ONE of the fallouts of the political crisis that occurred towards the end of last year in October was the mobilisation of civil society groups that engaged in discussion and debate about the constitutional propriety of the president’s decision to sack the prime minister and dissolve parliament. As the new prime minister and his government took swift action to take control and oust their rivals from all official positions, the president’s decision seemed irreversible in political terms, but was reversed by the judiciary through reference to the constitution. This created a new interest in the constitution and its importance in the governance of the country. This interest continues four months later.
The civil society and trade union collective in the past week held a national symposium on the issue of constitutional reform that attracted its members from all parts of the country. The greatest driver of constitutional reform since the last constitution was formulated in 1978 has been the country’s ethnic conflict which resulted in three decades of internal war. Two of the most landmark constitutional amendments have been the 6th amendment that banned the espousing of separatism and the 13th amendment which established the devolution of powers through provincial councils. The constitutional reform initiatives of 1995, 2000 and the present time have had the ethnic conflict as one of their central features.
Invariably at the civil society and trade union discussion the key issue discussed was the question of the unitary state, devolution of powers and the threat of separatism. The issue of the unitary state has been the dividing line between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. The conflict point is the fear of the ethnic Sinhalese majority who wish to prevent separatism by centralising powers at the level of the central government and the aspirations of the ethnic Tamil minority who wish to have self-determination powers to decide for themselves regarding what the priorities in the areas in which they live as a majority. However, this has turned out be a Sisyphean task as the solutions that one side has presented have floundered on the rocks set by the other side.
SINCE receiving independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has been struggling to achieve a unifying national identity on the basis of ethnic, religious and cultural identities that are divisive. This has led to contestation on the basis of hierarchy in which the weight of numbers predominates through the principle of majority rule. This reflects the popular belief that majority rule is the primary element of democracy. The political crisis that erupted in October 2018 when the president sacked the prime minister and dissolved parliament was again a contestation on the basis of hierarchy. Until the Supreme Court stepped in to solve the conflict on the basis of constitutional law, the popular discourse was that the problem should be resolved through a majority vote at elections.
With an understanding of democracy that is majoritarian, both the national Sinhalese majority and regional Tamil and Muslim minorities who are majorities in some parts of the country have a sense of special entitlement. This creates a lacuna with respect for minority rights in all parts of the country. Therefore what is needed is a unifying political value system that accommodates the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious reality. Those citizens of minority communities will feel a greater sense of protection on account of this value system. Sri Lankan society at large which continues to search for a unifying Sri Lanka identity will find that the Sri Lankan identity is one that needs to be underpinned by pluralistic values. The minimum conditions necessary for the development of a pluralist ethos in which diversity is respected is that there should be no attempt made to force some to give up their religion, culture or identity and there is non-discrimination.
The task of instilling a pluralist ethos needs to be taken up by civil society groups such as the one that organised the national symposium. In the coming year Sri Lanka will witness multiple nationwide elections for different tiers of government. With competing ethnic nationalisms on the upsurge, the compulsion on the contesting political parties and leaderships will be to obtain bloc votes from the electorate which will reduce their willingness to champion unpopular causes. One of the lacunae at the present time is the paucity of political champions with regard to promoting the acceptance and practice of universal values which include the protection of minority rights and cultures within an overarching framework of pluralism.
EVEN though the space for the free discussion of ideas opened up with the election of the present government in 2015, the space has been dominated by nationalist voices. The mainstream polity and media have failed to play a positive role in regard to promoting and supporting pluralist values. This can be seen in the current debate of constitutional reform. One of the key and emotive issues that have arisen is the treatment of Buddhism as having the foremost place in the county’s constitution (Article 9). The inclusion of a non-discrimination clause to this article has become subject to polarised debate on the grounds that it seeks to undermine the foremost place given to Buddhism. Government leaders are taking great pains to assuage sentiment by promising not to change anything in the constitution that relates to Buddhism.
As this is an election year, the political contestants are more likely to fan ethnic and religious sentiments, as this is their surest way of getting the people’s vote by proclaiming that they are the national patriots and others are traitors. However, in multi-ethnic, multi-religious and pluralistic societies, issues that pit one community against another cannot be resolved through the principle of majority vote. Sri Lanka’s long-term challenges in maintaining relations between its communities were manifested in increasing inter-religious tension that boiled to the surface during the anti-Muslim riots that took place in the country in March 2018 and in the inter-religious and inter-ethnic tensions that continue to simmer beneath the surface.
In January, a national inter-religious symposium on the theme of Religions to Reconcile organised by the National Peace Council brought together over 200 religious clergy, local politicians, journalists, women, youth and persons with disabilities who comprise the plurality of the population. They met at the BMICH and passed a resolution that contains a vision of a plural society. They stated that political leaders and state officials have a key role to play in building a pluralistic society in which there is equal voice irrespective of number and in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the sphere of a common citizenship.
The symposium also called for the establishment of a pluralism commission on the lines of the independent commissions, whose members would be appointed by the constitutional council, and whose mandate would be aligned to the observations and recommendations sketched out above. The minister of national integration, official languages, social progress and Hindu religious affairs Mano Ganesan delivering the keynote speech said ‘When extremists from the north and south speak they score marks. They are trying to break the country; we are trying to mend it.’ He too stressed that the pluralistic nature of the country needs to be recognised.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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