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download (8)I had a bizarre experience recently when I had to attend what is termed Standing Committee B of Parliament, which deals with legislation. This was in connection with the Vasantha Senanayake Foundation (Incorporation) Bill which I had sponsored. The experience was rendered worse by the Minutes which I received subsequently, which bore no relation to what had actually taken place.

I presume that there is some formula for reporting the meetings of these Standing Committees, but it was certainly inappropriate in this case, given that I had raised some matters which I had asked to be recorded. The Minutes state that I moved several amendments to the original draft of the Bill I had presented. This was not the case. What happened was that we were told the legal advisers had gone through the draft and suggested amendments. I accepted these, but I asked the basis on which they had been made.

It turned out then that the representative from the Legal Draughtsman’s Department who was supposed to liaise with Parliament regarding the Bill had no idea of the reasons. After much discussion one bright lawyer from the Attorney General’s Department said that the changes were probably because the Bill as it stood seemed to be in conflict with the Constitution.

I gathered then that for years the Attorney General had advised against many charitable works by Foundations on the grounds that the Constitution, following the introduction of the 13th Amendment that introduced Provincial Councils, declares that ‘No Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List shall become law unless such Bill has been referred by the President…. to every Provincial Council’.

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Prof Laksiri Fernando, in responding to my account of discussions about a Senate, has reminded me about publishing the proposals, as I had mentioned, and I will send them in as soon as I am back in Colombo. However, while I do not recall promising to publish my correspondence with Mr Sumanthiran – which is not in fact of any great significance – perhaps it would be useful, given current controversies, to publish the draft he and I prepared about land matters.

What we realized, which is why I proposed that we look at the matter quietly, was that the issue was causing much controversy based on dogma. The TNA insisted that the 13th Amendment conferred land powers on the Provincial Councils, the government relied on the Constitutional provision that land grants were in the power of the President. Mr Sambandan, while insisting that he had no objection to any citizen acquiring land anywhere on his own, went into a lengthy account of government colonization schemes which he said had changed the demography of the East.

I did point out that something similar had happened in the Wanni, where after the conflict we had come across large numbers of Tamils of Indian origin who had been settled there because of various colonization schemes funded by international agencies – including for instance the schemes run by Jon Westborg when he headed Redd Barna, if memory serves me correct. But at the same time I could understand Westborg’s motivation, given the appalling attacks on Tamils in the hills orchestrated by members of the Jayewardene government, in both 1977 and 1981 – just as I could understand the need to settle landless peasants in empty areas that had never been occupied by anyone previously.

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This false optimism, which is based on the assumption, which is quite contrary to the indications he has given, that the President wants to do none of the things he promised, has extended now to assuring him that all will be well after the Indian election, and we ourselves do not have to do anything to improve our situation. I am reminded then of J R Jayewardene twisting and turning in the years between 1983 and 1987 as he avoided action, and was forced gradually to concede, but always doing too little too late. So I wrote once that he assured us that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, during his discussions with India in 1986, but in the end the rabbit he pulled out of his hat was General Zia ul Haq. The idea that the Ministry of External Affairs has tried to convince the President that Mr Modi will play Santa Claus is preposterous, but I fear that that is the type of advice and advisors the President has to put up with.

All this is based on the assumption that somehow we can avoid implementation of the 13th Amendment. Because the advisors believe that subterfuge will win the day, no attempt has been made to analyse the 13th Amendment, see if anything in it is potentially dangerous, and then develop mechanisms to avoid those dangers. Instead we are doing nothing about the vast areas in which the strengthening of local administration – and concomitant local accountability – would immeasurably benefit the people.

The President I think understands this, for he was very positive about the ideas I suggested be discussed at the negotiations government had with the TNA. But the history of those negotiations makes it clear why we are in such a mess. The President put me promptly on the delegation when I pointed out there had been no progress over the preceding three months, and in the next three months we saw much progress, in part because I insisted on meetings being fixed on a regular basis. The government also put forward suggestions of its own, that I had proposed, whereas previously it had simply listened to what the TNA put forward, and then failed to respond despite promises.

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The more one studies the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the more one realizes how completely potty it is. I am not sure though whether this lunacy is entirely the fault of J R Jayewardene, even though I have little doubt that his is the primary responsibility for the failure to consider principles at all in formulating legislation, and indeed policies in general. Highlighting process rather than principle however has been a feature of most constitutions based on the British model, perhaps because the British never had a Constitution, and have muddled along on the basis of practicality.

The particular genius of the British is that they did very well on that basis. Others came a cropper however when they tried to emulate them, which is why countries like ours should have rather studied the American Constitution. That was based on the most enlightened political principles, albeit at a time when social equity was not as well developed a concept as it became after industrialization.

The guiding principle of the American Constitution was that power should be limited to the purposes for which power is legitimately exercised. By legitimately is meant the promotion of the interests of the people, since it was at that period that the idea first developed, after Greek and Roman Republic times, that the state belonged to the people, rather than to a monarch. Thus the American Constitution sits well with the principle of subsidiarity, which is that power should be exercised in any particular respect by the smallest group affected by that power, to the extent that its exercising such power should not adversely affect others.

