UNF presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa launched his election manifesto in Kandy on Thursday. It’s called “Sri Lankawe idiri gamanata seemawak netha: Ekwa gamana yamu.” Loosely translated this would mean “There are no limits to what Sri Lanka can achieve: Let’s go on this journey together”. If there was one section of the population that was waiting eagerly for the launch of this manifesto other than the members of the UNF itself, it was the groups of political parties around the Tamil National Alliance led by R. Sampanthan and the Tamil Makkal Koottani led by C.V.Wigneswaran. The various political parties around these two groupings had held a meeting last Wednesday to decide on whom they were going to support.
However that meeting had ended inconclusively and the decision taken was to wait for the launch of the UNP manifesto which was going to take place the next day. The Northern Tamil political parties had been dithering for weeks unable to make up their minds. Even by the time the postal voting began, they had not made up their minds and only C.V.Wigneswaran had issued a statement calling on the Tamil people to cast their postal votes for a candidate of their choice. The other political parties did not say even that. It was after the end of the first day of postal voting that the UNP candidate released his manifesto. It must be said that the UNP did not disappoint the Tamil political parties that had been waiting for oxygen from the south.
Two pages of the manifesto (pages 15 & 16) are dedicated to constitutional reform and this chapter is titled “Janathawage vyawasthawa” or People’s Constitution. These two pages are the most important section of the manifesto and what the Northern Tamil political parties were waiting for. The political parties belonging to the TNA and TMK groups had signed a joint declaration at the behest of university students making 13 Demands which presidential candidates were to agree to if they were to obtain the support of the Northern political groups. Even though the SLPP rejected these demands out of hand, what we heard from the UNP was silence. Not a single UNP leader uttered a word about these proposals. If one looks at these 13 Demands, only the first one related to constitutional issues.
The first of the 13 Demands
The first of the 13 demands relating to constitutional matters went as follows:
“New constitutional processes that uphold unitary system of rule should be rejected. The Tamil national question of Ilangkai [Ceylon] must be resolved through a federal framework with the realization that Tamils constitute a nation with distinct sovereignty and that nation is entitled to the Right of Self-Determination under International Law.”
The other 12 demands related to non-constitutional matters such as repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the release of all remaining LTTE detainees, the release of the land still occupied by various military units etc. If we break up the first of the 13 demands which relates to constitutional reform into its constituent components, what emerges is the following:
1. The concept of the unitary state must be rejected
2. The federal concept must be accepted
3. The idea that Tamils constitute a nation with distinct sovereignty must be accepted
4. It should be accepted that this nation has the right of self determination.
This was the closest approximation to the Vadukkodai resolution of 1976 ever put out by democratic political parties in the north. Unsurprisingly, it was rejected out of hand by the SLPP. After remaining silent about the 13 demands, the UNP has put out a manifesto which has essentially accepted the first two of the four components mentioned above.
The section on constitutional reform in the UNP manifesto certainly does not say that Tamils constitute a nation with distinct sovereignty or that this nation should have the right of self determination. What the UNP manifesto has done is to stop at the formulations put forward in the draft constitution that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tabled in Parliament earlier this year.
That draft constitution which had the fullest backing of the TNA and indeed is believed to have been drafted by lawyers associated with the TNA, did not speak of a Tamil nation that had claims to sovereignty or that this nation was entitled to the right of self determination. What it sought to do was to win a degree of federalism that borders on independence. That draft constitution never used the term federalism which has earned a bad name in Sri Lanka, but had provisions for a federal form of government without the name. What that draft constitution did was to carefully avoid describing Sri Lanka as a ‘unitary state’ and instead to describe Sri Lanka as ‘a State which is undivided and indivisible’.
The phrase ‘unitary state’ in English has a specific meaning which is crucial in describing the nature of the Sri Lankan state. The Sinhala phrase ‘ekieeya rajya’ does not cover all the nuances of the concept of a unitary state. So it is absolutely vital to hear the word ‘unitary state’ in English. The version of the UNP manifesto that came out last Thursday was the Sinhala version. This writer downloaded a copy from the UNP’s facebook page.
(https://www.facebook.com/UNPofficialpage/) An English translation of the manifesto is not available. Even in the Sinhala original, there is no mention at all of the unitary state or ekieeya rajya. In one place there is a sentence which goes as follows: “apage maubime ekeeyathwaya, bhaumika akandathawaya, swairee bhawaya ha deshapalana swadheenathwaya apa visin araksha karannemu.”
