The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s efforts to give Sri Lanka a new constitution to address the vexed ethnic issue and strengthen democracy has hit a rough patch. While there were broad-based and transparent public consultations and sub-committees have submitted their reports to the Steering Committee presided over by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe, yet there is no clarity regarding the issues which have plagued the country since independence.
Contentious issues like the nature of states, whether it will be federal or unitary; the Unit of Devolution, whether the Northern and Eastern provinces will be united to form a single Tamil-speaking province; and whether Buddhism will retain its “foremost place”; have been left to the Steering Committee. But till date, there is no word from that committee, even though the government is about to complete two years in offi ce. The Committee’s reticence on the fundamental issues is understandable given the heat these generate in the ethnically divided Sri Lankan polity.
While the Tamils insist on turning Lanka into a federal state and unifying the North and East to form a “Tamil Homeland” (within Sri Lanka), the Sinhalese see this as stepping stones to secession. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is re-merging, said there could be power sharing at the Centre but not autonomous ethnic ghettos. Tamils and Muslims want Lanka to be a secular state, but the majority Sinhalese- Buddhists want Buddhism to be the “foremost religion”.
This division is not just between the government and the Opposition but also within the rainbow coalition in power. While a section of the government is for radical change and has threatened to quit if its demands are not met, the majority are agitating against any change. While there is wide support for the introduction of the First Past the Post System, the minority parties demand substantial proportional representation.