ADJOURNMENT DEBATE ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
Following the attempted coup and Easter Sunday bombings many of our fellow citizens ask why our country continues to veer from one crisis to another. They are right to do so. The history of Sri Lanka is a history of crisis. In the last seventy odd years, we experienced the assassination of a Prime Minister, the assassination of an Executive President, a failed coup, two youth insurgencies and a long, bloody civil war.
With one or two exceptions, the common thread uniting these crises is the national question – the question of how our many communities can live together in amity and flourish collectively. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated because of his attempts at conciliation with the minorities. The 1962 coup was significantly induced by fear of discrimination against Christians. The war, as our academics and intelligence men have observed, was the direct result of treating minorities as second-class citizens.
At this point, Mr. Speaker, it would be amiss not to reflect on the lessons of Black July. In fact this week, thirty-six years ago, from the 24th of July to the 30th of July the state failed to protect thousands of its own citizens, who were slaughtered in their homes and on the streets.We all know that if there was any one cause for a rag-tag insurgency becoming a full-blown civil war, it was Black July. Similarly, it cannot be a coincidence that the Easter Sunday bombings took place following the Aluthgama and Digana riots. Although investigations are still underway, there is no reason to think that these riots played a role in radicalizing a few Muslim youth.
Even though these issues consumed the energies of this House and the entire island since Independence, it is clear we have failed to resolve this matter successfully. Despite new constitutions, countless committees and endless debates we still have majoritarianism entrenched in our politics and law.
The stakes could not be higher. It is our inability to resolve the national question that is at the very center of our failure to make Sri Lanka peaceful and prosperous. Sri Lanka has been in crisis, remains in crisis and will continue to be in crisis until we can create a just and equal Sri Lanka for all Sri Lankans.
This House knows the solution to this problem. It has always known the solution to this problem. But, more often than not, its members have not had the courage of their convictions to address it.
Ever since Independence, all our leaders, including Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse knows the actual solution to this problem.
It has cowered before a small but vocal minority of reactionary forces. And I am sad to say that a truly united Sri Lanka – a Sri Lanka where Muslims don’t fear Buddhists, where Sinhalese don’t fear Tamils, and where Christians can worship in peace – is a cause of mortal danger for certain members of this House.
That Sri Lanka’s future as a prosperous, united and undivided country depends on establishing a constitution that would embrace and celebrate Sri Lanka’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic identity based on the principles of equal citizenship, justice and the devolution of power.
They understood the importance of building a Sri Lankan identity and a Sri Lankan constitution which all of Sri Lanka’s communities could equally claim as their own.
In fact, all our national leaders as I said before, including the Hon. Leader of the Opposition have considered ensuring equal rights and a measure of self-government as essential for the country’s stability, security and prosperity.
The first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who was also the founder of the UNP, D.S. Senanayake, strongly believed in ‘unity in diversity’. He emphatically remarked after the unfurling of the National Flag in February 1948,
“Our nation comprises many races, each with a culture and a history of its own. It is for us to blend all that is best in us…There is no greater ambition in my life than to get all these communities together”
He went on to note that,
“For centuries the Sinhalese and Tamils have lived together in peace and amity. We have been governed by their Kings and they by ours”
D.S. Senanayake’s policy has always been the policy of the UNP. The last UNP President, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa said,
“Multi-ethnic democracy has always been my vision for Sri Lanka. There is no other way. It has been my vision from the time I entered politics. My electorate in Colombo was multi-ethnic. I could not have represented my electorate for so many years had I not practiced multi-ethnic politics. Furthermore, now as President, my electorate is the whole country. I am the President for all groups and communities who comprise Sri Lanka.”
And on March 2nd 1990, in his speech “Arms cannot bring Peace”, he said,
“Whatever the race, the religion or the caste that any individual belongs to, we must realize that he or she has a birthright to share of this country. It is only if that right is denied to persons on grounds of differences of race, religion, caste or other such considerations, that a threat of division of this country will arise, that a threat to the sovereignty of this country will arise and foreign powers will have an opportunity to interfere in our affairs.”
President Premadasa also had the sagacity to appoint Mangala Moonesinghe, an SLFP member of this house, to chair the Parliamentary Select Committee on this topic.
It is important to note that the Committee’s report recommended a scheme of devolution on lines similar to the Indian Constitution – in other words federalism. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too has been a worthy custodian of this UNP legacy and has always stood for a political solution to the national question.
Similarly, leaders of the other main political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, too shared this view. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, who was the SLFP founder leader said in Parliament on August 5th 1958 that:
“I am satisfied that extremism in this country consists of the activities of a small minority, whether they are Sinhalese or Tamil, but that the vast majority of the people are reasonable and moderate and only wish to live together with mutual respect as well as self-respect, so that we could march forward together and achieve that progress and that position for us all which have been hoping to obtain under this freedom we have, freedom for the Sinhalese – yes, remember too – that it is the freedom for the Tamils, for the Muslims, for the Malays, for the Burghers, who are all fellow citizens, yes, if it is not freedom in that way for all, I too repeat the words of another leader…Shri Jawaharlal Nehru who stated that if freedom meant internal communal strife or injustice or suppression of minorities ‘to hell with Swaraj’.”
