Making of a new constitution for Sri

Lanka: Let wiser counsel prevail

by Tassie Seneviratne-February 25, 2017, 5:21 pm

The talking point throughout the country
these days is about the making of a new constitution for Sri
Lanka.

Principles of democracy as enunciated by the USA and accepted
in most democracies and relevant to constitution making, are as
follows:

On the surface, the principles of majority rule and the protection
of individual and minority rights would seem contradictory. In fact,
however, these principles are twin pillars holding up the very
foundation of what is meant by democratic government.
* Majority rule is a means for organizing government and deciding
public issues; it is not another road to oppression. Just as no self-
appointed group has the right to oppress others, so no majority,
even in a democracy, should take away the basic rights and
freedoms of a minority group or individual.

* Minorities – whether as a result of ethnic background, religious
belief, geographic location, income level, or simply as the losers
in elections or political debate –enjoy guaranteed basic human
right that no government, and no majority, elected or not, should
remove.

* Minorities need to trust that the government will protect their
rights and self-identity. Once this is accomplished, such groups
can participate in, and contribute to their country’s democratic
institutions.

* Among the basic human rights that any democratic government
must protect are freedom of speech and expression; freedom of
religion and belief; due process and equal protection under the
law; and freedom to organize, speak out, dissent, and participate
fully in the public life of their society.

* Democracies understand that protecting the rights of minorities
to uphold cultural identity, social practices, individual
consciences, and religious activities is one of their primary tasks.

* Acceptance of ethnic and cultural groups that seem strange if
not alien to the majority can represent one of the greatest
challenges that any democratic government can face. But
democracies recognize that diversity can be an enormous asset.
They treat these differences of identity, culture, and values as a
challenge that can strengthen and enrich them, not as a threat.

* There can be no single answer to how minority-group
differences in views and values are resolved – only the sure
knowledge that only through the democratic process of tolerance,
debate, and willingness to compromise can free societies reach
agreements that embrace the twin pillars of majority rule and
minority rights.

Constitution making in Sri Lanka has become a highly contentious
issue. The problem lies in the challenge to democracy, arising
from the polarization of the two main ethnic groups – the
Sinhalese and the Tamils – and the mistrust that has been
simmering since Independence culminating in the ‘Vaddukoddai
Resolution’ in 1976.

Looking for causes of this polarization, one has to examine the
Tamil claim of discrimination and denial of their rights, especially
in regard to devolution of power, vis-a-vis the Sinhala
apprehension of Tamil plans for secession and that the devolution
package as demanded by the Tamils is only a spring-board to
secession. This apprehension has been aggravated by the
experience of the Tamil Eelam war. Whose mistrust came first is
like the question, "which came first – the chicken or the egg"? In
the case of the chicken and the egg, it is a circle of nature’s
beauty. In the case of mistrust between the two ethnic groups it is
an ugly and vicious circle given motion by unscrupulous
politicians driven by political expediency. The motion of this circle
has to be put on reverse mode until we get back to the days when
there was ethnic and religious harmony and humanity prevailed.
This reversal can be achieved by adhering to the principles of
democracy as laid out above. It is for the majority to be
magnanimous enough and start the process of tolerance, debate,
compromise and trust for mutual good.

In this matter of constitution making in Sri Lanka the majority too
is divided. There is a racial minded group on the one hand raising
alarms causing mistrust and on the other hand a group working
towards harmony among all ethnic and religious groups, with a
view to bring back the good old days when we enjoyed the fruits
of diversity.

What we all must bear in mind is that direct democracy has an
inherent weakness in majority rule. That is why the ‘principles of
democracy’ as laid down above have to be adhered to, in order to
avoid "tyranny of the majority" where the majority places its own
interests above, and at the expense and to the detriment of,
those in minority. That detriment constitutes active oppression
comparable to that of a tyrant or despot. Through tyranny of the
majority, a disliked or unfavoured practice, religious, political or
racial group may be deliberately targeted for oppression by the
majority acting through the democratic process and the minority
driven to revolt violently against such tyranny.

Let us examine the sequence of major events that precipitated
the "Vaddukoddai Resolution" in 1976 and the Eelam war that
followed.

After gaining independence in 1948, English continued to be the
official language of Sri Lanka. With passage of time sections
within the Sinhalese community began to campaign to make
Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka. At the parliamentary
elections in 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader
SWRD Bandaranaike (SWRD) formed the coalition Mahajana
Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and campaigned to make Sinhala the
official language of Sri Lanka. With the support of extremist
Sinhalese figures, SWRD won the election and became Prime
Minister (PM). He made it his priority to follow up on his promises
related to the language issue, and introduced the Official
Language Act (commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act) in June
1956. Tamil people vehemently opposed this and staged hartals in
parts of the country.

