Two weeks have passed since the presentation of the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly to the parliament of Sri Lanka by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. As in the case of the release of the reports of the six sub- committees, this report also has created a furor among nationalist sections of the Sinhala polity that have always been in the forefront of opposition to any move taken by th current dispensation to address the legitimate grievances of the minorities particularly Tamils.
From the very inception of the constitutional reform process one and a half years ago, these nationalist forces, with the support of the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapksa, have been engaging in a virulent campaign to mislead the majority community saying that the Yahapalanaya (Good Governance) government is trying to impose a new constitution in an attempt to appease the Western world and the Tamil Diaspora eventually paving the way for the division of the country.
In the wake of the release of the Interim Report, they created a controversy that the government has embarked on a process to change the “unitary” character of Sri Lankan State and deprive Buddhism of the foremost place given to it in the present constitution.
There is no doubt that the Tamil people do not believe that there can be a reasonable or meaningful political solution that would meet their legitimate political aspirations within a unitary state. But the moderate political forces that represent the Tamil community now, particularly the Tamil National Alliance led by leader of the opposition in Parliament, have been co – operating with the government led by the President Maithripala Sirisena and the Premier Wickramasinghe in the hope of finding a viable political solution even at the possible risk of losing the confidence of their people.
And all the parties that represent the minorities in Parliament have almost agreed to a proposition wherein, Buddhism is given pre – eminent place in the new constitution, as enshrined in the current constitution, provided other religions are not discriminated against and enjoy freedom.
But the Joint Opposition and it’s Sinhala Buddhist hard line allies, in an attempt to thwart the entire process of constitutional reform, spread a canard that the future of their religion and it’s heritage are doomed.
They are making a beeline to meet the Mahanayakaya Theras in Kandy and seeking their intervention to safeguard the ‘Motherland’ from being converted into a secular country.
The Mahanayakas, especially the Most Venerable Thibbadduwawe Sri Sumangala Thera of Malwathu Chapter, has been repeatedly saying that the President and the Prime Minister had assured him that the there would be no change in the status of Buddhism and therefore is no need to be alarmed.
But the hard line forces are not prepared to heed even the High Priests and continue their mischievous propaganda. A few days ago, the leader of the Joint Opposition in parliament, Dinesh Gunwardena, met the Malwathu Mahanayake Thera and complained that the government is planning to pomulgate a “federal” constitution that would eventually lead to the division of the country on ethnic lines and sought his intervention.
The Mahanayaka Thera told the veteran parliamentarian, known for his rabid opposition to any meaningful move to solve the national question to the satisfaction of the minorities, that government leaders are continually assuring that they will never allow the country to be divided.
The Mahanayaka Thera pointed out that Gunawardena is also a member of the committee entrusted with the drafting the constitution, and if there was any provision detrimental to the interest of the country, he must have been in the know and could have oppose it.
The Mahanayaka Thera said that when government leaders are assuring that they would never embark on any process harmful to the country, opposition politicians are saying the opposite. He said he did not know who to believe under these circumstances. What a pathetic situation!
It is significant that the political forces which are against political reforms are well organized and vocal whereas the government is not assertive in its stance. The government leaders have always been on the defensive where as the Joint Opposition politicians, especially the former President and his nationalist allies, are on the offensive.
The stand taken by these forces is determining the direction of the political debate. Government leaders are only responding to the accusations of the opposition and playing into the hands of the forces that are against democracy and reforms.
When these forces spread canards regarding the constitution making process, the President and the the Prime Minister are not effectively countering them and explaining the real situation.
The government leaders do not have a constructive approach to the question and have failed to take the majority community into confidence and win over their support and co-operation.
That has been the main cause of the chaotic situation regarding to the constitution making process. The meaningless criticisms leveled by the hard line forces have to be rebutted by the President or the Prime Minister immediately before they mislead the people.
The leaders of the government are not helping the moderate Tamil political forces which are working genuinely for a new constitution in the hope of finding a lasting political solution and retaining the confidence and the support of the people they represent in parliament.
The Sinhala majority must be made to realize that if the country is to continue to enjoy the “no war” situation, a meaningful political solution must be found to satisfy the legitimate political aspirations of the minority communities and address their grievances.
Without concerted and dedicated efforts in this regard by the government and the liberal forces of the South, there will be no chance of bringing about constitutional reforms.
Interestingly, the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee’s Interim Report is largely a document comprising ethnically sensitive issues. In the light of this report one would wonder whether at present constitution making in Sri Lanka is nothing more than dealing with the ethnic issue or “national” question.
Going by the report, it seems that what is to be promulgated is certainly not a new constitution. The report suggests the continuation of most of the features of the present constitution.
There is consensus on the concept of power sharing at the provincial level. On the Nature of the Sri Lankan State, the report proposes the continuation of the Sinhala term ‘aekiyaraajyaya’. Though the present Tamil term ‘ “otraiaatchi” might change to ‘orumiththanadu’ the report suggests that the English term ‘ unitary state’s be dispensed with.
This is nothing but playing with words without seriously considering the magnitude of the issues on hand.
Such verbiage is an insult to the intelligence of the Sri Lankan people. Mere change of words cannot ensure any solution to the problem. After many decades of suffering the Tamil people are not going to be carried away by this charade.
The Interim Report has given its recommendations in the form of options. But the President and the Prime Minister have come out with the assurance that there will be no change in the unitary character of the state.
Under these circumstances, where is the room or opportunity for an informed and constructive debate on the interim report? What is most needed is the sincerity of the main stakeholders in the Sinhala polity, particularly the two main political parties. They should not appease communal forces that are hell bent on thwarting the entire reform process.
If the present opportunity is squandered, we Sri Lankans are not going to have any chance to talk or even think about a constitutional change in the foreseeable future