By S. Narapalasingam –
The national elections held last year focussed mainly on the deteriorated governing system and did not raise subjective matters aggravating the protracted ethnic issue, which has caused enormous losses to the people and the nation since independence. Unfortunately, some opposed to the National Unity government seem keen on treading along the old nationally divisive path, fuelling the ethnic issue for their own political benefit. They also seem to be keen on ousting the National Unity government committed to national unity and good governance for regaining the lost power. The nationally damaging ways to gain power seem to exist with the power hungry politicians, despite the costly damage done in the past.
The underlying fact is, the ‘divide and rule’ scheme which became a handy way to gain the votes of the Sinhala masses crucial for winning countrywide elections laid the grounds for the colossal damage done to all communities since independence. A different system that safeguards the unity and the fundamental rights of all communities and citizens is essential, if the post-war country is to progress steadfastly for the benefit of all citizens in the 9 provinces.
Past nationally damaging developments even after the protracted internal war ended in 2009 influenced the formation of the present National Unity Government with the two main political parties (UNP and SLFP) as equal partners committed to national unity, real democracy, rule of law, good governance and sustainable development of the entire nation. These noble and overdue aims are discernible from the pronouncements of the current leaders of the two main political parties, which for the first time have joined as equal partners in the noble task of building a promising united Sri Lanka, the shared homeland of the diverse ethnic communities living in different parts of the island since ancient time.
Both the Sinhalese and Tamils have their ancestral roots in India and the Sinhala language not used elsewhere is also a derivative of combined ancient Indian languages. It is irrelevant, who settled first in the island for a political system to function democratically without any racial discrimination safeguarding national unity and promoting social and economic development in the entire country. If Sri Lanka is really a Buddhist country, Buddhist philosophy should also influence the governing ways. Unfortunately, what happened in the past, despite giving prominence to Buddhism in the island’s constitution is totally different.
The plight of citizens
Given the deplorable ways, Sri Lanka’s imperfect governing system has functioned for decades after independence, some seem to feel all the reforms needed for good governance under a truly democratic system compatible with Sri Lanka’s real demographic features cannot be implemented overnight! The real fact is that the governing system that evolved after independence also ignored the long-term needs of the people and the entire nation. The ethnic factor also hindered national development. An example is the reluctance to develop the natural harbour in Trincomalee which was used extensively during the colonial period. The development of the Trincomalee harbour was included in the 1972-1976 medium term Development Plan but was not implemented because it was located in the Eastern Province. Now, after more than five decades the development of this natural harbour is being considered.
The lack of sufficient funds for financing the annual expenditures of the government also increased excessively the need to seek foreign borrowings, which the poor nation must settle in the coming years. Unless the country is able to generate sufficient income to settle past debt and finance the annual administrative expenses, it will not be possible to raise significantly the standard of living of the poor people. Excessive public debt will plunge the country into the debt trap. Lack of forward vision of egoistic politicians has made life more difficult for poor children too.
The country’s dependence on foreign remittances has also increased with the pressing need for money to meet the family expenses. In 2015, foreign remittances amounted to 8.5 percent of GDP. Many Sri Lankan women work as domestic aides in the Middle East. There was a time when middle income families in Sri Lanka could afford to employ outsiders for performing routine house work. Poor immigrants from neighbouring India acquired manual jobs in the private sector. Many immigrants entered Sri Lanka illegally seeking manual jobs. The then (before 1956) prevailing calm and promising conditions in the island tempted some foreign countries to follow Sri Lanka’s path for securing national unity, political stability and human development. Sadly, the new disruptive path taken by the power hungry politicians, ignoring the vital need to preserve these tenets has tempted even qualified Sri Lankans to migrate to foreign countries.
The foreign loans procured to finance dubious development projects failed to strengthen the national economy. These are a burden, if the future inflow of foreign money through export of goods and services is inadequate to finance the imports needed and fulfil the foreign debt settlement obligations. The point is Sri Lanka needs not only meaningful constitutional reforms, consistent with the ground realities but also efficient administration.
At the time of independence no resident would have even dreamt that their motherland to become a distressing country with uncertain future. Besides the adoption of a truly democratic and socialist constitution, there is the vital need for change in the attitude of ordinary citizens and politicians seeking people’s power. Many anti-social and divisive acts are being done under the cloak of patriotism! Broad forward vision and political courage are needed to rebuild the damaged nation. This vital change cannot come automatically from the adoption of a new constitution that supports the unity and peaceful co-existence of all ethnic communities. The new constitution with structure compatible with ground realities must assure equal rights and opportunities to all regardless of whether a citizen is a member of the ethnic majority or minority community.
