major pitfalls, and create new political thinking against a new launch pad for extremists in any part of the country.

That this is no easy task, is evident from the propaganda already being spread about he so-called dangers of the new constitution, the loud proclamations about not allowing any change in the "unitary" status of the State, and the rising tide against the possibility of the emergence of a Secular State, with a strong line up of forces in defence of the special provisions for Buddhism coming from the 1972 Constitution.

The necessity

What emerges as the strongest necessity in this context, is maintaining unity based on political principles between the UNP and the SLFP, in the consensual government of today, with more emphasis on political understanding and less on the individual strength or impact that either party wields among the public. It is in this context that the issue of the political leadership of the SLFP, becomes a matter of continuing importance, especially with key ministers from the SLFP stating their inability to work with the UNP.

Although somewhat pushed to the background in the current context, the position of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa forces will be of increased importance in the period ahead, as the debate on the new constitution gets stronger and louder, and communal and religious extremism is pushed forward by the forces that remain opposed to the people's verdict of January 8. These are strengthened by the very slow progress by Government in carrying out pledges on the fight against fraud, corruption and crime that rooted and branched out under the Executive Presidency, especially under the Rajapaksa Regime.

The noticeable isolation of MR from the Joint Opposition brings in a new reality to the politics of opposition in the country, with those left behind having to use more of communal and religious extremism for political survival, while the Rajapaksa policies of desperation, in the context of corruption charges, will seek a new impact of the internal politics of the SLFP, also through appeal to the same nationally divisive strategies.

In the context of an unlikely majority of genuine conviction and political understanding in the Constitutional Assembly of the entire Parliament, continuing the consensus government, with all its strains, gains more importance, if the main goals of constitutional change are to be met, and not a mix of piecemeal changes going nowhere near the pledges made in the manifesto of the Common Candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, for January 8. Realizing these goals remain the major struggle, both of the UNP and those of the SLFP in coalition with it, and the organizations of civil society that saw the success of January 8.

Judicial freedom

Amidst the moves for constitutional change and growing discontent about the retreat on pledges against corruption, there are causes of satisfaction today, especially on the Independence of the Judiciary. First time in our history of governance, an ex- Supreme Court Judge, Sarath de Abrew, has come before courts as accused on charges of sexually abusing and assaulting his domestic aide, and released on bail. Mr. de Abrew had black marks before his appointment to the Court of Appeal, which was part of the MR tradition on judicial manoeuvre. The Supreme Court's rejection of de Abrew's appeal, that the Attorney General had exceeded power in bringing charges against him, was the most welcome demonstration of the freedom and independence of the Judiciary today.

Even with signs of political manipulation, the delayed arrest of MP Hirunika Premachandra on January 9, her appearance in Court, and release on bail, is also a welcome sign of judicial independence, and hopefully of better days ahead with speed in the arrest of politicians, who are part of government. The refusal of the Colombo Additional Magistrate to release Hirunika's Defender vehicle, allegedly used in the incident of abduction, she is accused of, is a further sign of the strength and freedom of the lower judiciary, too.

Similarly, the Homagama Magistrate's order for the Army to give fullest cooperation to the probe into the suspicious disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, with the warning that the Army Commander would be liable to face legal action under the Penal Code on failure to cooperate with the CID in their investigations, is also a high point in judicial independence, this time relating to a high office in the Armed Services, unimaginable in the Rajapaksa days.

These are major departures from the regretful state of the judiciary that was highlighted with the hasty and illegal moves in Parliament to remove the former Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, and the appointment of the much discoloured name in the field of law, Mohan Peiris, as CJ to succeed her. It is noteworthy that among the first major decisions of the Good Governance after January 8, was the removal of Mohan Peiris on the basis of improper appointment, and the restoration of Justice Shirani Bandaranayake to the office she was forced to leave.

It is of significance that many in the present government, and in today's Parliament, were participants in the removal of Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, and manipulation of the judiciary, and are now compelled to silently regurgitate the dirty politics for they raised their hands, under a contemptible executive presidency.

Apart from race and religion taunted against the new constitutional process, this revival of judicial independence should strengthen the call for constitutional change as the debate proceeds. Such restoration also helps push the government towards faster action against fraud and corruption.

At this historic stage in politics, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will have a tough and truly historic role in steering the constitutional reform process through the Constitutional Assembly of the whole House, amidst the battle lines drawn, and those to come, in the struggle for a new Constitution of true democracy and national unity. 


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