Resolving the ethnic issue: Thinking and acting outside the box is the pathway to a solution, not bellowing old, failed tunes
Posted on November 27th, 2022

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results -Albert Einstein

A challenge for all political parties.  Why not a second chamber with equal representation for Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims?

The momentum for resolving the ethnic issue that has bedeviled the country since independence has taken a fresh urgency with the President calling on all parties to convene to discuss the issue and resolve it before the 75th year of independence in 2023.

As reported in Ada Derana, it is understood that political parties representing the Tamil community in the northern and eastern parts of the island have agreed on three preliminary steps to resolve the issues faced by the Tamil community. The first step is said to be the return all seized plots of land to respective owners and to halt land grabs. Second proposal is to enforce existing constitutional and other legal provisions with regard to power sharing and conducting the provincial council elections without delay. Thirdly, there should be power devolution on federal basis in the areas of habitation of Tamil speaking people.

This is old hat, and there is nothing new, no fresh thinking on the part of Tamil political parties and it is unfortunate if time worn, failed ambit proposals become the basis for discussion during the proposed all party gathering, particularly in regard to the second and third proposals. The Tamil community must realise that neither the current President nor any other President or Parliament will be able to agree to any proposal unless a majority of the Sinhala community is in agreement with such proposals. It is well to question the status given to the Tamils referred to as upcountry Tamils and whether they are included within the category of areas of habitation of Tamil speaking people” and also whether Tamils living in other provinces, especially the Western province, are also to be included in a federal model. It does not require an Einstein to say that doing the same thing and saying the same thing as Tamil political parties have been saying for seven decades or more is not going to bring a reasonable resolution of this conflict.

It is understood that any worthwhile and long-lasting resolution will have to be on the basis of sharing power and in this context, an end to the dominant Sinhala Buddhist polity perspective that has stood in the way of a resolution. However, going back to what has been the demand of Tamil political parties for several decades will be a nonstarter as there is no new thinking on how to address this issue. In attempting to find a resolution, one hopes that all political parties of all persuasions call a halt to which came first, the chicken or the egg simile when it comes to the ethnic issue. Rather than a debate on who came first and who lived where, a solution based on contemporary realities would be more beneficial for the current and future generations.

If political parties accept equality of all citizens irrespective of their numerical strengths and/or the length of their history and ancestry, all closely knit in the political mess that has been created, and that diversity within such equality is what is unique, and also importantly, move away from ancient geographical boundaries that have been used to create divisions rather than unify people, a resolution will be possible.

Sinhala culture, Tamil culture, Muslim culture have been fashioned over many hundreds if not thousands of years, not just within Sri Lanka but outside it, especially when it comes to Tamil and Muslim cultures. However, the founders of the major religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam may frown and express their disappointment over the way ritualistic cultural practices have deviated their current followers from their original teachings, overshadowing the fundamentals of their teachings with such cultural practices.

Unfortunately, politicians, and many contemporary religious leaders, especially within the Sinhala Buddhist community, have institutionalized religion using ritualistic cultural practices that have no place in what Buddha taught.

In terms of political governance though, the reality is that a fundamental requisite for resolution of the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka is the recognition of the cultural diversity and everything associated with that diversity and a mechanism for each group to be able to make decisions through a process of discussion, debate, compromise with other groups. In such a model, a group with a numerical majority cannot be more equal than others as it is against the very principle of recognizing equality within cultural diversity.

The challenge before politicians is whether they are willing to accept this premise, as without an acceptance, and then acting on a mechanism to operationalize such an acceptance, the ethnic issue will continue to be used by all shades of political opinion for their own political ends as they have been doing since independence.

Having said this, even if the premise is accepted, it will not be easy to operationalize it due to various politically important forces preventing the premise being implemented. Despite 74 years of prevarication, political battles, even a war, Sri Lanka has not been able to resolve the ethnic issue and it continues to be an issue that divides the country. It will not be overcome during a few meetings of the political parties represented in Parliament today. Mutual suspicion harboured by different ethnic groups will not disappear overnight after a bon homie in Parliament.

