By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, the Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thero was spot on about proposals to change the constitution. The Venerable Thero is reported to have observed the following: ‘Causing unnecessary fear among the people on the Constitutional proposals and then saying tall tales is unacceptable and unhealthy.”
The observation had been made to a delegation of the National Freedom Front (NFF) which included Wimal Weerawansa. The Venerable Thero had further informed the NFF that “President Mairthripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had assured him that any proposal that encourages separatism won’t be included in the Constitution.”
If the word of politicians is what has prompted the Venerable Thero to chide the NFF it is indicative of an innocence about the ways of the prthagjana at odds with the erudition expected of a Mahanayake. The Constitution, after the illegal and preposterous (given history as well as demographic, geographic and economic reality) imposition of the 13th Amendment is in fact a document that is unitary in claim but federalist in effect.
To this day neither the President nor the Prime Minister has mentioned the rectification of this error when speaking of constitutional reform. Assurances on the non-inclusion of anything that encourages separatism, therefore, can only be purchased by the politically naive. Add to all this the various ‘reports’ crafted by federalist cheerleaders of this Government and there is ample reason for concern, even if one were to dismiss the NFF’s ‘fears’ as being wrought of political rather than ideological preferences. The better audience for the Mahanayake Thero’s remarks is therefore not the NFF but the assurance-givers.
Let’s make it clear — this constitution certainly does need reform and not only because of atrocious pieces of legislation such as the 13th Amendment and the carelessly written 19th Amendment. With the proposed 20th Amendment (on Electoral Reform) turning out to be yet another empty election pledge, a complete overhaul is better than any tweaking by politicians who have amended for self interest on 15 occasions (the 6th was an exception but one that was subverted by the Delhi-imposed 13th; the 17th was an incomplete corrective effort as was the 19th).
The entire exercise has been framed by the need for reconciliation among various communities, a laudable project but one which has unfortunately been hijacked by individuals and groups so fixated by a particular narrative (Eelamist) due to manifest antipathy to all things associated with Sinhala and Buddhist, and (therefore) a clear privileging of myth over history, fiction over reality.
What we’ve seen so far is an effort by the Yahapaalanistas to market their preferences after what was essentially an eye-washing, legitimating exercise of gathering a range of opinions on these matters. It offers a veneer of democratic discussion but the intent and machinations are quite visible. Interestingly it is the absences in the entire exercise that reveals most.
If constitutional reform is about addressing anomalies and relevant grievances then it has to be preambled by an enumeration of these. Such an enumeration must be weighted with evidence. Drop substantiation and you get political rhetoric. Only aberrations that can have serious repercussions including the subverting of the stated intent of reconciliation can result from this kind of planned carelessness in constitutional drafting. Throw it into a vote and a defeat is most likely; a defeat will open another can of worms which these very architects will describe as ‘Sinhana-Buddhist Majoritarianism’ (or worse!).
There are basics that have to be adhered to and the yahapalanistas are deliberately dodging. Reform should ensure a better and more efficient system for both the democratic airing of grievances and the effective addressing of the same. Basic. Whatever grievances there may be, their resolution should be appropriate. For example, it is clear that legislation exists for resolving language-related issues but there are more than hiccups in implementation caused in part by the lack of political will and the absence of resources including human resources, which in turn indicate insufficient training. There are many such grievances that have been articulated which can effectively be resolved by the effective decentralization of administration.
The more complex grievances. These have often been coupled with aspirations for reasons of ‘political expedience’ that ironically result in both the grievance baby being tossed out with the aspiration bathwater. A sense of belonging and ownership in the nation, for example, that goes beyond the petty arguments over national anthem and national flag, need to be addressed. It’s here that the contentions are mostly resident and it is the machinations related to this particular issue that gives rise to concerns or even fears, to use the word of the Venerable Mahanayaka Thero. This is where we see a continuing of the season of pernicious myth-modeling and ‘solutions’ proposed based on these. ‘Devolution’ is the answer, we are told by the Yahapalanists.
Any devolution that seeks to address a belonging-deficit based on ethnic identity must assume several things. The vast majority of the particular community that is aggrieved should live in an identifiable, distinct geography. Not so in the case of any community living in Sri Lanka. Devolution OUT on this criteria. Secondly, the claim of historical habitation and therefore traditional/historical homeland, should be substantiated. The evidence shows that at best it is a highly decorated narrative and one that comes with aspirations that are best described as a land-grabbing exercise. Devolution OUT on this criteria as well.
Devolution cannot be at odds with national development objectives. The key elements of the devolution discourse certainly run counter to economic logic. It can be argued that what the state does is in effect getting the Western Province to subsidize the other provinces, considering wealth-creation. You can devolve power but if you do that you cannot at the same time have the state play Robin Hood or Saradiel. Only a re-demarcation of provincial boundaries would satisfy this particular criteria. Yahapalanist devolution OUT on this.
There’s history. There’s national security. There is the context of virulent chauvinism by parties that were aligned with a bunch of terrorists and still celebrate the fact. That ‘context’ does not exactly make anyone salute Yahapanalist devolution proposals. Devolution OUT on account of context, therefore.
It is the absence of this ‘basics’ in the Yahapalana ‘reconciliation’ narrative that generates concern about constitutional reform. This is exactly why this exercise can further distance and not reconcile communities that mistrust and fear one another. It will not deliver ‘belonging’ or ‘ownership’ but could very well create further tensions, not to mention a sense of deliberate and constitutional un-belonging of a kind that groups such as the NFF have picked up on.
The Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, the Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thero is correct, let us repeat. It is unacceptable and unhealthy to cause unnecessary fear among the people with respect to constitutional reform and also to churn out tall tales. The Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thero should convey this to the Yahapalanistas, I offer, most respectfully.
*Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene