( PM Wickremasinghe and some of his cabinet colleagues in the Parliament)
by Camelia Nathaniel.
Parliament has been converted into a Constitutional Assembly, and according to veteran journalist and social activist Sunanda Deshapriya, this is a positive development. In an interview with The Sunday Leader, he said that the country needs a comprehensive constitutional reform in order to establish a democratic system based on rights. These rights should include not only individual rights but collective rights as well. The new constitution or constitutional reform needs to address unsolved issues of collective rights of ethnic and social minorities. Today, we have a historic opportunity to arrive at a consensus of both major parties and ethnically based parties. In this context, transforming the parliament to a constitutional assembly is a commendable step, says Deshapriya.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: According to the government, the Constitutional Assembly was appointed for the purpose of deliberating, and seeking the views and advice of the people, on a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. Is the most important need of the moment a new constitution?
A: New constitution or a comprehensive constitutional reform is long overdue in this country. The issue of arriving at an acceptable political solution has been on the agenda since independence. There were many attempts, for instance in 1958, 1965 and 2000 to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict but they failed. Those attempts failed mainly because of the opportunist politics of either the SLFP or the UNP. The history of failed opportunities tells us that finding a political solution is easier said than done.
Today we have a two-party government although there is no real bi-partisan governance. The plus point is that President Sirisena and Prime Minster Wickremesinghe understand the urgent need of a political solution acceptable to the minority ethnic communities. This is an opportune time to embark on a constitutional reform process.
As we know our country had to undergo three decades of internecine war mainly because as a country we could not address the legitimate demands of the Tamil people for decades. Even today, though there is no war, the ethnic conflict remains. We need to address this issue as part and parcel of much needed reconciliation.
On the other hand this is not the only pressing need of the country. The government needs to address issues of development and social justice as a high priority.
Q: There was a great deal of criticism of the Rajapaksa regime and the size of the cabinet. Don’t you think this government is doing the same?
A: One can understand the need of a larger cabinet to accommodate leading figures of both parties, the UNP and SLFP. This is a two-party government and there is inherent weakness of such a coalition. This is a marriage of convenience and not a principled political alliance. But now it seems that there is no limit offering cabinet portfolios of various kinds. Cabinet portfolios have become bait to catch pro-Rajapaksa parliamentarians as we have seen recently. This is a shame and negation of people’s expectations of the January revolution.
Instead of fighting Rajapaksa politics aggressively, what is happening now is offering Cabinet portfolios to pro-Rajapaksa parliamentarians to shift allegiance. This is political bribery. This practice takes the legitimacy of anti-corruption rhetoric of the government, especially of the SLFP leaders, away from them.
The irony of the present government’s mammoth cabinet is that it has become one of the most inept cabinets in our history. To paraphrase it is like the proverbial Google balloons with free wi-fi!
Q: Sri Lanka has to submit a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June. Do you think we have done enough to satisfy the UNHRC?
A: Well, there has been some progress at the beginning. The 19th Amendment, establishing independent commissions, unblocking banned web sites, singing the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil, releasing land back to original owners in North and East, etc. are plus points for the government.
Today Sri Lanka has much improved working relations with the UNHRC and has provided standing invitations to all Special Rapporteurs of the UN. In short it has opened the country for UN scrutiny on a Lately some kind of inertia has crept in to the process. If you look at expectations of the resolution adopted by the 30th Session of the UNHRC, the government of Sri Lanka clearly is lagging behind. The main expectations of the resolution were on accountability, human rights and reconciliation. So far the government has not been able to come up with any blueprints for accountability mechanisms it has promised to establish. Consultations with the victims and other stakeholders on the proposed mechanisms have not even started yet.
Militarisation of the civilian life in the North continues unabated. Military run tourist hotels and shops remain. Military organises sports festivals and educational activities in schools. Surveillance by military intelligence has been reported on many occasions recently. The issue of political prisoners remains still to be resolved. Prevention of Terrorism Act is still being used.
