Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We are debating the Policy Statement made by His Excellency President Maithripala Sirisena in Parliament on the 08th of this month. This Adjournment Motion has been requested by the Leader of the Joint Opposition, the Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena and has been seconded also by an Hon. Member of the Joint Opposition.
One could see, Sir, that the main theme of their speeches was that this Government should cease to govern, which should also mean that they must be returned to governance or they must be enabled to govern the country. They have governed this country for a long time. They governed this country for ten years before the present Government came into power. When they gave up their Government, they were neck-deep in debt.
One of the biggest issues identified by the President as confronting the country is the foreign debt and the domestic debt. I will, in the course of my speech, Sir, address issues that need to be addressed to take the country forward, to take the country on a different path, to define for the country a different future. It would be my submission that merely changing Governments is not going to resolve problems. On the contrary, we must all come together and think in terms of what needs to be done for the country to move forward, for the country to prosper, for the country to be redeemed from its present position. Therefore, Sir, my speech will be on an entirely different basis.
The President in the course of his address identified three main issues. One was, the economy; the second was, the issue of the North and the East, popularly referred to as the “national question” and the third was, the issue of corruption and fraud. All these three issues are fundamental issues which have a great impact on the future of this country. But, Sir, I will in the course of my address primarily deal with issue number two. That is the national question, the issue pertaining to the North and the East and the people who live in that part of the country. It has afflicted the country from the time the country attained Independence, 70 years ago. The non-resolution of the issues in the North-East has been the primary cause for all other problems and various difficulties the country has faced. It is also my contention, Sir, that the country is in its current parlous state and corruption and fraud have aggravated to its present height primarily on account of the non-resolution of the issue in the North-East.
This country will never be able to redeem itself unless the North-East issue is resolved. I also consider it my duty, Sir, as the Leader of the Opposition, to pay the maximum possible attention to this issue. I do so in the interest of the country, not in the interest of one Government or the other and my appeal is to all Members of Parliament, to all persons in Government, to all persons in Opposition to come together to resolve this issue. I do so in the interest of the country as a whole. Very much unlike some who want the North-East issue to continue for their political survival and for the advancement of their political fortunes, I want the North-East issue resolved within an undivided, indivisible and one Sri Lanka on the basis of fairness, justice and equality, wherein all Sri Lankans are equal citizens of this country, Sri Lanka, subject only to the country’s Constitution and laws. That is why, Sir, we are currently engaged in the framing of a new Constitution and it is in this background that I will examine some aspects of His Excellency the President’s Policy Statement and other relevant material to put the whole issue in its proper perspective.
Before I do that, you will permit me, Sir, to refer to the Election Manifesto of the Federal Party in 1970. This is what the Federal Party said in its Election Manifesto in 1970. The whole country should know this. I quote:
“It is our firm conviction that division of the country in any form would be beneficial neither to the country nor to the Tamil-speaking people. Hence we appeal to the Tamil-speaking people not to lend their support to any political movement that advocates the bifurcation of our country.”
This was the position taken by the Federal Party in 1970 in its Election Manifesto, that they were opposed to the bifurcation of the country and wanted the Tamil people to vote against any political movement that advocated bifurcation of the country. I say this because many people seem to think that we have demanded separation and that we are responsible for the state in which the country is.
It was after this election in 1970 and the enactment of the 1972 Constitution that there was a demand for a separate State. But, ever since the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in 1987 and certain Constitutional changes that came about with that Accord, all Tamil political parties in this country have been prepared to find an acceptable, reasonable solution within the framework of a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka. That has been our position. That had been the position in all elections in the past. For almost three decades, ever since 1988, that has been our position at Local Government Elections, at Provincial Council Election and Parliamentary Elections.
As I said before, Sir, it was the non-resolution of the North-East issue and the enactment of the 1972 Constitution unilaterally by the party in power at that time without any consensus with anybody else that resulted in all that happened since 1970 and the country being brought to its present state. The whole question, Sir, is, “Do you want the country to continue in the same trend and get even worse in the future or, do you want to give the country a new direction and a new future?”
It is in this context, Sir, that I shall be quoting from the Statement made by His Excellency the President in Parliament on the 08th of this month and some other Statements made by the President earlier, the Resolution adopted by this Parliament converting this Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly and also the Statements made by former President Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa in the course of his election campaign. In the course of the Statement His Excellency the President made in Parliament on the 08th of this month, he said, “I wish to make this Statement as an extension of the Statement presented by me at the commencement of the First Session of the Eighth Parliament.” – that was on the 1st of September 2015. Before I read that Statement, Sir, let me state what His Excellency the President said in the course of his speech on the 08th of May. He said, I quote,
“The foundation of a stable country is national reconciliation. It is important to introduce a structure for taking political decisions based on equality for achieving meaningful reconciliation. I believe, it is the dire need of the day to strengthen the existing provincial council system in order to achieve these objectives. Whatever the opposition, it is essential to enter into a political programme with the consensus and agreement of the people to find a permanent solution to the issue of unrest of the people in the North and the East.”
His Excellency, in the course of his Statement in Parliament on the 08th of this month, made reference to the North-East issue because he identified the North-East issue as one of the most serious problems afflicting this country. Thereafter, Sir, I quote from the Statement made by His Excellency the President on the 1st of September, 2015, when he addressed the First Session of this Parliament.
Srisena at 2015
He said, Sir, I quote:
“Hon. Speaker, the identity of a nation or a country is based on its Constitution. That is why a Constitution is considered supreme. During the 60 years after Independence, we have adopted three Constitutions. Yet, it is unfortunate that we have not been able to adopt a Constitution which enables all of us to agree as a single nation.”
This is what His Excellency said on the 1st of September, 2015 when he addressed Parliament and then when he addressed the Parliament on the 08th of this month, he said, “What I now make is a continuation of the Statement I have made when I addressed Parliament at its First Session on the 1st of September, 2015.”
You would permit me, Mr. Speaker, to quote from the Resolution of Parliament on the 9th of March, 2016 in regard to the framing of a new Constitution which His Excellency referred to in the course of his first Policy Statement on the 1st of September, 2015. The Resolution states, I quote:
“AND WHEREAS it has become necessary to enact a new Constitution that, inter alia, abolishes the Executive Presidency, ensures a fair and representative Electoral System which eliminates preferential voting, strengthens the democratic rights of all citizens, provides a Constitutional Resolution of the national issue, promotes national reconciliation, establishes a political culture that respects the rule of law, guarantees to the peoples fundamental rights and freedom that assure human dignity and promotes responsible and accountable government.”
It goes on to state, I quote:
“There shall be a Committee of Parliament hereinafter referred to as the ‘Constitutional Assembly’ which shall consist of all Members of Parliament, for the purpose of deliberating, and seeking the views and advice of the People, on a new Constitution for Sri Lanka, and preparing a draft of a Constitution Bill for the consideration of Parliament in the exercise of its powers under Article 75 of the Constitution.”
That is the Resolution, Sir, adopted by this Parliament converting itself into a Constitutional Assembly in March, 2016. What has happened thereafter? The Constitutional Assembly has functioned; a Steering Committee has been appointed; Subcommittees have been appointed; Subcommittees have come up with their Reports; the Steering Committee has come up with an Interim Report to the Constitutional Assembly and debates have taken place in Parliament. The enactment of a new Constitution has been seriously considered and much work has been done on that. Experts have been appointed; their views have been obtained; there have been consultations with the people; there have been consultations with civil society and a lot of work has been done. Unfortunately, in the past couple of months, that work has not continued on account of other developments in the country: Local Authorities Elections and certain differences in Government. Sixteen Ministers of the Government have crossed over and joined the Opposition.
On account of these disturbances, that process has not continued. But that must continue; that process must recommence and that must reach its logical end. It was a unanimous Resolution adopted by this Parliament converting Parliament into a Committee of the whole designated as the Constitutional Assembly for the purpose of drafting a new Constitution for this country. The Steering Committee appointed by the Constitutional Assembly has continuously met; everybody has participated. The Resolution was adopted unanimously. Therefore, that is the will of this House; that is the will of the Members of Parliament and it must continue.
What we want
It will be relevant for me to examine, Sir, in this context, what President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to say in regard to a new Constitution.
Particularly, Sir, when he contested the Elections in 2015, he wanted a new Constitution. I quote from his Manifesto. He said: “A Wide Political Reform – A New Political Culture
We have been battered for 36 years by the 1978 Constitution which was thrust upon our people and country, without an appropriate debate or discussion. We must also collectively acknowledge that our Constitution is now further distorted due to the various amendments over the years, some of which are not consistent with others. Therefore, instead of amending the Constitution further with piece-meal changes, I will take action to formulate a new Constitution that reflects the peoples’ ideas, aspirations and wishes within a period of one year.”
That is what he said: he wanted a new Constitution. When he went before the people on the 08th of January, 2015, he told the people this country needs a new Constitution.
Sir, he further said, I quote:
“I will first submit the Draft Constitution which will consist of the proposals of these groups, for the Parliament’s approval in accordance with the Constitution. Thereafter, I will present the Draft Constitution to a referendum seeking the approval of the people.”
That is what we want. It is our contention that the Constitution must be approved by Parliament by a two-thirds majority and after the Constitution is approved by Parliament by a two-thirds majority, it must be submitted to the people of this country and it must obtain the approval of the people of this country at a Referendum. That is our position. We do not want a Constitution enacted behind the backs of the people.
That was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s position. That is, Sir, why the Opposition was not able to oppose the Resolution tabled in Parliament. That is why the Opposition was compelled to cooperate with the activities of the Steering Committee and in fact, even today, it is continuing to cooperate with the Steering Committee. So, Sir, what this country needs is to frame a new Constitution in such a way as to resolve that issue, a conflict, that has plagued this country from the time of Independence, from 1947-1948. That is what the country needs. Nobody wants to trick anybody, Sir; nobody can trick anybody. The Constitution must be approved by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the people at a referendum.
Srisena and Rajapaksa
Moreover, Sir, ever since 1987-1988, the Constitution-making process had been a continuing process. Under President Premadasa’s time, there was the Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committee which came up with proposals for a new Constitution in regard to power sharing and various other matters. During President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s time, there were various proposals that she made in 1995, in 1997 and in August, 2000, she brought to Parliament a Constitution Bill. The matter was widely discussed and that Bill was approved by the Cabinet. Both President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former President and President Maithripala Sirisena, the present President who were the Members of President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s Cabinet approved those proposals in Cabinet. They accepted those proposals at Cabinet. Therefore, Sir, thereafter, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, he appointed the All Party Representative Committee called the “APRC”. He appointed Prof. Tissa Vitharana, Member of Parliament as the Chairman of that Committee. Then, he appointed the Multi-Ethnic Experts Committee who came up with their reports. Prof. Tissa Vitharana Committee has submitted its report to Mahinda Rajapaksa and the report is now available.
Tamil rights cannot be buried
Therefore, Sir, from 1987-1988, for the last 30 years, the Constitution process has been taking place. It had been a continuous process. All of which, Sir, provide substantial material for the framing of a new Constitution. Sir, nobody can think that the North-East conflict that the rights – the political rights, the social rights, the economic and cultural rights – of the Tamil people in this country can be buried. They have lived in this country for as long as anyone else. They have historically inhabited a certain part of this country and the Tamil-speaking people are a majority in that part of the country which they have historically inhabited even today. We want a united country; we want an undivided country; we want an indivisible country but, we want to live as equal citizens. We must be assured of our dignity and self-respect. We must be assured justice within an undivided country. That is what we are asking for. I do not think, Sir, that can be denied to us. I think the time has come for everyone to realize that this is an obligation that they – not merely the Tamil people, all the Tamil-speaking people in this country are entitled to.
If this country is to prosper, if the country is to achieve its full potential, if the country is to grow economically and succeed as a country as other countries have done in this region and in the world, then I think Sir, a new Constitution needs to be framed and this matter needs to be resolved.
I would like to say a few words on the economy Sir, before I conclude my speech and also on the question of corruption and fraud.
Nothing is happening, why?
I think, Sir, any government must have the courage to take decisions that are challenging. We have heard of a Free Trade Agreement with Singapore, we have heard of an Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement with India and we have heard of an Agreement with China. Our leaders have been visiting various countries in the world over having discussions but nothing is happening. We are expecting foreign investment. We are hoping to fashion an export-oriented economy. We say that we occupy a very strategic position in the Indian Ocean Region. Why are not all these things being exploited? This Government has been in power in the past three and a half years. The former Government that the Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena talked about was in power for 10 years. All that they did was to enact the Eighteenth Amendment taking away the independence of the judiciary, taking away independent commissions and enabling the President to run for presidency any number of times. What else did you do? This country got neck-deep in debt during your period. You cannot deny that. Therefore, Sir, I think there is an obligation on the part of the Government to act expeditiously, to act swiftly. We do not want the interests of our country to be sacrificed in any way. We do not want the interests of the people of this country to be sacrificed in any way. We will join all other people in opposing any such move. But, at the same time, if you want to redeem yourself, if you want to come out of difficulties that are very deep, out of which you were unable to come out for a long period of time, you must make bold decisions. You must make expeditious decisions and it must be implemented.
Clean up the top
On the question of bribery and corruption, Sir, I do not want to say very much. We must start here. Corruption must be eradicated in this Parliament. I am not talking about the officials of Parliament. I am talking about myself and my Colleagues. Corruption must be eradicated at the level of the Executive. Unless we start cleaning up at the very top, we can never clean the bottom, we can never clean the middle. We need to commence cleaning up at the very top. Corruption must be eliminated at the level of political parties. Political parties must realize that they have a duty by this country to ensure that the persons whom they bring into politics are persons of stature, persons of character, persons who will not sell their country. I think Sir, if corruption is to be eradicated in this country, we have got to first start cleaning up at the top. Without cleaning up at the top, it will be futile to think of cleaning up in the middle or at the bottom.
I thank you, Sir.
(Full transcript of the speech made by Hon Sampanthan in Parliament on 10th of May 2018.)