Colombo, July 22 (newsin.asia): Extremists in all Sri Lankan ethnic groups will be “disappointed” with the outcome of the referendum on the draft constitution, because it will have met the aspirations of the “moderate majority” in all communities, says Mano Ganeshan, Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages, and leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA).
“We will disappoint extremists in all the communities in the referendum,” a confident Ganeshan told select correspondents on Friday.
The proposed constitution is an effort to fulfill a promise made by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in the run-up to the January and August 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential and parliamentary elections respectively.
The two leaders had said that they would draft a new constitution which will reduce concentration of power in the Executive Presidency (to meet the desire of the majority Sinhalese community); and will devolve more power to the provinces (to meet the aspiration of the minority Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern provinces).
But as the process of constitution making proceeded apace with the setting up of the Constitutional Assembly, the various subject sub-committees, and the Steering Committee at the apex, extremists from the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil communities created fears about their “core interests” being compromised to pander to the “other” side.
Sinhalese extremists said that the constitution is going to be a “federal one” which will lead to secession of the Tamil speaking provinces. They said that the Central government will not be able to rein in recalcitrant provinces and that powers over land allocations and the police will be handed over to the provinces thereby weakening the Centre.
Above all, Buddhism, the religion of the majority Sinhalese, will cease to have the “foremost place” in the constitution, they alleged.
The reports of the subject sub-committees, which tended to be “liberal” and accomodative to the aspirations of the minorities, provided grist to the extremists’ propaganda mill.
The Joint Opposition, led by hard line former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, took a leading part in the “anti-new constitution campaign” along with extremists within the government. They got the Buddhist high priests, called the “Mahanayakes,” to issue a statement saying that there is no need for a new constitution.
That statement forced President Sirisena to meet the Mahanayakes post haste and assure them that he will not sanction any constitution which does not have their approval.
On the other hand, Tamil extremists spread the fear that the new constitution will pander to the Sinhalese majority, and that the Tamils will only get “old wine in a new bottle.” Tamil representatives in parliament should therefore deliver or quit the process, they demanded.
Masses Not Extremist
Mano Ganeshan, who leads the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) representing the Tamils of Indian origin, believes that the Sinhalese and Tamil masses 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 troops 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 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.
The moderate Tamil National Alliance, which has the largest number of Tamil MPs, is agreeable to this formula, Ganeshan said.
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.
However, 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 government. The decision on dissolution will be the Central government’s prerogative.
Ganeshan said that 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 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 before. The minister added that the fear that the Sinhalese will settle in the Tamil areas on land allotted to them by the Center, is groundless because government has failed in its efforts to settle even the families of military personnel. Few Sinhalese want to settle in the North, he pointed out.
“Everyone, whether Sinhalese or Tamil, wants to settle in Colombo and the Western Province because of the existence of opportunities of advancement,” Ganeshan pointed out.
As regards powers over the police, every province will have its own Police Commission to oversee police recruitment and functioning, he said.
(Sri Lankan Tamil Minister of Coexistence Mano Ganeshan in dialogue with the radical Buddhist monk, Venerable Gnanasara Thero)