Tuesday, 24 October 2017 02:41

Community Divisions Continue to Dominate Sri Lanka’s Political Debate - Jehan Perera

The strident opposition to the government’s constitutional reform process highlights the regrettable fact that the country’s ethnic divide continues to be serious. The opposition is claiming that the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report is a formula to divide the country to accommodate sections of the international community. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has urged the government to abandon what he described as ‘the destructive proposal’ for a new constitution. According to him, “It has been proposed that the Sinhala word ‘ekeeya’ be retained in the Sinhala version of the proposed new constitution, while the English word ‘unitary’ will be dropped from the English version together with the conceptual framework it denotes. Thus the local population will be under the impression that Sri Lanka still remains a unitary state, but in the eyes of the international community, we will be considered a country that has relinquished unitary status.”

Opponents of the constitutional reform process have also been able to use this Steering Committee report to convince the Buddhist religious leadership that there is a both a threat to the country’s national unity and to the foremost place of Buddhism within the polity. The sense of insecurity and fear that the proposed constitutional reform has generated has led them to frontally oppose this major initiative of the government. Leading Buddhist clergy have taken the position that the proposed Constitution is not suitable as it leads to division of power including the assigning of powers to the Provincial Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas and it is evident that the country would be divided. They have said that in these circumstances there is no need for a new constitution and the existing one is satisfactory. This has resulted in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe promising to consult religious leaders before taking any final decision on the proposed new constitution.

The problem with the Steering Committee report is that it has been misinterpreted as the draft constitutional proposal. This has been denied by the government but it is the opposition propaganda that has been reaching the people. The Steering Committee report is not even a consensual one and sets out different positions regarding the more controversial issues which have been presented as options in the report. These options have been construed by the opposition to be government positions. Examples would be the definition of unitary state and the foremost place given to Buddhism in which alternative formulations have been proposed. However, the fact is that they are not government positions. The SLFP which is the second largest partner in the government coalition has clearly stated that it is not in agreement with new formulations but stand by the existing constitutional formulations on those issues.

Growing Insecurity
The end of the three decade long war gave rise to the expectation that the sense of insecurity about the division of the country would subside and that relations between the ethnic and religious communities would stabilize and become more trusting. But this has not happened. If at all, the antagonisms are threatening to widen. Reports from the North are not indicative of accommodation and trust but of increasing levels of frustration. Public protests have been continuing in the Northern capital of Jaffna against a decision by the Attorney General’s department to transfer three Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) cases from Vavuniya High Court to Anuradhapura. Students at the University of Jaffna have launched a university-wide boycott of classes until further notice as student leaders are scheduled to discuss future course of protest action. Earlier in the month protests in Jaffna led to the closure of commercial establishments and schools in Jaffna and transport services came to a halt.

The tension in the North is not only between the Tamil people and government but also between the Tamil and Muslim people inhabiting the North and East due to rivalries over land ownership and the spread of members of one community at the expense of the other. These rivalries are given a bitter tinge due to the memories of the war time conflicts that saw members of each community informing against the other and the resulting targeted killings, massacres and expulsions that took place as a result. This sense of suspicion and fear includes those living in Colombo.

Recently I had the experience of being part of a small group discussion. I made the point that even though the government’s progress was slower than anticipated in many areas, in terms of the sense of security enjoyed by people there was a big improvement over the past. After the meeting one of those present privately told me he disagreed with what I had said though he had let it pass without contradicting me. He said that those of the Muslim community felt a growing sense of vulnerability to violent attacks against them by mobs and this fear existed even in Colombo.

Subsequently I cross checked this with others who confirmed this sense of vulnerability. One of them sent me a large number of comments and pictures from Facebook on the social media which revealed strong and shocking hatred. There was also a sense of reverse fear and long term threat on the part of those from the Sinhalese community who engaged in the social media discussions that put forward the view that the majority status of the Sinhalese was being threatened by the growth of the Muslim population who would one day overtake the Sinhalese as the majority population in the country.

Equal Protection
It cannot be overemphasized that these issues of ethnic and religious polarization need to be dealt with or else the tendency would be for them to get worse. These problems and fears will not go away on their own but only through a long and continuing process of education, trust building, goodwill gestures and concrete actions on the ground.The government’s priority concern seems to be to develop the economy and thereby win public support and votes for itself that would win it elections in the coming future. With local government elections being imminent, the government would be doing all it can to improve the economic situation of people rather than deal with controversial issues of inter-community relations on which there is a clear ethnic and religious polarization.

However, economic development by itself will not resolve those issues, although it might give the government more credibility as an effective government that needs to be taken seriously. There is a greater possibility that a government with a track record of economic success will have the credibility to take the people in the direction of a new ethos that upholds pluralism as a necessary feature of Sri Lankan life. The example of Singapore is worth noting in this regard. Lee Kuan Yew took power in a country born out of ethnic division, when Malaysia expelled it from the Malayan Federation. By being fair and just to all communities, and employing the Rule of Law with severity to all law breakers, the Singapore government under his leadership was able to ensure the unity of the people who could then achieve unfettered economic success.

Pluralism as a political philosophy is the recognition and affirmation of diversity within a political body, which permits the peaceful coexistence of different interests, convictions and lifestyles. In a pluralist society every part of the country is the home of all citizens irrespective of their religion or ethnic identity, and the equal protection of the state and the law is extended to all. All sections of society, including government, business and civil society need to affirm the value of pluralism in which all ethnic and religious communities are recognized and accepted. The fact that the Sinhalese are the majority in the country, or the Tamil are a regional majority in the North-East, or the Muslims are the majority in parts of the East does not mean that other communities are outsiders or in second place. The law needs to be applied with firmness to all who break it, act violently and engage in hate speech, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.