Colombo, Constitutional Reform, End of war special edition, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Articulating the Concerns of Ethnic Minorities in Relation to Constitutional Proposals

It may be useful to begin by going back over 80 years to the time when , in the mid – nineteen twenties, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, newly returned from Oxford University, vigorously promoted Federalism in Public lectures as well as in a  series of newspaper articles. Curiously, the reported responses to his lecture in July 1926 in Jaffna on Federalism were not very positive. That lecture was on the invitation of the Jaffna Students Congress, later re-constituted as the Jaffna Youth Congress. It was the Kandyans who backed Federalism at that time. If the Tamils too had backed Federalism then, we would surely have had a Federal Constitution in1946. Those interested in the subject may consult the monumental publication of C.P.A. titled Power Sharing in Sri Lanka: Constitutional and Political Documents, 1926 – 2008, edited by Rohan Edrisinha, Mario Gomez, V.T.Thamilmaran and Asanga  Welikala  (2008).

The Donoughmore Commission, which was far in advance of the local political leaders as well as the Colonial Administration, introduced Universal Adult Franchise and territorial electorates in 1931. Except for the Jaffna Youth Congress, LabourLeader A.E.Goonesinha and other political light weights, Universal Adult Franchise was not favoured. Such opposition was ineffective. It should have been clear to everyone that both reforms were inevitable and that it was only a question of when. Leaders who champion lost causes do harm to their reputations; minority leaders who do so also harm the communities they claim to represent.

I would place the 50-50 proposal of the Tamil Congress in the mid – 1940s and the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 in favour of secession in this category of lost causes. These were patently unrealizable and doomed to fail from the outset. It should have been clear even then that those proposals would bring harm to the Tamil people. The series of pogroms from 1977 through to the civil war that raged from 1985 till 2009  could be attributed at least in part to the Vaddukoddai Resolution. In the case of Federalism, pushing it as a Tamil project made it a lost cause. Some efforts were made early on, with some success, to secure Muslim support, but none to secure Sinhalese support. Without Sinhalese support the Federal project was doomed. It was possible to secure President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s support for Federalism in 1995 and , briefly, Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s support for Federalism in 2002, but those achievements were not followed up. If Federalism or Quasi Federalism is to be proposed again, it must be preceded by much work with Sinhalese political leaders. No one interested in the welfare of the Tamil people would propose Secession or Confederation – such a proposal would not only fail but might also provoke a violent backlash.

It was noted that Bandaranaike’s visit to Jaffna was on the invitation of the Jaffna Students Congress / Jaffna Youth Congress. Over the years that organization invited virtually every political leader of note from outside Jaffna to its sessions  as guest speakers or as Session Presidents. These invitees included Sinhalese, Muslims, Indian Tamils, Eastern Tamils and others. The Youth Congress was not merely building up its own organization but also seeking alliances and networking with leaders across the Island irrespective of ethnicity, religion, caste, region, and political persuasion.

Unfortunately that initiative gradually lost momentum. The Youth Congress took a misguided, unilateral decision to boycott the State Council election of 1931, which was the first based on Universal Adult Franchise, on the grounds that the Donoughmore reforms did not go far enough towards independence. Nearly all the Tamil leaders outside the Youth Congress opposed Universal Adult Franchise, territorial electorates and, in some cases, even Dominion status. This brought harm and suspicion on the Tamils and the suspicion directed towards Tamils even extended to the Youth Congress boycott. In consequence the reputation of the Youth Congress declined progressively. Again, it was the Tamils who suffered.

Unfortunately, productive inter-ethnic cooperation has not been in the Sri Lankan political tradition. On the part of Sri Lankan Tamils they had either indulged in Federal Party led go it alone policies or to nondescript Tamils  seeking  ministerial portfolios in exchange for unconditional support to the Government. Post – 1948, there had been only a few brief instances of productive cooperation by Sri Lankan Tamil leaders, notably by Neelan Tiruchelvam who helped to draft the 1995 Constitutional proposals. These proposals  were far in advance of any other proposal before or since then, but he was assassinated  by the LTTE, and Tamil MPs failed  to back those proposals. In contrast Muslim leaders, among them Badiuddin Mohamed, and the Indian Tamil leader Thondaman Sr. had contributed much to their communities with great acceptance.

The political climate now is less favourable for productive inter- ethnic cooperation than at the times of Neelan Tiruchelvam, Badiuddin Mohamed and Thondaman Sr.  To be effective now there may need to be a coalition of Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Indian Tamil leaders with the backing of the Tamil Diaspora.  The Tamil Diaspora has resources and lobbying capacity that could make a critical difference. What is necessary is to ensure that the Diaspora works in support of and to complement the leadership within Sri Lanka.

Some radical reorientation of Diaspora politics is needed.

