It is a moment of great hope and some fear in Sri Lanka. As it takes the first step towards drafting a new Constitution, there is renewed hope that the island nation will be able to reinvent itself as a modern state, one that brings economic prosperity and national unity. At the same time, it is also difficult to ignore the fear that yet another opportunity presented by history may fail owing to political opposition, ethnic extremism and an entrenched, if not systemic, resistance to change. President Maithripala Sirisena’s address to Parliament on the occasion of the tabling of a motion to create a Constitutional Assembly was bold in its invocation of past failures. His candid reference to the failure to implement past agreements as the origin of the protracted civil war showed deep understanding of his country’s situation. Laced with justified apprehensions about the likely impediments, Mr. Sirisena has warned his countrymen against attempts to raise the bogey of external pressure and an alleged threat to the special status of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He is aware of the presence of extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide. He has asserted that a constitutional solution will be indigenous. The process of constituting the entire membership of the current Parliament as a Constitutional Assembly has begun. A steering committee will be tasked with drafting a new Constitution while inputs from outside the parliamentary structure will be in the form of a ‘Public Representation Commission’.
For those familiar with the peace and reform processes of the last quarter century, it may appear that all talk of national unity and a non-discriminatory system is not new. It is a measure of how much the events of the recent years had turned the clock back on the discourse to resolve the national question that each time an incumbent President or Prime Minister spells out a new vision, it is accompanied by new hopes and fears. The broad contours of an alternative constitutional framework are known. To many, it lies in abolishing the executive presidency and reforming the electoral system. In recent years, promoting good governance by strengthening democratic institutions, a comprehensive rights regime and substantive power-sharing arrangements involving all ethnic minorities have been understood to be necessary elements. The path is clear, and the pitfalls are known. The process may be long and the effort to secure a two-thirds majority in the Assembly, followed by a similar special majority in Parliament and approval in a referendum, will require political will and hard work. The emergence of a new order since 2015 under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe provides a setting conducive for positive change, after the first few years in the post-conflict phase were lost in triumphalist and nationalistic rhetoric. It is a historic opportunity for all stake-holders, including Tamils, Muslims and plantation Tamils, to participate in the process. It is time all sides left their nationalist rhetoric of the past behind.