It was with much trepidation that I read a full page interview of Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thero in the published on 26th July 2017. The title itself pointed to a sentiment I myself share; that it’s time the country departs from ‘Colombo 07’ thinking; but the departure suggested by the Venerable Thera in the interview by Kelum Bandara, points to a much more ominous departure point. Some of the more interesting comments placed in bold, black print includes the following; ‘there is no need for a new Constitution’; ‘There are no issues specific to Tamils’; and ‘Constitution being worked out to please foreign forces’.
Needless to say, the interview deals with the several important issues including the timely topic of Constitutional Reform and the opinion of the Thera on each of these issues. Although several such opinion pieces appears daily in the print media, some of the opinions shared by the Venerable Thera require a clear rejoinder on multiple counts.
On the need for a new Constitution
The very first question put to the Thera is vis-à-vis the position of the Mahanayake Theras against a new Constitution. The opinion of the Venerable Gunawansa Thera is that ‘there is no need for a new Constitution. It’s not something demanded by the people. It’s something being imposed on them by a set of politicians’. In fact, the Venerable Thera, with all respect to his point of view, has been grievously misled on this point.
In fact the people of Sri Lanka have called for a new Constitution at least since 1995 (Edirisinha, 2008) just 17 years after the 1978 Constitution. The successive election platform promises for a new Constitution have resulted in the 2000 draft Constitution. The 2000 draft Constitution was in fact one of the more progressive pieces of legislation ever proposed and included a comprehensive fundamental rights chapter. The subsequent presidential election platform of President Maithripala Sirisena, which promised the abolition of the executive Presidency and a new Constitution for Sri Lanka, was very much in response to public sentiment. The fact that his proposed reform agenda won him the much coveted prize of executive presidency in and of itself affirms the public support for Constitutional Reform as well as for good governance, transparency and accountability from elected leaders. To say that Constitutional reform is being imposed on the people by a scheming set of elected politicians is misleading to say the least.
The fact that his proposed reform agenda won him the much coveted prize of executive presidency in and of itself affirms the public support for Constitutional Reform
The overwhelming response from all parts of the Country to the Public Representations Committee for Constitutional Reform is in-itself a confirmation that the people of Sri Lanka demand a progressive, inclusive and living Constitution that protects and promotes their rights. In fact, the 1978 Constitution itself has caused rifts among ethnic and religious minorities due to its majoritarian bent and sparse bill of rights as well as its centralization of power in an executive President and a central executive. The subsequent amendments such as the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in fact were responses to these overwhelming failures. Therefore when the Venerable Thera refers to a new Constitution ‘creating unnecessary rifts among our Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim brethren’, in fact the rifts began in the late 1940s with the disenfranchisement legislation. The need of the hour is clearly nothing more and nothing less than an inclusive Constitution, geared to protect the citizens, minorities and majority, from the tyranny of the state, and not necessarily only from each other.
Right to equality and minorities
The interviewer then asks the question termed thus ‘Yet the minority politicians trot out the argument that they need the new Constitution to ensure equal rights to the people’. Now here, the language of the interviewer itself points to the tone in which the interview itself is being conducted. The lack of empathy or understanding of the national question that has beleaguered this nation since 1972 in our recent history, and much before that since colonial times, is apparent in the manner in which the question is framed.
Undisclosed mass graves continue to surprise home owners in the north east in their gardens, in their villages and when excavating abandoned wells etc
It is not only minority politicians that ‘trot’ out an argument that equal rights of the people are not guaranteed. The intelligentsia of this country have called for a revised bill of rights for at least the last 30 years (Liyanage, 2009; Edirisinha and Welikala Eds., 2008). A brief perusal of the civil society report sent to the recently concluded review of Sri Lanka by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will reveal the number of communities and organizations that call for guarantee of equal rights for all in the Constitution above and beyond the existing Article 12 formulation. It is not only ethnic or religious minorities that call for equality but also minorities in terms of sexuality, gender, class and caste.
