A Sick Joke

By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

The proposals of the governing Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to resolve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka submitted to the All Party Conference (Daily News, 01/05/2007), are simplistic, irresponsible, immature, dangerous, perverse and insulting to the extent that it is a very ‘Sick Joke’ foisted on the Tamils and the nation at large.

The SLFP, which has throughout its history, except for the early years of the Chandrika Kumaratunge Presidency, tried to spear head Sinhala chauvinism and as a consequence laid the foundations for the present turmoil in Sri Lanka, has once again revealed its true colours. The SLFP trying to embody everything the ‘Sword holding lion’ symbolizes in the body politic of Sri Lanka, has laboured very hard and long, after an extended pregnancy, to produce a puny sick and blind mouse! The SLFP may be considering its proposals a minimalist ploy in the political chess game, to retain and enhance its Sinhala vote bank and keep the JVP-JHU combine happy, in the hope that something more substantial will evolve out of the APC process despite its stance. The SLFP may be also using these proposals as a red herring to delay confronting issues head-on, in order to permit the military option to take its course. Either of the possibilities are irresponsible positions to be taken by a ruling party. President Rajapakse by his manifold actions since being elected is showing a penchant for political maneuvers on the political chessboard using the immense powers accorded by the present Sri Lankan constitution, instead of using these powers to resolve problems. The Machiavellian tendencies in President Rajapakse are becoming apparent with each passing day and he may surpass President Jayawardene’s record on this score. This does not bode well for Sri Lanka.

The need for constitutional changes and devolution of power had become an urgent necessity largely because of the demand for an independent Tamil Ealam and the ensuing civil war spear headed by the LTTE. This demand arose because peaceful and democratic Tamil agitation for greater autonomy to manage their affairs and minimize the adverse affects of bad governance by the Sinhala ruling class, were ignored and brutally suppressed. Tamils did not want to continue to be second class citizens, discriminated and brutalized at every turn within the perverse political system operative in Sri Lanka, over which they had no influence what-so-ever. The Tamil grievances are centered on their language rights, land rights, employment rights, education rights, security rights and equal citizenship rights, which were trampled with impunity. Since independence, the Tamil struggle has also progressed from efforts to secure the minority rights entrenched in the Soulbury Constitution through legal and peaceful means, find suitable accommodation within the new constitutions being promulgated – once again peacefully and finally to a violent armed struggle. The ‘Regional Councils’ offered under the Banda –Chelva pact was withdrawn under pressure from Sinhala extremists. District Councils offered by the J.R. Jayawardena government with ‘Powers to catch only stray dogs’ (as described by a Tamil leader of that time) were a dismal failure and rejected by the Tamils. The Provincial Council system that came into force under the auspices of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement was not acceptable to the LTTE. The Provincial Council was made unworkable in the North and East by the LTTE in connivance with President Premadasa, subsequently. The extensive devolution plan, amounting to federalism proposed by the Chandrika Kumaratunge government (in which President Rajapakse was a member) was rejected by the LTTE, once again as inadequate. The proposal for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) from the LTTE was rejected by the Sinhala political establishment on the ground that it will lay the foundations for a separate State. We are once again fighting a vicious civil war despite a yet valid ceasefire agreement, which has claimed an additional 4000 lives in the past two years and caused untold misery to the people in the north and east. The city of Colombo is being targeted by the ‘Tamil Ealam Air force’. Even what ensued during the night of the cricket world cup final has not opened the eyes of the Sinhala political leadership. With this background and the misery and destruction that have persisted and escalated, I am astounded as to how the SLFP could have come with this ridiculous ’Indigenous ‘solution to our problems, which is neither fish nor fowl.

It is also likely that the widespread disgust and disappointment of the Tamils and the International Community with the ways and mores of the LTTE are being misunderstood by the Sri Lanka government. In the final count, if the Sri Lankan government does not come up with reasonable and acceptable answers to the Tamil demands, every Tamil to the last man may back the LTTE, based on the conclusion that,” They may be ‘Bastards’, but they are our ‘Bastards’ ”. If this is what the Sinhala leadership wants, this is what they would certainly get. The opinion of the International Community may also shift in the same direction in due course. The Tamil struggle has moved from Satyagraha, through wooden pistols, an army and navy, to an air force of sorts. Sri Lanka’s political establishment has relied on violence as the only response throughout. Violent actions have been followed by equal and opposite violent reactions, from the other side. This cycle will continue until the Tamils have grievances and an armed struggle remains the only remedy. It appears the Sinhala polity is determined to prove the LTTE and the thinking behind it right. God save the Tamils and the Sinhalese!