In short promises made by the government to the UNHRC 30th Session in September 2015, in a way of a joint resolution, remains largely unfulfilled.
Q: The government keeps calling back those who had to flee the country during the past. However, there are allegations that the government is not sincere in their invitation. Would you feel safe to return?
A: Yes, I feel safe to return. As soon as the Rajapaksa regime lost power, I gave up my political asylum status and took back my Sri Lankan passport. I have been to the country three times since. I have travelled to Jaffna and many other places without any problems. Social and political situation in the country is quite OK for rights activists and journalists to return. Today there are no death squads run by politicians in Sri Lanka. Disappearances and extra judicial killings have come to an end.
In Tamil areas military surveillance of some journalists is continuing. So some Tamil journalists may have to face issues on their return. At the same time those journalists who work for and with pro-LTTE networks may have problems upon their return.
Overall I felt that the situation in Sri Lanka has improved. Journalists and media professionals can fulfill their duty without facing major threats that stems from the state. But this does not mean that journalists and rights activists will not face any threats and intimidations. There are unavoidable professional hazards.
Q: The current government came to power on the promise of eradicating corruption. But corruption is still rampant. How do you see this situation?
A: Cooperation is a decrease of unregulated capitalism. On the other hand non-capitalists economic systems too experienced corruption. Greed is part of the human nature and greed and corruption are two sides of a same coin.
We have a huge political class which thrives on a political culture of corruption and bribery. The colour or the party does not matter. Yes, corruptions are rampant. There are unbelievable stories of corruption by young and upcoming politicians doing the rounds.
In post independent Sri Lanka, the scale of the Rajapaksa corruption was unprecedented. We still do not know the real situation of Rajapaksa era corruption. So comparing the Rajapaksa era corruption and the present day corruption is not fair.
One of the major failures of this government is the snail’s pace of its anti-corruption drive. People have started to think that the anti-corruption rhetoric of present leaders is a pretext for making political deals. It may not be true but what matters in politics are perceptions. There were talks about a special court to try corrupt politicians in the early days of ‘good governance’. Now all cases has become pending!
I have started to doubt whether present leaders have the political will to fight Rajapaksa era corruption. Even when the most pure ‘communists’ come to power tomorrow they will be devoured by the prevailing culture of corruption in our country.
At the end of the day we should trust only the institutions and systems, not the individuals to fight corruption. People too make a difference but what is important at this time is to strengthen the anti-corruption institutions and bodies. I think independent media plus independent institutions can make a change for the better by exposing, investigating and stopping corruption.
Q: Do you see Sri Lanka on a constructive path towards reconciliation?
A: We have a historic opportunity to achieve reconciliation. As I explained earlier commendable first steps have not been followed with vigour and enthusiasm. This is a task we cannot fail. I still hope that with internal and international pressure, the government will embark on a genuine reconciliation process. We have a duty to support such an endeavour.
Q: The TNA wants a federal approach for the devolution of power as a solution to the ethnic issue. Do you see this as the best approach?
A: The word Federalism may be difficult to include in any constitutional reform for a foreseeable future. We should look outside the box, and be creative in formulating a political solution acceptable to all stakeholders. I personally think that federal form of government is the best answer to our ethnic conflict but at the same time I understand the need for compromise. It is very important that the Tamil people of this country will not be deceived this time also, like in 1958, 1965 and 2000. A consensus political solution, on the lines of power devolution, needs to be found.
Q: The Right To Information Bill has been presented to parliament. Do you think it covers all areas?
A: The RTI Bill as presented to the parliament is a great leap forward. There are shortcomings but it covers almost all areas. As a beginning this RTI act is good enough to give a jump start.At the same time we need to understand that even the best laws can be abused. It is the political culture of openness that will make the RTI Bill real. If we do not change our social, political and administrative culture of secrecy, then the RTI Bill may remain a dead letter.