18 September, 2020

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Community Divisions Continue To Dominate Sri Lanka’s Political Debate 

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

The strident opposition to the government’s constitutional reform process highlights the regrettable fact that the country’s ethnic divide continues to be serious. The opposition is claiming that the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report is a formula to divide the country to accommodate sections of the international community. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has urged the government to abandon what he described as ‘the destructive proposal’ for a new constitution. According to him, “It has been proposed that the Sinhala word ‘ekeeya’ be retained in the Sinhala version of the proposed new constitution, while the English word ‘unitary’ will be dropped from the English version together with the conceptual framework it denotes. Thus the local population will be under the impression that Sri Lanka still remains a unitary state, but in the eyes of the international community, we will be considered a country that has relinquished unitary status.”

Opponents of the constitutional reform process have also been able to use this Steering Committee report to convince the Buddhist religious leadership that there is a both a threat to the country’s national unity and to the foremost place of Buddhism within the polity. The sense of insecurity and fear that the proposed constitutional reform has generated has led them to frontally oppose this major initiative of the government. Leading Buddhist clergy have taken the position that the proposed Constitution is not suitable as it leads to division of power including the assigning of powers to the Provincial Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas and it is evident that the country would be divided. They have said that in these circumstances there is no need for a new constitution and the existing one is satisfactory. This has resulted in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promising to consult religious leaders before taking any final decision on the proposed new constitution.

The problem with the Steering Committee report is that it has been misinterpreted as the draft constitutional proposal. This has been denied by the government but it is the opposition propaganda that has been reaching the people. The Steering Committee report is not even a consensual one and sets out different positions regarding the more controversial issues which have been presented as options in the report. These options have been construed by the opposition to be government positions. Examples would be the definition of unitary state and the foremost place given to Buddhism in which alternative formulations have been proposed. However, the fact is that they are not government positions. The SLFP which is the second largest partner in the government coalition has clearly stated that it is not in agreement with new formulations but stand by the existing constitutional formulations on those issues.

Growing Insecurity 

The end of the three decade long war gave rise to the expectation that the sense of insecurity about the division of the country would subside and that relations between the ethnic and religious communities would stabilize and become more trusting. But this has not happened. If at all, the antagonisms are threatening to widen. Reports from the North are not indicative of accommodation and trust but of increasing levels of frustration. Public protests have been continuing in the Northern capital of Jaffna against a decision by the Attorney General’s department to transfer three Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) cases from Vavuniya High Court to Anuradhapura. Students at the University of Jaffna have launched a university-wide boycott of classes until further notice as student leaders are scheduled to discuss future course of protest action. Earlier in the month protests in Jaffna led to the closure of commercial establishments and schools in Jaffna and transport services came to a halt.

The tension in the North is not only between the Tamil people and government but also between the Tamil and Muslim people inhabiting the North and East due to rivalries over land ownership and the spread of members of one community at the expense of the other. These rivalries are given a bitter tinge due to the memories of the war time conflicts that saw members of each community informing against the other and the resulting targeted killings, massacres and expulsions that took place as a result. This sense of suspicion and fear includes those living in Colombo.

Recently I had the experience of being part of a small group discussion. I made the point that even though the government’s progress was slower than anticipated in many areas, in terms of the sense of security enjoyed by people there was a big improvement over the past. After the meeting one of those present privately told me he disagreed with what I had said though he had let it pass without contradicting me. He said that those of the Muslim community felt a growing sense of vulnerability to violent attacks against them by mobs and this fear existed even in Colombo.

Subsequently I cross checked this with others who confirmed this sense of vulnerability. One of them sent me a large number of comments and pictures from Facebook on the social media which revealed strong and shocking hatred. There was also a sense of reverse fear and long term threat on the part of those from the Sinhalese community who engaged in the social media discussions that put forward the view that the majority status of the Sinhalese was being threatened by the growth of the Muslim population who would one day overtake the Sinhalese as the majority population in the country.

Equal Protection

It cannot be overemphasized that these issues of ethnic and religious polarization need to be dealt with or else the tendency would be for them to get worse. These problems and fears will not go away on their own but only through a long and continuing process of education, trust building, goodwill gestures and concrete actions on the ground.The government’s priority concern seems to be to develop the economy and thereby win public support and votes for itself that would win it elections in the coming future. With local government elections being imminent, the government would be doing all it can to improve the economic situation of people rather than deal with controversial issues of inter-community relations on which there is a clear ethnic and religious polarization.

However, economic development by itself will not resolve those issues, although it might give the government more credibility as an effective government that needs to be taken seriously. There is a greater possibility that a government with a track record of economic success will have the credibility to take the people in the direction of a new ethos that upholds pluralism as a necessary feature of Sri Lankan life. The example of Singapore is worth noting in this regard. Lee Kuan Yew took power in a country born out of ethnic division, when Malaysia expelled it from the Malayan Federation. By being fair and just to all communities, and employing the Rule of Law with severity to all law breakers, the Singapore government under his leadership was able to ensure the unity of the people who could then achieve unfettered economic success.

Pluralism as a political philosophy is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a political body, which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. In a pluralist society every part of the country is the home of all citizens irrespective of their religion or ethnic identity, and the equal protection of the state and the law is extended to all. All sections of society, including government, business and civil society need to affirm the value of pluralism in which all ethnic and religious communities are recognized and accepted. The fact that the Sinhalese are the majority in the country, or the Tamil are a regional majority in the North-East, or the Muslims are the majority in parts of the East does not mean that other communities are outsiders or in second place. The law needs to be applied with firmness to all who break it, act violently and engage in hate speech, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    The JP is blaming the Northern Tamils as not showing “accommodation and trust.” Not sure what he is expecting from the Tamils that are not given justice or their political rights. They are being occupied and oppressed. They are ruled by the racist Sinhalese that are hell bent on denying them any devolutional power. “accommodation” of what? Does he imply that the Tamils must accommodate the occupying military or put up with the Sinhalese oppression?