The notable elements in the SLFP proposal are:

1. Preserving the unitary structure:

The ‘Unitary structure’ has been the root cause of all the evil in Sri Lanka. It has proved inadequate to deal with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society with entrenched historical enclaves. Under this ‘Unitary structure’ the provisions for minority protection in section 29 A of the Soulbury constitution, the Senate, the rights of appeal to the Privy Council, were all brushed aside as impediments to Sinhala hegemonic rule.

While the intent to protect the unity, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka is laudable, the love affair with a ‘Unitary structure’ that has miserably failed is beyond reason. The ‘Unitary Structure’ was entrenched as a clause in the recent editions of our constitutions without the consent of the minorities and as deliberate attempts to forestall devolution.

“France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and socialist Republic. It ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction as to origin, race, or religion. It respects all beliefs”- Section 1, article 2 of the French Constitution.

Why can Sri Lanka not be such a State, which is indivisible and united? What is so sacrosanct about a unitary State? In recommending retention of this obnoxious feature, the SLFP has demonstrated an unwillingness to share power with the Tamils and other minorities.

2. Affording Buddhism the foremost place

Why should Buddhism be constitutionally afforded the foremost place? Why should other religions be the ‘Also Rans’? Buddhism is the religion (more a philosophy) of the majority of the people in Sri Lanka, who happen to be Sinhalese. Buddhism survived in its pristine glory through centuries of Western (Christian) colonial rule. There were much fewer statues but more Buddhism during this period. Has State-sponsored Buddhism faired better with the ‘Foremost’ place it has been granted constitutionally? Has Buddhism influenced the way the Sri Lankan State functions? Where are the dhamma, compassion, kindness and respect for life in Sri Lanka? Have the Buddhist monks become better at following the ‘Vinaya’ rules? Has the laity become more pious? Is there less drunkenness, rape, robbery, plunder and murder? Is there more honesty in public and private lives? Has the Sinhala polity got rid of the ego that underscores their concept of racial superiority over the Tamils? Is Sri Lanka a beacon of righteousness and good governance to the world? If not, why insist on according Buddhism the foremost place? Why should all religions be not accorded the respect and freedom to function as in the French and many other constitutions? Why should we insist on accentuating differences in a country that is being torn asunder by these differences?

A constitution is a political document that defines how the State functions in relation to its citizenry. It is a document of principles that are universal. It cannot be a partisan document, written for political convenience and expediency. A constitution must withstand the test of time, by being accommodative and open to interpretations consistent with the times.

3. Units of devolution:

The following subjects mentioned in the SLFP proposal can be grouped under the above heading:

a. District-wise devolution, with thirty districts and thirty Chief Ministers.

b. Grama Sabhas to be recognized as a tier of government without legislative powers.

c. The Grama Sabhas will enable localized communities to be in better control of their living and working environment, and its environment.

d. Power would be devolved through reserved, district and local lists

The intent of the devolution exercise has been described as, “To confer substantial devolution to the people and not necessarily the political authority, so that people at the grass roots level can exercise power and have control over their affairs”.

This proposal sounds like a cheap slogan at a political rally. What sort of powers can these local bodies be granted more than at present? Yes, they can be made more effective. But can the role of these local bodies be expanded beyond their present mandates. How will these greater powers be exercised in the poorer districts and Grama Sabha areas, in the absence of resources? How will this exercise contribute towards resolving the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka? Who will fund these units in the poorer, undeveloped districts? Who will decide on what each unit deserves by way of funding? What will be the criteria that will govern the level of funding? How will this exercise contribute towards greater dispersion of ‘Power’ to the periphery?

How are the people going to exercise their power in a democracy, unless through their elected representatives? What a bunch of crap! What will be the role of the political authority? How are the people going to exercise their power, if not through a political authority? Are referendums going to be a regular part of Sri Lankan political life? If the latter is the intent, electoral rigging will become our national specialty, considering the type of ‘Democracy’ we have evolved over 60 years.

The French constitution clearly states,

• “National sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it through their representatives and by means of referendums”.

• “No section of the people, nor any individual, may arrogate to themselves or to him or herself the exercise there of”-Article 3, sections 1 & 2.

The proposals for district and local level devolution are ridiculous, considering the wide disparity in terms of populations and economic viability among the districts. The province and district-wise areas and populations are presented in the table included (Sources www.statoids.com/ulk.html and the Wikopedia). This table, which clearly shows the area and population densities in each district, will point to anyone familiar with the geography of Sri Lanka, the sheer futility of making the districts the units of devolution. On the other hand, the provinces as presently constituted are much more amenable to logical devolution of power in terms of geographic, demographic and economic considerations. The provinces will have the population centers, resources and the hinterland to support agriculture and development. The Northern and Eastern provinces constitute 25 % of the land area of Sri Lanka, with the north making up 11.6 % and the east 12.8 % of the total area. The districts within the provinces such as in the Northern Province have very low population densities and cannot be viable units for meaningful devolved governance. Can the Moneragala district with population density of 55/sq. Km be on par with Badulla with a population density of 275/ sq. Km? When it has been very explicitly stated in the SLFP proposals that only two contiguous provinces can amalgamate, how could districts like Kilinotchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, which have very low populations densities amalgamate to be viable. Only political considerations principally that of weakening the Tamil constituency, seem to be underscoring the proposal for district-wise devolution. A devolutionary exercise should group the like, within contiguous areas to enable greater administrative efficiency. While highly centralized governance has failed in Sri Lanka, district level devolution will be an over-reach swinging to other extreme, with potential for greater inefficiency. Devolution has to be at the provincial or regional level in Sri Lanka, if greater administrative efficiency is to be achieved.

