By Chathuri Dissanayake
The political interests of opposing parties prevented the country from adopting a new Constitution, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga said, claiming that previous attempts were botched by the United National Party for political gain.
“What Ranil Wickremesinghe rejected then is what he is trying to bring about now. He opposed the constitutional changes then as he was afraid that our party would come to power again,” claimed Kumaratunga, who is the Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR).
Drawing on her experience in attempting to introduce constitutional reforms during her time as President, she said it was political interests that caused the then Opposition of the United National Party led by Ranil Wickremesinghe to reject the proposed changes.
“Finally I took the lead in bringing them to power, making him Prime Minister. I made another person the President. They, including the leadership, now say that they should have supported the move then.”
Kumaratunga was also critical of the growing extremism in the country despite efforts to bring about reconciliation among communities. ONUR launched a number of activities to facilitate understanding among communities during Reconciliation Week, which is being held during the second week of January 2017 and was declared by the Government for the first time in the country’s history. Despite these efforts Kumaratunga said that extremism had once again arisen.
“Politicians are the ones who have given rise to racism throughout the country’s history for political gains. However, now even Buddhist monks are engaged in it. But it’s mostly used as a mechanism by politicians to gain votes,” she said.
Taking direct aim at her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa, she said that in the current political climate there was a former president engaged in spreading extremism. However, she praised President Maithripala Sirisena for never using racism for political gain.
Kumaratunga was also critical of the Justice Minister’s comments over the report by the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms. A recommendation to establish hybrid courts with the participation of foreign parties in addressing war crimes was made by the Consultation Task Force, which presented their report last week. The recommendation was met with much criticism from different quarters. The Justice Minister rejected the recommendations made saying that there was no need for such a mechanism.
She claimed that “he had no right to make such a statement” as Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was part of the Cabinet which appointed the group.
“He was in that Cabinet, so if he didn’t agree he should have told them. So obviously he doesn’t believe in freedom. Civil society was given the task of consulting the public and telling the Government freely what they said,” Kumaratunga stated.
Kumaratunga was quick to establish the credibility of the task force which has come under scrutiny since the presentation of their report, highlighting that the group was made up of “representatives of some of the strongest Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and professionals in the country.”
She explained that the consultation task force was appointed by the Cabinet to obtain the opinion of the public on several issues including constitutional changes, how the Government should deal with war crimes and missing persons.
However, she said the task force did not have the mandate to give recommendations.
“What was required from them was to obtain the opinion of the people on the nature of the solutions demanded by the public. They were not mandated with analysing the opinions and giving recommendations or solutions.”
Despite the technicality, the Government will consider the recommendations given “but are not bound to implement those recommendations” Kumaratunga pointed out.
“The Government will take the recommendations into consideration and implement those that can be implemented, and the others will be disregarded,” she said.
The Government will consider the stand of civil society, “have extensive discussions” and decide on a suitable system to address the issues at hand.
If a special court is appointed regarding war crimes, these opinions can be considered, she explained, adding that there was also a suggestion to bring in foreign observers.
ONUR and UGC partner to promote reconciliation in universities
The Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced the commencement of a joint program focusing on promoting national unity and reconciliation through higher education, at a press conference held in Colombo yesterday with the patronage of Chairperson former president Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The program, which was launched to coincide with the first National Reconciliation Week, will cover selected state universities and established higher educational institutes across the country where a pilot program will be carried out for a period of one year to promote events and activities within the universities with the participation of academic, support staff and students to appreciate, respect and celebrate the diverse society that is Sri Lanka.
A course module will also be introduced through the University Grants Commission into the university system, which will cover thematic areas related to Reconciliation, Peace Building and Conflict Transformation.