Senior Lecturer of Mass Communication Professor Ajantha Hapuarachchi of the Colombo University Journalism Unit in a recent interview with the Daily Mirror shared her views on constitutional reform, religion in government and media regulations. Excerpts of the interview:
What are the factors serving as obstacles to formulating a new constitution?
The most contentious issue is the government’s stability. The past regime also experienced similar issues because they couldn’t secure a stable government. Successive governments implemented certain remedies to maintain power, but have proved it to be a difficult task. Unlike in previous instances, this government has been formed by uniting two major political parties. This is considered a new experience. But it isn’t so. We had several coalition governments dubbed as ‘thun hawula’ or ‘hath hawula’ in 1964 and 1965. We have experienced such regimes by coalition governments which were however short-lived. A coalition government cannot function for a long time because the two parties function on different agendas. This is a noteworthy problem.
How successful was the role of the Public Representations Committee on constitutional reform?
The people who are involved in implementing constitutional changes have failed to identify the types of changes required and which parts of the constitution need change. This is despite the appointment of a Public Representations Committee which sought public opinion from a cross-section of the country.
I don’t think the public has any idea about the real constitution. The ordinary person does not know what the constitution is all about. There are elite persons who are well-versed in these matters. Their support is vital. A separate body should be established with experienced persons involved in constitutional changes, without the Cabinet or parliament being involved.
In your view, which areas should be the focus of formulating the new constitution?
One of the significant points I noted was that lawmakers are not discussing the changes that should be implemented. Instead they talk of race and religion, which are simple and undisputed matters. When we talk about human rights, all people are entitled to them. That alone is enough to secure the rights of the people. We all have common rights which we are entitled to and those should be secured by the constitution.
What is your opinion of the debate on religion being endorsed by the constitution?
The freedom to observe a religion of an individual’s preference is all that needs to be endorsed by the constitution. Today, religion is used as a survival mechanism in politics. There have been many instances where religion has been used by politicians to secure votes. Buddhism is now hauled into the constitutional debate as well.
Sri Lanka is a country that is still in a hybrid political set-up. It should have been made a secular country when we gained independence. The Soulbury Commission gave some freedom to constitutional practices, followed by the Donoughmore Commission. Even at that point, people were unaware of the constitution and democracy. This is because our people were used to regimes and a monarchy. Sri Lanka has a chronicled monarchy spanning some 2000 years. The citizens of the country are by nature moulded to fit such a system. Even the literary heritages attach the countrymen to this system.
We had a continuous lineage of kings until the rule of King Rajasinghe during the British period. History painted these kings in positive light. Because of this perception, people depicted former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a king. The defeat of the LTTE and conclusion of the war led our people to believe he was in fact a king.
To a country that is accustomed to royalty to such a degree, democracy was an alien concept brought in by Western countries. To date we have not been able to comprehend this situation and it is the root cause of all our problems. We cannot amalgamate the concepts of royalty and democracy.
Countries like Britain, Denmark and even Thailand have fathomed this situation well. There we have what is known as a constitutional monarchy, which means, while the sovereign is head of state, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected parliament.
They have the royal family which the people adore and respect and democracy lies within the parliament, whereas we are still unable to differentiate between these two concepts. That is why we look for security of religion in the constitution. We had the opportunity of establishing a secular country in 1971 through the likes of Colvin R. De Silva. Having missed that opportunity, the problems that arose are many.
How can this situation be remedied?
In my opinion, democracy should be within the parliament. Sri Lankans need a concept of royalty or monarchy. This status can be attributed to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and be separated from lawmaking. Government must be separated from religion. Then we do not need ministries for Islam, Hinduism or Christianity. Religion is a private matter. A ministry for culture and education can be held responsible for all functions under religious ministries. Only such measures will disentangle this confusion.
What should be the areas of focus when revising the present constitution?
I believe we only need to focus on two major areas of the constitution at present. One is the electoral system. The 19th Amendment to the constitution saw the dilution of many powers of the executive presidency. However, I believe the executive presidency should remain so. Sri Lankans believe in the concept of a ‘King.’ Our people favour the handling of citizens by a higher authority. Without understanding this, Sri Lanka as a country cannot go far. The war ended because of this. If it were not for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decisions and authority, the war would have continued. Therefore, the presidency should be a strong one, and it should be a president who listens to the people of the country.
"A referendum for the constitution would only ensure that corrupt politicians would find their way to power. Why should we entrust such individuals with the future of our nation? We don’t need a complete change of the constitution. We only need to revise parts of it which will have a significant impact on society and the country’s development"
In this sense, I believe our current president is ideal. President Maithripala Sirisena is a person who loves the country and his decisions would not harm Sri Lanka or its people, because he is enriched in experience.
However, he is caught between a tug of war. With episodes like the scandal the former Foreign Minister is involved in, the president is unable to function effectively in his position. This tug of war between parties is also a reflection of a hybrid political system. Unlike in Sri Lanka, other developed countries have only a handful of ministries. But their governments are functioning in an orderly manner resulting in development. Only Sri Lankan taxpayers nourish a parliament to this extent. We are still a developing country because of this electoral system. The number of ministries should be brought down.
Ministers are appointed by the president. In making these appointments, it should be required that the appointees are qualified to take responsibility of this portfolio. There are countless deputy ministers who have not even finished secondary education. These are the areas that should be addressed by the constitution. We should not give thought to futile debates over religion.
Do you think a referendum is necessary?
A referendum for the constitution would only ensure that corrupt politicians would find their way to power. Why should we entrust such individuals with the future of our nation? We don’t need a complete change of the constitution. We only need to revise parts of it which will have a significant impact on society and the country’s development.
How practical are your proposals?
We cannot see a solution at the linear level thus far. But only with experience can we build on it. In terms of practicality, all these changes can be implemented with the education of the people. We need to implement the ‘each one, teach one’ theory here as Sri Lankans do not have proper political awareness. People at the grassroots level have to be educated.
Peer groups meanwhile are silent. There are many women’s rights groups. But in the case of the murders of Seya or Vidya, where were these groups? There must be a group that would appear and fight for matters of such nature. If we had such effective peer groups, public thinking would be refreshed.
How do you view the future of the unity government?
The president is grappling with an unstable government. However, if President Sirisena is accompanied by even 10 patriotic individuals who are committed to honest and just development of the country, government will not be an issue. Unfortunately, our parliament is comprised of the likes of Sarana Gunawardena who was only fined Rupees 2,000 for failing to declare his assets and liabilities. Earlier, parliament members either had a sound education or wealth; qualities which people voted for and believed in. Now, we have MPs who have neither education nor wealth. Organisations such as PAFFREL must educate the general public on the graveness of this situation. They should also influence parties to refrain from recruiting such members to their parties and disqualify them when necessary.
Meanwhile, the UNP has a weakness where some of its members are of a different mindset while the general public is at a different level. There exists a considerable gap between the rulers and the people. One party refrains from reaching out to the masses and the other faction is clearly comfortable in engaging with the public. While decisions are made at the superior level, those messages don’t trickle down to the bottom level. These decisions must be taken considering our own citizens and not by replicating foreign models. This class difference of the rulers and their reluctance to reach out to the masses is a problem in government.
Government stability a concern in constitution-making
Public Representations Committee failed to identify necessary changes
Lawmakers not focusing on areas that need to be addressed
Religion used as a survival mechanism in politics
Hybridity of political set-up reflected by past failures
Government must be separated from religion
President Sirisena’s decisions would not harm Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s foreign missions very weak
Implementing measures to regulate media should not be done in haste
The Missing Persons Act (OMP) was a point of controversy over which the government and opposition locked horns. How necessary is the OMP?
The government was not forced to implement it. We had freedom, the opportunity to discuss and time. Despite that freedom, politicians were not patient to decide on its implementation. Like in China, every proposed Act or Bill should be taken to the people. The people should be educated and made aware of it. The response is then received by the government from the people. This was never the case in Sri Lanka.
Engagement with the public is necessary for any government. For instance, the former regime implemented a number of mega development projects according to models from Jordan or Iran. Our geographical differences were not calculated, similar to what has happened to our constitution. Sri Lanka adopted Charles De Gaulle’s constitution. But that was formulated to cater to a society that arose after the French revolution. In Russia, the constitution catered to a society established after the October revolution. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, never had a constitution that catered to a society following a social, political or cultural revolution.
How do you view Sri Lanka’s foreign relations?
Sri Lanka’s foreign missions are in a very bad state and should be reformed. Sri Lanka witnessed great examples of reconciliation recently when a Sinhalese police officer was gunned down in Jaffna while protecting a Tamil judge. Buddhist monks donated blood to those in need in the North. Such incidents illustrate that our people have the need for reconciliation. It is the politicians who don’t have them. It is simply a tool for them. These messages have to be carried out to the world through our foreign missions. The President’s Media Division (PMD) is very weak. The PMD should be able to tell the foreign missions, at least on a monthly basis, about all the good that is happening in this country. But this network is still poor. Politics can be kept aside and the human aspect promoted. Sadly, none of this is taking place.
What is your opinion on the government’s attempts to enforce laws to regulate the media?
Regulation of media is not suitable for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a different country and needs its own model. An understanding of behaviours and cultural values are also linked with these things. Therefore, only a copy of a Western or Scandinavian practice will serve no purpose. Their people were civilized before Sri Lankans. I don’t think our people are civilized to that extent. We need to take time in implementing such regulations for media and it should not be done in haste.
There is fear that this move is to suppress media freedom under the guise of raising the standards. Do you agree?
Yes, I believe media freedom will be suppressed. Journalists should know their responsibilities and limitations. That is the basic need. If journalists have sufficient responsibility, we need not impose any restrictions upon them.
The Prime Minister recently raised the question of regulating social media. As a country with an active social media user base, how will it affect the youth and what reaction can we expect from them?
I believe there should be a certain degree of restrictions placed, especially for students who use social media. Students are vulnerable. They don’t know how to use it, nor do they know the value of it. They use social media without any guidelines and it should be remedied. Defamation in social media should also be taken into account in implementing these regulations. Sri Lanka needs the defamation law which was repealed. With technological advancement, defamation can have serious effects on individuals as well as groups. I believe the government must take a stern decision in this regard.
We have the Press Complaints Commission, Press Institute and the Press Council. All three cater to newspapers. Newspapers are on the decline now. Therefore, we only need one such institution because we can’t see these authorities in action. People are not even aware of their existence to make a complaint. However, there should be a regulatory commission for all media, including electronic, web and social media, which would be sufficient. It is very important that this commission is transparent and its members should be independent. A common guideline must be formulated for all media to adhere to.