Sri Lanka’s immediate future: Visvalingam speaks out — in temperate and wise words

Dr. A. C. Visvalingam,* in the Island, 28 January  2012, with different title: “Minorities should consider adopting an inclusive approach”

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has generally refrained from proposing any specific solutions to the ethnic conflict because successive governments have invariably gone against the advice given by moderate individuals and groups in this regard. It would have been counterproductive for CIMOGG to have tendered yet more unsolicited advice that was bound to be ignored. Even the interim recommendations made months ago by the Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), within the circumscribed Terms of Reference given to it, have been largely ignored by the government. What will eventually happen to the recommendations contained in the Commission’s Final Report and the several earlier reports on solving the National Question is anybody’s guess.  

Without going into the complexities of the so-called class and ethnic problems, there is little doubt that, if our governments had not progressively made a mockery of the Rule of Law and good governance, there would, for example, have been no JVP uprisings, or the demand for Eelam or a Muslim Provincial Council, or increasing attacks on the Police, who are called upon far too often to protect politically powerful wrongdoers as well as to impose on the public ill-thought out laws, rules and regulations. In the absence of well-discussed and fair laws, properly administered, the average citizen, irrespective of group allegiances, is faced with the choice of suffering every kind of injustice in silence or resorting to violence.

Individual citizens, irrespective of race, religion, caste, gender or other affiliation, would probably have had occasion to feel, on some issue or another, that they were denied justice because of improper interference with the normal administrative and judicial processes. Although the majority does not suffer the adverse effects of misgovernance to the quite same extent as the minorities (on account of the history of the past thirty years and more), many of the former who do not have political patronage and protection do. This is an aspect of the reality that the minorities should not ignore. In the interests of building a productive partnership with the majority, they should adopt an inclusive approach on such matters and work with the majority for a level playing field for everyone rather than concentrate solely on their own special problems. The confrontational atmosphere that permeates discussion of minority problems will tend to become less sharp with time as the majority and minorities work together on broader national problems. In any event, on the basis that unity is strength, it is in the interests of the minorities to join hands with the majority to safeguard the common rights of all Sri Lankan citizens.

The rights which are most often violated in Sri Lanka are probably freedom from wrongful arrest and indefinite detention, freedom from torture, the right to life and the right to information. Some of us are liable, at some point of time, to be at the receiving end of these violations unless we happen to have powerful political backing.  Manifestly, what is required is for all citizens to demand jointly that there should be a stop to these perversions, which became rampant as a consequence of the barefaced violation of the 17th Amendment (17-A). The situation became much worse after 17-A’s subsequent reincarnation in the form of the diabolical 18th Amendment (18-A) which was created by a constitutional coup d’etat that has converted Sri Lanka into a comprehensive dictatorship.

In their preoccupation with their own problems, which are certainly matters of the greatest consequence, minorities have totally lost sight of the many ways in which they should and could fight many other equally important causes jointly with the majority.  For example, assuming – however far-fetched it may be – that the North-East Tamils get “13-A plus devolution” within a unitary or even united Sri Lanka, the retention of 18-A will make complete nonsense of whatever they achieve on paper. Consequently, the restoration and improvement of independent institutions for public administration and the dispensation of justice, as set out in 17-A, is of the foremost importance. All thinking people knew that there were some imperfections in 17-A which had to be rectified, but the right answers are not to be found in 18-A.

All citizens, irrespective of whether they belong to the majority or the minorities, should make every effort to do whatever is necessary to counter the wildly undemocratic content of 18-A. For a start, they should press loudly and clearly for the appointment of an independent Constitutional Council (CC) somewhat on the lines set out in 17-A. How the members of the CC are to be chosen should, however, not be left in the hands of one man or one party or even Parliament alone. An acceptable mechanism for ensuring that only persons of independence, integrity, ability and experience are selected as members of the CC can be designed.  CIMOGG, if called upon to do so as part of a constitution-making exercise, would be prepared to develop the framework of such a mechanism and submit it for wide public discussion.

Yet more cause for apprehension is that, in the course of time, there is bound to be yet another unfair Constitution foisted upon the People as an ‘urgent’ matter where only a privileged few and the Supreme Court will be allowed to have a superficial glance at its contents some hours or a couple of days before it is rushed through a Parliament, of which the government members, post 18-A, have been allowed less independence of spirit than a collection of castrated sheep.  Citizens of every provenance should move quickly before they are forced to ‘fall from the 1978 constitutional frying pan into a fire’ that would be much more incendiary. It should be obvious that, in the common interest, every citizen should oppose the surreptitious imposition of a new Constitution, with even worse provisions than the present one, being brought in to make vassals of all of those who do not belong to the privileged oligarchy. This is a matter of concern not only for the majority but also for all the minorities.

It is heartening to note that there are some well-intentioned people who are trying to take steps, outside the ambit of governmental initiatives, to bring together the diverse peoples of Sri Lanka so that the enmities of the past may be given decreasing importance, even if the injuries and hurt caused are not formally forgiven or forgotten.  The 6 January 2012 appeal in The Island by a group of thoughtful Tamils is a praiseworthy example of this kind of desire for concerted action. We welcome their initiative, just as several others have already done. But how does one convert these good intentions into actions that will actually result in reconciliation and greater justice for all?  This is where proactive citizens, of whatever community or group, should not remain silent but get together and lobby vigorously to have all proposed future legislation opened out to considered public discussion and comment, and have a panel of independent experts, appointed by the CC, to help eliminate the usual resort to deliberate vagueness of concept and wording.

Not only will the minority automatically benefit by any improvement achieved in governance and the dispensation of justice, they will get to have a better rapport with the majority so that all could live and work together peacefully as Sri Lankans with a firm commitment to the welfare of the next generation.

* speaking as President of CIMOGG Aand author of Good Governance and the Rule of Law –see

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Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, communal relations, democratic measures, historical interpretation, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance

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