The interviewee then refers to his own personal efforts to ‘foster ties among the communities’ through a ‘North-South Friendship Shelter’. He alleges that his efforts were blocked by the local authorities. The fact that he sees the need for such an effort itself vitiates his argument that the Constitution already guarantees equality, in which case, friendship among communities need not be fostered. In fact, the argument that a new Constitution will cause unnecessary rifts among ethnic groups presupposes that there are no rifts between ethnic and religious groups. He further refers to the fact that dialogue takes place among politicians and not between people. Quite apart from the fact that politicians are the elected representatives of the people and are expected to represent their constitueneies, the fact is that the people have been widely consulted on what their governing law, the Constitution, should look like in form and figure.
The Thera further opines that there are no problems unique to the Tamils in this country, and that ‘we all have common problems in different sectors; be it education, health, land etc.’ The fact is that, when it comes to certain problems, the ethnic and religious minorities are victimized in multiple ways, and depending on location in space and time, are more vulnerable than the majority. A case in point are the up-country people (also called the Indian Tamil/ Malaiyaha Makkal) or plantation communities, a historically marginalized ethnic minority, whose marginalization is largely ignored in all national question debates both by Sinhala and Tamil speaking political constituents. The lack of livelihood opportunities in Kilinochchi and Vavuniya for example is highly ethnicised simply due to historical, geographical and economic considerations. Therefore our problems are not common, and certainly not proportional. Our problems are in fact highly ethnicised and polarized based on caste, class, ethnicity, gender and location to name a few of the differentials. To say otherwise is to minimize and ignore the veritable elephant in the room.
On the minorities
The Thera further comments that ‘As for Muslims, they could live in this country because of our compassion and largesse only’. This opinion is deeply problematic on numerous grounds. The advent of the Moors to Sri Lanka and their contributions to our history in numerous ways, few of which are dependent on the largesse of the Sinhalese or the clergy, is deep in the annals of our history. In fact theorizing on the largesse of our ancient kings several centuries ago is fictional to say the least. The arrival of the moors, just as the arrival of the Sinhalese and Tamils in this country, was in the more recent history of our nation, in the last 2500 years. In fact, all of the larger ethnic groups in this country, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims are living here (if one were to surmise in this vein), because of the ‘compassion and largesse’ of the indigenous peoples of this country. The fact that history is cited so nonchalantly and with little accuracy scripts can further aggravate mistrust
Legislation on missing persons
With reference to the Office of Missing Persons Act, the Thera shares disturbing but unsurprising sentiments. He throws doubt on the legitimacy of this government stating ‘This is not a government that was installed at the behest of the people in this country’. He thus completely negates the franchise and its power in representing the view of a political constituency. He further goes on to say that fulfilling the government’s international obligations [vis-à-vis missing persons] ‘would entail dangerous consequences to the country’. It is apparent that the brutal crushing of student uprisings in the early 1970’s and the late 1980’s which were followed by large scale disappearances, as well as the disappearances during the war, are not within the vision of the interviewee.
The issue of enforced disappearances is most definitely replete with ethnic, religious and age discrimination; during the 1980’s and early 1990’s hundreds of young and old Sinhalese and Tamil men and boys were disappeared. Undisclosed mass graves continue to surprise home owners in the north east in their gardens, in their villages and when excavating abandoned wells etc. Legislation that is introduced to give a closure to the hundreds of families waiting for news of their loved ones is not legislation that will benefit international spectators. These are solutions that families of disappeared (and families of victims of extra-judicial killings) have called for, cursed for and cried for, over the last two decades. Therefore to nonchalantly claim that the missing persons bill is either ‘Colombo 07 thinking’ or ‘dangerous’ to the country, is to completely forget the Matale mass grave, the Trincomalee five, and the other thousands of children, boys and girls, men and women, who have been systematically disappeared or killed outside of the recourse of the law, by state and non-state apparatus.
In fact, all of the larger ethnic groups in this country, the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims are living here because of the ‘compassion and largesse’ of the indigenous peoples of this country.
Perhaps the only point on which I agree with the Thera, despite having endured reading a full page of his opinion, is that I too love this country and its people. If political agendas and extremist nationalism is not your agenda, then one cannot but denounce this type of misinformation at a critical time in our history. – Misinformation that can contribute to making or breaking a historical new Constitution to govern our people and our state, to bring Sri Lanka to become a real motherland for all of its people and not only to a single ethnic or
The Author is an Attorney-at-Law and is the Executive Director of the Law & Society Trust based in Colombo.