PSC on Constitutional Reforms: Addressing national Question

| Sumanasiri Liyanage

(November 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A rumour goes like this: Speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa on his return from a recent visit to India suggested that some meaningful steps be taken, sooner rather than later, to devise a mechanism to resolve the national question in general and the Tamil national question in particular. As he was asked by the President to take action in that regard, the idea of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to propose how the state should be restructured to accommodate the aspirations and grievances of different national and ethnic groups was mooted. A motion to this effect signed by 16 members of Parliament was submitted on August 16, 2011. It was resubmitted with amended ToR on October 10, 2011 with the signatures of 14 MPs. It is interesting to note that all signatories are parliamentarians belonging to constituent parties of the ruling coalition. Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s name does not appear as a signatory although the name of Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka does. The object of the proposed PSC is stated in the motion as follows: “Whereas it is now necessary to devise a constitutional framework in such a manner as to ensure that all Peoples will preserve and promote their respective identities and live with dignity and security as one nation.”
The PSC will consist of not more than 31 members and its chairperson will be appointed by the Speaker. The PSC should submit its report within six months. One may, of course, raise arguments about the word ‘one nation’ in the ToR, but my objective of this article is quite different from those hair-splitting theoretical issues.
The appointment of a PSC to deliberate and make recommendation on issues of national importance is in itself not a bad idea. The objective of resorting to PSC process is to arrive at a consensus for the problems that transcend narrow partisan politics. The constitutional amendments or writing a new constitution should not be a monopoly right of a single party or parties representing one ethnic community. However, responses to the current proposal have been mixed. Tamil National Congress has already expressed its stand that it would not take part in the PSC deliberation. The United National Party has not yet made its stand public, but is likely to follow TNA on the issue. Hence the participation of the Opposition parties in the PSC hangs in the balance.
Suspicion and lack of confidence on the PSC process on constitutional reforms stem from multiple factors. First, the experience has proved that the PSC process on constitutional reforms has failed so far to produce visible results. In the post-13th Amendment period, the first of that kind was the PSC headed by then opposition MP Mangala Moonasinghe. It had so many meetings and the minutes of which extended to about 400 printed pages. The committee has proposed substantial amendments to the 13th Amendment to make it more meaningful and less contradictory. Its principal recommendations include
(1) reduction of subjects in the Concurrent list adding many in the list to Provincial list
(2) creation of room for setting up of an apex body between two provincial councils to deal with common issues.
Had those recommendations accepted and implemented, the current constitutional impasse would have been reduced and the space created to introduce whenever necessary more incremental changes.
The Mangala Moonasinghe Committee report serves as a monument to the failure of the Sri Lankan politicians. Then a long process of constitutional engineering began in post 1994 period. PSC process on constitutional reforms, in fact, did not work properly. More work was done outside the process rather than in the process. Finally, the main Opposition party opposed to the final draft on some flimsy pretext. Ironically, Tamil politicians of the TULF also preferred not to participate in the process. Hence, it ended as another unfortunate landmark in the constitutional history of Sri Lanka.
Secondly, one may surmise that the PSC process is used by Sinhala politicians as a dilatory tactic. President Chandrika Bandaranaike tried to manipulate the PSC process in her first term in order to stay as an executive president by postponing constitutional reforms process until 2000. She was more concerned about her personal agenda rather than changing the state structure in keeping with plural-national social requirements.
Thirdly, one may justifiably ask whether there is anything new to be achieved through a PSC process. The basic principles and how they could be realised have been a subject of discussion and debate for the last three decades or so. Therefore, a long PSC process of deliberation is not necessary. There is no need for inventing the wheel once again! Sri Lanka has a very rich constitutional discourse ranging from how unitary constitutionalism can be extended to make it federal-like and how federal constitutionalism can be adjusted to make the state unitary-like. The debate has also discussed multiple forms of constitutional engineering once again ranging from new revolutionary changes to amending the present constitution through incremental reforms. If there is any task left for the PSC that would be limited to select the relevant and acceptable bundle of principles and mechanisms.
Because of these reasons for suspicion about the PSC process, it is quite legitimate for the Tamil National Alliance to announce that it would not participate in such a futile process. While being sympathetic to the TNA position, I prefer to propose a compromise which will benefit all the relevant parties in two ways. If the government is genuine in its effort, this genuineness may be proved by agreeing to this compromise formula so that it can ensure that it is moving in right direction. If the TNA agrees to this compromise formula, the government and its spokesperson will not be able to identify the TNA with diaspora and the LTTE. Moreover, it could win back the support of India for a democratic and just solution. Hence, my suggestion is that the participation of Opposition parties in the proposed PSC process should be conditional. What are the conditions? Let me list them.
(1) An election for the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) should be held and elected NPC set up
(2) The implementation of development work, re-settlement etc should be handed over to the elected NPC
(3) The government should sign an MoU with the NPC that the government does not use Concurrent List in order to contain, limit or sabotage NPC work
(4) The Provincial Governors should not be allowed to overrule the decision of the elected PCs.
The advantage of agreeing upon these conditions is that prior to the commencement of PSC process, people would get some idea about the PSC process. If the government is not ready to agree on these demands, the TNA and all parties representing numerically small nations and ethnic groups (including the SLMC) should, I propose, boycott the PSC process.
The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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