By Dharisha Bastians
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena issued a rallying call for compromise from all political parties yesterday as the assembly of all 225 members of Parliament continued to work towards drafting a new Constitution to address decades of ethnic strife and make sweeping changes to electoral and governance systems in the country.
Addressing the Constitutional Assembly on the second day of debate on the Interim Report by the Steering Committee tasked with formulating draft constitutional proposals yesterday, senior SLFP MP and State Minister Dilan Perera warned that this current effort at Constitution-making was probably a last chance to resolve the country’s ethnic conflict.
In a speech which was deeply reflective and yet customarily colloquial, Perera recalled that for too long the two main political parties had played political “football with the national question”. On every side of the political divide, political leaders had made big mistakes, he added.
“This is why it took us 67 years to sing the national anthem in Tamil on our national day,” Perera reflected. The current Parliament had a unique opportunity to achieve a solution because both main parties were stakeholders in a Unity Government.
“We must be flexible, we must be willing to compromise. When the UNP, SLFP, JVP and TNA become inflexible in our own positions, it emboldens the Joint Opposition that is engaged in sabotaging this process,” the SLFP Minister urged.
Delivering on a new Constitution would be the best way to answer racists and nationalists who were trying to set the country ablaze again, Perera emphasised. “Let them try to bomb us. We will move forward with this process,” he charged.
The SLFP MP also warned his parliamentary colleagues that after the Tamil National Alliance leadership passes from Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, hopes for compromise from the Tamil polity would be slim.
“Make no mistake, this is the last bus. After Sampanthan’s leadership, the TNA will never agree to include the word ‘ekeeya’ in a Constitution again,” the SLFP Member emphasised. Sampanthan and TNA Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran were being branded traitors in the North by factions of the Tamil polity led by Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and Provincial Council Members like Shivajilingam, Perera said. “Why are they being branded traitors? Because they are trying to find middle ground in discussions on the Constitution,” the SLFP MP charged.
Taking the remarks made by NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa head on, Perera charged that the Joint Opposition Member’s threats about bombing parliament had only emboldened the SLFP and made the party more interested in sharing power.
The second day of debate on the report recommending new constitutional proposals continued to expose sharp divisions within the Sri Lankan legislature on the question of constitutional reform. Joint Opposition members railed against the attempt to repeal and replace the 1978 Constitution saying the Government was giving into “imperialist agendas” and paving the way for separatism by devolving more power to the provinces. But senior Government members also put up stiff resistance, defending the constitution-making process and accusing the pro-Rajapkasa faction of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Several Government MPs quoted large portions of Prof. G.L. Peiris’ writings during his time in the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration defending federalism and from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2015 election manifesto which also pledged to enact a new Constitution if he was re-elected for a third term in office.
Turning the tables on the Joint Opposition, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said there was no greater treason than opposing the effort to enact a new Constitution which was aimed at resolving the national question. State Minister for Finance Eran Wickremaratne, who addressed the constitutional assembly last morning, said when the 13th Amendment was enacted 30 years ago similar fears were raised about the provisions, leading to the separation of the country. “But decades have passed since the 13th Amendment became law, and has the country been divided?” he asked.
Addressing the Assembly yesterday, JVP MP Vijitha Herath said the best way to defeat imperialist agendas and conspiracies that were being cited by the JO was for Sri Lankans to resolve the ethnic question within the country. “To stop the meddling, we must remove the factors that cause it,” he explained. The war ended in 2009, but the root causes of the conflict were never addressed, Herath said, adding that this Constitution-making effort was a step in the right direction.
Udaya Gammanpila Rants and Rails Against New Constitutional Proposals
Continuing to fan the flames of nationalism and stoking fears of secession, the Joint Opposition joined the debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee yesterday to warn the House that the new constitutional proposals would create nine separate states in the island of Sri Lanka.
Responding to assertions by the Co-Chairman of the Management Committee appointed by the Steering Committee and Government MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne that the new proposals included major safeguards against secession that would be enshrined in the constitution, Joint Opposition MP Udaya Gammanpila dismissed the claims as deceptive.
“Dr. Jayampathy says the new Constitution will lay out that Sri Lanka will be indivisible. But what is the point of writing it down on a piece of paper while all powers are being devolved to the provinces?” Gammanpila charged as he railed against the proposals contained in the Interim Report.
In fact, Gammanpila argued that powerful provisions within the 1978 Constitution to guard against secession had been diluted in the new proposals.
“The Government is surrendering power to the provinces, paving the way for separatism and then claiming that it will be written on paper that the country is indivisible,” the Joint Opposition MP said. In a similarly hyperbolic vein, Gammanpila asserted that while Prabhakaran had sought to divide the country into two parts, the Government was seeking to create nine separate states and nine police forces in the country through the new Constitution. “The next war will be between the Sri Lankan army and the Northern Police Force,” he claimed.
Meanwhile, UPFA/JO MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara insisted that the Government should abandon the constitution-making process and use the 13th Amendment as a basis to resolve the Tamil problems. Even going on to question if there really was a Tamil problem during his speech at the constitutional assembly last afternoon, Nanayakkara said it was the TNA that was insisting that the Tamils were a nation with their own language and must therefore rule in their own regions.
“It is foreign imperialist forces that want to ensure the Tamils have their own rule in Sri Lanka,” he claimed. Nanayakkara said that shifting the balance of power between the central Government and the provinces would not bring about a solution to the Tamil problem. Ironing out the issues that complicate the implementation of the 13th Amendment should be the basis of finding a solution, he demanded. “The 13th Amendment is a huge platform. We should use this as a base for a solution in the future,” the JO MP noted.
Tamil aspirations cause Sinhalese to be fearful: Dulles Alahapperuma
The aspirations of the Tamil people about their post-war future causes fear and suspicion within the Sinhalese community, Joint Opposition MP Dulles Alahapperuma told the Constitutional Assembly during the second day of debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee yesterday.
Acknowledging that a broad national discussion had been necessary after the war ended, Alahapperuma said the party understood that Tamils and Muslims also had aspirations for their future. “The issue is that these aspirations cause fear among the Sinhalese community, who have aspirations of their own,” he explained.
State Minister Dilan Perera, who spoke soon after Alahapperuma, acknowledged this complexity and explained that this was the root of the ethnic issue. “In his speech yesterday TNA MP Sumanthiran said the Tamil people’s aspiration was a federal state. But the Sinhalese suspect federalism will divide the country. The Tamil people want a secular state, the Sinhalese fear this will destroy the country’s Buddhist heritage,” Perera said.