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Lessons from two different anniversaries

by Shanie

"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."- (John Milton in Areopagetica, in defence of the freedom of speech and expression)

(July 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There were two significant anniversaries last week that have relevance to present times. One was, the assumption to the office of Prime Minister fifty years ago of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She was to remain an outstanding political figure in our country for over forty years. The other was the worst anti-Tamil pogrom that took place twenty-seven years ago during the executive presidency of J R Jayewardene. The two events provide significant lessons which the present political leadership, government and opposition have yet to learn or are unwilling to learn.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party was voted into power in July 1960. This was after she had taken over the leadership of her Party consequent to the previous election held in March of that year ending in a stalemate with no party being able to command a majority in Parliament. Professor Ludowyke says that the UNP campaigned for the July election as it had never done before. ‘Every weapon in the armoury from gingalls to sten guns was thrown into the fight by supporters who did not care how the campaign was conducted provided the election was won. Ludowyke also refers to the crudity of the election campaign, some of it directed personally against Mrs Bandaranaike by one section of the press. She assumed office on 23rd July 1960 with an eleven member cabinet which interestingly included the father of Mangala Samaraweera.

Bandaranaike lost the next election in 1965, came back to power in 1970 only to lose again in 1978. But both in victory and defeat, she remained a dignified figure, committed to democracy. Soon after the 1978 election, the J R Jayewardene government set up a hand-picked Commission of Inquiry by enacting a new law to inquire into vague ex post facto offenses. Based on the not unexpected findings of this Commission, the government passed two bills that not only deprived Bandaranaike of her civic rights but also prevented her, the chief political opponent of J R Jayewardene, of campaigning at any future election. Bandaranaike served her period of undemocratic deprivation with quiet dignity and fortitude. In 1989, she was convinced she had been cheated of victory at the Presidential election. When she bounced back to become Prime Minister once again in 1994, she did not resort to revenge or any undemocratic methods against her political opponents.

Sarath Fonseka finds himself in a similar position as Bandaranaike did then. Fonseka must show the same dignity and fortitude as Bandaranaike; history will no doubt accord him his just place. He has shown so far, that despite the dust and heat, he will not slink out of the race but yet not seek any immortal garland.

National Reconciliation

The other anniversary last week that went quietly unobserved was that of the shameful organized pogrom against the Tamils in 1983. Ignoring that anniversary would have been justified had, after the defeat of the Tamil militancy, meaningful steps been taken towards national reconciliation. But, to our shame, this has not happened. News is that registration of Tamils has again been started. All displaced Tamils and Muslims are not being re-settled in their original places of residence. The cabinet spokesman has reportedly stated that more private land may have to be occupied to create more high security zones. The JHU is discovering new archaeological evidence of Sinhala Buddhist settlements in the North and East. Any visitor to the North can see that several new Buddhist shrines have come up at various places. Near Kilinochchi, building material has been stacked up by the A9 road reportedly to put up homes to bring in Army families to be settled in camps there.

Some of these developments would have been perfectly acceptable, if the government had made moves towards peace and reconciliation. The LTTE died along with Prabhakaran, just as all similar monolithic organizations die when their leader dies. There may be some Tamils among the diaspora who, for their own selfish reasons, like to prolong the myth that the LTTE is not dead. But why does the government also need to keep up this myth? What then is the reason to begin the humiliating process of registering all Tamils outside the North and East? What is the need to continue or further occupy private lands as high security zones? 1983 was part of the process of alienating the Tamils by making them feel that they are citizens of this country only on certain terms. Unless we learn the lessons from that shameful episode, we may have, as many have warned, to re-live history.

The LTTE and its cadres harassed civilians who dared to dissent, be they Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala. The government cannot hope to bring about reconciliation by using the former LTTE leadership, both local as well as from the diaspora. A tiger does not change its stripes; it will only camouflage it to when it wants to make a kill; and it will stalk its prey for as long as it takes to make the kill. The SLFP will be well advised to be wary of involvement with such elements – and, of course, with their clones in the south as well. They do not share the liberalism of the Bandaranaikes, DA Rajapaksas, Sri Nissankas and Bernard Aluvihares, who founded the SLFP.

Constitutional Amendment

There have been several interventions in recent weeks by concerned individuals and groups in respect of the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Their common plea has been that we should not politicize this, nor rush through them without adequate public discussion. As they point out, constitutions of countries that enjoy stability have constitutions that not only took years to produce but were also the products of consensus within the drafting committee that represented a variety of interests in the country. That is why the draft Constitution of the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in 2000 was a significant improvement on the 1972 and 1978 constitutions. It was largely a consensus document.

That draft could perhaps be the starting point for a new drafting committee, consisting of eminent persons representing a variety of interests, A constitution or any amendment should not be drafted to suit any particular individual, community or party. The Indian Constitution, the product of consensus, has stood the test of time. M. J. Akbar, who was in his time one of India’s best known journalists, in his biography of Nehru says that Nehru argued that "if the Muslim-elected representative for this Constituent Assembly adhere to certain communal demands, I shall press for their acceptance. Much as I like dislike communalism, I realize that it does not disappear by suppression but by a removal of the feeling of fear… We should therefore remove this fear complex and make the Muslim masses realize that they can have any protection that they really desire." We in Sri Lanka would have been spared so much unnecessary conflict if our political constitution-makers had the same statesmanlike approach.

The present moves towards constitutional amendments must be transparent and be preceded by wide public discussion. President Rajapaksa must take the public into confidence and give the assurance that any amendment is not to meet a personal or sectarian need but will only be in the national interest. For that, he does not require to buy a two-third majority; any amendment to strengthen democracy, human rights, independence of the judiciary and the public services, accountability and good governance will receive consensual support from across the parliamentary divide. This is what happened with the 17th amendment. For a start, it is necessary to implement that amendment. If there any flaws that need correction to ensure greater independence for the Constitutional Council and the various commissions, such corrections will also undoubtedly receive the same consensual support as the original amendment.

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