By Niranjala Ariyawansha
Member of Parliament Dr. Jayampathi Wickremaratne says the new Constitution will go beyond the 13th Amendment in terms of power devolution. “Everybody has agreed to the 13 plus,” he said in an interview with Ceylon Today.
?: Is there a proposal to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in full?
A: Yes. We have 28 years of experience when it comes to the 13th Amendment. We know where we erred. The amendment itself has intrinsic problems. We have discussed them comprehensively. The next is the 1987 Provincial Councils Act. There were plenty of dialogue and evaluation reports etc. All the chief ministers and opposition leaders of the provincial councils gave evidence before the steering committee and the committee on centre and periphery relations. They pointed out the weaknesses, and now we try to move forward correcting those errors.
?: Does that mean the new Constitution will go beyond the 13th Amendment?
A: When the problems of the 13th Amendment are resolved, the new Constitution naturally goes beyond the 13th Amendment. Everybody has agreed to 13 plus. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in India also he would go beyond the 13th Amendment. Thirteen plus means correcting the shortcomings of the 13th Amendment.
?: The six subcommittees on the Constitutional reform published their reports yesterday. What are these committees?
A: These six committees were appointed by the Constitutional Assembly. They are all party committees chaired by various political parties. One subcommittee constitutes 11 MPs. The subcommittees and the chairmen of them are as follows:
Fundamental Rights – Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe
Justice – Minister Rauff Hakeem
Public Service – Minister Susil Premajayantha
Fiscal – MP Bandula Gunawardena
Law and Order – Minister Sagala Ratnayaka
Centre and Periphery Relations – MP K. Siddharthan
?: Will land powers be given to the provincial councils?
A: My opinion on land and police powers is that they are already in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Problems could not have occurred if the National Land Commission (NLC) was appointed according to the Constitution in 1988. It has criteria to act on State land, protecting environment etc. This committee can decide the way the central government and the provincial councils use land. I think this commission must be appointed and empowered. Then the central government and the provincial councils cannot act as they wish. The commission comprises scientists, environmentalists and experts on law and administration. Problems will not occur when acted according to their criteria.
?: What is your view on police powers?
A: Police powers of the provincial councils are not implemented now. My opinion is that those powers must be implemented. In some countries, police powers are not with the central government. Those powers must be granted with due safety mechanisms. I think the suspicions in the minds of the people about these issues must be alleviated. Misuse of power must be prevented. Likewise, I am against recalling powers already granted under the guise of misuse of powers.
Police powers were enacted since 1948 from Colombo. Were they used fairly? No. They were misused. As a leftist, I know how the police acted. We observed how the police powers were implemented during the Mahinda regime. In such a backdrop, can we argue that only provincial councils will misuse police powers? Some provincial councils have performed better than the central government.
Actually, these police powers are the powers related to law and order. Some think that the police of the central government must baton charge people who struggle for their rights. It is as if they are not ready to be beaten by the provincial council police. I support the proper use of powers by either centre or periphery.
?: But, the Joint Opposition claims the proposed Constitution will pave the way for a Federal system?
A: Those allegations are baseless. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has also publicly declared to include articles on prevention of separatism to the Constitution. That means the Constitution consists of provisions to dissolve a provincial council, which is backing separatism.
In 1990, we had to bring a special Act in Parliament to dissolve the North-Eastern Provincial Council. That Act can be abolished with a two-thirds majority. Therefore, we have proposed to include a new article to the Constitution. I upheld it.
According to that proposed article, the central government has powers to dissolve a provincial council, which promotes separatism.
?: What has led to the Joint Opposition to propagate such an opinion?
A: There are extremist elements in the southern parts of Sri Lanka. They are against constitutional solutions for the ethnic problem. Likewise, there is a small minority in the North who are against a negotiated settlement. These two sections nourish each other’s stances. But, the proposed Constitution will be on a middle ground, with which all can agree.
?: The Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms (PRCCR) chaired by Lal Wijenayaka consulted the public and set forth progressive proposals. What is your view on the proposals of that committee on Fundamental Rights?
A: I am very happy about the subcommittee report on Fundamental Rights. I am also a member of that committee. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, a subcommittee was appointed by the Inter Ministerial Committee on Human Rights to draft a new chapter on human rights. I chaired that committee which consisted of professionals like Dr. Deepika Udagama and Dr. Godfrey Gunatilake, who are experts on human rights. It also submitted a report with many progressive suggestions. I am happy about that report and the report of the present subcommittee.
?: What are your views on the subcommittee on independence of the judiciary?
A: Many important proposals have been set forth considering the impeachment of former Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake by the Rajapaksa regime. The entire legal fraternity stood together at that moment. It is proposed that an impeachment case against a Chief Justice must be heard by an independent panel separate from Parliament. That panel reports recommendations to Parliament and our position is that Parliament will not be a jury.
?: What are the proposals for the Constitution on religions?
A: Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have clearly said prominence given in the Constitution for Buddhism will not be changed. No such proposal has been set forth by anyone.
?: What are the provisions in terms of official languages?
A: There was no big issue on national languages. The 13th Amendment has given State language status to both Sinhala and Tamil.
?: But, still there are allegations that official letters are sent in Tamil dominated areas in the Sinhala language?
A: That is a problem related to practicality. Constitution cannot resolve all the problems. Constitution only provides the legal foundation. The government is responsible for implementing laws practically. Citizens must also act in line with the Articles of the Constitution. They can go to Court if necessary.
?: Will these proposals bring a solution to the ethnic problem?
A: Some argue that there is no ethnic problem in this country. But, my point of view is there is one. The reason for that is not taking all the sections of the population to participate in governance. Therefore, my view is that the sharing of power between the central government and the provincial councils will resolve this problem.
Present system is only a system of provincial councils, which is not properly implemented. There is no proper sharing mechanism in the centre. We need to strengthen the provincial councils without weakening the centre. It will pave the way for a political solution.
?: Do you mean that power sharing beyond the provincial councils will be proposed?
A: Yes. We hope to strengthen the local governance moving beyond the provincial councils. Implementing many subjects of central government and provincial councils will be given to the local government bodies. It will make the people of both North and South close to the governance. When the implementation of power is close to the people, the matters like corruption cannot be covered. It is good for the people.
For example, when the central government builds roads, we do not know the basic facts like who is the contractor etc. But, when the local government body does it, people know who the contractor is and what are the expenses and beneficiaries etc.
Therefore, power devolution must not be stopped at the level of the provincial councils. Local governments must also be empowered. When the power devolves to the bottom, governance is transparent and people-friendly. People have more opportunity to pressure the decision makers.
?: What is the Constitution building process after the reports of these subcommittees?
A: We hope to submit an interim report by the steering committee in December, based on the reports of the subcommittees. They will be open for general debate, which will extend to a healthier dialogue among the general public. The steering committee will study the debate and it will decide on the articles needed to be included into the Constitution. Then we shall start the drafting. The draft will be discussed again at the Constitutional Assembly. If we see that it can be passed with a two-thirds majority, the draft will be approved by the Cabinet and it will be moved in Parliament as an Act.