Sri Lankan minorities are left in a cage…with the door wide open

cage with door open

Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 without a struggle, enabling the Sinhala Buddhist rulers to pursue self-imposed restrictions with nationalistic policies to overcome their colony phobia; that restricted the freedom of the Tamil speaking minorities, left them to live in isolation for most of their life, like a bird with unclipped wings in a cage with the door wide open in the post colony. Then in the fifties the rulers failed to fuel the engine of growth of the nation by seeking new ventures, perhaps due to growing Indian domination in the region, instead kept the people in the dark like frogs in the well to continue with their subsistence farming. All through this period the leaders allowed corruption, nepotism, politicisation of public administration and law enforcement that drained the rural economy to create a rich urban life, causing the paradise island to slip from a united wealthy nation in 1954 to a poor divided country by 2014. In this period for three decades, the country faced a bloody civil war where many perished and as the going got tough many fled the country like disturbed birds, while the rest faced all the commotion, then a respectable Buddhist Monk guided the civil society with foreign intervention forced a change, that resulted in forming a unity government in 2015.

Today the unity government is afraid to dare its Sinhala Buddhists legislators to accept an all-inclusive, secular society, while the Tamil and Muslim legislators are not united and differ on re-merger of north and east provinces. Though the government’s progress has been slow and steady to indicate that the country is heading in the correct direction despite all its problems of continuing corruption, slow economic progress and reluctance to face up to the human rights violations associated with tragedies of the three decades long civil-war, offers unique opportunity to all political parties and they were prepared to do so, actively taking part in what they consider to be the subject of greatest national interest. With all legislators agreeing to convert the legislature into a constitution assembly and the government was hoping to collect from these legislators the required two thirds votes within parliament for the passage of the new constitution; thereafter hope to tilt the balance in their favour at a referendum. While their opponents are against the new constitution are rallying the Buddhist clergy and the passionately racist to impress upon the Sinhala Buddhists, that this proposed new constitution would divide the country.

In achieving constitutional change the government has to obtain the consent of the Sinhala Buddhists who constitute the majority in the country and the Tamil speaking minorities, who wish to have guarantees made into law.  In this context, the government find itself constrained to retain the formulations in the present constitution; these include the clause pertaining to the unitary state and to the clause giving to Buddhism the foremost place.  What is more important is that the rights of the ethnic and religious minorities should be protected and their ability to share in decision making power should be justified and the constitutional reforms will not be reversed or undone at the discretion of any future Sinhala Buddhist leader simply because they hold majority in parliament.  This makes it imperative that alternative methods to ensure power sharing, such as an upper house of parliament constituted as a chamber of all nationalities.

Earlier, the British Parliament did pass the Ceylon Independence Act in 1947, prior to that anticipating the truth that under a true democracy the majority Sinhala Buddhist would surface to prominence without much effort to dominate over the minorities, the British went out of the way to create the first constitution with necessary clauses to protect the minority communities acknowledging the multi ethnic composition in the country.  In spite of all the protective clauses in the constitution, as predicted the majority Sinhala Buddhist began dominating the minorities ignoring their basic rights. All the while, the country was governed as a colony by British sovereign power from 1947 to 1972; when British gave independence, thought it fit to retain some unalterable provisions and over these years, the Supreme Court as well as the then highest court of the country propagated on a number of occasions that certain Articles of that Constitution were unalterable and understandably was not a satisfactory situation for a free nation.

So, at the 1970 General Elections, the United National Front (UNF) gave assurance in their election manifesto that if elected to power, would sit separately as a Constituent Assembly, which they did and the first homegrown constitution was promulgated after 25 years of independence. But they discriminated the minorities in the 1972 Constitution, which clearly states that Sri Lanka shall be a unitary state and this unitary nature is one of two unique features in the constitution; the other feature is the foremost place given to Buddhism and the same two features were copied into the 1978 Constitution. Today, no matter what is the nature of the state in the new constitution it has to build safeguards for the different ethnic groups; for there are a number of these ethnic groups in the country and the two unique features in the present constitution conceived to retain power by then rulers, has made life miserable to the rural poor. It has not given this larger majority of the population of both Sinhala and Tamil ethnicity anything worth to live on and have only left them in miserable poverty in the provinces that caused the insurgencies and the civil-war. Now, this utterly diseased prejudice has therefore got to be demystified at least for the sake of the rural poor in all provinces and given “the authority to take their own decisions” to break out of poverty they have been left with during all these 70 years since independence. The long felt need of the people is for a stronger democracy reaching the provinces, be it for the Sinhala Buddhists dominated South, Uva, North-Central provinces or the Tamil and Muslim people dominated North and East provinces; is to have the authority to take their own decisions for their own benefit; was not achieved by the 13th Amendment introduced in 1987 for greater devolution to the provinces, because that was ill conceived, never made clear to the people by then leaders nor was it ever properly implemented; instead successive leaders have only helped to erode the provincial system. Bitter Truth is this continuous neglect of rural areas, prompts the call for Federalism not just for Tamils, but also for the Sinhalese in the South; because 70 years of centralised power has failed to develop the rural areas of the country.

There is a positive engagement unparalleled in the nation’s history to re-write the constitution, with the leaders of the Sinhala majority community willing to resolve the ethnic issue, as always without conceding to federalism and make country secular; while the Tamil speaking minorities, with only half living in the North and East provinces, where they suffered the most due to the civil-war of three decades and are today divided on re-merger of the two provinces. Time is ripe for all Tamil speaking legislators in the Constitution Assembly, irrespective of their political affiliations to form themselves into a bloc to complete the constitution making process; similar to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), a racial political organization made up of the black American members of the United States Congress, who fought for many years to protect the fundamentals of democracy with success. Because they worked as a close group together almost continually and their diversity made them stronger beyond their numbers in the congress. For only a conclave of all Tamil speaking legislators, similar to CBC could help to iron out their differences and act in harmony to advance the constitution making process to harvest a lasting solution for the benefit of all citizens, to push the ethnic issue into history.