By Dharisha Bastians
The Government will launch a hearts and minds campaign to win support for a new constitution in the coming months, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga said on Tuesday.
The campaign is expected to be modelled along the lines of Kumaratunga’s own Sudu Nelum Movement initiative in 1995, which sought to build bridges between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities and create public awareness about the necessity for power sharing and building an inclusive society.
Former President Kumaratunga, who heads the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), told Foreign Correspondents this week that such a peace movement was the “main requirement” to ensure victory at a referendum on a new constitution.
“It is expected to start very soon, there is going to be a communications strategy for the new constitution,” Kumaratunga explained.
She insisted that the SLFP ruling in coalition with the UNP was committed to the process to draft a new constitution, despite recent statements by SLFP ministers creating uncertainty.
“What people are most worried about is a referendum. That given the general situation at the moment, whether one could win a referendum. The main requirement for that is to do something like the Sudu Nelum movement that we did during my Government,” she emphasised.
The former President explained that a referendum on a new constitution was a constitutional requirement. She would “err on the side of optimism”, Kumaratunga said, on whether the Government could be successful at a referendum. “But the challenges are bigger than they were in my time,” she admitted.
When she held office as President, there had been no “organised” extreme groups, Kumaratunga noted, pointing to the JHU, the Bodu Bala Sena and the Joint Opposition. “That has come up only recently. And that is a formidable challenge,” she admitted.
She also made the case for prioritising the constitution over justice for grave human rights violations committed during the final stages of the war, a perception shared by President Sirisena at several meetings.
“If you start the war crimes tribunals now, you can be sure there will be no constitution. There will be such an uproar in the country,” she explained. “We have to prioritise and see what is more important,” Kumaratunga added.
As Head of ONUR, the former President said she travels often to war-affected regions, where she had found no great clamour for punitive action on war crimes. The priority for war-affected people was development, livelihoods, education and answers about missing people, Kumaratunga said.
“That doesn’t mean we should forget about accountability. Obviously someone has to be held responsible. But it doesn’t have to happen immediately,” she explained.
Kumaratunga also insisted that the international community was not insisting that accountability for war crimes happens immediately. “They are keener on justice for missing persons and the truth commission,” she claimed. “Accountability will have to follow.”