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Sri Lanka: Debate on New Constitution Scheduled

(Dec. 14, 2016) On December 10, 2016, the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee of Sri Lanka’s Parliament decided to ask the entire Parliament for its views on proposals for a new Constitution.  In order to accomplish this, a debate has been scheduled for January 9-11, 2017.  (Sri Lanka Parliament to Debate on New Constitution Next Month, COLOMBO PAGE (Dec. 12, 2016).)  The current Constitution was last revised in 2015.  (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (as amended up to May 15, 2015), Parliament of Sri Lanka website.)

According to Lakshman Kiriella, the Leader of the House, six subcommittees have created proposals to be discussed by the whole body.  Both the majority and minority groups’ views will be considered, according to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Following the debate, the views of the various political parties in the country will be considered as a new Constitution is drafted.  (Sri Lanka Parliament to Debate on New Constitution Next Month, supra.)

Kiriella commented on the unusually public aspect of the coming constitutional discussions, noting “[t]his is the first time in Sri Lanka that a constitution making process has been underway under the glare of media.  Earlier, it was not open to the media.  The general public can see what we do.”  (Id.)

Comments on Possible Constitutional Changes

Although no draft revised constitution has been released, some commentators and political groups have reacted to possible provisions that might be included.  One commentator noted that the level of participation in the constitutional reform process is “unprecedented.  It shows relative maturity of democracy.”  (Jayatilleke De.Silva, Lankan Commentary Urges to Consider All Aspects When Drafting Constitution, Not Only National Issue, DAILY NEWS ONLINE (Dec. 9, 2016), Open Source Enterprise online subscription database, No. SAL2016120931403910.)  He added that “[u]nlike at all [sic] previous Constitution drafting processes, the present Endeavour has the participation of all communities represented in Parliament besides support outside.  The present atmosphere of relative national reconciliation and democracy is the best one could hope for. … we should not miss this opportunity.”  (Id.)

The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) organization, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization described as seeking “the enforcement of Buddhist predominance in Sri Lanka,” (Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), TRAC  (last visited Dec. 12, 2016)) has said that it has an issue with one possible constitutional proposal.  If the central executive powers are eliminated or downgraded in the new Constitution and the country divided into five states with greater independent authority than the nine current provinces, the General Secretary of BBS, Ven Gnanasar, said on December 6, “[w]e will rally 4,000 Buddhist monks in Colombo and defeat the changes to the constitution.  If the amendments are made while ignoring us, a river of blood would flow in the country.”  (M.R.M. Waseem, Sri Lanka: Bodu Bala Sena Threatens to Rally 4000 Monks in Colombo Against Constitutional Amendments, VIRAKESARI (Dec. 7, 2016), Open Source Enterprise, No. SAL2016120837300392.)  Gnanasar went on to say that “if the constitution is amended and the country is divided into five states, there would not be any reconciliation in Sri Lanka.  The country would divide on the basis of race and religion.”  (Id.)

The Joint Opposition political block has said it will oppose any new Constitution if some recommendations that have come from the parliamentary subcommittees are not changed.  In particular, opposition political parties have for months raised the concern that the new Constitution would not strongly preserve the unitary and Buddhist nature of the country.  (Joint Opposition to Blunt the Way to a New Constitution, DAILY MIRROR (Jan. 7, 2016).)  Reports from the subcommittees have stated that the new document would keep the current constitutional clauses that refer to Buddhism as the state religion and the country as a unitary state, but the Member of Parliament from the Ratnapura District, a member of the block, has said that there are still concerns about what specifically would be contained in the proposals.  (Sri Lanka: Joint Opposition to Oppose New Constitution If Proposed Amendments Not Included, CEYLON TODAY ONLINE (Dec. 8, 2016), Open Source Enterprise, No. SAL2016120825278333.)