If the districts are splintered further to increase their number from the present 25 to 30, an exercise likely directed at the Eastern Province, the districts as devolutionary units will be further weakened. How will these districts finance their affairs? Considering that most of the national productivity is centered in the Western and Central provinces, how will the districts in the other provinces raise funds to support development? How will Mullaitivu or Hambantota district fare compared to Colombo? This exercise will only increase the dependency of most of the districts on the centre and increase the Center’s grip on the periphery. The net result will be a very week periphery and a powerful Center- more so than at present. This will negate the benefits of the entire devolutionary exercise.

Is the intent of the Grama Sabha scheme to enable the minorities and special interest groups, remove their garbage better and keep their roads cleaner? Did any of the minorities complain about these deficiencies and embark on an armed struggle to achieve these? Is this their most important problem? Was there a demand to improve the Village Councils, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils? The demand of these groups was for greater political power to manage their affairs and mobilize resources for development.

While the powers to be exercised by the Center have been listed, the powers to be devolved at the district and local levels have not been clarified. Is this a deliberate ploy?
Are the District Councils and other local bodies going to be responsible for only providing some civic services, such as catching stray dogs? Will the Center continue to monopolize activities such as policing, justice, education, development planning, taxation etc.?

Further, how will this devolutionary exercise cater to the concerns of the Tamils who have campaigned long and hard for more autonomy from the Center? Will this not turn out to be a very clever (transparently stupid!) ploy to ‘Divide and Rule’, whereby divisions within the minorities will be created and magnified? The story of the Monkey that was asked to divide a slice of bread between two cats comes to mind, when I contemplate this proposal. The monkey – the Center, will eat the entire slice, while provoking the cats- the districts, to fight each other!

4. District governance through three executive committees, for each district.

The executive committee system is an archaic device that was effective in the colonial era, when the British exercised overall control. The executive committee system if introduced at any level of governance now, will at best perform in accordance with the law of averages and at worst create a gang of thieves, replacing individual thieves and total paralysis. This will be formula for disaster. The degree of thought that has gone into this proposal is an insult to its formulators.

5. Two chambers of parliament
– House of representatives
– Senate
Senate to consist of 75 members, of whom 25 will be nominated by political parties in accordance with their electoral strengths, the thirty district Chief Ministers and 20 members nominated by the president.

What sort of role would the Senate have if does not have ultimate veto power over any piece of legislation? According to the proposal, the Senate can reject any bill only twice and cannot delay it more than three months. Why should the Senate have the power to propose bills? Should it not serve only as a higher chamber that exercises a degree of control over the House of Representatives with regard to legislations that do not conform to the spirit of the Constitution and serve the overall national interest? What will be the criteria that will determine who will serve in the Senate? Will the Senate be the refuge for political discards and cronies? Why should the President nominate 20 members to the proposed Senate- the second arm of the legislature? Should not these members be elected by Professional Associations and the Universities? Can any of the District Chief Ministers exercise a power of veto over any bill that does not serve the interests of the people in his district? What will be the mechanism to obtain a consensus of all the District Chief Ministers to any bill? Will the opinion of any Chief Minister be ignored, if he dissents? How will this re-incarnate Senate safeguard the interests of the minorities, compared to the Senate of old? The Senate of old was abolished, when it failed to serve the interests of the government of that day. It was made into a backroom of parliament gradually from independence to its demise. What is the guarantee that history will not be repeated?

6. Elections will be through a combination of the first past the post and proportional vote systems.

This will be sensible exercise, provided interests of the minorities and other interest groups are safeguarded in terms of parliamentary numbers and influence.

7. Either a Westminster style system of governance or the continuation of the Presidential system with some changes.

The Westminster system of governance has failed Sri Lanka in the past. Although the Presidential form of governance, has not functioned as it should have, it has many redeemable features suitable for a multi- ethnic and multi-cultural country like Sri Lanka. The possibility that the whole country will be voting to elect an Executive President, will help bring the country together. This possibility could of course be sabotaged as in the last Presidential elections, by the sinister efforts of a bribed LTTE! This instance demonstrates that in Sri Lanka every thing unforeseen is possible like the recent Tsunami!

