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Political & Constitutional Crises Are Connected

| by Tissa Vitarana

( May 18, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Whether we celebrate, or ignore, or repudiate Republic Day, which falls on 22nd May, it is a good occasion to asses and understand the interconnected factors, both political and constitutional, that have contributed to the growing societal crisis in Sri Lanka.

Unlike in India where both Independence and Republic Days are celebrated in style, in Sri Lanka attention is only given to Independence Day, despite the fact that it was an SLFP-led Government that made Sri Lanka a truly sovereign, independent Republic in 1972, and is in power today. The so-called Independence of 1948 based on the Soulbury Constitution was merely Dominion Status, with the British King as the head of state, on whose behalf the British Governor-General exercised executive power, the British army continued to wield military power, and the final court of legal appeal was the British Privy Council. In India all that was got rid of by becoming a Republic in a few years, but Sri Lanka took 24 long years to take this key step.

The fact that the 1972 Constitution did away with all this and made the country a truly free, sovereign and independent Republic is ignored, it would appear by both the UNP and the SLFP, the Tamil polity, and even by the media and many critics. Is it because the architect was Dr. Colvin R de Silva of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), a socialist? Is it because that Constitution was dedicated to the achievement of a socialist democracy? Is it because today, under SLFP leadership, we are on the path of capitalist development, though fortunately not according to the UNPs pro-USA neo-liberal agenda? Unfortunately the bulk of the Tamil polity, led by the FP, is not only for capitalist development, but according to the neo-liberal agenda. Their affinity is with the UNP, because imperialism, both British and American, favour the Tamil minority in furtherance of their traditional ‘divide and rule’ policy. But they too, like Colvin, will have to work out a solution together with the SLFP if it is ultimately to be implemented.

Colvin went to great lengths to accommodate SLFP opinion, despite having contrary views, as the Constitution was being drafted by a Constituent Assembly set up by a Coalition Government headed by the SLFP. The dominant voice was that of the SLFP and Colvin had to get the best bargain. For example, when the SLFP was insisting that a categorical statement be made in the Constitution on Sri Lanka being a ‘unitary state’, Colvin stated that he did not consider it to be necessary. In the context of the Federal Party’s desire for a federal constitution, which the SLFP totally rejected, had Colvin’s position prevailed it may have helped to keep the door open for their participation. On the question of religion Colvin stated that he believed in a secular state, and his proposal was for ‘the guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience and religion to every citizen’. However the Constituent Assembly approved Basic Resolution No.3 which stated that Buddhism be given its ‘rightful place’, and when the final Constitution was approved it became ‘foremost place’.

On the question of language Colvin resisted Felix Dias Bandaranaike’s proposal that Sinhala be made the ‘one’ official language. The compromise was to upgrade the existing language provisions to constitutional status. The Tamil polity makes a big issue that Section 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution was not retained. But for the first time Colvin introduced a whole section on Fundamental Rights in the 1972 Constitution that protected minority rights, which was not in the Soulbury Constitution, but this is not appreciated. Section 29(2) in the Soulbury Constitution was clearly ineffective as it did not prevent the disenfranchisement of the Tamils living on the plantations by the UNP Government in 1948, and even G G Ponnambalam, the Tamil leader, voted for this dastardly act. Section 29(2) did not prevent the ‘Sinhala Only’ act being passed in 1956. The LSSP and CP opposed both these Acts. In fact D Sidharthan, the leader of the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), presently a TNA member of the Northern Provincial Council, has stated ‘I really do not understand why we talk about Section 29(2) as a protective measure for the Tamil people. I do not think it was effective at all’.

Critics who raise the question of the non-inclusion of some second generation human rights like the right to food, clothing, housing etc. fail to appreciate the difficulty of implementation in the context of a poor country. Some critics also object to the changes relating to Judicial and Public Service appointments. It is nice to talk of impartiality, but in a class society impartiality is a myth. The Public and Judicial Services, both the personnel and the procedures, were ideal for the tax collecting era of British colonialism. When a Government has been democratically elected by the people, whom the 1972 Constitution made sovereign for the first time in the history of our country, the prime duty of such a Government is to serve the people, and not the traditional and colonial elite. As Jayampathy Wickremaratne states in his book ‘Towards Democratic Governance in Sri Lanka’, "the UF no doubt considered the bureaucracy to be obstructionist and wished the public service to be available to the government to accelerate socio-economic development. This is understandable. As Radhika Coomaraswamy has argued, "the framers of the 1972 Constitution considered the checks and balances contained in the 1947 Constitution appearing to obstruct decision-making, perpetuating a status quo of privilege and domination".

