Words that could cost the House | Sunday Observer

Words that could cost the House

Parliament, the highest lawmaking body in Sri Lanka came under verbal attack when its own member, Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawanse has reportedly said, Parliament should be bombed if the draft constitutional reforms which are proposed under the interim Steering Committee receives a two-thirds majority. Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Speaker of the House Karu Jayasuriya said, the matter will be taken up for discussion at the next party leaders’ meeting scheduled for next week, and appropriate action will be taken after the party leaders arrive at a decision.

“This is a very serious statement and there is a lot of pressure coming from all parties, so we are very concerned about the statement. ‘Bomb’ is a deadly word, especially, in the current context. It will be referred to the Privileges Committee. It’s too early for me to comment on the outcome or the action that will be taken,” he said.

Such derogatory remark has caught the attention of people in all corners, and some have taken it seriously, while others say it should not be given the attention it seeks.

Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan is of the view that such a statement should not receive any attention, and refrained from commenting on it.

“I don’t want to talk about it. The Speaker as custodian of Parliament is perfectly justified in taking the statement seriously and take whatever action needed. I do not want to comment,” he said to the Sunday Observer, when questioned.

Necessary action

The Speaker has said, the matter will be discussed when the House convenes again, in order to take necessary action. However, it has been pointed out by many that such derogatory remarks should be considered as a threat to democracy and the supremacy of Parliament. By Friday, Parliamentarian Susil Premjayantha stepped in to shed some light on the statement made by Wimal Weerawanse. He explained that the statement has been taken literally and is dissected in a manner that Weerawanse did not intend it to be. Premjayantha who interpreted the meaning said, the new constitution will destroy the Supremacy of Parliament making it insignificant, which was metaphorically equal to bombing it.

However, legal experts such as, President’s Counsel J C Weliamuna is of the view that these remarks entail legal implications and that it is up to the government to make sure that such incitement for violence will be dealt with appropriately and nipped in the bud.

Criminal attitude

“If everyone wants to attack and kill Parliament and dissenting views are suppressed, and if the people and the government tolerate such criminal attitude, it could derail the democratic process in the country. These are criminal statements that show a terrorist mindset, who are benefited by a democratic setup. These threats should not be taken lightly,” PC Weliamuna said.

He raised a point to state that if they behave in such a manner while in the opposition it would be unimaginable how they would act when in power.

Two ex-military officials expressed similar sentiments when they said, supporters of the new constitution should be considered as traitors and should be condemned and killed. PC Weliamuna opined, they should keep in mind that even the army officers are basically looked after by the public through their tax money, before making such statements. “Even after retirement, they are paid a pension. And, while they served the army, of course, they were paid. They have a much higher responsibility to respect public opinion because they are being paid and looked after by the public,” he reiterated. Parliamentarian Weerawansa’s statement reopened historical events which connected him to it personally, when Parliament was bombed, this time literally, when Wimal Weerawanasa’s brother in law, who was later identified as the attacker who hurled two hand grenades into a room where all members of the government, including the President and the Prime Minister were present. The incident took place way back in 1987 soon after then-President J R Jayawardene signed the Indo-Lanka Accord.

In a speech made subsequently, the late President Jayawardena shares his experience on that day on a lighter note stating that all he could remember was his Prime Minister shoving him under the table to ensure that he was out of danger. He, who quickly came back to his senses after the unexpected shock realized that the person right behind him had been injured and died subsequently.

Under these circumstances, it is equally important to study what exactly is happening pertaining to the country’s constitution.

Constitution

At present, we are governed by the 1978 Constitution which has undergone 19 amendments. This is the second Republican Constitution, both having been compiled by committees and individuals who failed to take into account the views of the masses before promulgating them.

According to constitutional experts, there is no need for such agitation on the interim report as the process is still at its initial stages.

This is basically the report of the committee expressing the views they arrived at after discussions. It cannot even be considered as the draft constitution. They are just proposals for further discussions and on certain matters, some parties have made remarks, a constitutional expert who wishes to remain anonymous shared his views.

