Joint Opposition stages demonstration

Amid stiff opposition from the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led ‘Joint Opposition’, Tamil and Sinhalese lawmakers on Tuesday made a strong case for proceeding with the drafting process for a new Constitution, terming it a historic opportunity.

A three-day debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee drafting the new constitutional proposals began in Parliament on Monday, even as members of Joint Opposition — a breakaway faction of President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party that supports Mr. Rajapaksa — staged a demonstration opposing it.

‘The last bus’

MP Dilan Perera on Tuesday urged the country to seize the moment, calling it “the last bus”. “For decades, the two main political parties in the country have been playing political football with the national question. Rejection of good proposals for the sake of rejection has been this country’s curse and has prevented a resolution so far. This Parliament has a unique opportunity with both main parties being partners in government,” he said, referring to the opportunity that the country’s first national unity government has.

Tamil National Alliance MP M.A. Sumanthiran, who opened the debate on Monday, urged all parties to come together to change the country’s “bitter past”.

“Our people must be able to say our language is equal; our religions are equal and we have a due share in governance structures in this country,” he said.

Mr. Rajapaksa, who has been gaining political ground, has slammed the draft proposals, departing from his own assurances on substantive power devolution made during his tenure.

The interim report that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presented to Parliament in September drew staunch criticism from not just his political opponents and sections of the Buddhist clergy, but also from certain groups among Tamils who said it had too little for them.

Contesting the claim, Tamil MP from the Vanni, Shanti Sriskantharajah, told Parliament that this is the first time that a wide public consultation was held for before drafting a new Constitution. “Some forces in the north, with their narrow political motives, say there is nothing in this Constitution. Is that true? Regretfully, even some intellectuals are also campaigning against the Constitution with such false information.”

This is an interim report, it is not final, she said, underscoring the scope for discussion and changes. The section on land powers, she said, was far from satisfactory, and urged the government to share a timetable for returning the remaining military-occupied land to the people.

Following the debate, the government hopes to table the draft Constitution in Parliament and, subject to a two-thirds majority, hold a country-wide referendum.