President gave us his word – Wimal
Leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF) Minister Wimal Weerawansa explains, in an interview, why he gave into the President’s request to support the dual citizenship Clause in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.
By Aruni Mallawarachchi
The people wanted a new Constitution. But, what was passed on 22 October was another constitutional amendment?
A: This is not the final. The ultimate goal is to bring in a new Constitution. It is the responsibility of this Government and the President. A Committee has already been appointed for this. They have assured to deliver a framework within three months. It will then be subjected to discussions both, within and outside Parliament for a period of six months. Then, required amendments will be introduced and it will be tabled in Parliament.
If a new Constitution is already in the pipeline, then why bring in the 20th Amendment at all?
A: The 19th Amendment caused some complications. 20A was brought in to resolve those issues. During the Yahapalana regime, the Prime Minister had some doubts about the President. Therefore, they brought in 19A to take away some of the powers vested in the President, such as making certain high profile appointments, and to give such powers to the Prime Minister, directly or indirectly.
This situation stood in the way of the President fulfilling the aspirations of the people who elected him. 20A took away this impediment.
Does this now mean that the President has no obstruction to serve the public?
A: The first year of the President’s term was spent fighting the coronavirus. The economy is in depression. In such a situation, it is not wise to weaken the Government. This is why we wanted to consolidate the President’s powers. It will take another year to bring in a new Constitution. We must address social, economic and cultural challenges. To do that, the President needs to wield sufficient powers.
The Opposition claims 20A gives the President unlimited powers. Isn’t this dangerous?
A: Even if that is the case, it won’t have any detrimental effects on the country. The President doesn’t even use his official residence. He lives in his own house. He even uses minimum VIP security and doesn’t allow his portrait to be hung in Government offices. Powers in the hands of such a President will be beneficial to the country, not detrimental. But, this Amendment is not giving such limitless powers to the President.
Your party handed over a letter to the President with three proposals?
A: Yes. The Maha Sangha, the Bishops and we pointed out some shortcomings in the proposed 20A. The President accepted two out of the three proposals. In particular, the proposal to retain auditing of certain public institutions and limiting sudden draft Bills to instances of national disasters and national security. It was also decided to retain the limit imposed on the number of Cabinet Ministers. We only couldn’t get the Clause on dual citizenship removed.
Will the President’s and the Prime Minister’s offices be subjected to auditing?
A: Of course. We can also audit State Corporations which have more than 50 per cent public funds.
Is there a danger of bringing in sudden Bills using national security as an excuse?
A: No, it won’t happen under our watch.
You spoke against the dual citizenship clause from the beginning. Why did you change your mind and vote for it?
A: We openly expressed our opinion about this. But, when the President had acceded to 90 per cent of our requests, we had a responsibility to listen to his one request. We supported 20A based on the assurances he gave to us.
What was the request made by President that made you withdraw your opposition to the clause?
A: The dual citizenship clause was included in 19A to prevent the President from entering politics. So, he said let’s remove this impediment from 20A and re-impose it in the new Constitution. Justice Minister Ali Sabri, PC, said the same thing in Parliament and it is now in the Hansard too.
With this request, has your stance changed?
A: Our stance on dual citizens has not changed. What we thought was, since two-thirds of our requests have been accepted, it was not correct to harp over just one issue. We elected this President. Therefore, we trust him.
What makes you certain that this clause will not be in the new Constitution?
A: The President gave us his word. We will make sure that dual citizens will not be able to enter Parliament, or hold posts such as President, Prime Minister, diplomatic and other high postings. Although the legal barrier was removed, the moral barrier remains, which is more powerful.
If there is going to be a new Constitution soon and this clause will not be included in it, then, what is the point of getting it included in a temporary amendment?
A: The President believes that 19A was brought in to target him; especially the dual citizenship clause. He argues that now that he is the President, he should be able to reintroduce that clause.
One would say this is an attempt by the President to obtain temporary satisfaction?
Do you believe that too?
A: Someone might think so.
Will not your voters become disappointed when you change your stances?
A: There is no reason for that. As I said before, although the legal barrier was removed, it is not easy to overcome the moral barrier. The legal barrier was also removed for a very brief period.
What is the guarantee that during this brief period, a dual citizen will not enter Parliament or be appointed to a high post in the Government?
A: If something like that were to happen, it would cause immense political damage. I doubt the President would risk that.
Some interpret this as a defeat for you?
A: Some may regard not winning the entire pound of flesh as a defeat. We agreed to it subjected to a condition. As a constituent partner of this Government, we were the first to write to the President regarding this issue. The other parties joined the fray after that. Our struggle was 90 per cent successful. Some might regard this as a defeat, but we were given an assurance.
Some says Rajapaksas get their way, no matter what?
A: Yes, there is something that the Rajapaksas want. But, we must not forget there were things that the people wanted too, such as the audit matter, sudden Bills and the Cabinet.
Does this mean, the President can now work without any impediment?
A: 19A allowed NGO loyalists who had no people’s mandate to be part of constitutional councils and independent commissions, and take decisions on public matters. They dragged on over important urgent matters.
We are in an economic depression due to the coronavirus health emergency. We will not be able to face these challenges if we allow the Government to weaken. That is why we wanted to strengthen the President’s powers. We cannot wait another year until the new Constitution is brought, to do that.
Why are you against the barrier set against dual citizens?
A: In many countries dual citizens cannot enter Parliament or hold a top post in Government. If a Sri Lankan citizen becomes a US citizen, his US citizenship is more powerful. Such a person holding high post is not beneficial for the country, because their loyalty is split. They may be amenable to certain persuasions.
