By P.K.Balachandran/The New Indian Express
Colombo, January 10: Despite the painstaking work done by the various multi-party constitution drafting committees, and the widespread public consultations on which their reports were based, the proposed new constitution for Sri Lanka may not see the light of day anytime soon.
Analysts attribute this to entrenched fears among the main political parties about the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community’s view on the all-important Tamil question and the impact this might have on their electoral prospects.
Perceptive observers are discouraged also by the consistent historical failure of the Sri Lankan polity to accept and implement sensitive and far reaching proposals which could affect their electoral fortunes.
The constitutional proposals which are now under consideration,are designed to bring the peace dividend to all equitably, and satisfactorily address the concerns of the minority Tamils so that the alienated Tamil community is mainstreamed.
In the process, certain sensitive issues are being considered in depth. Among these, is the conversion of the existing “unitary” constitution to a “federal” one, or alternatively, the grant of a substantial measure of autonomy to the provinces with powers over land, police and finances, but without naming the devolution system as “federal”.
But the majority community sees these proposals as being divisive, and as stepping stones to secession. According to opposition stalwart and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tamils are now trying to get, through the parliamentary route, what they had failed to get by waging war. He is pledged to oppose these moves tooth and nail. The MahaSangha (the association of Buddhist High Priests) has also expressed the fear that the country might be divided if the Tamils’ demand for autonomy through a federal system is acceded to. The monks’ views on Sri Lanka’s core issues carry a lot of weight in Sinhala politics.
For the multi-party “national unity” government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the problem lies in the proximity of elections. Though the two leaders are only implementing the election mandate they received in the January and August 2015 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, they apprehend a change of mood in the electorate and a return to ethnic and communal politics.
But the government is under more pressure to hold the much-postponed local government elections at least in June or July.Elections to three Provincial Councils (Eastern, North Central and Sabragamuwa) are due in September.However, the government is trying every trick in the book to postpone the local bodies polls. According to a source, a decision has already been taken to postpone the Provincial Council polls to early 2018.
Given the palpable failure of the coalition government to meet the expectations of the voters across the board, opposition leader Rajapaksa is getting stronger by the day. He has vowed to topple the regime this year. While the majority Sinhalas feel that the government is disunited, indecisive and insensitive, the Tamils see it dragging its feet over devolution of power, returning seized lands and setting up judicial and reconciliation mechanisms.
Observers believe that government will see to it that no new constitution embodying significant changes is presented to parliament before the elections.
Adding to the grim scenario is the dismal failure of past attempts to solve the Tamil issue through structural changes. The well-intentioned SWRD Bandaranaike-SJV.Cehlvanayakam pact and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam pact (known as BC and DC pacts) had to be abandoned because of Sinhala-Buddhist agitations, organized by the opposition parties of the day.
The solemnly signed India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 and the enactment of the 13 th.Constitutional Amendment which stemmed from the Accord gave hopes of provincial autonomy to the Tamils. But these also met the fate of the BC and DC pacts. Only the shell of the 13 th. Amendment remains in the form of elected Provincial Councils. Crucial powers relating to land, police and finances have not been devolved in the last 30 years.
For the failure of the Accord and the 13 th.Amendment, Tamils and Sinhalas are equally responsible. Moderate Tamils as well as the Tamil Tigers rejected the 13 th. Amendment as being “too little and too late” while the Sinhalese saw them as India’s sinister attempt to divide Sri Lanka ethnically.
Chandrika Kumaratunga ,who became President in 1995 with a promise to bring about ethnic harmony, set about the task of drafting a suitable constitution seriously with the full cooperation of the opposition United National Party (UNP). But when the liberal draft was presented to parliament in 2000, the UNP refused to support it on a minor issue. A Sinhala-Buddhist campaign against the draft undoubtedly influenced the UNP’s decision. The Tamil Tigers, committed to an independent Tamil Eelam, and its cohorts in parliament also opposed it.
To keep India on Sri Lanka’s side during the three-year Eelam War IV (2006-2009), the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised that he would devolve power to the Tamils “beyond the 13 th. Amendment”. After the war, he had made the same promise to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But he reneged on these.
However, Rajapaksa was in hot water soon. The war-triggered humanitarian crises drew unwelcome world attention. Western nations and the UN charged the Sri Lankan army of war crimes and called for an international judicial mechanism. The Rajapaksa regime, already unpopular locally for its high handedness, wilted, and was ousted in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election.
The incoming duo Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power promising a new accommodative constitution.But as it turned out, this government too began dragging its feet on the promises to the Tamils and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Apart from the Sinhala Buddhist radical parties, Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party has also joined the Rajapaksa opposition to oppose a new constitution. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) is silent but its past record would show it will go with the tide.
Nevertheless, political circles expect the constitutional process to continue if only to tell the UNHRC that its September 2015 resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, is being implemented.
(P.K.Balachandran is the correspondent of The New Indian Express in Sri Lanka)