Exploiting racism for seeking governing power
The views of some political analysts on the structure of the anticipated third Republican constitution indicate the continuing misconceptions that denied real democracy, national unity, the environment for peaceful co-existence of all ethnic communities and steadfast development benefitting all citizens, regardless of their ethnic or political party connections. The damage to national unity began in 1956 with the enactment of the Sinhala Only official language Act, motivated by the desperate need to win the support of the Sinhalese voters. The way their support was sought aggravated division between the ethnic majority and minority communities. National security was also deemed to be safe with dominant powers resting with the ethnic majority. Contrary to the widely known fact, federalism has been likened to separation or leading to this sooner or later by many Sinhala nationalists. Paradoxically, the federal concept was proposed by the first SLFP leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike before independence. The Tamils did not press for a federal system even at the time of independence because of safeguards given via Section 29(2) in the first constitution of independent Ceylon. But after independence, it became apparent the preferred unitary structure was to ensure that the centralised governing power rests with the ethnic majority.
The SLFP founded by the UNP deserters led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was responsible for initiating Tamil separatism by introducing the Sinhala only official language Act in 1956. This idea was promoted by the adoption of the first republican constitution in 1972 and university entrance examination marks standardization program in 1973. This constitution was drafted and approved during the time Dr. Colvin R de Silva was the Minister of Constitutional Affairs retaining Sinhala as the only official language and leaving out Section 29(2) of the previous (Soulbury) constitution. During the time when the Sinhala only official language Act was debated in Parliament, it was Dr. Colvin R de Silva who said: “One language two nations; two languages one nation.” The open discrimination against Tamils in higher education and employment intensified the tension inducing the disillusioned Tamil youth to revolt. In short, the brutal war for separation arose from the divisive ways the governments functioned with the aim of winning the support of the Sinhalese majority. The several riots that destroyed many Tamil lives and their property with the devastating July 1983 riot drawing international attention and intervention of India also reflect the weaknesses in the rule of law and governing system. The support extended in July 1983 by the then UNP government under J. R. Jeyawardena’s Presidency to the violent attackers of Tamil civilians in the South is widely known. He said openly in 1983 that ‘to keep the Sinhalese happy he was prepared to starve the Tamils’.
The following are extracts from Deirdre McConnel’s article “Sri Lanka’s Denial – Surest Guarantee Of Further Genocide” posted in Colombo Telegraph on September 7, 2016:
“Tamils existed as a distinct people, with their language, culture and religion long before colonial rule. The Portuguese (1505) and the Dutch (1658) ruled the Tamil Kingdom in the North and East, separately from the two Sinhalese kingdoms in the South. Therefore, classification was obvious. Symbolization, to denote or identify the targeted group, was also not needed initially in Sri Lanka. Identification by name, language or outward features of religion, were sufficient. I will return to symbolization, as the issues unfold later, cyclically, since it was an aspect which contributed significantly to the pace of eventual genocide.
Discrimination against the Tamils has been extensively documented. The latest report, from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, was distributed on 26 August 2016 [ii]. It outlines the severity of the current problems. The preventative measure which could have halted the relentless trajectory towards genocide, would have been to outlaw discrimination. But, on the contrary, discrimination was systematically condoned and legalized, by the majority dominant group, who continually held the reins of power. Discrimination could have been outlawed when it appeared on the scene in the 1940s and 1950s. Denial of citizenship to the Tamils living in the plantations in 1948; the changing of the demography of the East by colonization to decrease Tamil voting capacity; then the infamous Sinhala Only Act of 1956, all entrenched discrimination at fundamental levels. Rather than using a unifying language, to promote understanding, the majority community language, Sinhala, was favoured and Tamils denied equality at the most basic level of communicating with officialdom. Later, a raft of discriminatory legislation including: in Education rights (1971); the abolition of section 29 of the constitution which protected minority rights (1972); and the constitutional favouring of Buddhism over the other religions practiced on the island (1972), constituted calculated and legalized discrimination, against which Tamils had no means of redress.”
