Sri Lanka’s Minister for Co-existence and Dialogue, Mano Ganeshan, is confident that the deep-rooted multi-ethnic character of the island’s population will enable the government to defeat extremists across the ethnic divide in a referendum on the proposed constitution, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.
“We will disappoint the extremists in all the communities,” Ganeshan told select correspondents late last week.
The draft constitution which is now being considered in great detail in the Steering Committee comprising leaders of all parties in parliament barring one, will meet the aspirations of the moderate majority in all communities, Ganeshan said.
Masses Not Extremist
Ganeshan, who leads the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) representing the Tamils of Indian origin, believes that the majority of the Sinhalese and Tamils are not extremist, and that they are ready to accept a constitution based on give and take.
“At the ground level, the Sinhalese and Tamils have friendly relations. The Sinhalese are good people and are not cruel. In the North, there are friendly interactions between the Sinhalese army personnel and Tamil civilians. The Tamil extremists’ propaganda is that the Sinhalese troops adamantly want to stay in the Tamil areas. But the fact is that the troops do not want to stay in the North. They would rather be in their own language area in the South .They have told me so,” Ganeshan said.
Consensus On Key Issues
According to the Minister, there is already an informal consensus in the Steering Committee in regard to crucial matters like the place of Buddhism; extent of devolution to the provinces; and the Nature of the State (as to whether Sri Lanka will be a federal or a unitary state).
There is consensus on Buddhism retaining its place as the “foremost of religion” of Sri Lanka with the State given the duty to protect and foster Buddhism as Sri Lanka is overwhelmingly Buddhist. But, as in the existing constitution, there will be no curbs on the practice and propagation of other religions like Hinduism and Islam, he said.
According to Ganeshan, the moderate Tamil National Alliance, which has the largest number of Tamil MPs, is agreeable to this formula.
As regards the Nature of the State, there is consensus on its remaining “unitary”. But to meet the Tamils’ aspirations, the provinces will be given more powers than they enjoy under the 13 th. Amendment of the existing constitution. He did not give details.
However, he added that the new constitution may contain a clause to say that the Center will have the power to dissolve a Provincial Council if it becomes a threat to the unity of the country. It is the Central government’s prerogative to take a decision on dissolution, he said.
This provision is meant to address a fear among the Sinhalese that a Tamil dominated Provincial Council might rebel and secede. That fear is based on a precedent in 1990, when the Tamil-dominated unified North-Eastern Provincial Council made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
Ganeshan said that giving power over land is not controversial as there is little or no land to distribute now. Much of the land is classified as “forest” for the sake of environmental protection and cannot be parceled out as was the case earlier. As regards powers over the police, every province will have its own Police Commission to oversee police recruitment and functioning, he said.
Brings Out On Multi-Ethnic Sri Lanka
Earlier in the week, Ganeshan brought out a book showing Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious island, a vibrantly colorful mosaic.
“People generally think that there are only 3 to five communities in Sri Lanka, but there are 19 of them,” Ganeshan pointed out.
Entitled People of Sri Lanka, the book delineates the history, culture and contributions of each one of these 19 communities with photographs and illustrations.
Against the backdrop of the majority Sinhalese claiming that they should have primacy in the island being “indigenous” and the majority and the Tamils wanting an exclusive enclave in the North and East, Ganeshan recalled that the putative progenitor of the Sinhala people, Prince Vijaya of Bengal in India, was married to a Tamil princes from Madurai in South India. It is also said that 700 of his fellow émigrés followed suit.
And over the centuries since the arrival of Vijaya, communities from various parts of India, Arabia, Europe and East Asia, including Indonesia and China, had arrived and struck roots in Sri Lanka. And each of these groups not only coexisted peacefully but contributed to the culture of Sri Lanka through symbiosis, Ganeshan said.
The Minister recalled that the founding father of independent Sri Lanka, and its first Prime Minister, D.S.Senanayake, had envisioned a future based on the coexistence of these various communities and the country’s friendship with the rest of the world.
“Our country is made of numerous linguistic ,ethnic and religious communities. We have to get the best out of all blend and march forward as a nation and reach the world communities,” Senanayake said.
Coming to developments since independence, Ganeshan noted: “Somewhere along the road we missed the direction given the Father of the Nation and picked the line of isolation from each other’s ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities in Sri Lanka. We permitted our children to grow in an environment that considered diversity as rivalry and as a weakness. We also started looking at the world community with annoyance.”
But acceptance of diversity is evident of later, Ganeshan said: “ Today we have learned from our past mistakes .We consider our diverse colorful nature not as a weakness but our great strength. We have started looking at the world communities as our friends and contributors to our successes.”
In this context the Tamil leader recalled the encounter he had with the fiery Buddhist monk and General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Ven.Gnanasara Thero at his office recently. Ganeshan said that he convincingly disproved the monk’s contention that the Sinhalese are the only indigenous Sri Lankans and others are aliens.
Ganeshan quoted the much respected Buddhist chronicle the Mahawansa to show that the Sinhalese are of mixed Indian and local origin. An embarrassed Gnanasara Thero first said that that particular part of the chronicle is not based on facts. But Ganeshan retorted saying that the monk could not be selective in the use of the chronicle which is acknowledged as a major source of Sri Lankan and even Indian history.
Referring to the book People of Sri Lanka bought out by his ministry, Ganeshan said that it is meant to kick off a dialogue between the various communities and identities in Sri Lanka in line with his mandate as the cabinet minister of National Coexistence and Dialogue.
“We hope that it will broaden the peoples’ understanding which is needed for ensuring equality and mutual respect,” Ganeshan said.
He said the fact that the launch of the book attracted the participation of all the major political leaders of the island nation, including President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition R.Sampanthan, parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, and Joint Opposition Group leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara, clearly demonstrated the will of the top leadership to keep Sri Lanka in its pristine form as a multi-ethnic mosaic.
(The featured picture at the top is that of Sri Lanka’s Minister of Coexistence Dialogue Mano Ganeshan)