By Shamindra Ferdinando
The National Joint Committee (NJC) has alleged that recently unveiled constitutional proposals are at variance with repeated assurances given by both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding matters of crucial national importance, including the status of Buddhism.
The NJC alleges that controversial proposals are contained in an interim report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly tasked with the constitution making process.
Constitutional affairs expert Manohara de Silva, PC, said that in the wake of strong public criticism of the Report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reform (Lal Wijenayake Committee) and reports of Six Sub Committees, the government had reassured that foremost place would be given to Buddhism.
Addressing the media at the National Library and Documentation Services Board, attorney-at-law de Silva flayed the yahapalana government for seeking to deprive Buddhism of its foremost place, do away with unitary status of the Constitution and transform Sri Lanka to nine federal governments.
The lawyer pointed out that in accordance with the repeated promises given by yahapalana leaders, the Steering Committee should not have interfered with Article 9 meant to ensure Buddhism the foremost place while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e). Instead, the Steering Committee had made six recommendations in respect of Buddhism/Religion in addition to the existing Article 9.
NJC heavyweight Gevindu Cumaratunga said that the government had accused those opposed to the ongoing constitutional making process of propagating lies. The government repeatedly alleged attempts were being made to sabotage post-war reconciliation process, Cumaratunga said. There couldn’t be any justification for proposing four recommendations in place of Article 1 and Article 2 that dealt with unitary status of Sri Lanka, Cumaratunga said.
Alleging that the government was bending backwards to appease those wanting to divide Sri Lanka on ethnic lines and transform the country into nine federal areas, Cumaratunga said that proposals were meant to empower Provincial Council to such an extent they would enjoy unprecedented powers at the expense of the central government.
Cumaratunga said that the Joint Opposition had quite rightly rejected the entire interim report toto.
Commenting on proposed provision in respect of merger of two or three neighbouring Provinces, Cumaratunga said that the government objective was to restrict referendum in case of a merger of the Provinces concerned. The move was meant to facilitate the merger of the Eastern Province with the North, Cumaratunga said, pointing out that the government wanted to do away with the country’s ability to exercise franchise as one electorate.
Cumaratunga explained the circumstances under which Provincial Councils could take control over land at the expense of the government. The civil society activist alleged that the central government would be at the mercy of provincial government if a particular administration declined land required for security purpose.
Recommendations pertaining to introducing amendments to the proposed Constitution in case adopted by parliament were meant to thwart any such move, Cumaratunga said. According to him, an amendment couldn’t be moved unless it received a two-thirds majority in the proposed Second Chamber comprising five members representing each Provincial Government and also obtained two-thirds majority in Provincial Governments.
PC de Silva and Cumaratunga dealt with recommendations in respect of devolution of powers and how the process could endanger the unitary status much to the disappointment of the vast majority of people. They asserted that the elimination of the Concurrent List, limiting Reserve List, Provincial Government given the authority to implementing laws in respect of subjects coming under the purview of the Central Government, subject of national Policy to be removed from the Reserve List, sharp dilution of powers currently exercised by Governor vis a vis Chief Minister to pave the way for the former to take decisions in consultation with the latter.
Cumaratunga pointed out that recommendations had been made to deprive the Governor the authority to intervene in the Provincial Statutes. The activist said that the Steering Committee had gone to the extent of recommending an unprecedented Constitutional Court to decide on constitutionality of Provincial Statutes.
Cumaratunga urged political parties to examine the threat posed by setting up judicial mechanism outside the existing system. “We are heading for chaos, unprecedented turmoil,” Cumaratunga warned, faulting successive governments for not abolishing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution forced on JRJ government by India three decades ago.
The NJC pointed out that the 13th Amendment had considerably eroded supremacy and sovereignty of parliament thereby undermined significantly the unitary status. PC de Silva said: “Article 154 G (3) requires a majority of 2/3 of the members of parliament to repeal or amend laws passed by a Provincial Council whereas it only needs a simple majority to repeal or amend own laws.”
PC de Silva said that the Parliament needed a two-thirds majority to only amend the Constitution and not amend ordinary laws.
The NJC said that a wider discussion involving all stakeholders was required and a cohesive effort made to educate the people of the despicable project. Cumaratunga said that giving in to separatist demands was as worse as losing the war.