In his article in the Daily Mirror (30 August 2016), Ranga Jayasuriya has conveyed former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s regret for his father’s (S.W. R. D Bandaranaike ) decision to enact Sinhala only as the official language of the multi-ethnic island nation. As his comments are very relevant, these are cited here. “….. the British gave independence to all ethnic communities. The Tamil speaking people also deserve the same rights as the Sinhalese, the ethnic majority in all provinces except the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Had Sinhala and Tamil been declared the official languages in 1956 as was done via the thirteenth Amendment and implemented faithfully, the island nation would have avoided the enormous losses incurred since the ethnic conflict escalated into the costly civil war. It is also a major shortcoming in the governing system that some provisions in the Constitution are not implemented, which is the case regarding the 13th Amendment. (Police and land powers are not devolved). The main reason for this reluctance is the misconception about the Sri Lankan Tamils, in the light of the existence of 80 million Tamils across Palk Strait in south India. Sri Lankan Tamils all over the world do not consider themselves as Indians, the same way the Sinhalese consider themselves. A good example of persons with the same mother tongue but different nationalities is the English speaking people in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, USA etc. The point is constitution per se is no guarantee for ensuring unity, peace and progress in a democratic country. The British governing system is a glowing case where democracy functions efficiently, maintaining national unity, rule of law and high standard of living. The self- governing powers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are different. There is no written constitution to guide the functioning of the House of Commons and House of Lords.
The damaging ways the political system functioned since independence point towards the failure to adhere to basic principles governing democracy, equal rights of all citizens, rule of law, respect for the cultures and traditional dwelling pattern of . Not only the country but also the nation is multi-ethnic and multi-religious. The view that the entire island is a Sinhala nation is unreal.”
Why Tamils accepted the first (1947) Constitution
The following comments in LankaNewspapers.com (6 May 2008) are very relevant to grasp the reasons for the Tamils to have accepted the constitution drafted by Great Britain (Lord Soulbury) at independence. It contained “a protective clause [Section 29(2)], and also because it provided recourse to the Privy Council in the event the protections afforded by this constitution were violated.
Prof. G.L. Peiris, the former Minister of Constitutional Affairs of Sri Lanka, himself, publicly acknowledged this fact, as reported in the Ceylon Daily News [March 12, 1997].
“[A constitutional] safeguard was provided for the minorities by Article 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution. Article 29(2) “prevented parliament from conferring benefits on the majority community and imposing disabilities on the minorities. The Privy Council in Bribery commissioner vs Ranasinghe had ruled that Article 29(2) cannot be amended even with a two-thirds majority. It was on the basis of this safeguard that the Tamils acquiesced in the granting of independence in 1948.”
The successive governments in Sri Lanka systematically violated Section 29 of the Constitution. The Citizenship Laws (1948 and 1949) and the Official Language Act of 1956 (among many other Acts) were express violations of the UK drafted Constitution of Ceylon.
In 1962, S. Kodeswaran, a government employee, sued the government on the grounds that the Official Language Act of 1956 violated Section 29 of the constitution. Judge O.L. de Krester upheld Kodeswaran s plea and ruled that the Official Language Act contravened Section 29. The Government appealed to the Ceylon Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court failed to consider the constitutional issue. Kodeswaran appealed to the Privy Council. In 1969, the Privy Council set aside the Supreme Court s decision and directed the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutional question. (72 New Law Reports, p.337.)
Kodeswaran’s case never came before the Supreme Court again. Instead, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government, which came to power in 1970, abolished appeals to the Privy Council (by Act No.44 of 1971). In 1972, Section 29 was abolished with the repeal of the Soulbury constitution and enactment of the Republican constitution. . This too was an unlawful act, because the Privy Council on another matter had ruled as follows:
They [Section 29 provisions] represent the solemn balance of rights between the citizens of Ceylon, the fundamental condition on which inter se they accepted the constitution and these are therefore unalterable…
The 1947 Constitution of Ceylon (also known as Soulbury Constitution) in section 29 barred any racial and religious discrimination. This was excluded in the subsequent 1972 and 1978 Republican constitutions. Section 29 of this constitution stated:
“(1) Subject to the provisions of this Order, Parliament shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Island.
