likely to star in the new Constitution
The formation of the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), backed by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, has perturbed the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership that views it as a move to undermine the party hierarchy.
First, the move was seen as a precursor to yet another party splitting of the TNA. Wigneswaran and TNA leader Sampanthan did not see eye to on most issues as reported, and that gave rise to the speculation about a breakup.
However, Chief Minister Wigneswaran was quick to scotch such speculation, and explained it was an exercise to ascertain the true aspiration of the Tamil people in the formulation of proposals to be submitted to the government in drafting the proposed new Constitution.
A week after its formation, the TPC had its first meeting with the participation of Tamil political party leaders, Jaffna- based Tamil academics and civil society leaders at the auditorium of the Jaffna Library. The TNA is an amalgam of four parties. The Ilankai Tamil Arachu Katchi (ITAK), to which TNA leader Sampanthan belongs, is the dominant ally. A bulk of TNA representatives at parliamentary, provincial and local authorities’ level are members of the ITAK. In this context, ITAK decisions virtually become TNA viewpoints.
The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Eelam People’s Revolution Liberation Front (EPRLF) are the other three allies presently functioning under the TNA banner.
Some ITAK representatives even attended the TPC meeting last Sunday. Whatever might be Wigneswaran’s true intentions, the TNA allies, other than ITAK, were categorical that they would not be supportive of any move compromising the unity of TNA at this critical moment. The chief minister also harboured differences with the TNA leadership on some matters and the prevailing rift has only widened by the formation of the TPC with an active role played by the chief minister. TNA MP Sumanthiran, a confidant of Sampanthan, has openly criticised Wigneswaran, and had berated him for not consulting the party hierarchy. The open diatribe between the two has even become a media spectacle.
In addition to the TNA allies, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), a hard-line party led by Ganjendra Kumar Ponnambalam, is representative of the TPC. At Sunday’s meeting, the newly-formed entity appointed a committee of 14 to work out constitutional proposals in consultation with the Tamil people. The political parties, representing the TPC, nominated two members each to serve in it, the chief minister another two.
Despite hard-line positions, TPC activists need to come to terms with the reality that only the TNA, with its parliamentary clout as the main Opposition, can push for any political solutions in the Legislature. Whatever proposals made by the TPC, will not become realities unless the TNA leaders secure their passage through Parliament in agreement with other political parties in the House.
Otherwise, it will end up as yet another theorising exercise of the so-called Tamil political rights. With this understanding perhaps, some parties have articulated their position that more consultation and cooperation between the TPC and TNA would serve the intended purpose.
At the onset, there does not seem to be such an amicable approach. Inside sources of the TNA say even ITAK of Sampanthan is incensed by the participation of its Vice Chairman Prof. S.K. Sittampalam in TPC deliberations on Sunday. It is reported that the party will call for an explanation from Prof. Sittampalam in this regard.
The TPC started its week in the aftermath of the government’s announcement that it would make strides in the New Year in the evolution of a new Constitution. The process is to be initiated with the first anniversary of President Sirisena assuming office. A motion will be moved in the House on January 9, for the Legislature to function as the Constituent Assembly to work out the proposed Constitution in consultation with all parties.
There is wide speculation within Tamil political circles that Sampanthan and Sumanthiran will only deal with the government in pursuit of a political solution paying scant regard to the views of others. This has caused some unrest among Tamil politicians who consider that the birth of TPC is the result of this stand.
The proposed Constitution, if evolved and enacted, will replace the present one, which is the second Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka introduced in 1978. By now, it has been amended 19 times.
President Maitripala Sirisena has already committed himself to transfer executive powers to the Legislature by the enactment of the new Constitution. Already, the government has made some basic arrangements by appointing a separate committee to seek public representation on the new move.
According to political sources, this will be the foremost task of the government, to be completed within a span of six months starting from January. So, by the middle of next year, there will be a new Constitution ready for enactment with a two-thirds majority in Parliament and with the people’s approval at a referendum.
Signs have already emerged that the government’s exercise will be met with stiff resistance from the Joint Opposition and other segments of society. The Joint Opposition comprises the allies of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and a section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Already, it has declared a political war on the planned move, to the extent of saying there is no legal basis set out in the present Constitution for moving a resolution that provides for Legislature work in a Constituent Assembly. But, the government argues otherwise and justifies its
position. All in all, a murky political situation is likely to engulf the country right from the beginning of the New Year
Along with the evolution of a Constitution, the government is obliged to undertake numerous other activities, particularly due to its commitments made to the international community . It has to implement the provisions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution adopted in September, repeal of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), adopting a special judicial mechanism to try cases of wartime human rights violations, legislation banning hate speech, a political solution and a truth commission are among matters to be attended to.
The United States is the prime mover of this resolution, and Sri Lanka co-sponsored it. Already, almost all the top US officials including US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs-Designate Thomas Shannon have visited Sri Lanka within a period of about a year. It is learnt that the US officials discussed with government leaders on the implementations of the provisions in the UNHRC resolution. Now, the government is under compulsion to put their words into action.
The government was unable to work on any of these provisions during the year that is ending.
Besides, trade unions from various sectors of public service are up in arms against the government. They have threatened to flex their muscle again unless the government implements budgetary provisions immediately. Against this backdrop, the government is entering the New Year with a lot of responsibilities on its shoulders.
Federalism is a topic in Sri Lanka again
The word ‘Federalism’ was taboo as a political topic within some sections of society in the recent past due to the vigorous resistance to past governments to devolve power on Federal lines as a solution to the political question in the North and the East. When former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga tried to introduce the 2000 Constitution drafted on federal lines, she met with stiff opposition, and finally, she had to shelve it. The 2002/2004 United National Party (UNP) government had a similar experience when making initiatives for power devolution. Power devolution or sharing is synonymous with Federalism as a result.
Power sharing is widely spoken of in many quarters once again, after the government announced its plan to introduce a new Constitution. The main Opposition, the TNA is demanding a credible power sharing arrangements as its fundamental policy. The TNA says it has been approved by Tamil people at successive elections in the North and the East. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also referred to the Austrian model of power devolution at a recent function.
In the meantime, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), headed by President Sirisena, is reported to be in favour of power devolution as a measure to resolve political issues once and for all. A senior SLFP minister, who wished to remain anonymous, said a certain amount of autonomy should be granted to the minorities. For this purpose, he said the extremist elements of all the communities should be neutralised.
The SLFP adopted power devolution on Federal lines as its policy to resolve the problem, during the time of Ms. Kumaratunga. The party, however, discarded the idea under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The stalwarts of his government scorned the concept, even calling it a step leading to the partition of the country. Despite that, the SLFP, even at that time, consisted of members supportive of power devolution or sharing though they remained either silent or neutral at that time. Now, with Rajapaksa relegated to a lower position, the pro- devolution idea is gaining ground. Ms. Kumaratunga, an ardent advocate of power sharing, is playing a key role in SLFP affairs together with President Sirisena.
Meanwhile, the UNP is also a party accepting devolution of power to the periphery as a means of governance. Therefore, in the process of evolving the new Constitution, attempts will undoubtedly be made in that direction.