By Jehan Perera –
Constitutional reform is once again on the front burner of the national agenda. The election manifestos of both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 gave high priority to it. The government started strongly with passage of the 19th Amendment through parliament. In an unprecedented act of statesmanship President Sirisena voluntarily relinquished much of the power he was vested with as executive president of the country and reduced the term of office of the president. This was followed by the government appointing a Public Representations Committee on constitutional reforms comprising leading public intellectuals drawn from academia and civil society. They were mandated to canvass the views of the general public on constitutional reform in a hitherto unprecedented manner.
But lately it seemed that constitutional reform was running out of steam and being put on the back burner. The move to go slow on constitutional reform was primarily led by the SLFP, the junior partner in the government coalition. The SLFP is numerically the junior partner despite having an almost equal number of seats in parliament (95) as compared to the UNP (106). This is on account of the split in the SLFP with the greater number of SLFP parliamentarians preferring to give their loyalty to the Joint Opposition led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Only about 40 of the SLFP parliamentarians are supporting the government which is backed by President Sirisena. Therefore, in the government coalition, the SLFP is numerically the junior partner.
The SLFP is also morally speaking the junior partner in the government coalition when it comes to constitutional reform. At the last general elections, most of its MPs campaigned on the same ultra nationalist platform as the former president. There was little that was redeeming about their political stance in relation to constitutional reform that could find a meeting point with ethnic and religious minority aspirations for equal protection of the law and justice. The SLFP under the former president had little or no interest in constitutional reform, except to the extent that it would further concentrate power in the hands of the ruling party and its leadership. The 18th Amendment to the constitution passed by the Rajapaksa government gave unlimited terms of office to the president and gave him unilateral powers of appointment of all powerful state positions, such as the heads of the judiciary, public service and police.
The challenge to the government as it contemplates constitutional reform is to obtain the concurrence of its SLFP component. The problem is that the SLFP has been in a state of nationalist regression for over a decade. Even SLFP members who now support President Sirisena and are a part of the coalition government feel uncomfortable to advocate concepts such as devolution of power and minority rights which they saw being politically and ideologically nullified during the period of the previous government. As a result they feel more comfortable to advocate concepts such as national sovereignty, national security and the centralization of power on the basis of their perception that the ethnic and religious minorities constitute a threat along with the international community. They also do not wish to go before the people at a referendum to obtain the people’s backing for concepts they do not really believe in.
It is in these circumstances that President Sirisena has been falling short of making a positive contribution to those political reforms that require a change in the status quo. The president recently and publicly acquiesced to regressive tendencies in society that denounced the decriminalization of same sex relationships. This is indicative of the conservative and nationalist elements that have surrounded him. It is these same conservative and nationalist elements that oppose constitutional reforms that will empower and dignify the ethnic and religious minorities. Sri Lanka needs to become a tolerant and enlightened polity that embraces and dignifies all sections of its people, rather than one that excludes and denounces some of them, through the provision of devolution of power and the equal protection of the laws. This is not an impossible task because Sri Lankan society, as against its polity, is more oriented towards inclusion and tolerance than towards exclusion and intolerance.
It is important that President Sirisena should be encouraged to actively support the constitutional reform process as he has credibility with the ethnic and religious majority whose ethos he shares. However, as president of Sri Lanka he also needs to extend himself to include the ethnic and religious minorities and indeed the sexual minorities in his care, protection and commitment. Sri Lanka is fortunate that at the present time its top leadership, notably the president and prime minister are both people who are widely held to be non-chauvinist in their fundamental value systems. The president can be encouraged and strengthened by the outcome of civil society engagements that highlight the positive political potential in Sri Lankan society for interethnic and inter religious goodwill and amity that feed into support for the constitutional reform process.
Last week about 360 religious leaders, civil society activists and government officials attended a National Inter Religious Symposium organised by the National Peace Council which is a non governmental and civil society organisation. This brought together sixteen District Inter Religious Committees (DIRCs) comprising religious, civil organizations and community leaders that have been established in the districts of Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam, Kurunegala, Jaffna, Mannar, Batticaloa, Ampara, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura and Badulla. The major task of the DIRCs is to strengthen reconciliation building action among the various religious and ethnic communities based on the transitional justice process that seeks to ensure that there is truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reforms in the ongoing political process.
Former President and Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation Chandrika Kumaratunga who participated in the event stressed that reconciliation would not be successful without relationships between the religions in the country. She commended civil society organisations for working to bring religious leaders to work together. “All organisation for reconciliation must get together and work on a long term basis,” she said, pointing out that most politicians were sometimes opportunistic and neglected the importance of solving problems. She also used the opportunity to urge the government to carry out its promise to formulate a new constitution, adding that it should go beyond the 13th amendment in terms of the devolution of power.
In the backdrop of imminent constitutional reforms possibly leading a referendum, the members of the religious clergy of all religions and civil society activists from across the country who met at the country’s premier conference hall, the BMICH, urged the government to take concrete steps to ensure that peace and reconciliation were established in post war Sri Lanka. They also handed over a six-point resolution to the Minister of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan, Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation Chandrika Kumaratunga and Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms Mano Tittawella.
The joint resolution was more comprehensive than a mere technical document, and was born out of the life experiences of the participants. It urged the government to bring back to normalcy the lives of people who have been evicted from their homes and properties, pointing out that many of them are without homes or incomes even today. It stated that civil administration should be strengthened in keeping with the 19th Amendment because security forces still intervene in civil administrative activities and this hinders the freedom of life of the people in these areas. They added that the lethargic manner of working by certain government officials has hindered the improvement of infrastructure facilities and provision of various essential services. They also said that there has not been specific and speedy action on missing persons and those who have been made to disappear illegally and asked for a compensation process without any form of discrimination.
The resolution pointed out that extremist political activity and extremist religious groups and individual activities were destabilizing society and called for several measures to avoid such situations such as the establishment of social protection monitoring committees, strengthening the action of the Women and Child Protection Committees and conducting formal counselling services aimed at those subject to severe mental stress.
The final point in the resolution suggested several steps for building national reconciliation including implementing the national language policy and paying attention to activities that will improve inter-relationships among the communities. “If there are political groups, religious groups, government officials, civil society actors who will disrupt reconciliation, take legal action against them unmindful of their status,” the resolution said. The government needs to act on these exhortations that emerged from the larger religious community itself and are in the best interests of the country. This will be in accordance with the higher principles of democracy. The indications are that the great majority of Sri Lankan people will vote for justice and reconciliation to be the birthright of all citizens if given the opportunity at a referendum.