Happily the Sri Lankan Tamil , Muslim and Indian Tamil people voted together at the Presidential election in January this year despite vigorous attempts to divide the votes. If that level of cooperation had been sustained into the Parliamentary elections in April 2010 the outcome would have been much better than it has been. Even now it is not too late for such unity to be forged afresh.

The political climate is not right just now for Sri Lanka to embark on the formulation of a new Constitution. What seems likely is the passage of one or more Constitutional Amendments. An effective coalition of Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Indian Tamil leaders can help to ensure that any Constitutional Amendment is compatible with the concerns of their communities. If that coalition proves to be durable, it could help to create the conditions under which a new Constitution could be formulated. The 1946 Constitution was formulated by the Colonial administration, the 1972 Constitution by the then SLFP led coalition, and the 1978 coalition by the UNP. The ethnic minorities had little or no say in the drafting of these Constitutions.  They need to come together and ensure that they have a significant role  and that their concerns are taken into account when any future Constitution is drafted. Such unity is both essential and possible.

Author’s address to the Fifth Annual Tamil Studies Conference, University of Toronto, May 13 – 15,2010.

End of War Special Edition

  • niranjan

    Dr. Nesiah,

    It is difficult to see this administration asking for the input of minorities in drafting a new constitution or amending the existing one.
    The reason for this is that this administration is mainly made up of people with a Sinhala majority mindset. It is more than likely that if a new constitution is adopted at a future date the ethnic minorities will have no say in it as was the case in 1972 and 1978.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Dr Nesiah’s recommendations are not figments of his imagination.

    A very unasuming gentleman, Dr Nesiah has put forward some realistic notions as to how Tamil rights could be enshrined in the constitution notwithstanding Sinhal majority dominance in the govenrment.

    Not unlike Prof. Hoole, Tamil moderates should follow-up on his suggestions and work together to avert another calamity of an internecine war.

  • Heshan

    If the Tamils too had backed Federalism then, we would surely have had a Federal Constitution in1946.

    I request Mr. Nesiah to back up the said claim with more evidence. Why was the Kandyan demand for federallism rejected… if the Kandyan demand for demand for federalism, did the Tamil demand stand a chance? The Southern Sinhalese apologists might counter that the Tamils were opposed to the Kandyan demand. Yet it is not the case that Tamils alone could be responsible for the passing – or failure to pass – of a piece of legislation. Mr. Nesiah must explain why the Kandyan demand was rejected, and why all consecutive demands of the Tamil Federal party were likewise rejected, before jumping to the rather abrupt conclusion that Tamils alone were responsible for the failure of federalism to Constitutionally materialize.

  • Heshan

    *if the Kandyan demand for federalism was rejected, did the Tamil demand stand a chance

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Devanesan,
    “To be effective now there may need to be a coalition of Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Indian Tamil leaders with the backing of the Tamil Diaspora. The Tamil Diaspora has resources and lobbying capacity that could make a critical difference. What is necessary is to ensure that the Diaspora works in support of and to complement the leadership within Sri Lanka.”

    I have no mandate to speak for the Tamil Diaspora nor for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. But knowing the expressed thoughts of the Tamil Diaspora leaderships and the Tamil speaking leadership in Sri Lanka, it is important for both leadership should complement each others political positions. Neither should consider or try to use the other as their tool. Right now the positions are unhealthily diverse. It is necessary to arrive at a common realistic and just position where all communities can live Island peacefully and help each other.

    There are about a million Tamils abroad with, not necessarily just monetary resources, but other resources as well, most importantly freedom of expression. Each one of them were Sri Lanka citizens or their descendants. They treasure their “Right to Return” and would like to vote in elections. They do not think that they have to complement the Tamil Sri Lanka leadership or vice verse. Support and cooperation from the diaspora will be best achieved if both leaderships arrive at a mutually acceptable political position that is REALISTIC and JUST. Complement should be mutual and not a one-war street.

