By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“We can propose to the world that the word Aekeeya be entered into the English language just like the term tsunami…” ~ Prof Ashu Marasingha, UNP, Constitutional assembly debate, Nov8th 2017, 6:30 pm
Big Chief Wigneswaran has spoken. “Chief Minister of the Northern Province C.V. Wigneswaran stated that the only way the freedom of the Tamil community can be protected is through a federal constitution. The Chief Minister made the above statement while addressing a press briefing yesterday (8), which was called to speak on the interim report of the constitutional steering committee. He further cited Canada and Scotland as nations that stand as examples of federal states that have not been divided through their constitution.” (Ada Derana)
Chief Minister Wigneswaran seems to be among those elitist Tamil ultra-nationalists who regard the Sinhalese as ignoramuses. Since neither he nor his ‘nation’ have been conspicuous successes in their political projects for several decades, perhaps she should rethink that assumption. His examples of “Canada and Scotland as nations that stand as examples of federal states that have not been divided through their constitution” are absurd. Neither Quebec nor Scotland are neighbours of a large landmass populated by their co-ethnics.
If France were Quebec’s neighbour, instead of being separated from it by the Atlantic Ocean, no less, Canada would have been far less liberal in its federalism.
If the English language were spoken only in the UK instead of worldwide and Britain had a larger continental neighbour with Scottish co-ethnics it too would have been more guarded as regards devolution.
In previous centuries when England felt that the Catholic powers of Europe would support Scotland, its response to Scottish aspirations was exceedingly harsh.
Sri Lanka’s geopolitical vulnerability – a small island, with a Tamil speaking periphery neighboring Tamil Nadu, itself embedded in the Indian subcontinent—makes federalism an impossibility for the Sinhalese to accept.
Geopolitics apart, there is an obvious situation which rules out any kind of new Constitution, and most, certainly a federal one. Chief Minister Wigneswaran, who should have been sent home for his outrageous political conduct over the past few years, had better put it in his pipe and smoke it. Here are the facts.
The UNP-TNA-JVP combine imperatively needs the SLFP but not the JO to garner a two thirds majority for a new Constitution. True, the JO cannot block it in parliament, but a new Constitution requires a referendum and the JO is much stronger than the Opposition was during the referendum of December 1982 (I know, I was on the platform in the campaign). The JO led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and supported by a Sangha army is quite sufficient to beat the Government at a referendum on a controversial new Constitution, at which people do not vote along party lines.
Public opinion trends are also such that there has been an irreversible tectonic shift in opinion against the Government. Given the presence of two coincident factors—(a) the JO which capable of a strong campaign for a NO vote and (b) a broad public which is likely to cast a protest vote—the new Constitution is doomed.
A wealth of historical evidence reveals a pattern, the world over. Four factors prove causative in the rise of majoritarian ethnic/ethno-religious nationalism. One is economic pain and inequity generated by uneven and unequal economic development, often resulting in economic crisis. The second is a perceived threat to the nation or ethnic community concerned and/or an assault on the religio-cultural moorings and ethos of the people. The third is the closure or deferment of democratic openings and distortion of democratic representation. The fourth is the alienation of significant social or political power-centers/players at a time of transition, modernization or globalization.
Sri Lanka has experienced all four factors since 2015. Now it is just past mid-term, and the electoral safety valves are opening up belatedly. This is to the good because the awful explosion of Black July ’83 took place after the shutting off and sealing of electoral safety valves a mere six months before, in December 1982, with the referendum that postponed the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1983.
The lack of social abhorrence at the utterly and unambiguously reprehensible rhetorical exhortations to lethal (murderous) violence against Parliament and “traitors” (audiences cheered, and a few parliamentarians themselves, from Opposition and Government echoed the rhetoric), reveals the seething anger in society against the cosmopolitan-liberal elite Establishment. A touch of TJ (‘Transitional Justice’) from Geneva or overt Indian intrusion into Constitution-making, and this joint is set to blow as in the late 1980s. The holding of Local Authorities elections in January 2018 will come not a day too soon and the belated opening may barely avoid a violent social explosion.
The petrol fiasco and the inability to manage a single shipment makes one wonder what the country’s fate would have been had this government been in office during the last war! The petrol stoppage and the radicalization of the SAITM struggle show that the government is dysfunctional, the System isn’t working, the System is broken. It is hard to imagine the government not taking a heavy electoral hit. The election will be a plebiscite on Yahapalana or the current UNP-driven Yahapalana model, and will probably see an indictment and rejection.