The National Question remains unsolved and both the 1972 and the 1978 Constitutions failed because narrow communal nationalisms dominated the political horizon. The national bourgeoisie (capitalist class) did not unite the nation to fight for complete independence, and led by the UNP, were content to become the agents of British imperialism and only asked for partial independence. This contrasts with what happened in India where the Congress Party headed by Nehru and Gandhi led the ‘Quit India’ movement for complete independence uniting the Indian people as one Indian nation. The attempts of the LSSP to unite the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people in a common national liberation struggle for complete independence through the Suriyamal movement, was aborted by the British when they proscribed the LSSP and imprisoned its leaders. It is in this context that the Pancha Maha Balavegaya ( sangha, vedha, guru, govi, kamkaru) took over the leadership of the national liberation struggle.

When Dr. N M Perera refused to accept its leadership because they would not agree to making Tamil also an official language together with Sinhala, Mr.S W R D Bandaranaike took over as its leader. He became Prime Minister when the SLFP led MEP defeated the UNP at the 1956 General Election, with support from the LSSP and the CP. In fact it was the LSSP-led 1953 Hartal struggle (which forced the PM Dudley Senanayake to quit) that paved the way for the 1956 SLFP victory. Unfortunately the Tamil-speaking people were not part of this progressive struggle, and in the face of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the SLFP, Tamil nationalism emerged as a major force in Sri Lankan politics.

The UNP Government led by J R Jayewardene is guilty of converting Tamil nationalism into Tamil militancy through the repeated pogroms directed against innocent Tamil civilians in 1977, 1979, 1981 and finally the Black July of 1983. (It is noteworthy that the great defenders of human rights and minority rights, the USA and UK in particular, were silent and turned a blind eye to these events). LTTE terrorism and separatism was the final outcome. The 1978 JR Constitution did nothing to ameliorate the situation, and rather than extending the 1972 Constitution’s power sharing with the people to include the Tamil people, he curbed it further through the introduction of the Executive Presidency. Though there was talk of devolution of power to district or provincial level, this only became a reality in 1987 when, because of Indian pressure, the 13th Amendment was passed. The Tamil and Muslim polity supported these moves by JR in the expectation that their aspirations would be fulfilled. But they have been disappointed.

The lack of progress in uniting the nation following the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, has enabled the LTTE Diaspora to exploit the situation to mobilize public opinion abroad and also pressurize Western Governments to raise human rights issues at the UNHRC in Geneva. The West would like to have a Government in Sri Lanka that falls in line with its neo-colonial agenda both within and outside the country. The UNP or Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party would fit the bill. In an effort to emerge from the continuing global economic crisis the West has been implementing a policy of engineering regime changes, promoting conflicts and localized wars (what better way to sell the 80% of global armaments that they produce and so stimulate their economies). Events in the Middle East, Africa and Asia bear witness to this. Events in Thailand are tragi-comic. Unilateral sanctions on Sri Lanka can burden the people alienating them from the Government and pave the way to regime change.

To defeat these moves it is imperative that Sri Lanka should come together and unite as one Sri Lankan nation and build a Sri Lankan identity that overrides all racial, religious and caste differences. For this a proper dialogue of stakeholders is essential. The Select Committee process that has been initiated in Parliament needs to be properly constituted so that all parties are represented. The outcome can be quickened by using the consensus reached at the APRC as a starting point for the discussions. If the LLRC recommendations are better implemented and the Northern Provincial Council is made a partner in the development process, the Tamil speaking people can be effectively won over. Strong action must be taken against those who rouse sectarian hatred, and extremism among all communities should be discouraged. The media has a big responsibility in this respect. Effective action on these lines will undermine the international conspiracy directed against the UPFA Government and the President.

Executive Presidency -Both Dr. Colvin R de Silva and Dr. N M Perera warned against the danger inherent in the 1978 Constitution not only of authoritarianism but of a dictatorship arising so long as the Executive Presidency, and the preferential voting system in large district level electorates continues. Efforts to devolve power are negated by the concentration of immense power in one individual. The Opposition can get together successfully only on one issue, that of a common candidate for President. All these efforts can be defeated if the President honours the pledge he gave in 2005 in his Mahinda Chinthanaya to abolish the Executive Presidency and return executive power to Parliament. With the two third majority he has this can be done. He can come before the nation at the next Parliamentary Elections as the defender of democracy as well as the defeater of LTTE terrorism. He can become the head of state and Government as the Prime Minister any number of times. Had Colvin been alive today that would certainly be his advice.

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