The debate on constitutional reform is warming up daily. Opinions are expressed challenging not only the feasibility but also the usefulness of the whole project. In local parlance it is asked Vyavastaava kannada? (Of what earthly use is the Constitution?) This loudly asked aggressive question is not a result of ignorance on the part of most of those who raise it. In fact some of them have been agitating for a new Constitution for decades and have been even architects of draft proposals for Constitutional reform earlier.
Hence, one could fairly conclude that this question is raised not out of ignorance but on opportunist political grounds to capitalise on the ignorance or lack of knowledge of the masses on the legal and political intricacies of constitution making. It is an attempt to preserve the present Constitution with all its obnoxious and anti-democratic features that could take the country towards a constitutional dictatorship.
The intent behind these attempts is to distract attention of the masses from fundamental problems of democracy and good governance and tie them to economic demands for better living conditions. True, food, clothing and shelter are prime requisites of human life. But man does not live by bread alone. On the other hand, issues of democracy, including constitutional reform and material requirements of living are not wide apart or unrelated. They are intrinsically related and react upon one another.
It is economic development that could provide better living conditions. However, such development requires a relatively peaceful and stable environment. Such an environment depends heavily on political stability which could be guaranteed on the basis of national unity. For example, ethnic disharmony and conflict as we experienced for a larger part of the post-independence era was an impediment on development. It is almost universally agreed that countries in our region that were far behind Sri Lanka economically at the time of independence had moved faster and ahead of us during the last six decades.
Disunity is a by-product of discrimination. It is a result of unjust and unequal treatment. Hence democracy itself is a sine qua non for rapid economic development. Though dictatorships could improve material conditions they inevitably lead to violent clashes resulting in loss of material and human wealth.
We have already experienced the trials and tribulations of autocratic rule during the last regime. It also lowered our standing among the international community. Any reversion to that state would deprive us the much needed international cooperation (partnership in the international division of labour) that is required for rapid development.
In the present age human rights has also become an international concern. Hence, it would be suicidal to dismiss international calls for transitional justice to victims of war as threats to our sovereignty engaging in pseudo-patriotic demagogy and challenge the world.
Let us see why we need a new Constitution instead of amending the existing one. There are several good reasons for it.
We have had three Constitutions so far. The First was drafted by the colonial master and it granted Dominion Status to the country. This it fell short of full independence as it retained the allegiance to the British Crown and continued to have air and naval bases on our territory. The Second was the Republican Constitution of 1972. It was passed without the consent of the Tamil community and was therefore partisan. The Third is the existing Constitution that was passed in 1978 with minimal public discussion. It was imposed on the people just like the First one. The undesirability of it was shown by constant revision. Already 19 Amendments have been added to it. Almost all of them excluding the 17th and the 9th had been limitations of people's democratic rights and concentration of power in the hands of the Executive President.
The 18th Amendment was the worst. It pushed the country into the lap of an autocrat who subjugated both the Legislature and the Judiciary to the Executive. The tendency towards autocracy is inherent in the nature of Executive Presidency in our Constitution. Hence it is not just a subjective nature of the individual that holds office that is the malady. Almost four decades under this system has convincingly proved the truth of this statement. Then why should this Constitution be maintained? Today even those who brought in the system are opposed to it having experienced its negative results.
There is little doubt that those who want to retain it have an interest in resurrecting or perpetuating the crony capitalism with tribal features that existed under the last regime. No wonder the ex-President and a group of politicians round him are in the forefront of the struggle against a new Constitution. Their main strategy is to arouse communal feelings and intimidate the ethnic majority into believing their wellbeing is being threatened by the minorities aligned with international forces who want to subjugate our country.
At two consecutive elections the people have vetoed a return to the past. Their mandate is definitely for building a modern State with broad democratic values and establish yahapalanaya (good governance). The process which began in 2015 since January 8th should go on gathering fresh momentum. It is to realize this need of the people that a new Constitution is necessary.
The Opposition's criticism of the Constitution yet to be drafted is based on their suspicions of what it may contain rather than any actual evidence. The latter obviously does not exist as it has not even reached the stage of a Parliamentary proposal to draft and approve a new Constitution. Ironically among this group of protestors against imaginary features of a new Constitution is a much acclaimed legal luminary who some years ago proposed after much deliberation the very same features that he stands against at present. May be the poor individual is having hallucinations!
A new Constitution cannot be a partial exercise as it happened in 1972 and 1978. Nor should it be imposed from above. It must follow the procedures in the existing Constitution. Hence a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approval of the people at a Referendum are mandatory.
No one is suggesting to do away with these mandatory procedure. There is no alternative to dialogue, discussion and reaching the maximum possible consensus. A new Constitution is an imperative of the time we live.