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Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Speaking at a book launch last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the draft of Sri Lanka’s new Constitution would be ready by January 2018, yet again shifting the deadline for the challenging task his government took up after coming to power in 2015. As per earlier assurances, the government should have already debated the draft Constitution in Parliament by now, and prepared for a referendum after a likely two-thirds majority. But even as the government tried fast-tracking the process, a section of the country’s influential Buddhist clergy said there was no need for a new Constitution.
The government was quick to counter that. Senior Minister and Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said they would go ahead with drafting the new Constitution as per the mandate they got in the 2015 elections. President Maithripala Sirisena, meanwhile, assured the chief prelates that the government would keep them posted on the draft. Going by the public statements made by the President and the Prime Minister, it appears that the leaders are committed to their promise – a new Constitution that brings an end to the executive Presidency and, among other reforms, enables a comprehensive political solution to the Tamil question through enduring power devolution. However, the pace of the ongoing efforts and the recurring political pressure from within the government raise some difficult questions for the leaders.
The pressure is partly to do with the complex arrangement of a “national unity” government, with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the rival United National Party (UNP) cohabiting it. With a section of SLFP MPs reportedly threatening to join former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who now sits in the opposition, the insecurities within both the party and the government appear to be growing. The UNP, on the other hand, is apparently focussing on its version of economic development, with PM Wickremesinghe even announcing a new round of liberalisation.
There seems to be a widely-shared understanding that this government should look ahead faster than it needs to look behind. That is what the March UN resolution in Geneva, co-sponsored by the U.S., Sri Lanka and other countries, seemed to indicate when it gave the country a two-year extension to fulfil its commitments on accountability. The Tamil leadership, too, willingly emphasised Constitutional reform over accountability, drawing high praise from the international community for its constructive cooperation with the government. As the formal exercise of Constitution making, through six sub-committees, a steering committee and a Constitutional Assembly, saw a lull, President Sirisena sought to break the deadlock by initiating tripartite talks, led by him, with the Prime Minister and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Opposition party. As far as the people are concerned, there is little information in the public domain as to where these initiatives currently stand.
At the same time, the Tamil leaders’ patience is evidently waning. Amid severe criticism from sections of its support base in the north, the TNA has begun articulating its frustration with the government loud and clear. During a meeting with Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was in Colombo recently, TNA leader R. Sampanthan said: “The UNP and the SLFP must put their petty political agendas aside and come together to lead the Constitution-making process to a success.” Whether the national leaders and their parties share his concern should be rather clear in the next few months.