While constitutional reforms are being discussed by the Steering Committee, there are forces like the Joint Opposition led by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa that have started to whip up anti-devolution sentiments in the South. Adding strength to these forces, the Mahanayakas recently declared that the country does not need a new constitution. We will get to know in the referendum, if and when it takes place, how the Buddhists in this country perceive the Mahanayakas’ position on the new constitution. We do not need to jump to conclusions about this now. We know that a large number of Sinhala-Buddhists voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 when he was widely perceived as the invincible leader of Sinhala-Buddhists. Let’s not be too optimistic either. The government that is spearheading the constitutional reforms has failed miserably on the economic front. Privatization of basic services such as health and education and the neo-liberalization of the country’s economy have accelerated under this regime. The Tamil National Alliance, the opposition in Parliament and the major Tamil party involved in drafting the constitution, has also failed to participate in the struggles led by the poor, the landless, the dispossessed, workers and students against the neo-liberalization of Sri Lanka’s economy and thereby alienated itself from the Southern constituency. The party also did not rise to the occasion swiftly when floods hit the South recently and during the Meethotamulla tragedy.
In a context where the Joint Opposition is trying to stoke ethnic passions while projecting itself as a crusader against neo-liberalism, the Southern people’s opposition to the economic failures of the government may easily translate into a protest vote against devolution in the referendum. Between 2002 and 2004, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government initiated peace talks with the LTTE along with a set of neo-liberal reforms. The UNP government was defeated in the next general elections held in 2004.
While the economic and political problems that plague the country are intertwined and the latter are sometimes seen as an outcome or expression of the former, one cannot deny that ethno-religious chauvinism has its own force too and that such chauvinism exists among minorities as well. To defeat the chauvinist forces that are against devolution, progressive forces in the country should immediately inaugurate a vigorous campaign for a constitution that ensures devolution of powers to the provinces and makes the state one that respects pluralism and diversity at all its levels including in the peripheries. There are some crucial questions about the constitution that we need to discuss forthrightly as part of this campaign: Will those who are involved in drafting the new constitution come up with proposals that ensure the devolution of important powers like land and police to the provinces? Will they also ensure that such powers cannot be taken back by the center unilaterally without the consent of the provinces, especially the two provinces where the Tamil-speaking people form the majority and have demanded regional autonomy for many decades? Will there be mechanisms or clauses in the constitution that guarantee that the judiciary cannot interpret the constitution as one that favors a centrist or unitary state even if the word unitary (ekiya rajya) is going to appear in the constitution in Sinhala as we are told? Will the state be secular? Will there be mechanisms to protect the rights and freedoms of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities and non-territorial minorities such as Muslims in the Northern Province or Buddhists in the Eastern Province? How would devolution benefit the minorities within a province, the working classes, the landless populations, students, women, oppressed caste communities? These questions revolve around what we generally consider as the national question or the minority question or devolution. These questions led to a 30-year civil war in this country and we lost thousands of precious lives because of our failure to resolve these questions in a just manner.
There are many other issues and questions that the constitution should address including the executive presidency, electoral reforms, socio-economic rights, the rights of women and sexual minorities and disabled populations. I have excluded them from this post because there seems to be a general consensus on many of these issues across religious, ethnic, cultural and regional divides. The political leaders should act on them now in a fair manner as asked by the people during the public consultation sessions held last year.
It appears very clearly that the Tamil political leadership is not going to insist on the repeal of the constitutional clause that offers Buddhism the foremost place (a major concession on the part of the Tamils and other minorities in my view); nor is it going to demand the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces although it will maintain merger as its stated position. Will the Parliament of Sri Lanka offer a constitution that is federalist in practice and spirit as I mentioned above even if it is unitary in paper? And will the Sinhala-Buddhist community ratify such a constitution in the referendum? Here is an opportunity for us to move forward as a single political community that respects pluralism and self-rule in the peripheries. Hope we will not throw it away as we did several times in the past.
Anandasangaree’s call for a meeting between the Maha Sangha and Tamil leaders
In the wake of the Maha Sangha’s opposition to the new constitution, V. Anandasangaree, the General Secretary of TULF, has urged the Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan to form a team of representatives from different Tamil political parties for a meeting with the Maha Sangha. Selvam Adaikalanathan of TELO has also made a similar request. The Federal Party under the leadership of R. Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran has repeatedly expressed its commitment to an undivided Sri Lanka since 2009. Breaking with a long-held tradition of protest, the two leaders even attended the Independence Day celebrations in February 2015 as a gesture towards reconciliation (not to mention all the attacks they faced from other Tamil nationalist camps). This change of approach did not weaken them politically among the Tamils; instead, both of them emerged victorious in the general elections held after six months.
TNA leaders R. Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran have also urged the Tamil community in public – both in Sri Lanka and at expatriate gatherings – to self-introspect about the crimes committed in their name against other communities in the past, especially during the years of militancy. But the reciprocation from Southern political leaders was not remarkable, to put it mildly. Some of them continued to claim that there was zero casualty during the last stages of the war in May 2009. Only a few leaders from the South acknowledge openly that an ethnic conflict exists in the country or that the state needs to be secular. One needs to admit that the TNA’s interactions with the people in the South has been inadequate. The party could have campaigned with more earnestness among the Sinhala communities in the different provinces to win their trust. Its engagement with the South was too Colombo-centric. But there is still time left and the party should activate its campaign without delay.
The Maha Sangha’s opposition to a new constitution that would devolve powers to the provinces shows that they continue to ignore the genuine grievances and legitimate aspirations of the minority communities. At the same time, we should understand that the Maha Sangha may have concerns about the place of Buddhists, their religion and culture in the Northern and Eastern provinces where the Buddhists are minority. They may also have anxieties about the security and safety of Buddhists in these regions post-devolution when certain executive decisions, hitherto made by the central government, will be made by the provincial governments. It is important that Tamil leaders try their best to allay these fears and concerns. As Anandasangaree has suggested, Tamil political parties should meet the Maha Sangha and share with them their political vision for the Northern and Eastern Provinces and the steps they will take in order to ensure the peaceful coexistence of the different communities in the two provinces. More importantly, the TNA and other political parties representing the minority communities should engage the people in the South on a regular basis not just on devolution but also on economic and social issues that blight them.