(2) No such law shall –
(a) prohibit or restrict the free exercise of any religion; or
(b) make persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; or
(c) confer on persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not conferred on persons of other communities or religions, or
(d) alter the constitution of any religious body except with the consent of the governing authority of that body, so, however, that in any case where a religious body is incorporated by law, no such alteration shall be made except at the request of the governing authority of that body “
The island, known then as Ceylon was relatively on a strong footing after independence to develop resolutely like Singapore. But the thirst for power ignored the real national needs for promoting and sustaining unity, peace and social and economic advancement. It is this narrow political need that continued for decades ignoring the long-term needs of the entire nation caused the present calamitous state. The system that evolved since then not only by changes to the Constitution but also by corrupt practices of those wielding power has led to the emergence of the culture contradictory to the sermons of Lord Gautama Buddha. The politicians anxious to protect Buddhism by giving it primacy in the Constitution must think whether the violation of human rights and the visible rise in bribery, corruption and fraud which has kept the gap between the rich and poor wide, protect real Buddhism in the island. Paradoxically, the threat to Buddhist way of life comes from the anti-social and reckless ways the elected politicians utilise the power given to them by the people for their own benefit, ignoring the well-being of other families. The misuse of public funds which really belong to the people hurts them, both in the short and long terms. Such misdeeds are anti-religious and anti-social.”
Past decisions that damaged national unity
There are many instances of thoughtless decisions since 1956 that damaged national unity and ultimately led to the brutal war for a separate Tamil State in North-East Sri Lanka. There are many useful lessons for all to learn from both the factors that damaged the national unity and pushed the desperate Tamils to seek a separate State in North-East Sri Lanka.
Surendra Ajit Rupasinghe has quite aptly indicated the important constitutional reform needed in the article titled ‘Citizen’s Initiative For Constitutional Reform’ posted in the Colombo Telegraph on September 13, 2016. The unresolved ‘National Question’ has denied the island nation unity, peace and development and the muddled state helped those exploiting the ethnic division to pursue the policy of ‘divide and rule’. Sri Lankans regardless of their ethnic and religious connections have paid a heavy price for the destruction of ‘life and property’ and lack of much needed economic development because of the escalation of the national problem into a brutal war. Many opportunities for political settlement were missed by both sides, because of mistrust and over confidence in their distinct approaches.
To quote Rupasinghe: “We have been split apart and torn asunder with hateful division, having to endure a brutal, protracted war simply because we have not found the way to embrace each other in solidarity, infused with a liberating humanity, to share and nurture this beloved Land and coexist peacefully as a human family. Whether Sinhala, Tamil, Moslem, Ja, or Burgher, whether Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic or Bahai, whether North, East, South, West or Hill Country, we have all paid the price. We have all been violated. Our collective humanity, our shared spirituality, our democratic freedom, along with our ancient civilized foundations have been relentlessly assaulted. We can never return to this dark era of tormented violent conflict again.”
Majoritarian system was strengthened by dropping constitutional safeguards preventing violation of fundamental rights of the ethnic and religious minorities provided in section 29 of the first Constitution of independent Ceylon. A section of Sinhala nationalists considered the entire island as a Sinhala Buddhist nation ignoring the traditional variations in the residing pattern of the ethnic communities.
Promising statements of President and Prime Minister
President Maithripala Sirisena, who is the present SLFP leader, addressing the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 21 September 2016 said his government has taken effective measures to strengthen democracy, rule of law and good governance paving the way for the much needed changes in the governing system to ensure that there will be no more wars on Sri Lankan soil.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s statements at the event held recently to open a new administrative building of the Jaffna District Secretariat are encouraging, although the agreed draft of the new (not amended as some prefer) constitution is not yet ready. These are:
1. Sri Lanka cannot move forward by inciting racism.
2. All development targets could be met only if all communities come together.
3. The present National Unity government will resolve the (national) problems and create a country devoid of racism in order to move on with the economic development. The Prime Minister assured that the government will work towards a political solution to resolve the National issue as all the communities faced several hardships since the issue was not resolved
4. Racism is not patriotism. Everyone should get together to solve the problems without leaving them to future generation.
5. Saying, Buddhism is in danger is only an attempt to bring back racism.
6. Steps have been taken to achieve reconciliation. A separate secretariat has been formed under former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to create reconciliation among communities, while steps have been taken to release people from jail who have cases against them if they are not connected to serious crimes. Acts have been passed for an office on missing persons and the laws to establish a truth commission will be established. (Source: ‘Colombo Page’ 17 September 2016)
Some other positive signs
Not only the President and Prime Minister who are also the current leaders of the SLFP and the UNP but also many others want to restructure the present constitution, which failed to serve fittingly the ‘democratic and socialist’ Sri Lanka proclaimed in the very title of the present constitution. The political system that emerged after independence ignored many ground realities, believing a powerful centralised system controlled by the representatives of the ethnic majority Sinhalese will function fairly in serving all citizens residing in the multi-ethnic island with regionally diverse ethnic composition.
