The status of Sri Lanka’s new constitution is generally subject to several misconceptions, besides confusion over whether it is good or bad, and necessary or not. To clarify these doubts, the Anglican Archdeacon for Jaffna, The Ven. Fr. Sam Ponniah, on behalf of the Church’s Regional Board of Social Responsibility, invited M.A. Sumanthiran, MP and heir-apparent to the TNA’s Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, MP, to speak to all priests and church officials of the archidiaconate on its merits. In attendance were leaders from Jaffna, the Vanni, Trinco and Batticaloa.
Fr. Ponniah had also invited Justice C.V. Wigneswaran or lawyer K. Guruparan to give a response. The latter two kept stalling so finally he went ahead to have only Sumanthiran last Saturday (16.02.2019) to speak at the Church of St. John the Baptist, Chundikuli with the promise to have the opposition on another day should they ever “find time.”
I am merely making a limited paraphrased record of the 2-hour event as a Member of the Election Commission with the duty to educate the public on their right to franchise. However, my duty also it is to promote the franchise of the people, I disclose that I am uncompromisingly for devolution since it gives everyone the right to a say in his affairs. The meeting-record follows with what Sumanthiran first said, and the questions raised and the answers he provided.
The draft constitution by a Panel of Experts and subcommittees appointed by the Constitutional Assembly (the entire Parliament), as planned, with approved amendments was to be submitted to the Constitutional Assembly, and the Cabinet was to make that into a Bill.
However, with the departure of many SLFP MPs from the unity government, the latter lacks the two-thirds majority it had in passing the 19th amendment. Most Sinhalese support devolution but when asked why they are against a federal state, they say it will lead to separation. Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP and Leader of the Opposition says he supports devolution but will not support a new constitution until elections are held. Nothing is therefore likely to pass as things are.
The main tussle is between the words unitary and federal. Unitary means there is only one source of laws whereas federal means powers are also given to authorities away from the centre to make laws with the guarantee that such devolved power cannot be withdrawn. We must not be hung up over words and must focus on content. The epitome of a unitary state is the UK but it has more federal than unitary features, for example giving Scotland the power to separate if the people so want.
In expressing the middle of the road position, unfortunately there is no word for federalism in Tamil or Sinhalese. The Sinhalese have circumvented this by inventing the word Pederal. So to avoid confusion the TNA thought of Aikiya Raatchiyam (united country) and Orumiththa Naadu (United Country), and chose the former. To avoid confusion and rabble rousing, the “draft of the draft” therefore uses all these words in Sinhalese and Tamil, one after the other in line. He noted that neither the BC Pact nor the Dudley Chelva Pact used the word federal but devolved many federal powers to the North-East. Even the 2000 proposals drafted by Neelan Tiruchcelvam and G.L. Peiris under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, had powers for the periphery which we opposed then but now would be very happy to accept.
If the current constitution-making fails, would Sampanthan be unfairly devalued among the Tamil people like Amirthalingam was for trusting JR and being cheated? Yes, that danger is there and that is why it is imperative to at least achieve a few steps forward with this government doing anything that can be. Our options with the alternative government are worse. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has done nothing to advance federalism, but we can talk to him. We are also talking to Rajapaksa. Ranil speaks of development. Speaking to our youth, I find 9 out 10 Tamil youths unemployed. I asked where they are planning to find jobs. They replied that they plan to go abroad. It shows the urgency of development through our Provincial Council.
Why is the TNA supporting an extension of UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 on War Crimes? It is the only way to keep Sri Lanka under continued scrutiny by the world body. If not, there will be no way to examine and pursue the issues of punishment. Otherwise the war criminals will get off. We need carefully to balance our stance. Remember, there are two international instruments establishing that war crimes were indeed committed. One is by the UNSG’s Panel of Experts. The other is the Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka. Both reports are agreed that terrible crimes were committed by the government and the LTTE. Can we argue that the killers of Joseph Pararajasingham and Raviraj should be let off but not those who killed Lakshman Kadirgamar? This is what the Attorney General asks me when I try to speed up the process. The reports also show that the LTTE executed persons in its custody in the last 3 days of the war. Are they to be let off while prosecuting those who massacred Tamils in the last days? We need to accept those reports in whole and cannot pick and choose those to be prosecuted. Our credibility is at issue. To identify the culpable we need a Truth Commission.
Why cannot you implement the powers already legislated under the thirteenth amendment? Police powers are not there under the thirteenth amendment but land powers certainly. Exercising the devolved powers needs enabling legislation by the Northern Provincial Council. We of the TNA drafted ten acts to be passed urgently. Former Dean/Law at Colombo Mr. Selvakumaran came and stayed in Jaffna for six months to work on this. But nothing was done because the then Chief Minister believes that it must be shown that nothing positive may be obtained from the Thirteenth Amendment. So they passed a smacking 434 emotive resolutions but not the needed laws, stuck in the policy of all or nothing – either a full konde or full tonsure (kattinaal kudumbi, siraichchal mottai).
Why are you doing nothing about the occupied lands at Kepapilavu? To the contrary, things are indeed being done. The residents under Mr. Rajapaksa were allotted lands elsewhere, built houses and moved. Now, legitimately, they want to move back home and are prepared to give up lands allotted to them. However, the army has thrown a wrench into the works. It has told the government in writing that continued occupation of Kepapilavu is essential for national security, but if the president asks them to leave, they will. In these circumstances the President is reluctant to ask them to leave. If he does so, it can be gist for negative propaganda, and a lot worse if the Army refuses to move. We are working on suggesting that the army relocate to Nanthikadal, arguing that the change in direction of the coastline gives them better vantage. In the North 80% of the land has been returned, not 90% as claimed by the government.
Why are you filing cases to save the Ranil government but not against what the army does to us? We did file a case for you when Parliament was dismissed. What if we had sat back? The illegal election would be over by now and a new government in place. If we had let that happen, can you argue for your rights as you do now?
Good things are happening. The Office of Missing Persons has been established. Although the outcome of our giving limited measured support to the government is not much to date, the folk on the OMP are good people who work with dedication and we are hoping for good progress. The Truth Commission I think is in line next. As I said, if we fail, it will be bad for the Tamil people. What is the alternative?
End Note: All went well including the tasty vadai and tea. However I am not comfortable that the meeting was before the side Altar (with what seemed to be a tabernacle)before which we are expected to genuflect. And the eats were served at the place reserved for receiving the Eucharist – the host and wine, not vadai and tea. O tempora. O mores.