That sentence however is not a reference to a unitary state. The Sinhala word ekeeya rajya does not have the same strict technical connotations of the English word unitary state. Ekeeya can also mean unity which is what it means in the sentence mentioned above. Translated, that sentence would mean “We will protect the political independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of our motherland”. The technical meaning of the phrase unitary state is absent in the above sentence.
It is because of the imprecise nature of the Sinhala phrase ekeeya, that the draft constitution tabled in Parliament earlier this year by the Prime Minister proposed to describe Sri Lanka as an ekeeya rajya in Sinhala and as an ‘orumiththa nadu’ in Tamil, wthout however using the English phrase unitary state even in the English version of the document!
If those constitutional proposals had been passed, the Sinhalese would have been under the impression that they were living in a unitary state while the Tamils would have been under the impression that they were living in a federal state and the English reading public would have known that Sri Lanka was no longer a unitary state even though it was described as an ekeeya rajya in Sinhala! The TNA had adopted the policy of giving the label to the Sinhalese and taking the substance for themselves and having a federal system which does not describe itself as federal.
Maximum devolution of power
It is in the light of such semantic issues that we have to consider the constitutional proposals in the UNP manifesto. There is no mention at all of the unitary state. Instead what we have is a sentence which says “Nobedunu ha wen kala noheki lankawak thula uparima balaya beda hereemak kriyathmaka kere.” (The maximum devolution of power within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka.) This is identical to the phraseology of the above mentioned draft constitution which also spoke of ‘a State which is undivided and indivisible’.
It is easy to see why the draft constitution and the manifesto has carefully and deliberately avoided using the term ‘unitary state’ and instead speaks of ‘a state which is undivided and indivisible’. The moment the phrase unitary state is used, it automatically precludes a federal state.
The whole purpose of the proposed draft constitution was to create a federal state out of the present unitary state. Now with the UNP manifesto also avoiding the use of the term unitary state and speaking instead of a State which is undivided and indivisible, the TNA influence on the UNP’s constitutional proposals can clearly be seen. Not that there is anything surprising in this.
It is because of the TNA that the UNP was able to form a government in 2015 and the former has stood with the latter through thick and thin. Even though there is no formal coalition between the UNP and TNA, they are partners for all practical purposes. Furthermore the UNP has ho hope at all at this presidential election without the TNA.
So what we see with regard to the UNP’s manifesto is that it stops at the point reached by the draft constitution without going all the way as sought in the 13 demands. There are other indications also to the effect that the constitutional proposals in the UNP manifesto are based on the draft constitution. Take for instance the following provisions in the manifesto and their similarity to the provisions that appeared in the draft constitution.
1. According to the manifesto, the powers and functions of the provincial councils will be decided after taking into account the various proposals that had been made under Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. (The draft constitution also envisages a change of the powers and functions of the provincial councils. In fact the draft constitution does not have a list of powers of the provincial councils and this has been left unstated to be filled in later. Going by the general tenor of the draft constitution, it is easy to see that what is intended is an increase of the powers and functions of the PCs and certainly not a reduction.
The fact that the manifesto has pledged to decide on the powers and functions of the PCs afresh means clearly that they intend going beyond the provincial council powers mentioned in the Ninth Schedule of the present Constitution. Such an increase in powers is consistent with the move towards a federalism bordering on a separate state that the TNA has been aiming at.)
2. A second chamber of Parliament is to be set up with the participation of the representatives of the provincial councils. Its purpose will be to ensure the devolution of the centre’s powers, and to enable the provinces to exercise their powers. (The setting up of a second chamber was also a part of the draft constitution. The purpose of the second chamber in the draft constitution was also to restrict the power of the centre further by imposing a fetter on Parliament. The UNP manifesto has now explicitly accepted the position that the purpose of the second chamber is indeed to fetter Parliament by saying that its purpose will be to ‘ensure’ the devolution of the centre’s powers and to ‘enable the provinces to exercise their powers’.)
3. In the manifesto, there is a broad statement which says that ‘the provinces will be able to raise the funds they need’. (There is no indication of whether this entails raising funds both domestically or overseas. In any event, the draft constitution also had a separate chapter on public finance which specified the powers over public finance of the central government and the provincial units as befits a federal arrangement. In contrast to this the present chapter on public finance in the present Constitution deals only with the powers of the central government.)
4. The district secretaries and divisional secretaries are to function as the representatives of the centre when exercising the powers of the centre and as representatives of the provincial councils when implementing powers devolved to the provinces. (The Subcommitte on the Public Service of the Constitutional Assembly had suggested that the divisional secretaries be brought under the provincial councils. The UNP manifesto essentially follows the same line and has gone beyond the Public Service Subcommittee by bringing the district secretaries under the PCs as well. The federalist tilt in the manifesto is unmistakable.)
