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False dawn in Sri Lanka?

[Express Buzz, Friday, 7 May 2010 08:08 No Comment]

The Sinhalese and the Tamils celebrated the New Year on April 14. They assembled in their ancestral homes, made offerings to their gods and fervently hoped that the New Year would herald a new dawn of peace and amity in their country. The preceding year was traumatic for them. The convincing victory in the Fourth Eelam War was accompanied by the death and displacement of thousands of Tamil civilians; the two architects of military victory soon parted ways and started accusing each other of treachery; the landslide victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2010 was accompanied by an equally convincing victory in the recent parliamentary elections. Rajapaksa has emerged not only as the unchallenged leader in the island, he is also provided with a rare opportunity to apply the healing touch and usher in a new dawn.

How do the Sri Lanka watchers in India perceive these momentous events and their implications for the immediate future? A National Seminar on Ethnic Reconciliation, Economic Reconstruction and Nation Building in Sri Lanka was recently organised in Chennai by the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies. Participants included former diplomats like N N Jha and Leela Ponappa; members of the National Security Advisory Board like T P Sreenivasan, Hormis Tharakan and Suryanarayan; academicians like P Sahadevan and Ramu Manivannan; former senior officials of the government like S Swaminathan, B Raman, S Chandrasekharan, S Gopal, Radha Vinod Raju, R Hariharan and journalists. The resource persons, in varying degrees, were sceptical about the prospects of ethnic reconciliation; there was only one lone voice from the audience, who, in the course of the discussions, pleaded that the Tamils would have to adjust themselves to the reality of Sinhala domination.

Re-election was ordered in the two electoral districts of Trincomalee and Nawalapitiya because the polling agents of the opposition parties were chased away by the agents of the ruling alliance. Equally relevant was the low voter turn out. The national average was 55 per cent, where as in the Tamil areas, it was far less. The degeneration of electoral politics during recent years can be understood from the comments made by election commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake soon after the presidential polls. Dissanayake mentioned that he was disappointed at the manner in which the state media had acted and also the manner in which certain heads of state institutions disregarded his directives. He requested the government to ‘free’ him from the responsibility ‘as soon as possible’. It may also be recalled that in the presidential election held in 2005, what enabled Rajapaksa to win was the call for boycott issued by the LTTE. It is one of the cruel ironies of modern Sri Lankan history that the Sinhalese leader who sounded the death knell of the Tigers came to power with the tacit support of Prabhakaran.

The ruling party campaigned for a two-thirds majority in parliament, so that it could bring about the necessary constitutional amendments. What sort of constitutional changes do they want to bring about? The party manifesto is not clear on the subject. There had been references to an ‘indigenous solution’, the introduction of a ‘second chamber’ and the necessity to give more powers to village councils. Another important change suggested is in the electoral system by which the present proportional system will be changed to a combination of first past the post and proportional system. But astute observers of the Sri Lankan political scene are of the view that the Machiavellian president may use the amendments to further entrench himself in power by removing the two term restriction on the president or for introducing a Westminster type of government where he can become the prime minister, after his present term.

But the more relevant question is — has the massive majority in parliament led to political stability in Sri Lanka? When the SLFP was voted to power in the 1970 elections with a huge majority, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike equated the overwhelming majority as a national consensus. The Tamils’ demand for federation and minority rights were ignored. On the other hand the first Republican Constitution gave Buddhism an elevated position and made Sinhala the official language. The role of the judiciary was eroded. In fact, not even one case on fundamental rights was decided by the courts during the tenure of the constitution.

When J R Jayewardene was voted to power with four-fifths majority in the elections in 1977, he introduced the Second Republican Constitution. His objective was to bring about political stability, by having a strong executive head, free from the whims and fancies of parliament. However, the ‘mighty executive’ coupled with a ‘devalued parliament’ hastened the downfall of liberal democracy. Neelan Thiruchelvam described the disastrous consequences of the Sixth Amendment which effectively ‘disenfranchised the northeast’. One cannot escape the conclusion, centralisation of power, whether in parliament or in the president, did not contribute to political stability. The period saw two JVP uprisings and the intensification of the ethnic conflict.

From an Indian point of view what is more disconcerting are the statements made by the president that there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only two types of people — patriots and traitors. What is more the 13th Amendment which was a significant step forward in the concept of devolution is being systematically undermined. The merger of the north and the east has been undone by a judicial pronouncement. The president has made it clear that the police powers will not be devolved to the provinces. Instead of demobilising the armed forces, the government has decided to establish army camps in the heartland of the Tamils.

The success of nation building depends upon the creation of a political system where multiple identities can harmoniously co-exist. A Sri Lankan can be a Tamil, can be a Hindu and, at the same time, be a loyal citizen.

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