Needed: An Agenda for Reform on Groundviews

Whilst it is not clear as to whether we would be voting in both the presidential and general elections on the same day, it is clear that we will be voting in at least one of them in the next three months, followed soon thereafter by the other.  Most likely it will be the presidential elections since it is the president who has to decide and since he is much more popular than his party. Moreover, we have been told that he is willing to sacrifice, if necessary, two years of his first term in order to secure a second and a parliamentary majority nearest to the heart’s desire.

All elections are important and these will be no exception. It is worth reminding that we are still in a post-war situation and far from the post-conflict one we ought to be in. What this requires is the prioritization of peace, reconciliation and unity and the firm commitment to ensure that the causes of ethnic conflict are not reproduced and sustained.  This means at least the rights of the IDPs as the litmus test for all else, a political settlement of the conflict and a reversal of the culture of impunity in respect of human rights along with facing up to the questions of whether there can be unity without reconciliation and reconciliation without accountability.  This is not all.  There are serious questions to be considered on the economic front with regard to employment and indebtedness – the real consequences of the fate of GSP Plus and the IMF loan – and most importantly in light of recent demonstrations, the ability of the system of education to meet the requirements of the economy.  And given Angulana, what happened to Nipuna Ratnayake and the Bambalapitiya drowning, the overarching issues of the Rule of Law, the supremacy of Constitution and the intentional violation of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Constitutional reform, at least in terms of the abolition or reform of the executive presidency will be on the agenda, as a consequence not so much of the requirements of governance but the emerging imperatives of regime survival and stability.  There is the danger that on this score, what is in store is the abolition of the form and title of the executive presidency with the transfer of its substantive powers to an “executive prime minister”.   The electoral system too, could be up for debate with the virtues of the ‘first-past –the post’ system and constituency MPs being eulogized to discredit proportional representation.

There is a crying need for a national debate on the future of the country and the issues on which the next presidential and general elections are to be fought.  The challenges ahead are far too serious to treat these elections merely as opportunities to register electoral approval, appreciation, admiration and gratitude for the defeat of the LTTE.  There has to be a tomorrow and a time when the war is truly behind us.  We need a plan to move towards that time and in order to design one, as many of us as willing and able must be part of that process.  An agenda for change and reform is critically needed and it will not come from the politicians who are trapped in fighting yesterday’s battles.

The island wide debate, discussion or conversation on change and reform is a vital and integral part of this.  Where however, through or on what medium or channel or site can it be conducted?

The obvious answer is the mainstream print and electronic media.  For a variety of reasons, very real and crucial constraints ranging from official displeasure, threat and sanction to self censorship, ideological disposition, market demands and problems of professionalism, the robust exchange of ideas called for will not happen here and not beyond the efforts of a persistent few, as required.  Moreover, since it is an exchange of ideas – a discussion, debate or conversation- that is called for, many voices need to he heard.  This is not about letters to the editor, about comment and observation alone but about participation and engagement with passion and conviction about the Sri Lanka of the future, we desire and deserve.

Citizens’ journalism and given its record as a forum for quality debate, Groundviews is ideally positioned to make a major contribution to this exercise in national rejuvenation and renaissance.  Is it not possible in the lead up to the elections that citizens use Groundviews to canvass their ideas for constitutional reform, governance, human rights and the economy and whatever else they see as constituting essential elements of an agenda for change and reform? The exchange could, but need not be time bound. As in the nature of a conversation it should be ongoing and active.

This would be a convincing demonstration of the strength and value of citizens’ journalism and its substantial utility in empowerment for peace, governance and human rights – An enabling facility for a functioning democracy.

GV - Test 1

  • old Man

    The Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) and the (now defunct) political party (Swarajya) founded by some of its members has some very good ideas on constitutional reform. Perhaps they could be requested to send in their ideas?

    As a short-cut, returning to the 1972 constitution alone would be a huge improvement, although the Westminster one would be even better.

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear Dr. Saravanamuttu,

    Your call for action comes at a crucial moment. I believe many Sri Lankans understand that we are at a crossroads: one path taking us to the Promised Land; and the other to internecine hell. We have an opportunity for the first time in the post-colonial period to fundamentally realign the relationship between the State and its people – from one that perpetuates a colonial relationship between “ruler” and “ruled”, to one that adopts a progressive relationship that has the state serve the interests of its people and is subordinate to the will of the people.

    Your proposal to use the space provided by Groundviews to advance an alternative vision of Sri Lanka is a good one. I read Mr. Suren Raghavan’s article of 12 October 2009, titled “Imagining the immediate (im)possibilities”. Under the subheading “Imagining (im)possibilities?” he begins to explore alternatives looking at examples of Lebanon etc. His efforts are directed at thinking “outside the box” because he believes that tinkering with something fundamentally flawed (or this is what I think he’s getting at) is not going to get us to the place we want to be. I fully subscribe to this view (if this is his view) and believe that there is a lot we can learn from what other countries have already gone through. I do believe however that a Constitution alone will never make a country great but at least we need to get the vision and ideals of the people reflected in it as a starting point.

    O.K. so how do we reach this mythical Promised Land? Here’s a proposal to consider; there are many details that will need to be sorted out but as a start, here goes….