5. The manifesto proposes to to take away the constitutional jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and to give it to a Constitutional Court which will adjudicate in disputes between the centre and the provincial councils, and between provincial councils. (This too features prominently in the draft constitution. The creation of a judicial body to adjudicate in disputes that arise between the centre and the provinces and between the provinces shows that the purpose is to create units that are more or less independent of one another.)
Disowned by RW but accepted by Sajith!
The foregoing analysis would show that the manifesto put out by the UNP for this presidential election is on all fours with the draft constitution that was tabled in Parliament earlier this year by the Prime Minister. The difference however is that in tabling that draft constitution in Parliament the Prime Minister disowned it saying that it was just a document prepared by a panel of experts and that the final decision over what provisions to adopt would have to be decided by the Constitutional Assembly. However the manifesto passes off as Sajith Premadasa’s personal agenda for which he is directly responsible. Sajith is now holding Ranil Wickremesinghe’s and Sumanthiran’s baby.
The UNP and Sajith Premadasa, kept silent when the Northern Tamil parties made the 13 Demands. Now with this manifesto and its clearly federalist tilt, the public is going to assume that the UNP kept quiet because they were in cahoots with the TNA all along. Everyone knows that the UNP is heavily dependent on the Northern and Eastern Tamil vote. Everyone is going to assume that chapter on the constitution in the UNP manifesto was designed to enable the TNA to call on the Tamil people to vote for the UNP candidate. At the time that these words are being penned, the nationalist organizations have not yet noticed the contents of the chapter on the constitution in the UNF manifesto. But sooner rather than later, they are going to see it, and all hell is going to break loose.
Even Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto in 2015 had not toed the TNA line in such an explicit manner. Furthermore there is a mismatch between what Sajith states verbally and what appears in his manifesto. When he went to present his manifesto to the Ven Mahanayakes and Anunayakes, he was heard to mention the term ‘ekeeya rajya’ when speaking to one of the Anunayaka Theras. However there is no unitary state in his manifesto. As we pointed out earlier, the single reference to ‘maubime ekeeya bawa’ is about the unity of the motherland and not the unitary state. The TNA can now support Sajith Premadasa, because the UNP has officially adopted the TNA’s platform.
However because the manifesto does not explicitly accept that Tamils constitute a nation with distinct sovereignty and that they are entitled to the right of self determination, this manifesto may not be acceptable to C.V.Wigneswaran and his allies and to the Students who now seem to be acting as a pressure group on all the Tamil political parties in the north and east. Furthermore the TNA promised the sun and moon to the Tamil people in 2015 and delivered nothing. So it’s a moot question as to whether the ordinary voter of the north will go into raptures after seeing the TNA influence on the UNP manifesto. There is also the fact that if the TNA openly expresses support for the UNP, the latter will lose votes in the south.
While the TNA now has the ability to canvass for Sajith on the basis of the contents of the chapter on the constitution in the manifesto, they may need to carry the other signatories to the 13 demands with them. The TNA had a more gradualist approach than other leaders like Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C.V.Wigneswaran. The TNA’s approach was to don sheep’s clothing and win federalism bordering on independence first, leaving the self determination part for later.
However, Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran appear to have been skeptical about this approach. Perhaps the latter two have good grounds for their skepticism. The best opportunity there was for the TNA’s sheep skin approach to succeed was between January 2015 and about the end of 2017 when President Sirisena who won because of the TNA’s support was the President and the UNP-SLFP-JVP combine could muster a two thirds majority in Parliament to be able to pass a new constitution.
But during this period, the TNA could not even get a draft constitution placed on the table leave alone getting it passed. When it was finally tabled in Parliament, the Prime Minister promptly disowned it. The reason why the TNA’s efforts failed is not because of resistance by Sinhala nationalists. It was because all other minority communities in the country such as the Muslims and Up-country Tamils have no appetite for what the TNA wants. The TNA through Clause 237(3) of the draft constitution wants to see a merged north and east which is anathema to the Muslims because that would turn them into a minority in a Tamil dominated province.
If nine semi independent federal units are created as the TNA envisages, the Up-country Tamils will be split into scattered communities living in Sinhala dominated provinces. The same thing happes to the Muslims living outside the north and east. What meets the needs of the Muslims and the Up-country Tamils is the unitary state where they can use their electoral strength for a share of power at the center. They may not openly voice their stand out of consideration for the sensibilities of the northern Tamil parties. But through studied indifference they make it impossible for the TNA’s agenda to move forward. So even if the TNA once again persuades the Tamil voter to vote for Sajith to get federalism bordering on independence, once again, it will be the same story. So the more skeptical approach taken by Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran is well founded.