The 12th year of the end of the war will fall on May 18 and 19. May 18 is the day that the Tamil people in the North and East have selected to remember those who died in the course of the war, particularly in its last phase. May 19 is the day that the government celebrates its war victory. These two days have become symbolic of the continuing ethnic polarization within the country. The National Peace Council regrets that 12 years after the fighting ended on the battlefields of the North, the war continues in the minds of the people. Until there is collective remembrance of loss, there will continue to be a reinforcement of the separation through separate memorialisations.
The second year anniversary of the Easter bombings that primarily targeted Christian churches took place last month with the motivations and masterminds of the bombing still shrouded in mystery. Despite many inquiries that have been held during the terms of the previous and present governments, there continues to exist a dark cloud of unknowing which is leading to various speculations gaining ground, which add to the considerable mistrust in society. The government, religious organisations and donors have given considerable material support to the victims that has sustained them in different ways. However, their quest for truth and justice still remains unfulfilled.
The singing of the national anthem became a matter of controversy last year at the National Independence Day celebration when it was sung only in Sinhala and not in both the official languages as it had been sung in the previous years in keeping with the national reconciliation process. The singing of the national anthem in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages is in accordance with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2011 when he was president.
The issue of remembering the past has been a source of division within the country. The destruction of a memorial within the premises of the University of Jaffna in early January threatened to escalate to serious conflict. However, immediate remedial action taken by the Vice Chancellor of the university helped to defuse the situation created by this action. He apologized for what had happened and laid a foundation stone for the reconstruction of the monument.
The government’s intention to replace the present constitution with a new constitution offers the possibility of developing a framework of governance that could address the conflicts between the ethnic and religious communities that have marred the post-independence progress of Sri Lanka. Under colonial rule Sri Lanka was at the top of Asia’s economies and described as the “Switzerland of the East.” However, the inability to forge a unified polity, and ensure a feeling of equal belonging and participation in national policymaking, led to decades of conflict. Politicians over the past seven decades have to take responsibility for the current state of decline. Even today, with the three decade long civil war ended more than 11 years, Sri Lanka has yet to find a consensual solution to its ethnic and religious conflicts.
One of the pledges of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been to provide a new constitution to the country. In giving leadership to the passage of the 20th Amendment, and securing the necessary 2/3 majority in parliament, the president demonstrated that the government has the ability to honour this pledge of a new constitution. The government’s decision to extend the deadline for the submission of constitutional proposals by the general public to December 31 of this year is to be welcomed. This is an indication of the responsiveness of the government to the difficulties that people have been facing to gather together for discussion on the issue due the spread of the Covid virus.
From the time the first Covid death was reported in Sri Lanka in March this year, the government’s policy has been to cremate Covid victims. This has been a source of unusual controversy as it goes against both science and religion. Islam in particular requires the burial of all human beings who die regardless of the circumstances of death. The World Health Organisation’s Covid guidelines permit burial of Covid victims. However, the government continues to take the position that Covid burial is not permissible due to the threat to the health and safety of the larger population as it leads to the possibility of groundwater contamination.
The rushed passage of the 20th Amendment by the requisite 2/3 majority in parliament reinforces the dominance of the presidency in the governance of the country. There was unprecedented criticisms of the 20th Amendment by sections of the religious clergy and civil society. The National Peace Council voiced its concern about the passage of the 20th Amendment as it reduced the system of checks and balances, and vitiated the independence of key state institutions which are the pillars of parliamentary democracy. If not for the support of ethnic minority parliamentarians who broke ranks from their party leaderships a 2/3rd majority required for constitutional change may not have been a reality.
There has been an unprecedented public outcry against the draft 20th Amendment which is presently being subjected to judicial scrutiny. Some of the most respected civic organisations in the country, including religious clergy, trade unions, the State Auditors Association and the Bar Association have expressed their serious objections to the proposed constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, the government appears determined to strengthen the presidency at the cost of other institutions. The government’s public position has been that the presidency needs to be provided with the necessary powers and immunities to proceed with the urgent task of developing the country. The National Peace Council urges the government to reconsider its position.
The proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution has been approved by the cabinet of ministers and put before the general public prior to being debated in parliament. This far reaching constitutional change seeks to centralize power in the institution of the Executive Presidency with the justification of ensuring stability in the country and safeguarding national sovereignty. In terms of the amendment, the President can remove the Prime Minister, a member of the cabinet, any other minister or a Deputy Minister and authority to dissolve Parliament after completion of sittings for a period of one year. This massive transfer of power to the Presidency has been justified to the electorate as stemming from the inability of the previous government to govern effectively under the 19th Amendment to the constitution.