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Uproar over planned restrictions on naming of Sri Lankan political parties – The National Newspaper

[MISC, Thursday, 20 August 2009 12:53 No Comment]

A major uproar by Sri Lankan opposition parties during the past 10 days over plans to ban them from carrying the name of a religion or race was finally laid to rest after the authorities agreed to reverse the controversial plan.

The issue illustrates the many problems Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, faces in appeasing the country’s minority groups.

Opposition politicians have condemned a proposed amendment to Sri Lanka’s election law that is to be introduced in parliament later this month that would bar race- or religion-based political parties. The amendment is part of changes being made to modernise election laws that have been mooted by a parliamentary committee on electoral reforms whose members come from all political parties represented in the legislature.

Other changes include eliminating parties that fail to field at least one candidate for two consecutive parliamentary elections; adequate representation for women in political parties; compulsory holding for all parties of an annual general meeting and its audited accounts to be published in Sinhala, Tamil and English newspapers, among others.

The controversial amendments, known for the first time through a report in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper on August 9, shocked even opposition legislators who are on the parliamentary committee.

“We had agreed to some changes to curb proliferation of political parties that are inactive. But this clause [banning the use of a name of religion or race] was introduced without our knowledge and we were shocked,” said Rauf Hakeem, parliamentarian and leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), one of the many parties that would be affected by the proposed law.

Mr Hakeem said the elections commissioner, the main government official responsible for the conduct of elections, had complained about the proliferation of political parties that are inactive and suggested ways or pruning down their number if they are inactive.

“The commissioner said [at meetings of the committee] that this has been a serious problem to administer,” Mr Hakeem said.

More than 60 parties are registered with the elections commissioner and are eligible to contest elections in Sri Lanka, but only 20 are active, according to Dinesh Gunawardene, the minister and chairperson of the electoral reforms committee.

Mr Gunawardene was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that registered political parties that carried the name of a religion or race must reapply for recognition within one year of the new law coming into effect and would not be recognised if they did not comply with the proposed law [which bars the use of the name of a religion or race].

Sri Lanka’s political landscape has many parties that reflect the aspirations of the Tamil and Muslim minority communities.

Sri Lanka’s two main parties are controlled by the majority Sinhalese, who represent 73.8 per cent of the country’s 20 million people, but are named the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’ and the United National Party and ostensibly encompass all communities. In general, the main two parties are seen as representing ethnic groups with a bigger input from the majority community. Since independence in 1948 to the middle of 1977, these parties represented all communities and were national in character. It was after the Tamils began demanding a separate state that minority groups began forming their own parties.

Tamils form 13.9 per cent of the population, Muslims about 7.5 per cent, Tamils of Indian origin (brought by the British to work on tea and rubber plantations during colonial rule and who prefer to maintain their own identity) 4.6 per cent and smaller ethnic groups 0.5 per cent.

Most Tamils are represented by parties that advocate for the rights of indigenous and Indian Tamils, but that don’t support separatism.

There are also five parties, however, that use the word “Eelam”, the name of an imagined separate Tamil nation, in their name.

As the campaign for separatism – mainly pursued by Tamil guerrillas under the name Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – intensified in the early 1980s, Muslims also saw the need to reassert their identity through political organisations, fearing they would be swamped by the resurgent Tamils as most Muslims also lived in the north and east of the island.

There are four Muslims parties but other than SLMC, the others are either a breakaway of it or small and insignificant. All the Muslim parties represent the Moors, a race that originated from the Arab world when the Arabs came to Sri Lanka

(then Ceylon) more than a century ago. They speak the Tamil language.

The Muslim and Tamil parties last week filed petitions to the Supreme Court saying the proposed amendment infringes on their constitutional rights to freedom of religion, equal protection before the law and freedom of expression. The main opposition party, the UNP, also filed a similar petition saying the updated law would violate the constitution.

However, soon after the petitions were filed, the parliamentary committee – which has a majority of ruling party members – met last week and agreed to remove the offensive clauses after strong protests from minority politicians including Mr Hakeem.

Mr Hakeem said the use of the name of a particular ethnic group in a party does not amount to racism. “You become communal or racist only if you spread hatred and none of the political parties carrying the name of a race is involved in this.”

Suresh Premachandran, parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance, seen earlier as a proxy for the Tamil Tiger rebels, said the government itself is the one guilty of communalism by seeking to delegitimise the minorities’ claims.

“Otherwise, why should President Rajapaksa say there are no minorities in the country? My interpretation of that statement is that henceforth the minorities must be absorbed in the majority.”

In a victory speech in parliament on May 19, after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the president said: “There are no minority communities in this country. There are only two communities, one that loves this country and another that does not.”

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