This was his long-standing opinion. It was based on his view that centralized government was imposed on us by the colonizer. Speaking in Jaffna on the 17th of July 1926, his talk, titled “Federation as the Only Solution to our Political Problems”, described Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial system of government as decentralized and similar to a loose federation. He stated that the British introduced a centralized form of government and argued was unsuitable for a country like Ceylon. He is also reported to have said, ‘in Ceylon, each Province should have complete autonomy”. Earlier that year, in May and June, he wrote six articles in the Ceylon Morning Leader making the case for federalism. Allow me to quote, “there would be trouble if a centralized form of government was introduced into countries with large communal differences”.
But his daughter tried to set things right. President Chandrika Kumaratunga was brave enough to stand on election platforms and speak truth to power.
In fact, I remember Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga coming to Akurassa in 1993 as the Chief Minister of the Western Province and in the deep south where 90% were Sinhala Buddhist, she said that Sri Lanka needs a Federal System and at the elections, we had a resounding landslide victory even after that statement.
She had the courage to boldly state in public what the political class said in private: the solution to the national question was federalism.
I remember the Leader of the Opposition, Mahinda Rajapaksa MP, supporting the 1995 Union of Regions proposals. He held this view for a long time. In fact, you made one of the best speeches a leader of our country has made in the inaugural session of the All Party Representatives Committee on July 11th 2006 long before you chased me out where I was also present. He summarized the main thrust of his proposed solution to the ethnic conflict: I quote Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse,
“people in their own localities must take charge of their destiny and control their politico-economic environment. Central decision making that allocates disproportionate resources has been an issue for a considerable time. In addition, it is axiomatic that devolution also needs to address issues relating to identity as well as security and socio-economic advancement, without over-reliance on the center. In this regard, it is also important to address the question of regional minorities.
In sum, any solution needs to as a matter of urgency allow people to take charge of their own destiny. This has been tried out successfully in many parts of the world. There are many examples from around the world that we may study as we evolve a truly Sri Lankan constitutional framework including our immediate neighbor, India.”
In his concluding remarks for that speech, he was very firm, “any solution must be seen as one that stretches to the maximum possible devolution”.
This was said by Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse. Thank you. But I’m sorry that you had to change your views under pressure from various other people.
On January 9th 2016, the next leader of the SLFP, President Sirisena made his views on the matter very clear to the House,
“Attempts to build co-operation and friendship among Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Malay and Burgher failed. Communities became increasingly polarized owing to the shortcomings and loopholes formed in the constitutional provisions promulgated in the country, triggered by the provisions contained in the Soulbury Constitution. This resulted in the creation of the terrorist known as ‘Prabhakaran’. Regardless of what people say, I am of the belief that if the Bandaranaike-Chelvanaygam Pact had become a reality, we would not have witnessed the creation of terrorism.”
The left leaders were prescient too.
LSSP stalwart Dr. Colvin De Silva’s prophetic words during the 1956 Debate on the Sinhala Only Bill were prophetic then, but unless we act now, I fear, all too sadly, they will prove to be doubly-prophetic.
“If you refuse to help a section of our people of a specific racial stock, having their own separate language, their specific and particular culture, traditions and history, if you deny them their language right then you are running the risk of hammering them in the future into what they yet are not. Today they are but a section distinctive by reason of their particular racial stock and language, from the Sinhalese within the Ceylonese nation. But if you mistreat them, if you ill-treat them, if you misuse them, if you oppress and harass them, in that process you may cause to emerge in Ceylon, from that particular stock with its own particular language and tradition, a new nationality to which we will have to concede more claims than it puts forward now. It is always wiser statesmanship to give generously early instead of being niggardly too late.” “Parity,” he argued, “is the road to freedom of our nation and the unity of its components. Otherwise, two torn little bleeding States may yet arise of one little State”.
The founder leader of the JVP, Rohana Wijeweera, supported these views and went further than the others in the Left. In a speech that can be watched on YouTube, he argued in Jaffna in 1982 that the solution to the ethnic conflict was acknowledging and respecting the right of minorities to self-determination.
“We propose to create areas of self-rule where minority communities have large concentrations. We state that any ethnic community or any minority group has the right to self-determination.”
The late Indika Gunawardene, a leader of the Communist Party, stood in this very house 19 years ago during the 2000 Constitutional Debates and said that “the standpoint of the Marxist movement is that the right to make self-decisions should not be denied to any citizen. The right of a nation to self-determination is upheld by the working class… A separate state of Tamil Eelam will never be a solution to the national problem. The best way to grant the right to make self-decisions to various ethnic groups, i.e. to create a united Sri Lanka, will be autonomous administration in the North and East”.
We are at a rare moment in history, where the Tamil political leadership is united and represented by a statesman of the Hon. Mr. Sampanthan’s stature, wisdom and temperament is not only a bonus for the Tamil Community but for the entire country.
This may not be the case in the future. We must not let this opportunity go. We must answer the offer and the question he placed before us in Matara a few weeks ago.
Actually, it was an excellent speech where all the people of the south, at the end of his speech stood up and gave him a standing ovation. I think the whole speech is worth listening to, but I will quote a little bit.
“I want to work with fellow Sri Lankans to resolve this conflict within the frame work of a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka, that would be the best thing for Sri Lanka. If we do not what would be the consequences?”
He ended the speech with that question, which I believe that all of us, whichever party, side, community, whichever religion we believe in, must start asking ourselves, if we do not solve this issue, what are the consequences? Can Sri Lanka move forward unless we come to terms with the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi religious and a multi-cultural nation.