Canvassing constitutional reforms in true spirit

The talks between the Government and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) on the proposed constitutional reforms appear to be just a formality and part of Parliamentary Democracy practiced as a mere tradition. In today’s political context, the Government is confident or may be over confident that they are in a position to garner the necessary support to amend the Constitution as and when they please despite what the Opposition has to say. At the same time what the Opposition has to say with regard to the proposed constitutional amendments has little or no meaning at all as far as the Government is concerned since the Government has already decided what reforms they intend to pursue as part of their strategy to make it a popular and a more people-oriented one.

Voice of people?
Now, what baffles the key political figures in the Opposition is the stance taken by the UNP and the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to lead a delegation at frequent intervals to meet the UPFA hierarchy to hold constitutional reform talks. President Rajapaksa has clearly voiced his opinion on the proposed Executive Premiership to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and told him that he is no longer interested in the Executive Premiership as an alternative to the Executive Presidency. Even Wickremesinghe is aware that the Executive Premiership that he was canvassing and practiced for some time in Israel is an obsolete system.

The president told the Opposition Leader that the Executive Prime Ministerial system would change the whole structure of the Constitution and further more, it might need a referendum in addition to the two-thirds majority in Parliament, which is not feasible in the current context.
The main thrust of the meeting with the members of the Opposition UNP and the affiliated parties appeared to be the removal of the restrictions placed on the Executive President under article 31 of the Constitution.
The President was keen that the restrictions on the number of terms be removed and called on the joint Opposition to help him in this endeavour.
The reasoning and the argument adduced for this by the Government is simple and they are of the opinion that the choice of electing the Executive President lays entirely in the hands of the people and that no restrictions be placed by the Constitution on the right of the people.

Constitutional impediments
However, countries such as the US, after years of experiments and through trials had devised that there should be constitutional impediments placed on the number of occasions an individual could contest the much coveted position in the world the US Presidency.
It is important at this point of time to examine what exactly article 31 of the Constitution spells out:

(1) Any citizen who is qualified to be elected to the office of President may be nominated as a candidate for such office.
(a) by a recognised political party, or
(b) if he is or has been an elected member of the legislature, by any other political party or by an elector whose name has been entered in any register of electors.
(2) No person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the People shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the People.
(3) The poll for the election of the President shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office.

So is the constitutional provision relating to the number of occasions an individual could contest the Presidency, now it is up to the legislators to decide as to whether the provision should be relaxed enabling any individual to contest more than twice or not.
In all probability, a majority of the legislators is in favour of this move and the Government hopes to woo the Opposition to support it that will throw a challenge back at the Opposition. Of course, the Government will modify the Executive Presidency to give it a more human face.
A Presidency that would be responsible and accountable to Parliament and a Presidency without blanket immunity would do some good to the country than the existing Presidency that has all the powers arrogated to it, through the 1978 Constitution created by the UNP.

UNP reservations
The United National Party has already expressed its reservations about the Government’s decision to play poker with the proposed constitutional amendments.
UNP general secretary Tissa Attanayake is reported to have said that there is no point in the UNP attending talks on constitutional reform if the Government is not interested in abolishing the Executive Presidency. However, the UNF (United National Front) partner, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has different views about the Government’s novel approach.
SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem met the President for talks on an individual basis to take a pragmatic look at the proposed constitutional reforms.

Hakeem says that if the proposed reforms do not have any negative impact on the Muslim community at large, they could look at the approach in a different perspective and think of supporting the move.
Hakeem believes that one way of restoring good governance is to go along with the Government while exerting some sort of pressure in achieving theses targets.
Has UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe also fashioned his thinking on the same lines as that of Hakeem is the question posed by many worried UNP members.
Most of the top rung members of the UNP are not in favour of Wickremesinghe’s stance believing that it would harm the Party in the end.

Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya is one who opposes this move though he had not come out strongly against Wickremesinghe’s decision to meet the Government at frequent intervals.
Some people tend to think that Wickremesinghe’s move is something unusual in the present political context and may be he is buying time to surmount his own problems that has surfaced in the party in a larger intensity and magnitude than ever before.

Jayasuriya, mild in nature but firm in his convictions, is presently on a tirade against the Government.
While Wickremesinghe has softened his attitude, Jayasuriya has taken a very strong opposition to what is happening today in the country and called for Opposition unity to fight the Government.
The Government has taken the sentiments expressed by Jayasuriya as an offensive launched by a one-time cabinet colleague.

However, Jayasuriya qualifies his support to the Government during the crucial period of the Elam War IV affirming that he supported the Government for a limited purpose of eradicating terrorism and achieving much wanted peace.

