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Sri Lanka: Election, the transformative opportunity

Shouldn’t this golden opportunity that can be harnessed for a genuine transformation of the system of governance be made use of?

by Victor Ivan

Almost all the candidates who are genuinely contesting the Presidential Election have presented their election manifesto. But none of them have offered a practical vision to overcome the crisis that Sri Lanka is facing.

The failure to build the nation can be considered the main problem that had caused the crisis of Sri Lanka. It could be described as the core of the problem. The division of people based on religion and caste has rendered it difficult to integrate the people and build the nation. Yet, the race and religion are inherent social elements that cannot be eradicated. The caste system practiced in the ancient feudal system, as a means of division of labour, is no longer needed today.


Although there is no significant division of labour based on the caste system at present except in the Vihara and Devalaya villages, the social divisions created by caste system as high and low, still prevail to a considerable degree among us. The need has arisen to develop an ideology and introduce reforms to abolish the caste system. Similarly, a strong ideology followed by appropriate reforms is also necessary to remove divisions based on ethnic groups and religions in order to avoid conflicts between races and religions and promote strong coexistence among them.

The caste discrimination is more oppressive than racial or religious divisions. The report of the Presidential Commission on Youth in 1990, appointed to investigate into the factors that had caused the youth insurrections in 1989, acknowledged the role that caste had played in youth rebellion. The report contains an analysis of the situation.

The Commission was of the opinion that the fierce battles of the JVP revolt were fought not in the Goyigama villages, but in the Bathgama, Wahumpura and other sub-castes villages. The Commission states that it was convinced that the caste factor has played an important role in supporting the contemporary youth unrest, and remnants of it still linger trapped and confined in several isolated corners and are being subjected to social and political pressures. It further states that the victims of such discrimination are prone to fall into the path of rebellion, easily.

Ethnicity and religion

As Bryce Ryan had rightly pointed out, the divisions based on ethnicity and religion is not a thing of the past in Sri Lanka, but a recent phenomenon. As I have pointed out in my book titled ‘history & civilisation’ all the kings who ruled the country including the three kings – Vijayabahu 1, Parakramabahu the Great and Parakramabahu IV who united Sri Lanka after King Dutugamunu, worshipped Hinduism in addition to Buddhism.

All of them, while erecting Buddhist temples and shrines, had constructed Hindu temples and devalas as well. Just as the Hindu Tamils had a great respect for the Buddha, the Sinhala Buddhist people too, had a great respect for Hindu deities. They shared parallel beliefs. The Sinhala Buddhists while worshiping the noble triple gems of Buddhism, sought the blessings of Hindu gods as well. They worshipped Hindu gods invoking their blessings to prosper their worldly life while practicing Buddhism to ensure a better life after death.

By the time the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, Muslims constituted the third largest ethnic group who lived in the country. The Ridi Viharaya is one of the best examples of Buddhist, Muslim coexistence of the time. Muslims had served the temple as official partakers. They were allowed to maintain a mosque in the temple premises itself and were given an official share of temple land for the maintenance of the Muslim priest, the custodian of the mosque.

It was only after Sri Lanka entered into modern era or a colonial capitalist system that the conflicts over race and religion had arisen.

Religious and ethnic revival

The revival of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities began with the spread of school education during the British period with consequential transformation of Sri Lanka into a literate society that used to read books and newspapers. As a rule, in almost every colonial country, it was the religious struggles claiming for the restoration of the rights of the indigenous religions that preceded the struggles for political reformations. Though these campaigns can be described as a movement of the revival of indigenous religions, to a certain extent, they had some hidden political motives as well.

After 1848 and until the end of the 19th century, compared to India, Sri Lanka remained a relatively peaceful country free of conflicts. This period was marked with the emergence of a capitalist system based on commercial plantations and its growth and the rapid development of Sri Lankan society into a literate society that reads newspapers and books. By the end of the 19th century, religious agitations and labour unrest began to occur ending the peaceful stillness that prevailed up to then, in the country.

The Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religions suffered a severe decline during the long period of colonial domination. A most stringent policy towards indigenous religions had been adopted during the Portuguese era in the areas which came under their rule. The situation changed with the advent of the Dutch and there was no such rigid policy practiced on indegeneous religions during the Dutch rule.

The British period that followed the Dutch rule witnessed a conciliatory policy being adopted on indigenous religions. It was in this backdrop that religious revivalist movements aimed at the progress of indigenous religions emerged. A group of professionals and intellectuals had come into being in association with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religions to carry forward the religious revival movements.

The advent of Catholicism and Christianity caused a significant change in the ethnic and religious composition of Sri Lanka. In 1911, of the total population of 40 million, 60% were Buddhists, 23% were Hindus, 10% were Christians, and 7% were Muslims. The process of Christianisation over several centuries has resulted in 9% of Buddhists and 12% of Hindus being converted to Catholicism and Christianity. Muslims who constituted 7% of the population worshipped Islam religion while 0.6% of Burghers were Christians.

Religious differences and racial divisions

The Buddhist and Hindu revivalist movements in Sri Lanka had a strong anti-Christian content. The Muslim Revivalist Movement alone didn’t have an anti-Christian content. The Buddhist Renaissance Movement, led by Anagarika Dharmapala, may be regarded as the most powerful and most militant of all religious revivalist movements. Compared to India’s Hindu and Muslim revivalist movement, the Buddhist Revival Movement or the Hindu Revivalist Movement, led by Arumugam Navalar in Sri Lanka, can be regarded as a backward movement despite their militant character. They tolerated the caste divisions prevailed in Sinhala and Tamil societies. They lacked a vision for unification of the nation. So they acted as movements spreading divisive sentiments.

Anagarika Dharmapala can be considered the thinker who had been most influential in shaping the Sinhala Buddhist psyque while Arumugam Navalar had been the most influential thinker in shaping the thinking of Tamils. It was Anagarika Dharmapala who impressed upon the Sinhala Buddhists that the Sinhalese is a community superior not only to all the other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, but also the other communities in the world. Dharmapala regarded that only Sinhalese people are the owners of Sri Lanka. He perceived the ethnic groups of Tamils ​​and Muslims as foreigners that suck out the sap of Sri Lanka.

The religious and ethnic inspiration triggered by the religious revival movement led to inter-ethnic and religious riots. A great riot broke out between Buddhists and Catholics on Easter Sunday at Kotahena in January 1884. Thereafter, a Sinhala-Muslim riot broke out in 1915. It was a riot that spread throughout the country causing immense destruction to lives and property.

Failure to build the nation

Before or after independence, Sri Lanka has failed to unify the people and build the nation that stands divided by race, caste and creed, and outcome of which had been the violent clashes that broke out among Sinhalese, Tamils and finally Muslims in Sri Lanka. The compensation Sri Lanka had to pay for those violent clashes was immense.

The violent clashes and the uncivilised atmosphere created in the country as a result thereof, had caused to degenerate not only the society, but also the state itself and its institutional system as well.

The end of the civil war can be considered as the golden opportunity that could have been utilised to introduce structural changes to put right the distortion of the social system, the state and its institutional system which had reached a putrid level of deterioration. The leaders of the TNA also maintained a flexible stand at that time. The national anthem was sung for the first time, revoking the prohibition imposed by Prabakaran, at a party convention held by the TNA, and the national flag was hoisted at the occasion. It was a strong and positive signal flashed by the Tamil North.

But the leader who won the civil war failed to understand it. Also President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to understand the need for structural reforms. This situation pushed the country to an even bigger crisis than what was there earlier, and it ultimately resulted in, President Rajapaksa being defeated in the Presidential Election and forced to return home.

Even the Yahapalana Government which came to power replacing the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, didn’t do anything to introduce structural reforms to make a real change in the distorted social system and the degenrate state except for following a policy of groping in the dark.

