In Constitution making, Tamil and Muslim leaders’ agreements must be sellable to Sinhalese leaders
With the government’s move to introduce a new Constitution to the country,President Maithripala Sirisena’s second year in office beginning tomorrow would be vital not only for the government but for the country as well. Interestingly, government has embarked on this exercise at a time when it is increasingly showing signs of failure in its much-publicised anti-corruption drive, good governance and economic development.
However, in fairness to the leaders of the government it must be accepted that the tenure of President Sirisena thus far had been much better than ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s high-handed, authoritarian and highly corrupt regime that had been a breeding ground for the racist elements. But no-one would dare to give an assurance that the present rulers would not beat their predecessor.
Adopting a new Constitution would be a critical issue that would either make or break the government’s survival since it involves serious and sensitive issues such as the resolution of the long drawn out ethnic problem. Already, even before the government put in place the mechanism for the constitutional amendment process which is said to be the institution of a Constitutional Assembly, Opposition Parliamentarians like Wimal Weerawansa, Dinesh Gunawardena and Udaya Gammanpila have started to create a fear psychosis among Sinhalese people by talking about a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, federalism, unitary state and a place for Buddhism in the Constitution.
Against this backdrop two main Tamil and Muslim political parties, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have got together to seek a common ground on issues relevant to the two communities they represent, in order to influence the Constitution making process and thereby win over as much rights as possible for the two communities. Already leaders of both parties have met once last week at the office of the Opposition Leader R.Sampanthan who is also the TNA leader, to lay the groundwork for their negotiations.
This might have been seen by many Tamils and Muslims, especially in the East as a healthy move by the two leaders while many Sinhalese might have had reservations and suspicion over it. However, this was not the first time Tamil and Muslim leaders had attempted to seek a common ground in the process of resolving the ethnic problem, particularly in the devolution of power. Since the late 1980s Tamil and Muslim leaders had made so many attempts to find a common ground, but all of them had drawn blanks, thanks to the unrealistic and utopian strategies they had evolved to find a solution to the ethnic problem.
Unless Sampanthan and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem look back and find out what really went wrong, this time too they would just waste their time and energy but provide enough ammunition to the southern groups that live by stirring communal feelings.
The first attempt to evolve a Tamil- Muslim joint proposal for the resolution of the ethnic problem was made by the founder leader of the SLMC, the late M.H.M.Ashraff and All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) the late Kumar Ponnambalam in 1988 on the eve of a turbulent Presidential election. They struck a balance between the Tamil demand for the merger of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces and the Muslim demand of the day for a Muslim provincial council in the East. Ponnambalam was the first Tamil leader to accept the right of Muslims to have a separate unit of power under devolved power.
This plan was accommodated in the first draft of the eight- party coalition, the Democratic People’s Alliance (DPA) formed under the leadership of the then Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader Sirima Bandaranaike to face the Presidential election to be held in the same year. Accordingly, it was decided to create a Tamil provincial council incorporating all Tamil dominated areas in the Northern and Eastern Provinces while administratively amalgamating all non-contiguous Muslim areas in the two provinces to form a bizarre Muslim provincial council in line with the formation of the Pondichery Union Territory in South India.
However, the SLMC and the ACTC withdrew from the coalition accusing that the SLFP hierarchy had unilaterally changed some of the clauses of the agreement and that was the end of the unique strategy developed by Ashraff and Ponnambalam.Even their parties forgot about it after that.
In April the same year, another agreement was signed in Madras (Chennai) between another two Tamil and Muslim entities in respect of resolving the ethnic problem. The Muslim United Liberation Front (MULF) led by M.I.M.Mohideen, the second Muslim political party to be formed in Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were the signatories of the agreement. Under this Muslims’ entitlement to have 30 per cent representation in a future North-East provincial council as well as in its board of ministers and to own certain specific percentage of land in various districts in the two provinces was accepted by the Tigers.
However, two years later the LTTE chased away the entire Muslim populace from the Northern Province. Weeks after the LTTE-MULF agreement the latter signed, a similar agreement with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) led by A. Amirthalingam was later forgotten by the very parties with the passage of time.
With the protest by the LTTE against the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and the consequential provincial council system, even those Tamil parties that accepted the accord, except for the EPDP of Douglas Devananda began to find an alternative solution to the ethnic problem within months after the signing of the accord. Thus eight Tamil political parties including the former armed groups sans the LTTE held talks with the SLMC in the mid 1990 and came to an agreement to form two Tamil and Muslim administrative councils in the North and the East with what they called an “Apex Council” above the two ethnic councils. However, when it came to the question of deciding upon the boundaries of the two ethnic councils the whole exercise shattered due to disagreements.
History was repeated when a parliamentary select committee was appointed under the chairmanship of the then minister Professor G.L.Peiris in 1996 during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s tenure to find a solution to the ethnic problem. Tamil parties again held talks with the SLMC separately and agreed upon the same two ethnic councils and the apex council formula, but dispersed with the same disagreements over the boundaries of the two ethnic councils.
The idea for an agreement between the two communities was also mooted in 2012 by Sampanthan, but that too did not materialise.Therefore if an agreement between the Tamil and Muslim leaders is to be realistic they would have to evaluate their past failures. Their efforts also be transparent in order to allay any suspicions in the minds of the Sinhalese. they should also obtain the views of Sinhalese leaders. After all whatever the agreement the Tamil and Muslim leaders may reach has to be sold to the Sinhalese leaders in the Constitution making process.
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