A funny thing happened in-between the reconvening of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly (Feb 21) and the adjournment motion on the Constitution held the next day in Parliament. TNA MP MA Sumanthiran and target of an assassination attempt by the LTTE, struck a discordant note in his speech at a seminar on “The Constitution, Reconciliation & You”, organized by Sri Lanka Inc. and held at the Buddhist Cultural Center auditorium on February 21st evening. His speech and mine (which came much later) triggered off a heated debate that kept the event going until 9:30 p.m.
Mr. Sumanthiran spoke second, following upon Prof GL Pieris. My own speech took on more of an edge than it otherwise would have, in response to the latent note of intimidation vis–a-vis the Sinhala majority struck by both Suma and former Chief Secretary of the North Eastern Provincial Council, Dr. Wigneswaran.
When criticizing the concept of majority rule based on the principle of one man one vote, Mr. Sumanthiran chose to quote from the remarks in Parliament of Mr. C. Sundaralingam, a pioneering Eelamist (he called it “Eylom”) who stood for a separate state even when the TULF did not, and ran for election on that slogan. More curiously, but quite revealingly, Mr. Sumanthiran chose a quote in which Mr. Sundaralingam’s critique of democratic majority rule included an explicit threat of physical violence.
Addressing the Speaker of the House who was of the Islamic faith, Mr. Sundaralingam had said that a parliamentary majority, reflecting the country’s demographics, may legislate that the Hon Speaker cannot wear his fez cap in parliament, but if such a majority attempted to legislate that he, Mr. Sundaralingam, could not wear holy ash on his forehead in the precincts of Parliament, his “fist would meet their faces, and it would then be a matter, not of counting heads but of cracking of heads!”
If Mr. Sumanthiran wished to quote a Tamil parliamentarian in his speech at a public event on the eve of the parliamentary adjournment motion for a new Constitution, he could surely have quoted Neelan Tiruchelvam. Instead, his choice of source and quote demonstrated just how far he was from the Harvard educated intellectual and genuine moderate Neelan Tiruchelvam.
When a moderate invokes the discourse of physical violence against the principle of majority rule, it tells me that something is going on. When a moderate behaves in that manner under a liberal government a few weeks after he has been the target of an assassination attempt by separatist terrorists, it tells me that something is rotten—or remains rotten—in the (separate?) state of Tamil politics.
This was not a one-off reference that evening. Both Mr. Sumanthiran and Dr. Wigneswaran brandished the threat of external pressure and intervention. In the Q&A spell Mr. Sumanthiran approvingly quoted a Rwandan Bishop who visited Sri Lanka and warned the Sinhalese that if they couldn’t treat their Tamil brother as an equal, the Tamil brother’s older brother living overseas would ensure that the Sinhala brother could not live in peace.
I replied saying that in a democracy, no minority can be the political equal of the majority as a collective, but that as individual citizens everyone should enjoy equal rights and opportunities and that this is why I had called in my speech for a powerful Bill of Rights, anti-discrimination legislation and an Ombudsman, which I dubbed the Soulbury Plus model (meaning a reinforced Section 29 C). I pointed out that the majority community on this island had taken the worst that the Tamil Big Brother outside the island could throw at it during a thirty years war which had included an episode of foreign intervention, and yet the Sri Lankan State had prevailed.
Dr. Wigneswaran’s threat came in the course of his speech, not the debate session. Dr. Wigneswaran reminded the audience that the 13th amendment was due to Indian intervention and cautioned that we risk external intervention yet again if we do not agree to a new Constitution which goes beyond the 13th amendment. He rhetorically queried as to whether we want foreign intervention.
The most important thing that happened that evening, and it is of truly national importance, is that the real strategy and battle-plan of Tamil nationalism was revealed or uncovered. I had made the point in my speech that Sri Lanka needed constitutional change but not a change of Constitution. I drew the distinction between ‘structure’ and ‘system’, making the case for structural reform but standing firmly against the replacement of the state system, the state form as enshrined in the Constitution.
Arguing against me and much more importantly against the perspective of the SLFP and the JO as stated in Parliament and outside, Mr. Sumanthiran challengingly queried as to why we were opposed to a referendum at which the Sinhala majority had the opportunity to shoot down the new Constitution, and why we were for a mere reform which could be enacted by a two thirds majority in parliament. Addressing Parliament on Feb 22nd in a 90 minute long speech (a written text) Mr. Sampanthan pushed the case for a new Constitution and a referendum. He was assisted by UNP Minister Mangala Samaraweera who made a 30-minute speech (also from a written text).
The real question was not why the SLFP and JO were against a new Constitution but why the TNA preferred a risky referendum at a time in which incumbent administrations were losing referenda to nationalist-populist protest votes throughout the world. Why did the TNA not prefer the far safer and surer option of one or more amendments that could be enacted by a two thirds majority in parliament?
At the previous evening’s seminar, I ventured an answer to the riddle—and neither Mr. Sumanthiran nor Dr. Wigneswaran rebutted me. I expressed the view that what was more important for Tamil nationalism was not winning or losing at a referendum but the very holding of the referendum! For the Tamil nationalist project what matters more than a new Constitution is the referendum itself!
At a referendum the Tamils can be counted on to vote en bloc for a non-unitary model and call it a plebiscite which rejects living in a unitary state. It could be billed as an assertion of Tamil sovereignty and self-determination as a nation, and a huge endorsement obtained in the North and parts of the East. The Tamil nationalists pulled the same number at the general election of 1977 at which they called for a vote on the single slogan of a ‘an independent, sovereign, secular,socialist state of Tamil Eelam’ and swept the board in the North as well as part of the East. It is that electoral result that was hawked throughout world as a mandate for Tamil Eelam.
Theirs is an exit strategy from Sri Lanka—let’s call it ‘TEXIT’ (for ‘Tamil Exit’).Either (A) the new constitution is passed at a referendum, in which case they will have the benefit of a weak, non-unitary, de facto federal state in which the majority will fragment along provincial lines under Chief Ministerial warlords while the Tamil-speaking North and East will be magnetically drawn by the demographics and geography of neighbouring Tamil Nadu into a separate existence, or (B) the Constitution will be shot down by the Sinhala majority but the massive ‘yes’ vote in the North and East (Trincomalee district) will be the stepping stone for a Kashmir-style permanent civic uprising and a call for external intervention. Given that Tamil Nadu is to Sri Lanka what Florida is to Cuba, with its attendant electoral dynamics, a Bangladesh/Kosovo outcome down the road is almost inevitable.The referendum is the first step in the process.