Dec 07

Early humans formed themselves into small groups so as to make it easier to hunt animals and secure other food more effectively.  Such groups, by virtue of their necessity-enforced unity, were also usually strong enough to resist intrusions into their territories by rival groups.  For more effective cooperative action, it became necessary for the members of a group to agree on simple rules of conduct to help avoid friction among themselves.  The more experienced and skilled hunters led their hunting expeditions, whilst those possessing less physical endurance attended to less onerous tasks closer to their settlements.  Similar arrangements and understandings, covering most of their interactions with one another, although not written down, were undoubtedly the earliest forerunners of the increasingly sophisticated, written Constitutions that have been developed over many millennia by every kind of society.

The key feature of early Constitution-making exercises would almost certainly have been to empower each member of the group concerned, probably after they reach a certain level of maturity, with an equal say in the decision-making process – until, perhaps, witch-doctors and priests appeared on the scene, like present-day politicians, and began to distort the genuinely democratic way in which the early rules were agreed.

Today, a good Constitution must, above all, maintain the equality of each citizen’s right to have his say in what should be included or excluded from their Constitution.  There should be no room for individual citizens to be coerced into surrendering passively their sovereign power to any self-appointed, highly-vocal group with its own avaricious agenda.  However, on account of the sheer impracticability of getting every citizen to convey their views to every other citizen, societies have learnt to delegate most of their rights and responsibilities to elected people’s representatives, but generally with some safeguards to ensure that these representatives do not take the people for a ride by robbing the community for their own benefit, and those of their kith and kin, friends and supporters.

So far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the 1972 and the 1978 Constitutions were, for all practical purposes, formulated by a few powerful people.  The general public had no say in the matter, in strong contrast to what happens in better democracies, where all matters of constitutional importance are presented to the people over months or even years through the media so that voters may themselves evaluate the merits and or drawbacks of every proposal put forward, and cast their ballot accordingly.  In particular, TV discussions concerning the pros and cons of important issues are programmed for peak viewing hours, leaving other programs to be broadcast before or later.  In stark contrast, most of our televised political programs are timed for the early morning hours when the vast majority of people are rushing through their morning chores so as to get to work on time, or at such a late hour that it is only those who do not have to rise early that can spend their late evening hours listening to political debates.  Self-evidently, the government is duty-bound to make acceptable arrangements to keep the public thoroughly informed on issues of national importance by allocating, say, 20-30 minutes a day during peak hours on all TV channels for the dissemination of diverse views on such issues.

For months, we have been inundated by an unending flow of ill-motivated statements by those who accuse the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government of having surreptitiously finalised an unwelcome Constitution that will be imposed on the people of Sri Lanka.  Whereas the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has been unremittingly critical of the current regime’s failure to honour several key promises made by it in its early days, it does not agree with the flood of blatant untruths against the government that are clearly designed to mislead the people in this regard by wrongfully attacking the efforts being made to replace the poor 1978 Constitution with a better one.

It is common knowledge that the Public Representations Committee for Constitutional Reform (PRCCR) collected the views of as many citizens and citizens’ groups as it could during the year or so that it was given to do so.  Thereafter, the PRCCR had dutifully summarised the views collected by it and the resulting report was passed on to six or so sub-committees in Parliament for review and elaboration.  The reports of these sub-committees were then studied and refined by the so-called Steering Committee, which then published its report for public comment.  Hence, at this moment, all we have is the report of the Steering Committee – without even an outline draft of a new Constitution – for the public to study and review critically.  Patently, there are several more stages of work left to be completed before a new Constitution could be developed to the point where it could effectively replace the 1978 Constitution – which, incidentally, has been reviled by so many over the years but is now being lovingly embraced by countless hypocrites making their voices hoarse shouting how perfect President J.R.Jayewardene’s opus is and that it does not need any change at all!

CIMOGG is of the firm view that the current Constitution lacks the structure and the features that would help Sri Lanka to become a united, progressive, prosperous and much less corrupt country than it is.  On the other hand, there are perfectly honest and independent citizens who consider that, with a few amendments, the present Constitution could be improved sufficiently to obviate the need for a significantly improved new version. For example, the abolition of the Executive Presidency alone would satisfy some citizens.  There are others who would like to change the electoral process to (a) make each people’s representative answerable to a particular constituency, (b) increase the proportion of women to reflect more accurately their numbers in the general population, (c) reduce the number of people’s representatives because there a far too many of them, (d) have a senate, and so on.

The question of whether Sri Lanka should be described as unitary, united or federal has become of paramount importance to constitutional experts and a number of citizens’ groups. Frankly, we are of the view that those parties which fear the word “unitary” should just cease to oppose its use after seeing what has happened in the UK, which is supposed to be a unitary entity, where this provision has not prevented a great measure of independence being extracted by Scotland and Northern Ireland by applying the right kind of peaceful pressure, short of a total parting of the ways.

CIMOGG has no doubt that the highly excessive emphasis on religion, race and language in writing our Constitution or legislative enactments is totally counter-productive when it comes to uniting all the peoples of Sri Lanka to think of themselves first as Sri Lankans.  We maintain that the Sri Lankan Constitution should be so formulated that, except in connection with use of the three principal languages for communication, education and administration, there should no references to specific races, religions or languages.

We may also usefully look at a few other criteria to which every provision of the Constitution should conform if it is to help produce a society where even a distinct group of only a few citizens could hope to enjoy equal freedom, equal opportunities and an equitable share of the nation’s resources.

The terms “Sinhala”, “Tamil” and “English” should refer solely to their function as means of communication and not have any associated privileges or disadvantages.  Every child should be educated in its mother tongue and English, and be given a good grounding in Information Technology (IT) so that it could communicate freely with other citizens elsewhere in the country or those in the outside world.  Sinhala and Tamil children and adults could, and will, communicate with each other once they get familiar with the basics of English and IT.

Religions should be left to be followed and fostered by their respective adherents just as much as each social or other group should look after it own interests without violating the rights of citizens belonging to other groups.

It is of paramount importance that there should be maximum separation of powers with well defined rules governing the interaction between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.  Without this, corruption cannot be contained nor justice delivered.

If the above basics are addressed, the rest of Constitution-making would become much easier.

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