(Excerpts in English from the speech made by th Minister of Finance & Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera on the 31st of October 2017 in Parliament during the Constitutional Assembly debate on the interim report of the steering committee)
All of us here in this House are representatives elected by the people of this great country – people from different communities, speaking different languages, holding different religious beliefs, and living in different parts of this great country. People, irrespective of their backgrounds and which part of the country they live in, who have all unfortunately suffered the horrors of violence for long years. People, all of whom, irrespective of whether they have suffered violence or not, have all been sadly deprived, and sadly cheated, of the heights of economic prosperity that this nation could have achieved during the last 70 years.
• To my mind, all the people, all the citizens of this country desire a few fundamental things:
-All of them, irrespective of which part of the country they live in, desire and long for lasting and sustainable peace
-they all want to call this land their home and be recognised by this state equally as its valued and treasured citizens, its sons and its daughters who are all the same
-they all long for equal citizenship, dignity and respect
-they all long for economic prosperity
-they all seek the right to guide their own destiny
-they all seek the equal protection of the law, and
-none of them wants to see our country divided and embroiled in violence. They have all suffered the consequences of conflict, not just once, but on several occasions. Thousands of young lives were lost to us in all parts of the country, north, south, east, west, and centre. In fact it is mostly the poor and the vulnerable in all communities who have suffered the most.
• This nation cannot afford the repetition of such violence. Its cost in terms of human lives, in terms of resources, in terms of socio-economic development, is far too great to bear, in every way.
• The process that this House set in motion in January 2016, and the mechanisms set up in accordance with the Framework Resolution, has produced several reports. We have with us, the Public Representations Committee Report, individual representations, the 6 sub-committee Reports, the Report of the Ad hoc Sub Committee, and the Interim Report of the Steering Committee. Every Member in this House is aware of the processes that have been followed. This was a completely bottom-up, and all inclusive process. No one has been left out.
• At this point, as we stand on the threshold of marking 70 years of our nation’s Independence, it is our duty to persevere along this path through meaningful dialogue and discussion, in a responsible manner, to finally give our country, that firm foundation upon which its future as a confident nation that is at peace with itself, and with the world, a nation that is peaceful, stable, reconciled and prosperous could be built.
• There is no purpose, to my mind, at this point, when we are best placed, after years of conflict, to reflect, introspect, and prepare a constitution that will help our nation put its past behind for good and move forward with renewed hope, of engaging once again in age-old regressive practices which have held us back for almost 70 years. Age-old regressive practice of engaging in petty finger-pointing over who did what wrong at which point needs to be abandoned. Instead, we must seize this moment that is before us in a responsible manner.
• It is the constitution that can guarantee rights to minorities that no other document can. A constitution contains a philosophy. It is what defines a nation’s character and personality. What better way is there to honour the Buddha and his Teachings of metta, muditha, karuna, upekka, than by embodying those values through a Constitution that embraces all, that guarantees rights to all, that provides dignity to all, that respects all, that protects and provides security to all!?
• If we do not seize this opportunity, Hon. Speaker, economic development and prosperity will elude our nation forever. It is not rocket science that prosperity and economic development cannot ever be achieved with clouds of suspicion and question marks hanging over our nation as to when the gamut of unresolved issues would unravel, and this nation would plunge back into conflict once again. If we are to give the gift of economic prosperity that we have been promising this country since Independence, to our future generations, then this is the opportunity for this House to seize. For Sri Lanka’s economy to prosper, and the country to become a developed nation, we need a constitution that, in the eyes of the people in our country and the international community, has at last brought political stability to the country. Such a constitutional arrangement will succeed in attracting greater investment and greater trade, realising our vision of making Sri Lanka a hub in the orient.
• I urge everyone in this House, to rise to the occasion. We must not shirk our historic responsibility. Let us lift this important issue out of the realm of politics. This involves our nation’s future. This involves the future of the young and the yet unborn. It is too important an issue to allow it to be drowned in political rhetoric and posturing; or indifference or cynicism; or theatrics and individual point scoring and grand-standing; or to be viewed as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We have witnessed such action for far too long in this House on past occasions, resulting in missed opportunities with tragic consequences for the people of this nation. It is time to put that kind of divisive past behind us, at least on this important issue. A Constitution cannot be a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We must all therefore engage in this exercise in a constructive and cooperative manner, where all of us commit to build a common future together, in a spirit of compromise, pragmatism and historical responsibility.
