By Jehan Perera –
Sri Lanka enters its 71st year of Independence with political uncertainty in the air. The only certainty is that 2019 will be a year of elections. Presidential elections have to be held in November. There is a likelihood that provincial and general elections will be held either before or soon after the presidential elections depending on the calculations of the government that is in power.
Once again, as in the past, the main Tamil political parties did not attend the Independence Day celebrations. It appears that the Tamil polity is increasingly alienated from the mainstream polity which is not a positive sign. In 2015 after the election of President Maithripala Sirisena the TNA attend the Independence Day celebrations. This was the first time for over four decades by leaders of the mainstream Tamil political parties.
The last time they attended the ceremony was in 1972 prior to the passage of the first Republican Constitution. The 1972 Constitution was passed without accepting any of the proposals made by the mainstream Tamil parties, which saw the worsening of the political alienation of the Tamils from the Sri Lankan polity. A political solution has still to happen, even though Sri Lankans have had 71 years to work out the answer.
In his Independence Day message this year, President Maithripala Sirisena implicitly spoke of the need for a new path when he said, “Having gained independence from imperialist rulers, as a nation, we expected a political, socio-economic and cultural forward march, with a unique national identity free of colonial shackles. To entrust the future of the nation to minds enslaved by imperialism for more than a century, is more dangerous than being under colonial rule itself.”
Today it is taken for granted that British colonial rule laid the seeds for the ethnic conflict in the country through divide and rule policies and that the British used the Tamil minority to rule the Sinhalese majority. The disproportionate numbers of Tamils and religious minorities who were at the higher levels of the colonial administration is provided as evidence for this assertion.
The negative aspect of this type of analysis is that is that it seeks to absolve Sri Lankan’s from the responsibilities for our own failures. Sri Lanka’s transition to Independence was peaceful. It was unlike in India where partition into Hindu and Muslim dominated territories led to mass upheaval and violence that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions as refugees. Sri Lanka did not take this route because the leaders of the main ethnic minorities did not ask for separation in 1948 but only asked for inclusion and a share of political power in a united country.
The democratic political system in which elections with universal adult franchise is one of the positive features of the British colonial experience. Sri Lanka was one of the first colonial territories to receive the adult franchise beginning in 1911. The first Sri Lankan to be elected through elections for the Educated Ceylonese Seat was Ponnambalam Arunachalam from Jaffna. This choice of the voters indicated that ethnicity was not the main dividing line in society at that time.
The problem is that we took the British model of the unitary state, as practiced in 1948, and have continued to utilize it as an article of faith. The British system of government has changed significantly since those days. But we remain trapped in the past.
At the time that the country got its independence in 1948 Sri Lanka was seen as a possible Switzerland of the East. The British colonial administrator Leonard Woolf who wrote about the injustices that the colonial system brought the rural people in his book “Village in the Jungle” written in 1913 saw Sri Lanka adopting the Swiss cantonal system to accommodate its ethnic and religious diversity.
In a November 1938 Memorandum to the British Labour Party, on the Demands for Reform of the Ceylon Constitution, Woolf advocated “Ensuring a large measure of devolution or even introducing a federal system on the Swiss model.” He wrote “The Swiss federal cantonal system has proved extraordinarily successful under circumstances very similar to those in Ceylon, i.e., the co-existence in a single democratic state of communities of very different size, sharply distinguished from one another by race, language and religion.” (‘Letters of Leonard Woolf’, ed. Frederic Spotts, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990, pp. 416-7).
Today the unitary state model in Britain has changed greatly. It has changed to accommodate a parliament in Scotland, a power sharing executive in Northern Ireland and an assembly in Wales. Unfortunately in our 71st year of Independence we politicians whose mindsets are rooted in the past. The main issue they are taking before the people is that the country is in danger of being divided.
Today we have one set of politicians saying that the government’s proposals for constitutional reforms and meant to undermine the unitary state. We have another set of politicians who are proposing to take out the term “unitary state” from the constitution and replace it with Sinhala and Tamil words that they say are its exact equivalents while others say it is not. As a result the level of mistrust of politicians is high when it comes to the issue of constitutional reform.
On the day before Sri Lanka celebrated its 71st Independence Day, over 250 youth representing 8 districts of the country spanning the North and South and all ethnic and religious communities came together for three days of activities. Most of them had never met each other before, but they had spent two years engaging in training on peacebuilding which included getting to know about the political and social challenges facing the country.
These 250 young people demonstrated that they have the energy and enthusiasm to work across ethnic and religious differences. During the three days they spent together, the young people experienced trust building and problem solving exercises which are the main lacuna in the country today in terms of inter ethnic and inter religious relations.
The hardest problem is to find a solution to the ethnic conflict that is endorsed by all communities. The differences between the parties, even within the government alliance, are very great. The past four years have not been sufficient for them to develop enough trust and understanding between themselves to reach out to each other and compromise on their differences. This is why the draft constitution that has been developed by the expert committee of parliament is not being presented as a formal government document.
The challenge for Sri Lanka is to create a set of common political values that members of all communities can accept that are based on respect for human rights and the rule of law. This is the process that needs to be speeded up through a new constitution that will create citizens who are politically equal, not subjected to discrimination and with the right to determine their own future within a united country whether the constitutional label is unitary or not.