By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham
Leader of the Opposition and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) R. Sampanthan, participating in the final debate of the second reading of the Budget in Parliament last week, made an impassioned plea to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to extend his fullest support and cooperation to the current constitution making process. Describing the former president as a very senior political leader in this country who commanded much respect amongst the people, Sampanthan implored Rajapaksa not to use the constitution as a means to come to power, maintaining his party would have no problem with the former president seeking any other means to capture power. Sampanthan said he also intended to make the same appeal to all the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Members of Parliament.
In a speech that resonated with many, the Sampanthan reminded the former president of the numerous instances before and after the end of the war, when he gave assurances to those in Sri Lanka and to the international community including India, of his commitment to finding a meaningful political solution to the national problem through a mechanism for extensive power sharing. He also noted that a former president, who had been committed to finding an acceptable political solution, should not fail in his fundamental duty of supporting the constitutional reforms process that has the potential to stop the country from regressing to darkness. However, given the former president’s current stance on national issues, Sampanthan didn’t sugar-coat his words, when he said the stance was promoting communal disharmony.
It was perhaps one of the best speeches Sampanthan made in Parliament, as the Leader of the Opposition, in recent times. The former president who was in the House, listened to the speech carefully but did not comment on the sensitive issues impassioned except to note that he understood the sentiments of the latter. In this context, it is worth noting that exactly one year ago President Maithripala Sirisena made a similar appeal to Mahinda Rajapaksa and the members of the Joint Opposition, when he urged them not to disrupt the constitution making process and the measures being taken towards reconciliation by engaging in false propaganda. Coincidentally, the speech was also made during the Budget debate.
Sirisena warned that unless the current opportunity was utilized with foresight to find a political solution to the national problem, the country would regress and face another bloodbath. He also noted that the cooperation extended by a moderate Tamil leader like Sampanthan to find an equitable and reasonable solution would not be forthcoming from the leadership of the North and East in the future. Branding the political forces that were misleading the people for narrow political purposes as pseudo – patriots, Sirisena accused the former president and his allies of trying to sabotage the process of constitution making.
In the twelve months between the pleas of President Sirisena and the Leader of Opposition Sampanthan, Rajapaksa’s stance on constitutional reforms has metamorphosed into a more regressive one, rather than the flexibility and maturity expected from a former president, especially considering the future of the country.
When the reports of the six Sub-Committees of the Constitutional Assembly were submitted last year, Rajapaksa issued statements criticizing the many recommendations contained in them as posing danger to the unity of the country and compromising its sovereignty, but didn’t totally reject them. Now however, after the release of the interim report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly two months ago, he has vociferously opposed it in totality, proclaiming there was no need for a new constitution at present. He has however stopped short of echoing the stand taken by the Maha Sangha that the present constitution is the best one for post war Sri Lanka. At this point it is worth re-asking the pertinent question Sampanthan asked the former president in Parliament last week. Why didn’t he come to the House and oppose the resolution that was adopted unanimously to convert Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly, if he felt the country didn’t need a new constitution?
Be that as it may, it would be a tough proposition to expect Rajapaksa and his Joint Opposition to change their attitude towards constitutional reforms, particularly in view of the national problem, and mend their ways. To understand the mindset of the former president regarding the national problem, one has to look back at his political activities in the recent past, especially after the 2005 November presidential elections.
When Rajapaksa contested the elections as the candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) against United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, his entire campaign was dominated by the forces that were against the Norwegian facilitated peace process. Naturally, his election platform was rife with slogans virulently detrimental to the legitimate political aspirations of the minority communities, particularly the Tamil people. It was plain to any right thinking people that his intent was to garner maximum support from the majority community.
After the election victory, which was possible due to the election boycott engineered by Liberation Tigers Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the North, Mahinda Rajapaksa as president tried to show the world that he and his government were interested in the peace process. Though several rounds of talks were held in Geneva between the Tigers and a government delegation, Rajapaksa’s real aim was to wagea full-fledged war against the Tigers and secure a military victory.
During his rule, there was on the one hand unprecedented corruption, abuse of power, disruption of law and order, dynastic politics and unmitigated cronyism, while on the other hand there was an intensification of ethnic majoritarianism in the southern polity. A regressive political climate was created in which acceptance of the minimum legitimate political aspirations and grievances of the minority communities were portrayed as something detrimental to the country. Government polices and activities encouraged that tendency.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was popular among the majority community mainly because of the war victory. He was detested by the Tamil people for the same reason. His policies of triumphalist ethnic majoritarianism inevitably paved the way for a politico- militarist mindset in the major part of Southern polity. He always developed strategies to strengthen his support base by cleverly exploiting this mindset, which is the driving force behind the politics of Joint Opposition he now leads, after the defeat in the 2015 presidential polls.
In this context, it would be futile to expect the former president to give up his political scheming based on ethnic majoritarianism. He and his allies are keen on keeping the majority community drugged with heavy doses of nationalistic patriotic fervour to thwart the constitution making process and any attempt to find a political solution to the long drawn national problem. It seems as though he is convinced that ensuring the constitutional process fails is key to his comeback to power again.
(Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd)