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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Sri Lanka: We certainly have not agreed to what is classically known as a unitary State – MP Sumanthiran,TNA

Image: M A Sumanthiran; courtesy Ceylon News.

Thank you, Hon. Presiding Member, for the opportunity to speak on the Votes of the Ministries that are under discussion today.

I would like to correct something that the Hon. Minister of Sports had mentioned a little while ago in this House as to what the TNA is supposed to have agreed with regard to the new Constitution. In our deliberations, we have very clearly stated that we stand for one, undivided, indivisible country. That is all that we have agreed to. Now, as to how you described that, you have to find the right words. We certainly have not agreed to what is classically known as a unitary State meaning a particular system of governance. That word has been used in different ways in different places.

The country that is said to be the birth place of notions of Parliamentary supremacy of undivided sovereignty, the Great Britain known as a unitary kingdom although they do not have a Constitution is able to carve out parts of their territory and give it away. They did so in 1921 and created the Republic of Ireland. They recently held a referendum in Scotland asking the people of Scotland- not all the people of Great Britain- whether they want to go separate. That is possible under what you call a unitary system because by passing a simple piece of legislation, you can even carve out and give away a part of your territory. That is not possible in federations because federation is a social contract where they agree to stay together. It is only possible in confederal arrangements, but not in federations. So, Switzerland has both words. They were a confederation, but they became a federation and therefore, any canton cannot separate and go away.

Now, basic information like this must be known and disseminated to the people of the country before people talk about unitary and federal, and seek to mislead the country on these words. I repeat, we are committed to one, undivided – not just undivided but indivisible, even in the future it cannot be divided- country and for the Constitution to have provisions that will ensure that the country cannot be divided by any Act of Parliament or any Act whatsoever. But the form of government as to how people exercise their sovereignty must be worked out in such a way that within this one country we can share powers of governance in a meaningful way. I am not saying to share sovereignty. It is possible to share sovereignty. That is not something that is wrong. But, share powers of governance, at least at three levels; at the Central Level, at the Provincial or Regional Level and at the Local Government Level. If this is kept in clear perspective, I think, we do not have to fall into this sloganeering without knowing the meaning of words. I am also saying this while the Discussion on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is underway because it is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that has been tasked with the responsibility of implementing various undertakings that Sri Lanka has made to the world and most important of those is the Resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka co-sponsored.

I must say a word to people who think that changes in various parts of the world can make it possible for us to escape from our obligations. These obligations did not come upon us or was not enforced on us or this is not even a Resolution of the UN Human Rights Council Members who imposed it on us. This is a Resolution that we co-sponsored. This is our Resolution.

This is something that we have told the world that we will do to achieve reconciliation in this country because we want to be reconciled. We want all our people to feel that they are Sri Lankans, they are equal Sri Lankans and that no one is a second-class citizen in this country and to be reconciled, to deal with issues that separated us, that alienated sections of this society and become one country. For that to be done, you cannot suddenly wave a magic wand and say, “All right, from today, we are all reconciled, we are one country.” That is not possible. There are issues that need to be addressed. The primary one is the Constitution because that is the social contract on which the country functions. But, there are other issues also because there was a cruel war that we all had to suffer and in the aftermath, some post-mortem of that is necessary to deal with wounds, to ensure that justice is done, to ensure that in the future we can avoid events like that and resolve whatever disputes we have amicably and in ways that are not violent. And also there were specific provisions that we agreed to implement. One of the biggest issues was the issue of missing persons and I must congratulate the Government for having taken those first steps and when that Bill was passed, I did say, it was a first baby step. Unfortunately, that first baby step remains a first baby step; the second step has still not been taken…

I am not being overly critical. I recognize that there is movement, but all of that must happen because, Hon. Minister, when that is delayed, some people get an idea that you can somehow delay it and absolve yourself from those responsibilities without actually implementing those and that is a wrong notion. No one should run away with the idea that that will ever be possible; that would not be possible. Every word of that Resolution that we ourselves said we will do must be implemented. We will support the Government in every way possible to ensure that the Government keeps to its promises on that.

There is an issue of timing, of sequencing or what can be done now, what should be done later, all of that and the constitutional reform process having now taken centre stage – we just finished the 44th Meeting of the Steering Committee; in this short time, we have had 44 meetings – the Constitutional Assembly has been presented with six Subcommittee Reports and you will see how those six Subcommittees worked. They worked furiously within a very short time span and came up with very useful Reports for discussion in the Assembly and in the country. So, that effort has certainly taken centre stage and so it must because this is the fundamental reason for all of that that happened in the country.

A Constitution, a social contract between its people, which all its people agree with is a sine qua non for the country to proceed forward. So, putting that right and laying emphasis or giving priority to that effort is, in fact, important and we do recognize that. In that process, certain other measures being delayed is understandable and we appreciate that and I must say that it has our support as well, that so long as the root cause of the conflict is addressed in drafting and enacting a new Constitution for ourselves, the other measures can come later. But again, that constructive approach and support by us should not be interpreted or taken advantage of into thinking that having relegated the other measures to be done later, that we can also be cheated in the Constitution-making process. There are people from the Government, Senior Ministers included, who have been asking me in the last couple of days, “All that you want is the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Is that not so?” The Hon. Minister of Sports also had mentioned that a while ago. Everyone in this country must realize that the Tamil people sacrificed over 100,000 lives after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted, not before. After the Thirteen Amendment was enacted. It is not for the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment that we made all of those sacrifices. That must be clearly understood.

During the period 1994 to 2000, during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s time, also there was a large consensus in the country that a fundamental change must be made and Her Excellency the President at that time was able to take it to the country saying, “There is a war. I can stop the war if this is done. The country is physically, actually, on the ground, divided. I can reunite the country if this is done.” Today, the situation is the opposite: there is no war; on the ground, there is no division. But, that does not mean that the issue has been obliterated, that does not mean that the issue has suddenly vanished.

As we have said many times, the LTTE was not “the problem”. The LTTE was a manifestation of a problem. It must be understood that removing the LTTE from the scene does not deal with the problem. You have only dealt with one manifestation of the problem and unless the leaders of this country advise the people and lead the people into knowing that truth without saying, “Terrorism was the only issue and we have now vanquished it. There is no problem now”, that would be wrong. I am not saying this in any threatening way; I am only stating the reality.

We are willing to be very reasonable. Any Hon. Member here who has participated in the deliberations of the Steering Committee or in the Subcommittees would appreciate that. We are even willing to make compromises that do not affect fundamental aspirations of our people, but compromises nevertheless, in order to achieve consensus. That is a constructive approach, but again, taking up some of the attitudes, we wonder whether that is being taken as signs of weakness. That is not so. It must not be taken as signs of weakness; it must be taken as an opportunity to be grasped because we do have an opportunity now to change the ground rules, to change the Constitution, to move forward to create a different country for ourselves. We are ready for that and it would be a pity if the majority community in this country is not ready to take that hand from us now. If our extended hand is interpreted as something that is being stretched because the LTTE lost the war, then you are mistaken. Even right through that period, the Tamil people were willing to extend that hand and more so now than before when this Government has come together as a National Government for that very purpose. We realize that this is the moment when we must do all to ensure that that is achieved, that national reconciliation is achieved on the basis of equality, dignity, equal opportunity for all the different peoples who inhabit this country.

The majority will have its own place. They are the majority. That cannot be taken away. The majority should not behave as though they are the minorities and seek protection and guard themselves. That is a very strange phenomenon that you find in this country. The majority must behave like the majority with magnanimity, not with a minority complex. If the majority behaves magnanimously, like the majority that they are, a substantive majority, that cannot be changed. Then, we can move forward. You have our fullest support to be reasonable and more than anything else our assurance that we will carry our people with it, that you will have the consent of all our people for that. But that must be done. If that is not seriously pursued, then there are other issues that you have agreed to do and you are delaying doing must come to the fore because you are not doing this. If you are not doing this, all of those things cannot be even delayed. They must be done. You cannot do everything at the same time. Since you have given primacy to the enactment of a new Constitution, we can await that. Take the baby steps, as the Hon. Minister said, take those baby steps at least, but first achieve this because if you secure the future through the process of this new Constitution for all Sri Lankans, then it would actually be easier to deal with your past. But if you do not do that, deal with the past you must, you will have to, that will be a far tougher process to contend with.

So my appeal – I am glad that the Hon. Minister is here under whom all these responsibilities come – as we have done up to now, let us discuss, let us agree together how we move forward but let us do it with a spirit of genuineness and openness and sincerity that we do not harbour in our minds thoughts of cheating through this process but being genuine. The process of Constitution-making must be done with that kind of clear intention and communicated to the country as such.

Thank you so much

  • Hon. M A Sumanthiran’s Speech in Parliament on Sri Lanka’s new Constitution and the reconciliation Process (30th November 2016)


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