Veteran politician and leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Prof. Tissa Vitharana believes a new constitution will help unite people as Sri Lankans and render foreign forces powerless to divide and cause conflicts within the country. However, he is of the view deliberate attempts are being made to prevent the successful drafting of a new constitution. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Pro. Vitharana says attempts are being made to rouse anti-Muslim sentiments once again and citing the ‘Sinha-Le’ sticker campaign warns such developments would lead to a situation giving rise to racial antagonism, conflicts and fears. This, he says will lead to loss of confidence in the constitution making process and a breakdown in unity, which will be counter-productive to the development of a new constitution.
Q: Are you agreeable to converting Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly?
A: Yes I would agree with that because Parliament is based on the 1978 Constitution, which has many shortcomings. Those who have been involved in political activities on the basis of the 1978 Constitution are well aware of the various problems that have arisen. Therefore, Parliament, where the representatives of the people are meeting is the best forum for this to be done. It should be done not only within the Parliament but also within the Constitution, as it exists in according with the Standing Orders of Parliament. The 1972 Constitution broke away from the British tradition and what the British Government had imposed on us through the Soulbury Constitution. We developed our own Constitution in 1972 setting up a Republic. There were shortcomings in the 1972 Constitution, but the 1978 Constitution led to many of the problems that we confront today. Therefore, it is essential that we make that the starting point to bring about the changes with the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions.
Q: Is there a need to have a new constitution?
A: Very much. Because the problems of bad governance, which we have experienced over the years, the breakdown of democracy, distancing of the voters from the elected representatives owing to the electoral system, all these flow from the constitution, which is the basic law of the land. So long as that is faulty we are going to have not only the existing problems but they will get worse. That is very much in evidence, because in January 2015 there was a new president and a government voted into bring about better governance and rectify the errors of the previous system. But as long as we remain within that same constitution, it would not happen. That is why we should change the present constitution.
Q: Do you think the shortcomings could be rectified through amendments without going in for a new constitution?
A: I think the changes are substantial. For instance the earlier constitution is based on an Executive Presidency. The powers of the Executive President exceeds the powers that have been given to the President in two countries in which the Executive Presidency has been most successful, that is in the United States and France. The powers here exceed those enjoyed by the Presidents of USA and France. So we have to make substantial changes to the Executive Presidential system. We cannot overcome the shortcomings of the present constitution without having a new constitution, especially moving away from the Executive Presidency and restoring executive powers to Parliament.
Q: Are you opposed to scrapping the Executive Presidential system?
A: I am very much for not only changing the Executive Presidential system but also eliminating it and restoring executive powers to Parliament, because sovereignty has been given to the people by the 1972 Constitution. During our entire history, sovereign powers have been with a local monarch or a foreign monarch. But from 1972 onwards, the people were made sovereign. But then you have to exercise that sovereignty. That sovereignty was exercised through the 1972 Constitution by electing representatives to Parliament, which then had a Cabinet and a Prime Minister who made executive and legislative decisions under the control and supervision of Parliament. Now that process has been bypassed, giving executive powers to the President, making him the supreme executive. The concentration of power in one individual has led to the problems that we are confronted with. So, we have to eliminate the Executive Presidency altogether and restore the parliamentary form of government based on the earlier Westminster model with suitable amendments.
Q: How do you distinguish between a Constituent Assembly and a Select Committee in the task of drafting a constitution? Which is better suited for such an endeavour?
A: What is necessary is a Select Committee, where besides the representatives elected by the people in Parliament and representatives of political parties not represented in Parliament, representatives of civil society groups can also participate. This can be done through a Select Committee process. But unlike a normal Select Committee, which is limited in number, here we have to have a Committee which includes all the Members of Parliament. So you can’t call it a Select Committee. You have to call it an Inclusive Committee of the whole of Parliament.
Q: Do you have any doubts about the government’s motive in introducing a new constitution?
A: In fact, I am beginning to have doubts. The procedure that is now being adopted is not one based on the Standing Orders of Parliament, but one which is being determined by the Prime Minister as the Head of the Cabinet. He is directing the operation, making use not only of Parliament but also external mechanisms. For instance, the committee that has been set up to obtain the views of the public as well as other political parties does not directly interact with the Members of Parliament. What has happened is there is a separate committee and it is set up by the Prime Minister as the Head of the Steering Committee. This committee is composed of people even outside Parliament. The person who has been appointed as its chairman is a person who has no connection with Parliament and he has never been a Member of Parliament. This has distorted the process. If stakeholders actively participate and are consulted at every stage when decisions are taken on various issues, there would be sense of participation and contribution. Here, we are having a process where the Prime Minister is the decision-maker. This doesn’t lend itself to participatory decision making, which is essential for a successful constitution to be framed.
Q: Do you think external forces are at work in this regard, as claimed by some Opposition Parliamentarians?
A: The unfortunate occurrence of certain events makes one wonder whether outside forces are also operating. We know very well that a major factor in defeating former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January last year was the loss of the votes he obtained from the Muslim community and a large section of the Catholic community. This was due to fear generated by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). That organisation was supported and promoted by Norway. This was admitted to me during the meeting of the Cabinet Sub Committee with the BBS leadership by the Secretary of that organisation. It is very clear that Norway was involved in the activities that promoted that change at that time. When we all must get together as one Sri Lankan nation at this critical time to draft a constitution, which would pave the way to govern our country, again anti-Muslim sentiments are being roused and there are stickers being pasted on vehicles and the world ‘Sinha-Le’ has been spray painted on the walls of some Muslim houses. The world ‘Le’ (blood) is written in red which gives the impression that blood is going to be shed, and the blame is being passed on to the Opposition. This is going to lead towards a situation where racial antagonism and conflicts will arise, generating fear. There will be a loss of confidence in what is going on. The breakdown of unity and confidence is going to be counterproductive to the development of a new constitution.
Deliberately some attempts are being made to prevent the successful drafting of a constitution that will unite our people as one Sri Lankan nation. That is what this constitution has to do. If we do that foreign forces will be powerless in dividing and causing conflicts and wars within our country.