Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesNewsRevising the sum and substance of ‘the national question’

Revising the sum and substance of ‘the national question’


In this column’s weekly critique of government actions, the abiding rule is that governing politicians must be held to the broadest possible levels of accountability in terms of the Rule of Law. The critique advanced is therefore harsh in nature. Inevitably, its focus on the inequities of political parties in the opposition has been less in comparison.
This disparity would seem all the more stark when a particular administration, (as is the case now), egregiously violates the spirit and the letter of the Constitution. Naturally, much effort is expended in holding political rulers to account while the critique of the opposition may fall by the wayside.

The opposition’s part in discrediting the 17th Amendment

However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, the country’s main opposition, the United National Party has been severely castigated in these column spaces for its continuing failure to effectively demand proper institutional governance on the floor of the Parliament and in the wider public space. The UNP’s foot dragging during the early stages of the 17th Amendment’s systematic downgrading, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa refused to make the necessary appointments to the Constitutional Council on farcical grounds, is a case in point.

 The JVP was no better, transforming itself from the force that first compelled the 17th Amendment to attacking it along with ruling politicians. From the entire opposition, the one exception to this dishonorable trend was the UNP’s former Deputy Leader, Karu Jayasuriya who consistently spoke out in support of the 17th Amendment.

The wisdom of the voices supporting the 17th Amendment and arguing for a finetuning of its provisions if needs be, is well seen now when the 18th Amendment has virtually strangled constitutional democracy as we know it. Strangely government propagandists who debunked the 17th Amendment at one time have now fallen silent, possibly due to their energies being expended on furiously defending themselves from their former colleagues in arms. This is an amusing spectacle no doubt but scarcely conducive to reasoned debate.

Similarly silenced are those among the so-called intelligentsia who initially dismissed the ringing of alarm bells in regard to the 18th Amendment as overly pessimistic speculation. The virtually irreparable damage done by this obscene constitutional amendment to checks and balances in Sri Lanka’s systems of governance is now evident. It did not require remarkable intelligence to foresee this destructive impact though many preferred to adopt the proverbial posture of an ostrich hiding its head in the sand.

Giving ear to a wider ‘nationalquestion’ ‘

Taking these reflections in general, there is little doubt that the authoritarian nature of a government is shaped by the challenges posed to it by civil society and by opposition political parties. Where these opposing forces are bereft of vision, are corrupted or are blinded by failure to re-mould themselves in the face of contemporary realities, it is the anti-democratic government which will benefit. The wave of intense national interest following former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka’s poised performance this week at the first press conference since his release from prison and his focus on reform of our institutional systems is a notable development in this regard. Calls made by moderate commentators asking senior Tamil politicians to re-evaluate their positions in the best interests of Sri Lanka are also equally relevant. A soberly evaluative essay by Laksiri Fernando this week (see the Island, 15th June 2012) referencing the recent speech of the veteran Tamil politician R. Sampanthan, at the Federal Party national convention in Batticaloa is instructive reading in that context.

Reminding that ‘the struggle of rights of the Tamils (national question) and all other minorities are interwoven with the democratic struggle of the general masses in the country against authoritarianism, corruption and political violence unleashed by the state’ Fernando concludes with an injunction to Sampanthan to ‘re-conceptualize the Tamil national question in terms of broader human rights and democracy rather than confining it purely to ethno-nationalist discourses.’

There is much truth in this injunction. And it is hoped that the Tamil political leaders will take these calls to heart, even if this may mean preserving their calm in the face of insultingly fatuous assertions by the government that its one aim is to promote reconciliation while all its actions speak quite to the contrary.

Tapping into a collectivity of public anger
Certainly, empathy in regard to the continuing plight of Tamil citizens of this country needs to be spontaneously generated among the broader segments of the Sinhala populace by this envisioning of a common struggle for democracy.

The environment for this is surely ripe with the government’s soaring corruption, its mega spending on needless extravaganzas while ordinary household expenses have become unmanageable and its resorting to outrageously unjust land acquisitions by force or by false promises. In the South, these acquisitions are driven by pure profiteering. In the North and East, profiteering is combined with the aim of colonization with the military supervising the process.

But while different factors may drive the process across Sri Lanka, the anger of marginalized landowners is palpably similar. This is the collectivity of public anger that should be tapped in order to expose the anti-democratic nature of this regime.

Further, such an approach will at least dent if not seriously damage the false nationalistic rhetoric used by the government to its own advantage, in its peremptory discarding of basic constitutional rights of both the majority and the minority in Sri Lanka.

Very little difference in the actual agonies of victims

On the other hand, a contrary insistence on looking at the grievances of the Tamil populace through an ethno-nationalist prism will only undo the good that has been done, painfully and with all its flaws, by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This insistence also willfully misinterprets the core of the resolution in regard to Sri Lanka, passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier on in the year and indeed plays into the government’s hands by emphasizing fears of the moderate Sinhalese in regard to the separatist agendas of the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Strategically, this will be a ruinous course of action to follow.

But apart from strategy, it is an irrefutable fact that the state’s brutality has been felt, albeit in a different guise, against the majority. Not only are dissenters deliberately targeted but routine cases of law and order exemplify this fact. Torture is practiced by custodial officers with no discrimination as to race. Again here, while the motivating factors as to this abhorrent practice may differ, depending on the race of the victim involved, the end result is the same.

The very same agony is felt when a victim is subjected to inhumane treatment, regardless of whether the objective may be to coerce him to confess to a burglary that he has not committed or to coerce him into admitting that he had engaged in ‘terrorist’ activities. There must therefore be a meeting of these agonies across racial lines. The primary duty of opposition political parties must be to emphasize this fact and bring communities together.

The Rule of Law cannot be seen as a footnote to ethno-nationalism

Similarly the role of the judiciary in protecting rights must not be viewed from the angle of the Court’s response to ‘Tamil’ issues and ‘Sinhalese’ issues. A decade ago when the Sarath Silva Court (1999-2009) was on its determined path to subverting the independence of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, only a few lawyers joined in that struggle. This was seen quite myopically as a problem affecting the Sinhalese legal elite. The disastrous consequences of this degradation of the judiciary became apparent as a common problem only much later. By that time, there was little that could have been done.

At least now, when this country has reached close to the nadir in regard to constitutional governance, the Rule of Law must be seen as the foremost aim in returning Sri Lanka to the ranks of democratic nations and not as merely a footnote to ‘securing the right of the Tamil people to self-independence.’ Within those defined parameters, the rights of the Tamil people as equal citizens of this land, rightfully claiming the same dignity and respect as those belonging to the majority community, must be secured. This should be our collective national question

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