    As a nation, we are going to come up with the first Wiki constitution in the world – a true Citizen’s Constitution, built block by block and the process supervised by the citizens themselves. This exercise will seek to solicit views from all constituencies of Sri Lanka so that the final outcome reflects the views of all Sri Lankans. This alternative Constitution will act as the vehicle for coalescing people to demand the much needed reform of our current Constitution. Just imagine it if we had a set of sound alternatives forged through a broad process of citizen consultation to place in front of all politicians running for office?

    For those who may wonder what is a Wiki, here’s a brief definition: “a type of website that allows the visitors themselves to easily add, remove and otherwise edit and change some available content, sometimes without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for collaborative authoring (for more info on Wiki go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki)”.

    The proposed approach is the following; everyone is open to contribute text on what they would like to see their country look like without violating the following principles (these principles have been selected as they represent what a “progressive nation state” should adhere to – this is not an exhaustive list and discussion will be needed to finalise this list):
    * equality – all citizens are equal
    * pluralism – an environment in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated
    * secularism – no reference to religion other than a simple statement that all religions are equal under the Sri Lankan Constitution and individuals are free to choose what religion they want to follow
    * justice – the state, action, or principle of treating all persons equally in accordance with the law
    * transparency – information should be open and freely available with regard to any activity governed by the constitution
    * accountability – the obligation to bear the consequences of ones actions

    The 1st hurdle to overcome would be to see whether Groundviews could provide the platform for establishing such a Wiki.

    The 2nd hurdle to overcome will be to feed the views of those that have no access to the internet and who may not be fully literate into this process. The solution will necessarily have to adopt a consultation process that covers all villages across the country. I’m not sure how exactly this could be done but maybe civil society organisations could facilitate this process (ideas on how to do this is crucial for the success of this approach).

    One way of facilitating the process of coming up with text for the new Constitution would be to take from other countries constitutions those elements that people think are useful for Sri Lanka. This is made a little easier with this website which has collated constitutions from around the world: http://confinder.richmond.edu/confinder.html

    Where there are gaps, and most certainly one can expect gaps in this sort of exercise, they can be explicitly identified with the intent that further research will be undertaken to fill them.

    These are some very preliminary thoughts but I do believe there is great potential in a tool such as a Wiki to advance the discussion on an alternative Constitution for Sri Lanka. To get the ball rolling here’s my contribution with sincere thanks to South Africa.

    “Preamble:
    We, the people of Sri Lanka,
    Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
    Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
    Believe that Sri Lanka belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

    We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka so as to:
    • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
    • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
    • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
    • Build a united and democratic Sri Lanka able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

    So what do you say? Maybe this will sharpen people’s focus on writing something that will contribute in a tangible way to carving out our collective destiny.

    Think about it….

    Cheers

  • SLFirst

    And what about those (in the majority) who don’t have access to a PC, are not educated enough to understand all these Wiki things that only few comprehend? Where are those voices to be heard? In Angulana? Stop with these far-fetched ideas and instead take some concerted and collective steps forward to really do something that involves a majority of us who are at the moment doing sweet nothing but just endless talk?

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear SLFirst,

    If you look at the 2nd hurdle that I mention, it is about facilitating the views of those that do not have access to internet and are illiterate.

    As for far fetched ideas…. well, it remains far only because we don’t want to bring it close. I could propose a whole lot of concerted and collective steps, but what I was writing about was how we may use this or other web-based spaces more usefully. If you had actually articulated one concrete idea of what YOU would like to see included in the Sri Lankan Constitution, you would have made a worthwhile contribution rather than engaging in ” endless talk” .

    Think about it…

  • SLFirst

    Far-fetched is this alternative Constitution. Using web-based spaces only serve the few and far-between. As you can read, other than my comments no one has bothered to take up this idea further.

    Concrete step 1. will be for civil society to engage in the process of educating the masses/villages in understanding their rights. I’m suggesting that the Dr.S’s and the likes put their collective budgets together and activate public discussion/fora and bring in the ‘common man’ to sit and talk and tell…what does equality mean to him, the daily-wage earner? Where is justice to be found when he cannot afford legal services? Does the Tamil community really feel safe and sound? Does anyone of us feel safe and sound in our own homes under emergency laws? Where is there access to ‘free and fair’ information for the average man? Does our system of education allow for critical thinking? Who is accountable to whom these days? Only those with political connections? Are Ministers accountable for taking bribes? Isn’t it time for education reform? Isn’t it the duty of the government to explain why they hire even more graduates to the public service for yet another ill-fated project? Who is answerable for the loss of the GSP? WHERE IS THE ECONOMIC POLICY AND ROADMAP FOR DEVELOPMENT for Sri Lanka? Is it the Mahinda Chintanaya? Is it?
    I’m suggesting that these questions are asked openly, and that civil society organizations feel duty bound, even with the help of the international community, to provide the platform for such open debate.

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear SLFirst,

    I couldn’t agree with you more with regard to all the points you make. All I am saying is that we need to use all possible space to advance a progressive agenda. In effect, to address exactly the points you raise. Societal change needs to be leveraged from all sides; the Wiki idea is just one way of generating some concrete text for an alternative Constitution. This does not prevent nor takes away energy from action on other fronts.

    While the Wiki idea will have difficulty in reaching out to all constituencies it certainly can harness a large intellectual pool of knowledge both within and outside the country. Instead of us wasting our time picking fights with Dayan Jayatilaka, we could actually be doing some constructive drafting.

    You’re right that this idea is not gaining traction here… although I have to admit there wasn’t much comment prior to my addition either….

    Cheers