The Federal Party (FP) led by SJV Chelvanayakam demanded the
establishment of a new constitution on Federal principles, with the
creation of one or more Tamil states enjoying autonomous powers
along with several other demands. The Federal Party vowed that if
their demands were not met, they would engage ‘in direct action’
to achieve these objectives. At the same time Sinhalese
extremists complained about the delays in enforcing the Official
Language Act.

Fearing that violence would break out if an agreement between
the leaders of the two communities was not reached, PM SWRD
reached out to the Federal Party leadership, and after several
meetings and discussions reached a successful agreement which
came to be known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact.

For the first time a political agreement was reached between the
two leaders of the two main ethnic groups. Both sides made
concessions – Chelvanayakam accepting less than Federalism,
and SWRD agreeing to give Regional Councils substantial powers.
With this agreement the Government was able to prevent the
campaign threatened by the Federal Party across the country.
The Pact however, was opposed by Sinhalese nationalist leaders.
The main opposition came from the opposition United National
Party, headed by J R Jayewardene. Following their defeat in the
1956 elections, the UNP used the communal bogey to re-enter
active politics.

With the opposition to the Pact growing in intensity, there were
other factors that caused increased tensions between the two
communities. In 1957, with a view to appease the Sinhalese
chauvinists, the Government introduced the Sinhalese "Sri"
character on number plates of vehicles. This was strongly
opposed by Tamil People, and the FP organized an "anti-Sri"
campaign. Participants of the campaign in the North went around
applying tar on the "Sri" character of vehicles. This was met with
anger among the Sinhalese community, who painted tar over
Tamil characters on Bill Boards around the rest of the country.

Amid the growing opposition to the pact, PM SWRD made genuine
efforts to convince the people of the country that it was the best
solution to the communal problems of the country. He even
equated the Pact to the Middle Way doctrine of Buddhism.
However the opposition to the pact continued and came to a head
on April 9, 1958 when approximately 100 Buddhist monks and
300 Sinhalese nationalists staged a protest on the lawn of the
PM’s Rosmead Place residence. They demanded that the PM
abrogate the agreement he signed with Chelvanayakam. The PM
was pressurized by the mob to publicly tear the agreement into
pieces and upon their insistence he also gave them a written
pledge that the pact would be abrogated. Thus what prevailed
was "Rule of the Mob".

Try as much as he did, ultra nationalist Sinhalese leaders refused
to be convinced, and the Government faced anti-government
strikes organized by the Leftist parties. In May 1959, the Leftist
members of SWRD’s administration quit the Government and
joined the opposition. Riots broke out across the country and
SWRD was struggling to keep his party in power when on
September 25, 1959, he was shot by a Buddhist priest in his
residence at Rosmead Place at point blank range with a pistol he
had concealed in his robes. The PM was paying obeisance to the
priest when the shot was fired. SWRD succumbed to his injuries
the next day. Investigations revealed that the Buddhist priest had
been manipulated by the rabid forces SWRD had unleashed to
come to power.

After the breakup of the MEP coalition the SLFP went it alone. The
SLFP reached out to the FP and promised to revive the
Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact if the FP helped the SLFP to
form a Government. At the July 1960 General Elections, the SLFP
headed by SWRD’s widow, Sirima Bandaranaike achieved a
convincing victory with the help of the FP. This enabled the SLFP
to form a Government on its own, and it cast aside the agreement
with the FP and later introduced legislation to make Sinhala the
Official language of the Courts of the Country. Felix Dias
Bandaranaike, a nephew of SWRD, was the strong man in
Sirimavo’s Government who called the tune. The reason given for
letting down the FP was that it would have given the UNP an
opportunity to incite the Sinhalese extremists as they had done in
1957.

At the General Elections on March 22, 1965, the UNP led by
Dudley Senanayake, failed to obtain a majority but was able to
form a Government with the help of the FP entering a pact known
as the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact, which was signed on March
24, 1965, with a view to ensuring a stable Government. The terms
of the agreement were:
(1) Action will be taken early under the Tamil Language Special
Provisions Act to make provision of the Tamil Language to be the
language of Administration and of Record in the Northern and
Eastern Provinces.

Mr Senanayake explained that it as the policy of his party that a
Tamil-speaking person should be entitled to transact business in
Tamil throughout the island.

