By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
Since the successful execution of 100 days program of President Maithripala Sirisena is key to the future of his strategy for a national government, it is instructive to redo it through the reflection of the aspirations and hopes as they were expressed by the people at the election. Of course different peoples have had different expectations and hopes. At least their priorities may be different. The interests of the urban middle class when they voted at the last election might have been democracy and good governance. Almost all might have been despised bribery and corruption. However, numerically small nations would have seen election as a space of raising the issue of security and protecting their identity. It seems the government is now working on bringing in 19th Amendment to the Constitution by repealing the infamous 18th Amendment that negated independent commission set up by the 17th Amendment. Also it allowed president to hold office more than twice. We still do not know for sure what would be included in the 19th Amendment, but it seems it will be in line with the proposal submitted by Rev Athuraliya Rathana, MP and his pivithuru lowak movement. As the 100 days program was careful in even mentioning the national question, the issue may not be specifically be addressed in the 19th Amendment.
In my opinion, there is a main drawback in the pre- as well as post- election democracy discourse in Sri Lanka. Mr Sumanthiran, a TNA leader was reported to have said that the reestablishment of democracy in general will help the numerically small nations in general and Tamils in particular. I do not contest that, but the establishment of democracy in general is not adequate for the resolution of the specific democratic issues of the numerically small nations. It is instructive to note that general democracy prevailed in the first two decades after independence, but democracy of numerically small nations, particularly of Tamils were curtailed in the same period later leading to an armed conflict. Both Lenin and Trotsky defining democracy in broad historical terms suggested three main tasks of democratic transformation, namely (1) democratization of the state; (2) national integration that include self-determination of oppressed nations; and (3) resolution of the agrarian question, i.e, abolishing feudal and pre-capitalist remnants in the rural sector. Mr Sumanthiran and many others focused only on the first aspect of democratic transformation and their discussion was confined to its positive side effects on numerically smaller nations. My submission is that this limited version of democracy will not help in attaining democratic transition in Sri Lanka. The second and the third issues should be consciously addressed and incorporated in the struggle for democracy. I add. If we are rereading and enriching the 100 days program in the light of electoral experience, specific proposals on those issues should be included.
It is interesting to see that some leading members of the new government have seen the national question as an issue that is inescapable. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has in India raised that the new government will go for de-militarization of the North and East. It is commendable and the appointment of civilian Governor to the Northern Province should be duly appreciated. As far as we know the Governor of the Eastern Province had imposed so many restrictions for functioning of elected provincial council. Has he been removed?
Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, has also mentioned the implementation of the 13th Amendment. He said: “We will introduce these reforms while preserving the unitary character of the Constitution. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution will be implemented subject to that principle.” The statement sounds promising, but the qualification is absurd. 13th Amendment was introduced within the framework of unitary state as enshrined in the Article 2 of the Constitution. What is the meaning of the qualifier, ‘subject to [unitary] principle’?
I do not argue that in next 100 days the country should move from unitary state to federal state. I prefer to adopt a reformist position in place of a revolutionary position in constitution-making and state restructuring. Such a strategy would avoid putting undue pressure on the new government. So it is instructive to look at doable reforms within a short period, may be in 100 days, to address the burning issue of national question that has been evolved in the last 10 years incorporating new dimensions. Let me suggest 4 reforms that can be implemented without two third majority in the Parliament.
- 13th Amendment should be implemented fully and the limited police and land powers in the Amendment should be devolved to the Provincial Councils without further delay.
- LLRC report recommended separation of the police force from the Ministry of Defence. It should be gazette that the Department of Police be included in the Home Ministry.
- Mr. Somapala Gunadheera wrote in the Island last week that the provincial Governor should be the change agent in the province. Recently, Rev. Maduluwave Sobhitha has also tried to inflate the position of Provincial Governor. I think this view may destroy the idea of devolution reducing it to mere decentralization. Hence, the Chief Minister and the Cabinet should be made principal change agents in the province and all district secretaries should be put under the Provincial Secretary as far as functioning of the provincial subjects are concerned. Thus Provincial Secretary should be the principal executive officer of the province. To facilitate this process, de-militarization of the North and Eastern Province is imperative.
- An amendment to the constitution has to be introduced primarily because of the inadequacy of the 13th Amendment to Constitution as a solution to the national question. The concept of federalism was rejected by many in the past arguing Sri Lanka is a small country. Federalism takes into account not only the issues of size in the country but more importantly diversity of the country. However, the current situation will not allow to go for a major surgery in the field of constitution-making. Moreover, the issue of Muslims goes beyond territoriality. There is non-territorial dimension in Tamil and Kandyan Tamil question as well. How could we address this issue? I would suggest a setting up of a bicameral legislature. The second chamber elected by an electoral college consisting of all elected provincial councilors following the Ponnambalam Principle of 50: 50 that in my opinion one of most innovative proposal for constitution-making in a diverse society. What does it mean? I propose 35 member of second chamber. Out of 35, 15 should be elected by Sinhala Provincial Councilors and 15 by the provincial councilors belonging to other nationalities. The Election commissioner may decide how 15 seats allocated on the basis of their respective population share. The remaining five members may be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council to represent Malays (1), Burghers (1), Veddas (1), Colombo Chettis (1) and others (1). Any legislation that has an impact on ethnicity and religion can to be vetoed by the second chamber. 20th Amendment to the constitution may set up a second chamber and amendment may also include a minor change to several articles of the Constitution including Article 4 (a). Does it need a referendum? I do not think so, but legal experts can give a definite answer to that question.
*The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School – e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org