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Sri Lanka’s constitution making process is in the doldrums

Informed sources told Express that Sirisena had asked the Steering Committee to draft a simplified report that members of the Constitutional Assembly could understand.

Published: 16th February 2017 04:29 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th February 2017 04:30 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

COLOMBO: The process of drafting a brand new constitution for Sri Lanka is in the doldrums though many steps had already been completed and the process was in the final stages early last month itself.

The six subcommittees on various subjects had submitted their reports based on the widest possible public consultations. The Steering Committee had considered these reports and drafted its own report which was to be presented to the Constitutional Assembly (comprising the current members of parliament).

But the Steering Committee’s report was not presented to the Constitutional Assembly on January 9 as planned.

This was because some of the Steering Committee members had raised objections regarding the contents of the report. It was then decided to redraft the report. That process is still on, though late last month, President Maithripala Sirisena tried to break the deadlock by meeting the main political groups in the country.

Informed sources told Express that Sirisena had asked the Steering Committee to draft a simplified report that members of the Constitutional Assembly could understand.

The real difficulty is posed by the fact that the main political forces in Sri Lanka are deeply divided over the basic features of any new constitution.

While the minority Tamil parties want a “federal” form of government with an extensive devolution of powers, the parties of the majority Sinhalese would have none of it. They want the present “unitary” structure to continue. While the Tamil parties want the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces to form a single Tamil-speaking province, the Sinhalese and the Muslims reject it. While the minority Tamils and Muslims want Sri Lanka to give equal status to all religions, the majority Sinhalese want Buddhism to be recognized as the “foremost” religion.

While the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), want the retention of the Presidential form of government with minor alterations, the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe want a Westminster-style parliamentary form of government.

While the UNP wants a brand new constitution, fundamentally different from the existing one, the SLFP (both the factions) want only a few amendments to the existing one. While the UNP feels that the constitution should go through a Referendum, the SLFP feels that the changes should not be so fundamental that a referendum has to be conducted.

It is not clear as to what the Steering Committee has recommended because its report is for the MPs’ eyes only, but it is likely to be too liberal for the major Sinhalese community.  

Though the sub-committees had not made any specific recommendations, they had stated the views of all sections. The general tone had been by and large liberal. For instance, they had said that the provinces should be given the right to tap foreign funds and that Law and Order (police powers) should be handed over to the provinces. These suggestions are unlikely to go down well with the majority Sinhalese community which is still apprehensive about the resurgence of Tamil separatism.

While wanting an altogether new constitution, the UNP is not in a hurry to bring it about given the complexity of the political situation. As Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said: “We believe in following the dictum Festina Lente (making haste slowly).”

The UNP is also wary about the outcome of a referendum and therefore wants to be cautious, Samaraweera, added.

Be that as it may, the worrying part is that the government has put on the back burner the task of setting up the war crimes accountability mechanisms including a judicial mechanism and a truth-seeking mechanism citing the need to have a new constitution first.

Samaraweera said that priority will be given to drafting a new constitution because the new constitution will be the ultimate guarantor of equality, justice, and non-recurrences of the ugly inter-ethnic incidents of the past.

But the Tamils are clamoring for justice here and now through credible judicial mechanisms. And the government has to show to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March, progress in the implementation of the jointly sponsored UNHRC resolution of September-October 2015.

Samaraweera said that Sri Lanka will show the progress made thus far and seek more time to complete the implementation of the resolution. Colombo is confident that the international community will accept this request from a Sri Lankan government which is friendly to the international community.

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