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House under water

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There were a few things that would get us island folk in a flap in days gone by. Cricket, coconut spirits, cost of living – these about cut it then. Today you can add constitutional reform to the heady mix that has us islanders ready to get our sarongs in a twist or hitch them up to here in readiness for a brawl. Last but by no means least add a dash of the bitter argot that is the jargon of jingoists, a twist of the saliva inducing lime of ethno nationalistic chauvinism, and you’ve shaken and stirred a potent cocktail to be drained at one gulp… or poured down the sink…

To deconstruct the concoction is to separate the hands that prepare the potion. In simpler times, as far as power sharing went there were the “yeas” and the “nays”. A third ingredient – “yes, but” – has enriched the mix. A fourth – “no, because” – adds an ironic flavour. A fifth element – the water (or, more accurately: water off a duck’s back) of “so, what” – does nothing to improve the taste.

The “yeas”

The UNP ably leads the charge and the TNA ever so willingly follows. (Or have I got that back to front?) Either way, at least both these parties have been consistent in their call to devolve power to the peripheries. The TNA was born to devolve power after the LTTE’s breach. And the TNA-UNP combine achieved a power-sharing compromise which is under threat of being still-born. But it was the UNP that originally had the baby thrust upon it by dint of India holding the 13th Amendment’s smoking gun to our sovereignty’s head way back when.

The “nays”

The JO are the loudest rabble-rousers of the lot. Their sabre-rattling has transmogrified from being a mere nuisance to a more boisterous shade of nasty with the emergence of inspired cohorts such as ViyathMaga. With one army chieftain ostensibly gone over to the enemy camp, the former defence mandarin in charge of organised state terror under the erstwhile regime finds himself in cahoots with another general menace threatening death to traitors who support even the idea of a new constitution. 

The “yes, buts”

The JVP are arguably the smoothest political operators of them all. Really, sometimes one is hard-pressed to identify where their sense of national interest ends and define the beginning of their self-serving doctrines. However, despite not being able to shake off their erstwhile indiscretion of bearing arms against the state, they have pleaded a plausible case against the perpetuation of the presidency. Therefore, this business of hunting with the UNP’s hounds against the Rajapaksa machine while running with hares running scared of executive abuses quite becomes a party that can neither win nor lose, but play a canny game and play it cannily.

The “no’s, because”

The SLFP in contradistinction to their blue-in-the-face brethren in the JO have managed to wedge a principle in the backdoor of constitutional reform. They will go with flow, but not as far as eliminating the executive office which stands as a symbol for their potential and much hoped for return to proper power per se – someday soon, perhaps not so far away now. That will certainly help their present coalition partners to get their knickers in a twist. The president is the one who’s bound to be most pleased at persuading his peers to give the premier’s party a wedgie about a big poll in two years’ time. 

The “so, what’s”

The people who read this paper, that’s who. Not to divide the nation-state again along north and south lines, but would it be fair to say that as far as power-sharing goes there is a geophysical as well as worldview axis which is roughly north-south, along which the debate revolves? Let the people in the corridors of power or closer to decision-making centres than the periphery take the tests below to find out.


(Sit down. But not in the House. Take it outside. Take it in stride. Go figure, go for broke, go find that quiet place into which we all retreat when the worst are full of passionate intensity and/but the best lack all conviction.)


1.“The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” Discuss with reference to the Constitutional Assembly, its Steering Committee, the President, the Prime Minister, the Joint Opposition, the JVP, the TNA, clergy in favour of or opposed to constitutional reform, war heroes and/or war criminals, ViyathMaga, et al. Define who’s who. Decry treason. Deny reason. Dry your tears. Do what is the right thing to do in the end. (A ‘D’ for those who say but don’t do.)

B.Short Answers.

1.The 13th Amendment to the Constitution +/- is an idea whose time has come. (Yea/Nay)

2.The present constitutional debate is not a decision, but part of the democratic process which has been managed well to include all ideas including apathy and dissent. (Yes, but/No, because)

3.Power corrupts. (So, what?)


1.A free pass… which of these would you most like to abolish if it was in your power?

a.All of the below

b.Boorish bigots who oppose reform for the wrong reasons

c.Chauvinistic constituents who propose reform for reasons right for them only

d.Democratic-republicanism under realpolitik

e.Executive abuses of democratic-republican leadership

2.Which of these would you describe as “a house divided”?

a.A House divided into three, no four, parts (cf. Asterix: “All Gaul was divided into three, no four, parts…)

b.Coalition of Coalitions

c.National Unity Government

d.Democratic-Republicanism under realpolitik

3.Who must be (non)-executive president in a democratic-republic like yours and mine?

a.I think it would be impudent or imprudent to answer, don’t you?

b.Me – if they won’t stone the Fourth Estate for being Good Government in drag

c.You – if you should condescend to just about everybody on everything important

d.They could be anybody as long as the person elected is not seeking office

4.Whom would you characterise as a ‘traitor’ – if at all? (Go on, then… if it helps, imagine you have a gun being held to your head…)

a.Anyone who betrays the people’s mandate

b.Both those who oppose the new social contract to include all demographics as well as those pseudo-democrats who preach a new political culture but have failed to repent of or reform the old ethos of realpolitik 

c.Chauvinists who place race, creed, narrow interests, ethnic partiality, language preferences, religious priorities, etc., above our emerging identity as ‘Sri Lankan’

d.Demagogues who rattle sabre in the House, rabble-rouse in the streets, disturb the peace and harmony of a majority lobby in which they are in a minority lobbying

The acid tests are tough to pass. But they are also tough to bypass without being failed for lack of awareness and interest. And in the larger examination of life as citizens in a new society we might all be failing for want of the horse shoe nail of critical engagement.

There may be those who genuinely fear what the proposed constitutional reforms may do to the things they value – whether by virtue of principle, like the territorial integrity of a sovereign state; or by dint of preference, such as losing one’s religion if a philosophical approach is taken to the optimal delivery of power in a truly secular state. There is no greater risk – or reward – than being delivered through, not from, our trials.

Take the tests. Trust the plunge towards an inclusive commonwealth. The worst is that we lose our faith.

(A senior journalist, the writer was once the Chief Sub Editor of The Sunday Leader, 1994-8, and is ex-LMD, having been its Editor, 2004-8. He has made a career out of asking questions, and not waiting for answers.)

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