The deceptive party politics concerned mainly with gaining governing power for narrow benefits that emerged supreme soon after independence focussed on winning the votes of the ethnic majority by exploiting the ethnic division. The biased way governing power was exercised in the illusion that the future of the Sinhalese depends on retaining overriding powers constitutionally with them is the basic reason for the demand for a non-centralised system of government by the ethnic minority Tamils, which with the escalation of official discriminatory policies and state sponsored violence against the Tamils led to the violent struggle for separation.
It is an undisputable fact that the ethnic conflict emerged after independence with the denial of equal rights to all ethnic communities and citizens regardless of their ethnicity and residing province. Furthermore, attempts to subdue the ethnic minority Tamils via state sponsored violent attacks also resulted from poorly conceived notions. The way the ethnic division in the multi-ethnic country was generally used as a handy tool in gaining the votes of the Sinhalese, the major ethnic faction, except in the two Northern and Eastern provinces has severely damaged national unity and denied sustainable development. Some other developing countries in the region achieved higher annual economic growth rates with the favourable environment they had after independence.
Last year’s regime change in tattered Sri Lanka was domestically and internationally welcomed as a viable means to get rid of all major ills that denied a promising future for all citizens, regardless of their ethnic connection and residing province. Many Tamils wanted a peaceful united Sri Lanka with equal rights for all citizens and a promising future for themselves and their children. Sadly, some concerned Sri Lankans, who helped to bring about the regime change via the 2015 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, seem to be disappointed with the extent and pace of developments accomplished so far aimed at building a new promising Sri Lanka. Civil society leaders too have issued statements conveying their disappointments in the current reform process, A close examination of the difficulties facing the nation in pursuing meaningful reform process indicates just a mere constitutional reform per se is inadequate, though it is absolutely necessary.
The present leader of the opposition in Parliament and Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan is reported (Daily News 17 September 2016) to have said at the meeting in Trincomalee with the representatives of ‘Women in Good Governance’, “the new Constitution should guarantee justice, peace and prosperity for all citizens of the country regardless of their ethnic, religious or social differences.” He also observed, ”the Tamil National Alliance was supporting the process with the main aim of finding a lasting solution to the issues faced by the Tamil people.” Sampanthan also said, the views and aspirations of Tamils were not taken aboard in a comprehensive manner when formulating previous constitutions for Sri Lanka. He hoped the new National Unity government will not make the same mistake. The point stressed here is what happened since independence that sidelined the Tamils is the main reason for many problems created and sustained denying national unity, peace and socio-economic development and loss of many lives. The adoption of inapt constitutions was also intrinsic to the design of equating majority with superiority. Another constitution without positive change in the attitude of politicians and their supporters will not help to build a harmonious and prosperous Sri Lanka the homeland of both Sinhalese and non-Sinhalese residents. The main Tamil political party is also for a new united Sri Lanka as wished at the time of independence.
99 civil society organisations and 83 individuals have jointly urged the Constitutional Assembly set up by the present National Unity Government to ensure Sri Lanka’s new Constitution is “underpinned by a substantive recognition of the obligations of the State to further social and economic justice and rights.” (Ref. Colombo Telegraph, Posted on September 15 2016). All sensible Sri Lankans will support a new constitutional structure that has truly ‘democratic and socialist’ features with social and economic justice and equality. Any form of discrimination that alienates a section of the population cannot foster unity, peace and the environment conducive for sustainable development. On the contrary, a murky environment helps the corrupt and selfish persons to misuse the power gained via elections conducted periodically as stipulated in the constitution. A meaningful democratic system needs more inherent functional features to ensure the elected representatives of the people work for their wellbeing and national unity and development. A balanced constitution that promises socio-economic justice and equality is useful but this alone will not help to deter the kind of blunders made by the past egocentric politicians seeking power for some narrow gain. It is unfortunate many ordinary people are insensitive to the misdeeds of political actors, who are confident of getting their continued support even after the power-seekers’ earlier misdeeds are widely known. People need to be educated about social and economic justice as well as equal rights of all citizens in real multi- ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural island. Not only the constitution but the actual ways of exercising power at all levels must support the emergence of new Sri Lanka.
B y Dr. S. Narapalasingam