UNP General Secretary and Public Enterprise Development Minister, Kabir Hashim commenting on the ongoing process to introduce a new Constitution, said, for the first time in the country’s history, the two major political parties are working together as a National Unity Government, and if the majority community is being represented by these two parties and there is consensus among them means a broader cross section of society abides by it. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister said, this is the first time we have a very moderate Opposition Leader who has the courage to say he is willing to accept the change the two major parties recommend. They now accept the principle of unitary status.
The Minister said, this exercise is not aimed at any piece-meal amendment or merely to change the electoral system or a part of the Constitution, but the whole thing.
Federalism or separatism is not promoted anywhere in this Constitution. Separatism is a tool that extremists will use if the moderate people don’t address important issues. So, this is the best way to prevent any kind of extremist forces resorting to extremism.
Q. How does the Government plan to counter the disinformation campaign on the proposed new Constitution launched by the Joint Opposition (JO) and certain other parties?
A. We would tell the truth to the people. The JO doesn’t have the strength to stand on its own.
The JO today comprises many misfits. On numerous occasions earlier, they were part and parcel of those who had proposed a new Constitution to the country. For example, in 2000, then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga introduced the concept called “a new constitutional package”. The partial architect of it was former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris. Now he is a member of the JO. Prof.Peiris supported the package then. It was far in excess of anything offered up to now because the whole set up was going into a federal system and the extent of devolution was vast.
Then, all these people supported it. MP Dinesh Gunawardena was also part of that Government. At that time, nobody raised objections. Imagine if they had got it through Parliament which the UNP objected. In 2005, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, J.R. Jayewardene’s Constitution was damaging the country and should be discarded and a new Constitution introduced.
Former President Kumaratunga said, the presidential system was a curse to the country and has to be abolished. All those leaders were part of those who agitated to change the Constitution.
In 1994, they contemptuously referred to J.R’s. Constitution as a Bahubutha Viyawasthawa. Even though former President Mahinda Rajapaksa followed the same line, he didn’t change the Constitution, but added more horrendous powers to the Executive Presidency, diluting Parliament and the people’s power.
In August 2015 when we went for General Elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s manifesto clearly said, J.R’s. Constitution is outdated and had to be discarded, or serious amendments made. Then, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was appointed, headed by C.R. de Silva, which clearly stated they should go for a new Constitution and devolution of power, going even beyond the 13th Amendment.
So, on what grounds are they launching this disinformation campaign? It is merely to create trouble. We believe the whole country should go for a new Constitution.
Q. Why do you say the new Constitution is the best and the last opportunity to bring peace and reconciliation to the country?
A. One reason is, this is the first time in the history of the country that the two major political parties are working together as a National Unity Government. If the majority community is represented by these two parties and if there is consensus among them, it means a broader crosssection of society abides by it. For the first time, we have a very moderate Opposition Leader who has the courage to say he is willing to accept this change which the two major parties recommend. They will accept the unitary state. Earlier no Tamil political leader accepted that position. The two major parties getting together is an important landmark. We will never get this opportunity again.
Q. There are fears that the new Constitution would eventually pave the way to federalism and separatism. What is your comment?
A. There is no suggestion of a federal unit, but it only strengthens the unitary status of the country and the Central Government. It is within this framework that power would be devolved. Federalism or separatism is not promoted anywhere in this Constitution.
Separatism is a tool that extremists would use if the moderate people don’t address problems.
Q. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has alleged that the new Constitution is being drafted to fulfil the needs of the LTTE remnants and the Tamil diaspora. What is your response?
A. I would like to ask that question when they said they would go beyond the 13th Amendment.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also said, they have to go for extensive devolution. At that time, why didn’t they speak against it? I wonder whose mandate they were following.
Q. What is the significance of the TNA and other Tamil political parties accepting the unitary nature of the country and the foremost place given to Buddhism?
A. Constitutional making is a process which should be inclusive. All cross sections of society, irrespective of caste, religion, nationality, should have the opportunity to be in that process.
This is a social contract between the nation and its people. If the community or the people are not involved in the process, there is no significance of making a Constitution.
In this country up to now, every Constitution, such as the 1972 and 1978 have been forced down the throats of the people.
This is the first time ever that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has led this movement for an inclusive process. Nobody will be left out. If the majority say it is a good thing for the country, all are stakeholders.
Q. How do you plan to evolve consensus among the different parties on the proposed Constitution?
A. The Constitutional Assembly in Parliament is at present deliberating in Parliament on the proposed Constitution. The people’s views are put forward and will be accommodated as much as possible.
There will be dialogue, and everything resolved through dialogue. During the former regime, there was no room for dialogue. If you oppose anything, you would have been taken by a white van or shot dead. That is the difference.
Q. How do you plan to reconcile the different views of the UNP and the SLFP on the Executive Presidency?
A. There is no difference in views. In the SLFP, there are people who joined the Government later. After August 2015, they didn’t know the President’s mandate was based on the abolishing of the Executive Presidency.
The President himself is committed to it. Some of his own members are not aware about it.
When the final rites of Ven.Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera were being performed, the President made a pledge that he would carry out Ven. Thera’s wish. So we will protect and support the President to keep that pledge. That was our mandate. This is not a piece-meal amendment. This will not only change the electoral system or a part of the Constitution but the whole thing.
Q. Do you think the new Constitution will have enough safeguards to protect the interests of minorities?
A. That is something I haven’t thought about much. I believe, the minority groups are also involved in the process and their request for equal rights and protection will definitely be embodied in the new Constitution. I am confident of it.
Q. What are the main highlights in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s two year progress review presented to the public recently?
A. The focus is to build a stronger economy. We have managed to increase the potential employment opportunities in the country.
According to the Central Bank report, we have given 200,000 jobs up to now.
We target 400,000 jobs in the next two years. We are trying to keep our target of one million jobs. During the past two years, we have been able to introduce various Bills in Parliament to prepare the legal framework for the country to take off in terms of investment.
We have set up an Industrial Park in the South from Hambantota to Moneragala to Matara, where we expect over 10,000 factories. We hope to set up an Industrial Zone in Kurunegala and expand the existing Industrial Zone in Seethawaka.
The Kandy district will have a special development project. We are also giving lands to people to commence self employment ventures. We focus both, on internal development and foreign investment.