Constitutional evangelism and the interim report marathon
Posted on November 5th, 2017


The Government is lying to us big time and blatantly in its evangelical attempt at unethically converting Sri Lanka to a non-unitary state through a new, non-unitary Constitution, while the otherwise loudly vociferous JO did not/has so far not challenged that foundational lie in the Constitutional assembly debate. Why? Throughout the marathon debate the Government told the country that, for the first time ever, the TNA has accepted a unitary state/unitary Sri Lanka. On Wednesday Nov 8th, the pugilistic but utterly inattentive JO simply must ask “When? Where? Who?” The claim is a bluff or worse, a blatant lie. NOT ONCE in the debate – or at anytime, anywhere, in Sri Lanka or overseas–did the TNA speakers, including the eminent and eminently moderate Messrs. Sampanthan and Sumanthiran, speaking in English, say that they were willing to accept a unitary state!

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What they actually said was that they were willing to live in a ‘united, undivided, indivisible’ country. That’s the oh-so-generous and gracious acceptance of “one country” and the renunciation of a separate state, having been fellow-travelers of a militia that fought for separation and was crushed, and with the Sri Lankan military and Mahinda Rajapaksa having removed separatist option from the agenda! It is NOT the acceptance of the unitarycharacter of the Sri Lankan state; NOT the acceptance of Sri Lanka as a unitary state—contrary to the Government’s dishonest, deceitful claim in the august Assembly itself. That explicit acceptance is the existential Sinhala bottom-line and redline.

Even the disgracefully slippery use of language by the Government does not commit the TNA to accept the unitary state because the term ‘unitary’ does not occur anywhere in the formulation recommended in the Interim Report. Even if the two parties agree, the TNA only commits itself to an “Orumiththanadu” in Tamil, which Douglas Devananda exposed in his assembly speech, refers to a federal state, and what the Sinhalese call an “Aekeeya rajjya”, which has no internationally accepted definition, but nowhere does the TNA accept a unitary state.

The TNA speakers explained that the earlier formulation of 1972 and 1978 i.e. ‘Otraiachchi’ referred to a state form, a form of government, while ‘Orumiththanadu’ referred to a country, and this is why they want the former usage substituted by the latter. Well, they are transparent—they accept a united country but do NOT accept the unitary form of state or government! The TNA, understandably, cannot care less what the Sinhalese call it in their language!

This dualistic trick is well within the traditions of Tamil politics. Tamil Marxists used to point out the duplicity involved in calling oneself the Federal Party in English and the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (Ceylon Tamil State/Tamil Kingdom Party) in Tamil. The only thing that has changed is that the present government has adopted such perfidy and is the vehicle for it.

This conceptual and linguistic fudging is tantamount to cheating the people and their representatives. It is rather like a bond scam or cheating at examinations. The decline of Sri Lanka state is best evidenced by the fact that a constitutional fundament, drafted and carried over by legal luminaries of the caliber of Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene, HW Jayewardene, Lalith Athulathmudali et al, is sought to be amended by an legal non-luminary (to say the least)! This is as if one allows the neighborhood tailor down a suburban lane to alter a bespoke Saville Row suit.

The UNP-TNA-CBK-Mangala-JVP axis which calls for a new Constitution which inevitable entails a referendum, is luring the country into the trap that the Tamil nationalists have set. Even if, as is likely, the overwhelming Sinhala majority trashes the federal solution at a referendum, the North and (parts of) the East will vote massively in favor and then market the result globally as the equivalent of the Catalan and Iraqi Kurdish outcomes. That in turn will trigger the second stage of the Tamil diaspora strategy fashioned by Anton Balasingham: the argument will be advanced that since the Sinhala South has blocked ‘internal self-determination’ in the form of federalism, the Tamils have a legitimate right of external self-determination i.e. separation. This will bring them closer to an equivalent of a Balfour Declaration by the West, the centenary of which was critically remembered the world over, just last week.

That is why the majority of the island is bringing irresistible pressure on the Members of Parliament to stop the Constitutional process from reaching a point that requires a referendum. It is unlikely that President Sirisena will cross that public opinion redline, especially since he had pledged not to do so in his winning Presidential election manifesto of January 2015 (which was repeatedly quoted by his wing of the SLFP during the ongoing Constitutional Assembly debate).

If one reads between the lines of Susil Premjayanth’s impressive speech, the SLFP is clearly opposed to a new Constitution for two reasons, both to do with its vital interests including that of political survival. Any weakening of the Presidency, even the signaling of its future abolition, shifts the power balance to its detriment and towards the UNP. A quantum leap in Northern autonomy through provision of a two thirds majority in parliament for an overgenerous amendment, can devastate the SLFP electorally, when faced with a powerful rival in the JO-SLPP. A repeat of the practice of the 20th amendment, namely the smuggling in of amendments at the committee stage, would, in the highly emotive case of devolution, trigger riots and rebellion, placing the lives of legislators in danger as in the late 1980s.

A Final report or Draft Constitution of a sort that will be an accelerant for a JO victory in 2020, will be counterproductive folly for any sincere votary of autonomy through devolution. Even if all the Rajapaksas were jailed on trumped-up charges, it wouldn’t help and would only fuel an electoral backlash which will sweep the nationalist Opposition led by Dinesh Gunawardena, into office (the body language during the debate clearly showed that Dinesh is Mahinda’s deputy leader, whom the latter relies upon). Any offending Constitutional amendment will be torn up in 24 hours, and that would have been a winning election pledge and a framing of the policy agenda of the 2020 government (a la Sinhala Only in 1956).

One must recall that those ghastly legislative and policy measures, Sinhala Only in 1956 and District-wise and Media-wise Standardization in 1970-72 were majoritarian populist backlashes against the founding of the Federal Party/ITAK on the basis of Tamil national self-determination in 1949-51, and the UNP-Federal Party-Tamil Congress axis of the 1965-1970 ‘Hath Havula’. Sadly but inevitably, in Sri Lanka, Populism, which in all cases is majoritarian, degenerates into a darker Ethno-populism. And it is happening again, as we speak.

A mere two years away from national elections, what the political process now needs is a reform that not only the SLFP (MS) but also its rival the JO-SLPP and the Rajapaksas can buy into and a successor JO-reunified SLFP government can live with. Any political settlement, leave alone solution, must be the result of an all-inclusive consensus. So far, there isn’t even an intra-governmental one.

The prolonged Constitutional Assembly session was its first and almost certainly the last of its kind. Perhaps the lasting residue was Dr. Sarath Amunugama’s speech. What was highly significant was that in perhaps his only reference to a participant of the Assembly, ex-President Rajapaksa went off-script and approvingly referred to Dr. Amunugama’s factually accurate exposition of 13 Plus.It was of no little value and consequence that Mahinda Rajapaksa who is leading from the front, the battle against the new Constitution, did not, even in his hard-hitting majoritarian-populist speech to the Constitutional Assembly, back away from what he had said on the record. The cable from US Charge d’Affairs, Colombo, to Washington DC, reporting on Ambassador Robert Blake’s farewell call on President Rajapaksa, May 26th 2009 read, inter alia:

“The President [Rajapaksa] said the basis of his devolution plan would be the “13th amendment plus 1″– meaning implementation of the existing constitutional provisions for provincial councils, but adding an upper house to Parliament, modeled on the U.S. Senate…The President thought that giving police powers to the provinces, as the TNA and others were demanding, would cause problems.” (Source: WikiLeaks).

When the Presidential commission into the bond scam presents its report, the AG’s Dept. commences legal action, and the local authorities elections are done, all that will be left standing of the Constitutional assembly will be Sarath Amunugama’s ‘roadmap’ speech as the fallback option and President Sirisena’s planned trident of conclaves (all-parties, all-religions, and professionals) as the safety-net for a process of constitutional reform and political settlement.

But will the TNA agree? The Tamil nationalists must remember that every one of the proposals they now commend so vociferously and indicts the Sinhala side for not having implemented, were actually disowned by the Tamil side when they were on the agenda during the long war. When federalism was offered in exchange for de-merger by the Mangala Moonesinghe Committee report in 1993, and obtained the signature of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike on behalf of the opposition, no Tamil party agreed; only one independent did! When President Kumaratunga moved the August 2000 Draft Constitution in parliament, Mr. Sampanthan, who had promised Lakshman Kadirgamar his support, backed out and stayed silent, much to the latter’s chagrin.

Having backed or been fellow-travelers of the wrong side in that war—the side that was separatist, fascist, terrorist and ultimately unsuccessful– it is wildly unrealistic to expect that the Greater South which prevailed in the war to protect a united and unitary state, would agree to resurrect those proposals which were meant as compromises and sacrifices to stop the war and achieve peace, but were rejected or ignored. The only structural reform that ever took place and took hold is the 13th amendment. Given the current and fast evolving balance of political forces, nothing qualitatively new is possible now or visible on the horizon (up to national elections 2020 and beyond).