The entire governance system and the caliber of politicians who enter Parliament has to change if a lasting solution to the ethnic issue is to be reached. While the power of interest groups cannot be removed all together from the political arena, their influence can be reduced by strong legislation. These are long-term, time-consuming activities and possible only through progressive steps.

An interim political solution

In the interim, a solution has to be found which will assist in moving the political pendulum in the right direction. The suggestion to introduce a second chamber with powers to veto and/or amend bills presented in Parliament that impinge on the equal rights of ethnic groups has been made as an interim measure until a more progressive new Constitution is introduced to reflect the equality of all belonging to different races and religions, and a degree of self-determination within a unitary, sovereign country.

It is suggested that the second chamber consists of 100 members, with political parties represented in Parliament nominating, by consensus, an equal number of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and one person as the chairperson of the second chamber. None of the nominees should be members of the Parliament, and they should be persons of eminence and proven capabilities, especially in the arena of human rights and social policy development and implementation. In a sense such a body would act like a political watchdog over any basic human rights indiscretions that may be attempted by any government.

While a second chamber of this nature could bring all communities together via their political representatives as far as facilitation of legislation that do not impinge on equal rights of all races and religions, the political system and structures need to change if the people of the country are to be better served by those who the public chooses as their representatives.

A revamped Local government to be bedrock of a new constitution

In this regard, readers are referred to an article written by this columnist under the heading An opportunity for a reformist Constitution to take Sri Lanka forward (http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2021/01/an-opportunity-for-reformist.html)

The main thrust of that article was that local government should form the bedrock of a governance structure and that provincial councils should only be forums for local government members in each province to meet annually or biannually to discuss, debate and agree on the governance trajectory in each province. The task of a national Parliament comprising of 150 members elected by the people was proposed only to be engaged in policy development.

This to be done in discussion with local government members in each province, and of course the general public, business organisations, academics, unions, female organisations and civil society organisations.

National Planning & Monitoring Council (NPMC) mechanism and Regional Planning & Monitoring Councils (RPMC)

Finally, in respect of a political system change, this columnist also wrote an article titled Contours for a new constitution with a difference, for the future, not the past http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2021/09/contours-for-anew-constitution-with.html) where three key features underpinning the suggested contour proposal was presented

The first one being a much-needed stakeholder participation outside of party politics through a National Planning & Monitoring Council (NPMC) mechanism and Regional Planning & Monitoring Councils (RPMC) responsible for developing a high level 10-year (minimum) National Governance Plan. The NPMC and RPMC mechanism and its influence were considered as a means of drawing more and more people from the private sector, universities, and other special interest groups into economic activity, and lessen the involvement of any government entity in activities they should not be engaged in and not competent to do anyway. It was proposed that the private sector should lead and be the engine of economic growth in the country if the future is to be different to the failures of the past.

The second, a devolved political administration via Regional Councils, that provides greater inclusiveness and participatory governance, by the people, for the people. The pivotal role of local government entities within each regional council was stressed as an important prerequisite. The central government’s role was noted as one of coordinating the implementation of the National Governance Plan developed by the NPMC and the RPMCs, once it was approved by the National Parliament.

Thirdly, the coordination of implementation to be led by a 10 to15 member central cabinet of ministers drawn from outside Parliament and appointed by the President, who will work with the relevant ministers in Regional Councils and with the local government entities for effective implementation of the National Governance Plan. This, along with the role to be played by the NPMC and the RPMCs were proposed as a means of bringing in the talent that is there in the country to move the country forward economically, socially and environmentally, more effectively and efficiently, for the benefit of future generations.

The need to change the political system is fundamental to ushering in a new Sri Lanka. It will be insanity if this is not done and if the same system and the same or similar people, some just simply Chameleons changing their political colours from time to time, are given the task of building a new Sri Lanka. The second chamber that has been proposed as an interim measure could well be a permanent feature in a new reformist constitution, and its representatives selected by Regional Councils rather than the national parliament. Such a chamber would add to the fundamental requisite of power devolution that essentially has to be the foundation of a new Sri Lanka

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