By Dharisha Bastians
A new constitution would be Sri Lanka’s most “potent weapon” against preventing a return to violent conflict, Minister Mangala Samaraweera told the Foreign Correspondents Association on Tuesday night.
As fears abound about a deadlock in ongoing constitutional negotiations, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera yesterday struck an optimistic note, expressing confidence that the Government could contest and win support for a new constitution in a referendum.
“A referendum is a risk – but I think it’s a risk worth taking,” Minister Samaraweera told the Foreign Correspondents’ Association on Tuesday night.
He admitted that some sections of the National Unity Government had serious concerns about putting the constitutional proposals to an electoral test, especially after the results of Brexit and the referendums in Italy and Columbia.
But the Foreign Minister, who says he has been accused of being “wildly optimistic” about Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process, expressed confidence that the Government could win the support of the SLFP and the JVP.
“We are very confident of getting the two-thirds majority in Parliament needed to pass the constitution. And with the right campaign, I believe the referendum can also be won,” the Minister told Colombo-based foreign correspondents at his official residence in Stanmore Crescent.
Two years into Government, sections of the disparate January 2015 coalition were scattered, with some of them nursing minor grievances at the moment, he explained.
“But once the constitutional dialogue resumes, the January 8 coalition that brought us to power will rally around the Government again,” the Foreign Minister said, explaining how the Government could swing a referendum on the constitution.
Minister Samaraweera told foreign correspondents that he would be going to Geneva at the end of February to attend the UN Human Rights Council session and commit to going ahead with the implementation of the UNHRC resolution calling for reconciliation and justice in Sri Lanka as planned. “Obviously we need more time, but not forever,” the Minister said he would explain to the Council. The Government delegation would inform the international community that it would concentrate on the constitution-making process first, he explained.
The Foreign Minister said Sri Lanka had a “brilliant window of opportunity” to enact a new constitution that seeks to address the root causes of an ethnic conflict that had spanned six decades. The UNP and the SLFP – arch political enemies were governing together. “And we have a moderate Tamil opposition on the other side. We may not have a moment like this again in our lifetime,” Minister Samaraweera asserted.
Over the past year, a constitutional assembly set up by a resolution of Parliament, has been in the process of drafting a new constitution, that seeks to abolish the executive presidency, reform the country’s electoral system and devolve power meaningfully to the provinces, in a bid to end the island’s long-standing ethnic struggle.
Six subcommittees have already presented reports on key areas of the new constitution including fundamental rights and judicial reform. But the process remains deadlocked as legislators in the main Steering Committee headed by the Prime Minister try to get consensus on fundamental issues relating to devolution, electoral reform and abolition of the presidency before an interim report with a framework of the new constitutional draft is presented to Parliament. The process to draft a new constitution has also been thrust into uncertainty after the SLFP announced that it would not support the abolition of the presidency or constitutional proposals that would require a referendum.