(2) Mr Senanayake stated that it was the policy of his party to
amend the Language of Courts Act to provide for legal
proceedings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to be
conducted and recorded in Tamil.

(3) Action will be taken to establish District Councils in Ceylon
vested with powers over subjects to be mutually agreed upon
between two leaders. It was agreed, however, that the
government should have power under the law to give directions
to such councils under the national interest.

(4) The Land Development Ordinance will be amended to provide
that citizens of Ceylon be entitled to the allotment of land under
the Ordinance.

Mr Senanayake further agreed that in the granting of land under
colonization schemes the following priorities be observed in the
Northern and Eastern province

(a) Land in the Northern and Eastern provinces should in the first
instance be granted to landless persons in the district.
(b) Secondly, to Tamil-speaking persons resident in the Northern
and Eastern provinces.

(c) Thirdly, to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to
Tamil residents in the rest of the island.

Sgd.Dudley-Chelvanayakam 24.3.65

FP member M Tiruchelvam was appointed Local Government
Minister to steer the District Councils through. The SLFP and a
"ginger group" of 16 UNP MPs opposed the pact. Dudley
Senanayake lost the nerve to go through with the District Councils
Bill and the same fate as what happened in 1957 came upon the
country.

At the General Elections in 1970, Sirimavo B came back to power
and in1972 adopted a new constitution known as the Constitution
of the Republic of Sri Lanka.

Many features of the new Constitution were seen as being
discriminatory, especially by the Tamils. The FP, the All Ceylon
Tamil Congress, and other Tamil organizations reacted collectively
and in May 1972 formed the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF)
and agitated for reforms. The Government carried on regardless
using emergency regulations.

The broken promises of respective Governments led to the
watershed in the history of Sri Lanka’s major communal problem –
the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution.’ Among the reasons given for this
resolution is: "Whereas, all attempts by the various Tamil political
parties to win their rights, by co-operating with governments, by
parliamentary as well as extra-parliamentary agitations, by
entering into pacts and understandings with successive Prime
Ministers, and in order to achieve the bare minimum of political
rights consistent with self-respect of the Tamil people have proved
to be futile;"

We can now take a look at the "Vaddukoddai Resolution" of 1976
in the light of above developments. The resolution speaks for
itself.

At the Vaddukoddai Convention of May 14, 1976, the TULF
unanimously endorsed the ‘Vaddukoddai Resolution’ that
articulated inter-alia, the view that the minority Sri Lankan Tamils
needed separation from the rest of Sri Lanka to resolve their
political problems and resolved to, "restore and reconstitute the
State of Eelam in order to safeguard the existence of the Tamil
Nation in this country". The Resolution also went on to state. "This
convention directs the Action Committee of the Tamil United
Liberation Front to formulate a plan of action and launch without
undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom
of the Tamil nation: and

"This convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in General and the
Tamil Youth in particular to come forward and throw themselves
fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal
of a sovereign state of Eelam is reached".

With that, the hitherto moderate leadership that was campaigning
for the Tamil cause lost control and militant youth who took over
the leadership resorted to terrorism as a means to obtain their
goal. Several militant groups espoused violence but rifts and
skirmishes took place between them till Velupillai Prabhakaran
eliminated not only all rival militants but also moderates who did
not toe his line, and eventually appointed himself as the sole
representative of the Tamil people.

The country thus moved steadily to the "Eelam War" that we have
experienced over three decades.

It is a fact that the ultimate goal of some Tamil nationalist leaders
has been a separate state. There is nothing wrong in ambition. It
is human to be ambitious. We all have ambitions.

"Ah! But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?" -Robert Browning.

However, in the circumstances prevailing in Sri Lanka, the Tamils
in general have been prepared to accept autonomy within a
unitary state. Respective Sinhalese leaders have been missing
this opportunity and playing into the hands of Tamil nationalist
leaders, giving them cause by not honouring the pacts. They have
been hoodwinking the people, and their intransigence and greed
for power at the expense of communal harmony, is showing.

In the making of a new constitution, the above mentioned factors
have to be taken into consideration, with a view to cure the
causes that led to war.

In regard to the bogey of secession,- "A good intelligence service
is a cheap substitute for war." It is not only the Northern
secessionists that have to be watched. We have seen several JVP
insurrections too, and therefore Sinhalese nationalist extremists
too have to be watched.

United we can fulfill our aspirations and become the Paradise as
immortalized by W.S. Senior:

"But most shall he sing of Lanka

In the brave new days to come

When the races all have blended

And the will of strife be dumb."

(Tassie Seneviratne is a Retired Senior Superintendent of Police)
Posted by Thavam