Jayasuriya ordeal
The Government made use of a press conference convened by Minister Susil Premajayantha to show its irritation over Jayasuriya’s remarks.
Premajayantha particularly took some swipes at Jayasuriya deploring the views expressed by Jayasuriya criticising the Government for the present state of affairs in the country. Not only Premajayantha, the President and Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa seemed perturbed over Jayasuriya’s remarks.
Both the President and Basil Rajapaksa expressed their displeasure at the meeting they held with the Opposition Leader and the delegation at the Temple Trees over the utterances made by Jayasuriya.
The President particularly said that when Jayasuriya was a Minister in his Cabinet, Jayasuriya had given jobs in offer to over three thousand UNP supporters using his Ministerial powers and when the Ministry Secretary was questioned, Jayasuriya became uncomfortable and wanted to quit the Government.

The remarks showed that the Government is particularly worried about the stance taken by Jayasuriya but at the same time delivered the strong message to the Opposition that they couldn’t care less for the Opposition political maneuverings.

Jayasuriya, an advocate of democracy and good governance prevailed upon the Government while in Government and following his departure, to implement the now almost defunct 17th Amendment to the Constitution and to appoint the Constitutional Council, which has the power to recommend people to be appointed to high-ranking positions.
Another salient feature in the 17th amendment is to appoint a Public Service Commission, an Election Commission, a Police Commission and the Bribery Commission, which could function as independent bodies devoid of any Government interference.

Seventeenth Amendment’s issues
The Government over the past few years has taken a very different stand on the Constitutional Council which is a mandatory body that should function under the provisions of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Government’s contention was that the Constitutional Council has flavour that is more political and that it would not function as an independent institution.

Many on the Government and those who joined the Government from the Opposition UNP shared this view. At times, they went to the extent of blaming the legislators who approved it almost unanimously during the time of President Chandrika Kumaratunga that it was a ramshackle piece of legislation passed by Parliament in a hurry. In their view the 17th Amendment failed to reflect the intentions of the legislature and thus needed modifications.

The modifications have already been proposed by the Government to the Opposition delegation led by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe that included SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem.
The meeting took place at the Temple Trees where the Government delegation comprising President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris discussed matters more than having a cup of tea and other refreshments, with the UNP Leader and others.
Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya however excused himself on the pretext of a meeting he arranged with the Buddhist prelates prior to this engagement hiding his discontent over the Government’s attitude and the move to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment.

According to the Government proposal, a five-member body will be set up in place of the Constitutional Council appointed under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution that would advise the Government on key appointments in the state sector in a bid to maintain its independence.

The five-member body will comprise a representative each of the President, The Prime Minister, The Speaker of Parliament, and the Leader of the Opposition and a representative from the other opposition parties.
The Police Commission will be entrusted with a different task, which would be a departure from its present functions to supervise and approve the appointments transfers and promotions.

The new task would be to liaise with the public to create a better environment and a better public police relationship. It will also be entrusted with looking into the public grievances against the Police with wide powers vested with them.

Police transfers, appointments, promotions and other related matters are likely to be handled by a subcommittee of the Public Service Commission that would be appointed for a specific duration.
The Government’s intention is to appoint several sub-committees under the Public Service Commission in order to handle various subjects coming under the purview of various ministries that would ensure transparency and good governance.

Analysts, meanwhile point out that if the Government could appoint people with some public standing who are willing to undertake greater responsibility on behalf of the people to the key commissions and the sub-committees functioning under the Public Service Commission that would augur well for the Government and the country as well. By doing so it is their opinion that the political influence and flavour that is very much visible today in the Government sector could be reduced largely, thus creating an independent Government Service devoid of political leanings and affiliations which could serve the country better.

The Government’s move to replace the Constitutional Council appointed under the 17th amendment by a special body (Which will come into effect with yet another amendment seeking to repeal the provisions under the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution) may come in for fire by the Opposition.

This may be on the ground that it was necessitated due to the corruption and malpractices that took place during a Provincial Council Election held for the North Western Province some time back.
It was President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government which initiated the 17th Amendment with the support of the Opposition, and that a number of people who sit in the Government benches today supported it whole-heartedly.

Upholding the constitutional spirit
However, some people feel that if the special body so appointed could act in the spirit of the Constitution with consensus reached among them, and make key appointments ensuring the proper legitimacy of the purpose, there would not be a serious problem in getting the right person for the right job. Nevertheless, given the acrimonious nature of the politics today, it may create problems and the scales may tilt towards the Government thus upsetting the balance.

The fear of the Opposition is on the nature of the constitution of the special body that gives an upper hand to the Government enabling them to hold sway on the decisions taken.
In other words, the government representation has the majority that means that the Government is in a position to bulldoze the Opposition if the need arises.