• We must not get caught up in the trap of endless debates and arguments over strict definitions of terms and theoretical concepts in this exercise that we have undertaken. We must transcend narrow theoretical arguments and antagonistic political discourse, and focus instead on reaching agreement on a constitutional arrangement that suits the needs and aspirations of the people of our country. We must exert effort on evolving, through meaningful, constructive and focused discussion, an arrangement that works for us, and suits our purpose.
• What is important is to evolve a system, an arrangement, that works for us in practical terms. Not something that fits into some pattern or category that has been defined and written about by some academic or the other, in a theoretical exercise.
• Let us draw inspiration from constitution-making exercises elsewhere. The American constitution was the result of pitched disagreement, but it has demonstrated its vigour to this day. The German constitution, written after the horrors of World War II, was the result of cooperation among the best democratic minds. New democracies in the Global South, after intractable conflict or dictatorships have achieved compromise to build their future: Colombia’s 1991 constitution, paved the way for a social rule of law; South Africa’s 1996 constitution removed the odious legacy of apartheid; and most recently, Tunisia’s 2014 constitution enshrined the achievements of the most successful and sustainable process of democratisation in the middle east.
• I am confident that if we put our heads and hearts and minds together, with sincerity of purpose, we can, in this House, at this historic moment, find solutions to what we seek.
The core issues that I speak of have at least three important elements:
(i) The abolition of the executive presidency and the introduction of a parliamentary system,
(ii) A system of greater power sharing between the centre and the periphery; and,
(iii) Abolition of the preferential system of voting and the introduction of an acceptable system with a mixed member proportional system, which seeks to ensure proportionality of the end result, while also having directly elected constituency seats, thus ensuring such MPs accountability to constituencies
• This does not mean that these are the only three areas that need our attention. There are others; many others. However, these are three of the most fundamental issues that require our constructive attention.
• A Constitutional process is, by definition, constructive, not destructive. It seeks to strengthen our nation by recognizing and integrating our diversity, including our multi-religious, multi-ethnic outlook, our rich heritage, the contributions of men and women, and the old and the young. A Constitution is needed to facilitate the constructive treatment of those differences that are inevitable and indeed desirable in any complex, modern society like Sri Lanka. In the modern world, with the exception of a few authoritarian enclaves, there is no place for uniform societies, where every individual thinks, worships, acts and speaks in exactly the same manner as the next.
• A Constitution, therefore, never seeks to destroy, but to strengthen the unity of a country. What is remarkable about our current circumstances is not that we may disagree about the precise nature of a unitary State. What is remarkable is that even those who represent minority communities in our nation, after decades of conflict, have publicly and privately supported the notion that our nation can meet the aspirations of all citizens through devolution, while remaining unitary in its essence.
• Furthermore, the special place of Buddhism in our country is not in dispute, as long as freedom of religion is strengthened for all Sri Lankans in our beautiful and diverse country. We are not the first country in the world to find a proper, honourable place for religion in a democratic constitution. We are capable of finding the right formula and the right balance.
I urge this House:
Let us be prudent, but optimistic.
Let us not be afraid to be creative and imaginative.
Let us be brave, fearless and confident in our capacity to imagine the future.
Let us not succumb to mutual fear and mistrust, for we know that such emotions and fears have always led to painful confrontation. In fact, conflict, war and chaos are not the result of a constitutional process of compromise and consensus, but the result of the lack of such processes. The result of communities that are neglected or communities that are made to feel neglected or perceptions of neglect, inequality, insecurity, and fear, that are left unaddressed.
Constitutional reform truly is the best option to bolster national unity with citizens of all communities feeling equal in a renewed national compact.
Let us seize this moment that can finally provide us economic dynamism, elevate our nation’s standing in the world, and relieve us of our tormented past.
Let us reach out for each others’ hands, across community and party lines, to build the Sri Lanka that our forefathers who worked together, transcending ethnicity and community to gain Independence for our country did, all those years ago.
Let us, as we approach 70 years of Independence, commit to build a diverse and multi-cultural nation in which all citizens have equal rights, equal dignity and equal respect.