Sri Lanka’s first post-independence Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake (DS) laid a strong foundation for the country and its people to rise above communal and religious rivalry. His untimely death left a vacuum that was hard to fill. DS envisioned his country as a pluralistic and a multi-ethnic secular state, in which minorities would be able to participate fully in government affairs. His vision for the country soon faltered and communal rivalry and confrontation came to the fore.
The Donoughmore Constitution of 1931, Soulbury Constitution of 1946 and the granting of adult franchise, were progressive steps introduced by the British to prepare the Island Nation for independence two years later. However, in 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike, successfully won the parliamentary elections and took steps to enact laws to make Sinhala the official language. This resulted in communal riots which rocked the country in 1956 and 1958. The communal tensions continued triggering Tamil agitation for separation.
The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government enacted the 1972 Constitution with the then Ceylon being renamed Sri Lanka -- a free, sovereign and an independent republic in the Commonwealth.
In 1977, when the UNP won the elections with a 5/6th majority JR Jayawardene introduced the executive presidency sans the usual checks and balances.
The then Opposition Leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike in her speech at the time said: “The effect of this amendment is to place the President above the National State Assembly. Above the law and above the courts, thereby creating a concentration of State power in one person, whoever, he might be. This has happened in other countries before, and history is full of examples of the disastrous consequences that came upon such nations that changed their Constitutions by giving one man too much power....We oppose this Bill firmly and unequivocally. It will set our country on the road to dictatorship and there will be no turning back. This Bill will mark the end of democracy in Sri Lanka, as the late Mr. Dudley Senanayake realized when these same ideas were put to him by the UNP.”
The then TULF member Dharmalingam during the debate when the 1972 Constitution was considered said: “If this Government thinks it does not have a mandate to establish a federal Constitution, it can at least implement the policies of its leader SWRD Bandaranaike, by decentralizing the administration, by removing the kachcheries and in their place establishing elected bodies to administer those regions.”
The late Sarath Muttetuwegama informed the House that the word “federal” was being considered a dirty word and asked why they failed to name it “regional autonomy”. However, this matter was not considered until the Peace Accord was signed at the behest of Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India in 1987, having declared a curfew under emergency regulations, particularly when the country was in flames. The country thereafter had to go through thirty years of war with the LTTE which caused enormous destruction to both life and property.
As we know, ISIS have carried out several deadly attacks recently in several places overseas. They have stunned and appalled the international community. In France, it was young people who were terribly hit that fateful night. The atrocities that took place in Paris on November 13 last year were reported to be the worst slayings in France since World War Two.
French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Valdimir Puttin have responded to these attacks by an increased bombing onslaught using high-tech missiles – inflicting mass terror, death, injury and destruction on innocent civilians, their property, and on ISIS personnel.
If so, why do people take up arms? They take up arms when authorities refuse to listen to burning issues of the masses in their day to day lives. It has been pointed out that in Europe ISIS feeds on legitimate grievances and the anger of young Muslims. ISIS has taken up the position that defeating ISIS can be done only by the working class and rural poor in Iraq. After the 9/11 incident, George Bush declared “War on Terror” and terrorism however, has never ceased. Our own JRJ, the then executive president also announced that he could wipe out terrorism in three weeks but failed miserably.
Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Catholics and Muslims have lived in this country for generations. Let us renew and strengthen democratic ideologies and cultural practices. Religion is a private matter. It should not create clashes among ourselves if the country needs to go forward. We now have to learn co-existence to build a strong NATION. In a magazine published by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Sri Lanka’s Mohamed Muhsin Sharhaz Nilam from Galewela Kandy had joined the ISIS and sacrificed his life for the cause. Sixteen others including Nilam’s wife, his parents and other family members are said to have joined the ISIS .
On January 8, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the suicide bomber, who attempted to assassinate him. The President had taken this step to promote inter-communal harmony in the post-war environment. The President also took steps to reduce presidential immunity and clip some of the powers as pledged during the election campaign. For the first time, Tamil political parties including the Tamil people have now come forward and expressed their willingness to take part in the Constitution-making process. Unfortunately the Tamils had not been involved in the making of the 1972 and 1978 Constitutions and it is also heartening that Mano Ganeshan, Minister of National Dialogue on Reconciliation has said this will be the “last chance” to prevent Sri Lanka from sliding back to ethnic strife and war.
It is sad to see certain members of the joint opposition making loud noises when in fact the country needs saner policies and not political games. Without looking for scapegoats, it’s time we unite the entire country putting aside racial and religious differences and work hard with dedication and commitment to develop Sri Lanka to be one of the leading nations in the world.