Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Learning the lessons of 1994 for constitution making in 2016

Posted by harimpeiris on May 16, 2016

Learning the lessons of 1994 for constitution making in 2016

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 28th April 2016)

 

Sri Lanka elected a new President, full of promise of reforms, of re-democratizing Sri Lanka, of correcting the wrongs of the past, of making government more people friendly, of resolving long outstanding issues of inclusivity and tolerance towards minorities and reforming the economy from a crony capitalist one to a social market economy. The winning coalition overthrew an entrenched incumbent administration, which had successfully if somewhat brutally crushed a concerted armed rebellion against the State. The ethno religious minorities in the country had enthusiastically supported the winning candidate and Sri Lanka seemed poised for a bright future. No, not Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 at the head of the National Democratic Front but Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, twenty years ago in 1994 at the head of the People’s Alliance.

 

The similarities of the situation between 1994 and 2015 as outlined above are almost uncanny. But the twin elections of 2015, provide yet another opportunity for Sri Lanka, to resolve our differences and move forward as one nation with a new social compact, which would be mutually beneficial to all our peoples. We didn’t entirely grasp our chance in 1994 and an opportunity was missed. As a nation, we must not miss, this historic opportunity, to effect the reforms of the Sri Lankan State, to ensure that the Sri Lankan State is more democratic, just and inclusive and accommodates equitably the full diversity of our pluralist society. There are many lessons of our failures in 1994 which if learned and avoided in the present time, can likely lead to a success of the makeover of the Sri Lankan State, which is being attempted by the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe, bi partisan administration.

 

The major difference and indeed opportunity of the present time from 1994, is the absence of the LTTE and the armed, violent and militant expression of Tamil nationalism which existed previously. The spoiler of all efforts at state reforms, democratization and economic development was the LTTE. And the brutal armed conflict they waged. A relevant achievement of the Kumaratunga Administration with assistance from the UNP, during an uneasy prior period of cohabitation was to convince the world and especially India, that the Sri Lankan State and the Southern polity was genuine about state reform while the LTTE was the obstacle to a solution. The absolute political intransigence of the LTTE, driven at least in part by an over estimation of its own military capability as well as political myopia during the decade long attempt at a negotiated political solution facilitated by the Royal Norwegian Government, contributed in no small part to the LTTE’s international isolation and international community consensus that Sri Lanka and indeed the world was better off, without the LTTE. Sri Lanka was fully supported by the world in our fight against the LTTE, from arms, ammunition, military hardware, jet aircrafts, naval vessels, intelligence sharing and crucially post 9/11 chocking off the LTTE’s international supply of money and weapons. Once the Indians facilitated the sinking, by the Sri Lankan Navy, of four or five LTTE arms ships on the high seas off our coast, the writing was on the wall for the LTTE. Their disastrous leadership of the Tamil polity, ended in 2009, on the shores of Nandikadal lagoon and any vestiges of nostalgia for them among the Tamil polity, is merely a reflection of the unfinished work of a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

We need to ensure that the hard won peace is durable and sustainable. There are several lessons from the missed opportunities of the past, which we can learn from, for the present.

 

  1. Cannot pursue politics of the LTTE

The first lesson from 1994 is that the politics of the LTTE, cannot be pursued by their new democratic successors in the Tamil political leadership, namely the Tamil National Alliance. In the bigger scale of things, Sri Lankans are blessed with the sagacity of the genial Rajavarothian Sambanthan, leader of the TNA who replaced Vellupillai Prabhakaran as the undisputed leader of the Tamil people, ably supported by his core team of Mavai Senathirajah and the young MA Sumanthiran. The more extremist elements of the Tamil polity, inspired as they are by alienated and self-appointed political orphans in the Tamil Diaspora have been repeatedly rejected at the polls by the people, the best example being that the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) of Gajenkumar Ponnambalam actually polled less votes than the Sinhala nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the Jaffna District in the August 2015, general elections. Elements in the TNA who also sought not so subtly to support the ACTC at the polls, were rebuffed by the Tamil people. President Kumaratunga was widely popular in Jaffna in 1994 and the LTTE saw this as a threat and scuttled talks in 1995. Likewise, President Sirisena is trusted in the North today, they voted overwhelmingly for him in 2015 and this is an opportunity rather than a threat and needs to be grasped by the Tamil political leadership.

 

  1. The Muslim Community matters

The other lesson of the 1994 era and more recently is that the Muslim community and their political concerns matters. It is a matter of deep regret, that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, politically moderate, secularly led and deeply integrated into national life in Sri Lanka has been at the receiving end of violence, from extreme elements in both the Tamil and Sinhala polity. The expulsion of Northern Muslims from Jaffna by the LTTE and indeed even from the Vanni, can only be defined as “ethnic cleansing”. More recently in the post war era, the assaults on the Muslim community, by extreme elements of the Sinhala community, captured also on video camera, with attacks on Mosques from Dambulla to Grandpass to Durgha Town, at a time when all Muslim parties were in the then Rajapakse Administration, meant that not a single Muslim vote went to Mahinda Rajapakse at the January 2015 presidential elections and the Muslim community continues to remain a solid block of support for the current administration. Their concerns of electoral representation, the security of their community and the right of minority religious observances and practice, together with other land, and  equity issues needs to be addressed in the process of constitution making and state reform.

 

  1. Timing is important

Finally, the constitution making experience of 1994 demonstrated that timing is all important. A new constitution cannot be brought to Parliament, on the eve of a general election and at the tail end of a term of office. In 1994 there was little choice for an Administration which had only a single seat majority in Parliament. The situation in 2016 is markedly different with a National Government which enjoys a two third majority in Parliament and politically only a sufficient consensus is required to see through major reforms, as the dynamics of the 19th amendment last year and indeed the motion for a new constitution last month demonstrated. Moving ahead on the constitutional reform process, so that it is completed and comes before Parliament and the people, early next year will also be crucial to the success of this national endeavour. We, as a nation cannot afford to fail this time around and must learn from and profit from our many mistakes of the past.

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