Ominous Threads in the Present Paths of Constitutional Reform

Rohana R. Wasala, in The Island, 22 & 24 June 2016, with titleA glance at PRCR report in the context of drive for federalism”

Tamil_Eelam_territorial_claimThe armed struggle for creating a separate state in Sri Lanka was decisively defeated in 2009. But, the separatist ideology is still very much alive and shows signs of flourishing again. According to the US State Department the LTTE fronts active in that country continued their collection of funds for their activities through 2015, though the outfit still remains on its list of banned foreign terrorist organizations, so designated since August 10, 1997. Yet the Americans support the demand by expatriate Tamils, the TNA, and Tamil Nadu politicians that the government ‘demilitarise’ the north. Despite this, the Sri Lankan government lifted its ban on a few of these fronts in September last year. Chief minister Jayalalitha of TN has pledged to make one of her priorities the creation of Eelam in Sri Lanka that the terror leader Prabhakaran envisioned. 


Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneshwaran (TNA) charges that all governments in Sri Lanka since 1948 have committed genocide against Tamils. A set of some 15 proposals made by the NPC has no reference to the majority community, but seems to imply that it is impossible for minorities to live with them without special arrangements to look after themselves (hence probably the proposal for separate zonal councils for Tamils and Muslims). One proposal is that Sri Lanka be renamed “The Federal Republic of Sri Lanka”; another is that the president be elected as per clauses 54-55 of the Indian Constitution! and Wigneshwaran proposes that Sri Lanka’s history be rewritten! A suggestion he is reported to have made in Jaffna recently in the presence of Swiss ambassador in Sri Lanka Heinz Walker-Nederkoorn is that the Swiss system of government be adopted by Sri Lanka (another of the 15 proposals referred to above), in spite of the fact that there is no rational basis for such a novelty to be introduced. Switzerland is a small landlocked country in Europe about two thirds the size of Sri Lanka. There are hardly any similarities between these two countries in terms of their geography, demography, history, economy, or culture, or in terms of the respective problems they face.

Foreign dignitaries: Visiting dignitaries from the West go to Jaffna, no doubt, to inquire into the current situation there after their rescue from terrorism and the restoration of democracy to them, and we should thank them for their concern with the welfare of our people. But if they accept, without rational investigation, the myths that the racist politicians there entertain them with as if these narratives were gospel truth, then those visitors, be they diplomats or something else, are doing a great disservice to the ordinary people of this country. Septuagenarian Wigneshwaran (77) himself grew up, studied, worked in the legal field and finally retired as a supreme court judge, having lived in Colombo for most of his life to date among the allegedly ‘genocidal’ Sinhalese.

Of course, none of such Tamil politicians are talking too openly or too explicitly about separation at this stage. They are only asking for a federal state at present, but the truth is that under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (imposed on Sri Lanka by India in 1987), Sri Lanka already has a federal system of government. The northern and eastern provinces were temporarily merged in September 1988 and demerged from Jan. 01, 2007 by the Supreme Court, which declared the merger on the earlier occasion was illegal. But, the Tamil racist politicians’ goal of a separate Tamil speaking sovereign state in the north and east of Sri Lanka is unmistakable. And this is what the reasonable majority of the multiethnic Sri Lankan population fear.

Probably, the PM and the President think that Wigneshwaran’s claims and proposals are too fantastic to be taken seriously. President Sirisena recently assured an increasingly sceptical public of his determination to put a final end to the Tamil separatist ideology. The vital question is: How? It is the general belief among common people that Mahinda Rajapaksa came very close to achieving this aim through equitable development across the country that would create an environment of economic growth and political stability, in which the demand for separation would die a natural death, but Mahinda was effectively checkmated by anti-nationalist forces working according to a different agenda that has nothing to do with Sri Lanka’s welfare.

Though Mahinda had a well thought-out plan of action to achieve what they call reconciliation through economic development and restoration of democratic governance which the LTTE had denied to the north for so many years, he was not allowed enough time and the peace of mind to realize his aims.

Clearly, Maithri wants to show that his aim is to produce a permanent solution through the peaceful means of a new constitution, now that he doesn’t have to worry about terrorism, which Mahinda eliminated. But, the problem is how Maithri is going to succeed in forging a constitution that will be acceptable to all the communities, while preserving the unitary character of the nation state. The main reason for saying this is that, knowingly or unknowingly, he allowed himself to be used by local and foreign forces inimical to Sri Lanka who wanted to reverse the forward march of the country that was going apace under Mahinda’s leadership.

A glance at the 22 Chapter final Report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reforms (May 2016) reveals the anti-majority bias of the proposed reforms: if the suggested recommendations are passed the new constitution will be more pleasing to foreign vested interests and separatists than to ordinary Sri Lankans. This is a contradiction of the basic principle that “…the origin of power is in the people” which stressed in the report by the PRCR Committee (appointed by Maithri). The commissioners observe “….we need to build consensus around the reforms and to engage actively with citizens to build support. For this, we need political leadership and imagination.”

I can’t predict how the majority community and the minorities in general will respond to its contents (by ‘contents’ I mean mainly, the public’s submissions under the different subjects to be covered in the constitution, and the committee’s recommendations based on them). There is no doubt that the recommendations are well meant, but they seem to have a tendency to represent the majority community as xenophobic, which it is not. That is how I feel as a layman who loves nothing but peace and prosperity to the people of his beloved homeland, but I hope that I am wrong in that negative impression about what could be basis for the future ‘supreme law of the land’.

In their view, “Sinhalese fears are a consequence of years of conflict and war in our country and the suspicion and mistrust it has engendered between communities”. How can the Sinhalese ignore the growing mass of evidence that suggests that the separate state concept is still alive.

Have the commissioners considered in depth what led to “conflict and war” in the first place? Don’t they recognize the fact that the communalist minority politicians behave in ways that exacerbate these feelings in the Sinhalese, who don’t usually think in terms of communalism? Instead, the commissioners blame the situation on what they call “ethno-religious nationalism” of different groups (but this phrase almost exclusively refers to Sinhalese Buddhists). The nationalism that the majority of Sri Lankans believe in embraces all the communities that live in the country; it cannot be described as exclusively ethno-religious. Sri Lankan nationalists are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists, because numerically they form the majority. The Sinhalese who are nationalists are nationalists, not because they are ethnically Sinhalese, but because they are Sri Lankans. That Sri Lanka is their only homeland is also an indisputable fact. We have Sri Lankan nationalists too who are of other ethnicities and religious affiliations. Minority politicians who champion the rights of only their groups to the exclusion of others are actually communalists. But the label is usually tagged on to those who dare to speak up for the rights of the Sinhalese majority.

Chapter 20 of the report deals with the subject of “affirmative action and reconciliation”. There the rights of “those with different sexual orientation” (commonly known elsewhere as LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) form one of the items. Should a culturally sensitive piece of legislation like this imposed on our rather conservative people. Not many are ready yet to stomach such ‘newfangled’ ideas as same-sex marriage. (Sex between two males would be treated with the same moral disapproval as it was (as ‘gross indecency’) in Victorian London in Oscar Wilde’s time (1854-1900). Though there is no question about the necessity of safeguarding the human rights of people of different sexual orientation, should this be included in the constitution in a hurry where more nationally pressing issues are crying to be resolved? For example, a more important issue than gay rights is the question of religious fundamentalism, esp. Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, both of which are threatening our society today. Fundamentalist ideologies of religions could lead to mutual exclusion. The recommendations in Chapter 4 might not be adequate to deal with the issues. In Chapter 3, we have controversial submissions like this: “.. refugees of Sri Lankan origin who had to leave the country due to war, terrorism and persecution and their offspring should be offered dual citizenship free of charge; registration of citizenship need (s) to be decentralized. …”. Such proposals will evoke conflicting responses from the majority and minority communities. The brief recommendations made in response to submissions including the above are: (a) To treat all Sri Lankan citizens equally whether one becomes a citizen by descent or registration, and (b) Those who become citizens by registration should take an oath of allegiance. Of course, these recommendations will be debated during the actual constitution making. However, since the parliamentary composition of the ruling coalition does not reflect the relative strengths of the diverse shades of opinion (regarding the issues) that really exist among the general populace, how can the constitution makers ensure that no community is subjected to discrimination in terms of the supreme law of the land?

Annex G comprises a provisional list of public submissions. It lists 3655 individuals and organizations that made submissions. Looking at it one feels that only minorities including marginal groups among the majority Sinhalese seem to have taken these public consultations seriously. The majority Sinhalese seem to be sceptical about its mission, and they are least represented in it. Could this constitution making project succeed, I wonder?

The commissioners can only be expected to act on the assumption that the leadership that they say is essential is already available in the form of the ad hoc UNP-SLFP coalition that currently rules. But it seems that, in this alliance of incompatibles, united only by the common goal of pre-empting a return of Rajapaksa ascendancy, the actual power rotates round an axis that runs between Maithri as president on the one side, and the trio Ranil, Mangala and Chandrika (as prime minister, foreign minister, and SLFP advisor, respectively) on the other. It is not strictly right to describe the present ruling alliance as a proper UNP-SLFP coalition, because only some SLFP MPs including defeated candidates among them have joined it. Almost all of the currently sitting SLFP MPs won their seats because of Mahinda, but now they have to repudiate him in order to please Maithri. It is quite clear that Maithri, who contested the presidential election as a party-less common candidate under the swan symbol having walked out of the SLFP in anger, readily accepted the leadership of the SLFP, having no moral or legal right to that post. Soon after marginally losing the presidential election, Mahinda let his successful challenger assume the leadership of the party in order to save it. It was due to that clever move that so many SLFPers were able to get into parliament in the August 17 election. The president could have dissolved parliament soon after the January 2015 presidential election if Mahinda insisted that the UPFA government continue to rule because they had the majority of seats. In such a situation the UNP would have won overwhelmingly. By appointing Ranil as PM, Maithri was fulfilling an earlier pledge to the former.

SLFPers in the government are saying that they want to strengthen the SLFP that is supposed to be a partner of the ruling ‘national’ government, and their ultimate goal is to form an SLFP government in 2020. Will the UNP willingly allow that? Its leader Ranil is already PM, and it will be natural for him to aim at the presidency after Maithri’s term ends. For now, Ranil’s declared aim is to pass the new constitution, which seems to be designed to accommodate minority demands that are potentially injurious to the unitary status of the Sri Lankan state. The leadership that the members of the PRCR Committee say is needed is already there. But that is not the leadership that the country needs. The country needs a leader who can unite the different communities and save the country from being fragmented on ethnic lines without surrendering our independence and sovereignty to aggressively interfering foreign powers.



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