Interestingly the Constitutional Assembly Steering Committee’s interim report, presented to Parliament by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on September 21, was largely a document containing ethnically sensitive issues. In the light of the report, one would wonder whether constitution-making is nothing other than handling ethnically sensitive matters.
The report deals with devolving power to the provincial councils, merger of provinces, unitary state and federalism, giving foremost place to Buddhism and creating a second chamber. This indicates the Sri Lankan nation’s degree of obsession with the ethnic problem that had led to a three-decade long war that claimed tens of thousands of lives of people belonging to all ethnicities.
Despite the issues of the executive Presidency, the method of appointing the Prime Minister, determining the number of parliamentarians, selecting the country’s capital, the seat of government and the number of Cabinet members have been touched upon by the report but ethnic issues seem to have superseded all of them.
Going by the report, it seems that what is to be promulgated is not a new Constitution. The report suggests the retention of most of the main features of the current Constitution in the proposed “new” Constitution as well. Power sharing is not going to change since almost all political parties including Sri Lanka’s two main political parties have endorsed the concept.
The report proposes the retention of the Sinhala term, “aekiyaraajyaya” by which Sri Lanka is currently described as. Although the current Tamil term “otraiaatchi” might change to “orumiththanadu” while the report proposes that the English term, “unitary State” be omitted with the country continuing to be the same, without undergoing any administrative changes. Even Tamil and Muslim parties have agreed not to change the foremost place given to Buddhism in the Constitution, provided it included a nondiscrimination clause.
The report has not made any suggestions on the status of the executive presidency, the abolishing of which was the foremost pledge by President Maithripala Sirisena during the 2015 presidential election campaign, as it was the driving force that compelled him to quit the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime in November, 2014. It further suggests “the National Capital and the Seat of the Government shall be the City of Colombo” which is the case is now. Hence, if the report is translated into a Constitution along with other noncontroversial clauses in the present Constitution, it would only provide afresh the impetus to establish a Second Chamber.
However, this is not the final document, on which the “new” Constitution is to be based. The SLFP, JVP and the TNA have submitted several important suggestions. JVP wants the executive presidency abolished while the SLFP has proposed that the Cabinet should be confined to 30 ministers. The TNA’s stance is that the country should be a united, indivisible, federal state. These matters are to be debated in the Constitutional Assembly next month before the proposed Constitution takes shape.
However, the unfortunate side of the story is that elements on either side of the ethnic divide and nourished by the ethnic susceptibilities of the masses have already started to rouse the feelings on “their” people against “the other” people. Some people in the South claim the government has laid the foundation for the separatist forces, who failed to achieve their objectives through the three-decade long war, to do so through a new Constitution while their counterparts in the North claim that the interim report submitted by the Premier has strengthened Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony.
Both groups are hell-bent to rouse communal hatred among the members of their respective communities by recalling the sacrifices made by those who lost their lives in the war. The various governments and the Tamil leaders have on many occasions yielded to these fringe elements finally dragging the country into the 30-year war where tens of thousands lost their lives while several thousands were left in various stages of degradation and destitution. This showed the inability of our political leaders, religious leaders and the intelligentsia of the past to lead the country from the front. This trend should be arrested by those concerned with a sensible and intellectual discourse among all communities on the process of Constitution making.