Yet another — a fourth new constitution — is in the making for the troubled Sri Lanka, which has had three different constitutions since independence, in the years 1948, 1972 &1976, all of which apparently failed to meet the national challenges, which prevailed in Sri Lanka. The refreshing picture in this iteration is the participation and engagement of the two main rival parties, the SLFP and UNP, plus the TNA representing the Tamil community and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress with other groups like the newly formed Tamil People’s Council placing their proposals.
Undoubtedly, this joint exercise provides the best opportunity for Sri Lankan politicians — as there are no statesmen as yet to lift and salvage the country from the messes created by its power hungry and chauvinistic leaders. The foremost burning issue is the ethnic problem, founded by SWRD Bandaranaike with the introduction of Sinhala Only Act. From that period of 1956, the seeds of communal disharmony, mistrust, hatred and hostility were sown and they have produced majority hegemony in all fields of Sri Lankan lives – Education, Language, Religion, Colonization, Discrimination in employment sector, which spilled into communal riots culminating in the brutal and destructive war from 2006 to 2009 snatching the lives of tens of thousands of civilians involving war crimes, crimes against humanity, as determined by the UN and other human rights organizations. Had there been true parliamentary democratic governance, the Sri Lankan government and forces might well have conducted themselves sticking to the rules of war and not been goaded by communal phobia or frenzy.
For a clean image the new constitution must focus on the grievances of Tamils as its priority and must include adequate, secure and acceptable provisions guaranteeing the devolution of powers to the Northern and Eastern provinces, the historically inhabited areas of Tamils for more than 2000 years. A union of regions as earlier proposed by Chandrika, or a confederation based on a federal system accepted by Ranil and the LTTE in 2002 could be considered under an undivided and united Sri Lanka. However, one can only exercise cautious optimism, viewing the past nullifying and thwarting attempts carried out even by those who advocated and agitated for the rights of Tamils like Colvin R.DeSilva, who in the 1972 Constitution enshrined Buddhism and removed the safeguards of minorities given under the 1948 Soulbury Constitution. There is also the lurking suspicion that the new constitution will finally take a shape yielding to the majority feelings with the proposed referendum ensuring it with a majority yes vote. Various ominous signs can be seen with the utterances of ministers, the President and the Prime Minister who have all forthrightly rejected a federal set-up while confining any devolution within the 13th Amendment.
Besides, the Sri Lankan government is carrying several baggages of issues, which are potential spoilers of its ‘Good Governance.’ The HRC resolution in September 2015 co-sponsored by the US and Sri Lanka encouraged Sri Lanka to take proper and effective steps to address various issues including accountability and overhaul of the security and justice sectors besides setting up of a special tribunal to deal with the war crimes etc. The resolution also requested the Sri Lankan government to implement the LLRC recommendations. So far after the lapse of almost four months, Sri Lanka has not moved even an inch to implement the said proposals, and the fact is those resolutions are not mandatory directions to the Sri Lankan government to comply with but only allowing Sri Lanka either to circumvent or discard with promises of other remedial measures. In this context, Sri Lanka will find it handy and useful to excuse and delay the UN’s deadlines by citing the proposed new constitution as the panacea for all the issues including justice and accountability. The special tribunal envisaged by Sri Lanka is going to be purely an internal mechanism composing of Sri Lankan judges with foreign judges possibly acting as observers. Only time will tell when this tribunal concludes its impartial hearings with fruition with most of the main perpetrators of crimes enjoying impunity, as promised by the government.
Despite this possible pessimistic scenario, there lies heavy burden and responsibility on the TNA, Tamil People’s Council and other like-minded groups believing in justice and accountability to mount effective campaigns and agitations to create a stable, unifying, nation-building constitution. In this respect, the TNA’s leader Sampanthan is heaping complete trust and faith on Maithiri and Ranil who have already broken their promises on the release of Tamil political prisoners, leaving the other nagging issues of Tamils — like handing over the seized lands, fate of the disappeared thousands, ineffective resettlement programs — in cold storage. In order to please and placate the government and Sinhalese politicians and people, Sampanthan has now declared that “Tamils have dropped their demand for a separate state.” How far this uncalled-for statement will remove the imbedded and inherent Mahavamsa mindset of Sinhalese is anybody’s guess. Sampanthan’s desperation to obtain a political settlement, short of separation is understandable, but he is also reminded of his endorsement and agitation for Tamil Eelam after the 1976 resolution as mandated by the Tamils in the then general election. This mandate has not yet been revoked by Tamils so far and it can only be decided by a referendum, which is one option Sampanthan has to call for if the present conciliatory moves fail to yield the desired results.
Viewing the contradictory and confusing statements and signals emanating from the coalition government’s ministers and others, the TNA and TPC headed by Wigneswaran have to solicit the backing of the international community to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government to come out with a permanent durable and acceptable political solution. The recent public statements of the President and Prime Minister are writing on the wall on the following issues:
- Accountability: “War heroes and military commanders who led the battles will not be persecuted and will be protected.” This statement has confirmed the hollowness of the proposed internal judicial mechanism, which will end up as a sham.
- Devolution: ‘Any solution of Tamils problems will be confined within the 13th Amendment’.
One can therefore rule out any federal or similar system granting wider power and functions to meet the requests of Sampanthan or Wigneswarn. The statement as to “no compromise on security of state” has confirmed the permanent presence of the army in the north to closely watch the day-to-day lives of people. On the question of the disappearance of thousands during the war and after surrender to security forces, the PM in Jaffna has issued the sweeping verdict without any investigations asking the grief stricken Tamils to “forget the issues as the disappeared are all dead and gone.” This heart-breaking and degrading statement exposes the level of values the government has for the lives of Tamils with all principles of justice mutilated.
Lack of political will, majority rule over the minority, coupled with opposition from racial and religious groups give little hope for the Tamils to live free and equal with dignity and self respect while managing their own affairs. The duty thus lies on the international community particularly on the USA and UN to come out with acceptable solutions making amends for their pathetic response, dysfunctional attitude and neglect towards the suffering of Tamils which is one of the 21st century’s most neglected Human Rights catastrophes and which has been allowed to fester and grow for the last 60 years.
Western countries particularly the USA are more concerned to preserve and protect the Ranil-Maithiri government to keep Sri Lanka within its influence and preventing Chinese strategically dominance and influence over the Indian Ocean and particularly on Sri Lanka, being the artery vein in this area. With this pre-dominant motive and consideration, the USA and some other countries like India could opt to exert pressure on the TNA and more on Wigneswaran to soften his stand by giving up their aggressive campaign seeking justice and accountability and opting for unconditional co-operation and conciliation.
The whole world including the UN has been behaving like spectators during the communal riots, massacres and genocidal wars. Leaving the abandoned Tamils in Sri Lanka reaching a point of no-return and it is better now and not late or never for the UN, USA, India and other countries to press the Sri Lankan government to open up a fresh page in history with proposals unifying the country guaranteeing the equality and self-respect of Tamils with constitutional provisions for self-rule in the north and east.
If the Sinhalese politicians and other extremist religious groups fail to grab this last opportunity to solve this 60 year old nagging and destructive problem once and for all casting aside their political, parochial and chauvinistic interests, they will be destined to see a Sri Lanka facing solutions from outside not ruling out a divided Sri Lanka.
The entire blame for the origin and call for separation squarely falls on the shoulders of Sinhala nationalists and chauvinistic politicians for their shortsighted political policies by killing all the previous pacts and also the opportunities ethnic peace and reconciliation, but not on the ordinary Sinhalese people nor on the Tamils who were forced and driven to seek this solution willy-nilly.