“So this is not a government document, it is a document of a committee. It’s a discussion,” he said. “According to the resolution, the first step is to formulate this report, and thereafter it has to be debated in the Assembly, after which it will be presented to the Steering Committee which will attempt to draft a final report, for which they would assign a constitutional proposal. At that stage, you may have a draft, but in its current stage you cannot call it a draft,” he said.

JC Weliamuna weighing in on the topic said, this cannot even be considered as a draft since it is only one of the seven reports on the constitutional proposals.

“These are views based on public, political parties and stakeholders. Now if you look at this carefully these are suggestions that will be taken into consideration in drafting. This is a time where others can submit proposals. If you say the proposals are bad, I think these people must first admit that they have not read the report,” he said.

For decades, every political party has used the topic of the constitution and changing the constitution in their manifestos. It was highlighted in the UNP manifesto, as well as a top priority of the current government formulated by the two main parties.

“This has been the most consultative process ever in the history of the country’s constitutional drafting. We have to understand the current setting and should not panic. The government must take steps promptly, to go through the rest of it,” he said. It was highlighted by constitutional experts It was highlighted by constitutional experts that the proposals included in the interim report, in fact, place more safeguards than what is available today.

It is stated in the interim report that the State will be undivided and indivisible which is not included in the current Constitution. It means there is no secession, whereas in a unitary state such as in the United Kingdom separation is possible. That is why Scotland has a referendum, for example. It is further explained by stating that Sovereignty is indivisible, and provides that Provincial Councils or other institutions cannot take steps to create a separate state, and unlike in the present Constitution, in the event there is a threat, the President has the power to exercise control over those Councils, even to dissolve them, Weliamuna enlarged. Weighing in on some allegations levelled in the recent past, of the Tamil terminology used it was said, ‘Ottriachchi’ means unitary government not a unitary state, whereas, ‘Orumittanadu’ means one state. So, actually that is a more appropriate translation.

“But, if they wish, a different, better word can be proposed. I am sure, no one would object to it. The other important point is that all those arguments are unfounded, because what is meant by them has been defined as undivided, indivisible and where Parliament and the people have a control over amending the constitution. So, that is what anyone would expect from a so-called unitary constitution, to have power sharing with all the necessary safeguards in place,” he said.

If an apple is called an apple or an orange, if you define what it is, then that puts the matter to rest. So that argument is completely unfounded because you are not looking at the interpretation. Words do not have any significance beyond that interpretation. The interpretation is that it is undivided and indivisible, then the fear that it will lead to secession cannot be accepted, Weliamuna added.

Speaking on the topic, Dr. Nalinda Jayathissa of the JVP said, a public mandate has been given by 6.2 million to bring about a constitutional reform and the government is conducting it within that mandate.

The basis of introducing the new constitution should be the abolition of the executive presidency and to strengthen democracy. No one can, therefore, say the country doesn’t need a new constitution. But, the people have the power and the right to include their views and opinions to the drafts prepared by the government. So far, no such draft has been prepared. It is still at the stage where input from all stakeholders, including the people, is taken into consideration.

“So far we have the Lal Wijenayake Committee Report and the interim report. People, the Sanga and other stakeholders should bring in their objections and criticisms once the draft is ready. It is futile to make a noise at this stage,” Dr. Jayathissa said.

When queried about the allegations levelled against the JVP, that they are ‘red elephants’ he said, the JVP as a party that puts the country’s interest foremost can resort to the middle path, to bring about results to the people without merely objecting and hindering every step forward.

“It was under similar circumstances that the independent commissions were introduced under the 17th Amendment. Therefore, we have supported good causes such as, the introduction of the Right to Information Act, Office of Missing Persons and the 19th Amendment which reduced the powers of the executive presidency. And when necessary, we object when the government takes decisions that have an adverse effect on the country and its people,” he said.

In the modern constitution, people must be involved. And this time like never before, people have been involved. It’s a process where people are allowed to participate so that anyone shouldn’t consider it as a hindrance. 

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