Tamils want a Constitution with a Federal System
BY Mirudhula Thambiah
Batticaloa District Parliamentarian Gnanamutthu Srineshan said only a new Constitution with federal system with autonomy for every province will bring in a suitable political solution for Sri Lanka.
“A federal set up with autonomy in every State or province will solve the ethnic issue of this country. Our leader Sampanthan has clearly said that a solution should be reached in a united Sri Lanka. Right to self- determination of the Tamils is a must,” he said.
Following are excerpts of an interview:
? As you know many political parties and civic organizations have been proposing various recommendations to Constitutional Reforms. What would be your suggestions to the new Constitution as a minority representative in Parliament?
A: We have five minority communities in this country, the Tamils, Muslims, up country Tamils, Burghers and Malays. The Soulbury Constitution had a special Article (Article 29.2) that was included to safeguard the rights of the minorities of this country. There were six points in the said Article that mainly ensured the rights of the minorities. This was especially included to safeguard the minorities from the majority community of this country.
Article 29.2 ensures that no law shall be adopted violating the rights of the minority communities and equal liberty should be enjoyed by all communities of this country. However, the first and second Republican Constitutions that were introduced after the Soulbury Constitution, states Sinhala as national language and Buddhism as national religion. Thus the minority communities of this country suspected that both Republican Constitutions were drafted in favour of the majority community.
If we refer the Indian Constitution, the State has been identified as secular even though 84 per cent of people follow Hinduism. However, in Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Buddhism are national language and religion, thus we the minorities feel that our language and religion are considered secondary. In 1986 Sinhala and Tamil were adopted as official languages through the 16th Amendment. However, Sinhala is in usage as official language but, Tamil is not comparatively implemented as official language to the same extent. Thus minorities should be given equal treatment in every aspect while framing the new Constitution as they have been treated secondary in every situation. Equality should be ensured practically too, not only in the form of a Constitution. There should be equality among communities, religions, languages and genders. Thus reforms in this regard should be adapted to the new Constitution.
The 68th Independence Day was celebrated last week; however, a proper and accurate solution to the national question is yet to be found. Fundamentalists in this country have continuously blocked the favourable attempts. Currently, the minority communities, especially the Tamil speaking people, expect that only a federal type solution through the new Constitution will solve the ethnic issue, and as a solution to the national question. At the same time, minorities are suspicious, whether they will experience actual liberty and equality, at least in the future. Therefore, I urge that the government has the responsibility to ensure the rights of the minorities in the new Constitution, especially communal, language, religion and regional equality should be considered. If these rights are violated, serious legal action should be implemented against the violators through the Courts. Also a proper legal mechanism should be in place to compensate the affected.
The new Constitution should have the features of a federal set up similar to New Zealand. Social, economic and cultural rights of the minorities should be safeguarded through the new Constitution. Also autonomy should be given to every State; that will safeguard the minorities. These implementations shall increase the trust in the government.
If the new Constitution is reformed with unitary features, the same problems may repeat. Thus the majority will rule and dominate the minorities. Minority communities will have to live a terrible life and discrimination will continue. There remains a mentality among the majority community that federalism is separatism. Only progressive thinking will change this mentality. The leftists in this country who had progressive ideas in the past are now moving towards a racist mentality. Therefore, the above suggestions for a federal set up will solve the problems rather than a unitary set up that will cheat the aspirations of the minorities. If a suitable solution is found, minorities of this country will contribute furthermore to develop the country. A situation should emerge where a minority representative can become the head of our country similar to in India.
At the same time, I would request all people of this country to attend the sittings of the committee formed to collect suggestions for a new Constitution and contribute their ideas.
A federal set up with autonomy in every State or province will solve the ethnic issue of this country. Our leader Sampanthan has clearly said that a solution should be reached within a united Sri Lanka. Right to self-determination of the Tamils is a must.
Especially the governor of every province should be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Chief Minister. The central government should not unnecessarily interfere in the provincial administration. The powers given to provincial levels should be allowed to be implemented by provincial administrations.
India has a quasi- federal system, there is a union list, State list and concurrent list. The concurrent list is indirectly in favour of the central government. Thus tug o’ war situations have erupted due to the nature of the concurrent list. We feel there is no necessity to include a concurrent list to a federal system, while reforming our Constitution. Even a developed country like the United States of America has adopted a Federal Constitution that has only two lists.
Recently President Maithripala Sirisena said that there are no war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka but only human rights violations. How do you view his statement? Do you agree?
A: We feel suspicious about his stand. The President emphasizes on good governance; he has even released the suicide bomber who attempted to kill him, on a presidential pardon. Thus, he may have favourable qualities than previous Presidents. However, we feel his recent statement about war crimes and human rights seems that he is in a competitive position with the former President to retain his power. Therefore, he is in a complex situation. These human rights violations have occurred during the war period and post war period. Thus these human rights violations are war crimes allegations. There is no difference between both allegations, it should be clear that, human rights violations occurred due to the war, and thus they are war crimes.
As you know Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe has continuously stressed that Sri Lanka had no torture camps at any time. What have you got to say about his statement?
A: According to the information and evidences we obtained we firmly believe that there had been torture camps operating in Sri Lanka. It is real. However, if the Prime Minister accepts the operations of such camps, it will harm the voter base or his reputation among the majority community and at the same time, it may turn to be a favourable situation for the Opposition that lost people’s mandate in the recent elections. Therefore, his statement is pure political diplomacy. There had been torture camps and our people have been subjected to torture in those camps. Our leaders have pointed out evidences of such camps in the recent past.
Relatives and friends of missing persons observed the 68th Independence Day as ‘black day’ or ‘mourning day’. Do you feel these moves will mean more complex issues in future, when the government is seeking a solution?
A: It is easy for everyone to have their own opinions in this issue, but the actual pain will only be felt when it affects personally. When I functioned as an Education Director many of the teachers, graduates and my students were abducted and thereafter they went missing. In the current scenario although there are negative statements that most of the missing are dead, relatives and friends of missing persons still believe their loved ones are alive.
I pointed out in Parliament that reliable information should be publicized with regard to missing persons. Families of missing persons are undergoing mental torture as they are unaware of the truth. The government cannot simply state that the missing persons are dead, there should be accurate inquiries carried out to investigate into missing persons and the culprits should be punished.
If the missing persons are alive and some of them are released to their families, rest of the families of missing persons will be at comparative be peace believing that their family members will also return some day.
Government should avoid playing with human feelings. Families of missing persons take decisions of their own to express their feelings about the loving family members. Thus if the government solves their issues to a certain extent they may step down from observing such protests, such as the one on Independence Day.
Being a parliamentary representative from the Eastern Province, tell us if it true that the Eastern Governor is indirectly interfering to administration of the Provincial Council as your party members at several instances stated the issues to the public.
A: Although we are unable to clearly and directly identify the issues relating to the current governor compared to the previous one, as according to certain allegations we also understand that he has taken steps to settle people from his community in the lands of others. A similar opinion is held by the people of the Eastern Province too.
I’m looking forward to organize a discussion relating to the issue with the Provincial Council members to identify the truth.
Do you feel the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Al-Hussein, has created a turning point in the situations within the country?
A: Visit of both Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Al-Hussein has been on the tough stand to implement the UNHCR recommendations. At the same time, the Sri Lankan Government has also assured a reliable inquiry or mechanism on human rights violation and war crimes. He has met Chief Ministers of both North and East, and the Opposition Leader. This will lead towards pressurizing the government to further implement a reliable investigation as per the recommendations. Minister Swaraj’s visit will also have a similar impact.
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