Sri Lanka: Do We Really Need a New Constitution?

People who believe that the country needs a new constitution say that there are a number of problems which cannot be solved without the support of a fresh constitution based on true democratic principles.


by Asela JG De Mel

( October 16, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The debate on constitutional reforms has come to the centre of political discourse in Sri Lanka again. Politically conscious people of the country have sided with two ideas; citizens adhering to one side say that the country is in dire need of a new constitution. Meanwhile, the other side says that it is not required to introduce a new constitution because the existing one is adequate to govern the country. It is not difficult to detect ideological currents behind both the ideas.

People who believe that the country needs a new constitution say that there are a number of problems which cannot be solved without the support of a fresh constitution based on true democratic principles. According to them, the problem related to the Tamil Eelam struggle has been an impediment to the progress of the country, and it cannot be defeated without promoting the Sri Lankan civic identity over Sinhala and Tamil ethnic identities.

As they say, Sri Lanka must be a civic nation-state comprised of Sinhala and Tamil ethnic nations and other ethnic minorities. Any attempt to make Sri Lanka a Sinhala-Buddhist ethnic nation would boost the extreme Tamil nationalist campaign aimed at separation, say civic nationalists. Therefore, they suggest to introduce a new constitution to defeat separatism, which gained momentum internationally and among the Tamils during the previous Sinhala chauvinist regime.

Biased with extreme Sinhala nationalist interpretations of the crisis, the other side says that the motive behind the attempt of introducing a new constitution has stemmed from the separatist agenda backed by North Atlantic superpowers. According to their argument, nearly all leaders in powerful countries are sympathetic towards the Tamil Eelam struggle, because they are very envious of the glory of Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation.

And, they say that western leaders are planning to debilitate the Sinhala nation by making the ground to divide the country, because the formation of a Tamil Eelam would be beneficial to them economically and strategically. However, this interpretation seems to be naïve, because anti-reformists have viewed the nature of relationship between Tamil separatists and North Atlantic leaders from a very narrow perspective solely based on scepticism.

A reasonable segment of the Sinhalese have taken this nonsensical idea seriously because ordinary people hardly examine the reality behind stories that politicians fabricate from time to time with the intention of coming to power by exploiting patriotic and nationalist sentiments of citizens. Anti-reformists have also spread the notion that the suggested constitution will deprive the Sinhala-Buddhists of the dominant position they hitherto had in the country as the majority.

It is however important in understanding the fact that a majority of the Sinhala-Buddhists have not been suffering from the mental complications called the superiority complex and inferiority complex. They know how to share a civic nation-state governed by a system of laws based on equity and equality. They do not want to dominate any community. Therefore, the government can expect the support of a majority of the Sinhalese, if they take steps to reveal the irrationality of anti-reformists’ propaganda.

Even though the war came to an end in 2009, the campaign for a separate state is still in progress nationally and internationally. It was once powerful enough to engender a state of tension for Sri Lanka by lobbying some politicians with liberal ideas in Western Europe and North America not against the Sinhalese but the Rajapaksha-regime. The strategy followed by the previous regime became a blessing for Eelamists, who had begun a project to establish a state without a territory for Sri Lankan Tamils as the next step of their separatist agenda after the defeat of the LTTE. It was a state-model similar to the PLO from some aspects.

Civic approach of the Yahapalanaya Government has deprived extreme Tamil separatists of their bargaining power and the mass-support they had among the Tamils and foreigners during the previous regime, to a certain extent. The only way to keep the extreme Tamil nationalist campaign of separatists on the fringe of mass-based politics is to change the constitution constructively, making space for both the ethnic nations and other communities to stay together with the sense of being proud Sri Lankans. Let ethnic nationalists compete with their counterparts by enhancing the quality of their nation under that common Sri Lankan identity.

Post-war developments mentioned above suggest that the country cannot go ahead as a strong nation without changing the main legal framework for the purpose of making a civic state structure to unify multiple ethnic identities. The Yahapalanaya Government is now attempting to introduce a new constitution for this purpose, but it is still not clear whether they have correctly detected the real problem areas. It will become just another document unless it is formulated after analysing the ongoing crisis correctly. With the intention of drawing the attention on two overlooked areas, the following two suggestions are presented for the consideration of experts appointed by the government to draft the suggested new constitution.

1. Constitution-makers in Sri Lanka have to take the two major concerns of the two main communities into account before drafting the final version of the suggested constitution. The Sinhalese are concerned about the territorial integrity of the country. They have the fear that the devolution of power into a Tamil predominant sub-political unit could be the first step in the process of establishing a separate independent state. Meanwhile, the Tamils say that there is no point of accepting a sub-political unit if the central government retains the authority to arbitrarily dissolve that provincial government and withdraw powers devolved to it. Any constitution will be useless, if it does not address both of these concerns. The challenge is to find a mechanism to address both the concerns simultaneously. It is not difficult to find this mechanism in the bicameral parliamentary system but upper houses have to be established not only at the Centre but also in peripheries. For instance, people must have a Senate in Colombo comprised of 51 percent of senators from minorities but this Senate should be convened only at times when disputes emerge in regard to the arbitrary dissolution of a provincial government and withdrawal of powers devolved to it. Similarly, people must have an upper house in Jaffna comprised of 51 percent of senators from minorities in the Northern Province, which should be convened if any attempt of separation emerges.

2. Constitution-makers also have to rectify a big mistake made by themselves, when they introduced the 19th Amendment to the current constitution in 2015. They unnecessarily inserted a very restrictive clause to this Amendment by introducing a law to stop Sri Lankans with another citizenship from contesting national elections. There was no such a suggestion before the last presidential election; thousands of Sri Lankans with dual citizenship contributed to the victory of the Yahapalanaya agenda. Only an extreme nationalist party wanted to introduce this law after the presidential election, and they shrewdly got it done by bargaining at the time of seeking the MPs’ approval for the Amendment. It is clear that this law is inconsistent with the vision of the constitutional reforms, and it contradicts not only the UN Human Rights Charter and related documents but also the values of social and liberal democracy. Therefore, it is important rectifying this big mistake.

It is important enhancing the quality of political discourse emerged around constitution reforms, because analyses based on chauvinist ideas can assure only stagnation, instability and division.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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