By Lionel Bopage –
[Part 9 of this series was published on Monday, the 11th of December 2017]
Successfully addressing the national question lies in attaining genuine equality of opportunity and equity of access between peoples of different ethnicities. The existing national inequality is a consequence of historically conditioned economic inequalities and the national perceptions such inequalities generated. A major condition required for the solution of the national problem is to give effect to equality of all citizens in a practical sense, as enshrined in the country’s constitution. Many countries including Sri Lanka have proclaimed such political and judicial equality, but that proclamation in itself is insufficient to resolve the national problem. Those proclamations as provisions of the constitution need to be concretely and effectively enforced through subsidiary legislation and regulations.
In October 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution and pledged at the UN Human Rights Council to undertake human rights reforms to address the burning question of transitional justice. It promised to establish four transitional justice mechanisms including a special court with an independent investigative body with prosecutorial powers, an office on missing persons, a mechanism to establish the truth regarding claims of alleged war crimes, and a mechanism to guarantee non-recurrence and reparations. So far, the government has established only the Office of Missing Persons. Yet, the government has failed to improve the human rights situation, reform the police and security sector, and release political prisoners, and returned only a fraction of private lands the military has acquired during the war.
Furthermore, international experience shows that economic backwardness of a country cannot be simply done away by adopting modern technology or developing a knowledge economy or by encouraging foreign investments alone. It needs profound social transformations that encompass radical changes in peoples’ attitudes, their well-being and quality standards of the education they receive. Disregard for this policy has witnessed aggravated social and national problems in many developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Oppressive regimes have made use of such situations by spreading and fortifying various forms of ethno-religious nationalism, fanaticism, chauvinism, pseudo-patriotism and superstition.
Globally, neo-liberalism has led to reviving nationalist and religious preconceptions by spreading bourgeois nationalism and pitting diverse peoples against each other. Attempts at spreading or whipping up ethno-religious nationalism are an integral part of their strategy. The main purpose of such attempts is to divert the attention of working people from their class positions, to differentiate national and class attitudes, and to present bourgeois class interests as the national interests of the whole society.
Torture is found to be endemic throughout Sri Lanka. Those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) even after the end of the war, have provided accounts of torture and mistreatment, forced confessions, and denial of basic rights such as access to lawyers or family members. For example, following the discovery of suicide vests in the north, security forces reportedly arrested 11 men in April and May this year, but many of these arrests went undeclared. Their families reported that security forces had abducted them and only under pressure security forces admitted to holding them under the PTA. The UN special rapporteur on torture has called for the repeal of the PTA expressing particular concern about the detainees held under it.
Meanwhile, spokespersons for the regime continue to issue contradictory and confusing statements regarding their UN commitment. The government had to withdraw several drafts of the new Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) as these drafts apparently expanded police powers and failed to meet international standards. The Cabinet approved the third draft of the CTA last May, for which no parliamentary vote has yet been set. The new Bill will not protect one from wrongful, prolonged detention without charge. What constitutes a “terrorist act” remains vague and its scope could be extended to also include peaceful political activity in the name of threatening the unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty, national security or defence of the country.
To enable each community to make full use of the proclaimed political and legal rights, economic and cultural inequalities among communities have to be eliminated. For this to occur, positive discriminatory measures may need to be adopted implementing measures of practical assistance to the people who have been under oppression, such as developing their productive capabilities and capacity. A long-term and persevering struggle against the vestiges of national oppression is needed to eliminate economic inequality. One cannot expect an overnight solution to issues like these as some theorisers advocate.
The main political parties, when in opposition, have almost always included in their election manifestos that when they achieve power they will work towards a solution to the national question through consultations and negotiations. But when they come to power, like the current government, and make some attempt to negotiate or propose alternative solutions of their own, the new opposition, abetted by the extreme nationalists, obstruct such attempts.
