(By Sujeeva Nivunhella in London)
UNP parliamentarian, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, PC, was in London last week to address a meeting under the theme “New Constitution for Sri Lanka: The Needs & the Challenges”, at the invitation of Non Resident Tamils of Sri Lanka (NRTSL) in London. Wickramaratne is a member of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly and the chairman of the committee that provides technical support to the Constitutional Assembly to draft the new Constitution.
Addressing the meeting, he said his visit to the UK was only in a personal capacity. “The process of Constitutional reform, now underway in Sri Lanka, may not result in the ‘best Constitution for the country’, but we have to aim it to be the best Constitution for Sri Lanka in the context of the current realities and circumstances”.
He has emphasized the fact that Sri Lankans living abroad must play their part in the Constitution-making process.
“Over the years, the words ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’ have been made to be misconstrued by the people. It was important that we do not get bogged down on jargon and semantics and rather concentrate more on the contents and purpose of the Constitution”, he suggested.
“The intent is not just to address the grievances of the Tamils by devolving powers to North and East, but to all the provincial units of the country as a whole so that the provincial administrations and, through them with decentralization of powers to the local councils”, he explained.
State power is shared and consequently the people are empowered to participate in the running of their affairs. This is imperative for the progress and development of any country. It is also important to incorporate mechanisms for the safeguard of such devolved powers as well as an adequate ‘Bill of Rights’ concerning the social, economic and cultural rights of the people’, he noted.
Wickramaratne further said that with the consensus of the majority participants by maximum and meaningful devolution of powers are provided but it was also important to have essential safeguards by way of a second chamber, independent commissions unfettered by political interference, and independence of judiciary. It was also essential that the past experience of the Centre diluting, withdrawing or sabotaging the devolved powers must be prevented from recurrence.
He emphasised that the formulation of the Constitution and getting it adopted is no easy road. It is impossible and is unrealistic to expect all aspirations and demands of everyone are met. There have to be compromises. It should be borne in mind that this is the first time that the two major political parties have come together with the support from the Tamil National Alliance representing the majority Tamil community and the parties representing the Muslim community.
This is a great opportunity that may not come again, certainly not in the foreseeable future. It is therefore important that this opportunity is not missed. This reality must be recognized, he stressed.
In his speech he made the poignant point that ‘Constitutions are not made on smooth surfaces, they are made in the hard, rough theatre of politics’ and that ‘we need to get a two-thirds majority in Parliament and then be accepted in a referendum’.
He asserted that ‘we recognise that Tamils have problems, and the non-resolution caused the Tamils to request for a separate state’.
As far as the President and Prime Minister are concerned, they are very clear on what they stand for and what we need is a modern Constitution to look at the future with a futuristic vision, he said.
“We need to look beyond what has happened, he said, and stressed that he is in favor of a return to the Parliamentary government. I have no problems with the President to have certain powers, however, in a crisis situation; the President may use his position of being directly elected to have a veto say. Electoral reform is a must and people are fed up of the present voting system”, he said.
NRTSL has also appointed their Committee of Experts comprising leading solicitors and professionals to draft the position paper for submission to the Constitutional committee.
In expressing their views, the Committee members of NRTSL and members of the Committee of Experts , said that a new constitution for Sri Lanka is a long awaited one and overwhelmingly mandated by the people in the last general election where the majority of the Tamils also voted for a new Constitution.
This is also the first time the government is proactive in considering the opinion of the civil society, institutions and individuals outside the elected parliament, which the NRTSL was appreciative of as a move in the right direction.
It was also mindful that the extremists from both Sinhalese and Tamil sides are keen to subvert the reconciliation process. Hence, it is the duty of the silent majority on both sides to prevail to bring about genuine Constitutional reform so that all communities in Sri Lanka can live as equals and with dignity, in unity contributing to the peace, political stability and unhindered progress for the betterment of all the people of Sri Lanka and the generations to come.
The Chairman of the UK branch of TNA K Ratnasingam, practicing solicitors in the UK S Sriharan and A Ilanchelian, a veteran political campaigner and editor of Tamil Times, P Rasanayagam, S Varathakumar of Tamil Information Centre, a political campaigner and journalist Nithiyanandan and Dr. S. Bala also spoke at this meeting.
During his three-day stay in London, Wickramaratne met with British parliamentarians and officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.