In today’s political context the special body that is almost certain to be appointed with the constitutional changes that are on the cards, should study and assess carefully the aspirations and the intentions of the people before making decisions. However, in all probability it is in the best interest of the country if this body or the institution could act with consensus and without a division.
The agreement reached between the Government and the Opposition after the constitutional reform meeting is to make available the proposed amendments to the Opposition before presenting the same for the approval of the Cabinet for the Opposition to make their responses known to the Government.
The position taken by the Opposition will not in anyway have a bearing on the Government, which has already decided to table the proposed amendments in Parliament in September.

This has prompted the Opposition to follow different course of action and now moving to consult the other parties to form a grand alliance opposing the Government.
The SLMC however is likely to differ though they are ardent partners of the United National Front at one stage.
SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem’s one–on–one meeting with the President had virtually changed the direction of the party that there is a strong likelihood that they would support the Government without strings attached.
Hakeem also had a meeting with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after his meeting with the President which is crucial for the SLMC.

The meeting of the SLMC high command on Friday ratified the proposal of the party leadership to support the government’s effort to introduce constitutional reforms while being in the opposition.
This was the only way out for SLMC leader Hakeem to save the party from a possible division.
A number of SLMC Parliamentarians were adamant that they support the government at this crucial juncture and Hakeem had no alternative but support the government in a bid to save the party from possible political erosion.

Sajith with a sour taste
It appears that the Opposition is fast loosing its support base in the face of a strong government; Nevertheless Wickremesinghe had put his pawns in place in the political chessboard to cling on to power as the leader of the UNP.

The SLMC’s decision would definitely add to his woes on top of what he is facing in the party, as discontent and resentment over his attitude is simmering down the corridors of Siri Kotha - the party headquarters.
Wickremesinghe’s one-on–one discussion with the youthful Sajith Premadasa for settlement of issues between the two has come to a veritable stand off after the proceedings of the meeting held last Wednesday had been leaked to the press. It said that Premadasa who has settled his score with Wickremesinghe, is now eyeing for the Deputy Leadership of the party.
The Press report embarrassed Premadasa, which finally led to deadlock after the Sunday evening meeting at the residence of Karu Jayasuriya.
The talks between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa broke down on Sunday, a Premadasa loyalist told this column.
He said that Wickremesinghe denied any knowledge leaking the proceedings of the previous meeting to the Press but Premadasa was fully convinced that it was leaked out to scuttle his prospects in the party.
Premadasa on Sunday having made a statement wanted to leave the meeting when Wickremesinghe had one–on–one with Jayasuriya at the same premises aimed at pacifying Premadasa and settling matters with him.
Jayasuriya made a relentless effort, but of no avail, Premadasa left the place after excusing himself and putting the process on hold.

Wickremesinghe very smartly switched Premadasa’s battlefield to the deputy leadership from the leadership and manoeuvred things according to his whims and fancies.
The idea of the Leader of the UNP was to divide the responsibilities of the deputy leader in order to accommodate Premadasa.
This however incensed the Jayasuriya camp who opposed it vehemently.
Jayasuriya in particular was not in favour of de-valuing the post that he held and wanted to step down honourably and become back-bencher in Parliament.
The Mahanayakes and other Buddhist prelates were supportive of Jayasuriya and they personally requested the leadership to maintain status quo in the party.
What Premedasa believes is that the inspired leak to the Press on Sunday had in fact been planned to create confusion in the party and make things difficult for him.

He told his loyalists that he agreed to accept the Deputy Leadership on the ground that the local body representatives would be allowed to cast their vote to elect office bearers for the party.
He now takes up the position that even if he accepted a position it would not be valid since it would only become legal after the all island executive committee ratifies the new constitution.

In his own words to his loyalists, Premadasa says that he is not interested in any position as for now.
Does that mean that the battle for the leadership would haunt Wickremesinghe once again? It looks like after Premadasa was allegedly misled by the party leadership to believe that nothing would be made public which transpired during the meeting on previous Wednesday had made its way to the Press.

All in all, the month of September is going to be eventful for the Government as well as the Opposition as many crucial decisions are to be taken by the Government on constitutional affairs while the Opposition is pondering how to make their way forward thawing the iceberg placed on their way by the Government.
Wickremesinghe as the Leader of the Opposition has to wage a battle in the home front to keep his position intact while engaging the Government on the proposed constitutional reforms.


Rehabilitation should follow resettlement

I cried silently as 64-year-old Kanagam Sivakumar related her story. I shared her ordeal emotionally because I underwent a similar trauma 27 years ago when my house was burnt. Kanagam’s plight is worse.
I broke my journey to Jaffna last Saturday south of Kilinochchi and walked to a white tent on the road side. It was drizzling. Kanagam who was cooking outside was taking the utensils inside. She greeted us with a smile.
“Can I go inside and see?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied with a sigh.

