Member of Parliament and President’s Counsel, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, says the President and the Prime Minister have clearly stated that the new Constitution will not take away the foremost place given to Buddhism.
? Why do we need a new Constitution at this moment?
A: The 1978 Constitution was engineered to concentrate power in the hands of a single individual. However, this power has already been diluted. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution saw power vested with the centre being devolved – within a certain limit – to the provincial councils. Then came the short-lived 17th Amendment. This followed the 18th and 19th Amendments.
Today people clamour to have the executive presidency abolished. During the past several elections this has been the rallying call. The majority voted in favour of abolishing the executive presidency.
The other reason is we need a modern Constitution. According to the current Constitution, amending certain Articles require a referendum. Therefore, in the end, we will have to go for a referendum if we are going to introduce a new Constitution. We must not try to build on the foundations of the old Constitution. What we must do is introduce a completely new modern Constitution.
There is no point hanging on to JR’s Constitution. If the UNP who has the majority in Parliament says we need to change JR’s Constitution, then why are others opposing it? I don’t understand this. Those who have opposed the executive presidency since the day it was introduced are now opposed to changing it. Now they are asking for minor changes to the executive and the Constitution. This is completely against the public mandate.
? What is the need of the hour; introducing a new Constitution or amending the existing one?
A: The resolution passed by Parliament to establish a framework for the creation of a Constitutional Assembly clearly states whether there is going to be a new Constitution or the existing Constitution will be amended. We propose that we should go for a new Constitution and a referendum. Isn’t it better to go for a referendum than opting for a massive amendment? Why can’t we have a ‘Maithri Constitution’ instead of the ‘JR Constitution’? Isn’t this what President Maithripala Sirisena promised?
? What is the role of the Lal Wijenaike Committee and the Steering Committee you represent?
A: The Lal Wijenaike Committee was appointed with Cabinet approval for the purpose of seeking the views of the people. This Committee was not appointed by Parliament or the Constitutional Assembly. However, this Committee comprises 21 members representing various political parties. The role of this Committee is to visit all 25 districts in the country and obtain in writing the opinions of the people’s leaders, civil organizations and the general public in those districts regarding the Constitution. These views and recommendations of the members of that Committee are submitted to the Constitutional Assembly. However, we are not obligated to accept those recommendations. Nevertheless, we have taken steps to consider those recommendations out of respect for public opinion.
? Is there a mandate from the people to prepare a new Constitution?
A: Even before the 8 January 2015 election victory, a number of public campaigns clamoured for the abolition of the executive presidency and introduction of a new Constitution. There was a call for a referendum. Some wanted to completely do away with the executive presidency. I must especially mention the people’s campaign led by Ven Sobhitha Thera. Later on, a number of political movements joined this campaign.
But, we hit a stumbling block when Maithripala Sirisena came forward as the common candidate. At that point, the majority in Parliament were against Maithripala. But, a referendum would have taken more than three months. So we came to the decision to dissolve Parliament as we didn’t even have a simple majority. Therefore, we decided that within the 100-day plan we would not go for changes that would have required a referendum. This is clearly mentioned in the Clause 14 of Common Candidate’s election manifesto.
Everybody agreed that we would not go for amendments that would require a referendum within those 100 days.
However, at the funeral ceremony of Ven. Sobhitha Thera, the President clearly stated that the executive presidency should be abolished. At the same time, during the general election held in August 2015, the parties supporting constitutional reforms stated very clearly that the executive presidency will be abolished. Today they have forgotten how many voted for them on that promise.
The United National Front for Good Governance obtained 45.66% votes in that election. The JVP 4.89%, Tamil National Alliance 4.62%. In addition to these three parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the All Ceylon Muslim Congress and Sarath Fonseka’s party all contested the election and agreed to abolish the executive presidency. A total of all of these meant that a percentage of 56.11% of people voted for abolishing the Executive Presidency.
Do we need a Constitution or not? Who will decide? Ultimately, it is the people who must decide. The sovereignty is with the people. In that case, isn’t it batter to ask them? Is there greater mandate than that?
? Isn‘t it possible to get the Constitution adopted without holding a referendum?
A: We must go for a referendum if we are to introduce a new Constitution. For example, if we want to change even a comma in the Article 83 of the Constitution, we must go for a referendum.
? What is the content of the new Constitution?
A: We have paid attention to three main aspects. The foremost is to abolish the executive presidency, which has become a bane to the country. Then we must change the electoral process. The third is finding a resolution to the question of power devolution. We must do it right now as today we have a moderate Tamil leadership. We may never get another chance if we don’t take it now.
The fourth is we have a huge problem about the independence of the judiciary. We must find a solution for this. Fifthly, we must update our Fundamental Rights chapter on par with international standards. At the moment this is limited to civil and political rights. But, we must also include women’s, children’s, elders’, environmental economic, cultural rights also into a Bill of Rights.
Then, we must establish the supremacy of the Constitution. At present, there is no mechanism to question the constitutionality of a bill before it becomes a law. We only find out contradictions when we execute the law. There are already many instances like this.
? There is much speculation that the new Constitution will take away the foremost place given to Buddhism and that it will change the unitary nature of the State. Is there any truth to these claims or are they mere falsehoods?
A: Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have clearly stated that there is no attempt to take away the importance given to Buddhism in the Constitution. There will be no change in that at all. There are many different viewpoints about the unitary nature of the State. What the general public perceive as a Unitary State is a State that is not divided and cannot be divided. Even the Tamil National Alliance has stated that a Unitary State is a country that is not divided.