All Party Conference Constitutional process essential
Posted on November 5th, 2017

By Sugeeswara Senadhira Courtesy Ceylon Today

The three-day debate in the Constitutional Assembly may not help to adopt a new Constitution, but it has provided the much needed forum for a national debate on this vexed question. During and before the debate it became very clear that there was no possibility of a consensus leading to a draft Constitution. Furthermore, there were strong indications that a draft proposal may not get the required two-third majority in Parliament, not to talk about a ‘yes vote’ in a National Referendum.

When the issue, especially the clauses on unitary status, place for Buddhism and the executive presidency became more muddled, President Maithripala Sirisena intervened with his decision to hold an all party conference, with participation of the political parties represented in Parliament, a conference of all religious leaders and another conference of scholars and intellectuals who are interested in this national issue, thus effectively ending the utility of the debate in the Constitutional Assembly, at this stage.

“At these conferences the issues pertaining to the proposed new Constitution can be discussed and unnecessary clauses could be removed and new clauses could be included, if required,” he further said addressing the National Convention on Reconciliation, participated by associations and national civil society activists.

The four-day debate last week brought out the ground reality that without a prior agreement of different political parties on the three major issues mentioned above, prolong deliberations would not bring any positive result. In fact, the debate resulted in negative factors as speaker after speaker offering diverse views and outside the August House too, similar contradictions were aired. Buddhist monks were also divided on this issue and finally, the President seems to have decided enough was enough and called for three different conferences to seek views and suggestions.

Some critics may see this as a dilatory tactic, but the dialogue in Parliament clearly showed the imperative need for such a conference to sort out issues before a Constitutional draft could be prepared.

As some critics pointed out the history of All Party Conferences in Sri Lanka did not yield any result. One must remember that the issues before us have not changed and even today we discuss the issues of devolution and constitutional power sharing, where it was earlier called the ‘communal issue’.

In January 1984, the J R Jayewardene Government convened an All Party Conference to seek a resolution of the communal issue.

Participants included the UNP, the SLFP, the TULF, and five smaller groups. The major issue under discussion was devolution and the Government proposed the granting of autonomy to the country’s districts through the creation of district councils and other changes in Local Government. The Government also proposed establishment of a second house of Parliament.

Jayewardene called the APC mainly to use it as a buffer against the Indian pressure. At that time India was insisting early implementation of ‘Annexure C’ proposals of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s special envoy G. Parthasarathy. Even after the death of Mrs Gandhi, the Indian Government of her son Rajiv Gandhi wanted to apply pressure on President Jayewardene on this issue.

However, analysts believed that even if the JR’s All Party Conference had reached an agreement on devolution, it was unlikely that it could have been implemented because the SLFP and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna had withdrawn from the negotiations in 1984. The proposals also were denounced by militant Sinhalese groups and politically active Buddhist monks, who viewed them as a sell out to the Tamils.

The TULF wanted setting up of Regional Councils and the Leader of the Party which commands a majority in a Regional Council would be formally appointed by the President as the Chief Minister of the Region. That was not acceptable to any national party and the APC proposals became a non-starter.

Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa also called for all party dialogues on the communal problem and devolution proposals, but none of them succeeded; mainly due to ulterior motives of the convening parties.

In 2006, President Rajapaksa called an All Party Conference to make representatives of political parties aware of the incidents that had taken place in Mavil Aru and Muttur; perhaps to get an endorsement for an all out offensive against the LTTE.

Representatives from all invited parties, represented in Parliament, except the UNP participated. That too ended as a futile exercise.

However, one should not be pessimistic about the APC merely because of experiences in the past. As Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne said, there is unanimity on more than 90 per cent of the clauses of the proposed Constitution. However, it will remain deadlocked until a consensual formula is found on the three issues: Unitary status, place for Buddhism and Executive Presidency. The APC will be the best forum to iron out those issues.

“People and the country cannot progress through divisions and separations. Everybody should get together and work with understanding and find solutions. That is what is required for the country today”, President Sirisena said last week. “Many people who mess up the problems don’t have any ability to solve them. I invite the venerable Maha Sangha, and other religious leaders, scholars and intellectuals to sit around one table and discuss about this matter,” he said. “It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the sound of gunfire is not heard once again. Everybody should take the responsibility to build the economy of all the people in a fair society,” the President emphasized.

Holding three different conferences might take time. But rushing into a new Constitution without a proper dialogue of stakeholders would not produce a lasting solution.

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