The silly idea that the UNP, SLFP, JVP and TNA can prevail at a referendum, overlooks not merely the unlikelihood that with economic hardship the Sri Lankan voters will repeat 2015, but also the fact that both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn i.e. the Conservatives and Labour, wanted people to vote against Brexit, but the people needed only two mavericks, Nigel Farrage and Boris Johnson, to catalyze a successful NO campaign. Here the JO and the rather more ultranationalist social movement with the saffron spearhead that has arisen against the new Constitution, will have an easier job of it. More: a victory for the NO campaign at a referendum will set the scene, the tone and the ultranationalist policy agenda for the national election campaigns of 2019-2020.

Will the TNA and the Tamil nationalists in general comprehend that devolution is an incremental process of evolution rather than a Big Bang or Great Leap Forward; that in some periods of history only a marginal increase on what exists (13A) can be achieved; that developmentally strong provincial councils and a prosperous North could provide the leverage for greater autonomy at a different stage of Southern consciousness and with a more propitious balance of sociopolitical forces? Will the TNA understand that President Sirisena is the last best chance, and help him to help them by accepting the Amunugama Axioms? Or will it prove that what the liberal intellectual Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban said of the Palestinians, continues to be true of the Tamil nationalist politicians, namely that they “never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity”?

Chief Minister Wigneswaran says the Tamils will get nothing from the Sinhalese and should therefore rely on international pressure and international law. At best, that’s an open-ended and very iffy prospect. At worst it sounds rather like the illogic that made Prabhakaran hold out for all or nothing. 45 years ago, a Ceylonese Communist and trained historian of Tamil ethnic origin, the only Ceylonese to have shared the podium at Tiananmen Square as a guest of Chairman Mao, wrote this from jail, as a political prisoner of Madam Bandaranaike’s regime:

“Sinhala communalism fed on Tamil communalism and vice versa…The names of GG Ponnambalam and his later day disciple SJV Chelvanayakam, would go down in history as two men who misled the Tamils into political wilderness where they are still groping. This is not to absolve the communal leaders among the Sinhalese. But being a minority, and having more to lose, the Tamil leadership should have been more responsible and far-seeing.” (N. Sanmugathasan, A Marxist Looks At the History of Ceylon, 1972, pp. 49-51)

One hopes that the historian was not also a prophet, and that his will not prove to be the unsurpassable last word on the Tamil tragedy at the heart of the larger Sri Lankan tragedy.

2 Responses to “Constitutional evangelism and the interim report marathon”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    This is no longer a valid argument. I too believed so until recently but it is wrong.

    [Quote] The UNP-TNA-CBK-Mangala-JVP axis which calls for a new Constitution which inevitable entails a referendum, is luring the country into the trap that the Tamil nationalists have set. Even if, as is likely, the overwhelming Sinhala majority trashes the federal solution at a referendum, the North and (parts of) the East will vote massively in favor and then market the result globally as the equivalent of the Catalan and Iraqi Kurdish outcomes. That in turn will trigger the second stage of the Tamil diaspora strategy fashioned by Anton Balasingham: the argument will be advanced that since the Sinhala South has blocked ‘internal self-determination’ in the form of federalism, the Tamils have a legitimate right of external self-determination i.e. separation. This will bring them closer to an equivalent of a Balfour Declaration by the West, the centenary of which was critically remembered the world over, just last week.[Unquote]

    This depiction has already happened many times!

    1982 referendum, 2005, 2010 and 2015 presidential elections map are the same as the map of the new constitution referendum if held.

    So the world already knows the north and east wants the opposite of what the “south” wants. There is nothing more for the world to see or nothing more to hide from the world.

    A referendum for the new constitution will only be specific to a federal question but the rejection of everything the south likes by the north and east has been the case always. Another referendum result just like the 1983 result or the 2005, 2010 and 2015 presidential election results don’t change anything.

    Tamils cannot survive in the north-east. Even Tamils living in the north-east survive thanks to their investments, businesses, jobs, government grants, etc. from the rest. They know that. So what happened to Catalonia and Kurdistan? They have been silenced by their governments. Game over, for now. The case for Tamil separation is even slim.

    We must put the new constitution to a referendum.

    It is far better than tweaking 13A into 13 Plus. Even 13A must be put for a referendum. Let the people decide as a true democracy. There is no risk of separation.

  2. Senerath Says:

    Agree with Dilrook 100%.

    I prefer first referendum asking whether people want palaath Sabha or not. There is some chance even North might say no.
    To solve all Tamil probelems what you need is a “cordination office” in Jaffna doint form filling and legal services including tamil to Sinhala Translation. you can emply 100 people there and still much cheaper than to run pallath Sabhas.
    Pradeshiya Sabhas shall also be scrapped and proper councils established, electing from a pool of civil servants and govenrement officials.

    These two types of money wasting, criminals creating Koombi Gul should be extraminated.

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