    His true colour shows up when he says “..In a pluralist society every part of the country is the home of all citizens..” He is implying that the Tamils should not be given any special devolution in their traditional areas.

    With this kind of narrow minded believes, and advocating the majoritarian theory, the country will not have any bright future nor will it be stable!

  • 1
    1

    “In a pluralist society every part of the country is the home of all citizens irrespective of their religion or ethnic identity, and the equal protection of the state and the law is extended to all. “
    This is precisely what we must strive towards irrespective of past conflicts and bloodshed This cannot be achieved by geographically deviding this small, compact land along ethnic and religious lines. It only solidifies the mutual disrespect.
    JP continus:

    “All sections of society, including government, business and civil society need to affirm the value of pluralism in which all ethnic and religious communities are recognized and accepted.” My theory is the very opposite. Let us not give any form of formal recognition to these differences. Law and administrative strictures must be totally blind to these differences. In a court of law, police station or administrative unit the only pertinent question could be ” what is the ,’language’ you are comfortable with so that translation arrangements can be made if necessary.
    The way things are going JP may have to modify his statement to:
    ” every part of the PROVINCE is the home of all electorally registered citizens irrespective of their religion or ethnic identity,…..”
    Sad.
    Soma

    • 1
      0

      soma,

      You have accepted that you suffer from chronic insecurity and thus your views are completely obscured due to fantom fear! You Sinhala had chances after chances to build a nation and you failed miserably. You caused tremendous hardship and misery to the Tamil minorities with your arrogant and intransigent disposition. Times have changed, and it is time for the Tamils to assert themselves with a suitable autonomy. The Tamils have no time for people like JP who change colours time to time.

      • 0
        0

        B.I.
        “Times have changed, and it is time for the Tamils to assert themselves with a suitable autonomy.”
        That “suitable auyomy” should include physical relocation of all Tamils ( Tamil speaking people) into that “autonomous” area.
        Soma

        • 1
          0

          some,

          You are very welcome to physically relocate the Tamils to the North after implementing the political solution. Once you have finished you will know as to what you have done; please be my guest!

  • 0
    0

    Majority and minority play different roles in various situations and
    in terms of power and rights among different communities of
    different faiths and cultures , It is a never ending search for peace
    in all systems of governance . Some countries like France , Great Britain
    and the USA imported minorities for their needs . They didn’t come as
    minorities but after long and historic struggles , rights were won with so
    much pain and sacrifices , thanks to the growing civilization and
    understanding the power of democracy which is evolving everyday in
    different ways in different countries. We are one of such countries
    trying to overcome obstacles ever since such obstacles came into
    existence among communities . The major problem for us is , everything
    is POLITICS in our country ! This is a hurdle ! And every single citizen is
    communal to a less dangerous proportion but with all the possibility of
    catching fire at any given time of a short notice ! There are established
    groups ready to act on order . We have a bunch of PATRIOTS with virulence
    full of blood but covered in full white and their time comes rare and once it
    is come , they can not let it go ! First thing Mahinda spoke from
    Medamoolana was that ” Muslims defeated him .” He taught a lesson to the
    North , so no hopes from the North and he let down Muslims against the
    attacks by Buddhist extremists , signalling his chauvinistic bend . Who are
    these Tamils and Muslims in terms of votes ? THEY ARE FOR GENERATIONS
    UNP SYMPATHISERS ! TO CRUSH THE UNP , THIS VOTE BASE NEED TO BE
    HANDYCAPPED . THEY DID IT TO THE NORTH WITH THE MILITARY AND
    TRIED TO DO IT TO THE MUSLIMS WITH THE YELLOW ROBES . AND WHEN
    THE RIGHT TIME TICKED , SOUTH , NORTH AND EAST ALL TURNED
    AGAINST HIM IN FULL SWING ! STILL , THE SOUTH WAS HALF HEARTED !
    AND NOW , HE IS CLINGING ON TO THAT HALF HEARTS . IT IS A GAME
    RANIL+MY3 HAS TO TAKE ON TO MOVE FORWARD .

  • 0
    0

    Jehan Perera: It looks you have crossed the camp. What happened. Your master is not paying anymore because they are bankrupt ?…………………. why don’t you talk about the fact that Ranil wickramsinghe is a Alibaba ( a leader of a gang of thieves) and he is shamelssly holding onto that position. Why Ranil Wrickramasinghe brought the Position of buddhism and whether country is Orumitta/eelam, Malayanadu or Nasiristhan after the new constituion if he is going to protect both those. What will be different after the constitution or is it coming in the future. Becuse, coutry is still not majority Tamil or majority as CBK wants. So, They have to change the parliamentary composition to make the majorty a minority (Tamil, Muslims and christian). that is plan right in the middle of this constitution talk. After that, money is needed for the election, Central Bank loot will help it. It may take until 2025. They have to do it on their own because the new colonial master is cash strapped.

  • 2
    0

    Jehan,
    You and the Second Track Diplomacy team used to be “Federalist”. After the war you all did not want to support Federalism and went along with others naming it the “F” word. Now you talk about Pluralism and hold that as the principle dropped from heaven!

    In an Island where two Linguistic Communities with their own rights and freedom ought from time to time to retain their identity and right, you want to take that away from one of lesser number and tilt it in favour of the other with more than 2/3 majority that can overrule anything in a democratic system without checks and balances to protect the ones in less numbers who are a majority in their habitation for centuries.
    Think about one of the principles of Chaos,. “A whole is composed of parts. Every part is a whole.” ad infinitum.

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