But, you did not have a problem when Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the Defence Secretary while being a dual citizen?
A: You’re right. This topic became a subject of discussion only after 19A. They were targeting the Rajapaksas. But, do other countries also have these limitations targeting Rajapaksas?
In Egypt, dual citizens cannot enter Parliament or serve in the Police. Same in Israel and Australia. Recently, the Australian Prime Minister had to resign due to a similar issue. In Russia they cannot enter Parliament, or hold State or Judicial positions. There, it is a crime not to disclose your dual citizenship.
It is the same in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia. Have they imposed all these sanctions to target Rajapaksas? It is for the benefit of the country. Although we only started talking about this now, we believe this is an essential thing, considering the trend in other countries.
Many claim that you are only opposed to Basil Rajapaksa?
A: Anyone can give it a narrow interpretation like that. We cannot influence Basil Rajapaksa’s political decisions. Anyone can say such things, but that is not the case here. This is about all dual citizens in this country.
What is the guarantee that allowing the President to make Superior Court appointments and members of the judicial and other commissions will not impede judicial independence?
A: I mentioned about a case filed by the civil society against the FCID. The hearings are over, but the judgment has not been announced yet. Did that happen due to judicial independence? If they were truly independent, they should have announced the judgment. Why didn’t they do that? If they did, the FCID would have been cancelled. And, everything they did against us would have become illegal. Is that what judicial independence mean?
Didn’t Ranjan Ramanayake’s voice recordings reveal interferences into Duminda Silva’s case? Did that happen because the Judiciary was independent? 19A didn’t make the Judiciary independent. Why couldn’t Eva Wanasundara progress in her career? Such people were made redundant. There are many examples like this.
Hasn’t 20A curtailed the Prime Minister’s powers?
A: The Prime Minister was also a proponent of 20A. Although there are no conflicts between him and the President, such a situation may arise in the future. PM Mahinda Rajapaksa believes the President should be given clearly defined powers. He made a speech in this regard in Parliament.
There is a debate on the President’s immunity?
A: According to a judgment, Fundamental Rights petitions can be filed. But, remember, if this was there during the war, then there would have been a string of FR cases against President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then he would not have been able to end the war. Then the President would have to be on tip-toes wondering when someone is going to file a case. All these NGO people have different agendas behind their human rights talks. Therefore, I personally believe there is no harm in giving immunity.
What is your opinion on the President’s getting the power to dissolve Parliament after two and a half years?
A: It used to be after one year. Then, under 19A it was made four and a half years. When we wanted to return to one year, the Supreme Court wanted us to go for a referendum. But, told us that if it’s two and a half years, it does not require one. But, this does not mean he is going to dissolve Parliament in two and a half years. In case there is some sort of instability in the country and that a fresh mandate is required then the President has the powers to arrive at such a decision.
You always bore a negative attitude towards Rishad Bathiudeen and Rauff Hakeem but you would not have been able to secure 2/3rd majority if it weren't for the votes of MPs of their parties right?
A: Majority of the support came from Hakeem's party. As far as I know only the Anuradhapura MP of Rishad's party voted in favour. Another MP from Puttalam,who contested from a different party and won voted in favour of the 20A.
It is alleged that these MPs voted in favour of the 20A in hopes of joining the Government?
A: Although it is only one MP from Rishad's party and we cannot really oppose him voting in favour, it will be going against the mandate if he was given a Government post.
Are you certain that such a thing will not happen?
A: We believe that it won't happen. Our stance is that such a post should not be given to a henchman of Rishad.
Eight out of 54 SJB MPs voted in favour of 20A. How were they persuaded? What tricks were used?
A: I personally didn't take part in any discussions held to convince them and therefore I don't know whether they thought independently and voted going with their consciences or voted eying some future benefits.
How should the new Constitution be?
A: First of all, it should strengthen the unitary status of the country, empower the citizens, simplify the governance, and strengthen the Government to face any future adversities. We expect a Constitution that strengthens the Government instead of weakening it. We need a Constitution that empowers both the people and the Government of the country while ensuring democracy and human rights.
It seems as if the Government has forgotten about the pandemic amidst the 20th Amendment
A: The Government, the healthcare sector and the Defence authorities collectively managed to face the first wave but unfortunately, the second wave is coming through Brandix. The issue is that these workers were not cared for when they were getting sick and fainting while working. The time these patients have spent inside the factory and outside of it is too long. Even the doctors who treated these workers have acted irresponsibly. They were identified much later and as a result, more patients were reported.
Are you saying that there is still no community spread?
A: According to the officials of COVID-19 Task Force every patient is accounted for as to how they contracted the virus and their contacts. That's why they are saying that there is not community spread yet.
The damage the Pandemic caused to the economy of the country is not a minor one. How does this affect duties of your Ministry?
A: As the Ministry of Industries we are the ones who are faced with the biggest challenges due to this pandemic. Industrialists are the ones affected the most. Due to the lockdown in India our industrialists are receiving more orders but this pandemic has deprived the industrialists the opportunity to fulfill these orders properly. We hope the second Brandix wave will be dealt with within the next two or three weeks for the country's economy to be better than before from at least next January.
Isn't there a need for a national policy on industries?
A: We have already started making the policy and expect it to be completed within next six, seven months. After that we plan to discuss the policy out in the open allowing people to express their opinions and concerns regarding the policy. We plan to present the national policy on industries to the parliament and get it passed before the end of next year.
(Pic by Akila Jayawardana)