Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Moving beyond identity politics on constitutional reforms

Posted by harimpeiris on February 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 6th February 2019)

 The two largest parties in Parliament, the United National Party (UNP) in Government and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in opposition, the latter in both its SLFP and SLPP forms and factions are entirely preoccupied with the politics, personalities and their prospects at the forthcoming presidential election, constitutionally mandated and due at the end of this year. Hence their focus and activity has been almost entirely on the various machinations required for that exercise. The minor allies of these two parties have also been similarly preoccupied.

On the contrary, the third and fourth largest parties in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) respectively, have been rather doggedly pursuing the issue of constitutional reform, the latter championing the abolition of the executive presidency through a proposed 20th Amendment and the former is seeking to inject some life and momentum into the Constitutional Assembly’s constitution making process. The two major parties show very little interest now in the constitutional reforms process and to the extent that any political entity speaks about it, the sole objective seems to be, to use the process to score political points, ratchet up racial rhetoric which borders on bigotry and is dismally focused on parochial interest driven by identity politics. The Joint Opposition (JO) / SLPP combine have been entirely negative on the proposed constitutional draft report, with the criticism led by the NFF, on the basis that it will lead to secession by the Tamil community. Their comments are couched in language that is hardly designed to be inviting to the Tamil community to be an integrated part of a multi-cultural Sri Lanka. Joining the SLPP in being a nay-sayer, albeit from the side of the Tamil polity, has been the TNA constituent TELO, breaking ranks with its TNA allies.

However, it would be worth exploring the real issues behind the, originally near unanimous decision of Parliament in 2015 to vote, 224 to 1, to constitute themselves as a Constitutional Assembly to deliberate on constitutional changes and reforms.

The executive presidency and a democratic deficit

 The crucial driver for constitutional reforms requires a broad based, acceptance of what would be deemed as or constitute the core political problem in Sri Lanka. Currently and pre-war, this was defined by Sinhala nationalists as the problem of a restive, difficult and unreasonable Tamil minority bent on secession or separation and by Tamil nationalists as the problem of a permanent Sinhala majority and a Sinhala state which was structurally discriminatory of Tamil minority interests, concerns and welfare. Such an “us verses them” definition of the problem, unresolved and allowed to fester could only lead to armed conflict, which it did for near three long decades. While both the secessionist tendency of Tamil nationalism as well as the mono ethnic nature of the Sri Lankan State has been long evidenced, it is a result rather than a casual factor. The underlying cause is that the democratic and fundamental freedoms of all Sri Lankans, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgers are weak, vulnerable and does not deliver solutions.

In 2015, the rainbow coalition, for which the election winning majority was delivered by the voters of the North and East, its then common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, interestingly defined Sri Lanka’s problem as a problem of democracy. Hence the emphasis on governance, reforms and abolishing the executive presidency. That the structural discrimination against the poor, the disposed and the vulnerable, was systematic, that Sri Lankans were badly served by the governance structures irrespective of whether they were Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim was articulated and a coalition formed around governance reforms.  Hence the problem was defined as a problem of democracy and a problem of governance.  That Sri Lanka’s political system did not produce public governance that was equitable, just, efficient or accountable (transparent). Accordingly, the rainbow coalition defined Sri Lanka’s problem as a democracy deficit, a centralization of power, which had led to its abuse and misuse, using the example of the Rajapakse presidency, even with its populism, which did not serve the interest of Sri Lanka’s people, irrespective of their race, caste or creed. Some, especially ethnic and religious minorities may well have been worse off than others, but everyone except the privileged few were ill served. It was to address this need for reforms of the Sri Lankan state, that the Constitutional Assembly was established by Parliament.

This thesis is not new and drew its inspiration from several decades earlier, when then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga laid the political ground work for her “devolution package” by relentlessly attacking the 1978 republican constitution as a monstrosity. The Sinhala term “bahubutha viyawasthawa” or a cursed constitution, being her favorite terminology to create the public acceptance of the need for constitutional reform. Her government of 1994 having only a single seat majority in the legislature prevented the success of the eventual August 2000, draft constitution. That President CBK’s efforts at constitutional reform garnered as much support as it did at that time, probably owes much to this broader definition of the problem, of aligning the interests of all communities in a reformed and democratic Sri Lanka. In a sense, by implication if not explicitly, the political alliance of the National Democratic Front which won the January 2015 presidency, saw and defined the problem in this manner.

The argument that Sri Lanka perennially needs a strong leader, a dictator to use the terminology and political ideology of the Roman Empire in its decline, which created the office of the ever-powerful Emperor, is a paranoid perspective which only sees Sri Lanka as eternally under threat from within, pitting Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, denying the reality of a shared future. It ignores the real priorities of addressing the social challenges and economic opportunities in the post war era, long neglected and made secondary during the war years. It is interestingly Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP and MA Sumanthiran of the TNA, who are seeking to keep alive the reform agenda in Sri Lanka, which is ultimately necessary for us to have a government that works for and serves the economic, social and cultural needs of all Sri Lanka’s diverse peoples.

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