What will be the minority representation in the cabinet? Should the cabinet be selected from outside parliament, to ensure better executive quality? These are some important considerations that have been ignored despite the poor performance of the cabinet, due to the overall decline of the quality of members elected to parliament. Politics has largely become the last refuge of the crook, thug, thief and the hooligan. Could the executive authority vested in the cabinet be exercised through such men? Would it not be better to select members of the public who have the education, know-how, experience, ability and honesty to match cabinet portfolios? They could be answerable to parliament and overseen by it through a subject-wise constituted committee system as in the United States.

8. Safeguarding the supremacy of parliament, the executive powers and the powers of the judiciary.

This is once again a meaningless slogan. The ‘safeguarding of the supremacy of parliament’ is a cover to block any permanent devolution of power to the periphery. Power will only be delegated by parliament to the periphery at its whim, as now with the Provincial Councils. The Provincial Councils have been largely ineffective because of this constraint. Delegated power will not be definitely acceptable to the Tamils, who are seeking an alternative to a separate State. It will be even more unacceptable to the LTTE, which is committed to an independent State of Tamil Ealam.

Executive powers, vested in the President, have to be circumscribed by the powers to be devolved to the periphery. Nothing less can be acceptable. Further, there should be better balance of powers between the executive, parliament, the peripheral units of governance and the judiciary. The parliament, peripheral units of governance and the judiciary cannot be captive to the executive Presidency as operative at present. The independence of the judiciary is a long dead concept in Sri Lanka. The judiciary has been politicized, made partisan, corrupted and rendered supine by our political system. We do not have great judges, who can stand up to the government any more. President Jayawardene emasculated the judiciary and it has not recovered since. Mechanisms have to be put in place to elevate the judiciary to the position it deserves in any civilized country.

9. There will be national Land and Water Commissions to deal with the relevant issues.

Land and water are also at the heart of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Colonization schemes were established in the Tamil north and east with the intent of changing demographic patterns and have achieved their devious objectives. River diversification and irrigation schemes have not given importance to the needs of the Tamils and Muslims in the north and east, in the past.

Will national Land and Water Commissions overcome the suspicions engendered in the minorities by past malice and follies? Land and water are issues that have to be part of the devolutionary exercise, if the Tamils are going to accept any such scheme.

10. Preservation and protection of fundamental rights and human rights.

This slogan is part of the sick joke being perpetrated on the people. Fundamental rights and human rights have been abused with impunity in Sri Lanka, by all governments and the militant groups including the JVP and LTTE. We have to hope and pray that the rhetoric to preserve these rights will be translated into resolute, meaningful action immediately, without the need for constitutional changes!

11. District Ethnic Ombudsman with power to inquire and make recommendations

Will this work in a country where even the judiciary, including the Supreme Court has been rendered partisan. When have the Sri Lanka judiciary adjudicated in favour of the Tamils, who have been abused at every turn in Sri Lanka. Even the right of appeal to the Privy Council was abolished because that body ruled in favour of Tamils in the Kodeeswaran case! These are meaningless words, included to make the document sound profound.

12. Parallel exercise of de-commissioning of arms in the hands of any group in the District

I wonder what has been offered in this document to induce the LTTE to lay down arms and convince the Tamils who support it, of this need? The LTTE despite its many failures and serious in-built faults has come to symbolize Tamil resistance and pride. To demand decommissioning of weapons without an acceptable solution is undoubtedly the height of cheek.

It is also stated that, “Sri Lanka is a State, which is sovereign and independent. The State shall be obliged to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic and to preserve and advance a Sri Lankan identity, recognizing the multilingual, religious and cultural character of Sri Lankan society”. Laudable ideals indeed. Will this be believed by the Tamils who have been subject to worst abuse as human beings in the sovereign and independent Sri Lanka? Words have ceased to mean anything to the Tamils anymore. We have to be given the right to manage our affairs to the greatest possible extent within a united, undivided and sovereign Sri Lanka, immediately.

Table: PROVINCES, DISTRICTS AND DEMOGRAPHICS OF SRI LANKA

I quote below preambles from the U.S, Indian and French Constitutions to enlighten our leaders and people, on what the ideals of a constitution should be:

“ We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”- Preamble to the U.S Constitution.

“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist, secular, democratic Republic and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and opportunity; And to promote among them all,
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of our Nation;

In our constituent assembly this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution”- Preamble to the Indian Constitution

“The French people hereby solemnly proclaim their dedication to the Rights of man and the principle of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789, reaffirmed and complemented by the Preamble to the 1946 Constitution. By virtue of these principles and that of the free determination of peoples, the Republic offers to the Overseas Territories expressly desiring this to adhere to them new institutions based on the common ideal of liberty, equality, and fraternity and conceived with a view to their democratic evolution”- Preamble to the French Constitution.

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