By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
Even as Parliament met as the Constitutional Assembly last Monday (Oct 30) and began debating the interim report of the Steering Committee on constitutional reforms, President Maithripala Sirisena was announcing at the National Convention on Reconciliation at the Colombo Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium that he would convene an all-party conference to discuss the same issue.
This conference, he said, would be part of three important conferences he intends to initiate, specifically to prevent erroneous information and misconceptions about the proposed new constitution. The other two conferences include one with religious leaders, and one with scholars and intellectuals interested in political reforms.
One cannot help but wonder why the President came out with this three-tier process, especially at a time when constitution making had reached a relatively decisive stage and the Constitutional Assembly was in the process of debating the interim report. What does he intend to achieve from it?
All-party conferences are not new to Sri Lanka, but the crux is, they’ve never been particularly helpful. Leaders of all religions participated in previous all-party conferences, but except for the opinions of the Buddhist prelates, other views never received the serious attention of the politicians, particularly the leaders of previous governments.
The first all-party conference was convened by President J. R. Jayewardene in 1984 in the wake of Black July when his government was under tremendous pressure from India to find a viable political solution to the national problem. Tamil leaders like Appapillai Amirthalingam, Murugesu Sivasithamparam and the present leader of the opposition in Parliament and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Rajavarothayam Sampanthan came from their exile in Tamil Nadu and participated in the conference under the auspices of the Indian government.
The second all-party conference was called by President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1989, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was deployed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces under the Indo – Lanka Peace Accord. Leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) including their theoretician late Anton Balasingham were airlifted from the Wanni jungle by Sri Lankan Air Force and took part in the conference. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga initiated a consultation process on a devolution package that could not be described as an all-party conference.
The last President who convened an all-party conference was Mahinda Rajapaksa during the height of the civil war. In that exercise, the All-party Representative Committee was headed by the then minister, Prof. Tissa Vitharana. He handed over a comprehensive report to Rajapaksa, but it did not see the light of day.
It is important to remember the promise in the UNP manifesto for the 1977 July general election, where it pledged an all-party conference would be convened to find a solution to the problems of the Tamil people. J. R. Jayewardene and his party swept the polls and came to power with an unprecedented 5/6 majority in Parliament, but conveniently forgot about the promise given to the Tamils. However, after the State sponsored communal pogrom unleashed against the Tamil people throughout the country in July 1983, he was compelled to call for a conference of political parties owing to immense pressure from India.
Needless to say, none of those conferences were convened with the genuine interest of exploring ways to find a lasting solution to the national problem. They were merely intended to buy time and drag the problem endlessly. And that is what’s been happening to date.
In the context of the bitter experiences, one is hard put to think differently about President Sirisena’s announcement of an all-party conference. The only difference between the actions of the previous presidents and Sirisena’s plan is that previous presidents called the conferences in the guise of attempting to solve the national problem. Sirisena only wants to prevent incorrect information that creates misconceptions about the proposed constitution.
There is no gainsaying that needless fears have been stirred up about constitutional reforms, particularly among the majority community. As we pointed out in this column two weeks ago, the political forces that are against political reforms are highly vocal, vigorous well organized and are able to take their campaign to all the parts of the country. The relative democratic space prevalent in the country after the advent of the unity government is being used or perhaps exploited fully by the anti – democratic and anti -reform forces. The unfortunate reality is that the government has not been able to effectively counter them, hence the tremendous opposition to its initiatives.
The government leaders have been talking of constitutional reforms for more than two and a half years, but they have not campaigned sufficiently to convince the majority community about the proposed changes. This has allowed some leaders of the Joint Opposition to deliberately misinterpret the entire process and instil unnecessary fear in the minds of the majority community.
The government’s belated response to the negative campaign hasn’t helped in alleviating the fears.
Frankly speaking, so far there has been no sustained or major public education campaign on the controversial issues in the interim report. Debating the report in Parliament is not enough to take the people into confidence and garner their support. A concerted political and education campaign must be launched at every level of society to overcome the negative fallout of the extremist ethno-religious forces. Without such an earnest political program, retrieving the constitutional reforms from the mess of nationalist propaganda will be a major uphill battle for the government. It is perhaps realizing that the government’s ineffectual efforts to get the majority community on board has placed it in a disadvantageous position to take the reform process its logical conclusion that President Sirisena is now talking about conferences of all parties, religious leaders and intellectuals.
Constitution making in Sri Lanka has not always been a healthy consultative exercise, even when the minority concerns were not involved. The two previous Republican Constitutions were thrust upon the nation and its people using the parliamentary majority of the ruling party. However, unlike in the past, this time the Unity Government conducted public consultations, converted Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly with the support of all parties represented in the House, and as of this week, the Assembly debated the interim report where all the parties got to express their opinion.
During the 4-day debate all the speakers from major political parties focused their attention on alleviating apprehensions created in the minds of the majority community. No one, except for the parties representing the minority communities, was interested in convincing these communities that their legitimate political aspirations and grievances would be addressed in a satisfactory manner through the proposed constitution.
The UNP leaders took great pains to explain that the provincial councils would only be vested with limited powers, while the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers insisted that the Executive Presidency must be retained and the clauses one to nine in the present constitution should be left intact. They demonstrated their usual opposition to the main demands of the Tamil people, including the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) criticized the government and complained that discussions on abolishing the Executive Presidency had been buried in rumours about the nature of the state and the status accorded to Buddhism. The Joint Opposition declared they were against the proposals and demanded the government withdraw the interim report as requested by the Mahanayake Theras.
It is interesting to note that all the major speakers from the Tamil and Muslim parties went out of their way to insist that while Buddhism be accorded a special status, other religions be treated with dignity and respect. One Muslim MP from the UNP even went to the extent of declaring he would not vote in favour of the new constitution if the foremost place was not given to Buddhism.
A constituent party of the government, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)warned there would be anarchy if the Executive Presidency was abolished without introducing a stable parliamentary system, while the leader of the Opposition, reiterated his long standing belief that things would get worse for Sri Lanka if it fails to address the national question.
The Constitutional Assembly debate indicates the political parties, the main stakeholders in the constitution making process, have clearly put forward their viewpoints. So the question is, what purpose does an all-party conference serve now, when all parties have had their say, and such conferences have proved to be futile exercise?
No sane person is going to believe that the President’s decision to call for a conference of religious leaders is anything other than an attempt to appease the Mahanayakaye Theras who have made no bones about their opposition to a new constitution. However, RanilWickremesighe’s echoing of Srirsena’s conference plans during Constitutional Assembly speech, where he said a broad discussion would be held on the new constitution with the Mahanayakaye Theras and other religious leaders and the people, makes one wonder whether this is an attempt to put on hold the process taken forward by the Constitutional Assembly. More so in light of the coming Local Government elections.
Are the three-tiered conferences a time buying exercise? We all know that instead of helping to forge consensus or agreement on contentious issues, the previous all-party conferences have created more acrimony and chaos in the country. A positive move at this juncture would be for the President and Prime Minister to try and forge at least minimum consensus among their parties on contentious issues regarding constitutional reforms than focus on frivolous moves like all-party conferences. If the main partners of the National Unity Government are able to narrow down their differences many a roadblock will be removed. Let them do that first.