It was a canvas tent of about three metres by three metres. Two suitcases and cooking utensils were kept on one side. Two rolled mats were on another side.
Used clothes were on a string.

“How do you manage?” I asked. The question provoked a discussion.
Kanagam was from an agricultural family. She was married to Sivakumar, a cultivator, at the age of 22. “My husband was hard working. We prospered. Within the first ten years of our marriage we built a 4-roomed house and lived in it happily,” she said.

The family had four children, two girls and two boys. “I had no problems with the girls. They were married and had migrated to Canada where they are leading a happy life. The boys were my worry. The eldest boy joined the movement,” she said. By movement she meant the LTTE.
She said she tried her best to prevent him joining any militant group. “He wouldn’t listen. He even fought with his father who was a supporter of the Federal Party leader S J V Chelvanayakam. He told him to his face: ‘You have failed to win the rights of the Tamil people through democratic agitations.
We’re going to win them through armed struggle,” she said.

Kanagam said her son was killed in a battle three years ago. The second son, the last in the family, took to paddy cultivation after his father. He was with them when the army advanced towards Kilinochchi.
“They started shelling and one shell fell on my house. It collapsed and started burning,” she recollected. In my case, I left my house in the morning as I had learnt that the attack on the buildings owned by the Tamils would begin at 10am. My neighbour to whom I telephoned around noon told me that my house was burning.
Kanagam suffered the plight of seeing her house burning. She said her family retreated with the LTTE to Puthukidiyiruppu and from there it went to the welfare centre in Vavuniya. She said her son was with them but was taken away for questioning. He is still kept by the army. Getting him released was her main worry, she said scratching her grey hair.

I also visited two more families. They were not fortunate as Kanagam who received financial support from her daughters in Canada. Thirty-six-year-old Pathmini, mother of three young girls, suffered while in the Welfare Centre and is suffering still.
“We have a full meal only once a day,” she said.
She complained about the inadequacy of government support. She said: “We are ready to cultivate our field. We need assistance. We need the implements. We need seed paddy. We need assistance to build a decent house. We cannot live in this tent for long.”
Her husband Manikkam was full of confidence. “If the necessary assistance is given we will rebuild our live,” he said.

“India has come forward to help.” I said.
He was sarcastic. “That’s all talk. They are talking to manage the people of Tamil Nadu. Even if India is genuine when is the assistance coming?” he asked.
The plight of the third family I visited is worse. Their tent is on the low land. I went to their tent on Tuesday while returning to Colombo. The area was flooded in some places due to heavy rains of the two previous days. Kanthasamy was fortunate that the rain stopped before flood water entered his tent.
“Monsoon rains will come soon. Then our plight will be worse,” Kandaswamy said.
He said their immediate concern was to remove the sand bunds the LTTE and the army constructed during the war. They are preventing the free flow of flood water, he said.
“We have pointed this to the officials but they are not paying attention,” Kanthasamy said.
About the Indian promise to build 50,000 houses for the displaced people, he shared the same views expressed by Manikkam.

I talked to many people in Kilinochchi about the ground situation. They said the statistics provided by the government and the United Nations agencies that 90 percent of the displaced persons had been resettled is true. One shop owner said that the ground situation is unsatisfactory.
“The officials take the unfortunate people to their land, give them a tent or a few roofing sheets, pay them a small sum of money and tell them to look after themselves. That may satisfy the requirement of resettlement. But what about rehabilitation?” he asked. Resettlement should be backed by rehabilitation, he said.
I also met a school teacher. He welcomed the decision of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to meet groups of resettled persons in mid September.

He said they would apprise the commission about the problems of rehabilitation.
I also took a look at the Hindu temples in Kilinochchi. The Kilinochchi Krishnar Temple is still not open for worship. Kilinochchi Kanthasamy Kovil had been opened for worship but the priest’s living quarters and the flower garden are still closed. The Kilinochchi Madhya Mahavidyalayam has not been rebuilt. A passerby who saw us looking at the damaged building remarked, “It’s being kept like this as a remembrance”. It stands testimony for the severity of the bombing.

I stayed in a hotel in Jaffna. It does not mean that I don’t own a house in Jaffna. I own one. My family members too own their houses. They are all behind a two-metre tall tin sheet fence. My wife asked the army authorities who occupy the houses permission to have a look at our house. The officer politely told her, “Please submit a copy of the deed. We will pay you rent.”
We stood at the A9 highway that pass opposite our house and had a look at the roof.