The crisis is now at its peak. The social system and the State are also in an equally worse state of deadlock where it cannot move one step further without making structural reforms to bring about a profound change in the system.

Opening of spill gates

If the candidates of the alternative movements that contest the Presidential Election so desire, they can possibly turn the Presidential Election into a strategic opportunity to open the door for a genuine transformation of the system of governance of the country. In short, the Presidential Election can be transformed into an opportunity to pave the way for making of a people’s constitution aimed at introducing structural reforms conducive to recreating the nation which has become a confused mess as well as the State which is in a putrid state of degeneration afflicted with rampant corruption and inefficiency.

Apparently, there is a close fight between the two mainstream contestants. Irrespective of the number of votes polled, Anura Kumara cannot be the first or the second contestant in the race to presidency. The same applies to Rohan Pallewatta, Mahesh Senanayake and Duminda Nagamuwa.

In view of the close fight between the two mainstream candidates, the contestants of the alternative campaigns competing for the Presidential Election cannot be expected to make a decisive impact on the race. But, there is a possibility that they can make a significant impact on which of the two main contenders should win or lose. This is a unique situation which can be used strategically to achieve a people’s constitution for the country.

Since making a People’s Constitution is an important objective of the alternative campaigns, they can possibly enter into a morally and legally binding agreement with anyone of the two mainstream candidates, who is agreeable to institute a framework for making of a people’s constitution, with necessary powers, and withdraw themselves from the contest pledging their support to the latter. In doing so, it would be possible for them to open the doors for making a people’s constitution leading to a profound and far reaching change in the system of governance.

What alternative candidates can do

All candidates representing alternative sources of power contest the Presidential Election not to win it, but to seek parliamentary representation at the forthcoming General Election or to improve and consolidate their present representation in the existing parliament. But the crisis in Sri Lanka is a matter that must be resolved immediately and it cannot be put off till they seize the ruling power.

On the other hand, the electoral system in Sri Lanka is devised in such a way that only those having strong financial backing can gain power and the alternate movements will never be able to garner a significant share of power. However, the making of a People’s Constitution will certainly help change this anomalous situation and undoubtedly it will lead to generate more favorable results for alternative political movements in an election held following the introduction of structural changes and adopting a People’s Constitution.

If an agreement can be reached to commence the process of drafting a people’s constitution before the next parliamentary election as outlined above, then a Constituent Assembly can be set up and the making of the constitution can be pursued in two stages. The reforms pertaining to the MPs and the electoral system itself can be effected in the first stage so that the electoral system can be reformed to reduce the importance of monetary power in the system. After the reforms being effected, a parliamentary election can be held.

Accordingly, up to the next parliamentary election, the Constituent Assembly will consist of 225 members of the current Parliament and the representatives of people’s organisations selected under a more acceptable system, number of them will be more than the number of MPs.

The second or the most important stage of the process will commence following the general election when the old MPs of the Constituent Assembly will be replaced by new MPs elected to the parliament.

Generally, in making a People’s Constitution, the Constituent Assembly does not restrict itself to making only a draft of a constitution. It has the authority to explore all aspects pertaining to the process by appointing commissions and other appropriate methods to look into that. First of all, it needs an interim constitution and a well-defined modus operandi of the proposed new constitution with a time frame clearly specified in it. It is an essential and mandatory condition that the public is afforded maximum space to participate actively in all activities involved in making of the People’s Constitution.

If it would be possible to open the doors for making of a People’s Constitution by persuading anyone of the two main candidates to initiate such a transformatory program, entering into lawful agreements with him and supporting him to win the election, it will undoubtedly add to the greatest satisfaction of all communities in particular and the people of the country in general. It will not only give a high recognition to the alternative movements, but also, will provide an opportunity for the leaders of alternative movements and their activists to become the pioneers of the program of transformation.

Shouldn’t this golden opportunity that can be harnessed for a genuine transformation of the system of governance be made use of?

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