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Nobody can fiddle with our constitution behind closed doors without asking us first

Jun 14, 2010 6:13:10 AM- transcurrents.com

by Namini Wijedasa

Sri Lanka’s old left parties (and, yes, the adjective “decrepit” was passed up with much difficulty) recently came out blazing against a proposal to remove the two-term limit on the executive presidency.

Displaying an uncharacteristic burst of energy, several members of the left publicly opposed the move on the basis that it would be of great detriment to this country. And we thought, phew, somebody is finally speaking up. Somebody still has guts. Somebody cares more for his nation than his position. While all the other losers in parliament are today keeping silent, somebody dared buck the trend.

Yes, we nodded. The left would not betray the legacy of great leaders like Pieter Keuneman, N.M. Perera and Colvin R. De Silva whose service to Sri Lanka remains unmatched. But we were wrong. One short week later, nobody is speaking up.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in India last week. Ministers were initially told the cabinet meeting would be postponed. When it did take place as scheduled on Wednesday, many ministers were absent, opting to honour other commitments. As the meeting was winding up, an urgent cabinet paper was hastily taken up. It had not been on the agenda and was read out with equal haste--so quickly that some ministers claimed “they didn’t quite get what was in it”-- and passed by cabinet before you could say ketchup.

What this paper pertained to, we were later told, was constitutional change. It did not contain the draft amendments. It stated, instead, that “minor” changes were being proposed to Sections VII (A), XI and XVIII of the constitution. Section VII (A) deals with the President of the Republic, his or her election and term of office. Section XI deals with the procedures and powers of parliament and Section XVIII (A) deals with the setting up of Provincial Councils.

The cabinet paper sought cabinet approval to instruct the legal draftsman to put together the required amendments. The draft will then come back to cabinet for approval. It is at this point that ministers will become aware of the exact nature of the amendments. Thereafter, the draft will go to parliament for approval.

Some ministers said they hadn’t known the paper was coming to cabinet that day (“though there had been rumours”), particularly since President Rajapaksa was not present. Certainly, the country did not know it was coming up before cabinet. But there are many things the country today does not know.

For instance, who is drafting these changes? Which minister is in charge of the subject? Does he have a team under him? When will the public, to whom the constitution rightfully belongs, get some clear and honest information about the direction in which we are being conducted (like bovine incarnations of the human race, you might add)? Whom will these proposed piecemeal constitutional amendments serve— our children, or some children? Will these changes be up for public discussion before they go to parliament? If not, WHY not? Who the devil said a near two-thirds majority should entitle a government to throw transparency, good governance and public accountability to the wind?

Questions, questions and more questions. No bloody answers. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t mind such a situation. We are, after all, a country that was told not to ask questions during the war and we readily complied. We are so compliant that we are still not asking.

But this is different. This is the constitution we are talking about. Nobody can fiddle with our constitution behind closed doors, fashioning it to suit individual—rather than national—requirements without asking US first. This is not and cannot be negotiable. The constitution unlike any other law is meant to protect the people against those who wield political power. It MUST be people-based. Any proposal to change the supreme law of the land must be discussed with the people.

At a UPFA executive committee meeting summoned by President Rajapaksa last week, there were sharp words for those that opposed the proposed changes to the constitution. The left parties, though not members of the UPFA executive committee, were also invited.

The president reportedly said: “We have decided to make a few amendments to the constitution. I know that some people who faced the elections with us are against this move. I also know that this is due to NGO pressure. If somebody is unwilling to accept the situation, we will have to stick by our decisions regardless of these one or two people. Keep in mind that when one or two leaves, ten or fifteen are standing in line to join.” The president said he had information that a member of an old political party and an upcountry lawyer were against the constitutional reforms. He claimed they were being funded by NGOs.

Heck, this is not about NGOs. This is not about conspiracies – at least not of the non-governmental type. This is not about the Rajapaksas or anybody else. This is about our sovereignty, the sovereignty of the people. It isn’t just the left parties. Any right thinking citizen should be demanding that the constitution not be meddled with in a manner that would harm this nation.

J.R. Jayawardene did it once, in 1978. This country is still lamenting over the damage he caused. Will history repeat itself? A constitution may be changed today to serve the interests of an individual. When that individual is no longer around, and should a despot come to power, what might he do with a constitution that makes the executive even more powerful than he already is? Any Sri Lankan with an iota of sense should be quaking at the thought.