The impact will be felt on the Constitutional project, the morning after. Even UNP MPs will begin to demur, dissent and re-position, viewing the results as a precursor of national elections 2019-2020. It will be one straight run, a single belt of time, from local elections 2018 through Provincial elections, to the national elections of 2019-2020. The entire state system, i.e. officialdom, judiciary, law enforcement and the armed forces, will inch away from the Government.
The larger Chandrika’s campaign profile/role, the more her pathological asides at MR, the more alienated the SLFP organizers will be and the fewer SLFP votes the SLFP-MS will get. The latter’s best bet would be for President Sirisena to campaign while CBK goes back to London or Paris. Whether she is in or out, the official SLFP will be off balance as the results come in, either moving back into the Opposition and re-aligning (not reunifying through fusion) with the JO-SLPP as did the LSSP and CPSL rivals in 1968, or demanding a radical Yahapalana re-set through de-Ranilization (a la 2003) and a re-assertive realignment of forces by President Sirisena, with UNP dissidents and the JO.
This could even happen earlier, in December itself, as a preemptive prelude to January elections– a repositioning or pivot when the Bond scam report comes in and the UNP-SLFP accord hits its deadline.
It will be one straight run, a single belt of time, from local elections 2018 through Provincial elections, to the national elections of 2019-2020. The entire state system, i.e. officialdom, law enforcement and the armed forces, will begin to inch away from the Government. Constitutional change will drop off the agenda.
Even if a resurgent MR-JO-SLPP decides to work with a cowed UNP on Constitutional change, it will be limited to amendments flattening the executive Presidency so that the playing field is leveled for ex-President Rajapaksa to run for the country’s most powerful post, the Premiership, in 2020, rather than to accommodate non-unitary/quasi-federal devolution. As for the next elected government (2020), it will almost certainly be more majoritarian ethno-populist than this one.
The terms that came up in the Constitutional Assembly debate as the least contentious were “13th amendment” and “13 Plus”. The calm, sagacious speech of Dr. Sarath Amunugama, a model of equanimity and the non-ideological, prudential approach to politics and problem-solving, was an exposition of the history and logic of the 13th amendment and a reasoned argument as to why the full implementation of the 13th amendment, perhaps stretched to 13 Plus as defined as “the 13th amendment plus a Senate, minus Police powers”, is all that is feasible.
But how long the two-thirds majority will be available, and for what? A contentious Constitutional Final Report will blow up the Coalition but an all-parties consensus is sufficiently safe and secure. Already, as the mid-term anti-incumbency mood, irresistible electoral compulsions and mounting three-way competition cut into consensus, threatening to capsize the governing coalition itself, the quantum of devolution that the official SLFP is willing to sign-off on as partners of the UNP–TNA, is shrinking, and the window of opportunity is starting to swing shut.
With shockingly dangerous irresponsibility or sheer nihilism, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe wants the Constitutional Assembly to loosen the center’s ties with and hugely augment the autonomy of the Northern and Eastern provinces at the very same time that he wants an elephantine Indian footprint in Trincomalee (the oil tank farm, the Port and the Mannar-Trinco highway). While his Interim Report envisages exceeding the 13th amendment in the matter of the control of land by the Provincial Councils, his ‘Vision 2025’ wants to change the existing land ceiling so that corporate business can snap up large tracts. This would not only mean unrelieved landlessness (which has reappeared in the old ‘colonies’ through subdivision), it would mean that land in the North and East would be acquired by Tamil Nadu based and Tamil diaspora-driven front companies, apart from larger Indian ones with controlling Tamil Nadu –‘Kollywood’ capital–shareholding. Meanwhile anti-Indianism is rising on the streets over the fiasco of the IOC shipment.
India and the US view our island through the prism of its joint strategy in the vast zone that US strategic planners newly and openly term the “Indo-Pacific”, the theatre in which they hope to push back China in particular and the Eurasian alliance of China-Russia globally. They will carve out a Northeastern Tamil statelet if they see a need and sense an opportunity.
While our PM doesn’t care and has invited the Indo-US-Japan axis into Trincomalee, and India into our Deep South, Mattala, 99% of us do care. He represents the 1% that doesn’t. A unitary state, de jure and de facto, is a core strategic and security interest of the Sinhala majority, a red-line for which they must and will fight “by any means necessary”. (Malcolm X).