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Sri Lanka In 2016: New Constitution Offers Hope Of Addressing Old Grievances – Analysis

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By S. Binodkumar Singh*

The peace that was attained after a bloody war that terminated in the comprehensive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 has been sustained through 2015 in Sri Lanka. Not a single incident of killing was recorded in 2015, a trend evident since November 2009, barring one incident on April 11, 2014, in which a Security Forces (SFs) team that launched a cordon and search operation in the forest area of Padaviya in Anuradhapura District was fired upon by the LTTE militants hiding in the forest and in retaliatory fire three armed local LTTE leaders were killed by the team.

Remarkably, the positive development commenced with the dramatic turnaround of a political fortune in the island nation. Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena, leader of the New Democratic Front (NDF), a conglomeration of several political formations opposing the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), including the main opposition United National Party (UNP) emerged victorious in a keenly contested Presidential Election held on January 8, 2015. Sirisena secured 6,217,162 votes (51.28 per cent) against 5,768,090 votes (47.58 per cent) polled by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President and candidate of the UPFA. Sirisena took oath as the Seventh Elected Executive President of the country on January 9, 2015.

Later, in the Parliamentary Elections held on August 17, 2015, voters gave a fractured mandate, with none of the parties securing a simple majority. UNP, led by incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, secured 106 seats, falling seven short of simple majority in a 225-memebr House; the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) secured just 95 seats. The main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 16 seats; and the main Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) won six. However, following a historic agreement on August 20, 2015, between UNP and the SLFP to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on August 21, 2015, took oath as the 26th Prime Minister of the island nation.

In another development, which is expected to have a far reaching impact on the reconciliation process President Sirisena on December 20, 2015, made a surprise visit to internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in Konapulam of Jaffna District. Promising to provide land to settle the IDPs, the President on January 3, 2016, said “It is an ambitious target, but I will see that all the internally displaced people are given land to build homes. For many people the main issue was lack of land and that is something we will resolve in the next six months.” Further, on January 20, 2016, the President issued instructions to relevant officials to complete the resettlement of 44,015 remaining IDPs including 5732 members of 1688 displaced families living in displaced camps and 38,283 members of 11,073 displaced families living with their relatives in the Northern Province within six months.

Separately, although the talks on reconciliation between the TNA and the Government stalled since January 27, 2012, are yet to begin by the new Government, TNA was recognized as the Main Opposition and its leader Sampanthan was designated as Opposition Leader on September 3, 2015. Happy with the recognition, TNA spokesman M. A. Sumanthiran on September 4, 2015, stated “We will talk to the Government straightaway with a view to resolving the long outstanding matter.” Also welcoming Colombo’s decision to co-sponsor a draft resolution (A/HRC/30/L.29) that was tabled at the 30th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, the TNA in a statement on September 25, 2015, declared, “we are of the view that the draft provides a constructive starting point for what will inevitably be a long road to reconciliation.”

Meanwhile, presenting a resolution in the Parliament to set up a Constitutional Assembly (CA) to begin the process of formulating a new Constitution which will replace the Constitution adopted in 1978, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on January 9, 2016, said “We will have the whole Parliament formulating the Constitution unlike the previous instances when the Constitutions were drafted outside Parliament.” Further, in a nationally televised Pongal (Tamil Harvest Festival) ceremony, on January 15, 2016, the Prime Minister said “we are ready to devolve power (to minority Tamils) and protect democracy. The Constitutional Assembly will discuss with all, including (Tamil-dominated) provincial councils to have a new Constitution. We will do that in a transparent manner.”

Similarly, President Maithripala Sirisena participating at the Thai Pongal ceremony held on January 18, 2016, in the Hindu College in Kalutara District, said “Building of the peace and reconciliation among the people in the country cannot be done only through enacting laws and adopting a new constitution. It can only be done through the religious philosophy. Therefore, I request every religious leader to come forward to take forward the program commenced by the government to build the peace and brotherhood by alleviating the fear and suspicion among every community in the country.”

Indeed, the developments through 2015 and early 2016 suggest greater stabilization and reinforce prospects for an enduring peace in Sri Lanka. However, challenges remain as the drafting of a new Constitution offers both a challenge and an opportunity to address the grievances of a long, twisted and violent history. The proposed Constitutional text must be placed before the public for their scrutiny and constructive views obtained and incorporated into the final text. The Constitution makers must be flexible in this regard and not stick to their own rigid decisions.

The new Constitution will govern the people of the island nation for quite some time in the foreseeable future as the present Constitution has lasted for nearly 38 years. It must not be rushed through, but sufficient time must be allocated for the public views to be taken. Lest the whole edifice will come crumbling down destroying the very foundations of Rule of Law thereby bringing misery and instability to the people in the beautiful pearl of the Indian Ocean.

*Dr. S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate at the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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2 thoughts on “Sri Lanka In 2016: New Constitution Offers Hope Of Addressing Old Grievances – Analysis

  • January 29, 2016 at 8:09 pm
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    Not a single incident of killing? Dr.Singh? Local reports say there were but not on the scale as under the former President and not so open! It is over-simplistic to say a constitution provides the answer, this being the fourth since independence! The constitution can only provide the outline but the peace can come only through much more on-ground efforts at local levels. This is the real challenge.

    Reply
  • January 30, 2016 at 11:21 pm
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    Where can I see the high points of the new constitution? It is not in keeping with the “modern” concept of separation of state and religion for the state to promote one over the other. However, when I grew up in Sri Lanka as a Hindu, most members of my family went to worship at Buddhist temples as well. It was no big deal. In the U.S. I have been to churches of practically all denominations without any reservations, after all a place of worship is a place of worship! Also I believe that any citizen should be able to communicate with governmental departments in their own language; during the British colonial era we had to deal with the government in English…

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