Despite the painstaking work done by the multi-party constitution drafting committees, and the public consultations on which their reports were based, the proposed constitution for Sri Lanka may not see the light of day anytime soon.
Analysts attribute this to entrenched fears among the main political parties about the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community’s view on the all-important Tamil question and the impact this might have on their electoral prospects.
Perceptive observers are discouraged also by the consistent failure of the Sri Lankan polity to accept and implement sensitive far-reaching proposals.
The constitutional proposals which are now under consideration, are designed to bring peace equitably, and address the concerns of the minority Tamils to mainstream the Tamil community.
Among the issues is the conversion of the existing “unitary” constitution to a “federal” one, or alternatively, the grant of substantial autonomy to the provinces with powers over land, police and finances, but without naming the devolution system as “federal”.
But the majority community sees these proposals as divisive, and as stepping stones to secession. According to opposition stalwart and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tamils are now trying to get, through the parliamentary route, what they failed to get by waging wars. He is pledged to oppose these moves tooth and nail. The Maha Sangha (the association of Buddhist High Priests) has also said Lanka might split if the demand for autonomy is acceded to. The monks’ views on important issues carries a lot of weight in Sinhala politics.
For the multi-party “national unity” government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the problem lies in the proximity of elections. Though the two leaders are only implementing the election mandate they received in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections, they apprehend a change of mood in the electorate and a return to ethnic and communal politics.
But the government is under more pressure to hold the much-postponed local government elections at least in June or July. Elections to three Provincial Councils (Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa) are due in September. However, the government is trying every trick in the book to postpone the local body polls. According to a source, a decision has already been taken to postpone the Provincial Council polls to early 2018.
Given the palpable failure of the coalition to meet the voters’ expectations, Rajapaksa is getting stronger by the day. While Sinhalas feel that government is disunited, indecisive and insensitive, the Tamils say it’s dragging its feet over devolution of power, returning lands and setting up judicial and reconciliation mechanisms.
Observers believe the government will ensure that no new constitution with significant changes is presented to the Parliament before polls.
Adding to the scenario is the dismal failure of past attempts to solve the Tamil issue through structural changes. The wellintentioned S W R D Bandaranaike- S J V Cehlvanayakam pact and the Dudley Senanayake- Chelvanayakam pact (known as BC and DC pacts) had to be abandoned because of Sinhala-Buddhist agitations, organised by the opposition parties of the day.
The India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 and the enactment of the 13th Constitutional Amendment which stemmed from it gave hopes of provincial autonomy to the Tamils. But these also met the fate of the BC and DC pacts. Only the shell of the 13th Amendment remains in the form of elected Provincial Councils.
Tamils and Sinhalas are equally responsible for the failure of the Accord and the 13th Amendment. Moderate Tamils as well as the Tamil Tigers rejected it as being “too little and too late” while the Sinhalese saw them as India’s sinister attempt to divide Lanka.
Chandrika Kumaratunga, who became president in 1995 with a promise to bring about ethnic harmony, set about drafting a constitution with the full cooperation of the opposition United National Party (UNP). But when the liberal draft was presented to the Parliament in 2000, the UNP refused to support it on a minor issue. A Sinhala-Buddhist campaign against the draft undoubtedly influenced its decision. The Tigers, committed to an independent Tamil Eelam, and its cohorts in parliament also opposed it.
To keep India on Sri Lanka’s side during Eelam War IV the then President Rajapaksa promised he would devolve power to the Tamils “beyond the 13th Amendment”. After the war, he had made the same promise to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But he reneged on these.
However, Rajapaksa was in hot water soon. The humanitarian crises triggered by the war drew unwelcome attention from the world. The West and UN charged the Lankan army of war crimes and called for an international judicial setup. The Rajapaksa regime, already unpopular locally for its high handedness, wilted, and ousted in the presidential polls.
The incoming duo Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power promising a new accommodative constitution. But as it turned out, this government too began dragging its feet on the promises to the Tamils and the UNHRC. Apart from the Sinhala Buddhist radical parties, Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party has also joined the opposition to oppose a new constitution. Wickremesinghe’s UNP is silent but its past shows it will go with the tide.
Nevertheless, political circles expect the constitutional process to continue if only the UNHRC is told that its September 2015 resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, is being implemented.
The author is the correspondent for The New Indian Express in Colombo and has been reporting on Sri Lanka since 1997. (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)