Even in the Presidential election manifestos presented by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Dr Godahewa’s leader) in 2005 and 2010, he pledged to negotiate on constitutional matters by consulting political and civil society organisations and individuals to build consensus. In 2015, his election manifesto pledged to convert the Parliament into a Constituent Assembly; appoint a Citizens’ Advisory Council, present a draft constitution to the Parliament and submit it to a referendum for peoples’ approval. The same manifesto also pledged to bring constitutional amendments to the executive presidency, electoral system, rule of law, and good governance. Even this manifesto pledged to appoint a fully powered committee, led by a retired magistrate, to urgently act on prisoners detained under the PTA – with the aim to either file cases against them or release them expeditiously. In addition, it pledged to complete the returning of buildings and lands the military acquired during the armed conflict to the original owners.
It is too early to pre-judge the level of devolution that would have been offered by the government, but the draft Constitution presented by Professor G L Peiris under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s constitutional reform programme in 2000, was the broadest and the most effective constitutional proposal placed on the table in our country’s history. The devolution offered in the Professor G L Peiris version went much beyond the scope proposed in the current interim report. And yet, G L Peiris and his party now oppose any devolution of power even to the provinces. Their henchmen also talk about causing death to anyone advocating power devolution to peripheries, despite some powers being already devolved to the existing provincial councils. Another even talk about bombing the Parliament in a jovial mood!
The entire foregoing discussion clearly indicates that the national question does occupy the central stage in the politics of Sri Lanka. It has become the deciding factor of our future social dynamics in all spheres including economy, culture, and human and democratic rights. And yet, indications are that any constitutional draft proposal could suffer the same fate of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact in 1957, the Dudley- Chelvanayagam Pact in 1965, Provincial Councils package in 1987 and the draft Constitution in 2000, if the parties in the opposition and the Sinhala nationalist forces choose to repeat the same sordid actions of their predecessors all those years ago.
Even almost a decade after the defeat of the armed conflict in May 2009, the political conflict appears to reach another stalemate. Even after such massive death and destruction, the regime and its bureaucracy have not prioritised the addressing of the issues that have allowed the language gap to remain in practice. In provinces and districts where Tamils are prevalent, most Sinhala bureaucrats continue to conduct their official duties in Sinhala language. Complaints that Tamils make to these bureaucrats are recorded in Sinhala and then Tamils are asked or forced to sign or attest these statements.
The path to achieve real and substantive peace lies in raising consciousness regarding the pressing need for constitutional reforms and devolution. This has become today’s most decisive task for all democratic and progressive forces. This task can be undertaken as organisations or as collectives of organisations and individuals. The necessity to build an urgent independent movement to achieve this aim is warranted by the fact that some of those in political leadership and bureaucracy may be already gearing up to use their muscle to prevent the success of such a campaign fearing that it might become detrimental to their political survival.
In such a deteriorating environment it is imperative for the broadminded democratic and progressive forces to uncompromisingly commit themselves to safeguard human and democratic rights of the oppressed by actively campaigning to expose the treachery of the oppressors; otherwise the erroneous and pernicious statements of the likes of Dr Nalaka Godahewa will choke out any prevailing goodwill.
There is a pressing need to give voice to and strengthen the national discourse towards justice, equity and reconciliation.
This completes the ten-part series on the issues Dr Nalaka Godahewa had raised in his speech at the UNHRC in Geneva on 27 September 2017. I appreciate the contributions by Comrades A D P Rathnayaka and Michael Colin Cooke and a Tamil friend, who helped me present a comprehensive view on the burning issues requiring public discourse and understanding. To all of them, I hereby express my sincere gratitude. I also appreciate the critical, but constructive comments some readers have made.
 Counter terrorism act needs to be more hr compliant – Prof. Nihal Jayawickrama: at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2017/05/07/news/counter-terrorism-act-needs-be-more-hr-compliant-prof-nihal-jayawickrama, and Sri Lanka’s draft Counter Terrorism Act: a license for continued state oppression, intimidation and torture: available at: http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/press/Joint-CS-Statement-on-CTA-04-05-17.pdf
 දිනවමු ශ්රී ලංකා ජනාධිපතිවරණය 2005 මහින්ද චින්තන: අලුත් ශ්රී ලංකාවක්, මුදල් හා ක්රම සම්පාදන අමාත්යාංශය කොළඹ 2005
 The Mahinda Chinthana manifesto ‘The Path to Win the World (Lowa Dinana Maga)” available at: http://mr2015election.blogspot.com.au/p/blog-page_2.html