By Dayan Jayatilleka –
In his speech to the high level segment of the UNHRC session in Geneva, yesterday, Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera pledged a Third Republican Constitution by our 70th Independence Day (next Feb 4th), declared that “a Referendum is imperative”, opined that 69 years since Independence were “a failed experiment” and concluded pompously that we have to “put an end to that era”.
None of what he said seemed to have had the approval of the Cabinet or reflect the views of the elected executive president. This evening (March 1) appearing on T news, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and SLFP MP Chandima Weerakkody reiterated while reading out the relevant portion from President Sirisena’s Jan 2015 manifesto, that the winning candidate had pledged to enact such Constitutional reforms as did not require a referendum. Thus Mangala Samaraweera’s latest Geneva speech was an exercise if not in unilateralism, at the least in a tendentious and contentious interpretation.
His speech, with its clear implication that Sri Lanka was a failed state and his conscious attempt to commit the country to the Referendum Trap of secessionist or proto-secessionist Tamil nationalism, left one wondering whether he was the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka or of the Tamil Diaspora, especially the Global Tamil Forum/British Tamil Forum.
What exactly is the “Referendum Trap”? Last week, on the evening of February 21st at a public seminar of “The Constitution, Reconciliation and You”, organized by Sri Lanka Inc., the real strategy and battle-plan of Tamil nationalism was revealed or uncovered.
In my speech on that occasion I had made the point that Sri Lanka needed constitutional change but not a change of Constitution. I drew the distinction between ‘structure’ and ‘system’, making the case for structural reform but standing firmly against the replacement of the state system, the state form as enshrined in the Constitution. Arguing against me and much more importantly against the perspective of the SLFP and the JO as stated in Parliament and outside, Mr. Sumanthiran, TNA MP challengingly queried as to why we were opposed to a referendum at which the Sinhala majority had the opportunity to shoot down the new Constitution, and why we were for a mere reform which could be enacted by a two thirds majority in parliament.
Addressing Parliament on Feb 22nd in a 90 minute long speech (a written text) Mr. Sampanthan pushed the case for a new Constitution and a referendum. He was assisted by UNP Minister Mangala Samaraweera who made a 30 minute speech (also from a written text).
The real question was not why the SLFP and JO were against a new Constitution but why the TNA preferred a risky referendum at a time in which incumbent administrations were losing referenda to nationalist-populist protest votes throughout the world. Why did the TNA not prefer the far safer and surer option of one or more amendments that could be enacted by a two thirds majority in parliament?
At the seminar on Feb 21st, I ventured an answer to the riddle—and neither Mr. Sumanthiran nor Dr. Wigneswaran rebutted me. I expressed the view that what was more important for Tamil nationalism was not winning or losing at a referendum but the very holding of the referendum! For the Tamil nationalist project what matters more than a new Constitution is the referendum itself!
At a referendum the Tamils can be counted on to vote en bloc for a non-unitary model and call it a plebiscite which rejects living in a unitary state. It could be billed as an assertion of Tamil sovereignty and self-determination as a nation, and a huge endorsement obtained in the North and parts of the East.
The Tamil nationalists pulled the same number at the general election of 1977 at which they called for a vote on the single slogan of a ‘an independent, sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam’ and swept the board in the North as well as part of the East. It is that electoral result that was hawked throughout world as a mandate for Tamil Eelam.
Theirs is an exit strategy from Sri Lanka—let’s call it ‘TEXIT’ (for ‘Tamil Exit’). Either (A) the new constitution is passed at a referendum, in which case they will have the benefit of a weak, non-unitary, de facto federal state in which the majority will fragment along provincial lines under Chief Ministerial warlords while the Tamil-speaking North and East will be magnetically drawn by the demographics and geography of neighboring Tamil Nadu into a separate existence, or (B) the Constitution will be shot down by the Sinhala majority but the massive ‘yes’ vote in the North and East (Trincomalee district) will be the stepping stone for a Kashmir-style permanent civic uprising and a call for external intervention.
Given that Tamil Nadu is to Sri Lanka what Florida is to Cuba, with its attendant electoral dynamics, a Bangladesh/Kosovo outcome down the road is almost inevitable. The referendum is the first step in the process.
It’s the Referendum, stupid!