JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has made two statements regarding reconciliation via constitutional reform. Firstly, he has said that a referendum on a new constitution should not be approached the way the Presidential Election was fought. In that election, the Northern and Eastern Provinces voted overwhelmingly for President Sirisena, who was the default candidate of the United National Party and as such was backed to the hilt by the coalition led by that party.
What Anura K is saying, then, is that in this instance voters should not back a UNP-drafted proposal. In other words, as far as the JVP is concerned, this is not something to do with Mahinda Rajapaksa and indeed is a larger issue that has little to do with regimes, regime-change, good governance and what not. The signal is that the JVP is opposed to the new constitution or at least those sections that refer to devolution. Why the JVP cannot openly oppose the secrecy shrouding the process or detail the relevant articles it objects to but only hint at is anyone’s guess.
The second contention is that in the event the new constitution is rejected at a referendum, the cry for ethnic-based devolution should be abandoned. This provides a clue.
The draft new constitution clearly includes articles that go beyond the 13th Amendment in terms of devolving power to the provinces.
This is not surprising since the chief architects of the process, Jayampathi Wickramaratne, representing a party that would not win a single seat in Parliament in a first past the post system, is ideologically committed to such devolution. Add to that the ideological preferences of Mangala Samaraweera and Chandrika Kumaratunga and the intellectual sloth and political naivete of the UNP and we cannot expect anything else.
That said, there is a serious political problem in Anura K’s second wish. Why should defeat result in a dropping of a demand? In the first instance such a change of heart cannot be legally obtained. Secondly, if electoral defeat must necessarily result in abandonment of political project, there are lots of things the JVP should have dropped a long time ago. And not just the JVP, one might add.
It is like saying that since there are laws against theft, thieves should give up on wrongdoing from pick-pocketing to misusing power and abusing trust to pull off heists worth billions through the manipulation of Central Bank bond issues. Silly.
While we can attribute the formulation of such wishes by the JVP to anxieties about how much political bleeding the JVP could suffer from the enactment of such proposals (if endorsed by a referendum) and of course sophomoric thinking, the key issues are essentially being skirted here, by the JVP and by the Government.
First of all, the question ‘why devolution in the first place?’ is not addressed beyond the crass regurgitation of the logic of Eelamist myth-modelling sans appropriate weight to all the relevant factors. According to all indications, is yet another ill-conceived pandering to Tamil chauvinism marked by an absolute disavowal of history and a shameless and even dangerous refusal to factor in historical, demographic and geographical realities.
It is also, in effect, a proverbial lifting of the sarong to the valid observations made by President Maithripala Sirisena with respect to the errors embedded in provincial boundaries which (need we even mention?) were arbitrarily drawn by the British and have been the ‘base’ on which the Eelam Map has been traced. It’s a trace that Tamil chauvinism swears by and sections of the current Government are loathe to inspect. That’s pernicious historiography compounded by pernicious approval by the very fact of nonsensical constitutional drafting.
It is clearly incumbent upon governments to listen to grievances and to set in place structures and processes that allow for the rational treatment of aspirations where the true dimensions of grievances and the appropriateness of aspirations are correctly assessed. One can argue that these structures and processes do exist. What is lacking is the political will to do this important and necessary audit. The formulation of ‘resolution’ where such ‘homework’ is not done is irresponsible and goes against the basic principles of good governance. In the absence of such will the natural yield is ‘whim and fancy’. The fate of a people should not be put in the hands of whim-fancy politicians because such idiocy and irresponsibility do not yield to reconciliation but rather exacerbate antipathies and produce bloodshed.
What if, for example, the JVP went further and something of this kind; ‘Include a caveat whereby an overall “yes” for devolution requires all Tamils to live in the North and East?’ That would be unfair, absolutely. On the other hand, therein lies the key problem about devolution predicated on chauvinistic thinking and the exaggeration of claims. Close to half the Tamils live OUTSIDE the so-called traditional/historical homeland (whose histories and traditions at best remain unsubstantiated).
Strong supporters of federalism are now swearing that this is not the right time to have a referendum. It will be defeated, they claim, because ‘wounds are still new’. They advocate a brainwashing of the Sinhalese before putting the question to them. That’s ‘democracy’ in their book. In other words Anura K and the JVP need not worry, going by what the devolution racketeers are worried about right now. Any ‘yes’ vote for such measures in Parliament would seal the political fate of the aye-sayers and perhaps even their parties, at least in the short term. The President, at the right time, could pull out SLFP support. That’s ‘goodbye’ to the two-thirds needed to get it passed in Parliament. The UNP could tell Tamils that they did their best but the SLFP wrecked it and thus seek to retain the minority vote. The SLFP will say that the UNP was trying to whack the Sinhalese. A general election would see the UNP losing much ground among the Sinhalese. Needless to say parties such as the TNA will tell Tamil youth that the Sinhalese will never yield anything.
This is what happens when you put the horse before the cart. Reconciliation is scuttled. The necessary starting point of the exercise has been missed. Failure gets scripted, even if that’s not intended. Sooner or later, after much pain, suffering and even bloodshed, we have to return to the beginning, the historical audit and the sober assessment of grievances and the equally sober consideration of aspirations.
If the ‘beginning’ is to be painted in colours that are acceptable to Tamils, then the Vadukoddai Resolution is an excellent document to have on the table. The claims therein could be evaluated with those affirming and negating bringing substance and not rhetoric to the table. Anura K can find his voice, even.
All of the above, we must not forget, have the danger of scuttling important democraticising measures which may have been included in the draft. The mishandling of Tamil chauvinism by the constitution drafting pundits can therefore wreck that other, more important project that is such an important part of Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto. We saw a similarly surreptitious move by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in 2000. Proposing the kind of ‘resolution’ that her political successors in this Government are currently pushing effectively resulted in keeping intact the executive presidency.
These are the issues that the JVP could take up, if indeed they want to remain politically relevant into the foreseeable future. As of now they are party to the insidious attempts by a few to cheat the people, the Sinhalese in the proposal itself and the Tamils through the most likely outcome.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene
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