  • HOOLE ADMIRER

    EVERYBODY APPEARS TO BE THINKING THAT ALL THE ETHNIC PROBLEMS STARTED IN 1946 & THEREABOUTS, SPECIALLY AFTER THE BRITISH COLONIAL RULE ENDED. I HAVE READ THE BUDDHIST COMMISSION REPORT (1953-1956), AND WHEN I READ IT I REALIZED THAT WE STILL HAVE CERTAIN GRAVE PROBLEMS BECAUSE THE OLD PROBLEMS THAT BROUGHT ABOUT THE OLD WOUNDS HAVE NOT BEEN ADDRESSED:
    1. SINCE THE ADVENT OF THE PORTUGUESE FOR 400 YEARS OR MORE HINDU AND BUDDHIST FAMILIES WERE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST.
    2. DID NOT 60% OF GOVT JOBS GO TO THE TAMILS IN THE BRITISH ERA?
    3. DID NOT THE TAMIL ENGLISH EDUCATED PERSONS NEGLECT THE NORTH AND THE EAST AND HAVE A GOOD TIME WITH THE BRITISH MASTERS, AMERICAN MISSIONARIES, THE ELITE SINHALESE IN COLOMBO AND THE RICH MUSLIMS FOR SHOW?
    PLEASE DO NOT BELITTLE PROF. RAJAN HOOLE’S WELL-DOCUMENTED AND WARRANTED ARGUMENTS AND EYE-OPENERS?
    DO NOT FORGET THOSE 400 YEARS! TELL THE DIASPORA AND THE MILIBANDS AND PILLAIS WHO TRY TO DIVIDE ALL OF US TO APPOINT COMMISSIONS TO REDRESS THOSE GRIEVANCES WITHOUT RESTRICTING THE DISCUSSIONS TO 1946-2010.
    IF YOU WANT A CURE TO CANCER YOU LOOK FOR THE ROOT CAUSE & NOT WHAT YOU SEE ON THE SURFACE. IGNORING THE ECONOMY , THE CASTE SYSTEM THE RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION AND THE CLASS STRUGGLE THAT PREVAILED IN THE NORTH FOR 400 YEARS WILL MAKE OUR PEOPLE IN THE SOUTH MORE STUBBORN. GIVE THIS MESSAGE TO THE NON HINDU DIASPORA, MILIBANDS AND PILLAIS PLEASE.
    LONG LIVE PROFESSOR HOOLE!

  • Austin Fernando

    Nash,

    True, there will be a few amendments to the existing Constitution, as you say.

    It is true that the ethnic minorities had little say in the drafting the previous Constitutions. But do you think that there will be space for Tamils, Muslims and Tamils of Indian origin to influence what future constitutional amendments would be or should be?

    I foresee six problems withholding minority groups influencing future constitution making. .
    • Firstly, the cry for a totally new Constitution will be forgotten conveniently once the ‘political perpetuation amendments’ are made.
    • Secondly, the UPFA will not voluntarily press hard for minority concerns for two main reasons. One is the composition of the UPFA government rests on Sinhala Buddhist majority, which do not support minority demands. Two is that even the weak Marxist Parties who were for minority rights only hang on to UPFA for their political living without fighting for minority rights.
    • Thirdly, the minorities did not give the expected political support to convert such narrow thinking in to a broader framework for the UPFA to act more reasonably and rationally towards minorities.
    • Fourthly, even those from minority groups who are within the UPFA government (e.g. EPDP, CWC, Muslim groups) are very lukewarm. They do not contest unreasonable behavior because their very existence depends on back scratching the UPFA. Therefore, UPFA leadership is powerful to ignore if they make any demands. If they disagree they will be shown the door!
    • Fifthly, the Diaspora which was the mainstay for LTTE is split and cannot now force the government to succumb to their pressures and only talk of Transnational Governments, which have not allured internationals or scared the UPFA. In fact, this has made the UPFA more arrogant and aggressive as one could see from the statements by the defense and political authorities.
    • Lastly, we can hear only a loner voice from India for constitutional prescriptions. The rest of the internationals focus on rights violations and economic weapons from which the government might creep through by other means.

    Therefore, with respect to you I may say that your prescription -i.e. “They need to come together and ensure that they have a significant role and that their concerns are taken into account when any future Constitution is drafted.” is unworkable. Due to complex relationships between minority groups they will not unite easily and not draw a significant role but hang on to governmental perks which may be preferred as constitutional solutions are secondary or tertiary for the UPFA government. It is fine if what you prescribe above happens.

  • Devanesan Nesiah

    Response of Devanesan Nesiah
    Heshan: The Kandyans asked for Federalism in the 1930’s. The Communist Party promoted Federalism in the 1940’s. The majority, including the Tamils, opposed it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. If the Tamils had asked for Federalism jointly with the Kandyans and with the backing of the Communist Party, the balance may have tilted in favor of Federalism before the 1946 Constitution was drawn up. By the 1950’s, communal feelings had been roused and it became easy for those favoring majoritarian domination to misrepresent Federalism as separatism.
    Ethir: The leaders of the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, and Hill Country Tamils within Sri Lanka can claim to jointly represent and speak for four million citizens in the island. I agree that the leadership within the island and the Diaspora should work out policies jointly and that the relationship should be complementary and not exploitative. However, while the Diaspora has essential and very important contributions to make, including in policy-making, the lead role needs to be played by the elected representatives of citizens resident in Sri Lanka.
    Austin: I am largely in agreement with all six points, but remain hopeful that change will come, though not immediately. It is not yet widely understood that inter-ethnic relations do not constitute a zero-sum game and that joint gains are possible. A measure of unity of the ethnic minorities has already been achieved but needs to be strengthened. Such unity is a precondition to achieving full national integration.