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I was quite flattered recently when I was told by a former public servant, for whom I had the greatest regard, that I was probably the first politician since S W R D Bandaranaike to be so interested in Local Government. I am not sure that this is quite correct, not only because I am not really a politician, but also because I think President Premadasa did a lot of work in this field. But nevertheless it set me thinking on why the subject has not had the attention it deserves.

This is sad because other countries have moved forward significantly in this sphere. Indeed some of the hot air now being blown about with regard to India and its role in our introduction of the 13th Amendment would I think be dissipated if we looked at what India has actually done, since that Amendment was introduced, to bring government closer to the people.

The 13th Amendment came about quite simply because centralized government had been too distant from the people. While this was obviously the case with regard to the needs of minority communities, which also suffered because of exclusivist language policies, we should also remember that rural majority communities also suffered because of a majoritarianism that did not take the concerns of the marginalized into account. Hence indeed the two Southern youth insurrections.

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A group of young people, including a few politicians, have been working recently on suggestions for Constitutional Reform following the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The brief of that Committee is wide and, even though efforts were made to hijack it, and turn it into a vehicle to amend the 13th Amendment, the Chairman stood firm and made it clear that the terms of reference as laid down by those who proposed the Committee should stand.

I have no doubt that, despite the omission of perspectives that are more common in the country and in Parliament than extreme views on either side, there are enough persons on the PSC who will ensure that the commitments that country and the President have entered into will be upheld. However I suspect the Committee will deliberate for a very long time, and a lot of problems that it would be very simple to resolve will only get worse.

I welcome therefore what I see as a Youth Initiative, and have been impressed by the systematic way in which they are proceeding. They have used as a basic text a comparison which has been made of the three recent comprehensive proposals for Constitutional Reform that have been published. The first of these – as usual, I am tempted to say – was that of the Liberal Party, and this was followed this year by the proposals of the UNP as also those of a group led by the Rev Omalpe Sobitha.

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Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows, as exemplified recently by the allegation made by Shenali Waduge against Dayan Jayatilleke. I see Shenali Waduge as an aggressive writer, a description I am sure she would relish. Yet the charge she levels against Dayan is precisely that which was made a few weeks back by Tissa Jayatilaka, whose agenda now seems to be wholly that of the Americans whose Fulbright Commission he now heads.

Shenali’s criticism of Dayan occurs in the midst of a massive diatribe against G L Peiris, with which I must confess I have some sympathy. Yet I think Shenali has missed the point, because she thinks GL has a perspective which is opposed to her own, whereas the reality is that GL has no perspectives at all. Dayan on the contrary does, but Shenali is totally wrong to say that the 2009 vote in our favour in Geneva was because Dayan ‘secretly inserted a clause stating Sri Lanka would implement the 13th amendment’. This is of a piece with Tissa Jayatilaka’s claim that the victory in 2009 was a disaster because the draft contained pledges which have now come back to haunt us.

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One of the defining features of politics over the last thirty years has been the staggering of elections so that the ruling party could benefit. The process has always obtained under a Westminster style constitution, which I believe is one of its drawbacks, but consistent abuse of the process occurred only after the 1978 Constitution and its creation of two power centres, both of them equipped with executive power, unlike in other Presidential constitutions.

Since Ministers in Parliament exercise Executive power in addition to the President, if elections are held to the two institutions separately, there will always be one institution with power that can be used to influence elections. Jayewardene made it clear that such influence was to be exercised ruthlessly, when he amended his constitution to allow the President to call an early Presidential election. This was in addition to the Westminster practice of allowing early Parliamentary elections. Knowing that he was relatively popular, and having taken the precaution of knocking out his main opponent by taking away her Civic Rights, he held a Presidential election in 1982, 1 ½ years before he needed to.

But that in fact was not enough for him, because even though he could now use his Presidential powers for the Parliamentary election that was to follow, he knew he would certainly not get anything like the majority he had enjoyed under the First Past the Post system under which the 1977 Parliament had been elected. So he resorted to a Referendum, which he also fiddled outrageously, throwing the principal opposition protagonist into jail and then later banning the JVP so as to get over the legal challenge they had mounted.

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The relationship between the two themes I have been looking at in this series came home to me vividly when I read an article by my old friend Tissa Jayatilaka about the current situation. He too was once a leading member of the Liberal Party, though he left the Party even earlier than Dr Saravanamuttu, when he thought the party was being led, as he memorably put it, by its ‘Light Brigade’. He was referring I believe to the decision to work with President Premadasa, though in fact that was principally the decision of our Founder Chanaka Amaratunga.

Before that Tissa had been fully on board with the general ideas of the Party, so it was surprising to find him now praising the diplomatic failures of the Jayewardene government, which led up to the Indian intervention of 1987. He seems to have forgotten the manner in which the Indians ensured that the then Human Rights Committee in Geneva expressed itself forcefully against Sri Lanka. They were helped in this by Jayewardene’s support of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, which he assumed would set the seal on his position in the Western Alliance, the then equivalent of the Coalition of the Willing that has decimated Iraq.

The Americans, sensibly enough, did not however back us to the hilt. I am told that, when Jayewardene asked whether that they would stand with us against India, the then special envoy – I have the name Richard Boucher in my head, but I am not sure that he was prominent then – sidestepped the question and said that he advised us to maintain good relations with India.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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